…governed and enriched by memory,
all the enterprises of man go forward.”
Both of my parents were born in early April. My dad died on his birthday 16 years ago. The beginning of the baseball season always brings forth a torrent of mostly pleasant thoughts. It’s spring; I grew up in warm weather surrounded by flowers; the crack of ball meeting bat; the wonderful feeling of exhaustion one experiences after a long hike… So much input into so little space. Today please allow me to ramble much as my opening paragraph has.
My mom finished a PhD. She was a gifted teacher and mentor, but her forte was, without a doubt, getting people to have fun. Her idea of eternal bliss was for a couple of the cousins to show up with some friends, without advance warning. She would turn the music on; within five minutes she was in the kitchen; in a half hour an endless and delicious feast was served.
My father was a taciturn man. When company showed up he disappeared into his bedroom, only to surface when he felt that the guests had to be told they better leave soon. The only exception was when he could expect meaningful conversation. Early in our childhood he befriended a Nobel Prize winner in literature. We also had a chance to be exposed to famous musicians and artists. Those people he would stay up for, and show regret when they had to leave.
I grew up with these images, not realizing how stereotypical they were. My sophomore year in Med School I met a beautiful young woman who was studying nursing at our hospital. She was funny; sexy; full of life. There were days when I felt that I could sit in front of her and stare at her face for hours, so obsessed was I.
There was a problem. She was not bright. At the risk of sounding uncharitable I will state the truth: she had a hard time understanding the most basic concepts of almost everything that was presented to her. She had no time to read the news, or go to a museum, or spend an hour studying from the textbook. I had always taken for granted that the sum total of humanity was interested in learning: she became a constant reminder that my upbringing had been far from “normal.”
I wrote to my father. I described the incredible joy that I felt when we went to Forest Park to fly a kite, or when we danced a slow melody, or rushed into a fast food place to order a hamburger. I was taken by her, yet I understood that there was no way that we could be happy together in the long term.
To my surprise this is what he answered: “I wish that I could go in the park to fly a kite with a beautiful young woman.” He put me at ease! I wanted him to tell me to get rid of her; to flee. He was wise enough to let me know that he understood, but that the decision had to be mine. Destiny made my mind up for me. She flunked out of school and left town soon afterward.
When I decided to separate from my first wife my mom got into the first plane available to come to St. Louis. She spent a week cleaning my new apartment; she hung pictures of my daughters on every square inch of available wall space; she bought whatever kitchen appliances were needed; she gave me a primer on cooking simple things for me and my brood. She left without a word of reprimand or a single “I told you so.” She must have been trembling inside, but all I heard was encouragement and blind trust in me.
After my dad had a stroke he became even more stubborn than he had been when healthy. He refused to do his therapy as prescribed. He became weak; one day he fell and broke a hip. His mobility was close to nil. We kept him in his bedroom, where he had a walk-in shower. Since this is where he always spent his time even when healthy it never occurred to me to arrange for him to be taken outside.
One day that I had flown home to see him he asked me if we could go to old San Juan. All of a sudden I remembered the numerous times that he had taken us there. To have lunch. To see an art show. Always teaching us little pieces of history.
It hit me: once again I had succumbed to the stereotype; my image of my dad lying on his bed in his underwear, listening to the ball game and solving the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.
Of course I will take you to old San Juan.
We parked not far from El Morro fortress. I pushed his wheelchair along the gravel path, so that he could see both the bay and the ocean, and he could point out to me, for the thousandth time, the building his grandfather had been born in. We stopped in front of the moat. He did not want to go in.
“It’s nice to be outside,” he said. It was the last time that I saw him smile.
Memories. They shape us and help us move forward. I know now why we should have huge windows in our hospital rooms. I know better than to scold my children when they make choices that make me cringe. I try to join most parties, although I don’t think I’m as good as my mom was at encouraging people to let go. I still love baseball.
Today we took the grandchildren to the park, and we barbecued some burgers and hit a few (plastic) balls. I hope that sixty years from now one of them will write about the memories about grandpa he or she had. All we can hope for going forward.