Joseph & Mary

Cry My Heart, Goodbye

About ten months after my father died the most remarkable thing occurred. I received an email from his accountant in Norfolk, Virginia, where Dad had lived. The accountant was forwarding me another email he had received that linked to a popular “Mom’s Blog” called Lucky Orange Pants, which had just posted an entry entitled “Be The Innkeeper Who Opens the Door.” Here is the post:

One year ago tonight, I took the boys to dinner. As Jack was making his salad, an elderly gentleman with a walker was trying with some effort to open the door. Without my prompting, the boys rushed to open the door for him. He seemed genuinely touched and told me what gentlemen they were.

For some reason, I could not stop glancing over at the man as he waited for his takeout order at a nearby table. Perhaps it was his eyes, which bespoke a quiet, gentle loneliness. I know that look. I have felt it. And I wanted to do something to ease it.

As we were paying, I asked the waitress to put his tab on my bill anonymously. The boys were oddly overwhelmed by this and asked if they could pay for his dinner with their own money. I felt proud to be sure. But I also felt...uncomfortable. It is nice to pay for someone's dinner, to pay for their coffee, to give anonymously. But if we're honest with ourselves, that's often the easy way out. We can pat ourselves on the back for doing something good without having to get involved. But sometimes what people really need is not a 5-dollar cup of coffee, but 5 minutes of human connection.

So I listened to the discomfort and walked over to his table to say hello. We chatted for quite awhile, about the holidays, the new Star Wars movie, his tenure chairing the Biology Department at ODU, and his grandkids. He said, my wife and I had 6 children. I lost her this year, he added quietly.

He held my gaze and I saw the loneliness from earlier in his eyes. But I also saw something else. What was her name? I asked. Somehow it was important for me to know. And I knew it was important for him to say it. Mary, he replied. We were together for 63 years. I held out my hand and said, I'm Cameron. He looked me in the eye and said, I'm Joseph. And then he laughed - a big, full laugh - as the looks registered on our faces. Yes, he said, Joseph and Mary. He did not let go of my hand, even as he turned and looked at the boys and told them what joy they had brought him. Perhaps he had sensed something in my eyes too.

Later, when we were bundled up in bed together, all of the feelings that had been roiling around inside me seeped out of my pores and sat on top of my skin. The boys asked why I was crying and I told them simply that sometimes God brings people across our paths for a reason. I don't talk about religion much but I do not doubt that we were meant to meet this man, this Joseph and his Mary.

To remind me that we are all walking through the night, tired and alone, in need of a place to rest our heads and our hearts. To remind me that all of us who have lost someone we love are part of a team. We don't have uniforms, we don't have a coach, and we certainly don't have a game plan. But we can recognize each other. To remind me that it is our job to be the innkeeper who opens the door. It is so much easier to be the innkeeper who says, I'm sorry. We don't have any room. It's not my problem. It's not my business. I'm too busy.

But that night I was reminded of what happens when you open the door and say, I will find a place for you. I will make room.

That night we were the innkeeper who said yes. But so was Joseph. That night we walked each other home. Love hard, friends. And always be the innkeeper holding the light who says yes...

Yep, that was my dad she was writing about. A purely happenchance meeting between a caring mom and her kids, and my father at his usual best. After reading the blog post, the realization that I knew this man, this kind, curious, painfully forlorn man who was willing himself to stay alive after the death of his wife because he felt he owed it to his children., because he felt he owed it to his own immense love of life – nearly crushed my heart. Why wasn’t I there to ease his loneliness, to tell him it was okay to go gently into the night?

Amongst many things, my father was a man of the ages. Like anyone today in his or her eighties he lived through three distinct eras, entering each as both a hesitant traditionalist and a curious first adopter.

Born in southern Illinois in 1927 he came of age in the shadow of World War II and began raising his large family-to-be in the relatively stable and still innocent era of the 50’s and the golden age of the early 60’s. Sinatra, Elvis, the rise of rock and roll. Color television arrived, Hillary climbed Everest, Watson & Crick discovered DNA and the space race began. The world held promise and excitement and Dad embraced it fully, fathering six children and instilling in them that anything was possible.

Then came Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, hippies, LSD, the women’s movement, radical environmentalism. The world had suddenly gone topsy-turvy and conventional values were under assault at every turn. This was disconcerting to Dad and I remember him seemingly questioning everything. Even his own research in reproductive biology pitted the scientific process he loved with his own strict Catholic upbringing. Dad’s answer to that, to borrow a phrase from the time, was to keep on truckin’. He quite literally traveled the world in pursuit of academic and scientific advancement, all of us in tow, and he slowly reconciled his personal, political and religious beliefs.

