It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.

My parents had a motto in their later years that went, It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch. My father explained it to me by saying that to love someone deeply meant that sooner or later there would be profound pain from loss. He also said that it was that loving and the acceptance of that pain that made life worth living. I understood at the time that they were not only talking about each other, but all the close and dear friends that they had lost over the years. As they progressed into their old age, even though their lives were full and happy, each loss stabbed them more deeply, each passing served to remind them that sooner or later they would lose each other.

I have just recently turned 57 and I am beginning to see that fearful trend myself. It’s true, that as you get older, you begin to lose more friends, teachers, and lovers. It’s like standing in the lobby of an auditorium and then the lights flash and there is a general movement back towards a mysterious music. Except that you grieve the ones who go before you.

It’s not like death doesn’t touch you when you are young, friends slipped and fell into deep water, were consumed by cancer, or even taken by strangers, but those were sudden events that were unexpected and rare. We did not know at the time that they were just going ahead… and then of course, there were the animals. Sweet dogs of such loyalty and joy that losing them was almost too much to bear.

My parents met by chance in the early 1940’s. My father was a tall angular man with a large nose and was often called the Horn by the men in his military command. They were the 10th Mountain Division and trained together as ski troops longer than most other units of those days. I remember finding a green parka in the back closet with a scruffy fur trimmed hood that was white when you turned it inside out. I must have been around 13 then and my father told me it was so that the enemy couldn’t see them as they skied into battle. It made me think of him as a kind of James Bond character.

My mother was a petite natural blonde with a passion for art and a vivacious smile. She was from North Carolina and was referred to as, The Little Rebel. She once told me, with some satisfaction that one of the local wealthy frat boys had asked her out on a date, as if conferring a special favor on her and when they parked for a while, he got more than a little grabby. She related how she slipped off her high-heeled shoe and smacked him with it, square between the eyes and how he bled like a stuck pig.

Later when he saw her in class he pointed her out and told the other boys how she had almost killed him. She might have been small, but was no one to mess with, not then and in fact, at no point in her life. To think about her in those days would be to create a whole different world, a vision of the deep south with this strikingly pretty young woman struggling against who she was expected to be and filled with irrepressible spirit. Once, when she had won a prize for one of her pictures at a local fair, she took it to show her father and without looking at it, he threw it in the trashcan. An act, which I think, helped form a kindness and generosity that was the foundation of everything she accomplished for the rest of her life.

They met, through one of mother’s paintings he saw in the window of a local paint shop. Not an art gallery, but just a paint shop that had agreed to show her work. Father was on leave from maneuvers and saw it there but did not have enough money with him to purchase it. By the time he had gone back to base and could return with the required funds, the painting had been taken down. The paint storeowner gave him mother’s name and phone number and he called her to make arrangements.

He told me that at first, he had asked her to ship it to him as she lived rather far from camp, but she had said if he wanted it, he’d have to come and get it, which of course, he did. If there is such a thing as love at first sight, then this is what it looks like. She at the door with her bright eyes and her quick wit must have seemed like a gem among the rocks, and she told us how adorable he looked standing there in his uniform with his awkward height, sunburned face and big nose.

They were married in 1942, in a time overshadowed by World War Two. When they met, mother was already unofficially engaged to a young man who was the son of a local Baptist minister. She sat in the front row of the church with him and the community had accepted that she was to be the future minister’s wife. Her betrothed, John who was a Chaplain in the army, told her that she would have to give up her art and that he was to serve God and she was to serve him.

When she met my father, she wrote John a letter to say that she had met someone who not only loved her, but also loved her art. John, in a frenzy, contacted his brother in another state, who drove all night to beg her to reconsider. I so clearly remember my mother telling me about this in a wistful voice and an uncharacteristically sad look in her eyes.

Shortly after her letter, John was captured by the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula and was part of the forcible transfer of prisoners that became known as the Bataan Death March during which thousands of soldiers died. Because he was a Chaplain he was given the choice to ride to their destination, but chose to walk with and minister to his men. Mother felt that perhaps she had been part of that decision and was therefore in some way responsible for his death.

Father was also involved with someone at the time, who he described as a free thinker and an intellectual, but who he never really talked about much to us. I recall there was something about a competition with his best friend for a woman’s love. The only information he would give on the topic was a stern and fatherly warning… “Son”, he would say with deliberate gravity, “Watch out for neurotic women. There’s a fatal attraction to them. One almost got me, but your mother came along and saved me.” words I have had cause to remember more than once.

They were married 53 years and they supported and relied on each other throughout their marriage. They each had their own unique style and seemed independent and strong, but for all the things they accomplished and all the places they went, they did not like to be apart for very long. One time on a week long fishing trip with my father he seemed to be getting irritated and short tempered, I think he was doing dishes, and he stopped, put the dish towel down and said in a resigned manner… “I miss your mother.”

