The Sunset of Life


Beautiful, peaceful sunset

My mother is in the sunset of her life.

She is 89 years old, and lives alone in the house where she and our Dad raised six children. Where my siblings and I learned to walk, talk, cook, read, play the drums, play baseball, take turns, rake the leaves……

She is in our home place.

Mom has no intention of leaving that home place, not until she has breathed her final breath. This is her home. Her kitchen. Her bedroom.

I get it.

But today I had one of those conversations with Mom that make me stiffen up and shake and want to argue.

You see, my Mom has some type of dementia. We haven’t bothered to go through the evaluations and tests that would give us a definitive diagnosis, because what would be the point?

We know that Mom has lost her short term memory. We know that she can’t recall the key details of her past, or of ours. We realize that no matter how deeply she loves us all, the details of our lives continue to elude her.

When I visit Mom each week, we talk about my children. She remembers that I have three kids, but confuses the details. She remembers that my daughter has children (two of her four her great-grandchildren) but she might ask me ten time in an hour if those children are girls or boys.

For the most part, these repeating stories are fine for me. I understand. Mom’s memory no longer works reliably. I know that she doesn’t remember the names of her grandchildren’s spouses without a prompt.

I’m always OK with that. I repeat things for her, patiently, feeling good about myself as a daughter.

But.

But then.

A moment will occur where Mom forgets some key memory from my relationship with her. “You came to the hospital to meet my first baby, ” I will say. Mom will jump in then,

“I remember! It was a boy and you had to stay in bed, so you couldn’t see him.”

My heart will race, my brain will screech, and I will carefully but firmly tell her, “NO. My first baby was Katie, remember? You came to see her at the hospital! Dad was with you.”

When she doesn’t remember that poignant moment, my heart will sink.

I know that my mom loves me, and that she loves my kids and theirs. I know this deep in my bones.

And yet, when I tell her something that seems important, and she changes the details, I feel betrayed and forgotten.

I want my Momma to remember our best times. I want her to remember how close we were, but I also want her to remember how much we fought. These are the key threads of my life; and they all involve her. I need to recognize those threads.

Today I visited Mom. I made her some soup, and helped her to feed her cat and clean out the litter box. I checked to see what groceries she’d need. I put lotion on the dry skin on her back, my hand gently rubbing in a circle, just as she’d done for me when I was a child.

Today I asked my Mom what she wanted to drink with her lunch of homemade minestrone. As she often does, Mom looked at me with a sparkle in her dark brown eyes. “How about a nice dry martini?” she asked with a grin. We both laughed.

But then she went on to tell me how fun it was when I first introduced her to martinis. “Remember?” she coaxed, “You made us both extra dry gin martinis! That was my very first martini!”

This is, of course, not at all what happened. In fact, my Mom had been a once-in-a-while martini drinker for years. She had learned about the famous cocktail back in the 50’s, when I was newly born. She used to tell me hilarious stories about getting together with the neighbors or her sisters-in-law and enjoying one too many martinis.

When my Dad died, and I started to spend one night at week at Mom’s house, we sometimes drank a vodka martini before dinner.

Her memory was a happy smooshing of both of these truths.

For me, her story came with pain.

I wanted to correct her. “No!” I wanted to say, “You taught ME about martinis!”

But Mom wasn’t having it. While she generally admits that her memory has lapses, this time she was adamant. She told, and retold, a story of the two of us making “extra dry gin martinis” in her kitchen. She was delighted with the memory.

“I think we got a little silly, didn’t we?” she asked with a laugh.

And oh, how I wanted to correct her.

But then I remembered what families of patients with dementia are told. “Don’t correct them. Those memories are real for them.” I took a breath. I nodded and tried out a smile.

Mom took both of my hands in hers. I felt the tender, brittle bones of her fingers in mine.

“Wasn’t that fun?” she asked.

And I realized that while my mother’s memory was a false one, it was also lovely, and happy and filled with her love for me. She had created a shared moment that hadn’t really existed.

But it didn’t matter. She held my hands, and looked at me with gratitude and love. I kissed her cheek, and then we went into the kitchen to eat our soup.

Donuts and Martinis


I know what I want my future to look like.

I’m 63 years old. My kids are all adults and the grandkids have started to arrive.

