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Twilight Sleep

I am not, for the moment, living in the real world. I am staying with my father, in the house in which I was raised, as he recuperates from an illness. He requires tube feedings, and is on a regimen of blood thinners that make it dangerous for him to live alone in his temporary state of weakness and physical instability. This is not an act of martyrdom; I love him fiercely, and it would be unconscionable to let him be alone at a time when he is both ill and grieving the loss of my mother. I am lucky that I can do this thing without quitting a job, and lucky that my own household is willing to adapt to this strange cross-town family arrangement for a while.

Life goes on at my “real” house, and in the rest of the world. My son went on a vacation with a friend, and returned to school. My husband works, does the laundry, keeps the house clean and comes to this house to share meals with me and bring our dogs for visits. I see on Facebook that other people are going to basketball games, trying new kinds of sushi, and going to the gym.

Here, I live on a schedule that is not my own, making no plans more serious than a one-hour outing to stock up on Greek Yogurt and whole grain pita chips. Every day I wake at 7:00 for the first of five feedings, one every three hours. I grind up pills with a mortar and pestle, and dilute them in water that is not too cold or too hot. I change dressings. For a while I was giving two daily injections, a thing at first terrifying and then a point of pride. The phone rings all day long – friends of the family inquiring about dad, doctor’s offices, and the bustling home health care outfit that sends to us speech therapists, physical therapists, nurses and aides. Nothing is about me, which is oddly fine.

Every morning I watch “Charmed” reruns and drink my coffee. I make myself a pot every few days and drink it cold until the day when the pot is down to sludge. I read voraciously. Sometimes I try to write. I tend to the Corgi who still misses my mother, and regards me with visible disappointment. Sometimes I don’t take a shower, and I almost never put on any makeup.

At 11:00 I give dad his last meds, and settle myself on one of the couches in the beautiful, windowed room they added to the house after I “grew up.” I look for the moon through the triangular windows under the eaves, and I talk to my mother who is everywhere in this house from her cookbooks to the pressed table linens. I text my husband and son, trying to be in touch without disturbing them, trying not to be too alert to the distance I have travelled from my home, a distance far greater than the real, practical couple of miles that separates me.

It isn’t difficult to avoid alertness here, in this cocoon of busy-ness and suspended time. I am lulled by the routine, and by the constant emphasis on “support” and “caring” radiated by the parade of paramedical folks on the phone and at the front door. It is a sharp intrusion when I have to tend to my real, actual work, or when I get a call from my “real” house asking if I know where something or other got put. It’s like the shaking that jars one from a deep and satisfying sleep. Am I not doing enough already? Isn’t there someone else who can do whatever it is, find the thing, fix the problem? I am not confident in my ability to move between my twilight world and that other, louder, brighter, faster world quite yet. I am exhausted, a little, by the prospect of doing my hair, driving my car, interacting with people unaware of my breach with their universe.

This twilight period is not a bad thing for me, of that I am sure. My father, sick and grieving, is still himself in every way that matters. I promised my mother that I would look after him, and there is rightness to this, despite all the oddness, and disruption. Yesterday I asked him about a Renaissance Florentine philosopher mentioned in the novel I’m reading, and he responded with a Yeats poem about the man in question. How could I abandon such a man to an army of high-pitched squealers who know nothing about his mind, his heart, his essence as a gentleman and a scholar? How could I live the rest of my own life knowing that when he most needed an ally and a loving heart, I left him to people who would categorize him as a “cute old guy” and call him “Mr. Edward” as they wheedled and cajoled him to do his exercises?

A few nights ago, as I bent over him at the end of a feeding, my father told me I looked sad. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I feel like I’ve let you down if you need to talk about your mother. Would you like to do that?”

“Well,” I said, “if you want to…?” He shook his head. I tucked him in and kissed the top of his head. In this drifting, dreaming twilight world of routine and comfort, she is with us all the time. We don’t need to talk about her as if she weren’t here.

When it’s time to wake up and move briskly back into the crackling tumult of real life, she may recede. But she may, like the downy feathers left by dreams, stay with us, and float across our cheeks when we need her most.

Physics, Metaphysics, and a Florentine Journal

ImageMaybe a week ago, I was taking books out of what had been my mother’s home office. There’s a period after a death when it seems wrong to erase the person by removing all of their possessions as if they had never sat in that chair knitting, or used the rosemary mint conditioner in that shower. Then (and it’s hard to see this coming because it comes with such breathtaking stealth), there is a time when it seems wrong to leave everything in place as if the person was going to pop in and ask for her green sweater vest. It gets a little creepy, like on episodes of CSI in which the family has preserved the bedroom of the murdered teenager exactly as it was the day he was abducted from the crack house in a bad part of town.

Anyway, it was time. So I assembled a bag of children’s’ books to distribute among deserving young friends, and noticed in the process that one book seemed to have another wedged into its printed heart. The interloper proved to be a slim, Florentine blank book. I was sure she’d bought it when we were actually in Florence, in the summer of 1977.

