|With Mom at the Ray Jason Day event|
The melancholy is heavy on me this morning. It is my Mom’s death day. And even though it was on a September 5th many years ago, I still grieve … deeply. I was beside her in the emergency room in her final minutes. She was already unconscious and the doctors were trying to shock her back. I knew she would not return. She had told me so the day before.
It had been her first day of physical therapy after a very severe cardiac attack that left her with only a third of a functioning heart. With me holding one arm and the nurse on the other, we tried to gently help her take a few steps. She could not. This just staggered her. When the nurse left us alone we had our last conversation together.
I tried to encourage her by emphasizing that the progress back to mobility would be slow, but that it would come. And I emphasized that her five children would be able to take turns visiting and encouraging her in her recovery. My message was that even though her body was weak, her will was strong, and she could regain a satisfying and meaningful life. But she felt – and her instinct was probably correct - that the best she could expect was the slavery of a wheelchair and a grim future in an assisted care facility, watching TV with a bunch of other sad invalids.
She did not want to burden her children with the expense that such an existence would involve. And she was emphatic about not wishing to end her days as a sickly and dependent woman. So she confessed that when the next heart attack came, she would “let it take her.” And she drew me close and whispered to me in words far more poetic than I could ever write, “My wonderful first born child, there is a time for fighting and a time for farewell. I’ve been able to say my goodbyes to all of you kids now. The love and affection that you blessed me with here in the hospital has been so beautiful and so comforting that I am…ready.”
Such wisdom and eloquence was so overwhelming, that all I could do was hug her gently … and cry… as I am doing now.
My mom totally devoted her life to her children. And she was overjoyed by how we turned out. I too, am proud of what fine, caring and joyful people my brother and sisters are. And we all realize that most of our best qualities stem from her selfless nurturing.
Even though she only had a high school degree, her understanding of the joy and sorrow of human existence far exceeded what I learned from my college philosophy professors. Of all the lessons that she imparted to me the most important was the need for basic human decency. And she knew that the compass that leads an individual to such enlightened moral conduct is within all of us. She understood that we do not need governmental regulations or religious dogma to teach us how to behave towards one another. She emphasized that such knowledge is a part of everyone’s core wisdom.
Mom was also very courageous. My dad was a scientist – a smart and successful organic chemist with many patents to his credit. As the first-born male child, he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. But I was always drawn to the arts. The words of Socrates and Shakespeare sang to me, but chemistry did not. This led to intense emotional turmoil at a very formative stage of my life. My mother would always defend me. She encouraged me to do whatever I wished in life as long as it harmed no one else.
My contrary to ordinary spirit must have certainly tested her patience in this regard, but she never complained. For example, I clearly expressed my rebelliousness during my senior year at college. I had been elected as the President of my student body. For the yearbook photo, my cabinet all wore standard coats and ties, but I dressed like Steve McQueen playing a lumberjack. When I showed it to her she laughed until she cried and then she hugged me tightly and said, “You just keep being yourself, son. Don’t ever worry about them!”
Even when I returned from Vietnam and turned my back on my college education and became a San Francisco street performer, she never wavered in her support and encouragement. One episode from that period is amongst my most cherished memories. After 10 years as a prominent street juggler, the Mayor of San Francisco honored me with an official “Ray Jason Day.” The award was to be presented at a large event with thousands of people in attendance. I flew my Mom out for the celebration. As the Mayor finished her speech and handed me the ornate certificate, my mom leapt to her feet and started applauding with her hands above her head, no less. The rest of the audience immediately joined her and for a fleeting moment in a sweet, rich life, I knew what it felt like to be a folk hero.
On that same visit, we went on a road trip. During my childhood, my mom chose Spanish names for all of our family dogs - Pedro, Jose and Pancho. I was too young to detect how odd this was. She also had a proclivity towards cheap Mexican statuary that she used as yard decorations. In her defense, she never went so low-brow as to buy a muchacho in a sombrero leaning against a cactus.
But as her kids grew up, we did razz her about this in a good-natured way. Eventually, I assumed that she must have had a brief fling with a handsome Mexican before she met my dad. But she had never actually been to Mexico – and so off we went. For her very first night south of the border, I had chosen a hotel that used to be favored by movie stars. I believe it is called the Rosario Beach Resort. Upon our arrival it was definitely not as glamorous as it had been when Clark Gable might have visited.
But it was more than good enough for us. Sitting on the restaurant veranda drinking margaritas in Mexico, and watching the sun slide into the Pacific, we clinked our glasses together and shared a glance that was a blend of both joy and sadness. For it certainly seemed at that moment that this might be as close as human beings can ever approach to true happiness.
When I sailed away from the San Francisco street performing scene to become a full-time sea gypsy, she again was a beacon of encouragement. She especially liked the fact that I was helping to pay for my wanderings by writing for the sailing magazines. She loved being able to go to the grocery store and pick up an issue with one of my stories in it. I have no doubt that she enthusiastically pointed out my article to the bored, teenage check-out clerk who couldn’t care less.
But she loved it even more when I would visit her in person and regale her with my silly tales. On one of my visits we went to a Fourth of July fireworks show at the nearby fairgrounds. The spectacle started uneventfully with the usual ooohhs and aaahhs on the really good ones. Suddenly, a rocket that should have soared 200 feet into the air, exploded after climbing only about 20 feet. The workers feeding the cannons immediately knew it was a dud and dove for cover. Their dark silhouettes as they lunged for safety were perfectly freeze-framed by the exploding fireworks.
Through the rest of the show about every fifth rocket was a dud, and the poor pyrotechnicians had to catapult themselves out of harm’s way. My mom dubbed it the Three Stooges Fireworks Show. Even in her final days, we laughed joyously when we recalled that distant summer evening.
After our mother died, my sister Cindy was kind enough to go through mom’s belongings. She found a card that mom had set aside for my 50th birthday. Even from the grave she was encouraging me to remain faithful to my own Path. It reads:
“Always be true to yourself, my son, for there is greatness within you!”
Beneath the text there is a watercolor painting of two sailboats gliding side by side. Even though I am a single-hander, whenever I am out there, I like to think that I am not alone and that my mom is back there sailing a watchful parallel course on that other boat.
POSTSCRIPT: My mom never got to read my first book, TALES OF A SEA GYPSY, so she didn’t get to see my heartfelt dedication.
FOR MY MOM
She abandoned her own wanderlust
in order to dedicate her life to her five children.
That nurturing sacrifice allowed
my gypsy spirit to soar.
In hundreds of ports and half a hundred
countries, her quiet lessons
of compassion, humor and courage
have smoothed this vagabond’s Path.