Aug 19 2011

Sand Wishes

If she were alive, my mother would have celebrated her 80th birthday today. Short-pants left her a message in the sand, made with love.

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.

May 17 2011

The Naked Truth

“Why are you all laughing?” The guide looked around as the group of 9 and 10-year olds congregated before the naked statue. The children giggled again, like Munchkins. She persisted, in a high-pitched voice, with her mouth shaped like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “Mais pourquoi vous riez?”

She explained that Rodin, like many sculptors, had carved nudes in order to portray the power of the human body. “If this statue were clothed,” she said, “you wouldn’t have the same sense of its power, would you?” The childrens’ heads turned side-to-side in a definitive non; they were obliged to agree with her.

I do appreciate the guide’s attempt to confront the children’s nervous laughter as they stood in front of a nude statue, but her manner was a bit patronizing and served only to fuel it. Couldn’t she remember what it was like to be ten? When body parts were all a big mystery? Or was she born a docent, immediately sensitive to all sophisticated artistic notions and nuances?

When I saw the note in Short-pantscahier de correspondance soliciting parents to accompany the field trip, I wondered whether the Musée Rodin was one I’d choose for a group of students that age. Rodin is a favorite of mine; his work so sensual, approaching the erotic in a tasteful, artistic way. At an earlier time of my life, this museum was the kind of cultural excursion I’d suggest to someone whom I hoped to know as a lover. I think maybe the last time I was at the museum was just before I seduced De-facto.

But hey, I’d rather my children learn about love and lust from art than from some mysterious link on Facebook. Plus I was curious how it would be handled, so I signed up to accompany the class.

~ ~ ~

Last weekend, we were heading down the stairs, on our way to a Wizard of Oz rehearsal, when Buddy-roo gave me her most impish look, a knowing, coy smile out of the corner of her eyes as she gazes up at me, slightly embarrassed but with a sense of superiority woven in. I know this look. Something interesting usually follows it.

“Do you and Papa do the sex?”

I love the use of the definite article. I’m not sure if this is a translation from French, where some words have definitive articles that wouldn’t in English, or if it’s just a quirky thing she picked up from talking about it in the courtyard with her school mates, which is where she says she first heard about the sex. I think De-Facto and I should start using it, too:

HIM: Would you like to have the sex now?
ME: The sex? Sure!

It’s not the first time she’s asked this question, so she wasn’t asking because she didn’t know. She just wanted to talk about sex. Rather than risk dismissing her question by referring to our previous discussions – I want her to feel like she can bring up the sex with me anytime she wants – I answered her as though it were the first time she’d asked.

“Tell me, what does it mean to you, to do the sex?”

Her answer, through a sheepish grin, “it’s when you get naked and you kiss.”

“Oh, well yes, Papa and I have done that.”

“There are two kinds,” she said, switching on her authoritative voice. “There’s the sex, and then there’s the sex at the beach.”

A pastel-colored drink with a miniature umbrella came to mind, something with a sugar-induced headache the next day. But I asked for clarification.

“Well, it’s when you get naked and go swimming,” she said. And then, after waiting a moment, “Have you and Papa…?”

I nodded – not too vigorously – but affirmatively.

She covered her mouth with a curved palm and giggled.

~ ~ ~

When it comes to handling questions of a sensitive nature, I try to use plain language, keep answers simple and address only the question that’s been asked. “Did I really come out of your belly?” is answered with, “Yes.” There’s no need to explain how a baby got in or out of my belly – unless someone asks. Once Short-pants did ask, and I told her a woman’s body changes in amazing ways when it’s time for a baby to be born, everything stretches to make a big opening, and then goes back to normal (more or less) after the baby comes out. She was satisfied with this response.

I read this advice in a parenting book and so far it seems to work. It’s not foolproof, as evidenced by this video, a link for which, coincidentally, was sent to me by two different people on the same day, the very day I went to the Rodin museum with Short-pants’ class. This got me thinking. Am I copping out on the sex talk? Me, Ms. In-touch-with-her-sexuality? Ms. I-once-did-lots-of-research-for-a-TV-documentary-about-sex-in-Paris? Now that I’m a mom, have I developed a prurient streak?

