Survivor

Winter in Sparks , Nevada 1960's

Crile R. Dean – Winter, Sparks , Nevada 1960’s

Daddy is from a generation that worked hard.  That never feared sweat and toil.  He grew up on the land, took care of animals and studied late in the night to be the best he could be.

All my life his big hands tackled plumbing and electrical and automotive tasks.  He climbed, fearless, to the roof to patch leaks.  He ascended to the top of the thirty foot apricot tree to cut off a dead branch.  No qualms.

I’m sick and can’t sit up in my seat in class any longer.  My third grade teacher says, go to the nurse.  The nurse feels my head and says, lie down awhile.  I remember thinking, lying down feels good. 

I stretch.  Open my eyes.  No lights.  Dead silence.  No kid noise in the halls.  No teachers talking.  No one laughing or running or hitting the tether-ball on the playground.  No nurse.

Where is everyone?  My heartbeat is so loud my ears hurt.  My chest hurts.  I’m hot all over.  My queasy stomach forgotten.

“What are you doing here?”  The principal says as I stand in his doorway.

“I was sick.  I went to the nurse.  She didn’t wake me.  She left me.”

“Let’s get you home.”

I hope I’m so small in the front seat of the Principal’s car that no one will see me.  We pass kids on the street.  Playing ball.  Walking. Talking. Laughing.  Every head turns our way.  Kids know the Principal’s car.  Now they know I’m in his car.

My face is hot. I want to disappear.  Everyone will think I’ve done something wrong.

“Thank you,” Daddy smiles broadly at the Principal, “for getting her home safe,” he shakes the Principal’s hand, “no harm done.”

No harm done?  I’ll never go to the nurse’s office again.

Daddy cared for us.  He mended the arm of my sister’s glasses.  He maneuvered tiny tweezers to repair Mother’s necklace chain.  He laid brick and cinder block walls.  He mowed the lawn and used the edger with gusto, all with pride in a job well done.  He planted grapes and fruit trees and worked hard in their harvest.  He shared the bounty with friends and strangers.  He loved life.  He laughed and smiled and believed all could be conquered.

I feel sick all over but I’d rather be sick in class than go to the nurse’s office.  That’s a place to avoid like the plague.  If I can hold on another fifteen minutes, school will be out. 

“Did you go to the nurse?” Mother takes my temperature, “Measles.  Sixteen is old for measles.  Go to bed.  Why didn’t you come home early?”

I just want to lie down and block out everything.

I wake to distant sounds of family around the supper table.  It’s dark in my room.  I’m hot.  Parched.  Safe at home. 

Then I’m eight years old again and waking in that deserted nurse’s office. 

I haven’t thought of that since it happened.  No wonder I avoided the nurse today.  I smile in the dark.  I’m not that little girl any more. I’ll be strong, like Daddy is strong.

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980's, with Uncle Bruce observing

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980’s, with Uncle Bruce observing

I remember Daddy working under the car in the garage.  Oil change, transmission repair, tires patched, some busted blown broken component replaced – whatever it took – so the car would once again go.

I remember we sat stopped off the side of Route 66, the Arizona desert undulating pinks and browns and beiges in the sweltering 100 plus degrees of an August day, while Daddy changed a blown tired.  We kids squabbled about the sticky back seat in the constant furnace blast of air that is summer, while in the front seat, Mother looked faint, anxious and exhausted.

It really ticks me off that I have Mother’s stamina.  Or lack of stamina.  She fatigued.  I fatigue.  I swore I’d be like Daddy.  Strong, independent, capable, positive. Healthy.

Not like Mother.  Tired.  Weepy.  Stressed out.  She spent three months in bed after a hysterectomy, then had pneumonia, then a lupus type flare-up that cleared up as mysteriously as it had come.  Always something wrong. 

I won’t be like her.  Yet here I am.  Had to change my entire diet to stop constant sinus infections that morph into bronchitis.  Funky hormones that don’t work right.  Thyroid disease.  I’ll be on meds the rest of my life.  Really ticks me off. 

Daddy did whatever it took to take care of us.  Even when it meant auto repair work that was dirty and greasy and often held up our well-laid plans.  I remember I thought when I grew up I’d have enough money to pay for such jobs.  No getting dirty for the man in my life.  No waiting by the side of the road for a maybe-maybe not rescue.

Except no man ever measured up.  No man ever rode to my rescue.  Instead it was me who had to pay for repairs.  It was me who had to find solutions.  I remember long distance calls as I sat alongside the highway waiting for the tow truck.

“Here’s what it sounded like, Daddy,” I’d say, “what do I tell the mechanic?”

Breathe deeply, girl.  How would Daddy handle it?  He’d be grateful for another day of life, another opportunity to be positive with those around him.  He was cheerful. He knew God made him and he could trust God for who he was.

I have to choose.  Believe.  Deal with who I am and what my body needs.  What’s the alternative?  Get mad?  Get depressed?  Avoid doctors and nurses offices?  Binge on problematic foods and suffer the consequences?  Give in to needing to be pampered, like Mother?

There’s no contest. I won’t be like her.  I can’t change the way I was made.  I can control how I respond.  Like Daddy or like Mother.

