Meaningful Nothingness

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My friend Pat should get a byline in this blog.  She has given me almost as much fodder as Uncle Bobby.

This weekend’s prompt came via one of her standard phone calls,

“I don’t know if this is the right wording, and maybe you can do better, but I wonder if…..”

and she hesitates, and sighs, and gathers her thoughts;  the working of her brain almost visible to me across the bandwidth.

“You know…., oh I don’t know if you’ll get this…”

she fades a bit and finally,

“Do you know what I mean when I say ‘meaningful nothingness’?”

Meaningful nothingness!  Oh yes, my friend, I absolutely know and understand exactly what that perfectly imprecise and likely made-up term means.  I had it for 22 months and loved every meaningful nothing moment of it.

Meaningful nothingness for me was languid Sunday mornings, and quick dashes into Shoprite and awakening cups of coffee, handed to me as a schlumped around in sweats.  It was settling in to watch “Mister Roberts” on a winter Saturday afternoon just because the clicker found it on my television. Who can resist the dictatorial James Cagney making Henry Fonda’s shipboard life an exercise in frustration?  It was revisiting the New York Times crossword over a week just because maybe we can actually fill in every square, but not really caring if we could.

It was walking my labrador with him on snowy days, hot days, icy days and rainy days.

Meaningful Nothingness was the appearance of his acoustic guitar on Saturday mornings, played by him with mediocrity accompanied by my near pitch, often off rhythm voice, and who cared?  It was trotting off a lacrosse field in my referee stripes on a rainy night, just to see his face unexpectedly waiting for me in the stands.

“I didn’t know you were coming?” 

to which he replied,

“I was on my way home and wanted to watch you do your thing.”

I miss meaningful nothingness now that he has gone and since Pat’s query about it, the concept has my rapt attention.  Perhaps, because I now understand just how elusive it is.  You can’t conjure it, or create it, or force it.  It is an organic thing that you wear like your most comfortable slippers.  For us, it was immediate, our comfort in meaningful nothingness.  I would contend that it is a rare symbiosis between two people that some will never experience.  I worry I will never know it again.

We did grand things in our time together, lots of wonderfully grand things.  A year and half later the details of those things are fading.  What is still vivid to me is the volume of meaningful  nothingness experiences we shared.  

Walking to the library to return a book, folding laundry or making the bed together, reading books side by side, sharing a simple meal of couscous and vegetables on a Monday night meant more to me than any number of getaways we took or exciting moments at the US Open. A text in the middle of the day just to say he thought of me or sitting on his couch reading while he finished a workday at home. Fixing a tray of soup, crackers and ginger ale because he was sick were moments of true meaningful nothingness.

It was the reach of a hand that I  knew would respond with a hold, or the touch to the small of my back to steer me through a crowd.  It  was the knowledge that even when we were apart,  we were aware of the minutiae of each other’s schedule.  It was me quickly knowing the back stories and jobs of his colleagues, and him asking about the girls I coached by name. It was handing him a Tupperware container of leftovers on early Monday mornings as he headed to work.

Maybe it’s because no one else really sees those moments that make them so lasting in memory.   Perhaps the beauty of them is that they belong to just the two of us.  There are no value judgements in meaningful nothingness, no audience of well-wishers or stealthy underminers.  Moments of meaningful nothingness were only visible to the two of us and don’t necessarily register with anyone in the retelling of our tale.  You know when you have it and it’s a sacred gift.

We would say to each other in quiet moments of  meaningful nothingness,

“I would rather do nothing with you, than something grand with anyone else.”

Something changed for him and I can’t know what.  Meaningful nothingness shifted somehow to actual nothingness.  Shame, really.

Pat’s question about “meaningful nothingness” moved me this weekend to the sort of melancholy I have worked hard to put behind me. It’s okay, she reminds me, sometimes the best thing you can do is settle in and honor loss, attend to it, knowing that you will rise from it in your time.

It’s a bittersweet irony and part of me wishes that when Pat posed her question my response were more like this,

“I have no idea what you’re talking about”

But that would be a lie.   

 

Food , Glorious Food

Several years ago I had the great fortune to direct a middle school production of “Oliver!”  Little did Charles Dickens know that this dark story of orphaned boys in early 19th century London would be brought to life with such grandeur.  Notably, The opening number, “Food, Glorious, Food!”  perfectly captures the yearning for comfort food.  So good is that opening that you can almost taste the morsels which make the sooty-faced orphans pine.  Do we eat to live or live to eat?

When my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September of 2005, it took nearly 3 weeks for the doctors to make an accurate prognosis.  It was imperative that they find the source of the initial cancerous cells first. That wait was almost inhumane, but my mother bore it with remarkable stoicism.  I suppose she knew that the cause mattered not at all, the result would be the same regardless of where those insidious buggers began their destruction.  Of all the Irish luck,  the roulette wheel landed on the adrenal gland, giving her an extraordinarily rare cancer with little evidence of successful treatment, and no positive outcome at the stage 4 level.  The prognosis was 3 months to live.

My mother, father and I left that prognosis meeting in silence, each of us digesting the news which was delivered with compassion by an oncologist whose name I don’t even recall.  We drove the 10 miles from his office to my parent’s suburban colonial, each in our own stillness  Mom was exhausted when we got home and went directly upstairs.  Not knowing what else to do, I followed her and asked her what she would like for dinner.  Seems a silly question in light of the news, but dinner plans were important in my Irish Catholic home.  Throughout my life the day seem to start with the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

She sat on her bed,  thought carefully and said, “I think I’d like some meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.”  Okay then, that was easy enough.  I ran out to the market and got the goods and prepared while she napped, while my poor dad sat in the den struggling to wrap his mind around the inevitable.  

