Posts Tagged ‘aging’

A yahrzeit candle burns on my counter today, a gesture borrowed from my fabulous former spouse’s traditions and one to which I have gotten quite attached. Today is the 45th anniversary of the mother’s crossing. As I’ve aged, the tumult of this day has diminished and now it more likely and more often leaves me reflective, cresting gently over waves of questions for which I have no answers.

What little memory I retain of her is captured in Urban Tidepool. It is comparatively short, bittersweet, and shadowed by tremendous loss about which it almost never felt appropriate to speak. As a young person, I became acutely aware of how answering any question about her could bring a conversation to a standstill. Some families don’t discuss death easily. Some families and other folks struggle even harder to discuss the loss of a parent with a young child, to help it make sense (don’t worry, it doesn’t), to offer some kind of comfort. Kids pick up those cues sometimes easier than adults think they do, especially the sensitive kids. We understand that it makes conversation easier if we simply don’t speak of those topics, so adults don’t find themselves scrambling for what to say and fearful that they’re about to put their foot in their mouth. Not wanting to create that awkwardness, wanting to protect remaining parents and other people around us, we learn quickly not to bring it up.

Traveling that path myself in the years following, I found the sudden stall of a discussion painful. I found the expression—THAT LOOK—on some grown up’s face unbearable. It does not occur to a seven year old brain that you, yourself, have not caused that stall or that look. Both the stall and the look are byproducts of the fact that we simply don’t discuss death easily.

I am glad to see that some schools have moved away from the practice of “Make this card for your mother for Mother’s Day”. For the first couple of years after her death, my teachers would dutifully do the art class on the Friday before Mother’s Day and deliver that directive.  I would sit there, clutching my crayons like prayer beads, staring at blank construction paper.

“Draw a picture of you and your mom doing something you like to do together.”

My wheels would turn.  Was that based on how the mother could move around before she got sick and the doctors taped her insides to her outsides and she couldn’t really do much? Sometimes it was hard to hug her. If I hugged too tight or at the wrong angle, I encountered a rubbery bag attached to her stomach at just about the level of my head and we all knew right from the moment her insides got taped to her outsides that we had to be super careful how we touched her so we didn’t hurt her or tear the rubbery belly-wanna-be off. Should I draw a picture of trying to hug her? How would I draw a picture of that THING, whatever it was?

Eventually, each teacher realized that I was sitting there like a deer in headlights and offered this suggestion, in an effort to be helpful. “Make a card for someone you think of like a mother”. Usually there were a couple of sidelong glances from other kids sitting nearby—I was the only freak who didn’t have a mother.

That early, I was a pretty decent rule follower even though I was a terrible artist, so I complied, and drew something with a vaguely female stick figure and a shorter, gender non-specific kid, and put some check mark birds in the sky and a big sun, and usually a flower or two.  I don’t remember that I ever identified who the “someone you think of like a mother” was.  Other kids took their check mark birds and stick people home and usually taped to them to the front of their stick-figure refrigerators. Mine usually went in the trash as soon as I was out of line of vision of the teacher.  You cannot patch the bleeding mother wound by making a card for someone else on Mother’s Day and it was torment to be expected to do so.

One of the most difficult things as I aged is that I have almost no independent memory of what she looked like. I can bring up images of her face, yes, but they’re images that I also have on film in an old box somewhere.  It’s not the same as being able to remember her face on my own.

Several years ago, I watched a great Mitch Albom movie called For One More Day. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that a man has a car accident while on his way to kill himself and in the space where he exists while waiting for the paramedics, he lives an entire day with his mother who had died years prior. I loved it. When the movie ended and I was getting ready for bed, I observed, “Wouldn’t it be weird if that happened? I mean, it’s been so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize her if I got to see her again.”

My dream that night started out in one of my favorite locations—I was in a library. There was a man there with me. I knew the man just well enough to feel comfortable with him and chat.  He asked me if I would go somewhere with him and it was easy to agree, feeling that comfortable. We traveled. It was not a linear travel where we progressed from the library to our next location, but more of a whirring, things-got-blurry and then we’re at our destination kind of travel that dreams are good for.

Our destination was the house I grew up in, where I have not lived for 35 years. It looked exactly as it did when I was a kid, and not as it does now, having driven by it a few summers ago. My travel companion and I stepped inside without knocking. No need to knock. We were going home. We crossed the enclosed porch and stepped into the living room, through the heavy, varnished oak interior door that still had Venetian blinds with maroon webbing covering the single window. Up one step. At that point, my travel companion nudged me to go further and he was going to stay in the doorway.

