Tag Archives: family

Happy Mother’s Day 2020!

“There is an endearing tenderness in the love of a mother to a son that transcends all other affections of the heart.”

Washington Irving

“The majority of my diet is made up of foods that my kid didn’t finish.”

Carrie Underwood

“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.”

Kristen Bell

“Sleep at this point is just a concept, something I’m looking forward to investigating in the future.”

Amy Poehler

“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.”

Emily Blunt

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

Nora Ephron

“Sometimes I stand there going, ‘I’m not doing any of this right!’  And then I get this big man belch of her and I go, ‘Ah, we accomplished this together.’”

Christina Applegate

“All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his.”

Oscar Wilde

“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.”

Shonda Rhimes

“I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.”

Phyllis Diller

“[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.”

Maya Rudolph

“I’ve learned that it’s way harder to be a baby.  For instance, I haven’t thrown up since the ‘90s and she’s thrown up twice since we started this interview.”

Eva Mendes

“No one told me I would be coming home in diapers, too.”

Chrissy Teigen

“Why don’t kids understand that their nap is not for them but for us?”

Alyson Hannigan

“Like all parents, my husband and I just do the best we can, and hold our breath, and hope we’ve set aside enough money to pay for our kids’ therapy.”

Michelle Pfeiffer

“You know how once you have kids you never ever pee by yourself again?  At least one of them is always in there with you at all times.”

Jennifer Garner

“If I wasn’t at work, I just wanted to stay home and party with my little man – and by ‘party’ I mean, of course, endless rounds of ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’.”

Olivia Wilde

“I always say if you aren’t yelling at your kids, you’re not spending enough time with them.”

Reese Witherspoon

“Stop saying, ‘We’re pregnant.’  You’re not pregnant.  Do you have to squeeze a watermelon-sized person out of your lady hole?  No.”

Mila Kunis

“The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.”

Honore de Balzac

“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!”

Serena Williams

“Becoming a mom to me means you have accepted that for the next 16 years of your life, you will have a sticky purse.”

Nia Vardalos

“Children are like crazy, drunken small people in your house.”

Julie Bowen

“Happy is the son whose faith in his mother remains unchallenged.”

Louisa May Alcott

“A mother’s love doesn’t make her son more dependent and timid; it actually makes him stronger and more independent.”

Cheri Fuller

“A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest.”

Irish Proverb

Image: Wisconsin Historical Society

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Circling

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?”

“Yes!”

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.

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Best Quote of the Week – February 21, 2020

“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.

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How Did We End Up Here?

My mother with me in December 1963, a month after I was born.

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.

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Go On

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

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.

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

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Echoes on Carpet

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“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.

 

*Name changed.

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Family Valued

My parents and me during a celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary in June 1984.

My parents and me during a celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary in June 1984.

“Goddamn Obama!” My father never minces words when it comes to elected officials, celebrities, professional athletes, religious leaders and other miscreants. After reviewing the monthly social security payments for him and my mother, he estimated they would be short up to $600 in 2016. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama hasn’t ensured social security recipients would see annual increases. No fan of George W. Bush, my father continued his anti-Obama rant. “He’s more concerned with those goddamn Syrian refugees than with old people who’ve worked all their lives!”

He continued, pointing out that, combined, he and my mother had put a century’s worth of their lives into the work force. For years my father dealt with a stingy boss at a printing company where he stood on concrete floors for hours; his feet and knees now paying the price. My mother labored in the insurance industry, beginning at a time when pregnancy was considered a terminal offense and women had to put up with sexual harassment the same way they put up with a runny nose.

I reassured my father that, no matter what, I’ll be there for him and my mother. It’s become especially critical as their health falters – something to be expected in the ninth decade of life. A few years ago I had joined some friends at a dinner party, when the subject of aging parents arose. I mentioned my mother’s declining memory.

“Have you thought of putting her in a home?” one young woman asked.

“She has a home,” I replied. “It’s the one she’s in now.”

