Inside the Invisible

A Blind Writer's View of Living the Attentive Life

Dave’s Passing

December 2, 2015:

 

As many of you already know, my brother and best friend Dave died yesterday at 9:30 in the morning, while in Hospice Respite Care at Holy Redeemer Hospital, Huntingdon Valley. Emily, his wife, and Sharon, a nursing assistant, were with him at the time. Sharon had just finished combing his hair (something Dave thoroughly enjoyed) and was buttoning his shirt when Emily noticed that Dave’s arm suddenly dropped to his side and a different look came over him. They called to him, but he was unresponsive. “He was physically still alive, but it was as though he had already crossed over into another state,” Sharon said. She told us that he never looked at all agitated and that, in fact, his was one of the most peaceful deaths she has witnessed.

Dave talked openly about dying. It was never morbid, just real. He loved his life and was quite pleased with how he was living it. He said he had no regrets. He said he was at peace with death. His only fear had to do with how he might die—whether it would be calm or a struggle. It appears that he got his wish for a serene passage.

I’ll write more about Dave in the near future—how he lived his last days, how much he loved “the dear people from Hospice” who took such great care of him, the depth of his love for Emily and hers for him. I’ll also let you know about the memorial service, celebrating Dave’s life, which we plan to have in his honor, sometime in the next few months.

For now, though, I want to concentrate on fulfilling a promise I made to him:

Several months ago, Dave asked me to send a message on his behalf, shortly after his death, to all who knew him. Here is what he wanted to say to you:

“We can never know exactly when death will come, so we can never know exactly how much time we have with another person. Most of us have busy lives. We also don’t always know what’s best for the dying person in terms of phone calls and visits. If you wish you could have visited me one more time, but it just didn’t happen, it’s okay. If you thought about calling me but, for whatever reason, weren’t able to, that’s alright. If you feel there was something unresolved between us, don’t sweat it. There’s no need to agonize about any of this. As far as I’m concerned, we’re good, we’re okay. Please don’t spend a lot of time wishing and worrying. Just go ahead and live the best life you can. Be compassionate toward yourself. That’s what I want for you.”

 

With much love,

 

Dan

Family Update

In June, Dave’s play, Crossing the Threshhold into the House of Bach, was performed beautifully and to great acclaim. Each show met with a long, standing ovation. Michael Toner embodied the role so convincingly that some audience members didn’t realize he wasn’t blind until he took his curtain call.

As a writer, I hate it when people cop out with “words cannot express,” but I’m afraid I’m going to use them. Otherwise, you might be wading through a few pages of me attempting to talk about the gratitude I and many others feel for Michael Toner, Michael Hollinger (Dramaturg and Mentor), Mimi Smith (Director), John Stovicek (Sound Designer) and Jerold Forsyth (Lighting Designer.) The world is indeed a better place for containing people like these friends who devoted literally hundreds of hours to seeing Dave’s play through to such a resounding success. Let me take a moment, though, to underscore the amazing thing John Stovicek did in putting together all of the sound for Dave’s play. When it became clear that Dave didn’t have the physical ability to play the closing organ piece, John helped Dave to record the work, voice part by voice part, then put the voices together and did hours and hours of “doctoring” to make everything work up to his and Dave’s standards for what an artistic performance should be. Incredible!

As some of you know, a hit-and-run driver struck Michael Toner, the actor who so wonderfully portrayed Dave in the play, leaving him in the street where he would lay for two hours, losing half his blood, until a homeless man discovered him. Due to the severity of his injury, doctors determined they had no choice but to amputate Michael’s left leg. Ona and I visited him in Jefferson Hospital last month and found him in good spirits. Since then, he received a skin graft. Once that has stabilized, he will most likely spend time in a rehabilitation center before being transferred to the Veterans Hospital to be fitted for his prosthesis. Michael says he harbors no bitterness toward the person who hit him and left the scene, only gratitude for the man who found him and saved his life. “They told me that if I hadn’t been discovered then, and if I weren’t just around the corner from a hospital, I would have been a gonner,” he said.

During Ona’s and my visit with Michael, we talked at first about his situation and state of being. “Everyone here has been wonderful,” he said of the Jefferson staff. “They’re really on top of things and taking excellent care of me.” You could just feel the great rapport he has built with them. But soon enough, Michael wanted to know how Dave was doing. “I can’t wait to talk to him about the play,” he said. Then, somehow, talk turned to Wimbledon, then Becket and Yeats, and pretty soon you would have thought, except for the occasional medical intervention to handle an I.V. drip, that we were hanging out, having a barbecue on someone’s patio. What a loving and positive spirit Michael has, very much like my brother’s.