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990's

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990’s

I sit in the house that was Daddy and Mother’s and marvel that he was my retirement age when they moved in here.  My age when he poured concrete and installed the heating/cooling unit, built the back porch overhang, ran electrical wiring for lamps where the old Craftsman style house needed more electrical outlets, replaced the shower stall, added cabinets to a bare kitchen wall, hung a microwave, toaster and electric can opener under those same cabinets, hung shelf brackets on the walls for shelves that now hold books, two and three rows deep.  And he did all this while working a full-time job that included hours on the highway.  He may be gone now, his earthly productiveness finished, but I see him everywhere I look.

My retirement is an unexpected journey: freedom to not be in the mad paced work world; freedom to have energy for exercise; freedom to learn new things; to take classes; to write; to cook, which is a toss-up – successful meal or hardly edible – freedom to be the best I can be, and most surprising, freedom to be at peace with Mother.

By the time Daddy had slowed in age and had stopped trying to repair automobiles with their computer components and modern molded plastic parts, I’d learned to do some rehab and repair items with my own hands.  Though never as detailed as the skills Daddy had and never with the power that flowed from his large hands.

He walked three miles a day up until six months before he died.  Cancer.  Something takes each of us at the end, right?  He was six weeks away from eighty-nine.  He loved life and lived it fully.  He believed he was headed to a place without pain or limitations or suffering. I believe, too.  I’ll see him there, one day.

Meanwhile, life in this old house continues for Mother and me.  I’m here so her days will end in her own home.

She has surprised me by learning to let go of the expectation I could do what Daddy did.  While I didn’t inherit his big hands or his strength, I did inherit his work principle and his belief in joy and love.  The bedrock he gave my life lives.  I decide to laugh and believe that all can be conquered. And some days I see a glimmer of Mother deciding to give up her worry.

Mother keeps on going.  Through the pain of a twisted spine, crooked and hurting hips, heart disease, swollen legs, heavy medications with weird side effects, she keeps moving.  She’s nearly eighty-eight.  She might have it easier in these late days if she’d kept moving and walking years ago.  If she’d changed her diet and dealt with her swollen legs in the decades before heart disease took over.

Still, I’ve come to the late realization that she’s much more of a fighter than I ever knew.  She’s stubborn and no one will stop her until she’s ready to stop.

“Quit nagging me to eat,” she pushes her plate away.  She looks small and frail after two months bedfast with bruising and sores on her leg.  She lost her appetite and went down another ten pounds.

“Are you ready to quit,” I stand next to her in her permanent spot at the dining room table, hands on my hips, and try to keep the frustration out of my voice, “ready to go home to God?  Ready to finish this life?”

She doesn’t look at me.

“Because if you don’t eat, that’s what will happen.”  I watch her as she thinks it over.

She pulls her plate back and takes another bite, “No.  I’m not ready to go.”

Mother - all dressed up for church

Mother – all dressed up for church

That was last month.  Now she’s back making her own breakfast.  Gets herself dressed.  Pulls on compression hose.  Takes her vitamins and medications.  Moves around the house again.  Her weight is up two pounds.

Maybe it’s ok for me to be like Mother.  She’s a survivor.  Daddy was a survivor.  I can take the best from both of them.  I’m a survivor.

Cornbread

cornbread in iron skillet

google images:simplyrecipes.com

How hard can it be to make a pan of cornbread?

We grew up eating cornbread with a big pot of pinto beans.  Two or three times a month.  Maybe more.

I must have seen Mother make cornbread back then.   Plus, I’ve watched her make it many times since moving back into the house when Daddy got sick.

She does it from memory in no time at all.  In fact, the day she collapsed with heart failure, she’d made a pan of cornbread just a few hours earlier.  That’s kind of amazing.

I find a recipe and start pulling the ingredients together.

“This summer,” Mother lifts a hot pot of brewed tea leaves and pours it into the gallon pitcher, “I’ll teach you two how to cook,” her cheeks are red from the heat of the boiled water. They match the red polka dots on her sleeveless white blouse.

I’m sixteen and intent on making a new dress.  I lean over the kitchen table fitting a McCall’s pattern onto three yards of soft gray cotton.

“Uh,” my fingers dig out a straight pin from the pin box and I pin the sleeve pattern to the fabric, “I need to make my dress, Mother.”  The dress will have a double row of buttons down the front and decorative white plackets.  I saw a photo of Audrey Hepburn in a dress similar.  I have visions of how classy this dress will look.

Mother turns back to the counter, opens the sugar canister, scoops sugar and dumps it into the hot tea.  She’s looks slim and healthy with tanned arms and legs from days spent digging in her flower and vegetable garden in the back yard.  I wish I were that slim.

“I can’t, Momma,” Winzona, thirteen, blond hair flying, breezes through the kitchen on her way to the back door, “I’m playing ball with the kids on the street.”

Mother hasn’t made cornbread in months.  She hasn’t cooked anything in months.  “Mother, how much oil do I heat up in the iron skillet before putting in the batter?”

Getting food on the table is up to me these days.  She may be losing weight because I’ve been cooking high protein/low carb stuff.  Which is how I eat and how I feel best.  Might not be how she’d feel best.

So, how hard can it be to give her some bread that she can slather up with butter?  Low fat butter that is.  Mustn’t aggravate her acid reflux.

“What?”

Talking to her has woken her up in her chair in front of the TV.  She mutes the TV and I repeat my question.

“Just enough to cover the bottom,” she answers and turns the TV sound up again.

