Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself? – Lao Tzu, maybe
We were skipping home from the Hillcrest farmers market and tossing a frisbee in Balboa Park when I saw Cristi waving to me from our balcony. She looked sad, and I knew something was wrong. I learned that Wendy was in a coma and unlikely to live more than a few days.
I booked the first ticket available, but it wouldn’t leave for almost 48 hours. When the time came, I said goodbye and boarded an airplane to Baton Rouge. Eight hours later, I went straight to Wendy’s hospital and arrived with bloodshot eyes and puffy cheeks and three days of grey and amber stubble on my chin. She was 16 years older than I was, yet her strawberry blonde hair looked the same as when I first remember her, forty years before. But it had been a long time since I had been home to visit, and I was shocked by how much older she looked, especially lying in a hospital bed and connected to all of those machines.
I gently rested my hand on hers, and I told her that I was there and wouldn’t leave her.
“Her liver failed from alcohol abuse,” her doctor said as he walked in. He had known I’d be arriving after visiting hours and had waited. He was a kind man, and he new time was important and he focused on telling me what I needed to know; by Louisiana law, he and I could decide whether or not to remove Wendy’s respirator tube.
“It can keep her alive for weeks or months, but we’ve been waiting for a suitable donor for three years, and they’re rare. And it’s unlikely that she’d survive the operation. If we remove her respirator, she may pass peacefully, or…” He continued and talked about what I knew could be a slow, painful process. Our choices were limited. He said that as her only surviving relative, Louisiana law said that I could choose whether or not to remove her from life support and let nature takes it’s course. He repeated what would happen if we removed her respirator. I listened to his words, but my eyes were fixed on Wendy and the respirator tube obscuring her mouth. I knew what I’d choose.
He’d let me stay in the ICU and think about it, and he’d return at 8 am to learn my decision. It was 8:56 pm. He left, and I collapsed on one knee and bawled and looked skyward and cursed loudly and dripped tears that pooled in my whiskers, trapped.
“Why, Wendy? Why?” I shouted!d
I knew it was rhetorical, but a part of me had to shout and release pressure. I stood slowly, resting my hands on my stiff knee to help me up, and blew my nose with a white handkerchief I usually carried and wiped my eyes and cheeks and stubble with the back of my sleeve.
Wendy had always been a private person, good at avoiding questions and keeping secrets, and embarrassed to share details of her life, because she was ashamed of her lack of education, alcoholism, and for abandoning me as baby. I was conceived when she was a petitie sixteen year old girl, estranged from her biologic family and a high school dropout, and then she was abandoned by my father, young man she had met at Glenoaks High School, a physically large and violent drug dealer at the time. She had a slight nervous breakdown, and she left me alone at a daycare center and fled Louisiana, ironically going to California with a man she had just met at a coffee shop. Someone saved me, and a judge placed me in their care as a foster child and recorded her exact words in my custody case, Partin vs. Partin: “I was emotionally upset. I was receiving little support from Edward. I was scared, very confused. I didn’t know exactly which way to turn. I felt I had no one to listen and help with the situation at hand.”
She returned from California on her own, and she spent seven years fighting to get me back with several judges testing her progress over several years. She finally regained custody; but, sadly, by then I was almost seven years old and didn’t recall her as my mother, and she, ashamed of still being so young and no longer wanting to be judged, she taught me to call her Wendy so that people would think I was her kid brother. It worked, and over the years we developed an atypical son and mother relationship. After I returned from the first Gulf war, we were different people and reconnected and, over time, became something not unlike best friends who loved each other. We shared secrets and inside jokes that only the two of us knew, but apparently we didn’t share all secrets. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
Her IV pump sounded an alarm and I ensured that the tubes didn’t have an air bubbles before reseting it. I rested my hand on hers, carefully avoiding the crowd of needles bunched on her small hand. Her inner arms were bruised from failed needle attempts in her collapsing veins, weak from low blood pressure, and the backs of her hands were crowded from all the needles dripping nutrients and pain killers from the bags above her bed and through the pump. I apologized for the loud alarm and assured her that she was fine, and I gently squeezed her hand and restated that I wouldn’t leave her. But my bravado failed, and I collapsed to my knees beside her bed, still resting my hand on hers, and cursed louder than the alarm had sounded:
“Fuck! Goddamnit! Fucking Goddamn bullshit!”
