My brother-in-law’s Mom passed away this week. 96 years old. The last of the generation above for my extended family. We are all now officially elder orphans.
Talking with my brother-in-law on the phone, I tried to remember a quote to the effect of “now our work is to apprentice ourselves to the new invisible forms of the departed.” It is a tiresome cliché to casually console someone with “They will always be with you.” Most people would like to—or do— respond with, “No, actually they won’t. They were with me and now they’re gone, so don’t try to dress it up. They’re not here and I am. And sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it’s a big hole of grief and maybe for some people, it’s a relief.”
Tonight I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to the town of Larkspur to see a movie. That’s a long way to go for a movie, but my wife saw it this summer without me and loved it and this was the only place it was still playing. Titled “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” it was about just that—a high school senior, his friend Earl and a classmate dying of leukemia. I highly recommend it.
But the point is that to get to the movie theater, I drove past Marin General Hospital where my Dad had triple bypass surgery at 89 years old. I visited him just about every day for a couple of months there before he moved to other facilities further north. This was in 2007, but driving past again brought back the whole scene.
Then in Larkspur, the theater is down the street from The Left Bank restaurant, a place I ritually had lunch with my parents for many years. I’d bike to the Larkspur Ferry, they’d pick me up and drive me to the restaurant. They lived in Novato, so it was a way for us to meet in-between without my Dad having to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. He was driving well into his 80’s, but he did not like going all the way to the city. At the restaurant, my Dad and I always ordered the Jacque Pepin sandwich (since discontinued) and he would have decaf coffee. My Mom often went for some fish. Sometimes my sister would join us as well.
After the movie, I was in a tender mood. Themes about mortality tend to do that to me. The Left Bank was still filled with the chatter of outdoor diners on a warm summer’s night. As I turned the car around, I was greeted by an enormous rising full moon. Going with the flow, I listened to the same Blossom Dearie album (The Diva Series) that often would accompany my sobs as I returned from my visits with my Dad all those years back. The songs did not fail in their promise to get some water flowing again.
And so my folks are with me again tonight and happily so. I’ve had a long apprentice—8 years— with my Dad’s passing and over a year with my Mom— and 4 years with my father-in-law and 7 months with my mother-in-law and I believe I’m getting accustomed to their “invisible forms.”
How could it be otherwise? My parents birthed me, fed me, clothed me, bathed me, drove me places, drove me crazy, loved me in their own weird ways, sat next to me watching Perry Mason and the Walt Disney Show and 100 other bizarre stories (Hogan’s Heroes? Car 54 Where Are you? McHale’s Navy? It’s a long list.) They introduced me to Beethoven and Bach, to Hitchcock and Dickens, to the organ and piano, to Crostic puzzles and Solitaire, to almonds and raisins and sour cream (now yogurt) and bananas. They are inextricably and indelibly part of me and my job is to still thank them and remember them and enjoy the world on their behalf.
And tonight, I did it all.
And tonight, I did it all.