Monday, January 3, 2011

The Beaten Path

It has been almost five years since my mother lost her brave war against leukemia. Within this time frame, sadly, some of Mom's familiar traditions have become more of a fond memory rather than a continued reality. For example, although we can all cook a Christmas ham, it was Mom who criss-crossed those seasoning cloves just right on the hind, drowning them again and again with her secret glaze until the browning and flavoring were perfect. And it was Mom who decorated our home and Christmas tree into a welcoming, warm winter wonderland, season after season. Sure, my wife and sisters could probably duplicate her feats, given enough time, but it's just not the same without that extra ooomph of Mom's energy swirling among all the festive activities. Of her love swirling among her family.

The realization (or maybe, rather, fear) that someday my kids wouldn't remember Gramma, with her specialness and unique ways, was so strong, so biting, immediately after her death that I, along with my siblings, worked hard on trying to keep things just the way they were before she died. We tried to arrange the food in the fridge like she did. We continued keeping a pen and paper on the counter in the kitchen, right where she did. We folded towels just right, "like Mom taught us." We changed bedsheets from the cotton variety to flannel and then back during the revolving seasons of each year. We spritzed her perfume in the bedroom, desperately trying to keep her scent fresh. Writing cards, cooking a favorite meal, shopping in excess (with seven kids, if something was on sale, you bought ten of it), calling one another on Sundays...

Not only us kids, but Dad, too, seemed to expend a momentous amount of energy into recreating a surrounding environment much as Mom would maintain. As if somehow, despite Mom's permanent absence, submerging ourselves into a specific physicality of life would sustain our memories and souls.


Slowly, we each learned (at different paces and different depths) that it was okay to create new memories. New traditions. That it was not a betrayal of Mom or her memory to not bake a ham on Christmas or to not fold the towels in tri-fold but rather bi-fold. Memories injected with her presence, I learned, would always make me smile, no matter how things may now be done.

As a result, new traditions have begun to emerge within my family, poking their hesitant faces through the stomped, packed-down soil (laid by moi) and into our sunlight. They are now welcomed whole-heartedly. Fresh Polish sausage and perogies have become our Christmas dinner staple.

Dad, like a few of my siblings, will still occasionally struggle over the exactness of maintaining Mom's traditions. However, he too has gradually learned to let go of some of the uniqueness of these traditions and, instead,"go with the flow." His smiles and good-naturedness seem to walk hand-in-hand with releasing some of that burden. As they say, a remake is rarely as good as the original.

Just like the rest of us, Dad has also created some of his own rituals and traditions. And recently, while visiting him over the holidays, I was reminded of one of his rituals that I hope he never abandons.

It was during the drive home to visit my father that I explained to my wife that I was struggling to find material to write through the holidays that did not carry too much "heaviness" to it. It seemed all I was observing in the ER were patients and families with too many problems, too much heartache, and too high a level of expectation that we could fix all of their problems. On Christmas day alone, I continued, I had seen several elderly adults, without any complaints, "dumped" off in our ER by family who then immediately left to resume their holiday celebrations. "You'll have to keep Mom a few days," said one son, "so don't call me to come pick her up." After seeing an older gentleman for "trouble walking for ten years," abandoned by his family in our waiting room, I was losing a little faith.

Where was the love?

As we approached my childhood hometown, much like we always do, we turned off the main highway onto a small country road, a road that leads to the cemetery where my mother is buried. Single-lane and winding, my kids love how I beep before each sharp curve to alert an opposing vehicle or pedestrian that we are "coming around the mountain." It is a five-mile country journey that we have grown to love, anticipating the moment when we can pull off the bumpy dirt road and into the cemetery, where Mom is always waiting for our visit, right beside Christ on his crucifix. A visit back always starts this way.

Cautiously, because of freshly falling snow, our vehicle ascended the cemetery's small entrance knoll, turning left and then right and then left again, until we parked alongside the field where Mom is buried. As the kids always do, they hurried from our SUV and ran to Mom's grave stone, appreciating the fresh evergreen wreath, the new plaque, the winter flowers, and the leftover sea shells brought by Gracie the previous summer.

