29 September 2006

Telling them...

So I finally came clean with Mom and Dad.

I didn’t do it until just before I started all of this in earnest. I was afraid to tell them. I'm an alleged grown-up with kids of my own and I'm still worried about what they think about what I'm doing, even more fearful of what they'll say. To be fair, I've had decades of experience telling them things they didn't want to hear. When I came home from an expensive fancy college to tell them that I wasn’t applying to medical school, that I wanted to get a job in television, my mother said, “What did we send you to college for?”

Now this? They're going to think I'm an idiot.

I'd put off telling them for months. When I quit my job running the regional public television newsmagazine, I kind of forgot to mention that I knew what I was doing next, specifically. They heard “writing,” they heard “more time with Luke and Matt” and that my husband’s work was doing okay, so Mom and Dad didn’t really ask too many questions.

On the phone, Mom had said, “Maybe now you won’t have to work so hard all the time. I hate to see you run ragged.”

“Me, too, Mom.”

But I talk to my parents so many times during a week it just got plain weird not to tell them what was going on, especially when this project was becoming my life, especially when we were all going to be together for their fiftieth anniversary at their honeymoon spot in Florida.

In my suitcase, I brought two things to give them: a pair of patchwork pillowtops I’d made for them with their wedding photos ironed on the center squares of each and a copy of the pages I’d given to Hemu and her sadhu, the same ones I'd given to Swami Sarvadevananda. I took the pillowtops out right away – they were a big hit – but the manuscript stayed in the bottom of the empty suitcase until the day before we were meant to leave.

Not long after breakfast, I walked into their hotel room, handed over the paper held together by brass grommets, and took Luke and Matt to the beach.

Hours later, fingers wrinkled, salt baked into skin, I sent the boys ahead to take showers and opened the door to Mom and Dad’s room. Beyond the entrance hall, Dad sat with his back to the sliding glass door, scratching words into the squares of his spiral-bound double acrostic book. It wasn’t late but the sun was already behind the tall building we were in, its shadow crossing the pool and even the beach beyond. His pose was so familiar it was like a hug: one leg crossed wide over the other to support the hard pad, left hand curled around a pen, head down and slightly tilted. His hair might be baby fine and white with a whisper of tan skin beneath but the scene was the same since I was little. He seemed so happy when he was like this. He seemed so alone.

“Hi, Dad.”

Dad’s hearing is flawless for someone nearing eighty but his puzzle concentration is absolute. I tried again. “Dad?”

“Oh, hi. Boys have a good time down there?”

“Yeah, where’s Mom?”

“She’s getting ready.”

Screaming through my head was: Did you read it? Did she? Nothing in his eyes or voice said anything so I didn’t either. Forcing it felt wrong. Besides, I knew better than to start with Dad; he let Mom handle stuff like this. So I just asked, “When are we leaving for dinner?”

Looking up over his reading glasses, “Half an hour.”

After the fastest shower I knew how to take, I was back, a kid waiting for approval of a lumpy handmade ashtray.

I know I’m not supposed to care what they think, what she thinks. I mean, when am I going to get over this? I’ve investigated bad guys while at 60 Minutes, I’ve worn hidden cameras in dangerous places, I’ve interviewed a serial killer on death row and many other criminals in prisons and jails, in my last job, I’ve made decisions that an entire staff didn’t like, and yet I’m still tiptoeing around looking for signs in my parents’ eyes.

Why do I care? What am I waiting for? Permission?

And then I knew: the dread of having this very conversation and others like it is what’s stopped me dead for decades. I feel like I was born with only one subject on my mind: Is there a point and, if so, what is it? Is the visible all that’s real? Yet it’s taken me half a lifetime to become either stubborn enough or driven enough to make anyone else’s reactions meaningless…. that’s probably overstating it…to make anyone else’s bad reaction less important. But, for all that progress, I was still standing there, desperate to know what they thought.

The smell of Jean Nate and the sound of charm bracelets always told us when my mother was ready to go out. My parents didn’t go out often when we were little but, when they did, Mom loved dressing in red and black, sometimes with big wide belts or dresses she’d made, some dramatic. The bracelets were still there but the playful smell and dramatic outfits were gone. In their place were long pieces of silk and comfortable shoes.

Dad picked up the plastic hotel key from the table and called for the car while Mom finished putting a few things into one of her tiny sparkly purses. I gave up looking for them to say something. It was plain: she knew I was waiting, knew I wanted to know, but she either couldn’t figure out what to say or maybe she hadn’t even read it yet. Maybe she wanted to wait until she could figure out what she even thought about it.

Maybe she didn’t want to ruin dinner.

But, as I held the hotel room door open and turned off the light, Mom stopped and looked up at me and said, “I really never knew you had this problem, I really didn’t. I mean, you told me how you thought I should have taken you to art museums more and, you’re right, I probably should have, but I never knew about this.”

All I could do was laugh. I put one arm around her shoulder and kissed her jaw, the only part she would really let me near, as she continued with various permutations of this all the way down the long hotel hallway, with Dad following behind, until the elevator door opened and there were strangers inside.

And we had a really nice dinner.

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