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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Today's forecast: widespread meaninglessness.

These days I feel fragile like glass. Something in my molecular structure has changed and will never be the same again. I am quick to walk away from people and situations that bore me or annoy me -- and alas there seem to be plenty of both. I have no humor and no tolerance.
Everything hurts like a shattered eardrum. No one knows of the noise in my head, but it makes everything distant and unreal.

The world seems like what it is: an annoying temporary phenomenon, that everyone else takes seriously. It is not the world that pushes me to the brink, it is people's belief in it.

In years to come will they mark this as the time I began my decline? Before this: promising but eccentric, humorous but a little sociopathic, talented but without direction. After this time: disillusioned and moody, humorless and volatile, unfocussed and detached.

Reality gyrates between hostile and absurd. When it is hostile I strike back in a new and uninhibited way. When it is absurd I detach, alienating others who see it as vital, necessary, fascinating, challenging, beautiful, exilherating (fill in your own words).

I feel like I live in a Magritte painting. Everything has familiar elements but is vaguely threatening or downright ridiculous.

Here are two signs I photographed in London last week because they seemed significant. What are they trying to tell us?

What happens if you walk into this "Institute"? Are you surrounded by people who tell you they love what you've done to your hair? Do perfect strangers tell you they have heard such good things about you? No, wait, that's complimentary with an "i." So what goes on in this place? It boggles the imagination.

And this! A masterpiece of vague innuendo! Its meaning will be pondered by scholars for millions of years.

This world is a gossamer thin illusion made by others, for others, and I fear I shall rip it if I move too fast or shout too loud. Then they will take me away as a danger to myself and others.

Lord. All my friends (all two of them) want to cheer me up. I've been told to get exercise. I've been told my mother wouldn't like me to be sad. I hear these little chirrups from far far away, but I think it is not my life they are hoping to improve. I would like to help them, I really would - but there is not much we can do for one another at such a great distance.
Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.
..... Virginia Woolf in the film "The Hours"


Anonymous marian said...

Brilliant. Had an impulse to check your blog, a sudden feeling that you were wafting about feeling perhaps not so great.

I have a friend who says this great thing whenever it seems appropriate -- out loud now, with a thick New York City accent: "The Voild is a Shithole!"

Anyway, that's what I thought of when I read your post this morning, which actually made me chuckle a bit.

Not to bludgeon you with Course frippery, but here's the passage I have been concentrating on this morning cobbled together from two paragraphs:

"You are the dreamer of the world of dreams. No other cause it has, nor ever will. Dream softly of your sinless brother, who unites with you in holy innocence. And from this dream the Lord of Heaven will Himself awaken His beloved Son. Dream of your brother's kindnesses instead of dwelling on his mistakes. Select his thoughtfulness to dream about instead of counting up the hurts he gave. Forgive him his illusions, and give thanks to him for all the helpfulness he gave. And do not brush aside his many gifts because he is not perfect in your dreams. He represents his Father Whom you see as offering both life and death to you. Brother, He gives but life."

Hugs and kisses to you, love. Hang in.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous "A friend" said...

Hang in there.
You can do it.
It's always darkest just before the dawn.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
There are many people worse off than you.
Lighten up.
You should take vitamins.
You should pray. I'll pray for you.
Snap out of it.
Pull yourself together.
You need to go out for a nice dinner.
Death is just a part of life.
Laugh and the world laughs with you.
This is the day the Lord has made for us.

(from a "friend")

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two Friends? So many of us recognize you as our "special" personal friend so I can't help but laugh when I realize the brilliant Derek can't count. You will pick up the pieces because too many of us love you and need you in our life.

8:13 AM  
Blogger TOR Hershman said...

Well (No wry pun(n)isment intended), never say “Just say no” if’in there be a gang of plagiaristically inclined sacks of primordial sea water in the Empire’s Oval Office.


Stay on groovin' safari,

12:30 PM  


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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Funeral Service Over

The cremation service was Friday morning at 10 am. Right after the summer solstice. It went smoothly but I don't feel like talking about it because it really is a rather private topic. I did stand up and acknowledge all who very kindly came to say godbye, including Jean, Nigel, Julian, Nava, Barbara, Sister Jennifer. Thank you all so much. I also specifically mentioned some people who I knew wished they could come, but couldn't make it. This included mother's friend Joann, who sent a poem, and her late sister Joyce, and my father Benjamin who passed away 50 years ago. Also many thanks to Golda who I know was saying prayers for mom, and to Chris who was doing likewise.
Also many thanks to all my friends and acquaintances in the US who sent email letters of support and sympathy.
Today Sunday I came home via Toronto, and wept most of the way. Glad the week is over; from where I stand it seems like just about the worst week of my life. Also glad to be out of London which seemed like a noisy, unruly, hateful place. I miss you, mom.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Number 27 Bus