Life is mostly fun and interesting and pretty enjoyable. Most of my body parts work the way they should and I can still take care of myself and my house. I don’t grow as many vegetables as I used to, but I can still weed a flower patch and grow a decent pot of herbs.

My life is on the downward slope of the proverbial hill, but I’m not yet rolling out of control.

So it’s all good.

Because I’m still healthy, happy and fully engaged with the world around me, I continue to work at staying healthy. I eat well, if too much. We live in a part of New England where we can easily buy local vegetables three seasons of the year. I love to can tomatoes and freeze batches of fresh veggies, so all year long we can eat fresh, local food.

We also eat fresh, local meats, eggs and chicken. No nasty chemicals in our meats.

I’m a good Italian cook. too. No preservatives or precooked foods on this lady’s table! No jars of sugar filled spaghetti sauce. No canned soup with all its sodium. Just fresh and home cooked food. Healthy as hell.

I exercise, too. Sort of.

I mean, I’m not sweating at the gym, but I have my garden, my dogs to walk, and my toddler grandkids who spend every weekday here with me. I run up and down the stairs dozens of times a day, chase tricycles, rake leaves while the kids jump in the piles, and cook and serve all day long.

You get it. I’m active.

I also take my medicine just as prescribed. One for blood pressure. One for fibromyalgia. A fish-oil pill for the old brain. Magnesium for the muscles. Papaya extract to increase my platelets.

In other words, as of this moment, I have every intention of staying healthy, staying active, squeezing all the good juice out of life.

I’m at an age where I think it makes sense to try to keep the old heart beating.

But.

My mother is 89 years old. She still lives in the house where she and Dad raised six kids. She’s still funny, stubborn, determined and stoic.

But she is smaller than the huge personality that she used to be. She has closed in. She is thinner, shorter, more stooped and bent. She is the tiny version of her old fiery self.

Mom is less opinionated than she used to be, which is both a blessing and a curse. Life with her is easier than it once was, but I miss my strong-willed warrior woman Momma.

Mom taught me to cook. She taught me how to choose the right spices, how to make the best meatballs, how to be patient while a good stew simmered. Now she lives on frozen foods or the meals that her children bring her.

She can’t really cook anymore.

And my Mom no longer drives. She used to ride her bike around our town, to work at the local school, to Curves, where she worked out and made friends. Now she doesn’t even drive a car. She doesn’t shop, unless one of us takes her for an abbreviated trip to a local store.

Her world is shrinking around her shrinking frame.

Even our house has changed. It was once the hub of our social lives, filled with happy toddlers, kids on bikes, teen aged musicians, neighbors and relatives at every holiday. It was full of noise, delicious smells, loud and laughing voices.

Now the house is neat and quiet. It feels outdated and quaint.

It feels lonely.

One old lady and her old gray cat now live in a house that used to hold a family of 8 and our various dogs and cats.

It makes me sad.

So I’ve made a plan for my future. I think it is a good one. I think it makes sense.

Here is my brilliant plan

From now until my 80th birthday, I have every intention of continuing to take care of myself. I will eat my healthy veggies and monitor my wine intake. I’ll garden, and I’ll walk my dogs. I’ll stretch and use my hot tub to stay limber. There will be no better medical patient than me. Every doctor’s order will be like one of the Ten Commandments.

But on the morning of my 80th day on earth, I will change things up and take my future into my own hands.

I will give up cauliflower and broccoli. No more fish oil pills for me. No walking briskly, no frozen veggies, no organic soaps.

No. Instead, I will have a breakfast of many fresh donuts and as much esspresso as I can swill. Lunch will be martinis and wicked fattening cheese. Maybe some good olives. And bread dipped in tons of olive oil.

I’ll snack on more donuts and finish the day with a pitcher of more martinis. Vodka martinis. Dirty, lemon, pomegranate, chocolate for dessert.

I will lie on my couch all day with donuts on the table, a bag of chips at my feet and a martini in one hand.

If all goes as planned, I will not have to slowly diminish and leave my house sad and lonely. I will not watch myself slowly shrinking and losing everything that has made me myself.

Instead, I will quickly succumb, leaving my children and grandchildren with a fabulous story to tell about me. And I’ll cross that famous rainbow bridge and find myself free of all pain and grief, and ready for the next step.

Good plan, right?

