Alligators and Swamps

swampsalligatorsI love a good idiom!

My mother had an endless supply and peppered her conversations with them.  As a gangly, freckled face teenager I would occasionally apply them in conversation with my peer group.  I might mention to a tired friend, “You look like the wreck of the Hesperus”.  A look of confusion often met me because I may well have been speaking another language to her.  “I didn’t have an inkling” I was quoting Longfellow.  

Idioms were common in my Irish-American household.  “She’s as busy as a one-armed paper hanger”, or “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” and whenever I got ahead of myself: “Don’t put the cart before the horse”.

Idioms have gravity, historical reference and are often so clever they “stop you in your tracks”.  I have a Russian friend who surprisingly includes American idioms in his conversation on occasion. Imagine that, applying idiom in a second language? It never fails to “blow my skirt up”.

How do they catch on? How are they passed on? How did they find their way into my 20th century suburban New England home? Idioms might be “a bit of a dark horse”.

I wasn’t mindful in my visit to Uncle Bobby last Saturday.  My thoughts were racing around the too many challenges I faced.  Racing to the next responsibility, chore to be accomplished, the niggling worries which can eat away my days.  I was overwhelmed with problems and underwhelmed with solutions.  The perseverating had begun before I walked in the door of his two-room apartment. When in this “frame of mind”, the muted heartache at the center of my chest takes on volume.  It is hard to be alone when the world threatens to engulf you.  “To add insult to injury”  there is the reminder that you have been “dismissed out of hand” by the great love of your life.

I was not prepared to be present to Uncle Bobby. “I was swamped”, but I dragged myself in and took my regular spot in the upholstered chair four feet on the diagonal from him.  

I bought the lift chair in preparation for his arrival late last February. He is a “tall drink of water” which demanded something to hold his frame, raise his swollen legs for part of the day, and literally lift him to nearly a standing position when it was time to get him to walker and wheelchair.  The walker was an important part of his independence for years, a balancing tool that got him to his car and into restaurants without fear of falling.  It is now just a temporary tool to get him from reclining chair to wheelchair.   

There are days when coming to see him means patiently listening to his litany of complaints: medical and personnel.  Other days we have to “buckle down” and meticulously review bills, particularly the Medicare tomes which “make my head spin”.  The best visits come when he is in the mood to “wax on” about his past. Nearly all the time, our visits are about Uncle Bobby’s agenda of the day.  On this Fall Saturday, I couldn’t suppress my own.

The strain for me was financial, but being “true to form”, practical things often take on an emotional significance.  The “long and short of it”; active teenage daughter without a car, strained finances, overextended schedule,  loneliness, and the wistfulness that seems to accompany autumn since my mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving.

The week had “worn me to a nub” and the strain was apparent.  One question about Grace and the car and tears began to well,  frustration mount and my usually confident veneer crumbled.

Uncle Bobby cleared his emphysema riddled throat, balled his carpal tunnel deformed hands into fists, wriggled himself to a sitting position of greater height and with loving firmness said,

“Now you listen to me…”  

With dramatic pause, one finger went to the left space above his silver head, and it came…

“When you are up to your neck in Alligators, don’t forget that the goal was to drain the swamp.”

Perhaps the most confusing idiom of all!  I knew it and  have puzzled over it frequently enough in the past that the message was absolutely clear. One step at a time, one problem at a time, do not take it all on at once or it will “eat you alive”. Oh yes, the danger of being undone in it was real. It is the fear I carry daily, that if just one of the spinning plates I have in the air crashes to the floor, I will be undone for good.  I will collapse among the shattered pieces and be of no use to the centers of my world: my exhausting teenage daughter and beloved 90-year-old uncle.  

Bobby continues “full steam ahead” with a spark and liveliness I haven’t seen in months, as he places a closed hand over his heart, and taps it firmly on his chest.

I am your guy.  Do you understand?  I am your guy.  You are not to worry about money because I can help with that.”

I interrupt him, or at least make an attempt at protest with a teary, garbled, “but, you spend enough and worry about money, and I can’t….”