At the museum, one of the other mothers who’d come along to chaperone leaned in and asked me, “Have you had the sex talk yet?” I immediately answered yes, thinking about a book I’d given Short-pants called The Care & Keeping of You, a lite version of Our Bodies, Our Selves written for little girls. It contains dozens of helpful explanations about all the changes that happen as you enter puberty, with a few anatomically-descript cartoonish-drawings in the section about menstruation. Then I had to correct myself; this book has nothing in it about the boy’s plumbing, and nothing about the deed itself. We do have a book that’s about the birds and the bees, First Comes Love, (Short-pants likes books, and apparently so do I) but it’s still stashed in my closet, waiting for its moment to be presented.

“I’m waiting for her to ask,” I said.

~ ~ ~

When I was seven years-old – younger than both Short-pants and Buddy-roo – I remember playing a little you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine with the neighbor boys. It was all very innocent and we tired of the game rather quickly, returning to the dirt track and quarry we’d carved out of the sandbox for our Tonka trucks. But I understood that being naked – even partially – had something to do with making babies. That night, lying in bed, I convinced myself that I was pregnant. The next morning, I told my mother.

“Oh honey, don’t worry,” she said, “you’re not pregnant.”

Did my mother wonder why I thought I was pregnant? Wasn’t she at least a little curious what prompted my question? I don’t fault her. She was from a different time and generation. But I was left to fester with my concern, because I hadn’t asked the right question.

I ended up going to my sister, who was in the bathtub shaving her legs, and when I told her I was probably pregnant, she explained to me why I wasn’t, very matter-of-factly. I was repulsed.

I think this is the reason why we avoid the sex question, no matter what generation you’re from. I don’t think we do it to protect their innocence, we do it to protect ours. Up until now, there’s this last pocket of privacy between the adults in the household, something those damn kids don’t have their runny noses poking into, something that’s ours alone. The minute the children understand how they came to exist, and how it involved this rather (until you’ve tried it) unseemly act, it’s all over. They’ll look at us differently. They’ll sneer at us and whisper about our body parts intersecting. The respect that they’ve granted us as parents will be degraded into the disgust one has for a dog that’s humping a fire hydrant. (Just for De-facto, of course.)

If Buddy-roo knows it’s about getting naked and kissing because it’s a subject of conversation in the school courtyard, and Short-pants has a book with drawings of a developing girl’s body, chances are they know a good part of the story, like I did. Do I wait for them to ask the question directly, leaving them in the dark, or the partial-dark? Or is it time to volunteer the whole naked truth?

May 9 2011

Wicked Mother’s Day

After sprinting down the stairs and turning the corner, Short-pants stubbed her toe on the step into the living room and exploded into screeching tears. I was careful not to run to her too swiftly – I hate to fuel the crisis with more panic – but still, a young girl’s throbbing toe deserves a little sympathy. I kissed her dirty toenail (only a mother would do this) and offered the standard, reassuring words before turning back to finish unpacking the suitcase from our weekend trip.

“No, there’s something else.” Tears were dripping down her cheeks like open faucets. “It’s Mother’s Day. I just saw it on my calendar. And we didn’t do anything for you!”

Of course this was not news to me. I’d deleted scores of Mother’s Day promotional emails that fell into my inbox because of the various mom-blog newsletters I read. But since we don’t consume a lot of media in our home, let alone American media, the over-marketed Mother’s Day messaging somehow didn’t reach anyone else in my family. I am perfectly capable of hinting at it, “You know what I’d like to do for Mother’s Day is…” and in the past I have. But sometimes it just feels akward to be pointing it out.

I’d pretty much put it aside. Who wants to be held emotional hostage by a Hallmark holiday? Though if anybody deserves an extra day of appreciation – even if it is the commercial idea of a greedy greeting card company – it surely is your mother, often the most taken-for-granted person in the family.

My brother did call to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, inquiring if I’d been celebrated sufficiently. “Look at it this way,” he said, “you didn’t have to pretend to enjoy that burnt-toast breakfast and wax enthusiastically about the handmade cards.” He had a point.

