At our table at the bar, my brother takes another photo from the pile closest to him, inspects it, and places it on the pile closest to me. It’s a soccer portrait. In it, I might be nine or ten. My brother comments about how well I’m wearing my little white shorts and that it was a wonder that I never became a real athlete. I can’t tell if he is being sarcastic or sincere. Not that it makes much difference thirty years later.
I look closely at the photo, but I say nothing.
As we continue, a time-line develops – a forensic reconstruction. Details emerge, facts contextualize. Mom married Dad soon after graduating college; Dad didn’t have his 70’s looking mustache until the 80’s; my brother and I are older now than our parents were in our earliest memories. And now, despite my many assertions that I never actually lived in West Virginia, it now seems likely that I was conceived there.
Before Thanksgiving a coworker asked me if I was going home for the holiday, meaning, of course, West Virginia. I didn’t correct him; I know the taint will never wash away. The longest period I have ever spent in Almost Heaven may actually have been last year. I spent two weeks at the motel across from the hospital where my dad was recovering from bypass surgery. His discharge papers read that he was experiencing some mild dementia; he asked me then if I ever planned on moving back.
The pictures on the table are leftovers from the collages my cousin made for my grandfather’s funeral. She gave them to us in a large envelope with a broken cellophane window. They are a loose assortment of portraits and snapshots of me, my brother, my dad, and my late mother, now nearly five years gone. They roughly span seventy years. In one of the oldest, my mom is a baby tottering through the grass outside her childhood home. The spot is probably no more than a hundred feet from where she is currently buried. In one of the most recent photos, Mom and I are posing with two of her sisters outside of a rehab center in Pittsburgh. She is in a wheelchair, beaming and hopeful. She is wearing a Pitt sweatshirt. This last detail makes my brother cry.
“Have a drink,” I say, indicating his untouched beer.
To my brother, the sweatshirt is an expression of my mom’s devotion to us. She wasn’t a sports fan; neither of us attended Pitt. She wore it because Pittsburgh was home for us. It was a sign of her devotion.
We don’t finish. Our food arrives. My wife joins us, just off from work. She looks through some of the photos we have already been through. Commenting on our baby pictures, and how they exhibit our natures. Our moods lighten. We are not mourning at the moment.
We are celebrating.
Last week for my father was spent in a hospital bed in WV trying to stage manage the recovery of the family truck from a Pittsburgh impound lot. The sudden stress of having to deal with a registration issue over two years old aggravated an undiagnosed prostate issue. I’ll spare the finer details. The point is, today, he’s back on top. He’s now the proud owner of a new scanner for his computer and a new handgun.
I love my dad.
Recently, he has claimed an interest in home protection partly because his other gun was stolen by some punk he mistakenly let in the house sometime in the recent, misty past. Actually, it was on the floor of the linen closet, rusting beneath a stack of moldy towels. He had hidden it there years ago and I found when my brother and I visited recently to help clean house.
The real reason for his purchase probably has more to do with current events. Better load up now before Obama and the goddamn liberals take our guns away. It is also my understanding that once he restores the first gun it will one day become mine as it is actually a storied family heirloom. When I look back at the recent drama and insanity of the past couple of weeks, it feels naïve to attribute happiness with gun ownership. That must have been what happened in Colorado—it was an expression of euphoria.
Did I mention that I love my dad?
What just happened is what always happens. I sit down with the intention of finally setting in writing something worthy of my mother’s memory, something that conveys the significance of her life and the weight of her passing. Instead, I end up like I am tonight – lying on the floor by my computer listening to Iron Maiden.
My mom never much cared for things like Iron Maiden. Being a suburban mom and housewife in the 1980’s, she was very much informed by daytime television and had an ingrained suspicion of anything it branded Satanic – which was most things. Geraldo Rivera’s famous exposé of Satanism had moms all across America snooping through their teenagers’ closets while they were at school. Much tell-tale contraband, such as candles, black clothing, and heavy metal records were thrown in the garbage.
My older brother tells the story of a favorite record he once had – Hits of the 70’s, or something similar. One day, he decided to serenade my mom with a rendition of Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner,” and she must have winced when he sang, “…you got to go through Hell before you get to Heaven,” because, after that, the record was never seen nor heard again.
My first Maiden album was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I bought it secretly when I wandered away from one of my brother’s little league games and into a small record shop nearby. I was mesmerized by the mysterious cover and I still remember the smell when I removed the plastic, like the gum in a new pack of trading cards. But, for all my excitement, it must have been years before I listened to the thing all the way through; I was too scared and I didn’t want to tempt Satan.
My tastes drifted harmlessly in the direction of They Might Be Giants and the Beetlejuice soundtrack, and Seventh Son wandered into my brother’s collection and was forgotten there. It was not unearthed until twenty-some years later when I was rooting around the basement of his home in Michigan.
