Today is 30 May and today is also Memorial Day. Historically, no matter what day of the week it fell on, 30 May was always Memorial Day. It began as a way to remember and to honor those who’d given their lives…lost their lives, during their military service to this country. Currently, the date of Memorial Day is not set to a particular date, but is always celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. This year, on this Monday…it is both. Seems special to me.
Over the last years there have been more deaths in my family and in my small circle, than I could have imagined. The word memorial has taken on a much more personal meaning. Memorial Day, for me, has come to be connected to remembering and honoring those who’ve lost their lives in all the infinite ways that we humans do lose our lives, including those who’ve lost their lives in military service. For me, Memorial Day is about remembering.
The piece that I am posting is one that I’ve been working on for a long while now. Approaching this weekend I began to feel that I needed to get it finished so I could post it. Today. And it wasn’t until just this weekend that I looked up to notice that not only was I preparing to post this essay on Memorial Day weekend…but that today is the actual, original date of Memorial Day.
Both of my parents were in the Army…it’s not too much of a surprise that my father was…but more so with my mother. Neither of them lost their lives during their military service, but over these last few years I have come more and more to connecting this day, in part, with them – who they were, how they lived their lives. As I continue to listen to the guidance that comes to me in my life…I find that it makes perfect sense that I finally make this posting about my parents, on Memorial Day. It is a remembering and an honoring of these two who I am only beginning to know. If they were still alive, neither of them would be too comfortable with my remembering or honoring them. Maybe by now, wherever they are, they can receive my grateful bow and humbled heart that I had the great good fortune to have these two courageous, rebellious, heartbroken, hard working, poetry loving, extreme opposites – that these two enormous hearted ones would walk their own incredibly different and winding paths and eventually become my parents. I honor them and I remember them.
After having left Los Angeles as soon as I could find the courage to do so, just one year after graduating from high school, and with a rather loud slamming of the door in a metaphorical kind of way, it came as quite a shock to me and most who knew me, when, some thirty years later I moved back there: down to Los Angeles to help out my parents who were both in their eighties. All of us in our family, including dad who at the time was 87, felt that he might not live much longer. As it turned out, it was my mother who was getting ready to go.
What SHE said
Slowly during this time that we had together, and ever so carefully, my mother and I began to open our hearts to each other…in person. We were entering a new realm. Our relationship did not shift because either of us thought it should; nor did either of us try to make it change. It shifted by some grace, because of course we deeply needed it to shift – it’s just that neither of us had any idea how to begin such a thing. As with so much beauty in life, it was taken out of our hands.
Mom had become ever more wobbly on her feet as neuropathy took its toll on her ability to walk. One morning she stumbled and fell, hitting the back of her head on a broken wooden drawer-pull on a piece of old furniture in the dining room. She ended up with quite a large gash. I was not there when she fell, but received a strange phone call from her at work. At that time, only a month after I’d arrived, we still subscribed to staying out of each other’s lives at all cost. Just the fact that she called me at work was alarming. She wasn’t speaking to any direct point, she was rambling a bit…this was not like her.
Finally she told me she had fallen, that dad was certain she didn’t need to go to the hospital and that he was sure the bleeding would stop on its own. The problem was, she couldn’t see the wound herself, as it was on the back of her head. Dad’s vision, by this time, was quite poor, so he couldn’t really see what was going on either. And, we found out later, he couldn’t bear to look at the wound in the first place, but couldn’t admit to that. Mom and I were both starting to notice that in subtle ways, dad was beginning to have trouble accessing good old common sense. I could hear in her voice that this was part of the problem. He wasn’t quite able to grasp the potential gravity of the situation; it was just too much for him to process. I said I would come right home and she answered with, “Please. I’m sorry. Please come home.” This was big…she asked for help, asked me to leave work and come home. That’s not something that we did too much of – ask for help. We didn’t ask anyone and we especially didn’t ask each other – but we were learning. I had only been back home a month. Thank goodness I was there and able to help them. They were at a point in their lives where more and more of life outside of their small little world was too much for them: too fast, too complicated, incomprehensible really.
As I entered their house, I found dad in his usual spot on the couch right by the front door. He looked worried, and I could tell from his body language that he didn’t know what to do. My mother called out to me from the bathroom and as I joined her I saw blood all over the bathroom floor, and all over her. I took one look at her and said that we were going to the hospital. Something had changed in our family dynamic, at least on this one day. I was in charge; they needed and wanted me to be in charge. This new role of mine spontaneously occurred because we were in an extraordinary circumstance, and we each knew that we three could make this shift.
