I had grown accustomed to the scene. Mealtime. Wheel chairs in place. Vacant stares. I dreaded going but couldn’t stand the thought of Mother eating all her meals there on her own. Barely. Eating I mean. Getting the fork to her mouth had become a great struggle. And forget the soup. It utterly baffled me why the dietician did not provide finger food instead of relying on utensils that had long since lost their usefulness. The fingers still worked and were the preferred method for most of the residents. Politeness? Table manners? I understand wanting to hold on to every shred of dignity one can for the elderly and infirmed, but for some, including my mother, the coordination of getting the spoon up from the table, into the cup, scooping the liquid and then expecting that spoon to make it into the mouth with anything left in it was an unrealistic expectation. Her inability to accomplish this task concerned me because of its domino affect on her nutrition. So I showed up for meals most days. Good thing I did that Sunday. Mother had been placed at the special table with about eight other residents where extra staffing was available. The caregiver would circle the table and assist with each bite throughout the meal. This had been a relief to me. Help with meals. On this particular Sunday, I was late for lunch. I walked through the door and immediately noticed that mother looked strange. Her eyes were “popping” and she was slumped more than usual in her wheel chair. I looked down at her plate and saw part of a peanut butter sandwich. My mind began to race – peanut butter to a woman who can barely swallow? I looked at Mother. She was silently choking. And then, just as I had been taught to do with my toddlers, my finger formed into a hook and I whisked it into her mouth and throat. Out came an enormous, mushy glob of peanut butter and bread. The caregiver saw my alarm and joined me by slapping Mother’s back until she finally coughed up the remaining bites. In the circling, feeding routine, apparently the caregiver had forgotten to look to see whether my mother had actually swallowed the previous bites. Who knows how many times another piece of that sandwich had been shoved into her mouth? I held a glass of water to her lips so that she could sip. I hugged her and she whispered a very faint “thank you.” Flashes of lucidity would occasionally cause me to question the Alzheimer's diagnosis. I wheeled her from the table and took her into her room where I sat in her yellow armchair, holding her hand, looking deeply into her eyes, yearning for a conversation with my mother. And then, very, very slowly, Mother began to lean forward in her wheel chair. With each lean, I leaned closer to her – she kept leaning in, so I kept leaning in until we were practically nose to nose. And then, very gently, she kissed my lips. It was a little wet and very soft. The sweetest kiss I had ever felt. And I knew right then and there that she was saying goodbye to me. She died ten days later after taking to her bed. The peanut butter sandwich had been her last meal. And that kiss, was the last I ever received from my mother. But it lingers still.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Why must the captain go down with the ship?
I come from a family of survivors.
Though the Titanic sank, I grew up with that story about my
Aunt Ida Strauss
Mother told the story of how Ida loved her husband so much
she refused to get into the life boat.
A love as deep as the ocean that became her grave.
Is this heroics?
Where is the line that separates one from the other?
Loyalty from lies?
Denial from hope?
Why must the show go on?
What if Ida had gotten off?
I might have been spared this legacy.
And what about my grandmother who sailed bravely from Panama thrice widowed
with two little girls
one of them my mother
who told the story of how, once settled safely with family in Cincinnati,
she was put into boarding school
but no she did not feel abandoned by three dead fathers and her
When does denial become pathological?
When does strength become suppression?
Why do it the company way?
Why tow the party line?
Don’t air your dirty laundry.
Don’t tell our family business -
speaking of which
It might have survived after daddy dropped, had Mother been less sentimental and my brother more realistic.
But into the drink it went right along with the ship
and so did we
And what about that unopened video tape, “AIDS, What Is It and How Do You Get It?” I found on the floor of my brother’s closet when boxing up his life?
Denial disguised as secrets.
Lies clocked in nobility.
Silence mistaken as loyalty
brings down countries, companies, families and ships.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Air Meets Water:
The warm, tropical, humid Hawaiian breeze stirred in the palm trees. Blissfully ignorant, I sat gazing at the pounding surf. Little did I know how quickly this calm would escape me. Swimming with sea turtles, lounging on rafts, snorkeling over coral reefs and kicking with fins through the green waves brought a renewed patience within myself. I was slowing down and just being. Ruah, the breath of life, moved through me. I was grateful for the gift. Would I be able to bring this feeling full circle after flying back to my real life?
Water Meets Earth:
The ocean has always been my solace. I return again and again and she, like an old friend who has waited patiently for my return, welcomes me. Her primordial waters encircle me like the womb of my mother. At the end of the earth, I swim to her, buouyant and weightless. This ocean, with its tumultuous moods, peaceful calm and pounding surf will be my grave. The earth erodes into the sea. And I will swim eternally in her embrace.
