I talked to my father this week, after receiving a text from my stepmother. She had texted us earlier in the day from Boston to say that my father was scheduled for his third attempt at a cardio version this year, and to please be thinking of him. The last two attempts never even happened because of a blood clot that doesn’t want to go away, no matter what type of medications they are using to thin his blood. A few hours later, she texted my three brothers and me again, saying, “Cardio version could not be done due to blood clot. There are no more scheduled. If the doctor went in your dad could have a stroke. He will live with the a-fib controlled with the medication.” He just turned 81 this month, and although his mind is healthy, like most octogenarians, his body is beginning that inevitable process of decline.
I called him on my way home from work later that day. As usual, he was excited to hear from me, and didn’t want to talk about his appointment, but instead, focused on the snowstorms that have been plaguing Boston this winter. My father lives in the North Shore, about twenty miles north of Boston. It has been a brutal winter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad.”
“Really? Not even the Blizzard of ’78?” I take a perverse pride in “surviving” the notorious Blizzard of ’78, though my memories are quite different – a week off from school to play in mammoth snowbanks while the adults scrambled to shovel, plow, buy groceries, and help their neighbors.
“That was different.” My father’s analytical tone kicked in. “It was all one blast in ’78, but this winter we just keep getting new storms coming in. As soon as it lets up, we have a day or two where its okay, then – bam! – another storm. Plus, it’s so cold. You go to bed at night and it’s fifteen degrees, and you wake up and it’s zero degrees. It’s unbelievable.”
His awe with the winter’s relentless continued, “There’s so much snow, they don’t know where to put it. It’s piled up so high, I can only see the second floor windows of my neighbors across the street. The neighborhood association hired someone to move all of the snow down to that cul de sac near our entrance.”
He and I went back and forth over the worst winter Boston has ever seen. I thought it was 1978, but he was talking about 1995; then, I could hear my father’s wife in the background. Twenty-one years his junior, she is always part of the conversation.
“Ed.” She said, her Boston accent, consuming the airwaves. “The worst storm in Boston was your birth year, 1934.”
“Oh, that’s right.” He returned to talking to me. “My mother didn’t want my father to come to the hospital after I was born, but he walked through the snow every day to see her.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard this story. “Dad, you’re telling me that you were born during one of Boston’s most historical snowstorms?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s that historical, but yes, it was bad. So bad that my mother didn’t want my father to come to the hospital.”
“But he came anyway?” I asked.
“Yup. Every day.”
Somehow, the conversation shifted to his health. My father’s spirits were still pretty high, despite the change of topic.
“It’s my legs that seem to be getting weaker, and I don’t want that. I want to be able to still be mobile, so D (his wife) helped me contact a medical group that has a strong physical therapy program. It’s hard work, but I’m willing to do it.”
I teased him about needing his sea legs for all of the cruises that he and his wife go on. He chuckled for a moment, but then returned to his earnest desire to be strong.
“My mother was strong, but then remember when she fell? She was never the same after that. She was around my age when that happened.”
“I think she was a little older actually.” I thought about something else. “Geez, Dad, now that I think about it, did you know that Buddha was curious about aging? Aging, sickness, and death, those were the three things that fascinated him. He didn’t grasp the idea of those levels of suffering, so that’s what ultimately led him to seek enlightenment.”
“No kidding, really?” He returned to the memory of his mother. “She was tough.”
He paused. “Did I ever tell you about the time some guy tried to mug her in front of her old apartment on Washington Street? But that wasn’t the fall that caused her to break her hip, she was okay after that – ”
” – What?!” I interrupted him from his digression. “She got mugged when she was an old woman?!”
“Yea, that was one of her first falls. She was in her early 80’s then. She fought back.”
Most memories I have of my grandmother are when she was so old and hard of hearing, she would sit in a rocking chair, smile, and respond to every question directed to her with the word, “Lovely.” My brothers and I still joke about it to this day:
“Hi Grandma, how are you?!!!!” (screaming into her circa 1970’s hearing aid).
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?!!!!!”
“The Red Sox can’t stop losing, can they?!!!!”