Who’s in?

I Stand on the Bridge


I find myself standing on the bridge between the past and the future, and it is a tender and poignant place to be.

I stand between youth and old age.

At the age of 63, it is of course natural for me to find myself in the middle of life’s journey.

But for me, the juxtaposition of what has been and what is coming is feeling profound right now.

My mother is 89 years old. She is 26 years older than I am.

Mom still lives at home, in the house where she and our Dad raised six kids. She is still there, still in her kitchen, where I learned to make sauce and meatballs. Still sleeping in the bedroom where she and Dad slept from 1962 until 2008 when Dad died.

I go to see her once a week. My siblings go at least once a week, too. Some more often. We are Mom’s supports, her cooks, her money managers, her cheerleaders as she heads on down the path toward her next step.

As my very wise sister put it, “Mom is quietly folding her tent.” She is gently withdrawing from her life, seeing fewer and fewer friends as her memory and her body fade.

But she is happy. Perhaps happier and calmer than at any other time in my life. Mom, once a power woman in control of all around her, has learned to accept help with grace. She has been willing to wear her LifeAlert, to have a home health aide and to welcome one of us every day (although she doesn’t often remember whose turn it is on any given day to have dinner with her.)

Mom is showing me how to exit gracefully, just as Dad did when it was his turn.

I am watching her. I am learning. I am coming to terms with some thoughts of my own about my life going forward toward that “rainbow bridge.” I am so lucky to have a model of how to go with humor and humility.

And.

As I stand on this tender bridge, I look back toward my youngest child. My son Tim turned 27 yesterday. So you can see that I am almost the ‘median’ point between my mother and my son.

I look at him, my sweet, kind boy. I see that life is spread out before him like a banquet. He plans to marry his sweetheart next summer. They are thinking about children, about careers, about their hopes and dreams for a future family.

I see him, and I see his Dad at the same age. I see myself. I see our worries and our joys and I remember what it was like to be young, in love, ready to move into the future with courage and hope.

My Mother often talks to me about those years before she married my Dad. She talks about how happy they were to sit under the trees on Boston Common, planning how many children they’d have. She talks about what it was like to hold his hand as they walked through the city sharing their dreams of a beautiful future.

And I stand on the bridge. I hear her thoughts, and I hear Tim’s. I know that it was my Mom and Dad’s ability to dream and love that lead to my family, and lead to my marriage and then lead to my beautiful boy and his wonderful partner.

I know that Tim and Sweens will marry, have children, face challenges, encounter unexpected joys and find ways to keep recreating their hope. Just as Paul and I have done. Just as my Mom and Dad did for all those years.

And I know that one day it will be me who is facing that final chapter.

I just hope, and pray, that when that time comes my children will look to me as a model of how to move on. I hope that they will think about Grandma, and remark on how like her I am.

And I hope, and I pray, that when that day rolls by, there will be children of theirs who are busy falling in love and planning their next steps and thinking about babies of their own.

The Goddess


goddess-1875722_960_720

I grew up as a good Catholic girl. In my world, God was man. He was a tall white man with a light brown beard and a white robe.

God was male.

But I’m not a little girl anymore.

Now I am a mother. I saw my own body grow and stretch and bend itself to give life to my three children. That made me wonder if perhaps the true deity was a woman.

I have been lucky enough to watch my daughter become a mother.  I watched her body grow and stretch and bend itself to give life to my grandchildren.  That made me suspect that I was right is seeing the true deity as a woman.

Today I helped my 87 year old mother as she took a shower, washed her hair, got dressed and settled herself into her favorite chair to rest after those efforts.

It wasn’t easy for Mom. She was embarrassed to realize that she needed me to do something as simple as taking a shower.

I need to tell you that my Mom was a power woman. For all of my 61 years of life, my mother has been tough, strong, proud and independent . She was the first feminist in my life. She was my role model.

But today she needed me. She is almost 88 years old. She is recovering from pneumonia. She has difficulties with her memory and her cognition. She is old.

Today she needed me. She didn’t want to need me. She didn’t want to be so frail that she couldn’t bathe herself or dress herself.

But she was.

And she had the strength and the grace to accept that fact. She let me turn on the shower. She let me help her to undress.

“Well” she said, with a smile, “here I am in all my glory.”

