The Enigma of Departure

Most of the time, when you part company with someone, you fully expect to see them again the next time.

It’s just part of how human interaction works. The expectation of continuity allows so many of our institutions, from family to employment to government, to function.

And yet sometimes, there is a high probability that you could be saying your last goodbye. Managing that is not easy.

My mother is 88 years old this year. She had a stroke over four years ago that has left her disabled and dependent. She lives in a retirement home of her own choosing in California. Each time I visit, saying goodbye requires that I both believe I will see her again and know that I may not.

My father turned 90 years old in January. Obviously, he is in his twilight years. I haven’t seen him in person in four years, for a variety of reasons including, of course, the global pandemic. But we talk frequently on the phone. Each time I say goodbye, I hope we will speak again in a few days but also wonder if I have said all that I feel I need to say to him.

My sons are both adults and mostly independent. They come and go as it suits them. All it would take is some careless driving or an undiagnosed health condition to make that casual wave as they go out the door be the last time we see each other.

My wife was in a hospital in Baltimore, struggling to recover from a serious health emergency during the first half of this year. I was visiting her almost every day. But each time I left for the day, I carried with me the possibility that she might not make it until the next day. If I knew for sure that she was dying, I would not go home. But the doctors and nurses assured me that she’d be there when I returned. I had to trust them. And I know myself enough to know that if I try to get by with my reserve of energy at zero, I won’t survive either. That helps nobody.

So the goodbyes are loaded with silent meaning and unspoken hopes and fears. There is no other way it can be. I cast all my bets on there being a tomorrow with my wife, my children, my father, my mother. And then spin the wheel.

Giorgio de Chirico painting artwork

The Better Path

There is a fairly famous poem called “Desiderata.” You may have seen it before. The first lines are “Go placidly amid the noise & haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

Desiderata

I found a large framed copy of this poem recently as I was packing up my mother’s apartment. A little over a year ago, my mother had a stroke that requires her to live full time in a nursing home from now on. I remember this framed copy hanging in the house I grew up in, so it meant enough to Mom to have kept it for a long time.

My mother is a person of many contradictions. She can be both generous and cold. She is often critical and just as often accepting. She is relentlessly critical of some people but is capable of acceptance and forgiveness.  She voted for Trump but also has spent an unknown amount of money to support children in developing countries and also children with developmental disabilities in this country. She has done many things in her life but complains that she’s not accomplished anything.

The poem exhorts us to be the best version of ourselves and not worry overmuch about what might have been. “You are a child of the universe,” it says, “no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

And maybe that’s why mom has this framed copy, as something to reflect on when it all seems too difficult, as a way of reminding her to stop once in a while, take a deep breath, and try again. Perhaps we all have things that we put in place to remind of to strive for better and not succumb to the darker impulses. It might be a poem, a book, or a song. It could be rosary beads or a religious artifact. It could be a special picture or movie.

The thing is, even though the poem was parked in my mom’s closet and not hanging on a wall, the fact that she still kept it tells me that she is, at 84 years old, still in the process, as are all of us I suppose.

I’ve said before that knowing one’s parents is complicated, especially for those of us who have our parents in our lives for over five decades, and for those of us who have parents who have been difficult to understand.

So it can’t be said often enough that stopping once in a while, taking a deep breath, and trying again can lead us to the better path.