We needed to take mom to the hospital, and together we began a long journey. We arrived at the emergency room on a Saturday morning about 11 am. That is a bad time, probably the worst time, to go to any hospital emergency room. The whole world shows up on Saturday mornings. I’m sure it’s much worse now, but even then, ten years ago, there were so many people in southern California that could not afford any form of healthcare, emergency rooms had become the only option for medical assistance.
As you may know, head wounds tend to bleed A LOT, so my mother’s injury looked much worse than it actually was. Luckily, miraculously, she did not seem to have a concussion, and was not really feeling much pain from the fall itself, another miracle. There were many patients with much more urgent medical needs; stabbings, gunshot wounds, automobile accidents. This meant that my 87-year-old father, my 81-year-old mother and I, sat together in an insanely crowded ER waiting room along with the rest of the sick and injured of the San Fernando Valley, for a very long time.
My father who at this point in his life had lost a great deal of his vision to macular degeneration, needed to find his way to the restroom frequently. I was not comfortable leaving mom alone and there certainly were no hospital staff available for such mundane needs. Each time he hurriedly made his way toward the desk to get directions to the restroom, I worried that he’d get lost in the inner sanctum of the hospital, never to return. I worried that if questioned he would not be able to remember our names or why he was there. So he was on his own perilous journey. This otherworldly situation brought the three of us together. It was precious. We were all looking out for each other. I looked out for both of them, my father looked out for my mother and I, which was, simply put, his lifelong duty, even though all three of us knew that there was nothing he could do about any of it, and, maybe most importantly, we all knew that we needed to take care of mom.
When we were finally taken to an exam room, our situation became even more intimate. There we were – my mother stretched out on a hospital bed with me at her side, and my father, sitting in a chair in the corner as far away from my mother as he could get. It turned out he was extremely squeamish about all the blood. We knew that he was present with her and deeply concerned…he just couldn’t handle the blood. I had never seen him like this, so tender and vulnerable with her. Nor had I ever sat with my mother in this way. She rarely got sick, never needed nursing. She kept assuring us that she felt fine, and that we didn’t need to stay with her, that I could take dad home and come back for her. There was no way we were leaving her there – we might never find her again in the writhing mass of humanity that existed both inside and outside of that hospital.
At some point I found the courage to take my mother’s hand. And she found the courage to hold on to mine. To you, this might not sound like a courageous act, but for us, it was deeply courageous, and newly intimate. We sat there, mostly in silence. Every now and then I would ask her how she was doing. Her reply was always, “Me? Oh, I’m fine.” A nurse would come in and inspect the gash on her head. My father’s complexion would shift a bit more toward the green spectrum, even though he was facing away from her and looked away with every cell of his body. Without any exaggeration I can tell you that we were in that room for many hours. I am deeply grateful for this…we could have still been out in the tiny, overcrowded waiting room where hundreds spilled out onto the sidewalk, for all those hours.
When a doctor finally came to stitch up the wound, my mother with her insatiable curiosity began asking about everything the doctor was doing. She told my mother, a little too cheerfully, that she was actually using “staples,” that for head wounds such as hers it was easier, quicker…and the scar would not show. My mother strongly encouraged her to find a different word – as “staples” was more than even my sturdy mother could handle. My father almost lost what little food he had in his belly at the mention of “staples”, and at least energetically, pressed his entire being completely into the corner of the room farthest away from mom and the stapling that was still going on.
Sometime later my mother shared with me part of what kept her calm, kept her going all those hours. I have a necklace that I wear most every day. It is a pendant made from bone, carved with a face that has a subtle and ever so peaceful smile within it. Many ask or suggest that it’s the moon. My mother told me that as she lay there on that hospital bed on her side, to avoid putting any pressure on the back of her head, the peaceful face that hung around my neck was right at eye level. Any time that her eyes were open, she was looking into that beautiful and somewhat ethereal face. She told me that it was a great comfort to her. Even this was a new and intimate exchange between us.
That was the beginning of an opening for my mother and me: an opening between our hearts, a kind of bonding that I’m not sure had existed between us until then. All of this had to occur before my mother and I could come to a place where she could tell me one of her most personal and intimate truths, directly and in person.