Meatloaf is best made with your hands; it’s nearly impossible to meld the hamburger, onions, eggs and breadcrumbs properly with a spoon and my mom’s kitchen had no such modern convenience as the Kitchen Aid mixer.  The old fashioned way was best, and there was something cathartic in preparing that loaf and finally pressing it into a bread pan, topping it with a Heinz Ketchup glaze and setting it in the 350 degree oven.  Mashed potatoes are more work and in my mom’s kitchen the Foley ricer was the tool of mashed potatoes.  Once they were boiled, peeled and cut, the stainless steel contraption would do its magic, smoothing out the potatoes so that just the right amount of milk and butter would create a creamy, fluffy concoction.  Green beans take no effort at all.  A quick boil and shake of salt and there you are.

Mom had lost significant weight in the months before diagnosis and her appetite had dwindled significantly since the word Cancer had been introduced nearly a month before.  In a twist of Irony, she often mused that she wished she had eaten what she wanted during her middle years, rather than battle her weight.  Juicy hamburgers and creamy sauces on pasta were traded for white fish and chicken, chicken, chicken after a heart attack stopped her in her tracks in her early fifties.  She survived the heart scare and thought perhaps that might be enough medical complication for a lifetime. There is a hint in there somewhere that we ought to live a little more freely while we may.

I prepared her plate of food, which she wanted to eat in her room.  On the tray, I put a placemat, silverware and a cloth napkin with a sterling silver ring.  A small glass of whole milk was a bonus and I carried it up the stairs carefully.  She was awake, but lying down when I walked in.  Upon my entrance, she scooched up and rearranged her pillows.  In that moment, she may as well have been just battling a cold or the flu.  Regardless of the dire information of the day, her countenance was peaceful, tired, but she was, as always, receptive and polite.  You could almost forget in that moment that the number of nights in the home she lived for 45 years were nearly over;   that nights of peaceful sleep were now numbered.  She asked me to put the tray by her side in the empty space to her right.  

I sat on the floor next to her for thirty minutes or so, but we did not talk of cancer or doctors or what happens next.  As I remember it, we spoke of my children and how long I would stay this visit. We planned my return the following weekend.

Mom didn’t touch a morsel of that meal on that October night.  Nor did she eat a bite of the roast chicken, baked potato and broccoli I made a week later.  Same for the pork chops, applesauce and potato she requested subsequently.  Her appetite was long gone now, and her tastebuds were muddled with medication.  It took me some time to understand that it was the smell of those comfort foods she craved; the soothing effect that comes from the aroma of the foods we love.

Mom passed away not 7 weeks later on the greatest food day of all time: Thanksgiving.  I’ve grown to love the irony.  Her death was met with kindness to my dad from all corners, and that kindness came often in the form of food.  His freezer was filled for almost year with casseroles, lasagna, chicken parmesan, chili,  and creamy soups.  Not a soul worried for him about carbohydrates, salt or sugar intake.  Not one person prepared white fish for him in the year following my mother’s passing.  Food, high calorie, delicious food, was their show of love.

This musing of mine is brought on as I watch Uncle Bobby’s appetite dwindle to nothing.  His most notable activity each day is to go to breakfast and dinner at the assisted living home.  He gave up lunch months ago, and sustains himself midday with Oreo’s and Fig Newtowns.  He will occasionally slip in a wedge of apple in a nod to health.  I puzzle at the menu at “Maplewood”, as it reflects our generations obsession with healthy eating.  The menu is fancy and announces “farm to table freshness”.  It’s impressive in its breadth and attention to detail, but Uncle Bobby and his dining companions often comically remark on the offerings.  

“What’s this, Fra Diavolo with roasted red peppers?”

“”Sea Bass? Where’s the fish and chips?”

“Since when did brussel sprouts become popular?”

I get the marketing of assisted living.  I understand that the elegant presentation in the dining room is not really for the residents, but rather the families who are trying to come to peace with the fact that the comfort of home is gone now for these elderly loved ones.  So while I understand it, I wish I had the courage to march into that kitchen and meet the chef face to face and announce, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, hotdogs with mustard and relish, spaghetti and meatballs.  That’s what they want!”

But like Dicken’s orphans, they will push their fancified gruel around the plate, and fill their imaginations with the glorious food they loved throughout their lives.  If they are like Uncle Bobby, they will wish for the midday to come so they can inhale some Oreo’s or Fig Newtowns, or his other guilty pleasure: buttery Ritz Crackers.  Food, Glorious Food, Indeed!

Whisper Words

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Dwindle,  Hospice…… These are whisper words.  They have no hard notes.  There is no inclination to shout or spit them out.

Dwindle,  Hospice…… One word demands quiet attention, the other solemnity.

Just a little over a week ago, Uncle Bobby lifted me for a moment from my “Januarys”.  These last ten days he has found himself face to face with the ultimate “Januarys”.   His physical struggles are mounting, as his likely consuming lung disease is compounded by what appears to be a rapidly enlarging prostate. The two have joined forces to steal away his humor, patience, and energy.  This is how it is for the elderly at the end of a life well lived.   Their survival is tenuous.  Uncle Bobby has been a veritable house of cards for some time now. He is a fragile fellow.

My father died in this heinous month, seven “Januarys” ago.  In the late weeks of his final December, I recall a nurse selecting a charming word to describe his countenance,

“He’s got the dwindles”

The dwindles sound so benign, don’t they?  The word almost has a nursery rhyme lyricism to it:  Jack be nimble?  Jack has dwindles?  And if it is true that we revert to our child-like self’s as we come closer to our end,  then it is the perfect word.

Since an unexpected ambulance ride to the emergency room last Saturday,  Uncle Bobby has shown the tell-tale signs of “the dwindles”.  He is as moody, irritable and confused as a petulant three-year-old boy who can’t have what he wants, when wants it.  Despite his natural charms, he has always had room for complaint, but this past week they lack bite and fluidity.

The criticisms and concerns of this week are not spiked with entertaining self-righteousness.  His delivery is weak and his intellectual rants trail off prematurely.  There are no stories of yesteryear this final week of January, no perseveration about the Dow Jones, or sharp observations about the three-ring circus of presidential politics.  This week he is diminished; just a shadow of himself.  He will be 90 on April 7. He is deservedly exhausted. He has the “dwindles”.