Earth Meets Fire:
It was the flatness of her voice and the silence that preceded it that struck fear in my heart. Something was wrong. I know her too well not to detect the nuance of unspoken dread. And then the grave report: "I had a bad biopsy." My heart thumped and the fire of rage consumed me. Her voice, crackled with forced optimism. "We are thinking positively." All I could see was the brown dirt of grief, again. The ashes of a life, again. Only this time, it was Peggy. Life is relentless, I thought. It has only been two years since I stood by as the jagged flames of the oven consumed Mother's body in its fiery cremation. Fifteen since Bob's ashes were placed into the earth next to Jamie's tiny coffin. And twenty-seven since Daddy led the way that August morning in 1981. This time, I fear, I will not have the strength to walk across the red hot coals. No. Not this time. This time I will fight. You will not take her from me. This time you will lose. Not me. The white sands of Hawaii seemed a distant memory and my old friend grief welcomed me home.
Fire Meets Air:
It had been a day of dread. Mother's cremation. As I awoke that morning, I knew I had to go. I called the funeral home. They advised against it. I insisted. I wept. How could I not be there? I had been born from my mother's body. Hers was the first touch I had known. She had cradled me, stroked me, caressed me, protected me until it was I who protected her. Wiping her. Washing her. Even brushing her dentures, something I never thought I could do. On this day, that body would burn to ashes. Dissolved in grief I searched for a sign. A lone pink camellia beckoned me. Mother's favorite flower. I clipped it from the stem, wrapped a wet paper towel and foil around the bottom and left the house. I drove through my tears along the tree-lined street alone in my mother's Buick. And then just ahead there appeared two large birds with wide wingspans. They may have been hawks. They flew just in front of my car, soaring through the air. And I knew I had a sign. There were my parents, reunited, dancing, soaring freely after twenty-five years of separation - together, leading me to the crematorium. I placed the camellia on my mother’s chest and kissed her forehead. They closed the cardboard coffin and slid it into the oven. They waited for me to give the o.k. to push the button. I nodded. It would take four hours for her tiny body to be turned to dust. But I knew, her spirit soared.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Don’t tell me not to wait for the other shoe to drop.
In my life it always does.
And it has
I don’t want nor need this lesson
Don’t tell me to look on the positive side.
I don’t need coaching.
I know the drill.
I’ve withstood plenty
earned my stripes
so don’t tell me it’s all going to be o.k.
o.k. would be that it not to have happened at all.
In my story
life doles out snippets of respite
moments to come up for air
not for too long
the other shoe.
I stand in the middle of the room
with no one to call
I would call her
this is happening to her.
life comes into sharp focus.
I don’t need this lens
I’ve looked through it plenty.
The waves of the North Shore that come only in winter
wash over me this summer’s day.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Some vacations are thinking vacations where one contemplates the meaning of life amidst baroque architecture, while immersed in the art and history of the region. Vacations like my trip to Prague where I had the epiphany about being an artist and re-committed myself to writing and creativity. This has not been one of those vacations. This has been a non-thinking, certifiably non-intellectual, vegging-type of vacation where I have been stretched to think one single deep thought. In fact, the deepest thought I’ve had all week is whether or not to have another Mai Tai. I’ve stared at the aqua-green- blue ocean while planted in a chair I bought at Cosco before hitting the beach. I’ve snorkeled coral reefs and watched a sea turtle nibble from the rocks occasionally popping his head out of the water to peruse the tourists flapping around the water in rented fins and masks. The one historical site I visited was Pearl Harbor. I was deeply moved by the Arizona Memorial and the seemingly endless list of names of those on “eternal patrol”.
But mostly, I have stared at the ocean and tanned my skin beneath the intense Hawaiian sun. Writing has been a challenge. Empty headed, lacking a vocabulary and a single original thought, all that swims in my head are palm trees and the Waikiki skyline. This has been a ridiculously relaxing vacation. Arguably undeserved. Definitely a gift that fell into my lap thanks to my friend’s impromptu invitation. Tomorrow I head for home and I can’t wait to be with my family. But for today, my last in paradise, I’m headed for a Lomi Lomi massage at the Kahala and maybe I’ll think about having one last Mai Tai.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Waiting for a story in Hawaii. Having now committed to a regular writing practice I am finding that I am looking and listening for stories everywhere I go. The weather, the rainbow, the coarse sand and rocks on my tender feet, have the potential for story. The tropical air with its touch of humidity and occasional rain shower are all potential stories. Conversations with strangers have the potential for story.
Last night we had an animated conversation about baseball and the challenges for kids who might want to pursue a career in professional sports. The story there for me was how similar the parental concerns are for athletes as they are for actors. Applause, the lights, the status in youth can leave an intoxicating and unquenchable mark on the impressionable, talented, rising star. Parents, coaches, and teachers all have to help keep a young person’s feet on the ground and provide the balanced guidance required to navigate the treacherous line between false hopes and youthful dreams.