I am cut off immediately, as his crackled voice becomes firmer,

“You do not tell me what I can and cannot do, what I have and what I don’t have.  I am your family, I am your guy and I’ll not hear another word about it.  I can’t fix everything or do much for you,” he takes a pause to laugh a little, “but I can and will do this.  They’ll be no more discussion.”

We sit a moment in our spaces on the diagonal.  I reach for a tissue to blow my full nose and wipe my eyes and the discussion is put to rest, for today, at least.

He is tired now, spent a bit from his diatribe.  I am equally depleted.  It is time to go.  I lean over him and kiss his cheek, as he squeezes my hand with his own.    

In reflection, I find it remarkable that in my weakness he often finds his strength.  It is a reminder to me that, regardless of the betrayal of his body, his fortitude remains strong and his heart full.

And there it is…. A man who “cuts to the chase”,  “puts his money where his mouth is”,  and that for as long as he is here, he is the person who “has got my back.”

I love him with “all my heart and soul.”  Ain’t idioms grand!

I understand it…


I understand it. I could puff myself up with it if I’m not careful. I hear it from nearly everyone: the manager, receptionists, nurses, friends, family members and sometimes even passing acquaintances.

“He is so lucky to have you.”

It makes me uncomfortable, this talk of selflessness. I shudder a little with the awareness that my writing about it draws unnecessary attention to my role in Uncle Bobby’s life.  I write of my exhaustion, the time, the tedium and I speak of it often. That’s the human element, the lament to others about this undertaking: eldercare. Even Pope Francis gave it a nod last week in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral:

“The biblical commandment that requires us to honor our parents, understood broadly, reminds us of the honor we must show to all elderly people,” 

And don’t you know that this to-her-core Catholic of the fallen variety felt good in that moment. It felt like a personal “atta boy” from the de facto moral center of the 21st century. I am good and just and righteous. Ugh…..

On the eve of test results which will lay the groundwork for how we go forward, I am reminded that what I do in support of Uncle Bobby pales in comparison to a lifetime of support he has given me. I am reminded that I am the lucky one.

Underpinnings are those supports that give life structure, even when they are not visible; even when you somehow forget that they are there. To an adult, adopted at birth, underpinnings are stealthily important. To this adult, who lost her original maternal underpinning at birth, they are everything. Connection to others seems achingly fragile to me; not the availability of it, but rather its stamina.

Uncle Bobby has stamina.

In early January 2006, I sat vigil in the Philip Hulitar Hospice wing of Roger Williams Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island.  My father lay peacefully, mercifully comatose following months of pain from a late diagnosed soft tissue cancer. I read while he breathed quietly, only occasionally giving in to the rhythms of a body near death.

His beloved nephew and her wife had come by to be with us on a frigid, January night. Outside, snow was piled in banks and an icy film covered the roadways.   FJ, Deirdre and I were in hushed conversation when we heard what had become a familiar sound to me: “clickety-clack” interspersed with the sound of rubber souls on linoleum flooring. Faint at first, the sounds grew clearer until the door inched open. Uncle Bobby had returned, having only left this room four hours before.

FJ and Deirdre were thrilled to see him, and went toward him with quiet exuberance. It must have been years since they had seen him, most likely at my mother’s funeral. While he was Uncle Bobby to all my cousins, the fact was that he was only really Uncle to my brother and me. He was my mother’s brother. FJ was my father’s brother’s son.

It was a lovely reunion, one I am convinced my father enjoyed despite his inability to interact. There was laughter at childhood memories and remembrances of my father, who was himself quite a character in the most charming of Irish ways. So much of my time in the final weeks with dad was spent alone, and this company was soul stirring for me. My father must have adored it.

Deirdre, physically beautiful by any standard, is also remarkably kind and gentle.   Her innate grace and sincerity puts everyone at ease. When Uncle Bobby made his move to depart, Deirdre lept up to accompany him to his car. He was flattered and grabbed onto his walker while she placed her hand gently on the small of his back. It was a gesture of love, not practical support. Uncle Bobby wielded his walker with confidence.

The “clickety-clack” faded as they made their way down the hallway. My eldest cousin and I spoke quietly awaiting Deirdre’s return; solemn in our final moments. The last moments shared between a beloved uncle and nephew.

