Reminiscing on my violent, alcoholic father

It has been more than 35 years since my adoptive father died of health complications that followed years of destructive behavior and a losing battle with alcoholism.

Though he has long been buried in a cemetery plot in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio, next to his father and mother, his impact on my life and my family lived on long after he passed away.

Even today, I frequently am forced to confront my long-buried memories of this often violent yet aextremely intelligent man who was an ordained Lutheran minister.

A shot taken with my adoptive father and sister in our home.

For the last seven years, when my adoptive mom was on her long and difficult journey with Alzheimer’s disease, my adoptive father’s memory frequently came up in our conversations. When I visited her in her home in University City, Missouri, flying out from my home cities of Seattle and then Portland, we spent endless hours talking about the past and her memories that grew dimmer over time. She could recall snippets of her past life and share them with me. She frequently repeated ideas or hazy recollections. She repeated two things more than any other during these seven years.

First, she told me, I have the greatest husband in the whole world. She was referencing her current husband and full-time caregiver, my stepfather, who cared for right up until her final day. Second, she told me, my first husband used to beat me. That was a reference to my adoptive father and her first husband, from the summer of 1958 through their divorce in the summer of 1973. During that time they lived in Detroit, moved briefly to Boston in late 1965 and 1966, and then moved to the metro St. Louis area, where my mom lived out the rest of her life.

My adoptive parents in front of their west Detroit home, likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

When my mom’s memory was sharper in the early years of her Alzheimer’s, she repeated constantly how often my adoptive father would hit her. She said the doctors told her the violence could have contributed to her awful and prolonged brain-wasting disease. I can still remember those incidents as if they happened hours ago. I too can never forget them.

I would always reply during these countless recollections that, yes, mom, your husband—my stepfather—was the best husband in the world. I would say nothing about her comments on her years of domestic abuse at the hands of my adoptive father—her former husband. These conversations continued until the second-to-last time I saw her alive, in September 2019.

In the end, my adoptive mom had two distinct memories, one of violence and one of love, which she likely had little control over because of her deteriorated state from Alzheimer’s.

Making Sense of my Adoptive Father

Though my life with my adoptive father in a nuclear family lasted eight years, I spent another five more visiting him, first in the St. Louis area and then in the Huntington, West Virginia and Chesapeake, Ohio metro area, where he resettled after the divorce.

Those trips with my adoptive sister to stay with him several times a year, as part of the divorce custodial settlement, were as bad if not worse than the times when we lived as a family under one roof.

I tried to reconstruct those years from memory starting about five years ago, as I began to write my memoir as an adoptee. I remember the day I wrote out the first outline to my memoir on a hot July day on a river beach. I then started with a chapter exploring my childhood and younger years with my adoptive father.

I wrote that chapter first. It proved to the hardest one to do because I had to dredge up memories that were neatly buried.

I also needed to revisit the places of my childhood and youth, in Huntington and Chesapeake, letting me remember things I had forgotten, perhaps as a way to carry on with life. I took a road trip there in September 2015.

My adoptive father lived for several years in this house, owned by the next door Lutheran church, where her served as a minister in the 1970s.

I published an essay on that trip on one of my blogs. I wrote about my childhood trips to see him: “I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile. I did. Despite the odds, I really did.”

When I finished the revised text to my memoir in late 2017, I left my first chapter on my adoptive father out. That decision came easily. I decided it was too personal about a relation that shaped my life. No one else would understand that journey but me. By that time in my life, into my fifth decade, I also realized I had become more like the generations who preceded me, who were reserved, not someone who wanted to “tell all.”

I also had come to a deeper realization about living life and finding meaning. I was able to see my unpleasant times with my adoptive father through a completely different perspective, shaped by my life and the knowledge I had gained from life.

Rudy Owens’ memoir on his experience as an adoptee and on the U.S. adoption system.

