Jean Jacques Rousseau observed human beings are born free but everywhere they are in chains. The chains Rousseau spoke of were in one sense real and in another sense figurative and imaginary: chains are real in the sense that in order to live in society people necessarily give up some of their freedom. (Abraham Lincoln observed perfect liberty for the wolves means death to the sheep.) In terms of imaginary chains—and that’s what they are, imaginary—when we believe our tribe (based on either race, ethnicity, gender, or religion) is best we inevitably exclude others; and in the process of excluding others society repeats the same tired pattern of fear-based pointless conflict, violence and dysfunction that continues plaguing humanity preventing it from progressing and enjoying peace.
The anniversary of my mom’s death is fast approaching. I wrote this piece twenty years ago and wanted to share it.
Looking back on my life I can barely recall a time when mom wasn’t sick or ailing in some measure. Don’t get me wrong I’ve got plenty of fond memories. In particular, I miss how she’d affectionately say things like “Rick, you’re such a geek” after I’d share one of my peculiar insights into life’s meaning when I was a kid. Another memory that comes to mind is when I brought home Nintendo Golf. To play the game you had to swing a golf-club controller to hit the ball on the screen. Both of my parents were hardcore golfers so it didn’t take much to convince them to give the game a try. Dad liked it immediately. When he got to the third tee he decided he wanted to hit the ball a little further so he swung the controller a little bit faster and in the process drove the club straight through a light fixture in the ceiling.
He was mortified.
I laughed so hard I could barely breathe (I actually fell to the ground). My dad was embarrassed by it all. Laughing at him didn’t help things. He wanted blood. You could see it in his eyes. He was a father of the old-school: one of those spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child types, a man expecting automatic respect and deference, a man who could not laugh at himself. And that’s why I found the situation so uncontrollably funny. (I felt like one of the palace guards from Monty Python’s Life of Bryan who couldn’t stop laughing because the governor kept saying the name Biggus Dickus to him over and over and over again.) If it weren’t for mom dad would’ve killed me with that fake golf club.
She was an amazing woman. I went through something akin to a mid-life crisis around the age of twelve. I specifically remember having a conversation with her on how life for me was irrevocably changing. (And I don’t mean changing in the sense hair started growing in places it hadn’t before.) I meant change in that I remained the same while everyone seemed to be growing more complicated; life was becoming inexplicably and un-necessarily harder; and peers—especially girls—made even less sense to me than before. She didn’t offer advice or attempt to explain away what I was feeling. I remember the exact words she spoke to me in the kitchen during that conversation 37 years ago. “You still want to be a kid. I understand.” She was right.
I was the last of four kids to move out. I returned to visit only infrequently, and when I did, it wasn’t to visit my parents so much as to spend time with the neglected family cat or to play my drum set. I took my parents entirely for granted. I assumed they’d always be there. Perhaps that’s what made accepting mom’s death all the more difficult?
I couldn’t comprehend the loss.
I don’t believe it. That’s how I responded after learning she had cancer. I simply couldn’t believe it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must’ve thought disease and death only affected other people. Many of us—including me—just don’t learn the lessons childhood should teach us through the countless bumps, bruises and band-aids.
We are mortal.
Ignoring the fact we die prevents us from living realistically; and when we dodge the balls life throws at us we not only ignore reality’s perils we fail to explore its possibilities.
Certainly subtle hints of mom’s decline were visible (if only a person knew what to look for). Unfortunately the cancer continued growing undetected until the most terrible and obvious symptoms of the disease expressed themselves. Though the effects of cancer are very real, the lightness with which people treat it never fails to astound me—especially in the case of smoking related cancer. People justify a stupid habit like smoking by appealing to the myth of the ancient smoking uncle or that it’ll never happen to me.
What makes you so special? Nothing.
When you rationalize away the danger you disarm yourself and empower the disease and its known causes. And guess what? You may not know it but the decisions you’re making today have future consequences for your family (some members you may not even have met yet). Mom never did get to hold even one of my three sons. She would’ve adored them. They’re geeks like me.