I get the eggs, milk and salt mixed in with the corn meal and flour and slide the skillet into the hot oven.

Whew.  That wasn’t hard.  I’m rather proud of myself as I clean off the butcher board island and put stuff back.  Corn meal goes on the counter by the sink; Lite Salt goes on the counter by the stove; recipe goes in the pantry in the recipe box.  As I reach for the recipe box, my eyes catch the ingredients list.

Uh oh.  Forgot the cup of oil.  Quick, get the pan out of the oven and stir in the oil.  The hot air hits me in the face and flutters my hair back.  I squint to keep my contact lenses from drying out.

Oops, the skillet was hot going in so the batter is all ready getting crusty.  Oh well, can’t be helped.  And anyway, at least it now has more liquid.  It should be ok.  Maybe.

“How will you survive and take care of your own family,” she pours hot tea from the pitcher into a tall glass filled with ice, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“Mother, look at this pattern piece,” I hold up the collar pattern.  Maybe she’ll get off the cooking kick if I distract her, “do I put this on the bias of the fabric?”

The cornbread smells great.  Looks golden brown when the timer goes off.  The hamburger-tomato-squash stew is hot, the fresh vegetables are sliced; the table is set.  We’re just about ready.

“Sweetened Iced tea, Mother?”

“Lots of ice, please.”

I pull the cornbread out of the oven using two hot pads and two hands.  The skillet is heavy.  Which is part of the reason Mother isn’t cooking these days.  Too much pain in her twisted fingers.  Not enough energy or strength.

I look critically at the cornbread.  Ok, Mother’s cornbread normally has a nice rounded top that rises above the skillet.  This one is pretty flat and doesn’t look much thicker than when I put it in the skillet.

Was I supposed to add baking soda?  Pull out the recipe and check.  Yep.  There it is.  How did I miss that?

“Hope it’s edible,” I set it on the table and cut Mother a slice.

She butters her slice and takes a bite.

“I forgot the oil and had to add it after it was in the oven.”

“Did you put in baking soda?”

“I confess.  I did not.”

Mother takes another bite, “it tastes ok.”

“Just pretty dense and flat,” I salt my stew.

We eat and watch TV.

The last couple of months have been rough for Mother but she’s feeling better and again gets dressed every day; she takes care of her hair, walks to the front drapes to close them as it gets dark in the evenings, moves around the house again.  My cooking just might be the incentive she needs to decide she can find the stamina to get back to the kitchen.  I’ve seen her push herself to do other things she wants to do.  Like get out again on Sundays to go to church.

“How will you take care of yourself,” Mother washes the strawberries we bought at a roadside stand, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“The same way I took care of myself and ate just fine since I left home forty years ago, Mother.”

She mutes the TV at the commercial and says carefully, so as not to offend, “I find it works best to get all my ingredients together before I start so that I don’t forget anything.”

“You say that like I intend to do this again,” I ladle another serving of stew into my bowl.  “Cornbread is up to you, Mother.”

Daddy’s Desk

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

In the top drawer is Daddy’s inexpensive silver wristwatch with its flexible, stretch band.  Without his warm flesh and steady heartbeat, it stopped.  I tried wearing it when I noticed, but it was too late.  So it lays here, the date feature, Mon 20, the time, 5:05 p.m. and ten seconds.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Funny that, since Daddy died on Monday the 20th.  I wonder now, did it stop the day he died, or did it run longer?  I can’t remember, which is strange, because at the time, I thought I’d never forget.

I’ve kept the yellow post-it notes he wrote and stuck on the side of the filing cabinet by the desk.  Doctor’s number, appointment reminders, police and newspaper phone numbers.  I like looking at his handwriting.  Printing, really.  The only time he used cursive was to write his distinctive and legible signature.

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

I was an adult before he confessed his handwriting was terrible, so he printed.  I’d always thought his familiar script was his preferred writing; neat, precise letters in a straight line, the “a” like a typewriter “a” with the tail curving across the top.  Not like the round “ɑ” they taught me in grade school.

I want to remember him in his strength; when it was easy to open drawers, when his watch ticked efficiently; when it was nothing for him to write a note to me, or to write in the checkbook.  I don’t want to think about those days he wasted away to a potbelly on a skeleton frame, the minutes and hours and days of caregiving roaring loud in my ears as we inched across the horizon toward his setting sun.

His abdomen filled with fluid as his body failed from liver cancer.  I was clueless.  He hardly ate, yet his pants were too tight to button?  I cringe now to think of things I could have done to make his days easier.

I don’t want to remember the last time he wrote.  The first time we went to the lab to have 2 liters of fluid drawn off his belly, he signed and dated the forms with ease.  The last time we went, his consent signature looked like the illegible scribbles of a two-year old.  His precise, neat printing and his one concession to cursive writing were gone.  It wasn’t long before he was gone.

Crile R. Dean

Crile R. Dean

I come often to this place that was Daddy’s domain.  I sit at the big metal desk that’s marred by years of use and run my hands over the scratched and scarred surface.  I can see how he grasped the handle of each drawer, the black paint worn away to gun-metal gray where his thumb extended to press for leverage to pull them open.  In memory I see him here.  He calls me honey.  He sings, smiles, talks ethics, politics, religion and sports.  He remains in my heart.  Until I join him, I’ll hold on to the simple reminders.  I won’t forget.

fly high…and sing your song…

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

We lost another one this week.  That makes two in the last eight days.  First, Bob, then Charmaine.  Elderly, frail friends of Mother’s.