I described my later life’s wisdom in the introduction to my book, which I published in May 2018: “My adoptive father, a Lutheran minister, was abusive and an alcoholic. He had a serious drinking problem before I was even placed in his and my adoptive family’s middle-class, two-story brick home in metro Detroit. He treated my adoptive mother, my adoptive sister, and me very poorly. At times, when he was drunk, he could have killed my sister and me on more than a dozen occasions—when he would drive us in a total stupor. My adoptive family’s struggles were not pleasant, but they are also things no one could have predicted, and their meaning and purpose may still not even be clear to me. However, the way I confronted these challenges was uniquely my own, and I own how I addressed my reality and the conditions of my life. No one else is responsible for that.”

The Impact of Living through Domestic Violence Never Goes Away

As I continue to reflect on my life, I remain honest that the impacts of my adoptive father’s actions never fully disappeared. I see that most clearly when I read and learn about how domestic violence impacted others in their youth and their eventual journeys in life.

Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and film franchise.

I only recently learned that the fine British actor Patrick Stewart, known to the world as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, also grew up in a home marred by domestic violence. I had always felt something raw when watching Stewart’s performances, as Picard, as Ebenezer Scrooge in his version of A Christmas Carol, and his lesser and earlier roles in films like Excalibur. He always had bursts of rage that felt like a smothering volcano, but controlled just barely.

By accident this month, I found his essay published in November 2009, in The Guardian (Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence). In it, he laid bare what he and his mother experienced at the rough hands of his World War II hero and domestic-abuser father. He wrote in the bluntest of terms how his father badly beat his mother, especially when he was drunk. He described the terror of living under the shadow of a violent person, who put their lives at risk.

“Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it,” Stewart wrote. “No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting—and lasting.”

Everything Stewart described echoed eerily what I had written in 2016, without ever reading Stewart’s essay, penned six years earlier.

In the section of my book I deleted, I wrote: “In those frequent drunken conditions, the ordinary looking man could transform into frightening malevolence, and you never quite knew how he would erupt. The well-worn expression walking on eggshells is actually a perfect match for what my mom, sister, and I faced for years around him.”

I also described the ravaging effects of alcohol, which I internalize to this day, as a survival mechanism. “In those intoxicated moments, my father’s ordinary appearance would be transformed by alcohol. His speech would slur. His left eye would slant behind his glasses. It was the mark an alcoholic I learned to spot instantaneously in others the rest of my life—one of the weird outcomes of growing up around someone with this affliction. To this day I can spot a problem drinkers with Spiderman-like quickness, usually in the first five seconds of meeting them. And my self-defense response kicks into a state of hyper readiness, just in case.”

On some days, like ones I have had this month, I revisit my life’s decisions that still leave sorrow, including my decisions to live a life that eschewed anything resembling domestic normality and middle-class happiness. I still associate these with my adoptive family and father.

Like all of us, we have to confront ourselves and decisions. There are days it is hard, when I might see families that appear “normal,” and I can observe a father who acts compassionately around others without toxic masculinity or the effects of alcohol. On those off days, these apparently normal activities allow me to play “what if” games in my mind.

In the end, I let those thoughts go, because I own this path and my thoughts entirely.

In the chapter I cut from my memoir, I concluded with a meditation on restorative justice. I described how embracing forgiveness means letting go of the power the offense and the offender over a person. It means no longer letting the offender and their actions control you anymore. Without this act of healing, the wound can fester and can control one’s actions indefinitely.

Like Stewart, I cannot entirely let go of the memories of a violent man who failed as a father. But I have found a path to becoming a better person and the person I wanted to be. I never followed in my adoptive father’s footsteps. For that I take credit. I accomplished more than I knew I ever would.

A Chance Meeting with Ike

Every one of us has a mother, and that can bring together strangers. (Sculpture in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, taken three weeks before my mother died in early February 2020.)

In mid-February, I flew across the country from Portland to St. Louis. My trip came suddenly, but not as a surprise. After more than seven years of battling Alzheimer’s my mother finally passed away.