On Sunday, June 14, Ona and I made a public commitment of our love for each other and our intention to spend the rest of our lives together. We thoroughly enjoyed planning the ceremony and celebration, our mantra throughout being “Connection, Not Perfection.” That approach meant we never got stressed out by the planning. Granted, many things seemed to fall our way. Because we wanted to schedule our wedding on a Sunday following performances of Dave’s play, thereby making it easy for people traveling long distances to attend both events in one trip, we had a much easier time getting the venue we wanted because most people prefer to hold their weddings on a Saturday. Even though we hadn’t made provisions for a chuppah, we found a place, just days before our event, which would not only rent us one, but would deliver it, set it up, take it down, and remove it for a very reasonable price. We had hoped a friend would do the calligraphy for our katubah, but when she wrote to tell us she couldn’t do it, Ona surfed the net and found that the Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia had a katubah gallery from which you could buy beautifully-made katubot (the plural of katubah.) We found one that perfectly articulated what we wanted to say, along with a tactile design that I can touch and appreciate. We programmed all the recorded music for dining and dancing and loved the evenings when we sat on our front porch past midnight downloading what we didn’t already have and asking, “What song do you think should come next?” Most of all, we loved having a large room full of people who mean the world to us, witnessing this big step we were taking. Ona’s friendship with Mark, our rabbi, dates back to her late teens when she and Mark spent the summer at Naropa Institute, studying poetry with Allen Ginsberg and others. My friendship with Alina, our Lutheran pastor, began in 2004 at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Teaching, where I served as mentor for a team of eight students that included her. Mark and Alina worked amazingly well together, combining a sense of the sacred with a lack of pretense. Ethan, Ona’s son, and Dave flanked us under the chuppah. I’ll always feel Dave’s calm presence in my marriage, even after he’s no longer with me physically. The feel of his hand in mine during the ceremony is etched forever in my memory.

In July, our mother and stepfather, Dave, Emily, Ona and I took a road trip to the place we still refer to as The Farm, even though agribusiness has put all the small farms in my mother’s family out of commission. We all had the sense that this would likely be the last time that Dave could make the trip and see these relatives, but while that added an intensity to the journey, it didn’t negate the joy of being with everyone. In fact, it heightened our awareness of great love that permeated all conversation and connection. Making the trip work well required much forethought about logistics and accessibility. (Examples: how to make the 3.5-hour drive so that Dave wouldn’t have to use a commode, and yet without dehydrating him; figuring out what furniture needed to be moved so that a wheelchair could make tight turns in a bedroom or hallway; how best to provide food that Dave can eat; how to minimize the number of transfers Dave would need to make to get between car, house, bed, reclining chair and commode. Certainly, meeting twice with Dave’s creative and practical occupational therapist really prepared me to adequately support Dave and help him move from one place to another. The trip exhausted Dave, but he said it was well worth it.

On the heels of that excursion, Mom and Dave Dell, Ona and I took four local trains to celebrate my niece Morgan’s engagement at a party held in Brooklyn at a magnificent location with a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. Dave’s and my sister Connie, along with the rest of Morgan’s immediate family, flew up from Nashville, so we got to have a long-delayed reunion with all of them. As you may know, Connie just received a new kidney and liver a couple of months ago. She has gone from a gaunt, sickly woman who would fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, to her former bubbly self. She is indeed a walking miracle of medical science.

On our way to Brooklyn, we learned in a phone call from Emily that Dave had had a terrible night the night before. He had been coughing a lot before the Farm trip, but things seemed to have settled in his upper chest in a way that didn’t irritate his lungs. The coughing returned in the middle of the night. Dave told us later that it felt like something had obstructed his breathing, making it impossible to inhale. “It felt like the by-pap was suffocating me, but I knew that if I took it off, it would be worse.” Both he and Emily thought it might well be the end, but Emily called Hospice, who talked her through some preliminary steps, then sent the nurse on call. “She was wonderful,” Emily said. “She stayed with us for several hours and got a doctor to allow an increase in the morphine and other medication levels Dave could receive.” These drugs quiet the anxiety attack that can accompany and exacerbate the inability to breathe, thus helping to break the cycle. All of this marks a new phase or plateau in ALS’s inexorable progress toward death. It doesn’t mean that we’re now in some kind of death watch; it simply underscores the truth about ALS, so aptly named in the title of a new book by someone who recently died of the disease: We Know How This Will End.

