Sep 20 2011

Bidding Adieu

I’d pass the tailor’s shop every day, on my way to the bus or the metro, or to school to get the girls. He’d wave at me and step out of his shop into the street, looking a bit like Burt Lancaster as the old Doc in the Field of Dreams. His greeting was always accompanied by a sparkling-eye smile and polite cheek-to-cheek kisses, softened by his long, white beard. As warm as he was, he retained an old-world formality. He always used vous and insisted upon calling me Madame, no matter how many times I begged him to use my first name instead.

This man, Monsieur Atlan, touched me in rather intimate places. Being my tailor, he was obliged to pinch and tuck at the curves and bends of my body. He always did this with care and respect, bordering that sensual territory that is often present between a man and a woman, especially when his fingers are dancing around her waist checking for a proper fit. Yet there was never a hand misplaced, never an inappropriate gesture or remark. He’d pin everything perfectly and stand back and give me a genuine compliment, “Vous êtes vraiment belle,” and while it was an admiring comment, it had no charge. I was safe in his hands.

Comme ça?” he’d say, looking into the mirror at me, gauging the length of my pants has he folded and pinned them. Then he’d draw his fingers up the outside seam of my leg, to the waist. “Ici, ça va?” He’d pull the belt loop, revealing how much room gaped at the top, pinching it in and pinning it to show me how it would fit properly. He’d thoroughly inspect the entire garment, not satisfied to merely shorten the length to fit with my new shoes, but to be sure it fit perfectly at every seam, zipper, button or stitch.

Once I took him an old coat, a cream-colored leather-looking vinyl number, a hand-me-down from a friend who worked in the fashion industry. She’d clean out her wardrobe every season and pass some pretty fabulous things on to me. After years of loving wear, the silk lining had started to shred into strips. I wore it anyway, but not without occasional embarrassment. When I noticed a client eyeing the inside of my coat as I stretched my arms into its sleeves, I knew I had to take it to Monsieur Atlan.

He surveyed the coat carefully, taking his time to admire the workmanship of the stitching on the outside, nodding, approvingly. When he saw the inside he dropped his arms in despair at how I’d let the lining go. “Can you replace it?” I’d asked. “Mais oui,” he said, but the coat had to be cleaned first, and not just at any cleaner. “Most of them are thieves,” he said, picking up the phone and calling his preferred dry cleaner to say that I was coming and to please turn the coat around quickly and give me a fair price. Then we had a lengthy discussion about the lining, its color, pattern and the quality of material. As usual, what I’d hoped would be a 5-minute errand turned into a 25-minute in-depth discussion. But this was always the case with Monsieur Atlan. He wasn’t just a tailor, he was my tailor and he took seriously the job of taking care of my wardrobe. I think everyone who went to him felt this way.

His shop was a mess of material and thread and ancient sewing machines and an old-fashioned ironing stand. I’m sure it hadn’t been dusted or cleaned in years, you had to remember not to put your clothes over the bar that held the changing cabin’s curtain, the dust that had accumulated there would rub off on the very item you’d brought him to repair, or you’d walk out with a gray line across the front of your clothing. But as haphazard as his housekeeping may have been, his sewing was meticulous. And when you came to pick up whatever garment he’d repaired, you couldn’t just skip in quickly and grab it on the way home. He’d stop whatever he was doing to show you with pride the detail of what he’d done: the extra stitches he’d put in to reinforce it, or the care he’d taken to fix it from the inside. It was obligatory to admire his fine work. This wasn’t hard to do; he could fix even the most impossible garments and make them fit like a glove. Monsieur Atlan repaired more of my retail mistakes than I care to report.

Most of all, he loved my children. When I was pregnant, there was nobody in the neighborhood more thrilled to hear the news. He was certain of the gender, telling me each and every time I saw him that it would be a boy. When the second baby was apparent he made no further predictions, but doubled his enthusiasm. He marveled at Short-pants and Buddy-roo as they grew up walking down the street in front of his shop. He’d step out and beam at us as if we were his own family, repeating his mantra about how good health and the love of your family are what count the most. “La santé et l’amour de la famille, c’est principale.”

He was loved by everyone in the neighborhood. This must have sustained him when his health failed. Last winter he was diagnosed with cancer, what type was never revealed to me. He turned gray and hollow and though he worked as long as he could, soon he couldn’t and the occasions I would see him were only when he happened to be visiting the shop and by chance I would pass by.

“It’s a real battle,” he told me, “without your health.” He shook his head and his words trailed off. I finished the sentence for him, “but you have our love, c’est principale.”

His eyes still sparkled at that.

Last week a sign on the shop, which has been boarded up for most of the summer, announced a memorial service for him at the temple just across the street. I knew this was coming, it wasn’t a shock. Still I could not contain the tears as I stood on the street and read the words on the sign, again and again.

So much has changed in our neighborhood. Too many services and locally-run stores have moved away, forced out by high rents and the chain stores that have become, unfortunately, signature shopping in the Marais. Monsieur Atlan’s little old-fashioned shop and his thoughtful, attentive service remained steadfast as the neighborhood shifted from eclectic and ethnic to chic and trendy. His departure is another step away from the authenticity that was the hallmark of the quartier. I’m going to miss seeing him on the street. I’m going to miss his conscientious care of me and my wardrobe. I’m going to miss his warmth, his smile. But I won’t forget Monsieur Atlan, and I won’t forget his wise words: Your good health and the love of your family, c’est principale.