She was that typical sweet old lady, though not little. She was a big-boned Irish woman, daughter of two Irish immigrants who came over for a better life. My grandmother’s life was a challenge. She grew up in poverty, and plowed through the Great Depression as an alcoholic, a mother, a wife, a sister, a factory worker. Back then, there was a stigma to being a woman alcoholic. It was a disease of weakness, leading to immoral behavior. To this day, my father talks very little of her active drinking days, though he emphasizes the part of when she quit, she became a workaholic, working two jobs in factories, and taking care of her parents and her ailing husband. Sometimes I wonder if it felt like a punishment to her, all of that work, those endless hours of physical labor, and caretaking, carrying with her the shame of her previous alcoholic behavior.
Then, later in life, she was “punished” again when her only daughter, M, took her drink, and quickly married herself to the disease. I can only imagine that my grandmother felt like she was looking into the mirror of her past when she would see her adult daughter come staggering into their tiny one-bedroom apartment, late at night, drunk beyond comprehension, rageful at the causes and conditions of her life. M had her own set of issues; pressured to support her elderly mother, a woman in a man’s world, refusing to marry for reasons of her own. I’ve always suspected that she was a lesbian. It was rare when she wore skirts, and she had this butch presence that both frightened and intrigued me. Her “best friend”, N, of forty-plus years, would sometimes call my father late at night for support when M was in a drunken rage. A large woman in both physical features and presence, and smarter than all of her male superiors in her city job, my Aunt M was like a bull in a china shop. Women back then, particularly women who did not fit into the feminine stereotype, were not popular. Her resistance to conform is also what drained her. No wonder she drank. She fought and fought the patriarchy, holding her own to survive, but the fight wore them both down, she and my grandmother.
Yet, apparently, as I have just recently learned, there was that one day when my grandmother was well into her eighties, when both of these matriarchs did fight back. I listened closely to my father’s story on my cell phone’s headset as I was driving down Hesperian Boulevard in Hayward at the height of rush hour.
“M pulled up in front of the house, you know that small place they had on Washington Street.”
It was a tiny one-bedroom apartment, two twin beds crowding the bedroom, and a walk-in kitchen that always smelled of ginger pantry cookies and stale cigarettes.
My father continued, “M opened the door for my mother, and helped her out of the car. Then, M went up to the apartment to open the door.”
I could picture it. My Aunt M would have had to walk up the small set of stairs to the main door, then go inside the house, and down the hallway to open their apartment door. That would leave my grandmother outside alone for a few seconds near the car.
“Some guy came up to my mother, and he tried to steal her purse.”
“Are you kidding? So he stole it from her, and that’s when she fell?”
“No!” My father started to chuckle. “My mother wouldn’t give up her purse. THAT’S when she fell. Apparently, they were both on the ground, and this young guy was trying to pull the purse out of my mother’s hands, but she refused to give it up. She started screaming, and then M came running out, and saw what was happening, so she started screaming. The guy got scared, and he jumped up and ran away.”
“And Grandma still had her purse?” I asked, in awe. ”
Yes, can you believe it?!”
Yes, actually, I can believe it. I believe that she gripped her purse the way she gripped her entire life. It was never an option to just lie down and give up. Her instinct was to keep moving, keep working, keep showing up for life, no matter what. So when that man, motivated by his own desperation, tried to take her purse, the storehouse of her economic power, right in front of her own home, she fought back.
In Buddhism, we often talk about not becoming so attached to our belongings. The third Noble Truth is all about how “clinging” is the cause of suffering. Like clinging to the idea of the snowstorms and blood clots lasting forever, even though they eventually change due to the impermanence of nature, which seems to dictate all of us, whether or not we agree with it, or whether or not we like it.
When I think of my grandmother rolling around on the ground that day, literally clinging to her purse, I can’t help but wonder if she was clinging to eight decades of relentless suffering, a suffering that she was oddly comfortable with, and accustomed to; a life of poverty that she had accepted, and perhaps even nobly embraced. She knew no other way. Yet, her money was her money. She worked hard for it, and was not about to give it up. She fought and fought and fought, and on that day, she won.
It was a lovely moment for all of us.
PLEASE EXCUSE THE USE OF SCREENSHOTS FOR THE PHOTOS BELOW: