So far, 2020 has been one of the roughest years in the lives of many people. Not just here in the United States, but across the globe. For me, it’s been extraordinarily tough. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I became leery as my savings dwindled. My freelance writing career hasn’t proven as successful as I’d hoped, so writing gigs have dried up. My mother’s stroke at the end of January sent me into an emotional tailspin. I felt incredibly guilty sending her to a rehabilitation center. But, as her own health failed, I realized she was entering the final stages of her life. She finally passed away June 22.
My mother worked in the insurance industry her entire adult life, retiring in 2003 at the age of 70. She was earning pensions from the last two companies where she worked. One has already informed me there was no final beneficiary payout, and I’m waiting to hear from the other. They have to (snail) mail me some documentation that I have to complete and sign and return to them with a copy of her death certificate. Okay, I’m thinking, this is the 21st century. Did they not get the memo? It’s like much of the Southeastern U.S. with the Civil War. But it’s not financial; it’s an issue I have to resolve from a legal perspective in order to probate the will and get this house transferred into my name.
Still, I remain unemployed, with little financial backup. I’ve had to delay utility payments – something I’ve never done in my entire life. Now my truck is showing its age. Like a dog, 14 is old for a vehicle.
Moreover, I thought briefly I had contracted the dreaded novel coronavirus. Symptoms like fever and a persistently runny nose alarmed me. The lethargy overwhelmed me. I kept thinking (hoping) these were the effects of allergies – a constant plague in my life. Or perhaps I’m simply recovering from the stress of caring for both my parents. Maybe it’s male menopause. (I’ll be 57 in November.) I didn’t know. But a friend recently suggested another problem: a lack of exercise (which I’d already admitted) and/or an iron deficiency (which I’d already suspected.) Thus, I purchased some iron supplements and have become determined to reinvigorate my various exercise regimens. I’ve been out walking along an exercise trail behind my home these past couple of weeks. During one of those I actually made an attempt to jog – and promptly stopped. You just can’t go months without running and then expect to break into an Olympic-style sprint! I’m watching middle age gently fade from my soul in real time.
That same friend, however, said something to me last week that offended me more than anything else he – or most anyone else – has ever said. We’ve always had a sometimes-contentious, yet brutally honest friendship. But he coyly criticized me for spending so much time on my writing – and this blog; that I’m wasting that time and energy on my creative pursuits instead of trying to find a full-time job.
His comments stunned me. I promptly reminded him of my previous years of employment; where I slaved away over hot computer keyboards during weekdays, before turning to my creative writing endeavors in the evenings and on weekends. I’ve always felt a greater sense of responsibility to myself and my community than to suffer for my art and live off the grid and on the edge.
I write because I enjoy it. I feel I’m good at it. It’s the one thing about myself in which I’m 100% confident. Writing is mostly all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. It’s therapeutic. It’s kept me from hurting myself and others. I understood long ago that my chances at becoming a famous author were slim. But I don’t write stories in the hopes of becoming wealthy and renowned. I fully realize the odds of that are incredibly rare. I’m not naïve – or irresponsible.
I continue to search for full-time, even contract or part-time, work. And I continue to write – on this blog and my stories. I’m not writing now just to piss off my friend, which would suck up too much of my energy.
Once more, I write because I love it. It’s who I am and who I always will be.
There are some parts of our souls upon which we can never give up.
My mother told me that one day in the early 1960s, she was strolling past a row of file cabinets at the insurance company in downtown Dallas where she worked at the time, when a man who had a history of playing pranks on his coworkers suddenly leaped out and popped her bra strap. At a time when people could normally get away with such shenanigans in the workplace, my mother said she didn’t think twice once she saw the smirk on the young man’s face…and smacked him across his face, sending his glasses to the floor. She cursed at him – something that most people, especially women could NOT get away with in those days – and merely walked away. Trying to play the victim, she said he complained to his manager who subsequently called her into his office. She reiterated the entire scenario, which generally would be a true case of he-said-she-said. But she had a supporter. Another man had witnessed the incident and confirmed her version. The bra popper was merely reprimanded verbally, and my mother was forced to drop the incident.
Not until years later did she reveal that to my father who surely would have stormed into the office and cracked a few heads of the all-male management. In fact, she told me she never told my father most of the stuff that happened to her at work – the ongoing and pervasive sexual harassment she endured in the old days – because she feared his retribution upon her male colleagues. But really didn’t need to do that; she could fend for herself.