That said, Dave continues to make and carry out plans. He spends time with close friends and family, reads a lot (currently Hemingway’s complete short stories), and will soon meet with Michael Hollinger and Mimi Smith to give the script of his play one final review before seeking to copyright it, publish it, and make it available for rental by theatres. It isn’t fair or accurate simply to say that Dave is dying well. In the process of dying, he’s living better than many of us who supposedly have everything going for us. I’m guessing that Dave wouldn’t necessarily want to be singled out as some kind of hero. He would probably just say that he is only living out the time he has to the best of his ability. Still, he’s my hero. I hope to live as well as he does.

IT’S A BOOK

Officially Announcing The Birth of School for the Blind

Thank goodness for my publisher, Poets Wear Prada, and good souls like Mike Northen, publisher of the online journal Wordgathering, who have done a better job than I of promoting my first book, School for the Blind. Since my twin brother Dave’s first book, The Way Love Comes to Me, published by MutualMuse Books, was born just weeks before mine, I wanted to help him launch his book first and give it some air time before I hopped in with news of mine. (After all, sixty-three years ago, he had the decency to let me go first.) But then life intervened, and the delay became longer than I had intended.

At any rate, this baby is now more than ready to move out into the world. Stay tuned for details of a book launch party and upcoming readings. In the meantime, please let me direct you to Kathi Wolfe’s review of School for the Blind in the December 2014 issue of Wordgathering. If you find yourself wanting a copy of the book, you can order on Amazon where you can read sample poems. Or, if you’d like your copy personalized, you can order it directly through me by sending a check for $12 to me at:

36 Elberon Ave.

Lansdowne, PA 19050

With Love,

Dan

An Update on Dave

We have many good things to talk about: Dave’s magnificent reading at NYU last month, the cruise we took to the eastern Caribbean in the beginning of this one, a knock-out poem Dave wrote recently, and the deepening of already-great relationships as we make this life journey together. I want to talk about all of these things in greater depth, but enough time has passed that I think it best not to try to cover everything in one fell swoop. Besides, significant things are happening right now, so I think I’ll start with the present and, in later entries, work backward.

ALS, like other terminal illnesses, forces you to redefine what you mean when you use words like “good” and “hope.” Dave says he can see losses every week. He no longer hopes to perform his one-man show. His idea of a good day has more to do with breathing well, with the help of his by-pap machine, and reading something stimulating than with treks into the city and hosting dinners for friends and family. What makes him feel most normal has changed, too. A year ago, he enjoyed doing the dishes for the fifteen minutes he could stand, because he felt like he could still contribute something to the running of a household, and that made him feel normal. Now, he feels most normal when he is lying in bed.

Just the Facts:

Weight two years ago: 208

Weight Now: 128

Lung Capacity: 23%

Nine months ago, Dave and I performed at Swarthmore College, playing the piano and singing, reading our work. True, we had to switch voice parts because Dave’s trouble breathing made the upper register too difficult to reach, but we did it and produced (if I may say so) a pretty darn good performance. Today, Dave has lost most of the use of his right hand, which has curled due to muscle loss and constriction.

Keeping in mind how relative good is, here’s a very good thing: Dave decided on Thursday to sign up for hospice. When you have ALS, signing up for hospice doesn’t mean you’re going to die tomorrow or next week or even six months from now. What it does mean, however, is that you’ve decided to let life and death take their normal (another relative term) course. You’ve decided you don’t want heroic intervention from a ventilator, or even CPR. You’re not throwing the door to death wide open and inviting it to come, but you’re not throwing all your weight and your furniture, along with some sandbags, against the door to stave off death’s inevitable barging in, either. What hospice means is that you will have regular visits from a nurse and home health aids who know how to build a relationship with you and make the rest of your life as comfortable and fulfilling as possible.

This weekend, Dave and Emily will move on to the next big decision. They need to get out of their house as quickly as possible. They need a place with everything on one floor and with access from their home to the outside world, something they can’t get at their current house. They plan to pack the bare essentials—almost like going on a cruise—just enough for living in a temporary location while Emily and her team finish downsizing and packing, selling the house, buying a new, accessible one, and moving. Dave needs to be spared all of that. He needs just to focus on spending the rest of his life enjoying the people he loves and the things he most wants to do. They have two places in mind, so stay tuned for further developments.

