October 14, 2016
(This is dedicated to my dear friends and colleagues whom I have worked with over the years. I am going to miss you all so much!)
I work behind a closed door
In a room without a window
Except occasionally into someone’s soul.
And I hope that I am getting it right
And there are moments of elation
When I think that Maybe
I made a difference
I helped or healed
Or simply sat alongside someone’s pain
And that was enough.
But other days it is so hard
And I wonder,
what the hell just happened
In this windowless room?
And I think
I am lost
I am no good.
How can I help
When my own pain and confusion
Need someone to sit alongside them?
And so I wait for an open door
An open heart
And I walk into your office,
which may have a window with a view of a parking lot
Or it may be a closet
But that’s ok because you are in it
Helping Healing Soothing.
And you tell me that sometimes
You are lost too
That you are confused
And that’s ok
We will be lost and confused together
You are good at that.
We talk things through
And maybe even find a solution or two
And we laugh and we cry
And sometimes we are very silly
We sit alongside each other
With the windows to our hearts wide open
And that is enough.
May 24, 2016
I have been too often
In the place in between
Here and There.
I have watched too often
And I say don’t leave me
And then I see
So I say go
No, don’t go
And you stay
Or you try but you are almost gone
And you stand in the garden
with your nose in a rhododendron
And I like to think you are smelling the flowers
That you are seeing their beauty
But I don’t know
Because you are my golden and you speak no words
Except with your heart
And I know you are standing by the rhododendron
Because you are too weak to take one more step
So we stand there in the place in between
Knowing that soon
you will be There
And I will be Here
January 25, 2016
Bring me a poem, I say to my mother
As I wish her into my dreams.
Bring me the words
That help me to say what it feels like
To miss you
This whole year.
Bring me kisses
Bring me your arms around me
As I sleep.
Awaken me in my dreams
So I know
That you are really here.
Bring me a secret
Something you forgot to tell me
Because I have questions that I forgot to ask.
Bring me a smile
Because the last time I saw you
I was crying.
Bring me time
Because I always imagined we would have more.
Bring me a blanket
Because I want another
Crocheted by my beloved.
Cover me up
Tuck me in
Kiss me good night
And come back soon into my dreams.
January 16, 2016
I know, I know, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is already the title of a short story by one of my favorite authors, Raymond Carver, but I just love those words and I love the way they sound and so I am going to borrow them. I discovered Raymond Carver when I was in college and read everything I could find that he wrote. If you have not read his stories, you should. His writing is elegant and rough around the edges all at the same time, and his characters are so imperfect that, back when I was a college kid, I got the idea that one day I could be an imperfect grown-up, too, and things might still turn out okay. Now that I have achieved an imperfect adulthood, I am going back to reread his work with the expectation that all of the dysfunction of his characters will feel more familiar to me. Consider the words from a character in his story, “What do any of us really know about love?…It seems to me we’re just beginners at love.” That and, “The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people.” Plain and simple truths.
So what do I know about love? I know a lot more than I used to. I’ve learned a lot by being loved and learning how to accept it. It’s something I am still working on. It’s hard for me to write about these lessons without revealing a little about my relationship. Yes, I have a relationship, although I’ve hardly mentioned it here. I don’t even know what to call the object of my relationship, because he will not be comfortable with me writing about him. He doesn’t really get this whole blog thing. He doesn’t understand how I can pour my heart out here, but face to face, I am quite a bit more reticent.
So anyhow, I have a boyfriend. His name is Michael. Don’t tell him I told you that. And he loves me and I love him. I think we are learning a lot about love from each other. Well, I won’t speak for him in terms of what he has learned from me, but I have learned a lot from him. One of the first lessons came very early in our relationship, and it was in the smallest gesture. We were walking together in the woods, and we were going down a small slippery slope to another trail. I was just behind him and he reached for me to help me down the slope so I would not fall. It had been so long since anyone had reached out to steady me, to support me, and I had no expectation that I needed help, or that I would ever get it and so that gesture shocked me. It made me cry. Michael thought it was nothing special, that my expectations were so low, but it obviously mattered a lot, because it was the beginning of my understanding that it might be okay to count on someone, that maybe, just maybe, I did not have to do everything by myself.
