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.

Mar 4 2009

Parental Therapy

De-facto was bringing home the bacon this week. He got an assignment in London, which means I’ve been flying solo with the girls for a few days. In the old days, I’d have hired the babysitter for a few extra hours, just to me_n_girls cushion the full-on press. But these are the new days. Work isn’t exactly streaming in, and like everyone else, we’re feeling the weight of this bleak economic climate. So I was on my own.

This is not a severe hardship. But as any parent will attest – and let me express the extreme awe I have for single parents for whom this is business as usual – being the lone adult with little kids can wear you down. When there’s nobody to whom you can hand off the baton, even for just ten minutes here and there, nerves get frayed.

This morning, the three-ring circus that is our breakfast routine was running a bit behind schedule. I knew I needed to pick up the pace or we’d get derailed and never get to school on time. But children are wired with an innate contrary metronome. When they sense that you want to speed up, they slow down. Buddy-roo chewed her pancakes in slow motion. I rushed Short-pants upstairs to get dressed.

The first mistake I made was asking her what she wanted to wear. I’m of two mindsets on this. De-facto thinks they don’t have enough choices in their little lives, so he’s always creating some: “Do you want apple juice or milk?” or “You can go to bed now and I’ll read you a story, or you can stay up for 10 more minutes but then there’s no story.” I understand his reasoning, but I don’t always follow it. I think limits are a good thing and this is sometimes best expressed in the form of one firm option. And yet despite the rush of the morning, I offered her the choice.

“Do you want to wear a dress or pants?”
“A dress,” she answered, pointing to her pink striped one, “this one.” pink_striped_dress
It was draped over the wicker toy chest, where she’d left it last night when she took it off to put on her pajamas.
“You could wear that one,” I answered, my voice conveying disapproval, “but you wore it yesterday.”
“I can wear it again,” she said, “please?”
“It’s dirty,” I said.
“No it’s not,” she said.
“I’d really rather you wear a different dress,” I said, “how about the red one?”
“No,” she said, “this one.”

We went back and forth like this a few times. The more I cajoled, the more she insisted. We were at an impasse. I was getting angry and she was nearly crying. And then I said it: “If you wear the same dress two days in a row, everybody might make fun of you.” She burst into tears.

Why on earth did I say that? If she wants to wear the damn dress two days in row, if that makes her happy, who cares? And so what if the kids at school make fun of her? And who says they will? And why am I planting this fear in her little 7-year old head? Like, who’s issue is that?

Parenting is the most transparent form of therapy.

Later, Short-pants sat at the table, wearing the pink striped dress, finishing her pancakes. I’d sent Buddy-roo upstairs to get dressed. “Wear whatever the hell you want,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)
Short-pants was bravely trying to pull herself together, but having a hard time swallowing because she kept re-erupting in to tears.

“Usually people don’t make fun of me,” she said between sniffles. “I know,” I said.

I wrapped my arms around her narrow frame and pulled her close. We held this embrace, longer than the usual hug.

Our responses to life’s little events can be so automatic. This comment about kids making fun of her, perhaps it’s a reflection from my childhood, or maybe it’s my worst fear for hers. It was a reflex; I blurted it out. But what she heard must get filed away somewhere in her consciousness. Is it ever forgotten? Maybe if I’m vigilant not to reinforce it, this little seed of self-doubt will slip away, a one-off remark lost in a sea of a thousand other more positive, esteem-building sentences I’ll repeat over the course of her emotional development. Twenty years from now, sorting through my blog archives, she’ll read this post with no recollection of our exchange this morning. But will the residue remain?

Whether we mean to or not, we hand our fears and prejudices to the next generation. The reinforcement of a belief from parent to child is tangible; it is the source of cultural pride and heritage, but also the reason for hate crimes and religious wars. It has funded the psychiatric industry for decades.

But I guess we’re only human, bouncing and bounding off the things that happen to us in our lives, doing the best we can, and (hopefully) wearing whatever we feel like wearing.