black & white

My parents were 1950s plain-white-people pretty throughout my childhood in the 60s.

My dad wore a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.

I remember them and then in black and white.

The only 1960s hippies for me were my mother’s much younger sisters and brother. All of them animated in my mind on faded 8 mm color film, and they were always a little dirty.

And they all smoked—although my aunts and uncle probably indulged also in something illegal, pot—but old black and white photographs and the shaky 8 mm films my parents took allowed all that offensive smoke to look cool, harmless, romantic.

It has been five decades since then.

A few days ago, I bought my mother a new pair of shoes. She has two pairs in assisted living—one too small and the other too narrow.

And then just yesterday, I took her the new shoes before I drove her to a doctor’s appointment.

After her stroke, my mother is no longer her full self, having lost most of her language abilities and sounding more like my 3-year-old granddaughter than the very bright woman my mother was before.

She fretted to tears on the drive about needing to go by her house—I had no idea why—and about how to pay for the doctor’s visit—I explained as I have hundreds of time since the stroke that I have money. The trip was not unlike “Are we there yet?” round trips that most parents must suffer through, except in this case I was the parent to my mother as child.

My mother has seen the same doctors for many years, Indians who served my small rural hometown before moving their practice to the larger town hear-by. The nurses and staff have also known my parents for many years.

After a nurse conducted an ultrasound on my mother to check on the clots found in her leg after the stroke, they appeared out of the examination room. The nurse asked what happened to my father.

I hesitated as I often do now when people appear eager to discuss my father’s death with my infirm mother right there. I know she knows, but the act of discussing my father’s death, my father dead with her listening makes me want to say, “You do know my mother is right here?”

In the gap of my pause, the nurse added, “Rosie said he was killed?”

And I realized the nurse and my mom had already had a conversation, and my mother’s much reduced communication had likely caused more confusion for the nurse.

“No, he passed away,” I uttered euphemistically. “His heart.”

The nurse offered a cavalier “Oh” signaling that his death made perfect sense—more so than his being killed.

Although the visit with the nurse practitioner went well, my mother refused adamantly any further medication, even though it could help with her regaining the ability to talk. She has had a lifelong struggle with worrying about her health but refusing prescription medications.

I did run by her home on the way back to assisted living, but that simply sparked even more crying and incoherent ramblings, building on her struggling all day with simply going to the doctor.

Once in the house, she was unable to look through a closet because my nephews had been cleaning out and packing away much of my parents’ belongings. Eventually, exhausted and frantic, she gave up and demanded a couple pillows off a bed in that room, finally urging that we leave.

After my mother was once again in her recliner at assisted living, near tears and rambling further, I suggested she sit back and rest before dinner—and I left nearly as wrenched to exhaustion as she was.

For more than forty years, interacting with my parents had been mostly tension, a moral, intellectual, and emotional battle between my obligations as a son and my true self. Nothing was as simple as black and white.

Later that evening, my nephew texted that my mother was complaining to him about her neck hurting. I replied that we had just sat at the doctor’s office, and when the nurse practitioner asked my mother if she had any pain, my mother had responded with an assertive “no.”

I felt myself responding beyond the limits of patience or love.

Like many people enamored with image-based social media such as Instagram, I often choose to post pictures in black and white, usually of my granddaughter, alone and with me.

I also have an affinity for black and white movies made intentionally in black and white well into the era of color film.

As I psychoanalyze myself, I wonder if this romanticizing of black and white—few images move me more now that black and white versions of my granddaughter—is nested in pictures of my parents, 1950s plain-white-people pretty.

My dad with a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.

Some times with cigarettes gently between two fingers and the smoke static and odorless.

They often look happy and harmless, especially in staged family portraits.

Them there in black and white—I can pretend nothing existed in either of them or our future lives that would make their being alive, dead, or infirm almost unbearable.

Nothing is as simple as black and white.

Not being parent or child, not being in some important way fully human.

