A Patina of Stories

I am not a home decorator. In fact, I avoid some of the “finer things” in life, like shiny new dining room sets or brand new cars. First, because it seems odd to segregate the space where food is prepared from the room where you eat it; two, a shiny new table is like a shiny new car, a pleasure for the eye to behold but terrorizes with its perfection. Don’t put your glass down there, it will make a ring! Don’t let the cats near the chairs; they will use them as a scratching post! Put a blotter under that piece of paper so it doesn’t ruin the finish! Park the car a mile away from the grocery store so a runaway cart doesn’t ram it!

How can you live with prima donna stuff?

When I was growing up, our kitchen table and our dining room table were one and the same. We didn’t have separate rooms for mealtimes, besides, in a noisy household with my parents, 3 sisters and brother (7 altogether), one bathroom in the house and one table on which to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, light candles for countless birthday cakes, wrap presents, repair Ginny dolls and glue the legs on broken china horses, cut out newspaper articles, paper dolls and dress patterns, labor over homework, use as a foot rest while talking on the phone, lean on to listen to someone on the other side, shuffle a deck of playing cards on, spread out a Monopoly playing board, host a Dungeons & Dragons party, that table was busy. That table had stories to tell.

While Ken and I were living in New Jersey, we had a dining room AND a dining room SET, an Ethan Allan collection I bought at a garage sale of all places. The woman was selling it because her child had accidentally gouged one of the extension inserts (in my mind, who cares). The grandmother thought her daughter was nuts for selling it for a song but before our conversation continued, I noticed someone else was interested in the table, so I plunked down a deposit. Her husband helped me bring it home. That table and I began our first story together.

That story continued for most of the 18 years we lived in that house. It was the one thing we depended upon every day of our lives. That table held up our daily bread, cooperated in gift wrapping marathons, sheltered sewing projects, supported daily writing endeavors as I wrote through hundreds of hours, filling up notebook after notebook figuring out my life, struggling with demons and decisions, praying or rejoicing on paper. That table eavesdropped on private telephone conversations and kept my secrets, never refused to double as a vet stand for unnamable cat caretaking procedures, served as an uncomplaining repository for stacks of junk mail and magazines “to be read later,” stood still as a binocular holder and packing stand, hosted parties and the heft of Thanksgiving dinners. It held Italian, Indian, Asian and American cuisine in equal measure, never once dropping a glass of wine or a dollop of gravy. It held my head when I cried.

It was too big to go with us when we moved, so I offered it to a young couple from work who had started a family. When they said they would take it, I was stunned, oh… a piece of me is leaving. How did a table slip into the role of friend and confidante? Like relationships that have evolved over time, through turmoil and joy, hard times and good times, this table had MY stories in it, it was literally a friend I could lean on. It was hard to say goodbye. But there was a baby involved. It was time for it to raise a family.

Fast forward to our home now, a cozy condo in Middlebury, Vermont. Three weeks ago, on the way home from errands, on a whim, I turned right and drove up a hill to the Vermont Used Furniture Store. We walked into a dimly lit room that smelled of warm oranges and there it was. Alone except for its satellite chairs, it stood in the corner like an old friend waiting for me to recognize it. A different table than the one we had but just the right size, made in the USA, and according to the owner, made of “wild cherry.”

I approached the table and we eyed each other up, the first test of whether we would get along. I am not a connoisseur of fine furniture and thought cherry can be pretty “fahncy.” It was expensive for a used table, just how fussy is this Henkel Harris thing?

Like Goldilocks checking the temperature of the bears’ porridge, I sat on each chair in turn, making sure there were no creaks or cracks, dragged the tips of my fingers over the honeyed surface of the table, felt a scratch here, a dent there, noticed the shiny finish was worn where you would plunk your elbows down while eating good food or leaning forward to listen to a conversation. I was pleased to note a faint ring where a glass of water had been left too long. There were rub marks and pale webs of scratches…a stack of books swept off its surface perhaps, or the rough wool from a loved one’s winter coat?

This table had a patina of stories.

We fell in love.

The end.

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Tree Hugger

I hugged a tree the other day. It was along a path I have walked several times in the woods across the street from where we live now. I had paused to look around and suddenly the idea popped into my head: No one is here to laugh or stare at me with raised eyebrows, I am free to do this, the last time was years ago (when this picture was taken of me hugging a California Redwood). Hugging a tree is one of those private, spontaneous opportunities we can respond to or walk away from, sort of like life, don’t you think? 