She then proceeded to lecture me on the benefits of assisted care facilities, as if I was an ignorant farm boy and she was an omniscient philosopher who’d come down from her golden thrown atop the Himalayas.

I quickly shut her up. “That’s so bleeding-heart liberal of you,” I said. “We don’t do that in my family.”

The idea of putting my mother in a “home” is akin to abandoning my aging dog in a Wal-Mart parking lot should he get sick. If I won’t dump my beloved canine into a strange environment where he’d surely perish, do you think I’d do the same to the woman who almost died giving birth to me?

The other day I spent time with a long-time friend, Pete*. His birthday was recent, and I’d promised to treat him to one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Ojeda’s. He had also sent me a free pass to his gym; a tiny joint in East Dallas, near where he lives. So we agreed to visit the gym first and then head to the restaurant for an early dinner. He just happened to have the day off from his job as a customer service agent for a major insurance outfit. But he’s never idle. Both his widowed mother and one of her sisters live with him in a huge house he bought through an auction a few years ago. His younger sister – who lives with her husband and toddler daughter in the house where she and Pete grew up – drops by daily to help, as does an old family friend who cleans the place. Between his mother and his aunt, Pete often finds himself running on fumes. His aunt, who’s in her 90s, has dementia and spends her time in bed watching the Catholic channel on TV.

“She’s gone,” he told me the other day, as we stood in the front room of the house. He said it with the same degree of ordinariness as if he’d told me rain had fallen that morning. “She’s completely gone.” I’d met and spoken with her before, but Pete assured me she probably wouldn’t recognize me.

I caught a glimpse of her, quietly peeking in through the open door of her bedroom. She faced the large-screen TV; surrounded by a gallery of religious relics.

Pete’s mother ambles around on crunchy knees with a walker. An orthopedic surgeon had told them both years ago that knee-replacement surgery wouldn’t be viable at her age. His mother took it in stride, but Pete became irate with the doctor; bringing up such new-age remedies as shark cartilage.

Our visits to the gym and the restaurant provided a much-needed respite from our respective daily grinds. The gym is an old-fashioned place where solid-iron weights outnumber the handful of machine weights; the paint is peeling; the water fountain trembles with every usage; and men can walk around shirtless without offending suburban soccer moms. The restaurant, Ojeda’s, is practically a Dallas landmark. Family-owned, it looks like one of those quaint hole-in-the-wall eateries you won’t see listed in travel brochures. I like it because they serve gigantic swirls and monster homemade pralines. Pete likes it because they use real cheese – his one true test of a Mexican restaurant’s authenticity. As usual, I ate too much. But virtually floating out of the restaurant, instead of walking, I still felt good. Right now that’s one of life’s simple pleasures.

Neither Pete nor I get out of the house much. “You’re my only real friend,” he told me at the restaurant. Almost everyone else he called a friend had pretty much disappeared.

I thought about my own collection of friends. I never was an outgoing type of person. I’m too much of a loner; the kind people wonder about when they learn of mass shootings. It’s not intentional on my part. Ironically, Pete had once expressed concern that I was becoming too much of a “recluse.”

“I’m a writer,” I reminded him. “We’re loners and reclusive by nature.”

Pete and I have something else in common: our fathers grew up together in East Dallas. They’d attended the same grade school and the same high school. When Pete’s paternal grandmother had become too frail to care for herself, she’d moved in with one of her other children. As my paternal grandmother aged, two of my aunts periodically hired independent caretakers; young Mexican women fluent in Spanish. But my father and his siblings often spent time with their mother. They didn’t just hand her off to those young women, before going about their own lives. Growing up, my father told me, almost every family on their street had an elderly relative living with them.

The aforementioned little gal who talked of “homes” couldn’t understand such dedication to family. She recounted stories of digging water wells in Africa for the Peace Corps.

“Ten million years after humans began walking upright, and African still can’t dig its own water wells?” I queried.

