I remember a number of the pictures I appeared in as a kid, in endless family snapshots and slides, but not this one. I don’t know what I was feeling, but I can tell that I was either in a bad mood or obediently sitting still for the picture. See those very dirty shoes?
It was 1945 in a new house I had known only a year. A modified 1920s craftsman with dark varnished woodwork that sent my mother into a depression. Everything, including the floor was very dark and noisy. When I was born I was taken to a brand new house where my parents and older brother lived. But my presence necessitated a larger home. We needed to be closer to town where we could walk to school.
In these years I heard my mother’s endless vocal exercises and songs wafting up through the register to the basement where she washed and hung our clothes. Dad was at work, and within the year David, my brother would go to school, leaving me alone with Mom most of the day. Then it became increasingly Mom and me in sync and my (eventual) two brothers with my dad. These circumstances dictated that Dad grew distant. I lost the part of him I couldn’t remember knowing. And as Mom and I continued to grow together as a team, I saw Dad from farther and farther away, somehow becoming an enemy to us two. In some way unknown to me, I learned to see him as a threat rather than a loving father.
My blog, and my new book, have drawn me back through those missing years and experiences to discover my father anew. Facing his unreadable expressions, his formal title as patriarch of our family, and later, his adamance that he could not move out of their home led me to a conundrum. My mother was growing weak, pained by arthritis, and forgetful. Dad had begun to leave her notes in the kitchen and on the doors as to his comings and goings. He was tense about her loss of memory. Instead of seeing her needs, he was embarrassed she couldn’t keep up with him.
I observed it all, feeling powerless to intervene. Since my attempts were met with anger and dismissal, I began to confide more and more in my journal, recounting experiences and tracking Mom’s decline. These short blog posts remained private, but slowly as I gained confidence from theology courses at Seattle University and experience as a pastor in training at my church, I began to send my reflections out to friends. They became “SpiritStones,” talismans of a glimpse of insight from faith, or a cairn built to identify a thin place.
Did my practice teach me how to live with mystery? How to let go of trying to fix problems? Were problems meant to be lived? I began to discern how to approach them from different angles and with more delicate instruments, and not to confront them at all.
My mother’s decline continued until unexpectedly, my dad began to fail. After weeks, even months of this, he fell several times, and found himself in an emergency room in desperate need of care. He was ill. He needed at least a week to regain his equilibrium and then move to a nursing home to recover. Immediately, my partner and I kept up with Mother but quickly saw, she couldn’t remember where she was, or where Dad was, and was rapidly descending into anxiety and dread. Within days we needed to place her in care as well. Reflecting on my parents’ failures to thrive, my writing grew constant, including all the events that my partner Ardene and I encountered. The writing grew into a memoir of learning through my experience with aging. Thus, Loving the Enemy: When the favorite parent dies first. At last, I embraced this old photo of me with my dad.