My Immigrant Experience…

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It’s not my thing to take on the topical.  I am a storyteller, an observer of my own space and hope that my narrative resonates with others.  A confluence of experiences this month urges me to speak to something topical.  I will give my story-telling best to the effort.

My condominium is spacious.  It is also dated.  For the past two years, it has reflected my harried, not quite right life.  Reimagining my space seemed an important step in reimagining my life.  And so, I began slowly.  Sage green was the interior color of choice about fifteen years ago.  The previous owners of my condo seized the trend and I decorated accordingly when I moved in 3.5 years ago.  Sage green was getting on my nerves nearly as much as the walnut woodwork which surrounded it.  I have a lovely staircase which leads to three beautiful windows, their light obliterated by equally dated vertical blinds in a faux light brown tweed.

Three years ago I tackled the master bedroom myself – and doesn’t it always seem a good idea to do the painting yourself?  Halfway through my forearm ached, and the biblical Joseph’s coat had nothing on my painting jeans. The light brown with a hint of gold never quite thrilled me.

I treated myself to professional painters this time and they came by van, led by their boss,  a local friend of the Italian Catholic variety.  The workers themselves were Spanish speaking Guatemalan’s, Ecuadorians, and Mexican’s. They did the real work of painting my large family room, grand stairway, upstairs hallway, and bedroom.  Immigrants, each one. perhaps I should whisper, “I’m not quite sure if they were all legal.”

For four days, I was surrounded by drop clothes, ladders, and cans of paint.  My friendly Labrador loved the company and picked up the new shades of gray walls and white woodwork on his tail, ears, and whiskers while accepting endless affection from each painter. My typical background soundtrack is Broadway, but suddenly the sounds in my house had a salsa beat and lyrics foreign to my non-Spanish-speaking ears. For four days, my home was filled with light, laughter, and chaos.  The six immigrant workers were focused, meticulous, and happy. Their interactions with each other were easy and loving, like a band of brothers.   Furniture was hidden by plastic and moved to the center of the rooms and I had nowhere to sit, but it didn’t matter to me.  These worker bees were worth every penny, not just for their good work, but the happy spirit they brought with them.

In an effort to really make some changes, I had offered up a heavy dark wood desk for free on a tag sale site.  It was scooped up quickly and when the new owner arrived to haul it away, the two of us tried to move it. Our effort was pathetic. With lightning speed, two of the workers put down their brushes and bullied the oversized thing right into the back of her car.  She tried to slip them a tip, which they declined with humble smiles.

There is a certain presidential candidate who, had he known the scene in my condo, might have tried to erect a wall around it.

That leads me to my other place of immigrant interaction.  Like most of us, I seem to find myself at the same gas station several times a week.  Often, just for a quick diet coke, or emergency can of dog food.  There are two workers there who know I am a regular.  The first, a twenty-something Indian girl named Suman, studies at the register when the place is quiet.  Over time she has taken to calling me “beautiful lady”, and that has led to sharing bits and pieces of our lives.  She discovered that I am a College Counselor, and often peppers me with questions about her goal of becoming a nurse.  Suman is hungry to improve her lot and achieve beyond her current station.  I found out recently that she has taken a second job at a local deli.  Her work ethic astounds me. Suman’s hours are long, her dreams for herself imbued with enviable hope.

Jahir is my other gas station friend.  When I walk in, I am always greeted with a sunny, “Hello, Ellen.  How are you today?”  If I have been away, he might say, “I’ve missed you, where have you been?”   He is articulate, his English lyrical.  He often arrives at the gas station around 5 am, though I might not roll in until mid-morning.  I have never known him to lack energy or civility.  His heritage was not immediately clear to me.  It did not matter and I did not ask. On one occasion I overheard him being teased by a local young man.  An American young man, who was not kind, though he thought he was clever. He found his fun in Islamic and Muslim references.  Jahir took it in his stride, offering a vague nod and half smile.  When the young man left, I asked him, “Jahir, is that hard for you?”  He smiled broadly, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. It’s Americans, no harm.”  I have since discovered that Jahir is Tibetan, a Buddhist.  Hmmm…, may I please have an ounce of his peace and restraint?

Last week, I saw him reading something at the counter and asked about it.  It was a Christian Pamphlet, which mused about the need for Americans to get back to Church.  While explaining the content, Jahir paused, and said, “I don’t know about that, but I do wonder why everyone in this country seems so angry?”  There was no aggression in his question, not an ounce of judgment or implied criticism.  Only thoughtfulness.  I replied, “I wonder the same thing, too.”

