Homeward Unbound

I had a lot of fear about a recent trip to the city of big shoulders—my childhood home, a place where my father lay languishing in an assisted living facility, a place where my mom wanted me to return, to return to the basement of films made and left, of photos taken and forgotten in drawers, of heavy yearbooks waiting for their rightful owner who was on the lam from his karma.

As if.

Walking below a harvest moon I admitted to Andy that it wasn’t money or lack of compassion that had blocked my visit—it was fear.  The shrink who deals with everyone else’s feelings, I realized, was terrified to go home—home to ground zero of depression, denial, narcissism, false faces and family secrets; the place of long-festering fraternal hurts and resentments, wounds needing to heal with no map and no sutures at hand.

*

Hanging with my brother is like stepping into The Cooking Channel… Having traversed the endless subterranean tunnel at O’Hare International I emerged into the waiting car, my nephew DJing from the back-seat, listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and then suddenly I’m eating baby tomatoes in truffle oil.

But salad moments were fleeting and soon we worked together to hoist my dad in his wheel chair up the steps.  He nearly choked on his wine, my dad, my fast-fading father.

I helped him pee for the first time in my life.  He didn’t want to just go with the flow in his double depends.  And so we found ourselves in a love embrace as I eased him onto the toilet.

With his knickers in quite the knot, I called for Scotch tape and gerryrigged his diaper.  You might think it horrible, but the fear of the thing far overshadows the thing itself—it’s just like riding a diaper bike and parenting prepares you well for many an eventuality (this is one of the reasons I find so much to contemplate, and co-relate, in the childcare journey).

A fine red burgundy, pasta, and steaks to perfection, sitting around the table with my nephews, my sister-in-law, my brother, my mom and dad:  Lovely.

And then descent into the inky night, wheel chair heavy down the steps, the long drive down ever-changing yet eternal Lincoln Avenue, rolling ghostly through the land of Lincoln, a river Styx to Lincolnwood whose terminus turns out to be a well lighted lobby with cookies and brave cheer as the doors are being locked for the night… with us inside.

It was not nearly the antiseptic cuckoo’s nest I’d feared, but real enough.  My father’s roommate, Steve (always Steve, my middle name web of interwoven synchronicities), told me that he was the kid of a gangster and the daughter of an orthodox rabbi.  Steve was a man darning his socks in the night, sewing kit open on the bed.

My mom and I had to find our way out a door not the front door.

Driving through the tunnel of replenishing trees, significantly now grown-up in the wake of their Dutch elm disease fallen forefathers, I arrived into the night of my very own childhood room, to dreams of venomous spiders and eight-bridged islands.

*

Brunch at Jack’s was a mirror meal of the one I’d had at Dupar’s the night before I left:  eggs all around and a stack of communal pancakes in the center.

That night I worked alongside my mom in the storied basement, sorting secrets from memories from garage sale items from trash.

Why did my mother keep so many empty boxes?  Why did my father keep so many trade show identity badges?

We toiled until nearly 3am, and started in again at 8am—purging, releasing, sorting, sharing, carrying the burden of impermanence up the steps, like Sisyphus, finding pleasure in the pure presence.

I took my father’s tefillin… unlaid for more than 70 years.  I felt his Navy dress threads hanging in the cedar closet at the absolute center of the bowels of the house.  I peered into the starkly empty safe in the center of the cedar closet floor, lurking below a bathroom rug… a hollow center, a potential space.

This ritual of purging years of material binging was all in preparation for departure, for the relinquishing of the house itself—a mean amalgam of bricks that prove poor fort against the ghosts of Native Americans, water leaking through tar-black roof, seeping into the basement to upend and crack the tiles.

*

I sat with my dad in the assisted living dining room that night, and then the next.  I cut, and shared, my father’s Chicken Kiev… thinking later of how Kiev was where his mother and father emigrated from, thinking of how my parents were in Russia when I had a heart problem and was in the hospital back when I was twenty-six.

That dining room is where we said good-bye, perhaps for this life, perhaps not.  Hotel California was playing on the speakers.  The irony was not lost on me—in the eternal Truth I can check out any time I like, but I can never leave.

*

I write these words in ink, with a pen, at an airport, gazing at a plane.

I will transcribe later, but I will not do justice to the treasures of this trip, to the love that floods me now in tears and sadness and joy and laughter and gratitude.

Do you see your Self in me?  I see You in every stranger in the security line and the waiting area seats—the lives we’ve all had together, this one an old enemy, that one an old best friend, lover, brother, kid or parent.

It’s been a long road but I am home now—home in Chicago, home at ORD, home in LA, home on this blog.

If you are with me on this you too are home—we are home together.  If this doesn’t make sense, I am here, and I will see you when you get home.