And I looked at my mother. Thin, frail, too weak to stand on her own.

And I saw the Goddess.

I saw the body that gave me my life.

I saw the strength and the beauty and the courage that has shaped all of her life.

My beautiful, fragile, goddess Mother.

And now I think I understand.

The deity is a Goddess. The deity is woman.

God or Goddess; the deity is love. It is the desire to share ourselves with others. It is the desire to love and to be loved.

Now I hope that one day I will have the grace and the courage to face my own frailties, and to let my children help when I am no stronger than a baby myself.

 

 

Letting it go


OK. Let.It.Go.

OK. Let.It.Go.

I just had a birthday.

At my age, this is a big deal.

I mean, I’m not ready to pull the dirt over my head quite yet, but I’m not exactly dancing around and celebrating my “double digits” either,  if you know what I mean.

I’m getting on in years.  Getting long in the tooth.  No longer a spring chicken.

If you think about the average life span in the US, I’m past halfway to home base.  Way past halfway in fact.

So birthdays are definitely a time for reflection.

Last weekend, I reflected.

“Yay, me!”, I reflected. “I am still active and working and learning and enjoying my food and drink. I still have fun at the beach and I can still dance at weddings.  Yay, me!”

“On the other hand,” I reflected, “I can’t hula hoop any more.  I can’t eat too many beans. And I don’t know any of the songs on the radio.”

So I’m in that funny space in life. The one where everyone who sees you thinks you’re on the downhill slope, but you still feel like you’re new to the game.

And as I have reflected and thought and sipped on a few refreshing beverages, I have come to some conclusions that can only be reached by wise old owls like me.

And I’m willing to share my wisdom with you. Lucky, lucky you.

I have realized that its time to let go of some things.   I’m ready to let go of beauty.  I had some, once.  But I don’t have to worry about it any more.  The hair is silver, the jowls are jowly, the boobs are heading south.  Let it go.  I am happy to hand off the gift of beauty to my daughter and my young colleagues.  I will celebrate your glowing skin, your silky hair, your tiny waists.  I will raise a cup of hot mocha with whipped cream, and happily cede the joy of beauty to you.

I am willing to let go of fashion trends, too.  I have never actually understood the whole “spring colors” thing anyway, so what the hell.  I am willing to admit that I still buy Levis when I can get them.  I wear Dansko clogs because they stop my knees/hips/back from aching all night.  I do not understand leggings and I never will.

And I am so so happy to never again have to think about this year’s eye shadow tones!  Let it go, let it go.

I am happy to let go of the pressure to say “yes” to every request.  “No”, I am happy to respond, “I cannot volunteer at the local food coop. I’m old. I’m tired. I’m resting.”

“No,” I can now respond.  “I won’t be available to work for two weeks this summer on the newest version of a reading program.  I will be lying on my back on a beach.  I won’t be awake enough to help.”   Let it go, let it go, let it go.

But even as I am letting go of the frivolous, the superfluous, the unnecessary, I am happy to embrace a whole new world of joy.

I am ready to embrace my free time.  I’ve earned it, dammit, its mine.  I am not going to gum it up by writing elaborate lesson plans on how to add fractions.

I am ready to embrace my sick days, too. I’ve saved them up for 22 years now; when I wake up with a terrible headache or a burning sore throat, I am no longer going to make some tea, swallow some ibuprofin and hope for the best.  Nope. Now I am going to log onto the sub folder, click on “sick day” and go back to bed.  And maybe I’ll watch a marathon of “Dog Whisperer” while I eat my chicken soup.  Who cares?  I am embracing my mortality.

Time has gone on.  I had a birthday.

I will let go of my frustration over changing educational fads.  I will embrace my joy as I talk with my sweet students.  I will let go of my sadness at no longer being relevant, and will embrace the freedom that comes from being ignored and left alone.  I will let go of my “mommy” days, and will embrace my new role as the funny, happy relaxed “Nonni” who makes the awesome cookies.

Time to Let It Go.

Traditions


Tradition is a wonderful thing.  Families make traditions out of favorite recipes, special meals, little songs and rituals and shared jokes.  They create powerful memories out of annual visits to a treasured vacation spot, shared from one generation to the next.

