My mother Rayanna never graduated from high school. She lived in Arkansas as a child, on a farm, and grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Maybe she ran around without shoes; I don’t know, but I suspect she did. She knew how to pick cotton and hitch a mule. She could make corn bread (she called it corn pone) in a big black iron skillet. And she played the piano from a very early age. She didn’t own one; they were too poor, but the church did. She was raised a Baptist in a fire-and-brimstone family and attended Friday night church services and backwoods tent revivals where singing was the highest sacrament. She accompanied their voices on the piano, and when the preacher was absent, she played the blues like St. Louie Woman and Old Man River. Her mother, a severe woman, was a school teacher in Walnut Grove. I still have her school bell, inscribed “To Enola Boyd, Walnut Creek, 1908.” She kept my mom in school as long as she could, but it couldn’t last.
My mother married an educated man, my father Leo. But, no offense to his memory, she knew much more about the heart than he did. She was not dumb; she later filled her mind with hundreds of books, educating herself, making herself worthy to be a corporate wife and his intellectual companion. She did the New York Times crossword puzzle without leaning on a dictionary, and her vocabulary eventually matched his. But he was no match for her when it came to listening.
She raised six children of her own -- I was one of them. But she also raised a larger family, a surrogate mother to anyone who needed to unburden their heart of anything, big or small. Her gift was the ability to listen.
From her I learned that listening doesn’t require a college degree, professional training or expensive, sophisticated equipment. We can do it without a penny to our name, and do it whatever our age. We can do it anywhere, anytime, for as much time as we can spare. It costs nothing, unlike large government health programs. Unlike pills and medicines, it has no negative side effects. You need no one’s permission to listen. It offends no religious belief, so is applicable to any person’s faith, or lack of one. Yet it can produce miracles, restoring hope and confidence and purpose in people who have lost their way – as all of us inevitably do at some point in our lives.
Her talent had nothing to do with education. Consider: My father had escaped the same small Southern town they both shared as children. In an odd twist of fate that doesn’t concern us here, my father had spent his high school years in Switzerland at a preparatory school. He studied Latin and chemistry, he traveled widely throughout Europe, he spoke three languages. When he took the family back there for my sister’s wedding thirty years later, he could still converse with confidence in German, and when we left Zurich and drove south to Ticino where Italian is spoken, he switched smoothly and flawlessly to that language. But he never listened to me like my mother. Perhaps the more we know, the less inclined we are to listen.
She ended her life an Alzheimer’s victim, sitting in the hallway of a nursing home in Danbury, smiling at the nurses who passed her by, unaware of who she once was.
Her new home was a just a few miles from her old home, a large, white Connecticut colonial built in 1760 where she and my father Leo lived most of her life, a house where an antique chestnut kitchen table served as the center, the heart of our family, and where she sat, day after day, when she got a moment to rest, cradling her cup of tea. Seats around the table were rarely empty when she sat there. They filled with a constant parade of family, friends, neighbors and visitors who loved her company and always left refreshed in heart and soul. Simply because she listened to them.
In their deepest heart, people usually know when they’ve done something wrong, and what they need to do to make things right. But sometimes they need time to face the truth. And when they finally face it, they need one more thing – the person they hurt willing to listen to their apology.
My brother Gene is approaching 50. He’s not a pleasant person to be around. He’s a child of the 60s, a rocker, a former drug user – marijuana, coke, LSD, maybe heroin. He wrote some blues songs, imitating his favorite band, the Rolling Stones, but the songs weren’t that good. Nobody bought them. But he still dresses in jeans, dirty T-shirt and a bandanna which covers a growing bald spot on his head. He hates authority – the phone company; the motor vehicle bureau; the police who once arrested him during a Vietnam anti-war protest; the U.S. Post Office where he worked in a mail sorting room for several years before filing a union grievance and losing. He is proud, stubborn, loud, opinionated, in your face. Offended, he goes into towering rages, his face gets red, veins pop, spit flies. He almost got married once, but scared the girl off with his intensity. His five other brothers and sisters in the family tried to help him. My other brother Frank gave him a job in the shipping dept. of his company. Gene constantly fought with him, refused to do things any way but his own, embarrassed my brother by berating him publicly before his own customers and staff. My younger sister Marie allowed him to live in her apartment for a while. He left without paying his share of the rent. My older sister Liz nursed him when he hurt his back, lent him money. He never thanked her, never paid the money back. I send him birthday cards and small gifts every Christmas. He doesn’t answer. He moved to Arkansas, a thousand miles away from his family. He drives a truck. He lives alone.
