Far within me, where the memory of what I am is still unclouded, a little child is waking up and making an old man’s mask weep. (Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue)
I just got back from a two week trip back home with my son. Back home is where I’m from, where I grew up, but it’s not really home anymore, hasn’t been for a while. My sister and I moved our father into a skilled nursing facility during these two weeks, and I realized that I had just let go of my last remaining tie to my home town since he was now living in another city. It’s been twenty years since I’ve actually lived in my home town, but my childhood – both the easy breezy years and the more complicated ones – still reverberates so deeply there. Almost as if time travel is a possibility, in that way that all time is happening at once.
I walked outside there one night around 9pm and inhaled, and I immediately started to cry. It was the air, warm but not yet hot evening summer air. The smell of the place where I grew up. So deeply familiar it hit me within my cells and all of a sudden I was 10 years old again, riding my bicycle home from playing at a friend’s. I could even smell the swampy wetlands miles away on the bay, mixed with the bay leaves and pine and eucalyptus of Northern California. The smell of the dry golden hills around my flat suburb.
It wasn’t all messy, it wasn’t all complicated. There were some really good and simple years when I swam and biked and made mud pies and drank Slurpees from the 7/11. Ate ice cream from Baskin Robbins. Bought gum balls by the handful from the drug store back before all drug stores were chains.
I grew up in an insanely beautiful place. Large mature trees forming a ceiling of green as they meet each other in the center of a street. Green nestled by golden hills spotted with giant knotty old oak trees. Foggy mist cooling off very hot mornings, seagulls a bit off their course, reminding me that the ocean is just beyond those hills.
I could never afford to live now where I grew up, but I feel lucky that I got to be a kid there.
I was struck daily during those two weeks away by this: That we are all so fragile and also so incredibly strong at the same time. I thought repeatedly about resilience, about the way life pushes and shoves and beats us down – and how we manage to bounce back up, hopefully stronger, wiser, kinder. I thought about kindness and love and patience, how much patience is required by compassion. I thought about being gentle with myself, because I am always reminding those I care about to be gentle with themselves.
It’s incredibly hard to watch my father lose his independence because of a degenerative disease that is not going to get better. It’s hard to see him need so much help to do basic things. I want to lash out at the son-of-a-bitch that is Parkinson’s for taking away his ability to trust his body, the strength of his legs, the words in his mouth. I want to make it all better but I can’t. The words of a geriatric counselor ring repeatedly in my ears: Remember to let your father have his own experience.
Something about the container of my childhood home town, reminding me of my father when he carried me on his shoulders as we flew kites, hung a basketball net above our garage, biked with me to get deli sandwiches or ice cream. Those memories were formed a long time ago but they remain deep in my cells. I imagine myself in my nineties able to summon them as if they were yesterday. My 96 year old great aunt could do that, become a little girl in her parents’ arms again just by closing her eyes.
I turned 44 while I was in California. My son sang Happy Birthday with me in bed that morning and I opened cards from my husband and daughter who were far away, and from family near and far. I spent the afternoon with girlfriends I’ve known for many years, women my age and older who personify the grace and beauty of being able to hold strength and fragility simultaneously.
Our Supreme Court did the right thing today and voted in favor of giving all couples the right to marry and have their marriages recognized by every state in this country. Using the language of justice and freedom, they voted in favor of love – all love. I smile-cried reading about their decision.
That’s what it keeps coming back to for me – LOVE. My connection with my sister. The holding of my husband who video chatted with me while he was on another continent. The way my husband’s aunt and uncle supported and reassured me as my sister and I made big decisions for the care of our father. The love I feel for my father, which makes watching him struggle so damn hard, and which brings me peace knowing he is safe and cared for. The holding of my girlfriends who cared for (me and) my son on the days I was so busy with my dad. The compassion and understanding and unconditional love of some of my oldest friends, the ones who just know me regardless of time and distance apart. The love and light of my son, who is all smiles and cuddles, who kept me focused on goodness and laughter and silliness when I needed it most.
I think we get to be human – that we have no choice but to be human – with each other when we can see that it all comes down to love. I think when we let our humanness show – our fragile, delicate, vulnerable, messy, honest humanness – we give each other permission to do the same. To be both fragile and strong at the same time. To ask for help and also give support. To be genuine, sincere, real, even when we’re messy.
Especially when we’re messy.