I have also learned so much about love in watching how Michael loves and cares for others. For seven years, he devoted himself to caring for his father who had Alzheimer’s. When his father eventually had to live in a nursing home, he visited him several times each week, not just for a few minutes, but for hours each time. While there, he advocated for his father and all residents, demanding that they be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness. While Michael was not always popular with the staff, he was much beloved by the residents, who greeted him as if he were a celebrity, or a family member, or some strange combination of the two. Michael never walked past a resident in need, responding to each person with warmth and gentleness and often an attempt to make them smile. Over the years, Michael made more trips to the ER with his father than I can count and if I could change anything, I would have been there more for him, because he is always there for me, and that is something he has taught me. People who love each other show up for each other.
Some years ago, his father had been admitted into the ICU for pneumonia, one of his many hospital visits. He had been there a few days and appeared, to the nurses and doctors who were in and out of his room, to be unresponsive. They tended to his body, but seemed to think that aside from his beating heart, he was gone. Countless times Michael advocated for his father, telling doctors and nurses and aides that his father was still in there. One day I joined Michael in the ICU, where his father lay, hooked up to machines, and yes, appearing unresponsive. Michael greeted his father, hugging him, wiping his mouth, repositioning him to be more comfortable and carrying on a conversation throughout it all, as if his father were responding in kind. Then Michael took out his iPhone and laid it on his father’s chest, put on his father’s favorite music and he sang to him. He sang a Nat King Cole song and soon his father began to hum. After some time and several songs, his father opened his eyes and began to sing, and soon he was belting out “Volare” so robustly that people in the hallway could hear, and nurses and doctors walked by and pretended to not be too surprised that this man who they had thought was gone, was in fact very much alive and he was singing.
That moment was beautiful and it has stayed with me because in that hospital room, the love was so palpable, I could bathe in it. That love clung to my skin and invaded my pores. Love like that, you don’t see that every day, but you should. Michael’s devotion to his father never wavered. It cost him a lot. He sacrificed, and after his father passed, his mother got sick and he devoted himself to her care. Sometimes we wonder, was it too much? To give up so much of his life to care for his parents. There is not a right answer. It is simply what he did because when you love someone, you show up. That’s something we should talk about when we talk about love.
July 28, 2015
*One of my mother’s scherenschnittes from 1976, German for “scissor cuts,” which she created with her “good scissors” and a piece of black paper.
It’s been six months since my mother passed away. I think about her all the time. Sometimes I forget that she is no longer here on earth. I know this is a common experience, the impulse to pick up the phone to call her, and then the sinking feeling when I remember that I can’t. Still, I talk to her all the time and look for signs of her presence.
My last words to my mother, after I told her everything else I had to tell her, were “Send me birds to let me know you are with me.”
On the morning after my mother passed, the world was white with snow. While not nearly the blizzard they had predicted, there had been a significant snowfall. The bush outside my kitchen window was full of birds. There was no reason for them to be there. The bird feeder had been empty for months. I knew who sent them. “Thank you, Mom,” I said out loud.
The next day I was busy taking care of the kinds of things that one does after someone dies. People had to be called. Arrangements had to be made. Of course, there was paperwork. There’s always paperwork. I was working at my kitchen counter and could hear the cats running around, chasing each other, I assumed, “play-fighting” as they do. I ignored them and continued on with my day. Later that afternoon, I walked into my dining room and found a dead bird on the rug and I realized that the cats had not been chasing each other, but my dear mother’s little bird! How this bird had gotten in the house I don’t know, as the house had been closed up all day. In any other season, I do find birds and chipmunks in the house because I either leave the doors open or the cats find a way to open them. But in winter, the sliding doors remain locked and the garage door is closed, windows are shut. Somehow, my mother had sent me a bird and my wicked cats had killed it. “You killed Oma’s bird!” I yelled at them. After that, I asked my mother to leave the birds outside.
On Mother’s Day, my first without my mom, my children had arranged all sorts of lovely gifts, including breakfast. After eating, I went up to my room to set up the FitBit that my daughter had given me. As I sat on my bed, I saw a small red-headed bird fly up to my window, sit on the sill and peck at the glass. It was a baby bird and it stayed there for some time, wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day. Mind you, my room is three stories up, and in the three and a half years I have lived here, I have never seen a bird at this window. “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom,” I replied. “I love you.”
Silly stories, wishful thinking? Believe what you like. I know it’s my mom and I know she is still with us. Love does not get shared and then lost in a human lifetime. That love is forever and it is everywhere.
February 9, 2015
On the day of my mother’s memorial service, I placed a photograph of her at the Quaker Meeting House where we held the service, and then later back at my house, where family and friends gathered for comfort and remembrance. The next day, I looked at the photograph and noticed the imprint of lips on the frame’s glass, right over my mother’s lips. A kiss. “Look,” I said to my boyfriend, “someone kissed my mother’s picture.” “It was you,” he said, perhaps recognizing the lips, or just knowing how often I had been kissing my mother and how I continued to long to kiss her now that she was gone.
