Sunday, March 16, 2008


Recognizing the number on my cell, I was immediately prepared for the worst news about my mother or father. My sister said it was pneumonia and would probably be fine with an antibiotic, but we were right to be prepared. The rest of the conversation was about living wills, hospice care and my Dad’s attitude that he was tired at 82 and ready to go.

So many of us are dealing with the loss of our parents. As a child, the idea is incomprehensible, and even once we understand that death can happen, just a remote, very impossible possibility. As adults, we begin to prepare for the loss of our parents, yet even now it comes almost as a surprise.

My father is far more ready than I am. So preoccupied as he was in his own life all those years ago, the imminent loss of him now is more devastating as we are finally getting to really know each other for the first time as human beings as well as father and son.

But to an only son in a family of sisters, the loss of a mother, even this grown-up age of mine, still feels like being thrust out on a girder high above the city, dizzyingly high.

This is the woman whose arms held me through every crisis as a little boy, and sat with me calmly as a young man forlorn with a broken heart. Across the soccer field on a wintry day, she would be the lone fan. 3000 miles apart as an adult, I found great comfort in her reassuring voice over the phone line. Perhaps it has been her descent into a mindless sea that has stirred my own mind to examine so many of the paths chosen, abandoned, or passed over in my own life.

It has been the memory of her unwavering faith in my skill as a writer that has inspired me to take up pen again. At Christmas, though she showed no understanding of what I said, it felt important to tell her that I was writing, remembering how she relished the moment I handed her a fresh story or played her a new song.

She could wax our dining room floor on her knees one afternoon, then attend a gala international ceremony the next evening. When given the chance to shake the hand of an important statesman whose policies she did not like, she was strong and brave enough to refuse, and loved to tell the story forever afterwards. Now she seldom recognizes anyone, and sleeps much of the day.

Still, my father faithfully goes to visit, sits with her silently, sweetly, holding her hand. He misses her, sitting beside her, wishes an easy death for her as he does for himself. Interviewed recently by a student, he took offense when asked what he looks forward to.
“Death!” he cried, “What else can there be?”

Still, nearly blind and barely able to hear, he has a new sculpture cast in bronze. He serves on a committee researching computer software for the aged and infirmed. He has started an exercise routine. He is interested in the lives of his children and grand-children. He converts the family photo albums to digital, and has written a family history.

And still, every evening, he sits with mother, holding hands, gazing out across the meadows where they used to walk.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Of Hearth & Heart

After a year of considering the terrifying possibility, a simple click of the mouse sets it in motion: we are selling our home. Within a day, there are six queries and it feels like there is no turning back.

It was only 18 months ago I had to let go of the home in which I was raised. More commonly these days people move regularly in our fast-paced mobile lives, but my roots were set deep. It was an immense change to help my sisters pack up our parents and bring in a dumpster, to see another family take possession of what for sixty years—more than my lifetime—had been only ours.

This house now we built with the idea that we would see our grandchildren play in the yard. The perennials were set with the care that we would enjoy the colors for decades. There is the wall that charts our children’s growth and the fireplace that warmed our hearts on so many winter nights. The only reason I could see to leave was when one of us would no longer be able to make it up the stairs to the bedroom.

But life changes, dreams we once held become smothered by the reality of life, until the ones which are most important push through like a crocus in the middle of an April snowstorm. One cannot always predict the color, you just have to stay open and alert, ready to be surprised.

Having grown up in one house and returned often over many years with my own children to see my parents grow old, home has always been spelled with a capital “H” for me. Nudged into a freefall, the urge to find my own nest has always been strong. I have carted my belongings in search of a sense of belonging that could be as strong as when I was the little boy. Although I have lived in some wonderful homes, that deep attachment has escaped me.

In each, I have set my books on the shelf, arranged my albums turned tapes turned CDs in order, hung my father’s paintings on the mantle with care, built shelves in the basement for my tools. In each, I have settled with a sigh of relief, explored the surroundings, bonded with the neighbors, welcomed my old friends for a glass of wine, and believed I was at Home at last.

In each, the turmoil of Life has been just as present at the births, holidays, and romantic celebrations. The pains have laid siege and brought sadness as often as the first words, graduations, and all the little pleasures in between have produced joy. The little boy in me still yearns while the man I am trudges forth to pay the mortgage.

In a city once so dominantly white and divided only by the labels “Vermonter” and “Flatlander”, it is humbling to witness the influx of refugees from Africa, Bosnia and Viet Nam. I coach a truckload of kids who in lives only one quarter the length of mine have known war, affluence shattered by poverty, years of tedium, fear and uncertainty in camps, and immersion in a completely alien climate and bewildering culture. Even so, these boys are some of the happiest I have ever met.

So once again, Life chooses for me an opening door. We take this step outwards with our heads held high, peering into the future for a glimpse of where this path will lead. Never more clearly rings the old phrase that “Home is where the heart is.”

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