Let me back up a bit. Let me say that, although I haven’t been writing about it (or anything else) much lately, I am still pretty epically sad. That day, the day I found the book, I was literally talking to myself out loud as I assessed the task ahead of me. “It’s okay, bunny,” I said (for some reason I call myself “bunny” in my head when I’m trying to be comforting) “you can do this. Just take little bits at a time.” And I’d be okay, and then not okay, efficient gatherer of books and then sobbing and pathetic floor kneeler. So given all that, when I opened the little book and found that my mother had started writing in it on December 31, 1985, when she was about 6 months younger than I am now, less than two years after the death of her own mother, I decided it was a sign.

Although I did not take Physics in high school, I am told that the amount of energy in the universe is finite, that it all sticks around, and that it turns into other stuff upon its release from a given situation. (That is not a scientific explanation. I’m pretty sure that the word “situation” is rarely used by those searching for the Higgs boson particle to describe any state of matter, energy or anything else).

Maybe, possibly, the book is some of my mother’s energy in tangible form. I can’t, quite believe that she is shimmering around in a column of white light, and I’m not ready to admit that she’s mostly in the air somewhere, or in the Red Cedar River, or in the lilac bush in the yard. I can believe that she radiates from the elegant, fleur delise’d pages of this book. So I saved it for today, December 31 of the most terrible year I could have imagined, hoping for a little hit of her incredibly fine and sophisticated energy.

As it turns out, the book mostly contains quotes that she liked, copied in her perfect cursive over a decade. Many are of a spiritual nature; she copied out Psalm 139, a passage written by Cardinal Newman, and another from Thomas Moore. The words are beautiful, and I try to let them permeate me, making a sort of mom infusion in my soul. Then, there is this, from Jane Eyre:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I respect myself.

And this, from Aeschylus:

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

My mother, who was not alone or friendless any more than I am now, was grieving in the little book. She was grieving the loss of her own mother, a loss about which she was neither mellow nor philosophical. In the midst of a loving family and a sea of friends, she felt alone without her mother, making her own way in the world like Jane Eyre, growing stronger through the pain that persisted “against her will” for so many months. In my universe, as I read, the atoms spun crazily from wherever she left them and moved into my own body, joining with all that is my present incarnation.

A yellowing newspaper clipping fell from the back of the book; “For Bernice” is written in the upper left corner. Bernice was my mother’s mother. It’s a poem entitled “A Prayer for Every Day” by Mary Carolyn Davies, and my mother has copied it out as the last entry in her book. At the top of the page she wrote “For Bernice (found in a box of my mother’s belongings.” It’s kind of corny, the poem, and it probably seemed corny to my Yeats-reading mother, but she kept it, loved it, copied it out because it was a part of her mother. A transference of energy, if you will.

And so today, as the world goes into overdrive with lists and retrospectives and hats and noisemakers, I will sit quietly in the house I grew up, listening to my father sleeping the deep sleep of recovery, keeping the little Florentine book nearby as talisman. I will not be sad to see this year end, but I am certain, in some totally unscientific way, that I’ll move forward relying on the strength of my mother, and her mother.

(And your own strength, bunny).

What My (Expletive Deleted) Problem Is

I see it now, as clear and bright as the crystalline drops of rain dotting the red berries outside my window. They hang there, brighter, smaller ghosts of the vivid berries, disappearing if I squint. They are, however, there whether I focus on them or not. Equally present is my anger, a constant companion of late, obscured by the busy-ness of full days and my tendency towards stoicism, but there. Always there.

I was going to beat Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There was no denial, I was not angry, and “bargaining” seemed silly – my mother was dead, and besides, with whom would I play “Let’s Make a Deal” to get her back? I would go straight to “depression,” hang tough, and swan into “acceptance” like a champ. People would marvel at my equanimity, my grace, the fact that I could endure her death, my father’s illness, my husband’s illness, and the trials of daily life without missing a beat. I confided in a few, selected and trusted friends, and when I felt completely broken I would consent to lie on the couch and watch HSN while my husband made me Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and went, on his own, to buy a Christmas tree. Because that is what People do when they are mentally healthy and having a tough time; they acknowledge the leaden weight that holds them beneath the surface and let themselves float until they can swim to the nearest raft and pull themselves up onto the solid wooden slats.

Last night, though, I could not even float. After the macaroni, after falling asleep with a dog curled at my feet, I awoke gasping with panic. I needed help, air, the promise that my heart would stop its wild beating in my chest and that my throat would allow me to suck in a slow, sweet breath. It seemed to come from nowhere. I had brought my father back from cancer surgery in much better shape than his doctors had predicted, and he was safe in his own house with his beloved dog, ample pain medication and a great sense of reprieve. I had only one real work obligation left before the holidays, and I was prepared. “What,” I said to myself at 2:17AM “is your fucking problem?”

