Ever since I got back from my book tour about two weeks ago, I’ve been in an emotional slump, a kind of low-grade depression that makes my limbs and heart feel heavy. I am not exactly sure what has caused it. Probably a combination of things.
Since the publication of my book at the end of August, I’ve been away from home more than I’ve been here and I missed almost all of my daughter’s first semester of 7th grade. Yet, on the road I made many new friends and learned a lot about my country’s history and culture (having been raised in France through most of high school, I never had a really good grasp on American history and tradition). I loved being in Oklahoma, in Georgia, in Tennessee. I loved spending time with other writers at book festivals and fund raising events. I especially enjoyed spending a week in my dad’s home state, Illinois, with old friends who are the closest thing to family I have. In Champaign-Urbana, at the university, I met an 88 year old WWII veteran who healed his emotional war wounds and gave his life meaning by playing in an army jazz band in occupied Japan after the war. He gave free concerts to the local Japanese population, and ended up teaching wind instruments to Japanese children until he went home when his time was up.
But back in New York, with the holidays fast approaching, I felt overcome by helplessness. I am helpless to give my daughter the big family she craves. We are three – my husband, Eyrna, and me. That’s it. My husband’s mother is not speaking to us because she was offended and mortified by one paragraph in my book that alluded to my husband’s troubled childhood in a home poisoned by alcoholism. I had thought she was accepting of this fact; I had thought she understood the ramifications and repercussions of what her sons had suffered through as children. I was wrong. In fact, it was my husband who insisted I deal with the topic head-on in my memoir. It was my husband who insisted I write the truth; after all, it was his childhood, it was his suffering I was writing about. This was our story; a kind of upside-down love story about how two damaged people in their early 30’s, two Adult Children of Alcoholics, loved each other enough to confront their fears of commitment and intimacy. It took a lot of work, but worth every minute. But one thing we can’t change, the one thing we can’t fix, is the decimation of our families – the fact that we are alone. On the holidays, we are three.
Earlier this month, I spent two days at a symposium with the writer Tim O’Brien, a veteran of Vietnam. He went to the war because he was drafted, an average young man with no special talent or desire for war. But he was afraid to humiliate his family, especially his father, who was a veteran himself. All his life Tim O’Brien has wanted his father to approve of him, to understand him. Now, at age 63, he is a father for the first time, with two small sons, 4 and 6, whom he loves to distraction. This new development, fairly late in his life, has left him with a stunned look. The devotion and overwhelming love he feels for his boys has come as an utter shock to him. He is a changed man. He sees meaning where he used to see none. Now, his greatest worry is his age; that he will not be there for his boys when they reach adulthood; that he will not be there to counsel them and offer them the unconditional love he himself has never known.
I went to see my former Taekwondo master, Mr. Bill, last Tuesday. He is clinging to life by a thin, silvery thread. I try to see him at least once a week, but that was hard while I was on the road. I bring him lunch, sushi platters or Chinese delicacies. On the mornings of the days I plan to visit him, I am gripped by anxiety, by discomfort, by fear. I never can be sure of his condition. This fear is dispelled the minute I arrive at his warm, cozy apartment, which smells of the pine candles he burns. While his earthly body disintegrates, his aura seems to grow stronger and stronger, so that he practically glows. I never much believed in auras and any kind of physical manifestation of the spirit, but I do now. Mr. Bill used to have a walker to get from his armchair to the dining table, a question of a few feet, but now he is on prednisone, a steroid drug used mostly by arthritis patients. It gives him the shakes, but at least he can walk.
We sit across from each other at the small dining table and talk while we eat. He says this is only one realm of existence. He says death is in fact just a transition. He says the spirit is an arrow and when it is released, it is fired straight into God, which is the Center of all things. He will become one with the Universe, of this he is sure. But, he confesses, he still has moments of overwhelming fear. On Tuesday he said, “I’ve been afraid my whole life.”
I met him when he was in perfect physical condition, a Sixth Dan Black Belt at the Richard Chun Taekwondo School. He taught me from my first day, all the way through my Black Belt test. Even though he had cancer and was in great pain, he showed up. He showed up and taught us until he couldn’t anymore. Then he showed up and sat and watched while another master took the class. Then, finally, he could only muster up the strength to come to the dojang once a week. Now, we go to him. We take turns, or go in pairs.
“I’ve been afraid my whole life.” This was hard for me to ingest. He seemed so strong, so fearless. Someone who could recognize the truth from bullshit a mile away. He told me something I really never knew: The best years of his life were the five years he played minor league baseball, first in New Jersey, then down south. This was the old south of racism and segregation, where he could not sleep in the same hotel as his white teammates.
What he didn’t have, what the major league players have that he didn’t have, he said, was stamina. What he could do in the first inning, these guys can still do in the ninth. That was the difference. That is the difference between being average, and being truly great.
“You have an inquisitive mind,” he told me, “your mind is going all the time, asking questions.” I told him that very questioning is making it hard for me to live in a state of serenity. Worrying about the future, obsessing about the past, what I should’ve done differently. How I’m terrified about money; how I know I need a bigger apartment for my daughter, who is growing up and needs privacy. I think I am failing as a parent, because I can’t supply the things she thinks she wants.
“All you need to do is accept that everything is exactly as it is meant to be. All that judging of yourself, it serves no purpose. The only thing that matters is right now, this moment.”
And because I believe him, because he has honored me with the intimate and personal sharing of his slow, painful slipping away, in that moment, I feel nothing but peace and serenity. Unfortunately, by the next morning, I’m back to my low-grade depression, to my worrying about the future, and agonizing over the choices I’ve made in the past.
So today is Thanksgiving. I called Mr. Bill this morning and thanked him for allowing me to be a part of his life. For his words of wisdom that fill me with hope and awe. For our Thanksgiving feast, there will be three of us in our apartment that is too small. And so what? My life is full of love.