I am sure that Suman and Jahir are legal.  I know that someday they will find work better suited to their ethic and intellect.

I want them to meet my other immigrant friend.

Today, Andrei, the Russian I so often refer to in this space, will officially become an American Citizen.  It has been 25 years since he arrived here from the then Soviet Union.  Beyond his dynamic persona, Andrei is one of the smartest men I know.  He speaks four languages and was a linguist and teacher in Russia, after serving in the Army.  Twenty-Five years ago, when he decided to stay, he began the arduous climb so many immigrants must. I have never, not once, heard him complain about work.  I hear Americans complain about work all the time.  If I was punching someone’s clock, it’s likely I would be complaining, too.

I will not be present for Andrei’s ceremony.  He would like to do it as he came to it, alone.  Someone has given him an American flag for his lapel, which he will pin on his freshly cleaned blazer.  Directly after his induction as a citizen, he will register to vote.  I can see him now, in my mind’s eye; shoulders straight, serious of purpose, proud that he has made this great country his own through grit and determination. I am so very proud of my Russian friend.

I am out of my depth in answers to regulating immigration so that it works for the benefit of this nation. I don’t pretend that my opinion really matters at all. All I know is that the immigrants with whom I am familiar are an inspiration and inform my life in a very positive way. I also know, that unless we carry Native American Blood, we are all of immigrant stock.  Perhaps a good thing to remember when the rhetoric gets hot.

My Wednesday Place…

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I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it.  And so I did, one winter Wednesday night ten months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and I had nothing in me that resembled mindfulness.  Getting through without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a wonderful, weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy, tall chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side is a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of 30 somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple;  like apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp Autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana, too, does not disappoint in commitment.  A mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in Memorium  They came, and I traded my Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by my friend’s patience for stories of him.  Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday night place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Ten months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.

Pots and Kettles..,

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And, I fail….

Often, I fall short of my best self; disappoint my positive self-perception. I don’t need to be reminded. It’s fair to say I am my own worst critic.  I’ve spent much of this past week in communion with my flaws, in reaction to a comment about my competitive tennis piece.

Perhaps you’ll indulge me.

A comment from a reader called Pot and Kettle initially made me smile. People who know me, know I have a soft spot for idioms. How clever of a reader of mine to one up me with one?  As I read, it became obvious the commenter was a familiar someone. In cleverly crafted prose, there was the suggestion that in my recent blog I had hoisted myself on my own petard; an idiom marvelously imagined by William Shakespeare.

I was quick to understand that They were the kettle,  and I, the pot.  It was an accusation that despite my public persona, I am a hurtful person.

Suddenly, the reading of comments lost their pleasure and self-doubt grabbed my heart. The Catholic girl in me chafed with guilt at the suggestion that I might be a hypocrite, a phony.

So here’s my first confession:  I recoil at criticism. In writers’ groups, on the tennis court, in the face of my seventeen-year-old daughter, criticism raises in me, first guilt, then instantaneous defense.  I might have become an attorney, so adept am I at swatting away its initial blows.

But here’s the other truth:  part of my mercurial personality comes with the guarantee that once the hot white spotlight of criticism fades, I am likely to ruminate in it, dig and pull at it incessantly to understand its source.  I can say with surety that more often than not criticism settles into a place where I give it serious study.  It is my nature to reflect on the good and bad in me and here is the not so grand:

I can be, in no particular order, judgmental, sarcastic, opinionated, and sometimes clever at cost to others. Let’s add that I might enjoy some gossip and sometimes that swagger I love morphs into an unearned feeling of superiority.

I am guilty in all those things. I have wonderful people in my life who have none of those flaws, save the gossip.  It is my experience that few of us are immune to that temptation.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  All of us walk around in this human skin which makes being our best selves, all the time, uniquely challenging.

However, there is nothing I write that is exaggerated or spun outside my truth. I write from my soul and I do not employ poetic license or seek to make my mark in creative nonfiction.  As a writer, one might call me a personal essayist.  I am not imaginative enough for fiction. The facts within my stories have credence because, to paraphrase the stunning Broadway musical Hamilton, “I was in the room where it happened.”

I do not seek to hurt.  Even in the weakness of my soul, or when anger inhabits my heart, I never take aim at someone’s Achilles.  If you see yourself in my musings and the reflection doesn’t flatter, well then, it’s likely you behaved badly.  It’s also likely that I sought to diffuse, or make amends sometime after the dust had settled.

