(It may help to remember that I was an eighteen-year-old married man working for the Ministry of Works (M.O.W.) at road construction in New Zealand when this story takes place.
It is 1970. A gray wintery day at the depot where we'd gathered for morning smoko.
I’d been called to the phone and made a joke about it with my workmates.
It was no joke, though. It was my sister on the telephone.
That morning, Mom had collapsed and been rushed to hospital, could I please come right away.)
My mother had had a stroke.
It was a few days before they let me see her and when I did, it was a shock. Her hair had turned white. Her unseeing eyes stared straight ahead. She chewed her tongue constantly and didn’t speak or smile, didn’t change her expression.
She didn’t even know I was there.
It was a bad stroke they said, triggering an aneurism that destroyed most of her brain. We think, we’re not sure because there’s no response but we know she’s blind as well as paralyzed blah blah blah because I couldn’t hear what they were saying to me by then, nor barely see through my tears, all I knew was that my mother wasn’t there anymore.
(She survived for six months in this condition, driving my father nearly insane from grief and lack of sleep, until she departed this world peacefully one night while Dad held her hand and cried. She was thirty-six-years-old.)
Her illness meant the end of my time at the M.O.W., for within a month of Mom going into hospital, Dad asked me to come help him at his little animation studio so that he could have more time to attend to Mom. He went to the hospital every day and back again every night.
There was another reason that he asked me to work for him.
Mom had made him promise.
"She wanted to get you out of the ditches," Dad said to me. “She wanted you to be an artist.” Unknown to me, they’d spoken of it only a few months before she had her stroke. (A mother’s intuition? Did she know she wasn’t long for this world?) My mother was worried about me becoming too rough and tumble working where I did, where the men were men with plenty of cursing and smoking and drinking and such, and she made Dad promise that if I showed ability and desire, he should help me get started as an artist.
“With her being sick, I thought she’d like to know that we’ve begun,” said my father. Dad referred to mom as being sick, as if she merely had a cold or the flu, and wasn’t laying in a hospital bed paralyzed with half her brain destroyed. It was his way of dealing with it. He reached up (I was taller than he, had been since I was fourteen), and placed the palm of his hand against my cheek, studying my face with his soft, Texas sagebrush eyes. His eyes weren’t blue as they used to be, they were red as they’d become lately, for it’s impossible to look after two teenage children at home (my younger sister and brother) and animate films singlehandedly while visiting your dying wife twice a day, without getting a little red-eyed.
He said softly, “She was thinking of you, son. She loved you dearly.”
I think when my father said that something fundamentally changed between us. Like it was okay for him to love me, and me to love him, with the dying woman we both loved showing us the way. It wasn’t easy, for my dad and I had somehow got off on the wrong track since coming to New Zealand. We were always at loggerheads. We never seemed to agree about anything.
Now we stood together pondering a dying wife’s last request, a mother’s hope for her son.
And with this pondering came understanding.
Of course, every father and son that ever was or ever will be, if they’re lucky enough reach such a moment together and come to terms with who they are, but I believe with all my heart that my mother reached out with love from beyond her deathly illness to help cure the illness between my father and myself, and, incidentally, set me upon my course as an animator.
Love is that powerful.