17 Sep Hero’s Journey
Our mother was the GOAT.
Yes I’m referring to just how stubborn she could be, but I’m really using the term to link her with Michael Jordan – who just so happens to have given a nice chunk of money to help build her beloved School of Social Work. Like him, she refused to accept that the ceiling is the roof, and she pushed boundaries in regards to her work. She’s often referred to as a legend in the School of Social Work, and I constantly meet people who tell me that she had a tremendous impact on their lives and work. Her passion for community, connection, and comradeship is unparalleled. She shared these attributes with her husband, and his loss 13 years ago was absolutely devastating for her.
Still, in her stubbornness she refused to give up. Despite the struggles she faced with the loss of half of her soul, she fought to move forward – or at least try to move forward – though she found it almost impossible to get past her aching sense of loss.
I want to circle back to some of those attributes that made her the greatest of all time in her field. She had a passion for pushing against stereotypes and embracing differences. Like many children, I don’t know a great deal about my mother’s day to day work life, but there’s one project that often comes to mind. I have been told that in the ’80s when AIDS started to ravage America, and sick people began to return to North Carolina to be with their families because they had nowhere else to go, she created a phone network to link these often homebound people who had lost connection to the communities which had embraced them in a way that they could not find at home. Well before the Internet arose to link communities that needed connection, my mother created one that was clearly essential to helping people remain whole, even as their lives collapsed around them.
Her stubborn insistence on dignity for all was something she shared with her husband and passed on to her students – as well as her children, grandchildren, and nieces, nephews and cousins – and I believe that the impact of this “passion for compassion” helped hundreds, if not thousands of students find their own voice.
As she began to age, she pushed back against a sense that the world did not treat older people with the kind of respect and compassion they deserved. She felt discriminated against, and I believe she wanted to start a third act after her retirement to correct this problem. On a more personal level, as someone who had a strong desire for control over her own destiny, she raged against the loss of her mental prowess. This last year was particularly difficult and the ache for connection to her late husband increased as her memory and physical health faltered.
When I was in high school my father helped me write a paper about Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not go Gentle Into That Good Night”. “Rage rage against the dying of the light,” my father recited in his stage voice. His reading helped me to connect with the sense of loss that one feels when losing a parent. “And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
As I read it again, I can see that the poem is an admonition rather than an observation. Thomas wills his father to stay alive, to refuse the call of death. However, he also recognizes that wise men surrender to the dark when their time has come. My father quietly raged against the loss of his physical health after he retired. Yet the transition from powerful professor to retiree was immensely difficult for him to navigate. The loss of his sense of who he was had an effect on his physical body, leaving him less mobile, and he died in a sudden chaotic way: hit by a car as he struggled to cross the street to a basketball game that my mother had dropped him off for before driving parking. By the time she headed to the game he had already been hit, but it had been so recent that there were no officers on the scene just yet. This tragic loss left a lasting impact on all of us- especially my mom and my sister. We all relied on his wit, his love and his wisdom. We all felt his loss acutely, but he was foundational to both of them and they struggled separately with that loss.
Shortly after everyone had departed following his funeral, my mom collapsed on the bed screaming “nobody will ever love me again.” It was painful to hear, because even as I calmly tried to let her know that her children loved her and that we would be here to support her, the loss of her husband was so profound she simply could not hear me. She was at the bottom, and this is where her hero’s journey began. For the next 13 years (could it really have been that long ago and yet still feel so present?) she fought to find some sense of wholeness in herself. She struggled, but lifted up by friends and colleagues, she stumbled forward. My brother, my sister, our families and I worked with great passion to help her know that she was loved. Yet, sometimes it didn’t feel like she could fully understand that. She had a strong and stubborn allegiance to her own understanding of the world – and as my dad liked to say, “that’s the story there.” However, over time that story began to shift a little bit. Unfortunately, just as she was starting to find her footing in her retirement community her memory began to escape her and she was once again pushed out of balance.
While the health issues my mother faced this past year were difficult for her, they did create a space for her to come to see that there were people who could love her, and this provided fuel for her to “rage against the dying of the light”. Again, she was so stubborn she didn’t need our love to resist, but I think she did need it to let go. In January when she had pneumonia I spent 4 nights in the Critical Care Unit with her and I tried to keep a hand on her shoulder to keep her on this earth. She was very ill, but she fought back with a tenacity that was overwhelming. Still, when she suffered, she let us know. At night she often thought I was her husband. It was confusing emotionally. However, it did help her to feel more loved. She surprised everyone by healing rather quickly and she returned to independent living. She had a good 4-month run at home and then she fell, fracturing her skull, and she never returned to her cottage.