But sometimes in the late evening when minutes are cheap and he’s in the mood, he calls our sister Marie. She listens on behalf of the rest of us. This simple, kind act serves as his slender thread to his family, keeps open his shot at redemption. Gene still plays the victim, complains, blames, dismisses. He has yet to apologize, to thank, or simply ask for understanding. Eventually however, he has to – not so much for us as for himself. Without it, he simply won’t heal. Listening is our ultimate act of kindness to him as we wait for the day when we can “celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of ours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” That Marie, a former alcoholic, may save him, makes sense. Often the wounded among us make the best listeners.
Marie has spent her life fighting her own demons. She started drinking in grade school; I don’t understand why, but she did. She simply couldn’t stop drinking. Family counseling, rehab, 12-step, AA – nothing stuck. Desperate to save her, my parents scraped up several thousand dollars to get her into Arms Acres, an expensive, residential alcohol and substance abuse treatment facility, where she spent 30 days in detox. The day she was released, her boyfriend picked her up and they headed for a bar in Brewster. I had no clue. I wasn’t around. I left home at fourteen to go to boarding school. I only found out when I came back for holidays or summer vacation.
One Christmas, I found my mom at the kitchen table crying. Marie had been arrested for drunk driving across the State line. She needed bail money. My dad was furious, wrote her off once and for all. Damn her. Not another penny, and walked out. I sat there and listened as my mom pour her heart out for almost an hour, dumbfounded as she cataloged the things they had done to save Marie, only to fail. If I hadn’t been there to listen to her, I’m sure she would have broken.
Not long afterwards, Marie was driving home late after drinking, fell asleep at the wheel and flipped her car on the interstate, ended up almost bleeding to death on the shoulder of the highway before an ambulance raced her to the hospital in Bridgeport, paramedics fighting to stabilize her, keep her alive. The call from the hospital came late in the evening, rousing my mom for a deep sleep like a sudden slap to the face. She drove frantically down to the hospital, tears streaming down her cheeks while my father sat ashen-faced in the seat beside her. Mom prayed all the way, Dear God, Dear God, Dear God don’t do this to me, you can’t have her, I want my baby back, Do YOU HEAR ME? He did; she miraculously lived.
If God exists, he surely listened to my mother. She talked to him often, in a way which confuses psychologists and the learned. It wasn't the infantile, prostrate prayer of her Ozark childhood -- a God above, a wretch below; over the years they had become two close and dear friends, something only time can produce. He respected her, for she was a mother and like every mother suffered the trials of Job.
My older sister Liz rode with bikers in high school, disappeared weekends with a pack of them. They kept their cigarette packs rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, arrived at the house with a rumble that made my mom uneasy, took her daughter to places she shouldn’t have gone, but mom wasn’t a match for the duck-tailed Marlon Brando who told Liz to jump on. I understood. I had coke-bottle glasses and Walter Mitty dreams. If they had invited me, I would have jumped at the chance to ride with them too.
Sitting up all night in the kitchen, her own garden of Gethsemane, her fed-up husband gone off to sleep, Mom talked and God listened as they waited together for the sound of a hand on the door that meant another prodigal daughter was home.
Paul Tillich once wrote, "The first duty of love is to listen."
I’ve been married 30 years now. In September we head for Paris to celebrate. A Chinese fortune-teller predicted our marriage wouldn’t last because she was born in the Year of the Ox and I’m a Sheep. But here we are. It hasn’t been a smooth road; we have been close to divorce a dozen times. It took me years to finally understand what she wants most from our marriage – and that’s for me to listen to her. Listening means I love her; not listening means I don’t. It’s that simple. It’s been a long, difficult path for me – first to understand the need to listen, then to change. But I persevere because I don’t want to lose her.
Listening is my challenge; hers is understanding how unnatural listening is for men. It’s not an excuse or a justification, just a fact. I was 14 years old when I left home to attend an all-boys boarding school in another state. I grew up among men. Men associate listening with passiveness, timidity, weakness, indecision – not virtues we tend to cultivate or celebrate.
Sit at a table next to a group of women talking among themselves over lunch. One talks, the others lean forward to listen. The speaker briefly pauses several times in her story. The listeners remain listening. When the speaker is done, the listeners each take a turn, commenting on what they heard, sharing their feelings about the speaker’s situation. They listen with their hearts, tuning in to how the speaker feels.