I was not kind to my panic-stricken self, and I realized that I had not been feeling particularly kind for a few days. I hated pretty much everybody. I had a list in my head, a growing list, of every slight, every failure and every disappointment perpetrated on me by the universe. I am reading Mary Karr’s memoir “Lit,” which is brilliant and fascinating and written so well that I want to weep with envy. Also, I am bitter and angry about the fact that she writes of finding her way out of dysfunction and alcoholism by praying, “falling on her knees” and, eventually, becoming part of a Roman Catholic church community.

As I flip the virtual pages of the Kindle book, Karr grows stronger, happier, better in every way. She prays and surrenders and things begin to fall into place – a car, a book contract, the courage to leave bad relationships and parent her son with wisdom and love. I wish Ms. Karr no ill, but it seems grossly unfair to me that she, so much more damaged than I am, found a way to be functional. I liked the book better when she was a mess, sitting drunk on her back stoop and listening to music through her headphones. That, I understood.

Because I am a mess. An angry, false-fronted mess. Two days ago, I was at the hospital in Ann Arbor where my father had his surgery. I had not been there since January and February, when he had his first surgery for the same cancer. On those trips, I brought my mother. I pushed her in a wheelchair across acres of shiny floors, maneuvering her in and out of small waiting areas and on and off of elevators. I took her to the cafeteria and plied her with bagels and hot tea, trying to distract her from legitimate worry about my father’s prospects. On this week’s trip,  I entered the hospital through a section she and I had never visited, but when it was time to leave, I found myself walking past a waiting area where we had, literally, spent hours together. I was so tired, and as I caught the first glimpse of red carpet and cozy seating arrangements, I knew I couldn’t look at it, couldn’t think about it, had somehow lost my protective bubble.

I began to walk fast, looking straight ahead, and ran into a group of large women blocking my path. They were probably lost, and maybe another time I would have tried to help them, or smiled winningly and apologized for the glancing blow on the left arm of the one in a Lion’s starter jacket, but I didn’t have it in me. I said “sorry” as I altered my own path, trying to maintain my pace and get around them, away from the treacherous waiting area and into the next part of the building.

“What the fuck is your problem?” One of them said.

“…owns the fucking halls” I heard as I walked even faster. I had this impulse, then, to go back and fight with them. I wanted to tell them what the fuck my problem was. I wanted to get right up in their broad, bovine faces and spit words:

“My problem is that my mom died, and I’m exhausted, and something made me sad and I don’t want to cry in public and look ridiculous, and there is nothing that makes me feel better and people who stop suddenly in a spot where people are walking are fucking stupid and it’s their fault if someone runs into them.”

I remembered that, last night on the couch, and I remember it now; time has not mellowed my uncharacteristic anger. I am only glad I didn’t go back and fight with them, because there were four of them and they were very large. My uncharacteristic anger is, as it turns out, characteristic. At least for right now. The list runs through my head like ticker tape. I am angry at the people who said they would “be there” for me, but really have neither the time nor the energy to be there unless they have some unexpected swathe of leisure time during which they can make themselves feel better by checking on my welfare. It isn’t that I necessarily even want to hear from those people; it just seems particularly careless to offer a conditional lifeline to an unconditionally drowning person.

I am angry at myself for dumping my feelings onto the faithful friends and family who are there for me because I worry that I will wear them out if I do not parcel out my grieving among them in palatable portions. I am angry about the shooting in Connecticut, because the unique and unimaginable grief of a community is being co-opted and exploited by everything from news broadcasts and political squabbles to well-meaning Facebook posts. I am angry that the first Rite-Aid doesn’t have the right antibiotics and I have to drive across town to get them. I am angry that I don’t care about Christmas this year, and that everything about it reminds me of my mother, and that in the midst of the ads and the cards and the trees and the parties I am just gritting my teeth and waiting for it to be over.

That, in an enormous and wordy nutshell, is the answer to “what the fuck is your problem?” Kubler-Ross wins. I’m angry. I’m irrationally, painfully, angry and bitter and spoiling for the kind of cathartic fight that might act as a release valve. I can’t fight with Mary Karr, or strangers at the hospital, or pharmacists, and I’m still compos enough to get that it’s wrong to turn my wrath on my innocent husband and son (even though I know that they would still love me). Instead, it squats hideously in my chest, just under my sternum, rattling me awake and pumping enough adrenaline that I could probably fight five women at the hospital complete with uppercuts and roundhouse kicks.

So, Ms. Kubler-Ross, this is normal, but what do I do? You are precisely no help, being dead and all. I have this great plan about taking a hot bath and burning lavender incense, but there isn’t a full-sized tub in this house. Or, for that matter, any lavender incense. So maybe this: a brisk walk, a hot shower with sandalwood incense (which I actually have), a little Hildegarde of Bingen on Spotify, no newspapers, no TV, probably a good cry. Less junk food, more vegetables. I don’t know how to stop being angry because I’m usually not, but maybe taking care of myself is a start.

Maybe, first, I stop swearing at myself, treat myself like a person I care about, teach myself to channel this anger into something that won’t leave a mark when I move on to the next stage.