Dear Mom,
I’m on the way to see you. I’ve discovered that the number 27 bus will bring me directly from Bayswater to Chiswick. It’s so much better and more convenient than the dingy catacombs of the underground. It is a classic bright-red double-decker London bus, updated a little since I was a young man. Now it is equipped with closed-circuit TV cameras and flat-screen color monitors. Now it has hydraulic doors that hiss like something from Star-Trek, whereas years ago there was just an open platform at the back, and I hopped on or off the moving bus with abandon, grabbing the big silver pole and swinging myself aboard like a gymnast. You always yelled at me for doing that. Once when I was young I was riding that back platform alone, on the way home from school, waiting for the next stop, which was home. I held my cheap fake leather briefcase. Inside were my books, and my silver Hohner chromatic harmonica – my expensive pride and joy – the Stradivarius of harmonicas. I played it pretty well for a kid of my age, too. Never a lesson: just intuitive. Did you buy that for me or was it dad? Anyway, I leaned way out off the platform, briefcase held high, flying in the wind. The bus hit a bump and the case slipped from my hand and plopped flat on the road behind us. Incredulously I watched it recede in the distance as our bus rumbled on. Two minutes later, we arrived at the bus-stop and I jumped off and sprinted back to the disaster-scene. My little brown brief-case grew steadily bigger in my field of view as I huffed and puffed toward it. I thought I was going to make it. Then first one car, then another, drove right over it, with a dull "plap-plap" sound. By the time I got to it and opened it, there was nothing inside but harmonica-roadkill. Instead of my shiny hi-tech German instrument there was only a dull stromboli-shaped slug. That’s "slug" as in the flat blank disks people use to try to fool coin-vending machines. I sat on the kerb and turned it over and over. I blew into it but only a sad squeak came out. When I got home I told you a story: "another kid pushed me and I lost my balance and grabbed at the pole but I dropped the bag and … " I guess when you are a kid nothing is ever your fault, especially when you hope to avoid a spanking. You didn’t spank me. However, you were mad at me for two days and two nights, which is worse in a way. You gave me two days of frosty silences and looks that could kill. You banged the plate of dinner down in front of me with a "don’t you dare complain about the cauliflower" thump. I think you felt a bit sorry for me, but it wouldn’t be in character not to be mad. Anyway, dad walloped me.
The bus is nudging through the streets of Bayswater, in west central London. I’m sitting upstairs (still a kid I guess) watching the changing neighborhoods from a princely height. My briefcase today contains my laptop and I grip it tightly – not because I could drop it on the road – open platforms have long since vanished – but because in this city there is a very real possibility of having your bag snatched. That’s something that would be alien to you, mom. Years ago when you used to take me all over London with you, in most parts of the city people did not walk in fear of robbery. You would set your big brown bag down in all kinds of places while you shopped or talked or ate – and no one paid the least attention. Do you remember a few years ago, I came to visit you at the home in Chiswick and it was all abuzz because one of your housemates had been strolling on the street when some young lad had roared by on a moped and snatched her purse? It was your first direct experience of petty crime – and you were a group of ladies in your eighties. It must say something about a city if you can live in it eighty years without coming face-to-face with crime. Since then of course the conversation at the house has been all tongue-clucking and "Ain’t it awful!" "The country’s gone to the dogs!" "You can’t walk down the street in peace anymore." "It’s all these foreigners, they’ve ruined everything!" – and more. I guess when you grow old, nothing is ever your fault.
But -- yes it sure has changed. They call it "Londonistan" nowadays. In some areas the Arab influence is so predominant you could easily imagine you were in Baghdad. All the faces are olive, all the hair black, all the signage is Arabic, all the restaurants are Halal, Arab music and merchandise spill out of the storefronts onto an unending sidewalk bazaar. From my bus-top perch I watch heavyset men, with their heavyset bejewelled wives or girlfriends, sitting at brass tables outside the "Cedars" café, sucking deep drafts of smoke from colored glass narghile. Walk down Edgware Road on any day of the week, and the steady burbling of a hundred hookahs and the soft fruity haze of tobacco will transport you to another land faster than any Royal Jordanian ticket.
I don’t think you’ve ever seen this face of London, mom. Your days of thrusting through the central city crowds are long gone. For years now you’ve has been quietly retired and growing gray in a west London suburb called Chiswick. Even this enclave, once quiet and far from the crowds has now become trendy expensive and desirable, and lined with Italian cafes and organic food groceries. But you don’t get out to see this. You can’t walk any more, and you never in your life owned a car. Really, you’ve no reason to go anywhere. You don’t know about the changed face of your city except for what I tell you and what you see on "telly."
I first came to live in Bayswater when I was just seventeen. It’s ironic I should end up here again, but this is where Hotwire.com deposited me in my search for an affordable hotel – an oxymoron in London. I want to tell you something – at seventeen years old I came here mostly as a statement of independence from you. I wanted to move out on my own, and be somewhere – anywhere -- radically different to the stodgy semolina-suburbs where I grew up. Like all young men with an infinite future, I had no use for the dull dross of high-streets and Sainsburys and pre-war semi-detached brick-boxes. Not I! I had myself a job at BBC Television. The Bebe! I was king of the world. I wanted my own place, my own life, my own style. I wanted to grasp the very beating heart of the world in my hopeful hands. As it turned out, being king meant living in a single room in Bayswater overlooking a train line, for $8 a week, and eating a lot of cheap spaghetti. My salary was a kingly $36 a week. As for the beating heart of the world in my hands I spent most nights with a dour Scottish buddy sitting dolefuly in a coffee bar grasping only a lukewarm cup, half empty, in my hands. I had not a grain of education, money, or self-awareness to my name. I was one of the faceless hordes of young disaffiliates who seem to populate London’s streets day and night, going nowhere, doing nothing, having no plans, just walking from place to place making a noise and taking up space. Even so, it suited my would-be bohemian instincts better than our four-room flat over a hairdressing salon back in the far suburbs.