Traditions keep siblings linked, one to the other, as they reenact the happiest memories of childhood. They keep children close to their parents as they share familiar stories, of “Remember the time when…….”  Traditions are our foundations.  As families, they help to define what makes us whole.

As I grow older, I am aware that it is the pull of those traditions that keeps us grounded in the past that created us.  Although my grandparents have been gone for years now, I hold fast to the traditional holiday foods that they brought with them from Italy almost a century ago.  Octopus for Christmas eve, ricotta pie for Easter; these are the traditions of my earliest days.  For me, it is the taste of those foods, eaten once a year, that reminds of who I truly am. Of who it was that gave me life, and how that life is rooted in a place where my feet have never walked. Those traditions tie me to those who came long before me, but whose blood I share.

It is in the tradition of cooking those foods that I honor my grandmothers and their mothers, and all of the women who shaped those holiday traditions with the strength of their hands and the depth of their love for their families.

Traditions can bring us so much solace when life moves on too quickly, and the years begin to fly.

But I am learning lately that holding fast to tradition, to those tender reenactments, can also pull us back in a way that is far from healthy.  Sometimes in my desire to keep our family traditions alive, I let myself be stopped in my tracks.  Sometimes by going to the same beloved, sacred places, I let myself be haunted.

If you have had a happy and lucky life, like mine, your past is filled with memories too sweet to easily release.  You want to hold them, touch each one, store them safely in your heart.   You want to bring those moments back; you don’t want to let them slide into the past. You want each one to be right now. Knowing that you can never make that happen fills you with grief. You have to work very, very hard to keep your spirits up and your eyes fixed on the future.

So going back to even the happiest and warmest traditions can be like attaching an anchor to your soul.  It keeps you grounded and secure, but it stops you from going on to your next destination.

I think that I need to find a way to keep the happiest memories of my children’s past alive and fresh in my memory.  But I also need to give myself permission to stop going to those places that for me are filled with beautiful ghosts.  I need to stop walking on paths that ring with the sound of my babies’ voices. I need to stop looking at the places where they splashed in the rain, where they drew images in pastel chalk, where they hugged me and looked for me, and didn’t feel safe without my arms around them.

Its time for me to make some new traditions, and to go to places that can be filled with new dreams.

Time to let the past be just that.  Time to look to the future.

 

Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again!


 

I have many strengths.

I have been told by a very good therapist that I should work on appreciating my strengths as a person.  I should engage in positive self-talk, to help me quiet the critic in my head.

After following her advice, I am now able to enumerate some of my strengths.

I am kind. I am intelligent.  I can cook.  I’m really good with kids. I have a way with words, and I am reasonably musical.

However.

The down side of knowing my strengths is that I also know my weaknesses.  Especially the hugely glaring ones.   Like my absolute and total lack of any semblance of a sense of direction.

I am not kidding.

When my oldest child wanted to visit a bunch of colleges along the east coast, I contacted the schools, made some appointments and packed my bags.  My husband, practical guy that he is, asked if we had a map, a Triple-A plan book or any idea of where we were going.  “Of course.”, I answered confidently, “I plan to drive east until I hit the ocean and then take a right.”

Two weeks later, in spite of the plan book, the maps and the itinerary which he had so graciously provided, Kate and I found ourselves lost in Manhatten, Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore, Delaware and Washington DC.   We had a blast!

Many years ago, I worked as a speech/language therapist for a Visiting Nurse Association. Every time I picked up a new patient, I had to get to his house by going first to at least two other patients’ houses so that I could find my way. “OK, go from the office to Bobby’s place, then take the right that goes down to Michael’s house.  From Michael’s head toward Anna’s, and the new kid will be on the right.”   I wasn’t a very efficient therapist, but I did manage to tour the whole city on my rambling drives.

Recently, my directional challenges have been put to the test.  A few weeks ago, I took my Mom to see a new doctor at a hospital about 5 miles from her house.  I called the office for directions, wrote them down, then used Google maps for good measure.  I still managed to drive past the main entrance twice, and had to call my younger sister for specific step by step guidance to get to the right office.  I felt like an idiot.

Sigh.

You should know a few things about my family before I go on.  First of all, my Mom, bless her 81 year old heart, is as bad as I am at finding her way around.  And my brilliant daughter, the world traveler, is perhaps even worse than we are.  Clearly, there is a genetic predisposition toward wandering blindly around the countryside, especially when any of us are behind the wheel of a car.

