The Long Walk Home: Initial Thoughts on My Mother’s Passing

One of my earliest memories is a weekend that my mother and my father hired a babysitter to watch my siblings and me while my parents went away on vacation. Last year, I told my mother that I remembered the babysitter appeared like a giant next to a wall sconce light in the bedroom I shared with my brother. My mother told me I couldn’t have possibly remembered that since I was only three years old.

“And it wasn’t a weekend,” my mother said. “It was one night.”

Be that as it may, that night felt like an eternity.

I suppose it’s natural to recall memories when we lose a parent. My father had died when he was fifty-three years old. My mother was eighty-one years old. When my father passed away I was a nineteen-year-old kid in the army for just eight months. I was in the woods somewhere on the outskirts of Camp Grayling, a national guard training facility. My unit had flown there to play OPFOR, or the opposing force, against the Michigan National Guard. I don’t remember much, but I do remember the day I got the news. It was raining and everyone was miserable. My mother had contacted the Red Cross, and the Red Cross in turn got a hold of my unit, etc, etc, until I was approached by my company commander who, rumor had it, was some sort of college track and football hotshot, but he couldn’t compose a sentence to save his life. This handicap was made even more difficult as I listened to him stammer through the message. My father was dying. I needed to get home.

After my father was gone, I became very angry. At forty-seven years old, I can look back now and realize that the source of my anger was loss. I felt cheated. It’s human nature. Through my stint in the army and the ensuing years prior to my thirtieth birthday I drank. I drank a lot. When I did drink I had grand visions of dying and going after my father. It was foolish. There was nothing in the world that mattered. Sometimes I would see other guys, young adults like me at the time, with their fathers and anger possessed me to the point where I couldn’t see straight.

Throughout this time my mother never wavered in her campaign about faith; not your typical holy roller hallelujah type of faith, but the other kind. Yes, she believed in God. Yes, she believed in Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh, born unto a virgin, and the rest of it. But in her way she told me all the time that I just had to have faith.

That my drinking made life a living hell for everyone who knew me is no surprise. That’s what alcoholism does to you. Fast forward a few years, and I ended up in rehab. It was there I heard a priest break addiction down on several planes—biological, mental, and spiritual—and what that priest said eventually opened a door for me. In essence, we develop a hole or a void in our souls. Those prone to addiction, the priest said, tend to fill that hole with alcohol and drugs and other addictions. He also talked about how recovery was selfish, that the recovering alcoholic must continue to do one thing that he did while drinking: continue to think only of himself.

So, earlier today my siblings and I met at the hospital where my mother lay in ICU, having battled cancer, suffered one round of chemo therapy that wiped out her immune system, and subsequently ended up with an infection that was treated with antibiotics and dialysis after my mother’s kidneys and liver were discovered to be not functionally properly because of the infection. Ultimately, my mother succumbed to multiple organ failure. We stayed with her until the very end. My mother’s nurse came to the bedside, checked my mother’s pulse and listened with a stethoscope for a heartbeat. Afterward, the nurse told us “your mother’s gone home.” We stayed on a little longer after that.

Before leaving the hospital, I looked out the window of her room. It had been cloudy after some morning summer storms, but the sun was out. Memory has an odd way. In that instant, as I looked out the window, I remembered a day when I was in the first grade and I wanted to walk home from school with some boys I knew. I only made it half-way there when my mother came walking up the street to meet me. I was pretty sore about not being able to walk home by myself. But eventually my mother found enough faith to let me do so.

Today, hours after my mother passed from this world, I find myself thinking more and more about the past. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism. Right now, I sure as shit don’t want to think about the future without her. So, I think about the past. And I recall odd bits of history and myth concerning beliefs in the afterlife, not just the Catholic faith I was brought up with, but much older ones. For instance, I remember reading in some old book about ancient Celts who believed in only a finite number of souls. When a person died they got to come back. Pre-Christian Celts celebrated death and birth in much the same fashion, I guess; though there’s no hard evidence to support this other than the histories written by their conquerors which, as my mother used to say, leaves a lot to be desired.

Out of all this I am trying to build a base by which I can cope with the loss. It may work. It may not. In truth, none of us know definitely if there’s life after life. It is an age-old question; one that has haunted us ever since we climbed down from trees, crawled out of caves, or were expelled from the garden, depending on your personal outlook. What I do know is my mother’s independent spirit. In the years after my father’s death she became quite adept at fending for herself. For instance, she never had a driver’s license. But when my father died she knew there was no other choice.

Two days before she was hospitalized a week ago, my mother took herself out to breakfast. It was an indulgence that became quite frequent as she grew older. A few days before that, my mother and I talked about the perennial question: what comes next after life. My mother told me in no uncertain terms that she was not afraid. Maybe she knew what was coming down the pike, to use another phrase of hers. Or maybe, just maybe, she saw in her own way that her children were grown, that some of us graced her with grandchildren, and a few of those grandchildren graced her with great-grandchildren. Or maybe she missed her sisters and her brothers. Whatever the case, it was that conversation, more than the patchwork belief system I was building over the years, that solidified the base I am building in order to cope.

My mother once said that saying a Hail Mary may not put a ton of money in your lap, but it will sure give you peace of mind. She knew better than most the power of faith, and the deep mystery that went along with it.