This was followed by the age of technology and the digital revolution. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, mobile phones, computers, the collapse of the Soviet Union, genetic engineering, the Internet, the global financial crisis, social media. Oddly enough, I think this was the period in Dad’s life in which he found the greatest connection. He had retired as Dean of Sciences at Old Dominion here in Norfolk and now had the time he needed to pursue myriad projects from becoming a master gardener, to canoeing every swamp on the eastern seaboard, to raising dogs, to writing the multiple books that had been brewing inside him for far too long – including his own autobiography (which we all refer to as the “Bible”) and his wonderful children’s book series about Charles the Lion Dog. And he did all those things and much, much more, involving his family in every way possible. He was good about that, always asking us our opinion on this idea or that piece of writing and then taking whatever input we offered that agreed with what he had already originally decided.

Dad was insatiably curious and eternally optimistic.  He was academically brilliant but sometimes a bit culturally naïve, able to engage in complex scientific theory yet the last guy in the world you wanted to go with to a modern art museum. He hated rap music, abstract expressionism and advertising in general. But he loved Masterpiece Theatre, operas with my mother (or so he claimed) and the toys of modern technology from smart phones to drones.

He believed in people and ethics and social covenant, and he was the fairest human being that ever lived… sometimes to a maddening degree. For his entire life he kept a mental ledger of who got what amongst his tribe of kids and grandkids and made sure in the end that it was completely even. This was no small task for a man who never stopped sending all of us birthday, graduation, anniversary and any special occasion cards with a small check enclosed. Pretty cool to still get a card with a $25 check from your dad on your 60th birthday

He was the epitome of fiscally conservative and socially liberal, hugely generous and more than once an easy mark for the sympathy scam. He was the guy you would call first if you were in trouble or needed help, and he was the guy you would call first when something great happened in your life, because just to hear in his excitement and enthusiasm on the other end of the line was often even better that the event itself.

Dad left an impression on almost everyone he met because he fully engaged with people with an honest, open curiosity. Who could resist such genuine friendliness, or that twinkle in his beautiful pale blue eyes. Obviously not Cameron, the author of that blog. But caution to anyone who fell under his spell, because the consequence was likely a lifetime of lectures on delayed implantation in Alaskan fur seals, the evolution of dog breeds, what soil was best for red roses, and the visual acuity of rhinos.

A fair and wonderful price to pay, indeed.

*   *   *

My mother actually raised two families, two groups of three kids each – with enough years between them for her to have to effectively go through the process twice. The consequence was that the two groups actually grew up in quite different ways and very different environments. My sister Kate, my brother Mark, and I were in the first group. Judy, Edward and Alice were the second.

As little kids there was never a better partner in crime than my mom. Rarely would we be told no to some adolescent adventure. Instead mom would figure a way to make it happen and gently encourage us to have at it. Sure, she would remain in the background, providing a modicum of control over the enterprise, but just barely. If some disaster befell us, well that was just the consequence of playing hard. She would pick us up, dust us off, smother us with praise and band aids and send us back out the door with instructions to be home by dark for dinner. Mom was most definitely not a helicopter parent. We had the run of the small western town where we lived and the adjacent mountains, and from a surprisingly young age – at least by today’s standards – I remember going fishing, hunting squirrels with an old .22, climbing everything from towering rock formations to abandoned buildings, and even overnight camping without the supervision of a parent. It was a wonderful, unfettered way to grow up.

But this was hardly to say Mom was not engaged, in fact just the opposite. She was quietly but acutely aware of our needs and wants, and she always had your back. When it came time to buy school clothes and I desperately wanted a blue corduroy Nehru jacket (remember this was the sixties) she somehow found a way to include it in that year’s clothes budget. When an over zealous teacher became physically abusive in her discipline on the playground Mom marched right down to the school and let the teacher know in no uncertain terms that would not be happening again. When I found myself in the final draft lottery for the Viet Nam War my mom, a lifelong Democrat, was already figuring out how to get me to Canada.

We all loved her deeply as little kids and the squabbles for who got to sleep with her when my father was out of town were the thing of legend. Our house was where all the kids in the neighborhood hung out because mom was always making Kool Aid in the original smiley face pitcher, or a batch of her amazing brownies, or leading us all on a hunt for the six-foot bull snake that had escaped in our basement. Mom would tell us about how sometimes during the day while we were at school she would be ironing downstairs and the snake would crawl out from under the furnace keeping her company while warming itself in the square of sunlight coming through the window well. We couldn’t believe anyone could have a cooler mom than us.

Mom instinctively struck just the right balance between threatening us with our father’s ire when we became unmanageable and deflecting serious punishment when she felt we’d already learned our lesson. Once, when I found the hidden key and snuck the family station wagon out for a joyride when my folks were gone on an overnight trip, I’m pretty sure she figured out what had happened and her wordless admonishment via withering glare, and her willingness not to tell dad, were deterrent enough to never try that again.