You will not see Pot and Kettle’s comment on this page.  I suspect the source, but cannot verify. The commenter posted anonymously using a hijacked email address.

Here’s another truth: if I have something to say to you, I will say it with my ‘owned’ voice.  People pretty much know where they stand with me. Want to poke at me, challenge my veracity?  I’m open to discussion and pretty easy to find.

If you have something to say, own it.  And for goodness sakes, my blog is not required reading for anyone.

A final thought: Anonymity is the righteous domain of good deed doers and philanthropists. It’s best left to them.

 

Journeys

 

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It is precipitous, this fall to mortality to which I have a front row seat.  Seems like yesterday Uncle Bobby was waxing on about old girlfriends and pontificating about the perilous future of our country.  In a matter of weeks, we are navigating new terrain.  It’s unsettling, this new place, and it calls forth an oddly tireless exhaustion, driven by the grief that is moving into my soul.  A grief in limbo. A larger grief is yet to come, but it has begun its insidious arrival.

Uncle Bobby is still here, but not in the same way.

I already miss the recliner chair that he spent too much time in this long winter. It’s emptiness nicks at me each time I walk into his apartment.   I don’t like the hospital bed in his room.  I wait impatiently for him to give me some indication that he is coming to peace.  Instead, he seems defeated, agitated, and so very tired.  His voice has lost its deep timbre, and today, as he tried to articulate I saw only exasperation in his attempt to moisten his own lips.

“I’m sorry for this baby talk.  It’s all I have.”

No need for apologies, unless they are from the Good Lord to whom Uncle Bobby gives a nod every day.  I want an apology from the Good Lord for stealing this more than good man’s dignity.  I confess that I don’t understand this painful part of taking one’s leave. I want the Good Lord to cease the lessons of suffering and get on with the redemption already.  Uncle Bobby deserves no less.

There is a philosophical query many of us casually engage in​ while we still have our physical and mental health: Would you rather lose your mind or body first?

I am now very sure of the answer.  Take my mind, Good Lord, I could not bear to watch the decay of my body with full faculty.

There is nothing of Uncle Bobby’s body that hasn’t been assaulted.  It is bruised from head to toe, just from shifting in his bed or the caring manipulations of nurses while they bath and change him.  His eyes need warm compresses to alleviate a building film, and reading even the menu of food that he will ultimately just push around his plate with his fingers is futile.  The fingers and the food?   His flattened hands have lost all fine motor skills. He can no longer draw  a plastic cup to his lips to drink with  regular success.  He tries and tries, and spills and spills.  His legs have not borne his weight in three months, his toes are riddled with open cuts threatening infection.  Bed sores spread on his back and bottom as he perseverates about a relentless itch that is a symptom of the overall breakdown of his skin.

He does have his hearing, though.  He can hear loud and clear.  His hearing is so acute that he can hear every creak in the building.  His hearing often interrupts his sleep.

In a rare late-night visit this week to meet a new overnight caregiver,  I was audience to the “sun downing” people  make reference to in the elderly.  As I spoke to Yolanda, his 11-7 guardian, I heard Uncle Bobby’s voice, not calling to anyone, but speaking in sure sentences.  I quietly entered his room to see his right hand gesticulating in the air while he gave what appeared to be a speech.  His voice was sure and strong, his eyes open, but not awake.

“The Congress needs to meet with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Not just the heroes, but those who suffered as well.  Our country must hear from all good men who served……”

Suddenly, Uncle Bobby is Jimmy Stewart and I am observing a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, and it is entrancing.  Uncle Bobby’s mind is busy, racing in the night.  He has things to say, opinions to voice.  He is a patriot, a World War II Veteran of the South Pacific who suffered in ways we will never know, and at night when his world is quieter he says what he has wanted to say for a lifetime.  He is too much of a gentleman to foist his humble opinion on others in the light of day.  A gentleman who is not yet ready to let go.

Sometime this winter I thought June it would a good time to grab a getaway on the coat tails of my daughter’s summer college experience.  While she studies in Savannah, I’ll steal away to Charleston and try it on for future fit.   What’s a week when I haven’t been away for more than 48 hours at a clip in nearly two years?  Historic Southern charm seemed like a great idea to get the reboot I need. I root for the ocean, Spanish Moss and the sweet smell of magnolia to ease my concern that maybe this liberal Northeasterner might be “too much” for the gentile South.  It’s my year of my reinvention, right?

Let’s put a pause on that, shall we?

