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.