Category Archives: memoir

Signs

The penultimate text from the hospice social worker said, “I hope (if you believe in this), she will send you signs.”

I’ve been looking. Waiting. Would my sister send a sign? There have been three now.

Friday was my first trip up to Salem alone in a while and for some reason I was filled with dread.

I needn’t have been, for my sister made her presence felt right away when a solar powered lantern went on. Poof. Just like that! My sister got it for herself at Christmas and even though it’s been plainly visible for three months, not once have I seen it lit. Hi, Noreen.

The second sign came in the form of four turkeys: two strutting by themselves, one squished dead on the side of the road, and the fourth roosting in a tree up the street in the gloaming.

The first turkey showed up during Finn’s and my morning walk. Nothing unusual, though I was a little surprised that it was alone.

But then, a second bird in Peabody — also alone. I’ve never seen one on the North Shore.

My tingly-sense was activated.

Almost an hour later as I neared home, I saw the dead one. It was crumpled up against the guardrails dividing Route Nine, feet sticking straight up in the air. The glorious feathers in a heap. I gasped.

I’ve seen dead geese, squirrels, rabbits, cats, blue jays and skunks, but not once have I ever come across a dead turkey. It was heart breaking.

But later, just before full dark, I took Finn around the block and spied the fourth turkey — way up in the branches of a maple tree. On my street. I was stunned. I’ve only seen roosting birds one other time and it was an entire flock.

The thing was part shadow, part creature, its presence both spooky and majestic. Hallowed. Sent.

Lastly, today I came across a stack of box lids — the last things in my sister’s hall closet. I planned on keeping them because they make wonderful sorting trays for paper, which is why I was a little surprised that these were empty. Oh, but wait.

In the stack, folded up, was a map of Italy! Can you believe it? This last piece of ephemera came as a gratifying benediction, one week after reserving plane tickets to Rome.

Even though my travels over the years stirred up my sister’s anxieties, I know that she’d be thrilled on my behalf about this trip.

I have the map to prove it.

Delusion is the least of it

She asks me to bring her a hat, gloves, and sneakers so she can catch a bus and go home.

Never mind the catheter or the fact that she can’t bend over to put shoes on and may not fit any of the pants I’ve tucked into her closet at the nursing home. Never mind the code at the exit door or the long hall to reach it.

But it may be that the hospice designation is wrong. What if she was concussed when she fell that Sunday? And what if the three lorazepam that she’s since admitted to taking afterwards made her loggy, incoherent, and depressed her respiratory function, leading the doctor to mistakenly conclude the next day that death was imminent?

Here’s a short list of immediate problems.

Who’s going to manage this transition?

You can’t get rehab while on hospice and dropping hospice would mean losing the care of that terrific team. The nursing home has yet to inspire confidence.

My sister doesn’t do PT. She just doesn’t — even to the point of turning professionals away at her door. I keep telling her she can’t go home until she can walk a little, but this makes no sense to her because she has barely walked for a long time and has kind of managed (not really, but).

Less critically, I started cleaning up her apartment. The newer hospital bed and oxygen equipment were picked up by the lenders immediately. K put the urine-soaked chair into the dumpster. I gave away some of her dishes and — this is big, really big — I filled four leaf waste bags with some (but not all) of her hoarded paper. Threw out: the collection of Kleenex boxes, thirty-plus truvia containers, stacks and stacks of clippings, travel brochures, coupons, and peapod order slips.

The disorder created by paper in her small spaces has been a major source of contention.

She was going to decoupage gifts, you see. I kept ordering her ModgePodge. Glue sticks. But the piles just grew and grew, like ice floes or delta deposits occupying more and more of her precious square footage. No gifts.

So her place is a little empty. A basis for controversy. A basis for more fucking work. You cannot believe how many chairs, hassocks, and stools we have supplied over the years. Her remaining hospital bed is one K and I obtained through the Freemason’s HELP program. She refuses to sleep in it. Has done nothing but complain about it.

I know she’s feeling better because the fiery temper is back. Her virulent projections. The lack of reason. The nasty assumptions and accusations.

If she’s not gonna die any time soon, I’ve got to rejigger this a bit. And maybe a lot. The thought of another major piece of advocacy comes at me like a tsunami.

