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.”
The depth and breadth of the things in this building suck the oxygen out of the room.
- First exhibit, childhood. Promises to hold, support, love … to encourage and protect. They lie in pieces on the ground, dusty and forgotten. Forgotten to everyone but me. Check check check. Check check.
- Up the escalator to the mezzanine, is high school, and teenage years. Potential recognized and undermined. The remnants of hope’s fire, a burnt offering of the dreams held there. A young girl with no one to reflect back to her the truth of who she was, gifts she brought, or the light she shined.
- Shattered glass on the second floor, shards of a dark and betrayed relationship. Two beams glow bright, the children born, and a third, the tender flame of one who left too soon.
- Top floor, on golden shelves sit baskets, overflowed with bit and pieces, half-made promises of friends and family. Those whose only real crime was that they failed themselves before they ever could fail me.
- The ceiling above is open to the sky, dark and starry. Constellations weave a spiderweb, a language all their own. They tell of secrets yet revealed, and assure me that … no matter how it seems, I am not alone.
I didn’t know about her for years. Never heard of her. Then, one day, in the period I would soon dub ‘the dark night of my ex-husband’s soul’ she came. A light dawned.
I’d always been a creative girl, a passionate teen, then while wedded I morphed into an unsure and eagerly accommodating woman. When I finally acknowledged the “past due notice” and filed for “the divorce,” I realized I couldn’t speak. No, listen, I could string words together, I could even sound coherent on occasion, but the kernel of “me” at the heart of it all was missing. When did I grow so soft?
There I was, plowing through the molasses searching for my focus when, at a Screen Actors Guild Directors’ meeting, I met Nat Benchley. ‘Benchley, Benchley, let me think,’ I thought as I smiled that smile and shook his hand.
Nat immediately had me smitten, as most brilliantly eloquent men do … I do love a great mind. And his was incredible, I thought, until … well, his nickname for me was a little off putting. “Reverend Gorgeous.” I can barely type it even now. It makes me blush, and warms my heart. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Nat was sharing with me stories about his grandfather Robert, and how this woman, Dorothy Parker, was his sidekick and best friend.
Well, I’d never heard of the woman, and you already know exactly what I did. I looked Dorothy up, bought her books, checked her out … and thought, ‘HEY! I recognize that voice … that irreverent, brilliant, hysterically ironic voice. It . Sounds . Like . Me .’
So that was the first step, learning about Dot. The next meeting Nat and I attended was in New York, and he decided we should go some place called the Algonquin Hotel. Over martinis with three fat olives he educated me on the infamous “Vicious Circle” and — as we sat at that very same round table, regaled me with tales of how his Grandfather and Dot would hold court there everyday at lunch. And so, we and our colleagues sat. We laughed. We drank. Because, you know. Dot and Robert.
Hirschfeld drawings of Benchley, Parker, and company lined the walls. The more I learned, the more I was convinced: Nat and I should do a two-person show, Robert and Dot. I mentioned it to him. He loved it. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and we never happened.
That was years ago, and I only remembered these things when reading a piece this morning by Dorothy Parker. I’m much older now, and am not sure I still have the swagger necessary to deliver a good “Dot” onstage. But I love my warm memories of Nat Benchley. I continue to relish Parker’s writing, her voice, and the very clear knowledge that it was she who, thanks to Nat, helped me find my own.
In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
Truth is something I think most claim to be aligned with. Many people swear they are always on a quest for truth. But I wonder: does anyone know what they’re saying? And if they do, do they really mean what they say?
I go through deliberate periods of brutal self-examination. I’ll confess, I don’t do it as often as I should. But when I’m in the process of it, I have a “no bullshit” rule; I force myself to face the true things about me and how I view life. It’s not fun. It can be exhausting, and humbling. But to live authentically, or “in truth,” isn’t it crucial? For me, the answer is yes.
I think we want to believe we are who we claim to be. But pretty much always, in many ways (sometimes most ways) we’re just not; it’s very easy to get off track and not even know it. And to not even think about that possibility.
We often choose positions and embrace opinions about things, and then “back the information in” that will support what we’ve already decided. It’s true. We all do it.
And we gravitate to others who agree, because it’s so much easier to surround ourselves with people on every strata who reaffirm our stories. … Then we can convince ourselves that what we’ve chosen to believe is authoritative; good, and noble. Being a member of such a group renders us reassuringly superior. It’s great to feel so right.
With the best of intentions, we dress our parsing, our denial, in beautiful stories … stories of bravery and justification; stories of righteousness and independence.
And yet, truth just sits there. It does not shout. It does not defend itself or try to convince. Nor does truth move, or shrink, or change, based on our opinion about it, or our unwillingness to acknowledge it.
Every night, when the darkness comes, and we lay our heads down on our pillows, that truth … that quiet, unassuming truth that lives at the center of every good thing … revisits our hearts. We know. In that deepest part, we all know.
And every night, in each of these quiet, private moments shimmers an opening; the chance to say “yes” to the rattling of our tidy preconceptions. Relaxing our hold is the willingness through which we can climb, into a world fraught with things that were, things that are; a vast universe of open-ended questions and limitless possibilities. The mysterious and miraculous are waiting for us there.
It only takes one brave, courageous moment to let it pull us out of our defensive rightness.
Just once, let’s refuse to roll over, turn our backs to it; let’s refuse to continue the nurturing of our own self contempt.
This one small choice; this different choice – when applied in enough hearts – is sure to transform this weary, broken world.