In relating all these things, I’m not out to make you feel bad or to slow down your enthusiasm for the day. Of course, you probably will feel bad, especially if you have a meaningful connection with Dave. There’s just no way around it. What I’m finding, however, is that I’m noticing more and more the “little” things I have been taking for granted—little things like being able to walk and to button my shirt. I’m noticing even more of the sweetness in even the smallest of interactions with other human beings.

Dave loves Louis Prima’s rendition of “When You’re Smiling.” (I think I may have attached a link to it from an earlier blog post, and I’ll never forget Bill McCann playing it on his trumpet as we sang along at Dave’s book launch party.) A few months ago, I rediscovered, on a CD mix made by a good friend, Randy Newman’s The Time of Your Life. I don’t use it to keep me from crying or raging about what’s happening, but it does help me keep a beat on how to continue living my own life. I’ll attach a link to it in case it might do the same for you.

With Wishes for Love and Peace,

Dan

Dave

Most alibis for not writing are really just excuses. I’ve given other “good reasons” for my tardiness in writing this blog. I have a different one this time, but one I know to be clearly acceptable.

My twin brother Dave has ALS. That’s right, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He started to think something odd was happening to him a year ago. After lugging two huge suitcases on a 14-hour train trip from Philadelphia to northeast Georgia, spending that first day in Georgia, mostly on his feet, setting up his writing studio at The Hambidge Center, then the next few weeks writing his ass off, he went for a hike with another artist. They hadn’t gone ten minutes when his companion said, “Am I going too fast for you?” If you’ve ever walked with Dave, you know he could leave most people in the dust. Now, no more. Dave replied, “I know I’m not in the best of shape, but I didn’t think I was this far out. I’m winded already, and my legs feel rubbery.” They headed back to his studio. He finished out his stay, keeping fully in the present, thriving on conversation with fellow creators, and making great headway on his one-person play. But when he got back home, the months of doctor visits, lab work, MRI’s, and muscle tests began.

The diagnosis of ALS is really a non-diagnosis of anything else. Once they rule out Lyme’s Disease, all kinds of auto-immune diseases, Post-polio Syndrome, reactions to medication, and a host of other maladies, they declare ALS the winner by default.

I continue to write, even though it hasn’t been in this forum; it’s one way to deal with the heart-break, the abject terror and grief. I’m keeping a journal about Dave and me. But I haven’t known what to do about outing him on the web. Blogs like mine have something in common with memoir. By their very nature, they focus on the perspective of the person writing. I want to write about Dave. I’ll even admit that I want to, partially for therapeutic reasons. But not solely. Not even mostly. As a writer, I bear witness, I keep a record. When something this major happens to me or mine, I want not to have to keep secrets. I want to be open with others. True, I could simply talk, and if I didn’t feel the need to bear witness or keep a record, if I didn’t care about the kind of precision and clarity that writing exacts, simply talking would be fine. Still, I’ve held off writing about this in a blog because I wanted to take Dave’s wishes into consideration—how, when and to whom to reveal what’s happening to him. I knew he recoiled from some generic tweet or Facebook announcement to the world at large. I’m only writing this now because most people close to Dave already know, have already heard directly from him or by word of mouth through his circle of family  and friends. (If you’re close to Dave and this comes as news to you, I’m sorry. I know it’s not the best way to hear it.)

At any rate, this whole situation, in addition to much more significant questions and dilemmas (think life and death) it has raised, poses some thorny questions and issues about writing: questions about one’s motives for writing memoir and other personal genre, about when and how to reveal the truth, and about who gets to tell whose story. I still struggle with all of this, not only here, but in the memoir I’m working on and in the poems that have some basis in the facts of my life.

I love keeping the Journal of Dave. It helps me clarify. Crafting my thoughts helps me order the chaos. Also, as a memoirist, I hope (and I know this involves a certain amount of ego) that what I write could touch someone else, could provide them with something useful. Maybe I’ll share some of the journal, someday, but I’m thinking I’d want to talk to Dave, first. Especially at this time in his life, I think he ought to be in the driver’s seat.

Letter from an Artist Colony

Dear Friends and Readers,

Greetings from Hambidge, a retreat for artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and even a few scientists, located in the Blue Ridge mountains of north Georgia!

For me, being here raises such big and interesting questions about how we, as a society, set up our lives, or probably more accurately, how our lives get set up or acted upon by huge forces outside us. Coming to a retreat like this, where you can devote days and weeks to writing a book and to meeting other artists and finding out what they do and how they think, can feel like such an indulgence. Yet, what would it be like if everyone who wanted to delve into their dreams could spend time like this?

