The text from my brother was there when I woke up. “Mother’s gone.” I rolled over in bed and laid there for a minute.
Gone. Mother was gone. The space she never really seemed to fill up completely, or well, was officially empty.
I texted my children. “Grandmother’s gone. I’ll keep you posted on details. Love you madly.” Heart heart.
I got up, peed, and called Bob.
“She passed quietly, when Karen was out of the room. It happened early this morning … about 2:30.”
“Any idea what the plan is?”
“No plan yet. The funeral home has been there, and Karen has gone to breakfast with Cornelius.” Cornelius is Karen’s grown son.
“Okay. Just keep me posted.”
Bob. My brother. I was the oldest, he was next in line. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. We grew up, drifted apart, then back together. He and I, in our separate lives, had sought all the good counsel we could find, determined — each of us — to land on our feet as the people we were put here to be. And for the most part we succeeded. Our lives had been shaped by our childhoods, as most lives are; we were determined that our choices as adults were not defined by them. We’re now in our senior years, and we’ve never been closer.
The funeral arrangements lunged and looped like a Chinese fire drill. Ten grandchildren were all over the world, we six children were spread across the country … and schedules were impossible to coordinate.
“Karen said the funeral director told her he could oil mother down if we need to wait a few weeks till everyone could be there.” My stomach turned, but before I could respond, he continued … “and she said no, she’s not going to leave mother in an icebox that long. We’ll schedule around when we siblings can be there, and hopefully the grandchildren can make it. But we gotta move on this.”
So we gathered, we hugged, we rosaried, we viewed mother’s body in a box. We attended the funeral Mass where the young priest talked, in personal terms, about life, and death, and the fact that the circle of life, while it can be painful, is also beautiful.
We drove to the cemetery and sat facing the box. The deacon read a passage, we all bowed our heads. We watched in silence as the swarthy worker removed his hat, adjusted the pulleys, and lowered the box into the ground. When he was done, he gave a quick nod, put on his hat, and walked away.
After a couple of minutes we began to rise and drift into small groups; we chatted in hushed tones, and headed to our cars. It was a sizable group, I guess. Mother’s six children, some of her grandchildren, a couple of great grandchildren, nieces and nephews … each person knew a ‘piece’ of Ruth. And now, she was gone. Her story is gone with her, except for those pieces she left with each of us.
No two pieces were exactly the same, and I couldn’t help wondering … if we put them all together, would they make the whole of who she was? There was no way to know. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, after all.
My daughter Michelle was heartbroken that her schedule prevented her from coming.
“I can’t be there then.”
“Go, my darling, and live your life. Grandmother is not in that box. She’s up above the clouds, young and healthy, dancing the jitterbug with Granddad.”
I’ve heard there’s a way to live that is without pressure, or obligation. A way to avoid the mundane requirements of life; electric bill, rolling trash bins to the curb, changing batteries in the smoke alarms. I’m not real clear about how one achieves that no-pressure life without ending up under a bridge somewhere. I do feel pretty certain that there’s a way to find balance along the nothing/everything continuum.
I was watching Hoarders the other day. In fact I was watching Hoarders back to back. I was sort of hoarding the Hoarders series. I keep thinking about those people and wondering, what was their trigger? What was the last straw that caused that interior designer to pile her historic home so full of crap that she ended up living in the driveway, in her dilapidated van with her dogs? That when the cleanup people were climbing over the piles inside the home, she was cheerily bragging on it being her design studio? In her mind and eyes, there was no problem.
She literally hoarded herself out of her home. She crowded herself out of her life with stuff. And though she declared the high value of it all, much of it was … nothing but garbage.
Another woman’s home was over run with cottage cheese cartons, rubber bands – which she had huge piles of, and wouldn’t let the cleanup people touch – plastic bags. Anything. Everything. It appears that too much everything flips over and you get nothing.
I’m thinking balance. It’s a great term, most of us use it, and most of us think that, in some way, we have some sort of balance in our lives.
Those hoarders think they have balance too. Like the woman whose house was so filled with crap she was living in the makeshift aviary with her cats. She couldn’t live in her house. She cried. She didn’t want to let anything go, but at the same time knew she had a problem.