Maybe.

Chex Mix

Today was meant to be a day out of the trenches; I had envisioned a leisurely morning watching “Charmed” reruns, maybe a little baking and laundry, and then reading the 2,700 newspapers lying on the coffee table. I would then collapse into a cozy and dreamless coma on the couch, with a dog at my feet and a cat snuggled against my chest. I could, I reasoned, put all serious problems on hold for a few hours. People do it all the time. I think.

It would appear, however, that the Cosmic Paver is not finished blanketing me with steaming tar, and then flattening me with the Steamroller of Worry. My dad got bad business-related news. My husband is getting incomplete and unhelpful health-related news. My son is weathering a series of Adolescent Torments. Those are my people, right there. They are all having a bad day. I can’t really lie around sipping Absinthe and watching the Folies Bergeres when they are suffering. (There is a hideously mixed metaphor coming, fasten your seatbelts). Dressed in my Absinthe-sipping finery I am covered with blackest tar and steamrolled until all that remains visible is a slight unevenness in the smooth black surface. Anxiety wins.

There is this Welsh word, “hiraeth,” that has no direct English translation. The best possible translation is” homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.” It might be a longing for a real past, or even just the way the past seemed to be, the way it appears in dreams and slivers of memory with such frequency that there is no clear delineation between the cold currency of “reality” and the cotton candy of fantasy.

I was all about the hireath today, nostalgic for days when I was not responsible for anything but keeping my room clean and behaving myself, days when all tough decisions, bad news, and general darkness were kept from me by parents who seemed capable of anything and everything. In that life, on December 7th, my father would have given us the annual explanation of Pearl Harbor Day. We would be a week from getting a Christmas tree, and we would probably have our menorah on the mantle with a box of Manischewitz candles lying beside it. My Grammie Graham would be staying with us, and she would have made batch after batch of Chex Mix, filling the house with the smells of melting butter, Worcestershire sauce and toasting cashews. My most serious worry would have been whether I could finish reading By The Shores of Plum Creek before I was called to set the table for dinner.

I am home, but not in the home of my memories. This is my home now, and the hard truth is that there is no one here to protect me from life. I am the grownup, or at least one of them. The things that are messy, overdue, broken or unpleasant are mine to address; I have a partner, but that is not the same as having parents. These are the years of bucking up, the years when I take care of people older and younger, as well as my own bad self. If there is to be warmth, joy, Christmas, and family ritual, I need to create it. That other home, the one where I do the little that’s asked of me and reap rewards both abundant and magical, no longer exists.

And then, in the middle of an earnest conversation with my son about Big Issues, there are footsteps on the porch. It’s the UPS man, and Sam brings in the big, brown box with “this side up” arrows on all sides. It’s from Florida, from my friend Robert. I have never met him in real life, but he is, somehow, as real a friend as any whose warm hand I have ever clasped. Nestled in a nest of fresh-off-the-tree Florida citrus and pale pink bubble wrap is a tin. I know what’s in it; he’s done it before, but I didn’t expect him to do it again.

The tin is filled to the top with Chex Mix, and its smell  makes me close my eyes so that I am ten again, home again, and safe. Through some olfactory/metaphysical magic, that smell melds the home that I long for and the home that I live in. Time buckles, and that 10-year-old girl is with me here, reading the dog-eared pages of her book as she haphazardly arranges glasses and forks with one hand.

And if she, bossy, confident, and imaginative is with me, I am neither lost nor alone. We will eat Chex Mix for dinner, take a deep breath and conquer the world.

New Mom

I haven’t written much lately. The hours of my days seem to be sucked into a vortex of duties. They are not unpleasant, and I begrudge nobody, but there are times, whole hours, whole days when I want to raise my hands palms-out and stop it all. I want to say, in the kindest way imaginable, “please just let me breathe. Let me grieve my loss. Let me absorb the continuous blows that, maybe a year ago, would have killed me but which I now accept as my daily bread. Permit me to abandon all pretense of grace and ease and charm just long enough to be the selfish beast that I am right now, the bottomless pit of need, a motherless child facing down the red and green barrel of everyone else’s Christmas spirit.” It’s not pretty, but it’s real. Right now, it’s real.

Last night, though, I had a moment. It was the kind of moment that reminds me that life is still out there bustling with promise and energy and goodness. After a very long day of work, I sat down to talk to a little girl who is a regular guest at the dinners I cook on Wednesday nights. She comes to the meals with her mother and her grandmother; her brother is in the Christmas pageant, and when he goes upstairs to the Church’s sanctuary to rehearse after dinner she stays at one of the round tables and colors with her “Grammy.”

It’s clear that she has an impairment of some kind. Although I was never sure what it was, and whether it was organic or traumatic in origin. It didn’t seem polite to ask her mother or her grandmother, and it really didn’t make any difference. I had started a Wednesday pattern of hanging out with her for a while, watching her find Waldo, or tell me about what she was drawing. She has the gentlest little voice, and radiates a kind of Buddha-like acceptance of everything around her; ten minutes with her soothed the beast within.