I took another step into the room. Straight ahead of me, past the furniture that wouldn’t have been there anymore, stood both parents on the opposite side of the dining room table. I noticed it was the old dining room table, the one we had in the house when the mother was still alive, not the one we replaced it with when I was in the sixth grade.  The father stood in front of the picture window that overlooked the concrete pad that passed for a backyard in our neighborhood. The mother stepped away from him and came right up to the edge of the table on her side.

Ignoring my travel companion, I approached the table from my side of the room, keeping it squarely between the mother and me. At the time of this dream, she would have been gone probably 37 or 38 years. The father would have been gone 27 or 28 years. She stood for a moment, then leaned down and rested on her elbows on the tabletop, never breaking eye contact with me.

I had forgotten that movement. She used it when her back hurt, leaning over to take the weight off her spine. I hadn’t thought about the simple position and the tilt of her head and the way her one hip raised when she bent down because of her scoliosis for probably three decades.

Neither one of us moved. Neither one of us spoke. Our eyes locked and I could see every line of her face. I saw and remembered a little mole. She didn’t have to say anything. Just staring at her face, seeing her eyes…she had beautiful eyes…I felt a rush of warmth like I have never experienced. So loved. So known. So THERE.

When I woke, I thought I might lose the dream, as some of them do have a tendency to get fuzzy and fade away the next day. That hasn’t been the case. I’ve retained this dream in detail for years. I retain the image in detail and I fear less that I wouldn’t know her if I, like Mitch Albom’s character Chick Benetto, got a chance to spend another day with her.

There are still questions, as I said. I would have liked to get to know her as a person. Parents aren’t really people when a kid is 7. I would have liked for her to get to know me as a person. I would have liked to create memories, not live through a lifetime with only memories.

I wonder if we’d have been able to hang out after dinner sometimes and have coffee. But not that nasty instant stuff. Yuck.

I wonder if I could have stopped by and visited with my dogs.

I wonder if she would have liked if I cooked for her and brought her stuff from my garden.

I wonder if she would have emailed.

I wonder if I could have told her about my job and the amazing kids I work with and the incredible staff people I’m surrounded by and if she would have known how lucky I feel that this has been my path without her.

I wonder if she noticed when I threw those drawings away in the early days.

Sometimes I wonder if she would know me after all of these years—the days of being a skinny 7 year old with perfect vision are almost a half century behind me. At those moments, I take out the dream and I revisit our old house in South Philly and I look into her eyes and at every line on her face. I crest even more gently over this question because now, down to the bottoms of my socks, I do know the answer to that.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

Now she sat up, drawn and bony, but alert. She looked at me with an expression I didn’t understand. “Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in the drawer there.”

I found tangerine Lifesavers in the nightstand drawer and unstuck one from its litter mates. It hadn’t even fully dissolved and suddenly it was time to go. I wanted to hug her, wanted her to hug me. There were bars in the way, and beyond the bars, tubes and wires connected to big, beeping machines.

My “Bye, Mommy,” was soft, carried on a wave of tangerine Lifesaver.

“Bye, baby. I love you,” again with the expression I didn’t understand.

We returned to the routine of news over the phone or what the father brought home after a visit. Chick and his family left for Virginia. I missed the mother so much there weren’t words for it. I could probably count on one hand the number of nights I hadn’t slept with her in the past couple years. The bed was big and there was no one on the sheepskin mat to call me Grasshopper at the end of Kung Fu or hold my hand while we watched Twilight Zone.

My cousin David and I scraped up enough coins, literally overturning couch cushions to find them, to buy a packet of flower seeds at the corner store. We scratched at the compacted dirt in what passed for a garden in front of our house—an ugly dirt square surrounded by an uglier hedge—gouging out the shape of the letters in her name. When she finally came home, there would be flowers blooming in the shape of her name. Anne. It was my name too, but everyone called me Nancy. We dumped hundreds of tiny seeds into tracks we made with a table spoon and pushed spoonfuls of dirt on top of them. We didn’t know to water them.

… Who knows what was said for the service or even the eulogy? I huddled against Pat and focused on not crying. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) Bye, Mommy. (“Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in that drawer.”) I stared at the casket, set in the center aisle, covered with flowers and the singularly absurd thought struck me that I’d never see her again. We had said good bye.