Not sure why I’m writing about this. What I’m sure of is, I need to hire a couple of teenagers to help me clean out my garage.
You never know when that last straw’s gonna show up.
Things tend to make sense in ways we don’t expect. Sometimes situations or events go what we’d normally call out of control … all we can see is the chaos. But a step back reveals the wider net, the bigger picture. The choreography, the symmetry of all things.
Relationships. Blood, love, hate, passion. The binding thread that brings them all together is fiery red. But in it … when we’re in it … it feels like drowning, or flying, or crashing. No color at all. Just the grit and grind and focus of getting through it, or holding on to it, or getting rid of it, or expressing it. That is the experience of the thread itself. We are that thread.
Blue. Of Jazz, pain, loss, rain, regret. The thread of blue awakens quickly with each event. Fluid and flexible or vulcanized and unyielding … this strand goes from silk to steel in an instant, its transformation governed by the emotional dictates of experience.
And yet, when we lay our heads down in the dark, all threads come together; as we sleep through the night they work in concert, weaving another length in the tapestry of our lives.
This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”
We’re living in very difficult times. We have every modern convenience, every means of communication, yet we live lives of anguish and isolation. Our ability to communicate, and to assess the subtle nuances of truth-versus-lie is tied directly to our face to face human interaction. You’d think we’d have more of that than any generations before us. But we don’t.
Ironically, psychologists tell us that our children will have less ability than any generation in history to interact with others in healthy and meaningful ways. The reason is because they spend far more time looking at a tablet screen than they do looking into the eyes of another human being.
And I totally get that. I can’t hear someone’s vocal inflection in a text. I can’t sense their energy or see their facial expressions in an email. In my head and without realizing it I write the story, I infuse the tone, I define the intent. That is what determines how I “hear” them. How often am I correct? How often have I gotten it wrong? I can’t know, because the moment in which it happens is gone in an instant. I’ve reacted based on “my assessment” before I even think about it.
And this, I contend, is how we have gotten so far away from each other.
Then there is the media. Do we really know what’s happening in this world? Or why? Are we given all the facts of a situation, and trusted to draw our own informed conclusions? No. There are extensive, complicated algorithms and processes that media uses to decide what we should be told, when, and how. The goal is to “drive” our opinions and conclusions; to create outrage, cause us to take sides, and define others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what we “know.” And the result is that we end up unable to debate or agree-to-disagree.
But … what is it that we really know?
I can’t say definitively. I’m honestly still searching, and I feel more confused than ever before.
But here are a few basic conclusions I’ve reached:
- I know that things are happening at high levels over which I have no control.
- I know that every story or event reported on is colored by the reporter’s bias – be it strong or subtle – so that I will believe I “know” something that may not be the whole truth or the whole picture.
- I know that it takes deliberate and brutally honest energy to dig into the volume of information … to find those missing pieces of the puzzle that make the picture whole, and true.
- I know that if I claim to be a seeker of truth, I have an obligation to the whole truth, regardless of what I might think about it.
- I know that people need each other. The separation we feel is an illusion. We are connected to each other.
- I know that we are more alike than we are different. Like flowers in a garden that thrive in the same dirt, drink the same water, and bloom under the same sun, we are a world of beautiful humanity, all created by the same God.
- I know that hearts are broken every day in a variety of ways. But generally speaking, it’s always about loved ones lost, either through death or separation.
- I know that when any person, anywhere, feels overcome with that loss, that it feels the same everywhere.
- I know that all broken hearts are red.
I don’t wax nostalgic often. But when I do, it seems my nostalgia — my longing — is for moments of connection. Moments confirming that the thread I bring to the tapestry of life is sufficiently interwoven with those of others. Moments that say “yes” to the presence of me. I know; self-centered is all I can call it, and yet … it seems to me that same sweet ache lives at the heart of us all.
We need reassurance that our time here matters, or mattered. In that sense, I think we’re all well advised to do the very best we can, always, with everyone. Then we must leave the rest to those who write about it afterward. Even so, if I could, I’d write of moments experienced or, at the very least, dreamed of:
- Standing at the kitchen sink in summer, barefoot, washing dishes and singing to the radio; breeze through the kitchen window makes the curtains flutter and plays with my hair. He slips up behind me, wraps around me and we become one, soapy hands in the water, swaying to the music.