Some Bad News
After spending several hours reading in a quiet corner of the university’s main library, I packed up my things and headed home for supper. Passing through the heavy silver doors of the library’s front entrance I entered the winter night invigorated by the cold. Snow blanketed the ground a foot deep in every direction. Jumping from one foot impression to the next I reached my rusted out Chevrolet Malibu. Sitting in the car waiting for it to warm up I felt like I was forgetting something: earlier in the day dad said he’d taken mom to the hospital for tests. She was supposed to stay overnight for observation. I decided to visit her before heading home.
Driving northbound down University Drive the dark outline of the hospital rose slowly above the lighted silhouette of Saskatoon’s downtown. Too cheap to park at a pay meter I risked the law’s fury by parking illegally at a nearby lot intended for the exclusive use of contractors. I made my way towards one of the hospital’s side doors. A group of white coated and professional-looking people—nurses, doctors, technicians—stood huddled smoking together in front of the entrance. I took a deep breath plunging through them to open the door entering the building. I ascended a set of brick steps entering the cathedral-like hospital mall—a massive elongated room with a towering ceiling and a multitude of cascading windows. Moments later I was at the information desk where an older woman sat in the middle of an octagonal desk doing nothing in particular.
I asked the attendant what room my mom was in. She began prattling away at a dusty keyboard: 6-1-0-3. Thanking the attendant I made for the nearest elevator. Entering the elevator car I pressed the button for the sixth floor. I moved to the back of the car busying myself reading posters on a non-descript bulletin board. One poster read “Pastry sale. St. Joseph’s Church. January 26th at 12 noon.” Another read “If you see someone with an identification band around their wrist leaving the building, please notify hospital personnel.” Although the posters were about as stimulating to read as the Periodic Table of Elements, the material served its purpose: while the body is stuck somewhere it doesn’t want to be the mind remains free. I discovered this time gobbling trick of distraction at church when I was seven. Too young to understand anything the priest said I occupied myself counting each individual page of every song book I could find in the pews. In fact, my siblings and I turned page counting into a competitive game racing one another to see who could count them all first. Although I didn’t turn into much of a Christian I did develop panache for counting.
The elevator rumbled to a halt and the door opened. Entering a darkened hall I turned right, then right again, and walked towards a nursing station. I saw the number to mom’s room. I stepped inside but was impeded by a wide green curtain hanging across its width: peeling back the curtain I saw my proud father lying prostrate before my mother, holding her hand, sobbing. Meekly I approached her bedside. Her face was beet red, cheeks speckled with tiny sanguine dots—a product of relentless coughing; her hair hung about her shoulders in hapless clumps; and a film of hardened mucous formed into sores on her lips. I must’ve startled dad because he raised his head abruptly trying to brush away his tears. Mom was almost unrecognizable. I knelt down to touch her hand. Dad spoke to her quietly, “Dawn. Dawn. Richard is here. He’s come to see you.”
She raised her head feebly to acknowledge me and my throat felt like someone was squeezing it from the inside. I choked out a, “Hey, mom…” and looked up at dad searching for some sort of explanation. He avoided eye contact. So, dispensing with the pleasantry of discussing death around the dying, I asked him point blank what was wrong. He explained she hadn’t been feeling well for at least two months and she was having difficulty speaking. She didn’t feel well around Christmas. The inability to speak, however, was a revelation. He should’ve told me sooner. The anger I felt towards him disappeared replaced by a tremendous sense of guilt at being such a distant, self-absorbed son.
“Let’s go for a walk. Mom needs to rest,” dad said while we walked out of the room into a deserted hall. “Rick, it doesn’t look good. There’s a good to definite chance she has cancer.”
He explained the doctors believed her dementia was caused by pressure on the brain from a tumor. (That didn’t explain why she was having trouble breathing.) She had swollen lymph nodes all about her neck and under her arms (sure signs of the presence of the killer disease). An examination was scheduled to take place sometime in the next few days to confirm the diagnosis. Then they would determine the most appropriate course of action. Instantly, the thought of her smoking entered my mind and my hatred for it grew.
“Apparently the source of the cancer has to be found,” dad explained. “If it starts in the lungs, then they have very different treatments than if it were discovered to emanate from the ovaries.” He squeezed the back of my neck and said, “We’ll just have to prepare for the worst.”
