Saturday, March 11, 2006

All About Life . . .

Palo Alto, California--In the VA Hospital here nestled in the hills, I'm watching my father sleep. It's the day after the call from my mother: "Your dad had a stroke . . . ."

Fortunately, it's looking to the neurology team, many of whom also work at nearby Stanford University, that it was a mild event and Dad will probably do well once his blood pressure can be stabilized. But still, he's at the far end of the actuarial tables for a male of his generation and he's beaten back some serious stuff in the past. So the call was shocking, frightening.

When he wakes up after awhile, his speech is a bit thick, his voice a bit weak, and he's clearly tired. All things considered, though, he's OK.

I recall that just a few weeks ago when I visited him, Dad was lamenting that there was "no one left ask" certain questions about family history. He's long regretted that he waited too late to begin a dialogue with some of his relatives about where they came from, who they were. As I watch him now, I wonder if I've covered all the bases with him.

Of course, the purpose is not just to feed an obsessive hobby. The purpose is really to comprehend the strands that contribute to our essential natures. It's like understanding the earth by understanding its sibling planets in the solar system. But there are things that will be forever unknowable if not pursued with those who know. These things are not just the names, places, and dates of birth that make up genealogy, but the substantial elements of life that make up family history.

In the late evening, my mother and I leave the hospital and head to my parents' house. The place has a disturbing quiet about it. I realize that is quiet because my father's not there--but something more than the circumstances of his absences bothers me. After an uncomfortable interval, I realize what it is. My mother and I have not been alone together in a house--just the two of us--in more than fifty years. Not since the summer of 1955, before my brother was born, when my father had to go away for military training. So what do we do now? Resume the conversation we were having as she hung out the laundry just before the tornado struck Cole County, Missouri, that afternoon a half-century ago? I wonder how well any of us really know our mothers.

I have three nephews, aged 21, 18, and 11. I told my brother, after we had talked about our father, "I've got to get one of those boys interested in genealogy." My brother looked at a pebble in his driveway and then kicked it to the street. "Yeah," he said, "yeah."

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