A few rogue tears escaped. Nauseated and fighting tunnel vision, I followed the casket back out of the church when it was over, Pat holding my hand again. On the periphery, my classmates stood like fun-house mirror shapes, still staring. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) I couldn’t look back. How could they not stare? How could they comprehend this? How could any of us? (“Bye, baby. I love you.”)

Bye, Mommy.

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When last we parted company, starfish supporters, we were chatting about my dubious status as an athletic carbon-based wonder and my adventures in the marine world that left me with seaweed down my Tweedle Dum pants and arguing with the control panel of a nervy lap pool that had just blown my board shorts off. My aquatic prowess  is impressive. I move like a manatee with a hangover. The fact that I also move like that on land is worthy of its own post sometime later. In the meantime, there was another topic that occurred to me to explore with y’all.

Today’s post won’t apply to all readers.  Please take what you wish and leave the rest here.

This whole aging process is a kick, turning into an adventure in and of itself, wondering what my body will (or won’t) do next. I’m fascinated by the fact that no one really tells us what to expect as we move up in age. I think we’re supposed to absorb that information by observing folks around us who lead the way.

I became suspicious that aging was sneaking up on me one morning when I peeked in the mirror and noticed that the lines I’d seen on my sister’s neck  had mysteriously crept into my house overnight and attached themselves to MY neck. Alarmed, I called her to ask if hers were missing and did she want these back. Always the colorful character, she responded with, “Up yours!” and hung up on me.

The day I glanced down at the steering wheel and saw my father’s hands instead of my own almost caused a five car pile-up.  At first, I thought I was stuck in A Tale from the Crypt, but then realized A) I probably read way too much Stephen King and B) it was just my new friend, the aging process, making itself known in another way.

Now, gardening season is almost upon us. There’s nothing I like better than gardening season. I’m ready. Tiny green things? Put me in, Coach!  Oh wait. I’m going to need a nap first. Until August.  That should do it. It will also make for the shortest gardening season in history. But true to my South Philly roots, if I have to participate in this whole aging thing, I plan to channel the old Italian man who lived down the street from me as a kid. It will require growing roses and then yelling Italian swear words at anyone who gets close to them. “Youse bleeping kids! Get away from my bleeping roses! Bleeping move! Now, bleep it! BLEEEEEEP!”

This messes with your hearing, for sure. People I used to speak to regularly now mumble. To get even with them, I’ve just stopped speaking to them. That’ll learn ‘em. My sister used to accuse ME of mumbling. Now I know what she meant.  Now that we really can’t hear each other, we talk much more often! No, I have no idea about what. Was that a requirement?

It messes with your sleep too. I have all the energy in the world at 3 am and then look and feel like something the dogs dragged in out of the rain at 3 pm. I noticed that as my sleep changed, everything got on my nerves. On my last nerve. In fact, my last nerve was writing advance directives, it was so bad.

A couple of years ago during a conversation with one of the Youth Outlook staff, I found myself thinking, “Go ahead. Keep talking to me and I’ll rip your lips off your face.” I didn’t SAY it. Just the fact that I was thinking it, though, struck me as odd. Who talks that way to that staff person? She’s one the kindest people on the planet. Wow, that sleep disturbance thing can wreck your whole decade. I mean, day. Day. Yeah. Day!

I did eventually mention these odd occurrences to my doc. She laughed. I was not in a laughing mood, given that last nerve writing its advance directives mess. When she stopped laughing…and I do wonder about so many of my health providers having to stop what they’re doing because they’re laughing too hard to continue…she announced, “Oh honey, you don’t have to put up with THAT. I can help you.” That was when I started taking a sleep aid which has created a subplot of adventures all by itself. In the truest sense, yes, it does help me sleep. It’s what I do WHILE I’m sleeping that is of some concern.

Last summer, I went to bed one night and awoke about two hours later. Or at least I thought I was awake. Apparently I also thought it was a good idea to go on Facebook. I don’t know exactly what I was trying to do but I ended up going on to the page of a new acquaintance, capturing one of her photos, reposting it on my page and giving it a status update of “Feeling Fabulous!” Mind you, we were not Facebook friends at the time and I have never in my life used the words “Feeling Fabulous!” as a complete sentence.  The next morning, my phone blew up with texts from friends all over the country. “Who is that?” “Why have you been holding out on us?”  “Who’s the chick?”  I had no idea what they were talking about. Who is who? Holding out on what? What chick?  Because knowing  the photos I normally post on Facebook, we were probably talking about an actual chick. Yellow. Fuzzy. Cheep cheep. You get the picture.

