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


Dale said...

Hugs, Patry.

It falls so hard, when it falls, doesn't it?


Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Dale. And yes--so very hard.

paris parfait said...

Oh Patry...what a beautiful, touching post. Hugs to you...have been so caught up in moving, etc., hadn't been aware about your mother. xx

marja-leena said...

Such a moving post, and finding that amazing connection at the end... My warmest condolences on the loss of your mother, dear Patry. Take care.

Oddly, this is the second such message I've sent in two days - a friend lost her husband recently. I always think of the loss of my own parents at these times. xoxo

Lorna said...

As often happens when I read your posts, I take a detour to my own past and as I read I can forget which one of us it is. Actually, I can, you're the articulate one, but we're both the ones who hurt.

Patry Francis said...

Tara: I have been caught up, too, but it's good to hear from old friends. Thanks for the kind words and hugs.

marja-leena: Thank you, and I'm so sorry to hear about your friend's loss. A spouse--how very difficult.

Lorna: I take a similar detour when I read your writing--but somehow I always come back to the road laughing. How do you do that?

Lisa said...


Kerstin said...

Patry, I don't have many words tonight but wanted to express my heart-felt condolences to you. You are always so graceful and humble through life's most difficult experiences. I am sending you a big hug across the state xo

Patry Francis said...

Lisa: Hugs always appreciated.

Kerstin: Thank you, friend. Look forward to meeting you soon. It will happen!

Perfect Virgo said...

A wonderfully accurate portrayal of the passage of life and time. Sadness and inevitability is always between the lines here.

Patry Francis said...

Paul: Thank you. And yes, sadness and inevitability--but also the moving forward. The life that continues and expands in startling ways. Congratulations on the birth of your grandson Oscar.

LitPark said...

Beautiful. And made me cry. xo

Robin Slick said...

Oh, Patry...I am weeping, too.

I haven't talked about it because I can't, but my father died a few weeks ago. Our relationship/situation was very different, and I didn't expect to feel any pain, really. And yet..

And yet.

Thank you for this.


Sarah Terse said...

I'd never heard of you today, but saw your blog on Susan Henderson's fb wall. You are my new favorite writer, simply because I have fallen in love with your language from this post. I'm humbled before you, at being able to put into words what is so very difficult to describe when you lose a parent. Thank you for touching my life today.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Patry, as I would have expected, this is beautiful. And exactly right. Two weeks from today I'm flying 2000 miles to be with my mom while my dad has surgery. Because of this, I'll remember to hug them extra long when I return home a few days later.

Jessica Keener said...

Oh, my goodness, Patry. This is a beautiful and wise surveillance of that divider-time.

Is it a wall? A place? A space?

My father died a few months ago and the one object of his I swiped and put on my wrist and continue to wear everyday: his watch.

Hugs to you.


deborah jiang stein said...

Patry, what a love story, theirs and yours. Astounded by their synchronicity in death and time. Other than mine, I've never before heard of such synchronicity until now. My mother died at the exact time of my birth. What a mystery, all of this on earth, and beyond.
So moved by your writing. Thank you.

rdl said...

oh g-d, sob, sob, sob.

Summer Wood said...

Really lovely post, Patry. Thanks for this.

Patry Francis said...

Susan: You are always so good to me. xx

Robin: Oh, Robin--so sorry to hear about your dad--no matter what the situation. Sending love.

Sarah: What an incredibly kind comment. I'm the one who's humbled.

Judy: Sending good wishes to your dad; and yes, enjoy those hugs.

Jessica: Thanks for being here, and for your willingness to listen and share both grief--and the desire to understand.

Deborah: Thanks for the lovely words and for sharing your own experience of synchronicity here. Astounding is the word.

R: Thank you for pushing me to write it, and for everything else. Hope you find the watch.

Summer: Good to see you here. Thank you.

The Curmudgeon said...

My parents did everything together. They even had His and Her cancer.

My mother was the first to go. Neither one of them expected that.

After my father passed, my sister and I wound up cleaning out their house. It wasn't the house we'd grown up in; they'd moved 10 years or so before. They had so much stuff. My mother had more shoes than anyone except Imelda Marcos. Many were never worn. (In the 1930s, when my mother was a little girl, the daughter of a young widow, new shoes were precious.) My father's record and CD collection would have been the envy of any radio station... but only one that focused almost exclusively on Big Band music. It killed me to practically give them away; my wife would have killed me if I'd kept any more than I did. But if you ever need to hear a Django Reinhardt record or anything from the Louis Jordan catalog, give me a call.