My mother, Maria Guadalupe De La Garza, passed away last Monday, June 22, at the age of 87. She had endured a lengthy battle with dementia and the effects of a stroke she suffered last January, which almost completely rendered her left side immobile. After a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation center, I had to bring her home in May; whereupon she entered home hospice care. That, in and of itself, was an ordeal.
But I knew her time was coming to an end.
My mother had a difficult start in life. Her mother, Esperanza, was seven months pregnant with her, when her parents traveled to Taxco, a town just outside of México City, to attend some kind of family gathering in December 1932. While there, Esperanza suddenly went into labor. My mother barely weighed 2 pounds at birth; she was so small they carried her home in a shoe box and used her father’s handkerchiefs for diapers. She was born on December 12, which to Latino Roman Catholics is Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe). Thus, her parents named her Guadalupe. Knowing that she had slim chance of survival – like most babies born prematurely in the 1930s – a local priest baptized her and gave her last rites in the same ceremony.
But she did survive – and fought various battles throughout her life with that inborn sense of determination and perseverance. I still believe the unique mix of German and Mexican extraction only accentuated her unbridled individualism.
Esperanza died in México City on Christmas Day 1940, just 11 months after giving birth to her only son, William. They had wanted to name him after his father, Clarence, but no one could a Spanish language version of that name. Esperanza’s mother, Felicitas Basurto, stepped in to help Clarence raise his 4 children. Felicitas had lived in the United States for a short while and worked for a U.S. Navy admiral as a governess to his 2 children. She had actually taught herself English. Felicitas returned to México in the summer of 1940, as Esperanza’s health began to fail. She was there when her daughter succumbed to an abdominal infection.
In the September of 1943, Clarence moved his children and mother-in-law to Dallas where he’d found a job working an auto plant. He wanted to return to his native Michigan, but he spotted an ad for the job in Dallas.
It was a rough transition for my mother and her 3 siblings. None of them could speak English. Many strangers thought my mother and her older sister, Margo, were Americans because of girls’ fair coloring. But their maternal grandmother helped guide them into their new lives.
My mother met my father, George, in 1957, and they married two years later. I’m their only child.
My mother’s strong personality made her almost fearless. At some a gathering in the early 1950s, a nun got angry with my Uncle William for some unknown reason and called him a “spic”. My mother was nearby and slapped the nun across her face. That got her into trouble with the church and her father and grandmother. Shortly before my parents wed, a priest told my mother that he hoped she’d do the “godly thing” and have lots of children. My mother said she didn’t want many children, but the priest insisted; telling her it was her duty as a married woman. She then agreed – and told the old man she’d bring all those children back to him so he could help her raise them.
Her sharp criticism of some people – especially other women – was boundless. She called Paula Jones – the woman who accused Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her – a “dumb broad” because Jones apparently believed that she really was going for a job interview at his hotel room at 10:00 at night. In May of 2004, my father’s second oldest sister, Teresa, died of cancer. At the rosary, we spoke briefly with the husband of one of my cousins. He was a police officer and mentioned that he was part of the security detail for former First Lady Barbara Bush when she came to Dallas and had to carry his gun.
“Why did you need to carry your gun?” my mother inquired. “I mean, who wants a piece of that old hag?”
I burst out into laughter, as my cousin’s husband tried to keep his eyeballs from falling out of their sockets.
She called another former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, a “screaming banshee”; said she didn’t realize how fat Oprah Winfrey was until she saw her in jeans, when the talk show maven visited Dallas; and denounced Monica Lewinsky (the woman who had a sexual tryst with Bill Clinton in 1996) as a “cheap-ass whore”.
My mother first started showing signs of dementia more than a decade ago. Recipes for the simplest things sometimes eluded her. My father and I finally got her to start seeing a neurologist in 2011. In the four years since my father died, she occasionally referred to me as her brother, William. A few times I had to call the paramedics to help me deal with her increasingly erratic behavior. Their sudden presence always managed to calm her down. I believe it’s because they were all men, and my mother was partial to men.
At the end of this past January, she suffered a mild stroke. I didn’t realize it at first, but noticed she couldn’t get up out of bed. I had her transported to a local hospital where an MRI discovered bleeding on the brain, which had already begun to heal. It had paralyzed her entire left side.
I had to make the difficult decision of admitting her to a rehabilitation center to help her recover. I found one nearby, but I developed a sense of dread the night the hospital transported her to the facility. I felt like I was abandoning her. I had promised my father many years ago that, if she should die first, I’d do everything I could take care of her. And, of course, he died first.