They had their own interests and their own goals. Father was a historian and an author, he was extremely well read and loved to read passages from books he found interesting at the dinner table. He took great pleasure in reciting poetry and as far as I could tell, never stopped learning or discovering new ideas until the day he died. In 1963 he moved to Santa Cruz, a town he adored and was the founding Provost of Cowell College at the University of California Santa Cruz. There he nurtured a concept that was called The Pursuit of Truth in the Company of Friends and mentored, guided, loved, and instructed thousands of young minds.

During his intense bouts of writing, where he would methodically bang out long treatises on the forming of America with a hunt and peck method using two fingers, he reveled in welcoming friends and students into his vast library for coffee and snacks, which mother provided. He was utterly charming.

My mother was an artist in the very breath she breathed. She wore my father’s shirts all daubed and stained with paints, glue, and dyes. Her gnarled and expressive hands usually decorated with oil paints and smelling of turpentine. She was an artist, she taught children, she was politically active in the causes of right versus might, and she felt the inequalities of life in a deep and profound way.

She was Chairwoman for the California Arts Council for a time and created the California Prison Arts Project, which was one of the largest prison rehabilitation projects in the world and honestly, that was just a sampling. Beyond those achievements, she was also a mother and a wife, supporting and encouraging her children and her husband with a down home and direct wisdom as well as the most amazing meals. It was a family tradition that every night any of us were home together; she would prepare a home cooked meal served by candlelight.

Although each of them were, in their own right, the most extraordinary and powerful people I had ever met and although they each seemed to move in entirely different spheres of strength and knowledge, it was also apparent that they were each other’s foundation. I remember one morning when mother came downstairs looking a little troubled. She said in a puzzled voice, “I had a bad dream last night, an insecure dream… I’m not an insecure person.” For that moment she looked kind of fragile, which was something none of us were used to.

Father came over to her and put his arms around her there in that warm and comfortable kitchen and she turned and looked up at him with such a look of trust and love that I was stunned.

Once, when life had become too hectic and she wasn’t painting as much as she wished, she tried to find a retreat where she could be alone for a while and concentrate on her art. She called one place and they informed her that if she came, she would have to play the games… “What games?” she asked in a voice like a storm cloud rising. The poor man on the other end of the phone informed her that they helped you find yourself. “Humph!” She said, “I’ve already found myself. I just want to find a place where no one else can find me!”

She was a practitioner of what we all called Cosmic-One-Up-Manship. There was very little that escaped her gaze and as children we were convinced she had a magic telescope that kept us all under her watchful gaze, even my father knew better than try to slip one by her.

One of the family legends relates how my father, sitting at his writing desk one cold winter’s day started thinking back about his life. He sat and wondered about the way things had turned out and what had happened to various people, a habit I should say that I have inherited. He began to think of some old girlfriend, not with any regret, but with fondness and maybe even forgiveness, and then almost as a gesture, he took up his fountain pen and wrote her a letter.

I never saw the actual artifact, but I was told that it just said he had fond memories of her and wondered how she was doing. Then he thought, what a silly, old man kind of thing to do and he folded the letter up and stuffed it into one of the pigeonholes in his ancient roll-top desk. I will mention here that this desk was as full of a panoply of papers, letters, notes, drawings, and bills as a circus car is full of clowns. I dare say that in a matter days he himself would have despaired of ever finding it again.

A bit later mother walked into the room, came over to the desk, reached past my father directly to the still fresh message, took it out and read it. I’m told my father simply put this head down on the desk in resignation. There was no anger there, but she had once again established her ultimate rule of the household.

A few years later in the 1970’s, when my father and I were traveling in Japan together, I turned to him as we rode into the mountains on a small commuter train and I asked him, “Father, what would you do if mother died first?” He answered with gentleness and conviction, “I wouldn’t want to be without her. I would just die.” That was when he was around 55… 23 years before his death.

As we rode along, surrounded by a sea of Japanese tourists who were all staring benignly at the two enormous Americans, I was so struck by his words that it changed forever how I viewed both of my parents. On arriving back in the states, I took the first opportunity I had to go straight to my mother and ask her, Mother, what would you do if father died first?”

Without hesitation she said, “I’d sell the house, move into town and change the world!” And there it was, the lives of both of these amazing people laid out so clearly before me, each statement so complete and so characteristic of their lives and each statement equally full of their specific love for life and each other. So different, yet neither with even one ounce of fear or regret.

Mother died first. From the time it was discovered that she had advanced kidney cancer to her final moment was about 6 months. She fought as long as she could, but she had always said, “Never hook me up to any machines.” and the conclusion was really never in any doubt. As her illness progressed, she seemed to become more beautiful every day. I can’t imagine how people consider caring for a loved one a burden. It was such a privilege to be around her.

She was uncomfortable and could not go to sleep with my father in the bed, so he set up a cot at her feet and when she would finally drift off he would slip gently in beside her. She tired easily and being in her presence was a privilege that the family guarded jealously. We had wonderful talks and whatever issues mothers and children hold on to, however much love and acceptance there is, were shared and handled, and put to rest.