The medical complication which landed him in the emergency room last weekend returned on Tuesday. It was suggested by the facility where he lives that a Hospice evaluation be done.  This exercise was done six months ago, and he was declined. There is a joke in here somewhere about a club into which you hope never to be accepted.  Suffice it to say, acceptance to Hospice care is almost akin to gaining admission to Harvard. If the standard at Harvard starts with perfect SAT’s, 4.0 GPA,  and a stacked resume, Hospice expects the same excellence in medical complication.  Remarkably, the “dwindles” qualify.

Hospice is a potent whisper of a word. It meant nothing to me at all until my mother entered its care in the last week of her life.  My father did the same three years later. From the cacophony of hospitals and nursing homes, Hospice nurses floated into our lives like gentle sprites, attending to my parent’s comfort and dignity with the kind of grace reserved for only the finest of angels.  Starting this week, Hospice will relieve Uncle Bobby’s underpaid, overworked and sometimes under trained CNA’s.  They will also help both of us prepare for the journey ahead.

When I listened to the voice message from Hospice while driving along a congested stretch of I-84, I was surprised by my own quiet tears.  For a year now I have been so focussed on the “tree’s” of Bobby’s care that somehow I lost the “forest”.  My heart aches to consider my own forest absent him.  He is the last of my Mohican’s.

Acceptance into Hospice care does not necessarily mean that death is imminent, though it suggests that 6 months is a fair barometer of time left. For my Mom and Dad, Hospice care meant days.  For Uncle Bobby, the prognosis remains unclear and there is always the chance that the gentility of Hospice attention will strengthen him somehow; that he will rise again to stave off the inevitable.

It is not lost on me that one year ago, when Uncle Bobby moved here from Providence, that I was experiencing my own emotional “dwindles” from which his presence demanded that I rise. He has been Hospice personified for my broken heart.

A dear friend gave me a poetic perspective today: Hospice suggests the “edge of the end”.   

She said it like a whisper.

 

 

 

“The Januarys”

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I have “ The Januarys”; the feeling inspired by the unmentionable month which follows the exhaustion of the holidays. In January, every day feels like Monday; the lingering glow of summer color has faded, and holiday over indulgence is pronounced at the waistband. I have a policy to never wear a white tennis skirt in January – yuck! And for all those cock-eyed optimists out there, save your cheerful observations like, “The days are getting longer”, and “Aren’t we lucky, no real snow storms yet?” Oh, and “It’s been so mild this winter the grass is still green!”  I want to slap the face of every smiley emoticon that follows. When you have “The Januarys” you sort of want to wallow in them.

While I’m at it, let me take Pope Gregory VIII to task. The nerve of the inventor of the Gregorian calendar to give the dispiriting January a full 31 days.  There is no month which deserves to linger less.

Today is Tuesday but naturally feels like Monday. I approach it as such,  armed with a list of chores. Among them my weekly stock up of necessary items for Uncle Bobby. Wearing my down filled jacket and a woolen scarf which scratches at my neck, I pass through the doors of the assisted living center attempting to balance two over-filled shopping bags. I bypass the sign-in desk to make the long walk to the elevator. Were it a spring day, chances are a kindly worker would offer a hand. Obviously, they too have “The Januarys” and pass by me with downcast eyes.  

When I finally reach the elevator, I place my packages on the ground to reorganize and random items tumble out. Within seconds, as I am stuffing tissue boxes, Fig Newtons, and Lubriderm back in the bags, the elevator door opens and I find myself facing an army of wheelchairs and walkers poised to disembark. Craft day at Assisted Living! When you have “The Januarys” you never have good timing. On a spring day, these darling elderly would be all “Good Morning”, “Have a great Day”, “How’s Your Uncle?”.  Not this January Day, they are, to a person, grumpy and have zero patience for my disorganized presence.

Like a parade of octogenarian Marcel Marceau’s, they walk and wheel by me, until the elevator is mercifully mine. I go up a flight in peace, walk around the corner and enter Uncle Bobby’s apartment, loaded down like some Sherpa just reaching base camp.

Who deserves to have “The Januarys” more than Uncle Bobby? It’s always a bit humbling to walk in and find him in the same position: sitting in lift-chair, walker to the right, wheelchair tucked in the corner, nebulizer table side, favorite brown plaid blanket across his lap, and Fox News talking heads nattering away.
Sometimes, even when I have “The Januarys”, a conversation can take a twist that surprises and delights me right out of them. Who knew that on this January Day Uncle Bobby would be the source of a moment which conjures “the Junes” or “The Septembers”, to me the best months of the year.

It all started with a January tone from him,

“Terrible sleep last night”, “The goon on the overnight is an animal and it doesn’t matter what I say”,  “I feel weak as I kitten, but nobody seems to care”, “If I complain, they’ll just think I’m a troublemaker”.

I take this in as I unload my purchases and finally sit in my chair on the diagonal from him. I throw up an effortless softball, “Would you like me speak to the Executive Director and see if something can be changed?”.

He waves his increasingly unusable right hand in my direction and announces,

“Not the time. When you strike out,  go to the dugout. Don’t stand there and argue the call”.

I can feel my eyes squinch up, and head tilt in studied confusion as I run that baseball metaphor around in my head. He shifts topics.

“Looks like no big snow tonight. I feel for the ski resorts.”, The conversation is now sent in a new direction.

Tossing “The Januarys” aside, I take a chance, “Uncle Bob, what was the name of that place in New Hampshire where you used to ski?”

His red-rimmed, tired eyes look upward as he licks his dry lips and summons a memory,

“Mittersill, sure, Mittersill up in Franconia Notch. What a beautiful place!”

We are off to the races, leaving “The Januarys” and complaints about staff behind, and I feel my body relax. I pull my right foot under me on the chair and settle in.

Today I get a rare bonus beyond a travelogue on the Mittersill Resort: details about a girl my bachelor uncle once dated. 

“You know, one of my best weekends up there was with a girl I used to go with. Oh…..what was her name, my memory fails……”

He is momentarily frustrated and bangs his hand on the arm of the chair. He doesn’t get bogged down in it for long.

