Now that I am an old man, I cannot look back upon my old works
without losing my way in the past. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, a
phrase or a paragraph or a character from an early work will mesmerize
me, and in a half dream, I will entwine it in phrases and draw from it a
kind of melodious memory … of an old bedroom in Colorado, or my mother,
or my father or my brothers and sister. I cannot imagine that what I
wrote so long ago will soothe me as does this half dream, and yet I
cannot bring myself to look back … I am fearful; I cannot bear being
exposed by my own work. I am sure I shall never read these books again.
But of this I am sure: All of the people of my writing life, all of my
characters are to be found in the early work. Nothing of myself is there
any more, only the memory of old bedrooms, and the sound of my mother’s
slippers walking to the kitchen.
People get real uncomfortable when they’re confronted with a grown
man crying. I know. I’ve been crying a lot lately. I have no idea when
it’s going to come on me. I see something, hear something and boom —
I’m gone. At first when it started happening, like if I were in my car,
I’d try to hide it … then I’d drive home as fast as I could go so I
could get inside the front door, and then I’d let go.
But then I figured, wait a minute! This is stupid. Why do I have to
hide it? Am I embarrassed, or am I making somebody else uncomfortable?
In any case, who cares? So now I just let go. I mean, I don’t make any
huge scenes in public places. If I’m really going to howl, to pound the
walls, I do that inside the confines of my house.
Oh, before I forget … the reason I’m doing all this crying lately
is that my mother died a month ago. According to the experts, I’m in the
“shock” phase of bereavement — which is probably accurate. I mean, half
the time I walk around totally numb; then all of a sudden, I’ll just
totally lose it.
Anyhow, what struck me as a result of not being able to control my
emotions is how much energy we all put into putting on a proper “face”
for the world. I mean, the rules are so strict that doesn’t take much to
go out of bounds.
You know, you get some guy talking to himself in a public place;
people look at him like he’s nuts. But if he does it too long, or he
gets too loud, somebody’s gonna call a cop sooner or later. I wonder if
I really started crying and making all the noises I do when I’m at home
if somebody’d call a cop on me? Hmmm. Might be an interesting
I’m getting off the subject here, which is my mom. I’ve had a lot of
loss in my life … many good friends, almost all of my family … but
I’ve gotta tell you that there is absolutely nothing that equals the
pain of losing a parent. And if both your parents are gone, well, that’s
a whole other ballgame.
You know what? I really don’t get people — I’m talking about people
my age — who talk about how they have gotten “relegated” to losing
their parents. You know, they say stuff like, “Well, this is the age
when that happens, so sure it hurts — but it’s OK.”
I don’t get those people. I really don’t. What the hell do they mean,
“relegated”? I feel like punching them senseless when they start up with
that garbage. Losing a parent is the most amazing, the most horrible,
the worst thing ever in your whole life. It is an unrecoverable wound.
It’s like getting all your limbs sawed off. And you know that they’re
never gonna grow back. Period. End of story. So those people that talk
about being relegated, or give you advice about how to “cope” with it —
I dunno — frankly I think they’re insane. There ain’t no “coping” with
this one, Jack.
Of everyone in your life — your spouse, your children, your family
— there is nobody who loves you like your parents, and, I think,
especially the person out of whose womb you sprang … your mother. I
can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case, it’s true. You are not
bonded to your father in the same way you are to your mother. And
there’s nobody who loves you as absolutely, as finally, as
unconditionally as your mother. No matter what you do, no matter how
much pain you may cause her, no matter how many terrible, heinous acts
you commit, your mother continues to love you. She may not even “know”
it, but she does.
When your mother dies, that is gone. That protective shield that she
provided is rent asunder. Nothing, nobody will ever be there for you
like that again.
By the same token — and this is something I realized only during the
last months of my mother’s life — I loved her in the same way.
Absolutely, unconditionally. No matter how angry at her I might be —
and I was angry at my mother much of my life — I loved her so deeply
that I simply cannot find words to describe this.
