Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

The death of a parent compels attention. Last week I described how my mother’s end allowed me an enduring and touching memory after a difficult history. But I’m not her only son, and my brothers hold different images, early and late. You should know of one I witnessed. To set the stage, I’ll say more about the Stein household we all grew up in, all with our particular vantage points.

Imagine Milton Stein forever working one of his multiple jobs and Jeanette Stein overmatched by raising all of us on her own. Sibling rivalry became inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.

From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the distracted and generic love of a man in motion: about to leave for work, at work, back from work, or worried about making a living. He designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.

Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to supply ballast. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.

The challenge of dad’s early life was exceeded by mom’s catastrophic upbringing. Her father Leo: a charming, alcoholic bon vivant. Her mother Esther: a suspicious, hard of hearing woman who cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at high school lunch. Malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the clan’s economic desperation and social chaos stole any sense of value other than her physical beauty.

Her papa and mine abandoned her, each in their own way. To grandpa, drunken outings grabbed him; for dad the need to work. The turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids left an ill-equipped mother at the helm; exactly where my mother found herself again, this time assigned the role her mom played years before.

The frustration and anger boiled over at us rather than her parents or her husband. Routine comparisons occurred. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and sometimes thought ourselves the least favorite child because we didn’t know the game permitted no winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.

Jealousy grew, each boy short-changed. But our mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I got the best of both of my folks, their adored only child for most of my preschool years.

Maturity was required of me as the oldest. Job #1: take some pressure off my parents and be a protector of Ed and Jack.

Eddie was an active, eager, smart little guy, while Jack as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; more perhaps because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or want to give it. I’m sure my rejection hurt.

Our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner through academia. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.

Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Though I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when the older boy pushed Ed around. I didn’t win, but the point was made. My mother said my opponent now had a hard time combing his hair at the place on the side of his head where I landed my most forceful blow. Later an older kid from the local parochial school harassed Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. I am not in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows of our youth. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve) starred as the handsome, muscular hero who every little boy emulated. He fought for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley behind the house gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.

Eddie showed some particular compassion for me in the alley. I was in the seventh grade. The sport was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right – and slammed into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew the contest was now no game.

Eight-year-old Ed saw me – saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my blood-filling, closing eye – and wept.

When Ed and Jack got older we played in summer softball leagues in Chicago and Evanston. Ed became a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three homers in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.

Not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you to avoid, weren’t helpful. Some of them would later die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd everything is possible. The coin of a life – the heads or tails of it – turned in the air.

Finding your way is rarely easy. Ed managed – through intellect, hard work, and courage – to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.

Somehow, though full-up with sadness, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity my mom never stopped fomenting. Such losses don’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and reconciliation came in its wake.

Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not only brothers, was desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed setting aside. Love, after all, matters more than just about anything. The things binding us – our memories of the folks, the time together growing up, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule – became more important than our differences.

One afternoon in our childhood, while I played in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. When the program ended, he decided the day begged for a solo flight. A white towel mom must have tied around his neck made a makeshift cape. He pushed open the window facing the backyard and got out on a ledge perhaps 12-feet off the ground, preparing for launch.

By the time I noticed him, Ed knees flexed like Superman preparing for take-off. I yelled for him to stop. He hesitated. But how to turn him around and back into the house? Before I could get upstairs Ed might crash.

A sewer manhole cover lay below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not the more forgiving grass. Mom didn’t answer my frenzied shouts.

I got underneath the ledge, braced myself, and asked Ed to jump into my arms. He didn’t take much persuasion. We both survived.

Fast forward now.

My mother lay unconscious in the hospital. She had a living will, with Ed assigned the power of attorney for healthcare. She’d told us she wanted no extraordinary measures. Mom told us all, over and over after the death of our father, she wished to die.

My brothers and I visited the hospital daily. Ed arrived first on the day in question. Mom’s physician entered her room. He wanted to perform an invasive, long shot procedure. No matter what mom might have asked for, the M.D. knew Ed had control. A conversation ensued. The doc tried to persuade Ed, then talked of Ed’s responsibility to the woman who raised him, guilted him and guilted him and guilted him. At last the “healer” ended his assault and threw up his hands, the indictment now delivered, the verdict of “bad, ungrateful son” rendered. The unstated implication was that mom’s money was more important to Eddie than her life.

