Simple Ideas

Not Enough Time

Blogging | December 14, 2012

Part I

I'm on the train from Washington DC to NYC. I have slept more during the days than during the nights over the past three days. Though I've never slept in cars before, I found myself waking up in the car coming back from the funeral on Monday. Then again coming back from a movie the day after the funeral.

But at night, sleep isn't happening. The night before the funeral I thought I could explain it away with the "pre race jitters" that I used to get the night before an important run. Since I was giving the eulogy, I thought I could explain it away that way. But the same thing happened, or didn't, the next two nights. So much for comprehending the cause. I'm not sleeping is the bottom line. I'm up 22 hours a day and still feel I don't have enough time.

As I did my last minute planning for this trip, I left the middle of this trip soft. I didn't know what would happen and I wanted to be open to what ever may occur. The plans were rough hewn and I'm Ok with that. Just needed to be ready to flex. Didn't know if folks would get together after the services or not. Turned out the answer was "or not".

I was concerned about reading my eulogy, so there was that anxiety. There was also talk of their being a family time before the service where some of us could sign up and say a few words about Mom. But that sign up process seemed to evaporate. My brother George and I both wrote pieces for this event and had them ready, but...

It was just people milling about with no structure. That was OK, except it wasn't. There was one person who my Mom specifically asked to speak. In fact her comment was "Mom wanted Matt to speak because he is so eloquent". That was the lead to my piece, the idea that I would be ineloquent and set the bar low for him. But my brother read my piece and suggested that that might be taken the wrong way and I should drop it from my reading. I created a work around intro paragraph. But it didn't matter as I never read it aloud.

As soon as I shook hands with Matt, I knew it was wrong. Not only is he eloquent, he is also gentle and self-effacing. It was not the kind of lead in that would inspire him via a challenge or calm him with the wink that was intended. It was just wrong and I knew it. Just as it would have been wrong to let the time slip away without giving him time to speak. So I tried to get people to stop talking and listen. I made slight headway when my sister jumped and made an announcement loud enough to get people focused.

Matt's two pages of words were spot on. Much like the young writer in Finding Forrester, his words hit the mark. He was mildly choked up, but made it through. It is wrong to clap at a funeral and that was the only reason I didn't. But it was the right answer. His talk stood alone and could not have been improved by anything I did. He just needed the stage.

Before we left on the drive, I read my brother's piece. I couldn't say anything, I just gave him a thumbs up, because words were not going to get past my throat. This piece was on target also. My relatives can write, that is all I can say.

I knew at that point that the hardest part wasn't going to be saying the words of the eulogy. It would be listening to the words of the others who showed.

The people started coming. Honestly, I hardly recognized anyone. In many cases it had been 20-30 years since I saw these folks. A white haired man approached with "Hi, I'm Ted!" It took a second, it was my Uncle Ted, husband of my Mom's sister, Lucy, who we can no longer call Booty, even though that is what we always called her.

I did recognize my Uncle Phil who still looks like a Peanuts character. I don't mean that in a bad way, he is the only one who I could ID on sight. Everyone else had to talk. He had changed the least is all I'm trying to say.

My High School cross country coach, Greg Baum, Popped in for a few minutes. He was working, not staying for the service, but it was great to see him. I'd hoped he would drop by.

I don't really "work the room" at events, but I did get around to a lot of people. I also popped in to the chapel to sync up with the priest and figure out how the speaking part would work. I was going to be mic'ed up and that is not how I usually speak, so I was counseled to go slow...painfully slow. I asked my brother to give me I visual if I was talking to too fast and that was my plan to avoid blitzing through my piece.

The service went very well. The priest gave a great welcome. It wasn't the Catholic Church I remembered. I recalled it being an exclusive place and his words were very inclusive. That was another world turned upside down moment to go with losing Mom.

The service moved along. I got up to do my thing. I looked up twice and saw nothing from my brother so thought I was OK. He had been waving "slow down" but not while I was looking up, so the priest cut in to slow me down. It was appreciated. I usually work among the people when I talk and get eyeball feedback from 5 feet away, so this talking into a mic from a podium was new territory for me.

I got through it without choking up. When I had practiced the reading of the eulogy, possessive pronouns were the choke points, i.e. my Mom...but I got over those points and got the words out. I think. It was mostly a blur thinking back.

Afterwards I had a few words with the priest, thanking him for doing such a great job. There were hugs for Aunt's. I told Matt that he did a great job with his talk beforehand. My brother Geoff had to catch a flight back to Atlanta. The room emptied quickly, almost too quickly.

And we were on our way back to Virginia. My thought before drifting off to sleep in the car being "That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be..."