“Doesn’t matter now, but she was a smart one. She lived in Jamaica Plain, up around Boston, and boy did we have some good times.”

I tease him a little, “Well, what do you mean you took her to Mittersill? Separate Rooms, I hope?”

He smiles at the nearly naughty suggestion, “Of course! We had rooms right next door to each other. We went up at the end of the season. The food was great, and there was a big fireplace where everyone gathered at the end of the day.”

The memory is clear to him now and he goes on,

“You know, all the fun happened right there in the lodge, and no one locked their doors. No need. Your room was your room and you didn’t have to worry about things like that in those days.”

I was dying to know more about the nameless girl and pressed him in that direction.

“Well, My friend Earl – what a great guy- we used to go up to parties in Boston. He met her first, took her out a few times, but something didn’t click with them. I thought she seemed nice.”

He looks at me with a shrug,

“So I asked him if he wouldn’t mind if I called her up.”

he goes on,

“So I did, and she was game, and I guess we were together about a year.”

At this point, he shuts his eyes tightly, willing something from his memory, “Gosh, her name.  Isn’t that silly? I can’t remember her name.”

I encourage him forward,

“She was a smart cookie – getting her Ph.D. from Boston College – and I would go up every weekend. We did a lot: Fenway Park, Faneuil Hall, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Pops on the Esplanade. I took her to Mama Leone’s and all the great restaurants.”

At this point, he winks at me and leans forward, “I was no slouch, I knew what the girls liked to do!”

He was in his mid-thirties then, a foot-loose and fancy-free bachelor who always had some shekels in his pocket for living large. Growing up, I can remember some teasing of Uncle Bobby by my mom, dad, and aunts, but he never, ever gave the details of his social life, holding them as close as his World War II experiences in the Pacific. 

He put a premium on class. At 6’4, he was lean and loose and carried himself with a Jimmy Stewart sort of dignity. I can hear him now at the family dinner table, gently correcting my brother’s adolescent table manners,

“You don’t want to be a cuss, the girls don’t go for that.”

Uncle Bobby was never one to “tell tales out of school”, so to be audience on this January day to a swath of his dating life is delicious, and the morsels are now coming in a steady stream,

“You know, I might have married that one. She was smart and fun and we had grand times.” He is in his own world now, pensive and wistful.

“Well, what happened to her?” I prod, starving for more.

He takes his time, adjusts his position and takes a sip of ginger ale before getting to the meat of it.

“She was studying Psychology at BC – so smart that one – but you know sometimes students forget the rest of the world because their academic one is all that matters.”

Then a gentle mimic of the unnamed girl,

“Well, Dr. Oppenheimer says this and Professor Coughlin thinks that, and I need to work on a paper and blah, blah, blah…” he trails off, afraid, I suspect,  that he is veering in the direction of unkindness.

He is ready for the wrap:

“Anyway, I went up to her apartment in Jamaica Plain one Saturday to pick her up for a planned date. We were all confirmed. When I got to her door there was a note telling me she needed to cancel, something came up with her classmates and she would be in touch.”

a pause,

“She hurt my heart, that one.”

Imagine, the lament of heartbreak some 50 years after the fact.

The postscript is fascinating. Turns out Dr. whoever she is, a year later, found Uncle Bobby on Cape Cod at the Chart House where he was a bartender.

She came one day and sat for hours waiting for him to speak to her. He didn’t, beyond a hello. He had a job to do and a heart to take care of. She left, unsatisfied and alone.

I said, “Wow, that must have been awkward for you, hard not to speak to her.”

“Well, she struck out, you know. She should have just gone to the dugout. No sense in arguing the call.”

I unexpectedly get a great story and a conversation that comes full circle!

Delicious on this January Monday that is a Tuesday!

My spirit is different as I make my exit,  and he has one last thought,

“Another time, I’ll tell you about Joan. She was a beauty!”

I can hardly wait!

The New Year and Stuffing

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I feel like the absentee blogger.  This fall and early winter my mind nearly burst with thoughts which demanded virtual paper, and I was present to each prompt.  Then December came and my mind slowed a bit, I think protecting itself from the season.  That’s right, the season which seemed to mean everything once upon a time, and somehow became something I need to gird myself against.  I think I am not alone in this.

The second week of December is my favorite.  The festive tone begins its cheerful climb, perhaps sensing that we are finally ready.  There is hope in the second week, while the first seems premature, and the third, pressure-filled. Here in Northwestern Connecticut, little town squares look their best in week two, with twinkling white lights,  adorned trees, and church steeples bathed in moonlight, periodically ringing out Christmas songs we’ve known since childhood.  It’s nearly impossible not to feel hopeful in the second week of December.

The next two fly and with them go the dim hope that this Christmas will somehow exceed my expectation.  It doesn’t and the week to the New Year seems interminable.

As I write tonight just short of the midnight hour,  I hear fireworks in the distance, too soon announcing the change of the calendar. It’s warm for December 31 in Connecticut, and oddly, that is a bit disappointing, too.  My labrador always meets expectation, and sits beside me with his soft steady snore, untethered in assumption beyond daily walks and a twice filled bowl of food.

I am more than ready to put 2015 to bed.  It was a hard year, a sad and difficult year for me and for many of those I hold close.  The trick, I suppose, is figuring out how to turn all that on its head.

I will say goodbye to perseveration and looking back on what was in the hope that it will ever be again.  That Rubik’s Cube will be stored away in my metaphorical attic, welcome to collect the mold and dust it has earned.

I’ll write, and rework the writing, and write some more til I get the more important writing of a book to the place it deserves.

I will focus less on the physical care of Uncle Bobby and more on the emotional.  I am not a doctor or nurse or certified caregiver.  I am a niece whose heart swells with the memory of who he has been to me for 53 years.  Time now to be less administrator and more compassionate companion for the final leg of his journey.

I will cease seeking a partner the measure of myself, and be more that measure for myself.