Advertisements

Human Frailty

You open a carton of eggs, and not quite with negligence but in the rush of routine, you lift out one egg that cracks open. Your fingers sink into the collapsing shell, sending cold and wet through your sense as you calculate the tiny disaster before you simply wanting to scramble eggs for breakfast.

You know, of course, that eggs are frail things, and you handle them with care—but this egg had been somehow slightly stuck to the carton and your reflex was to squeeze and pull a bit harder.

Half a shell and the exposed yolk still in the carton remind you, however, of the inherent frailty of eggs.

Over about three months now, I regularly spend time with my 76-year-old mother in the wake of her stroke and my 3-year-old granddaughter now freshly embarking on formal schooling by starting 3K.

Conversations with my mom and granddaughter are disorienting and similar—a garbled string of occasional words and phrases mixed with complete nonsense, not even words but mumbling.

And my mother and granddaughter both pause, eyes intent, awaiting some signal I have understood—and often I have no clue.

My mother suffers the consequences of a tiny blood clot in her brain while my granddaughter is victim to the simplicity of emerging from being a baby into early childhood.

Like an egg, they are both incredibly frail, but mostly in slightly exaggerated ways that are an essential characteristic of being human.

Humans all are frail, although we seem determined to ignore or refute that fact.

My mom has slipped into frailty, her body has failed itself after almost eight decades. While my granddaughter has begun navigating the very dangerous world in her new and tiny state.

The world is many parts angry and insensitive, like a hand hurriedly pulling an egg from a carton.

What would this world be, what could this world be if we walked through it with care, gingerly and slowly stepping along as if each step were vital?

The same week that we have been told by doctors, nurses, and social workers we can leave my mother alone during the day is when my granddaughter began 3K—equal terrors for me too much aware of the callousness of this world about human frailty.

To be aware of that frailty, I suppose, is overwhelming, and for me, possibly a great contribution to my relentless anxiety.

Callousness and carelessness, I believe, cannot be the alternative to the weight of being aware that humans are frail—that every human deserves compassion.

I have adopted a soothing tone, gentle smile, and reassuring words when my mom becomes frantic and sad, when my granddaughter fears she has done something wrong or tells us just a few days into her school life that she doesn’t want to go.

“I’m sorry,” “It’s ok,” “We’ll take care of it”—assurances offered, even though I really can’t promise they are true, because everyone must know that they are not alone, that the world doesn’t have to be so awful.

More and more often, the calm after these disturbances for my mom and my granddaughter is what I reach for to make each day worth all the other struggles and possibilities—the heaping mess of just plain nasty people who seem to outnumber the rest of us.

The calm, however, remains in the shadow of the facts of aging for my mother, life is shorter now than what she has lived, and for my granddaughter who will someday way too soon stop raising her arms for me to lift and hold her, stop crawling into my lap and guiding my hand to her feet while she eats a popsicle and watches TV.

It is a lovely and selfish thing to comfort another person, and each moment doing so should be handled with care, like taking an egg in your hand.

Navigating Self-Worth through Middle Age: Every Single Moment

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas

As far as I can tell
I’m nothing like a princess…
Take these girly arms
And ever keep me

“Thirsty,” The National

The last thing my father said was a request for me to help him to the bathroom. He was wheelchair bound, and his breathing had been labored for months.

I suggested the bed pan, but he added he needed to have a bowel movement.

When the nurses came to help him, he became unresponsive there on the toilet of the rehabilitation center he had just moved into with my mother, and within a hour, he was declared dead at the nearby hospital.

What an awful way to slip from this earth, simply asking for help to have a bowel movement.

My father died in the bathroom like Elvis Presley, who my parents idolized throughout my childhood—a cultural phenomenon that should have signaled for me the horrifying leveling of death.

My father’s death, possibly as any man’s father’s death, has forced me to examine again how I have navigated self-worth my entire life, measuring my masculinity always against the unspoken monument of my father.

This summer of my 56th year, then, continues my battle with self-worth, a life of anxiety driven often by insecurity and low self-esteem.