So I swung my right arm around the girth of a 20-foot hemlock, like a teenager hanging out with a boyfriend, and balancing myself against its trunk, leaned back so I could see blue sky through the haze of branches. It’s been many years since my old tree-hugging days, I had almost forgotten the immediate sense of peace and stability and acceptance for where I am at this moment. No past, no future, just an awareness of the dazzling reality of BEING.  

I can walk trails here every morning and every afternoon if I want to, there is hardly any dog poop on these trails like there was where we lived in NJ, not to mention bears. The best part of being here is coming full circle to what fed me as a child: walking in the woods, being alone in a forest, there is even a cathedral of hemlocks mounted on a crag where the trail spills onto an open field where Song Sparrows, Cardinals and Juncoes dart among the shrubs. The hemlocks’ interlocking branches and lacy canopy seemed to spin as I looked up and beyond them to see a pair of Ravens soaring. It reminded me of “what used to be” in my former NJ home but there are few hemlocks there now, housing developments and the dreaded wooly adelgid have had their way with them.The half dozen slender hemlocks we so carefully nurtured on our property in NJ were cut down by the new owners.  

The path is part of the Trail Around Middlebury, the “TAM,” a footpath over 16 miles long that encircles the village of Middlebury and links several hundred acres of town land, conserved properties, schools, and other local landmarks. There are many unmarked trails switching back and forth across the TAM, all going this way and that, some created by human feet, others by paws and bicycle tires. I am learning the network of what path goes here and there and where they hook up back to the TAM, look…this one leads away from the road and joins the TAM after you pass the fallen white birches, this other one heads down to the trail head at the end of DWire Street cul-de-sac and then back home.. And all the pines, oaks, hemlocks and maples on the way, mine for the hugging.

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“Life’s Great, If You Don’t Weaken”

IMG_0747There is a poem in me somewhere, only the distilled intensity of poetry can convey the
images and emotions of this past month while I was in Florida to help Mom and Dad move
through a series of crises involving end-of-life decisions: Mom sleeping on the recliner under a red afghan because the pain from her fractured shoulder prevented her from laying in bed; Mom’s cat, Diamond, wide-eyed at the sudden onslaught of Allcrofts in her quiet life but giving us each a turn with her feline comfort; the wide, bright halls of the nursing home where dad was admitted; the residents walking their wheelchairs backward and forward up and down the wide hallways; a woman staring into a corner, a man with a leprechaun grin tethered to the nurse’s station to keep him from rolling up to other residents and punching them. A woman without a tooth in her head but who managed to yell, “Life is great if you don’t weaken!” and later, when she rolled her chair backwards into a metal easel and knocked it clattering to the floor, shouted to her rescuers, “I thought I’d died!” and then laughed and laughed. Thelma, who neither spoke nor looked at anyone, but walked her chair without stopping, as if maneuvering her car in the fast lane of a highway, the alarm strapped to her ankle providing the truth of her desire to go, just go. The old woman with long hair swept up in an elegant twist on her head who winked and whispered, “Hey, Baby,” every time I walked by.

And what happened to Mike, Dad’s roommate for three days, whose wife rarely left his side? Mike, who suffered five strokes in this past year, and who was swept out of the room in the middle of the night? No one can tell us, privacy rules, of course; there are lots of rules but none that say I cannot pray.

At Mom and Dad’s home, where mom lives alone now, the waxy white orchids nod from their perch in a tree notch where I planted it years ago. It has survived the occasional freezing temperatures of Southwest Florida to dangle its many faces in the humid air while checking out the home health therapy professionals arriving to help Mom regain strength and balance. Conversations with the social worker at the nursing home as we labored through the process of getting Dad admitted to what is now his home. He still knows who we are, he knows I am one of his five children but my name has vanished under the crushing heels of dementia.