People she knew for nearly forty years from church.  People, who were hardy, still working with busy productive lives when she and Daddy first met them.  People, whose lives morphed and changed into retirement, followed by the death of spouses and the total rearrangement of how they lived; people, who once self-reliant, at the end, relied upon others.

Mother hasn’t been feeling well, so I told her the news carefully.  She seemed to take it in stride as part of the everyday markers of her elderly life.  After all, Daddy’s gone too, and he was her mainstay.

Charmaine and Jim retired and moved back to the mid-West to be near their kids.  Maybe ten years ago?  Then Jim got sick and died and Charmaine’s daughter was around to do the caring.  Now Charmaine’s gone.

Bob nursed his ailing wife while he worked full time and then she died.  Mother says he was never the same after those exhausting years.  Is that why Alzheimer’s took over his capable brain?  In the end his daughters had lie to him to get him to leave the house so that they could get him care.  Bob’s gone now, too.

A flurry of birds in the backyard catches my eye as sparrows dart, flutter, and settle on the grass and the green is painted into a polka dot green blanket with hopping browns and grays.  Today’s sunshine reveals a glitter in the multi-layered hues of their feathers.

Squawk!  A blackbird clutched to a swaying high wire interrupts and the sparrows take chirping flight up into the bare oak branches.  Low to the ground, along the fence perimeter, there’s black fur that moves stealthily.  Feral cat.  Could be that squawk was a warning, right?

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

So, those ended elderly lives?  Makes one think; ponder; if you get my drift.  The shortness of their lives doesn’t hold a candle to the song bird, the Cedar Waxwing, trilling on the bare Apricot branches.  Those dudes only live two or three years.  That’s short, my friend.  Or it is when compared to Mother’s eighty-plus-year-old friends that just sang their last, breathed their last.  Well, you get the point.

But, does it seem short to the Cedar Waxwing, or does it seem normal?  They’re born, they’re fed, they learn to eat and to find their own food and water; their instinct keeps them moving ahead, they make music, they make baby birds, they feed them and push them from the nest.  They make more music.  They die.

It’s all perspective.  The light we’re seeing from the stars, by the time it gets to us, those stars have died.  The music of Chopin or Pachelbel, it’s ours because they lived and created, but they’re done now too.  Even so, they left something behind.  So do the stars, so do the Cedar Waxwings.  Their beauty and their songs are captured and saved on YouTube on in some documentary for us to enjoy.

Here’s what keeps crawling around the edges of my mind, “Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Aren’t you worth more than they?”  That was Matthew, a Jesus follower, noting down his observations of the cycle of the birds in the skies above him over 2,000 years ago in Palestine.

Matthew’s been gone a long time, but he caught the truth and left a record of it for us.  It’s life.  The value of life.  The preciousness of life.  Your life.  My life.  The bird’s life.  Ok, I’ll admit it, as much as I don’t like feral cats, the feral cat’s life, as well.  Life.  We see it replicated from one bird to another; one cat to another, one human to another, but it’s a gift.  Matthew said it was a God given gift.  It is.

image: google images

image source: google images

I see that.  I feel it inside.  I’m aware life is a gift and not something I can make or bring into being.  Nor can I control how long life lasts.  Oh, I suppose I could throw in the towel to my life’s fight and find some way to end it.  The problem is that’s only the life that exists in this earthly world; the one we can see and touch.  But, it’s not the soul.  There’s no ending to the soul.  The soul comes from God and he controls its destiny.  I need to remember to hold it in an open hand, because I can’t control it.  Just like I can’t keep that Cedar Waxwing living on forever nor can I predict how long before Mother loses life.  Her life and soul came from God and back to God she will go.  I will go.  You will go.  Take comfort.  God loves you and the soul he gave you.  Meanwhile, fly high and sing your song.

Carry on……

image source:google images

image source:google images

The cuckoo clock ticks.  The floors creak with the slow movement of the elderly woman traversing the length of the living room and the dining room, cane maneuvered by one hand, the other hand holding the day’s newspaper, just retrieved from the front step.

Great hall height     BUMBLING                  forward                inside all the way              to cake breakfast            before        drop         eyelids               into    the deep.         Being      of course,         is perfectly soluble          fight and fought             fraught?               Bought for naught? While I              DANCE                tripp ingly                        two sides                                              that’s                       understood,
or                                   should be,

if you get my drift.   I read just the other day, somewhere, or maybe I heard it?  Well, I won’t bore you with the how or the why, but you follow what I’m saying.

It was like, the time comes when the young take up the cause left behind by the old.  Something close to that.  Oh, maybe, the time comes when the old give up their cause to the young.  Yeah, I think that’s was it.  The time comes when the old give up their cause to the young.

Souls fly higher daily, skin thinned into translucence; some march straight ahead to the edge of the cliff and step out into air; some slow until inert stasis is the wall paper of their last days; some push against dread and fear; some laugh and joy in the legacy they’ve built; some writhe deep in pain and suffer the sloughing of the dying flesh; some faces light with the promise of more life to come; some pull the trigger in search of false relief.

I hear Mother coming; her cane clunking.  My mind flies to memories treasured.  I hover, chose and settle in to enjoy.

