We Made it to Chapter V

On Father’s Day, my daughters gave me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse as a gift. They had been at a bookstore and called me at work.

“Do you want anything?” they asked. They know I can’t walk past a bookstore without walking inside.

“I’ve always wanted to read To the Lighthouse,” I answered. “If they have one, I’ll take it.”

A few minutes went by and they called me back saying the store didn’t have a copy.

Along comes Father’s Day and … Surprise! They love to do things like that.

My mom had been on the sliding slope of Alzheimer’s for a few years and, on June 27, she had a major stroke. The carotid artery to her brain on the right side was completely blocked. She was put in the Neurosurgery Intensive Care Unit and connected to a ventilator. There would be speech issues; it was difficult to determine how much brain damage there would be, and much of her left side was paralyzed. Her eyes would open and she could still look at you at bedside. Did she recognize us, know who we were? Auditory is the last sense to go, but were our voices even discernible? Questions without entirely accurate answers. She was 83.

If you’ve seen someone connected to all of this, depending on every machine to live, then you know how hard it is to watch. What do you tell your mom when she’s like this? You simply lean in and talk. You tell her you love her. You tell her what’s going on in your life. You talk about your family and your wife, what your children are up to this summer. You tell her what you’re working on, how much hope and passion and excitement you have for the future. How great a mother she was.

I remembered my Father’s Day present, opened it and started reading.

To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, is a novel about Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and the visits to their summer home on the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920. Across the bay from their home is a lighthouse, which becomes a prominent presence in the family’s life. As the book opens, James Ramsay, the youngest child, wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but Mr. Ramsay crushes his hopes, saying that the weather will not be pleasant enough for the trip. James resents his father for his insensitivity as well as for his emotional demands on Mrs. Ramsay, and this resentment persists throughout the novel.

Dialogue is scarce and the novel is full of personal observations and thoughts as stream-of-consciousness prevails, often told from various narrators. The prose is flowing and moves along seamlessly, though has moments where it’s sometimes difficult to follow. Now and then I had to reread a sentence or two. The novel has nice moments of childhood emotion, the complex dynamics of adult relationships, loss and hope.

I believe the pace of certain novels we read works itself into our personal lives, how we go about our day, how we act and react in situations. It may be subtle but there is a subconscious at work here and I tend to believe strongly in that type of thing. Maybe To The Lighthouse was telling me to slow down, to take notice, and pay attention to what these characters were thinking and how they felt. Pay attention to the signs, I often tell myself. There is often relevance in something you may not instantly notice.

One of the houseguests at the Ramsay vacation home is Lily Briscoe, an unmarried painter who begins a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay in the first part of the novel. There are other guests, including William Bankes, whom Mrs. Ramsay wants Lily to marry, but Lily never does, and Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, who become engaged during their visit to the Ramsay summer home.

In the second part of the novel the house is abandoned for ten years, neglected and decaying. Mrs. Ramsay unexpectedly dies, as does one of their daughters in an illness related to childbirth. Also, one of the sons dies in France in World War I. The family’s housekeeper, Mrs. McNab goes to the house occasionally to tidy it up and restore it. Finally, she hears the Ramsays will be returning for the summer and she begins to get everything in order.

Mom and I made it to Chapter V. It was early one afternoon, and I could see her eyes growing tired. I closed the book.

I’m not sure I understand the parallels (if there even are any) between To The Lighthouse and what was happening to my mom. I may not understand it for a while. Still, I’m certain there was a reason that was the book I was supposed to read to her. Maybe, like I mentioned, it’s about slowing down. Maybe it’s about looking back and seeing the value in a devoted and well-lived life.

On July 12, we made the difficult decision to let my mom go. She was moved to another building, but while we were ready to say goodbye, Mom wasn’t. My dad, sister and I waited, took turns sleeping at the hospital, taking breaks, going downstairs to eat or get something to drink. Several times, in the late afternoon Houston heat, I ran the trail around the Rice University campus. Sometimes I just stopped and cried. On the afternoon of July 19, Mom was finally ready to let go.

