Category Archives: memoir

Riff on old family photo

The prompt for this writing was to imagine someone in shadow.

Aspire as in a form of breath. The earring catches on the collar. The heart flutters fast for no reason. Will the silk rug remain in place, the one that was my mother’s? Will the box of old photos reveal any secrets, or even anything new?

There’s my sister on my father’s shoulders, chewing a finger in nervous gesture in the summer sun. He grips her ankles and wears the relaxed face of a young man in his prime. Out for a picnic. Lulu Brook. On the other side of the state park’s carved sign stands my mother, shoulder canted backward as if to put my face front and center. I am say, five months old. There is a lace bonnet on my head. She wears the face of a young fertile woman in her prime, bringing babies into the world on time, every two years, one more to come.

I lived in the Berkshires for many, many years and then, not far from there in the Connecticut River Valley for a few more. But, I never went to Lulu Brook. It’s somewhere in the Southern Berkshires near the Connecticut border, I think. See? I don’t even know. By the time I lived in Western Mass., ages ten to twenty-one with time outs for school and travel and in three different abodes, there were no family outings to state parks. Suburbia and its demands. Dual careers and those demands. Three kids turning into angry or secretive adolescents and those demands.

And eventually, heart failure. His. The angina was so bad one night that he fell face forward into his dinner plate at Lenny’s Restaurant on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. If you lived far enough west in Massachusetts, you crossed the New York state line like others drove a little extra to get to the bigger mall. Somewhat revived on the stretcher rolling out the door, my father quipped, “Don’t order the scallops!” He was funny like that. But no sense of humor would keep his arteries from filling with plaque and seizing. Even surgery only granted him three years more.

But on the summer day of the photo, the year of my birth, when he was twenty-eight and my mother was twenty-four, what could they know of what lay ahead?

One generation earlier, hope skewed much more toward survival, my mother’s father arriving to Ellis Island in his twenties, soon to work the docks in Brooklyn and not long after that, to marry my grandmother, Alice, whose family still lived in County Cork. His name was Albert. They called each other “Al.” It wasn’t until my mother’s younger sister was in grade school and visiting a friend’s house that she realized that not all parents called each other “Al.”

My great-grandmother also came here but returned to Ireland for a while after the death of her young daughter, Mary. Perhaps she wanted the solace of her own mother or maybe she needed the quiet rural landscape of her ancestors instead of the grimy racket of Brooklyn. She was already pregnant with another daughter, who she would also name Mary. I think about the second Mary, conceived before the first Mary’s burial, being born into a clutch of intense grief, expected to bear the name of a little girl already gone into the light.

You wonder how a mother could do that to a child, I don’t care if it was common. Rather than placing honor on new life, it has the stink of a curse. “See New Mary! How much longer will she live than Dead Mary?” All Marys will eventually be Dead Marys, but still. The older sister wasn’t yet dead when the cells of Second Mary began their furious division.

Speaking of furious cell division, my mother might have been pregnant with me in this photo. If not, then it is mere weeks off. Is she smoking? Even with two pairs of eyeglasses on, I can’t quite tell, but probably. It’s the right gesture. It’s the correct hand. It’s the reason I was born teeny and spent the first nine days of my life in an incubator.

Arms aloft Sufi

Found my protective talisman. My agent of change. My reminder of where transformation lies.

The whirling Dervish.

Coming of age as I did near New Lebanon, New York, the site of The Abode, I knew Sufis. Worked with a few at a Japanese restaurant near the intersection of Routes 20 and 22. Watched the waitresses go weak in the knees when Pir Vilayat Khan came to dine.

Even before that, though, I’d spent a summer working at a camp in Nova Scotia run by a Sufi. I bunked with another Sufi from Czechoslovakia (it was still around back then). I learned heart-centered meditation that summer, which competed with the TM I’d learned the year before. There was lots of storytelling and swimming naked in the sea, which is warm up there because of the Gulf Stream.

Years later, when I took part in a group that looked to Rumi for wisdom and occasionally cleared the floor to whirl, I was primed.

Whirling draws down heaven, even when you are a clod with no teacher and slim practice. Reliably so.

Somewhat like Grace’s Tree Woman, this glowing image of dervishes has been in my possession been for many, many years — most recently, pinned to the basement fridge (in my studio) with magnets. Ten years? More?

It wasn’t until cutting the outline of the Sufi that I realized the similarity of the arms held aloft to the girl running up the steps and the skateboarding boy.

Maybe it’s time to dance again? Or whirl?

*

Prompt 16. Acey’s Collage Month.

See also my Flickr album. SoulCollage and the tags here on the blog.

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.