Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Good Son

With my mom’s passing, a question arose. Could I have done more? Could I have done a better job? What if I had arrived to see my mom earlier? Couldn’t I have spent more time with her, been with her and talked with her before she went so deeply inside herself? Will Mom ever forgive me for not having come to see her earlier? Will I ever be able to forgive myself?

I am reminded of what a good friend said to me with the passing of my first wife fifteen years ago. She said that we do the best we can, given the person we are, the information we have, and the circumstances at the time.

Back in November, before the Thanksgiving holiday, I was planning when to visit my mom: Christmas and her birthday? I finally planned on my birthday at the first of February. Then I could spend time with my children and grandchildren, and also travel was so much more hectic and expensive during the holidays. As information came in from Mom, that February date moved to mid-January, then a week earlier, and then finally I left the second of January.

I could have gone earlier, had I recognized that this was “the big one,” the event of Mom’s passing. The early stages of her passing were not acute, though--congestion of the heart, but in and out of the hospital. The fact that she was allowed to leave the hospital was an indication she was doing better. Then she was at the rehabilitation center in order to regain her strength before going home. I was told that she was exercising and eating well. She was interacting with the staff and beginning to adjust.

When that situation changed, it changed very quickly. I received a call from the facility, saying Mom no longer wanted to exercise and was not eating well. I changed my ticket and left for California. When I arrived, the nurse said that the change had been sudden, that there had been no indication for the nurses or doctors that her situation was going to change so suddenly. “She’s old and tired,” the nurse said. “Her heart has beat many, many times.”

I remember what Mom said. “Nobody knows when you’re going to go except Him,” she said, pointing her finger up toward the sky. “And when your time comes, nobody--not you or all the doctors in the world--can do anything about it. If it’s your time, it’s your time.

Mom had a roommate at the rehabilitation facility. I was introduced to her as she rolled her wheelchair down the hallway. “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you!” she exclaimed. “Give me a hug. I feel like I already know you. Your mom has talked so much about her life and her children.”

That transition from talking about her life to her passing, from eating and exercising to going deep within herself, happened in about a week. I was a good son who arrived to be with her, to say my goodbyes, even though she was deep inside herself. I was the good son who came to see her so many times over her last four years, fifteen to twenty trips out to visit. I was the good son who slept months and months, well over a year of months, on the living room sofa to be with her, to visit and care for her. If I did not judge this last time to be my final visit with her, if I was surprised by her quick decline--well, so were the doctors and nurses who were right beside her, so was Mom surprised (yet ready, I believe0, by the sudden turn of events. She dealt with the situation as it arose, and so did I. I wish I had come earlier, but I did the best I could. I made what I thought was the best decision.

I spent years being with and caring for my mother. Anger and guilt are part of grieving. So is acceptance. I did the best I could, and I forgive myself. The only alternative is to believe that I deliberately and selfishly made a decision, knowing that it would hurt my mother. I didn’t do that; that’s not the person I am.

I know Mom would forgive me. She’d say there is nothing to forgive. “Both my boys are good boys,” she said to us many times. “I’m so lucky to have you to take care of me.”

I did the best I could, and although I can always second guess in hindsight, all in all, I did a pretty good job, the best job I could, anyway. I was there to care for her many times. I made her life better. I tried my best.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mom's Treasured Memories

Once Mom said, “Tom, why don’t you sleep on my bed? I can sleep on the sofa.” How sweet and loving was that? Of course, I told her I’d already spent so many months sleeping on the sofa that it was perfectly fine for me but thanks for the offer, Mom.

