A Morning Mind Essay
All my life, whenever I’ve been anywhere—no matter how much I loved that place, or how happy I was there—I have worried about getting home. Several years ago I was in Seoul, Korea, further from home than I had ever been, and though it reflected a deeply foreign culture, the city seemed vaguely familiar, like any huge international city. We were staying at a luxury hotel which couldn’t have been nicer. The folks taking care of us were accommodating and hospitable. Yet one morning, when we opened the curtain of our 28th story window on that fog-decked city, I felt that familiar twinge of anxiety, wondering if I would ever get out of there. I’m in Asia, I kept reminding myself, as I walked around streets that seemed very much like those in New York. How did I get here? How can I get out?
My wife was with me, which diminished the anxiety considerably. I normally consider the woman in my life to be home. I recently did a meditation retreat at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, and though I was actually sleeping at home, so I would go there every night, though I could have gone outside and driven to my house in twenty minutes anytime, though it was a five day retreat that would absolutely positively end on the fifth day at 3:00, no matter what, I still sat there during the last couple of days and wondered if I would ever get home, ever see my wife again. It made no sense.
On the last evening, that of the fourth day, the teacher usually calls for an extra period of zazen, just to pull the rug out from under us (though that rug has been pulled so often that we expect it), and though I knew it would only be one period, or two or three, I was still terrified that I wouldn’t get home on time, my wife would be worried and wonder where I was (though I had told her several times I might be late that night), that there was some uncertainty about when I would be getting back.
“I’m home!” are to my mind the most welcome words that a human being can utter, usually the father when he comes home at the end of the day, also the child when he gets home from school and his mother can stop worrying about him, in my house now my wife when she gets back and I’m out in the kitchen cooking dinner: we’ve reversed the standard procedure and she gets home later. The fact that she is there means we can have a beer together and talk over the day, settle gradually into dinner. It means everything is all right.
My body doesn’t like to shit anywhere but home. Whenever I’m on a trip, it always takes a day or two to resign itself to the fact that we won’t be home anytime soon and it will have to shit in a place where it doesn’t want to. It does so grudgingly. On our trip to Korea, the 15 hour ride in one plane, it didn’t seem to want to pee either. This was unprecedented in my 58 year experience of life. I wondered if it had to do with the strangeness of the rather ludicrous situation, standing in that tiny airplane lavatory with a long line of people waiting outside, or if it could possibly have something to do with the altitude.
Are human beings really meant to cover such great distances in so little time, so that—quite literally—night becomes day and day night? Are they meant to fly at such vast altitudes, leaving a sweltering North Carolina in the morning and looking out on snowy mountains in Siberia in the evening (except that it’s actually the afternoon, and it’s the next day)? It boggles the mind, apparently also boggles the body. Was it surprising that my body didn’t feel relaxed enough to pee?
I think that I remember the first time, or at least the most notable early time, that I worried about not getting home. I was in first grade at Sterrett School in Pittsburgh, Pa., about ten minutes by foot from my house, though I sometimes made it longer by dawdling, and my mother always told me to come straight home from school, otherwise she would worry. Some kid had brought money to school, I think it was 35 cents (a considerable sum in those days, worth seven candy bars, which makes one wonder what kind of irresponsible parent would have sent their child out with that kind of money), and somehow, unaccountably, it had been stolen.
We’d heard of thievery out in the world, but to have it happen in our first grade classroom! Our teacher told us that someone in the room had stolen that money, and that we weren’t going to leave until he gave it back (note the pronoun), even if we had to stay all night.
I think that Miss Harmer—she of the tiny wire-framed spectacles, the Teddy Roosevelt buck teeth, the shapeless floral-patterned dress that hung to the middle of her shins, the heavy black shoes with the big solid heels—knew who had done it. She just wanted him to break down and admit it before she took him into the cloakroom and whacked the hell out of him with a yardstick. And my memory is that my classmates, even the girls, though saddened by the news, took it pretty well. Spend the night in our first grade classroom? If we had to we had to. Probably we’d get a little hungry, we’d have trouble sleeping on the hard wooden floor, and we’d miss an episode of Howdy Doody, but we’d get by. It’s all part of the Sterrett School experience.
I on the other hand was terrified. Not get home all night? My mother was anxious if I came home ten minutes late. What would she think? What would she do? She’d be sick with worry.
I actually started to cry, an extraordinarily humiliating thing to do at school. “Look,” I said to the girl who had lost the money. “I don’t have your money. And I don’t have that kind of money at home.” Seven candy bars. I didn’t have that kind of self-control. “But I think I can get it. I think my father will give it to me. If you’ll just let us go home, I’ll give you the money tomorrow.”
No dice, the teacher said. It wasn’t a matter of her getting her money back. It was a matter of another child admitting what he had done. We were going to stay until that happened.
