Losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn’t know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you’re picking up the pieces.
Saul Bellow: Letters
It was only after my mother and father were gone that I realized the finality of their deaths. I would never hear their voices again, I would never be able to ask them the questions I never thought to ask while they were still here, I would never have another chance to show them love. They were gone. In their place now were only silence and photographs and their appearance in unpredictable dreams.
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- Years After
I wrote the preceding paragraph at a dark hour of the morning halfway through a fitful night of sleep next to a woman I call my wife. Seven years ago Kathy was diagnosed with dementia and had no choice but to retire from her job because she could no longer remember how to do it.
In the years since, the disease has continued its relentless robbery; her pockets are now largely picked. She lies sleeping and breathing next to me, as she does every night. Some mornings she wakes and asks if I slept here last night. Several times she has thought a stranger was in bed with her. She remembers the names of her children but not what they look like or where they live and seldom thinks of them. She sometimes remembers her grandchildren but not their names, faces or anything about them. She keeps a slip of paper with my name on it in her purse because she no longer knows it. Her mind has trudged its lonely way deep into winter. She is disappearing into a blizzard of white.
But even as she is disappearing, she will come to me throughout the day and night and look at me with gratitude and pleading in her eyes and tell me what a wonderful man I am and tell me how much she needs me and tell me how grateful she is that God sent me to her. I am not at all wonderful, but such words, even from a woman slipping into a winter of forgetfulness, are balm to my soul. They let me know that I still bring summer into her wintry world.
And they make me aware, as does the appearance of my mother and father in my dreams, that the souls we love are with us only so long — in cosmological time, it is but the blinking of an eye. We had better make the best of our time with them.
I have lightly, almost in passing, tried to tell this to my sons — that they have only so long to ask me the questions they need to ask, that we have only so long to have the conversations we need to have, spend the time we need to spend and heal whatever hurts our hearts are holding. My suggestions — which I have kept as glancing as possible because one cannot order up curiosity or love — have fallen largely on ears plugged with cotton. Not deaf, but not quite hearing either.
They are good sons of whom I am very proud. All three graduated from college in four years, got good jobs, married good women, live nearby, and have given me nine grandchildren, with a 10th on the way. Nonetheless, meaningful conversation with real presence of heart and mind are often missing, and with one son even basic courtesy is usually absent.
My youngest son, Chris, age 39, tries to arrange a time for me to visit. As a high-school athletic director, he works 12, 14 and 16 hours a day, so I come over for an hour or two a couple Sundays a month. I appreciate his efforts, but when I am there his voice and manner sometimes speak more of duty than desire. Perhaps it is selfish of me, but at such times I find myself wishing for the company of the boy who knew affection more than duty.
My middle son, John, 41, I see much less often. He too works long hours and lives farther away, but when he occasionally drops by on a Saturday morning our conversations are genuine, far-ranging, open and intimate. They are honest and we do not hold back. They are answered prayers — but we seldom pray them.
My oldest, Tom, 42, is the son who never comes to greet me at the door when I visit. He is usually in the basement family room watching sports on TV, nearly always with a computer on his lap. His hello is leaden, the same hello he gives me on the phone when I call. My heart sinks every time I hear this wintry hello, and it does not recover the rest of the time I’m in his presence. It leaves me barely able to talk. He does not talk either. He watches the game without looking at me. If he says something, it is in a flat voice aimed at the TV.
Though his mother and I divorced when he was 6, he displayed none of this attitude until he was 12. Only then did disdain begin to creep in. Almost every day I wonder why. Am I not masculine enough? He is a coach and a jock, and most of his friends are of the same ilk, while I am a reader, a writer and interested in the arts. Am I too frugal? I grew up under severe financial restraint and early on got into the habit of stretching nickels and dimes into dollars. The habit has not left me, for which, after I die, he will be grateful. He, on the other hand, has made a career of spending money with abandon. Am I not cool enough, an embarrassment even? I deplore cool, shaped as it is by clichés of other people’s making, while he has made a life out of being cool. Or has my son simply been steeped too long in his mother’s lifelong unadulterated adoration? I write him letters from the wintry room to which he has confined me, but I seldom deliver them.