The bus is leaving Bayswater and entering Notting Hill. In a blink the neighborhood character changes. Now we are in an upscale world of little brightly painted rows of shops nudging and jostling each other down tiny roads and alleys, sprouting flower-planters, ivy, roses, bric-a-brac and antiques of questionable authenticity, old books by the yard, brass hunting-horns, large purple giraffes, suits of armour, photo galleries, retro fashions, tiny pubs, art cinemas, and unlikely eateries. It’s the Portobello Road. I can’t ever remember you bringing me here … there was no "upscale" in those days. There was no "scale" at all. Your idea of a market was the vegetable market in Romford High Street on a Saturday afternoon. I liked to go there because it meant we would pass the Woolworth store and I could go in and ogle the toys --- "No you can’t!" you would say, and yank my arm whenever I asked to buy one. Then there was the even worse, much feared, "We’ll see…" (Yank.) However, one golden day I distinctly remember you took me to the High Street and didn’t even try to buy a vegetable. Instead, you delivered me straight to Woolworths and said, "Today is your day. We are just going to look at toys all day." I don’t remember if you bought me any or not – and it doesn’t matter. You didn’t yank once, and that was the kind gesture that stuck in my mind.
I know it is ungrateful of me to criticize that flat over the salon. It kept us alive. You were cast out unexpectedly into a hostile world when my father –your husband – died in 1954, leaving you with – not much. I was ten and a huge burden, but you did not cave in as other women might have. You did not go on welfare benefits or ask anyone for help. Before the war you had been a hairstylist, so now without missing a beat you found a salon for rent, with a flat above for us to live, moved us in, and with no experience at all of running a business, you opened up shop and hired two girls to help. The shop was named Maison Best – an ambitious blending of homely and exotic – and the two girls were named Beryl and Iris. I was highly in love with Iris. When she wasn’t there, I would sniff her nylon smock hoping to catch a whiff of her perfume. I was ten, she was twenty, but love can overcome anything. The salon prospered. It was always filled with old ladies with bluish hair sitting patiently under giant igloo-shaped driers reading magazines. I always had an endless supply of Reader’s Digests to read, from which I learned about a place called "America." At Christmas you installed me behind the cash drawer and taught me how to make change. I was the token child. The cash drawer was wooden with a bell that dinged when opened. I soon figured out how to open it without ringing the bell so I could steal sixpences and go next door to the candy store to stock up on Cadbury’s chocolate.
The bus roars and grinds on along Kensington High Street. How very different the hairstyling salons of today. There seem to be lots of them here, and I doubt they use wooden cash-drawers with bells. Today they strive to seem like anything but what they are. They evoke images of Dada-esque space-stations or pavilions rescued from some world’s fair. I can imagine you sitting beside me up here looking down at the thronging commerce of Kensington and saying; "I don’t know" with that unique emphasis on the "don’t." Girls with pink hair and pink boots float in and out of ultrachic beauty shops, mobile phones chattering. You would shake your head. You used to love Kensington High Street. You would drag me here all the time, trailing me from one behemoth department store to another. Many of those big old places seem to have gone now. The structures are still there, but they are gutted and filled with ubiquitous "Gap" and "French Connection" outlets, hip boutiques, feng shui shops, mobile-phone shops, Italian shoe stores, and "Starbucks" in indoor shopping centers. Forty or fifty years ago, the shopping crowd seemed older, more English, and more conservative. Now you seldom hear English spoken without a foreign accent, and you seldom see anyone over thirty. It overwhelms you really. When you’ve looked at the streets of this city an hour or so it all begins to look like a giant antheap. There is so much motion. What was it Tony Robbins used to say? "Motion creates emotion." The eyes defocus, the mind drifts off to another place. I stop watching the crowds, the cabs, the cafes the white georgian facades, leaning up to curve in on the close quiet sky --- the rooftops a-bristle with Mary Poppins chimney pots ready for a song … I stop reading the billboards, the store window ads, the ads on the backs of buses, the ads plastered along the inside of my bus – I just stop – mentally stopping the entire city – as if London itself was only a giant toytown, and now the big silver key has fully unwound and all around me is paused in suspended animation and I am free to step through it like a giant in my own silent time and space. But it is not really that the city has faded away… rather, I have faded from it. Other matters … other matters … other matters… beckon more strongly. This bus is going somewhere and me with it. This is not a random ride down memory lane. The closer I get to the end of the line, the more I think about what awaits.
Hammersmith. The Lyric Theater looms large ahead. The flyover to the left. Only the Brits give such strange spin to the concept of an overpass by naming it a "flyover." My favorite building – the boat-shaped Seagrams Building – presides regally over the flyover. The bus threads around the one way system, and in and out of the bus-station. People get off, people get on. More people get off. More get on. The younger and the more romantic clang noisily up the stairs and rush for the front seats giggling. They don’t interest me too much any more. I have that glassy feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time on buses. In the years after father died, you took to travelling around England on bus-tours. You took me with you of course. We went everywhere; every abbey, every monument, every forest, every air-show, every castle, every city, every lake, every mountain, and quite a few caves. I remember we collected thousands of 35mm slides in a big green metal box. We had a projector and I would insist on showing every single slide to my schoolfriends when they came to visit. After a while, I didn’t have too many friends. Do you remember the time we went on a car trip to Scotland with some man and his son? I don’t know who he was. I do remember it took several days and for some reason I became very excited about the prospect of going to Glasgow. Somehow I felt there was some kind of magic awaiting me there… as if the meaning of life lay in