My plan was to write a eulogy on the long flight I would have from Seattle to St. Louis, the second leg of my journey. My tale was meant to focus on young woman, who was raised in a scrappy New Jersey town just outside of New York City.

That’s what I thought at least.

I ended up writing two stories. One I published after I returned. The other I put aside. It was a story I never intended to have, but had to be told. I finally am telling it now, at the end of May 2020, in the middle of a pandemic and protests occurring nationally in the United State against racial injustice and much, much more.

Perhaps by fate, I think my mom decided to play a funny trick on me on the way for me say goodbye. The experience allowed me to recall her wisdom and share it with a stranger.

On that trip, a stranger crossed my path. However, it was up to me to do something with this opportunity and make sense of it. My mom’s passing gave me a window.

Wakanda PatchOn the escalator coming out of the Airport shuttle tram at SeaTac, Seattle’s international airport, I spotted a large African-American man in a red and black checkered shirt. He must have weighed 225 pounds. He stood about 6’2” and had a massive chest and arms for linebacker.

I didn’t really think about him until I spotted two items pinned to his backpack.

One said, “Wakanda is not a shithole country.” The other was a medallion with the Latin words “Memento Mori,” or remember that death comes to all. During the period of the Roman Empire, the phrase would be whispered in a mighty Roman emperor’s ears by a slave as he entered Rome. It reminded a mighty emperor of his mortality and that he, the mightiest person in the world, face the same ultimate fate as slave behind him.

When I read the Memento Mori medallion, I decided I had to introduce myself. I recently had found myself drawn to Stoic ideas, from ancient Greece and Rome, which are embodied in the words carved on that medallion.

I said, “Hi. I’m Rudy.” He replied simply, “Ike.”

I asked about his backpack decorations. We laughed about Wakanda.

I told him I recognized the Stoic medallion, and he said, yes, it’s sold by Ryan Holiday. Not by coincidence, we both followed and liked Holiday’s blog called The Daily Stoic. Both of us obviously found something in these ideas that connected with us.

I could hear a West African accent in his voice and asked about his background.

Soon I learned Ike originally hailed from Nigeria, the son of political refugee parents. He told me his mother arrived in Boston with just the shirt on her back and four kids while his father rotted in a jail back home.

I then discovered we were on the same flight. He was on a business trip from Seattle to St. Louis.

I told him about my family, being raised in a family of three with a single mom in St. Louis. I said I was flying to St. Louis to attend the funeral of my mother.

Ike commented how important funerals were in Nigeria for the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups. Ike called them festive occasions where the life of a person was remembered as a joyful thing.

Rudy and Ike

Rudy and Ike, connecting over mothers, death, funerals, and remembrance during a chance meeting at SeaTac in mid-February 2020. It is sad knowing we can’t enjoy the friendly embrace of strangers anymore for a long time amid the pandemic.

He said as a child, he wasn’t afraid of death because funerals were always so fun. Only later did he learn of the sadness that also accompanies the loss of a loved one. But first he learned that death was not a thing to fear and that it was a part of life.

Somehow we began to talk about how our mothers raised us and what life skills they taught us. Ike said his mom, and dad, always taught him he had to fight, because nothing in life came without some sort of struggle.

He said they never spoiled him or pampered him or over-parented him. If he was hurt, without requiring a hospital visit, he was expected to overcome his circumstance, because he if wasn’t gravely injured, he would be OK. He said it was the right thing to teach him, and he later understood the importance of this teaching. It helped to make hi successful.

I said my mom was the same way. She understood good luck and bad luck. Like everyone, she had her share of both, and maybe in stronger doses that she deserved at times. I said, she could handle a strong wind and not snap. She would bend back. I said she had raised me not to be blown down during storms, even if I wasn’t aware of this when it was happening. Like her, I had to learn on my own to let storms pass and then come back up, stronger. Maybe I was more successful at this than she bargained for.