The rehab center turned out to be incredible. Physical therapists helped her regain mobility in her left arm and even her left leg. I brought her back home at the end of March, as the COVID-19 calamity was unfolding. I’d reports of residents at similar facilities contracting the novel coronavirus and even dying.
I contracted a health care agency to help me care for her. But, after a week, things didn’t turn out well. She became increasingly hostile and combative. She also developed a urinary tract infection, but I thought she was experiencing another stroke. After one night at the hospital, I had her readmitted to the rehab center. Unfortunately, health care in the United States is still very much an actual business. Her Medicare benefits were exhausted, and the facility had to discharge her in May. I wrote about this in an essay a few weeks ago.
After returning home again, she entered a home hospice care program with same health agency. They were quite phenomenal in helping me. I couldn’t depend too much on relatives, friends or neighbors. But her health continued to decline. I had told a long-time family friend who lives nearby – a woman who’s known my mother for close to 50 years – that I didn’t feel my mother would make it to the end of summer. Our friend was shocked, but when she came over to visit on the 18th, she realized I was probably right. My mother had grown incoherent; she didn’t seem to recognize anyone, even me; and would often lie in bed staring at the ceiling or a wall and asking for her sister, Margo. Margo had died of cancer in June 1989.
It’s incredibly frustrating and sad to watch someone who raised me descend into the depths of cognitive bewilderment. The once vibrant, strong-minded woman I’d known my entire life had reverted to a child-like state of mind. Now I know why dementia is often called “the long goodbye”. You see your loved one disintegrate before you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about.
In the few weeks preceding her death, I often felt we weren’t alone in the house. I had prayed to my Aunt Margo to come get my mother, and I actually began to sense it was her moving about. I also began to see shadows of a small animal trotting down the hall or the sound of tiny footsteps. I realized immediately the figure was my dog, Wolfgang, who died in October 2016; just less than four months after my father. In many cultures, animals, birds, and butterflies are often seen as either an omen of death or a conduit between our world and whatever other world might exist. Both my parents absolutely loved that little dog of mine. He actually became our dog. Since I never married and had children, Wolfgang became their pseudo-grandson. I even mentioned Wolfgang as a “canine grandson” in my father’s obituary. On just a handful of occasions, though, I actually did spot Wolfgang – but only for a second or two. I needed no further reassurance that my mother’s time here was coming to a close.
There’s no easy way to say goodbye to a loved one. As a friend told me, that person can live a thousand years, but their demise is still painful. I’m at peace, though, with what happened. I’m glad I could get her back home to die. She and my father had worked very hard to get and to keep this house. We’ve been here almost 50 years. And I couldn’t let her die anywhere else.
“It is so embarrassing how I went from a person who did not care about anyone’s children. Then you have them, and you brag about the same stuff that you never cared about. And you tell people, ‘he’s got four teeth,’ like they care.”
“The only way I can describe [fatherhood] – it sounds stupid, but – at the end of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ you know how his heart grows like five times? Everything is full; it’s just full all the time.”
“Every day when you’re raising kids, you feel like you could cry or crack up and just scream, ‘This is ridiculous!’ because there’s so much nonsense, whether it’s what they’re saying to you or the fact that there’s avocado or poop on every surface.”
“After we got home from the hospital, I didn’t shower for a week, and then John and I were like, ‘Let’s go out for dinner.’ I could last only about an hour because my boobs were exploding. When the milk first comes in, it’s like a tsunami. But we went, just to prove to ourselves that we could feel normal for a second.”
“Twelve years later the memories of those nights, of that sleep deprivation, still make me rock back and forth a little bit. You want to torture someone? Hand them an adorable baby they love who doesn’t sleep.”
“[Having four kids is] endless stuff. It’s endless entertainment, it’s endless stress, endless responsibility. Everyone’s at different ages and levels, everyone’s into different stuff. But everyone is into slime.”
“I’ve conquered a lot of things … blood clots in my lungs – twice … knee and foot surgeries … winning Grand Slams being down match point … to name just a few, but I found out by far the hardest is figuring out a stroller!”
Yesterday, April 30, marked a unique anniversary for me. It’s been 30 years since I started working for a major banking corporation in Dallas. I remained there – laboring over hot computer keyboards and angrier customers – for 11 years before I got laid off in April 2001. But, I just realized: 30 years since that first day! Wow! The year 1990 still sounds relatively recent; attributed mainly to the 1990s being the best decade of my life. A lifetime ago.