The past few months have been a roller coaster of recovery and setback. It could be difficult to bear. Adam visited from NY frequently and Dana and I tried to be there every day that we could. In July and August, Dana stepped up when I had to travel and spent increasing amounts of time at Carol Woods. My mom made a little more room for Dana to support her and that in turn gave Dana more room to heal from our father’s loss. Most importantly Dana took on the awesome responsibility of vetting the aides that had to be with her because she was falling a lot. Of course my mom resisted these intruders – especially when they didn’t let her do exactly what she wanted. My mother valued her privacy like a precious resource, so the need to be watched was enraging to her. Dana developed a roster of compassionate caregivers which helped immeasurably. All of the caregivers knew and loved our mother which helped a lot.
While I would not wish the struggles she face the past four months on anyone, I’m thankful for the opportunities it created for healing. I’m not referring so much to physical healing, but instead for healing of the soul. As her memory started to escape her, the reality of her stuckness at my father‘s passing emerged like the bones rising from the frozen-tundra as the earth warms. A few days before I left on a recent trip, she saw a newspaper on the table and asked me if my father‘s obituary was in it, and if I could read it to her. As her defenses dropped she revealed that she still dwelled in the days after his death. Her story was stuck in the past and she was on a hero’s journey to overcome obstacles and bring balance back to the world.
Joseph Campbell was an anthropologist who studied myths and stories, coining the term “hero’s journey” to describe this pattern of the hero facing ever increasing obstacles, ultimately overcoming them to bring the world back into balance. When my father died, my mother was knocked so far out of balance that it seemed as if she would never find it. I believe that over these past few months my mother was on a journey to bring not only her own story back into balance, but their story as well.
Last week I had to travel to Italy and Israel for work and I believed that we were in such a good place together that even if she passed while I was gone it would be all right. I knew that Dana and my wife Suki were there, so I had no worries that she would be taken care of. I know now that I was running from the sadness. Our brains are tricky beasts, often trying to protect us from emotions that we need to be leaning into rather than running from. On some level I knew this, so when I woke up on Monday morning at 4am to a note from Suki saying, “I think you need to come home now,” I took a deep breath and said “yes I do.”
By 7 AM I was on my way to the airport In Tel Aviv. One thing that this journey with my mom over the past five months has taught me is to accept what is, because to resist is not only futile but a waste of essential resources – the kind of resources that allow us to be present when we’re most needed. So I’m happy to say that I was able to be calm and settled on the 12-hour flight to Newark.
However, on the flight from Newark to Raleigh, I was almost unbelievably agitated, uncomfortable, and exhausted. My cousin Ed arrived at the airport the same time I did and I told him that I just need to go home and see her tomorrow. I was so exhausted I couldn’t think straight. However, when Suki arrived to pick us up, she had our kids with her because I had asked that she give them the opportunity to say goodbye to their grandmother. So, in accepting what is, I said, “Let’s go see her.” I could already see that my previous nonchalance about being there was really more connected to a fear of having to be that sad.
The moment I walked in the room, I knew that she wouldn’t be there much longer. Dana leaned in and said, “Michael’s here,” and she turned a little toward her. After that her gaze stayed fixed. So, after my children and my wife said their goodbyes, we put my sister’s children on the phone with her as well as a few others who needed to say goodbye.
During this time, my sister was in bed holding her and whispering, letting her know that we were all there and she was loved. My brother, who had been there the day before and had said his goodbyes, was with us on the phone. Her breathing was labored and she was unresponsive, but she was steady in her resolve. At around 11, the nurse gave her a small amount of medicine for pain and her breathing relaxed. Her hands were warm and there was a strong sense that she was accepting of the love in the room. Her breath became more steady and regular. She was no longer raging against the dying of the light but instead accepting it. We all knew it was time. I had this powerful feeling that her passing was creating healing for my father as well – not only was she joining him, but she was healing the wound of his chaotic passing. It was so calm and beautiful as to be surreal. Her breathing slowed until it was no longer there. She slipped into that good night bathed in love, and radiating it as well. It took a long time for that glow to fade. There was no wailing – there was simply peace, and I was left with a sense that balance had been restored.
This past week was a bit like a dream. On one level, I was able to be very present with people and I felt at peace for the most part. While I didn’t feel like I was in shock – because my mother’s passing was so expected – I was aware that I was somewhat disconnected from my grief. In part, I also knew that it had been unfolding for some time, so it wasn’t surprising that it was less profound than it might be. Yet, I knew I was running from it as well.