I also talked about my mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s and how it had given me a chance to learn about things that frighten us all—our mortality and death. By the end of this journey, watching this illness take my mom, I had grown. I had become less afraid of the end that awaits us all (“Memento Mori”). I simply did what I could do for my mom, mostly in a way that worked.

I told him that in the end, my mom always had an ability to see goodness. She could find something good amid something terrible, including her illness. Though she despised it, and would rightly say, “I hate this. I can’t stand this.” She also said one line all the time, right up to the end. “I have the nicest husband in the whole world, “ she would tell me, again, and again, and again, and again. I must have heard this hundreds of times in the past seven years.

It was one of the last things she told me on the phone, the last time we had a conversation during the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday. I remember replying to her the way I always did, with utmost sincerity: “Yeah mom, you do. He’s a great husband.”

I reality, my mom had said this for all 37 years of her marriage. She was speaking a truth about what the second half of her life was like with her best friend and husband.

“I got so lucky,” she might add. “Yes, mom,” I’d reply. “You got real lucky indeed.”

At that moment, in telling Ike my mom’s story, I started to feel my eyes water up and looked away. Here I was, crying to a man I had never met, telling him about the passing of my mother. He gave me a hug. “It’s OK, man. It’s part of the journey of life.”

Ike and I took a selfie and I gave him my card. I don’t know if I will see him again. He lives in Seattle with his wife. He’s not even sure how much time he has, having just had a heart attack on Jan. 18. He told me it was almost a blessing, because it reminded him of how precious life is and how important his wife and health are.

I think my mom would have loved to meet Ike. She could have easily found herself talking to him, like I saw her do countless times before whenever we travelled, or went to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, or the St. Louis Art Museum, or on a holiday. She was always warm and welcoming with strangers, of any race or background—always eager to hear about their lives and talk about their families and especially their kids.

In some ways, I felt my mom somehow played a serendipitous role that crossed my path with Ike’s, and therefore my mom’s story with his mom’s story, and the story all of us have with our mothers and the lessons they teach us, so we can pass them on to others, the way all people do, in the USA, Nigeria, or any other place.

Yes, maybe there was a reason I would be in an airport tram on that very day, at that very hour, at that very second, with an imposing looking man next to me, who just happened to have a reminder that captured the wisdom of a long journey my mom just completed. In some ways I felt that was her reaching from beyond through a stranger letting me it would be OK.

Remember to always get up and welcome a stranger into your life, I think she’d say. It was something her long and abiding Christian faith had given her until the very end.

Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying goodbye and finding meaning

The writer Robert Green, author of many books on human behavior, shared these words that make me think of Mom. Green wrote: “But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you … making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.”

Mom at the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

Like all of us, Mom had good and bad luck. Unlike many, she always learned from her misfortune and knew exactly when she finally found the tide turning. And she also knew good luck simply didn’t happen. She worked hard for it.

Mom was a child of the Depression and the daughter of an immigrant, who was fortunate to leave Germany before a much worse misfortune befell her homeland. Those immigrant lessons were passed down to Mom from her mother.

Being a child of that era, it shaped Mom and her generation. She spent her early years in a working class community of New Jersey—something that I think taught her about working hard and knowing that others around you could be less fortunate. She never forgot this her whole life.

Mom also grew up in the shadow of a great city, the epicenter of culture, and finance. The Big Apple’s glow could be a draw to anyone, particularly a woman like my mom who had an abundance of great looks. Those looks, however, never went to her head.

Mom attended Bronxville in NY (Concordia College, Bronxville, today) to pursue professional studies that the sexist workplace of the 1950s offered single women of lesser means. She made lifelong friends there. One became the godmother of one of her children (me). They were called the “Triple Threat.”

Mom, when she would turn heads during her college years in New York.

I don’t know the full story how Mom moved from greater New York to soggy Saginaw, MI in the mid-1950s. My guess is she needed work. When she had to work, she would always “crack on.” I learned this from her early on.