I was never big on kissing. Wipe your mouth. Dry your lips. These were the instructions given by me as a child to my mother and father, or anyone else who wanted to kiss me. And it always seemed like a lot of people wanted to kiss me. I tolerated the kisses, but barely. Hello. Good-bye. Good night. Thank you.
My first real kiss from a boy was the stuff of my nightmares. Forget “Dry your lips,” I wish he had just kept his mouth closed. It was like falling into a well. Worse. When I picture it, I think of him as an open-mouthed hippopotamus, all tongue and teeth and wetness. That’s a story for another time, but to any boy who ever kissed me, it was not you. It happened in South Carolina and I never saw him again after he told me that Southern girls were faster and more fun.
When my own children were born, I understood the animalistic fervor to want to kiss them constantly. I called my mother from the hospital after my first child was born and, through hormone-enhanced sobs, told her, “Now I know how much you love me.” I understood why hamsters ate their babies. While there is probably some scientific explanation as to why they really do it, I always think of those mommy and daddy hamsters as just getting carried away. My children were so delicious I just wanted to eat them up.
When my mother became sick and language was no longer our primary means to communicate, I began to use touch to communicate my love for her. I tickled her and stroked her and kissed her. When she could no longer speak, she would touch my hair, pull my face towards hers and we would kiss. In her last months of life, she got more kisses from me than I had given her in 50 years before.
On my mother’s last day, I once again lay down next to her, but she was so fragile, I could not stay there long. I sat next to her on the bed and I kissed her face and her hands, her closed eyes and her cheeks. She was wearing a hospital gown, and the gown gapped slightly, exposing a small triangle of her skin right above her heart and slightly below her shoulder. I placed my lips on this smooth skin, untouched by age or illness, and I kissed her there.
In the week that followed her passing, I became obsessed by that kiss. I kept thinking about that spot, above her heart and below her shoulder. I had not just kissed her. I think I licked her. I had nestled my face into that spot and wanted to bite her. I wanted to swallow her up. It was primal and it shocked me. What was it about this spot? Why was it different from her hands, her lips, her cheeks, her closed eyes?
I paced around my room until my eyes fell on a life-sized baby doll that I had found in my mother’s apartment months before and had once brought to the nursing home. I picked up the doll and held it the way a mother holds her child, and its little plastic mouth settled right in that spot, above my heart and just below my shoulder. And then I knew. I had come full circle. The place where I had felt most safe and loved as an infant, in my mother’s arms, with my nose and mouth pressed to her skin, just above her heart and below her shoulder, that place was calling me back to say good-bye. Good-bye, good night, my sweet, beautiful mother. And thank you for loving me so well.
February 2, 2015
For days they warned us
That the snow would fall
That the winds would blow
That the world would come to an end.
Their stupid forecasts
Kept us at home
To keep us safe
But they kept us away
And finally the snow did fall
And the winds did blow
But not so much
And the world did not come to an end
Except it did.
Because the phone rang
And the doctor said you were gone
You had slipped away
As the snow came down
And the winds blew
And our tears fell.
They say more snow is coming
It is so cold
And I cannot have your arms around me
I cannot put my arms around you
But you will be my blanket
I will wrap you around me
every day of my life
and I will be warm
and I will be loved
we will be loved
January 18, 2015
I didn’t want to tell you
I didn’t want to burden you
And thought that I should be strong enough
But I’m not
Because this is too much to carry
And so I’m going to tell you
how hard it is
To lie down next to my mother
To know her pain
To hear her try to speak and not be understood
To not know if she will hear my words.
And so we look into each other’s eyes
And my eyes say I love you I love you I love you
And I imagine her eyes saying those words back to me
But what I really hear is Help me. Save me. I am suffering.
And I am helpless
And she is helpless
And I search for something to soothe her.
I cover her with kisses
And tickle her arms knowing that my tickles will never be
as good as my mother’s
Because my mother is the best tickler in the world.
I put on music
Opera which my parents tortured me with as a child
And I beg please Pavarotti sing my mother to sleep
And finally my mother sleeps
And I snuggle up next to her with the rails of her bed digging into my back
I feel so small squeezed into this little space beside her
And I cry and cry
Not wanting my mother to go
but so desperately wanting her to be free
To be free from pain in her body and her mind and her heart
this life that is not a life
October 18, 2014
So much has happened in the past four months, I have hardly had time to process it all. Instead, the thoughts are crowding my brain, bumping into each other, making so much noise that they wake me up at night, interrupt me at work, and threaten to ambush me at any time, leaving me with not one moment to rest. What I wrote about last time, my mother’s diagnosis of cancer, is only part of the story. The other part is everything else, everything else that really matters.