As my wife and I took our time getting out of the vehicle, my wife pointed down to the snow-covered ground and exclaimed, "Jim, do you see what I see?" I looked to where her finger was pointing, to the aisle leading to my mother's grave, but remained oblivious to her point.

"Look at all the other grave sites and aisles leading to them," she continued, "and tell me what you see."

I looked around at the cemetery, paying extra attention to the aisles. They were covered in freshly-fallen snow, hardly disturbed, except for the occasional lone foot prints leading to a stone and back. I looked back at the aisle leading to my mother's grave site. And then I got it--my wife's amazingly simple point.

"Do you see the footprints?" she asked, as I looked down to appreciate the well-worn path made by my father's size 15 winter boots, a path that lead right to my mother. His multiple trips back and forth were evident.

And suddenly, at this very moment during this very holiday season, I had found the love. A diamond of wonder among the sparse holiday rubble of disappointments.

My father will soon be turning 81 and, yet, twice a day, every day for the last five years, he has visited my mother. Through thick and thin. Through sunshine and snowstorms. Through the emerging dawn and the pending dusk. Rearranging fresh flowers, lovingly trimming weeds, and cursingly wiping bird poop for her stone's top. Crossing himself time and again while whispering his prayers. Sometimes, I imagine, wiping a tear from his eye. Sometimes, I'm sure, smiling his big smile while immersed in a warm memory.

And down at my feet, where I stood, was the proof of his five-year tradition--his beaten path leading to and from Mom's grave.

I smiled big, hugging my wife for pointing out this almost-missed moment. How could I have not seen this beaten, well-worn path? I grabbed my cell phone and immediately took several pictures, one included above, although none captured the minute details of each of my father's boot prints. It didn't matter, though. The moment had imprinted itself into my mind, forever.

And suddenly, as I looked toward my wife, who had joined my kids at Mom's grave site, I spun myself around, taking in the magnificent surrounding mountains while breathing in the clean country air. This world of ours made sense--the clarity of things changing, of the constant coming and going of new and old traditions that would continue to feed our wanting souls.

I wonder what traditions my children will continue when they become adults. Me? I know one tradition I hope to someday emulate or be the recipient of...

The beaten path.

To Karen, thanks for pointing out the obvious to me. As always, a big thanks to you for reading...I hope you each had a great holiday season and are enjoying the new year.


tracy said...

Just beautiful, Dr. Thank you for blessing our lives.


rlbates said...

Happy New Year, Dr Jim!

Holly said...

*wipes tears away*

that was wonderful.

melaniek said...

An absolutely, perfectly beautiful story, even when read through tears.

Katie said...

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

I fold my towels in a tri-fold... because that's how Mom taught me.

<>< Katie

CottonLady said...

Beautiful post! God's blessings to you and your family in the New Year.


Anonymous said...

A most perfect post, Jim. It gave me goosebumps.

Cara in Canada said...

That was beautiful. I got teary eyed and had to read the last part a couple of times.

Love, enduring love, does sometimes seem lost amongst the selfish "me first" culture we live in, but it still has the power to stop us in our tracks and remind us what the purpose of our life is meant to be: love each other and love God.

Your father is a tremendous example for us all.

Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

what a lucky lucky woman she was to be so loved! thank you for sharing this with us, it is beautiful. your dad is a peach too honey, he truly is.

hugs, bee

CeeCee said...

Thanks for sharing! You are an extremely lucky man to have parents who inspire such a story. I think they are more rare, the older I get.
Blessings to your lovely family in this new year.

Madison said...

I just shed a tear in the middle of class. I guess I deserve that for surfing the web and not paying attention.

coulrophobic agnostic said...

I'm not crying. I have something in my eye. Both eyes. God bless your father.

It breaks my heart to hear about elderly parents dumped off in hospitals like that. They gave up 18+ years of freedom to raise us. Surely we can give them a few days.

