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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

“When my father died, it felt like a library burnt down.”

–Laurie Anderson

My father, Albert Mason, Jr., died on May 7, 2017. He was ninety-eight years old.  He was born on March 28th, 1919. There is much to be said of his life which lasted nearly a century.   A decorated veteran of the US Armed Forces (Army/Air Force), he served in World War II where he unloaded the dead and wounded off of helicopters.

H e was already legally blind in one eye – a surgery to correct his cross eyed condition blinded him at the age of eight. (As my mother always said, the military at that time would take anyone who could hold a rifle.)

He also (my mother told me with a shudder decades ago) was a passenger (as a soldier) on an unescorted ship in Japanese territory.  I remember the photographs of him as a young man serving in the armed forces in Guam and the Philippines.wedding-picture-dad-may-2017-207

After coming home from WWII, he married my mother.  They were both twenty-five years old.

After a stint as a roofer’s assistant and a plumber’s assistant, he took a job at Rohm and Haas (since bought by a different company), he worked shift work his entire career – more than thirty years – in the boiler room at the plant. (My mother told me to say he was a ‘stationary engineer.’)

He was one of the Great Generation and one of the lucky ones.  He got a union job when unions were still in vogue and was able to support his family. A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine (really a friend in adolescence) Alec Klatchko, read my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters and remarked that the life I led was made possible by having a stable and secure father.

I acknowledged that this was true – but it really hit me after his death.  Even though he was ninety-eight, he was mostly independent and wanted to live a few years longer.  He told me this in the hospital on his where he went the third time that he was having problems breathing.  He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a condition that people can live with – at least for a while.

I lobbied for him to go to a physical rehabilitation home which is where the hospital discharged him to.  There he started to get better. He was able to walk with the help of a walker and he did well in his physical therapy sessions. He was a lifelong walker (except in recent years when his eyesight worsened drastically due to glaucoma and he was afraid of falling) and he was very strong.  But he lost his ability to swallow in the rehabilitation home – and was losing weight drastically.dad-may-2017---fishtown

My partner (who is my rock and who is remarkably like my father) and I were with him on the Saturday of May sixth. (He loved Barbara like another daughter.)  He was rushed to a nearby hospital (St. Mary’s) late that night and died Sunday afternoon.  I went to the hospital that morning. Before his death, he told me he was not in pain. He was very emphatic about this. After he passed, the house doctor came in and told me that when he “went to heaven” he was not in any pain.

I was raised secular. My father was an agnostic, but before I was born he was a lay reader in his church (a branch of Protestant-ism).  I always considered my secular upbringing a gift, even in recent years when I have become a Unitarian Universalist and a lay minister.

My father’s death hit me like a ton of bricks.  I just turned fifty-eight years old and that’s a lot of time to have had my father. He was a good father and a good man. The goodness in me was born from the goodness in him.

One way I’ve been coping is to keep a list of the memories of my father – things both my father and mother told me and things that I remember. Like my father and mother, I am a walker.  I am also strong.  According to my partner, I am obsessive as my father – except about different things. I attribute my success as a writer to this streak of stubbornness and obsessiveness that I inherited from my father.  (Sometimes it’s important to persevere and not to take no for an answer.)

Also to heal from this loss, I’ve been laying on the floor doing yoga and at the same time listening to Buddhist videos on YouTube.  Tich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, was very helpful in talking about life and the afterlife.  He talked about the life of a cloud – how it doesn’t die but just changes energy.  First it might be a pond evaporated to the cloud.  After it is a cloud it may become rain.  It never dies – it just goes away. It changes energies.

My father was my cloud.  He rained down on me and I grew from the earth that he watered.

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“To the queerest person I know.”

This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different. I read books rather than watching the TV. I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball. Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community. This was before we had the term LGBT. I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend who embraced the term. She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society. In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or “het,” as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned. My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me, “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.” So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I, are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.” Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different. We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen. The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school. High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced. He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again. High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully:

“I now had the power over him. I was in control. In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”

But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39. It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths. It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on. They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march. Over my shoulder. By my desk. In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:

“For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt. And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

previously in The Huffington Post

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