She wanted to spend a little time with me, something we had rarely done in the years leading up to this moment. She told me how proud she was of my commitment to give up the drink and to stop smoking. She was always worried that I would end up like my father since I it looked as if I jumped head first into his gene pool while just sticking my toe in hers.
Of course, she was right.
Then she let out with a little nugget that startled me. I can remember her exact words.
“Chris, you have the intellectual capacity to do whatever it is you want to do. Of the three of you, school came easiest to you, you always were interested in learning and you always did best whenever you choose to apply yourself. But my baby boy, your passion scares me. The way you take things personally and then get yourself so worked up over stuff.”
She paused for a moment and I saw a tear in her eye. She looked down at the her folded hands, hands that were now older than they should have been because of the cancer that finally was taking her from me and the world after a hard fought 15 year battle.
She looked up again. “Don’t let this passion ruin your life. Don’t let it consume you like it did your father. Don’t let that passion turn to bitterness and defeat. Try to step back a bit, let things unfold before you…”
She never finished. We drove around the newly created development where she lived then, down in Punta Gorda, FLA. She was quiet for a few more minutes and then started in on how she had arranged for the three of us to get some of her money.
She mentioned that she wished I would have been able to take her up on her offer back in 1989 to help me buy a bookstore that had been for sale around the corner from her development. I think she missed us, Laurie and I. Either that or she thought we were her best chance at having grandkids. We were trying, trying hard.
She pointed out the big tents draped over a few houses. She told me that it was because the houses were infected with cockroaches or termites and that just spraying would not get rid of the bugs. They had to literally infuse the bug poison into the very fabric of the building.
Of course, I started in about how environmentally wrong this was. She just looked out the window and then back at me with a smile that told me that I swallowed her bait. She rolled her eyes at me and said that she loved me.
Then we went off to the Publix Supermarket to get food for dinner, food she would not be able to eat, food she would not have been able to taste even if she could hold it down. We all knew she was dying, but up until that moment, with me at least, everyone was tiptoeing around the obvious.
Laurie and I left her for a few days to visit her cousins down in Fort Meyers. My mom let me have her car since we were going to stay at the Beach House her cousins had out on Captiva.
A Beach House.
Since we never really had a chance to have a full blown Honeymoon after our official wedding back in 1988, we took a few extra days to enjoy what the other people do. We overspent, overate and just pretended that we were rich.
I never once mentioned let it slip that I was a Democrat.
We came back thinking we were okay because we had never specifically told my mom how long we were staying out on Captiva. She was very upset not so much that we stayed longer, but that we were not there with her. My sister had left and she really wanted to take the time to get to know us as a couple better.
She never told us that was what she had wanted, but I still felt awful about the whole matter and we left not with bad or ill feelings, but with a sense that I had disappointed her once again.
My only excuse was that the house at the beach didn’t have a working phone. It was only on for the winter seasons and not in the summer when were there. And it was before Cell Phones were everywhere, so we could not have easily called her to tell her about the change in plans.
Another lame attempt to talk my way out of blame.
A few days later when Mom was in her bed, too tired to get out, I wanted to take a tape recorder in to talk to her about the family, about her life. Laurie and I were trying to have a baby and I had already promised that if it were a girl, her name would be Gretchen. She smiled at that. I wanted our baby to know their grandmother.
But when I brought back the tape recorder, Ed, her second husband and a man I did battle with many times over the years, forbade me to go in there with my tape recorder. He felt it would make her feel that she was dying.
I guess we fought all those years not because of a passionate dislike for him, but because of the way my family splintered apart right when he came into the picture. I was projecting before projecting had been invented.
At that moment, when I should have been passionate, when I should have stood up to him, calm came over me, for some reason, and I let the issue drop.
About a week later, Laurie and I were back home in Cleveland. We stopped over my sister Amy’s house just to say hey. As we walked into her kitchen, Ed was on the phone telling us we had better get down there as fast as we could. He asked if I wanted to talk to my mom and I said no, I‘d talk to her when we get down there.
We had just flown home and I wasn’t going to be caught down there without a car, so Laurie and I decided to drive down. The next day we left and drove non-stop from Cleveland to Punta Gorda. I pushed myself like I never did before.
We were pulling into Port Charlotte, the biggest city close to Punta Gorda, trying to find the hospital where my mom lay dying, when a song came on the radio that just made me break down and weep. I was crying so hard, sobbing, really, that I had to pull over and gather my composure.
Laurie reached over and hugged me tight, we just sat there in the mangrove wilderness that surrounded the cities, and towns on the west coast of Florida back then.
The song was Last Train Home by Pat Metheny. You can hear it here. Maybe you can see why I broke down so hard and fast.
When we got to the hospital, it was too late to talk to her. She was already slipping away, in a coma. Once again, I missed an opportunity. I choose not to talk to her on the phone and I lost my chance forever. I guess being sober for 6 years hadn’t changed me all that much.
Amy had flown down and had been by her side for two days by the time we arrived. She was happy to see us. I didn’t notice it then, but something about her had changed. Later she told me that she was profoundly affected by the care the nurses had given our mother.
That experience awoke a passion in her that caused her to change professions. She went back to school to become a nurse and followed that path and she is now working with the elderly and the infirm as a dedicated Nurse Practitioner.
I made a lot of promises to my mom as she slowly slipped into oblivion. But most of all I apologized for all the times I let her down, disappointed her so deeply that I knew it hurt her as much as if I had stabbed her in the heart.
A couple of days ago, two cousins from my mom’s side of the family, met us over at Corky and Lenny’s, a real Jewish Deli over on the East Side of Cleveland. I had not seen the older cousin, Kathy, since the 1960’s. Connie, I last saw back right before Laurie and I were married in 1988.