Jul 25 2011

Missing Terribly

They removed themselves from the dinner table while De-facto and I lingered with our wine. One washed the dishes, by hand, in the low sink that breaks my back but perfectly suits their half-sized bodies. The other dried the plates and glasses and put them away. They chatted and sang, laughed together in the way of intimate friends. Once the dishes were finished, they retired to the other end of the long main room of our country house.

Short-pants sat on the couch and opened one of the 17 books she received for her birthday. Hunched over, she fell into the pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If I’d wanted her attention I’m sure I’d have to call her three or four times to pull her out of the story. Buddy-roo elected to sit in one of the child-sized plastic chairs and then she, too, opened a book and began to read. She is not an avid reader like her older sister, but when she reads its with full concentration, carefully enunciating each word out loud. I know she prefers the medium of cinema and video so I’m careful not to nag her to read. But when she gravitates to a book on her own like this, I feel supremely satisfied.

I made a mental note of the scene: the two of them with their heads bowed as if in prayer, plunged into the world of words and stories, the rough stone wall of the country house behind them, the backdrop of a perfectly serene moment.

This is when it feels good to be a mom. When you know they’ve been running around in nature all day, galloping through forests and fields, hunting for blackberries and running down the road to visit the lambs, spending more than half the day outside in the fresh air, using only their imaginations to play, and to top it off their after-dinner the activity of choice is to sit with an open book and read. This is when mothering feels satisfying, when for a slight moment I think I might even be a little good at it.

This is also when I think if only my mother could see them. There are too many mental snapshots of the girls that I would paste in an album dedicated to her. The last lucid sentences from my mother, before she stopped talking and later stopped breathing was a lament that she wouldn’t get to see the girls grow up. “I’m so curious about who they’ll become,” she said.

Already they’ve grown so much, I know she would be tickled to watch them, to see their distinct personalities emerging, to witness their passage from little girls to big girls and, soon enough, to young women. It just doesn’t seem right. She should be seeing this. She should see them now, and later. She should see them grow up.

Some days, surprisingly, it doesn’t cross my mind that she’s gone. She was never the kind of mother that demanded front and center attention. She never railed at us for not calling or coming to see her. She was busy enough herself and appreciated – even applauded – that we had busy lives, too. She never required our daily concern, not until the very end, and even then she was probably the most independent patient in the history of hospice care. That I might pass a day without thinking of her isn’t so surprising. It’s that when I do think of her, nearly every day, it smarts. I’m still startled that she’s gone.

My thoughts of her are often funny, like a silly memory of a family joke and I can see her sitting at the head of the table laughing or rolling her eyes in pretend-perturbation when the joke was on her. Sometimes they’re maddening, those reflective moments when I realize I’m more like her than I ever expected I could be. Sometimes poignant, when I’m touched by something I know would touch her, like the vision of her two granddaughters happily reading to themselves. Sometimes it’s just wishing I could see a unread email message from her, bold and bright in my in-box, with news of her travels or a question about the girls. That was our day-to-day banter, and I miss it.

I wish she were still here. I wish she could see them, know them, watch them, love them as they grow up. Maybe wherever she is, she’s doing all that now. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s terrible that she’s missing all this, and that I miss her, terribly.

Feb 7 2011

Not Deleted

I could attribute the start of this blog to a bad idea: it wasn’t too smart to help De-facto rip up that old carpet, especially just after running a 10K race. When my back went out, the doctor ordered bed rest and I was horizontal with my laptop for three weeks. To relieve the nerve-wracking stress of the Obama vs. McCain race, I scoured the internet in search of political perspectives and predictions and in doing so I learned the protocol of the blogosphere. I forged further, beyond political content, and encountered a whole variety of blogs: some charming, some ridiculous, some hilarious, some rife with typos, some even murderous (death-by-adverbs). Others poignant and personal, wordsmithed with beauty and vulnerability that moved me to tears, making made me wonder, could this be a place to play, in the genre of the literary blog?

There was much to learn about hosted and self-hosted sites, themes and widgets, plug-ins and API and php and CSS style sheets. I remember staying up until three in the morning while De-facto and the girls snored in their beds. I’d be typing away or adjusting the sidebar or figuring out how to configure the RSS feed. I experienced the pleasure that comes with feeling your brain grow – learning to do something new, something modern, even. The first post was daunting. Few people read it, and surely nobody discovered it on their own. But now I was out there. I was self-publishing.

My mother visited us in Paris just a few weeks later. She sat at the dining room table and read through the five or six posts I had already published. It’s not easy to watch someone read your work, but she smiled and laughed at all the right places. (You can count on your mother for that.) I had just added the subscription option, so she was one of the first to sign up. Each time I’d post, she’d get the notice and click through, right away. She did so religiously, and though she never contributed to the comments section, she never failed to write me a message after reading a post.

During that same visit, my mother was out of breath, a lot. When I put her in the taxi to the airport, I made her promise to call a doctor as soon as she got home. She did, and that’s how she discovered that she had leukemia.

She lived much longer than the doctors predicted, and with a heightened awareness of each day. This made her appreciate every little thing, including each installment of my blog. I realized, from the messages she sent after every post, that she was coming to know me in a different way. She had never been one to ask questions that would provoke too emotional a response and she was sometimes inclined to change the subject if what I volunteered was too deep. But the blog changed that, or maybe her perspective shifted when she knew she was dying – whatever – it all came together to create a bond between us that lived in the lines of every post, a long story about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my life in Paris, told bit by bit. It was not what I had intended, but the blog had become a vehicle for a final narrative from me to her. And she read it. She read every word.