I paused, trying to stop the harshness of my words, but I released one more, as if the pressure inside of me needed one more burp to stabilize, and I looked up and shouted:
I said her name, but I meant Wendy, Life, God, The Universe, and anything else I didn’t understand. It was an old habit.
“If I had known,” I said when I calmed down, still looking downward and kneeling and clinging my hands to her bed rail, too depleted to stand just yet, “I would have made different choices. I would have made time.” But I knew that she knew that, at least when sober. She had been a heavy drinker for the past decade, which is part of the reason I had stopped visiting as often, ironically.
I stood up and tried to focus on something, anything, to allow my breath to settle and to distract myself from ruminating about either the past or the future. I knew what I’d tell the doctor when he returned, but I didn’t want to think about it. It was probably my last night with her, and I knew the best I could hope for was a quick passing and that the alternative was too terrifying to consider, and I didn’t want to think of either outcome of my choices any more that night.
I looked at the IV pump serial number and recognized the date of manufacture and focused on that. It was before my time working with that company. Coincidentally, I had led the team redesigning it, a common model from a company headquartered in San Diego. I inspected her respirator, a new model also manufactured in San Diego but by a different company. It was one of 35 produced each month, and sold for between $36,000 and $75,000, depending on the software options. I recognized the serial number, and knew who had authorized itsshipment to Baton Rouge only three weeks prior, coincidentally. The current and hopefully temporary manufacturing instructions included a photo of my left hand pointing towards a critical step in the process that hadn’t been designed with manufacturing in mind; I had pointed to the step, making a joke that a picture was worth the thousand words that would be necessary to describe the step and how to redesign the system to be more user friendly. I told Wendy that, and tried to smile and joke with her, hoping she could hear me and perhaps stop thinking for a bit, too. I told her I had a hand in making her life support.
I had inherited or developed Wendy’s sense of humor as a kid, centered around coincidences and ironies and puns. Her birth name was Wendy Anne Rothdram, and she had kept my dad’s name for reasons she never told me, and she had always joked that she was born WAR and that marrying Edward Partin WARP’ed her and made her Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. I tried that night to say the joke that she was still a Partin, and therefore still warped; but I collapsed again and cried loudly for a long time.
I stopped crying and wiped my eyes ensured her IV bags were full enough to last until morning. I recognized the names on the quality assurance label from their Tijuana manufacturing plant, only 16 miles from my home in America’s Finest City,. They had released the bags from their quality control system only three weeks prior. I had led their new company in workshops on how to comply with FDA quality assurance – I have a knack for languages and unraveling complex books filled with rules, and had traveled a lot for work – and I spent a while telling Wendy about the people who made her IV bags and their families and meals we had shared.
I forced myself to tell her a bit about my condo in San Diego and what was happening there. Like Wendy, I had grown up reticent to share personal details that could lead to further questions, and my work was complex and difficult to summarize concisely. I was a private person, too, if only out of habit. She hadn’t left Louisiana in thirty years, but always asked about my life on the phone so that she could live a bit vicariously. I felt regret for dismissing her questions, not taking time to simplify what I did like I could do regulations, and I felt that the least I could do was share some stories and hope she could hear me, or to make some jokes that only she and I would understand.
I held up my scarred left hand and showed her the watch she’d remember from her childhood. I had inherited it from our Uncle Bob just before I left Louisiana, a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that never needing winding or batteries, a mechanical marvel of that time period that absorbed energy from the motion of your arms and stored it in tiny, Swiss made springs to be released slowly, while you slept or rested. It was a Rolex, but the most unostentatious model they sold, with a simple black band and scratched acrylic face. You’d have to look closely to notice it was a Rolex. It was subtle, and despite the scratch, it was still eloquent and reliable. Uncle Bob had bought it the same year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay brought one to the first summit of Mount Everest, and it was the same one I had seen the super spy James Bond wear in old late night movies Uncle Bob and I had watched together when I sat with him in hospice care. He was a French speaking Canadian, and when he immigrated to Louisiana in 1952 he had sought out the French speaking parts of New Orleans and splurged on the Rolex from a reputable jeweler, not knowing its history but recognizing quality and appreciating that he had achieved the American Dream and could afford a few luxuries. He had said that a spy would wear the most discrete, reliable watch possible. He was right, and his Oyster Perpetual had been working longer than I had been alive.