Because their interest is less than rapt, I have stopped giving my sons most things I write, even things I publish, and I long ago stopped telling them what I read — the two areas of my life that most reveal an interior which cannot otherwise be seen. Perhaps my sons and I are typical of parents and children in this era. My friends, I have noticed, are much more interested in their children than their children are interested in them. Perhaps it is inevitable that parents become back issues, while the young are current issues just out on the newsstands. The young do not yet know that most inflexible rule of the world: one day we are all back issues. The truth of King Lear and Sunset Boulevard has not yet come into their ken.
So that I might give my sons and their children and their children’s children something of their ancestors — their genetic back issues, as it were — and something of myself before I go, a few years ago I undertook to scan into my computer photographs of my mother and father and their mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers, a line that ends in tintypes of the late 19th century. The photos are all black-and-white, some so radiant and composed they are works of art fit for a museum. Each conjures a time and place different from our own. These images of picnics and road trips, visits of relatives, and hours spent in living rooms and on back porches speak of a slower time and more intimate communication, of conversations gradually percolating up in speakers and seeping into listeners rather than the instant messages of the Internet and cell phones.
Three of these images have become favorites. The earliest is a 120-year-old tintype of my mother’s mother’s mother. A black halo borders the photograph. In the center stands a young woman with perfect posture wearing a billowing dark dress that goes to the floor. Her right hand is resting on a wicker chair; her gaze is past my left shoulder. She is a beautiful woman with clear eyes and a tiny waist. But I know only two things about her: She died at age 30 and her husband was an alcoholic unable to care well for my grandmother and her brothers. Though she stands alive and stunning in this photo, the story of her life disappeared with her and my grandmother, in part because I did not think to ask about her.
The next image was taken in the early 1930s. In the center foreground my father, about age 20, is seated beside his father. My father’s arms are wrapped loosely but lovingly around my grandfather. Both are looking straight at the camera. A cigarette dangles from my father’s mouth; a cigar from my grandfather’s. Behind them we see the passenger side of an automobile. An unidentified woman stands on the car’s running board, her arm around a woman standing on the ground. A man sits on the car’s right front fender. His legs are crossed. All three are looking directly into the camera.
At the right of the photo is something I never before paid attention to, a picnic table laid with food and white napkins. The table’s setting is so artfully casual it could be in a painting by Cézanne.
Any artist with a camera — Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander come to mind — would be thrilled to have this photograph in his portfolio, yet it was taken with the simplest of cameras on the spur of the moment. The moment speaks of a son’s love for his father, an unembarrassed intimacy between them, and a long-ago idyllic summer afternoon that would be lost to time but for this photograph.
Yet what do I know of this grandfather? That he came with his parents from Sicily when he was about 13, that he earned his living as a barber, that he died at 63 of a heart attack outside his barbershop door, and that when my father quit high school in 1930 or ’31 and did not look for a job for several weeks, one night over dinner he told my father that his plate was cracked and that the next day it would be broken if he did not get a job. Without a job, he would have no more meals in that house. That is all I know of my grandfather — because I did not ask questions when I could.
The last image was taken in the summer of 1952, the summer my father bought his first boat, a Chris-Craft from the 1930s, for $500. Over the following winter he overhauled the engine, refinished the hull, reupholstered the cockpits and replaced dry-rotted bottom planks.
But my father does not appear in this photo. Just my mother and I are seated on the deck of the boat, our legs dangling down into the front cockpit. The boat is at dock, pointed toward the beach of Ed Mirabella’s resort on Diamond Lake, where our family spent every weekend that and the following summer. My mother is looking at me and I am looking directly into the camera, squinting slightly from the sun. My mother is in her mid-30s, still a beautiful woman with fine features. I am only 12 and would never look better in a photograph the rest of my life. My hair, which my father cut until I was 15 or 16, is just beyond a crew-cut and shines blonde in the sun.