When I first moved to higher education in 2002, I soon secured my first book contract with a respected academic publisher, Peter Lang USA, because of the kindness of a colleague and then a distant but treasured scholar-mentor, Joe Kincheloe.

When the hard copies of that book arrived at my office, the colleague came by to see what I was doing to celebrate. I was working frantically at the computer and hadn’t thought once about the book or celebrating.

“You never enjoy a single moment do you?” she said, matter-of-fact from my doorway.

Self-worth and low self-esteem intersect in ways that push us to ignore our accomplishments and dwell on our failures.

In a half-year scarred with a pelvic fracture, the end of my life as a road cyclist, my mother’s stroke, and my father’s death, I have been passed over for a new position, received a few rejections of submitted writing, and struggled mightily to become the sort of mountain bike cyclist I had accomplished as a road cyclist over 30+ years of intense riding.

Each of these has proven to me my deepest fears about my self-worth—as if my many accomplishments otherwise haven’t happened at all.

The hardest part has been the transition to mountain biking and leaving road cycling behind.

After a good 20 years of being a mediocre road cyclist, in my 40s and early 50s, I had finally established myself as a relatively elite local recreational cyclist, book-ended by breaking the 6-hour mark in the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in 2007 (at 46) and then having my highest placing, 58th, in 2014 (at 53).

Throughout my adventure in trying to be the macho athlete I believed my father represented, I adopted surrogate father-models among my cycling friends; I simultaneously admired them and used them as the bar I could never attain—to prove to myself I was right about my low self-worth.

But I was a ride leader and typically finished official rides and weekly training rides with the best cyclists, the front group.

Shifting to mountain biking certainly wasn’t helped by a six-week down-time for a broken pelvis, or being 56 while trying to recover from the fracture and regain fitness.

However, this new adventure in claiming my self-worth through athletics has been beyond humbling to humiliating.

Over three decades, I acquired both the fitness and road cycling skills needed to ride essentially effortlessly, even as I pushed myself to physical extremes in our attack zones, on mountainous centuries, or during the annual 200-mile-plus one-day ride across South Carolina.

Mountain biking has proved itself much more than fitness and the skill requirement has an added problem—many elements of cycling on trails trigger my anxiety. Rocks, boulders, roots, steep inclines, and creek crossings have more often than I like to admit flushed my system with anxiety and left me nearly incapable of riding.

In road cycling, I controlled my place in the pack; I pulled when I wanted and drifted to the back to monitor the ride as needed.

Mountain biking has shuffled me to the back, and off the back. And there is little I can do about it.

Before being hit by the car on Christmas Eve and before my father’s death, I lived with a lingering and awful fear of when my life as an avid athlete would end. It had to end, of course, simply because with age we lose our physical selves in increments.

Now I am faced with having much of that taken from me in a dramatic intrusive way, and then, in that space, having to re-evaluate what all that means anyway.

Before the pelvis fracture—and living always now with the sensation of being hit from behind and slamming into the pavement—I was already growing weary of the hyper-macho bullshit of road cycling. I was doing fewer large group rides, I had decided to stop entering the Assault (which I participated in about 20 times over thirty or so years), and I was less and less likely to bury myself in the pain of the zone rides.

But I was no better able to negotiate with myself about my father and our many contradictions, about my father and the imagined necessary requirements of my masculinity as the failed athlete.

By college I had abandoned athletic dreams and transitioned into being academic, a writer and poet in my bones and a teacher by profession. Yet in that transition I had also become a serious cyclist and continued the self-flagellation in pursuit of self-worth that had defined me throughout childhood and my teen years.

How do we know we matter to someone else? How do we know we matter to ourselves?

Increasingly, I come to realize how powerful my early adulthood fascination with existentialism has proven to be—my being draw to recognizing Being as a journey without a destination.

Nothing will click, and then I will know I matter to someone else.

Nothing will click, and then I will trust my self-worth.