I told Wendy that it was old and scratched and scared, but still working and useful. “Just like me!” I said, chuckling and, for the first time in days, feeling a hint of genuine happiness shining between the clouds of worry and sadness that had depleted my sleep.
I leaned into the momentum and rotated my head to show her my greying, receding hairline and the long, arching scar across the back of my head I had had since a child, and I repeated Uncle Bob’s jokes from when he, too, had been here, in the same hospital, shaking his watch with two fingers to keep it running, telling me that I, too, would one day be like him. “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” he’d say, smirking and rubbing his balding head, like I was doing for Wendy 30 years later. I told her he was been right.
She was still young, only 16 years older than I was, and we shared the same family history, references, and secrets than only a few other people knew. All of our family had died young, too, and all had been alcoholics and died from complications related to alcohol or cigarette smoking between the ages of 62 and 64. Uncle Bob had died a few months before his first social security check and a year before he could begin withdrawing his IRA without penalty. Auntie Lo inherited both, and received only one check before dying. Granny died a few months later, just before she would have been eligible for social security or withdrawing from her IRA. Wendy had inherited all of their retirement accounts, but lived moderately; financially, at least. She became an alcoholic, just like her mother had been. Over the decades, Granny’s IRA had left Wendy dying as a wealthy woman, and I hadn’t known it and I had to process a lot that night. No one I know knows which decisions are right or wrong, or what defines life or death.
The doctor came in at 8:23am. I was kneeling with my hand on hers, and my beard was thicker from another night of growing and now stained with salt from dried tears. I slowly stood up, grunting and having to push harder with my hand this time because of swelling in my joints from not having lied down in so long. I kept my hand on Wendy’s and told him my choice with a meek voice, and he recorded it and instructed the nurses to remove the life supporting systems.
I stood aside to make room, and then gently squeezed her tiny, bruised hand that no longer had IV needles, and looked into the face I loved, and I watched the nurses slowly pull the long respirator tube from her throat and held her hand and said I was there in case she felt the discomfort of the tube being removed and her body trying to breath on its own again. The nurses moved aside and I stepped forward and placed my left hand beside her head and automatically, probably out of habit, observed the second hand of Uncle Bopb’s watch with my peripheral vision. I mindlessly monitored her breath rate and pulse, just like I had with hundreds of patients in college and in roadside emergencies here and there. I had worked as a paramedic during college to supplement the army college fund while I studied medicine and engineering, and I had always used Uncle Bob’s Rolex because it was an analog watch with Roman numerals, easy to see a quarter turn and multiply breaths in fifteen seconds by four, saving precious mental bandwidth instead of being confused by too many numbers on a digital watch and doing math and therefore not fully concentrating on what’s important. She wasn’t breathing, and she gasped and coughed up phlegm, and her heart rate became rapid and shallow and then the computer monitor began a long, steady beep that told me what I already knew. The nurse turned off the alarm and didn’t reset it, and I continued to squeeze her hand because I told her I wouldn’t leave her.
My eyes tried to shut and my upper lip quivered and I couldn’t take a breath, but it wasn’t time yet. Tears dripped down my cheeks and across my stubble and onto her face. I fought with all the effort I could muster to be with her. Finally, for reasons I can’t explain, my final words left my lips. I wasn’t thinking; they were the most true words that could stem from the strongest of the waves of emotions clashing within me. I said, “I love you, Wendy,” and then I squeezed her hand so she would know I was still there, and, unable to say more, gasping for my own breath as if drowning under those waves, I mouthed “love” again and again. I can’t describe how I felt it was time, but when I finally let go of her hand it was six minutes after the doctor had recorded her time of death.
