Friday, February 1, 2013


When the phone rang around 3 a.m. today, I hoped from my groggy lair that it might be some late-night drunk who had misdialed. But of course it wasn't. By 4, my wife was standing next to the bed telling me that her mother had died and she was headed to New Jersey to be with her sisters and brothers.

There was nothing unexpected about what happened. Mary had been in her late 80's, had recently been diagnosed with a tumor, had suffered the indignities and exhaustions of hospital care, and had been given three months to live. The pain medications meant that sometimes she recognized and sometimes not the scenes and people who came to be with her.

Nothing unexpected ... but still ....

I knew Mary only a little. She was my mother-in-law and my wife's mother. She gave birth to seven children -- five girls and two boys. Each of the girls was named Mary and each used some version of a middle name (Elizabeth, Margaret, Virginia, etc.) as a daily moniker. Mary used to go to Catholic church every day. She was a woman with some strong opinions, but she never to my knowledge shoved her religion down anyone's throat ... or anyway mine. She just went to church, did some volunteer work, was devoted to family, and was as good as she knew how to be.

Amen ... another small death, something that makes me wonder about the capacity to care about things no one can do anything about. Although there is nothing to be done, I care anyway.

Yesterday, I went down to the Probate Court on my daughter's behalf and put the bureaucratic finishing touches on her desire to change her last name to that of her new husband. It took about five minutes and wouldn't have taken that long if I hadn't had to stop at the metal detector, empty my pockets, take off my belt and be scanned for nefarious plots. I talked with the cop administering the mechanical pat-down and he told me that there was a time when he had taken a box of fireworks with him on a plane when he flew home. He wasn't supposed to, but he did it anyway and wasn't called to account. Nowadays, he would probably be serving a jail term. Times change.

There are little and large deaths and pretty soon my daughter will officially have a new last name ... in the wake of an old last name ... which will be "dead."

On Sunday, my younger son will at last leave the house en route to some three months of Army National Guard basic training. I say "at last" in the sense that he has been thinking about joining the military for a long time. He did one semester at a junior college after he left high school, but he still hated school and still wanted to join the military. So, come Sunday, the wishful thinking will turn to in-your-face fact and who knows what that will mean? I have done what I could to put my anxieties on hold, but come Sunday, his anxieties and mine will be transformed into fact-based reality. There will be nothing anyone can do about it ... but I care anyway.

My son is my youngest child and the last out the door -- the last to begin taking whatever steps are necessary to claiming his own fate. But I have 19 years of history with him ... of caring about where he went and what he did and what made him happy and what made him sad and, however ineffectively, surrounding his life with my protections. I wish I could have done more on the one hand and, since I am stuck with the farm with what I did do, I have to acknowledge a sense of caring habit that will suffer a small death come Sunday.

Joshu Sasaki, a Zen teacher, once wrote an article in which he encouraged his readers to find a better word than "death." "Death" carries with it an imagined finality that compares badly with verifiable fact. Its gloomy tendrils reach out and enfold. Religions and philosophies make hay with "death," but doesn't there come a time when religion and philosophy can go suck an egg -- when the facts overwhelm all the imaginative tap-dancing and it's enough to say....

I care... and what's so bad about caring? Born in one moment, dying away in the next ... caring is not a punishment or an accolade. Caring, like birth or death, is just possible.

Caring just happens so...

Born to care.

Dying to care.

Is this somehow news?

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