To some who’ve never done this, who’ve never had this opportunity, maybe never even given themselves the luxury of considering it, this might sound like Easy Street, like a big vacation, and in some ways it is. A chef cooks healthy, delicious dinners for us four nights a week and makes enough leftovers to feed us all lunch the next day. That means minimal shopping, food prep and clean-up on our part. No bills to pay, junk mail to sift through, solicitors jangling our telephones. We don’t even have cell service to distract us. For most residents at a retreat like this, it means vacation in the sense that they aren’t doing their day jobs. (I’ve needed to do mine for a couple hours a day, most days, but that’s felt like a convenient way to cleanse my palate between writing sessions.) However, most of us put in long hours on our projects precisely because we understand the rarity of having this much open space for making art. (I average about eight hours on tasks related to my memoir each day.) The fact that we might have some guilt about our privilege in doing this says something, I believe, about our Puritanical attitude as a country toward art and the way that attitude happens to dovetail with the needs of capitalism.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an artist, how many times have you thought, “Everything and everyone moves so fast these days; I wish we could all slow down?” If you could, what would you have to feel? What might you have time to look at and think about?

In closing, let me add a link to a recording, about a minute long, which I made outside the door to my studio. This might give you a hint of what it feels like to be here. You might have to turn up the volume, it’s so quiet out here. Also, if clicking on the link doesn’t get you there, try copying and pasting it into your browser. It’s worth it. Enjoy!

Hambidge Morning Sounds 

Dan

Putting On My Skates

Mrs. Law wasn’t a bad teacher. She wasn’t fun and friendly like Miss Kauffmann, Dave’s second grade teacher, but she wasn’t downright mean, like Mrs. Murphy, who awaited me in fourth grade, either.

She set up a little book corner in the back of the room‑‑mostly Dr. Seuss. I remember feeling insulted the first time I picked up The Cat in the Hat. “This is a baby book,” I proclaimed, trying on my critic’s voice in front of Mrs. Law. Most of the boys agreed. But later, I noticed that, if you read it right, it could sound kind of cool some days.

Fridays in Mrs. Law’s classroom held a special joy for me, not just because we got to go home for the weekend, but because that was the day we got to read My Weekly Reader. It made me feel grown-up, like I was reading the newspaper, the way my parents did on Sunday afternoons after church and dinner.

One day stands out about that year, a day in January when we all had to write about our Christmas vacation. I had gone ice skating for the first time and I came back to school eager to tell everyone about it. What great good luck, I thought, that on our first day back, Mrs. Law would give me the chance to write about it. I had come a long way from those early days of braille when I reveled in writing letters of non sequitur sentences to my classmate, Howard Wolcott. As I punched out my paragraph, I kept thinking, This is fun! Writing about it is almost like skating all over again.

“All right, who wants to read theirs first?” Mrs. Law asked. My hand shot up before she got halfway through her question. Mrs. Law said I would have to let some other people read first. (I put my hand up first a lot.) I tried hard to listen to the other people read and to tell them what I liked about their writing. Finally, Mrs. Law asked me to read mine. If she said anything good, I don’t remember it. All I remember is that she criticized me for writing the sentence, “We put on my skates.”

 “Did you put on your skates, or did someone else put them on for you?”

 I told her my dad mostly put them on but I helped a little. She said people don’t usually say “We put on my skates.” She said that people usually put on their own skates, but if I really didn’t put them on, I should say that my father put them on.

“But I helped‑‑at least a little.” My eyes started to burn.

“Well it isn’t clear the way you wrote it and most people don’t say ‘We put on my skates,’” she said, and then she moved on to the next person.

For a short time, I hated her and I hated writing. I secretly vowed never to take another risk in her classroom and, in fact, to go out of my way to make the most boring compositions I could. Fortunately for me, Overbrook had a school newspaper, The Red and White, which came out four times a year, and I couldn’t resist the desire to feel my own words in braille, not from a slate and stylus, but from a real braille printing press. Only months after that incident, The Red and White published my first submission, a story about scoring my first run in baseball and how I was so happy I jumped up and down.

In hindsight, having been a teacher of writing at the high school level, I have more empathy for Mrs. Law. From the other side of the desk, I know the balancing act one must do when responding to a student’s writing, that dance on the line between praise and criticism. Still, to this day, I wonder how much effect that small event has had on my self-acceptance and self-criticism as a writer, that balance between caring about others’ opinions of my work and trusting my own judgment.

