A Valentine For My Parents

My last blog–in September, which seems as immediate as yesterday and as far away as the distant past–was a happy one.

I’d traveled to St. Louis and Bouchercon with my mom, and the fact that she was there to see me win the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery was and will always be the highlight of my professional career, and a highlight of my life.

We met my Dad in Cloverdale the weekend we came back (an easier drive for him than negotiating the city traffic and constant repair and expansion work near Santa Rosa), and spent a hour or two together, eating lunch, before he returned to Humboldt with my mom.

It was a warm, sunny, blue-sky day. The last time we were all together, whole, as a family.

Many of you may already know that I lost both my parents within a month, during December and January. Some of you may know how close I was to them. My parents were my best friends, both in different ways. They loved me unconditionally, supported me in anything I did in life, accepted me, protected me, advised me and fought for me at every age and during every crisis, minor or major. I didn’t live near them; I live six hours away. But they were a crucial, integral part of my every day life, and not a day passed without a call, without a sharing of news, of opinions, of thoughts.

What I didn’t fully realize, though, despite my closeness to each, was how very, very much they loved one another.

At first it seemed an unlikely bond. They met at eighteen, my mom a smart and beautiful blonde Polish girl, hard-working and independent. She was an adventurous rebel from Harvey, Illinois, with a shiny new red convertible Impala. She was sophisticated, a girly-girl, who loved Chicago hot dogs and the Cubbies and Marshall Field windows and was proud to fight the winds off Lake Michigan in the City with Big Shoulders, while walking to work at the flagship Sears store on State Street.

She’d gone through pain–her parents’ divorce, her father’s subsequent remarriage, and subsequent feelings of devaluement. Her mother’s diabetes and ill-health, a constant struggle to make ends meet. But she was determined to see life, to experience it, and to enjoy it.

She did so without a negative word about other people–my mom was truly the kindest, gentlest person I’ve ever known. She was the mitigator of all sorrows; the magnifier of all joys. Sure, she got angry–when someone tried to hurt her family, when injustice–racism, ageism, sexism, prejudice and selfishness of every kind–ran unchecked. At those times she became a warrior, and her green eyes flashed steel.

Pain and injustice was what my father, a homeless boy of 18, knew best. One of nine poverty-stricken children in dirt poor Appalachia, he was beaten and abused by a mentally ill father and protected only by his mother, a nurturing and loving woman who died when he was ten. The children were abandoned, and my father wandered the country on foot, living with Native Americans, adopted by missionaries (and running away), and finally finding a temporary home on the race track, where all his mother’s nurturing genes blossomed as he took care of thoroughbreds.

He loved animals. People made him uncomfortable. He’d never had a chance at socialization, never really had a home, never had a formal education. Yet he was–and this is really the only word that fits–brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. A first-class mind, capable of superhuman leaps of creative conjecture.

He honed that intellect throughout his life, first through self-education and reading, then through a GED and the Navy and college classes. My father’s intellect helped save him, not from the horrors of his early years, but from something even worse, a pain he had to deal with every day.

My dad suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, which clinically was probably a form of paranoid schizophrenia. Three of his siblings had been diagnosed with it. The genes of  his mentally ill and abusive father ran deep and strong within the family.

My mom didn’t know this when they met and fell in love and married five years later, on September 14, 1963. She knew she loved him and he loved her and yes, they were scared, particularly when I came along. Dad was in the Navy then; he suffered a wound that would later qualify him for 100% disability.

His mental illness grew more virulent when he hit his thirties, and life was hard. He self-medicated with alcohol, which made the condition worse. There was abuse involved–very, very hard times. Through it all, my mom stuck with him.  She saved him, time and again, as she’d done when he was a race track kid of 18.

Eventually, my father quit drinking. They became older. Mom lived with me for a time, worked with me, traveled with me. And I spent more time with my Dad as his disease became more manageable, though every day was a challenge for him. He played chess every day (most of the time beating the computer) as a way of using his intellect to keep the raging chaos in check.

In September of 2009, we found out mom had uterine cancer. After surgery and painful chemotherapy that resulted in neuropathy, she was in remission for six months. Then, during Bouchercon 2010 in October, we found out the cancer had come back and was terminal.

The light flickered in my father’s eyes, though he tried to keep it burning for my mom. You see, he’d prayed–though he wasn’t a religious man–that he could help save her. That he could give his life for hers. That he could give her back the love she’d given him, that he could find redemption and grace. His kind and nurturing soul focused all its energy on her.

He devoted every minute to taking care of her, until, finally, his body betrayed him. He was diagnosed with pneumonia before Thanksgiving; the day after Thanksgiving, we found out he had terminal, metastasized lung cancer.

My father died two weeks after the day he was hospitalized, just a couple of hours after seeing me. He’d been waiting for me. I’d had to run to San Francisco to make arrangements for family leave.

He’d been determined to get to the next stage first, to not have to face life without my mom, the person who’d been his whole life. To prepare the way, to light a fire in the stove, as he always did, to warm the house for her.

My father passed away on December 5th. The day after he died, my mom’s condition immediately worsened.  She’d been expected to live a few months longer. We tried radiation for eleven days straight, but it didn’t help, didn’t help the pain. She was determined to live through the holidays for my sake, not wanting Christmas–which was always one of her favorite things–compromised. She passed away on January 8th.

We had a chance to talk–not enough, nothing could ever be enough.  She said I should write about how she had to join Dad sooner than we all expected … that it was sad, yes, but also romantic. We talked about how it was like one of those melodramatic movies from the thirties we both loved.

The truth is, my parents loved each other enough to die for each other. And about the only thing that consoles me, in my pain and grief and the horrible pain of missing them is that they’re together, that neither one had to spend much time apart from the other.

I’m also consoled by the fact that I’m here as a result of that kind of love. A love that transcends mortal flesh and human weakness, that soars with the red-tailed hawks my father loved and the voices of angels that sound so much like my mom’s.

Their love is eternal. My love for them is eternal.

And that is what I will remember every Valentine’s Day.