Only poetry has the power to evoke the intensity of my unexpected introduction into the world of senior homes, Do Not Resuscitate orders, Do Not Transfer, Certificates of Incompetency, Medicare rules, beleaguered nursing assistants cleaning, helping patients arrange themselves in and out of bed, delivering and removing meal trays, cleaning some more. The occasional smells that could knock your head off, the sun’s rays pouring into the room each morning, patients laughing as they throw giant balls to each other in therapy, the rows of wheelchairs lined up before a movie in the dining room. The Mardi Gras party, where we saw Dad smile for the first time since he arrived. I think only a poet, which I am not, could capture the images, the joys and the aches of this past month as my sisters and brother gathered for the first time in many years for the single goal of companioning our parents as they pick their way along a strange road in their 71 year life journey together.

Where do poems come from? How are they born? Because only the elegance of a poem has the power to capture the ache in mom’s eyes as she gazed at the living room recliner where dad used to sit to watch TV while she cared for him until she couldn’t any longer. Dad’s face lights up whenever Mom visits now, he only has eyes for her, and the fuzzy Teddy bear that now shares his nights, cuddled up with him against the bed rails.

It was, is, a tough time but as odd as it sounds, I am grateful to be on this roller coaster, this living, breathing poem, this wild ride we are all on. It’s great, if you don’t weaken.

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The Upside-Down Side

imageTwo years ago, I set a Life Change in motion and boy, oh boy, it seems to be picking up momentum.  I apologize if these blog posts seem to be stuck on this topic and understand if you prefer to skip yet another discussion about change, you are probably dealing with change in your own life. If so, I can relate.  But if I were to write a new blog post, my second for the month and in alignment with my secret New Year’s resolution, I would write about how change changes you. It’s a corny and overworked topic but when you are on the upside-down side of life, the view is a stunner. The stories themselves are not new, from Biblical tales of a tough angel beating the crap out of some guy walking down the road to a bunch of ranchers taking a national wildlife refuge hostage, good things and bad things and no things are happening to us all the time, whether we invite them or not.

I am currently back in Florida, not to live or float around in a pool while the north winds blow,  but to companion mom and dad in… (I hesitate here because my brave mother reads this blog) end-of-life issues. There is much that has been accomplished with more to go but this journey is not just about the paperwork or the positioning of stuff, doctor’s appointments or therapy sessions, it is scrabbling through the crucible of family; it is climbing through the sticky web of fear, sorrow, anger and sometimes, joy without a map or a manual.

It is grappling first hand with our version of the stories you have heard many times: The falls, the hospitals, the rehab facilities, the deliberate ignorance of a loved one trapped in a body that is failing but his spirit is not. Dad may be in an advanced stage of dementia but when I asked him the other day how to change a shower head, he told me, demonstrating with his right hand the twisting motion that removing the shower head would require.

It is getting lost in the endless jungle of papers and names and dates and numbers. It is not giving up.

We fight to stay alive as long as we can. It is our biology to do this but we have defied our biology with the science of medicine dedicated to keeping the body alive as long as possible, or at least as long as we hope it will last. We fight death at the cost of life, knowing all along that we will get there too. Someday. Maybe. Not today. Maybe.

Dad is in a good facility now, we are breathing a brief sigh of relief but it’s not like he’s going to come home. He will stay there being fed good food, going to the gym where he is hooked up to a broad strap and assisted to a walker and guided to move like he always did, then gently returned to bed in his quiet, sun-filled room for a few hours of rest. For a 92 year-old body, a body that fought in multiple major World War II Navy battles, a body that helped create and support 5 children, a body that golfed, danced, taught his children how to ride a bike, drive a car, and was a companion to his wife, my mother, for 70 years, that is not too shabby.

If I were to write a blog post, I would write about the loneliness of change, how you really walk down those dark halls alone. Whether change comes because you initiated it or arrives unwelcome and unannounced at your door, you are in your own story that no one else can understand or tell. Your visions of what may happen to someone you love, or to yourself as you contemplate making your own life change, rarely match the reality.

As change changes you, the people around you change too, from those decide they don’t care for the shape emerging from the cocoon and walk away to those who know how hard it is to learn to fly.

Every person you meet, every dawn you greet, changes you in some way. No two mornings are the same.

 

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“I Still Know I am Being Carried.”

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Dad is in the hospital. He is as safe and comfortable as the staff can make him. Mom visits every day, goes home for lunch and a brief nap, then returns to spend the afternoon with him while he alternately dozes off or wakes up and talks, sometimes coherently. This has been going on for a couple of weeks, until yesterday, when mom slipped from a curb and fell in the parking lot of the hospital and broke her shoulder.