I recall with fascination the respite enjoyed in the Emerald City by the beloved characters in The Wizard of Oz.  Who among us didn’t love the Scarecrow?  Poor fella had the stuffing plumb knocked out of him on his journey, and he was the absolute personification of bliss as straw was joyously stuffed back in.  Less impressively the Tin Man got his limber back, as the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy enjoyed the pampering they so desperately needed.

Of all those Iconic characters, it was the Scarecrow who captured my heart.  Pure Irony now that I felt like the stuffing was darn well pummelled out of me these last two years.  I lost the measure of myself in it; lost my swagger.  While we thought the Scarecrow needed a brain from the Wizard, we all found out, in a dandy twist.that his brain was well intact throughout the story.  Like all of us from time to time, the scarecrow really only lost his confidence, his sense of self.  A stumble here and there, and before he knew it, he forgot what it meant to walk tall. I forgot that, too.

It’s a tall order, to turn it all around, but I feel on the brink of it at the start of this New Year. I saw a marvelous little snippet today on social media.

You’re going to surprise

the shit out of yourself.

sincerely, 2016.

I’ll keep you posted….

Lucy and Ethel

 

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She is Ethel to my Lucy, Shirley to my Laverne, Louise to my Thelma. Lucy, Laverne and Thelma speak to my boldness, silliness and curious lack of grounding when shenanigans are at the ready.  As for my friend, she perhaps has more cautious optimism, a touch of stridency and smart self protection ala Ethel, Shirley and Louise.   And, she has this laugh that fills a room which never fails to tickle me.  We found each other little more than a year ago,  both stumbling down our suddenly and equally untethered paths.  We are each a little lost in the jarring changes brought to us, and precipitated by us, in middle-age.  Acquaintances for years, our friendship grew as we shared space on a mid-life Island of Misfit Toys.  Our separate journeys brought us together for a transformative week in Ireland.  It was a glorious trip that cemented our bond.  We haven’t wavered since.

And so, in the absence of the traditional, we have become each other’s “person”.  To wit:  emergency contact, late night empathizer, compassionate advisor. Nary a shenanigan precipitates without one including the other.  We have each others back and call each other out on the “shite” in which we sometimes dabble.  My world is a little less lonely this past year because of her.  I am confident the feeling is mutual.

I am rich in friends, but only one completely “gets” the space I inhabit in my heart and brain.  

Saturday night I wanted to strangle my person.  That’s right, take her to the woodshed, send her to her room without dinner.   Saturday night, my friend did a terribly irresponsible thing that found my heart in my throat and my imagination racing to the dark side.  

She is an expansive person; a bleeding heart who has found her vocation in adult literacy.  When she speaks of her students she animates at once with passion wrapped in warmth.  Her destination to this has been circuitous: public school teacher, private school teacher, reading specialist, tutor.  All that exploration coincided with being a wife and mother whose family life moved her from Vermont to West Virginia, on to Texas and finally settling in Connecticut, where she even waitressed for a spell.  I first came to know her as a tutor for my son.  He loved her and she was dedicated beyond the imagination to his academic and personal success. Now, she applies that same devotion to motivating adults who cannot read. Adults most often living in poverty, who have decided it is time to do what is very hard in order to capitalize on the promise this country has to offer.  They are lucky to know my friend.

I am lucky to know her, and even more fortunate that she pesters me, sometimes beyond tolerance, with check-ins, check-ups and texts which go like this:

“U Ok?”

“Let me know where you will be”

“Text me that you get there safe”

“U good?”

“Everything alright?”

Most recently, an endless monologue regarding a “date” which included reference to woodchippers, background checks, and “text me with all his information, take a picture of his license plate, do you have a picture of him just in case I need to contact the police!”

I feign outrage, but am secretly comforted that I have won such a friend when I thought I had collected all the friends I might need for a lifetime.  In appreciation, I am sure to check in when prompted, ever aware that her time on watch of me is invaluable.

This past Saturday night our roles reversed. I prompted a last minute invitation to get “a drink and nosh”, and she was game, as usual.  Our plans would have to wait until she finished with a student at an undetermined time early in the evening.  I was on standby, but aware that rather than meeting her student in a public place as is her habit, she was actually going to his home. It was their first meeting, and his home was in a rather unsavory section of a nearby city, economically distant from our suburban homes. In a nod to the safety game she texted me his address.  I am still not sure her expectation regarding that empty gesture.  I consider myself a bit of a steel magnolia, but am unsure that storming the barricades of an inner city dwelling was a likely response should the need arise.

I began prompting her at 6:00. No response.  Again at 7:30.  No response. I called at 8:00 only to receive an automatic reply, “Can I call you later?” Another newly collected friend called to see what I was doing, and I let him know I was planning to meet her, but had heard nothing in hours. Michael, a treasured addition to my new life, is part paternal voice and bemused observer of the antics whipped up by my friend and me.  I meet him at the local pub, order a beer and some food and wait, and wait, and wait.  I text my friend again.  No reply.  Michael texts her, also, crickets. It is now 9:15 and exasperation has turned to fear.  Michael prompts me to do what I knew I should.  I call the police, speak to dispatch, and wait.   At 9:30 a patrolmen calls for more precise information, including my friends description, make and model of car, and reason for her to be in such a place at such a time.  I can almost visualize his eyes rolling in his head as I relay to him the increasingly disconcerting circumstances.  “Sit tight, I am headed over now and will call when I find out what has happened.”

The next 40 minutes are interminable.  A quietly concerned Michael, who has arrived with no appetite, is suddenly unconsciously devouring french fries from my now cold dinner plate.  We try to make small talk, but mostly focus on shallow breathing, catching each other’s eyes when not both staring at my silent phone.  “This is bad”, he says with the saddest sigh.  I nod in agreement.

My phone springs to life at 10:15. It is our patrolmen, “She is safe, she is fine, she was just exiting the apartment with her student when I arrived.”

Now I am angry.  Relieved, naturally, but mad as hatter and filled with empathy for every mother who waits on teenagers to check in.  

