Monday, May 23, 2011

WHAT WE INHERIT: Dealing with the loss of a parent

dad's watch, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

My mother never wanted to sell the house, though it sat unoccupied for nearly three years. Mold etched yellow flower-like splotches on the roof, a wilderness encroached in the back yard, vines loosened the shingles as they pressed their feral invasion.

But inside, the house was as it always had been: my father's workshop in the basement in fastidious order, his swivel chair turned toward the slider where he often contemplated his garden or the birds that nested in a bush outside the door, the cupboards and china cabinets overflowing as if the couple who had found such joy in entertaining might return for one more party. Even Louis Armstrong waited on the CD player, poised to belt out Wonderful World on command

It was foolish to keep the place, everyone said, foolish to allow my mother, whose judgment was impaired by her disease, to make the decision, as the prices of homes plummeted and the neighbors complained about the high grass.

But she wept whenever I brought up the subject. "We were so happy there," she said. "Maybe someday I will go back."

I never had the heart to tell her there was no chance of that.

It wasn't until her final illness that I put the house on the market. She died on April 7th and her home sold just a few days later. In the end, the house was emptied in one frenetic weekend. My kids took what they wanted before various local charities came to pick over what remained; clothes, unworn for a decade, were finally bundled up for the Goodwill.

It pained me to see anything go: my father’s old work shirt, his name stitched on the pocket which my mother had worn for weeks after his death--the only thing that kept her warm, she said--a lone piece of speckled plastic dishware from my childhood, a smudged pair of the reading glasses my parents shared. I tried them on, surprised how I had grown into them.

I knew I had to be merciless with the past or it would consume my house just as it threatened to do with my psyche. Some of what I chose to keep was obvious: the objects that had come down through the generations, my mother’s beautiful rugs. While the ruthless trash bags trailed me through the house, I grabbed stacks of photo albums, including a book of crumbling black paper put together by a great-great aunt nearly a century ago. I had no idea who most of the faces were, but I couldn’t throw away their mugging grins for the camera, the photos sent home from World War I, the solemn love of an unknown mother and child.

When I got home, I found I had also grabbed a disproportionate number of time pieces. clocks that marked birthdays and anniversaries, watches that reflected the fashion of the decades in which they were worn. All of them had stopped at different hours, leaving me to wonder what had been going on when they finally wore down. Common moments then. Forever irretrievable now.


After I gathered my clocks and watches together, I took a look at my inheritance: time of an indeterminate amount. The truth is that the living know only two things about the time that remains: 1) It feels endless, long enough to squander on a thousand vanities, useless arguments and distractions and 2) It is not.

If death teaches anything, and I believe it instructs us in far more than we can ever absorb, one of its lessons is that time is not just an esoteric marker that is ticked away on clocks, numbered in heartbeats. It is also a hard, immutable wall that falls when it will. On this side of the wall, you can embrace, tell, forgive, ask for forgiveness, touch, share ice-cream, argue and cede the argument---as if forever. And on the other side, there is only a room full of old clocks and watches, silent and frozen. And a question. What does it mean?

When I lost my father, i set his watch at the hour of his death and hung it in my office. Ten years later it became like so much else--something I looked at, but had stopped seeing.

Only when I took it out to place with the other pieces of time I had collected did I realize that my parents had both died at the same moment: 6:07 p.m..

the hour

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


rose and cigarette

The other day my weekly newsletter from the always luminous and thought-provoking Fiona Robyn arrived in my in-box. A Confession, Fiona called this week’s message. After sharing some particularly candid insights on the subject of malice, she left her readers with this question:

What kinds of malice and cunning do you use? How does it feel to admit them to yourself or to others?

I immeiately wrote back to say that I planned to blog the answer. But then, I plan to do a lot of things. Fiona wished me luck.

As I’ve said before, procrastination is bad, but it isn’t ALL bad--particularly for a writer. While I put off writing about the forms malice takes in my life, I had a few days to observe them.

Sunday, in the happy aisles of Trader Joe’s, I had an unlikely encounter with my own meanness. The store is always crowded on weekends, but this week, the small space was clotted with an army of desperate lovers seeking pink gerber daisies, scentless roses and Belgian chocolate. Access to the few food items I wanted, not to mention movement, was blocked at every turn by a crush of carts, organic food lovers, and miserable valentines who were obviously infuriated that everyone else was in THEIR way.

Me, too. Infuriated--particularly at the guy who pushed his way in front of me repeatedly and then gave me a scornful look for his trouble. Oh, I know all about people like you, I thought, huffily. People who think they have a divine right to be FIRST wherever they go.