My sister Carole (who was in Florida two weeks ago) will be there by noon today. I will follow tomorrow. We do not know when we will be returning home, there is much to do. Barbara and Harry will be showing up within the next few days and for a little while, we will be one family, under one roof.

I woke up last night, as I do every night, with my mind juggling thoughts about the day before and the one ahead, when I remembered an encounter I had during one of many trips to Florida over the 30 years my parents have lived there. There was a time in August of 2008, when mom had been hospitalized with a mysterious illness and there was a similar scramble to show up. After the sibling changing-of-the-guard, I was on my way back to New Jersey when one of those everyday moments in a crowded airplane suddenly transformed itself into something beyond itself.

And yes, I wrote about it, and yes, I knew at the time it was a foretelling.

THE INTIMACY OF STRANGERS

September 2, 2008

Mom is home from the hospital. My sister, Barbara, flew down to stay awhile. Barbara got off the plane; I got on the same one to fly home.

The mortality bullet was dodged. This time. I am aware.

It was an uneventful flight back to NJ. With only an hour to go, the cabin grew too chilly, then too warm. It was like being baked in an oven.

“This is why I don’t live in Florida,” I joked to the two women sitting next to me.

They smiled. The passenger in the aisle seat was a polished, attractive woman with shoulder-length silver hair pulled back with a clip of pearls. She wore an expensive red and gray blouse that accented her creamy skin.

“It’s good for getting away though,” she said, and then added, “I was there for two weeks after my parents died within 30 days of each other.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry….”

The woman in the middle seat looked thoughtful but said nothing.

I thought of my own parents, whose home I had just left after a week of being present through a sudden and severe illness that had hospitalized my 84 year-old mother. She is okay now; but we all wonder, for how long?

The gray-haired woman told her story, then added:

“You do what you think is right at the time. But I don’t think I would make some of those same choices now.”

The woman in the middle seat nodded. Her faded blond hair was pulled into a bun. Like the gray-haired woman, she also wore a pearl, a single stone of palest pink held in place by a gold chain around her neck. She looked up at the ceiling of the plane and said:

“My father is dying. I am on my way to Dublin, Ireland, where he lives with my mother. The hospice is trying to keep him alive until I get there.”

“My mother is upset that they took him from the house, but he was climbing over the bed rails and falling. She couldn’t handle him anymore, so the hospice staff insisted he be admitted to their facility to protect her. But she had promised my dad that she would not let that happen.”

Her face crumpled. She did not cry.

“Your father would not have wanted that for her,” I offered.

“No. Absolutely not.”

She sat back and closed her eyes.

“I am a three-time cancer survivor myself.”

The gray-haired woman on the aisle and I glanced at each other, then leaned forward, instantly forming the intuitive bond of support women can be so good at.

She continued.

“When I was sick, my father sat by my bed and told me he wished he could take the cancer away from me; that he would be sick if he could, instead of me. Now he is dying of esophageal cancer. It makes me wonder.”

It makes me wonder. I kept looking for the guy behind the camera that prepared this organized scene. It was so tidy. Three women, strangers to one another, sitting in a row: Gone through it, going through it, and looking at going through it.

“How did you, uh, get yourself through all of this?” I asked them.

The gray-haired woman responded immediately:

“You know that picture of the single set of footprints in the sand? I knew I was being held up by something beyond myself, and that same something is part of the place where my mother and father are now. I still know I am being carried.”

I nodded. I had just installed that very picture as the wallpaper of my new cell phone 12 hours before.

“I believe that too,” the woman in the middle seat agreed. “With my whole heart, now more than ever.”

I sat back against the narrow seat of the plane. During the last half hour of an anonymous flight that I have taken dozens of times, three strangers were talking about illness and death and faith. There was no messing around, no nervous jokes, no apologies for discussing topics that are usually taboo among people unless they have known each other for a long time. We were each on the same scale of the intimacies of the heart.

For Audrey: May your father rest in peace.

