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.

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.