I planned to stay in Louisiana and settle her estate. She lived remotely, an hour upriver near the quaint town of Saint Francisville, in a beautiful home she had designed and had built with an early retirement settlement from Exxon. The cell phone reception around her home was unreliable, part of the reason we had rarely spoken in ten years, and I knew I’d be out of contact with my family and friends in San Diego. I had ways to reach my closest circle without cell coverage – I traveled to remote areas frequently and used satellite communications for emergencies – but this wasn’t an emergency, and I had inherited Wendy’s sense of privacy, perhaps only out of habit. Few people knew I had suddenly left San Diego, and I quickly wrote an email telling those who needed to know that I’d be without my phone or email for a while.
I then wrote Wendy’s obituary for the Baton Rouge Advocate, and selected a photo of her from my phone that was midway between her age now and when she was in high school, one of her smiling and with two of the dogs she had rescued and fostered, hoping people who knew her then and now would recognize her. It would be printed in the paper edition, which was still useful and used by people her age and by many people in the pleasant but relatively antiquated culture of rural Louisiana. I had hesitated writing it, wondering what to write and habitually respecting her privacy, and I believe she would have been happy with the result.
Wendy Rothdram Partin, a resident of St. Francisville, LA, passed way on Friday, April 5th, 2019 at the age of 63. Wendy attended Glenoaks High School in Baton Rouge, LA, and retired from Exxon Mobil. She is survived by her son, Jason Ian Partin, of San Diego, CA. She was preceded in death by her mother, Joyce Rothdram, and her aunt and uncle, Lois and Robert Desico, all of Baton Rouge, LA. During her retirement, she became a master gardener and enjoyed helping people with their lawns. She enjoyed cooking, and took food to anyone she knew who was ill or grieving. Wendy loved animals, and worked with local shelters to foster dogs until they found permanent homes. She passed away unexpectedly from liver failure. In lieu of gifts or a service, please spend time sharing what you love with your neighbor, listen to what they love, and help each other.
I had hesitated writing about her liver failure, but I thought it was worth sharing. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year from alcohol abuse, and I hoped that one small gesture would plant a seed in someone’s mind before it was too late. I believe Wendy would have agreed. And I omitted that she had brought worker-prisoners at the shelter breakfast sandwhiches from McDonalds on her way each week, only six of them and therefore less than $6, but a selfless act of kindness that only the Humane Center director had noticed over the years and recently told me, quoting Mathew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Her obituary was printed in the Baton Rouge Advocate April 9th and 10th, 2019, and is still available online, like most of our family history; Wendy had been a private person, and my grandfather had been very well known in Baton Rouge, and his name was known throughout town when she was a young, estranged single teenage mom because he was frequently in court reports and the news, all of which was available to her coworkers, which is why she retired in the remote town without cell phone reception near her home.
That night, I wandered around her house, a mansion by most people’s standards, with meticulously designed and maintained gardens using local fauna, pine trees for shade and to acidify the soil for the azelea flowers that were blooming and releasing their sent, a young but growing pecan tree planted beside what looked like what would become a small pet memorial – Wendy would move a plant or bird feeder here or there until it felt right to her – and a single, sprawling and majestic stately oak tree draped in Spanish moss, like the ones we had both climbed as children. She had designed her home around, spending months sketching and iterating ideas. She had added a wrap around porch overlooking a fishing pond, and a steep triangle shaped roof that the French Canadians had used fend off Louisiana’s torrential autumn hurricane rains and to allow air circulation in the sweltering summers. The walls were eloquently decorated with elaborately framed paintings of dogs and wildlife, selected by her thirty years from part of our Canadian great-great aunt’s collection that had been passed to Auntie Lo and Granny and then to Wendy, and now to me. They were each worth more than I had earned in a year of being a paramedic, slightly less than my entire college fund or a single respirator without added software. I looked skyward and told Wendy that and chuckled a bit, for my sake.