Few things flustered my mother and she was game for any adventure, as when my dad took us to England for a year and we arrived in en-masse in Cambridge, six kids ages 5 to 17, with no housing as yet lined up, and as when Dad was awarded a Fulbright and the family moved to Nairobi for a year even as that part of Africa was becoming politically charged and increasingly unstable. She simply immersed herself in the experience and used her library science experience to land a job in the office of the famous anthropologist Richard Leaky. And in their retirement she continued to travel nearly every year with my Dad on some great trip somewhere, including China, Hawaii, Norway, and just three years ago a cruise through the St Lawrence Seaway and the Canadian Maritime.

Despite all the goings on, Mom wasn’t all that physically active, she never learned to swim and I can’t really remember her hiking long distances, skiing or riding a bike around town. Frankly, she was probably just worn out from all of us! But she was always there, if sometimes only on the sidelines. She was a keen observer with a sharp intellect and a consummate consumer of a good story, be it a powerful plotline from one of the literally thousands of books she read in her lifetime, or the latest series on Masterpiece Theatre – she was a Downton Abbey devotee from the very beginning.

Over the past few years before she got sick my favorite thing to do was to give her a call and spend the next thirty or forty minutes discussing this book or that film. It was rare that I had read one or seen one that she hadn’t. She was very current in her appreciation of literature, film and especially opera.

But my most powerful memory of my mother was from when she was caring for her own mother in the final days her life. I had accompanied mom to the nursing home where my grandmother lay unconscious in a fetal position. I stood in the doorway of the room watching my mother bravely and lovingly attending her, changing her clothes to keep her comfortable and all the time hugging her and telling her softly how much she loved her. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

*   *   *

My mother slowly disappeared over a two-year period and at the time of her death was living fully within muddled memories of people and times long gone. I was in Europe filming a television series when she took her final turn for the worse and I didn’t make it home in time to be at her bedside when she passed. My father was distraught that I couldn’t get there, but somehow it was okay – painfully sad, yes – but I had said my goodbyes months before. My siblings all made it in time and my sisters evoked my presence (as much for me I think, as for my mother who was no longer in the room).

Caring for my mother singe-handedly for over two years, and the exponential effects of  diabetes (probably undiagnosed for decades) had sapped my father of every ounce of vitality he had left. He was totally spent. Nevertheless he spoke convincingly about how he might live the remaining years of his life, the travel he still wanted to do, his dream of maybe moving back to Colorado. But despite two remarkable rallies in body and spirit, the wear of 88 years of life lived at full throttle – and most impactful, the loss of his Mary – was destined to count him in the oft-repeated statistic of mates dying within a year of each other.

He was sharp and clear to the end, and I sensed the final slide in one of our weekly phone conversations. I immediately hopped a plane to Norfolk and was there 12 hours later, in time to spring him from the senior care facility where he had been recovering – for the umpteenth time – from the severe edema of failing (read that refusing) to take his diuretics.  I got him home and comfortable and then called hospice for advice. They would be there in the morning to evaluate.

That night was long, and hard, and sad, and role changing. At one point I found him sitting up on the side of the bed drenched in urine, cold and shivering like a little boy. I cleaned him as best I could with a warm wash cloth, changed him into fresh pajamas, changed the bed and tucked him back in. I prayed he would still be alive come morning.

He seemed to rally some the next day, and enjoyed all the attention from the hospice nurses. But by early afternoon he was drifting off in a way I had never seen before. I called my sibs and relayed the situation. There had been false alarms before, but it was clear this was endgame. They all promised to get there as fast as possible.

Armed with morphine and Lorazepam, Atropine and Acetaminophen I began the second night in a state of barely contained panic. Dad had become delirious and was increasingly agitated. The hospice nurse assigned to his case had left ample supplies and instructions and was just a phone call away, but it would be up to me to see him through this night. The act of ushering in death while trying to calm the dying and do them no harm with the powerful medicines at hand was a mindfuck of contradictions. Nothing seemed to be working and after repeated phone calls and instructions to double the dosage, and double it again, I was decidedly out of my league.

At midnight there was a knock on the front door, desperate for help I rushed to admit who I hoped was a hospice angel come to join forces. No angel. But even better, it was my youngest brother Edward who had driven nonstop from Atlanta. And just like that, with his company and huge assistance, the tables turned. I went from unconsciously trying to “save” Dad from dying, to providing comfort and reassurance and permission to go.

The rest of the night was not easy, Dad fought what we could not know. But working together, Edward and I felt fulfilled. Dad lasted through the next day and long into the following night. All of my sisters and brothers got there in time and we were all at his bedside when the spark finally left those beautiful pale blue eyes.

It is unimaginable that Joseph and Mary are gone.

– Joseph Daniel, 2016