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Always with me

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I have never been much for cemeteries. Don’t have a trace of guilt about never visiting the graves of my parents. I understand that for some people visiting the grave site of loved ones helps them pay respect and keeps their memories alive. I need no such reminder.

If there is one constant in all of our lives, it is that parents are always with us. Their influence may be good or bad. Their influence is felt not only in our values, but in the way we express ourselves verbally and physically. Even fathers or mothers who abandon or abuse their children still shadow their lives. The act of abandonment or abuse only intensifies their presence. Parents inspire us or haunt us, but in the end they never really leave us.

As you know, dear reader, I have often visited various periods of my parents’ lives through this column. That is how I keep them alive. I believe our immortality exists only in the memories of those we leave behind. Through these columns, I made a tangible record of how they lived and loved and died. Perhaps this way, I keep the flame of their memory flickering a little longer. In doing so, I hope that the lives of my parents will spark some recognition of your own mother and father. The commonality of experience is perhaps the strongest of the tenuous bonds that keep the human race from entirely splitting off into lonely tribes.

Often one of the most difficult things for us as sons and daughters is to overcome the memory of our parents’ agony at the end. I still see my father’s cancer ravaged body, his face hideously bloated, his eyes looking at me questioningly as he faced death in his hospital bed. My father the tough cop, who dreamed of dying in a hail of bullets like a hero in a B-movie, dying the death he had always not so secretly dreaded. Helpless. In bed. My wife leaning over him and whispering, “It’s OK to let go now, Dad.”

Likewise I see my mother on her death bed years later, gasping for breath behind an oxygen mask. Her living will had stipulated that she would not be placed on any artificial breathing apparatus. So there she lay, her eyes seemingly at first pleading and then angry that her son was standing by helplessly, not trying to save her. I tell myself it was her wish, but I still feel the betrayal in her eyes. Did she misunderstand what was happening? Did she think that after all the years of caring, at the end I no longer cared what happened to her? Death always seems to leave us with so many questions.

Mom left me with her eternal pessimism. I can’t totally shake it even on the sunniest day. There are no happy endings. We laugh today and cry tomorrow. At least I am never surprised when something doesn’t turn out right. I just visualize Mom nodding knowingly.

On the other hand, my father left me with the shred of optimism that I cling to on rainy days. He was the eternal optimist. God must’ve liked his practical joke of pairing the two of them. Dad’s ship was always going to come in. His winning lottery ticket would be called tomorrow. He died before Annie sang about “tomorrow.” He could’ve been the inspiration for that song.

The clash between Mom’s pessimism and Dad’s optimism was an eternal conflict in our house. They married when they were kids, and I came along too soon. Both of them were overwhelmed at times. She hated the life of a cop’s wife. Hated the shift work that made regular family meals almost impossible. Hated being left alone at night. Hated worrying about him not coming home one night. Was jealous when his job took him into places where she knew temptation lay.

His response to her angry words was either to shrug her off or become silent, hoping the rage would burn itself out. She played out the scenes theatrically as if she were Joan Crawford, threatening violence to him and to herself. He was the cool one, never retaliating, so that even if he were in the wrong, even if he had precipitated the argument, his presence was reassuring. Mom’s volatility left a lasting impression on me. It seemed that we were always seconds away from becoming a newspaper headline the next day. None of us realized then that the episodes were a preview of the bipolar illness that went on to rule her life. We spent most of our lives under that cloud.

In the end, only death was able to separate them. The volatility of the marriage dissipated and was replaced by devotion. Dad’s ship never found his port of call, but it never stopped him from dreaming. Mom stopped trying to hammer reality into him. She never did rid herself of her pessimism. She assumed a kind of tolerance. But she never became the willing partner of his dreams.

On Saturday nights, when my wife and I go out to dinner, I see Dad staring back at me from our mirror. He winks approvingly. Sometimes I find myself uttering one of Mom’s zingers. She still talks through me. I am the repository of her cynicism.

They are with me. Always. 

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.

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