It has been a week since Mom passed, and have I spent some time cleaning and moving items to give me more space in Mom’s bedroom. I cleaned off the top of one little bureau by her bed--Pond’s skin lotion, eye drops, emery boards for her nails. In the top drawer was her jewelry--a few necklaces and rings, not much or expensive, but right there by her bed. The necklaces were all knotted together, so I spent quite a bit of time untying the knots and setting the pieces in her jewelry box. It's a poignant feeling of oddness, of displacement, to sit on the right side of Mom's bed, the same side I sleep on at home, to sit where she sat, the little blue lamp on her bedstand, which would light at night and I would wake up and see from the living room Mom sitting on her bed, getting her frail five-foot body ready to negotiate by touch her way to the bathroom. Now I sit where she sat; it's my bed now, and I'm making a more comfortable space for myself, just as Mom would want me to do, just as she had already offered. Mom wanted me to be comfortable, what matter her comfort?

As I sit on her bed, the knotted necklaces in my hand, I imagine Mom opening her drawer and touching her mementos but not being able to untangle the necklaces, trying but because of her blindness not being able to. I can feel her frustration and her sense of not being able to keep up, not being able to clean and sort and keep things orderly as she used to. The sense of it breaks my heart, her sitting on her bed, touching the talismans of her life, alone and the years passed by.

I walk to the other end of the mobile home to my brother’s bedroom and tell him what I’ve been doing, how it felt good to untangle Mom’s necklaces for her, but that it was also killing me and I was stopping. I’d done enough organization for one day, provided myself some little space needed to be a little more comfortable. That image is still fresh in my mind, though. That space once occupied so often by my mom's body will no longer be, and it hurts to think about it.

My brother says that there were times he would see Mom sitting by her bed, touching her treasures, remembering the times when Dad gave her each piece. That was how she felt about her jewelry: each was a little stored memory, mnemonic artifacts (although I'm sure Mom didn't use that term). I was so thankful for my brother saying that; it provided me with a different perspective. It turned my head around and made me feel so much better. Mom had a great memory. I could imagine her picking up a necklace, feeling one with a tiny butterfly ornament on a chain, another with a garnet stone, another with a crystal heart--each a memory of her time with Dad. For each piece in her hand, whether a fine little necklace of some plastic costume jewelry in another box, she would touch it, look at it sideways to determine its color (since her macular degeneration affected primarily the center of her eyes), and then with the identification of the piece, a whole memory would unfold--the time of year, the words shared, the time together.

One set of earrings was in a tiny plastic baggie. On the plastic was written “Worn on my anniversary August 1947, Mom.” How long ago had she written that message on that little plastic envelope? It was almost completely faded away. The words were a gift to me, a message reminding me to pay attention to the joys of life, that if you forget the joys of life, then what was there left worth remembering? I believe my mom intensely lived the simple pleasures of her life. Because of her life-long limited eyesight, and because like many women of her generation her life was focused on home, husband, and children, the scope of her outer life was focused on just as few places and a few people. That in no way limited her inner life; the life of her heart, her love, was very rich. She lived a life of love and devotion; she found the psychological means to cultivate her own happiness.

The jewelry was not Mom’s real treasure. Something does not have to be expensive to be precious. Mom’s real treasures were the memories that the jewelry evoked. She had another box of cheap, inexpensive plastic costume jewelry. I’m sure she remembered at what flea market or ham radio fest or car show she and Dad had bought each item--and each memory was a treasure as she sat at her bedside, thinking of her over sixty years of life with my dad--these little celebrations that were not so little; these moments of shared love that transcended time.

I have twenty-seven years to learn this wisdom before I reach my mother’s age: that love is eternal and infinite, that love opens and embraces, that every ending is also a beginning, that to be loved and to love is to give and receive divine grace.

Untangling Mom’s jewelry untangled something in me. Touching her few necklaces and rings, I felt my mother’s love, her devotion; I felt the absolute certainty of her being. She is a drop of water merged with the sea. I stand on the shore, hearing the waves, feeling the mist. Such a very small space separates us from the infinite. Our life's work is to step across that space.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Thank you, Mom, and Fare Thee Well

“She has lived a long life and she’s tired,” the nurse said when I visited Mom. “Her heart has pumped so many times.”