Five minutes pass and my friend  finally calls.  For all intents and purposes she is four hours late, and I feel 10 years older, worn to a frazzle in the course of one evening.

She leads with an apology and then has the audacity to mention that when the Patrolman met her in the parking lot with a flashlight, gun at the ready, and booming voice calling her name, asking if she is “safe”, she was so embarrassed for her poor student.  

My response is rapid fire,

“this is not the time to get PC with me! Calling the police had nothing to do with him and everything to do with your lack of communication. You cannot ask me to be your “person” and not respond to texts or phone calls, when you as much as highlighted the potential danger by sharing his address with me.”

I am just getting ramped up and the “and furthermore’s…,” which I am determined to lay on her are lined up and ready to be fired.   Articulation is not a challenge for me when I am outraged.

There is little pushback on the other end of the call.  I rant to silence. Then this,

“I am capitol G, capital U, capital I, capital L, capital T,  capital Y: GUILTY as charged.  I am so sorry.  It was stupid, I was stupid and I am so, so sorry.”

I desperately want to keep up the pile on, bury her with my well developed vocabulary, eviscerate her with the perfectly guilt inducing turn of phrase, but then she begins.  Suddenly, she warmly and precisely describes the 800 square foot apartment of her Jamaican student, and lets me know that as he tries to learn to read in English she thinks perhaps there is an embedded learning difference  She lets me know that he sends money to his mother, still in Jamaica,  and that she chose to meet him at his home because her gut told her that he was fine. She didn’t demand a public meet because so often the adults seeking literacy work better in private, as they feel embarrassed sounding out basic words in public places. She lets me know that the Jamaican man noted to her, when the beam of a police flashlight found him, “Your friend was just looking out for you.”  For the record, she had forgotten her phone in the car.

My anger melted easily.  I am in awe of my friend and her passion and her journey inspires me.

In the moment, I assured her that we will one day laugh about this night. But not tonight.  Time to reign in the new independence in which we are both emerging.  Time to think smart, be smart, so that the glory of shenanigans can continue.  We seek life big, not small.  How wonderful to continue the adventure with this friend, at this time in my life.  

Thanksgiving and me…

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This is a slightly updated post from 2015.  Somethings seem worth repeating.

It seemed important once upon a time:  Wedgewood China, delicate crystal, brining the turkey, and the background noise of the Macy’s Day parade.  I have this wonderful, repeating memory of my mom doing the one task I deplored; peeling pungent, pearl onions, reading glasses perched on her nose, seated on a high back bar stool at the kitchen counter, in her quilted pale pink bathrobe.  She was an expert with a paring knife. Those Thanksgiving mornings were good times for us to talk while the kids played near my dad as he scoured the newspaper.  

I loved Thanksgiving as a grownup.  Christmas elicits excitement, but Thanksgiving has a gravitas that children don’t quite understand. Christmas is often sensory overload. Thanksgiving rarely disappoints with expectations set at a reasonable level.

My mother died in the peaceful care of hospice on November 26, 2005, Thanksgiving night.  The irony of passing on her favorite holiday is not lost on me. It’s an eternal gift of sorts from a woman who was armed with black Irish wit and a strong sense of self.  I imagine her saying to herself, “Might as well exit this world on a day no one will struggle to remember.” Thanksgiving remains hers in perpetuity.

When cancer inserts itself into the life of someone you love there are words which gain traction you do not seek: adrenal cortex, metastasis, palliative, hospice. Words delivered with authority by smart, often bespectacled, men in white hospital coats.  Doctors with knowledge, but most with little bedside manner.  She was a fascination to them.  Adrenal cortical cancer is beyond rare. So rare that my mother, in pain,  but never absent her wit, queried, ” I couldn’t win the lottery, but I get the lottery of cancers?”  

Weight had fallen off her stout body so quickly in those eight weeks that milkshakes were encouraged by the doctor. Even to this long-denied treat, she had a retort, delivered with knowing sarcasm, “  haven’t had a milkshake in years.  They must be fattening me up for the slaughter.”

In the telling, it seems crass, but in the moment, her blue eyes twinkled at her cleverness and momentarily shooed the shroud of grief we already wore.

My mother was strong in death, a gift of Catholicism, really.  She knew she was done and stoically accepted the undoing despite the unbearable pain of tumors on her spine and radiation treatments at the source. She worried about my dad and her children more than herself.  In a quiet hospital moment, a week before she passed, she turned to me and said, I wish he had gone before me.  He’s going to be hard for you.  He won’t know what to do. She was right of course, he struggled the next three years of his life.  He missed her immeasurably.

Dad started the missing before she was gone.  Returning home from Hospice one night, I brought him a chocolate sundae. Oddly, I thought a treat might somehow help his preparation.  He sat at their small kitchen table with a view to the backyard, and, as I cleaned some leftover dishes, I heard him weeping, shoulders slumped, fiddling with the pool of melted ice cream. His baby blues gazed at the now barren backyard, where a clothesline still hung.  Softly he said, “She loved to hang the wash,” and then his weeping turned into a soul-stirring sob.  I thought but did not say to my dear old dad, No, Dad, not a day in her life did she love to hang the wash.  It was just that you loved to watch her hang the wash

It’s never the grand things we remember about those we love, but rather the simple routines that etch themselves into our memory. 

I was fortunate to be alone with my mom as she drew her last breath and softly exhaled herself from this world.  I did not know then what I know now; it is a gift to be present to death.  

Thirteen years is a rather unbelievable measure of the loss of my mother.  I can still summon the sound of her voice and the way she cleared her throat.  I can conjure the habit she had of using her thumb to twirl her wedding rings around her left finger when she was in thought. I wonder if, from her watchful place now,  she wishes I might break out the Wedgewood, crystal, and fine linens which seemed so important once upon a time.  

When life is hard, I miss her most.  She had a way of simplifying challenges with a common sense born to her.

