Back in 2004 or so, about the time my marriage was falling apart, I would find myself visiting my folks a lot more often. A lot of times, after I'd get back home from visiting with my friends, fairly late on a Saturday night, I'd walk through the door to see my dad, still awake, watching one old movie or another. A lot of times, as I sat on the couch as a prelude to heading to bed, I'd ask my dad what he was watching. An easy hour or more later, Dad and I would finish up a conversation that covered everything from movies to music to his childhood memories to... anything. I'd head to bed, admonishing him to go to his room and not fall asleep in the chair again, and that would be that. Those hours were honestly the best times I ever spent with my Dad.
Come the morning, after church, Dad and Mom and I would sit around eating breakfast, or watching the news, and they would work the crosswords while I read and occasionally shouted out the answers to the clues they said suspiciously aloud. But we didn't talk much. More to the point, Mom and I didn't talk much. See, growing up, I was much closer to my mom than I was my dad. She was around a lot more (by this point, as I recall, Dad was working nights at the shop) and so I just knew her better. It was easy to talk to her, because I knew what to expect when we would talk. Dad was a little scary. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I poured my heart out to my mom, it's just that I could talk to her in a way I couldn't talk to my dad. So cut to all those years later, and I think my mom knew how important it was that I talk to my dad, to try and make that connection we never had when I was young. All of us were focused on my dad in those last years, and so I think none of us minded putting him, and our relationships with him, ahead of our other relationships.
I know my relationship with my folks was never all that close- there was love a'plenty, to be sure, but not always understanding. Make no mistake- they supported me in everything I did, or even thought of doing- but they rarely seemed to understand why I walked the paths I did. They didn't often ask me. And for my part, I rarely, if ever, told them. Those years talking with my dad went a long way to correct those mistakes- maybe not covering all the time we'd lost, but making all the time then and going forward so much richer. But in all those years, I never, or rarely, talked with my mom the way I did with my dad. I had grown up to know my dad in a way I suppose only comes with time and distance and lessons, and so talked to him with that new knowledge. But my mom? She was the rock upon which the family was built, steady and solid and unchanging. There didn't seem to be anything for me discuss with her, to ask her about or share with her. She was the solid, steady rock of the family, while most of my time was spent flitting from idea to wish to wondering, head in the clouds and never standing firm. Then Dad died, and everything seemed to crumble.
I'm not going to go into how my family changed- not now. But one thing that I did start realizing was that I didn't know what to talk to my mom about. I didn't even know exactly how to talk to her either. It had been so long, I'd forgotten the language. She had lost her partner; I had lost my hero. We'd both lost the same man, but it seemed like there was a gap in our lives that we couldn't bridge. Sure- when it came to the things that 'needed' talked about, I could do that. Believe it or not, I'm actually pretty good at handling crises, from the mundane to the profound. But the things that we 'should' talk about, or the things we 'want' to talk about, I was helpless. I would call and ask her the questions I'd always ask, she'd give me the answers she always gave, we'd talk about what my niece was up to, how good a kid she was, how the cats were, and after exchanging 'I love you's', we'd hang up.
But every so often, I would find myself surprised by spending a great deal of time on the phone, talking with my mom. Not always about the most important things, but a lot of times, really important things. And I would stupidly find myself surprised at how much my mom knew and had to say about a subject. I don't mean silly things like politics or science or the world- I mean the important things, like love and family and pride and honor and faith and strength- the things that count. She knew so much, and knew just how to say it so I understood what she meant, and would give me great examples, and she showed me so much I didn't know about both her and my dad, that it often left me crying and smiling at the same time. I don't know why I was surprised; she's a mom after all.
Those moments aside, life got in the way and routine, that hobgoblin of the mundane, led us back to the the quiet lands- we spent less time talking, and more time speaking. We would talk, but we wouldn't talk about things. It was back to those same old phone calls, except we'd be together. I loved being around her, but I just didn't have anything to say. What was there to talk about? Ask her if she played any different lottery numbers? Tell her about how well I counted steel? And so, silence reigned.
Then fate stepped in.
Over the past ten months, I've been given a new way of looking at my mom, new eyes by which to see her. Instead of going home and spending quiet time with the woman who'd raised me, I went home and started talking to the woman who had 38 years of life lived before I showed up, and tried getting to know her. Things I never thought to ask, for all those years, things that made my mom into that woman I mentioned above- the one who knew so much about the important things? This could be my chance to discover how she learned all those important things.
It wasn't always easy. Mom has had a very, very rough few years. It's not always easy for me to ask her the questions, and I feel that it's probably hard for her to give me the answers. She always answers, but sometimes, mostly, it's just the answer. And sometimes, when we talk, it's mostly me telling, and Mom listening. Those can be really hard. But those times I ask her those questions? It's not a conversation, but it's something. It's okay- I know it's hard, and she doesn't always have the strength to discuss things. But she always answers, and each answer is another piece in the mosaic.
But then, there are nights like tonight. I asked her about her 'dream home'- where would she live? (meaning back when she was young; there is no place like home, now). What kind of house would she like? And she answered me, telling me of the place she and my dad first lived in, and describing how she'd like a place that was bigger, but not too big, with some land you could grow things on, and wasn't too crowded by other people. She told me about the places her family lived in, then the apartments her parents lived in, then moving her mother into the house after my grandfather died. It was really great to hear her talk about it, because I didn't really know those things, and it was a good answer.
Then she asked me where I liked living. Did I prefer the apartments, or the house? She didn't just answer- she asked me a question back. And then we were talking, conversing, having a discussion about what the apartments were like, what my house was like, the merits of each (pride of homeownership v. not paying for repairs)... we were talking. My sister came in, and I found out that my grandmother and sister shared a room for years, and that they talked for hours- to the point where my dad would tell my mom to make them 'knock it off'- which surely sounded silly even to him. It felt so... amazing... being able to talk with them, and talk not with those old worn out scripts, but to share in the conversation of our lives, learning and teaching and just experiencing our family, in a profoundly simple way. It was just a short talk about housing... and it was a conversation about the most important things.
I learned so much tonight- not just about my mom, but about my sister, myself, and my family. I learned that no matter how well you think you know someone, they always have more to teach you. I learned everyone has something worth hearing, if you are smart enough to listen.
I learned that sometimes, asking the question is the answer.