I had planned to visit my mom in early February and then had upped the date to mid-January, then January 8, and finally January 4. I just felt that it was right for me to be with my mom and brother. Mom had been in the hospital for pneumonia because of her weak heart valves, and then she had been transferred to a facility for strength rehabiliation. It was not to be, though, and Mom quickly moved from chatting to her roommate about her life and family to not wanting to leave her bed for therapy, to not eating or drinking, and on to her last inward journey.

I was with her the day after my arrival, and she was gone twelve hours later. Of the five aspects of existence--earth, water, air, fire, and space--at the end she was fire and space, light radiating, having let go of the body. That is how I remember her, the radiant life of love and devotion. She taught me so much through example.

My wife said she felt that Dad was coming to be with Mom during the transition, and I feel that was true. Mom never had a driving license. Her eyes had been damaged as a child, and her sight was never good enough for her to pass the vision test. Dad took her everywhere, the old trucker with the love of his life. Yes, Dad is hooking up the rig, Mom is stocking the ice chest, and they are taking off to where there are no boundaries, no borders, just open road ahead, on and on and on.

Mom and Dad, Godspeed and fare thee well.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Netflix's Bright, Shiny with Hope

One result of being highly visible is that it can make you an easy target. Netflix’s first big movie, Bright, has that distinction. Critics’ reviews are generally dismal: being tagged as the worst movie of the year certainly isn’t an accolade, after all. A mash-up of buddy cops, urban fantasy, and social commentary movie, utilizing a palette of garish colors and heavy-handed brush strokes--I get it. The thing is, my gut reaction is that I just don’t agree. I enjoyed the movie, and no, I don’t think it’s just a case of “that’s to be expected from a shallow guy like you.”

One reason Bright is a significant movie--perhaps the major reason--is that the concept is so captivating, so enchanting. Anyone who has been hooked by the fantasy genre will find that once an epic is completed, the question of “what about two thousand years later?” is a most fulfilling opportunity for speculation. Take The Lord of the Rings saga: it ends with the age of the rise of men. Move that forward to the rise of the age of science and technology, move that forward to an age that includes a modern-age Los Angeles, and a LOTR Middle Earth with Fords, Glocks, and elves and orcs is a rich stew that can be savored over time. Just drop something new into the pot over the days as the stew ages: elves working for the National Park Service or the Sierra Club, dwarves caring for the mountains as agents of the Department of the Interior, races other than men striving to curb the excesses of the Age of Men. 

One characteristic of Bright that is both a strength and weakness, as the movie was created, is that the audience is just dropped into the reality of the movie. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy contains too-ample summaries of the world of the hobbits--and, what?, maybe four endings? Such a saga needed the footage to tie things up, but . . . On the other hand, we are dropped into the world of Bright, and there are definite WTF? moments where we have to actively work to figure out what’s going on, as best as we can. This is not a bad thing, although it can pull us out of the movie’s reality it we have to work too hard at our figuring. The other side of the coin is represented by the too-obvious moments of commentary on the bigotry towards the orcs, the race that backed the evil sorcerer who lost the magic wars two thousand years earlier. Really, any audience with half a brain won’t need cue cards to figure out the parallels. The questions that arise from the created reality of the movie are a perfect platform for the sequel and perhaps even an eventual TV series. Hopefully in subsequent expeditions into this reality, the franchise will be able to develop the intriguing questions that arise without being too obvious and insulting the intelligence of the audience.

Another love/hate aspect of Bright is the acting of the two main characters--Will Smith as the experienced human cop, and Joel Edgerton as the orc rookie cop. Smith plays the character we’ve seen before, as in Bad Boys, and provides his usual polished performance, yet we don’t really see anything new. It’s Will being Will, just as we’ve seen so many movies where Clint Eastwood was just doing his Clint thing. I think Will Smith was capable of moving into new territory within the experienced-cop characterization, but the interaction of writer, director, and actor just didn’t bear any new and exotic fruit. We got the old standby, which was good, no complaints, but also no real opportunities to shout Wow! out loud. Edgerton, on the other hand, was much fresher in his portrayal of the orc rookie seeking to make his place and to find himself. It’s ironic that Smith was the big name for the movie, yet his character was in many ways the supporting foil for Edgerton’s. That was a surprise and real plus for the movie.