Months went by and I did not mention her illness. It felt too private, and it was hers, not mine. But I knew it would help me to write about it, so I sent a draft of a post to my mother to ask her permission, which she gave readily. Later, during those icy winter days of her hospice, I wrote about her dying and about her death. I wrote about my grief. I wrote about cleaning out the rooms of the house she inhabited for over 50 years, and gradually emptying the memories of my childhood. I wrote about it all, right here, on this blog.

Last summer, a thoughtful friend posed the question: Did I have someone in particular in mind when I sat down to write a post, or was I thinking about a group of readers? He blogs about rebuilding a vespa, and when he’s writing a post, he said, he has his dad in mind. I told him about how I’d come to realize that I was writing to my mother, but that now that she was gone, I really didn’t know to whom I was writing anymore.

“What makes you think you couldn’t you still be writing it to her?” he said.

~ ~ ~

After she died, I directed all the email from her server into my computer so I could unsubscribe her from the e-newsletters and mailing lists, and catch any stray correspondence that needed closure. For months I monitored her mail, fascinated by what came in to her inbox, an eclectic mix of investment briefs, political news, digests from the various on-line groups she’d joined. Sometime last fall we cancelled her email service, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete her account. It’s grayed-out and receives no messages. But I’ve left it there.

Her email address remains on my subscriber list, too. Each time I publish, a notification is unsuccessfully sent to her no-longer-in-service account, disappearing somewhere in the ether. Whenever I’m doing housekeeping tasks in the dashboard of my blog, I tell myself I need to remove her from that list. But I’ve not yet found a way to put a check in the box before her name and press delete.

Losing friends and family has stages of heartache. Who knew that deleting an email address and a phone number and those last electronic points of contact would be so hard to do? I know there are legacy services that save all your on-line profile data and passwords, so those surviving you can easily shut down your active participation in the world wide web. But that doesn’t help friends and family who still have that data stored in address books and friend-lists. Maybe there needs to be an electronic cemetery, where we can drag and drop those details with some ceremony. Then we could send flowers and e-cards. Think of it: a whole new industry of condolence e-commerce.

~ ~ ~

It was a year ago today that my mother died.

I thought about her a lot last weekend, marking the entire series of “lasts” that preceded her final breath. Those slow, quiet, waiting days are forever fixed in my memory. It so happens that my sister was in Paris, so we raised a glass together. My brother and I spoke on the phone. He said it seems like it all happened just yesterday, and at the same time, wasn’t it forever ago? Friends of my mother sent gentle emails; I’m stunned that they remember the date as precisely as we do. I wonder, have they deleted her email from their address books yet?

This blog, it turns out, has been a little bit of medicine. It set me to writing, on a regular basis. It refreshed the parched pages of my journal. It buoyed my dampened, unpublished spirits. In a way I never expected, it drew my mother closer to me during the last months of her life, and it keeps her near now, because I can still write to her, and I do. She’s gone, but not deleted.

Dec 31 2010

A Year, Defined

Her coughing echoed off the walls of our hotel room. Just as I’d doze off, Buddy-roo would cough again, violently, waking herself up, and keeping De-facto and me from any semblance of real sleep. Only Short-pants, who could sleep through a train wreck, got any shut-eye.

The cough started last weekend, on the tail end of a mild cold, a typical flight-path for this kind of winter malady. Here is every parent’s dilemma: hover over your child and rush her to the doctor every time she sneezes?
Or help her gut it out because, usually, a little TLC, tea and honey and homemade chicken soup will let it run its course. It’s never comfortable, but kids get sick – everyone gets sick – and you get through it. Of course, Short-pants once had a cough and flu-like thing that turned out to be a brain abscess and required surgery and six weeks in intensive care. This could have turned us into full-fledged helicopter parents. We’ve tried, very deliberately, not to overreact to subsequent illnesses based on that experience, which was a statistical anomaly. I’m kinda proud of that.

Why is it that a child’s cough or cold always gets worse the day just before a holiday weekend or in the middle of a vacation? It’s like they wait to get really sick until your trusted pediatrician is out of reach or until you’re in a strange place where you can’t handily call a doctor. Then you wished you’d addressed it when they were just a little sick, except then you’d feel a bit silly, calling your doctor because of a runny nose.

After one particularly severe coughing fit, I switched places with Short-pants (who barely woke up and moved to the other bed like a zombie) in order to be next to Buddy-roo. I wanted to check her heart-rate, to feel if she had a fever, to try to slow her breathing by slowing mine beside her, or at least try to reassure her with a mother’s embrace.

“Mama,” she said, in that sweet middle-of-the night voice, “the coughing is keeping me from continuing the beautiful dream I was having.”

“I’m sorry peanut,” I soothed her, “tell me about your dream.”

“I was standing in the courtyard at school and there was a big white cloud stretched across the sky. The cloud got closer and closer and I saw it was Grammy standing on the cloud in a really beautiful dress with gold wings…”

She erupted into another fit of coughing.

“…and then I stepped onto the cloud, it was soft and warm, and then I had wings and a halo, too. Just like her.”

I’m glad this felt like a beautiful dream to Buddy-roo, but to me it had the makings of a nightmare. Was this a message from my mother or just a coincidence? I vowed to myself that we’d see a doctor, and soon.