My Dad, on the other hand, was born with an internal GPS the like of which the world has never seen.  He could look at a map once, and instantly find the shortest route to a place he’d never been.  Twenty years later, no matter how much construction had been done or how the roads had changed, he’d be able to find his way back to his exact same parking spot without ever consulting a map.  It was uncanny.

I learned to drive with my Dad to guide me, but once I was on my own, he was no help.  You see, he tended to give directions based on his internal map, rather than on reality. “You know where Scollay Sq. used to be?”, he’d ask me.  “No.”, I would answer honestly.  Dad would frown.  “Well, go down there, to where Scollay Square was, and then take that first right.”  I could never understand what he meant, and he could never understand how I managed to get lost over and over again in the town where I grew up.

Yesterday my Mom had to have a colonoscopy.  Because it is school vacation, I happily volunteered to bring her to the appointment.  I was careful about my planning, too, because I know myself pretty well by now.  I checked and rechecked the directions.  I carefully wrote down the exact address of the satellite clinic where the procedure would be done.  I once again went to Google maps and found the directions. I printed the directions.  I carefully put the directions in my purse and my purse in the car.

I picked Mom up an hour and a half before her appointment, knowing that the clinic was 20 minutes away.  I left myself time to get lost, you see.  I was being entrusted with the care of the family Matriarch, at a moment when she was feeling weak and shaky.  All five of my siblings were counting on me to get her there safely and to bring her safely back home.  Gulp!

When we headed out, I was sure that I was prepared. I had even stopped to buy water and goldfish crackers for her care and feeding on the way home!

Well, we followed the Google directions perfectly and got to our destination an hour early. I smiled to myself so smugly!  We parked, we got out, we walked up the street. No clinic.

We walked back down the street.  Still no clinic.

We entered a local dental office to ask for some help.  A very friendly, helpful young man with a thick Russian accent looked at our paperwork, both the Google printout and Mom’s original orders from her doctor.

“Ach.” He said wisely. “You are in wrong city.  Zis street is Kembridge Street in Kembridge. You need Kembridge Street in Bohston. You are in very much wrong place.”

I felt as if I had just grabbed onto a thousand volt live wire.  My heart literally lurched, and I broke out in a sweat.  By now it was thirty minutes before her appointment.  The appointment that she had spent three uncomfortable days preparing for!  What if she had to reschedule, and it was all my fault!?!

Gah!!!   I pushed poor Mom into a chair in the dentist’s office and took off at a dead run, racing back the two blocks to the parking garage.  The whole time, as I ran panting and gasping, I could hear my father’s voice, clear as day in my ear. “You went to the wrong CITY?! You didn’t double check the CITY!?”   I careened up the ramp to the car, hitting the automatic unlock as I ran. “Shut. Up. Dad.”, I panted. “Just send me the directions from Heaven already!”

I screeched out of the lot, wanting to go two blocks left to pick up my ever patient mother.  Nope.  Right turn only.  I cursed loudly and energetically as I tore out of the lot.  It took a solid five minutes of right turn after right turn before I found my way back to the land of the helpful Russian.  I bundled Mom into the seat, and then realized that I still had no idea of how to get to the right place.

So what could I do?

I made a call to my younger sister, the one who rescued me the last time that Mom and I were lost.  The sister who inherited every brain cell of our Dad’s GPS device.  The one who, miraculously, didn’t yell “YOU WENT TO THE WRONG CITY?!”  Instead, she calmly and carefully directed us the two miles to the correct Cambridge Street, and stayed on the line as I frantically searched for a place to park.

I squeezed into a parking space, sought directions from a wonderful middle eastern parking attendant (“Be calm.  If you are cool, all will be fine.”), and finally found the right office.  We arrived about five minutes late, both of us shaking and breathless.

The procedure went well, the findings were happily all normal, and we managed to somehow find our way back home.  When my sisters arrived at Mom’s house, they had some fun teasing me, and making references to “Mr. Magoo’s car racing around looking for the hospital.”

I laughed, but I have rarely if ever felt so inept, so foolish, so inadequate.  I tossed and turned all night, dreaming of traffic, of crowds, of being lost, of funny men with foreign accents.  I wondered why my Mom hadn’t yelled at me for screwing it up again.