~ ~ ~

De-facto had reason to be in the UK last week, and another project scheduled there again early this week, so instead of him doing a back-and-forth, we decided I’d bring the Short-pants and Buddy-roo across the channel and we’d play London tourists for a weekend. We have some new colleagues-turned-friends who generously offered us accommodation, tackling the hardest part of being a tourist in London: the cost of hotels. With a little bit of juggling schedules, training in and out of the city and making use of the left-luggage service at the station, we choreographed a busy weekend: the London Eye, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, and a matinee show of Wicked, the story of the Wizard of Oz before and after Dorothy lands in Munchkinland. Both De-Facto and I had seen it on a kid-free London theatre weekend a few years ago, so we labored a bit over the decision. Both of us wanted to see something that we’d not been to before, but in the end I pressed for Wicked knowing the girls would love it. Besides, they’re both stars in the Wizard of Oz school play, so this was relevant backstory. (Shouldn’t “parenting travel” be tax-deductable?)

One of the cool parts about being a mom (or a parent, for that matter) is introducing your children to culture. It’s not the first time we’ve taken them to the theatre, they’ve seen stage performances of On the Town, Les Misérables and The Sound of Music in Paris at the Chatelet Theatre, which is pretty special. But nobody does theatre like the West End. And we had brilliant seats that were just-the-right-amount close to the stage. I spent as much time admiring my children’s open-jawed, concentrated-awe as I did watching the actors performing their story.
My favorite moment: at a climatic point in which Elphaba, who was good-hearted and thoughtful before becoming the Wicked Witch of the West, stood on stage with Glinda, who’d been vain and self-centered before growing into the more gentle-hearted Witch of the North, and they sang to each other about the important exchange their friendship had yielded. In one song, an ambiguous complexity of life expressed: how circumstances can turn someone good into someone wicked, and inspire someone wicked to do something good. Short-pants moved her hand on top of mine, and I turned to see a tear sliding slowly down her cheek.

“It’s sad,” she said, “but it’s also happy.”

Much like the sappy scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts’ character goes to the opera and gets it, not only did Short-pants love the staging and the magic of the performance, she also understood the poignancy of this moment in the play. To witness how this moved her, well, I suppose that’s right up there with the coolest Mother’s Day presents you can get.

~ ~ ~

She sobbed in my arms. I’m sorry maman, we should have done something for you today. I didn’t even make you a card.”

Here’s what you’re supposed to read next: “and in that moment, I realized this was the joy of motherhood, and the only acknowledgment I needed.” But I’d be lying if I reported to you that in an instant I relinquished any residual, though mild, disappointment I’d been harboring.

I’m a little more wicked than that. It took me a few more breaths, a couple of my own tears at being forgotten (except of course I know I’m not) and a short visit to the memory bank. I’d spent a fair amount of time, on this Mother’s Day, thinking about (and missing) my own mother, whom I took entirely for granted as a child, and whom I treated with the typical disdain of a teenager. I grew to admire her, and then (especially) to appreciate her after becoming a mother myself, when I began to understand what kind of a sacrifice is required to be a mom, and how she’d done it so elegantly. I never knew if it had been hard for her or not.

Then, okay, I could get there, to see the message in this beautiful expression, this whole-bodied apology – how my little girl’s heart was breaking because she was afraid she’d broken mine. So when I said that “this hug is the best gift you could give me for Mother’s Day,” I really meant it.

We embraced for a long time. Buddy-roo even came over and put her arms around the two of us and joined the love-in.

“But wait,” Short-pants said, lifting her head, “we still have French Mother’s Day to celebrate.” Her eyes lit up with an idea. “I’ll make you breakfast in bed!”

Feb 14 2011

Sweet Heart

“The heart is what I imagine I give. Each time this gift is returned to me, then it is little enough to say…that the heart is what remains of me, once all the wit attributed to me and undesired by me is taken away.”
(from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.)

Hope your heart finds you.

Havana, Cuba, November 2009

Happy Valentine’s.

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 24 2010

Hard to Believe

The holidays, though filled with beautiful moments, have their fair share of hard parts that make you want to slowly, quietly lock the bathroom door and sit on the side of the tub and have a good cry, ignoring any small fists that rap on the door calling your name. It can be for any kind of reason, general fatigue or specific disappointment. It doesn’t help that expectations get artificially raised at this time of the year, and I happen to be susceptible to their augmentation, despite annual proclamations that this year will be otherwise.

