The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Heartbreak of Delete April 30, 2013

It really wasn’t his fault. I’d asked Elihu to go and get the phone by hitting the find button on the phone base. He hit what looked to him like the page button. Yeah, it does kinda look like it. The little icon of the phone and the icon of the garbage can are very similar in shape. Once again I learned something about his eyesight when he told me that he could barely tell the difference between them. Even though he sees fairly well up close, these buttons were virtually indistinguishable from each other. And so, with one touch Elihu erased two voice messages from my father that I’d kept on the phone for months. They were the last times dad was able to call me on his own. The last time I heard him call me ‘sweetie boopis’, a term of affection he’d used for mom and me ever since I can remember. Dad no longer called me this. Dad no longer even called. With mom now retired and home all the time he had no need to call me during the day anymore. In fact, dad had ceased calling me altogether sometime over this past fall. I’d noticed it, and so had saved the two messages from dad on my machine. And having downloaded many hundreds of photographs over the weekend, I’d actually put it on this week’s to-do list to archive those two precious messages. But in one split second they were deleted without any warning. The timing was more than ironic, the poignancy of the loss so acute, that when I learned what Elihu had just done, I lost it.

I’m usually good about small traumas. I don’t freak out over things as I certainly might have ten years ago. After having my husband tell me about his other children and his choice to leave our marriage – after news like that all else fairly pales. Nothing has ever come close. But this loss hurt. As I sobbed into my hands and rocked in disbelief, not caring if Elihu himself hurt or not, I realized why it grieved me so. Because dad had turned a corner sometime over the past few months, and I had so very little of his old self documented. Nothing recorded, no videos, few photographs. I’d been so busy living my own life until now that I’d taken the mundane for granted. Those voice messages had still sounded like the dad I knew. They were a window into a time that I realized with great reluctance was now gone. Over the past few months dad has become almost childlike – but it didn’t really hit me until I saw him at the party. He was definitely changed. Due partly to the natural progression of whatever age-related disease he has (dementia or Alzheimer’s – jury’s still out) and partly as a result of my mother’s incessant expression of control. She babies him like crazy, stealing away whatever little power he might still have over his own life. I know she may think she’s doing it for his benefit (that is if she’s even aware of her behavior), but I can say that since she’s retired recently dad’s gotten worse – and much, much faster than ever before. Take away someone’s motivation for initiative and you rob him of a basic human need. I know she can never see it, but even my young son can. We don’t like to visit their house for too long, not just because of Elihu’s cat allergies (it’s a five cat household) but also because mom is quick to react negatively (she even takes personal offense at Elihu’s allergic reaction to her cats; she’s often convinced he’s overreacting), and she’s quick to tell others what they should do and or how they should be doing it. It’s exhausting to be in mom’s household too long, and I know even my father in his declining powers is aware of it. Fighting her need to be in charge is difficult even for a vigorous and healthy person; naturally dad in his state can only acquiesce to her dominant nature.

It’s been my own personal quest not to become as she is; not to try to assert myself into the outcome of every situation. And while it’s a work in progress, I have done a good job. But with this one tiny event – the erasing of those two precious messages – my anger rises and I begin not only to hurt, but to feel sorry for myself. To see myself as my mother sees herself; a martyr to life. I begin to think that I lost something because I didn’t take care of the task myself. I mutter to myself under my breath that if ‘I don’t do something myself it doesn’t get done right’. I fume, I cry, I throw something across the room. I know Elihu doesn’t deserve this, so I take my tantrum outside. What happened is sad, yes, but I also know there’s something bigger at the root of it than the loss of those recordings. What is it? I pace, I cry, I feel my heart positively breaking. Then it dawns on me. I know what’s bothering me, I do. I’m scared about losing my father. And I’m scared that when he’s gone I’ll have very little to remind me. Of his voice, his smile, his essence. I know it’s silly human sentimentality, and in the end sentimentality is only superficial, but nevertheless it’s in me to my core. What will I do when he goes? Other people’s parents die, I know. But what happens when mine do? Even mom, as tiring as she can be sometimes, she is still my mother. How on earth will I continue when she’s gone for good? How will I cope with this sorrow? Now whenever the phone rings from next door I think “Oh no, this is the call…”

When Elihu was little we read a book by Richard Scarry called “The Best Mistake Ever”. In the story Huckle’s mother gives him instructions to go to the store and buy a short list of things for the household. He forgets his list, but with the help of his friend Lowly Worm he reconstructs it the best he can from memory. Instead of oranges he gets orange soda, instead of potatoes he gets potato chips, instead of cream he gets ice cream. When he arrives home his mother is very upset about it until the doorbell rings and it’s his Aunt and cousin who’ve come by for a surprise visit. They all have an impromtu party with the things that Huckle and Lowly have brought back, and it’s agreed on by all that the party was thanks to ‘the best mistake ever’. What a wonderful idea. I just loved the story, and although I’d heard this concept before in other contexts, until I read that particular story I didn’t fully get that the potential for unforeseen possibilities lay in the wake of mistakes – small mistakes as well as the really big ones. Even my then four year old son got the metaphor and soon we were both making lemonade from lemons; always quick to cite minor mistakes as ‘the best mistake ever’. (When Fareed made his life-changing decision I immediately thought of this story. At first it was a very bitter pill, but now it seems to be so true. If it hadn’t been for that we would never have known the life we have now.) And so with this current little episode of heartbreak I try to apply the story, I try to imagine how I might turn this around. How I might use this small loss to serve us better, how I might learn something or experience something good that otherwise I might never have known. I didn’t sleep well last night because I just couldn’t get past the sting of the loss. But this morning I awoke with some inspiration.

Friday night dinners. We’ll invite ourselves over for supper once a week. I might never hear my father’s voice again on my answering machine, but I could still make some videos of him with Elihu. We could still ask him questions – he was still very capable of conversation, especially when it was about things from the past. Yesterday – even earlier in the same day – was not something dad could speak about with any true clarity, but if one were to ask him about years past, especially his youth, he always had something to say. I told mom about my idea and she agreed. Elihu did too (he needs to dope up pretty well to go over there. And as long as our stay is an hour or less we can put up with the cats and the control issues. !) So we Conants have a plan for our future Fridays. Perhaps we’ll even learn some new things about dad – all on account of that unexpected mistake. Maybe my heartbreak itself can be erased as easily as those recorded messages.