In 1958, she met her first husband. They moved to Detroit. They adopted my sister and I and raised a family. They moved to Boston for a spell in late 1965 and then to Clayton, Missouri, in late 1966. The pair divorced in 1973 and she re-entered the workforce as a teacher, eventually in the St. Louis Public School System and the University City Public Schools system.

She was a lifelong teacher, completing her career in University City Public Schools as a reading specialist. She devoted her professional life to the wellbeing of young people, many of whom were lower income, minority, and had higher needs.

Despite Mom’s great looks, she was remarkably grounded in the world around her, in people, her church, her community, and her family.

She was profoundly spiritual. She didn’t need to tell the world about her faith. It resided in her. She was devoted in the fullest Christian sense to her Christian identity and the congregations she belonged to. She dragged me and my sister to church. She knew better than we did why our nearby Lutheran church would be good for us. She was right. Her faith stayed with her to her last days.

Mom always had style. I never saw my mom look shabby. It’s the style the world saw on the show Mad Men, of women of that era. Mom always carried herself this way.

Mom had style, always

Mom also had an artistic side. Her creative outlets included fixing furniture, making beautiful outfits with her hands by sewing. She could throw herself into project and be unmoved by distractions. The house she purchased together with her second husband became an art gallery. They both loved great art and had impeccable taste.

Mom was very smart—like all her family members. She loved crossword puzzles, which she did for decades. I could never keep up with her when she’d work them out on the kitchen table.

Mom managed the impossible: navigating a divorce, reinventing herself, raising two kids, switching jobs, buying a home on a teacher’s salary without any help. And then, with two kids in tow, she found her lifelong soul mate, who she married in 1983.

Mom may have felt she didn’t see the world, but she did.

With her second husband, they travelled nearly everywhere in the United States and Canada. She even travelled nearly 50 miles up a dirt road outside of Cordova, Alaska, in the pouring rain, just to see a glacier and laugh at how beautiful and crazy that was.

Mom and her second husband lived for a short spell in England, where he had a position for a short term. They also travelled to multiple destinations in Europe together: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece (I believe a couple of times).  They always looked like there were glowing in their holiday pictures. Snap, here we are in Paris. Snap, here we are in in Florence. Snap, here we are in in Rhodes. Wait, here’s Thurso, Scotland and Bruges, Belgium.

Author, Rudy Owens, and Mom, about four months before she finally succombed to Alzheimer’s disease.

She was a great cook. I loved her Christmas stollen and cookies. She taught me this art. She kept learning new recipes and growing with her expanding love of food outside of her St. Louis world.

Through thick and thin, Mom was devoted to my sister and remained generous to her. Mom was always about doing.

Mom was tough. Her friend from college shared some stories about that with me, and I can see that throughout her long life. I call it grit. It’s the virtue I respect the most in people who matter.

I think all that she confronted in life–stuff that might bend or break others–did not push my mom down.

She could weather storms because she always knew something good was ahead.

Mom during one her several moves in the mid-1960s

Mom was right, of course, and her marriage to her second husband was the highlight of her life.

The thing she said the most to me, for the last seven years of her life, when her illness took hold, was, “I have the best husband in the whole world.” I would always say: “I know mom. He’s a great guy.” She was would always laugh and smile. We had this conversation literally hundreds of times. She last said it to me on Thanksgiving Day, on the phone. I said, “Yup, mom. You are a lucky woman.”

Mom was the best friend and loving wife of her second husband for 37 years. She welcomed his family as her own and devoted herself to their shared relations. In the end, her marriage was the enduring happiness and the good luck that came in her life. She earned it and knew how to live it well, only the way those who know the fickleness of fortuna can.

Mom, I salute your memory. Thanks for making us richer.

Saying Goodbye

In December 2019, my mom began her stay at the Barnes-Jewish Extended Care facility in Clayton, Missouri. The place is close to my stepfather, who decided at last to put her into a care home. He has been my mother’s primary and dutiful caregiver for years. The decision was entirely his alone to make.

