This week we're sharing stories about love that stands the test of time, transcending illness, differences, and even death. In other words -- break out that box of tissues, y'all.
Part 1: Writer Alison Smith reconnects with her estranged father after he develops Alzheimer's disease.
Alison Smith is a writer and performer. Her writing has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, The London Telegraph, The New York Times, The Believer, Real Simple, Glamour and other publications. Her memoir Name All the Animals was named one of the top ten books of the year by People and was shorted-listed for the Book-Sense Book-of-the-Year Award. Smith has been awarded Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Judy Grahn Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. The grand-prize winner of 2017’s Ko Festival Story Slam, Smith portrays Jane Jacobs in the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Part 2: Science journalist Peter Brannen mourns the loss of his mother while studying the earth’s biggest mass extinction.
Peter Brannen is an award-winning science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Wired, The Boston Globe, Aeon, Slate and The Guardian among other publications. His book, "The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions," is soon to be released in paperback. Published by Ecco in 2017, it was a New York Times Editor's Choice and was named one of the "10 Best Environment, Climate Science and Conservation Books of 2017" by Forbes.
Note: This June, The Story Collider will be celebrating Pride Month by highlighting stories about the intersection of science and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues. Each of our five episodes this month will include one of these stories, and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram this month as we also share highlights from our back catalog as well.
Part 1: Alison Smith
So my father woke me up every morning with the bones of St. Gerard and the bones of St. John Neumann. They were relics. They were discs of copper about the size of a half dollar and they had little glass plate on the front. Underneath the glass there was a little pile of white powder. The white powder, the pulverized bone of the saint.
These relics lived on my dad’s bedside table in my parents’ unheated bedroom. This was upstate New York so it got cold. I woke every morning to the feel of ice cold metal on my forehead and my father’s mumbled prayers. If you can guess, I was Catholic. It wasn’t science or facts or information that shaped our world. It was God.
But there are a lot of ways to be Catholic and we weren’t so much like Pope/Vatican Catholic. We were in the Church of Dad. And in the Church of Dad, the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they were kind of like this goofy group of people who loved to do pratfalls and tell off-color jokes. They were like a religious Three Stooges.
And in the Church of Dad, all of The Bible’s stories had their own special kind of twist. My brother and I loved that. Our favorite story that we always asked dad to tell us was The Wedding at Cana. Anyway, that is when Jesus performs his first miracle.
This is how it goes in the Church of Dad. Mary and Joseph are invited to their neighbor’s daughter’s wedding. And Joseph hates weddings so he pretends to have a cold and sneaks off to his workshop and whittles on something. Mary looks at Jesus and says, “You're going to be my plus-one.”
So they go to the wedding, Jesus hooks up with his buddies and proceeds to get stinking drunk. Like they drink so much they drink the entire supply of alcohol for the reception. Mary finds out. She is pissed.
She goes to Jesus and she said, “Look what you did, you bum. You and your no good friends drank all the alcohol and now there's going to be no party. I can never show my face in this town again.”
And Jesus thinks, “Oh, God. I really effed up this time. She is never going to let me live this one down. I got to do something big, really big.”
So he turns water into wine, and he saves the reception. That began a very famous career that ended very badly for Jesus.
You see, because in the Church of Dad’s version of the life of Christ, the reason Jesus started performing miracles and thereby garnered some disciples and a bunch of people started following him, and because of that the local authorities were looking at him then he was ultimately crucified, it’s because at a party he needed to get his mom off his back.
So you can imagine as a kid we were like The Bible is just so cool. My brother and I would run around after my dad and be like, “Tell us another one. Tell us about the lady who got stoned.” Which, by the way, was called in the Church of Dad, “What to Do When You're About to Get Stoned.”
So it was really just idyllic. My brother and I we just believed so deeply. We felt that we were carried in the hand of God and we had an unshakeable faith.
