Parents: They Keep Going and Going

I spent one afternoon in Kansas City driving across the middle of the city, near the house at 70th and Holmes where I lived from birth until age 11. Among other things, I wanted to visit my mother’s grave, which I hadn’t seen since 1993, the year after she died.

It was rainy the day of her funeral, so they conducted the service inside, and we didn’t see the coffin lowered into the ground. For that reason, her death didn’t seem completely real to me until I went to Mount Moriah cemetery a year later. I was shocked and ashamed to discover that her gravestone was the most terrible thing I’d ever seen.

Shocked because I’d spent the past year in emotional upheaval, contending with the most intense anger I’d ever felt and waking up many mornings thinking, “My life is completely worthless.” I’d hoped I was done with the most difficult part of grieving. Ashamed because I asked myself, “How can I be so upset over my mother’s death—untimely though it was—when so many other people in the world lose children to starvation or most of their family in war?” I guess I expected myself to have a longer perspective, but I had none. I looked at her grave, went back to the car and howled.

After twenty years, I still miss my mother all the time, but my longing for her doesn’t take up so much space in my life. I sat on her grave and talked to her for a while. I pulled up some grass and dandelions so her gravestone was more visible. I didn’t realize that I could have pulled the vase up out of the ground and instead put the flowers on top of it. And I wondered why the grass over her coffin had died. Surely she wasn’t outgassing anymore, after twenty years? And that reminded me of how the priest at her funeral had called her “Shirley,” and none of us had corrected him.

Now my father is the one who’s heading out to sea. We’re about to close down the law firm he established when I was a teenager. We may even get the car sold this year. We hope he’ll consent before he gets another wild hair and takes a cab from assisted living to his old house to trying driving once again. The one time he did that, luckily, he decided it wasn’t such a good idea before he got in the car.

The day before Todd and I left Kansas City for Iowa, we took Dad to the Overland Park Arboretum to get him out in nature. It’s a beautiful place, and a little closer and more manageable than Powell Gardens. Several times he exclaimed about the beauty of the landscaping. Todd had to do most of the ambulating—Dad’s not strong enough to do the full tour with his walker or push himself up the inclines in his wheelchair. (I had been taking pictures on my BlackBerry in close-up mode, and I forgot to change it to another setting; that’s why this picture is so blurry.)

Here’s a view of one of the ecosystems at Overland Park Arboretum. When we got him back home, he was ready for dinner, and, most of all, he was ready to get himself there instead of having us do it. I watched through the window in the security door as he rolled away, and I thought, What if this is the last time I see him alive?

But it probably won’t be.