My mother had volunteered for years at the local hospital thrift store. The store got almost all of the clothes and the shoes. I'm still wearing some of my father's sport jackets.

My sister arranged for a dumpster for everything else. She filled it, too, tossing all sorts of stuff out with no little violence. I remember her really hurling the many jelly glasses my parents kept.

I found a cigar box full of papers my father had kept of his mother's stuff. Among these were newspaper clippings about my grandfather's death and a check made payable to, and endorsed by, Padre Pio, the Italian priest who exhibited the stigmata during his lifetime and who was later canonized by the Catholic Church. I have this framed in my living room. I tell people I have the only reliquary you're likely to find in a private home on the Northwest Side of the City of Chicago.

A decade later, I still wish we'd kept more.

Your beautiful post brings that all back.

Christina Rosalie said...

This post gave me chills: only the very best writing does. I lost my father to cancer ten years ago, and am so grateful for your words and for the small place of quiet that they created in a day of stirring business. Such beautiful writing! Thank you.

Patry Francis said...

Curmudgeon: Thank you for sharing your story here. So much resonates: the things tossed out "with no small violence." That's how it felt to me, too. In the process-my mother's wedding dress ended up in the wrong pile and was swept away. That still breaks my heart, though I remind myself that the dress was only a thing. It was not the person who wore it.

As for the Django Reinhardt records, I just might take you up on that.

Christina: I love what you say about finding a small quiet space. Thanks for being here, and of course, for your kindness.

Tinker said...

Have been thinking of you, Patry. And now your beautiful, poignant post has me thinking about time. It seems to be one of the greatest mysteries - one we can never quite seem to solve or get enough of, no matter how much we might have of it on our hands, day by day.
Sending love to you and your family, dear Patry. xo

Anonymous said...

This is so beautiful, patry. The ending of a life and the things left behind. I have a "memory box" with some of my father's things in it: wallet, glasses, a ring. In his wallet is a photo of me. Why does that touch me so? Like the timepiece and the exact time your parents shared when they passed. Our hearts want something that these things give.

Patry Francis said...

Tinker: Even with my vast collection of clocks and watches, I don't seem to have a handle on time. Thanks for your distant, but very real friendship.

Robin: I, too, feel touched by the thought of your photo in your father's wallet--and by your memory box. It made me wish I'd saved my mother's glasses--not the ones that I found at the house, but the ones she used to wear every morning when she sat at the table reading the paper while i did my writing.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Patry,
I am deeply moved by your words. I went to my own cupboard here in NZ and got my fathers wristwatch, he died in 1987, and it is the only possession of his I have. It has traveled halfway around the world to that cupboard.
I am also moved by my experience of my son becoming lost in the mountains a few days ago, and being unable to locate him I had to spend a long lonely terrible night in a hut waiting for dawn so I could seek help. The thoughts that ran through my head, and the people I thought about, and what was really important, were endless. The next morning I found him, cold, tired and wet, and I just hugged him to me. I thought I was going to have to deal with the loss of a child, and he was given back to me. So I hold and fondle my fathers watch and weep. Kia kaha e hoa.

Amber said...

Wow. The times of death...amazing.

love to you, dear.


Perfect Virgo said...

Patry, thank you for taking the time and trouble to mention my new grandson. How kind of you. He's a dear little chap and I hope one day he gets to meet his baby aunts who are 1 and 3 and who I can't imagine taking on a plane for the foreseeable!

Sky said...

Lovely writing, Patry. I was fascinated to learn your parents shared the same time of death. I think of you often, hoping you are finding a renewal of energy in the spring light.

I, too, have a memory box in my closet with several things that belonged to Mother. I also keep a bottle of her cologne on the mirrored vanity tray with my own perfumes. Some of her scarves are now mixed with mine; her jewelry a part of my own collection.

Things left behind; memories move in and out of shadows and sunlight. I miss her every day.

My sister and I have much work ahead because our father who is still living is a HOARDER. Years and years of "to be kept" items are stored among the junk. Many out buildings are filled to the brim just like his entire upstairs area. Neither of us live near him; we have begged him for years to take care of this while he is living (with our help). He refuses.

Patry Francis said...

Robb: What a powerful, transformative experience you, your son, and your entire family have been through--and what perfect joy to have it end so well. Thank you for sharing it here. Much aroha to you all.