Last night, as the three of us talked, her grandmother volunteered the information that the girl had suffered a brain tumor, and that the treatment had severely diminished her brain functioning. As the older woman talked, I noticed that the child was drawing a rainbow with the colors in their proper “ROYGBIV” order. “How does she know that?” I asked, pointing at a rainbow-covered sheet.

“It’s something she remembers” her grandmother explained. “When you lose parts of your brain it’s hard to predict what will work afterwards.” The girl looked up from her drawing, focusing her big, dark brown eyes on mine.

“Do you have a mom and dad?” she asked. I hesitated. I didn’t want to upset her, but it would be odd to say that I just had a father without explaining the reason. I looked to her grandmother for guidance. She knew I had only recently lost my mother.

“You can tell her,” she said. “It’s very important to her that everybody has a mom and dad. We aren’t sure why.”

“I have a dad,” I told her, “but I don’t have a mom anymore. She died.”

“Your mom died?” she said, selecting a handful of crayons. “I will make you a new mom.” She started to draw. “Eyes,” she said, drawing two circles, “and legs,” she continued, adding arms and hair and other necessary mom parts. She was calm and workmanlike, as if it was no big thing to fill a gaping hole in someone’s life. When she was satisfied, she looked up at me.

Image

“Is it okay if I take it with me?” I asked. She nodded.

“I made you a new mom” she said. I nodded again.

“Can you write your name on it so I remember who made it for me?” She nodded again. She formed shapes on the paper, in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Well, as close as she could come with the crayons at her disposal. “Thank you” I said. She was on to more rainbows, and didn’t look up.

And there are a million corny things I could say to end this – things about the triumph of the spirit, or counting my blessings, or the mouths of babes. I could say things that might make me gag a little, things that might diminish the power of a moment of true grace.

But I won’t. You get it, right?

Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.

My Yiddeshe Thanksgivings

Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s  Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.

My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s  recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).

The arrival snacks and Wednesday night dinner being only the warm-ups,  Thanksgiving day started early with turkey(s)  in the oven, and every surface in the kitchen covered with bowls, bags of potatoes, stand mixers, thawing bundt cakes and cans of chicken broth.  My two great aunts (the other two “Gabor Sisters”) were at their own homes in Youngstown and Warren,  packing up their contributions to the dinner, and then putting on beautiful suits, silky blouses, and Ferragamo shoes with a one-inch heel and a bow  before being driven to Ashtabula. (Neither of them ever drove, and they were astonished when I could not only drive a car, but fill it with gas into it without the assistance of my father or brother).

We were not a family that came to a holiday table “comfortable;” men wore suits and ties, women wore skirts or dresses, and I liked it that way, even though it was complicated to get ten people clean and dressed in a house with only one bathroom. When the group expanded to include my paternal grandmother, a petite and quiet Catholic woman of pure New England stock, she fit right in among the Hebrew Herd with her customary pleated plaid skirt and sweater set. Years later, I was first shocked, and then disappointed to find myself a Thanksgiving guest in a home where sweats and jeans were the order of the day.

My brother says that if you think of Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” make the Jews Hungarian and Russian, rather than Polish, remove the heavy Eastern European accents, and situate them in Ohio instead of Baltimore, you have our Thanksgivings. With as many as 30 people in attendance some years, there were card tables added to the long table in the dining room, and run through the living room,  nearly to the front door. All of the tables were covered with starched white linen cloths, the china, silver and crystal were real, and the food seemed endless. There were always the American classics: turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, gravy and pie, but The Tribe cannot be limited to the pallid and the Puritanical. In addition to the Anglo classics, there was always a magyar culinary presence, including a kuchen or two filled with chopped nuts, cinnamon and sugar, and at least one noodle pudding (Dorothy’s without apricots, or Harriet’s, with). Any remaining Puritanical influences were obliterated by the noise level, the bursts of laughter, and the annual photographing of my mother’s fastidious, slender and elegant Aunt Anne captured mid-bite, one hand raised to ward off the camera. Squanto and company might have felt at home around our table, but I am fairly certain that Governor Bradford and his austere and God-fearing  colleagues would have run as fast as their buckled shoes would allow.

After dinner, there were hours spent just sitting at the table, talking, and picking at leftovers. When I was very young, my grandmother would pat the seat next to her, and I would sit with her sipping “kashi” (a tablespoon of coffee, a cup of cream and five spoons full of sugar) and listening to what was, actually, the oral history of my mother’s family. As my grandmother and her sisters ate “slivers” of the cakes and pies on the table (all three of them earnestly believed that 10 “slivers” added up to less caloric damage than one actual “slice”), I heard about Great Uncle Allen making the sandwich with peanut butter and petroleum jelly for my mother and uncle, about my paternal great-grandfather keeping kosher upstairs but cooking bacon for himself in the basement, and about kind-to-a-fault Sam, the other Great Grandfather who was a lawyer and represented the downtrodden in exchange for chickens and kindling. Eventually, the out of town relatives would pack up and leave in a cloud of Jungle Gardenia and hot pink lipstick kisses, and my grandmother would collapse on the couch as her housekeeper Mildred cleaned up the kitchen.

