“I don’t want the doctor’s death. I want to have my own freedom.”

Well Mom, after last year I thought about this date nearly everyday for the past two months; memory be dammed, it’s going to be on time today.

You know, there is something that I want to write about you, something rather … complex, for lack of a better word. But it’s not quite there yet — not quite ready for public consumption. But it’s close. I started to write it several days ago, but it’s meh.

So in the meantime, let me just say what I always say: eighteen years may have past, but I still love you and I still miss you; you are gone, but never forgotten, as long as I draw breath.

“Je m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être.”

Well Dad, it has been 11 years now; for Mom next month will be 18. It all seems like a lifetime ago now, and yet even now just a passing thought can bring it all back. I suppose that’s to be expected though.

Of course your hat — a fedora, is it? — and Mom’s dammit doll still have pride of place in my living room, and your cemetery is little more than an hour away. I guess it is little wonder that you are both still in my thoughts, even now.

May 12, 1927 to Dec. 16, 2008. Gone, yes. But as long as I draw breath, never forgotten …

P.S. Props to François Rabelais.

It Seems Like Yesterday

That's me on Xmas Eve, 1973. My neighbor Mr. Walker was Santa.
That’s me on Xmas Eve, 1973. My neighbor Mr. Walker was Santa.

Well Mom, 17 years have come and gone and I’ve missed my usual deadline by several months now, but I have my reasons — or reason, as it were — which I’ll get to in a moment. And it is not the first; there was that little health problem I had a few years back, for example. And I suppose it’s rather ironic that I began writing this post on Mother’s Day, after all, but the timing is merely coincidental.

You see, back in mid-January I had wanted to write about a memory that I have about you — a happy one.

I was four or five, I think, and I had woken up early and wandered down the hall and into the living room — it was early Christmas Day, and I was excited — to say the least — to see what Santa Clause had brought me. Dad was sitting on the other side of the room beside the fireplace, sweeping out last night’s ashes to prepare for another fire, and you were standing there in your housecoat looking down at me, hands placed jauntily on your hips and a big smile on your face, your eyes dancing with delight. Dancing, I say, because my five-year-old self was nearly bursting with excitement, eyes big as proverbial saucers as they took in the seemingly endless bounty spilling out from under the Christmas tree.

I don’t really remember what you had said at that moment, or what Dad had said in reply, if anything. But then a host of angels could have appeared above our heads announcing with fanfare that Hell had, indeed, frozen over, but I wouldn’t have heard. The angels could even have said that the Bengals would now be cleared to win the Superbowl, what with the wintery weather in Hell and whatnot; I would scarcely have noticed.

For I was consumed with lust for brightly wrapped presents.

And yet, as I ran and slid to my pajama-clad knees underneath that tree amidst all those gifts, I remember suddenly being astonished as I heard you yell — yell! — at the top of your lungs: “Ken and Greg! Wake up! It’s Santa Clause time!” I remember turning around, open-mouthed, to stare at you. There you were, just as you were a moment ago, all smiles, your head silhouetted by the grey light slipping through the dining room windows behind you. And as you shouted again I began laughing with glee myself as I tore into the wrapping paper, because it was okay, on this particular day, to yell happily in the middle of the living room.

Mom and me -- I think -- in 1970, or thereabouts.
Mom and me — I think — in 1970, or thereabouts. Not at Xmas, of course — there are few photos of Mom, because she was usually the one taking photos.

This was Christmas Day, after all. Of course I doubt my two older brothers — both in their teens at this point — were quite so amused as I was then, but that’s as may be.

Now I don’t remember much else about this particular Christmas; it’s all a blur. And to be honest I’m not sure, after 45-odd years, where exactly my memory ends and artistic embellishment begins. But I remember you standing in the living room smiling and hollering for Ken and Greg; of that I am sure. In fact I’ll probably take that memory to the grave myself — even, perhaps inevitably, as more recent memories are forgotten.