I made a point of taking mom out to lunch once a week, and not just to eat. We also went window-shopping…just wandering around somewhere with no particular goal in mind. She was no longer driving, and my father had absolutely no patience for wandering – especially at the very slow pace that she now wandered at.
We were sitting across from each other at her favorite coffee shop. She looked me in the eye and her expression changed. She told me the following: she told me that every health issue that she had – every syndrome, disease, chronic issue – they were all caused by lifestyle choices. She looked at me even more directly and told me that none of it was hereditary…that her illnesses were all caused by her own behaviors, choices she’d made in her life. And she pleaded with me, begged me, to not follow in her footsteps. Some of the issues that she struggled with, I do struggle with still. And I hear her voice, pleading with me. “Please don’t. You can do something about it. Please. Okay?”
For us, for our history, for how we’d behaved toward each other most of our lives, for all the fears and heartbreaks we’d had and not shared with each other – in this one brief conversation it was as if the bells of cathedrals worldwide were ringing, all in unison – and the walls between us were beginning to crumble. They did begin…and they never crumbled all the way. Maybe they did crumble all the way; it just looked different than I thought it would. We both could feel it and now we could see each other across those walls. Slowly, subtly, we allowed each other in.
I got to spend this time with my amazing and courageous mother. These are qualities that I only began to recognize in her toward the end of her life, and really didn’t name as such until after she was gone. We found our way into each others’ hearts – while she was still alive. Maybe I’ll say instead, that we finally saw ourselves residing in each others’ hearts, because truly we were already there. We’d just never looked before, like we were now. I do know that this sort of gift, healing, whatever your particular word for it is, could have also occurred after her death. We were lucky, so lucky; we got to have it while she was alive, but just barely. She was gone within two years after my arrival, and our lunchtime conversation came only three or four months before her death, the death that was a surprise to all or at least most of us.
What He said
My father developed dementia in his last years, which accelerated after mom’s death. As this occurred, it became harder and harder for him to keep track of a conversation…he just couldn’t follow it, keep all the parts in his head. It became even more difficult for him after I moved back up north to my home in Washington State, because then we only had phone conversations. Those are harder for so many reasons, even without dementia. Add that into the mix – well, he just couldn’t do it.
Because he’d had a small business as a younger man, and I now worked in a small business, he’d always begin by asking, “So how’s business?” Often, I was stressed out about one thing or another, and would instantly begin to ramble on about it, since he’d asked. Quickly though, I’d remember that he couldn’t follow where I was going, but not before he’d cut me off and ask his real question, which would crack my heart open a little more each time he asked it:
“But are you happy?”
The first time I heard these words I could not believe my ears. I can never recall my father even speaking to the idea of happiness. I have no memory of such a question ever coming from him. He was definitely not the kind of man who would ask about being happy. My cousin wondered, when I mentioned this to him, if maybe it was because for many in dad’s generation, especially the men of that era, happiness was not something that anyone ever really expected. I do know now, that so much of what he said or did when I was younger, really was pointing to that question – but for me, in the midst of our very strained relationship – I had no idea that he was wondering, let alone hoping, that I was happy. Now I know that most definitely he was.
“But are you happy?”
That’s what he asked me, and quite quickly, every time I spoke with him on the phone those last few years. And he asked it so sincerely and with such a deep concern and unabashed yearning for me to say that I was, that I could not disappoint him. But I also couldn’t lie to him. I wanted to be able to answer yes to his question because I heard in his voice, in the way that he asked the question, that he knew some larger truth, and I wanted to know it for myself. I heard that he was really asking me to dig deeper, to get to what was really important in life and see that there, in that place, in that deep and peaceful place I would always be able to say, “Yes, I am happy.” It became a question that I would hear him asking me at different points in my day. In a way, his question became a monitoring device. So I began to know that I was happy…not pretend syrupy-sweet happy, but truly, deeply happy. I learned this from my father, a man of very few words.
That I have these two beautiful kernels held carefully in my cupped hands, given to me by my parents; that I traveled on a long, winding road with them to a place where the fierce winds of life stopped just long enough for the jeweled gifts to be placed in my hands, and that we looked into each other’s eyes and hearts as the jewels were given by them and received by me; what more could I ask for?