My mother and I really didn’t get along most of my adult life. She
was the ultimate nudge. Every single clich? about Jewish mothers, my
mother had all those qualities in spades. I can say with a good degree
of accuracy that my mother helped to destroy both of my marriages. So
sure was she that both of these women were not right for me (she was
right by the way) that she put her curse on those two relationships. And
though I can’t blame her for them ending, I can say that she most
certainly helped drive the knife in. For that, and for countless other
times she inserted herself in my life and made herself the center of
things she shouldn’t have been the center of, I was furious at her. My
rage was deep-seated, and soon metastasized throughout my psyche. I
spent countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars in therapy trying
to deal with it.
But you know what? Once I realized my mother was dying, all of that
anger vanished, poof! — without a trace. God revealed to me that it was
of no consequence. Then He removed it. And so, during the last year or
so of her life, when I became her, I was able to love my mother
as unconditionally as she had loved me during her life.
I thank the Lord for this most miraculous change of heart … for
this great gift. Only He could have bestowed it upon me.
I think my mom was a bit taken aback when I “changed.” She seemed
almost embarrassed sometimes by my show of emotions. Where before I had
been cold and distant, now I held her hand, I brushed her hair, put
cream on her face or chapstick on her parched lips. I told her often I
It was hard for her to express herself. She never so much spoke of
her love to me. Rather, she just “showed” it. But she would tell me, in
odd, amazingly profound ways. Toward the end, when the dementia had
rendered meaningful conversations almost nonexistent, I would spend
hours simply sitting at her side.
It was too painful for me to hear this bright, articulate former
schoolteacher unable to speak her mind, and I know it was equally
painful for her. One time as we sat there, she looked up at me, and,
knowing I was ashamed of having gained weight, she simply said, “You’re
still a very handsome man.” Dementia or no dementia, she spoke right to
my heart. No, a mother’s love overcomes even the most heinous, the most
demonic of brain diseases; it cuts to the bone. Dementia be damned!
My love for my mother grew like a wild bush during those last months.
It was so powerful it hurt. I would have traded places with her — given
my life for her — in the blink of an eye. I asked God many times to
please make us switch places, but He didn’t see fit to do that. I wish I
could say now that I’m not angry at God, not so much for taking her, but
for allowing her to suffer the humiliation of this kind of illness. But
I can’t honestly say that. I am angry. I ask God for
understanding and I get none, and so I’m angry and I feel helpless
because I can’t find any target for my anger.
I miss my mom so bad. No, I’m going to say it properly. I’m going to
say it like I feel it. I miss my mommy. I’m five years old again. My
mommy is gone, and I’m frightened, and I’m scared, and she’s not here,
and she’s not going to come back. I walk through the day in a fog; I
wake up at night in cold sweat and grab my pillow and hang onto it for
dear life. I leave her bedroom light on, and sometimes, if I can get the
courage up, I go in and fluff up her pillow. I guess this “phase” will
trail off sooner or later … I have no idea when. But I know that the
wound will never scar over. I don’t want it to. I don’t ever want to
learn to “cope” like that.
Well, I’ve gone over my word limit again. All I really want to say to
each of you is: If your parents are still alive, do me a favor. Just go
talk to them. You don’t have to get all mushy or tell them how much you
love them. I know how hard that is to do. Just talk to them. They have
stories to tell you. And you need to hear those stories — trust me, you
If your parents are already gone, I suggest you talk to them anyhow.
You have things to tell them. Do it. And just because they may not be
physically there doesn’t mean they can’t talk to you as well. No, I’m
not intimating any kind of psychic baloney. You know me better than
that. I’m just saying, you can speak to them, and, if you listen, they
will speak to you as well. Try it. See if I’m not right. Once you begin
to engage in these conversations you will find, I think, that it is
truly the most important “work” you have to do during this lifetime.
So give it a shot. And after you do, let me know what happens. I’m
truly interested in hearing what you’ve got to say.