I returned to the room alone to giving dad a chance to grab a cup of coffee. Her eyes followed me slowly as I moved across the room. Her neck remained perfectly rigid. I sat on dad’s chair and smiled awkwardly. The scab-like build up on her lips looked uncomfortable, even painful.
“Would you like me to clean up your mouth?” I asked.
She nodded. I grabbed a wet cloth from the bathroom wiping away as much of the hardened ooze as I could. I felt like a person holding a newborn baby for the first time—I didn’t know how to hold it and I felt like I might break it if I was too rough. Something didn’t feel right about the situation (it felt backwards). I’m supposed to be the one who’s sick and she should be taking care of me. This wasn’t right. Mom, you’re supposed to get me some ginger ale to calm my stomach and a Batman comic from the corner store; I’ll skip school and watch television on the couch. I’ll feel better, no problem. Stroke my hair that always made me feel amazing and loved. I put the soiled cloth on the bedside table and returned to sit down beside her.
I inspected her puffy hand lying on the other side of the bed’s safety rail. When I was little I used to watch the Amazing Spiderman during Saturday morning cartoons. I’d be eating my cereal and she’d walk up to me and start stroking my hair with that hand. She made me feel so cozy. I always hoped it would never stop. Now that hand appeared so alien. I extended my trembling hand to hers and began to cry quietly. The unrecognizable woman transformed into the mother I knew in my youth, and she used every ounce of strength remaining to her to say, “I’m sorry.” I cried uncontrollably laying my head and broken heart on the bed beside her. Life made so much sense until then.
The Last Day
I didn’t visit her the next day. Instead, I broke hospital policy sneaking up to her room after visiting hours the following night. The hall and nursing station were empty. The door to her room closed. I hesitated momentarily and then opened the door. I discovered her lying in the middle of thought—her mouth agape, eyes fixed blankly on the wall, head hanging still as a doily off a piano nobody plays anymore. She took no notice of me. What goes on in the mind of someone who has so little time left to live? To me it is the thinking about, and not the actual, death that causes me the most trouble. I found out the next day mom wasn’t the scared one (I was). Dad told me she admitted being ready to die, not fearing it, more concerned with the welfare of her children.
Three weeks later mom was admitted to the Palliative Ward at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the ward where you go to die. There are no more treatments. Instead, doctors just try to take the edge off the pain. Nevertheless, even at this late a juncture, I still held out hope she’d recover.
Hope abandoned my family on this final day. I remember walking into her room half-expecting to see her sitting up able to carry on a conversation. She barely acknowledged me when I stopped at the foot of the bed affectionately squeezing the shape of her sheet-covered foot. She was so much weaker now: the steroids she took controlling the growth of the tumor was destroying her immune system. The night before the final day she got pneumonia. Her breathing sounded like that sucking noise when you’re trying to get the last bit of pop out of a cup with a straw.
My wife Camille arrived a little later the same day. I remember this vividly because it was the last time mom ever spoke to me. I sat by a window facing 20th Street holding a novel called The Immigrants. I didn’t do much reading (I found it comforting to hold a book in my hand for some reason). I was watching mom literally drown as her mouth and lungs filled with mucous she couldn’t expel. Mom motioned for Camille to come a little closer and then spoke something inaudible into her ear. Camille turned and said to me mom didn’t want me to stare at her anymore. Embarrassed I turned my gaze back out the window where a collection of tears and brilliant sunlight co-mingled blurring the cars on the busy street below into indistinguishable moving shapes. Camille used a mouth swab wiping away some of the mucous choking mom. In my heart I was so grateful for Camille’s help because it diminished, temporarily at least, months of futility.
Mom died that night.
It was a Saturday I think around 1:50 am. She was surrounded by her entire family. Her children (and their spouses) eventually left the room as her breathing became increasingly shallower with every minute. Three-quarters of an hour later dad appeared at the doorway to the family room where we were all sitting talking. He said she was gone. When I entered the room her mouth was puckered as if stubbornly asleep and her arms were stretched at the sides abandoned of life. I laid my head on the bed beside her, lifted her left hand and placed it on my head one last time.
I kissed her one last time.