Amber: What to make of that synchronicity? I don't know, but it does give me a kind of comfort. Love to you, too.

Paul: It's been wonderful to see all the ways your brood has expanded over the years. I look forward to photos of Oscar and the adorable aunties soon.

Sky: Yes, every day. In as much as it's possible to prepare for the sense of orphanhood, you helped me to do so.

Such a difficult situation with your dad. No easy answers, but much empathy...

Annie said...

Patry, Oh how this post, and that last sentence did make me cry. Beautiful post. I do not believe death is the end though, but only the begining. So sorry for your loss.
Love and hugs, xoxo

Patry Francis said...

Annie: Only the beginning...I so hope that is true. Love to you.

Anonymous said...

Patry, I'm so sorry for your loss. What beautiful words though, ones I'm certain have followed your mother and eased her transition. Love is, of course, the one thing that never dies. A cliche but still such a basic truth. My mother died twenty years ago and she still finds ways to remind me she loves me, and I'm sure yours will too.

My father died on April 7, nineteen years ago, but a day I always mark in one way or another. Now I'll think of you too. Much love to you and your family.

Patry Francis said...

So good to hear from you, Mary--and to share this new, poignant connection. I will think of you on April 7th, too.

Sandy Kessler said...

very compelling

Patry Francis said...

Thank you, Sandy.

sherylmonks said...

Wow. What a beatiful post, Patry.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Sheryl. So good to see you here.

sherylmonks said...

Well, and next time I will more carefully proof my comments. BEAUTIFUL, I meant to say. Enjoyed it immensely.

NoVA Dad said...

Thank you for sharing such personal reflections on the loss of your parents and your beautiful thoughts on time.

colleen said...

Wow. I read with chills the whole of this and then ...the end! What does it mean, indeed. Wonderfully expressed, a sadness we all share.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks so much, Matt. Good to see my old friends here.

Colleen: Yes, a sadness--and a mystery--we all share.
Love to you.

DFA said...

Must really be some dark moment for you. I just wish you to get over it the soonest and remember instead all the good things. Acceptance is best friend you could have during these times. I felt lucky to have both mom and dad beside all my ordeals and success today as a blogger. Ann

LBC Philippines said...

It is what we actually get but understanding is still the most powerful tool for acceptance.

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

Hi Patry,

I revisited this post again because seeing the watch photo made me think of my father, who is now residing in a nursing home (early stages dementia, and recovering from a broken hip.) My Fred has just been through the loss of both his father and mother within a year of each other, my mother just this past August, and my father is quietly slipping away a little at a time...just when I don't think I can bear anything more, I find that I can do it. We have slowly begun to pour through our inheritance of things...lots of things, the instant recall of time while handling particular items...mine has more to do with pictures...but yes, time pieces, my father's watch, we kept after he broke his hip, at first he missed it, now it's just a "ghost" mark on his wrist where his little arm became tanned this summer every time my mother sent him outside to "absorb some vitamin D." And so now, their house will need to be cleared out and items dispersed, and life will move on again. I look around at just our own accumulation of stuff...the additional things from the parents houses, but our things collected over the 26 years of marriage...all the stones from beaches that I visited, books, bits of pencils that I just might still be able to use to draw with by using an extension, and cryptic notations on post-it notes tucked in the proof copies of Dusty Waters and The Fractured Hues of White Light...I have to feel sorry for our son to have to go through what we've been going through for the last two years! But I know that he will latch onto those items that will best remind him of special times in his life, each thing will have a story associated to it, and then he will discard all that he sees no point in keeping…tho' living in fear for the rest of his days that I might come back to haunt him if he doesn't throw the beach stones into my garden like I specifically told him to do! He just might leave them in their ceramic bowls.
I hope you are well, this is such a beautiful post, and I needed it. Thank you.

oxox's from both of us!

Laura and Fred

Tinker said...

Thinking of you, this holiday. Wishing you many blessings today and everyday, Patry. xo

David Edward said...

i miss my mom, and I miss you, too, Patry.... will just have to search for you

web lol said...

kul post !

Tabor said...

I think how fortunate you were to have such loving parents. To miss them and to have such great memories. Glad I stopped by from Colleen's blog.

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-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

Yeah. I totally know, dear.
We were driving and KKKRASH!!
She died at 17; I was in a coma
for almost 10 days.
Death happens...
yet, I'll VitSee
her again soon.
We all gotta go
thro some suffering
in our existence
to reach Seventh-Heaven.
Love you.
Cya soon.

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