By Doug Woodall
From the time I started school until I was in my late 20s, my mom pushed me to live for someone else. Everything about that experience felt wrong. Many years later, when my parents were old and feeble, I started helping them. That experience felt right.
Although my story starts when I was a child, for you I’m going to skip forward to April 2014 or the last time I had to renew my driver’s license. At the end of my appointment at the DMV, the clerk handed me the temporary copy of my new license. I looked at my name and said agitatedly, “You put my full name on it! Why would you do that?”
“That’s what your documents show,” the clerk answered. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“I hate my middle name!” I said.
With those words, a dam broke inside of me and a story poured out of me like floodwaters. When I finished telling the story, I said to the clerk, “I’m going to say a swear word, but I’m going to direct it at my mom. Just know, I’d never swear at my mom.” I raised my middle finger, pointed it to one side of the clerk, as if my mom stood there, and said, “Fuck you mom! Grandpa got to live his life. I get to live my life.”
The clerk got on her computer, x-ed out my middle name, and put in the initial “A.”
My parents gave me my mom’s father’s name for my middle name. From day one, they called me by my middle name. My grandfather’s name was Alonzo, but he went by the short version of the name, and so did I. The short version of Alonzo is Lon.
One reason I learned to hate the name is the jokes my siblings and cousins (that’s right, my family), neighbor kids and classmates told about the green stuff that grows in people’s yards and me. Another reason I learned to hate the name is because of George Albert Smith, the eighth president of the LDS church. The man was named after his paternal grandfather. One time when he was severely sick, he lost consciousness and had a vision where he “passed to the Other side.” There he met his namesake. The older George said to the younger George, “I would like to know what you have done with my name.” The younger George said, “I have never done anything with your name of which you need be ashamed.”
This is the story that poured out of me at the DMV. Then I said to the clerk, “My mom told me the George Albert Smith story at least two hundred times.” That’s when I raised my middle finger, pointed it toward the vision of my mom, and said the f-word.
My mom told me the George Albert Smith story to control me. One of the things she conveniently forgot is I didn’t know her dad. He died when I was two. The only way I got to know my grandfather was through my mom’s idealistic view of him. To try to get me to live for my dead grandfather was wrong. Yet, through another experience I learned it’s not always wrong to live for someone else. When my parents were old and feeble, helping them, which became living for them, felt right.
The last time my mom knew me was December 2006. That summer I started getting sick, and in October I had to have surgery. At Christmas, my mom said, “You’re so thin, especially in your face.” Within a few months, her mind was gone. Besides her impaired mind, my mom had diabetes, arthritis, and macular degeneration. My mom passed away in 2010.
My dad was right in his mind, but feeble in his body. He had a very bad back, which caused him unrelenting pain. His left hand, which was his dominant hand, shook nonstop and his teeth were bad. He had difficulty putting food in his mouth, and when he did, he could hardly chew it. He had a mechanical heart valve and a pacemaker, and he was unstable on his feet. My dad passed away in 2014.
About five years before my dad died, I took the job of taking my parents to all their doctor appointments. On the way back to their house, we always stopped to have lunch. I helped my lost mom find her way around the restaurant and settle into a place that became familiar and strange every five minutes. I cut up my dad’s food and fed him, very slowly.
August 2010 my dad came to the realization he couldn’t take care of my mom on his own anymore. As a family, we decided we had to put mom in a long-term care facility. Within six weeks, she was dead. The following year, my dad became seriously ill and had to be put in a long-term care facility. He popped back, but he couldn’t go home again. He lingered for three more years. During those years, I was the child who had the most opportunities to visit him. Several times a week, I stopped by to feed him lunch or dinner and to take him outside. Tuesday nights I played bingo with him. Sunday mornings I went to the care center to take off his Sunday clothes (he always went to church services), put on his casual clothes, and get him into my older sister’s car so he could spend the day at his house. The week before he passed away, I’m the one who realized his mental and physical health had changed and told my brothers and sisters, “If you want to see dad before he dies, you need to come now.”
The idea I should live for my grandfather was completely and entirely wrong. My mom had no right to give me that burden. Instead she should have told me living for someone else is helping the people you love when they’re too weak to help themselves. While you do it, you can still live authentically. As for the younger George Albert Smith, he gave his grandfather the wrong answer. He should have said, “I understand the concern you have for your name and reputation, but I’m going to be stern with you. You got to live your life. I get to live my life.”
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 6:30-8 pm, 210 E. 400 South, Ste. 8, Salt Lake.