My mom and I still live together - not because I'm lame and pathetic (though I suppose I am in a lot of ways!!) but because without my dad, what is she going to do when she can't fix things or carry things or gets sick and can't go out? She can't use a computer, she can't do any real cleaning because of her bad back, at least once a day she hits the wrong button on something and can't figure out why it suddenly won't work right...heck, if one of us moved to a different place I'd end up over there ten times a day to open jars, run the vacuum and find something vital that the cat made off with (she did mention wanting to move to the country once...I said she'd need to take the cats because I can't handle them all on my own...turns out she hadn't even considered that I wouldn't go with her!). Obviously I get a lot out of the arrangement too, but the point is, she's my mom. How could anyone be so cruel as to just abandon their parents because hey, it's too much work for the holidays!

littlepretendnurse said...

My father passed in July 2001. To this day my mother changes the flowers on his grave once a month. I am lucky that I have such an example of enduring love an I am thankful every day for it.

Anonymous said...

Jim, this post was beautifully written, and a reminder of the power of real love.

But in the spirit of trying to adapt to new realities, I would like to share my perspective. To ME, the patch of earth in Florida does not contain either of my parents, but only several dollars worth of chemicals and minerals. Just as the angels said on the first Easter morning, "Why do you look for the living amongst the dead?"

So the site is maintained for dignity, but I do not visit the graves, even when we are in Florida. Mom died before Dad, and he was somewhat hurt that I did NOT visit the cemetary like he did, as frequently as possible. He never understood that I talked to Mom, and prayed with and for her, wherever and whenever I liked. I was with her during her brief final illness when it mattered. A copper plate over hot, sandy tropical dirt was NOT where my beloved Mama was.

No way trying to refudiate the love shown by your Dad....just that there are other ways to remember and visit. JMHO.

Pattie, RN

Karen said...

Loved this. My mom has been gone 10 years now and we all did the same... wanting to keep her traditions but needing to make new ones along the way. Was pointing out the obvious directed to me? What'd I say?? Happy New Year, Doc... I hope this year is happy and healthy for you and your family.

Tiffany said...

Dear Dr. Jim...

This post was really touching. This post made me realize something really important. It highlighted the fact that in my life lately, I have been so busy, and becuase of that, the more important things in life have fallen to the wayside. I've been so busy with school and work and life in general, that this past year ive only visited my grandpas grave site once. Today, eventhough I had classes all day, and worked during the night, I made sure in between classes that I went and took flowers to his grave site. I stayed there for about an hour just talking outloud to grandpa and remembering him. It felt very peaceful and serene there. It made me slow down and take stock of my life. It made me realize that even in our busy hectic lives, its important to slow down and take time to realize the importance of loved ones (alive and passed on) in our lives. Thank you so much for reminding me to slow down and to appreciate the fundamentala nd important things in life. Truly an amazing post!!! Thanks jim!

smiles and giggles,

SeaSpray said...

Hi Jim - this is a beautiful, heart moving post always.

Wishing you a wonderfully blessed New Year/ :)

And now for a tissue...

Elderly lady in training said...

I've read and enjoyed quite a few of your posts. For me this one is exceptional and I feel I must comment.

Thank you especially for:

"Slowly, we each learned (at different paces and different depths) that it was okay to create new memories. New traditions. That it was not a betrayal of Mom or her memory to not bake a ham on Christmas or to not fold the towels in tri-fold but rather bi-fold. Memories injected with her presence, I learned, would always make me smile, no matter how things may now be done.

As a result, new traditions have begun to emerge within my family, poking their hesitant faces through the stomped, packed-down soil (laid by moi) and into our sunlight. They are now welcomed whole-heartedly. Fresh Polish sausage and perogies have become our Christmas dinner staple."

I see it happening in my own family. I know it's inevitable. But it's still helpful to read someone saying that it's OK for new traditions to emerge and take the place of old ones.

CSThelen said...

Thanks very much for allyour writing, I have read 'til the wee hours when I should be prepping for another clinical day!

I'd love to subscribe, but all attempts come to nil. The link I'm told to use ( does not work. Help!

Pax et bonum,


CSThelen said...

Thanks very much for your wonderful stories, although they have kept me up to wee hours, reading!

Pax et bonum,