Observations: Life: Part Two

Published on: November 28, 2012

My sister Pam holding my Mom’s hand on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012. Photo Mitch Traphagen

My sister Pam holding my Mom’s hand on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012. Photo Mitch Traphagen

The last day of my 40s was spent in a hospital room with my Mom. Recently out of surgery, she was only occasionally aware that I was there. My sister and I talked to her and simply sat quietly in her room, sometimes holding her hand.

And then I turned 50.

It’s hard for me to see my Mom like this. What’s really hard is seeing it for her, not for me. She had so many dreams that will never materialize. Or perhaps somewhere in her mind, some are now materializing. I hope so. I often wonder what my Dad would want us to do for her. My faith is that he will be waiting…somewhere…for her. But it’s not time for that yet; she’s recovering from her injury. Selfishly, I’m very grateful for that, but I’m not always sure that I should be.

I have to struggle to recall what I did last week but I can remember the night my Dad passed away with crystal clarity. I remember the hours leading up to it, and the moment itself in minute detail. I remember the words that were spoken and unspoken. I even remember the clothes I was wearing and the odd choice of an astronomy book I grabbed to take with me to the hospital. That was nearly 35 years ago. In three and a half decades, my Mom could never find the man who could replace Bruce Traphagen, although a few did try.

The day I turned 50, I was in a hospital room with my Mom — just as I was exactly half a century ago. Back then, on November 22, 1962, she still had her whole life before her and a loving husband and family by her side. Now I’m not sure what she thinks about life. I wonder whom she sees in her sleep. Has she seen my Dad? Has she seen old friends that have since passed on? Is she reliving fond memories? Sometimes she looks peaceful while sleeping; sometimes she looks distressed. I hope what she sees are fond memories, memories of a life well lived with a loving husband and four successful children, all with college degrees and families of their own; all of whom love her dearly.

I never expected to live to be 50 so I have no pre-conceived notions of what that milestone should be like. I’ve never been a big fan of my own birthday anyway. Perhaps I could have kicked off my second half century with a drunken bang, but what I did was say goodbye to my Mom, for now, at least, and then drove four hours with my sister to her home near Minneapolis to get ready for my flight back to Florida. On the drive up, snow began to fall. There is an incredible beauty in an early snowfall that can never be known in Florida. It is so beautiful that it can cause your heart to leap with joy and tears to form in your eyes. I felt fortunate to see it, just as I felt fortunate to spend time with my Mom, my brother and my sisters. I hid those tears from my sister sitting next to me. It felt as though it would have been too hard to explain they were for the beauty I was seeing and for my Mom and the fact that I was leaving her. She’s OK without me, I’m less so without her.

On Thanksgiving Day, the day 50 years from my birth, I kissed my Mom on the forehead and told her that I love her, just as she probably did for me in a different hospital room a half century ago. Hours later at my sister’s house, my now-adult foster daughter was waiting with her eight-month-old son. My daughter and her baby had been at a late Thanksgiving dinner with my nephew and the baby was fussy and not anxious to sleep. I rocked him and quietly sang the Beatles, “Let It Be,” to him. His little arms were wrapped around my neck and shoulder, his little body began to relax, and he fell asleep. It was magical. It was a good way to turn 50.

Suddenly I could see myself teaching him to catch a baseball or play the guitar. Suddenly that was so much more important than deadlines and other things that I’ve given far too much significance in the past.

Fifty years ago, my Mom set me on a brand new course in life. The whole world lay before me. Fifty years later, I think she did it again, and the world is still there, still before me. It is before all of us. But now I know things I didn’t know back then. We all do.

I’m 50 and the American Association of Retired People has me in their sights. But despite a heavy heart, somehow I’ve never felt younger. I’ve never felt more able to accomplish things I know to be truly important. As singer and actress Lorna Luft once said, “I’ve spent much of my adult life flinching with pain as I tried to pull out the threads that bound the shadows of my past to me.” When I turned 50, kissing my Mom’s forehead, rocking a precious baby to sleep, those threads started to disappear and a new life began. I know that both of my parents would be happy with that.

Happy Thanksgiving. I’m very happy to be here with you.