When I was about six, my Dad cut down one of his golf clubs to my size, covering its “new” handle carefully with grip tape. For the next few years, on any random spring or summer evening, he’d find me and say, “Come on, let’s head down to the field.” And off we’d go to Memorial Field: Dad, a bucket of golf balls, a few tees, my club, and me.
Though incredibly impatient when trying to help me with math homework, my Dad had never-ending patience when teaching me to hit a golf ball. I, on the other hand, grew impatient quickly, when the ball skittered off my club’s heel or when I skyrocketed a large clump of grassy earth, but not the ball.
I remember that I often wanted to give up and go home.
And I remember that he never let me.
Instead, he’d talk quietly to me, reminding me how to hold my hands, reminding me to keep my head down, to swing in one continuous motion.
Every once in a while, I’d hit that damn ball on its sweet spot and off it would sail. A white dot disappearing into summer grass.
He’d call out, “Attagirl! That’s a good one!”
And just like that, I’d feel like I could swing all day.
Before they were married. Before they moved to Chicago, then back to Houston, then to New Jersey. Before he switched from cigarettes to a pipe. Before she told him she wanted children someday. Before any of us were thoughts, dust, molecules.
They were just two people sitting on a couch wondering what might come next.
This is the Thanksgiving my brother spent with friends. The one where my Mom and sister were too sick to do anything, except eat the feast Dad and I made together.
The truth is, there is another photo of my Mom and sister at the table, pale-faced, grim, wanting to be back in bed. Dad and I were oblivious, lost in the exhaustion, accomplishment, and disbelief that we made the entire Thanksgiving dinner ourselves.
In fact, I have musical memories from nearly every year of my life. Songs attached to memory. Songs attached to people.
My Dad put himself through college playing jazz trumpet in Al Anderson’s band. Now and again, when I was very young, he’d take his horn out after dinner and walk through the house playing whatever struck him. I followed him room to room in speechless awe.
My Mom, was and is, a lover of the show tunes. When I was still little enough to be bathed, she sang, “I’m Gonna Wash That My Man Right Outta My Hair,” from South Pacific in her most dramatic voice. This was, of course, to distract me from the fact that she was actually washing my hair.
When she wasn’t bursting into bits from show tunes, my Mom listened to Jonathan Schwartz, the mellifluous-voiced, storytelling DJ on WNEW 1130 in New York, who played an array of jazz and yes, show tunes.
I’d wander into the kitchen on a lazy Sunday; Mom cooking or cleaning or just puttering about and hear Jonathan Schwartz’s mellow voice stretch out a story and a song across the length of an entire afternoon.
I recently read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, who died at age 39 of pneumonia and septic shock.
This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book full of grief; vivid, happy memories – and a long list of questions about what it means to be a mother, a writer, an aging woman, and the surviving member of your own family.
For a few weeks after I read Blue Nights, I found myself thinking nonstop about how old, or rather young, Quintana was when she died, mostly, I’m sure, because I am the same age. I thought of my mother and where she was at 39. It was 1976 – she was married, had three children: ages 16, 9, and 4 (me), and was making beds and dinners and building people. I cannot fathom what my life would have been like had we lost my Mom when was 39, any more than I can imagine what my Mom would do if she lost me right now.
The truth is, none of us can fathom loss, expected or sudden, until we are in the midst of it – and even then it carries a surreal quality that, at times, feels so foreign we catch ourselves watching ourselves from the outside in.
Even when we “have time.” Even when we “say what we need to say.” There is always the thought. It wasn’t enough time. I need more.
During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion shared a conversation she and Quintana had near the end of her life about what kind of mother Didion was. “Quintana, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,'” said Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”
What are our parents to us and we to them? A collection of tics, idiosyncrasies, stories, secrets, assumptions and hyberbole? Do we ever truly know one another, or are we bound by our own definitions of parent and child?
A friend whose father has terminal cancer told me recently that her father is cleaning out dresser drawers and organizing things. “It’s almost as if he were a pregnant woman nesting,” she said. I was so struck by that – the notion that what we do to prepare for a new life could so mimic what we do to prepare for the end of life.
As our conversation continued, I spoke about my Dad, who died nearly two and a half years ago. I heard myself say, “I’ve adjusted to his death, but I don’t think I’ve accepted it.” I could not have surprised myself more.
My Dad lived a full life, 80 years, and by his last days, he was not living the way he nor anyone who loved him would have wished for him. And yet. But still. Grief is muted and morphed by time. And I still long for the sound of his laugh, his eyebrow raised in jest, his warm hand on the top of my head when I was young. As Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
I think of the piercing ring of the rotary phone: the wake-up call in the heavy-draped darkness of our room at The Holiday Inn.
This is Oil City, Pennsylvania, halfway to my Mom’s hometown in Ohio where we journeyed most summers of my childhood.
This morning, I thought of those trips, those first moments after waking, my sister and I sharing the double bed next to my parents. I hear Dad grab the phone from its cradle, groggily but politely muttering, “thank you” to the operator, clumsily replacing the receiver. I remember his eyes, slightly swollen with sleep, his sheet-creased face. I remember the sound of running water, as he showered, then shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair, in his underwear and dark socks.
I think of the sounds and face he made when he splashed on his aftershave, a combination of “brrrrr” and a groan, a shake of the head, a furrowed brow, a wink thrown over his shoulder to me, and done. I remember he was ready before any of us, strategically packing the car to accommodate the largest amount of stuff. I remember his hand on the top of my head, warm, heavy, steady, as we walked into the coffee shop for breakfast and continued down the road.
Because I don’t have your opinion to ask anymore, I often feel uncertain. My self-esteem sometimes gets tied up and dependent upon silly things that seem crucial at that particular moment. Later, I shake my head at myself for doubting my capabilities and capacities. I try to think of things you said to me years ago when I was in doubt, or in tears. I make decisions more quickly now, but I don’t feel confident in many of them. I make them, and hope, if they’re wrong, they will quickly reveal themselves as such. This is part of it – the loss of you. Me feeling uncertain about me because you are not here. Me feeling somehow unsafe. I could not have guessed how those feelings would and have manifested. Mostly because the way in which they manifest differs daily, vastly.
More than two years ago, two friends and I drank a bottle of gin, piled onto a moped and took off downtown to “watch the moon rise over the water.” At first, I protested, still lucid enough to realize the inherent danger and stupidity of this undertaking. I quickly caved to the collective “come onnnnn…”
As we three drove over the bridge, I told my friend that my butt was, in fact, falling off the back of the moped and soon the rest would follow. “I’m falling off,” I said urgently. She responded by silently gripping my butt with both hands.
I didn’t fall.
I remember looking down at the asphalt as we sped on, thinking how quickly everything could go horribly wrong. No one with a helmet. All of us careless, yet somehow carefree.
I was certain you were watching this from wherever you are. The moon, always my sign for you, was out, big as a beach ball, lighting up the water. I imagined first that you were angry – then, laughing.
I was much too old to be doing something so reckless, so stupid. And yet, somehow, I felt alive in my fear, exhilarated by the knowledge that I was purposely doing something I knew was dangerous and irresponsible.
For some reason, I had to feel like I could actually die. To see if you would save me? So you didn’t seem quite so dead?
I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe the gin does.