“Decaf?”  The waitress sets a glass of water and a napkin wrapped knife, fork and spoon on the table.

Crile R Dean

Crile R Dean

His solid but not overweight figure sits tall against the back of the booth, his hair white, every hair combed into place;  his eyes bright, a smile on his face, his cream colored, short sleeved, button-up shirt and brown slacks, not new but clean; his walking shoes a little scuffed.

The diner is clean, if well worn.  Much used faded counters nicked and scarred, brown booth seats with a sag here and there, wood chair legs nicked, metal table stands marked where decades of shoes kicked or rested.  Some faint muzac plays overhead.  People chat, waitresses weave in and out of the tables, arms laden; people eat.  It is a little cooler in the middle of the room and warmer in the booths against the east windows, their shades angled to keep the sun out of the eyes of patrons.

He isn’t cold.  His morning three mile walk has warmed him and built his appetite.

“No decaf, high octane,” he hands a menu back to the waitress, “bring me the Grand Slam; eggs fried.  Bacon and sausage.”

“Syrup or jelly for the pancakes?”  She writes on her order pad.

“Both.  And toast.  Add toast.”  He smiles again.

In my mind I walk into that diner and sit across from him.  His eyes light with love and joy at seeing me.  I hand him a wrapped box with a bow and a tag, Happy Eight-Eighth Birthday, Daddy.  His grin is awkward.

“You didn’t need to do this,” he pulls off the bow and peels off the paper.

I smile at the memory of his strength, his stamina, his love for life, his drive to make a difference in his world, his sharp grasp of things political, sociological and spiritual.  His ability to still lift the hedge trimmer and the edger and to navigate the lawn mower.  His confidence that still sent him onto the garage roof to trim a dead plum tree limb and God’s grace that urged him safely back to the ground just minutes before a 4.2 on the Richter scale hit.  He was fearless and bold.  Even at eighty-eight.  Mother called it reckless and foolish.

I hang on to the scenes of his life, vitality and joy.  They weren’t our last scenes.  Those were hospice and changing diapers and giving morphine and a skeleton pushing through translucent, whisper weight skin.  I skim past those and hang on to a truth.  Those last days were just the cocoon breaking open, setting his soul free.

I miss him.  I ache.  I cry.  I smile at his silly sense of humor.  I breathe in the certainly he’s there waiting for me; in eternity with the Creator.

Mother has made it at last to the kitchen.  I turn to her,

“Morning, Mother,” I smile.  Daddy and Mother were like night and day together.  Being here with her and remembering him, I see the differences no longer matter.  Daddy lived his beliefs and then he gave up his cause to the young.  Mother is nearly there.

My journey continues.  I have a choice.  I begrudge the time I no longer have with Daddy.  I get irritated at the task of being with Mother.  I watch any brighter, bigger purpose and meaning shrivel up while I trudge through the mundane.  I feel myself drowning.

image source:blingee

image source:blingee

I reach for a lifeline and I’m pulled up to keep walking, to take the steps onward.  I take heart from Daddy’s life.  I slough off the dread, the weight of unfulfilled expectations.  I let go of the hurts, imagined or real.  I remember the love, I remember the promise of eternity.  I believe.  I carry my cause, forged in the smelt of their influence, with honor.  I’ll keep on, until it’s my turn to leave a cause for the young to carry.

Choose

humingbird

image:birdsandblooms

The heart of the hummingbird beats so fast, his entire body quivers.  He is mostly on the move, flitting here and there, balancing mid-air to dip his long beak into the flower decorated feeder hole in the hummingbird feeder.  I’ve watched him through the dirty window behind the desk as he flits from place to place.  He is such a delicate creature, yet he perseveres, he continues his flight, his quivering quest for sustenance.  He survives.

Mother comes to mind; her essential tremor that keeps her head moving in tiny jerks; her fragility when she doesn’t feel well.  The effort it takes when she has to be out early to get to the dentist.  Where there are two flights of stairs to climb to get to the office door.

“Do you want to go up the stairs,” I ask as we pull into the parking lot, “or shall I drive the length of the building, we’ll take the elevator and walk all the way back to here?”

I look over at her in the passenger seat next to me.  She’s nicely dressed in green slacks and a flowered blouse under a white cardigan sweater.  Her slightly graying hair is combed and sprayed.  You wouldn’t know to look at her how difficult it was for her to push herself to get out of the house.

The day is a beautiful seventy-six degrees, blue skies, a nice breeze.  The talk radio host expounds about things worth pushing towards, in his mind at least.

“We’d better take the stairs,” Mother says as she pulls off her sunglasses, “I’d rather be early than late.”

She’s such                  A                  trouper
She                 keeps pushing                       ahead, whether                          she feels well or not.
She
is pushing ahead to
haveThreeTeeth                 PULLED
and                three teeth ADDED           to her partial                      so
that she can eat easily.                 I leave                 the choice to her.  Would         I             PUSH            if I                 were eighty-six    and     in               PAIN                                  from                         a CROOKED back?

