Awakening before sunrise, the darkness and quiet surrounding me, no sound other than the slow and steady breathing of my wife, sleeping beside me. Quietly I tiptoe into the bathroom, carefully closing the door so you can’t hear so much as the sound of the latch. There is a chill in the air, raising goosebumps on my skin, which are immediately soothed by the comfort of a hot shower. Then, making my way to the closet, I put on my most comfortable jeans and a dress shirt, then sneak out to the kitchen, brew my coffee, grab my suitcase as it rolls behind me to the car, and then again to the airport shuttle bus, through security, and on to the gate.
The Smell of Jet Fuel
My much anticipated break from business travel is over, and as I stand on the jet bridge behind others, I smell the jet fuel and hear the sounds of an airport. Making my way to my seat, I notice no one looks anyone in the eye. They are each in their own world, off to their next adventure.
I’ll Answer Later
My adventure led me last week to San Francisco, to do some prep work for our upcoming artist convention in April. Just as I started the engine of my rental car in the parking garage, my vibrating phone got my attention. If I answer now, I’ll be off schedule, I’m thinking, so I’ll call later. But a premonition I’d had about my mother while I was on the airplane made me glance at the phone, and the word “Mom” was on the screen. So I turned the car off to answer.
My brother is on the phone, sounding panicked — something’s wrong with Mom, she’s fumbling and appears disoriented. “Hang up and call 911 right now.” Click.
Call 911 Now!
The story sounded too familiar. Two years ago my wife had noticed the same fumbling and disorientation in a family friend she was visiting, and her instantly calling 911 ended up saving the woman’s life. A brain tumor was discovered and immediate surgery was needed. And after losing my friend Sean to a stroke, my mind was reeling. After waiting a few minutes to give my brother time to call, I tried and tried to get through but got only a busy signal. That went on for a few hours. All I could think was that 911 told him not to hang up the phone and he left it off the hook.
Panicked, I phoned family members in the area, not entirely sure 911 had been called, and needing feet on the ground immediately to step in and help. Feeling helpless — there was no one else I could call, no information coming in, and yet I had to drive to meetings in San Francisco and try to keep my cool.
Unable to Concentrate
Arriving at the De Young Museum to explore some possibilities and painting locations, I see my colleagues Tom and Ali and a traffic/parking consultant who is helping us determine the best times to visit our chosen locations. I alert them to the fact we might be interrupted at any time, and we go about our business. But my mind isn’t on work, which suddenly seems meaningless. I can’t focus, I can’t concentrate, and I’m wondering how I’m going to get from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale in a split second.
Of course, my mind is thinking the worst. It’s not going to be good news, knowing my wonderful mom is 92, frail, and dealing with some other health issues. If it’s a stroke, this could be the end. Tears well up in my eyes, and I turn around to wipe them, trying not to let others notice I’m tearing up.
My Worst Fears Confirmed
While we’re discussing parking, my phone rings in mid-sentence. It’s my brother, saying Mom has had a stroke, the MRI shows a giant clot in her brain, and she is in surgery now. “Say your prayers,” he says, and I utter them quietly after he hangs up.
Now that my fears are confirmed, I flash back to New Year’s week, when we were together. Every goodbye brings the thought that maybe this is the last time we see one another. Perhaps this time it may be true. I keep praying quietly to myself while trying to stay engaged in the meeting.
Beauty and Fear at the Same Moment
We drive through Lands End, right by the Legion of Honor art museum, where the giant cedar trees line a view of the ocean, with a distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is one of the most beautiful spots I could ever imagine painting in my life, and I painted there many times when I lived in San Francisco. Here I am again, trying to enjoy the view and determine if it’s a painting spot for the convention. Again, the phone rings.
An Unexpected Surprise
My brother tells me Mom is out of surgery, that they went in through her veins and pulled the clot out, and he hands the phone to Mom. And though she’s groggy, she starts talking to me as if nothing happened. She doesn’t remember a thing, and, typical grandma fashion, she is asking me about my son, who had just had a minor surgery. We talk, we hang up. All is well.
Act Fast, Don’t Wait
As it turns out, there is about a two-hour window for stroke victims, and, thanks to my brother being there at the right time, taking swift action, and EMS getting her to the right hospital when the surgeon who does this procedure happened to be there (he lives 30 minutes away), they got the clot out before it had done any noticeable damage.
My mom had just experienced a miracle. Miracle of medicine, miracle of timing, miracle of the right hospital that happens to do this procedure, and miracle of prayer.
It’s amazing to me how in a single instant, the mind compresses to focus on what’s important, and pushes out all the little things that don’t matter.
As a parent, my kids roll their eyes at me, sometimes think I’m stupid, give me grief for things that bother them, and there are moments when I can feel their disgust. And I have to admit that as an adult child of aging parents, I’m often frustrated by their decisions, and it’s easy to be critical, to get upset, and to be bothered or annoyed.
Yet a single phone call in a split second pushed all of that aside and distilled what is truly important.
I can understand estrangement in some cases because parents or family members have done horrific things, making avoidance the best policy. Yet estrangement because of differing opinions, anger over the way you were raised, anger over little things that become amplified and become big things over years of repetition is hard for me to understand.
Doing the Best We Can
As a parent, I do what I know and I try to do the best that I can. Yet I tell my kids to save their money for therapy, because I’m sure something will bug them when they are adults. The fact that I dragged them to art museums, or made them do their homework, or made them get jobs when their friends didn’t have to work.
And in spite of all the things my brothers and I could find wrong with our own parents and their decisions at the time they were raising us, all those rolled eyes and moments of annoyance disappear when that phone call comes in. I know in my heart they did the best they knew how to do, and though we all may think other families are perfect, my guess is that few are.
I suppose my point in all of this is to just say that I’m grateful I could talk to my mom one more time when I thought I never would, and that I don’t know how many more hours, days, weeks, years, or decades I’ll have my parents and my family members. I need to move on beyond the wounds, be forgiving, accept them for who they are, and give them as much time and attention as I can. Whatever the issues: Move on, get over it.
The Last Thing I See
When I’m on my own deathbed, I don’t need my big screen TV or my favorite painting or some physical object. I need the hands of my family touching my hands, and I want their faces to be the last thing I see before seeing the face of God.
My friend Skip once told me, “I’d give up my entire bank account, my home, my car, and everything I own just to have one more half hour with my mom or dad. You’re lucky to have them. Make sure you spend time with them while you can.”
I’ve been to too many funerals where sobbing family members have uttered the words “I wish I’d … spent more time, talked to them more, listened more, visited more.”
Today is the day to reach out … touch base … visit … hug … listen … because tomorrow you may get a call.
Get It Done Today
It’s also a reminder to us all that we may, in an unexpected instant, become the victim of a health problem. Not only do we need to connect with those we love, we need to boldly not allow anything to get in the way of our joy, and do the things we want to do, even if there is some fear attached. Someday may never come, so do those things today. Take some risks to enrich your life, and don’t let anything get in the way. Tomorrow may not come.
PS: My friend Tony Bennett made a San Francisco song famous, and, though the city is getting some negative publicity and facing some challenges — some of which I saw — it remains a magical place. I left my heart there, too. I lived there for 10 years, and visiting recently filled my heart with memories of why I love that place so much. It may be one of the most amazing places an artist can visit, and I’d live there again, even now. I’ll return in April for our Plein Air Convention and am excited to do so, because it will be a magical event in a magical place. By the way, the De Young Museum will have a Monet: The Late Years exhibition while we are there, and it’s sure to sell out. So if you’re going, and want to see it, as I do, order your tickets early.