The holidays are a little bit hard for me because I always think of my father, who died a week before Christmas, twenty-some years ago. Losing him so close to the holiday painted a shade of blue around all the red and green. I remember Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas on the radio while I was riding in the town car behind the hearse on the way to the cemetery. The driver was the father of a school friend, at her slumber parties he used to sit at the kitchen table and laugh out loud with us. I could see his eyes in the rear view mirror and they were red and wet with tears. Everybody loved my father and nobody could believe he was gone.

It’s easier now, time helps, though I still cry a little when I hear that song.

The holidays are hard because it’s a lot of work. Even if you think ahead, and I do: when I travel throughout the year, I pick up indigenous specialties and earmark them as gifts for the following Christmas. Living overseas inspired my organization: I needed, just once, to wait in the long line at the post office the week before Christmas only to learn that the charge to ship the presents to my family so that they’d arrive before the 25th would cost more than the gifts themselves. Now everything gets wrapped by mid-November and shipped to the U.S. at a reasonable cost or sent home by a visiting courier.

But even with this apparently organized approach, Christmas creeps up and crowds the calendar. I still find myself with last minute shopping that thrusts me into the throngs of crazed shoppers. Somehow I’m still up at 2 am baking cookies for the school party or to give to the neighbors or just to have around the house. I do this because that’s what my mother did. I make her recipe, I use the same cookie cutters (I inherited hers), I frost and sugar the trees, stars, angels, bells and Santas the same way she did. And I work myself into the same frenzy that puzzled me so when I watched her as child.

The holidays are hard because they’re over commercialized, and somewhere along the way I bought into it. I agreed to the Santa and presents and lights and tinsel deal, hook line and sinker, and now I don’t know how to backtrack my way out of it. Here’s how ridiculous I am: I buy special “Santa” wrapping paper – the goofy, tacky kind that I would never otherwise use to wrap presents – and this paper is designated for gifts from Santa only. I’ve been doing this for years, but seriously, have they ever said (or thought): “Oh, those presents that just arrived under the tree last night have their own distinctive wrapping paper fashioned by Santa’s elves?” I’m sure I’m the only one who gets it.

Last week while wrapping a few gifts for the girls, presents not from Santa, but from me and De-facto, and I ran out of the classy, heavier-stock wrapping paper I prefer. All that was left was the end of the roll for Santa’s presents, which have already been wrapped and hidden away. Mid-way through cutting a piece of this cheesy paper I thought to myself, “What am I doing? This paper’s for Santa’s presents, I can’t use it on ours. They’ll know.”

What if they do? I’m tired of this whole Santa ruse, anyway. It’s hard work perpetuating this little lie (about which I have only mild guilt) but most of all I’m tired of doing all the work for which Père Noël gets all the credit. I want them to stop believing, but it’s too hard to tell them – and certainly not right now, days before Christmas – though I am starting to get impatient for them to figure it all out. For this reason, I went ahead and used the tacky paper to wrap the not-from-Santa presents. We’ll see if anybody notices.

I did get a question, a few weeks ago. Apparently someone in the school courtyard claimed there was no Santa Claus and the girls asked me if that was true. I could have said, well guys, actually, your friend in the courtyard is right. It would have eased the burden, moved us into the next phase of celebrating Christmas which means family holidays in a place with palm trees and drinks with little umbrellas in them, much easier to enact once the concern about how Santa will find us doesn’t have to be addressed and a full suitcase of Santa’s gifts needn’t be carried along.

But I chickened out. “What do you think?” I answered with a question. They both tipped their heads to the side, waiting, until Short-pants said, “I still believe.” Buddy-roo agreed. “Well there you have it,” I said, shooting myself in the foot.

Because even with its hard parts, I still love Christmas. I love the rituals: the smell of the sapin de Noël and how it transforms when we string up the lights and hang the ornaments. I love the Christmas carols (with the exception of the monotonous Twelve Days of Christmas) and the decorations in the stores and on the street. I love selecting beautiful wrapping paper and folding it evenly and taping it invisibly and tying ribbons into fat bows to make beautiful packages. I love the quiet that falls upon the world as business closes on Christmas eve, the cozying in and gathering ‘round and being with family. I love the way the children run to bed, knowing that the sooner they go to sleep, the sooner morning will come.

