Updated: Feb 22
My father taught me about love. Not by sitting me down or talking about it, but by how he treated my mother. My parents were fun people. There were always family and friends around the kitchen table on Friday nights, playing pinochle, drinking big bottles of Gallo Brothers wine, and engaging in grown folks talk. As a family, we celebrated all the life moments, big and small – birthdays, holidays or because the fireflies were out on a warm summer night.
When I was twelve, my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The surgery that saved her life caused her to lose her sight, her sense of smell, and her sense of taste, but not her sense of humor. In 1974, they told her that the tumor was so intertwined in her brain, they couldn’t get all of it. It would grow back in about fifteen years. My older brother, older sister and I didn’t know that part. We struggled to adjust to our new mother who insisted on keeping things normal, like her cooking dinner. It was a disaster. She often either burned the dinner, or under cooked it, and like the ungrateful and insensitive teenagers we were, we complained – loudly. But, Dad? He ate it all -without complaint, and we felt his wrath for not doing the same.
Mom continued to crack jokes and had always gotten a kick out of saying things for shock value. When I was sixteen, I was sitting in the kitchen talking to a girlfriend, and my mother burst in the door and announced, “I have gray hair on my p***y!” I was horrified. “Mom, what are you saying?” I yelled at her, “You’re blind! How do you even know that?” She grinned. “Your father told me,” banged the wall with her cane, and left the room.
Mom thought of her disabilities as something to navigate, not to derail her fun. They continued their weeklong romantic getaways without us kids. Once they took a road trip to South Dakota because she wanted to see the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore. Almost every Saturday morning, he took her canoeing at Belle Isle. My parents laughed a lot. They enjoyed time together and continued to milk every bit of joy they could out of life. My sister went off to college one year, and I left the next. My brother stayed behind. And my mother’s tumor grew slowly…causing multiple ailments and challenges. When I was in law school, she had a series of strokes that chipped away at her cognitive functioning. She lost the ability to speak in full sentences and her words would get jumbled up. The left side of her body was paralyzed, and she finally lost all her language skills, except for one word. Ray. My father’s name. She never lost that.
As she declined, it became harder for her to do the fun stuff. My dad would go to work, come home, and sit on the sofa and hold her hand as he shared the events of the day. She couldn’t talk, but she could laugh. And did. All the time. At the time, it was hard to see, but looking back, I can see that as each year passed, she lost a little more of her effervescent personality. Ray stayed the course. He never wavered.
In 1989, what had been a slow decline, abruptly changed. A cousin called and told me to come home right away. My father and my brother had kept this from me because they were worried it would derail my first year in law school. My mother had become so disabled, she could no longer take care of herself. My father tried to keep her at home as long as possible, bathed her, fed her, and wouldn’t let anyone else help. He fired both the physical therapist and speech therapist who pushed her too hard. Finally, my brother had convinced him to put her in a facility two blocks from our house. When he wasn’t working, he was there, sitting with her, holding her hand.
I caught the first flight home. By the time I got to the hospital, she was gone. It had been fifteen years, almost to the day since her surgery. I walked into her room and my father was sitting next to her bed, holding her lifeless hand. She was 53. In the weeks and months after her death, Dad spent hours sitting in the yard, smoking cigarettes, staring into space. Two years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on his 59th birthday. I was 31.
At 62, I have outlived both of my parents. They died so young. I miss them, but thinking about them makes me smile, because they enjoyed life! They were happy. I am blessed to have had these parents, and especially my dad. For what he showed me. For how he lived his life. My father was not a perfect man. After he passed, I learned that my parents had their troubles like everyone else. Their marriage was not perfect. I never saw that. I watched a man love his wife deeply, to her very last breath. I am forever grateful for my father’s lessons about love. Maybe that is why I do what I do. I know that love is real. Thanks, Dad.