waiting … as if all the answers to all my problems could be solved by a single purchase from some little secret enchanted shop awaiting me in Glasgow. "What problems Derek?" I hear you ask disdainfully. What problems? I was just a kid! Ah but mother, my dear mother, don’t you know children are a secret seething nest of conflicts and uncertainties. Were you never a girl, mother? Did you never giggle and chew gum? Did you never have secrets, or stare at the rain from an attic window and dream of a wide world? In the car to Scotland I remember I asked out loud: "Do they have interesting shops in Glasgow?" You said: "I’m sure there are some." But you didn’t elaborate, you just stared out the car window. Then I said – to the man and his son in the front seats - "Does anyone intend to buy anything special in Glasgow?" You know, I was just a child trying to articulate a strange conviction. "Be quiet!!!" you shushed me immediately. "You don’t ask questions like that!" I just said "Oh," and sat sheepishly for a while, but to this day I’ve never understood what was wrong with that question. A couple of years ago I finally tried asking you about it but you thought I was crazy; you remembered neither the question nor the trip to Scotland.
You have never been comfortable with my attempts to learn about my own family history. You always say you are not "sentimental" and that is the impression many people get of you – ruthlessly unconcerned with your own life history or that of our far-flung family. But I’m not sure. I think you have built a personna of toughness – partly out of fear of revealing yourself and partly out of necessity. As life has gone by it has become easier simply to maintain that personna – to live up to the image you created. In effect you have invented yourself, and it has stuck. Now if there was ever anything beneath that, it has withered away; the toughness is the whole being. I dig for more sometimes. What is the strange compulsion we all have to prove to ourselves that tough people are not so tough, deep down? So I try -- but though I find humor, I find no sentiment. I find curiosity, but not about yourself. I find breadth, but not depth. It always goes just so far, and stops just short of actual contact.
It’s those moments of toughness – of obtuseness and unavailability that act as anchor-points in my memory just as much as the kind gestures in Woolworths. The ordinary, the everyday, the mundane, seems gone. There is no filler between the high notes of kindness and the low notes of rejection. Many times I can remember being shushed – "Be quiet Derek, you don’t understand anything about it!" At other times I can remember being unexpectedly rewarded, like walking on a beach and coming upon a shining jewel. Once, walking home from somewhere with you, you said unexpectedly: "When we get home we’ll build that model airplane you got last week." You had bought me a model kit the previous week and it had sat unopened in my room because I had not the least idea how to put it together. Your sudden offer to get involved was beyond all expectation. Usually you just sniffed at my model-making efforts and became angry about the mess. Suddenly you redefined yourself. That evening you gave me something to look forward to, but you also gave me a mother.
The bus is leaving Hammersmith. We pass the white block monoliths of the Olympia Exhibition halls. Right now there is a trade show about "Bulgarian Property Investment." Apparently you can buy property there for only $10,000 down. Strange, the things people do. Every year when I was young you brought me to a show here called the "Ideal Home Exhibition". I don’t know if they still hold it. I used to love it because you could stock up – fill your bags with free samples of sauces, relishes, pickles, candy, miracle cleaning products, calendars, tape-measures, pens, pencils, even a free flashlight with "Prudential" printed on the side. To me it was like Christmas. Truth be told -- at that young age I really had no concept where Olympia was in relation to our house, or how to get there, or what the show was really all about, or why anyone wanted to give me a flashlight. You don’t question these things – you follow your mom and they happen to you as paint happens to a canvas. You were living your life with me in tow, perhaps unaware each thing you did would paint another memory… so many brushstrokes …
Were you aware how terrified I was of the dark? At night I would lie alone in my room fossilized with fear. You used to love BBC television dramas, and would watch them a couple of nights a week. I could hear the TV droning distantly downstairs, and would catch the occasional phrase; meaningless adult stuff. I had no real sense of time; my head was swimming with terrors of impending harm from all kinds of faceless horrors. I knew you would come to see me when the TV play was over but that stretched ahead beyond any imaginable horizon. Long before then I was sure I would perish. At any moment I would die while my mom watched the Wednesday play
The big red bus pushes toward Chiswick High Street. There are posters everywhere for some kind of visiting carnival, which sets up each year on "the green" an area of trees and grass in the middle of the town, something like Boston Commons. Probably in a week or two there will be carousels and ferris-wheels and candy-floss. I would never have known this area and probably never have been here if it weren’t for you. After I moved to Canada and then subsequently the U.S. you moved to Aldershot for a while where you had another salon. I visited you there only once, (it was 1973,) and it seemed pretty much a clone of the first salon. Only the name was different – Jeanette’s. I really can’t remember much about the house, the shop, the town, or anything else. Memory plays strange selective tricks. The one thing I do remember was a really awesome hump-back bridge somewhere nearby. When you drove over it at speeds greater than 30mph it literally propelled your stomach up into your mouth. I loved it, but you would not drive with me unless I promised to go slowly. After that you went into retirement and went to live with your sister in Uxbridge for a few years. She has passed away now. Then you moved to Chiswick. You found a retirement home you liked and apparently you qualified to live there at very low cost, being a widow and having worked and paid taxes most of your life. In retrospect it was a typically tough decision. Not many people can effectively make decisions about their own declining years. Those who do usually make plans centered around family in some way. True to form, you asked nothing of me or anyone else. You just decided what was necessary, made arrangements, and moved ahead. And you loved it in that house. You all shared meals but you each had your own room. You could come and go as you pleased but there was a resident carer who lived in the house. When I say "house" I mean house. In the U.S. we think of these assisted-living places as giant apartment complexes, like palaces, but this was just an intimate little house, in a typical little row of houses on a typical little Penny Lane street. There was a pub and a grocery store on the corner and it was a short walk to the shops of the high street. For those who couldn’t walk, a bus went by the end of the street. London has no shortage of buses.