Those memories and many more resurfaced as I paced through rooms remarkably void of photographs of family, including of me, because Wendy had preferred no reminders of her lost relatives and loves, especially any photo that would have led a visitor to ask personal questions. I paused in her office when I saw two photos of soldiers, one of me in the first Gulf War and one of her first boyfriend, just before he died in Vietnam and only a few months before I was conceived in a night of mourning that she regretted for many years. I clutched the old photos and cried for her losses and tried my best to make one last joke for her.
“Rest in Peace, Wendy,” I said, looking skyward and feeling tears swell as I tried to pronounce the acronym out loud, RIP WAR, but I burst into tears and couldn’t. She never professed a religion and I never asked, but if she prayed or shouted to The Universe I know that it was to stop innocent young people from going to war. She had always regretted that I had joined the army to escape my family, fleeing Louisiana like she had, and she had never gotten over her boyfriend’s death. I believe she would have appreciated the way her epitaph sounded.
Physically fatigued more than I had ever felt in all my life, even after seven years of military service in wars, and countless 24 hour ambulance shifts while in college. And to this day I can not recall ever having being as emotionally drained as at that moment. I collapsed again, but this time onto my back, and I slept restlessly on the floor of her office until the sun rose and woke me up a few hours later.
Over the next few days I sold her home to a local minister and his large family for whatever was their first offer and included the garden decor they had requested, saying it was perfect for the home she had designed. And, with the help of a small army of retirees and their trucks and service dogs, I arranged an estate sale with the proceeds going to the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society at the outskirts of Saint Francisville, a town named after the Catholic Saint Francis de Agasi, the patron saint of kindness to animals.
I imagined more and more about Wendy’s daily life and tried to empathize with her, and I grew to lover her more each day. But I was becoming mentally and physically fatigued from the effort, and I was more and more anxious to return home to the people I loved who were still alive and my comfortable bed and allergy medicine; in a cruel twist of fate, dog dander aggravated my asthma, and my nose was constantly dripping from either crying or sinus inflammation or both.
I searched Wendy’s home for anything I’d like to bring to San Diego, and in my search I stumbled upon a small wooden box engraved “Angel,” the tiny little fluffy dog Wendy had rescued and fostered, her first one with the Humane Society. As she fostered more dogs, she had searched for a permanent home for her Angel; but, in fourteen years she never found a home that would love her Angel as much as she did, and Angel had died in her lap the year before. I opened the box and saw a tiny black velvet bag filled with Angel’s ashes and embroidered in eloquent gold thread with Wendy’s final thoughts of her Angel: “Until we meet at the Rainbow Bridge.” She had once told me that the Rainbow Bridge was a mythical place where humans and their pets reunite in the afterlife. In Angel’s box, Wendy had carefully placded two tiny purple and gold hair ribbons that Angel wore when they watched LSU football on television together. Wendy had priorities, and had recently mentioned that the 2019 drafts would make LSU a top ranked team that fall, and I knew she would have liked to watch them with her Angel again. I put the bag with Angel’s ashes beside Wendy’s and continued searching to take home.
I had packed hastily and only had a small, carry-on backpack full of clothes. I would leave the clothes if I found something worthwhile, or pack whatever I found in a larger bag or have it shipped. But, in Wendy’s jewelry bow I found something small that spoke to me and that I could carry it in my pocket, Granny’s gold retirement watch, a battery powered Seiko engraved by her employer. It was tiny, because Granny had also been petite, and the gold band would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl. It was so small that the inscription had to be abbreviated. Instead of her full name, Joyce Hicks Rothdram, her employer had said: “To J. Rothdram, 25 yrs service. CoPolymer.”
She had been proud of that watch and her service at CoPolymer, a chemical plant adjacent to where Wendy worked at Exxon along chemical alley between the airport and Saint Francisville. I put it in my bag and glanced around again, and then I remembered the war medals near the photos in her office, but I didn’t smile at the war pun as I put them in my bag with Granny’s gold watch. I felt I had seured the things I most cherished from Wendy’s home. As Uncle Bob had told us near his end, you can’t take it with you. But, at least I’d try to take home Granny’s watch and my medals from Desert Storm that she had cherished, proud of her son; they, and my photo, had been on her desk at Exxon for almost 20 years.