I actually don’t remember how the issue resolved itself, just my terrible anxiety at what the teacher had said. I couldn’t believe my ears. Stay all night.
I don’t think the other students really didn’t care about staying all night. They just knew the system better, had brothers and sisters who had come through before them. They knew the old bitch was bluffing.
The woman whom I was worried about making anxious on that day—some 52 years ago—is now 93 years old. She lives in an assisted living facility, and has trouble thinking of it as home.
“Where am I moving back to?” she asked me a couple of months after she moved in, when my wife and I took her to Florida. “Am I going back home”—the apartment she’d lived in for twenty years with her second husband—“or to that other place?”
To the other place, I told her for the umpteenth time. That was home now.
“I didn’t know we were coming here,” she said when we arrived at that Florida resort, a place that I had chosen because, though it was twenty minutes or so from the place where she and my stepfather had vacationed for many years, it seemed more suitable for her situation now, with three restaurants on the premises, a swimming pool and beachfront. “I pictured us at the old place,” she said.
I’d told her any number of times where we were coming, even tried to show her the website on the computer at the assisted living facility, but the computer was ancient—like most of the residents—and hadn’t been able to upload the photos.
“I don’t know where I am,” she said one morning when I came down from the second bedroom. She was standing in the living room in her nightgown, her arms around herself, as if feeling a chill. So I tried to explain, you’re on Longboat Key, in Sarasota, about twenty minutes from the place where you used to go with Dick.
“Where is everybody? What’s going on?” she said on another morning, when she came out of her bedroom and found me making breakfast. I went over all of that: I was there, Alma was upstairs, Bill and Sally were in Pittsburgh, Rusty in Colorado. And the two of us were in our apartment at The Colony, on Longboat Key.
Later, at breakfast, she told me she had really been wondering where her husband was. She didn’t always remember that he had died seven months before. Especially early in the morning, when she had just woken up.
One morning some 25 years ago, I woke up in my brother’s Washington Heights apartment and saw a blank wall of fog against the windows. You couldn’t see the Palisades across the river; you couldn’t even see the river. “I’m fogged in,” I thought. “I’ll never get out of here.” The fear was like a huge weight in my chest. It was as if the fog had settled there.
But I did get out. After feeling deep anxiety most of the morning, I got on a plane and took off right on time.
The wife I longed to get home to that day, from whom I couldn’t bear to be separated for another moment, is no longer married to me. She lives in Palo Alto with another guy, while I’m still back here in North Carolina in the house we bought together, except that my new wife and I renovated it completely, gutting it and creating an entirely new place, which reflects our new life together.
Where is home?
The woman I once thought of as home is living in an assisted living facility in Pittsburgh, though she doesn’t think of that place as home. When I call and tell her it’s David, she seems to know who that is. I feel sure she knows that this is David, her son. But when I had been to Korea and couldn’t call her for a week, she didn’t remember I’d been gone. She answered as if I’d called the day before. And three years ago, when we were going over the guest list for her 90th birthday party, she couldn’t remember one of her nephews, though she only has three, and we saw them in church every Sunday when I was young, spent every holiday with them.
“It’s Johnny,” I kept saying. “Uncle Bob’s son. Uncle Bob has four children. You remember, we used to say them in our prayers. JP and Jackson, amen.” She laughed. She remembered the words, those goofy little children’s prayers. But she couldn’t remember JP for the life of her.
It wasn’t until after my stepfather died that we realized my mother’s mind wasn’t right. Actually, we didn’t even realize it then (though there were a couple of times when she showed up in her apartment lobby at two in the morning, ready to go out, not realizing it was the middle of the night), so great was our wish that she be able to stay at home, in the apartment she’d occupied with her second husband for twenty years. We didn’t know until she had a minor (thank God) car accident and had to go to the hospital, where things got quite looney. She believed she’d been kidnapped by a number of large black women (the nurses, apparently), concocted an elaborate plot for my brother to rescue her.
“Wear a long white coat,” she told him over the phone. “And tell them you’re my son in law. Dr. Worsing.”
She got her son in law’s name right. But he was an architect, not a doctor.
I don’t know where she thought my brother would get a long white coat.
So we found a place for her to go, an assisted living facility with small cozy apartments, and we tried to make it as warm and homey as possible, filling it with paintings and photographs and bric a brac from the old place. Eventually we realized she needed a daytime companion (she finally accepted her cleaning woman Lila, whom she was used to having around anyway), then round the clock care (the cleaning woman’s daughter and granddaughters filled in). She seems gradually to have resigned herself to this strange place with these (sometimes) strange people. Lila accompanied her to church one Sunday, and my mother introduced her to people as her best friend. I think that was literally true.
But sometimes, once a month or so, she’ll have a strange dream, or a sudden thought will pop into her head, and she’ll go into the bedroom and start to pack her things. I try to call every morning, and on those days Lila will say, “She confused this morning. You got to talk to her.”