The critics' analysis of the movie has been--if you’ll pardon the expression--fast and furious, which has been all to the good. Hopefully, the Urban Middle Earth reality of Bright can be more intelligently and adroitly explored in the upcoming sequel. Maybe the two cops can take a trip to the Sierra Nevadas, Smith with his family and Edgerton with a girlfriend. Maybe they can meet some old-school elves and dwarves. Maybe they can hear a prophesy, renounce it, and then discover that renunciation is only affirmation, new age style. Maybe we’ll experience the magic of a world awful in its possibilities made bright with the reality of rebirth, resurrection, and renewal. Everybody hopes so . . . so, Netflix, whatya gonna do?

Friday, November 10, 2017

S.M. Stirling, The Sea Peoples, a Review

The Sea Peoples is S.M. Stirling's fourteenth novel in his Change series, if one counts the anthology The Change, which he contributed to and edited. The fourth novel in the third generation cycle of the series, although not one of the best achievements in this series, The Sea Peoples is certainly not the worst of the batch--let's call it four stars out of five. The fleshing out of secondary characters and the introduction of an extended excursion into magic are two reasons why this particular addition to the series is a significant contribution to Stirling's alternative reality oeuvre.

The secondary characters introduced in the first works of this cycle of the series mix it up, providing most of the action as they engage in their dreamtime, magical quest. Captain Pip (Lady Philippa Balwyn-Abercrombie) is one interesting character, a roustabout with aristocratic ancestors, dressed in "white shirt and shorts black as her boots and suspenders and steel-lined bowler hat." She is paired with Toa, a Maorian who is Pip's protector, although she hardly needs protecting. The quest group also includes Deor Godulfson, a Nordic scop and totemic magician; and Thora Garwood, a Bearkiller female warrior and fighting partner to Godulfson.

This quest group must enter into the dreamscape of alternative realities/magical possibilities to rescue a fellow warrior, utilizing their individual animal spirits to keep their souls safe from the evil that contaminates the realities they navigate. Stirling's development of these characters, their interactions with one another, and their individual traits keep the action lively and fresh. Their individual skills also allow for their journey into the fluid realities of several worlds--possible realities that have diverged from their original homeland. This shape-shifting of reality is a tip of the hat to the legacy of Roger Zelazny's fantasy Amber series. Stirling carries it off well, and this soul quest through apocalyptic landscapes is the main action in the novel. Part of the pleasure of reading this novel is to experience the development and mastery of the characteristics of the new world three generations after the Change. The world Changed, and forty-six years later, the children of the world understand and work much more successfully with the new rules of existence.

Princesses Orlaith and Reiko travel to Hawaii in this novel, and that thread of action includes the massive sea battle at the end. Stirling's good at sea battles, as seen in other novels in this series; however, the development of the Hawaii action is overshadowed by the dream question plot strand. This is a weakness of the novel, even though it was necessary to further the plot so that the next novel in the series can move forward--cumbersome, but the job got done. Prince John is also in this novel (the main character in the novel prior, Prince of Outcasts), and his character is more three-dimensional than in the previous novel, although the prince is actively present in only a small part of the novel.

The final good news about The Sea Peoples is that it doesn't end with a cliffhanger. There is a good sense of closure for this novel--and then an epilogue that tantalizes us with a hint at where the next novel will lead. Considering the perspective of the first novel of this series, Dies the Fire, Stirling's most recent contribution reveals just how different the world has changed since the Change. His new foray into earth magic keeps the series from just being a continual slog of enemies and battles and new generations doing the same old things. Reading this third-generation cycle of novels has been and up-and-down experience, and I'm glad that this novel was a good steady-as-she-goes contribution to this alternative history.