I prepared for Wendy’s ceremony the next morning. I had scheduled it in time to catch flight home, back to the people I loved and who were still alive, and where I had a bed I felt I desperately needed and would have dreamed of, had I been sleeping well that week.
Three days before, I had unlocked Wendy’s phone and contacted her three closest friends and Mike, my former stepfather, and told them where I was holding her ceremony. Mike was fifteen years her senior, and had been LSU’s valedictorian some time in the 1970’s and an engineering manager at Exxon. He was a good man, and always had been. He quit Exxon when we all lived together, and became entrepreneurial as a real estate investor and designer of custom homes in West Feliciana Parish, near Saint Francisville and the bluffs along Thompson Creek. Wendy and I had learned a lot from him, and she loved Saint Francisville.
Mike’s Catholic family was so large that several parish phone books are filled half way with his family name, Richard, pronounced in the Cajun accent as Ree-Chard, and they included many Michael Richards, especially in the towns and parishes along the River Road communities between Saint Francisiville and New Orleans. Wendy had joked that the Richards had a family tree with branches like a giant stately oak, and that she and I were a family stick, a straight line of single parent after single parent rather than the dozens and dozens of cousins Mike had grown up with. But I lied, sort of, even to the retired volunteers who kept asking how he and I knew each other when he was helping us make small repairs on Wendy’s home before selling it. He wasn’t really my stepfather, because they had never married, but we had all lived together for a few years only lived together and had adopted the same word to avoid people prying too deeply, probably similar to how Wendy had felt when she told people I was her little brother. No matter what word I used, I know Wendy would have been happy to see him there. He had always been a good man in the thirty years I had known him.
I spoke with Mike for the first time in a long time as we repaired a few small things in Wendy’s home. He was happily married to another family when I left, and when I asked him what was different now he replied from a place of love so obviously truthful that I couldn’t help but feel happy for him. He said, without hesitating and with a joyful sparkle in his aging and wrinkled eyes, still wet with tears for Wendy’s loss: the love for his wife’s little girl that he had adopted long ago – he had loved for her and she had loved him, but people make mistakes or fall in love with a neighbor and her children and make changes – and he removed his phone and showed me photos of his daughter’s recent wedding and spoke of her few moments. I simultaneously felt happy for him, but I was sad and surprisingly jealous; I must still be part the little boy who had hoped for more. I listened silently, sad and simultaneous happy for him, and didn’t tell him what the little boy in me had felt. Some secrets are okay.
We all stood on the tallest bluffs of Thompson Creek, a meager 10 foot slope but remarkable in the otherwise flat areas marked by swamps and bayous draining into the nearby Mississippi River and near Wendy’s home. The slight elevation drop makes it a clear stream compared to the murky and slow moving waters of southern Louisiana. Mike and I helped each other walk down the slippery, muddy bank, both of us old men now and mindfully taking steps down what we had practically skipped down decades ago. He rested his hand on my shoulder as I knelt in the mud beside the water and slowly poured Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the clear stream, mindlessly mumbling to Mike something about “mud” being a Sufi word that combines you and I, and that Wendy and Angel would mix into mud, as she would have wanted. But I was crying so much he didn’t understand what I was saying.
Thompson Creek is wide but shallow, and it’s water flows slowly. The ashes settled onto the smooth clay bottom and gradually began to break apart and drift towards the center of the stream, where water flows more quickly. We watched pieces of Wendy and Angel break away and mix into a muddy and meandering serpintine stream in the center of the creek and move towards Saint Francisville and its small port on the Mississippi, where they would join the world’s fourth largest river and drift past Baton Rouge and New Orleans and reach the Gulf of Mexico, and then pieces of them would mix with the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and eventually make their way all over the world. Wendy would finally travel with her Angel, and they would meet at the Rainbow Bridge and be together happily ever after.