Deirdre returned soon after and kissed my father on the forehead. FJ did the same, plainly overcome with emotion. We then walked down the long corridor in silence and I hugged the last visitors of the day. My own exhausted grief gave way to tears. Deirdre embraced me tenderly and shared her final thought,

“I scolded Uncle Bobby for coming out so late, in the ice and snow. He said to me, ‘I do it for her. Someone needs to look out for her’. “

There is nothing selfless in this thing that I do now. I do it for him. Someone needs to look out for him.

That is how it is between us. Unconditional love is a gift not many will give you in your lifetime. There is no nobility in giving it in return.

Night In The Gazebo

The gazebo looks as I feel: dark, tired, diminished.  It stands ignored in a barely noticeable space, haphazardly set between the endlessly active clay courts and swimming pool. It looks as sad as I have felt for too long.  

In a year of mounting loss, I wrestle to put the loss of love behind me while I prepare to face the loss of my last family underpinning.  I feel no progress in either direction, no authentic willingness to accept either.  The gazebo seems stuck in limbo to me, a muddled place of not knowing what it is.   I know this paralysis. This stuck place has become too familiar to me.  I am desperate to find lightness in the anguish of lost love; desperate to find grace in the inevitable loss to come.

In the endless winter of my heartache, I accepted a call I knew would someday come.  The weight of my shattered heart was crushing me when duty called to turn my attention from myself to my beloved bachelor uncle.  Closing in on ninety, this wonderful man had been beside me for the death of each of my parents.  Never imposing or maudlin, he was perfectly strong for me as I buried both mom and dad but three years apart.  

This winter his body finally betrayed him.  A bout of pneumonia led to a hospital stay that went on too long.  Inertia is the enemy of the elderly.  He went from hospital to unsuccessful rehab, from driving his own car to a catheter, atrophied limbs and a wheelchair.  All independence stolen from him in the blink of an eye.

I had done my best in the years following my dad’s passing to be there for him. He gave his all to me when I separated from husband.  This World War II veteran, devout Catholic, and retired teacher met my impending divorce with no judgment as if to bring home the lesson of unconditional love.  It was my turnthree-hour

e hour distance between us was impossible and I convinced him to move to a facility near me.  It would be an enormous responsibility, but somewhere deep within I sensed that his coming might be just the elixir to help me emerge from my own depths.  Another lesson from this teacher uncle: turn your attention to others.

It has been harder than I expected.  His body continues its betrayal as I battle the incessant mediocrity of elder care facilities.   Each day I seek patience to be present to his increasing emotional needs. I can do nothing for his withering body.

It is exhausting and there is no respite.  I am his person now, too close to a time when my own person dismissed me.  I have no remaining family structure and so I now turn to friends to buoy me. I am lucky to be rich in friends.  I have to remind myself of that.  In my human skin, I often lose sight of it.

In a year of challenge and sadness, of no rest and little real pleasure, I consider the tired, ignored gazebo one Friday afternoon.  The gazebo may be spent but perhaps a minor adjustment can bring it life.

With a friend beside me the simple rehabilitation begins, calling for nothing more than discarded Christmas lights.  In the daylight hours we work our way around the lower edge of its roof.  There is no magic in daylight and the sad structure looks almost burdened by the wiring as we walk away.

Yet, as the night sky settles in and food and drink arrives to be shared with friends, the lights of the Gazebo show themselves.  The buzz of conversation begins,  music plays, children dance, and laughter bursts out from some corners of the gazebo, while other corners host more intimate dialogue.

And I dance and I laugh and I feel lighter surrounded by friends who have no idea what they mean to me now.  How could they know?

It is unusually warm on this late summer evening and I dance with abandon.  One friend in particular is my co-conspirator, ever eager to engage in shenanigans. Just the suggestion of a shift in adventure and she is in.  It is late, but the two of us head over to the darkened pool, not a ripple on the surface.  We take a quiet swim to cool ourselves, emerge refreshed and head back to the gazebo.  

How beautiful it looks from a distance, illuminated, a place too long ignored, too easily dismissed.   It is the heart of this place tonight, and the tableau inspires me;   my people gathered and lit under one roof.

The Gazebo now looks as I feel;  refreshed, fortified, welcoming.