The train has stopped in Philadelphia now.

I guess there was enough time after all to get these words down.

Part II

I get off the train in New York at Penn Station, right below Madison Square Garden where the 12/12/12 benefit concert was slated to start in roughly 8 hours. I wasn’t going to the concert. I was taking my Mom’s DNA to see New York. I lingered a few minutes in the station. I wasn’t sure what to do. I had a hotel on the upper east side, but it was probably too early to check in. I wanted to at least drop off my gym bag full of clothes and my PC before taking off into the city.

I saw the signs for the subway, but something said walk. It was absolutely the right thing to do. I walked down 33rd street and it appeared to be a street I’d never seen before. I ended up at a Starbucks across from Papaya Dog and sat for about 20 minutes drinking coffee and watching people. People doing nothing in particular. Walking, talking, just being alive. It was a good 20 minutes. I know Mom would have sat there happily too, just watching the people. I flashed back to one trip to NYC where she saw Donald Trump on the street and shook hands with him. It was those random moments that she liked, the “you never know what you will see next” aspect of this city.

Heading to the train, there was a loose dog being chased by a doorman, I helped corral that animal then found my subway train. My hotel was in a section of Manhattan that I had very little experience with. Upper East side near the East River. When I found it I saw it was directly opposite a housing project. I had to smile as we all had lived in a project for a year or two after Dad left. Then I walked in the hotel and there was a menorah on the counter. I was checked in by an Asian guy. Ah the multiculturalism of NYC was in full bloom! Another smile for the Mom half of my DNA.

I was surprised to be checked in early, but happily so. I was able to turn around quickly and head to the park. I ran down a couple path’s in Central Park. Temperatures were in the mid 40’s so the run was a nice warm up. I love Central Park after a snow, what with the lakes frozen and all, however weather was too warm for that. But this was a good day also. Clear and crisp. And with the leaves off the trees you can get better views of the skyscrapers than in the other three seasons. There really isn’t a bad time to be in Central Park. Mom was doing well, she was keeping up with me on the run. That would have been impossible if she still had her own body. But flying along as an angel next to me, she was doing fine.

We popped into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I avoided the military section, but hit a few area’s that were light. Did more of the religious paintings that I usually would. Hung out extra long with a few of the masters. I had a knit hat that my brother had made. Stopped a second to take a picture of me in the hat next to an Egyptian statue that was sporting some spiffy headgear. Sent that back to George just so he would know his hat was in good company and doing the job it was designed to do.

After the museum we ran across the park to the Upper West Side. Found the Amsterdam Ale house and I ordered a pint of Mad River IPA. The angel wasn’t drinking, so I’m seeing more upsides to this as the day goes on.

Back to the hotel to charge up the iPhone and grab a short rest. Thought about a power nap to offset the lack of sleep, but opted for a quick bath instead. The angel took off and did angel stuff while I hit the tub. With the phone recharged, we were off to dinner. Headed to Traif over in Brooklyn. When I pop out of the subway there is a gentleman asking the exiting passengers if they are Jewish. When he gets to me I say “No, I’m Scottish”. If anyone in earshot had been to Scotland, they would have got the joke there. The questioner just smiled and said Happy Hanukah Scotsman!

With the angel doing the timing, we arrive at Traif one minute after they open. I check the menu and see the beet salad. The cockles are not on the menu, but they have mussels. Hrmm. One more, oh, the foi gras! But when the waiter comes back I forget the third item. In a panic, I see the duck confit and order that.

Turns out the winter version of the salad is a notch below the fall version. Still a very good dish, but down from a 10 to a 9. Same on the mussels as compared to the cockles. But the duck? Far and away the best. I realized that it wasn’t just chance that made me forget the foi gras and order the duck. The angel was making the calls, or would make them, if I just stayed out of the way.

I head over to the play that is set to start at 8. That play is in the Village, but once again as soon as I pop out of the subway, I run into a little more of the New York diversity. This time it is a black man on a bicycle. He is looking for directions back to Brooklyn. I pull out my Ipad and check the map. I pull out my iPhone and check the compass. This was so much a Mom moment as she typically had her Iphone in one hand and the Kindle in the other…well, you know, it is how these things go. This gent headed off in the direction I pointed him and thanked me by saying “you know this is a tough place to get around when people who live here can’t find their way home.” He mustn’t have had an angel yet.