I had just returned east after living in Los Angeles for seven years, where, among other things, I had cultivated a mature appreciation for Iron Maiden. Nothing besides my mom’s slowly depreciating health made me decide to return when I did. It just suddenly felt important to be closer to her, and I had made it back just in time for a long overdue family Thanksgiving. The quality time that I spent with my mom on that trip has since become one of my most valuable memories, because, the following week, as I was cheerfully cruising around the South Hills of Pittsburgh, I got the call telling me that my mom had suffered another serious stroke. Her previous one had changed everything and it took me half a decade to properly react. Now it was happening again.
It is difficult to describe how I felt sitting there in a borrowed, blue Saturn on the side of the road, but everything seemed significant somehow, from the uncanny timing of events to the cassette in the tape deck.
I hadn’t effectively demystified Maiden in my mind until the fall of this year. I was watching Live After Death, a live performance filmed at Long Beach Arena in 1985. In his introduction to Number of the Beast, Bruce Dickinson declared to an army of slavering heshers that Maiden was not Satanic and it was stupid to think otherwise. It was not the first time he had said it, but it was the first that I had heard it, not that I was at all surprised. If my mom were still alive today, I don’t think I’d have much difficulty selling Dickinson as a role model. He’s hugely successful, well read and articulate, physically fit well into his fifties, and if heavy metal is still not your thing, he’s also a commercial airline pilot. That’s enough to make any mother proud.
Near my mom’s childhood home was a little stream that came off the mountain. Cool, clear water passed through the mossy rocks and over a ledge and dropped onto a throne-shaped rock where my mom would often preside.
I learned of this special place only recently, but, for a time, I heard about it often. It was one of a handful of memories my mom was clinging to as her memory began to fail her.
She must have shared them with a lot of other people too, because they got around the nursing home. She certainly had plenty of time to make friends. And making friends is maybe the thing my mom does best. People fall in love with her almost as a rule.
This weekend, when we were trying to calm her for her trip to the hospice house, it was no surprise to hear a nurse tell her, “Go to your waterfall,” even though she had only just met my mom earlier that day. I figured another nurse had told her; at this point my mom had not spoken sensibly for several days.
As I write this, it is only a couple of hours since I got the call. The news was less drastic than what I was prepared for. My mom has not yet died but her death is considered by the doctors to be imminent.
In a few hours, my girlfriend and I will be at my mom’s bedside with my dad. My brother and his family will join us tomorrow.
In a few days, many of my mom’s dearest loved ones will also be there on the site that was once my mom’s childhood home. It is now a memorial garden. At some point, I will likely be overwhelmed by grief and I will wander away and I will follow the sound of water coming down off the mountain.
About six months-
In the windowed conference room a few doors away from my mom’s room in the oncology unit, the doctor delivers my mom’s prognosis against a background of a coming lightning storm. My brother and I both regard the weather to be suitably gothic for the occasion but refrain from mentioning for the moment. Our dad is conspicuously absent.
My brother is slouched forward in his chair. He runs his fingers through his short hair and the tears come. For now, I am the rock, the firm foundation from which he draws support- a role I am not well-suited for. I am uncertain how to comfort him, so I cross over to him and give him a plaintive karate chop to his shoulder. I linger for a moment under the silent scrutiny of the doctor and his entourage and then slink back to my chair and wait for the discussion to continue.
The doctor, a geriatrician this time, admits that he’s famously bad at guessing how long his patients have and I try not to hold that against him. It’s out of his hands. It’s out of everyone’s hands, except maybe God’s. But, it’s the first time I’ve heard my mom’s prognosis presented as quantifiable figure and it’s hard not to take seriously.
That was three weeks ago. Since then, different evaluations from different doctors suggest a timeline measured in weeks, even days. To see my mom in her present condition leaves little room for denial. Even my obstinate dad, who has long been holding out for divine intervention, has been shaken. My mom is conscious only a small part of the time, but most of that time she is reeling from fright. The only things I know that give her comfort are my voice and my touch.
However, it’s not until my next visit that my dad gives me the really bad news.
Over a pitcher of Bud Lite and a Veggie Lover’s Pizza he announces that the star Wormwood of Biblical prophecy has been sighted by a real scientist and author and not at all by some crackpot with bushy eyebrows and the apocalypse will soon follow. His source was a popular AM radio talk show that has made a reputation for itself by talking about UFOs, conspiracy, and the end of the world. He acknowledges that sometimes you have to take things like that with a grain of salt, but this time it is no joke.
Despite the burden of this terrible knowledge, my dad is remarkably complacent. His attitude is that my mom will be spared from the horror because she will already be in heaven. As for my dad, he has never been too concerned for his own well-being. Unless he reinvents himself, once my mom is gone, so too will be my dad’s most significant reason to live.
It’s the rest of us that should be worried.
In my mom’s room at the nursing home is a brand new, cartoonishly gigantic, flat panel television. Whatever the exact specs are, I can’t say; but it is only slightly smaller than the bed in which my mom is confined.
My dad sits in my mom’s wheelchair, inches from the screen watching a gospel program; tele-evangelism in IMAX. I’m seated in the only actual chair in the room.
My dad has propped Mom up to enjoy her expensive gift. Her eyes are closed. Dad digs the remote out of a drawer and attempts to uncover its mysterious purpose. I joke that the remote, by itself, is larger than my TV at home, but the TV is so loud and my dad so hard of hearing that only my mom snickers.