Hospice

Been working on piecing a mid-sized Village Quilt in between calls from my sister’s hospice team, her friends, and the nursing home where she now resides. A whirlwind. Way too much to relate. Nobody knows how long she has, and a recent rally confuses things, but she can no longer be alone.

It’s been pretty day by day here. Someday I’ll write publicly about more of this. How to describe it all? Eleven February trips to Salem, now with meds and my mouth guard on board. Just in case.

Last week after the determination was made that she could not be alone, I spent a horrible night on her floor. Not a clean sheet or blanket in the place on account of her incontinence. The smell of urine distracting. Her insistence that the TV stay on all night, not to be argued with.

K was in Moscow and arrangements had to be cobbled together for the dog. More stress. (Finn seems to have survived his first night alone in the house by hiring the dog walker for an extra walk at 8 pm.)

Fifteen firefighters assisted my sister in three days — five on Sunday to help her up from a fall; five on Tuesday morning to get her into her new hospital bed; five on Wednesday to get her onto a gurney to take her to a nursing home.

I knew I could never spend another night like that one. By then it was clear that she needed more that 24/7 care because there would be many moments in a day requiring three or four people. In the end, that made the decision easy.

On that awful night, she demanded to get out of bed at two a.m. Really argued. Picture me standing at the bedside, worried that someone who weighs almost three times what I weigh would shove herself forward and take us both out.

Highest of praise for the hospice team! They had a bed for her at a facility within 12 hours.

The hospice team is amazing. They’re skilled caregivers who are trained to address the needs of the whole family. After nine years of being rendered invisible in the face of my sister’s need and pathology, it’s disorienting. “Wait, what? You’re asking how I’m doing?” One of many signs that shows how difficult it all has been.

My sister says she is not scared. Believes that there are way worse things here on earth than could ever be in hell. Any anyway, she believes everyone goes to heaven. Never mind the inconsistencies — she has some kind of faith and that’s a good thing.

Today, she talked about rehab and wanted to know if I’d given all her things away already?

A process.

Her cat is here. Poor thing hides under C’s bed or in the laundry closet. The dog wants to kill her and would, given half a chance. No joke. But, one thing at a time. And anyway, it doesn’t feel right to give the little tuxedo away while my sister still lives.

Meanwhile, the news is a tempest.

Tomorrow my standing writing date will be a TV viewing date instead. Michael Cohen. I’ve made cookies.

Third week is book week

Don’t mind me. I’m trying to figure out how to organize content. A little. I’ve read some really great books since Christmas and want to force my hand here, so I’m dedicating this week (mostly) to books.

First up: Educated by Tara Westover. This award-winning memoir is a page turner. An inspiration. Like “Hillbilly Elegy,” it’s a tale about the elevating and redemptive powers of education. While JD Vance overcame neglect, poverty, and a community riddled by addiction, Westover overcame the damaging isolation of a survivalist childhood, physical and emotional abuse, and her father’s severe mental illness. I agree with the NY Times review that stated, “‘Educated’ makes Vance’s tale seem tame by comparison.”

A Mormon with eyes on the Rapture, Westover’s father did construction and ran a scrap yard in the hills of Idaho. Probably bi-polar, his mania was fueled by panic about being ready for the end of the world. His frenetic pace created a wanton disregard for the basic safety of his off-spring. Limbs nearly severed. Rebar thrown like lethal spears. Avoidable explosions. The hair-raising mishaps in the scrap yard were truly horrifying.

Tara was not even home schooled. Like her siblings, she worked in the yard or in the kitchen. Thank god Westover aced the ACTs in her late teens or one wonders how she would have fared.

To begin her exit from the family, Westover had to start at the very beginning: obtaining a birth certificate. Her mother didn’t even know the exact month of her birth. A day or two on either side, okay — but forgetting the month? It’s staggering.

One brother escaped and reappears periodically. Encourages his sister. Another brother torments her with both emotional taunting and physical abuse. The classic cycles: battering followed by contrition; shaming followed by gifts. Another reader I know speculated that there was sexual abuse as well. As soon as she said so, it seemed correct. But Westover doesn’t mention it and in a way, it doesn’t matter.

The mother says nothing. Complicit.

Eventually (no surprise), the father is badly wounded. Meanwhile, the midwife mother has generated enough support for her herbal products to be running a small empire by book’s end.

Westover’s education takes up much of the latter part of the book.