I push now to do all the right things for my health.  I push now as I could live another 25-30 years; I push now to make those years easier.  I push now because I hope.  I push now against aging; I push now against loss of ability, against sagging, against creepy lines.  I push as if I think I could really halt or slow the processes of time.  I fool myself.  I am a fool.  Am I a fool?

image:communitycaringcouncil

image:communitycaringcouncil

Mother and I start the climb up the stairs.  Her footed cane takes the first step.  She grasps the railing with her right hand, her left directing that cane lest it teeter against one of the pebbles in the aggregate stone steps.  The free-floating steps undulate and sway in the breeze, the pebbles bubble; I grasp her left arm and lift, trying to not leave a bruise.  She’s moving too fast.  She’s jerky as she hurries.  The footed cane bumps half on, half off the step.

“Nice and slow,” I take the next step with the cane, “take your time.”

She breathes out a sigh, slows, and carefully places the cane, then she and I together pull her up.  We lift off and huff and puff through each step until we’ve reached the top of Mt. Everest.

Going back down, the pictures in my head are not pretty.  The view down the top side of Mt. Everest is long and steep.  One misstep and she’ll be Humpty-Dumptied.  How will I explain that to her other children?  We descend ok, but I can’t get the eerie wariness out of my head.

Later, I close my eyes to doze and see bleak days filled with sponge baths, wheelchairs, bed-fast summer, winter, spring and fall and utter dependence.  My head screams, “I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE.”  I twist and turn in my worry.

“STOP IT.”  I sternly speak into my nightmare and wake myself.  It’s one step at a time, Victoria, one step at a time.  That’s what that shepherd boy knew, in the black of night, out on those lonely, cold hills, thousands of years ago.  He knew it was a step at a time.  And, he knew he didn’t take those steps alone.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

He made a choice.

I will make a choice.  I choose life.  I choose to push.  I choose to take the next step.  I choose to trust.  I choose not to fear.  I choose not to walk alone.

Certainty

image:elliottback fir tree

image:elliottback fir tree

Choices, decisions, blue sky revisions into gray.  Live Christmas tree settled into its new hole in the center of the backyard.  All by itself at three and ½ feet tall with great expectations of one day rising higher than the fence then towering over the garage.  But first its roots will need to expand, stretch, wriggle their way further into the rocky, root soil under the winter grass.  When and if it survives and grows and towers, its tips could fill the yard, closing all paths of access to the grapevines and the alley and the garbage cans.  How would Miguel mow the grass in the back quarter of the yard?  How would we get to the nectarine bounty that returns each year to the tree in the back corner, next to the butterfly bush?

But that’s all years away, right?  It takes time to grow, my friend.  There’s a pattern and a sequence programed into this tree’s DNA that even plant food can’t replicate, if you get my drift.  But it’s the years flying by at super-speed, that I’m seeing here, trailing changes as wisps of clouds or sifting as the smoke from that fire in Angeles National Forest last week that made the sky red and brown and black for a while until it cleared and revealed it’s handiwork of change.

We hadn’t been that direction for days, so when Mother and I drove to church on Sunday, in the beautiful blue sky morning, as we crested the hill where the 57 on-ramp merges into the northbound lanes headed for the 210, I looked to the hills for what the fire had left behind and saw an expanse of black hill like one part of a patchwork quilt, rising between the billowed up greens and browns and yellows of the rest of the rolling hill patches.  But what surprised me were the small, scattered here and there across the hills, spots of gray.  Bare spots like the hair on a dog has been pulled out at random.

From the church parking lot, closer to the hills, they were even more evident.  As we were leaving, I put the bag with our Bibles and study books in the car and waited for Mother to make her way out of the building.  Her movement is slower these days, but she still gets there, hair permed and styled and sprayed, purple slacks, flowered blouse of pinks, purples, greens and yellows under a white sweater.  Her pinkish-purple lipstick matching her necklace of Sugilite pinkish-purple stones that she loves to wear.

image:lauramariemeyers

image:lauramariemeyers

“See those bare, gray spots on the hills,” I said when she got close enough to hear what I was saying.

She stopped walking, steadied herself with her cane and looked up, “Yes.”

“That’s where the fire was spreading from Glendora to Azusa.”

“Oh, it did get close, then, didn’t it?”

We get settled in the car, without hurry as Mother puts her cane in the floor of the back seat, carefully settles herself in the front seat, putting her purse on the floor and tucking the purse strap over the edge of her seat and under her leg.

My thoughts alternate between flying forward in time to seeing myself no longer at this slow-Mother-pace and back to moderating my speed to give Mother time to get where she’s going.

Will I be in this town, live in this house long enough to see that live Christmas tree spread and grow and fly high in its growth in the yard?  Mother could live another ten years or die in her sleep tonight.  Only God knows.  Only God knows the beginning spark of life that wrote the DNA in the tree and the DNA that with time will fill up those gray spots on the hills.  He’s the one that will hold Mother’s soul and spirit when the slow life of her DNA takes its last breath.  I try to envision the future, to find some comfort in picturing what might come next, but that’s as futile as believing for a certainty that I can tell which side of that Christmas tree in the center of the yard will grow best now that it’s out in the wind and sun and cold and heat.

I long to know my certainty.  I need to know.  I think life will go on after Mother’s speed has one day slowed to a stop.  I want to know my life will go on; at least for a time.  I do know my turn to slow to a stop will come.  Someday, sometime, somewhere and when that happens, the unchanging constant is that the creator of all DNA will be there and his time does not slow and run out.  He continues beyond eternity.  After all, since he’s big enough to create DNA, he’s big enough to hold the future.  My future.  This I know.  For a certainty.