There was, of course, football on TV (although Jews do not, as a rule, play football, they do watch football), and over the course of the evening, dress clothes would be put away in favor of casual (and loose) clothing. Often, we would walk the short distance to Ashtabula’s main drag to watch the Thanksgiving Parade, including (in a cultural twist that made perfect sense in the context of my immediate family) the arrival of Santa in his sleigh.In later years, my father and I would take long walks after dinner, both of us quiet types who were a little jangled after the hours of sound, high-intensity interaction and rich food. We talked about all kinds of things on those walks, and for an adolescent girl there is no better thing than a private hour with an intelligent, attentive father in the cold air and solitude of a winter walk. We returned to the crowded house refreshed, calmed, and ready to rejoin the political arguments, the football watching, or the debate about what really happened to Frieda’s samovar.

Eventually, we would get hungry again and make a plate of whatever we liked best, arriving at and departing from the dining room table alone or in groups like some time-lapse documentary about The Life of a Table. Only my grandfather was exempt from the traditional post-potlatch culinary diaspora; my grandmother always made him a Nice Brisket Sandwich from some mysterious and never-ending source of perfectly cooked brisket. He was not a fan of turkey.

Those Thanksgivings were the celebrations of a family with real immigrants only a generation away from them, demonstrating their gratitude for this country in ways unimagined by the Pilgrims. They were big, warm and delicious celebrations  in every possible way, and there is not a Thanksgiving that I don’t remember those people, most of them gone, and that house, still standing but no longer open to me. Our group is much smaller these days, and the party has moved to my parents’ house; I am now the cook, and Rob has largely replaced Mildred as the clean-up crew. I’m thinking that this year we need a noodle pudding on the table, and to tell some of the old stories after dinner, so that Sam can learn them osmotically, as we did. I am thankful for all of those people, living and dead, who made me what I am, and who live on in vivid memory.  I think they’d all agree that a rugged band of Hungarians and Russians whose children and grandchildren have married every possible variety of Not Jewish can permit a little Chinese Ancestor Worship.

I take that back; they wouldn’t “all agree” about anything. It was against their religion.

http://youtu.be/8vWKJbQT06o

Raw

I am alarmed by suggestions that I am handling the loss of my mother with anything approaching grace. I worry that there may be people reading my words and thinking that they should be all philosophical, and find silver linings when they are doubled over in pain. I worry that I am, by shaping my stories to reflect the highest and most presentable of my thoughts, creating guilt in fellow sufferers.

So this time, I will try harder to tell the truth in its most raw and unfiltered form. This is just a report from the trenches. There is no tidy wrap up at the end. If you are looking for that, for some kind of reassurance, I am not your girl today.

Five weeks ago tomorrow, my mother died. Last night I found out that my father’s cancer has returned. There’s more, but the other stories are not mine to tell. These are heavy things, and by last night I was crushed by their collective weight. I went to work when I should have taken the day off. I went to work because I’m worried about losing my job, and because there is always this brisk, loud and unwelcome Puritan in my head prattling about bucking up, doing the needful, and being a Good Girl. I should have throttled her. I should have taken the day off.

So after work, physically exhausted and not really in my right mind (assuming that such a thing exists) I decided that my situation called for certain numbness. Food usually works, but I was absolutely not hungry. Besides the which, my refrigerator is filled with leftovers from Monday’s memorial service, and there was an irrational wrongness in using that food to throttle the Puritan and numb my grief. This grief, you see, refused to be contained any longer by the benisons of lovely manners and native stoicism. It leaked every time I had a moment’s pause, tears flowing, breath ragged, pulse racing.

So I decided that I would get drunk. This was problematic for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that I don’t ever drink, and don’t tolerate alcohol very well. I tried, though; I mixed myself a vile combination of Crystal Light and Jack Daniels and drank it all, remembering every story I had ever heard or read about the moment when alcoholics began to feel calm, steady, and generally better.

There was no click. I did not feel drunk, numb, or better. I felt as sad as I had felt before, with the additions of nausea and a death-dealing headache. I will tell you, because we’re being honest, that in those hours I thought about how it might be okay with me if I died. Nothing intentional, nothing that would upset my family inordinately; I would just make a mistake – take some pills on top of the alcohol and slip away from this brutal, vicious mess. I’ll tell you something else: I took one of those pills you are never supposed to take when you’ve been drinking. I took it to fix the headache. I was pretty sure that enough time had passed that I would not stop breathing and die, and I was also pretty sure that more than one pill would be required to knock off a person of my size. But I wasn’t completely sure. It was my own little game of roulette, a private thing in my head as I lay on the couch not laughing at TV comedies and leaking eyeliner-black tears.