Tears too thick to leave my eyes clogged my vision, and my body bent over and my chest clutched tightly and my asthma wheezed from the pollen of azeleas and pine trees and my body’s inflammation from lack of rest, and I gasped for breath as Mike gently held my shoulder and patiently waited for me to lift myself up from the mud. When I finally stood, we rested our hands on each others shoulders and silently watched the stream of Wendy and Angel a few more moments, then helped each other scramble back up the slippery slope and joined the others to say our final words. I dind’t know what to say, and I collapsed on my knees again and cried almost intelligibly between sobs and gasps for breath and asked, again and again, why Wendy hadn’t told me. “I tried!” I cried. “Honor thy mother and father,” I bawled. “How?” I asked. “Just be happy,” I replied, seeing the words spoken but not the speaker. I cried some things I don’t recall, and then it was time to leave.
Mike dropped me off at the Baton Rouge Airport, and as the plane left the runway I saw Granny’s house directly under the flight path. It was a small, 680 square foot house that was modest by almost anyone’s standards, but it had a large yard with majestic stately oak trees that both Wendy and I had climbed as children, and a small, murky stream where we had played and caught crawfish and minnows. Granny had been able to afford it in the 1960’s because of it’s undesirable location under the flight path and the loud jet engines that passed overhead. But, despite it’s location and size, she had been proud of it, like her watch, because she had earned it.
The plane continued to ascend and I saw my dad’s grandmother’s house a few block’s from Granny’s, and in my mind’s eye I saw the path between them that my parents met as teenagers and where my life began half a century before. In the distance, I saw the mighty Mississippi flowing by the Baton Rouge Centroplex and LSU’s Tiger Stadium, and my mind knew that Wendy and Angel were just now passing under the Mississippi Bridge connecting Baton Rouge to Plaquemine. I shuddered, and said goodbye again and closed my eyes and lowered my LSU baseball cap and allowed my tears to flow silently on the long flight home.
I arrived in San Diego and went straight home to my condo on Balboa Park, only two miles near the airport and in one of the most desirable places on Earth, and was greeted by an eight year old girl who jumped up and hugged me and told me she was sorry my mommy had died. She gave me a shiny gold keychain with a cute bootle opener built in that she had bought for me while I was gone, and I gave her Granny’s gold watch and showed her the engraving and told her that “J” stood for Joy, a slight lie because Granny went by Joyce, but it was how I felt at that moment and therefore true to me. She beamed and said it was beautiful and asked for my help in putting it on, and as I strapped the old gold watch around her tiny wrist I smiled and realized that Mike was right, and I was as happy for him as I was for myself at that moment.
As I had suspected, Granny’s watch fit her perfectly. She had never owned an analog watch, and though the battery had long since died I showed her how to set the time. I looked my Rolex, still set to San Diego’s time, and I rotated the dial on her watch until the hands showed 2:20pm and told another of Uncle Bob’s jokes, that even a broken watch is right twice a day. She didn’t understand the joke, but laughed with me and that was fine. I asked her what time it was, and she exclaimed, “Time to play!” and she was right, and we went outside and played in the park for a long while.
My mind works automatically often when I’m tired, and I was distracted a few times while playing but didn’t say anything and I don’t think anyone would have noticed. One day I may explain to her who Joyce was, and why social security may not matter, and how to invest wisely and live moderately and retire early and enjoy life for many more years without having to look at a watch. But that day was not the day, and it was time to play. I don’t know when we returned inside.
Later that evening, Cristi and I sat on our balcony overlooking Balboa Park, relaxing silently and appreciating the view across 3,800 acres of what we felt was our version of paradise, listening to palm leaves rustle and the subtle sound of Pacific ocean waves and the din of downtown traffic. “It really is America’s Finest City,” I said, mindlessly, feeling the emotion and detached from what I was saying. “We’re lucky.”
