Walking down Ditmars Boulevard this morning, I saw something odd that struck a chord. It was simply three people walking: a mother and her two sons, who appeared to be roughly 10 and 15 years of age. The 10-year-old was skipping and holding his mother’s hand as they walked. Both of them looked over-joyed to be with each other. The 15-year-old walked a few dozen feet in front of them, sullen, wearing his standard-issue goon's hooded zipper sweatshirt, turning around every now and then to make sure they were still there. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there.
I should be down on that 15-year-old, but you know something? It made me recall feeling the same way at that age. And one of my more embarrassing teenage memories: making my mother walk apart from me whenever we went to the local mall. It just wasn’t cool to acknowledge that relationship at that age. “Not cool” is an understatement – “the death of cool” would be more accurate.
Of course, this sort of memory conjures up all sorts of “unfair to Mom” memories: berating her for unexpectedly buying me a Phillies t-shirt that I initially loathed but later fell in love with; going apeshit on her when my grandmother threw out my stuffed dog (see picture); giving her a hard time when she was carrying on like a mental patient the few minutes before I was set to drive away to college (not realizing she was far more upset than I was).
Well, even without Dad dying, this is some embarrassing shit to recall. But honest. If there’s one thing I could tell that kid, it would be nothing. Because unless his mother dies unexpectedly in the next few years, he’ll have a few more decades to work through that meaningless “cool” shit in his head and find his way to the other end – the one where you recognize your parents are just decent, flawed people, hopefully like you are. (Apologies to those with parents who weren’t decent – I know you’re out there.)
A few months ago, Mom had a bad scare, spending a few weeks feeling out of sorts physically, before she went to the doctor to find she had a grapefruit-sized tumor next to her kidneys. Thankfully, it wasn’t cancerous and was easily removable with an operation. But even this is an ordeal for a 70+ year-old woman, so it was a few weeks of very bad tension, especially with dad’s passing so fresh in everyone’s mind. She’s appeared to come out of it all right – a little weaker, but not doing that bad at all.
When I go back to visit now, if I’m home when she grocery shops on Wednesdays, I tag along and help out. It’s certainly not asking too much. Sort of freaks me out how she leans forward in the car seat and never wears a seat belt. Makes me wonder how much she must struggle hauling in the groceries by herself. But in the store, she has her agenda, has done this for decades and knows exactly where to find everything. She still wears that nutty sun visor and black windbreaker with my name on the right breast and the logo for the awful outdoor advertising company I worked for back in the early 90s on the left. Classic Mom – been that way for years and I wouldn’t want it any different.
It’s little trips like those that keep me connected in some way – much like Dad and I did with our drives to and from the bus station. Lord only knows how I’d feel about all this if I still lived back there and was around all the time. But the simple reality is I don’t, and if there’s one thing I learned from Dad’s passing is that time will run out on all of us. And when it does, you had better be squared away in some sense with the people who go.
I’m not saying hug your parents or any such shit. Just pay attention and take some time to be around. Recognize that it will all end one day, and you will more than likely carry on afterwards with a strange feeling you’ve never had before, i.e., being parentless. For people who’ve felt that way for decades, sorry. Whether your parents died young, were unforgivable assholes, or you simply never knew them, something went radically wrong there. They should have been around for decades, and you should feel the weight of their passing, as much as it hurts and leaves you reeling when it happens.
Coming back to that kid on the street today, I was amazed at how forgiving I felt towards him. Besides which, some finger-shaking “appreciate your mother while she’s still around, young man” routine would have been met with a snide “fuck you, buddy, mind your own business.” Especially around these parts! Hopefully, he’ll have time to see the error of his ways, and find his way around to that place where he can recognize he played a very bad trick on himself in his younger days. Because reality is one day he’s going to turn around and not see anyone behind him to feel embarrassed over. And those few hard, revelatory moments in life, friends, are when it gets as real as it ever will.