A friend asked my sister recently what it was like to lose a parent. She told me she couldn’t find a way to explain it. One of those things when you know you know, I guess. I’m not sure what it’s like for anyone else, but this is how it makes me feel.
In the band I sang for, the Scrams, I had a favorite song, titled “Magma,” (you can listen to it here) which only a couple of people know. Although it didn’t start that way it became a song that expressed how I felt about watching the highs and lows of my mom’s 4 year struggle with cancer, and largely influenced how I think about my life. Some people wonder aloud, blankly stare, or occasionally even gently criticize this perspective, implying that I am being needlessly negative, or that it will pass with time as all things do. They’re right but they’re usually also people who haven’t, can’t, or won’t admit something I think we all know deep down, that our ability to hope is deeply tied to our hopelessness.
Losing my mom is knowing the end is near for all of us. It’s acknowledging my life and it falling apart. I watched the darkest of storm clouds gather and still could not prepare. I know now that we haven’t got a chance, not a one of us, to get out of this thing unscathed, and that hope and joy will constantly trade places with tragedy in each of our lives.
Eleven years ago I was in a production of Waiting for Godot (bit part as the boy sent by Godot to inform he wouldn’t make it that day). The beginning of the play finds Estragon returning to hang out with his pal Vladimir, who asks “May one inquire where His Highness spent the night?” Estragon replies that he spent the night in a ditch and when Vladimir asks if they beat him he says “Beat me? Certainly they beat me.”
The play has a simple plot, in part because like all good pieces of play-writing it’s structurally designed to communicate the same message as the dialogue: the characters aren’t going anywhere. At the time I was in high school, and a classmate, Manoa Alcantara Jojola, had recently died in a car accident. I still consider him one of the most grounded and passionate people I’ve met, even though I knew him only briefly. I experienced true hopelessness for the first time that year, watching his family and close friends struggle to understand the whys and hows of his leaving this earth. It quietly became a formative experience, and is still a foundation for how I see the world. Does this life beat us? Certainly it beats us. It will again, and we can only accept it patiently, as we also accept the joy when it comes, without questioning. We are not assured of anything…the moment after this one, what comes after we die, or anything in between.
I’ve noticed people often become overly materialistic or reject the world altogether by practicing asceticism. Rarely do we meet people who are fully present in their own lives and with the people around them. My mom was, as Manoa was, one of the few who embraced everything that comes with being human. John Truitt, who taught music at the Academy where Manoa and I were students, said “Manoa had mastered the quality of humanity. His life, so short, had still given him time to be the very best human being to everyone he met. The friendship and love he offered was timeless and perfect. Our memories of him should never become a lifeless shrine, but a beautiful song of the gifts of love and life.” I believe my mom also mastered the quality of humanity. Her gifts to the world are without end. I feel fortunate to have had a close friendship with her, and to give to the world even a fraction of what she provided me. One day at a time I am working towards mastering humanity as they have.
In memory of Tova K. Cardillo 1957-2011
With many thanks to Manoa Alcantara Jojola 1982 – 2000