Recommend. Starts out with a literary voice and loses that early on, but still a worthy read. Edifying.

Good pairing: JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Frightening current parallels: Mike Pompeo and John Bolton (secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively) are both End Times guys, leading two shrewd political commentators* to suggest that this administration is turning even the future into a commodity, one that most of us don’t deserve and can’t afford. A planet with huge reductions in population would leave more resources for the elite, now wouldn’t it? Denials of climate change, mere ruses. Nuclear war, a means to an end.

Sound like fundamentalism? Sorry to say that while speculation underpins this view, there is also compelling and chilling evidence for it.

 PS I make no attempt to provide a thorough review of books and since I’m not being paid to do this, I feel entitled to my idiosyncratic approach. Plenty of official reviews are easily available online.

 

 

 

 

Cold, cold wind

Yesterday, I found this drawing of a polar bear while cleaning out a closet. It seemed particularly synchronous as I had just the night before dreamt about a bear (a brown bear, but still) AND the temperatures dropped radically overnight.

I am filming a big brown bear at a safe distance. After a while of watching it travel up a steep slope, I watch it on the video clip on my phone, until I realize that by doing so, I no longer have eyes on the real bear. Where is it? I panic a little and slide into water at the edge of a small lake, as if that offered protection. Even as I am trying to save myself from the bear, I am suddenly consumed with thoughts about drowning myself.

But then I start swimming to a cluster of buildings on the opposite shore and find myself surprised at how easily I get there. I’m not that strong of a swimmer. Something about the sanctity of the body.  Inhabiting it. Trusting it to take me to the next safe place.

** The landscape is very like the landscape of the trout lakes up in the Sierras where we vacationed one summer a while back. CALIFORNIA.

** The drawing copies a portion of an illustration to the fairy tale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Insect wings : a meditation on scale and mothers

Image result for art insect wings

I dream about making furniture out of insect wings. Tiny, sheer, delicate and for whom?

Upon rising, I think about size in creative endeavor. How scale matters. I wonder: am I working too small — somehow limiting the scope of my work — or perhaps, the opposite — making life difficult by bucking a natural inclination to work small?

A large wall quilt. A goddamned novel.

And then out of nowhere, I remember something my mother said to me when I was seventeen or eighteen: “You may very well be a miniaturist.” Her tone was curious detachment as if still considering the idea, not at all one of her emphatic pronouncements.

Hmmm.

For reasons both complicated and pragmatic, I spent my senior year at the school where my mother’d been teaching for almost a decade. For a span of nine months, then, she was both mother and art teacher to me and for nine months, I was her daughter and her student (and the ‘art teacher’s daughter’).

That year, I was perpetually embarrassed by my mother — what 17 year old isn’t? Her clothes. Her laugh. Her opinions. I still remember how cringe-worthy her repeated mispronunciation of the late Baroque period was — making it sound less like a hot beverage and more like a porn star’s screen name — Ro-COCK-oh. Again, Mom? Really?

But, overall it was good. For one thing, seeing her in her element enlarged my view of her. In particular, it lent credence to an assertion she’d been making for years about having this respected competence elsewhere (as opposed to the beleaguered and disputed competence at home). But more importantly, I was the beneficiary of her considerable skill as a teacher. Of course, she dispensed observations and enthusiasms throughout my childhood, but as her student, the feedback was sustained and structured and something a little different could unfold.

Even now, it’s hard to square my mother’s capacity to run rough shod over people with her perceptive skill in the art room. Imagine a woman walking into the teachers’ lounge of a small school where she’s disliked by a majority of her peers — a place where her chain smoking and a tendency toward dismissive, smug bombast put people off.

Now picture that same person entering her classroom and coming alive with the give and take with her students. Watch that same forceful delivery of opinion turn a shy student into an aspiring artist. Yes! That quiet student who formerly floated from class to class in ghost-like invisibility has become a person determined to make something beautiful and certain she can do it — because of my mother.

You know how teachers talk about ‘that one student’ that made their entire teaching career worthwhile? My mother sometimes had two a year.

My mother taught her students that they had something to say and that how they said it was both unique and discover-able.

Teenagers who’d convinced themselves by the ripe old age of 15 that they were ordinary or ‘just jocks’ found out otherwise in her classroom. For the wild kids (called ‘juvenile delinquents’ back then), she’d harness their misspent leadership energies without judgment, instilling no end of appreciation. “Give ’em a job,” she’d cackle.