This morning, my doorbell rang, and these were delivered, with a note of thanks “for always going beyond”.

I just hope that she didn’t mean, “Always going beyond the entrance, always going beyond the parking lot, always going beyond the right city.”!

Phew…..

The Kitchen


When I was a little girl, my Mom’s kitchen was the center of the universe. It was the place where our whole big brood gathered every night for dinner. Where we shared the day, passed the bread, argued about who would wash the dishes.

The kitchen was where my Dad made pancakes every Saturday morning, letting Mom get a little rest and a break from her usual role.  It was where we ate Italian cold cuts on round rolls called “spuckies” every Saturday afternoon, my Dad at the table with a pencil on his ear and a salted beer in his hand. It was where we did our homework after supper.

When I got older, and went out on weekend nights until after my parents were asleep, it was the warm light of the kitchen that welcomed me back, and lit my way to my bedroom.  The kitchen table was where I sat to  read the paper, where I learned to make bread, where I rolled out my first miserable failure of a pie crust. One infamous Christmas night, when I was about 25, I sat up until 3 AM with my Dad, taste testing his array of single malt Scotches and waxing philosophical about life and love and the smoky taste of peat.

When I grew up and had my first child, I found myself coming home to my parents’ kitchen.  I’ve fed my babies in that kitchen.  I’ve bathed them in that sink.

My friends have sat around that table with coffee and cake, with wine and cheese, in anger and in joy.  I have heard good news in that room, and have shared the grief of sudden death there.

I sat with my Mom at the kitchen table carefully counting out my father’s pills as he lay dying down the hall. Days later,  I held my sister’s hand as we planned his funeral.

Tonight I am at my Mom’s house, sitting alone at the kitchen table. I come here every week for a meal and a visit, usually spending the night in what was once my old room.  Usually Mom and I sit at the table together to eat, then go to bed at the same time.  Tonight, though, she is feeling sick, and has already gone to bed.  I am left alone in the kitchen, looking at the familiar walls and pictures and mementos of the past.  Feeling the arms of my family curving around me as I look out the window into the yard where I once played.  Soon I will turn out the lights and make my way by touch down the hall to bed.  I will lay my head in the place where it once belonged, and close my eyes and dream.

I wonder if I will dream of my Mother’s kitchen, filled with children and pets and the music of her pots and pans.  I wonder if I will dream of my Dad, pulling his beautiful wife into his arms, onto his knee, laughing as he sits at the head of the kitchen table.

Helpless.


There are just so many times in my life when I feel completely helpless.

I. Do. Not. Like. This.

I am used to taking charge, grabbing the reins, making things all better.  I am used to being able to help.

I have not found a way to gently accept the reality of my own helplessness in the face of my loved ones’ struggles.  While I understand, in a cerebral, cognitive, intellectual way that I do not control the major events in the universe, I still rail against the realization that I am unable to make things any better for those I love.   I hate this feeling!  It makes me feel…well…helpless. Diminished.  Useless.  Weak.

So when my Momma is sad, lonely and depressed by my father’s death, I hate that I can’t make her all better.

When my sister is facing the loss of her husband after an illness of almost twenty years, and I can’t take it away, I feel horrible and helpless.

When my Uncle gets the worst possible diagnosis and is left to face the rest of his life; when my friends face another long struggle to save their little girl, after two long years of treatment; when a cousin is losing her battle to stay healthy and to remain in her own home.  When my dog is old and sick.  When my neighborhood is filled with empty houses.  When my countrymen feel cut off, angry, disconnected from the future. When I find Americans to be at each others’ throats, with no way forward in sight.  These are the times when I feel truly helpless.

All of these things leave me feeling powerless and sad.  I want to find a way to make something better, for someone, at least for a little while.  How can I simply accept the role of silent observer when so much is amiss?

And so.  I cook for people. I take my dog to the vet and my Momma to the doctor.  I send gifts and cards to my friends and family.

It isn’t enough.

I cook and shop and send food to those who are marching in the streets, demanding a kinder future, with more fairness and more opportunity.  I write and I call and I talk to those around me about finding a way to be civil and open minded.  I do my best to compromise and to hear the words of those whose views I do not easily understand.