Tonight I decided to abbreviate that trip.  72 hours is all I suspect I can stand to be away from Uncle Bobby’s journey.  Even that will be a challenge. I will settle my daughter in and get back to the business of Bobby.  It is the only thing that makes sense to me on this night of a nearly full moon.

They’ll be time for re-imagination galore at the end of his journey.  I’m on his time for the time being.  He is frightened and I am his constant.  I can try on Charleston any ol’ time.

The journey?  Well, the sands have picked up pace in the hourglass.

As for the Good Lord, I confess that despite my religious pause, I can’t quite seem to shake the old Catholic out of my soul. The Good Lord might want to take a listen right now.

“I need you to get busy with the business of Bobby, help him find peace and quiet his extraordinary mind.  It’s time for an assist, Good Lord.”

The assist is well earned.

Meridians

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My mother was remarkably strong when faced with her final days.  She was more concerned with those she was leaving behind than herself, a gift of the great faith which resided in the center of her soul.

My dear, sweet father, was not so sweet near the end.  He fought the inevitable with anger and then some silent depression.  But there was a meridian he passed in the nick of time; a place of acceptance and peace.

“Navy Blue Blazer’, were the words my father used to indicate to me that his fight was over.  He pronounced it roughly, as aspiration pneumonia gripped him in his final days.

“Yes, Dad”, I moved to his hospital bed and leaned over him to hear every struggling word.

“Rotary Pin”, he went on, as he tapped the side of his hospital Johnnie.

“Dad, you want your Rotary Pin on your Navy Blue Blazer?”, I whispered in return.

He nodded with a slight smile, encouraging me to stay with the translation.

He cleared his raspy throat as his baby blue eyes held my gaze,

“Nephews.”

“For the funeral, Dad?  You want your nephews to be Pallbearers?”

He smiled at the idea that I was getting his gist.  Broaching the subject of his funeral must have frightened him, as he had clearly been in a private wrestling match with acceptance for weeks.  Somehow, the ease of my understanding his simple requests relieved him.  Hyperbole was unnecessary, overwrought emotion held at bay on both sides.  We had an understanding, my Dad and me.

Finally, with little voice left and whatever stored up bluster he had,

“Party!”

“Of course, Dad.”  I said, “A big party, at the TK Club, with Clam chowder and an open bar”

This suited my inexhaustibly social, Irish Catholic, e, father well.

He gave me a weak thumbs up and soon after fell asleep.  He would not speak much again, and four days later he passed at three o’clock on the morning of January 6, 2009.

Those who have read my blog, know that I love American idiom.  In a nod to that, I tell you, this is not my first time at the rodeo.

Uncle Bobby has failed exponentially since we first heard that whisper of a word, Hospice.  The dwindles have been fast, and today his rather regular, queen size bed was replaced by a hospital bed to better help his aides and the hospice staff relieve the pain he has from bed sores, and to help them shift his weakened body.  It strikes me that it is the first real signal of “Uncle” in the way we use it to announce that we concede.

I read to him from time to time from his favorite novel, “Moby Dick”.  That dark, drizzly November in Herman Melville’s soul takes on significant meaning for me now.  For Uncle Bobby, the beauty of Melville’s words, the paragraphs he builds with delightful precision, sweep him away for a bit from the drumbeat of anxiety that grips him in the face of death.

Uncle Bobby shared a dream with me just the other day.  He is too private a man to share dreams as habit.  This place of unsureness urges him to more intimacy.

“I had a dream last night.  I was moving.”, he said.

“I moved to a shanty town, and the apartment was small, but the price was right.”

He adds a landlord who needs to make some money.  So, while the place wasn’t luxurious, for $8.00 per night, it was good enough.

“Can’t begrudge the guy to make a living.  I didn’t mind paying, and there was a nice place around the corner to have a meal.”

Moby Dick begins in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the quintessential Shanty Town. It is no surprise to me that Uncle Bobby now dreams of the sea, imagines that his next move might be near the ocean that he loves so very much.

When the dying begin to dream of moving we somehow know that they are approaching the meridian of acceptance.  It is the great blessing of life that while we spend an unimaginable amount of time fearing death, when the time actually comes to engage it, somehow our dreams usher us to a meridian which offers some peace.

This weekend, I will take an invitation to spend 48 hours by the sea.  I will trust that Uncle Bobby will follow his path of slow acceptance.  I will hope that he will wait for me to return.

When I go to the sea, I will ask it to help me be strong in this journey I am on with my last, great underpinning.  I will ask it to give me grace in the final leg of the journey.  I want so very much to be the measure of Uncle Bobby.  I am his person now, as he has been mine in this extraordinary year.