Throwing Stars and Dreams: Or, How I Almost Joined a Kung Fu Temple Instead of Going to College

It was the best of times, it was an era when kung fu movies were outrageously bad, a period in which soundtrack for these movies meant one guy banging a gong, or, if budget permitted, perhaps two gongs. Sound effects for breaking bones in a fight scene consisted of one guy (maybe the gong guy) breaking a bamboo shoot over his knee…

I was fifteen years old, so I began the story over dinner tonight. I had a few close friends and we were enamored with all things martial arts related. Eight years had passed since the death of Bruce Lee. We read everything we could about the master, from the Tao of Jeet Kune Do to his four-volume Fighting Methods. We wanted to look like Bruce Lee. We wanted to be Bruce Lee.

bruce lee

And then we practiced. Oh, how we practiced. And by practiced I mean getting our asses kicked by a guy who was two years older than us in our neighborhood who was far more skilled than we were. For the sake of anonymity, we will call him “Matt.” He played drums, wrestled in high school, played football, concocted various poisons by placing meat in little jars and waited for them to rot, then dipped his blow gun darts into the poison and often hunted squirrels and other small targets armed with only his cunning and his blow gun. It was a learning experience; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in which getting kicked in the balls by “Matt” so hard your nut sack turned black and blue meant you could take it. He may have even administered a concussion or two; but it took some time to learn the importance of bobbing and weaving when you stood toe to toe with Matt; so, in essence, that was our fault. I liked to think that Bruce Lee would have agreed.

My better half listened as I told the tale of how my friends and I discovered a martial arts supply store in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia. Inspired by some half-ass movie we had watched, my friends rode a bus into Philadelphia. We bought some throwing stars which, rumor had it, were illegal in New Jersey. The guy at the martial arts supply store had to be sure we were not buying them and taking them over the bridge.

“You live in Philadelphia?” he asked in an abrupt sort of way.

“Uh…sure,” one of us said.

“You no throw at people?” the guy asked.

“Um…no…” I may have mumbled.

It never occurred to us that we might actually throw a “Chinese star” at someone else.

That afternoon, we returned to our neighborhood in southern New Jersey. We started practice, throwing the stars at a shed where my father kept our lawn mower stored in the backyard. It was tough getting the hang of throwing metal objects with eight pointed sides. When they didn’t hit right they rang like tiny cymbals and fell into the grass. When they struck true, they left small holes in the shed wall.

My father, who was tolerant if not mesmerized by my fascination with martial arts, watched us from a kitchen window. He was not happy about us tearing down his shed “one little nick at a time,” as he put it. “Why don’t you throw them at trees?” he asked. And then, alone, there was a lecture concerning the physics of mowing a lawn, a rotating blade, and a throwing star lost in the grass as it related to an innocent bystander like my little sister or her friends. I remember thinking that Bruce Lee would not have approved of our hasty decision making. Also, Bruce Lee was a dad, too; so, he would have sided with my father.

I was devastated. Then, a few days later, a remedy. My father gave me a chunk of plywood to nail to the exterior of the shed. My mother shook her head in dismay. She was convinced that we would miss the shed completely and perhaps strike our neighbor’s kid, or their dog, even the cat that often sat in the grass at the fence that divided our two yards, trying to make sense of young white kids in funny kung fu pants that predated the MC Hammer craze by a few years, tossing shiny metal objects at an already deteriorating shed.

“Wait,” my other half Jess said tonight. “How did you know where to buy these throwing stars? How did you learn about the supply store in Chinatown?”

“Maybe Black Belt Magazine,” I told her. “Or Inside Kung Fu Magazine which was one of my favorites. Or maybe even in the back of Soldier of Fortune Magazine.”

Jess developed that bemused expression the way she always did when I introduced some part of my past she did not know.

“This was the literature of our trade, my love,” I told her.

Anyway, several months later, I learned that the martial arts supply store in Philadelphia carried screwdriver-tip throwing stars. As nuisance weaponry technology goes, the addition of the screwdriver-tip was to the throwing star what WWII German rocket science was to flight.

The old shed at home would not do. For that, I am sure my father was grateful. At night I had visions as I bordered somewhere between sleep and dreaming of chucking the screwdriver-tipped star so hard it would cut through the plywood I had nailed to the shed’s exterior. I needed something better.

In a weird, synchronous way, I discovered that one of my other friends, we will call him “Bob,” had purchased the same screwdriver-tip throwing star. Bob’s dad was a karate instructor in some western Pennsylvania town whose humble claim to fame was beating Billy Blanks of Tae Bo fame in a tournament fight. In our eyes, Bob’s dad was a god; though we never got the chance to meet him since Bob’s parents were divorced.

Bob and I met up one night near a school that had just installed a new trailer outside that would be used as additional office space or a classroom. The trailer had aluminum siding on the outside. You know what cuts throw aluminum siding? Screwdriver-tipped throwing stars. Bob and I had a good time that night. But after perforating the siding on the trailer for about an hour we grew bored and went our separate ways. Days later, rumors circulated among teens in my town that the police were after the vandal who was stabbing school trailers with a screwdriver.

That was a long time ago. None of us ever came close to looking like Bruce Lee. I spent that summer doing handstand push-ups which used to make my little sister laugh. When my father heard me accidentally kick a wall in our house (I never dared attempt to handstand push-up without support) he caught me in mid handstand push-up and mumbled something about joining the circus instead of going to college.

Not long after that, I read an article from Inside Kung Fu magazine that provided an in-depth look at the Wah Lum Kung Fu Temple in Florida. Students willing to pay tuition plus room and board could stay there full-time and study under a master. The cost of the school was no more than the going rate for tuition at Rutgers University at the time. I was sixteen years old when I read that article. I shared it with my friend Joe. We were going to forgo college and live the life of kung fu monks in Florida; never mind that neither of us had ever been to the sunshine state.

“Hey, dad,” I said one night after dinner. “There’s this kung fu school in Florida that is kind of like a college and–“

“No,” he replied.

That was, as they say, the end of it. We never talked about the Wah Lum Kung Fu Temple again.