During the last week of my mother’s life, we talked about communicating from the other side. “If you can,” I pleaded, “could you tell Short-pants to pick-up her room?” It’s true I wouldn’t mind such a nudge from the afterlife, but the real reason I said it was that I knew it would make my mother laugh – the full circle of it all – and she did. Laugh, that is.

After some back scratching and tandem breathing, Buddy-roo’s coughing subsided and she fell into an even sleep. But now I was wide awake, left to further consider the meaning of her possibly prophetic dream, after which I turned to something I’d been pondering all day: my defining moment(s) of the last year. This is one Reverb10 prompt that I’d considered skipping; I think I’ve written enough about it already. Click on this blog’s dying or grieving tags and you’ll see I’ve documented, explored and exhausted the subject. Even my most loyal readers must be bored with it by now.

But there in the darkened hotel room, pitch black but for one thin line of pre-dawn light where the drawn curtains didn’t quite meet, the rest of my family slept and I ran through it all again, the whole constellation of moments that defined 2010 for me, plotted around the event of my mother’s death.

I remember at the calling hours at the funeral home, when, for a moment I actually stood outside myself, like an observer, watching the scene unfold. I saw my brother, my sister and myself greeting the friends and colleagues of my mother – of both my parents, in fact – who came to pay their respects. There’s a remarkable thing that happens at a time like this, a mutual healing occurs when the people who’ve come to console you discover their own grief and you end up consoling them. I think this is why we have calling hours and funerals and memorial services. Grief has its private moments, but its public expression has a place in the healing process, too.

I saw that somehow, despite our own exhaustion and grief, we’d pulled ourselves together and done what had to be done to move things along, to make all the arrangements, to show up and dig deep and find the words to appreciate each person who’d come to console us. I saw the three of us, doing this just the way my parents would have done it, just the way they would have wanted us to do it. And I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

The defining moment, perhaps, is what happened next, when I realized that I didn’t need to make her proud anymore, and I hadn’t needed to for a long time. I understood, in a deeper way, that it’s about making myself proud – not her, not my father, but me. Or even thinking ahead – maybe it’s a little bit about making my children proud, the way my siblings and I were so very proud of our mother.

What defined me this year was not that I lost my mother, but what’s happened since she died. Not to go overboard here; it’s too easy to canonize her now that she’s gone and it should be said that we had our fair share of frustrating, eye-rolling moments, typical for most mother-daughter relationships. But in the end, we were good friends and we relied upon each other. I’ve had to learn how to be afloat without her gentle ballast in the background, and that is what will define this year for me.

At breakfast the next morning I asked the hotel proprietor to suggest a local doctor. She could, it turns out, and she even made a few calls on our behalf, returning with several options, the best of which was a general practitioner with open office hours until 10:30 am, in the village halfway between our hotel and the ski mountain.

Vous avez évité une catastrophe,” the doctor said, pressing her stethoscope against Buddy-roo’s chest and looking at her throat and ears with the proper lighting. Buddy-roo coughed, violently, and smiled. “What’s a catastrophe?” she asked me, in English. “A big mess, and we’ve avoided it,” I answered. “Is that good?” she asked. I nodded, feeling her forehead.

At the pharmacy I handed over the prescription, waiting and watching as the pharmacist meticulously fulfilled the doctor’s requests, one item at a time. He placed each box of medicine in front of me with an explanation of how much, how often, at what time of the day to administer it. When he put the package of suppositories – for a cough – on the countertop, he must have noticed my expression. “It’s the French way,” he said, in English, smirking at me. I’m pretty sure he never had to administer a suppository to a 7-year old child. If he did, I bet he’d choose another form, despite its slower efficacy.

Our last day of skiing could continue as planned. I was prepared to sit it out in the lodge with her, but Buddy-roo wanted to have another lesson and another few hours on the slopes. At least now she was fortified with some medicine and tonight she’d sleep without interruption. In a week’s time she’ll be fine; already she seemed on the mend. I felt the clouds lifting, rising high and away, and I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

Not that it matters (ahem).

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Kathryn Fitzmaurice: Prompt: Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

Dec 28 2010

Everything’s (just) Okay

For days I’ve been chewing on this one: a moment that offered me proof that everything was going to be alright. I really want to answer this Reverb10 prompt, because it’s a good one, because I like the author, I like her blog and her book, a signed copy of which was among the presents under our tree this Christmas.

Honestly, I cannot think of a moment in the last year when I felt that everything was going to be okay. I can think of many moments like this in my life: for instance when Short-pants was released from the hospital. Even though we had months of physical therapy ahead and our lives were totally bouleversé, I remember the exquisite feeling of relief, pushing her stroller down the central road of the hospital complex toward the main exit; the winter sun low in the sky that was otherwise a flawless blue, literally and figuratively.

But this year, not that things weren’t eventually okay – they are – but I don’t remember ever having that reassuring feeling that they would be. I don’t remember a pivotal stop-in-time moment when it felt like a corner had been turned and things were going to be alright. Mostly I remember feeling like I was drifting from a state of really-pretty-hard to not-awful-but-not-okay, orphaned in my grief, putting one foot in front of the other because that’s what you do; life marches us forward and we manage to keep in step. Pancakes are made, coats are zipped, children rushed out the door and phone calls are made, emails are answered, meetings attended. The industry of being a parent and a professional inches us forward and it’s all like clockwork if you don’t think too hard about it or let yourself feel what’s missing. That’s what the rest of the world expects, not to think or feel too much. Grief is such an imposition, a thing spoken about in hushed tones.

