When I was a kid I regularly asked my parents to buy a video camera so I could experiment with making home movies. I had many ideas for characters, scenes, angles and even edits I would do, just sure it would result in hours of entertainment for family and friends. I also suspect there was also a part of me that wanted to capture on tape the times when my dad had his energy and playfulness, knowing that his ongoing cancer treatments meant plenty of other times when he wouldn't.
The answer was always no — it was a relatively big expense back then and not a high priority, all things considered — and so I had to let go of my filmmaking ambitions. But I still loved recording things, and would combine multiple tape recorders to make complex mixes and edits of conversations, songs and the world happening around me.
That enjoyment of working with audio (and, later once I could afford my own equipment, video) recordings of real life has stayed with me, and it's one of my favorite media for storytelling. I've soaked in the practices and personalities of radio and broadcast programs, I've listened to and produced podcasts since they were a thing, I've produced, edited or done voiceover work for various audio programs over the years, and I've come to appreciate the deep connection, history and emotion that comes out in the work of oral history projects like StoryCorps. The words people choose, the ones they avoid, the pauses, the chuckles, the wavering and breaks, the highs and lows...they all reveal so much about us.
Today marks two years since my mom passed away from her own struggle with cancer. But it also marks three years since I got to do the audio interview of a lifetime, with my mom.
As 2017 came to a close we didn't know how much time we had left together, but I knew there might be fewer times in the months ahead when she'd be fully herself and able to sit for an extended conversation "on the record." I approached her about the possibility delicately, mindful that she typically eschewed exercises in public self-examination, so I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to it by email, with only a little hesitation: "Interview is fine as time permits. Not sure exactly what you want to collect but I’ll do it. I might need a glass of wine."
Our dog has a drinking problem. That is, when she drinks water there is something in the way her throat works that causes her to regurgitate some or all of the water soon after. In her younger years she would throw up quietly and move on. As she's aged and as her health worsens, it sounds more like a loud, old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the same time. We are home all the time now, and there is nowhere in the house that she can't be heard.
"Oh, Chloe," we say, adjusting her medications, knowing we will also have to say goodbye to her soon.
We clean up the puddles left behind with one of a constantly rotating pile of "Chloe towels," old bath towels called back into service for mopping up slobber. There are discussions and pointed glances around how long a dog towel is meant to last before requiring laundering. You can refold a towel multiple times to make it last across throw-up events, but woe is the one who grabs a heavily used towel in the wrong spot.
Sleep is harder when there is an old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the foot of your bed. Sleep was already hard. At five years old our daughter has slept soundly through the night for a long time, but before the pandemic my body was only just starting to trust this reality. It remembers the early months of sleepless nights, the early years of figuring out sleep patterns and rituals that might or might not last. It has been listening for the sounds of a child wandering the halls in the night, needing a back rub or a book read aloud or a cuddle back to sleep. It has been saying, "don't get too comfortable" as it waits to be needed again. And now it says "don't get too comfortable" as it reminds me of what's happening in the world.
I pretended for a while that when the election was over we might sleep more soundly. Election day has come and gone but its many ghosts remain to haunt us. The yard signs around us proclaiming "we support a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, lying narcissist bully as our leader" have come down but the people who put them there remain. They are our neighbors, our community leaders, our elected officials. We co-exist, but we don't live in the same world. I am trained to look for common ground and my values would dictate that I avoid contributing to further division, but most days I just feel angry or upset. How could they?
It is hard to see the way forward for my country. All we have to do is swim through the fog of hundreds of years of white supremacy and fundamental disagreements about what's factual and true to find some solid ground. I lay awake practicing my backstroke in my mind. I don't get anywhere, and the fog closes in.
One morning recently as my preschooler daughter climbed in to her customary spot for breakfast, she remarked out of nowhere, "now you don't have any family left!"
It only took a moment to clarify that she was putting together my mom's recent death with knowing my dad had died when I was 10 years old, and realizing both of my parents were gone. She said it in the same way as when she notices that furniture is unexpectedly repositioned or that some part of her bedtime routine is missed, seemingly unaware of the emotional content of her observation.