Then something happened, something so heartbreaking that my faith was gone in an instant. It’s 1984. I’m fifteen, my brother Roy is eighteen. He gets in the family car one morning and drives off to work, and he never came back. Roy died that morning in a car accident. My faith was gone.
It wasn’t like I said, “I can’t believe in You if You would do this.” It was like I heard music. There was music all around us. My whole life, the song my dad had been singing to me since the day I was born, it just stopped. There was silence. A silence so vast and terrifying I was afraid to speak of it. But I began to change.
Two years later I fell in love with a classmate at my school. But it was an all-girls school. I fell in love with a girl. I was gay.
When my parents found out, they were furious. I mean, look at it from their point of view. They were desperately trying to keep this heartbroken family together and they knew one thing. We were going to spend eternity in heaven together. We would be reunited with Roy there and then look what I did. While they were in heaven with Roy, I would be in hell.
So they raged and they threatened and they bargained. Then they sat me down and they gave me an ultimatum. They said, “You can be in this family or you can be gay, but you can’t have both.” And when I said, “I can’t help who I am,” they disowned me. For a long time, I didn’t have any contact with my parents, and the silence just grew.
Years passed and then I got a phone call. My mother was dying so I went to see her. I said, “Mom, now, could you accept me?” She couldn’t. And she died.
More years passed and I got another phone call. My father had Alzheimer’s so I went to see him. “Hi, Dad.” And he just looked at me from my feet up to my head and back down again.
Then he said, “Where have you been? I've been looking for you for years.” Because it turned out the silver lining of Alzheimer’s was he forgot he was homophobic. But he didn’t forget God or anything, he just forgot the fire and brimstone part. So we were together again.
For four years, my dad and I, we had the best time. We had like a million ice cream sundaes and we went for endless walks around the nursing home where he lived and we went shopping. He suddenly loved shopping for clothes, like men’s clothes, women’s clothes. He didn’t care anymore. He loved it all. He wore it all.
Best of all, he loved my partner, Cindy. He couldn’t remember her name, but anytime she left the room, he would look around and he would say, “Where did the other one go?”
So since he was so devout, I made sure that he could go to church every day, and when I could, I took him. It was so remarkable to see him in church because as soon as the liturgy started, he sat up straight, his cloudy eyes got really clear, and he followed and gave every response letter-perfect on cue. It was like his faith was stored in some other more robust part of his body than his brain.
One day after mass, we go shopping. I take him to the department store and we pick out some shirts. While we’re in line ready to pay for them, this crazy storm blows into town. It’s summertime and it just rains like cats and dogs. Even though we’re inside, we can hear the thunder. Through the glass doors, we can see the sky get dark and it starts flashing with lightning.
I look over at my dad and his eyes are huge. He drops the shirts, he starts shaking, and then he starts pacing around like a caged animal. I realize he doesn’t know that this is just weather. He thinks this is the end of the world.
And everyone is looking at me like, “What’s up with that guy?” and “You better fix it,” and the store is about to close and it’s dinnertime and I got to get him back to the home. So I have no choice, I pay for the shirts, I grab his hand, and we walk together through the automatic doors out into the storm.
It’s worse than I thought. It’s like one of those crazy summer storms that really kind of is like the world is going to end for a couple of minutes. I mean, the sky is pitch black and the rain is coming down so hard it’s kind of like they're just dumping buckets of water on us. But we started so we’re going to keep going. I hold him tighter and we go straight for the car.
We get halfway there and there's this huge crack of thunder. My dad, he lets go of my hand and he just starts running out away from me and then into the traffic.
I’m like, “Dad, dad! Dad, come back. It’s not funny.” He doesn’t understand and he starts going even further. The cars are whizzing by and I’m like, “Dad, it’s just rain. Please, Dad, please.” And he's not listening to me.
I just think, “Oh, my God. I can’t lose you again.” I close my eyes and I say, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” and when I open my eyes my dad has stopped.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” And he turns around and he looks right at me.