He felt good about the facility and its staff. It is partially owned and managed by the most respected medical system in metro St. Louis — Barnes and Jewish Hospital.

I first arrived at my mom’s new and likely final home on the first night of my four-day trip in late January 2020. I had flown out from my current home on the West Coast, in Portland. My plan was simple: spend as much time as I could with my ailing mother.

From the outside, the place looked remarkably plain, testifying to its focus on function. The three-story brick building has a gated courtyard and no fancy design features. It mostly resembles thousands of other care homes, where families, loved ones, and our society place our sickest, frailest, and oldest residents to live out their final days and die, hidden from public view.

My trip here also marked the final arc of my family’s life, not far from where we spent our early years together. Over the course of four days, I visited my mom daily, spending a couple hours each day with her.

My mom turned 83 last fall. When I came, she was at the end of her long, seven-year odyssey since she was first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2013. That diagnosis changed everything. Those who care for patients with Alzheimer’s, like my stepdad and my mother’s husband of more 35 years, travel in the deep and dark valley of this horrible disease for intolerably long periods, with few moments of joy.

Though I lived nearly 2,000 miles away, my life also changed completely. I stopped taking vacations. Nearly all the free time I could pull from my work schedule went to trips two or three times a year to see her. I ceased to care about petty squabbles at my job, wanting to conserve my energy and health to focus on my family. It probably allowed unhelpful situations at my job to get worse because I refused to waste time on inconsequential issues and people who were not important to my life.

Every time I saw my mom, her conditions had deteriorated more. By time I came out this January 2020, my mom had already had two emergency room visits the previous month. She first stayed at another care facility nearly 30 miles from her and my stepdad’s cozy home, where her offered loving care for years. He found the Barnes-Jewish facility after lots of rejections and queries. It offered extended care, and he immediately liked it.

This is an expression I had much of the time during my four-day visit to see my mother at her new care home.

Over my four days in St. Louis, I visited my mom’s room on the third floor, where I got to slightly know some of the patients. Most of them were mentally sharp. Some had severe cognitive disabilities. Many were old and friendly to me. I had several conversations with mom’s neighbors during two lunches.

For those lunchtime meals, I spoon fed my mom what little amounts of nourishment she could swallow. When she did, she would smile at me, but not really see me because of her eyesight had long since failed.

I also befriended some nurses and nurses aides. All were cheerful and caring. They lovingly helped my mom with her basic functions: showering, eating, being wheeled in and out of the recreation and dining room. They were pros at moving her around. They also did the diaper changes and clothes changes. I couldn’t do that. Most were African American.

This sign decorates the rec room/lunchroom at my mom’s care home.

I particularly liked a day nurse, a man with tattoos covering his arms and about my age. I also liked another nurse, a South Asian woman who helped me get my mom out of bed and ready for lunch one day.

Since I last saw my mom in September 2019, she appeared to have aged about five years. She now had nearly totally gray hair. She was so weak, she was unable to walk.

According to my stepdad, on most days, she slept. Sometimes the TV was left on. Other times my stepdad said he put on music, which she liked. He set up some pictures on her bureau of happier times for all of us and put one of my mom’s favorite posters, from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, above her bed.

My stepfather has arranged a loving display on the bureau in my mom’s room.

During each visit, I talked to her. I held her frail, withered hands. Sometimes she smiled. I liked that a lot.

The last morning of my final visit, a Sunday, began as a beautiful winter day in St. Louis. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. I took a brisk walk to clear my head. During those three miles I exchanged friendly hellos to friendly Midwesterners. I wondered to myself how many of them might have family members who were ill or experiencing dementia like my mother.

I arrived at my mom’s facility shortly after 10 a.m. It was quiet. As usual I signed in and walked to the elevator upstairs, through the institutional hallways.

I first went to my mom’s room and it was empty. I briefly panicked. I thought, she might have died the night earlier. I went back to the recreation and lunchroom. There she was, in her red sweat pants, a red sweater, and curled in a fetal position on the chair next the table below the blaring TV. I walked up to her and told her it was Rudy. I could see her smile, but I knew she did not see me.