Or will I? I wonder …

You see I was sitting at my desk, much like I am now, wrapped up in the reverie bought on by old memories. As my hands moved to the keyboard my mind reached deep into that well for the particular memory laid out above — and it wasn’t there. It was gone only for the briefest of moments — albeit one that contained an ocean of regret, heart break and despair in the meantime — and then there it came, up from the depths, this memory suddenly playing out in my mind’s eye once more.

And yet still I paused, for then I had a greater realization of what had just happened. Was it just a momentary lapse? Or a symptom of something much worse: the first lapse of memory in an eventual string of such lapses on the inevitable decline into dementia? None of us siblings had yet known how you had struggled with memory those last few years, although Dad certainly knew. Is that what fate has in store for me?

So I took my hands away from the keyboard while I sat and pondered, and minutes turned to hours to days and so on; eventually winter turned to spring.

And here we are.

Now Mom you are probably thinking “Oh honey, just because you momentarily forgot something at 50 that happened when you were five is NOT a sign of senile dementia. Good grief!” Well you are probably right; I’m just being a hypochondriac. While genetics may be factor, other factors like lifestyle choices play a much bigger role.

So what else can I say? I do worry though, occasionally, in more of an … observational sense, than anything else, for if it does happen, there is nothing I can do.

But as I say I do worry, for memories of you and Dad — memories like this one — are all I have left.

On This, An Anniversary of a Mother’s Death

IMG_0088-sunsetLike with Dad, there’s not much for me to say that I haven’t said before, Mom, except perhaps to say that nothing has really changed. Time passes; life goes on. And I enjoy it, for the most part. Perhaps more some; perhaps even more than most — I couldn’t really say. There are the distractions of living in a foreign country and a new language to learn and all that this entails; I’m even making that last official by attending classes.

And yet, and yet. There is a Mom-shaped hole in my psyche that, while scarred over, will never completely heal. I believe in the past I used the analogy of a severed limb; you can learn to live without it, and with the time the stump heals and scars over. But one is never the same despite how well you learn to live without it; the limb never grows back.

This January 19, this, the twelfth anniversary of your death — it staggers me, frankly, that so much time has passed between this moment and then — found me in a beach town in Thailand visiting with friends both local and abroad. We celebrated and got up to hi-jinx and played the drunken tourists. I raged against the dying of the light; I thumbed my nose at entropy and death. I enjoyed the beach and the company and the local rotgut (which to be fair is pretty good rum, actually) and practiced my pidgin Thai — this all interspersed with my quiet time in a cafe in the company of no one and nothing but a cappuccino and a book (one must balance the pleasures of the mind with the pleasures of the flesh — although coffee clearly falls in the latter).

In short, it’s pretty much the prescription for a perfect weekend, one to take your mind off your troubles past and present (not that I have any real troubles, at the moment, to be honest — life is pretty damn good — so much so that finding time to write frequently escapes me). And yet, and yet. Even with all these wonderful blessings, good friends, good food and good drink by the ocean — what more could one ask for? — I remained subtlety aware of the dread anniversary passing by. I may thumb my nose at death, but he always grins his toothy grin and waves in return (it’s impossible to insult a patient adversary who always wins in the end).

Some might say it’s unhealthy to dwell on this date and its terrible significance; to them I say rubbish. Again — I repeat myself — I would cherish every memory of you, even those dark days that came at the end your life, your misery, your pain and your suffering that in very real ways became those of the ones who loved you (and love you still — at least for my part).

For memories are all that are left of you in this world. And were I to (gladly) live a thousand years, Mom, I could never forget you. And as with Dad, I’ll never quite be finished saying goodbye. I will always be in this moment.

Picking the Faded Blue

On this dread anniversary — so close on the heels of the other one — one of my favorite poems from Robert Frost, A Late Walk:

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.

Time will not heal this wound, Mom, no matter how much time passes between then and now. I won’t let it.

a grim, yet fitting, reminder

Looking Back on a Father’s Death

Sculptor August Rodin's Falling ManWell, Dad, it’s been three years.

I sometimes wonder where I would have to go to escape the trappings and reminders of this time of year. The remote jungles of New Guinea or Argentina? The deserts of Africa? The Moon?