But if you’re like me, and you can’t turn off the ticking thoughts, or quiet that nostalgic heart, it’s hard to answer society’s numbing call to put on a good face and put it all behind you. You do it, but inside you’re trudging along. Yeah, you’re okay, but not really.

I think – at least for me – 2010 wasn’t a year of being alright. It was a year of being rather a bit hard then just being okay. It wasn’t my year, this year. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, I know it could have been a lot worse. There are millions of people in the world who suffer much more than I have. But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that the last year had a heavy cloud hanging over it – at least over my little piece of the universe.

Moving into 2011 isn’t anything but a numeric change; January 1, 2011 is only 24 hours later than December 31, 2010. But somehow the flipping of digits offers a mental satisfaction of a change, a shift, a sense of next. The prospect of a new year means a new start, a clean slate. I will have some one-year anniversaries to move through in the coming months, no doubt, but I’ll forge through them and then, maybe, finally, I’ll have that feeling that things are going to be alright. And when I do, I’ll write about it here.

However, I did share this prompt with Short-pants, who knew instantly what to write. She gave me permission to publish her reply:

I was entering CM1 – the 4th grade – and I was nervous because it was the class that I knew the least about, when you talk about teachers. On September 2, 2010, it was the first day of school and I was worried. I wondered who my teacher would be. When I finally saw the teachers, they both looked nice. My worries escaped from me, suddenly. I knew everything would be okay.

Here we are in the homestretch, winding down the old year, heading into the new year, hoping – and knowing, I guess – that everything will be alright. Let’s hope the new year bring all good things to all of you – to all of us.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Kate Inglis: Prompt: Everything’s OK. What was the best moment that could serve as proof that everything is going to be alright? And how will you incorporate that discovery into the year ahead?

Dec 10 2010

Wise Decision

Employing the word decision could give one the impression that I actually did something to deliberately drive my life forward – or even to the side – during the last year. I didn’t decide much; 2010 was a year when things happened to me. I got pulled into the rushing rapids, and there were no overhanging branches to grab. I didn’t decide to say goodbye to my mother. She chose to stop treatment and enter hospice. I didn’t have to make any decisions; the rest of my life – my family and my work – just happened to accommodate my schedule so I could be with her until the end.

That was in February. What followed, all year, was a whirlwind of one thing after another: travel, work, responsibilities, challenges, burdens, changes, opportunities. Life just kept barreling on.

Never before have I been so behind. Never before have I had so many loose ends waving at me, so many unsorted piles and unattended tasks. The priority duties (for the most part) are (apparently) not overlooked, but otherwise my chin is barely above water. All those photos I mean to scan, those folders I want to clear out, the letters I want to write. That teetering stack of books is ridiculous; I really do want to read them all, but when? The New Yorker magazine arrives every week, I can’t keep up with it. Sometimes the issues stay in their plastic cover, piling up on the table where we put the mail. There’s that workshop I mean to take, the language I want to learn, the instrument I want to play again. The girls’ room is spilling over with out out-of-favor toys and books outgrown and clothes in their drawers that are now too short for them. I mean to spend an afternoon sorting and reordering and making bags of things to take to the French equivalent of the Goodwill. Next weekend.

Life hurls at me its great adventures and its mundane missions and there is all of it I want to do, to taste, to try to manage, to accomplish. I’m greedy about life; I say yes far too often. I overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take. Then I curse all that eagerness when I find myself running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

This could all make me crazy, and in the past, it has.

Sometime in the last few months – I can’t say when exactly, but recently – I decided not to sweat it anymore. I decided to stop worrying about what I haven’t done and what I haven’t (yet) gotten to and to stop beating myself up for it. Remorse is romantic but not terribly productive. In the end, I’ll get to what I get to.

Even before my mother was sick, she used to worry out loud about the backroom. This was the room where she stowed, over the years, her memories, her childhood scrapbooks, college folders, love letters, trip memorabilia and the general accumulation of stuff that one acquires after fifty years in the same house. She didn’t want to burden us with the disposal of those effects. I didn’t want her to worry about this. “Leave it,” I told her, “Go do what’s interesting to you. Travel. Be with your friends. We’ll clean it out later, after you’re gone.” And we did.

If I didn’t want her to make herself crazy about getting everything in perfect order, why would I do that to myself?

This life is the full-bodied one I’ve chosen, wisely or not. Sometimes it rolls in too fast, too large, too much at once. But that’s what it is and I’ll take it. I’ll take as much of life as I can and if I don’t get to everything, if I don’t get it all done, if it doesn’t all fit in the perfect order of my imagined self, well then at least it keeps things interesting.

As for how this will play out? We’ll see.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Susannah Conway: Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out?

Dec 3 2010

Alive as I’ve ever been

Does it sound harsh to say that the moment when I felt most alive – this last year – was when my mother was about to die?

Maybe it was the contrast, life and death standing side-by-side. I’m sure that framed it. But that is not why.

During the weeks leading up to her death, I was home alone with her and very focused on the care she needed. Aside from a few moments to myself, to exercise, bathe or make a quick stop at the public library to go on-line, my days were focused on her. I helped her move around. I helped her get dressed. I made soup. I scratched her back. I answered her email. I wrote, as she dictated to me, two letters that she had wanted to write for weeks but hadn’t gotten to. I held her hand. I administered morphine, kept track of all her medications, noting the dosage, the time, the reaction. I told her stories about Short-pants and Buddy-roo.
I changed the channel. I rubbed her feet. I watched her sleep. I witnessed the end of her life. She did not have to do it alone. I accompanied her.