“Blessed are you among women.” And he walks over and he stands right beside me. I get his hand and we make it to the car.
Part 2: Peter Brannen
So I was driving into the desert in West Texas about 120 miles east of El Paso and I just visited the Guadalupe Mountains. I'd gone to the Guadalupe Mountains because I wanted to learn more about the worst thing that had ever happened.
The Guadalupe Mountains are sort of a weird place to look for that because they're actually quite beautiful. Part of the beauty of the Guadalupe Mountains is that they're not really mountains at all. It’s actually an ancient reef from 260 million years ago when Texas was underwater.
If you know where you're looking for when you're hiking up the Guadalupe Mountains, you can see that you're just stepping on sponges and corals and bits of seashell from squid-like animals and things like trilobites. It’s sort of like this petrified aquarium in the middle of the desert. It’s been said that hiking up the Guadalupe Mountains is about as close as you can get to scuba diving in this ancient sea, so it’s just an incredible place.
The other interesting thing about it and the reason why I was there is because I was researching and writing a book on the worst mass extinctions in the history of life. Shortly after this reef was formed, almost everything in it, everything you see on your hike up the mountains and almost everything on the planet went extinct in the single worst mass extinction in the history of life on earth and the worst one by far. It’s this event called the Permian Mass Extinction 252 million years ago.
One of the scary things about that mass extinction, among a lot of things, is that it’s thought to be caused by this huge injection of carbon dioxide into the air, which caused runaway global warming and ocean acidification and all these things that we’re worried about today.
So I’m driving into the desert and my car is sort of filled with wrappers from gross gas station food and my radio is just searching for a station. I’m all alone and I’m thinking about this catastrophe that almost ended life on earth but I’m also thinking about this more personal catastrophe because, in the months before, I experienced something that sort of felt like my world was ending too which is that my mom died.
So everyone thinks that their mom is the best. My mom was the best. She was brilliant and funny and generous and warm. She was a lifelong children’s librarian at the public schools and when she retired this love of books and learning, she sort of continued it and she got a master’s degree in divinity and wrote a thesis on the architecture of French modernist chapels. She's just incredibly smart.
This erudition would come up in just casual conversation with her in some sort of amusing ways because she also had this really thick Boston accent that I’m not going to reproduce here. in a typical exchange, I remember one time I was giving her grief for watching her favorite soap opera, which is One Life to Live, which I just thought was horribly sleazy. She said, “No, you just don’t understand it.” In her words, it was actually “magical realism par excellence.”
So she was wicked smart and she was wicked funny and now I'll never get to see her again, I'll never get to talk to her again. And driving through the desert is a great place to go to feel alone and this is probably as alone as I'd ever felt in my life. In my rear view, I had this extinct world and in front of me there was this desert. I just lost my mom and I was just overwhelmed with this bone-deep feeling that all of this, all of life, was just sort of absurd and contingent. It could just be taken away at any moment for no reason.
I was so overwhelmed by this feeling that I actually had a panic attack and I had to pull over onto the side of the road. When that passed, I was just overwhelmed by this wave of grief that maybe I'd been repressing. It also might not have been the most psychologically healthy thing to be doing, to be driving around the desert and thinking about mass extinctions but that’s what I do for fun.
So if it’s not clear yet, I was in a really dark place. In the months before death became a more tangible presence in our house, my mom was desperate to talk about it. I was just in complete denial. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I wasn’t braver to have these conversations that she wanted to have.
She would ask me what I thought happened after we died and I said I didn’t know and I tried to change the subject. She asked me if we’d meet again, where we’d meet again. I said I didn’t know and I tried to change the subject. She became more accepting of what was happening and I became more frantic and deeper in denial. It reminded me of that feeling when you're in the ocean and you see that there's a giant wave that’s about to crash on you. You look to the shoreline to see if you can make it out in time and you realize that you can’t.
