Saturday, June 21, 2008

Counterpoint and Bookeneds

A week ago today, on June 14th, I married the love of my life. A week from today, on June 28th, I will be standing atop a hillock, in the middle of a wheat field, overlooking the small Spanish town of Ambrona, about two hours’ drive from Madrid. I will be one of about thirty Americans there. An untold number of Spaniards and at least one Frenchman will be there as well. The wedding was four months in planning. Planning for this event, though much more informal, began more than twice as many months ago.

I have not been to Ambrona since I was eighteen, a newly–minted high school graduate. I spent much of that summer there. At the time, there were numerous pits in the ground, sectioned off by pegs and long white strings, and filled with lots of older folks, covered with sweat and clay dust and, as a consequence, a rather viscous mud. (Those ‘older folks’ were principally Cal upper-division and graduate anthropology students. If conditions were similar today, their peers would all seem quite young to me by comparison, such are the many years that have passed.)

We are meeting there to remember my dad, who passed away fifteen months ago. The location is one of the four big archeological sites he excavated. (The others are in the Omo river basin in southern Ethiopia, Isimila in Tanzania and Yarimburgaz in Turkey.) It is my expectation that people will be gathering in those places as well (two of the three other sites are being actively excavated).

My mother will be by my side. My sister, who could not join us will be with us in spirit. My wife, who is still recovering from our wedding, is staying home by choice; she is right that the event will be no honeymoon. The one day recuperating and three days we spent in Monterey following our joining was far from sufficient for either of us. We will be going to Hawai’i for ten days for our ‘official honeymoon’ on the Monday following the events in Spain. (I will be recording the entire affair so that both my sister and wife will be able to see what will have transpired.)

This is my trip. I knew last summer, just a few months after my dad died, that I would have to go. I need the closure. When I mentioned my intent to my mother, she thought it to be a wonderful idea and wanted to accompany me. We set a date. It was at which point I reached out to my dad’s friends and colleagues to see if any of them would like to join us... There will probably be at least sixty joining my mother and me on that little grassy hilltop. We are stunned and gratified. Many more who cannot join us have sent us brief remembrances and thoughts of my father to read aloud. I know there will be tears.

The site has long been quiet. No stakes nor pegs remain. The pits have long since silted up in the winter rains. Wheat grows over the shallow depressions that remain, all but hiding them. There is little evidence of what took place for all those years my father worked there save for a bumpy gravel road up to the site and a one room ‘museum’ that is as much a storehouse for some of the bigger fossils that were found there well more than two decades ago. Every once in a while, somebody comes by to check on it.

For me the trip will be frantic: I leave for Madrid Thursday morning, arriving Friday morning and drive to Siguenza, about twenty minutes from Ambrona, where I will stay for two nights. The memorial is on Saturday morning. On Sunday morning, I drive to Madrid and catch a flight back to the states. I arrive into San Francisco at 11PM. I then continue on to Hawai’i at 4PM the next day, Monday. Then I will relax. But the effort will be worth it. It will be a closure, a bookend, for myself, my mother and many of my dad‘s friends. My mother and many other people are more sanely going to stay and enjoy more of Spain, as well as England, France and Morocco, and other destinations.

And so the joy of my marriage is counter-pointed by the memories that are being evinced as a pack and prepare. I find myself at perhaps the most profound moment in my life, looking back with tears while looking ahead with smiles. Life is complicated.

Monday, March 10, 2008

One Year

In a few short hours it will be one year since my dad died. Remembering the aching slowness of the first few weeks following his passing, it seems amazing that the remainder could fly by so quickly.

We’ve survived our first Thanksgiving, our first Christmas and now we will live through the first anniversary. None has been pleasant for there has always been a ghost among us. One who may haunt each of us for the rest of our lives. For the dead-but-loved never really leave us. They stay deep inside of us, a chronic ache that adds poignancy to our experiences.

A few weeks ago, I was driving up to my mom’s home. I was driving my dad’s old white Honda Accord; part of my inheritance and a frequent reminder. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and I had the window rolled down. It was about the time my dad used to come home from work.

As I rolled up San Luis Avenue near her home, I espied my mother taking her daily stroll around her neighborhood. I tapped the horn twice ('beep beep') and called out 'Hi!' My mother looked up and saw the car and froze. She started to tremble. "Why it’s... it’s... It’s been so long! I’m so glad to see you!" And then she sort of shook her head and stared at me and she started to cry. She was still crying several minutes later after she finished her walk and we met back at her home.

No, those we love, those we need and cherish, never really leave us. They are there, right inside.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Half A World Away

A couple of weeks after my dad died, I allowed this blog to be indexed by search engines (notably Google. Theretofore, though this blog was publicly accessible, if you typed ‘F. Clark Howell’ into Google or Yahoo, these entries from this blog wouldn’t appear among the search results. As I wrote then, one of my impetuses for so doing was:

A number of people have commented that they think other people facing the loss of a loved one may find value in reading about my dad’s disease and death, and my experiences of it. One person even recommeded I formally publish the text. Again, I am flattered. If other people find useful information or solace herein, then this effort will have served a far greater purpose than I ever intended.

— (31 March 2007)

My encouragers have been proven right: On February 23, 2008, I received the following e-mail:

Hello Brian,

I just wanted to drop you a note to say thank you for your wonderful blog on your father's battle with cancer. My mother passed away of cancer just yesterday, after a four-month ordeal during which I was with her all the time. I had read your blog during that time, and it helped immensely to deal with what we were going through. I particularly appreciated the honesty with which you wrote, without romanticising the uglier aspects of dying.

You have my heartfelt thanks.

Best regards,

Sunil D'Monte
Bombay, India.

I do not know how many other people have stumbled across this blog, if any. But if only for Mr. D’Monte, I am amazed and gratified.