And They Didnt Even Know I was Looking: Lessons on Love from My Parents

I came from good people.

I didn't always know that.

You know, it's funny. When I was 18 I sustained an eye injury. (Okay, maybe it wasn't THAT funny.) The coral I was sterilizing for my fish tank overheated and exploded. I was hit in the eye, scratching my cornea and the rebound of the hit resulted in what the medical folks among you will recognize as a contra-coup lesion of my retina. Think of it like whiplash of the gets smashed in and then snaps forward and the snapping forward part was strong enough to cause a bit of a tear at the back of my eyeball.

That wasn't the significant part though. The significant part was when the doctor told me I had "the retinas of a 60 year old." During the exam they discovered I had little deposits on both my retina, called drusen, that signify the early stages of macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is a condition that ultimately results in a person losing the center of their field of vision so they can only see things around the edges or periphery. At 42, I still see fine. Full field of vision. No need for you to worry. (You were a little worried, weren't you?)

Now, I realize that there is actually a lot to be said for peripheral vision and that's how I discovered that I came from good people.

When you look at my parents straight on, this is what you might see:

My father is a retired heating and air conditioning wholesaler from the South Side of Chicago. He's mostly a hermit who is happy with his dogs and his garden. He doesn't call. He's not a social butterfly. Never a gabby man, his hearing loss has made him even less so over the years. My mom had 4 kids and a high school education and when the apartment complex she worked for was bought out by a new company and she was let go the only job she could find at age 60 was as a pit clerk in a casino in Northwest Indiana.

Pretty simple people, really. You might notice them shopping at Sears or seated at the table next to you at The Wagon Wheel ordering the Country Breakfast.

But when you start to shift your gaze, you see in my father a man who passed up a chance to attend the Art Institute of Chicago to run a heating and air conditioning warehouse so he could support his family. You'd see a 73 year old man who still talks to his best friend from 1st grade nearly every day. A man with the touch of St. Francis (his name is Frank by the way) who could probably get a grizzly bear to eat from his hand.

And you would see in my mother a woman who turned away from a full college scholarship because she wanted to be a mom. And you'd hear her laugh. And you'd notice how no matter where she went somehow people in need would always see that she was someone who would listen to them and they would readily seek her advice. You'd see a woman who, although she can't always afford it, appreciates craftsmanship and quality and the history behind an artfully wrought object.

And if you kept going and shifted your gaze as far as you could, until you could only see the farthest periphery...the things that you might so easily miss if you were the least bit distracted this is what you would see...this is who they really are when they don't know anyone is looking...

My earliest memory of my father was when we were still living in Chicago, so I was probably 4. It was late and there was pounding on the door of our flat. A drunken man had lost his way home and had mistakenly tried to enter ours. My father answered and I remember, even as a small child as I watched from the landing above, my father's compassion and the soothing way he re-oriented the man and got him on his way.

While that memory might well be questioned due to my age I can tell you this was not a unique event. When we moved to Indiana we had a woman on our block. In retrospect I understand she must have been schizophrenic but as a child all we knew was that she was crazy. She was unkempt and usually quite docile but periodically she would grab a very large stick and march down the street going from house to house. You had better believe we ran like the dickens when we saw just don't want to hang around when you see a crazed and wild looking woman in mismatched clothes coming at you with a big stick.

But you see, it wasn't a club. It was her scepter. And the towel on her head...well, it was a crown of sorts. She was the Queen of our Land and all she wanted to do was to visit her subjects and find out how things were going for us. I know that because my father was the one person who decided that the best way to understand her was simply to talk to her. So, he would go outside and they would talk for a while about the state of things in the neighborhood and he would reassure her that there was peace and when they were done he would come in and say, "Well, she is just as sweet as peaches and cream" and that would be it. And we stopped being afraid of what we didn't understand. And sometimes we kids would sit on the porch with her and just talk about stuff. And when my younger sister told her that she had a headache and was advised to place a towel on her head and you saw them both sitting there draped as they were it just made sense. And old, crazy woman and a young slip of a girl with towels on their heads on a summer afternoon just talking about stuff and enjoying the day. It's one of my favorite memories.

Fear was never my father's first reaction.

Do you have ANY idea what a gift it was to be taught that lesson?

You know what's funny about this? I didn't even realize until sitting here, at age 42, right this very moment when I typed that sentence what it was that my dad had shown me. I've spent a lot of my life looking head on. Even though the lesson influenced me profoundly it hadn't been something I could see directly. (Now maybe you understand why my heart starts to get happy when I sit down to write this every month.)

One of the memories I have of my mother was of her getting off a long phone conversation. It was maybe an hour long call.

A call from a wrong number.

Yes, my mother could talk just as long to someone she didn't know, with just as much laughter and enthusiasm as someone she had known for years. And it almost appeared to dawn on her later, with a little surprise when she saw in everyone else's reactions, that this was probably not typical. As if she had never considered that "wrong numbers" were mistakes and such mistakes needed to be corrected as soon as possible because one simply doesn't talk to strangers for no good reason. She always found a good reason for them to have called her, mistake or not. She might even give them a good recipe while she was at it.

"Stranger" was never my mother's first assessment of people.

And do you have any idea how much love has come in to my life by learning THAT lesson?

It's ironic because had you looked at them as a couple, in the center of your vision, you would have seen two people who simply co-existed in our house for a long, long time. My parents divorced after 28 years of marriage. Why they weren't able to give each other what I saw them make available to strangers time and time again, I don't know. Maybe it's like the sun. Maybe real love is that can only handle the periphery of it. Maybe there is a risk that if you go fully, directly in to the belly of the thing that it will consume you.

I don't know. But I do know that a lot of times people shy away from intimacy. How long are you willing to let someone just sit silently, openly looking you directly in the eye before you look away? We don't always like to be seen that fully. We can't always handle the direct focus. Maybe for some of us, the periphery is the only place we really feel safe enough to let ourselves connect. For myself, I want to practice using my full field of vision while I have that option.

I want to practice approaching people from all angles and just look, as much as I can, without judgment.

In The News:

How to Mend a Work Relationship  Harvard Business Review
Putting relationships first
What Playfulness Can Do for Your Relationship  Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

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