Mine got me to the play three minutes before the curtain. The play was called Falling Down and it was about autism. The main character was an Autistic 18 year old who was physically imposing and had some aggression issues. Basically this was the other side of the spectrum from me, the guy who was hard corps autistic and likely mentally retarded, to use the medically if not politically correct term. Even though this was a fictional character, you could argue the same about the guy who is opposite me on the IQ spectrum. The guy who I use as my rationale to never retire. The guy who has no skills and no ability to get out in the workforce. That guy. Yeah, the play wasn’t doing very well in terms of box office. I doubt a play about me would do very well either. But the couples on either side of me were very engaged in the play adding the right comment at the right time, I mean what I thought would be the right comment if you were neurotypical. Overall I enjoyed the play and thought 3 of the 5 actors were flawless in their depictions.

At the end they had a “talk back” session. I can’t imagine that anyone who was “on the spectrum” would stay for that. So I bolted. But it got me thinking about the main problem with trying to put on this type of play. The issue with autistic folks is that they, uh we, live most of our lives deep inside our heads. Which means that the internal conversations are the focus of the day to day…so trying to portray that with physical actions, be they the organizing rituals or the physical confrontations makes this a very limited insight into that character. So yes, I know that “voice over” is a cheesy technique in the arts community. But that in my mind was the missing aspect of this play. And I’d have mentioned that at the talk back, except I was on the other side of NYU heading north by the time that insight landed.

Heading back to the hotel, I noticed that I had wasn’t feeling any of the alcohol I’d consumed. Two beers and a scotch had left no mark. The three days at my brothers I didn’t have a drink. And that didn’t bother me either. Seems I can drink or not drink and the effect is pretty much the same.

Saying goodbye to my Mom and Dad likewise had opposing answers. My Dad was very much the small town guy. He was born in a 1,000 person town and lived in 30,000 person town. He hated NYC. So when he passed, I went to the small town where he was born to reconnect. With my Mom it was different. She was born to the small town life and also lived in that 30,000 person town all her days, but she found NYC late in life and loved it. She would have travelled more had she the resources earlier in life. But instead she did most of her travel vicariously through books, movies, plays…

So in the end, that is how I’m making my peace with this event. Mom was a big city girl who lived vicariously in big cities. I live and work in big cities. Half my DNA is hers. So that is my answer. I angel the half of her that still lives in me. I take that DNA wherever I go. When I do that, Mom goes too.

It might be cheesy sure, but it’s my peace

Part III

(this is the piece I wrote for the family time, but didn’t deliver.)

The Lives of Others

Mom asked me to speak today. She didn’t actually ask me directly. What she did was, she asked Teddy to ask Matt to talk because he is so eloquent. When I heard that, I knew she wanted me to talk. It was obvious that if I spoke before Matt , he would sound even more eloquent by comparison. In short, I am here to set the bar low.

Mom, like me, was a first born. Life tends to set the bar high for first born’s. They rarely live up to the expectations. Mom may have been an exception. She made it through nursing school and spent her life helping others. In many cases, the people she helped were terminal cases. Seniors in nursing homes and burn patients.

I know I never could have done her job. I always wondered how she could do the job, how she could go to work and know that that she was there with a burn patient who wasn’t going to make it. And knowing that when the person passed away, she would be out of a job until another patient showed up. For me that would have been too much. I tend to take my work home with me and not in a good way. But I think my Mom took it home in a good way.

In my visits back to York over the years, I have frequent memories of her updating me on the status of family members. Rarely would she speak ill of them. Everyone does good and bad and most people feel empowered to criticize their fellow man. Mom rarely ever felt that empowerment and even less so regarding family members. Even after my Dad left us, I don’t recall her speaking badly of him. She just kept going and worked to keep the family together.

Now I have to admit, it is possible that the only person that my Mom spoke badly about was me. If that is the case you are all looking at me like I’m nuts. That may be the case, but this isn’t about me, it’s about Mom. And I think this is what Mom took home from her work.

I don’t think it really mattered what her kid’s did, with one exception. I think her dealing with patients passing away at work left her with one wish for her kids. That they outlive her. The sense I got was that if her kids were still alive, that was all she needed to know. The bar was that low.

And even with that low bar, we have tested it over the Years. Neil used to catch putty knives with his head. Geoff and Joe both tried to stop cars with their bodies. George and I jumped out of air planes for fun. Whatever it was we were doing, we were still around and she would find something positive to pass on to others, to the best of my knowledge.

I admit, I have a theory for everything. Most of them are pretty nutty. This one may be too. But it is the one I’m taking with me from Mom. So I’d like to thank all my brothers and sisters for surviving Mom. And I’d like to encourage everyone in the room who still has parents to do the same for their parents.

Thanks, Mom. That is all I have. I hope I set the bar where you wanted it.

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