 

 

 

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“We Travel Hopefully”

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I lost it at the grocery store the other day. Swinging my cart through the aisles to pick up carrots, brussel sprouts, potatoes and hamburgers for dinner, thinking about a new walking route to try later in the day with Toby, making a mental reminder of what bills to pay, I pushed past a store wagon full of cardboard boxes whose contents had yet to be placed on the shelves. The detour around the stack put me face to face with the racks of greeting cards you can still find in supermarkets. There was the section for His and Her Birthdays, Children, Special Occasion, Wedding, Anniversary, Sympathy and on the wall behind the boxes, two rows of red and pink Valentine’s Day cards. Seeing them was my annual reminder that the “lover’s holiday” was approaching but for our family, it also marks the twin birthdays for my father and younger sister, a trifecta of sweetness when we were growing up.

I walked around the giant cart and decided to get birthday cards for Dad and my sister before the good ones are picked over and gone. It has always been a bit of fun, I thought, to remember both their birthdays are on Valentines Day…

WAIT.

A bubble of grief burst in my brain as I realized this may be the last year I will be buying a Valentine’s birthday card for dad and suddenly, my eyes blurred with tears and for a minute, I could not move until the spinning reality of my father’s declining health became a dull light permanently switched to on. Ambushed by grief.

There are a lot of awful diseases out there and many ways to leave this earth. It is the one thing we have in common with every living thing on the planet. There have been many who have written more eloquently about the approaching loss of loved ones but this is my story this time, a story I don’t talk about much because living it is hard enough.

But, to borrow a phrase from a friend’s father who passed away recently: “We travel hopefully,” with both mom and dad, and with each other. We travel hopefully that we will be able to companion them in this transition to a place not that far away. We travel hopefully that we will find a way to keep Dad comfortable and safe. We travel hopefully that love will reach beyond the veil and we will know each other again.

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Change is Messy

DjB Allagash FallsThis is me diving into Allagash Falls way back when. As I was about to leap, the guide informed me it would feel like being thrashed in a washing machine set to rough handling, and then instructed me to “swim like hell” when I broke to the surface to avoid being sucked into a whirlpool. I almost changed my mind right then and there but then I would have to climb back over the slippery rocks to where I had started. Leap or stay safe?

I got a little banged up and went back and leaped again. A lesson remembered now that the first week of 2016 has arrived, a time to glance back to see where I have been and forward to where I need to go to avoid getting sucked down.

It is tempting to berate the many mistakes and bad decisions made in the process of these past two years but I wanted to change from the person I was to the person I believe lives in me, a MORE me. But change is a messy business. Unless you are Scrooge and wake up a new and improved human being after an overnight series of weird dreams, change happens in fits and starts.

If I were to write a New Year’s blog post, I would write about change, how sometimes it happens overnight but not usually. Usually it happens over time, deliberate or not, life happens to you and sometimes you make it happen, you can only plan so much while God laughs. One of the changes I want to make is to push through the dense cloud of resistance to living a creative life, a daily life enriched by art, be it writing, drawing, coloring, photographing, meditating, laughing. Change is about sometimes stepping, sometimes leaping, into the intimidating known and the scary unknown without scooting  under the bed of the comfortable familiar. I do not make New Year’s resolutions but if I did, it would be to step out every day with my vulnerability as my shield and a “fake it until you make it” kind of courage.

I am, at heart, an introvert. With some effort, I can throw out flashes of sociability; however, the clock ticks on how long I can keep that going and invariably, substantial recovery time is required afterward. I have been in Middlebury for 5 months now and despite some pleasant experiences with the local birding organization, I have not yet uncovered a current of relationships that fit. There is no “newcomers” clubs or organizations; political groups are of no interest to me, what I am looking for is a small, intimate circle of people, preferably women, who are also seeking their creative arc.

Well, says the little voice: If you can’t find one that fits, start one yourself. I am thinking about it, maybe a writing group, one that meets in the mornings, “MY” time to write. The goal would be to connect with others by connecting to our inner artist, admitting she exists and then living into it. Show, don’t tell.

We could start by meeting for say, 10 weeks, so if it doesn’t work out, the end will already be in sight. It’s been awhile since I’ve organized something like this but there is nothing to lose, and besides, the reluctance I feel is the very thing I need to push through to get to the core of change I want to make happen.

If I were to make a New Year’s resolution, and I won’t, it would be to write  to OakintheSeed, twice a month to start off, to let the infection of creating something, anything, settle into my bones, start the fever to fire up the passion of creating because I am yet alive, let it be that I will not leave this earth empty of my passing.

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