The family moved her down from the mountain farm to stay with my sister Anne so she could be closer to care. As the inevitable end drew near, we all knew that there was this terrible and magnificent cloud coming. Mother had been set on this final path, and she seemed to walk it without fear, being only concerned for those around her. She said, “Try to find someone for your father after I’m gone.” She had a list of old friends who she admired and thought might make good matches for him.

We made plans, we talked about possibilities and how we might try to take care of him and keep him in our lives… but there was this tentative knowledge that colored everything we said.

The day before she died, the nurses had finally convinced her to have IV drip lines put in. She didn’t like them and had resisted for such a long time. In the middle of the night she wanted to get up and go to the bathroom by herself, but she was confused and was in danger of becoming entangled in the lines. My sister Ellen, lay across her to try and hold her down and she struggled and said, “Get out of my way… I’m going to God.”

There were other things said between then and the morning, some of which made sense and some of which did not, but those words were her final statement and her epitaph. She did not slip away in fear or regret, but stepped forward into her next great project. She was going to God and we all felt like she was going to give him a piece of her mind. Get out of my way, she says… Just like her whole life striding forward with no fear.

That morning when father heard she had passed away, he was deliberate and conclusive. He said, “So that’s it.” He told my sister that he could not face going home to the farm and she said he could stay with her, but we knew he wasn’t really talking about a physical place.

It took him 40 hours. During that first day, he was sad, but did not seem as crushed as we had worried. He continued to read out loud interesting ideas he found in books, he talked to us, gave us advice, shared his thoughts on various subjects, and then, after about a day, he stopped making much sense. As if he had already left his body to wind down like an old clock.

He showed not one iota of fear. He did not even seem that sad, as if he knew exactly where he was going and who would be waiting for him. The doctors said that he would live for years, but we knew… If he said he was going to die, he was going to die. Forty hours was how long it took, forty hours for his spirit to figure out how to walk away.

The crematorium in town had been broken down the day before and was not fixed until my father’s death. They were cremated one after the other and their ashes were mixed in the same box and they were buried together on a low quiet hill quite near my sister’s home. A friend of mine, trying to console me said that without her love, my father had lost the will to live and I replied, shocked that he had not understood, that my father had lost nothing. It was an act of will and an understanding of life that led him to follow fully where she had gone before. It was, romance to the very end.

If you’d like to visit them, I built a memorial website for them shortly after they died in August of 95. The site is old now as these things go, but there are more pictures of the two of them there as well as her art and a list of his books. You’re more than welcome.

http://www.smithtrust.com/

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Comments
13 Responses to “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”
  1. Raine Ray says:

    Thank you. You timing is impeccable as always. I am in the process of putting my thoughts together on what to say at my little brother’s memorial celebration and your words hit the mark. You have always been there for me whether you were aware of the need or not. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful eliot even without the whole story. Not sure if it’s new or older prose but glad to see you are publishing and writing.

    • Sat down last night and worked my way through what I could. I’d been meaning to try and get it down for a while. There could be a thousand different ways to tell the story, so I just rushed ahead blindly.

  3. Lisa says:

    Thank you for sharing HUGS

  4. You come from solid stock. My dad was a medic in WW II in Battle of the Bulge / Germany. He was a little older than your father, but the war tempered them as steel – and they came back knowing what was important. What great people they were. Good post.

  5. @philosophermouseofthehedge… Thank you Partner. I was honored to be their son.

  6. Kate says:

    I was an undergrad at UCSC and lucky enough to know your dad through the Penny University. And your Mom from seeing her work at the Pope Gallery. To this day, I kick myself for not having bought that piece of hers you included in your blog post. One of my three real art regrets. I think I still have the post card from that show in my studio. I remember hearing about how he died right after she did and marveling at their connection. They remain inspirations in so many ways. It was a pleasure to read this and remember them. Thanks.

    • Thank you so much for your response! We still have some of the books from those shows… Contact me with an address and I could drop one in the mail for you.

      Eliot

      • Kate says:

        I would love that. I just found a book of your Dad’s … Florence the Goose, I think, with Paul Lee! Is Paul still around? I haven’t seen him in a dog’s age. What is the best way to contact you? Thanks!

  7. Katie Tetzlaff Larsen says:

    I finally got to read this account. I know it’s not the whole story but it is beautiful and made me cry. I remember your mom so well every time I look at the silver, I remember both our moms. Thanks for the writing.

  8. robin andrea says:

    This is such a beautiful, compelling remembrance. I am so glad to have found your site and to be reminded of this incredibly beautiful love story. Many, many years ago my husband and I sat a table next to your parent’s in a restaurant in Capitola. We were simply in awe of them. When we left, we stopped at their table and said something goofy, like “we love you.” They were so gracious.

  9. Thank you for this story, I had to put my dog to rest after 13 years with her and I am sad. Thank you for sharing the story of love…xo

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