I know the word for "hundred-year-old person" is "centenarian," not centurion. But so my dad seems to me: a leader and a special kind of warrior, a fighter against darkness, sadness, and despair. He would have been 100 years old today, but he died of leukemia at 69, just two years into our marriage. Yet for the next three decades, he has exemplified what Camus declared: "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."
I have written often of my dad, a briliant handyman and sort of patron saint of the Crazy Stable, which he never saw. He was born to a pianist and an artist on Manhattan's Upper West Side on this day in 1917. A plump and mischievous little boy grew into a handsome and somewhat aimless young man, a championship swimmer who shrugged off college and drifted among jobs in various fields, including resorts and retail.
Like so many other young men of his "Greatest Generation," World War II gave his life sudden purpose. As an Army MP, he made sharpshooter, and conscientiously guarded his president, FDR, at Hyde Park, then served in Reconstruction Japan. There, stationed approximately midway between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could he have been exposed to radiation that would shorten his life by decades compared to his father and siblings, who all lived to be nearly 100? We'll never know. He brought home a kimono and a handful of Japanese coins, which I have to this day, and a GI phrasebook he memorized for life. He taught me to say arigato and to stand at attention and "at ease," and to properly fold an American flag.
After the war, he got a business degree on the GI Bill, and married the love of his live after an epic 15-year courtship. His sunny nature and chivalry carried my mother above the dark, tormented undercurrents of her nature and her past. Through her (and Fulton Sheen), he came to the Catholic Church as an adult convert, his personality drawn to and reflected in Christ's. Quentin Roland Becker was baptised in St. Paul's Church in Manhattan and became Richard Quentin Becker; old friends and my mother called him "Quen," while business associates called him "Dick." He settled down in the insurance industry, became a dad.
And as a dad, he shared with me so many things he loved: Gardening. Classical music. Science. Nature walks. But most of all, he taught me how to be happy. Or rather, how to choose to be happy--by turning outward, helping others, laughing gently at oneself. By "lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness."
I wonder what he would be like at 100. No, actually, I don't. However diminished in body or mind, he would be invincible summer. Today, on his hundredth birthday, my garden--having bloomed in glorious warmth--was socked with heavy, wet snow. Every tender bloom that had opened has prevailed, and now the sun is out again. These photos are my gift to him.
Miniature narcissus, battered but unbowed. My dad planted spring bulbs all around our childhood home in Little Neck; every spring, their resurgence seemed like a miracle for which he was personally responsible.
Up in the Poconos, Daddy would get out his folding army shovel and a garbage bag and dig out a mountain laurel in the woods, to nurture into bloom back in the city. Up in Maine, I rescued "Baby Groot" here as a tiny sapling from under another white spruce, and he's growing like a weed.
Crocus around my garden owl, which is actually a memorial mini-garden to our owlish gray cat Cocobop. Daddy was an epic rescuer, with needy stray cats and kittens drawn to him as if by magic.
Decades before foraging became fashionable, Daddy, ever a Boy Scout, taught me which weeds in a vacant lot were edible, like butter-and-eggs, pepper grass, and (above) onion grass, and I would dutifully nibble them. This always horrified my mother, who preferred her produce from a nice clean supermarket.
Sleeping lilac buds.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. --Memorial acclamation, Roman Rite of the Mass
In every desperate New York house hunt, there is at least One That Got Away—a place that would've been perfect, "if only." If only you hadn't been outbid. If only it weren't next door to a slaughterhouse. If only...
In our hunt for the Crazy Stable 30 years ago, we had two "Ones That Got Away." We put a binder on one, a roach-filled frame house behind Our Lady of Refuge church, but pulled out of the deal when an inspector found a deeply split joist; we were game for a good exterminator, but not for a house collapse.
The other? For three decades, it has haunted me: The sort-of-Dutch Farmhouse somewhere in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a neighborhood of mostly row houses east of our current one. It was a solidly Caribbean area of pristine side streets giving onto economically depressed avenues full of empty stores behind graffiti'd roll-down gates. But this was no row house: In memory, it is a tidy frame, with charming original door hardware. In the living room, the fireplace is surrounded by what appear to be original blue-and-white Delft tiles. There is a small, shaded back yard, a driveway and a garage, but the garage is a barn, with a hayloft and rusty farm tools. Was it built before any of its neighbors, when Flatbush was still farmland?
If only...if only it had not been squashed up against a big brick apartment building, whose side wall loomed tightly next door, blocking out light. If only the avenue around the corner had not been so despondent and menacing. We sought a "mother/daughter," and I couldn't picture the persnickety Irish mother faring forth along that commercial strip, whose sole bright outpost among the bodegas and hair salons was a Caribbean bakery and Catholic church a few blocks down. We let it pass, and wound up in the Crazy Stable—a house in vastly worse shape, but in a better location nearer the park.