You were happy there. There was a feeling of family and you felt safe and content. There was no remorse, no regret, no longing for a life that might have been. This was your new self-directed situation. It did not happen to you, you chose it, you adapted, you bore it with strength and resolve and humor, and at the heart of it all you were still very much Muriel.
But it was in those years that I started to visit you from America more often -- the first time, after a gap of a few years. I remember that day. I waited in the hall, and you came slowly and carefully down the stairs to meet me, smiling. I fixed a fake smile of pleasure and recognition on my face, but inside I was shocked because the person coming down the stairs was not my mother – it was your mother. I suppose all those years you had been coloring your hair but now had decided to stop. With your hair white, you looked exactly like grandma – a lovely old lady whom I loved dearly. She lived to be 100 years old.
As a child it was a yearly ritual to go visit grandma. She lived as far south in England as it is possible to live – on a tiny island called the Isle of Wight. The trip involved a long train ride and a ferry-boat crossing. The island would loom up on the starboard bow, all bristling little church steeples and painted roofs. A long pier jutted out and the little steamer ferry docked at the end of it. We would climb the long hill of the high-street to Grandma’s house, a tiny cottage behind a catholic convent with high stone walls. Grandma would smile and cook and fuss. In the daytime we would go to the beach, and in the evenings we would do jigsaw puzzles and sleep in the big brass bed. I wonder now what you talked about with your mother on those long summer evenings. Two women, both widowed, and me. The past, the present, the future…
So I first came to Chiswick to find you transforming into your mother. That was the Christmas I took you out for a night on the town. I rented a car and took you to the Royal Festival Hall to see the Nutcracker ballet. I recall you sat perfectly happy and enchanted, waving your hand just slightly in time to the music. I wanted to take a photograph but an overweight usher lady rushed up and said it was not permitted.
Now the 27 bus deposits me once more in Chiswick and I begin the ten minute walk to see you. How many times have I made this walk now? The route goes down the length of a pretty little street. There are a few antique stores and trendy restaurants at one end. (Nepalese food, for God’s sake!) There are unending rows of little brick pre-war houses with handkerchief-size gardens, blooming with lavender and roses, privet hedges and hollyhocks. Make no mistake, even the smallest of these houses is probably about $900,000 at today’s bizarre London prices. Normally I would steal a few sprigs of lavender for you and buy a newspaper to read to you. Today I don’t.
You are no longer in the same house now. After many happy years there, the British government decided to rewrite all the rules for elder care, essentially making it impossible for such houses to meet care and safety standards. They had to close down. Lots of elderly men and women all over England found themselves out on the street with nowhere to go. You were luckier. You qualified for a room in a local Anglican convent, which also operated as a nursing home. It’s an interesting place; all rambling old corridors, weatherbeaten red bricks, tile roofs, green lawns, big shady trees, secret flower gardens, a chapel, giant black iron gates, lots of nuns in gray habits floating around like ghosts, one cat, and one big fat dog.
It is literally across the street from the historic house and grounds where artist William Hogarth, the father of English painting, used to live. Old Hogarth is honored in Chiswick high street by a life-size bronze statue of him and his dog. He wears an artist’s beret and smock and holds his palette and brushes. He stares across the street and seems to be forever sizing up the Caffe Nero for a new canvas. You were quite adamant about your opinion of the convent; you despised it from the beginning. The move seemed to upset your whole equilibrium – you claim everything was lost, broken, or stolen. Your possessions had been slowly shrinking over the years anyway, and the few sticks of furniture you owned were important to your sense of self. "All broken," you stated flatly, moaning over and over again for months that things were "just an awful mess." You didn’t care for the other residents, they were all "stupid." You didn’t care for the administrative staff, they didn’t "give a damn." You hated the carers because they were all "stealing" from you. To me they all seemed hardworking and professional. You didn’t like the way you weren’t allowed to make your own tea and have your own cakes in your room. Mostly you hated that you had to walk so far to the dining room. It was downstairs, and every day at lunchtime you wobbled your way painfully to the lift, then slowly along the long hallway. You were losing the use of your legs, as arthritis rose like rot in your limbs. You were also losing your sight, your hearing, and most of the feeling in your hands. What was left? Ah, mother… you are such a strong woman, and losing your independence must be the hardest thing to accept. You fell a couple of times and banged your head, which didn’t help your vision or hearing. At one time, I could talk to you fairly well on the telephone, but for the last two years, as your deafness overtook everything, that has been impossible. Of course you would never admit that, and always blamed me for failed phone calls: "I don’t know what’s the matter with your phone!" you would say confidently, "It keeps fading in and out!" When you get older nothing is ever your fault.
I must admit, dear mom, I knew things were changing radically when I came to see you last summer. You kept telling me about your son, Derek, in America, and an icy hand brushed my heart as I realized you were no longer really there with me, and maybe never would be again. It seemed so recently we had been tackling the Times crossword, or watching Wimbledon on TV together. When I left to return to the States you told me quite bluntly to come back soon because you felt you did not "have much longer". I did what all sons do when their parents say such things: I said, "don’t be ridiculous, you will live forever." Was that reassurance for you or for me? I don’t think I wanted to contemplate the possibility of an England without you. For all my ambivalence, you have been the front and center of my thoughts every time I think of England. Whether fondly remembering you or despairing of your stubbornness it is still you who are the pivot and anchor around which all thoughts and memories revolve. If you were not there – how would I define myself? With no-one to attach my memories to, what would become of my life? Just memory itself? Mere spirit…? A rustle of wings, a flight of fantasy, a fleeting image in a pre-dawn mist? "All those memories lost in time …" says a character in Blade Runner contemplating the end of his life, "... like teardrops in the rain."