So much for grace. There’s really no need to monitor me or send me for counseling. It was one wretched evening, I’m better today, and maybe most important of all I think that what happened was perfectly normal in the course of coming to grips with a shit storm of loss, terror, readjustment and the terrible fatigue that comes from being well-mannered and stoic when the soul requires nothing so much as an epic tantrum followed by cocoa and a reading of “Goodnight, Moon.”

(That was a really long sentence – clearly part of the revolt against restraint and convention. Next thing you know, I’ll be splitting infinitives and using “task” as a verb).

I just wanted you to know that while it often suits me to portray myself as a smooth, marble bust of Calm and Hope in the Face of Grief, I am frequently more like an abandoned scarf unraveling in a puddle of dirty water. Not smooth, not calm, not hopeful, just pathetically floundering around, not showering, watching hours and hours and hours of whatever appears on the television and eating dry cereal out of the box at 2:00 in the morning.

And if that’s where you find yourself, I’m right there with you.

And, probably, I love you. Because all of us living raw need to stick together, and make each other cocoa and read each other “Goodnight, Moon.” Because otherwise, this world is just intolerable.

 

The Year of All Good Things

This was supposed to be a great year. According to me, anyway. It was the year I turned 50, the year my house turned 100…what appeared to be an auspicious, glorious year of celebrations and milestones observed with love and care. Those numbers seemed to mean something, to be a sign, as if I were an ancient parsing the phases of the moon or the turning of the tide. There was some cosmic order, and as far as I could see in January, that solid and reassuring order would stand as bulwark against disorder and pain.

From January through March my father fought cancer. There was surgery, radiation therapy, exhaustion and irreparable alteration. We adjusted as well as we could. In April, our old dog died. It was not a terrible death; she died at home, where she felt safe, in my arms. We were sad, though, and there was a hole where she had been. A month ago my mother died, again, not a terrible or shocking death, but leaving an even greater hole. The night before her memorial service yesterday, we learned that the wife of my parents’ best “couple friends” had a brain tumor. Before, and in between losses there were a million tiny paper cuts of failure, injustice, and unkindness. It was just life, really, it’s just what happens, but it began to feel like we were living in a country song.

“Gloom, despair and agony are me/Deep dark depression, excessive misery/If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all/Gloom, despair and agony are me…”

So the Year of All Good Things has fallen and shattered like a cheap, plaster statue and I’m sitting at my desk listening to the saddest songs I know, worrying about what I need to glue together in the next month and a half. Like Thanksgiving. Because really, I don’t care about Thanksgiving this year, but I feel obligated to carry on. Will my father want to celebrate his birthday at the end of this month? What about my mother’s birthday on December 14th, and Hanukah, and Christmas, and why do I have to be a fucking grownup and keep everything going and be sensitive to everybody’s assorted needs and be polite and good and do laundry and peel potatoes when all I want to do is take Xanax and lie in my bed in a sort of twilight sleep, letting someone else do all the heavy lifting?

What if what I really want is to have my mom back? Because frankly, if you knew her, and especially if she was your mother, you’d want her back, too.

And of course I do, and of course this is all Normal Grieving, in the clinical sense, and of course it happens to everybody and of course no two people grieve the same way, and unfortunately I live in a culture that is uncomfortable with grief. I can get all warped and bitter very quickly projecting this dour assessment onto everyone I see: he thinks I’m milking it. She was back at work three days after her husband died. Everyone else can just Get On With It and I am some kind of immature emotional cripple who fails to process in a timely and acceptable manner, crushed by waves of sadness when I should totally be peeling potatoes.

But then there are these things, call them grace, silver lining or cosmic alignment – they are good things. Because my father was so sick in a hospital 60 miles away, I spent hours in the car with my mother driving back and forth, listening to Pete Seeger, talking about Obama’s chances, people we knew, books we had read. Because Maisy died, we adopted Guinevere who is a magnificent addition to the family. Because my mother died, I have reconnected with my only two first cousins, who I really, really like and would choose to befriend without a single blood tie. Not just in a Facebook way, but with real hugs and laughter and the promise of more. And, because they are her brother’s children, and she adored them, I know that my mother would love that.

So as I sweep up those crumbling bits of plaster, wishing just a little that I had worn waterproof mascara, I can see some gleaming patches of hardwood beneath the mess. It looks solid, and seems more trustworthy than the beautiful illusion that was The Year of All Good Things. It even kind of reflects me as I am right now: a mess, a work in progress, a woman in need of some potato peeling vigor and some twilight Xanax sleep.

A human, just another human, caught up in the irrational maelstrom that makes a mockery of our firmest plans and still offers us much that is wonderful.

When my brother told me my mother was really going to die, that there would be no amazing reprieve this time, I got the answer to a question I’d been asking most of my life. I always wondered if, when my parents died, I would pray, talk to God, and find some comfort in something outside myself. It was the worst thing I could think of, the death of my parents, worse for me than any physical threat. As a small child I stood at the window and wept if I heard sirens when they were out for the evening, convinced that they had been killed. The loss of either or both of them, although inevitable, was the hardest thing imaginable, the complete destruction of all that I believed to be stable and good.