But I never forgot the Delft tiles and the rusty plough. I kept scattered records of our house-hunt and no photos (people just didn't take pictures of everything back then), and could never remember where the house was. I even looked for it a few times, and began to suspect I'd dreamed it. But just now, in some old notes, there it was: 366 Rutland Road, between Nostrand and New York Avenues. I raced to Google Maps, and it's still there—looks almost the same, faded but dear, hunkered in the shadow of the apartment house. And that stretch of Nostrand still looks pretty sad, although there's a fancy-looking bakery around the corner now; gentrification is not on fire here yet, but the sparks will catch. Are the farm tools still in the garage? When was it built? How much land did the owners till?
I'll probably never know. The house sits just east of the site of the old Lefferts' farmstead (from which the Lefferts Historic House was moved to nearby Prospect Park). As of 1909, it was home base for two builders named Larsen and Anderson, who designed other Flatbush homes, according to this account; real-estate sites claim it was built in 1910, but I suspect it might be much older. I'm just glad it's still there. I hope whoever bought it has had as many happy years within as we have had here. And I hope they kept the farm tools.
According to the New York Times, Hillary Clinton is almost certain to win New York's electoral votes.
Thank God. That means I can vote for neither one. If it were close, I would feel obliged to vote for her, to keep him out. Hillary: the champion of unrestricted access to abortion at any stage of development. Not for her "safe, legal and rare," the catchphrase of her canny husband, who paid lip service to the pain and loss attendant upon killing the unborn. No, Hillary is the heroine of the #shoutyour abortion crowd, the patron saint of the corrupt butchers of Planned Parenthood. That's who I would have voted for, if the election in my state were close. That's how appallingly dangerous and vile Trump is.
And here's how that would make me feel: Do you remember the last episode of M*A*S*H*?
It was called "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen." In it, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) had a nervous breakdown and recounted to a psychotherapist the story of being on a bus with Vietnamese refugees, hiding from an enemy patrol. Their silence is imperative–but one poor terrified woman holds a chicken that won't stop squawking. Hawkeye furiously tells her to silence the chicken, or they will all be killed. To his horror, she does the only thing she can do–she strangles it.
Only it wasn't a chicken. The ghastly truth emerges from memory: The woman had been holding her baby. She smothered it, in desperation and fear for all their lives.
We cannot hand the nuclear codes to a madman, and our country to a loathsome demagogue–even one who claims a laughably implausible "conversion" to pro-life. But the cause of protecting the unborn has been strangled, the crying baby silenced, as the even greater and more immediate threat prowls outside the bus, locked and loaded.
And thus the odds seem good that the first woman president of the United States–a mother and a grandmother–will, in a repellent irony, enshrine as never before the "right" to silence the heartbeats of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters in the womb. Without remorse, without restriction, and–if she gets her dream–with our tax dollars to subsidize the heartbreak for the neediest women, who need real alternatives, not death for their children.
Ultra-blue-state New York, you will have done my dirty work for me. But if I lived in North Carolina or Florida, I'd do it. I'd vote for the "lesser of two evils"; I could even parlay it into a cheering welcome to the cool kids' table among my liberal friends. And I'd try to remember casting a ballot for the candidate who was just okay with killing chickens.
Someone shared a music video of a magnificent singer named Andra Day, singing a beautiful song, "Rise Up." The video (below), directed by M. Night Shyamalan, unleashed a flood tide inside me, with its tender, spare depiction of a couple in love, one of whom is physically dependent utterly on the other.
You're broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry-go-round
And you can't find the fighter
I've done my years as a caregiver--I know just where to reach for the brakes on a wheelchair, the safety belt in the back of an ambulance. I have "hacks" for full assisted transfers, bed shampoos, bedsore prevention. I've said a thousand versions of this, in nursing homes, ICUs, my mother's bedroom:
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains
But now, in a heart-aching rush, so many people I love have been called upon to move mountains.
My beloved cousin, an irrepressible paraplegic, just marked a year since he fell from his wheelchair, sustaining a fresh injury that will not heal. His beautiful wife, an effervescent woman with a core of steel, manages his overwhelming medical and logistical needs (with help from their grown daughters) while never losing sight of the man she loves--a doctor, a gentleman farmer, an advocate for the disabled. This year, when he finally returned to their Michigan home, they created a new garden he could see from his window.
And I'll rise up
I'll rise like the day
I'll rise up
I'll rise unafraid
My old friend and colleague, a creative and brilliant medical writer, is on an epic journey with his wife, a mother and artist, as they battle her breast cancer together. With her fury and courage, and his agile mind and deep clinical knowledge, they continue to navigate through a labyrinth of oncologists, tests, treatments, seeking hope, and most of all, seeking compassion.
