A First Mother’s Day

I was shopping this morning for an appropriate Mother’s Day card to send to my Mom, when one of those makes-you-dizzy revelations hit me right between the eyes. I didn’t need just one Mother’s Day card – I needed two.

This is going to be the first Mother’s Day since our son was born, and now my wife isn’t simply my wife, she’s a Mother, too. A card and phone call usually gets me by as far as my Mom is concerned, but I think I’m going to need to come up with something a little more creative than that for my wife.

I haven’t decided yet, but I’m leaning towards a nice 8x10 frame with a family picture, breakfast in bed (my specialty is French toast), and a perfume-and-bath set (we both smell vaguely like baby spit-up most of the time). It’s different getting a Mother’s Day present when it’s for your wife, instead of your Mom. When you’re young, your Mom will pretty much like anything you make or do for her. Later, she’ll be happy with a card and a phone call.

But getting a Mother’s Day present for your wife is another thing, entirely. It’s a difficult balance to strike. A romantic gift that might work for a birthday or anniversary might not be appropriate on Mother’s Day. But then, you don’t want it to be too practical, either. A new coffee maker or Cuisinart would land me in the dog house for sure.

And then there’s the present I’ve got to get for my son to give her, too. That should be a lot easier, though. To tell you the truth, the best Mother’s Day present she’s going to get from him will be his beautiful smile. I don’t think I can come up with anything to beat that.

Driving along, after work, looking forward to a soft bed. The phone rings; it's younger brother in L.A.

Dad fell in the tub and couldn't get up. Mother called Philip before dialing 9-1-1 (or her older son, for that matter). Mother asked younger brother in Hollywood to call older brother in Connecticut. Then, following dawdling and diddling irregardless of dad's mobility, the emergency call was made. Curiouser and curiouser.

Dad's been undergoing chemotherapy since March. He told nobody that he couldn't eat; he was so sick. So he didn't eat. And now he's in the hospital, again. This time's gonna be a long, long time, says a doctor (one of the "gang of four," as they're called behind their backs).

Younger brother's a busy attorney. And he's thousands of miles away. Yet he, of all the family, is the one least prone to resorting to that psychological opiate called "denial."

Mother is going about her life quite well I must say. She sees her husband a half hour every day. She's over 80 and can't drive, and must rely on the assistance of church members, neighbors and friends. The friends are few, the neighbors alienated because, you see, she's a rather cantankerous, self-centered old woman who's really not nice to be around. The church members, God help and bless them, accede to her requests begrudgingly. To anyone who asks of her why does she not stay by her husband's bedside, at least for a longer period of time; she responds that her own health has recently been compromised so she must adhere to a strict regimen of vitamins, diet, and bed rest.

Mother considers dad's current state of affairs a mere nuisance. She is, quite frankly, more concerned about the calibre of the household help procured for her, than the return of her own husband. Mother's cup of denial runneth over.

Dad's 85 or so and being treated for a virulent form of liver cancer. His chemotherapy has been working well on the tumors, but to his detriment systemically. He finally was just worn out. (He later confided that he'd been tired so long, it was the most wonderful thing to be able to get some rest, whether it be in hospital or elsewhere. Mother was running him ragged.)

His denial, if you will, keeps him upbeat and stoic, in the face of odds that are not in his favor. He's honed his ability to completely deny the possibility that at any given moment, awful, yea, unspeakable things may happen. He's relied upon this ability since his service in World War II.

Dad wants to eat. But should he, there's no bile in his stomach to digest the food. Bloating, accompanied by stabbing pains, result from the consumption of anything solid. His "food" is contained in the bags of solution, neatly hooked up to a device with a television screen. It beeps furiously should one of the bags become empty.

Back to denial. Denial makes the hour drive to see dad fly by. Denial keeps me from crying. Denial allows me to remain somewhat cheerful and act with the utmost civility to some whose behavior toward me is less than civil.

Near the elevator there's some sort of look-alike stained glass window made, I think, from plexiglass and clear paints. It's a mighty oak tree, surrounded by grass, a daffodil blooming here and there. On the third trip I noticed that not one living thing (other than vegetation) is portrayed in that painting. Where are the birds? Where are the squirrels? Where are the people? Where will my daddy be a month from now?

We had another argument today.

It was long overdue.

I had wondered, musingly, if she would be willing to cut her hair short. Not just a bob; I indicated it would have to be quite, quite short. She said yeah, if I would shave my head. I agreed.

Brooding mounted until it emerged into anger. She feels like I don't even like her hair. Really, it's beautiful. Long, bleached blonde, meticulously styled. Her hair gets her some considerable attention, not just mine. But I have suggested a few times at the salon that she try a different length, so apparently that means that I hate it the way it is.

Most of the day is gone, and she's still sore with me. I wish she could see that I value her infinitely. I know every centimeter of her, and I love every one. It's only difficult for her to understand the dissonance our situation causes with my belief system.

I don't want to encourage people to make a point, just a choice. Who are you really? Who decided that you would wear your hair, your dress, your face like that? Long tresses of hair are beautiful, true, and alluring as well. But the hair, the skirt, the makeup - it's a mark on you that you accept because everyone wants you to. They love you, they appreciate you. I appreciate you.

I was just trying to say: What if?

I spent the afternoon exploring an Island called Ellis. In the late 19th and 20th century Europe was ravaged by wars and it was very hard for many people to simply eat. So many decided to try and come to America and make a better life for themselves.

That includes my family. I'm not among the First Families of Virginia or any other exalted group. My Irish half came over after the potato blights led to famine. My German quarter also sought to escape poverty and incessant wars. Back in the 19th century Irish immigrants were often singled out for special scorn as being 'stupid, lazy and stealing American jobs'. There were also regarded as cheaters and petty thieves. That sound like any ethnic groups you've heard of lately? So like so many others, my ancestors joined the 'Poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free' and may have processed through Ellis Island.

The island itself was little more than a fortified sandbar back in the 1830s', part of a set of forts designed to protect the harbor. As immigration grew so grew the need to process these people. America wanted workers, but they didn't want typhus, the insane, or the sort of criminals Great Britain used to ship here back the the colonial times. So the ships stopped at Ellis. First they built a processing building than an increasing number of hospitals to house the arriving sick. They packed them in tight when you traveled in stearage and diseases spread like wildfire. Most were cured, but one of the first things they did was give you a quickie medical exam. If they found something they wrote a letter on your lapel, and sent you out for more examinations. Landfill grew it to 27 acres, and much of the land dedicated to the hospital.

In the main processing building the museum takes you through the steps an immigrant faced when he or she sought to enter America. Families were separated, and packed in dorms. You faced exams to determine your health and whether or not you were likely to become a 'public burden'. Back then they were worried about immigrants overloading social services in a big way.

Just like today.

On the wall they list the occupations coming through Ellis. Most were not doctors and professors. Laborers, domestics, farmers headed the lists. These people came from menial jobs to do menial labor here. Or perhaps to climb the ironwork scaffolds that frame our growing skyscrapers. I looked at their faces, scared, open, quiet, hoping but not daring to hope.

There is a picture there of a group of women who were refused. What it was that made them not good enough to become Americans? What differentiated them from my own great-great-grandparents?

Ellis Island was closed in 1954. Fear of the red menace, a desire to keep America for Americans and other matters made it superfluous. The left it as it was, with tables, glasses and equipment sitting there, too expensive to move. I found a room full of old ovens gathering dust right off of the main building.

Now it is back and the processing center has been rebuilt into a very worthy museum. Being there reminded me how much those of us were born here take for granted every day, and how much a man or woman must sacrifice when they choose to leave their land for another.

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