The greatest hoax perpetrated upon young people is that adults have it all figured out. In fact, in any examined life, which according to Socrates is the only life worth living, existential angst is an old friend who regularly returns to visit. I recently experienced such a call and, as is always refreshingly the case, re-examined what truly matters.
I was led back to the belief that money can be spent on only two things: stuff or experiences. Stuff, no matter what it is, always wears out or is thrown out and always demands more in money, time, or distraction. Experience, on the other hand, enriches rather than costs and endures rather than indentures with pleasure that is profound rather than superficial. I bounced from the depths of my angst back to the gentle guidance of that belief by recalling one experience and a particular moment.
My mother was a tough woman. While only those truly close knew the gentle heart within, her upbringing and then the raising of four rambunctious boys made her tougher than she sometimes needed to be. Rheumatoid arthritis led to one fused ankle, a brace on the other, 24-hour pain that would drop me to my knees, and then mood-altering medication that all made her tougher still.
While visiting my parents after I had just returned from two weeks in France and Belgium, she declared, in her way that often ended conversations, that every city in the world was the same. The next day, acting on an idea from my dear wife, I returned and told my Mom that I would like to pay for a week for the two of us in London to test her assumption. Three weeks later I had her in a Heathrow Airport wheel chair, then the London tube, on the top level of a bus, and then, for our first evening, in Covent Garden.
I noticed that there were more police about than I had seen in my previous visits. I inquired of a Bobby and then, without telling her why, we walked to the nearby Opera House. A large crowd was gathered around the grand entrance but I noticed the media further down the block. I asked a cameraman and was told exactly where to stand. Within five minutes the big black car arrived and out stepped Prince Phillip and the Queen. Her Majesty turned, not twenty feet away, and waved.
When my Mom called home, my Dad asked with a joking tone if we had seen the Queen yet. “Well,” giggled my Mom, who, for a sliver of a moment allowed me to see her as a ten-year-old, “As a matter of fact we did.”
The next day we toured more and I left her at the Victoria Fountain before Buckingham Castle while I cabbed to the Canadian embassy to pick up my pre-arranged tickets. We then walked past an enormous line, presented our tickets, and were led to the public gallery to watch Tony Blair masterfully handle the Prime Minister’s Questions.
There were plays, galleries, museums, the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, pints in pubs, and long dinners. One afternoon I positioned her with my camera in the middle of the street and told her exactly how to frame the shot. She worried about being hit but I assured her that no one would run over an old lady plus, at this spot, everyone knows what we’re up to. I then went to the cross walk and she snapped a perfect picture of me, the unrepentant Beatles fan, strolling across Abbey Road.
On our last afternoon she took a deep breath and with me holding much of her weight with her left arm as she pressed the cane with her right, we very, very slowly made our way up the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. About half way up, I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I said that we should stop and rest or, if it hurt too much, we could turn around.
“No, Johnny.” she said, “It’s not that. I just never in my wildest dreams thought that it was so beautiful or that I would ever, ever be here.”
Last week, when deciding whether to buy some stuff, actually a great big piece of stuff, my angst was relieved when in the midst of a long run down my Village’s riverside trail, I revisited how blessed I am to be surrounded by stunning physical beauty and a community of friends and family. Even more than that, though, was the St. Paul steps. The memory brought my run to a walk. I was reminded of what cannot be bought at a store or negotiated with a real estate agent. It reminded me too that mothers never stop teaching. Even when they’re gone, they are not really gone.
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