Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mardi Gras in New Orleans: A Celebration of Life

My father loved to read.  He had a hunger for learning and loved to read books, mostly books about history, science, and poetry.  From early on in my childhood, I recall that my father would go to bed and take with him one of his heavy volumes from his encyclopedia Britannica.  He would start with the first page and go through the entire volume in a matter of days.  When he finished the last of the 30 plus volumes, he would start all over again lest he forgot some fact.  Reading and learning were his favorite pastimes, next to his passion for sailing.  My father could be dropped from a plane in the middle of a desert with nothing around him.  But as long as he had some bread and cheese (how he loved cheeses!) and a history book or encyclopedia with him, he would be just fine.

So it was his most tragic destiny that he lost his eyesight to macular degeneration in the last 5 years of his life.  As a blind man, his most beloved passion was taken away from him.  But he continued on, getting history books on tape from the National Library of Congress which has a program for the blind and he would sit there at home and listen to the recordings.  When he was interested in a book or subject matter that wasn't available, we would get the book for him and my siblings and I would take turns during the week to visit him at home during our lunch hours and read to him from the books.

Still, there were hours of sheer silence for him.  As my mother had no choice but to work (and still works) long hours running a small family-owned Montessori preschool, he would be alone in his darkness for 8 to 10 hours a day (except for the couple of hours one of us, especially my youngest sister, would visit daily).

One day I asked him what it was like, how he managed.  He told me that it was undoubtedly one of the hardest things he had to endure.  He told me that he would have rather lost a limb than his eyesight as it took away from him so many joys in his life -- reading, seeing his granchildren (whom he touched but never got to see) and seeing us.  But he also said that in being blind, he learned to be alone in his thoughts.  He travelled in his mind to all the places, both physically and emotionally, that he had been.  Losing his sight forced him to rely not only on his mind but, most significantly, on the sounds around him.  Now, more than ever, the sounds around him dictated his daily life.  The sounds of the birds outside became his music, the rustling of the leaves became a dance, and the sound of his favorite concerto or tango became even more acutely beautiful as he heard every single note being played.  And thus, in his own darkness, he could see and feel the beauty of the world around him.

Sometimes, I close my eyes just to feel the intensity of what he felt during those last few years.

In 2009, Mardi Gras just happened to fall on February 24, 2009 -- my father's birthday.  Sadly, he was oblivious to this as he lay dying in a hospital room, surrounded by all of us.  He had fought many near death battles throughout his life and had conquered them all.  But this time it was different.  This time, even he admitted to my sister, "I don't think I'm going to get out of this one this time."

The doctors had exhausted the possibilites and now, as his organs were shutting down one by one, there was nothing we could do but face and wait for the inevitable.  He had been in the hospital for 2 long weeks and by the time his birthday (Mardi Gras) came along, he was basically unconscious, although the doctors told us he could hear us.  Despite the obvious somber mood in his room, the nurses would come in, Mardi Gras beads hanging around their necks and exclaim, "Happy Birthday, Mr. Mario!"  I wanted to slap them so much was my anger and grief at that time.  Still, I didn't want my father, in his last hours of life to feel our grief and sadness.  Knowing him, he felt worse that we were upset about him dying than from the act of dying itself.

So at some point, while the rest of my siblings and mother were out of the room for a brief moment, I went up to him and held his hand.  I bent down and said in the most cheerful voice I could muster, "Can you hear the crowd and music outside, Papá?  Can you hear it?"  There was no answer although I knew he could hear me.  So I continued, "The entire city is outside celebrating your life, Papá.  Listen to them celebrating!"

Perhaps I imagined it.  Perhaps I willed it.  But at that moment, I know I saw a slight smile cross his face.

My father died that same night.  He was 89 years young.

So for every Mardi Gras after his death, I tend to get sad and nostalgic and inevitably start dwelling on the loss I still feel.  But then I stop myself, listen to the music and crowds outside and remember those words, "The entire city is celebrating your life, Papá."  And then Mardi Gras becomes a celebration again.

Drew Brees, King of Bacchus

Happy Mardi Gras to everyone, from New Orleans, with love.

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