Two weeks from this evening, and the same day of the week this year as back then, will mark exactly forty five years since I last saw my mother. She, with my father, went out that evening to a party. On the way home late that night (so technically the next day) my father crashed the car into a concrete bridge abutment on the Long Island Expressway. He was severely injured, but my mother was killed. I was then, and remain now, a religious believer. I didn’t blame my father for her death – it was God who allowed it – but I did hold him (and her) accountable. The family story was that he fell asleep. Likely that is so. But I was fifteen and I was there and I knew that he was drunk when he left the house that evening – I can’t imagine he sobered up at the party. It was a different era, but he still should not have been driving, and my mother should have not gotten into the car with him.
One night, months later, long after his discharge from weeks in the hospital, my father was sitting in our living room drinking with his cousin. I was directly above in my bedroom. He must have said something that piqued my curiosity because I got out of bed and went to the top of the staircase to hear him. And what I heard stunned me. All these decades of experience later and I am still stunned.
What he said – this first time I’d ever heard him speak of my mother’s death – was that it was “Norman’s fault” that my mother was dead. My father was a cop and Norman was an old boss of his. Norman had transferred my father to protect him either because my father had done something wrong or because Norman believed he had. At the new precinct, they threw this party and my father was invited. That’s the party he was driving home from when he crashed the car. So – voila – if Norman hadn’t transferred him, he wouldn’t have been at the party, and my mother would be alive.
I was stunned because it was all true. Every step in his logical progression had followed directly upon the earlier one. From Norman’s decision we went directly to my mother’s death.
So, I took my father’s logic and went further: had my grandparents never met, my father would never have been born and – voila – my mother would be alive. Actually, had my great grandparents never come over from Ireland, my grandparents wouldn’t have been born either and – voila – my mother would be alive. I sat in that hallway and I kept going with these true statements. I ended up all the way back at Adam and Eve. My mother was probably dead because of that damn apple.
But my father’s drinking? Apparently, it didn’t play a part even worth mentioning. Norman, if not Adam and Eve, was more responsible for my mother’s death then my father’s drinking was.
I was stunned by my father’s sincerity. I learned a lot that night – about blame, and fault, and sincerity, and denial and responsibility. But I learned one lesson I never dreamed then that I’d be blogging about now: things can be true, and yet completely and totally irrelevant. As a matter of fact, there are many things that are true, that are irrelevant.
The chronological sequence of events that directly followed upon each other did not lead to my mother’s death, even though they did. Years later, I connected immediately to the phrase when I first heard it that the “facts were getting in the way of the truth.” Facts can, and too often do, masquerade as truth.
Facts – like my father’s that night – can be irrelevant. Truth, I’ve experienced, is always relevant. The truth is that my mother should not have gotten in the car; and my father should not have been driving. The actions of Norman, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and Adam and Eve, are all totally irrelevant to what happened that late night forty five years ago, no matter how factual.
“True, but irrelevant.” An unintentional gift from my father that has saved me from confusion, or brought me back from confusion, more times than I can remember over the course of my life.
Absolutely perfect and true!!!!
I’ve read this many times since it was e-mailed to me. Everytime I read it, I’m brought back to conversations I’ve had with my mother regarding blame and responsibility; accountability and owning the consequences of our actions. The various differences between these words is ambiguous to the ill-informed, yet blatantly obvious to those of us lucky enough to have a mind willing (open) enough to grasp the basic concepts. Of course, a well worded and-most crucial- a patient mentor never hurts.
I think this is brilliant and so very true….I hope you don’t mind, but I made a copy of this and put it up on my son’s wall…..to help him see the forest through the trees……