Of course, she celebrated talent — what teacher doesn’t? For those students, her unique skill seemed to be in knowing when to gush effusively (but sincerely!) and when to step back and let them struggle. She ushered one outstanding student after another into their talent.

“You just might be a miniaturist.”

Is the observation as straight forward as it sounds — as in, ‘work small’? Given that my mother was right about an obnoxious number of things, I’m willing to consider this anew, but not exactly sure how to.When I removed a small section of a semi-large quilt to work on separately, I considered letting the fragment stand alone. I do this all the time.



(The fragment has been returned to the whole). Sometimes, when the prospect of finishing a first draft overwhelms, I get energized at the idea of trying to get excerpts published (and then, ironically, I can get back at it).Is scale of work as innate as our preference for certain palettes? And if it is, is it useful to step outside of that preference now and again and see what happens? What results if we don’t discover or honor our basic preference regarding scale — does it add pitch to the learning curve in a distressing manner, building in frustration that could be avoided? Or is this something else?

Before I go, I have to tell you we’ve had a string of truly beautiful summer days here. The weather was especially nice for a small birthday gathering for K yesterday — very Napa-valley with the tables in the yard and flowers cut from the garden. Of course, our new fire table was a big hit!

 

Insect drawing from RoyalSocietyPublishing.org.

The power of stuff to undo us

The Weight of Things, Part I

Look at the lovely Rosenthal platter — that flourish along the scalloped edge; delicate blue flowers draping off the rim. I have service for eight plus another smaller platter, a casserole, a tea pot (squat and round) and coffee pot (tall and slender), plus matching sugar and creamer, candlesticks.

They were a wedding gift from my mother.

Recall this: Mother is back from a trip to Germany with her second husband. They are seeing the world! While on the continent she buys an entire set of china for her daughter who, at the age of 33, is at last engaged to be married.

When Mother hands Daughter the crumpled brochure, Daughter doesn’t bother to hide her dismay. Are the dishes too feminine? Is she inclined toward blue these days? Such a fraught exchange!

They’ve been here before. A history of thwarted choices gives Daughter an unhealthy sense that she’s entitled to sour incivility. So many items ticked off! How much did Mother spend, exactly?

There will be a cost to Daughter’s wounding response and she knows it. It’s no longer a gift-giving occasion. It’s all about Mother’s hurt feelings. Daughter’s cooing and back peddling will be accomplished with a combination of guilt, annoyance, and compulsive, middle-child diplomacy. Of course the dishes will be beautiful! It took a second, is all! Of course, it was a generous gesture!

They’ve been here before, too.

Does it matter that I love the dishes now? That as I wash off the residue from last night’s dinner, I do so with care, knowing how inconsolable I’d be if the platter broke — my mother dead and gone these 22 years past. Stuff has the power to undo us sometimes.

The Weight of Things, Part II

We’ve purchased a shed in the sorry acknowledgement that our belongings have outpaced our capacity for sorting, disposal, or storage. The garage is packed: sports equipment, gardening tools, lumber, Christmas decorations, craft booth panels, two table saws, bikes and chairs. There’s beer brewing equipment, scuba gear, coolers, kayak paddles and beach chairs. At least three complete socket wrench sets, possibly more.

img_3262Now picture Son moving to Parts West with two suitcases. His entire apartment is boxed up in the garage, too. Now what? Most is too heavy to ship.

Too heavy indeed! Here are the pots and knives Mother purchased in such industrious cheer — the dish towels and extension cords, an array of spices! He’ll make curry and roast chickens! He’ll eat on Mexican dishes while looking at the spectacular skyline. Oh that view, Mother exclaimed, that view!

And then there was the dreadful pick up eight months later. Utter disarray.

Seeing these things makes for uneasy recollection. For some reason it is the contrast between the early optimism and the later despair that gets to me the most. I don’t know why. The hard questions arise, prime among them — how could I have missed so much?

I know how — because I wasn’t even looking.

It’s a little better now — maybe you can build up an immunity to memory by repeated exposure to triggering belongings. Things have resumed their status as objects. They are once again problems to be solved — sell? donate? keep?

The iron skillet is coming in the house, but — anybody want a waffle iron?