And, it’s amazing how much has changed since then. Both society and me. I’m more confident and self-assured now than I was in 1990. I came of age in that final decade of the 20th century and I’ve improved myself in the many years since. I’m not holding onto the past – not anymore. I’m just reflecting. I’m at the age where I find myself comparing life between then and now more often. I’ve packed enough years into my life to do that.
It makes me recall how my parents often did the same. ‘It’s been how long?!’ I heard that so many times; from when I was in grade school to the weeks before my father died in 2016. Now, I find myself doing the same.
I’m certainly not upset about it. I’ve experienced all of the good and bad life has to offer in various shapes, sizes and colors. That happens, of course, as one navigates the rivers of our individual worlds. It’s inevitable and unavoidable. Making it to the half-century point of my life was a major milestone. The alternative is not as attractive.
After the funeral of my Aunt Margo in 1989, we gathered at her house in suburban Dallas where she’d lived for over 20 years. Sipping on beverages and eating food Margo’s neighbors had prepared, my mother and her two surviving siblings began regaling the group with tales of long ago. My mother recounted one quaint moment at a church with her niece, Yvonne, one of Margo’s daughters. After the priest had led the congregation in recitation of the ‘Hail Mary’, Yvonne – about 2 years of age – loudly asked my mother, “Aunt Lupe, what’s a womb?”
Startled, my mother mumbled, “Uh…I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on Aunt Lupe, yes you do!”
Behind them, she said, much of the fellow worshippers chuckled. Even the priest laughed, she told us.
My father, sitting on a couch beside me, smiled broadly and uttered, “See, she remembers those little things.”
For me, those “little things” have added up.
A few years ago, at a gym I patronized, I got into a discussion with some young men about work. They weren’t just friends; they were colleagues at a major financial institution. I mentioned I’d labored at the bank for over a decade and found myself regaling them with tales of answering phones and mailing out scores of paper documents to clients and colleagues. One of them told me that they all used their cell phones to stay in touch with people – clients and colleagues – and were connected all the time. Little paper, he noted, almost 100% digital or electronic. I laughed. It didn’t make me feel old. I realized immediately it was just progress. But they enjoyed my description of such oddities at the time as telecommuting and video conference calls – along with reels of digital tape for recording phone calls and people trying to figure out how to refill the copier with toner. I recall vividly a number of people with hands coated in the small-grain black powder and seeing toner EVERYWHERE. I finally figured out how to insert the powder – using latex gloves I brought from home, with a bundle of dampened paper towels from the men’s room. Curious gazes sprouted onto the faces of those young men at the gym; perhaps uncertain whether to laugh or express wonder. I couldn’t help but laugh and say, “That’s how life was like in corporate America many moons ago.” And, in turn, they collectively burst out laughing.
In my 20s, my father advised me to work as hard as possible during that period of my life; making small sacrifices along the way to ensure a solid future for myself.
“Work as much as you can while you’re young and save as much as you can,” he pointedly said, almost as if warning me. “You’ll be damn glad you did when you get to be our age,” referring to him and my mother.
Last autumn one of my cousins, Laura, held a Thanksgiving gathering at her house, with her two daughters and the young son of one of them. Her mother (my mother’s younger sister) lives with her. Both women sat at the dining room table talking after the meal, while Laura and I stood in the den conversing. Also present was one of her nephews, Andy (on her ex-husband’s side of the family). My parents had first met Andy around the turn of the century, before he even entered kindergarten. He grew to like them, especially my father. I didn’t meet him until the summer of 2005, after a lengthy stint working in Oklahoma for the engineering company. On that particular Saturday, my cousin had come to visit my parents with her daughters and Andy who was visiting for the weekend.
I had my dog, Wolfgang, corralled in a back bedroom and finally brought him into the den to meet everyone – whereupon the little monster I identified as a miniature wolf vocally unleashed his suspicion of the newcomers.
“Why’s he barking so loud?” Andy asked with a laugh.
“He’s just not used to seeing this many people,” I told him.
While the rest of us continued talking, Andy and Wolfgang were more focused on each other. Andy eventually dropped to his knees, as Wolfgang sat and cocked his head back and forth; the way dogs do when they’re still trying to figure out something or decide if they like you or not. I told Andy to let Wolfgang sniff the back of his hand, before petting him, which he did. Within no more than a moment, the two were playing. Yes, a little boy and a little dog make good playmates! They got along very well.