That really pissed her off! I didn’t care. For folks like Pete and I, there is no other “home” for our loved ones, outside the places where they already live. When we returned to his home after the gym, he told me it was alright to park in the neighbor’s driveway. A few years ago, when Pete staged a Memorial Day cookout, I’d met the neighbor; a quiet elderly gentleman who lived alone in a house as big as Pete’s. But, Pete told me, the man’s children had recently placed him in one of those “homes;” their answer to his frequent falls and other health concerns.

“How could they do that to him?” Pete lamented.

I didn’t have an answer. Even after returning home that evening, I struggled to comprehend how some people could hold such disregard for their relatives. What goes wrong in a family to create that kind of animosity? Well…I suppose a number of things. My dog, Wolfgang, was the only one who expressed unmitigated excitement at my return the other night. After I’d left, my father told me, my mother had developed yet another excruciating headache, and he had become sick to his stomach. They were fine by the time I arrived.

It seems, though, every time I leave the house for an extended period – just to get away and relax – something goes wrong. On the day after Thanksgiving I joined some friends for a post-holiday lunch. It’s something of a tradition among them. Someone offers to host the gathering, and everyone else brings food, beverages and / or money to pay for it. This time the location was clear on the south end of Dallas, in the Oak Cliff area. Cold rain was falling. But I made it and had a great time. When I arrived home, my father lay in bed, shivering uncontrollably. All the happiness from that day evaporated, as I settled in; tired and wanting to lay down for a short while. But I didn’t because a sense of guilt overcame me. I couldn’t just relax, while my father trembled in a near-catatonic state. I’m not that heartless. The trembling – whatever its cause – finally subsided.

Two days before Christmas another close friend invited me to lunch; just to hang out and commiserate about life’s antics. The day was bright and cool, and I had a great time. A simple, good meal and a mixed drink can do wonders for the soul! But, when I returned home, both my parents were sick. My father was actually angry. They’d lay down for a nap, whereupon my mother experienced another severe headache – a life-long scourge for her. That somehow induced an argument between them. As before, the happiness I felt from a pleasant afternoon got wiped out in a second.

Goddamnit, I yelled deep inside. Why the fuck can’t I leave the house for a little while and NOT come home to a medical drama?! As always, Wolfgang was the only one who seemed genuinely excited to see me. I looked at him, as I do every time something like this occurs, and whisper a secret wish into his dark eyes: “I want to grab you, jump in the truck and go. Just go somewhere. Anywhere! Just get away from here.” But I always sigh and realize I can’t do that. Not me. Someone else very well could.

For decades archaeologists have argued over what drove the Mayan Empire to collapse: drought or internal warfare. Perhaps both. What caused the Roman Empire to collapse? It grew too big, some theorize. Perhaps it did. But have scientists ever considered another more personal dilemma: the collapse of the family unit? Whether a community is a titanic empire, or a small band of hunter-gatherers, one thing has always been certain throughout human history – the family. Without a solid family structure, no society can function properly. Here in the U.S. social and religious conservatives have wildly pointed to abortion and gay marriage as the biggest threats to the family unit. And, in their narrow minds, I’m sure they believe that. But the greatest threats to any family usually come from within: alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, infidelity. If threats come from outside, they’re often society itself: unemployment, underemployment, lack of medical care, poor schools, wage inequality. These latter elements are what could bring down the modern American state, if those noble elected officials aren’t careful.

I recently perused through some family photo albums; not looking for anything in particular. I’ve finally reached that point in life where the concept of family takes on an entirely different meaning. I really can’t explain it. But, when you reach that time, you just know it. It felt good to look at those old pictures. Yes, it was nostalgic. Like with the pains of old age, that’s to be expected.

Later the other night, as my parents readied for bed, my mother ambled out of their bedroom and asked who all lives here. “Is it just the three of us?”

“The four of us,” I corrected, gesturing to Wolfgang.

“Oh, yeah!” she exclaimed, adding that she didn’t understand why she kept forgetting that simple fact. She reached down to scratch Wolfgang’s downy ears and bade him goodnight.

After she returned to her bedroom, I merely looked at Wolfgang. He cocked his head in the same way I shrug my shoulders. What can we do? This is it. This is our world. Our family. That’s what we value. Little else matters.

 

*Name changed.

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