A Double Life

A sudden revelation causes a 50-year-old man to wonder who, exactly, he is. And how much should he try to find out?

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This is a story of secrets and passion. Although it is a true story and mine, it is one I never expected to write. Not long ago when photographer Bud Lee posed me like Bon Jovi emerging from the Hillsborough River for Weekly Planet's "Best of the Bay" issue, I felt exposed as Sumo Master. This article leaves me feeling much more vulnerable. I do not long to be in the public eye with so much of my psyche hanging-out.

My world was turned upside-down by events beginning on a February day in 2001. I was walking a canoe through a shallow Cockroach Bay with friend and fellow photojournalist Jim Phillips. We were dragging the canoe because we carelessly did not check the tides, thus arriving at low-low tide; yet this didn't bother us, as we liked slogging through the muck like two little boys, despite both being half a century old each.

Jim and I have much in common, including elderly mothers with failing health, deceased fathers, and the uncertainty that comes of beating a living out of the keyboard of a Macintosh and through the lens of a Nikon. It is curious that we have become good friends, because as writers, we both tend to flee at the arrival of anyone else who is a writer, and yet we have forged bonds.

While we were wading through scant inches of water, the cellular phone in my pocket rang. Trying to extract the ringing nuisance from my jeans, I missed the call and went to my voice mail. A woman, whose voice and name I did not recognize, said my mother had been in a serious car accident and taken by helicopter to the county trauma center.

We hurried back through the shallow waters, loaded gear into Jim's car and tied the canoe to the roof. The trip to my house blurred by, while Jim put more pedal to the metal than was wise for a Toyota with 200,000+ miles, a car whose soul has since transmigrated to the great Japanese car resting place in the sky.

With vague information about your mother in an automobile accident, horrible images run through your mind. If you're imaginative — a quality that is a mixed blessing for writers — the images get pretty ghastly. I knew it was a single-car accident. My mother was thrown or fell out the car door, while the Oldsmobile continued going round in circles until at last it crashed into a tree. I imagined a tire running over my mother's head, killing her. I worried she would be forever in a wheel chair, amputated stumps all remaining of the legs that had danced with my father.

My mother was then approaching 86, and I did not want her to drive. Several times I asked her to give up the car, but she persisted. I mentioned driving evaluations by a professional instructor. No need to waste the money on such nonsense, she said. She had unsuccessful eye surgery to repair macular deterioration. Although everything seen from one eye appeared twisted, when I asked the surgeon about driving, to my chagrin he said she was legal to drive, and said so in such a manner that it sounded like I was trying to take her right away unjustly. Her recently lapsed license was renewed by the state. Who was I to argue?

Two hours later, I found myself picking bark and wood from the bloody scalp and gray hairs on my mother's head. Inside the trauma center were moaning folks. A motorcyclist who had an accident without a valid driver's license was being talked to frankly by a no-nonsense highway patrolman. Elderly couples from a car accident called to each other from various corners in the emergency room, and one man begged to be allowed to smoke. Every five minutes or so, the man pleaded to smoke, then asked if his wife was dead. His wife called out to him that she was alive, and then five minutes later he would ask again to smoke and if his wife was killed. The man's questions repeated and repeated, like an old vinyl record whose platter was scratched. My mother shook, her lips trembled, I kissed and held her, and told her it would be OK.

Mother It's too bad you meet my mother in print when she is already 86. In her 30s, she was as pretty as a movie star and had long auburn hair. In her bathing suit on the beach, heads turned, and as a child she called me Sunshine and read to me. She loved to dance, and with my tall and handsome father, cut quite a figure on the floor. She sat all night in the hospital when my tonsils were extracted, and she cried when I brought my body home alive from Vietnam; while in-between she suffered with a teenager whose heart was too reckless, hormones too powerful and brain too large. Sometimes now when I look at my mother, I wonder where that woman I used to know has gone, but from time to time I see the eyes of that young woman looking back at me from a body that has moved on by half a century. I know men and women who hate their mothers, but I love mine and consider myself fortunate.

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