Twenty years in a chair, sitting morning and night, shifting your arthritic legs this way and that, drinking endless cups of tea and munching on illegally smuggled cakes. Sleeping fitfully in that chair, refusing to lie in your bed because it was too painful for your legs. Everything you had or ever needed arrayed around that chair within reach – TV remote here, big brown purse here, telephone here although you cannot hear a word on it, hot water here, magnifying glass here, yogurt here, half your teatime sandwich saved and wrapped here – "no egg! I can’t stand egg!" A shrinking world of little routines, diminishing weekly like your increasingly frail body. You resisted all attempts by everyone, even me, to get you out of that chair. Years ago, I used to offer to take you around the grounds in a wheelchair – but no. No interest whatsoever. You did not want to be paraded around on display like those other "musem creatures." What started as a choice soon became an axiom: "I don’t do that!" … and that was that.
Three months ago, I came to see you and it was no longer like visiting my mom. The tough, good humored queen of Chiswick was completely gone. The person who had been a part of my life, the reason for my life, had gone. A frightened, withered, pained old lady still sat steadfastly in that chair, but if it was you, your face showed no signs of recognition when I came in. All your thoughts and comments were about your pains and your problems. You didn’t understand what was happening to you. You had not a single question about me or how I was, or how long I was staying. Now your mind wandered in and out of time freely – lost in time – rearranging the day constantly. You repeatedly said you had to put your shoes on to go for lunch, even in the late evening. I would put your shoes on your feet for you: big comfortable slippers I brought for you, and you would scream "Ow! Ow! Ow! Get them off! They hurt!" Your poor legs were swollen beyond belief, ulcerated and bound like a mummy. Off the shoes would come, but a minute later you would insist on putting them on, because any minute they would be coming to take you for lunch. So the hours went. I told you constantly I was Derek, your son, come from America to see you. Mostly you did not hear me, but when you did you just said "Who?" Then at last, one time, as you drifted off into a sleep, I think I got through to you. I put my arm round your bony shoulders, and my mouth right to your ear (there was a faint smell of talcum powder) and I said slowly, "Mom, it’s me, Derek." You seemed to register it. You raised your head and looked at me with sightless eyes, then dropped it to one side with fatigue. You said, "Derek? Thank goodness for that," and I too thought – thank goodness for that.
Each step down the little Chiswick street is heavy. I’ve made this journey a hundred times before and thought I knew it well. If that is true, today I no longer seem to know it. The character of the street is transformed. For the first time it is alien, hostile, lacking in charm. Perhaps I am the alien. The street is quiet, as though watching me like a suspicious stranger. At different times on different occasions, I have experienced many different emotions on the way to see you. Sometimes I would be bounding with the joys of spring, arms full of daffodils, heart full of stories to tell you. Sometimes in the gloom of winter, I would be sleepy, morose, resentful, wishing I did not have to make this trek on this day, feeling I had nothing to share or give at this time. But always I felt validated, purposeful, like a king on his own estate. What power would dare stand between a man and his mother? Today this is not so. Today I move in a closed world of inevitability, like a blood-clot moving through a dull gray vein. At the end of it, I know I will find you. Each day this week I have known I would find you – but in what condition? Ever since the convent called me in the middle of the night a week ago, and told me they feared for your condition … that is the call every son and daughter hopes never to get. There was a brief blur of transatlantic night-flights and hotels, then – once again – this familiar street. Then there was you.
Oh, mother, my mother, what has time done to you? Lying down now at long last, the agony from your calcified legs and hips dulled by morphine, your legs bandaged with massive tape, like an elephant. You are a stick insect, a brittle spindly shrunken vestige of a woman, lolling and moaning, feebly trying to raise yourself up a few inches before collapsing, muttering, refusing all food, bony hands pawing at the air, chest heaving, mouth open, gray eyes half open seeing nothing, nothing, not even me. At one time, you coughed and gurgled and suddenly your mouth was spilling dark red blood all over the sheets; life gushing out like a river. To see you this way is more than I can bear. I have to believe some part of you is no longer in that wreck of a body but now is in the room, in the air, watching the proceedings with amusement. I have sat with you holding your hand for hours, for days, sometimes talking to your shriveled frame, sometimes just in silence punctuated by your murmurings – senseless half-thoughts. Once you said, "I don’t want to wake up…" another time you suddenly said you wanted a glass of wine. I bent down to your ear and asked you "Red or White?" "Red" you answered angrily, as though that should have been obvious. It took me a minute before I realized perhaps you could hear me. So I quietly told you what a good life you’d had, and what a good job you’d done raising me, and how we could both be proud of each other. It was just a whisper. If someone had been sitting six feet away they could not have heard me, but I like to think you – who have heard virtually nothing for years – heard me perfectly. I told you there was no need to stay here any longer. You could let go. You could depart whenever you wanted. You would still always be with me in spirit. I knew you loved me, and I loved you.
There was no response of course, but who’s to say you didn’t hear everything? I left at six last evening and told you I’d be back this morning. "I love you mom," I said again. You must have heard something because you answered with one loud clear word: "Yes."