- The children, rosy cheeked and sleepy eyed, pile into the bed where we snuggle under the covers and read The Velveteen Rabbit
- He wakes me in the wee hours whispering, “Hey, sleepyhead, come with me.” He takes my hand, urges me into my slippers and coat, then leads me outside where it’s snowing. We dance under the night sky with snowflakes falling all around us.
- The children come into us in the dark of morning squealing, “Mama, Daddy, it’s Christmas! Come see!” We roll out of bed, into our robes, and settle on the couch where we lean into each other over cups of hot coffee while watching the children open their gifts.
- He and I, walking hand in hand, talking, laughing, and scuffling through drifts of Autumn leaves.
- Peaking in on my sweet, sleeping children, touching them softly, blessing them, wondering if they know how much they are loved.
- He takes my bare face in his hands, kisses my forehead, looks into my eyes and whispers, “You. It’s you and me. It’s always been you and me. Forever. You and me.”
- A card arrives in the mail. Old fashioned roses painted on the front. Inside, a simple message: “We believe in you. We’re proud of you. We love you. Mother and Daddy.”
- A family dinner of all the siblings, children, and grandchildren. The main course served amongst us all is love, with laughter a plentiful condiment.
- That final moment when, having fought the good fight and for all the right reasons, I know without question that I’ve done my best. It no longer matters if anyone else knows. I know. And that’s enough.
The messages we’re given in childhood are powerful. Until we get out into the world on our own, they define our reality. They define our normal. They tell us what’s expected of us, and what value we have. And behind those front doors, each family has its own brand of ‘normal’.
I was raised in a house where there was one right way to do everything. Often I discovered there was a right way after I’d done something the wrong way. Mattered not if I accomplished my goal. If I didn’t do it the right way, I got it wrong. And that “right” way could change without warning; I learned that early on. So, go ahead, knock yourself out. But don’t count on anything except maybe being blindsided by a new rule, a new way of you failing again.
This is a piece of the legacy inherited by a child of alcoholics. Eventually, once we’ve reached adulthood and if we’re aware enough and brave enough to launch the quest for self discovery, we catch a glimpse of how life is defined outside the hazed cocoon in which we grew up; the only “normal” we’ve ever known. So there’s an overriding sense of betrayal, or having been lied to about ‘what’s going on out there’, ‘how I fit in the world,’ or even ‘who I am’. And, at its center, ‘what love feels like’.
That’s not to say that drinkers are evil. They’re not. I truly believe that very person, in one way or another, is ‘trying to find their way’. But some people get so off track; are so myopic as to what they’re doing and the damage caused by it, that they’re pretty much a walking (or stumbling) wrecking ball.
I’ll admit there are certainly things ingrained in me from my childhood that I treasure. I have a very well calibrated moral compass. I’m not an angel by any stretch, but when I’ve veered off course, I know it.
This comes from a Spiritually driven center that was awakened in me very early on. I clung to it, and was convinced that ‘if I’m good enough’ good things will, ultimately, happen. There’s probably a piece of me that still believes it.
In Seminary we studied addiction. It was pointed out to us that addicts are “headed the wrong way down the right road.” They crave a different feeling, a different perspective. But they’ve employed chemical shortcuts to get there, which always end in failure. Because in order to keep the feelings gained from drugs or alcohol, you have to stay drugged or drunk. The process is deeply and heartbreakingly flawed. Those same good feelings are authentically available. But like all things of true value, we gotta do the deliberate, serious (and personal) work to ‘get there from here’.
And something else I learned in Seminary, is that there are quite possibly as many ways to do something as there are people to do it. Not right or wrong, based on approach. When I heard that it was not like a light went on in my head; it was more like a bomb went off.
For decades I held back on doing so many things, big and small, for fear I would do them wrong. It was earth changing when, after finally trying something, and doing it my way, there was no one there to tell me how wrong I was.
Maybe I was never really wrong, after all.