Announcing Geode, A New Book by Ona Gritz

Ona Gritz’s first full-length collection of poetry is now available for pre-order from Mainstreet Rag Press. Geode, a finalist for the 2013 Mainstreet Rag Poetry Book Award, will sell for $14 when released next February. However, if you pre-order it now, you can get it for $9 and, as Ona says, “help with its birth.” Here’s a direct link to Ona’s Author’s Page, where you can find out more about the book and its author and read sample poems:

http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/geode/

As Ona’s partner and writing companion, I can hardly claim complete objectivity in reading her work. Yet, as writers, we strive for this with each other. In doing so, we mostly try to follow what Paul Simon says in one of his songs:

No, you don’t have to lie to me;
Just give me some tenderness
Beneath your honesty.

I have been privileged to witness many of these poems come into being, and even though I’ve seen them change and grow, I’m still surprised now, in reading them together in this collection, by depth and artfulness I hadn’t quite grasped before. But let me quote from the blurbs Hettie Jones and Stephen Dunn wrote for Geode:

“Ona Gritz writes her life in a sequence of beautifully observed and crafted moments, with superb control, not a line out of line. Disabled yet unsparing of herself, she claims her kin. But her emotional depth, her honesty, and the clarity of her voice will reach every reader–she’s akin to us all. This is a fine collection.”

–Hettie Jones

“ Ona Gritz’s poems prove the unlikely – that it’s possible to dazzle with simplicity, an eloquent, apparently effortless simplicity that poem after poem registers emotional truths. Many poems in Geode explore what it means to live gracefully with a disability. I don’t know if Gritz has perfect pitch, but she has its poetic equivalent; she continually hits the right note, and moves us to a different sense of regard by her precisions and her exquisite sensibility. I love this book.”

–Stephen Dunn

Eight and a half years ago, Ona and I met at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway, an annual event organized by Peter Murphy. We had both come for the first time, principally because we love and admire Stephen Dunn’s work and wanted the chance to be around him. Stephen leads small, break-out workshops each year at the Getaway and, as it happened, I ended up sitting next to Ona. From the moment she opened her mouth, I felt something special about her. When she spoke to other poets about their work, she always found something to praise genuinely, but she didn’t hang back from saying what wasn’t working for her in the poem, and when something wasn’t working, you still could feel her in the poet’s corner. Then she brought out her own poem, and I was done for.

I’ll close with that poem, letting Ona’s work speak for itself:

Home, I Say

From the wash, I pull a shirt
the size of a dinner napkin,
stretch the opening at the neck
so as not to frighten him
with too long a moment blinded by cloth.
So many mistakes I can make, and I do.
The worst, catching a bit of his skin
between the locked halves of a snap.
Cries can be stoppered most times
by the sudden milk my body makes,
suck and swallow the only sound
beside the rhythmic thump of our chair.
Blue eyes drinking me in, I feel
compelled to name things for him.
Window and bear. Sunlight and reading lamp.
Home, I say, as though this place
is not a splintered boat.
And, Daddy, as though this person
is not already taking leave.

Living Like a Fugue (Mother’s Day, 2013)

Perhaps because, in some way, my brother and I tried coming to grips with our father’s death through writing poems, we both wrote about him before writing anything about our mother. Although she isn’t wild about poetry, she is a big fan of her children, so she had heard some of these poems when she came to our readings, the way other mothers go to soccer matches. When Dave asked her if she wanted to read his first full-length poetry manuscript, she noted that, as far as she knew, neither of us had written any poems with her in them. “Do I have to die before I can get into you boys’ poems?” She was laughing that infectious laugh that just bursts out of her, but I heard something else underneath. Since then, we’ve both written poems that include her. Here’s one of mine:

 

My Mother Cleans

More exacting than graceful,

she does a turn around my kitchen.

The satellite radio plays

“I’ll Never Smile Again,”

and she thinks of dancing,

the way he turned her,

the way he turned her head back then,

some sixty years and a death ago.

Between my stove and microwave,

she manages a neat slide,

leading a mop.

 

But now, I want to make a little time this Mother’s Day to think about her, in much the same way I thought about my father in my previous post.

To go by appearances, my parents lived a simpler life than most of us live now. They didn’t feel the need to interrogate everything, as I do, or if they did, they would tell you that they had too much to do, what with both of them working outside the home while rearing four children, to sit around gazing at their navels. It isn’t that they never asked the big questions. I remember the relief that came over me when, after attending the fundamentalist church of friends, they returned home talking about how God could possibly have created the world in six days. But even though they seemed willing to be perplexed by the way that question undermined what they’d been taught about God dictating the Bible word for word, they seemed equally willing to let it go after ten minutes in order to get dinner on.