At that beach that summer my father taught me how to float. We went out to where the water was chest-deep and he said, “Just lie on the water.” I was terrified, so he put his arms under me. After a while I surrendered, he removed his arms, and I felt the glory of knowing I would never have to fear water again. That summer I learned how to swim.
Notice how it is my mother and I in this photo, but it is mostly my father who commands my thoughts and words. Thus was our house all the days I knew it. My mother was a ghost living in wintry rooms of silence, and we did not know how to open windows onto summer for her. So she passed her days watching TV, reading magazines, drifting from one room to another, speechless. She was the quietest person my sister and I ever knew. In the whole of our lives we never heard her put three sentences in a row.
Decades later my mother developed Bell’s palsy, which left the skin below one eye sagging deeply and her face hideous for the last three years of her life. The disease became the physical mark of her aloneness. When she died of emphysema at age 63, she could no longer speak, only stare at the ceiling and gasp for air under the white sheets of a hospital bed. She died alone, still a mystery. I was 39. For years I had been old enough to bring her summer — but I never did.
In the last photographs my father took of her — on a beach in Hawaii, at an amusement park in Florida, standing in front of their house in Chicago wearing a winter coat — she looks utterly alone and abandoned. Her eyes are blank and haunted. They are the saddest photographs I’ve ever seen. Would her eyes be blank if I had paid attention, if I had asked her to tell me who she was, if I had been a real presence in her life and made her a real presence in mine? I do not know, nor do I know how I will face the day I have to scan these photos into my computer and arrange them for the memory book I am planning. What I do know is that these photos put a period sadder than any I can imagine at the end of a life and a mother I never really knew.
Unlike my mother, my father was always willing to tell stories from his life, stories I treasure to this day. The problem wasn’t a lack of stories; the problem was my hardness of heart. The hardening was the result of the “old country” behavior he had learned as the son of an immigrant. He was the head of the family, the sole wage earner, and so only his wishes mattered in our household. Summer evenings, for example, he would send me to buy two pints of ice cream. My mother, sister and I would share one pint; he would recline in a lounger with his stocking feet propped up and eat the other.
In my senior year of high school, when I told him I wanted to go to college, he ignored my wish, got me a job working in the printing plant where he worked, and took three-quarters of my pay for room and board. I worked in that printing plant for the next five years, all the time ardently wanting to go to college and nurturing that desire by taking night courses at the local junior college. I eventually figured out that what my father wanted was to be paid back the cost of raising me. At 24, when he was paid back, I finally got my wish and became a full-time student at a four-year school. By then, however, the center of my heart had hardened toward my father.
By the time my own children came along, my father no longer behaved in the selfish ways he did when I was younger and he had power. Long out of his house and a father myself, I came to realize what I could not when I lived in his house: Despite his selfishness, he had sacrificed much. He had not left my mother when mere selfishness would have dictated he should have. He always worked as hard as he could to provide for our family. And he was forever fixing our house — electrical wiring, cracked plaster, dilapidated gutters, clogged plumbing, a new porch, a new rock garden, a new garage — work that brought out frightening red rages when the house did not cooperate with his pliers, hammer and screw driver. Work for which no one ever thanked him.
When I think of my father in this way, as I nearly always do now that he’s gone, I am reminded of the tasks the father performs without acknowledgement in Robert Hayden’s poignant poem “Those Winter Sundays.” “What did I know, what did I know,” the narrator son, remembering his father, keens at the end of the poem, “of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
What I have sadly learned in the years since my father’s death is that while it is easy to harden a heart, it is nearly impossible to soften it. Sometimes death is the only hammer that can break the stone at the center of a heart. While he was alive, however, I kept the periphery of my heart soft enough that I could spend time with him, talk with him, do things with him. It was only in the depths of my heart that I could not truly be with him.