This morning we had coffee on the beach at 6:30 in the morning with a group of people who live here part time in the summer. Here is Kahala Beach on Oahu. The Emperor and Empress of Japan are staying next door at the Kahala Beach Hotel. Needless to say, I think we landed in some nice digs. Talk turned this morning to the real estate bust and the underlying greed that got us to where we are. One person remarked that the problem went back to the 1970’s, another said it goes back to post World War II and the GI Bill that allowed vets to buy homes for no down. I disagreed. I know this is how my parents got into their first home. I cannot equate in any way, the men and women of the “Greatest Generation” with the greedy Wall Street tycoons of 2009. What is missing today is the moral compass that guided our parents and grandparents. There was not an expectation of wealth and privilege – there was no sense of entitlement among those returning from Europe and the Pacific. There was a work ethic and appreciation for the potential they had to make their own way. Nothing was handed to them as it has been to this current generation. I sipped my coffee, gazed out at the shimmering ocean through coconut palms, thought of my parents and smiled.
Perhaps subconsciously I’ve made a connection between World War II, the Japanese Emperor next door and our upcoming visit to Pearl Harbor. Funny the things we think about when on vacation, far from home and family. It is one of the great benefits of travel… My parents and brother were at Virginia Beach on December 7, 1941. There is a picture of my father, handsome in a fedora, holding baby Robin as he was called then, with my mother looking tailored in a suit on that fateful day. A black and white photo that tells a story of the beginning of a defining moment in our history. I remember the stories of my parents moving the crib away from the window and the black outs at night, the fear of attack or invasion. It would be eighteen years until my birth – at the tale end of the Baby Boom generation and sixty-eight years until my visit today to Pearl Harbor on July 15, 2009. And the story continues.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Aren’t we sixteen
with long hair
Firm breasts in halter tops
Tanned skin and pooca shell necklaces?
Aren’t we sixteen
on the beach
Bodysurfing the wave
Calling “outside” and swimming with one fin at Doheny?
Aren’t we sixteen
with firm legs
Flat stomachs in bikinis
Eyes for the cute surfer with zinc oxide on his nose?
Aren’t we sixteen
With strong arms
Gidgets paddling our way through the surf
Dreaming of what the night would bring?
We are fifty
On our way to Waikiki
Mid-way through life
with prescriptions and sunscreen
We are fifty
With children well past sixteen
An extra lap
And skin to spare over the knees
We are fifty
With age spots where freckles once were
Gray where the blond streaks once shone
And bi-focals to read the map
We are fifty
The bonfire of youth still burns
A blast at the beach
Honolulu will never be the same.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Little did I know I was in for an epiphany right there in the old town square in Prague. I was on a Franz Kafka walking tour with a few other tourists from England. The tour guide was telling us that Kafka only left Prague once in his life to go to Berlin with his wife. He returned to Prague shortly after and never left the city again. He was a tortured soul – working for his father in business. But Kafka was first and foremost a writer. He never published anything he wrote in his lifetime. In fact, he instructed his friend, Max Brod to burn his writing after his death at the age of forty-one, an instruction not followed. As I listened to the story of Kafka’s struggle with the writing life, I took in the historically ornate buildings around me. Prague, with its own tortured history, is emblematic of the strange tension that resides in so many artists’ souls – that is the tension between beauty and despair. Prague is a town brimming with artistic genius. Music pours out of the churches – organ concerts and Mozart’s Requiem – creations from another world - clash with the popular culture of the twenty-first century. Prague, the town of the Velvet Revolution and Vaclav Havel, spared bombing in World War II by Hitler because of its beauty – even that a shadowed piece of history, is a city with an identity crisis. It seemed fitting to me that Kafka would have come from this place. As I walked along the cobble stoned streets and crooked buildings, I was moved by the idea that one could spend an entire lifetime in such a small area. Where stimulation fuels creativity, imagination must take over when travel and adventure are lacking. The mind is indeed a vast resource – how else could Kafka have written Metamorphosis ? And then my epiphany. One of my fellow tourists remarked as we walked along, “why would anyone keep writing if they aren’t ever published?” And right there under the windows of unseen ghosts, I said to this stranger, “Why then, you must not know what it is to be an artist.” I pondered my response, alone in Prague. I sat at a café and pondered what I’d said. Do I know what it is to be an artist? I pondered as I sipped Czech beer and ate goulash. I pondered as I crossed the Charles Bridge between the line of carved statues toward the immense castle looming on the other side. This city, hauntingly beautiful, became a living, breathing symbol for my own stunted artistry. “What am I waiting for?” I asked myself. Kafka wrote because he had to. That’s what writers do. An artist must produce his art regardless of pubic acclaim or it will not exist. It must move from the heart to the page in order to be. And I pledged then and there to produce my own art in whatever form it would take. I promised myself that I would fearlessly create because otherwise, as Martha Graham says to Agnes DeMille if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. And I recalled my favorite passage in Virginia Woolf’s To The Light House;
Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was, her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
It is this that I wish to be able to say on my deathbed.