Sit next to a group of men talking over a beer on boy’s night out. The floor goes to the loudest, the funniest, the quickest. We spar, interrupt, butt in, challenge, abruptly switch the subject. We listen with one ear, the other tuned to the football game on the wall. They’re not interested in my inner life and thoughts, and I don’t expect them to be.
Our confusions, hurts and nightmares are instead saved and shared with our women – a mother, a girlfriend, a wife. That is their gift – and curse. Like the deaf-mute John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, our women are made to bear our sorrows, but we forget they too have sorrows and longings that need to be listened to.
If we don’t, one day, to our great surprise they disappear from our lives, leaving behind unneeded clothes in an emptied closet; or remain with us but die inside, a hollow reed and empty.
Do you exist if nobody listens to you?
In downtown Honolulu, where I work, I often see the same sad, lost soul dragging behind him a rusty luggage cart stacked with junk – flattened cardboard, bottles and cans; a battered suitcase, a dirty sweater; an extra pair of shoes dangling off the cart by their shoelaces, an empty McDonald’s Happy Meal box. Though the sun is hot, he always wears a raincoat, and a floppy hat that half covers his face. Hauling the heavy cart makes him lean forward at an angle, head down, his eyes behind thick glasses fixed firmly on the pavement ahead of him. Waiting at the street corner, his smell overpowering, he keeps a running conversation going with himself. Sometimes it sounds soft and distant, like he’s dreaming (“I don’t want to. I don’t have to. I don’t want to. I don’t have to.”). Sometimes it sounds loud and angry. “Bastards. I told them they’re all bastards!”). He scares people. Occasionally he will stare at someone standing near him and shout, “Listen to me!” People pretend he doesn’t exist. They avoid his gaze, they hurry past. He's invisible. Meanwhile, he talks to himself. He can’t do otherwise.
We don’t have to die to go to hell. Without someone to talk to, we can experience it here.
The last time I saw my mother, she was brought out of her room in a wheelchair by a kind nurse who offered me the handles and left us alone. I took them and pushed her down the hall to a small sitting room, followed by my wife and son.
It’s a strange feeling to wheel your helpless parent along, responsible for them like they once were for you. She was thinner, frailer, disappearing before my eyes, tiny bird bones wrapped in cloth, like an offering to the gods to be left by the roadside.
I stroked her thinning hair, the ruins of her beauty that so captivated my father so many years ago. She looked up and smiled at me, though she didn’t know who I was.
How can a mother not remember her own son? She gave birth to me in great pain, after long labor. How could she forget me after that? She held me and rocked me when I was six and sick and burning up with scarlet fever; how could she forget me? We used to plant tomatoes together down by the wall, and roses in her garden. Mom, don’t you remember when I came back from boarding school that first Christmas, fourteen years old, and you met me at the door and you said, “Michael, oh Michael,” and held me there and cried with joy? How can you feel that and still forget me? If I left home, I always wrote, and sent you photos of me. You put them on the table next to your bed, along with pictures of the rest of your children you so loved but no longer remember, the same photos we brought with you when we took you to this clean but terrible place.
Once inside the sitting room, I put on the brake, as if she could choose to go elsewhere, and we circled her, my son, my wife and I. She had forgotten everything – my name, her name, her grandson Christopher’s name, my wife’s name. We were strangers meeting for the first time. I introduced myself and asked her how she was doing. Her back hurt a bit she said, but she still smiled. I lifted her so that my wife could adjust the pillows, and she weighed nothing in my hands.
I asked her if she knew “Amazing Grace,” and she smiled. Yes, she said, and started to sing. Together, we sang this beautiful hymn from her childhood, the words and melody a memory even Alzheimer’s in all its terrifying power could not erase. Through my tears, I watched her gently close her eyes and sing as if she were fifteen again. I could have listened to her forever.
When we finished, she pulled the shawl up from her lap and Pat draped it around her shoulders. She thanked her and stared vacantly. The clock ticked on the wall. She finally turned to us and asked our names.
Her funeral service was held two days before Christmas. We buried her in hard New England ground next to my father whom she loved beyond words despite his failings, and shared a family meal that evening listening to stories of her vivid and alive.
Outside, in the darkness, the weather hovered just above freezing, and rain fell on the wet, black earth leaving my Hawaii-born son Christopher in despair of ever seeing a white Christmas. Instead, somewhere around midnight on Christmas Eve the rain slowly turned to snow and fell soundlessly all night in softly, swirling circles.
We woke in the morning to glory, delighted beyond words by a transfigured world I will forever believe was her parting gift to all of us.
Requiescat in pace, mom.