It’s remarkable, the singularity of purpose that comes at a time like this, when there is no question about what is priority and what is ancillary. There was no “should I do this or should I do that?” The day became a series of small moments of service. There were no distractions, no getting pulled off course because of a pretend client crisis or a drama at school. I was fully present.

When you are present like this, it is impossible not to feel alive.

I can think of other moments in my life, moments when I was present, not pulled into a future aspiration or tugged into nostalgia or remorse. The result, always: aliveness, palatable joy, delight and gratitude for my place on earth. This moment I write of, last year, rivaled those moments in its intensity and emotional alertness. The primary emotion was not joy or glee, but grief. Grief and sorrow.

But if you can step out of the judgment that insists alive must mean happy, then you can see that alive really means feeling. Feeling fully any and every emotion that washes over you and accepting it. Relinquishing control and living it and living through it, thoroughly. That is the alive moment.

Something I find curious this moment (it is not that exact moment she left us, by the way, but a moment at her bedside a few days before) is that my mother was severely hearing impaired, and the details I hold on to are almost all auditory. Silence except for a few distinct sounds: the ticking of the clock on the shelf; the furnace kicking in and vibrating the entire house, even the glassware in the cupboard; the snow-plow scraping the road as it passed in front of our house; the wind-chimes on the back porch, hanging amongst her sheets. The sound of her uneasy breathing. The sound of mine after a deep breath, taken when I realized my breathing had grown shallow. “Breathe,” I said out loud, to myself, not to her.

I knew my mother was readying herself to be no longer among the alive. I held her hand and in my heart, I could feel it hurt. It hurt so much, it hurt like my heart was being carved out of my chest with a sharp knife. I was present, all right, with the feeling, with the hurt. In pain, yes, but as alive as I’ve ever been.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Ali Edwards: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.

Oct 20 2010

Looking Away

“Tell me again about the day Grammy died.” Buddy-roo had crawled into bed and was curled against me like a spoon. I was just falling back to sleep. Her words startled me out of that barely-there-light-doze.

What was it that prompted her, in that instant, to think about my mother? The picture I’ve been meaning to hang on the wall by my bed, the one of mom with a suitcase in hand on her way toward airport security – an iconic pose for her – is still tucked away on the jewelry shelf in my closet, waiting for the perfect frame to be procured. There’s nothing near my bed that would have conjured up her question. I wondered, but opted not to ask. Buddy-roo has the right to think of my mother whenever she pleases.

I repeated the story of that Sunday morning. How my mother was in a bed in her study, barely conscious for days; how her breathing had been irregular but then calmed; how I don’t remember saying this but my siblings tell me I told her the plan for the day is to let go (she was an organized woman who liked a good plan) and how we three sat with her, watching her, holding her hands, comforting her. And how during that one 45-second interval, for whatever reason – to use the bathroom, to fetch a sweater upstairs, to get some more coffee – we’d all left her unattended and she chose that blink-of-an-eye moment to stop breathing. My sister returned, discovered her and called to us.

(I think we are guilt-free about the fact that we weren’t right there at her side when she took her very last breath. We’d been there with her all weekend, in the way we were so often together as a family, in proximity but doing our own thing. None of us were surprised that she stole away while we’d been simultaneously distracted. I’d wager she was waiting for us to leave her alone so she could die in private.)

“But when did they come to get her?” Buddy-roo asked.
“Well, then we called the funeral director and he drove his big station wagon right up on the front lawn and came in to take her body away.”
“But when did they come to get her?”
“It was about an hour after she died.”
“No. When did she go?”
“Well, when she stopped breathing. I suppose that’s when she left.”

Buddy-roo deftly changed the subject, apparently satisfied enough with what she’d gleaned from my explanation. Then, as she does, she moved casually on to the next topic – a movie she wanted to watch, a breakfast request, a story from school. Conversation over.

Today my feet up in the air, against the wall, the cool-down position after a pilates session, breathing in and out as my trainer ran through a relaxation sequence. After whale-kicks with ankle-weights, ab-crunching contortions and dozens of humiliating lunge-squats, it doesn’t take much to enter a light meditation. The scene that came to me, in that state, is one that I see often in dreams about my mother. She is standing on the back porch in her summer robe as I walk from the driveway toward the house. Her body tilts slightly to one side, just like her mother’s did – just like mine will someday – and she is smiling, unconditionally happy to see me.

Then the tears came. They were good and I let them flow and my trainer understood. Later at home I told De-facto who held me while I sobbed against his chest, and he understood. Now in the quiet of my writing studio, I understand what I knew but pretended not to, how impossibly hard it is to grieve when you are busy. The recent respite from travel and work brings relief and rest, but panic as well; grief no longer compartmentalized into 10-minute cubbyholes grows heavy and damp around me.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to frame that photograph of my mother with her suitcase, the one I intend to hang by my bed. It is so her, she is on the move. I guess I learned this from her.

In my studio, on a low table just beside my desk, there is a collection of silver-framed photographs of my family: a portrait of my brother and his wife and children; my sister, sitting in front of the temple of Angkor Wat; my aunt dressed in a stunning red suit. They all smiled for the camera, which means that now they are smiling at me.

Two more photographs that stand on that table. In one, my father is barefoot at the beach. He’d been to a conference on the west coast, his first visit to the Pacific, evidently its call so enticing that he removed his socks and shoes and rolled up his suit-pants to feel the other ocean on his toes.