So I glared and I grumbled and I thought a lot of crappy thoughts about how arrogant and selfish the rest of the human race was. And then I stopped. Right there in the frozen food aisle where I’d been jockeying for position near the veggie burritos. I brought my cart to a halt ( I know, almost a crime against humanity in that situation) and took a look at myself.

What was I doing? What kind of thoughts had I invited into my brain? When someone gave me a not so gentle nudge, I moved along--but in an entirely different direction of mind. I made a conscious effort to smile at my fellow grumblers, to compliment them on the flowers spilling from their cart, or their brightly colored scarves. A couple of them shared some satisfying complaints about the madness in the aisles. I couldn’t believe how congenial they all were, how like me! I even smiled at the man with the Divine Right--though that seemed to annoy him even more than my desire to get to the avodcados.

Nice story, right? Particularly the latter part where I come off sounding pretty wise and cool. A regular yogini. But Fiona’s question deserves a more honest response, and the truth is I don’t stop and pivot nearly enough. In fact, the first part of the story probably tells a deeper truth. When I feel malice, I do a lot of talking, both internally and externally. If someone does something I don’t like, I tell them about it--otherwise known as complaining and criticizing. And if that doesn’t work (which it almost ever does) I escalate the volume or the meanness--or both (even less effective.)

And then, when the world refuses to change at my behest, I make my head into an echo chamber. I walk through the house or the hours of my life, carrying on a running monologue about my grievances. I treat my life like the overcrowded aisle of a supermarket where lots of (mostly imaginary) people and things are in my way.

Pretty futile, I admit. I mean, would the man with the Divine Right to be First have changed if I rammed my cart into his posterior and pointed out that he was an arrogant jerk? Or if I walked around thinking about it for a week? Or if I told all of YOU? No, he wouldn’t and he wouldn’t suffer either. Not a whit. But I would--which is what I do with most of my malice. I turn it on myself. Or on those who love me enough to listen.

Which brings me to the second part of Fiona’s question: How does it feel to admit that?

Well, the honest answer is not good. Not good at all. But it also feels just a little bit hopeful. Because if I can say it out loud. If I can write it on the bleeping internet, then maybe I can alter it.

Today one of my Facebook friends posted this quote:

I once had a garden filled with flowers that grew only on dark thoughts but they needed constant attention & one day I decided I had better things to do. ~ Story People

I love the quote, but I also recognize that it’s not so simple. I personally have decided I had better thing to do countless times, but the dark garden continued to create new shoots. When I was younger, maybe even last year when I made Goodwill toward all! my simple little New Years resolution, I believed I could eradicate them for good. Now I suspect that short of achieving Nirvana, the black flowers never entirely go away. They're part of that miserable, wondrous, entirely mysterious thing we call the human condition. But that doesn’t mean you need to water them. Or take them in the house and put them in a vase. Or walk around holding them in your hands like a bride.

Maybe that’s why this year my resolutions were more modest: smile more. And laugh even more often. Notice the color of people’s scarves, and the flowers they buy for people they love.

It won’t make you a saint or eradicate every trace of malice in your heart, but I can tell you one thing I’ve learned since January first: It’s almost impossible to hold a crappy thought in your head when you’re smiling.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


her favorite place

When I was growing up, I went to bed every night clutching the pink, child-sized rosary I’d been given for First Communion, and prayed for a sibling. I secretly hoped for a girl like my cousin Alison whose sparkle was so bright that it lingered among the dust motes for days after she packed her dolls into their patent leather case and went home. My phantom sister would play jump rope with me in the basement on rainy days, sing along with the Beatles in the car, and let me paint her nails tangerine. But believing it wasn’t a good idea to tell God what to do, I was quick to add that a brother would be fine, too.

Most of all, I yearned for another voice in the dark on the many nights when my parents’ marriage erupted into confusing accusations and teary counter-attacks , when my father’s ancient hurts rocked our five room ranch until I was sure it would explode. As a small child, I envisioned my imaginary sibling holding my hand when I impulsively rushed out to defend my mother--invariably, ratcheting up the conflict. As teenagers, my sister or brother and I would roll our eyes with uncanny synchronicity and turn up the radio. Why don’t they just get a divorce? we’d say.

Only later when I'd grown up and taken up the challenge of my own relationships would I understand that my parents' union was more complex than I understood, that there were no clear villains, and as in most quarrels, both parties played thier roles. By then I understand that our parents hadn’t so much battled each other, as they’d waged a long and valiant war against my father’s demons. And what’s more, they’d won. The arguments would fade to a silent pantomime. Their love--fierce and affectionate till the end--would leave mw in awe.