I got the call this morning from the convent that you had passed away. The long arc of your life is complete. This final journey to Chiswick is to say goodbye and it is the hardest journey I have ever made. Believe me, when goodbye is the reason for your journey, everything does seem different. Part of me desperately wants to turn back. No son or daughter wants to face a parent’s lifeless body, where yesterday there was life however frail. I don’t know how to feel or what to expect. All I know is; a great lady has left, an era has passed into history, and my life will never be the same. I will sit with your cold body for a while and say my farewells and thank-you’s. I won’t have any idea what to say, but I think you will forgive me. Say hello for me to your sister. And to dad, please. You are at peace now, and free of pain for the first time in twenty years. So now I too have been freed of your pain. Now the memories take over mom… You have given me plenty and I am grateful. I know the happy ones will endure. All the others were just momentary and will fade ...

… like teardrops in the rain.


Anonymous marian said...

Beautifully done, Derek. My mother was of the same generation, and it really is true that now you have both been freed of her pain, and that only the loving memories will endure. I had the most conflicted relationship with my own mother, and yet in the years since her death, all the tangles and knots seem to be untying themselves on their own. I hope the same for you.

"What is the strange compulsion we all have to prove to ourselves that tough people are not so tough, deep down? So I try -- but though I find humor, I find no sentiment. I find curiosity, but not about yourself. I find breadth, but not depth. It always goes just so far, and stops just short of actual contact."