Then I wonder: were I ever to actually find such a place, would it really matter? Would it be enough to keep from thinking about what this time of year means? Would it be enough, when each hour, each minute that ticks by echoes and reverberates in my conscious, making me almost preternaturally aware of the passage of time, as it ticks down to these two black anniversaries looming – each moment resonating in me like the telltale heart that beats under Poe’s floorboards.

No, I suppose it wouldn’t. And as I’ve remarked before, part of me doesn’t want to forget, painful as it is to remember, painful as it is that your last breath lingers in a corner of my mind, and will for as long as I have one.

I did manage to forget about this time of year for awhile yesterday and the day before. I had just moved into my temporary apartment – because my actual apartment that I’m renting (in the same building as the aforementioned room) won’t be available until January 3. Upon moving into this temporary room in the same building I found not one but two roaches. Granted one was dead, and here Southeast Asia, frankly, as in any warm climate, there’s really no avoiding the occasional roach; you’re going to find one in your bathroom sooner or later. Still, it’s not a welcome site on your first day in your new pad.

But Wait, There’s More!

Then I woke up yesterday to find the hot water heater isn’t working. Okay, roaches and no hot water – maybe I should have spent more time apartment hunting, eh Dad? Maybe the extra money I was spending on that guesthouse was money well spent. At least it had hot water and no roaches.

Then last night, I log onto my bank account back in the United States just to verify the funds I believe I have in there, before I buy some plane tickets and hotel reservations for a trip next month. After all, Dad — even though I know you would look askance at my spending habits, being a child of the Depression and whatnot – some of what you and Mom tried to teach me permeated my thick skull: I make it a point never to spend money I don’t have. So a glance upon logging in reveals that there is considerably less money than there should be in my account – specifically about a $1,000 less.

I look closely at the recent transactions and see a bunch of transactions that show up as international ATM withdrawals – withdrawals that I never made. Four of the five of these transactions all appear on the same date as the day that I last used my card myself. I remember specifically when I last used it, as I have a local account with an ATM card here in Viet Nam, which I use for day to day cash needs. Furthermore, I save all my ATM receipts (again the influence of you and Mom).

Yeah, I know, if I would just use banks instead of ATMs, and actually deal with people this wouldn’t have happened. But you know, Dad, I’ve been using ATMs to do my banking since 1988, and this is the first time something like this has happened. Yes, I should probably consider myself fortunate, mucking about in parts foreign, that this hasn’t happened before.

But what’s really odd is that I still have my card in my possession. And no, as I answered to the customer service person I talked to last night, I never let anyone else use it, and it was never out of my possession. While the ATM codes within the transactions listed in my account are somewhat inscrutable, it appears that these transactions took place in Russia – Stalingrad, in fact.

Russian crooks here in Viet Nam have somehow spoofed my ATM card. Fuckers. Not sure how; even if they were able to observe me enter my pin, would my card have been out long enough to capture an image with high enough resolution to see the number on the card? Could they have hacked the ATM machine, either electronically or physically?

Furthermore, is it too late to nuke what remains of the Soviet Union? Where’s Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger when I need them?

Damned if I know. I just know I’m not going to use the ATM’s in the backpacker ghetto of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City anymore. And since I don’t have access to nuclear weapons, I’ll just have to bend over and take it. Of course I don’t know that they were actually Russian; just because the transactions show up as having taken place at a Russian ATM doesn’t mean the thief or thieves were Russian.

Anyway now those charges are disputed, my card is invalidated, and I have to have a bunch of paperwork and my new card delivered via courier to me here in Viet Nam at my expense. The bank will only ship it to my address of record – that being my address back in the States – so it falls to me to arrange to get it here; one hopes one can trust the employees of Fed Ex.

So yeah, the last thirty six hours have kind of sucked, but such is the life lived abroad. You deal with these sorts of things when they arise or you go home. On the other hand, I had my first observation review with my boss at the school where I’m now teaching – the observation having taken place last week – and that all went well. Even so, it has occupied my thoughts of late. To say that I’ve been preoccupied these days would be an understatement.