Laughing all the way…..to the laundry

image source:menslifestyles

image source:menslifestyles

Who knew laundry would be such a big deal?  I suppose it makes sense that many of those things that Mother did for all of her adult life would be hard wired into her brain as automatic responses, including which dirty clothes need to be bleached and which ones need to be washed on the gentle cycle, using only Woolite for delicate fabrics.  It appears it’s that hard-wiring that makes it tough for her to trust that laundry left in my hands will actually turn out clean and fresh and wrinkle free.

The funny thing is, she taught me how to do laundry and sent me out over forty years ago into a brave new world with the skills that kept me from shrinking and destroying un-washables by dumping them into hot water or accidentally dying everything pink by washing a bright red with lighter colors.

Meanwhile, washing methods and machines and products have evolved some in the years since I learned to do laundry.  At least they have for some of us.

When I returned in Mother and Daddy’s elderly years and took up the responsibility for the laundry in their house, Mother was still using the old standard washing powder, in hot water with bleach and yet to me, the clothes seemed dingy and the effort greater than the task required.  I’d experienced a reduction in that old product’s effectiveness myself a couple of years earlier and decided the product must have changed.  So I switched to a liquid product and was happy.  I made the same change for Mother and Daddy’s laundry with good results.  In cold water, too, which is close to heresy to hear Mother tell it, but less expensive.  So, a no-brainer.  For me.  Not for Mother.

There are some things that still need hot water and bleach.  The white washcloths and towels for Mother’s bathroom and the cotton sheet scraps she uses with cleansing cream to remove her make-up.  This is a very small load, however, so I usually wait until I have at least a half load before washing them.  And this becomes the fodder for today’s drama.

Behind me, through the door into the kitchen, Mother’s sings a Christmas carol in her shaky little voice as she putters around the kitchen, heating up left-over pizza for her breakfast, filing her insulated cup with ice and water.  The sound of her cane clonking back and forth across the room as she moves.

“If you will pull out the white towels, from wherever you’ve hidden them,” she puts the bag of ice back in the freezer, “I’ll put them in the washer.”

“Wherever I’ve hidden them?”  I am amazed but don’t turn away from the computer.

“Well,” she gets a coke from the cabinet, “where are they?”

I have to stop laughing before I can answer.

“I’m glad you think I’m so funny,” she puts the warm coke in the refrigerator, takes out a cold coke can and plops it down on the kitchen island.

“Where are they?” her voice rising.

“In the bottom of the clothes hamper, Mother” I keep on typing, “right where dirty towels are always put.”

“Really,” her tone is one of sarcasm and disbelief, “I can’t image a load that large would even fit in the bottom of the hamper.”  She moves out of the kitchen, her plate in one hand, her other hand on the cane for balance.

“You’re a trip, Mother,” I’m laughing again.

“I can’t hear you over this Christmas music,” she yells from the other room.

“You don’t want to, Mother,” I’m still laughing.  Mostly because we keep having this conversation about why her towels disappear after she uses them.  I’ve gotten over being irritated and frustrated.  The only thing left is to do those tiny loads in hot water and bleach, and forget trying to save money on Mother’s white towels load.  Her hard wired brain can’t comprehend how her favorite four white washcloths and white towels don’t stay clean and fresh for continual use.

I could do like a friend of mine did once.  He hated going to the Laundromat so he just kept buying new packages of underwear.  When he had a pile of about 100 dirty ones, he finally decided to do laundry.  I’m contemplating my options.  Do more laundry?  Order a clean towel service so that Mother always has what she wants?  None of those are cost effective.

Face it, Victoria, her ability to reason is leaving her, so you can either give her no occasion to have to reason out why she doesn’t have perennially clean towels, i.e., wash them every few days, or get over making her happy and let her use other towels and washcloths.  That means ignoring her questions and irritations.  Think you can do that?  Not likely.

The dirty clothes hamper calls, I have to go now.

Life in Small Bursts

image sourge:itsanitsybitsyspider

image sourge:itsanitsybitsyspider

My nephew came for a few days with his wife and two daughters, the oldest two years, nine months and the youngest twelve months.  All of life was represented in the microcosm of the young.  It’s life in small bursts.  Hungry?  Fuss until you get the food you want.  Thirsty?  Point and make unintelligible sounds to communicate.  Some of Mommy’s Starbuck’s Iced Decaf Low-fat Mocha Latte looks really good, so I’ll let you know even if I can’t say the words, I must have that.  I will have that.

“It’s really mostly milk with just a little coffee,” Mommy reassures Great Grandma.

And if it looks like Mommy’s and has a little coffee flavor, then I’m happy, says the little one.  Well, she doesn’t say it, but the shine in her eyes and the look of satisfaction as she slurps through the sippy cup communicates she’s gotten what she wants.

The look of concern on Great Grandma’s face also communicates.  It’s saying she’s not entirely convinced it’s as harmless or as nurturing as milk.

“She’ll certainly grow up liking coffee, won’t she?” Aunt Vicky says.  “You have to cultivate a taste for it.  I don’t think either of my brothers did, but my sister did. I still can’t stand the flavor.”

The life microcosm doesn’t stop there; that milk-slash-coffee tasted so good that now the little ones are chasing each other through the house, in a circle through the dining room into the kitchen, through the office and back into the dining room and around and around they go, the older splatting her feet as hard as she can on the kitchen vinyl and on the hardwoods.  Just so she can hear the sounds her feet make.  The little one takes a step or two with help, but she must be after her sister and so she crawls as fast as those little hands and knees will take her.