In that moment I mostly parented through (around?) the emotion by further clarifying with her that of course I still have family, between her and my wife, my sister and her family, my wife's family, my various aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, the many friends who have become chosen family to us, and on and on.
Part of me wanted to show my daughter just how long the list was, so that I could simply reaffirm to myself that I am not without family.
But the awareness of being without both parents haunted me through the rest of the day and into that night's dreams. I guess it's been haunting me on and off for the last three months after saying goodbye to my mom. Maybe in some ways the prospect of it has been haunting me for more than 30 years after my dad's death.
My mom, Cynthia Hardie, passed away on Friday December 7th, 2018.
There's so much to say about this, what she means to me, who she was in the world, and what the last few weeks, months and years have been like as she dealt with cancer...and yet for now I am without any good words. I am just deeply sad.
Her obituary, written by a longtime family friend, was published in today's Chicago Tribune. I'm including the full text below.
Goodbye, mom. I love you.
Cynthia Engle Hardie, modest but not self deprecating, might have devoted a wall to vanity in her spacious condo on Chicago's Gold Coast. Photos of famous people shaking her hand. Awards for her impressive work in the field of public relations. Thank-you notes for her philanthropy. A Cubs banner, signaling faith in a team that regularly broke her heart. Exotica from her world travels. But instead of framed kudos, when she died December 7, 2018, she left an imposing array of better things.
This Friday, when you're gathered with friends and family trying to figure out what to do with yourselves after that meal, consider participating in the National Day of Listening. It's an opportunity to hear and record the stories that we all have to share about our lives, our greatest and hardest moments, and the lessons we've learned. (And as some have noted recently in Richmond, the local community could benefit from having a better sense of our own narrative.)
All it takes is some kind of simple audio recording device, a good list of questions to get you started, and some time. And it's a part of the larger oral history project that is StoryCorps, so there are some neat opportunities to share what you capture with a wider audience, if you want.
If you're in the Richmond area and want to send me some of what you record, I'll consider putting it together into an episode of the Richmond News Review podcast.
As I was preparing to graduate from college, I had already decided that I would be staying in the same town (Richmond) for the foreseeable future, and so I was a spectator to the strange but customary phenomenon of having all of my friends from the past four years pack up and prepare to leave town. In many cases they were good friends - loved ones with whom I had experienced some of the most challenging and growing years of my life so far. They knew me, and I knew them, and we had found a rhythm together in that bubble of academia. In other cases, they were people who I hadn't really had time to fully know despite wanting to, and watched whatever sense of possibility that existed there fade away as they went. At the time I had a feeling in my gut that it just wasn't right, wasn't natural to spend so much time building community with others only to see it scattered to the wind of change blown forth by the fairly arbitrary milestone of graduation day.
Since them I've come to wonder with even more bewilderment why we so often leave the communities that love us. We spend so much of our lives trying to find our identities, trying to establish who we are in a given context, trying to find people we can connect to, bond with, lean on. Why do we then also seem to be able to so quickly give those things up because of a job change, a shift in our passions, a thought of journeying across the state, the region, the country, the world to find what we're looking for? Continue reading "Why do we leave the communities that love us?"→
It was 30 years ago this month that I was born into the world. I celebrate the landbase that sustains me, my health, my successes and failures, my friends and loved ones, my past and future, the hope that drives me, and so much more.
And so here I am, in August of 2007. As E.B. White said, "I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult."
From 1962 to 1965, well before I was born, my father served in the U.S. Army. Most of his time was in Germany based at Bad Aibling Station, a military intelligence listening post, which was closed in 2002. During this time he wrote many letters and postcards to my grandparents and other family members, which they took care to preserve. In 2001, I took the time to transcribe these letters into a database and then into a navigable set of HTML documents. Despite some trepidation about making them globally public, I'm now posting these letters on my website in hopes that they will be interesting or useful to visitors here. As I mention in my editor's notes, it was pretty amazing for me to learn about my father through this medium, and to follow his adventures which, in some ways, I have mirrored.
