The order of this week is disorder. Not the trivial disorder of a closet, or a work in progress; this week is the unraveling of the self that comes with separating from someone you love dearly. It is the subject of: poetry, theater, film, literature, dance, visual arts and music — all forms of music from opera to rap. This is for all of you who have mothers' and fathers' close to death, and you don't want them to leave.
Adults protect you from the brutality of death when you’re very young. They keep it behind locked phrases like "she had to go away to a better place; you’ll understand when you grow up."
The camouflage of death may go on indefinitely until one day, you are hit over the head with a block of ice, and it splits you right down the middle. You can see your guts spilling out, and everything is all out of order. Walking is an effort. Thinking clogs with the big question: Why? Why can’t we all stay here together and live forever?
Flashback to 1966 — I was very young, not so much in years, but when I was 13, my mental and emotional age were more of an 8-year-old. I don’t know if I was ADD or DDT because those acronyms were not in vogue yet. My development was arrested because I was raised on a fantasia of false identities, fiction, and privledge. I thought we were rich, happy, and would live together forever. The fantasia of falseness was abruptly taken away on June 19, 1966. On that day, I saw for the first time, my father weep uncontrollably. I was told my mother was in heaven. My father was seated on my mother's avocado green sofa in our tidy mid-century apartment in Westwood. Nana — mother’s mother — was seated on the sofa next to my father. Nana and Dad had reconciled for the period of time my mother was sick with cancer. They both were sobbing. I was not. There was nothing inside of me but resistance, a blockage of emotion that remained there for so many years.
I was left in my father’s care. He was busy out chasing government subpoenas’ and running the Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida. He kept a command post on my emotions. He would not tolerate my grief because he could not tolerate his own. So, I had to chin-up, chest out, walk up and down Doheny Drive in Hollywood where he lived and pretend I was going to be fine.
When I turned 18 and left my father’s apartment was the first time I was free to unravel my feelings. The emptiness filled with confusion, anger and drugs. If college was supposed to be my best years, then I missed that chapter. Looking back, the real leap to personal growth came at that time when I was left unattended to wander through life with my own eyes as guardian, and my heart as my compass. That is when I missed my mother the most. It was my fortune to have my father back in Los Angeles, throwing his weight around from a distance. He kept me under radar by having a friend’s son working in the admittance office of Sonoma State College.
I remember days when my mental attitude needed electric shock therapy. Miraculously, I did find my way home, and to the matter of my mother, and growing up with gangsters. From a wafer of stability, very slowly, I’ve built a nice lifeboat to keep me afloat. My screaming, cantankerous, and intimidating father who loved me beyond measure is in this imaginary boat, and my mother who loved with a silent gentle hand she gave to me whenever I needed assurance.
All I have to do is look at her photograph placed in every corner of my house, and I regain momentum in my lifeboat. When I am particularly insolvent with life’s measures, I recall the years she spent fighting cancer so she could continue to hold my hand. How can I disappoint such a woman? I cannot, and I know that with more certainty than I know anything.
We all have a basement strength that rises up and balances us when we need it. Each time we cross that unpleasant road, and say good-bye to our friends, our pets, our parents, or our siblings, we have to find our basement strength. You can read poetry and essays, listen to opera or rap and find 5,000 ways of expressing the same painful stab of separation. If the comfort comes in just knowing — we all have that in common — then all you have to do is tap the shoulder of the man in front of you, and ask, “How did you handle it?”
Or as Henry Miller said, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.”