But I am helpless.  I can’t turn back the clock, undo the march of time or the advance of disease. I can’t force those around me to be reasonable or calm.  I can’t change the outcome of the future, I can only change the way that I react to that future.

And therein, no doubt, lies the lesson.  We wish that we could change things so that we wouldn’t have to live to see such difficult days.  But, as Gandalf says to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings,

“So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. ”

And so I will do my best to do what is good and strong and true with the time that is given to me. I will try very hard to appreciate the dawn, instead of complaining that I am out on the highway as the sun rises. I will do my best to feel the joy of the past, instead of mourning the loss of those days.   I will try, really hard, to enjoy every moment of the present, without bending down under the weight of all that is sad and lost.

And I will try to feel happy that I am helpless. After all, how awful would it be to feel that I really had control over all of these parts of life?   I guess, when all is said and done, it is really so much easier to simply be an observer.

But I still feel helpless.

So here I sit; helpless, yet somehow hopeful.  I can only pray that there are others out here who, like me, want to somehow affect and shape the future.

Devotion


I saw them the minute I entered the grocery store, standing there in the produce aisle.  They were chatting with one of the young clerks, and I was caught by the sound of their laughter.

He was the one speaking, in a commanding, resonant voice, asking about the clerk’s parents, sharing a story with her.  He was tall and thin, wearing black pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.  He had a shock of wonderfully disordered white hair, standing straight up on his head.  His nose was longish, and he sported bushy white “Gandalf” eyebrows over his deepset, dark eyes.

She stood to one side, smiling and nodding, but not speaking. She was short, and plump, her iron grey hair worn in a long ponytail down her back.  She wore a blue cotton skirt, sensible shoes and a beautiful embroidered peasant blouse.  Something about her demeanor was just a bit “off”, and I found myself casting little looks her way as I made my way around them to the bin of red peppers.

Her face was round, and smooth, and she wore an unchanging, slightly unfocused smile throughout the conversation.  The gentleman said goodbye to the clerk, who turned to the woman and said softly, “I hope you’ll come back to see me again.”  The sweet smile didn’t falter as the older woman said, “Of course we will.”

I ran into them again two aisles over.  They were walking toward me, and the man was carefully choosing items to put in his cart.  He showed her a jar of something, and asked, “You like these, don’t you?”  She looked up at him, then at me, shrugged and smiled.  “Really, I don’t remember.”  He patted her shoulder, said, “Yes. You do.  We had them at the cookout.”

My heart and throat filled with sadness as I realized what I was seeing. How sad, for both of them!  She couldn’t remember whether she liked something or not, and he was left to make those choices for her.  I continued to shop, but was sorrowfully aware of them as we all meandered through the store.

A few minutes later, as I looked through the shelves of coffee, they came toward me once again.  He was in the lead, and he made ferocious eye contact with me as he passed.  He did not smile or acknowledge me in any way, but I heard his message loud and clear.  I was careful not to show an ounce of pity or sadness as his lady came walking behind him.  Unlike him, she smiled broadly when she saw me, her face a picture of peace and serenity.  We exchanged “Good mornings”, and passed in opposite directions.

I saw them two more times while I was in the store. Once we were all gathered near the frozen foods, tempted by the array of ice creams.  He was talking to his wife about flavors and brands.  She looked my way with a bemused expression, smiled again, and shrugged.  She was clearly confused, but didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by it.

And I saw them as I approached the cash register.  He was pushing the carriage toward the door, all of the groceries bagged and ready to go.  He reached out his right arm, drew her close with a hug around her waist.  He kissed the top of her head, placed her hand in the bend of his elbow, and escorted her grandly into the parking lot.

They made me so very sad, at first. I had to be careful not to let my tears show as I met them each time.  How tragic to face such loss, how awful for both of them.

But in thinking about them through this long summer afternoon, I have come to realize that I took the wrong lesson from my meeting with this devoted couple.  Why should I be sad for two people who have achieved what every human being on earth wants? They have somehow found a love that has lifted them both above themselves, and they have found a partner for life.  Neither of them is alone; she has him to protect her, to care for her, to keep her in the present.  He has her to guard and to love and to remind him of his past.

This is the kind of devotion that I saw in my parents.  It is what I wish for Paul and I to earn and to keep. It is what I wish for all of my children to find someday.

What a lucky, happy couple I saw in the grocery store this morning.