My mother is very beautiful. She has always been beautiful, the kind of beautiful that was annoying when you’re her awkward, less beautiful teenage daughter, but I’m over that now. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I made up my mind that the last part of her life would be beautiful. That she would come to live with me and she would be surrounded by her loving family, and that would bring her comfort and make her feel safe. That is not what happened, but we had our moments. My mother and I had conversations I will never forget, filled with tears and hugs and kisses and sweet words. My mother forgot those conversations within three minutes. Still, there is a part of me that believes, that knows, she felt them and the love seeped into her mind and her heart and if she could not recall the moment, she could at least recall the feeling.
It’s a blessing, some people say, of my mother’s lack of short-term memory, of her inability to remember she has cancer. It is not a blessing. It is not a blessing to feel sick, to feel weak and confused and not remember why. It is not a blessing to wake up in your daughter’s home and not know where you are, to believe you’re already in a nursing home, or worse, being held prisoner. It is not a blessing to not remember that your brother or your daughter or granddaughter or grandson or niece or friend spent the day with you. It is not a blessing to be losing your mind and to know that it is happening.
And so, I am sitting here feeling all the ugliness of cancer and dementia and loss in so many forms and my mother, my beautiful mother who I felt was leaving me a long time ago, offers me a gift in a moment of my complete despair.
I visited my mother at the nursing home, after I had been away for a few days. I found her lying in her bed, very sick, nearly unconscious, hooked up to oxygen and looking like she was dying. I crawled into bed with her and silently I wept. I had not cried in front of my mother in a very long time. I had shed some tears when we told her she had cancer, but she quickly forgot, so I could not stay in my sadness. But this time, because I thought my mother was asleep, I allowed myself to weep, and soon I was trying to stifle my sobs, gulping them down so as not to wake her, but she woke. My mother put her arms around me and held me and told me not to cry. She told me that we would be together again some day. She told me that we had so many blessings in our life, so much joy, but that we also had to have some pain. She told me that we had to take what was ugly and make it beautiful and that we could do that by loving each other. To have my mother back, to have her comfort me and hold me and love me, like a mother holds and loves her child, was a blessing, and it was beautiful and it was only a moment but it was everything.
August 9, 2014
This is how it happens. You are doing something ordinary. Maybe something you do every day. You just got out of the shower. Or maybe you’re vacuuming. Or you’re at work and answer your cell phone, not recognizing the number. I was at the grocery store, but not in the produce aisle where most things happen. I was at the deli counter and I was ordering cheddar cheese. I don’t often get cheese from the deli because I am not a good wrapper. None of us are good wrappers. We are careless, so within two days of buying deli cheese, it dries out and turns into hard pieces of plastic that break when you try to make a sandwich. We do better with Kraft singles. I know, it’s probably not even real cheese, but it lasts forever. So I was ordering cheese, trying to be a better mother, with plans for better wrapping when the phone rang. I had just asked for a half pound of cheddar when I got a call from my mother’s doctor and heard the news that would change everything. It was at that moment that I knew there would be too much sadness. More sadness than I thought I could bear, so I said what we say when we hear this kind of news. I said, “No,” as if that was going to stop what’s happening from happening and, of course, it doesn’t. I was alone at the deli, surrounded by people, and I was crying and trying to understand what the doctor was telling me and the man behind the counter said, “Would you like New York or Vermont cheddar?” and I looked at him with tears in my eyes and I said, “Vermont, please.” That was such an easy question with such an easy answer.
I don’t remember much after that. I walked around the store and wondered how I would get home. I did not go home. I went straight to my boyfriend’s home instead and when he opened the door, he found me crying, unable to speak, until I stumbled through words that made little sense because I could not say the truth. “I can’t say it. I can’t say it. I can’t tell her” because I knew I had to tell my sister but I also knew the words would not come out. And so my boyfriend did everything right. He listened and he held me and then he called my sister’s home and was able to talk to her husband who then would say the words that no one wants to say. I could only speak to my sister after she knew, because I could not say the words that would break our hearts.
Since then, I have learned to say them. Sometimes I can say them so casually that you would think I am telling you it might rain tomorrow. And sometimes the words get trapped in my throat and I start to cry and eventually I will whisper that my beloved mother has cancer.