Sunday, September 25, 2011

You Can't Go Home Again

Especially when you can't find the stupid place. Whatever the reason may be for the human brain to have a limited memory, before it stops working properly, it tells quite a story.  A sad or painful story at times, but then warm and even funny at its best. The more I appreciate life, the more I prefer to find the humor in it. As a wise person once said, you should never take life too seriously: you'll never get out of it alive.

I visited my family in Miami recently, on the occasion of my mom's ninety-first birthday. I flew down with my daughter Tasha for good measure. My other child, Danny, opted to stay back home on this particular visit.  He cited the cleaning of his trombone as a scheduled complication. I understood completely, even asked him if I could stay to help. But, selfless soul that he is, he told me to go fly a kite.  

So there we were, back in the tropics with Tasha. Miami is one of those cities that can mesmerize you when you arrive in it. The perennial warm breeze, Cuban sounds dominating the air waves, women with painted-on clothing regardless of their size... a city that sooner or later will make you blurt out, as if you've suddenly contracted Tourettes, "DOES ANYONE HERE SPEAK ENGLISH??" You would think it wouldn't affect me so much, as I speak Spanish just fine. But let me try to explain it his way: it's like an American going to a Chinese restaurant in London, and the waiter speaks to him in Cockney English with a thick Mandarin accent. My Spaniard friends will surely understand.

I spent many good years in "Meeahmee", as the locals call it. Don't let my cheap shots fool you, I do have an appreciation for the place. Not really my shot of espresso, but I do enjoy visiting every now and then. Either way, there is something that sets it apart from other Caribbean or Hispanic cities along the entire Latin American Caribbean coast: the disproportionate amount of elderly that still hang on for dear life.

My wonderful parents are certainly not the exception. They could easily be poster retirees for the entire South Floridian region. After all, they meet all the requirements: they are now in their 90's, they are rapidly forgetting how to speak English, and they are still driving, much to the protests of sidewalk pedestrians. Thanks in great part to the American Association of Retired People, who have successfully lobbied for trained flamingos to operate the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Florida. Which also explains the pinball-like traffic patterns of the state.

The word "dementia" has, in my opinion, been hijacked by the general public.  It essentially means "out of mind". We can all get out of our minds sometimes, but a conversation where someone is directly referred to as "demented" usually does not end well.  Yet that's exactly the generally accepted term we allow doctors to use when talking about our parents. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Doctor: "Your father has dementia."

Patient's son: "Are you saying he is demented?"

Doctor: "I suppose I am, yes."

Patient's son: "Well your mother is a whore."

Perhaps a kinder, gentler term would make a big difference. Something like "No silly, that's not Adolf Hitler, that's Tom Selleck!" would be a much more loving approach. A little long, that's true. But what about absent minded? I mean, what's the difference between being absent from your mind and being out of your mind? 

Our perception of where our mind is at any given time during the course of our lifetime is such a relative thing, sometimes I'm surprised we can walk and breathe at the same time. Submitted for your approval, an example from that recent visit of Tasha and me to Meeahmee...

On the evening that my family was going to meet at Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel for our version of the film "Big Night", I had gladly volunteered to be my parents' designated driver.  Quite an appropriate term by the way, in case you've never seen a ninety year old drive. As I made myself comfortable reading a magazine by the front door at my parents' house, I experienced a rather surreal and unforgettable conversation:

Dad: "Peachy, are you ready?"

Mom (crying): "Why do you hate me so much??"

Dad: "Um, I was just curious if you were ready. Sorry, didn't mean to upset you..."

Mom: "Well, it's MY birthday, and I'll be ready when I'm ready. Stop bugging me."

Dad: "Okay, but a this rate you'll be ready when it's no longer your birthday. Can I bug you then?"

Mom: "Shut up."

Me: "Dad, give her some space, come on. What's the hurry?"

Dad: "Okay, okay. So, where are we going anyway?"

Me: "The Biltmore, Dad. Mom's birthday."

Dad: "Oh right. PEACHY! Are you ready??"

Mom (coming out of the bedroom): "I swear to God Alberto, I am going to kill you... Oh, hi Armando, what are you doing here??"

Me: "My name is Jose mom, your fifth born. Armando was your second born. I'm driving you guys to the Biltmore for the family dinner, remember?"

Mom: "Oh, right. Alberto, this is all your fault! Your father was a wild Indian, I should have listened to my mom."

Dad: "So it's my father's fault that we're going to be late to dinner tonight?"

Mom: "Your father's AND your entire lunatic family. Anyway, I think I'm ready, let's go.  Pedro, where are we going again??"

Me (looking behind me, to see if there is a Pedro in the house): "Um, if you are talking to me, my name is Jose... Oh, screw it. You got me, my name is Pedro, and I'm here to take you guys to the Pink Pussycat Gentleman's Club."

My parent's looked at each other with a confused look on their face, contemplating my answer. Finally my dad says, "That sounds like fun. Is that the one by the airport?"

Before I could respond, my mom interjects, "Shut up Alberto and let's go. But listen to me carefully: if you even try to drive, I will get out of the car and walk. Either we let Lorenzo drive, or I am walking."

Dad: "Who's Lorenzo?"

Me: "By process of elimination that would be me dad."

Dad: "Whatever. Okay you're driving, but I'll give you directions."

Me: "Sure dad. Where is it that you're giving me directions to?"

So I got a little snotty there. The Biltmore Hotel is all of five minutes from my parents' house, and we've been to the place about a thousand times.

Dad: "Peachy, where is it that we're going?"

Mom: "This is all your fault Alberto! You are a wild Indian, just like your father and your grandfather."

Dad: "So now it's my grandfather's fault that we don't know where we're going??"

As I drove to the Biltmore I pondered my dad's comment, while my parents quickly moved on to discuss a series of impressively unrelated events that took place sometime between 1946 and 2010.

I pondered that in a way this may all very well be my great grandfather's fault. It is my understanding that of my four grandparents, only one of them did not come from a family of Italian immigrants: that would be my dad's father, son of a (wild) South American Indian. My mother would love to add the word "lunatic" in there somewhere, but I will omit it out of respect to wild Indians everywhere. As my father told the story back when his memory was a bit less fuzzy, my great grandfather did not have a home, not in the traditional sense anyway. They were a tribe of wandering Aymara Indians, hunting for food and moving away from wherever they smelled the white folks moving in. But apparently at some point my great grandfather must have decided that if you can't beat them, buy a mortgage from them.

At that precise moment when my great grandfather decided to start a home, he ended centuries, perhaps millenniums of wandering up and down continents. Up to that moment, there was no home to come back to, no permanent buildings to remember or forget about. Up to that point, the phrase "you can't go home again" had no meaning. Being ready was not an issue - either you were or you were eaten by a wild (maybe even lunatic) pack of wolves. Remembering someone's name was not an issue.

I believe the true reason we can't go home again today has nothing to do with change, sentimentality, or even dementia. It has more to do with centuries of wandering tribes: we can't go home again because this planet of ours is already our home. We can't go home again because, as it turns out, home never had anything to do with a house or its contents. Home was always about whatever love and care our parents were able to give. Home is where the memory of our parents and the rest of our loved ones will always be.





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