 

 

 

Limitless Possibilities

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Easter weekend and my thoughts fly to reinvention, rejuvenation, and re-imagining what my life can be. Forget about cold Novembers in my soul, too many months in the last year have felt cold and song-less. It’s refreshing to finally find a space in my mind to rethink and begin the process of moving forward.

I have an Indian friend who, if I listen carefully enough, often presents me with pearls of wisdom.  He is my surprising sage. Dinesh planted a seed in my mind last August when I was lucky enough to share a beer with him at his summer tennis club. I arrived there as the sun was setting on a warm night, after a day of tennis playoffs an hour or so south.  I had finished playing late afternoon and was too wired to head home for the night.  His tennis club is like a second home to me, and it turned out to be an inspired destination.

I had played two matches that day and won both.  Sitting with him to debrief was great, but in a weak moment, I got a little misty.  I missed my partner in life who, just a year before, would have been greedy for the details of my competitive day.  The small victories in one’s daily life crave an invested audience.  One of those “meaningful nothingness” things you don’t quite appreciate until it is gone.

Dinesh is an empathetic soul, and often surprising philosopher. In response to my unexpected emotion, he put his hand on my shoulder and said,

“I envy you.”

HA!  How silly to envy my exposed, bereft soul.  Last summer I was as lost as I could be:  heartbroken, untethered, desperate for traction.  Envy me?  Unimaginable!

He went on,

“Within a short time, your daughter will graduate, and before you know it, your life will be full of limitless possibilities.”

Aha! The flip side of the sorrow that comes with loss.  My parents both gone from the earth, my children on the precipice of independence, and no significant other with whom to meander?  Dinesh equates that sad concoction to limitless possibilities?

A year ago, I had morphed into such a pathetic shell of myself that the words of my insightful friend sort of floated around me, as though they were more to be studied, figured out,  than applied.  My imagination for myself had gone the way of my self-esteem at that juncture. I could barely recognize me, let alone re-imagine what I could become.  A year ago, all I wanted was turn back the hands of time.  Undo the mounting sorrow.

In fits and starts, I would advance, but traction remained elusive.  Three steps forward inevitably led to two backward. Mostly, I was disappointed in myself. I couldn’t find a way to move ahead, to let go of what diminished me.

I applied Dinesh’s observation like a mantra, wanting to believe it.  Candidly, my jaded soul didn’t and the mantra took a cynical turn.

Picking up medical unmentionables for Uncle Bobby might prompt a sarcastic take,

“Right, look at me and my life of full of limitless possibilities!”

A Friday night with no company to count on might engender,

“Just me and my limitless possibilities!”

Perusal of dating sites offering tattooed, Harley riding, big game fishing men for my consideration might result in,

“Great, all these gems with whom to share my limitless possibilities.”

This past year felt like one endless limitation.

I’m not sure why, but recently Dinesh’s mantra began to resonate.  I helped it along with a some literal and figurative spring cleaning.  With bravado, I actually dumped the junk someone left me, right on his front stoop. As though it weren’t enough for him to bury me in his emotional junk, he left mounds of literal junk.  I felt lighter in the return of it.  A small, but important step in the embrace of limitless possibilities.

It’s interesting how sometimes a small step can thrust you forward.  And so it was with the junk dump.  The lightness I found in the result compelled me to think forward. Wistfulness was replaced by a tug of hope, a distant barely perceptible tap of actual optimism on my shoulder.

That one relatively small action gave me back some of my power, helping along the feeling that maybe it can begin to take hold.  With the arrival of spring, the myth of limitless possibilities suddenly seems less like a self-deprecating mantra and more like a reachable concept.

As I write this, a message comes in from my Russian friend, who continues to humiliate me in online chess.  He writes after my recent move,

“Bold move, I like it!  Just don’t get carried away.”

Message received!  I love a little metaphorical serendipity! A good reminder that reinvention might be best achieved in small steps.  I contend that playing a Russian in chess to begin with requires a bit of cock-eyed optimism.  Once upon a time, I had a stockpile of it.

So, to my Indian mystic, I say thank you for the gift of imagination for me. Rest assured, your words were not wasted on a sultry August evening, just held too carelessly.  I needed time to understand them, some healing to grasp their power.

Let it begin; the rising, the planning, the rebuilding, the moving forward to something which holds promise. I have learned that the world does not stop spinning on its axis just because I choose to slow down in self-imposed sadness.   I will try to be bold in imagination for myself, smart in preparation, and open to the truth that my life is indeed filled with limitless possibilities.

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!