Her voice on the phone will suddenly sound defiant. Most days her voice is so weak and querulous, even Hello sounds like a bewildered question, it breaks my heart, but on these days she sounds resolute.
“I never intended to stay here forever,” she’ll say. “Or even very long. I’ve got to get back.”
“Home!” she’ll say, as if I’m an idiot. “I’ve been here long enough.”
That is your home now, I want to say. That’s your home. But I know she won’t believe that. She’ll laugh out loud.
“I think it’s better to stay there for a while,” I say. “All your stuff is there, and Lila’s there.”
“She can come back.”
“You’ve got all your things.”
“Not all of them.”
There was a huge amount of stuff we had to get rid of when she moved, the new place was so much smaller. We gave it all away. And the apartment has been sold.
“Not all, it’s true. But you have enough, don’t you? You have enough to get along.”
“I guess I have enough.” She just knew she didn’t have everything. She didn’t have her stuff.
“And that’s a pretty good place, isn’t it? It seems pretty good.”
“You think I should stay here?”
“Let’s stay for a while longer. See how it goes.”
She did trust me. At some level, she knew she couldn’t make decisions for herself, and she trusted her children to decide.
But she knew she wasn’t home.
Home is not a thought in the mind. It’s a feeling in the body. You know when you’re there.
Sometimes in the morning when I sit in meditation, I have the feeling that I’m settling back into my body after being somewhere else. My wife calls this other place the Mother Ship. “Have a good trip back to the Mother Ship,” she says when we go to bed. That’s where we go at night when we’re in deep sleep, she says, it’s where we go when we die, it’s where we came from when we were born.
But it isn’t really a place, I think, when she tells me that. It isn’t anywhere. Where would it be?
Sometimes I think that our whole life is just a process of learning to feel comfortable in a human body. Sometimes it feels strange to be in this form, not quite right, like trying to take a dump when you’re not at home, or trying to pee when you’re high in the air over Siberia. And I think the whole process of becoming human is to get comfortable with that, to be comfortable in human form, to be at home on the earth. We feel that we belong somewhere else (where would that be?) and we long to find that place, to feel, finally, that we have come home. “I’m home!” we want to say, and everything is all right.
But we can’t seem to do that.
I try to get to Pittsburgh every few months to visit my mother. I stay the weekend, and we go out for lunch and dinner. Afterwards I drive around the city, trying to get her out into a larger world than that assisted living facility. Nearly always I go back to the old neighborhood, and sometimes that will spark some recollections. Her memory of the old days isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than the present.
“That’s where Bill Latimer lived,” I’ll say, passing a familiar street. “And Gene Hile.”
“Did they? I guess that’s right.”
I drive to the house I think of as the home of my youth, the place where I pictured her waiting for me to get home from Sterrett School. There’s an oak tree in front of her house that is nearly as high as the huge oaks across the street.
“We planted that tree,” I say.
“It was tiny. Just a sapling.”
“Isn’t that something.”
We sit there and stare at the place for a while. I’d happily sit there for hours, letting the memories come.
I drive to the much smaller house, on the smaller street, where I lived until I was five. I have a very vague memory of lying in bed the night before we were about to move, thinking how strange it was that I was leaving that place. I’d go to a new street and wouldn’t know where anything was.
The new house was three blocks away.
“We put in that gate on the front porch,” my mother will say. “To keep Bill in.” My older brother.
She always remembers that.
One time when I was on a walk by myself a kid came out the front door, maybe twelve years old.
“Do you live in that house?” I said.
“I used to live in that house,” I said. “Until I was six years old.”
“Yes. That was 1954.”
He looked utterly bewildered. I might as well have told him I knew Thomas Jefferson.
Finally I drive my mother over to Lang Avenue, right across from Sterrett School, to the house that she grew up in, the only home she knew until she decided to leave and marry Dr. Guy’s son, who himself was going to medical school.
I sometimes wonder if that’s the house she wants to get back
The place hasn’t looked good in recent years. It hasn’t been painted, and the repairs have been shoddy. But the last time I was up there it looked like somebody was doing a complete renovation. There were new window frames, whole new windows, and the roof over the front porch looked new.
“That’s good,” I said. “It needed that.”
“It was all run down.”
“That’s a shame. People should take care of things.”
“It’ll be better now. They can make it like new.”
“Then a new family can live there.”
She could have walked into that old place, before the renovation, and felt right at home. Her body would have remembered it.
Was there anyplace her body remembered
Maybe home is not quite a feeling in the body either, not one feeling. It’s a felt sense—is that the body or the mind?—that, though things may not be perfect, though they’re not even all that great most of the time, you are where you belong.
We had that feeling when we were children, didn’t we?
Or have I imagined that?