That morning, a woman minister in her late 60s, wearing a blue turtleneck and blue pants, was leading a Protestant church service in the same room. About 10 of the mostly older patients participated.

I heard the minister speak the Lord’s Prayer, and half of the patients said it with her. She came up to me and asked if we wanted communion. I asked mom, and she agreed, likely not understanding what I asked. She ingested about one half of the wafer.

Mom began to curl up, wanting to sleep again. I ran to her room and grabbed a pillow to give her something more comfortable than a wooden chair arm to rest her head on. The minister, having finished her service, then sat at the piano and began to play hymns. She played and sang How Great Though Are, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Down by the Riverside, Amazing Grace, and other hymns I didn’t recognize immediately. At that moment I couldn’t think of a better thing to be doing for those here, and for visitors like me.

I started crying when the minister and an older African American patient sang Amazing Grace.

This was it, I realized. This was the end. I knew I would never see my mom alive again. My eyes were turning red and I wiped away the tears on my jacket.

I told my mom I was leaving. She smiled and asked where I was going. I said, I’m going to Portland. She smiled. I don’t know if she heard me. I blew her a kiss, not wanting to give her my minor throat illness. Then I got I got a nurse’s aide to punch in the security code to open the secure elevator to leave.

Alone, I started to cry. I mostly kept up my straight-faced appearance in the lobby as I signed out. Once in the small parking lot, I bent over and wept. It has been years since I cried like this. I must have been a pitiful sight to someone looking out a window.

I got in the car and continued to weep. I turned the ignition and began to leave the parking lot, still crying.

Enough of this, I told myself. I wanted to be strong. So I pulled out my stoic shell and put on my public mask. It is the face I show the world, even when things go very, very bad.

I turned my rental car onto Forest Park Parkway, turned north on Interstate 170, and headed to St. Louis International Airport to catch my flight home.

Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

A tie is not just a tie

Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.

Why We Embrace Traditions of Denial and Sacrifice

Tonight is Ash Wednesday. It is an important date on the traditional Catholic and Protestant church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. The period mirrors the reported 40 days Jesus of Nazareth spent  fasting in the desert.

Observant Christians mark the season attending Ash Wednesday services. There, they will have a cross marked on their head with the ashes made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The marking of an ashen cross on the forehead is often accompanied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Catholics will practice fasting, repentance, and abstaining from some foods, like meat. Protestants, like the Lutherans I grew up with, would focus on self-denial or charity work. Most Christians are supposed to contemplate on the coming of Easter and its meaning.

Tonight I attended my first Ash Wednesday service in more than 35 years. I needed the quiet time, in a quiet place, with quiet and thoughtful people, to contemplate my life and sacrifices that some people I know are making for others.

The sermon by the Rector at the Episcopal Church I attended focused on the importance of not running from our grief and contemplating on the world’s problems and the individual’s relation with God. Though I am not a true believer in any faith, I found these words comforting, and I had a few tears because of all that is happening with those close to me.

For those of us who have far more than we need, the idea of purposefully sacrificing something and denying one’s self pleasure seems incongruous. What would you do if you had to give up your smart phone? Your email account? Your morning coffee? What about something more radical, like running water or medicine?

We live in a world where many don’t have these luxuries, and yet we who have them are even afraid to consider life without them. So let those thoughts stay with you as we head into this period of Lent. It is one of many religious traditions that demands sacrifice. There is a good reason to practice this to think of others and not ourselves.

An Unhappy Birthday, Celebrated Apart

My sister and I, taken in August 2008 at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri

Today is my sister’s birthday. She is celebrating it in a sick bed, in a large hospital in St. Louis. I am 1,800 miles away in Portland. I wish I could be there with her.

It must be scary to be alone in a hospital, not knowing what may happen tomorrow, knowing that your health is bad. Maybe there will be a respite, but things could get far worse. That is a heavy weight to carry for my older sibling.