The boy, trying to ignore the reoccurring dull pain in his left side, brought his hands together in front of his face, and held them there, barely touching. He moved his index fingers together and smiled at the brief moment before they touched, when each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact.
The girl, several hundred miles away and an hour from the nearest hospital, dropped her shovel and fell back into the sand screaming in terror from the pressure in her skull. Even when mommy scooped her up and held her tight and told her it would be okay, she could not stop screaming. She cried because it hurt and she did not understand.
The old woman ran her fingers over the smooth cover of the book on her bedside table, comforted at its presence though she could not see its pages. She had always had books near her, as a mother, as a teacher, and as a grandmother, and now she wanted to have one ready to read as soon as she got her strength back. She sighed at hearing the birds outside her window eating from the feeder down below, wishing she could see them, imagining that she did. She wondered if any of the friends or family who had come to say goodbye would remember to fill it again.
The old man nodded his head slowly as he was led past his wife's casket. He briefly ran his fingers over its (almost inappropriately) shiny wood surface, not so long as to acknowledge fully this loss, but just long enough to say "I know you don't belong in there." After sixty-five years together in a world such as this, it did not seem possible that he was breathing while she was not. He thought about how much work there was to do, and how he just wanted to take a nap, wondering if she would be there when he awoke.
The boy glanced up only briefly at his mother, but then back to the dashboard, and then out the windshield to the car in front of them. Briefly, the flashing of the other car's turn signal again came in sync with the clicking noise coming from their own, but then quickly went off into its own cycle. Why not make all car turn signals click with the same rhythm? He giggled quietly at the (somehow unsatisfying) answer to his question as he pictured a great, unified clicking noise on all the streets of all the world. Then, the car turned and it was quiet again.
The girl thought about her father's answer to her question as they kept walking: "Because he is a bad man, and he doesn't deserve it." He hadn't looked like a bad man. He had startled them a bit and he looked kind of dirty, but mostly he looked tired and hungry, sitting in that doorway covered in his blankets and newspapers. The girl could not know about the "bad" man's lung cancer, or that he could only sleep in that doorway because it was Sunday, or that she would be startled by quite a few more like him in her lifetime. But she quietly decided that she would have given him some money, if she had any. So what if he didn't deserve it?
The man tried to look deeply into his wife's sad and cautious eyes, but with every word he spoke he realized more that the depth he sought would have to be recreated rather than rediscovered. The horror would never quite leave him, that he had somehow justified a few moments of unworthy pleasure for this numbing pain he had brought into their marriage. As he looked at the woman he loved - perhaps more so than he loved himself? - he promised that, if she could forgive him, he would learn how to love all over again.
The woman laughed beautifully and fully as she tried to cover her husband in the leaves they had gathered, ignoring the itching against her skin and the damp cold on her fingers. They tossed each other around gently and finally lay side by side in the messy pile they had created. They drew close as she wrapped her arm around his chest and he put his hand in the small of her back. She looked intently up at the rounded space of his neck, wondering if she could curl up in that space and go to sleep. She had told him that she forgave him many times, and they had oddly never stopped saying "I love you." But it was only now that she fully appreciated the intensity and depth of the love with which they had covered each other, the forgiveness and pain inherent in it, and the contentment of knowing that it would survive and shape them forever.
With the noise of the reception now off in the distance, the man and the woman, the boy and the girl, stood facing each other, hands raised and each with palms nervously but firmly pressed against the other's. It was a perfect darkness and the temperature let them forget about their skin and their balance and their mass. They looked deeply, smiling at the joy of this night and of these several years together. Each wondered how they met, how this moment came to be, and each looked for signs about what it would mean to spend the rest of their lives together. As their faces neared, each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact. Moments before the physical touch, another kind of touch that explains everything engulfed them both.