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.

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.

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.

 

Back to where it all began

In early June, I visited Michigan, my birth state. I made a four-day whirlwind visit to promote my new book and advocate for changes to Michigan’s outdated adoption laws that deny Michigan-born adoptees their original birth records.

Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1930 (from the National Florence Crittenton Mission).

During the two days I was in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally returned to the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.

The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.

Decay was visible everywhere near the old Crittenton General Hospital site, off of Rose Parks Boulevard.

Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home on Woodrow Wilson is now the home of Cass Community Social Services. The former home used to house single mothers before they gave birth next door at the former Crittenton General Hospital, from the the 1950s through the 1970s.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.

I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”

I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.

Rudy Owens at the site of the former Crittenton General Hospital, where he was born and relinquished into foster care in the mid-1960s, and then adopted at five and a half weeks after his birth.

Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origin. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.

This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.

And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.

Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already

Train Station Lessons: Don’t Be the One Left in the Rain

Train stations are magical places. They are portals where we literally jump off to new destinations. They allow people with different lives and destinies to intersect. They are big. They are public. They are filled with promise, confusion, and noise. They can also be places of tragedy and sadness.

I have had many memorable train station moments in my life, in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand, the USA, Canada, Japan, and throughout Europe. I have almost been robbed, lost my money, found friends, and often sat around for hours waiting to escape a few terrible places and even countries.

Sam and Rick leave Paris without Ilsa, who just moments earlier had broken Rick’s heart with her farewell letter. And, yes, it has to be raining for such a scene.

When I think of trains, I always think of the great train scene, set in Paris on a rainy June 1940 evening, as two protagonists get ready to flee the advancing Nazis. One is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, and the other is his best friend Sam, played by Dooley Wilson. The film is the Warner Bros. 1942 classic Casablanca.

Come on, you know the short scene. Sam shares the note from Rick’s lover, Ilsa, who is not seen in this sequence, but played by Ingrid Bergman. In her letter, she bids Rick what she thinks is her final farewell.

Rick is devastated and watches the words melt away on the sheet in the downpour and his heart breaks apart right at that very moment. The scene ends with Rick tossing the toxic rejection missive aside, as he and Sam steam away, fleeing for what we know will be North Africa and eventually the film’s namesake, Casablanca.

Ilsa’s goodbye letter to Rick in the 1942 Warner Bros. film Casablanca.

I thought about that memorable scene yesterday, when I found myself at Union Station in Portland.

It was raining. It also was colder than expected. I had dashed down to give a gift to a friend who was leaving town with a lot on her mind. The whole scene brought back a memory from about two years earlier, when another woman I knew had come to Portland, in the midst of a personal crisis, and I had dropped her at the station on a very rainy late fall day. I had listened to her story as well, and a few tears.

I will leave out other scenes from my first Union Station episode, but it was a terrible day for the person I was with. My job, whether I wanted it or not, was to help her out and then to be forgotten. I was disposable in some ways. The event yesterday was not quite on that scale, but it had eerie echoes from the one before.

I laughed at myself walking away from Union Station after I bid my friend farewell. So was I just the sap, getting caught in the rain, like Bogie, whose love interest left him for another man without saying goodbye in person? In both cases I was not the love interest, but I was barely a secondary character in the film unfolding for these two leads in their complicated lives.

Clearly there are elements of an archetypal modern story at play when man and woman cross fates in railway stations: The man, feeling sappy and sorry for himself. The woman, crying over another man. The station as the stage, where the drama unfolds. And of course the beating rain, soaking the characters to their skin.

On some days, you have to be Bogie’s Blaine, and stop thinking about yourself. That is OK. I have no regrets. It is fine to play the part of a tragic but complex character.

But having lived this scene, I advise any future Ricks who are left behind, avoid the habit of being the one who leaves the station alone, drenched by rain and feeling nothing but regret. There are much better ways to end your stories. And don’t wait until the bad guys like the Nazis are practically knocking at the city gates. Leave town a lot earlier.

Note: Use of images from the film Casablanca are solely for the purposes of comment and criticism.