And yet, Dad … and yet.

Underneath it all, I’m still acutely aware of the passage of time; acutely aware of just what time of year it is. Despite the fact that temperatures are still approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and the weather is humid; despite the fact that the trees are green and flowers bloom and local fruit is readily available – despite this I know that it is winter and the time of dread anniversaries.

The trappings of the season one finds in Viet Nam, and indeed much of Southeast Asia – a secular version of Christmas with skinny Santas in flashy gold outfits and sappy versions of Christmas songs I never knew existed until I came here (I hear covers of Wham’s “Last Christmas” 10 times a day; it’s a terrible pop song so be glad you haven’t heard of it) – these all serve as reminders as well. The fact that they are almost always seemingly culturally out of place only make them stand out that much more – that and the fact that it’s all unironically and unapologetically consumerist in nature.

So here we are Dad, three years to the day down the road. Well, I’m here, anyway, but you are not.

And that is indeed what this is all about, isn’t it? The fact that you aren’t here, that you are gone, never to return. Actually as I write this it is only the early morning of December 16 back home in the States, so technically the anniversary of your death won’t be for several more hours yet. But here on the other side of the planet, that day is already here.

And even though three years of passed – and what eventful years they’ve been in my life – you’re still never far from my thoughts. It is rare that a day passes and I don’t think of you or Mom, for one reason or another.

A Road Less Traveled?

It seems hard to believe that three years have passed since your death, and that it will be 11 years in January since Mom died; this time of year always makes your deaths seem so close to me in time. Like my memories of her, some of my memories of you have begun to fade, while others sharpen. As my own age begins to catch up with the age you were when my earliest memories were forming, those childhood images I have of you seem to gain clarity.

It boggles my mind to think that when you were 42 – well, in a few weeks I’ll be 43, won’t I? – that I was already two years old, and that you had three older children, two of which were teenagers already. There but for the grace of God (or more precisely, vulcanized rubber) go I.

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic, this, considering the country where I live currently – many if not most of my students have parents my age; often they are even younger than I. Here in Southeast Asia people find it even more incomprehensible than you and Mom did that I have no wish for marriage and family – that someone would chose to be solitary, and happily so. Some of my students got me a piggy bank for Teacher’s Day here in Viet Nam because, according to them, I need to save money in order to get married. Then one of the Vietnamese people I work with asked me the other day If I had ever married; I told him with a smile that I had dodged that bullet. I added that I was engaged once, though, but that I had wised up before it was too late.

He looked mystified and just said “Oh, I’m sorry,” because in his world view there could be other response to this than condolences. It was one of those “Toto-we’re-definitely-not-in-Kansas” moments I relish living abroad. I grok a little bit more about the local culture and that of my own, and consequently myself – and this is a wonderful thing; it’s ultimately why we travel, yes?

I only wish you could be here to talk about all this in person. There’s so much I’d like to tell you about the last three years. I count myself fortunate that I at least had a few years to get to know you not as your child but as a fellow adult – albeit one whose life took very different turns than your own (sometimes to your chagrin, I know). I think I was only just beginning to come into my own person as a fully-formed adult – yes, I hear you laughing as you say that when I was in my 20s you didn’t think that day would ever come – when Mom died. I rue the fact that I was only just beginning to get to know here as one adult to another when death took her; if there is any sort of justice in the universe someone will have to answer for that after my own death comes.

In any event Dad, once again know that you are gone but not forgotten – that you never could be. That in some ways, even though life goes on, that time passes, that the ghosts remain quiet for long stretches of time, know that I’m still standing by your bedside watching impotently as entropy takes you away from me, that even as it does this, that I declare that it can be damned along with the entire universe before I will forget

Wherever you are now, know this, Dad.

Even though my siblings and I let you down in such a horrible way, I hope your spirit can find some solace in this.

Time, Entropy and a Mother’s Death

And to think this terrible anniversary almost slipped by unmarked.