A mother’s work is never done. Parenting “adult” children can prove to be more challenging than the “terrible two’s.” We live in a different time now. Every generation says so. But ours, at fifty, includes two wars, an unprecedented economic crisis and our college-age “children” facing an uncertain future. So it made complete sense that the army recruiter’s offer of a clear path to the future with promises of “seeing no action” and a “signing bonus” would tempt my best friend's boy-man son of eighteen. A future that would strike terror into any mother’s heart, regardless of political bent or patriotic leanings. As it did in the heart of my best friend. And so as she prepared for the recruiter’s visit, she swept the floor, stifling tears of rage and fear as women have done for generations, burying their heartache in housework. And she dug through pictures of her son’s life carefully framing them. Little League, first day of school, graduation, the high school prom – photographs of the milestones in a young life. “They’re coming with their ammunition,” she told her son as he took in the shrine on the dining room table. “This is mine. I want them to see what they are taking from me.” She probed his reasoning. Pouring over the four-color recruitment brochure she asked him to tell her what in the list jobs he was interested in. He couldn’t say. She asked him to name three other things he’d like to do with his life right now other than join the army. “Use your imagination,” she urged. He couldn’t say.
“Not knowing what you want to do is no reason to join the army.” She said. “No one knows what they want to do at eighteen.”
“At least finish your education," she argued. "At least then you would enter as an officer. Then, I would support your decision. But not like this. Not now. This isn’t child’s play.”
She didn’t know whether her words had made any difference. With the awkward tenderness of a boy of eighteen, he told her how much it meant to him that she cared so much. He was visibly moved by his mother’s plea. He canceled the recruiter’s visit.
I sat, listening to my friend’s story, my heart bursting with pain and pride. Mothers still weep while generations of children go off to war. Somebody has to do it, it’s true. But no one can blame a mother for trying to save her child’s life. With the Herculean strength of a desperate mother lifting a car off of her baby, my friend showed her son that a mother's love knows no bounds.
(An excerpt from Amy's memoir ARIAS )
Her breath was barely audible. It had been three days since they began the morphine. During those hours, praying by the bedside of my dying mother, I sat as she seemed to greet invisible visitors. With an “other-worldly” gaze, she stretched out her arm, reaching to someone, would gasp and smile – sometimes exclaiming in surprise, “hiiiiiiiiiii”.
Mother had secrets. She had been married once before Daddy and had successfully kept it from me until one, hot, deserty afternoon I interviewed her about her life for a grandmother remembers book and she stumbled over the details of her wedding day. “Where were you married?” I asked. “Richmond….Roanoke….Richmond….uhhh.”
“You don’t remember where you were married?” I asked. And then with a sheepish look like a naughty child, she confessed her sin - that she had been married once before to a man named Ed Smith. A big, Catholic church wedding in Cincinnati, Ohio and Daddy had been the best man. She admitted that she’d done it intentionally. She’d always wanted Lee and eventually got him. Ran off with him, two years later, with the blessing of her mother. She divorced in Reno and then, Lee and Elsie, married in a courthouse, in Richmond as it turned out.
Mother’s white, freckled skin, paper thin and marked by bruises and the battering of old age had always been rough and scaly. Ireland would have been a better climate with its mint green hills and misty, moist rain than the hot, yellow sun of California.
She loved feeding the birds and as I sat listening to the gentle purring of her last numbered breaths, I saw my mother on the front porch on Resh Place in a floral house coat, tossing stale bread into the air for the crows, whom she considered “pets”. Mother and the birds. Her yard filled with the music of birds chirping in the lush bushes of her yard - it is why I sang “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins at her funeral.
Mother, five feet two and three quarters at her tallest, now lay in bed, a tiny, diminutive frame less than ninety pounds, her body used up – the last of life squeezed out of it – wife, mother, homemaker, businesswoman, child – we’d reversed roles some time ago as the dementia stole her reason. She sometimes called me “Mom”.
Longing to exorcise the demons of her soul, the guilt of having broken Catholic dogma, obediently staying outside the church, denying herself Communion because of the sin of divorce, I called upon the priest to administer the Sacrament of the Sick. With the ritualistic oils, sign of the cross and crucifix, not unlike the ring of garlic used to fend off evil vampires, with the absolution and forgiveness of her sins and the promise of life ever-lasting, my mother died.
ALB June 2009