Today will be enjoyed with someone else’s linens and china, though I will bring wine to help fill the crystal. I believe my mother urges me on still. I know that, as she watches me move forward and occasionally backward with human misstep,  she remains my finest underpinning.  Ten years have passed and she is no longer my first thought each morning.  The racking grieve that overcame me in her death is a distant memory. These days she is more companion of the soul; a limitless reminder that grace, humor, and faith never fail you.

SAINT MARYS 

imageThe Sisters of Mercy called us the Irish mafia;  four little girls who hopped the bus at the corner of Wilson and Holbrook, laden with tin lunch boxes and backpacks. Kitty Hogan, Marguerite and Deirdre MacNamee, and me. The MacNamee’s and I would dash the two block to the bus stop , while Kitty was the lucky one. The bus stop was just outside her door.

Our neighborhood was oak, maple, and willow tree-lined and while a fairly busy road swept through it, we had no chaperones to the stop. We ran and giggled our way to it without fear.

My mother would listen patiently to whatever tales I brought home from school. Breathless with news, dropping backpack, coat and lunch box by the small eat-in table near the back door of our modest three bedroom colonial, my delivery of the day’s events came rapid fire. As I remember it, mom was always in the kitchen, ironing on a remarkable board which dropped from its decorative cupboard on the wall.

I was a blabberer even then and would launch into the news of the day immediately upon entrance. She would tell me to slow down, that I sounded like I had marbles in my mouth. I might as well, for a girl from the Irish neighborhood the last names of most of my classmates were challenging and usually ended in vowels: Cicilline, Amoriggio D’Angelo, Romano. Their first names were nearly as daunting: Roberta, Angela, Ermelinda, Isabella.

My classmates were mostly Italian with a sprinkling of Portuguese, all with olive tones, dark hair, thick eyebrows, and bodies, which by middle school, were way ahead of ours.  Of course, we weren’t the only Irish girls at Saint Mary’s. Garrahy’s, Moran’s and Sullivans were there as well.  I remember but one black girl during my nine years at Saint Mary’s Academy, Bayview. Here name was Perri Ann and she fascinated me.

The Sisters at “Bayview” dubbed us the Irish Mafia, not that it was public knowledge, but rather an audible memory I have from a parent-teacher conference. Sr. Mary Florella, the gentle, elegant French teacher, shared it in a whisper to my mom. Rhode Island is a small state and the greater Providence area was an enclave of ethnic neighborhoods. The Italian girls from the big city itself, and towns to the north.  We lived in East Providence, in a neighborhood called Rumford. I suppose it was a bold move in those days to send your freckled faced cherub to the all-girls Catholic school a bus ride away. The parish school was in walking distance. Bayview was a privilege.

The school sat behind an endless wrought iron fence and spread across two buildings; one which housed grades K-6, the other 7-12. We started French in Kindergarten and could stay for piano lessons after school. Our jumpers were blue and gray and forever slipping off one shoulder or the other. The white Peter Pan collared cotton blouses couldn’t support them, particularly with our prepubescent chests. The knee socks were navy wool and itched, their elastic wore quickly and we were forever yanking them into obedience.

It was the 1970’s, so no Latin, but ample obedience. I do not share the traumatic memories of Catholic school which plagued some of my peers. While I do remember Sister Lillian directing me to stand by her desk waste paper basket while the gum I had been caught with sat on my nose, I am no worse the wear for it.

It was a transitional time in the church and the country and any minor fear of Sister Lillian was eased by the presence of the new wave of nuns; young woman who modified their habits to include vests and slacks. Sister Carol is my memory of change and she was warm, soft, and kind. Her acoustic guitar sat in its heavy black case in the corner of our classroom. She would play at rest time, exposing we protected Catholic girls to Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. When she reminded us, “Jesus loves you”, I believed that she did, too.  

My personality as a child was well suited to all girls Catholic school. It was marked by enthusiasm, optimism and a sense of humor. I understood respect and while “chatty”, I was never accused of being “sassy”. The sisters, with the exception of  Sister Lillian, loved my innocent energy. Years later, as I struggled through high school math, my mother would lament, “the nuns let your personality override your need to know math.”  Indeed, The sisters cut me slack in arithmetic. They didn’t have the heart to undercut the enthusiasm I brought to those sweeping linoleum corridors.  It somehow excused my inability to breakdown fractions. My limitations in math haunt me to this day. 

I do not specifically remember learning religion at “Bayview”, for the tenants of Catholicism were imbued throughout the school day. I have a complicated relationship with Catholicism, but it lives at my core regardless of the fact that I no longer practice it. As an adult with progressive leanings, I am discouraged by the church’s resolute positions on social issues.

Regardless, when life is hard,  I confess to conversations directed to the Blessed Mother, and a soaring Ave Maria still brings tears to my eyes. I feel the presence of my now gone mother and father daily, and I suppose that’s the lingering beauty of being part of a small posse of Irish girls who clamored down those tree-lined streets and climbed a bus to travel the miles to Saint Mary’s Academy, Bayview.

Cape Cod

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I want to live nearer the sea.  I am my father’s daughter and his bliss was sitting on the deck of his parent’s clapboard shingled summer home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the hamlet of Weekapaug, Rhode Island.  

Long after his parents were gone and I was grown, on summer evenings he would sit in wait on that porch and announce the last ferry of the day headed out of Block Island.

Sometime around 9, when the house had quieted, he would sit in solitude with a martini and cigar, awaiting the far off lights of the ship and announce to all, or no one at all, that the last ferry was headed home to Galilee.  My father did not sail, or fish,  nor did he spend more time in the sand than it took to get one swim in the ocean each day. Yet he was a man who loved the sea.  And so it is with me.  

My father will be gone seven years in January.  He taught me the simplicity of loving the sea and it informed my life in ways he will never know.  Just today, that lesson helped give space to my most muddled mind.

I walked the beach early this morning in Harwich, Massachusetts.  My visit here a gift from a gem of a new friend.  She is a  “Codder” whose home invites you to stay for a while.  