I love all our holiday traditions. I realize, especially now, that these are the things that have kept my father alive in our hearts – and will keep my mother there too – which is, no doubt, the reason that I insist upon continuing them so diligently. Christmas is hard work but it’s also comforting, a regression to a previous place and posture that for me, is the heart of my childhood.

Tomorrow, Christmas day, my sister will phone me and say, “Did he come?” And I will say, “Yes, he came.” And in that short exchange, an exchange that happens every year in exactly the same way – the same question and the same response – everything we know and believe about Christmas is captured: everything that’s hard and sad and also magical and joyful. That’s when the hard parts of the holiday season fade away and it’s easy just to let it go and really mean it when you whisper back Merry Christmas.

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.

Nov 1 2010

All the Saints

Because the interior walls of the country house are not at all soundproof, we usually overhear the girls talking to each other as they ready themselves for bed. Last night they were wired from all the sugar and excitement of trick-or-treating. They also get to share a room with the mother-in-love when she joins us at the country house so going to bed is always a bit of an adventure, sharing those last just-before-sleep moments with their grandmother.

“Oh, will you stop it,” Short-pants screamed, “You’re talking about dead people again!” Buddy-roo protested. She was missing my mother and remembered sharing a bedroom with her when we took our family vacation to Punta Cana. And for that matter, she was also missing Grandpa Artie, De-facto’s father, who died before I was in the picture and long before Buddy-roo was considered, let alone conceived, but she has a special kinship with him because they share the same birthday.

(While I was in labor for Buddy-roo, we worked on the New York Times crossword – a visitor had brought it and left it – and were more than slightly stunned when the central word around which the entire puzzle was written was his name, A-R-T-I-E.)

My mother-in-love came up the stairs and into their room and heard their dispute. She made the expected, gentle inquiries. Short-pants remained exasperated. “She keeps talking about dead people and it’s useless.”

“But I miss Grammy,” Buddy-roo countered. Mother-in-love launched a sensitive and sensible explanation of how the people we love who die are never really gone; they stay with us when we think of them. So it is good to remember them.

“See?” Buddy-roo defended her nostalgia.
“I still say it’s useless,” said Short-pants.

I remember how famously my mother and my mother-in-love got on. De-facto’s mother admires everyone without envy, and she’s a great listener and a strong woman in her own right with as many fascinating accomplishments as my mother. Sipping iced-tea on the back porch, exchanging stories, admiring their grandchildren – I loved that that the girls could enjoy the company of both grandmothers at the same time. Though the way my mother was with the girls was different than how my mother-in-love engages them, the feeling of having both of them side-by-side had to be a real treasure. At least it was for me.

That my mother is gone makes me even more appreciative of the visits we have with De-facto’s mother. I always knew – but now I really know – how crucial it is to drink in every moment, every encounter, every single visit with her. She is so good to us, worthy of sainthood (who else volunteers to defrost your refrigerator?) and we shouldn’t ever take her for granted.

We worked our fingers to the bone. De-facto put up wallboard in the new room and I tended the grapes. She weeded along the front, side and back of the house, mulched any patch of exposed ground, trimmed roses, structured our new compost, hauled firewood, made a soup, colored puppets with the girls and a dozen other tasks to improve the quality of our country living. She is a powerhouse in a way that is surreal; she is as wise as her years demand but just as spry and fit as a woman twenty-five years younger.

For Halloween she dressed as the Countess Duvet who lives in the graveyard. She moved in – very temporarily – to the abandoned barn across the street, with candles and theatrics in order to add another trick-or-treating stop on our sparsely populated road.

“I eat my supper off the tomb of the Count,” she said, with a dramatic accent that made her claim believable. The girls jumped and squealed, not quite sure whether she was funny or frightening.

She cannot replace my mother but her presence somewhat palliates the loss, because she is my friend, because she knew my mother and loved and admired her, too. Having loved and lost her own mother, she respects the necessary passages of each generation. My mother-in-love knows everything I know, and so much more. But she won’t spoil it: she smiles at me, watching as I mother and cook and work and love and garden and grieve, and just puts her hand gently on my back from time to time to let me know she cares, which is just enough to remind me that there are saints here on earth.