The other photograph is of my mother, with me. We are walking down the street with our arms around each other. It was taken during the first summer I lived in Paris, fifteen years ago when unbelievably I actually wore short baby-doll dresses with black paratrooper boots. I remember that evening, walking beside her, headed toward a favored restaurant, mother and daughter together. I was sharing my Paris with her.

Why, I wonder, have I chosen to keep and display pictures of my parents in which they are turned away from me? In both photographs, I noticed just today, they are facing the other direction, the back of their heads and their bodies the only reminder I have of them in this room otherwise filled with photographs of De-facto and my children and my family and friends – everyone else gazing straight at me.

Is it easier for me to look at them if they’re looking away?

My father, who’s been gone for over two decades, still appears in my dreams. I wake up happy, delighted for even a brief chance to visit with him in the dreamtime. My mother figures prominently in dreams these days, too, but I wake up sad, wanting more, feeling her absence. I am no stranger to grieving, I know that with time – our old friend time – the heaviness of losing her will dissipate and I’ll think of her without such a sorry weight. Someday I’ll wake up happy just to have seen her in a dream. But how long will that take?

Maybe that’s what Buddy-roo means. Maybe they haven’t come to get her yet – whoever they are, the ubiquitous they, the ones who work in tandem with time and help you let go of the people you love and hold near. When did she go, Buddy-roo? She hasn’t yet. Not until I let her go.

Aug 14 2010

Her Closet

Once I got over the childhood fear of what might lurk in the back of my mother’s closet, it became my preferred place of refuge. When it was bath time (on her schedule but not mine) I’d go there and hide for a moment to prepare myself for the inevitable. When the Edge of Night’s twisted plot was too intense to bear, I’d crawl behind her clothes and pull myself together. If I needed to hide or think or calm myself, or suck my thumb without anyone catching me, her closet offered me comfort and privacy.

I’d leave the door ajar; a band of light across the linoleum floor shed enough light for me to see and meant I was not submerged in total darkness. I’d split the row of hanging dresses apart like thick foliage in a jungle and crawl to the back of her closet. Some of the garments were stored in dry cleaning bags, I was careful to steer clear – the fear of suffocation had been impressed upon me when it came to plastic bags – though I liked the feel of the plastic on my shoulders and sensed that the garments within those casings were her most prized, saved for the elegant occasions when other boxes from the top shelf were brought down and set out on the table, boxes with long gloves, beaded bags and silk shoes.

In the back of that closet I could be alone, but still with my mother. I could slide through that curtain of her clothing and squat in the corner and wait. I was waiting for courage, waiting for affection or just waiting until boredom took over – but while I was there waiting, the scent of my mother surrounded me. I was at home among her lightly perfumed clothes and the mildly stale but not unpleasant smell of her shoes. All the things in this closet were hers: the things I saw her wearing and carrying were stored in this private place, it was her domain but it was mine too, for different reasons. It was where I could return to a silent and simple union with her. I could be embraced by her here, by all her things, even if she was somewhere else.

Last winter I was at home to help my mother for about a week before my siblings joined me to say our goodbyes to her. Each day, the rapid decline of her physical capacity required more from me. I could barely find a moment to dress and brush my teeth between the tasks required to assist her; a nearly constant observation became necessary at the end. One day I felt close to some edge – the edge of exhaustion from caretaking a dying woman; the edge of grief, preparing to lose someone I loved too much; the edge of longing, being too far and too long away from De-facto and the girls. So when my mother drifted into an afternoon nap, I found myself drawn to her closet. I ran my hands across the shoulders of her hanging dresses and blouses. I burrowed through and behind her clothes to the corner of the closet, just like I used to, and with my back against the wall, slid down to sit on the floor, letting the plastic dry cleaning bags brush against me (no longer afraid of suffocation) and permitted myself a short regression to everything that this closet meant to me, to a time when everyone around me was older and larger and their major preoccupation – at least in my view – was to take care of me.

I sat there in the back of that closet for only a few moments, my long limbs fit in that corner less comfortably than they did 40-some years ago. But it was long enough to remember what it was like to feel safe and protected, long enough to let tears spill and let go the mounting pressure, long enough to long for the security that something as simple as a mother’s closet could provide.

* * *

My sister and I just spent a week together at my mother’s house to continue the process of emptying it of her personal effects. We have purposely not rushed this process, knowing that grief takes its time and we should too. Yet we know better than to lose momentum, so each month my brother, sister or I (or some combination) travel to the house and endeavor to empty a few more boxes, to give away and throw away a few more things, to prepare the house to be shown to prospective buyers and ultimately to be sold.

The focus of last week’s trip was rather specific: the closets. I had partly to clear out the paraphernalia of my own past. I’d left in her care shoe-boxes filled with letters to friends from summer camp, high school and college folders, and several stuffed animals about to lose their stuffing. But the real task was to address my mother’s wardrobe. For six months we had left her things hanging, but now was the time. My sister and I stood side-by-side in my mother’s closet, touching each and every article of clothing, recalling the occasion when she wore this suit or that sweater-set, remembering how she’d had this skirt made from silk she bought on that trip with the two of us. Once in a while we were even a little surprised at what we found (wow, she owned a leather jacket?) but mostly we were reminded of her good taste and how careful she was to take care of her beautiful garments.

