My parents are getting old; even by our new techno-medically induced standards, at ninety-seven and eighty-eight, they’re really getting old. They still live in the same suburban New Jersey home where I grew up. I’m four hours away in central New York, that rust belt of broken down towns and tenuous local economies.
Sometimes I worry about my parents a lot; always I worry at least a little. I worry about everything from dishonest plumbers to slippery front steps and basement stairs. But somehow they keep going. When serious medical concerns come and go, they continue to prop each other up.
My parents met when my mother was invited to my father’s sister’s wedding next door to where she lived in the Bronx. My father was home on leave from the Philippines, and when he returned to duty they corresponded in letters now neatly bundled in the attic. They had three kids right away, left the city for New Jersey and years later had another child, me.
I grew up in the 70s, before the Garden State came into its own, when we were still ashamed to be New Jerseyans. In high school it was always a source of discontent; the sameness, the same lack of identity in every north Jersey town wore me out. So I left and went to the West and worked on my superior attitude. I rhapsodized about the openness, the big blue sky, later the feeling I got from raising my kids in such a safe place. My family put up with running commentary about Jersey’s dirty air and overcrowding when I came for visits.
But by the time I finished graduate school I was ready to leave the rural West; accompanying the big sky was a rampant conservatism that I just couldn’t even understand. So there I was at 42 years old, running away to home in a way, but things had changed. I am now the middle aged child of really old parents, not the overindulged much younger one.
Sitting on my parents’ couch I overheard my father say something that I know I’ll always keep with me, as sappy and nostalgic as that might sound. As he bade my mother goodnight, he said “goodnight my dear; dream only of me.” With those words, I, the interloper on the couch, was reminded that there really is so much more to life that what we see on the surface as we rush every day from one important thing to another: as we fill our lives with the trappings of success.
I believe sometimes it’s the things we overhear that have the greatest impact on us. I think when we’re reminded inadvertently that people love each other profoundly we gain access to something important we can remember when we worry or become disgruntled in this time of fear. I believe that right now in history it’s more important than ever to overhear because we might be thrilled and inspired with what our ears pick up.