But I always wanted to be with him. To that end, one day a year or two after my mother died, I suggested to my father that we visit every place he had ever lived, going all the way back to infancy, and that at each place he tell me who he was when he lived there. I brought along a tape recorder, and at each place I turned it on and listened as he told me the stories of his life when he was a boy and a young man. I shall never forget the joy in his eyes as he talked.
On a September afternoon in 1991, his last day in Chicago before he returned to his home in Florida, I brought him into the sunroom of my home, set up a video camera, and for the next hour, with the camera running, I asked him to tell me again the stories of his life, stories I had heard him tell many times before but wanted to hear one more time, stories I wanted to keep with me for the rest of my life, as I wanted to keep the image of him telling them.
I did not know it then, but that would be the last time my father would be in my house. The next summer he did not return to Chicago for a visit, the first summer of his life that he would not be in Chicago. On July 29 a stroke put him in the hospital for a month. He spent the next seven and a half months shuttling between a nursing home and the hospital.
I visited him in August, October and December. Several days during the October visit I took him out of the nursing home in a wheelchair. On one of those days I took some photographs of him with a throwaway panoramic camera. I haven’t looked at those photos in years, but I can still see them in my mind’s eye. Alone amid a seemingly endless expanse of grass, palm trees and sky, he sits slumped in the wheelchair looking directly into the camera. On his face is only a stare of bleak isolation, a stare that knows the hard center of my heart.
It has been 20 years since I made the videotape of my father and 30 years since I tape-recorded his stories. I have never once listened to the tape we made or watched the video, nor have I looked again at those photos of my mother utterly alone and abandoned or the photos of my father sitting alone in his wheelchair in that wide and indifferent landscape. Whenever the mood comes over me to revisit those items, I find something else to do. I look away because I am standing before an abyss of grief I do not know how to enter and return from with any less grief. I look away because I cannot bear to remember my mother’s wintry life or the winter my father’s life became. I look away because I cannot bear to remember that I might have brought them summer — and didn’t.
I believe many of us, especially in our later years, live in wintry rooms of love, or so all those blank stares on the faces of the aged tell me. Sometimes our interiors remain unseen because no one cares to look: We are indeed unloved. Sometimes it is because love is tangled up in brambles of anger and can find no way out. Sometimes it is because love is burdened by busy lives with little time. Sometimes it is because, like my wife, we ourselves have disappeared. And sometimes it is simply because we fear intimacy.
Some months ago, my sons and their families were gathered at our summer home for our annual week together. My oldest son, Tom, had invited his brother-in-law and his wife and children to join us for three days. On the second day I discovered a pool of water under some baby bottles beside the microwave. Without quite noticing the baby bottles, I exclaimed, “What’s this!” I feared something had broken in the microwave. A few minutes later, when others were out of earshot, Tom upbraided me for making his guests feel unwelcome. I sat at the kitchen table listening to his accusing voice in a black rage, a rage sitting atop 30 years of silently bearing his rude disdain. Without saying a word, I left the room to brush my teeth.
Running the floss furiously between my teeth, I seethed at the mirror. Then Tom’s large body was in the doorway beside me, his hand on my shoulder, his voice gently trying to explain and apologize — and my rage melted. I told him to have a seat on the bed. When I emerged from the bathroom I had no idea what to say, but I knew I had been waiting for this moment for 30 years.
For the next 15 or 20 minutes I paced the floor in front of him and spoke from my heart. I told him about the first time I experienced his rudeness on our first long-distance vacation to New England when he was 12. I remembered for him my tears of sadness and rage one morning while I was out jogging. I told him the same thing happened on our vacation to Wyoming the next year. From the age of 12, I said, he had been disdainful of me. Perhaps I had been the wrong father for him; perhaps he had wanted a jock/coach father like himself with lots of jock/coach friends. No, he said firmly, he had never wanted another father.