At that Thanksgiving gathering last year, Andy was 23 and had grown into a strikingly handsome young man with a deep voice and a full beard. He said he worked for a trucking company north of Dallas and had earned a sizeable income in 2018. I immediately congratulated him and then told him to save as much of that money as he could.
“Don’t go out buying cars and motorcycles and drinks for everyone in your crew when you go out partying,” I advised. As a very young man, I knew Andy was almost naturally prone to getting the best products life has to offer. I truly did not want to see him work so hard, only to end up destitute at 50-something. “Work hard and play hard, yes. You’re young. There’s no harm in going out with your buddies and partying and meeting women. Just don’t do that too much and waste all that money eating and drinking. You don’t want to turn into an angry old fucker like me or Laura.”
Both Andy and Laura burst out laughing. But I feel Andy understood how serious I was. I then asked him if he remembered Wolfgang and I recounted that day I first met him and how he had played with the dog. He had to think for a moment, before he finally did. “Little gray dog with big brown eyes, right?”
He asked me what had become of him. I had to explain how the dog’s health had begun to fail at the start of 2016 and the stroke-like episodes he’d started to experience were a heart murmur gradually worsening. I then detailed how Wolfgang acted on the day my father died and how he himself passed away less than five months later.
Andy stared at me blankly for a few seconds – and I thought briefly he was going to cry. His eyes seemed to quiver, before he muttered, “Oh, man. Sorry to hear that. I guess that was kind of unexpected, huh?”
“No,” I answered. “Dogs get old and sick – just like people.” No, Wolfgang’s death wasn’t unexpected. When he turned 10 in 2012, I told my parents we needed to brace ourselves for his eventually demise. It seemed they didn’t want to talk about it. I could understand. We never discussed how and when our German shepherd, Joshua, would die – until the day we had to carry him into the vet’s office.
Another thing my parents had advised me to do many years ago was to complete my higher education. I promised them I would and even after I started working for the bank, I maintained at some point I would return. I didn’t fulfill that promise until 2007.
About 10 years ago I attended a dinner party with some close friends and met a young woman who had dropped out of college because she was having so much trouble at that time. She was now gainfully employed, but still longed for completion of that collegiate endeavor. I strongly suggested she make the effort because it would be worth the trouble. “You’ll find life gets busier as you get older,” I said. “It just does. You realize you want to do more things.” I emphasized I wasn’t chastising her or telling her what to do with her life.
Someone else asked, if I felt at that point in my life, it was proper to give advice to younger people.
“I don’t like to say I give advice,” I replied, “because that’s almost condescending.” But I was entering the phase of my life where, if I know or meet someone who’s making the same mistakes I made when I was young, I feel the obligation to relay my own experience with that issue and how I dealt with it. As the adage goes, hindsight is 20-20. Education had grown to become more important to me as I reached my 40s – and, as with my creative writing, it’s not so much that life kept getting in the way. I let life keep getting in the way.
It’s a curious sensation, though. Life is now coming full circle. And it actually feels pretty good.
“I am in a faithful, loving, committed marriage. I’m proud of my marriage. And I’m proud of my husband. And I’m not going to be lectured on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh or anybody who supports Donald J. Trump as the moral, as well as political leader of the United States. America has moved on, and we should have a politics of belonging that welcomes everybody.”
– Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, IN, in response to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh commenting on Buttigieg’s sexuality.
I stood alone in the darkness of the den last night and wondered how it got to this point. My mother had a mild stroke one week ago today; paralyzing her entire left side and essentially rendering her immobile. She is now in a rehabilitation facility. With dementia clouding her judgment and comprehension, I almost felt like I was abandoning her to a bedridden life.
Both of my parents were among the roughly 100% of the population declaring they would never end up in a nursing home. In the months before he died, my father insisted on returning to this modest suburban home to pass away. He did not want to be in a hospital or any other facility hooked up to machinery, barely surviving off IV drips. I was able to grant him that wish. Who wants to die in a hospital anyway? I believe only a workplace is the least desirable place to expire.
But here my mother is in a place filled with elderly and disabled people. I got a bad feeling from the moment I stepped into the building. The representative I had spoken to on the phone earlier on Friday told me the structure was older. Indeed, it is! With severely off-white walls and ceiling light fixtures the color of Neosporin, the place looks like it’s witnessed every national event since the Vietnam War. I didn’t expect the rooms to be equivalent to 5-star Bahamian resorts. But they’re Spartan appearance is just one step above a prison cell.