I wonder if that kind of simplicity and practicality contributed to the sense of strength and resilience I saw (and still see) in my mother. Once every year or two, while we were all still living at home, she used to experience back pain severe enough that she simply couldn’t move for a day or two. But, ahead of most doctors of the time, who prescribed prolonged bed rest, she would force herself to get up and move around the minute the pain became bearable. “You just have to push through it,” she would say, “and, besides, I have too much to do; the house needs cleaned, the laundry needs done.”

For nearly thirty years after Dad died, Mom lived on her own—at first, moving back to the rural town where she grew up, then coming back down to the Philadelphia area to be nearer to her children and her newly-arriving grand-children. While up-state, she threw herself into community life, joining The Grange and going to square-dances. A couple of times, she even agreed to have dinner with some widower looking for companionship.

“Do you ever think of actively trying to find someone?” we kids would ask her. She said no, that maybe she was getting like Dave and me, living on her own long enough that she had gotten set in her ways and kind of liked the freedom it gave her. But then her mother, now also a widow, started to fail mentally and physically and, for a few years, lived with my mother who, more and more, had to look after her.

When my mom moved back to Philadelphia, she joined my sister’s church and, six years ago, married a great guy named Dave from her Sunday School class there. I can’t say that, during the thirty years that constituted her second go at single life, she seemed depressed. I can only say that, once she and Dave became a couple, I saw an old buoyancy, one I had forgotten, return. My sister Connie summed it up: “Now, when you talk to her on the phone, she tells you what she and Dave are planning instead of what chores she did that day and how much bananas cost.”

Although the broken road I’ve travelled, with a backpack full of complexity and interrogation, has led me to a wonderful, albeit not always simple, relationship with an amazing woman, my mother seems to have managed a second really good marriage by keeping things simple. Not that things haven’t sometimes been hard.

My stepfather, being my mother’s equal in pragmatism, convinced her a couple of years ago, that they should sell their house and move into a retirement community. You could hear the anguish in my mother’s voice as she talked about the irony of selling or having to give away most of the things “you work so hard to get.” I’d say it took her most of the first year in her new home to adjust to downsizing from a house to a one-bedroom apartment, but it’s like my sister said about the bananas. Yes, she will still talk about what dessert she’s making for their Bible Study group or how she needs to straighten up their place, but why shouldn’t she? She loves something about homemaking. It’s just that now, instead of fretting about getting the roof repaired, she’s talking about all the concerts they’re going to and how their shuffle-board team is doing. Between card games and shuffle-board tournaments and activities at their church, with a few doctor visits thrown in, it can challenge me to find a date when they’re free to get together.

As I write this, they’re in Nashville, visiting my sister Connie, who moved there with her family when her husband changed jobs. Mom and Dave drove there. They say that they may not continue to drive such long distances after this trip, but I love that they are 88 and still going strong. I don’t doubt that, while they’re there, Mom is pitching in with the laundry and they are both helping out at Nucci’s, the family restaurant Connie and Steve started.

I really like telling people the story of Mom and Dave. It seems to spark everyone’s hopefulness. I know from my friends who are significantly younger than I that seeing me live a rich, active life of curiosity and connection at 61 makes them feel much less bleak about aging. I can thank my mother, and now my stepfather, for doing what the poet Louis MacNeice, in his poem “Leaving Barra,” called “living like a fugue and moving.” MacNeice continues with these lines which seem made for the two of them:

“For few are able to keep moving,

They drag and flag in the traffic;

While you are alive beyond question.”

 

 

Leaving Barra

Louis MacNeice

 

 The dazzle on the sea, my darling,

Leads from the western channel

A carpet of brilliance taking

My leave for ever of the island.

 

I never shall visit that island

Again with its easy tempo‑‑

The seal sunbathing, the circuit

Of gulls on the wing for garbage.

 

I go to a different garbage

And scuffle for scraps of notice,

Pretend to ignore the stigma

That stains my life and my leisure.

 

For fretful even in leisure

I fidget for different values,

Restless as a gull and haunted

By a hankering after Atlantis.

 

I do not know that Atlantis

Unseen and uncomprehended,

Dimly divined but keenly

Felt with a phantom hunger.

 

If only I could crush the hunger

If only I could lay the phantom

Then I should no doubt be happy

Like a fool or a dog or a Buddha.