Maggie is, at 72, intimately familiar with the loneliness that can accompany your middle years.  She sniffed out my desperate need for escape from everyday and I did what it is I do in response to generosity.   I pushed back at the invitation for “a coupla days at the Cape” armed with excuses, pathetically pitiful reasons it can’t happen: work, Uncle Bobby, daughter and dog.  Naturally, verbalizing those excuses only fed my feeling of confinement, and exacerbated the necessity of escape. I fought against my recent habit of self-denial.

Two days I can carve out.  Surely, two days and my world at home will not crumble.

And so I drive to the place where the air taunts you to roll down your window and take in the unmistakable smell of salt and seawater, mingled with sundrenched sand, that has no chance to reach my home in Western Connecticut.

I arrive mid-afternoon and the world at home quickly melts away.  We talk of writing and love.  The former we share, the latter lost for me and newly found for her.  We shop for foods we should not eat and find the perfect restaurant that “codder’s” go to; rustic and simple with fresh seafood dominating the menu.   

In that moment when the perfect cup of clam chowder and accompanying oyster crackers are set before me, my entire body relaxes in realized respite. Clam chowder tastes best when you need it the most. Fish and Chips are my test of authenticity and I am not disappointed; lightly battered cod that falls away to just the suggested poke of my fork. A crisp Sam Adams Octoberfest and I surrender to this seaside restaurant which overlooks the Harwich Harbor.

It’s been sometime since I have slept so soundly.

There is no question as to my morning priority.  While Maggie sleeps, I steel away to the beach just blocks from her home.  It is a crisp fall morning, and where the parking lot meets the sand, I impatiently unlace my sneakers and peel away my socks.  

The cold sand between my toes has been a longing for over a year now.  The sun is just above the horizon and and the wind is firm enough to make a mockery of my hair, but I do not care. I feel my calf muscles respond with every uneven stride in the sand. On this chilly October morning there are but a few of us enjoying the peaceful sound of lapping waves, wind whipped flagpoles, and the gentle beat of a flock of terns darting effortlessly just above the shallow waters.  I do not want this morning to ever end.

How my dad would love this day, happily trading Block Island for Nantucket, the perch on his deck for a walk near the waves.  Ocean as elixir and inspiration; a gift understood to the soul by a father and daughter.

A Friend, a word, today….

perseverate

I love words.  Spoken or written, they intrigue me and I collect them to use at my pleasure.  I especially love words that are new to me and feel exhilarated when they find there way into my vocabulary with ease. Words have great power and I suppose it is a strength of mine to articulate.

I have a lovely friend who appreciates my words and the way I weave them.  We speak daily, tuned in to our shared middle of life experience and she will often look to me to help her accurately articulate a feeling.  Her charming tendency is to race around words to find precision. In her hesitation I can almost feel her mind searching for just the right one.  In those conversational pauses, I am usually quick to what she seeks and her enthusiasm for that never fails to make me smile.  “Exactly! Perfect word!”and on she goes with the observation of the day, my word facilitating the advancement of today’s story.  It’s a wonderful ying to her yang; I feel clever, and she, heard.

There is a word she used one day to describe what I have been doing now for over a year: perseverating.  “Can you repeat that?,”I said with a hmm in my brain.  I loved the sound of it but, candidly, was unfamiliar.

“You know, perseverating, letting a thought or pattern repeat and repeat, like an obsession.”  Well, I didn’t like the sound of obsession, which to me is a dark and stormy word.  It reminded me naturally of the dark and stormy person on whom I had been, well…….perseverating.  

And so, my friend who looks to me for the perfect word, had found one I didn’t know.  In that whisper of a word she captured exactly the thing that has been undoing me. I am perseverating; I am hostage to perseveration.  

I never used to perseverate.   I am a woman of action;  a doer, an engager and above all else an extrovert.  I lead, coach, and teach and when the annual physical arrives, I am told that I have the blood pressure and heart rate of an athlete.  I am emotive, rarely one to hold feelings hidden.  I say what I mean and mean what I say.  

Until a year ago, I think I understood the journey of my life; nothing simple in it, but it’s winding places made sense to me and, the changes in it the result of my personal evolution.  There was no puzzle to it that I could not figure in reflection. The path of it was not always easy, but my confidence never abandoned me.

I lack confidence these days.  I am, for the first time in my life, wholly unsure of what will happen next.  I have trouble seeing the future with optimism.  I cannot stop my racing mind from continuing its race, regardless of audible books on “mindfulness” and the “mindful” attempt I make to focus on doing the things that make me happy and highlight my strengths, like watching over Uncle Bobby.

There sits in my virtual space this Rubik’s cube that I cannot seem to put down.  A Rubik’s cube of someone else’s tormented mind which has muddled my own.  No matter how many times I revisit that cube, I cannot find its solution.  The Rubik’s cube is simple to deconstruct, and can be done so quickly.  Just a twist here and there and the harmony of colors are dismantled. It is shocking just how fast a rubik’s cube can be undone.  

Even in the replaying of the deconstruction, it is almost impossible to find the simple solution; to get everything in it’s place, to restore balance.

Perseverating on the cube is an exercise in frustration, and the more you tinker with it, the more frustrated you become.  I thought I had a mind for puzzles, but this particular Rubik’s cube is wired for failure.  This cube, which sat by me in perfection for nearly two years, suddenly became undone and it is hard not to perseverate on what I did not see coming, on what I had no power to put back together.

Throughout my life I have been good at problem solving, circumventing crisis, surviving the heartache of loss and tucking it behind me.  This time, my intuition and coping skills have failed me.  My innate strength is no match for that particular beast and, all I understand in retrospect is that I was foolish to think I would not be damaged by it.  Its cruelty knows no bounds.

My friend who introduced me the concept of perseveration is also quick with an apropos inspirational quote.  Just yesterday, in the midst of my daily perseveration she nailed it:

“I’ve had the love of my life.  No one can come close.

So, I am just out there passing the time tap dancing. 

If you want the truth, maybe if I dance fast enough I won’t remember what I’ve lost.”

I think I’ll perseverate on that for a bit and see if, within it, I can find a way to get to the other side.