The eternal footman holds my coat and Snickers.  My nephew spills the Halloween candy and I get a Twix.  The plane is boarding and, anyway, you know what the music means…

So, let’s dedicate this day, this eternal day wherever you meet it, to all our collective children—at the school where I dropped my nephews this morning (“we don’t need no education…”) to the home my mom sits in alone, and yet not alone, to the assisted living where my dad and Steve joke about robbing the Shell station across the street.

Namaste, Bruce

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16 Responses to “Homeward Unbound”

  1. Katrina Kenison Says:

    Bruce, So glad you are home, safe. You are so right, that the fear is so much bigger than the thing itself. A lesson for our times, and for all of us to remember as we enter into whatever abyss calls out to us today. This is a beautiful portrait of your place, your people, and your heart. Thanks for letting us share your home. xxkatrina

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Wow, Bruce. Thank you for sharing this reflection that is, at once, so personal and so universal.

    The line that grabbed Katrina also grabbed me: “The fear of the thing overshadows the thing itself.” This idea of a “middle place” in which we parent both our children and our parents is a scary one to me. While I don’t yet see myself in your story, I know that it is only a matter of time. And it is meaningful and powerful to hear about your experience.

    May you be well. May your dad be well. May you all be well.

  3. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    You must have spoken some universal truth for I too must echo the fear line also. Diving in saved me from my fear.

    My neighbor has just yesterday put her father in an assisted living facility. I’ve invited her for dinner tonight, to borrow a laugh when one of her own can be hard to come by.

    I remember when my mother was exiting. I took her swimming on a regular basis. We swam but mostly floated together and each day I needed to help more and more. But there were so many giggles in that pool. She became younger and I older until the lines between parent and child blurred. There was a deep compassion as we let the water surround us and float us into another understanding.

    I am you and you are me, and yet we are ourselves, distinct. The tension in this paradox is exceedingly delightful. A romp through a pool or a party darning socks planning an escapade nextdoor.

    Thank you for sharing yourself so completely and expecting nothing in return.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Such a lovely and moving image, Rebecca, of you and your mom together in the eternal waters of coming and going. So poignant as it ripples through your words.

      All Good Wishes to your neighbor, her dad and you.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    What an absolutely wonderful post Bruce!
    I could hear the music within and in between each word, your rhythm resonating with the eternal one where we are all looking at ourselves in each other and back at ourselves…Your words and courage is much appreciated and inspiring, thank you.

    This past weekend my family was driving from up the coast at night and we stopped to take a photo of the Shell station all lit up and proud of itself, but something seemed wrong, a little out of the place. The big S was missing, so it read Hell in stead. I wonder if your father and Steve paid a visit to this station across the street and across time and space?!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Maybe they even stole the S… and maybe we can hear the whisper of the sea in the hell within the shell and find ourselves in a strange heaven on the coast of the known and the not-quite-known. Namaste and thank for such generous words.

  5. Eva Says:

    Dearest Bruce,

    I’m so happy that you made that journey as it allowed you to confront your thoughts and realise that sometimes we make more of than what is really there. That in reality there is more love than one realises with our relationships.

    I’m sure that in your visit you saw that somehow older people/parents somehow come over the barrier of life and are accepting of what is that will eventually come to pass. They see that in their family they have eternity and they can be more accepting of the future. It was the best thing you could have done for both yourself and your parents.

    In the words of my darling mother….”I have had my time, now it’s your turn….don’t worry but keep me in your heart and thoughts. I love you for eternity and kiss you each individually….be strong…that’s life! Shema Yisrael etc.”

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Such lovely words and rippling blessing from your mom, from all that is Mother and Father. Thank you, thank you. Perhaps beyond “my time” and “your time” comes “our time,” in “Our Town” which spans continents. Shalom, Namaste 🙂

  6. Molly@Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce Says:

    Bruce,

    I am participating tomorrow in a blog carnival whose topic is home so your post has given me wonderful food for thought.

    It was also especially poignant because my own dad went for surgery this week. It’s the first time that he has ever had any health problem. I hate to admit it but I know feel more acutely the fear of losing him…

    Thanks for your insightful posts!

  7. Randy Says:

    Bruce,
    I just want to thank you for being the wonderful friend I may never meet. Not in person. I feel I have already met you in a more meaningful way than many of the people I know in person. I hope some day to be able to do something for you the way you do something for me with your writing. You stir up the best part of me. I started not to write this, but I thought I would try to be as honest as you try to be. I can give you that in return.

    I have been through this journey with both of my parents and I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it. My best wishes on your journey and to all of your family as it unfolds.

    Namaste,
    Randy

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      What an incredibly sweet comment, Randy. I embrace your friendship, virtual as it may be; so here we are, home and hanging out. So simple, so lovely.

      Here’s to being as authentic and honest as we can—and to sending you All Good Wishes through this journey as well. Namaste indeed, BD

  8. William Castle Says:

    Glad you found your way to me…Glad to read your touching words. We all have fears, even the doctors who try and cure us of our fears.

    You words hand honestly in the air. And they tug at the heart.

    Thank you.

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