Aging building features aside, I have to concede the staff seems nice – at least the ones I’ve met so far. That, of course, is far more important than cosmetics. The facility has a high rating from business and health associations. I’m concerned mainly because the state of Texas has become a critical focal point in elder abuse within nursing home facilities.
I’m also worried because I’ve never been put in this situation before. I had promised my parents I’d never let this happen – being placed in a…facility. But how does one prepare for such an event?
Life takes such a strangely circuitous route. When we’re born, we’re totally helpless; dependent on others to ensure our survival. As we reach the end of our lives – hopefully many years later – we enter another stage of fragility. The human body winds down and shows its age. Like a building.
So how did we end up here? It’s just what happens to many people. My primary hope right now is that my mother can endure proper physical therapy to get her ambulatory enough to return home. If she could walk – even with an aid – that would make a world of difference. Besides, I’d promised my father years ago that – should he die first – I’d take care of my mother. And I feel if I violate that oath, he’ll return to cripple my hands where I can’t tap on a keyboard to write my stories and make snarky comments on this blog.
Shortly after moving here in December of 1972, I stopped my father amidst the unpacking and asked if he’d noticed something unique: silence. We’d moved from a garage apartment near downtown Dallas to this newly-developed area. It had been mostly ranchland and, for years, a large pasture stretched out behind our house. We’d often see cows grazing, along with the occasional bull. But relocating from a heavily-trafficked urban neighborhood to here was utopian.
I kept asking myself last night – having downed plenty of vodka and orange juice – how we got to this point. Things happen, I finally realized, and people get old and disabled. The alternative is not too pleasant. But this is the way it is. And it’s not infinite. It’s this anomaly called life.
My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.
On December 31, 1985, I gathered with one of my best friends, his then-girlfriend and her older sister at the girls’ house to ring in the New Year. In my 22 years of life at the time, I had never been so glad to see a single year fade away as 1985. Just about everything had gone wrong for me. I was placed on academic probation in college because of my dismal grades for the fall 1984 semester; then got suspended for the fall 1985 term because I still couldn’t get it right. That prevented me from becoming a full member of a fraternity I so desperately wanted to join. In April my parents and I had to put our German shepherd, Joshua, to sleep. That fall I had my first sexual experience, which proved embarrassing and depressing. In October I fell into a police trap and was arrested for drunk driving. (My blood alcohol level ultimately proved I wasn’t legally intoxicated.) By Christmas, I was an emotional and psychological wreck. I’d come as close to committing suicide as I ever had that year. But, as New Year’s rolled around, I’d settled down my troubled mind and realized my life could continue.
I realized 1985 was the worst single year of my brief existence and hoped I’d never see another one like it. For more than three decades that pretty much held true. For the longest time almost anything related to 1985 made me tremble with anxiety. Nineteen ninety-five turned out to be almost as bad; instilling a phobia in me about years ending in the number 5. Ironically, though, 2005 was a pretty good one for me, and last year was okay.
Then came 2016.
People all around me are waiting for this year to die, like a pack of hyenas loitering near a dying zebra. Aside from a raucous political campaign – with a finale that seems to have set back more than two centuries worth of progress – we’re wondering why this year has taken so many great public figures and left us with clowns like the Kardashians. I could care less. This year has also taken my father and my dog and is slowly taking my mother.
Over these last six months, I’ve experienced emotional pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I’ve never endured this kind of agony. It’s dropped me into an endless abyss of despair. Early in November, strange red spots began appearing all over my body. It brought with it chronic itching sensations. I wondered if small pox had been reintroduced into society and I was one of its unwitting earliest victims. The rashes and the itching would come and go, like million-dollar windfalls to an oil company executive.
It all shoved me back to the spring of 1985 and the odd little sores that sprung up on either side of my midsection. They were painful pustules of fluid that I tried to eliminate with calamine lotion, ice cubes and prayer. They finally vanished, and only afterwards did someone tell me what they were: shingles. I had to look up that one in a medical reference. For us cretins aged 40 and over, WebMD was a fool’s dream. But I knew that’s what I had, and its cause was just as apparent – personal stress. My poor academic performance, Joshua’s death, thinking my failure to join that stupid fraternity was a reflection of my failure as a human being – all of it had piled onto me.