At the funeral home my mother was in the room directly across the hall from where my father had been. On the first day I visited, she still looked a bit like herself. The next day my sister stopped by and a couple of days later my brother arrived so I brought him. On each visit it was clear that her soul was a little less present in her physical body. As Rodney, the funeral director, wheeled her in on Thursday, he apologized that the nice quilt that was on her on my first visit wasn’t available. Instead, he had used a blue blanket. I recognized it as the same blanket that had covered my father just as Rodney explained he thought it was.
The next day we gathered at our home with friends. It turned out that it was Friday the 13th- which was also Suki and my 22nd wedding anniversary, the day after my brother’s wedding anniversary. Monday 9/9, when my mother had died, was my sister’s 55th birthday. They now share that date. So, we celebrated them all and made the night full of joy, mixed with a little bit of grief.
The following day, we had the official viewing and a small memorial, Rodney used the beautiful quilt, but immediately understood when I asked for the blanket. I felt very connected with all the people who came to pay their respects and there was a feeling of love and healing in that space. Afterwards, we gathered at the School of Social Work where my mother had taught for 45 years, and family and friends spoke moving eulogies. Something about that day, partly struggling with my own eulogy (essentially what I have written above), left me feeling deeply depleted and I started to get a sharp pain in my foot. I decided to walk the mile home to settle myself and just be alone for a half an hour. It helped a little but the pain continued. As I neared home, I found a five dollar bill on the side of the road. I of course took a picture of it. When I showed it to my wife she immediately recognized it as her birthday 5/5, tears welling in her eyes. It was only a few days after her last birthday party that my mother fell and hurt her head. She had been the absolute life of that party. Numbers and dates have meaning in our family. My brother and I were born on 2/2, my mother 12/12, and as stated above my sister’s is 9/9 and my wife’s 5/5. I’m seeing signs everywhere and accepting them.
I knew the pain in my foot was stress-related so I didn’t fear it, but it became increasingly insistent. Yesterday it was vaguely torturous, an electric seizing in the front pad below my toes every 30 seconds to five minutes that grabbed my attention with increasing violence. I had planned to go and deal with some things in my mother’s cottage, but my foot made it clear that I was to stay in bed, which I did. It started slowly calming and I have been trying to just reflect and lean into the sadness. Last night, I forced myself out of bed and took a 3 mile run and my foot did not bother me. The foot pain only re-appeared when I paused. I know it’s related to my emotions so I can let go of fear. Today it has spoken to me, but in a much quieter voice.
Earlier I talked about traveling to Italy for work. I was printing a book of photos I shot in malls in the ’80s. The work was inspired by Robert Frank who also died last Monday. When my first mall book came out, and there was a lot of press, I got a message from a guy who came home from his father’s funeral to find a picture of his parents going down an escalator on his home page. It was one from the first mall book. He couldn’t make sense of what had happened. I understood immediately that he had been sent a message; that it wasn’t random.
This morning I woke up to a call from the funeral home letting me know they were taking my mother to be cremated. I jumped in the car to drive to Mebane (about 20 miles away) to be with her. When I plugged my phone into the USB in the car, I was surprised to see that it started Pandora (my daughter had been driving it). For a second I thought it might be Versus that I heard but quickly realized it was Sonic Youth. I loved the subtle melody and vaguely knew the song but it wasn’t from one of the first albums that I know so well. As I got to the highway the last 6 lines jumped out at me- the repetition of a single world, “Incinerate, incinerate, incinerate, incinerate, incinerate.” I gasped at the wonder of it and turned it off. Then I called my good friend Gene and talked with him about it all the way there.
At the incinerator, I watched them push the box in and close the door. After that I went into a viewing area and meditated, doing my best to be with my mom as the fire helped her soul leave this world. I thought about The Smiths’ song “Big Mouth” that goes, “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt, as the flames rose to her Roman nose, and her Walkman started to melt.” I stayed a bit longer. When I got outside I heard a fan blasting out the heat. So I went there to be a little closer. I sat in the sun and let it burn my face a little. Eventually I headed for my car. When I turned on the engine it started the next song on that Pandora station, “Big Mouth”. I screamed at the first acoustic chords and sat in shock as I heard “…now I know how Joan of Arc felt….” I turned it off. It was too much. A bit later, the silence started to get to me so I decided to finish it. In the second chorus, Morrisey sings “hearing aids started to melt”. I screamed once again. I’d never noticed that line, or at least never held on to it. This phrasing felt so personal and specific. When I had filmed the cardboard coffin going in, I’d lifted the camera to capture the scrawled confirmation that there was no jewelry nor a pacemaker. This had also made me think of her hearing aids.
Right now I’m going to go for another run. But first I wanted to post this right around the moment that my mother passed away 7 days ago.