Sep 1 2010

Morning Questions

Now that they are older, they wake up at a reasonable hour, something later than eight o’clock and occasionally after nine in the morning. (Well, until school starts tomorrow.) They totter down the stairs with that first-steps-in-the-day stiffness; their thumping like a gentle alarm clock alerting me that they are awake and they are coming my way. Then appears one of them – it could be either of the girls, though Short-pants is prone to rising earlier – pushing open the door to our bedroom, which sticks and sometimes requires serious muscle. A little sprite appears, donning just a pair of pink Cinderella underwear, lifts up the white comforter cover and crawls in between the sheets for the morning cuddle. It might be moments later – or as long as an hour – when the other one arrives and squeezes into the bed on the other side of me.

These cuddles are mostly wordless, except for the three questions:
Did you sleep well?
Did you have any good dreams?
Did you wake up feeling loved?
Short-pants adores the ritual of this Q&A, and answers each one with a deliberate “Yesssss,” letting the s stretch out for emphasis. I rarely ask Buddy-roo; before I even finish the first question she interrupts, “I don’t want you to ask me those questions.” I’ve asked her why not, dozens of times. The best I can get out of her is that she just doesn’t like them. So we cuddle in silence.

I’m struck by how the character of the morning cuddle has transformed over the years. When they were babies, this was the moment when they took my breast for the first meal of the day while I savored those last minutes of precious sleep. Then they were toddlers and we were constantly at war, fighting to keep them out of our bed until the sun had risen (our line in the sand), when the morning cuddle revealed the true pyrrhic nature of all those little battles we’d won the night before. This morphed into another stage in which their arguing, despite our admonishments, would crescendo into tearful screaming matches about who got to be on what side of the bed next to which parent – a prize that was hard to predict because De-facto and I never knew which of us was the coveted parent and we could fall out of favor at the drop of a hat.

Until now, a new phase, when they seem very content to wake up slowly, rising softly and silently and joining us in bed with little expectation of conversation, just the warmth and comfort of their parents and another twenty minutes of dream-time and morning slumber. (This is a great phase.)

I came across a photograph of my mother that I took a little over a year ago. Aware of her impending departure, I tried to capture little vignettes of her – things I wanted to remember – like the expression on her face while she washed the dishes (I snapped this without her noticing, from outside the window above her kitchen sink), or seeing her seated in her designated place at the head of the dining room table or curled on the couch watching television with her eyes closed. One morning I even photographed her sleeping in her bed, with her back toward me. I realized I didn’t have a strong memory of her sleeping alone in her bed; when I lived at home my father was usually beside her. Then there’s this: she was always up earlier than me. I never saw her sleeping in. Until that morning.

I took note of the details: the color of her tousled hair, the lace trim of the familiar nightgown against the skin on the back of her neck, her hand raised next to her pillow, clutching a piece of Kleenex. After I took the photo, I lifted the covers and slipped into bed beside her and put my arm around her. I wished somebody else was there to take a picture of the two of us in our morning cuddle so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

Instead I told them about it, which I suppose is even better because they had to conjure up their own image of the occasion in their minds. This prompted an inquisition: When you cuddled with Grammy, did she ask you the morning questions? No. Why not? I made them up for you. You made them up for us? Yes. Why? I don’t know. But why? I guess maybe to ease gently into using words after a long sleep. Gently? Why gently? (You see where this is going.)

This morning, they arrived within minutes of each other, their long, lithe bodies quickly snapping up the covers and diving into bed with us. We dozed in and out of the velvet pocket of morning sleep. When it felt like enough time had passed for words, I ran through the three questions with Short-pants. She answered with an emphatic and serpent-like “Yesssss,” pulling her arms tighter around me with each response.

I know Buddy-roo hates the questions but I keep thinking maybe someday she’ll change her mind and share this little ritual with us, and remember it later in her life as a good moment in her childhood. So occasionally I try them out on her anyway. This morning I braced myself for her usual scorn, but instead – surprisingly – she answered me.

Did you have a good sleep? It was okay, except it was too hot in my bed. Do you have any good dreams? I don’t remember if I dreamt or not. Did you wake up feeling loved? Maybe, if there are pancakes for breakfast.

Not so gentle, but not a bad way to start.