 

O the self-abnegation of Buddha

The belief that is disbelieving

The denial of chiaroscuro

Not giving a damn for existence!

 

But I would cherish existence

Loving the beast and the bubble

Loving the rain and the rainbow,

Considering philosophy alien.

 

For all the religions are alien

That allege that life is a fiction,

And when we agree in denial

The cock crows in the morning.

 

If only I could wake in the morning

And find I had learned the solution,

Wake with the knack of knowledge

Who as yet have only an inkling.

 

Though some facts foster the inkling–

The beauty of the moon and music,

The routine courage of the worker,

The gay endurance of women.

 

And you who to me among women

Stand for so much that I wish for,

I thank you, my dear, for the example

Of living like a fugue and moving.

 

For few are able to keep moving,

They drag and flag in the traffic;

While you are alive beyond question

Like the dazzle on the sea, my darling.

 

 

 

Hero: A Journal Entry

I’m still going to write about discovering the song, “Hero” by Family of the Year. But I always label my journal entries by date, and when I typed today’s date, I flew away from the particulars of that song, back to May 2, 1978–a morning equal in beauty to this morning– the day my father died.

Yes, thirty-five years. It’s enough distance that I can muse on how 35 is the reverse of his age when he died. It’s enough distance that I can say factoids like lung cancer, oxygen mask, 8-month battle, 3 in the morning. And then the factoids run out, leaving the murkier feelings that require more words that still can’t quite get at things: the crinkling of a body bag as a man is maneuvered around corners like a piece of furniture, a cry like none I’d ever heard before from deep down my mother’s throat, the discombobulation of time—far away people suddenly arriving after an interminable wait, the heat and birdsong that promised so much for summer, and our next-door neighbors, Bonnie and Craig Sheets, giving the simplest, most genuine expression of sympathy as they stood just inside our screen door saying, over and over, thoughtfully and dumbfounded, “We’re so sorry.”

All of us in my family eventually moved on, just as my father moved on from World War II and from the surprise of finding out that his twin boys were blind. I was lucky to have had a dad who occasionally talked about his philosophy of life, and even luckier to have had one who then lived it. He said he went to church because it made him a better person. He loved and honored his father, but simply made a decision, lying in bed as a young boy, hearing his drunken father beat up his mother, never to treat a woman like that. He openly told our friends, “Any friend of my children is always welcome in this house.” He believed in keeping music in his life and romance in his marriage. He told us to move on with our lives after he died.

And so I did. I carry what I can of him with me. Still, on days like this, I look back, which brings me to the song. “I don’t want to be your hero, I don’t want to be a big man,” it says. It’s true, my father could have used a little more sense of himself as a hero. It’s also true that dying, in part from breathing platinum dust for fifteen years in a factory, where the owners cared more about capturing the precious metal residue that washed off employees in forced showers than they cared about providing adequate air filtering, can make you feel like a “little guy.” But the good part of him not thinking of himself as a hero was that he never postured as one; he just lived it naturally. (It’s probably the best example I got of the writer’s motto to “show, don’t tell.”)

When I first heard “Hero,” it didn’t take me back to my father. It took me to the early part of college, that time when I wanted so much to find attachment to a woman, yet struggled with how I could have that and keep my independence. It was a conflict that, I believe, came partly through my father, who told me and my brother that it would take a very special sighted woman to hitch her dreams to a blind guy for life. That hurt me and it set me back. Yet, other times, he would say things like, “Don’t let anyone stop you. If you think you want to do it, go do it.”

He was a man of some conflict, and I love him for that, too. He taught me something about complexity. “Cripes,” he would say of our neighbor on the other side, “that guy can read Winnie-the-Pooh in Latin, but he can’t fix his own lawn mower.” And yet, nobody ever beamed with more pride than my father the day my brother and I graduated from college.

He could have gone to college, but turned it down because, after putting his life on hold for the war, he couldn’t wait for the joy and responsibility of marriage and family. Like the singer of “Hero,” I was nowhere near ready for that kind of responsibility when I reached college age. I sometimes wonder if he envied my open options and the luxury of my extended time to get an education. If he did, I never knew it. No, from the things he said and the way he lived, I got the message he never wanted me to hold back from going after the life I wanted, no matter how different it might be from his. I got the idea he wanted me to have the fullest life I could have. That’s why, when I hear this song these thirty-five years after his death, I can imagine us driving with the windows down, the promise of summer in our hair and all around us, and him smiling, singing along with me to the radio: “We can whisper things, secrets of our American dreams. … Everyone has the right to walk with everyone else.”