In November of 1995 – about a week after my birthday – I woke up early one Saturday morning, stepped into the front room of my apartment and repeatedly banged my fists against the sliding glass door. I was aware of it, but I felt I was compelled to do it. As I lay back onto my bed, my hands already aching from pounding on the glass, I asked why I had done something so bizarre at that hour of the morning. Then, almost as quickly, I answered myself. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was experiencing serious financial problems at the time and I was having even more problems at work. My father had just experienced a major health scare. One of my best friends was sick with HIV and had been hospitalize with a severe case of bronchitis, and I’d just had a heated telephonic argument with another guy I thought was a close friend over…some stupid shit I can’t recall after all these years. So, after weeks of dealing with that soap-opera-esque drama, my mind cracked. Stress of any kind wreaks havoc on one’s mind and body. It’s several steps up from a bad day at the office. This is why U.S. presidents always look light-years older when they leave office.
So, as I smothered my body with cocoa butter lotion and anti-itch cream, I harkened back to 1985 and thought, ‘Goddamn! History repeats itself too conveniently.’ The death of another dog and more subconscious trauma. This time, though, events have been more critical than not being able to join a fucking fraternity or falling into a drunk driving trap.
But something else has changed. While my body reacted in such a volatile manner, my soul has been able to handle it better. I’m older and wiser now, and with that, comes the understanding that life is filled with such awful and unpredictable events. Yes, I’ve fallen into fits of depression. But I’m not suicidal. I don’t want to harm myself in any way. In fact, I want to heal and keep going. I didn’t kill myself in 1985 or in 1995 or in any other stressful period since then. I really just want to keep going.
I keep a list of story ideas; a Word document amidst my electronic collection of cerebral curiosities. When I peruse that list, I realize I may not be able to bring all of those ideas to life. But, if I didn’t try, why should I even bother with it? Why bother even with getting up every morning?
Something has kept me alive all these years. Something has kept me going. Earlier this month I noticed a cluster of irises had bloomed unexpectedly in the back yard. My father had planted them a while back. With Texas weather being so schizophrenic, warmer-than-usual temperatures must have confused the flowers, and they jutted their blossoms upward into the swirling air. I had to gather a few before temperatures cooled, which they did. They languished on the kitchen counter for the next couple of weeks, longer than usual. And I realized their presence is coyly symbolic. My father was telling me that, despite the heartache of this past year, life continues, and things will get better.
I still miss my father and my dog, but I care for my mother as best I can, even as her memory keeps her thoughts muddled from one day to the next. And I continue writing because that’s who I am and what I love to do. I can’t change what happened years ago, but it brought me to where I am now. I couldn’t alter the events of this past year. But it’ll all carry me into the following years.
Happy New Year’s 2017 to all of you, my followers, and to all of my fellow bloggers!
Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.
“Goodnight, little boy. I love –” I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room. He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears. Wolfgang was gone.
I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years. I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes. I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.
I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows. Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat. I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.
I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.
I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels. It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it. The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.
In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had. The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining. I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.
For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents. But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me. Some of the hotel staff came to like him. The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room. There mere sound of his voice frightened her. But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.
That little thing can make that much noise?!
Yes, he can!
One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth. Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency. Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark. Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.
A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet. He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell. I laughed.
I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone. It’s the same with my father. Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind. It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.
Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them. It’s such a weird feeling. How could this happen? Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together? Talk about timing!
Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house. It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years. In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him. I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever. It was gone before day’s end.
At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines. “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father. Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic. I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.
But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious. There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca. A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories. Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper. It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy. I was about 5 when I wrote that. And he kept it! As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible. But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.
And yes, it also made me sad. But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine. It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.
Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there. It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless. After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.
At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father. I try not to get emotional in public. Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together. But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised. It must have been the margarita swirls. I was already on my second one.
Pete knows how I feel. He lost his own father 12 years ago. Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos. “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone. I didn’t understand. All of Pete’s grandparents were dead. What was he trying to – aw shit! I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.
I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV. His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth. I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him. His mother had lived to age 97. Why couldn’t he? What is the proper time of year to die? It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days. Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy. As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S. Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?
A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time. I’d feel the pressure change in the house. But it wasn’t a frightening sensation. I knew my father was nearby. He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs. If I did anything right, I feel it was that. I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.
There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone. And the house is otherwise quiet. I’ve never felt pain like this before. But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed. My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead. I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.