My father haunted me while he was alive. His last words and moments aimed at simply going to the bathroom and leading him to the great beyond have done nothing to change that, except for the space left where he no longer exists.

My self-worth has never been about my father; it has always been about me.

I was mountain biking the other day with two friends who ride away from me on every ride. We were caught in a horrible thunderstorm.

One friend had a flat and the other rode further ahead, but I stopped to be sure the friend with a flat was ok.

There in the din of the rain through the trees and the periodic crack of lightning, I was about as alone as I have felt in a long time. I thought for a moment about people I love and reminded myself about my father being gone and my mother recovering still from her stroke.

I was terrified of the lightning as I stood with my left foot in the trail that looked more like a creek.

That moment in the storm triggered the morning of Christmas Eve as I lay in the road, stunned and staring at my swollen bloody left hand.

Again as I had there in the road, battered, with lightning cracking, I wanted to be safely back at the car, able to go about the rest of my day, the rest of my so-called normal life because there was so much to enjoy.

Every single moment.

Reaping What We Sow

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

Galatians 6:7

Today marks about a month spent navigating between two polar worlds of responsibility as I approach 60 in a few years.

My two grandchildren live with me and I often provide care for them. I also now visit my mother every day as she recovers from a stroke in a rehabilitation facility where my father died just over two weeks ago.

My three-year-old granddaughter and mother, in fact, are sharing a similar journey with language—uttering smalls bursts of distinguishable speech among strings of mostly gibberish.

Watching my father’s declining health and death along side my mother’s unexpected stroke and painstaking recovery, I have experienced more directly what I have known most of my adult life: medical insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are frail and inadequate sources for basic human dignity.

But these realities are shared daily by millions of people discarded in the U.S. where we simply have no interest in being a Christian nation or a charitable people. No, we prefer Social Darwinism and burying our heads in the sands of the free market and consumerism.

“Consumerism,” in fact, is the perfect and disturbing metaphor for our self-defeating beliefs and practices.

And that brings me to the ugly facts I have been confronting about my parents for nearly four decades.

My white working-class Southern parents are the poster children for the manufactured angry white working-class voters accused of electing Trump [1].

I grew up in a home aspiring to the American Dream of middle-class materialism, and my parents mostly worked themselves to death to cobble together that illusion.

Hand-in-hand with my parents being whitewashed model Americans was their unbridled racism, unquestioned self-loathing of their impoverished/working-class heritage, jumbled conservatism, and lifelong voting as Republicans.

As I watched my father die and patiently encourage my mother climbing out of the dark hole of her stroke, I have often thought that they certainly deserve so much better than what the end of their lives has brought.

But I also recognize that they were both willing and eager agents in their own misfortune—so damned inspired by racism and fear that some poor person might receive something without working that they cut off their own noses to spite their faces.

The acidic irony in all this is that my parents, especially my father, imprinted on me a manic work ethic grounded in the unspoken bromide “we reap what we sow.”

Work hard and you are rewarded, my parents believed, but half-ass and you will suffer.

The inverse message, the very ugly inverse message, of course, is the false conclusion that those who suffer and fail deserve the suffering and failure due to their sloth.

If we could somehow recreate Our Town so that my 20- or 30-something father could have watched his last days sitting beside my disabled mother, would he have reconsidered his life and what he believed?

But even that isn’t the solution, of course.

To know that what you do and believe has consequences for yourself ignores that we lack in the U.S. any sort of compassion for others, especially others we perceive as unlike us.

We don’t even believe in or practice a belief that all children are innocent, deserving safe and healthy lives that provide them opportunities at the promises the U.S. pretends to embrace—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The paradox of my life is that my parents gave me incredible advantages and a loving idyllic childhood—a childhood abruptly marred as I worked through my teen years and entered college, resulting in my rejecting virtually everything my parents believed.

I certainly do not cling to some delusion that cosmic justice exists for the righteous and the careless.

I also know that social equity and justice are almost entirely rhetoric of the privileged to maintain their privilege.