Eddie walked out of the room. I’d entered the building minutes before and was strolling toward him down the hospital corridor. At a distance he was still my brother Ed; still a handsome, put-together man’s man with a steel core of toughness that could withstand anything. Wrong. He broke down in my arms.

Most of us could have rationalized conceding to the medical man. Jeanette Stein was now silent, the M.D. was not. Ed put her first, not himself.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of courageous people, folks I met in my practice and elsewhere. Still, there are never enough.

When I think about Ed’s story, Ed’s last stand in defense of our dying mother, I recall his effort to be Superman at the backyard window.

I wonder, did I have to break his fall? In the last moment, Ed Stein – the real Superman who sacrificed a piece of himself in a hospital room – might have been able to fly. Yeah, compared to that, flying was easy.

——————————

For the most part, the images should be readily identifiable: two of my parents, Ed Stein in a photo I took of him hitting a double in a softball game, a cartoon of Superman, Jack Stein, the entire family around 1960 (with Jack, Gerry, and Ed from left to right), and Ed and the author in our backyard. Unfortunately, you can’t see the area of the intercepted Superman flight, which we are facing. Our garage, behind us, stands between us and the alley separating Talman Avenue from Washtenaw Avenue.

A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.

——-

The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

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Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Experience and Memory

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The last Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, is dead. He passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington on February 18, 2009. Frank Buckles, also 109, remains the sole surviving American veteran of the “War to End All Wars,” according to The New York Times.

With Mr. Buckles inevitable departure, we will all lose contact with what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918 within what is called “living memory;” the contact that can only come from the direct experience of the world-changing event that shaped the lives of many of our grandparents or great grandparents. Our only available sources of information will then be in the form of books, stories that the survivors told to those still alive, old silent movie film of some of the battle action, recorded reminiscences, journals a few of the combatants kept, accounts from war correspondents, and the like.

All of which leads me to think about memory and experience. And why understanding them is important.

Experience takes a number of forms and, when the experience is past, it becomes a memory. Simple enough on the surface, but not simple at all.

First, there is the “living” of the thing, actually participating in an event. In the case of Frank Buckles, that meant driving an American Army ambulance in France during the conflict itself, witnessing the carnage, hearing wounded men cry for their mothers, making and losing friends, feeling the “pee-in-your-pants” terror of it, getting shot at, carrying a gas mask or perhaps being exposed to poison gas, ministering to the wounded, jumping into fox holes—eating, drinking, and sleeping it all. But once Mr. Buckles returned home from the front, his time there had become a memory and was now different from the actual, in-the-moment intensity of the lived-experience, an intensity that nothing in his long life after the war could match.

At another level, more removed, there are the spectators to events. We all achieve the status of “watchers” when we attend a sporting competition. We see and hear a good deal of what is happening, even if we don’t ourselves play in the game.

At even more distance from the event are those who watch at home. They will miss some of the “atmosphere” of “being there” unlike those of us independent of TV cameras, who will see the event naturally, in the way it unfolds in real-life (without the mediation of a cameraman or the interruption of commercials). And the “at-home” audience will not experience the same roar of the crowd, the heat of sun on skin, the faces of the beer vendors, and the thousands of movements and sounds of the athletes and spectators that the cameras and microphones do not record.

More distant still from the actual experience is a radio broadcast, where one’s imagination and memory of events like the one being reported tend to fill in the blanks where no visual representation of the event is present. At a further remove might be a newspaper account of the game or a friend’s description of what happened from his memory of being there himself.

Experience is one thing, memory another. Memory can only approximate the event itself and can alter or fade with the passage of time. Remember your first kiss—all the thousands of sensations happening all at once—the rush of being alive, the smell of perfume or aftershave or the person’s natural scent, the touch and texture of skin, the moistness and softness of lips, your own heartbeat, body against body—firmness, roundness—the moment before and after, the placement of your hands, the color of your partner’s eyes and their expression in those same moments? Now, as you think about it, however good your memory, I think you will admit that remembering is not the same as living it.