I think my mom, when she saw this wave was going to crash and she wasn’t going to make it back to shore, she sort of accepted it with this incredible grace. I'd like to think she dove into the wave and merged with it. Meanwhile, I was sort of tumbling in the whitewater in the months afterwards.
But before she died, she found a strove of her old journals and she said something that stuck with me, which was she said she didn’t recognize the young, anxious girl who had written these journals even though it was herself. And she said it’s amazing how many different people you are over your lifetime.
At first I didn’t see a connection between the geology and the mass extinctions that I was researching and this personal tragedy I was going through but those words stuck with me. I came to realize, and maybe this is kind of a tangent, but I came to realize that they were sort of teaching me a very similar lesson, which is it’s incredible how many different planets our earth has been over its lifetime.
For instance, my mom is from Boston and I had just learned that Boston sits on rock that is ocean floor from the deep sea that had drifted off of Africa, which was near the South Pole 500 million years ago in the sea that was filled with alien creatures. Geology was filled with these weird revelations about places that were familiar to me and suddenly they were unfamiliar.
For instance, this theater sits on top of rock that’s called Cambrian schist, which is not a dirty word. Similarly, it’s just ocean floor rock from the dawn of animal life.
So my apartment in Brooklyn sits on top of basically a dump heap that was left there by ice age glaciers 10,000 to 15,000 years ago but if you keep digging down below that, you hit these red clays that are from a river delta that would have been home to monsoons and dinosaurs.
Then I learned that there were times in earth’s history when there was ice in the tropics and there's other times when there were crocodiles in the North Pole.
I think my mom was shocked that something as solid seeming as identity could be so in flux over time, and I was learning the same lesson about entire worlds. Mountains would be pushed up and worn away and whole oceans would open and close over time.
I loved George Harrison. I love the song “All Things Must Pass” and geology took this insight to an extreme. My hometown and my apartment and this theater and everywhere I've ever been and loved would someday be at the bottom of the ocean or at the top of a mountain or in the middle of a desert or hundreds of miles underground in the earth’s mantle. Someday it might be in a black hole. Everything is in flux. Over time, the only constant is change.
I was told that the only thing that can help heal the wounds that I experienced was the passage of time. In geology, I was experiencing the passage of time at its most intense form. Strangely, grasping with these ideas was one of the more comforting things that I found in this time. That might sound strange because you might think like considering your tiny place in the universe can make you feel very small and it might be sort of a scary exercise. There's definitely something scary about the sorts of mass extinctions and things that I was researching; that’s why I felt such dread when I was in West Texas.
But I came to realize that that was only half the story. The world didn’t end after the worst mass extinction of all time. It didn’t end after any of the mass extinctions. The other half of the story is the recovery and that’s just as interesting a story as the disaster.
So 20 million years after the Permian Mass Extinction, the first dinosaurs show up, the first crocodiles show up, even the first mammals show up. The coral reefs came back and what was lost was lost forever, but what emerged from the wreckage, these surviving pieces went on to build this incredible new, beautiful, amazing world that endured for hundreds of millions of years.
Similarly, when my mom died, it hit me with the impact of an asteroid. What I had lost, I had lost forever but what she left behind was this legacy of kindness and generosity and curiosity and warmth and humor. These are pieces that I could rebuild with after a disaster.
So there's no recovering from losing a loved one, but it was true what people said. As time went on, the passage of time really it can heal. A sort of equilibrium returned to my life. I stopped having panic attacks. And, in the meantime, geology had given me this incredible new view of life as this really miraculous and brief but miraculous gift where I came to see life as this microscopic slice of experience that was between these two eternities and it’s incredibly precious.
When you lose a loved one, I don’t think it’s an occasion for anger necessarily, but it’s an occasion for profound gratitude that the universe ever conspired to bring about such a miracle in the first place as another human being. And I just thought to myself, man, how lucky am I that I was cobbled out of air, sea and mud and I was woken up on a strange planet four and a half billion years already in progress. And I have a few precious decades to explore it and to meet the wonderful people here and that there's really no time to waste.