None the less, I want to believe that my parents deserve better than what they have reaped, regardless of the seeds they planted.

That basic human dignity is not merely something we have to earn by being faithful workers or unquestioning patriots or cooperative citizens.

I want to believe that we should chose to extend compassion, kindness, and material comfort even to those who have spent their lives denying that to others.

Be the kindness and charity you want to find in others.

I sat with my mother yesterday as she rambled on—I eventually figured out—about her therapy, which is frustrating her. She is terrified and confused about having lost the ability to talk, convinced she will never regain the words.

My nephews and I have explained to her repeatedly that she had a stroke from a blood clot, but she keeps thinking she had a tumor.

The words that did come out as she waved her hands wildly gesturing through the therapy were “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It sounded like my granddaughter’s misguided “I’m sorry” when she fears she has done something wrong, but hasn’t.

“Mom, you’re not dumb,” I said at her smiling and shaking her head. “You just have to relearn everything you have lost.”

What else, I wonder, is a son to do?


[1] A false claim masking that wealthy whites overwhelming drove Trump’s victory.

Mirrors

11 December 2015—two days before my mother’s 74th birthday—I am sitting in the recovery bay of Spartanburg Regional Heart Center with my nephew and looking at my father swimming back to us through the sedatives from having his pacemaker battery replaced.

My father will be 77 next month, and I, 55 a few days before. My nephew turns 33 in March. We have been discussing this oddity of symmetry among our ages lately.

As I watch my father, I realize I have been doing this recently every time I pass a mirror. It is the gaze of an aging man watching aging men.

My father wakes quickly, it seems, and is restless, even profane, demanding water and making as if he can stand to leave.

Soon after the technician explains the new pacemaker to all of us—he talks loudly and slowly to my father in a way that makes me very uncomfortable—the nurse comes in and allows my nephew and me to help my father dress.

Even without sedation, my father struggles now to lift himself out of chairs. He can barely reach his feet to put on his socks and shoes. His breathing is labored, and years have brought him to this: “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Days later, my father admits that he wanted me there because he didn’t think he would live through the procedure, although his doctor informed us after the replacement that the pacemaker has been remarkably therapeutic for my father’s heart, adding that the real problem is my father’s lack of exercise and being overweight—again, too much “world.”

23 December 2015—I have been sick for over a week, even going to the doctor (maybe the first time in over two years). One consequence of my puniness has been my inability to keep up with all my hair removal obligations: I shave my head, face, and legs (a serious cyclist for over 30 years) as well as groom a greying Van Dyke beard (yes, cliché for a man with a shaved head, I know, but forgive me my vanities).

That morning I can no longer tolerate the scraggly beard so I find myself standing in front of the mirror to trim it when I see my uncle Buddy and my grandfather Slick (who I dubbed Tu-Daddy).

tu-and-me

Tu-Daddy holding me as a small child—oddly, with shoes and a shirt on.

After trimming, I post a comment about this seeing on Facebook and tag my uncle Buddy and aunt Patsy. Buddy, who will turn 66 in February (more arbitrary symmetry of ages), replies by posting a picture of Slick from 1970, when he was about the age I am now.

Slick 1970

Slick c. 1970 at about 55 with his Van Dyke and ever cool in shades.

This moment on social media becomes another mirror for an aging man to gaze at aging men.

Like Slick in 1970, I am now a grandfather and a father, one who must face mirrors every day—the literal mirrors on walls around me and also the many faces of the ones I love.

No amount of shaving can reveal anything I do not already know. No amount of trimming the Van Dyke can deny the greying hair.

I too am of this “world” like my father, the years mooring me to the places of my life and slowing me incrementally.

Under the brakes of aging and the compulsion to gaze, there is again Wordsworth: “We have given our hearts away,” and I hear what a younger man cannot—even as my senses slowly fade.

For Further Reading

The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth

[my father moved through dooms of love], e.e. cummings

Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas

Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden

Eating Together, Li-Young Lee

The Gift, Li-Young Lee

The Hospital Window, James Dickey