It was never clear whether I would be atheist or believer in that unavoidable foxhole of loss. My spiritual life was shaped by my believing-but-not-very -observant Jewish mother and my lapsed Catholic-turned-atheist father. My brother and I experienced everything from Passovers, chopped liver and menorahs with my mother and her family to Catholic mass with my father’s mother. We received information about religion and spirituality that was contradictory,non-directive and honest. Organized religion, according to my father, was the root of most of the evil and suffering in the world. He believed that “religious” people unwilling to question doctrine, or to offer real help to those in need were sheep and hypocrites. He also took my grandmother to mass every Sunday, and genuflected before entering the pew at her funeral.

My mother believed in God, and she placed great value on keeping Jewish traditions and history alive. She was also as open and ecumenical as my father was not; in the later years of her life she and I discussed everything from Jesus to angels. She and I shared the belief that faith can be a great blessing, but that religion was absolutely not essential in raising moral children who felt a duty to serve. My brother and I turned out pretty well, we are both personally and professionally dedicated to helping other people, and we did it all without threat of hell, excommunication or judgment of any kind. We did it because our parents modeled it, demanded it, and made us want to be good people.

Left to my own thoughts and choices, I experimented, sampled, and studied. I believed there was something greater than our little lives. It could all be a series of accidents from The Big Bang forward that created the beauty of spider webs, seashells and snowflakes. Everything could be science, all gravity and stardust and evolution. I believed in the scientific facts, but I, personally, wanted something more.

So I flirted with Catholicism, Judaism, Wicca, some vague amalgamation of Taoism and Other Asian Stuff. I joined a Protestant Church, of which I am still a member, and while I love the community, the good works and the exhortations to follow Christ’s example, it was only a couple of years before rebellion stirred. I had problems with The Bible. I loved the language and poetry in The Old Testament, and there were lessons of universal usefulness in both Testaments. If everyone actually did the stuff Jesus said to do, we would have peace, justice, and enough love and food and support for everyone on earth.

On the other hand, I did not believe in many of the stories in The Bible. I think they are exquisite metaphors, but then you get into the whole business about whether or not you have to believe them literally to be a “real” Christian, and the whole “literal interpretation” thing makes my stomach hurt and causes all kinds of harm throughout the world.  A lot of the contents of the Bible also seem calculated mainly to terrify people into behaving morally, and I think people should behave morally because it’s the right thing to do. I am horrified by dogma, and depressed and discouraged by the internecine squabbles within my own church and the entire world of organized religion. I don’t believe in heaven. (And I’ve tried). I just don’t. I find it hard to understand why we would spend our lives on this beautiful earth trying to get someplace else. I envy people who believe in an afterlife where we are reunited with our loved ones, because it is a beautiful idea that gives great comfort. I don’t think it’s silly, I don’t judge it, I just can’t quite get there in my mind.

When I found Buddhism, it fit like an old slipper. It made sense, and it focused on presence and compassion instead of dogma. There is dogma, and a lot of theology, and different branches, and you can worship gods and goddesses, and follow lots and lots of rules…but none of that is essential any more than confession or tithing is essential to following the teachings of Jesus. It’s stuff humans made up to accomplish their own goals. “Buddhism is a religion which teaches people to ‘live and let live’. In the history of the world, there is no evidence to show that Buddhists have interfered or done any damage to any other religion in any part of the world for the purpose of introducing their religion. Buddhists do not regard the existence of other religions as a hindrance to worldly progress and peace.”

The basic belief of Buddhism is that life is suffering, suffering comes from attachment and desire, and the way to end suffering is to extinguish attachment and desire by following the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is basically being a good human being, with an emphasis on peace, compassion and awareness; it’s entirely compatible with the morality rules of most other religions with rather less crime and punishment. You can be a Christian who meditates, a Muslim who believes that your charter is compassion, or a Jew who believes that all we have is this moment, now, this breath, this sky, this soaring joy or stabbing grief.

And as it turned out, the answer to the question “what will I do when my parents die?” was answered with effortless grace. Sitting next to the hospital bed as my mother’s breaths grew farther and farther apart, I held her hand and found that I had focused on my own breathing. When I breathed in, I imagined myself drawing in her suffering, her fatigue and her long struggle. When I exhaled I sent her a wave of peace and. It was a version of Buddhist Tonglen, or “giving and taking,” and for hours I did nothing more than sit and breathe as she breathed, not begging, pleading or clinging, simply focusing on her transition.

There may be atheists in foxholes, but apparently I am not one of them. During those last hours, I believed that the universe breathed with me. It was neither the stark atheist nothingness of stardust and gravity, nor the embrace of some omnipotent God.  It was current of love and humanity that flowed second by second, like the air beneath a leaf or a river in its bed, connecting us as long as we were both breathing, finally trailing off to leave me fully alive, present, and at peace.

 

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