Dad holds the remote up for me to see.
“What button is this?”
I look. “Menu,” I say.
Mom realizes that the TV was not exactly for her benefit. It was just a quick way for my dad to blow a chunk of money so that my mom could qualify for Medicaid and thus stay in the nursing home. If you were to ask her, she would probably say that she would have preferred if he hadn’t bothered.
Dad holds up the remote again. “What’s this button?”
It’s the same button. “Menu,” I say. “Where are your glasses?”
His glasses are in the same drawer as the remote. I saw them earlier.
He says, “There’s a good idea.”
My mom is losing considerable weight. She doesn’t have much of an appetite anymore. I was in the room earlier when the nurse took her lunch tray away nearly untouched. She was always such a sturdy woman, and now to see her comparatively emaciated does not bode well.
I give the TV a similar prognosis. I expect it to be broken inside of a year, either by my dad’s famous bad temper or by general clumsiness, for which he is also famous.
He asks again, “What’s this button?”
He has found the button below the menu button but he still hasn’t put on his glasses.
“Mute,” I say.
Next to the television is a brand new DVD and Blu-Ray player. The only DVDs in the room are a documentary about the liberal conspiracy to undermine whatever, and a special edition copy of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers which I brought as a gift for my dad.
Last winter I had bought him a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, and as far as I know, he never figured out how to use the DVD player he has at home to get any kind of use out of it. Still, he wants the whole set, and I’ve been slowly doling them out to him.
He puts in the first disk for The Two Towers and as the camera flies over the mountains of Moria at the beginning of the film I admit that it is impressive. My mom winces from the noise of Gandalf doing battle with the Balrog but she does not open her eyes. In the following scene, Sam and Frodo reach the bottom of a treacherous cliff and engage in conversation. My dad asks Mom to open her eyes and tell him what color Frodo’s eyes are, only he pronounces his name, “Fraud-0.”
She opens her eyes for barely a moment and says, “Blue.”
I have to squint to tell that she is right.
((the title of this entry comes from what my dad says when he means to say high-definition and Blu-ray.))
For as long as I lived in California, my personal life and my family life were set nicely apart from one another. Now that I’m back east, I realize that this comfort margin has just about vanished.
In a recent demonstration of this, my special lady and I were returning home from the motion picture show when I checked my voice-mail. Since I am a courteous cinema goer, the phone had been turned off and when I turned it back on it was late in the evening, too late for routine social calls from my brother.
I knew from his tone that I was about to get bad news and I grabbed my girly’s hand in nervous anticipation.
The short of the message was that the nursing home staff had finally made good on previous threats and kicked my dad out for good. To the professionals at the home, his well-intentioned care for my bed-ridden mother looks a lot like abuse- citing my mom’s cries of pain and actual accusations of abuse.
I take it on faith that my dad doesn’t torture my mom on purpose, and I’m willing to go on the record to say that he doesn’t.
I was moderately relieved that the message was about my dad’s wily antics and not about something immediately disastrous. No sudden strokes or seizures today; no pleas for me to come down as soon as possible because this might be the last time; in other words, no repeat of the excitement of a few weeks ago.
My mom’s symptoms since her last bout of seizures have actually improved, though her prognosis is no better. She’s on a new medication to relieve the pressure her tumors cause her brain and she can actually see much better and make much more sense conversationally; a welcome relief to all involved.
The voice message didn’t really offer anything new in the way of information but only reminded me of how chaos has become routine for my family. But it did produce in me a feeling of emotional exhaustion and it triggered a collapse.
For several days I’d been neglecting to inform my girl-friend that my mom’s roommate had died. We had met her during our last visit. I didn’t know much about her besides the fact that she was old, she watched her tv too loudly and she was obviously very sick. At one point she had mistaken my girl-friend for a nurse’s aid and asked for help feeding herself.
My girl-friend’s name is not Alice, but for the purpose of this essay and for the sake of her anonymity, let’s call her that anyway.
Alice would have helped had my dad not stopped her.
“We can get in a lot of trouble,” he said.
At that point, my family had been waiting for help for my mother for a good ten minutes and there was no sign of anyone coming soon. Mealtime is usually the hardest time to get any kind of help in a nursing home if you are not already getting it. Meanwhile, the poor, old woman was by herself and her food was getting cold.
Alice is very sensitive, and so I neglected to mention the old woman’s passing for fear of an emotional reaction. So what happened on that drive home from the movies when I eventually told her? She remained generally unfazed and I cried so hard I didn’t properly calm down until the next morning.
I felt that I personally had contributed to denying a dying woman a last bit of humanity, but mostly I felt like it could have been my mom that died just as easily.
By the time I got around to calling my dad about his ejection from the nursing home the next day, the situation had been resolved. He briefly went over the details and I quickly put them out of my mind.
Today, I’m sitting here writing this and I realize that I’m not quite done going through the ringer. Darker times lay ahead. I’m desperately nostalgic about the time I spent across the country when my troubles were only my own. But, when you love people, you welcome your own suffering if it means they suffer less.
And you wouldn’t have it any other way.