When I was around ten years old I had a remarkable experience. I decided to include this experience in the narrative because in retrospect it seems connected:
I was lying in my bed thinking about my Grandpa Wilson (my mom’s dad) who’d just recently died of lung cancer. His death scared me because my mom was also a smoker. I feared she’d die in the same way. I wept bitterly begging God to take some of my remaining days and give them to her. While I cried a beautiful female voice spoke from the corner of the darkened room. The voice spoke two words absolutely dripping in compassion, “Oh, Rick.” That’s it. In complete and child-like awe I shut right up scouring the darkness for the voice’s origin. I fell almost instantaneously asleep.
Sadly 16 years later my fears were realized. Just like grandpa and Aunty Joyce and Uncle Billy and Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Maki, etc. mom succumbed to a disease that continues to kill millions. Now older, stronger, and supposedly wiser, I’ve come to look back on this mysterious voice with scepticism and disbelief; that is, until a similar experience took place when I was 26 years old. Mom had been dead nearly a year and obviously I missed her. I missed her so much. I feared somehow that I was forgetting what she looked like. I tried remembering every detail, the sound of her voice, and I couldn’t.
And then I heard that same voice again.
A woman’s voice spoke my name into my right ear. I swear I heard it two just two inches away clear as day. Yet, despite how concrete both experiences felt I remain skeptical. For good or for ill I’m just not hardwired to accept these kinds of things at face value. Many years ago I learned the Cree believe that when a person cries he or she is then closest to the Creator. Maybe there was something to this whole voice/crying thing after all? I don’t know. There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll meet mom again or a semblance of her or if this brief existence is all there is. Yet, I know and feel she lives on in my heart like a poem—a pure metaphor of the mother—an impression that will remain until her youngest son joins her.
The ancients answered unanswerable questions by saying “God (or the gods) did it.”
Questions surrounding the mystery of why people got sick, comets flew inexplicably across the sky, and volcanoes blew their tops, and so on, were explained through an appeal to mythical and religious narratives. This appeal reflected the very human need to address uncertainty by exerting, however ineffectual, some modicum of control over the external world. Human nature has not fundamentally changed (so people continue resorting to magical thinking and metaphysical handwaving in the present day).
As it turns out, what the ancients lacked wasn’t control but knowledge and an effective methodology: they lacked the techniques, critical thinking, worldview and technology required to leave the safety of the cave and emerge into the light seeing the world as it is as opposed to how it ought to be.
Science, the scientific method specifically, reveals we get sick due to disease carrying pathogens (not demons); comets are not harbingers of doom but conglomerates of rock and ice orbiting the Sun with clocklike precision; and volcanoes don’t blow up because the god of the underworld demands a virgin as sacrifice (it erupts due to a series of naturally occurring geological processes).
Religion gave us formulaic reasoning like “God did it.” Not particularly informative or descriptive.
Science gives us dynamic reasoning like “X happened due to physical factor A, B or possibly C.”
Science has shaped us socially and morally, in that, we make moral decisions (in the West) based on appeals to experience and practicality rather than to prescriptions like the Ten Commandments; and socially we have, and continue to develop, new relationships with one another through rationality in the form of democratic institutions, the necessary separation of Church and State, and establishing societies governed through the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of caprice).
The word science literally translates to “knowledge”; however, if you are asking what science is then we have to say it is a methodology used to investigate and observe the physical world. This methodology incorporates such things as trial and error, elimination, observation, consensus building, peer review and falsification; it also makes extensive use of philosophical tools like logic and critical thinking.
Science is important because it the only trustworthy means of investigating the physical world that humanity possesses; that is, science does not stand or die on unsubstantiated claims to knowledge like pseudoscience such as acupuncture (use needles to change your ‘chi’), homeopathy (water has memory and ‘like cures like’), or astrology (your fate is somehow connected to the stars). Rather, scientific claims are tested and either proven true or false, i.e. unlike pseudoscience, you do not believe in science—if you ignore the existence of gravity walking out of a window of a tall building gravity will still apply to you; thus, we accept or reject scientific theories on the basis of the prevailing evidence.
Science is likewise important because it provides people with actionable knowledge; that is, you can reliably plan for the future and make predictions based on scientific theories and models. Also, scientific literacy can help protect you from being exploited by peddlers of woo and adherents of pseudoscience.