It was a great time. We talked about our grandparents and it was cool that we were, for the most part, on the same page as far as our memories of our grandparents were concerned.
My grandmother was by far the passionate one in that match although my grandfather, a quiet man, was passionate about his religion and his duty to his community. Grandma was a piece of work, as the kids would say.
She was also a very staunch Catholic, but there was also a spiteful edge to her that I can only guess was due to her hardscrabble life in the remote coal mining area of western Pennsylvania. She had thirteen brothers and sisters and probably had to fight for attention if any was indeed ever given. I have a bunch of pictures of her, but there are only a few that caught her even close to smiling.
One of her passions, one that was on display only rarely, had a profound effect on how my life turned out.
She pursued her other passion most every morning. When none of the cousins were there, she would drive to church for early mass joining Grandpa who went every day regardless who was visiting. Every evening before they went to bed, whoever was at the house would gather to say the Rosary. When the house was full, it felt a little like a revival meeting.
Both of my grandparents lived a life that revolved around the church.
An Aside, I clearly remember one time my brother Steve and one of the girl cousins, I think it was Kathy, did the whole rosary on their knees like a couple of monks from the Middle Ages right out there in the middle of the room. While the rest of us slouched against whatever piece of furniture would prop us up against the weight of the recital. They made it all the way through. I was in awe of my brother and Kathy for making it all the way. A Passion play, as it were.
But getting back to my grandmother. There was one summer, the summer of 1967, when there were all these race riots breaking out across the country. My sister and I were up at Grandma’s house I think to shield us from the riots that were erupting in Cleveland. I now think a lot of parents sent their children to the small towns and farms they came from to keep their children away from all that trouble, to give their kids a chance just to be kids.
Every noon, Grandpa would come back from his Dentist Office in town; Grandma would make up some good wholesome food that was mostly from her garden and the chicken coop. We would enjoy a nice, homemade meal complete with a blessing and then spiced with gossip and running commentary from Paul Harvey.
The radio was on KDKA, the only station powerful enough to reach back into the hollows carved out of the mountains by now desecrated mountain streams. (The streams were orange from the sulfur bi product from the coal mining. Orange!)
One particular day, with the riots escalating, my grandmother was all upset by what was going on. So upset that she took the Lord’s name in vain and let loose with a tirade targeted against Black Folks. To be delicate about the whole matter, it was her official coming out as a racist for my sister and me.
Right then and there, at the tender age of nine, I was able to figure out that her passions were mixed, that her passion for God did not square up, with me, at least, her passionate displeasure with “the other” in general and African Americans in particular.
I think that day was the first step I took toward being an adult simply because it was the first time I realized that people were prone to contradicting themselves. More bluntly, that their words often did not match their deeds.
Of course, years of experience have tempered my harsh opinion of my grandmother as I realize that she was almost certainly a product of her environment, an environment that purposely pitted ethnic and racial groups against each other for the benefit of the few at the top of the economic pyramid.
Now back to the 90’s, shortly after my mothers’ passing, I made a decision to put my professional career as an accountant in limbo. I decided to embrace my passion for politics. I honestly believed that I could make a difference if I could just get myself elected.
After eight long years slogging toward a goal that kept getting further and further away, my desire to continue was gone, a casualty of pragmatism, people and politics. I think I was never embraced by the political culture because they probably took me as naïve. Well, I was a little out spoken and I made more than a few enemies because of my big mouth.
The truth of the matter, I wasn’t connected to a powerful family or a political machine or even had a good political name. I was just me and that is, more often than not, a dead end ticket to nowhere when it comes to politics no matter where you are from.
I figured out the hard way that people are successful in politics by chance or by looking at the serving the public as an elected official job as a vocation, embracing the political culture. Very few people make it who, like me, views a career in politics as an avocation, a calling. Most are more concerned with a paycheck and qualifying for a public pension.
In other words, they are like most people.
That’s not wrong, nor is it right, but it is simply the way things are. People driven by ideology or a calling are rarely able to sustain a career simply because compromising your worldview is difficult for those who see themselves as visionaries. But politics is based on compromising, making deals. You get my drift. Passion would be like adding sand to engine oil when it comes to politics.
My passion to get the chance to do good burned deep inside me and made me push myself far beyond what I was physically capable. Remember that my illness had been, by this time, festering for decades.
During those eight years when I was active in the world of big city politics, I ended up hospitalized with pneumonia five times. One time in particular, when my mentor was running for County Commissioner, I dragged myself to his first official get together with the consultant the day after I was released from a ten-day stay in the hospital.
I truly believed he was different. I truly believed he would do well by the county. I was sure he was worth my effort.
Now, some twenty years after my mother’s warning, I guess she was right about my passions getting the best of me. Smart woman, that mother of mine.
The reason I bring all of this up now is not to wallow or make excuses or even dwell on the coulda, woulda, shoulda’s that ultimately end with a so-called mid life crisis.
No, I bring this up because I have been blessed to be in the care of many passionate people, people who are dedicated to not only helping make the whole process of living and dying as natural and matter of fact as possible, but to humanize it as well.
Most all of the folks along the way have been deeply committed to how they approach medicine and the care they have given me shows that commitment.
It manifests itself in the fact that I trust them so much that I am willing to place a bet on them to ensure my future.
Passion, in and of itself is not the problem. The direction that passion is channeled is what makes all the difference.
I know my mother would have been happy to know that I was in the capable hands of people who have this deep commitment that is almost assuredly driven by a deep passion.