Greek cemetery stele at Karameikos: a child bids farewell to his dead mother.But not so much time has passed – as marked in emotion and memory. In years it has been 10. And even as the conscious mind wanders farther and farther away from that moment in both time and space, the subconscious does not, can not, will not forget.

Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping. In spite of the fact that my immune system seems to have finally overcome my tenacious Xmas-time viral malady, and I’ve been able to venture forth once more on my bicycle; in spite of the fact that I have small but steady income from work that I enjoy (although at times it can be by turns frustrating and boring) – in spite of regular exercise and relative lack of worries, sleep has been short and fitful for some days now.

It’s been long enough that I had begun to worry about it – it had begun to affect my mood, which is always somewhat fragile at best. But this is a futile worry; worse than futile really – herein lies a vicious cycle.

The night before last, however, I finally slept soundly for nearly eight hours — out of exhaustion more than anything else, I think. I awoke refreshed and relieved. But last night, after four short hours, I woke, for no apparent reason, the wisps of some un-recalled dream quickly scattering to the winds of consciousness. Instinctively I realized that further sleep was not to be had this night

I glanced at my watch and spied the date – it seemingly leaped at me off the face of my watch: January 20 – the day after. And suddenly I knew why sleep was loathe to come to me lately.

It seems ghosts have long memories; shades never forget, even if the living do, preoccupied as we are with seemingly important mortal affairs.

And yet, somehow, grim as it may seem, I’m glad. Grim as it was, I don’t want to forget my mother’s death. I don’t want to forget anything about her, even though as the years pass memories, both good and bad, inevitably fade.

Time and entropy rob of us of everything, in the end.

So even though I’m half a world and a decade away from that terrible, awful time, I’m glad that ghosts are restless. I’m glad that somewhere deep in my emotional, limbic brain, some core part of me has been aware of this passing anniversary on a subliminal level, even as I have been diverted by life in an exotic locale and preoccupations with the present and near future.

I’ve said these words to you before and will say them again (and again), Mother: you are gone, but I haven’t forgotten. Even though the years pass and new experiences and memories pile up inside my my head, crowding precious recollections, the grief and longing are still there, fresh as they ever were, just under the surface.

And then as now, I’d give nearly anything to have you back, whole, healthy, and aware, even if just for an hour or two.

I still love you and miss you, Mom; time and entropy be dammed.

And laugh–but smile no more: that’s apropoe!

I’m actually feeling better. Honest. No joke. I’m actually pretty excited about the future, now that it seems I’ve bottomed out, emotionally–now it’s time to do whatever I want; whatever I decide. I shall indulge my passion; I shall indulge my whims and fancies. Let the chips fall where they may. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead. I’ll call out Janis again: “freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” And it actually feels pretty damn good.

Nevertheless, I can’t let this day go by without comment. No, I’m not talking about the new prez. Rather, it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death. Ironically, with everything else going on in my life–-father dieing, estate squabbling, being laid off–-I almost forgot. I think being laid off had the most to do with it, because it was relatively late in the day before I had an occasion to wonder what the date was. Had I actually been working today–-rather than sleeping ’til 1:30 p.m.! Ha! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, employed people–-I would have realized what the date was much earlier.

And I miss my Mom. More so, methinks, in light of recent events.

Today is also significant, because it is also my man Edgar’s birfday–yes, I said birfday, not for real real, just for play play–-it really is Edgar Allan Poe’s birth date (and this is not to take away from Martin Luther King–much respect due there).  Were he, [tag]Edgar Allan Poe[/tag], a Methuselah, he would be 200 today. So in honor of him, I won’t post the lyrics to the Raven or the Telltale Heart. Rather, a bit more obscure poem, which, if you read between lines, seems rather apropos … er, apropoe, even. You know I got my head back when I’m kicking out the bad pun jams. It may be flavored with gallows humor, but that’s about as good as you get with me, unless I’m well into my cups (catch me down at Bronze some Friday night; I’ll be a veritable fount of wit and humor).

Edgar Allan Poe
The Haunted Palace

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace –
Radiant palace – reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion –
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,
(This – all this – was in the olden
Time long ago,)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn! – for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh–but smile no more.