My mom was always pretty high maintenance. As the cancer progressed, she got quite demanding and often cranky. She and I also had such an intense relationship built around the common purpose of getting (and keeping me) on my feet and walking that I gave a lot of time and energy to that relationship. My relationship with my dad is fundamentally different. It is not so fraught with undercurrents of unresolved conflict and struggle for power. It is easy for us to simply sit in silence together for long stretches of time, perfectly content to keep each other company without talking.
It is also far more cerebral. In the two days I spent with him up in Boquete, our conversation ranged from what it was like studying with Peter Drucker when Dad got his MBA at Univalle in Cali, at a time when Harvard Business School had an extension program in our state university, to the concept of Singularity, to the work of Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher who recently died, to the “baby pictures” of the universe that were taken through the Planck Telescope and published by the NYT this week. It is exhilarating and astounding to have these conversations with a man who at almost 86 is still more curious and engaged with learning than most people I know.
With his long career as a small business owner, my dad loves to hear my version of being a ‘small business leader’ myself, as the priest-in-charge of a mission parish. We have a good time exchanging ‘white knuckle’ stories about the risks and challenges of keeping an organization going against stacked odds. At the periphery of my consciousness, I am aware of how much it matters to me to that he respects the work I am doing and that I am able to demonstrate how he helped shape how I work as a professional. His mantra was always, “read the instructions”. That is such an essential part of me that I know myself to be my father’s daughter. Each of these precious gifts of time in his presence are opportunities to honor my father.
Even now that my mom is dead, there are still ways of honoring her as well. It’s in my walking. Pulling out all her still lovely tablecloths and linens and crystal and china to help my dad have the kind of party my mom used to revel in. What I can’t do is grow orchids like she did, in fact, I have a knack for killing all green things by just looking at them, it seems, but that’s ok. There are others: Paulino, her gardner who still works for my dad, and Sherod, my husband, who keep orchids beautiful and exotic like she liked them.
My mother also loved seashells. She and I walked long stretches of beaches in many different places looking for them. We were both particularly intrigued by small little shells. On a couple of recent beach outings I found some that I knew she would love and brought them with me to Panamá. There is a particularly beautiful Jewish tradition about visiting the grave of a loved one that that I became familiar with years ago. When you visit a grave, you leave a small rock or pebble on the tombstone, a sacrament of your presence there and also, a way of affirming that the project of a person’s life is still being constructed and built up, long after they are gone.
There is no grave for me to visit, but there is a picture of my mom next to the chair where my dad sits and reads and I put my little treasures on the table in front of the picture and next to the small flower vase that has fresh flowers every day. Pastora, my parents’ housekeeper gives us—and mom—that gift day in and day out. She knows how much my mom loved flowers. It is her way of remembering and it is strangely comforting, now that I am preparing to board a plane and leave, again, to know that my mom is being cared for in this small way.
Honor thy parents. Who knew that keeping one of the Commandments of my faith could be such a piercingly sweet and meaningful yes to life.