At least in the case of memories of things like your first kiss, you have an advantage over others’ understanding of that experience because it was yours and not theirs. It becomes a good deal harder to relate to the experience of others, especially if they have lived through something wholly unlike what has happened in your own life. The most dramatic examples I can think of come from those who have experienced severe trauma. Take the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Magda F., from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies quoted by Lawrence Langer in Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory, as relatives implored her to talk about her experience:

And I looked at them and I said: “I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something now. If somebody would tell me this story, I would say ‘She’s lying, or he’s lying.’ Because this can’t be true. And maybe you’re gonna feel the same way. That your sister’s lying here, because this could not happen. Because to understand us, somebody has to go through with it. Because nobody, but nobody fully understands us. You can’t. No (matter) how much sympathy you give me when I’m talking here, or you understand…you’re trying to understand me, I know, but I don’t think you could, I don’t think so.”

And I said this to them. Hoping (they) should never be able to understand, because to understand, you have to go through with it, and I hope nobody in the world comes to this again, (so) they should understand us. And this was the honest truth, because nobody, nobody, nobody…

Those of us who are the children of Americans who survived the Great Depression got a little bit of this kind of understanding, I think, in late 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff and looked like it was going to continue falling and possibly repeat the Great Depression. We’d heard the stories our parents or grandparents told, we’d read the history books describing the period between the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, but we hadn’t lived in a period anything like that. Now, we were getting a taste of it, even if, for most of us, it was only a taste and not the whole meal. Now we know more, and better, what it was like for our elders (and what it is like for our fellow Americans who are losing their homes along with their livelihoods right now).

Sergiu Celibidache, the Roumanian symphony conductor, put very well the difference between direct experience and some form of pale attempt to duplicate that experience in a different time and place. Celibidache believed that it was impossible to accurately render the transcendant impact of musical performance except in a concert hall. He thought that recordings were a fraud, because they attenuated this experience and altered it, didn’t duplicate the physical and aural sensations present sitting in the hall, listening to the full dynamic range of sound as that sound was being made in the same acoustical environment as the musicians themselves. Therefore, Celibidache refused to make recordings for most of his career. And, in the days before anyone ever considered the possibility of experiments in virtual reality, he said that “listening to a recording is like making love to a picture of Bridget Bardot,” the gorgeous French model and actress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Adlai Stevenson II, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, captured the impossibility of fully communicating an experience he’d had to those who had not yet had that experience in a 1954 speech (made when he was 54) to the senior class of his alma mater, Princeton University:

“…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions—a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love—the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men…”

So, put another way, for example, no one who hasn’t been in love can know what love is; no one who hasn’t experienced discrimination or fought against it can really understand it fully; no one who has only watched a travelogue about the countryside really knows what it is like to be in the country; just as those who observe from the sidelines and never have played the game cannot completely grasp the clichéd expression about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

No, life is about the living of it, not the reading about it or the watching  of it. And, so too, it is about knowing that you don’t know fully about the experiences you haven’t had. It is about knowing that you can only approximate a real and complete appreciation of another’s life; knowing that some of those things the other has witnessed or lived through are frankly unknowable without their experience; knowing that the depths of human personality, emotion, and incident are infinitely great and that one can only approach the deepest point in knowledge and understanding even as we reflect on our own live’s through the lens of memory; and knowing that the death of the last veteran of World War I robs us all of some element of connection to history and, therefore, to the forces that shaped us, our parents, and their parents.

Life is infinitely humbling, fascinating, terrifying, and touching. I imagine one could live a dozen lives, some in one gender, some another; some straight, some gay; some black, some white, some yellow; some married, some single; some in this time, some in the future and the past; some here, some there; and still not achieve the richness that is possible.

But, of course, we only get one, so far as anyone knows. That means we must get on with things.

The day is short and there is much to do.

The photo above is of Frank Buckles with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on March 6, 2008 by Cherie A. Thurlby of soldiersmediacenter, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.