I told him he seldom made me feel welcome or loved. Trying to soften the blow, I told him how I, too, had become hard-hearted toward my own father. I was trying to say I understood his own hard-heartedness, but I was also pleading to understand the cause of his disdain. My father had stolen my dream of college for five years and forced me to turn in my earnings to him during those years; I had stolen nothing from my son. Perhaps he blamed me for the divorce from his mother. I simply couldn’t understand the genesis of his anger, his distance, his rudeness. I said all this that morning, and more. I was a little incoherent.
I told my son that I still thought of my father often, though he had been gone for 18 years. Despite harboring anger at him while he was alive for stealing my dream and driving my youth into extreme penny-pinching to get the money for college, I missed him and my mother and still thought of them nearly every day. I remembered how they had given up their bedroom and slept on a sleeper-sofa in the living room for four years so my sister and I could have separate bedrooms in a two-bedroom house. I told him how I had come to deeply regret not bringing summer to his and my mother’s lives when I had become a man and it was in my power to do so. Then tears came to my eyes and I could no longer speak. My son rose from the bed and we hugged each other for a long time.
I do not know what difference that moment of pouring out my heart will make. But I do know my son loves me, though that love may be nettled up in brambles of hidden anger. Did we open a door on summer or only inch a window up in spring? If the latter, will summer ever come? What I know for sure is that time for all of us is more limited than we can know; love is our most precious gift, both the giving and receiving of it; and the only way out of our wintry rooms is to face our lives and each other in love. If we don’t speak our hearts to each other, and often, we may be picking up shattered glass the rest of our lives.
A month after writing the previous paragraph, I went to watch my son John’s 8-year-old son playing in his first season of tackle football. It was a warm day in early October, the sun brilliant, the sky blue. My youngest son, Chris, the athletic director at the high school where the game was being played, came up to us with his 4-year-old son and began talking to his brother. Only after 10 minutes did he think to say hello to me. For the next 20 minutes he talked animatedly with his brother. Though I was sitting next to them, neither said a word to me. After 20 minutes Kathy and I moved to a location closer to the field and farther from this winter of neglect.
Several weeks before that I was at my computer when on a whim I clicked on some music. Kathy came and stood in the doorway of my office listening to the closing strains of the song. Dementia has robbed her of her own activities, so she likes to watch mine. When the song ended, iTunes automatically cued up the next song in the playlist, Johnny Mathis’ “Twelfth of Never.” I was so taken by the song that I stopped working and just sat there listening and remembering the boy I had been when I was 17 and that song was popular. Before we knew it, we were both singing along.
One of the oddities of Kathy’s dementia is that while she may not remember my name or where we live, she remembers the lyrics to songs from long ago better than I. So we sang along looking at each other:
You ask how much I need you.
Must I explain?
I need you, oh my darling,
Like roses need rain.
As the song went on, I motioned for her to sit on my lap. We held each other and rocked in the chair and continued singing:
I’ll love you till the bluebells forget to bloom.
I’ll love you till the clover has lost its perfume.
I’ll love you till the poets run out of rhyme.
Until the twelfth of never, and that’s a long long time.
Until the twelfth of never, and that’s a long long time.
The twelfth of never may have been a long, long time away when I was 17, but now, as we rocked in the chair and sang, I realized it was just around the corner for Kathy. It made me love her all the more and want to protect her from the winter into which her mind is irrevocably drifting. But I cannot. No one can. All she and I can do — and all my sons and I can do — is show our love for each other while we yet have time.
All any of us can do is show our love for each other — while we yet have time.
Mel Livatino’s essays have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Writing on the Edge, River Teeth, Under the Sun and other publications. Three of his pieces have been named Notable Essays of the Year in Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays annual (2005, 2010, 2011). He is at work on two books: The Little Red Guide to Publishing Creative Nonfiction and God: An Inquiry, the latter about the existence and nature of God and evil. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.