“What are your tears like these days?” said the woman who we’d been told to call to come and take away my mother’s clothing. How naturally she broached the subject, knowing that tears can vary in nature and degree over time. She did not insult us by tiptoeing around our grief. This made it easy to trust her. She gently directed us to attend to other tasks in other rooms while she set about quietly emptying the contents of all my mother’s closets. We did not have to watch her pulling out the hangers and folding our mother’s clothes into black plastic bags. We did not have to help her remove these items that we treasured too much, that held in their fabric too many precious memories. Her discretion was a delicate gift. She was like an angel sweeping in to do the hardest job, and somehow finding a way to take tender care of us while doing it.

After she left, I stood at the door of the closet, emptied of its contents. The shelves were bare. Only a few stray hangers remained. The row of hanging garments that once buffered me from the rest of the world had been dismantled. I stepped in and closed the door behind me, leaving it ajar to let in the familiar strip of light. I swear I could still smell my mother in that closet: the faint hint of Shalimar, the familiar scent of her worn shoes. Was that for real, or just in my memory? Does it matter? As we give away the things that were hers, we commit them to our memory. And our memory of her is something that we’ll always get to keep.

Jun 1 2010

Spilling Over

On Sunday, my children saw me for the first time in ten days. They ran to me with that amped-up fondness that the heart manufactures during a long absence. Into my arms they flung themselves and I received them with equal exuberance, only I held on a little too tight, a little too long, a little too fierce. Quickly they were wriggling to free themselves.

“Happy French Mother’s Day!” They sang this out in unison, prompted, I’m pretty sure, by De-facto who, having made very little of the American Mother’s Day earlier in the month, hoped to make good. Last week’s school art projects helped the cause: Buddy-roo proudly handed over a large blue envelope she’d made that read bonne fête maman! Inside, a picture of a flowerpot covered with sparkles, and a poem, copied meticulously, no doubt, at the behest of the teacher after she wrote it in perfect penmanship on the chalkboard.

Short-pants had crafted, in her class, a small box out of construction paper. Inside it there were tiny notes with micro-messages, mots doux as she called them. “Maman, mon coeur,” or “I love you night and day.” Sweet words, indeed, scratched out in her familiar pen. These hand-made gifts so precious, so heart-felt and so tear-inducing. Damn it.

“Why are you crying?” Buddy-roo asked. Before I could answer, Short-pants chimed in. “Because she’s happy and sad at the same time. Right maman?”

I guess I’ve said that before.

These days tears are everywhere. They reside barely below the surface, wherever I turn. A group of scientists discuss new ways of visualizing biology in order to better understand it, and I’m a little choked up. Thirty strangers sing happy birthday to me, I press the tears down. A liberated Alice returns from the Underland at the end of an in-flight movie and I’m hunting for Kleenex. My Pilates trainer urges me forward in grueling sets of 8 and 12, I’m concentrating to hold the tears in, at least until the workout is over and I’m on the stairs outside.

A taxi drove me to attend a meeting yesterday at an address that I, too, was unsure of. I was dropped at the wrong building, which – no surprise – put me on the brink of tears. Hold it together, I counseled myself. Running mascara has very little professional merit. The receptionist assured me it was only a ten-minute walk to the other #163 Quai-de-Whatever, where I wanted to be. So I walked. On the way, a man dressed in white painted an iron fence a shade even whiter. Does he still have a mother, I wondered, and does he think of her often? A hundred meters later, under a trestle, I passed a hooker wearing short black shorts and an ankle-length black leather coat that flew open behind her with every step of her stride. She smelled of liquor and hair spray as she went by. How about her mother?

Everybody had a mother, at some point. Every time I look at anyone I pass, I wonder, do they still?

Thoughts rush by on a train of remorse. Why didn’t I spend more time with her this last year? My week-long visits every-other month were a stretch to make happen at the time; they seem pathetic in retrospect. Now that my mother is gone, now that I can’t ever visit her again, isn’t it ludicrous that I didn’t go every month? Or that I didn’t just move in?

I run through the last week of her life, a string of images are frozen in my mind: watching her dress herself slowly and carefully, laughing because it was taking so long. How she sipped her special juice drinks with a straw, but elegantly. As she weakened, how she would regard herself in the mirror, as if she did not recognize the not-well person she had become. This image is especially strong because I, too, was in it, off to the side, watching myself watching her talk to her own reflection. “I don’t know how to do this,” she whispered. “Neither do I,” I’d said, unable to contain the tears. But she didn’t cry about it. Ever. At least not in front of me.

This morning my daughters’ longer-and-lankier-than-ever bodies were nearly impossible to stir, their jet lag, now a week old, as fierce as mine is after just returning a day ago. Buddy-roo grumbled and stretched and turned to the side, “scratch my back.” I caressed her, urging her, gently and then more rigorously, to wake up and rally for the day. I went to rouse Short-pants, who sweats in her sleep. I pulled the comforter off her shoulder and swept the damp hair off her forehead. Her sleep was deep, but when she saw it was me, she jerked her arm from under the covers and wrapped it around my neck, pulling my head right up to hers. It was a strong, firm grip, very deliberate.

“You can take your time letting go,” I told her. So she drew me in closer, even tighter.

Tears. Again. My emotions spilling out like an overfilled tank. Or to draw a truly sad and timely analogy, like an oil spill. No small trickling here. Rather a fountain of feelings gushing out because of some sloppy fissure; messy, embarrassing, uncontainable, washing up on the shore for everyone to see.
I have an odd and eccentric empathy for those BP engineers. Some spills are not so easily contained.