In the last part of the novel, the family returns to the summer home, bringing a few other guests, including Lily Briscoe. Ten years after the story opens, James, the boy, finally makes it across the water to the lighthouse. And as the family’s boat reaches its destination, Lily, back at the summer home, puts the finishing stroke on the canvas she started ten years before, finally achieving her vision.

Thank you for reading.

 

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16 Responses to “We Made it to Chapter V”

  1. Pat Harris Says:

    You are the good son.

  2. Robert Gadd Says:

    Hi George,

    I was saddened to hear about your mom’s passing and wanted to offer my condolences for your family’s loss. Your mom was a fabulous person with a lovely soul who shaped much of who you have become as the father, writer and friend I know and love.

    That said, your tributes to her here on your blog — especially this last post — are truly impassioned, helpful and wonderful and thanks for sharing. And they remind me of the importance of spending more time with my parents who are also getting up in age and thus away from the various keyboards and gadgets and tasks that seem to over-occupy my time. And it seems some local bookstores might sell a few more copies of “To the Lighthouse” as well — I’ll use one over Amazon to stay away from the laptop for a little while too. I’ll keep it handy to help me and others when the time is right.

    My best to you, your father and sister, and the rest of your family.

    Robert :?)

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks, buddy. I appreciate your thoughts and love what you wrote here — I’ll pass it along to my sister and dad. Miss seeing you. Let’s make a plan to get together soon. Love, G.

  3. Sybil Chenault Says:

    George, you write beautifully. Thank you for sharing both the book and your mom. My condolences to your family.

    Sybil

  4. Jennifer Says:

    George,

    You are the writer I would like to be. Thank you for sharing those days with your mother and “To the Lighthouse” with the rest of us.

    As my parents age and I still feel like a child when I am around them I wonder what we will face as the years continue to pass. I hope I can offer the grace and time you had with your mother.

    Jennifer

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thank you, Jennifer. That’s a very nice thing to say! Be happy and treasure that time with your parents. It was great to see you. Let us know when you’re back in town. G.

  5. Holly Thoden Says:

    George I really enjoyed reading about your mom and “To the Lighthouse”. What a wonderful legacy your mom has left in you and your family. Know you have many fond memories to look back on and hold onto. My condolences to you. Holly

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks, Holly. I know I can always count on you to read and comment! I appreciate it. See you Friday night. L, G.

  6. Vera Says:

    Geoge this is precious and I can’t thank you enough for including me in the posting I thought a lot about our Rockport summers during those long days you were at the hospital. I found myself smiling with gratitude for the rhythm that trip brought to my life. The simple gifts of otherwise forbidden foods of frosted flakes, gritty pb@js at port a. Station wagons with wood on the side, p&q and of course your mothers nightly vinegar wash for our hair. I now wonder if that was a fashion 220 secret.). And of course it was always hot and always summer. I cherish those memories like the rare sand dollar eased ashore at port A. And I’m grateful those memories were made with you all my beloved family! love you!

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks for such a great comment, Vera. Lots of fun memories there and I’m grateful you were there to experience them. Vinegar hair washing?! Think I tried to forget that one! Hope to see you soon. Love you, too. G.

  7. david Says:

    George, your mom’s legacy is the great father and man you’ve become. She must be proud. I, too, am proud to know you and have you as a friend and fellow writer. My best to you and your family … And thanks for reminding me to slow down and enjoy

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks so much for the nice comment, MD. It’s been great getting to know you and work with you these past few years. Your writing talent has always amazed and impressed; always “jumped off the page” with passion. I’m proud to know you as well. G.

  8. Matt Says:

    George,

    I like how in this moving description of your mother’s passing you began by talking about your daughters and this gift they gave you. Such a beautiful, thoughtful account connecting generations and communities: your mother, you, your daughters; Woolf, her characters, us. Your writing is a testament to the awakeness and skill that allow you to heed the novel’s — and life’s — implicit instructions to ‘slow down, take notice, pay attention.’

    I am thinking of you and your family and wishing you peace.

    Matt

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful comment, Matt. I really appreciate it. Hope all is well with you and I look forward to seeing you soon. George

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