That was perfect.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Ping Ping said...

Ehào chuán lái bēi tòng wàn fēn !

mā mā shì yī wèi fēi cháng jiān qiáng. cí xiáng, shàn liáng. yǒu zhì huì de mǔ qīn tā de zhàng fū zǎo shì, tā de ér zi cái shí suì. suǒ yǐ tā bì xū de fù qǐ fǔ yǎng hái zi de zé rèn. zài tā de yī shēng zhōng, tā jīng lì le cháng rén nán yǐ rěn shòu de kǔ nàn. xīn líng de chuàng shāng yǔ bìng mó de zhé mó. tè bié zài tā zuì hòu èr shí nián de fēng shī gú tòng, shuāng tuǐ zhǒng zhàng, bù néng zǒu lù zhù jìn le yǎng lǎo yuàn de rì zi. shēng huó shì hé qí de jiān nán hé gū dú. dàn shì tā cóng lái méi yǒu bào yuàn tā de qīn rén hé péng yǒu, cóng lái méi yǒu xiàng tā de ér zi sù kǔ. yī gè rén mò mò dì chéng shòu zhè yī qiē. tā bù xiǎng ràng shēn biān de qīn yǒu shòu dào kùn rǎo hé dān xīn. yī gè rén jiān qiáng dì, lè guān dì xiào duì rén shēng.

rú jīn, tā zǒu le píng jìng de zǒu le dài zǒu le tā suǒ yǒu de kǔ chǔ yǔ bù xìng, yě dài zǒu le tā liú liàn de shì jiè hé kuài lè. yuàn yī shù càn làn yǔ měi lì de guāng máng yǐn dǎo tā zǒu xiàng jí lè shì jiè, gěi yú tā zài rén shì jiān bù néng de dào de yī qiē. yuàn tā zài nà gè měi lì de tiān guó hǎo hǎo dì ān xī ba!

tā yǒng yuǎn huó zài wǒ men de xīn zhōng! gǔ lì wǒ men xiàng qián, xiàng qián!

nín de ér xí fù.

Ping Ping.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Roger and Linda said...

We came across your blog whilst surfing innocently looking for interesting information about Chiswick, where we live. A deeply moving tribute to your mum, and a rich evocative description of this area. We are both "gobsmacked" by your writing talent. Thank you for sharing your feelings.

Roger and Linda McClaren

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Sharon said...

Wow. I've never been to England but your sad poignant tribute to your mom makes it all seem real to me. I feel like I know it well now. Your mom sounds like a great lady and I think you were brave to publish your feelings. She was lucky to have you as a son.

Take care, be happy.


11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jane said...

Derek...Since 1987 when we met, I have listened to you, confided in you, shared time with you and yet never knew very much about you. I appreciate so much The Number 27 Bus. It was wonderful to learn about you, your childhood and your relationship with your mother. It was very emotional for me. It is beautifully written. Thank you for that window into your heart.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read your blog about the No. 27 bus. It reminds me of a similar time in my own life and all the changes it wrought in me. Wish I'd had the power or the talent to do as you did and write it all down. God, what an epic journey. Thank you.

2:37 PM  
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4:39 AM  


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