The fabric of reality has rippled again and tossed me aside. This time I’m in the gravel and hard pack just along Chicago ave. near Thatcher Woods. Blinking, and blinking again, I look to the pavement for the branch I heard snap … shit. Oh Shit.
Less than 48 hours earlier I’d been standing in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, holding a styrofoam plate with a half-eaten sandwich, looking around, bewildered as to where to sit. I was in a fugue–we had just said farewell to my Mom: Nancy Marie Iverson 2/16/34-7/18/2017. The visitation previous to the ceremony had guests lined up out the door, as my two older brothers and I, along with our wives and kids, received comfort and well wishes. The enormity of her life had started to become real in a way none of us had ever realized. Of course we knew that after working as a nurse and raising the three of us, she had volunteered hundreds of hours at People’s Resource Center, Pads, and become the de facto librarian at the church, while also advocating for African Refugees. She just kept giving, again and again. In my eulogy I had told the story of our lives growing up; the profound differences between us boys, and the unequivocal support she gave in encouraging our individual passions. My first two years of college had been distracted from classes and filled with partying and music. Spring semester sophomore year I took “Introduction to Philosophy” with an embittered, alcoholic professor named Frank Taylor; he split my head wide open and I’d discovered my academic calling. The following Christmas I had come home and proudly declared to my parents that I didn’t believe in God. My Mom was silent a moment, and then steadfast in articulating her faith. Immature and naive, I barely heard a word. I was in the throes of a punk rock rebellion–classic, middle class white boy behavior. But what do my Mom (and Dad) do? Not only say yes to my new major in philosophy, but support me in continuing my enthusiasm through graduate school as well.
After completing my M.A., I worked at Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore in Evanston, and then found a job waiting tables at a private dinner club on the North Shore. I started looking into civil service work and was hired as a Juvenile Probation Officer in Cook County. For the next fourteen years I worked in the Public Housing projects of Chicago, the last seven of which were in Cabrini-Green. During this time I was pursuing my passions as well, music and photography. I played in a band. My Mom came to gigs and art shows, always supportive. I think she was proud of me. I had married my college sweetheart Julie, with whom my Mom had an instant connection. In 2001 Julie was pushing our son Ben in his stroller downtown and was hit by a CTA bus as they crossed the street. A witness on the opposite corner said at the very last moment Julie had pushed the stroller out of the way. Ben was unharmed, but Julie suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. Dr. Stone, the head of neurosurgery at the old Cook County Hospital, along with his colleagues, saved Julie’s life, but gave no promises as to her outcome. Stone’s hands were small and delicate. Amazingly, she was back home in 30 days, on her way to a recovery that the doctor’s would proudly describe as “miraculous.” During this time my family was devastated and hopeful, none more than my Mom. Eventually I would leave the court in 2004, and pursue art school, and then another stint in graduate school to teach art. I never found a full-time gig teaching. I gave up looking. Nevertheless, I kept making stuff, dj-ing part-time. My Mom was upset by my lack of job, and once she became sick, she became even more direct with her observations. She had grown up a farmer’s daughter in Western Illinois, and the inherent value of hard work was a given. She had also given me a card years ago that said “all that are wandering are not lost.”
Over the last two years the family rallied around Mom, who was now on oxygen full-time, suffering from COPD. In the meantime she had conceded to placing my Dad in the Memory Care Unit at Belmont Village, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. We all became her caregivers, along with the wonderful professionals we hired. Then her younger sister, our beloved Aunt Ann, was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away in February. My Mom was sad and remarked how difficult it was to know that she couldn’t just pick up the phone and hear Ann’s voice. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
I realized as I grew older that the bedrock of my Mom’s life was her Christian faith. It provided her with a template, and guide, on how we should act and get along in the world, doing as much good for others as possible. Our actions, of course, takes place in real-time. Time, and the mechanical representation of it, was a big deal for her. Mom knew how precious and fleeting our time is here on earth. Throughout her entire adult life, she collected clocks, from small table clocks to valuable 19th-Century European wall clocks. It was amazing to hear them all chime on the hour and see the surprise and delight this brought out in visitors. Without explicitly stating so, she instilled in me an existential awareness of time and human finitude that I carry to this day. During our visits I had shared with her my developing interest in Buddhism and meditation. In her eulogy I had spoken of how Buddhism asks a fundamental question: What is the intention behind our action, is it positive or negative, and how does it affect ourselves and others around us? Meditation is the practice of silence and breathing, in which we strive to become present, open-hearted, and awake to ourselves and experience of the world. Thus, meditation is a pathway to self-realization and motivation to reach outside of ourselves and help others. My Mom had been doing this all along. Love yourself and then love others, no matter our differences. This was the legacy of her life: action is the real measure of intelligence, and “she who feeds the hungry, nourishes herself.”
Back at the church I was still standing. My cousin had come up and said “I’m so glad we came and got to hear you speak, that was beautiful.” Immediately after this–as if on cue–my Uncle Dave came up and said, “We gotta talk about this philosophy of yours… I think you’re a little screwy in the head!” Indeed. At the visitation, our old neighbors son Pete, had come up and expressed his condolences. In our youth he was my oldest brother Dave’s friend, and had a genius level IQ which had led him to a distinguished career in Academia studying Neuroscience. Pete also played great guitar and ran marathons. In line he told us, “After this I’m going on a memorial run for your mom on the Prairie Path, I have running clothes on underneath.” Wow, what a great idea and tribute.
On Monday, after the exhaustion of the previous week, I was ready. Bike over to Thatcher Woods, then run the trail bottom to top and back, then get on the bike again. The Des Plaines River runs along the western edge of the forest preserve, and is at historic flood levels. Almost as soon as I was on the trail I had to turn around, and reroute off the trail through the woods. It was incredible, the juxtaposition of the lush, summer forest with the overwhelming fact of the water, so far over the banks. I made it up to Chicago ave and was 11 miles into the journey. I had snapped photos along the way and was looking west deciding whether or not to run down to the bridge to get another view of the river, and then head back north again. I jogged toward the bridge, and at the very moment I was thinking “man I feel strong, maybe I should just keep going longer…”, I was down. I’d rolled my left foot and the snap I heard was the fracture of my Lateral Malleolus, which is at the bottom of the Fibula. I immediately moved my foot but knew it was bad. I called my son to come pick me up, and hobbled back to the corner.
It’s Wednesday, July 25, 2017. I’ve set up my “area” on the couch with speaker, books, journals, and remote control nearby. My left foot and leg is elevated. I’m thinking about the idea of being “present”, which can be understood as being fully aware and engaged in the immediate act and activity of right now. It is also referred to as mindfulness. But there’s also another meaning to “present”, as in, gift. I realize now that the present my Mom gave me was the gift of freedom, supporting me in becoming who I am, and I know that this is what it means to be a parent.
Thank You, Mom. It is a privilege to be your son. I now have your example and gift to live, thrive, and uphold.