When I went on Facebook to find out what people were talking about, my hair caught fire. Aaaaagggghhhhhh!!! No! No! No! Abort! Abort! I couldn’t message the acquaintance fast enough and fall over myself trying to explain that I was asleep when I did it. Thankfully, the new acquaintance had a good sense of humor and no harm, no foul. The phone needed to sleep in the kitchen after that.

I can’t say the same for that morning at the conference. Last fall, a group of Youth Outlook folks went to a training that was to last two days. Halfway through the first day, the facilitators informed us that there would be a meeting for all executive directors at 7:30 am on Day 2. Oh no. No no no. That’s not do-able. My job is mostly afternoons and evenings and has been for twenty years. I don’t do 7:30 am meetings. No coherently, anyway. I looked around the room and all of the other EDs were nodding yes, of course they’d be there. It seemed a normal request for them.

Not wanting to be the odd man out and very much wanting to do what I could to support my team in this training, I decided I’d have to take the hit and go to the morning meeting. I’d have to time when to ingest my sleep aid so that it would be cleared out and I would be coherent. Coherent is so encouraged in these jobs. Go figure.

So I did. I timed it, got in bed early enough for it to wear off before I needed to get to that meeting. The next morning, I woke up early, knowing I need at least one hour with my feet on the floor before I feel fully alert. I showered, made some in-room coffee, and got dressed. I even managed to dress myself like an executive director. I was on target to get to that meeting on time. The last stop was to pop into the bathroom and brush my teeth before exiting the room. And I promptly brushed my teeth with the estrogen cream in my shower kit.

I guarantee you, it does not taste like mint.

I did still get to the meeting on time, but the entire time I sat there, I wanted to turn to the man from Ohio sitting next to me and drag my tongue up his sleeve to get the estrogen cream taste out of my mouth.

I’ll have you know that at NO time did my doc call that day and tell me, “Oh honey, you don’t have to put up with THAT!”

Unruly neck lines. Tales from the Crypt hands on the steering wheel. Sleep Facebooking. Estrogen toothpaste. There is a LOT to put up with as we age and so few of us see it coming.

What did I come in this room for? BLEEEP!

Probably the most unfortunate thing of all is what my new friend, the aging process, has done to my hair. No, I don’t mean just that it has gone grey. I can live with that. My brother, The Major, had gone entirely white in his late 40s and he looked like a testy Santa Claus. (And he never had the chance to brush his teeth with estrogen cream, dammit!) It’s the OTHER things that this has done to my hair that I hadn’t counted on. For instance, I’ve always had the father’s hairline. Too bad I got the mother’s hair to fill it in, but there’s nothing to do about THAT now. His hairline shifted as he aged, invading lower on his temples until it started to fill in, which is the reverse of how I’ve understood that hair is supposed to behave. I’ve noticed mine doing the same thing, but sadly, it’s doing that at the same time that my eyebrows are greying out and getting harder to see, while the lowering hairline is more pronounced. Yes. It is unusual. It looks like a small stampede of confused fuzzy brown caterpillars fleeing up my temples with one albino caterpillar with alopecia bringing up the rear on either side.

A friend introduced me to one of those neat “color in your eyebrows” magic sticks last year.  I think I got it right. I had to blend the whole front of my head, and that took about two hours so I missed the engagement I was getting ready for, but when it was done, my caterpillars were even and in the right places and I looked smashing…as I spent what was left of the evening feeding popcorn to the dogs and watching Netflix. But my eyebrows were fabulous.

Older friends have teased me for a while about if I was to grow a beard or not. I waited for this alleged beard to arrive and finally came to the conclusion that it might be the only factor of my new friend, the aging process, that I might not have to deal with.  Until that memorable night I was driving home from work and a tractor trailer fell in behind me with its blare-y white lights. I happened to look in the mirror at him but where HE was suddenly was of no interest. I had never had a reason to have such glaring light behind me. Now that it was there, I realized I wasn’t growing a beard—I was growing fine, blonde muttonchops, and when backlit, I could pass for Ambrose Bernside. Or a bleeping Founding Father.

There are a lot of things I’ve aspired to in life. A Founding Father hair-do was never on the list. Actually that’s more like a hair-don’t. For now I will just marvel at it. I have to. I am an aging carbon-based wonder.

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