All we need, all we need is hope
And for that we have each other
And for that we have each other
My two dear friends from church, who finally married when the law recognized their longtime love, now hold one another's hands in the coronary care unit of a Brooklyn hospital. They are adorable--a Tall Guy and a Short Guy, both theater-world veterans and devout Catholics. It was years ago, watching Tall Guy push Short Guy's wheelchair home from church, that I truly recognized the sacramentality of marriage beyond its traditional bounds--"an outward sign signifying God's grace." Now Tall Guy strokes his husband's silver hair when the pain and fear grow too much. "What do you see?" Short Guy asked him this week, terror in his eyes--the terror of vanishing, a look I know all too well. "I see the person I love," his love replied.
When the silence isn't quiet
And it feels like it's getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we'll take the world to its feet
And move mountains
And now, my BFF, my best friend forever. Her love, too, is at her bedside night and day. Working the system. Making the nurse come faster. Adjusting the pillows and covers, the piece of the world she currently rules. Strategizing for discharge, rolling with the punches, and hoping for hope. Leaning over and seeing the person he loves, assuring her she is not, as she fears, disappearing from anything resembling the life she has known.
I'll rise up
In spite of the ache
I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
And there we have the genius of this song. Whether the songwriters knew it or not, with this lyric they reach in and recognize the heart and soul of the caregiver journey.
The ache. In spite of the ache. A thousand times again. Where does it come from, that rising, every day? What refills the well a thousand times? It isn't just a well, if you're lucky, or blessed. It is a spring. A wellspring, for the well and the sick. It rises not from one of you but from both. Love dissolves your boundaries. You go past the place where the chattering advice absurdly says "Take time for yourself. Get a massage. Have a manicure. Relax over a special cup of coffee. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, ha ha."
We once had a crazy old pastor--seriously, mad as a bat out of hell--who wagged a finger and told the congregation, "There are no coffee breaks on the Cross."
The caregiver journey goes past the Oprah-esque, treat-yourself-to-a-cappuccino stage at some point right to the foot of the Cross. "Me before you" or "you before me" ceases to be an issue; they are what Richard Rohr calls "false dualities." Things can actually seem lighter then, in a way. Light enough to rise.
I'll rise up
I'll rise unafraid
I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
"Rise Up" Written by Cassandra Monique Batie, Jennifer Decilveo • Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC
It was an afternoon much like this one, precisely 30 years ago, cold and as bright as a distant sun allowed, when I walked out of Mount Sinai Hospital, fatherless. Except that I wasn't. Leukemia had ended my dad's 69 years one week before Christmas--and so terribly prematurely, it seemed. I have now been without him longer than I was with him.
Yet not a day has passed that he hasn't been with me. He literally taught me how to be happy, through a humble self-forgetfulness that I can only dream of emulating. He lived a life without fame or great material gain, in the insurance industry--and managed to sanctify that unglamorous work, taking satisfaction and joy in selling policies honestly and helping men (and back then, it was always men) provide for their families after their deaths. He treated everyone, from janitors to vice-presidents, with respect and affection. He held his wife and daughter in chivalrous esteem, and his brother and sisters in unwavering filial affection. I never heard him utter a bitter or judgmental word in his life.
An adult convert to Roman Catholicism, he modeled the personality of Christ to all he met. Hours before his death, weakened by opportunistic infections, he told me he had been "contemplating the mystical body of Christ." The day he died, his doctor, scheduled to fly back to New York from Italy, was unaccountably moved to change his flight--and thus avoided being at the Air Italia desk when a terrorist bomb ripped through the airport. One year ago today, my best friend, whom he loved like his own daughter, underwent dangerous surgery--and I knew that this day, once so steeped in sorrow a week before Christmas--was an auspicious one. (And after a hellish year of treatment, she is doing well.)
Over the years, I have become convinced that a life lived in holiness burns a channel through time and space, a portal of grace; such a channel was how Therese of Lisieux sent her "shower of roses." My dad has become that portal for me. I miss him terribly and often; he was the one person in the world who made me feel truly safe. And I ask myself, safe against what?
And the answer comes back: Safe against evil. The only way I find to assuage the missing of him is to try to bring him back through the channel. He held doors for frustratingly slow walkers; smiled at cranky babies; listened patiently to the rambling tales of long-winded, lonely old men with genuine interest; fixed broken things with ingenuity; gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. When I do these things, we are together again.
Happy birthday in heaven, Richard Q. Becker. (And if you need a friend up there, ask for Quen--no one but business associates called him Richard.)