My sister and I have now shared more than five decades of birthdays. This was the saddest I can remember. We perhaps had six happy years together, until that tumultuous time when my parents divorced and our worlds turned upside down.

After that things never were quite the same. There were good times, yes. But I never saw my sister smile the way she used to when we were young and far more innocent. She still smiled, but it was not a child’s carefree smile of joy. It was a little different. I changed a lot too. I don’t really talk about that stuff.

There were times in my life when she was the only person who had my back, particularly after the divorce. We were alone, in situations I refuse to share as stories with others. They are my secrets. They were terrifying moments, and not in a “make you stronger” way, but in a “wow, this is pretty damn bad” way.  Because we were a team, we pulled through, many times. I can’t ever forget those days. I guard them as treasures.

Those memories have kept me invested in the bond we have shared over the years. It hasn’t been the gentlest of rides. In the end, the journey was not as easy on my sister, I think. A series of decisions led to forks in the road, and then other decisions, and then, finally, a visit to the hospital.

My sister and I, when we laughed and had few worries as kids

I wished her a happy birthday today. I had sent her a card. It probably didn’t arrive before she was admitted. It was a way I expressed love, as much as I can in a card. It was a strange feeling, wishing your sibling the best as they faced uncertainty over the days ahead.

While we were talking, I could still hear her laugh with the hospital staff. Machines and monitors attached to her made noises in the background. Nurses popped in her room to check on her. I asked if she was aware she could contact a hospital chaplain if needed. She said she was. That comforted me. I don’t know if she would do that.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or the weeks ahead.

I tried to remember our youth, and all I could find were a few pictures of our innocence. That seemed like a different life. We are different now, and we lost our innocence a long time ago.

I realized that I too will one day face the end. I realized that I too may not be ready. I realized that I too need to change while there is still time. This felt like a paltry consolation prize, and nothing compared to my sister’s experience on a cold, February day.

With time, we may find greater meaning

Sometimes you have a to wait a long time before you find a good outcome.

In my case it took nearly a decade. It involved a woman, who I met in Alaska. She did not share what I felt for her. This is an old story. It has happened likely millions of times before, so it was nothing special.

In my case, the story was simple. She rejected my interest. This in turn inspired what I still think is a good set of poems. At this time, I also found Bob Dylan. I took long overdue guitar lessons. And, then, in 2010, I finally left the Great Land, Alaska, for Seattle.

I saw this person twice after, and very briefly in 2011. A few years later, I wrote to her with what I call my mindset of humility and said I could be have been a better person with the words we shared in private.

I had assumed that was that. But it was not quite over.

Because of perhaps fate, we reconnected online this week. I wrote: “I hope that my last words expressing my shortcomings to you mattered. I’ve been spending time the past few years contacting old contacts and sharing how I may have come up short.”

I told her about how my mindset of humility had enabled me to connect with an old college friend last winter. That reunion mattered a great deal. In fact, that friend just sent me a lovely holiday card with a picture of his new wife.

Reconnecting after decades

It was nice to learn that time can be an ally and friendships can endure over decades.

I wrote in my email that practicing honesty and humility provided opportunities I could not fully predict. Because life was short, I wrote, it was best to live each day as if truly mattered. That is something Stoics wrote more than 2,000 years ago, and I believe this in my bones.

I still have no idea what this person is doing with herself. She remains cryptic. She is now into meditation. To my surprise, she replied with a similar point of view. She wrote about no longer being that previous person I once tried to court in the north.

I am fairly certain I will not see this person again.

At this point it does not really matter. It simply took longer than I thought it would to find this point of repose. The experience reminded me of what the late writer and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had written in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl wrote that the meaning of events may change measured over years. What had once been a negative experience in our lives may later be remembered as an important event we grew from.

With time, in this case, I had matured. I finally felt free from this burden of memory and could turn my energy to what truly matters in my life now, with all of my purpose and devotion.