My mother had an endless supply and peppered her conversations with them. As a gangly, freckled face teenager I would occasionally apply them in conversation with my peer group. I might mention to a tired friend, “You look like the wreck of the Hesperus”. A look of confusion often met me because I may well have been speaking another language to her. “I didn’t have an inkling” I was quoting Longfellow.
Idioms were common in my Irish-American household. “She’s as busy as a one-armed paper hanger”, or “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” and whenever I got ahead of myself: “Don’t put the cart before the horse”.
Idioms have gravity, historical reference and are often so clever they “stop you in your tracks”. I have a Russian friend who surprisingly includes American idioms in his conversation on occasion. Imagine that, applying idiom in a second language? It never fails to “blow my skirt up”.
How do they catch on? How are they passed on? How did they find their way into my 20th century suburban New England home? Idioms might be “a bit of a dark horse”.
I wasn’t mindful in my visit to Uncle Bobby last Saturday. My thoughts were racing around the too many challenges I faced. Racing to the next responsibility, chore to be accomplished, the niggling worries which can eat away my days. I was overwhelmed with problems and underwhelmed with solutions. The perseverating had begun before I walked in the door of his two-room apartment. When in this “frame of mind”, the muted heartache at the center of my chest takes on volume. It is hard to be alone when the world threatens to engulf you. “To add insult to injury” there is the reminder that you have been “dismissed out of hand” by the great love of your life.
I was not prepared to be present to Uncle Bobby. “I was swamped”, but I dragged myself in and took my regular spot in the upholstered chair four feet on the diagonal from him.
I bought the lift chair in preparation for his arrival late last February. He is a “tall drink of water” which demanded something to hold his frame, raise his swollen legs for part of the day, and literally lift him to nearly a standing position when it was time to get him to walker and wheelchair. The walker was an important part of his independence for years, a balancing tool that got him to his car and into restaurants without fear of falling. It is now just a temporary tool to get him from reclining chair to wheelchair.
There are days when coming to see him means patiently listening to his litany of complaints: medical and personnel. Other days we have to “buckle down” and meticulously review bills, particularly the Medicare tomes which “make my head spin”. The best visits come when he is in the mood to “wax on” about his past. Nearly all the time, our visits are about Uncle Bobby’s agenda of the day. On this Fall Saturday, I couldn’t suppress my own.
The strain for me was financial, but being “true to form”, practical things often take on an emotional significance. The “long and short of it”; active teenage daughter without a car, strained finances, overextended schedule, loneliness, and the wistfulness that seems to accompany autumn since my mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving.
The week had “worn me to a nub” and the strain was apparent. One question about Grace and the car and tears began to well, frustration mount and my usually confident veneer crumbled.
Uncle Bobby cleared his emphysema riddled throat, balled his carpal tunnel deformed hands into fists, wriggled himself to a sitting position of greater height and with loving firmness said,
“Now you listen to me…”
With dramatic pause, one finger went to the left space above his silver head, and it came…
“When you are up to your neck in Alligators, don’t forget that the goal was to drain the swamp.”
Perhaps the most confusing idiom of all! I knew it and have puzzled over it frequently enough in the past that the message was absolutely clear. One step at a time, one problem at a time, do not take it all on at once or it will “eat you alive”. Oh yes, the danger of being undone in it was real. It is the fear I carry daily, that if just one of the spinning plates I have in the air crashes to the floor, I will be undone for good. I will collapse among the shattered pieces and be of no use to the centers of my world: my exhausting teenage daughter and beloved 90-year-old uncle.
Bobby continues “full steam ahead” with a spark and liveliness I haven’t seen in months, as he places a closed hand over his heart, and taps it firmly on his chest.
“I am your guy. Do you understand? I am your guy. You are not to worry about money because I can help with that.”
I interrupt him, or at least make an attempt at protest with a teary, garbled, “but, you spend enough and worry about money, and I can’t….”
I am cut off immediately, as his crackled voice becomes firmer,
“You do not tell me what I can and cannot do, what I have and what I don’t have. I am your family, I am your guy and I’ll not hear another word about it. I can’t fix everything or do much for you,” he takes a pause to laugh a little, “but I can and will do this. They’ll be no more discussion.”
We sit a moment in our spaces on the diagonal. I reach for a tissue to blow my full nose and wipe my eyes and the discussion is put to rest, for today, at least.
He is tired now, spent a bit from his diatribe. I am equally depleted. It is time to go. I lean over him and kiss his cheek, as he squeezes my hand with his own.
In reflection, I find it remarkable that in my weakness he often finds his strength. It is a reminder to me that, regardless of the betrayal of his body, his fortitude remains strong and his heart full.
And there it is…. A man who “cuts to the chase”, “puts his money where his mouth is”, and that for as long as he is here, he is the person who “has got my back.”
I love him with “all my heart and soul.” Ain’t idioms grand!