She rested her hand on mine and remained silent. We said the same thing so often that it was more of a feeling shared between us than a comment leading to conversation. I finally felt like talking about the previous week, surprised that so much had happened and I had remembered so many things and gone through such strong waves of emotions in such a short time days. I told her a few things that had happened and that I was surprised about feeling jealousy for Mike’s happiness; I had thought the little boy inside of me was gone, but I was mistaken, and I wondered out loud how many other old memories lurked in the depths of my past, maybe even preventing me from appreciating the present as much as I could. But, for then, I avoided mentioning what I mumbled on the banks of Thompson Creek about “Honor thy mother and father” and “Just be happy.” I hadn’t processed that yet.
I didn’t want to speak prematurely. I’ve always taken a long time to understand things, and sometimes I spoke without thinking, especially when I was tired, and I rarely knew why I said what I said. But, those words had been echoing in my mind ever since I mumbled them, and how to honor my mother and father had been one of the first, and last, things Cristi and I had discussed about religion decades ago. The books fo Matthew and Luke say that when Jesus said how to be perfect, he only listed six of the ten commandments and to love God with all your heart, and if you needed to do more then give all you had to the poor. Of the six commandments, he said the ones most of us can recall and make sense, to not do things like kill or lie or steal or adulter or bear false witness, but he also said to honor your mother and father, and no where in the new or old Testaments does it say how to do that. The Buddhist Pali Cannon has examples of how to honor one’s mother and father for each of those unique situations, but no generalized instructions; instead, The Buddha had said that if you’re mindful and observer your thoughts come and go without controlling them, then you learn to see the truth without needing to be told. The pillars of Islam in the Koran gives exacting details about how to liver your life, including what percentage of your money to give and the priorities when there are many people in need, ranking your family first and then orphans and then the poor, and I had worked with foster youths for fourteen years and sometimes volunteered at a homeless shelter – giving away everything seems a bit extreme – but I still didn’t understand things any better. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita is a set in a war between kingdoms with family members fighting each other, not unlike the American Civil War, where brother fought brother, and not unlike Cane and Able; and throughout the epic poem, a chariot rider who becomes Krishna repeatedly says to his driver to do your duty and to trust God, but I’ve never known what that was, God or duty. When I’ve been questioned about my religious beliefs, I’ve said it was a long story. I’ve been thinking about it since I was emancipated from my family thirty years prior, and it had been on my mind during the long flight home.
Almost 25 years ago, I had decided to never discuss religious beliefs with people, because by then I had seen so much death and had held the hand of so many people during their final breaths that I had learned, or come to believe, that beliefs and opinions rarely benefit anyone. And I believe that every word we see or hear lingers in our memories, even if only subconsciously, and that no one alive that I know knows what happens after we die. I’ve seen hundreds of people terrified by imenent death, or fear of the unknown or feel regret. All words resurface at some time, and I’ve never seen feelings of doubt, worry, or anxiety benefit anyone. The only words I try to offer are kind and what I know to be true.
Of all written words, I most adhere to the right to remain silent, a right protected by our constitution and eternalized in our Miranda Rights. If I had an opinion to share, it would be that I’d be happier if more people practiced their Miranda Rights; and if I I quoted a spiritual text, I would quip from Tao Te Ching: more words count less.
“I’d like to write that book,” I said.
For decades, close friends and family had encouraged me to share my family history, but I hadn’t, partially because so many other things seemed to demand my attention and partially out of respect for Wendy’s privacy.
I chuckled and said, “Wendy would laugh if I called it ‘A part in history’.” I smiled for a genuine, fleeting, blessed moment.
Cristi smiled and said I could talk about my small part in his story.
“I think it would help people,” she said. “You’d regret it if you didn’t try.”
She was probably right, but I was too exhausted to reply.
We stood up from our seats on the balcony and she held my hand and led us inside. We paused and looked at all that we loved and knew we were in our version of Heaven, here and now, and didn’t wish for anything more for ourselves. But we felt that when we first met, too.
“We’re lucky,” I mumbled.
My eyes were drooping and my breath was shallow and I collapsed one last time that week, depleted, like a wave that had crashed ashore, craving the proverbial day of rest. I fell asleep immediately and slept peacefully and arose the next morning and began writing a book, for posterity’s sake, and dedicated to my mother, with hope for peace.
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