LIFE: When does it all go south?

All that’s left of my parents are photos. I sort through them at various points of the year for reasons I can’t quite explain. It’s not that I’m missing them and then I decide to look at pictures. When I miss my parents, that grief usually hits at inopportune times (like grocery shopping) and I don’t follow it up by looking at photos because that would be dramatic. Rather, I simply sit with the sense of loss and wait for it to wash over again. No, I look through old photos because I feel compelled to know a story that I can no longer know. I am searching for answers to questions no one can answer anymore. That is, to me, perhaps the hardest part of loss… the death of story telling.

My mom’s pictures are fascinating, in particular. Most of the photos in her early twenties she is strikingly beautiful yet seems unsure of herself. She stares at the camera blankly in a gorgeous outfit.

This scenario is repeated in her photos over and again. I wonder if she felt lost or simply, tired of running. She had moved from Brazil to Australia to various parts of the US in a matter of years looking for a better life. She escaped the perils of childhood poverty, undocumented immigrant hardships and even missed being a passenger on a fatal plane crash by minutes. It seemed she carried the weight of her past life everywhere she went and her eyes told the story.

Mom, early 20s (on right)
Engagement party

By her mid twenties, the big beaming smile she would become known for, begins to peek out. By the time my dad enters the picture, when she is 26, she is smiling wide all the time. Their early marriage photos seem to be where my parents are the happiest. Up until I’m about age six or seven.

I have no doubt that my parents were the love of each other’s lives (she told me so on her death bed). I also have no doubt that their lives did not pan out the way they intended and that in the end, they were simply caught in the routine of slowly fading out. They were simply waiting for life to be less… hard. Cue “Street Spirit” by Radiohead…

Around the mid eighties, my mother’s smile starts to fade in photos. My dad stares blankly at times. My brother and I seem unphased and happy, however. We are clearly spastic — you can see it in each picture. There’s always something hammy going on between Nico and I. Perhaps this is why my mom seems slightly wide eyed and my father seems bored. We were a handful.

I set the stage with all this pretext because I often wonder, “Where did it all go south?” Where did it go south for my parents as it does for so many? At what point does the mundane envelop life like a unescapable tidal wave? When does buying a real Christmas tree for the family seem like a hassle and years later, you finally devolve into not bothering with a tree at all? Where do the dreams that you tossed around during engagement and the momentum of early union fade into just doing the same shit every night because… well, that’s what we do around here.

The Newlyweds by Matt Wignall

I am newly wed and 37. I am far beyond the age my mother was when she married my father, starry eyed and full of dreams. Far beyond the age when they began to realize that kids were perhaps not as dreamy as they seemed. I remember once saying to my mother, “Mom, I don’t think I want kids.” She deadpanned, “Good, they’re a lot of work.” I laughed, but I sensed the truth in her words, and I loved that she said it. Ballsy. That’s where I get it from.

That said, having lost them both before the age of 62 and knowing how short life is — I am obsessed with living a life that does not go south. It is part of why I moved to London at 19, dropped out of school repeatedly (11-year-plan FTW) and took risks I was never raised to take (people with messed up resumes, holla!). I seem hard wired to avoid living a life that slowly fades out.

The fear of the mundane compels me like the fear of God.

I realize that somewhere along the way, my mother who dreamed of regularly attending the opera and symphony opted out of ever buying tickets. Somewhere along the way, my father who always wanted to go to Australia, never made a plan to get there and died with a coffee table book of Australia sitting on my piano not far from his lifeless body. Somewhere along the way, all of their “Wouldn’t it be great ifs…” fell like ashes from fireworks.

My father’s watch

My only guess into how this happened is that… nothing happened. The wheel of life spun with no counter action inserted to point it in a different direction. Plans were made but never followed through because life, my friends, is exhausting. I also think that the pressure to conform eclipsed certain goals. At some point, pursuing dreams becomes replaced with checking off boxes on the societal norms checklist. Get married? Check. Buy a house? Check. Have a kid? Check. Have another? Check. Rinse and repeat.

Now, I say all of this because I don’t fully understand convention while I do understand wanting to create a home. I don’t entirely crave convention and to some extent, my parents didn’t… but they pursued it because that’s what you do here in America. (How fitting that the country that birthed the assembly line, has turned us into creatures of routine.) And while I identify more with George Clooney in Up in the Air than with George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life — even I feel the pressure of the rat race and it frightens me.

On my mother’s death bed, we were filling out this Q&A book called Memento where you can ask someone questions about their life. I asked her if she had any regrets. She wistfully looked off and said in her thick Brazilian accent, “I don’t feel like I did enough with my life. I wish I would have done more. I wish… I wish I would have opened a Mexican restaurant.” Dealing with the regrets of someone on their death bed is a type of heavy I don’t wish on anyone. I took her hand and said, “You know mom, you did a lot… because you had me and I have done a lot of crazy things. I just got back from speaking in Spain and was even on TV last week. Isn’t that nuts? That’s your legacy. You DID do big things.” She smiled and agreed but in the back of her eyes, I could still see the tinge of regret.

What are your dreams? What will you do differently tomorrow? What can you do differently today?