Despite my endless Hail Marys, I remained an only child. My father, a classic extrovert, had a thousand friends “who were like brothers to him, ” but he was frequently moody and morose at home, especially when my mother was at work. I listened avidly for the sound of a car crunching gravel, signaling that she was home. The wisest and most loving of parents, she was also the sister to whom I could tell everything, and the friend who listened seriously to my music when adolescence blew through our shaky walls like a tornado. . I remember her taking particular exception to Bob Dylan, especially the line in The Times they are a Changin that exhorted parents to “get out of the new world if you can’t lend a hand.” So what does he want us to do--just go die somewhere? she said, standing, hands on hips, in the doorway of my room. But the next day I heard her singing Blowing in the Wind. Now that’s a beautiful song, she said.

In one of our most memorable games from my younger years, she would emerge in an impromptu costume, her voice comically altered, and ask, “Did you think I was your mother?” Sometimes she played a character from my beloved books; she was Jo in Little Women, Nancy Drew’s boyish best friend, George, or Amelia Aerheart. But it was her villains who made me shriek with delight. She played the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz, or one of Cinderella’s harpy stepsisters; she pulled the covers up to her chin and cackled like the wolf who’d stolen Grandma. I loved the game, but the best part was when she pulled off her disguise, and returned my mother to me: wide smile, lilting voice, the Elizabeth Arden scented hug that made everything all right.

Now that my mother has Alzheimer’s and I have become her caregiver, it seems as if we play a cruel variation of that game every day. I hear her asking, "Did you think I was your mother?" when she curses her aides with words I never thought she knew or tells them that they’re “fired,” when she accuses me of stealing a coat she hasn’t owned in thirty years. She eyes me warily--the thief who hijacked not only a long forgotten items of clothing, but her life--as if to make sure I don’t make off with anything else. She’s supposed to be the mother, and I the child, she grumbles, as she begrudgingly accepts my help to the bathroom, or a meal I prepared. She’s the one who supposed to be in charge of home, car, job, family. What kind of a usurper do I think I am? The answer, of course, is that I am the very worst kind. I am the next generation, and I’m followed closely by another one that is already prepared to succeed me in tending the house that is our mysterious life on earth.

I admit there have been moments when I’ve returned spite for spite, childishness for childishness. (In this disease, there are stages for family members, too.) I have looked at the tiny, broken, confused woman in her wheelchair, and seen nothing but the impostor who replaced my mother in my childhood game. Once she had performed such a convincing act that I’d been genuinely scared by the role she created. When she announced that she was not my mother, I felt my lip quiver. “Well, where is she then?” I asked before I burst into tears. It's an impulse I've felt more than once in the last couple of years.

And then I catch a glimpse of our shared past--a flash of chrome yellow that recalls the old Volkswagen Beetle she drove in my childhood or a photograph of her vamping in a bathing suit, a reference to the sixties' protests. When the first demonstration against the Vietnam war was held in our working class city, she and my Aunt Kally, marched down Main Street with the disaffected college students who’d organized it on their school break. She marched not because she was politically outspoken--she wasn’t-- but because she had been singed when a boy from our neighborhood was killed there. She would never forget--not to this day--the way his mother wailed throughout the wake. For her early and unpopular stand, my mother had been criticized by a supervisor at work, a conservative priest in our parish--and worst of all, my father. But she had refused to be cowed. If they’d heard that mother’s keening, they would understand, she said, as always, giving those who disagreed with her the benefit of the doubt.

That ability to reflect back the best in others is probably what I miss most. Now I struggle to do the same for her as we navigate the fluid terrain of identity. One of the most most appalling aspects of this disease is that it doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished in your life or how far you’ve evolved. You could achieve sainthood or Zen mastery, and still end your days in a fugue of petty angers and turmoil. In many ways, dementia is more humbling than death.

Strangely, what keeps me going is my memory of the game we played so many years ago. I am solaced by the countless times my mother returned to me, whole and smiling. And having already lost one parent, I know she will this time, too. When my father was alive, I was often unable to see past the mood changes he could not control. But death silenced his furies and returned the funloving, unfailingly generous, affectionate man who had fought them all his life. Now I wonder how I can ever live up to the kindnesses he did for the multitude he embraced as “friends as close as brothers,” or for our family.

I hate my mother’s suffering and fear her loss--almost in equal measure. In the meantime, I’m grateful for her presence in whatever form. I cannot return her former place in the world to her or eradicate her pain and fear, but I do what I can to make small moments pleasurable. I kiss her face and tell her she’s beautiful every morning. (She is.) I stroke her hand and feed her chocolate. I fill our house with the music she loves: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and yes, sometimes even that beautiful song Blowing in the Wind.