That chase doesn’t satisfy for long.  The pint-sized engine driving these toddlers burns up fuel quickly and they collapse on the rug with dolls and coloring books and an ipad game.  Then someone starts to smell and Mommy is up and changing diapers.  There’s some fussing and struggling against interrupted play and autonomy, but once fresh and dry, the fussing stops and play resumes.

And so the cycle continues; rest, play, cry over a owie, eat, sleep, fuss, diaper change, run in circles, drink, play, cry, share a toy, want up, fuss, want down, snack, play, drink, run in circles, eat, cry, sleep, shyly hide face in Daddy’s shoulder, run in circles, want up, eat, want down, drink, play, cry, sleep and around and around and around it goes.  Frustration, joy, freedom, anger, desire, peace, control, submit, want, need, give, take, love.

The busyness building strength in hands and legs, teaching colors and sounds and language and letters, the meaning of NO and the consequence of ignoring NO; testing boundaries and limits; learning how much you’re loved even as you learn how to push buttons so that you get what you want.

We age and those cycles lengthen out as our engines propel us for longer periods of time, but has anything really changed?  The emotions may be masked or buried or ignored but they’re the same.  The need may look more sophisticated or sublimated, but it’s still need.  Those basic instincts survive in one form or another.

The aging continues, time passes and before the end, our engines have once again shortened so that we need food and drink and rest and play in shorter segments until finally the little-engine-that-could will stop, our journey in this world will end.

Mother’s engine is winding down.  Some days she wakes with plans to work in the garden, mend a torn shirt; redo the elastic on the pajama pants that keep falling down.  And when her day of eating and resting, watching TV and taking trips to the bathroom is finished and she’s slowly heading to bed, she says,

“I meant to put water in the bird bath today.  Tomorrow I’ll work on those pajamas.”

image: google images

image source: google images

And when we talk about the coming end, we don’t worry, we’re not very fearful of the stop to the engine.  Of course there’s some anxiety to the unknown but we talk about the transition to the new engine.  The engine of the soul that lives after the body’s engine has run out of fuel and its replaceable parts are no longer available.  The new engine that will take flight out into eternity, that will take us to our Maker.  The childlike anticipation and enthusiasm have not died, they live on.  There’s a new life coming!

Rivalry

hot sun rays

image:cloverleafherbs

Day three of no A/C.  The small fan helps me sleep, but in the day’s heat, not much helps except to sit still at the dining room table under the ceiling fan.  Mother is suffering more today.  She went out in the sun to put water in the bird bath, then boiled water to make hummingbird feeder syrup and Jell-O, which heated up the kitchen further.  There’s nowhere to cool off.

“I’m headed to the post office to mail this package,” I said.  She sat under the dining room fan, crumpled, wilted and miserable in her sleeveless flowered shirt and white culottes that ended just above the tops of her compression hose.  She stared at the hand full of pills she takes every morning.  The classical music from the radio was doing nothing to soothe or cool either of us.

“When I come back, we’ll escape to the library for a couple of hours to cool off.”

She picked up a pill and her insulated water bottle. “Ok.”

That surprised me.  When I’d suggested it yesterday, she refused.  I’d decided today that we were going, even if it was forcibly.  Elderly people die in the heat all the time and since it’s my job make sure she’s ok, she was going to go cool off whether she liked it or not.

Post office and bank errands done in no hurry as I cooled off in the car’s a/c, Mother was waiting when I got back.  She’d taken her pills and changed into a short-sleeved, purple, red and green flowered blouse and purple slacks.

“Well, look at you all spiffed up.”  Mother goes nowhere public unless her hair is combed and sprayed and she’s dressed in nice clothes.

The a/c on high, we drove slowly to the library only to find an empty parking lot.  I left the engine and A/C running while I tried the big glass doors.  They were locked.

“I checked the library’s hours,” I said to a teen-aged girl sitting on the steps.

“The library?” She said.  “It’s closed from August 18th to Sep…tember…ish.”

“Thanks.”

Back in the car we headed to Taco Bell to get Mother a Strawberry Mango Frutista.  They’re mostly high fructose corn syrup.  Mother loves them.

“I hope we don’t have an earthquake in this awful 98 degree heat,” Mother said.

“Well, if we do, maybe it will be a huge one that just takes us home to God.”

“You hope.  But what if it just leaves you in misery?”

“That’s what I mean.  A big one bad enough to kill us and then we’re home with God.”

“But that would be painful,” She said.

Arggh.  She is so negative it makes me crazy.

“But it would be so quick it wouldn’t matter,” I said

“But it would still hurt.”

“Well then,” I said, “I hope you get just what you want.  Lots of pain and misery and don’t die for ages while you suffer.”  I looked at her in frustration and she looked belligerently back at me.

“I wouldn’t want you to not experience your predictions,” I finished in a huff.

We pulled into the Taco Bell drive-through line.  I took a deep breath.  “There are two things we have to do today,” I said.  “We can’t go back into the house until we’re cooler and feeling better and we can’t sit in the car and argue.”

“Fine,” she said, “I won’t say a thing.”

Help me, God, or one of us just might not survive this.

[1st Place Winner – LinkedIn Writing Contest #16]