It’s been six months, as of today, since my mother died. I feel like I’m in a Greek myth-Freaky Friday mash-up: I’m Persephone waiting for Ceres to come back after her half-year in the Underworld. It ain’t gonna happen, but I still rather expect Mom to show up and want to know why we haven’t finished fixing up the house.
To mark the day, here’s one of my mother’s favourite poems, “One Perfect Rose,” by one of her favourite authors, Dorothy Parker:
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met. All tenderly his messenger he chose; Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet – One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret; ‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’ Love long has taken for his amulet One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose.
To all our veterans, wounded warriors, first responders, their families, and others who serve or have served: thank you for your sacrifices and dedication. I can’t pretend to understand what you have given or given up for our country, but you have my gratitude and respect. If any of you care to write about your service, I will read your accounts.
Many years ago, I sent my uncle and aunt a notebook and a pen each. I wanted to know about their lives, to learn the stories they hadn’t told. My uncle had been trained as a medic in World War II (he went on to become a fantastic optometrist), been captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrived, and, like many of his generation, had refused to talk about his experiences. I hoped a notebook might elicit some more of his history.
I didn’t hear back from either my aunt or uncle about the package until I was visiting my parents and my dad called his brother. And here let me mention that my uncle was from New Jersey, and he exemplified almost every stereotype about denizens of the Garden State that is known to humanity. Generally speaking, anything that popped into his head, popped out of his mouth. Once, when he and my aunt were on vacation with my parents, a tour bus pulled up and let out a group of Japanese tourists. In a move that made my father want to sink into the earth, my uncle took one look at the new-comers, marched over to the nearest visitor, held out his camera, and demanded to know if it was a good one. Fortunately, none of the group seemed to understand English — or my uncle’s version of it anyway — or were polite enough to pretend they didn’t. And now you know why my father moved away from “Joisey.”
So that day at my parents’, I got on the phone with my uncle, who lit right in: “LISTEN! WHADDYOU SENT ME THAT NOTEBOOK FOR? Nobody wants to read about my life. Nobody wants to hear about that stuff. Nobody wants to hear about…” and he then spent about an hour telling all the “stuff” nobody would ever want to hear. I was completely unprepared, had no paper, no writing instrument, no way to record all the personal history he rattled off at warp speed.
The central story of my uncle’s war is that of his capture. It happened within a few days — maybe even the first day — after he was sent over. When he and the other POWs were brought to the prison camp, a British officer was helping process the new arrivals. When my uncle approached the table, the officer asked for his name, rank, serial number, and, as was usual then, his religion. My uncle said, “Jewish.”
“No, you’re not,” the officer told him. My uncle wasn’t stupid, but he was young, and didn’t understand at first. So he replied,
“Yes, I’m Jewish.” The officer looked at him hard and repeated,
“No, you’re not. Lose your dog-tags!” That officer saved my uncle, and I suspect a lot of other young men, from dying in a gas chamber.
I wish I knew that officer’s name. I wish I knew what happened to him. I hope he made it home and managed to live well and happily. My uncle did. (Despite his foibles, my uncle was a decent guy. He and my aunt lived a few blocks away from my grandparents, took care of them, raised a daughter, ran a business, and was gregarious and out-going.) He died a little less than a year ago at the age of ninety-six. I wish I had managed to write down his history that day on the phone.
Anyone wishing to support and honour those who serve or have served might consider writing a letter to one of these folks. An e-mail from Endless Pens reminded me about Operation Gratitude, an organization that collects letters for deployed troops, veterans, new recruits, wounded heroes, caregivers, and first responders. Read the instructions carefully — there are rules — and if you write, maybe you’ll get someone’s history in reply.
Oh my! I confess I never saw this coming. I was afraid your father would rage, become abusive, possibly even violent if you thwarted his demand. I hoped that in his upset, he would would let slip some clue about what is driving him.
But his swing into tears and despair never entered my mind. Oh Bridie, maybe I was wrong — indeed, I think I was. I think you ask Dr. Morgan to bring in a psychiatrist to examine your father. Though there be method, yet there may be madness in it. Tell me what you think, Bridget. I hardly know what to say, but am still
At such a time — oh, at such a time! — my lassitude suffuses my bones, turns my skin husky, weighs me down with terror so that I can’t even break the seal on your envelope. I’ll attend to your letter tomorrow. Forgive
You know how I abhor a cliché, but I must tell you that your letter made my blood freeze. Truly, I felt it run cold in my veins.
Thank heavens Dr. Morgan was able to get rid of your brain fog. Funny how it took a doctor to see clearly that you needed a cup of strong tea!
While I understand your tale now, I would credit such a story from no one but you.I do not know if we’ll need to involve anyone else in this perilous conundrum, but if we do, it will be of tremendous value to have Dr. Morgan’s corroboration.
It must have been terribly unnerving to hear your usually patient papa speak to you in a voice so unlike his own in timbre, tone, and pitch. You’re right: I have never heard him raise his voice either, not even when he caught you packing to run away to prove, at eleven, that you could too take care of yourself.
If only his querulousness were due to his advancing age and poor health. It seems indeed that some thing has taken over your father’s mind, even if it manifests at intervals.
I know you are worried that Dr. Morgan’s tests may have a deleterious effect onyour father’s health, but I think that you have to trust her. Whatever is affecting him must be taking a toll on his body and his mind.
But no matter how upset he gets, do not let your father persuade you to return to the woods. Pretend, if you must, to accede; let him see you in your jacket and gloves; open and close the front day and walk to the corner store so you come back wreathed in scents of fresh autumn air.
I must think further about the venomous fog and your vague recollections about believing yourself to be bait. Have you remembered anything further?How you came by that idea? For what you might be the enticement? Or to what purpose?
Sit tight, Bridget. As you know, Dr. Morgan comes to me tomorrow and I shall keep her to tea after she finishes my examination. As soon as she pronounces me well enough to leave home, I shall come to see you (how plagued you must feel, caught between an ailing father and a foundering friend!).
I shall send you a note tomorrow by the good doctor; I hope together she and I will be able to hit upon a course of useful action. Watch out for yourself, and keep away from shadows. Give your father, when he is himself, my fondest regards, and hoard for yourself the best of my
You must calm down! You write in such a panic that I can hardly decipher your meaning. It has always been so: Remember when we were were small and you tore up your basement steps all in a state, so terrified you couldn’t form words? You tugged my sleeve until I crept down the stairs with you, only to find a “monster” made of a mop, some towels, a bucket, and the ambient moonlight?
Don’t be upset; I’m not implying that you’re inventing monsters now. But you tend to be less than articulate when you are frightened.
I shall tell you what I’ve extrapolated from your note, then you will tell me how well I understood your letter, and then we shall figure out what to do.
So: two days ago (is that right?), while caring for your father (that part is clear), he became, you wrote, “agitated.” What do you mean by that? Was in in pain, angry — disturbed in his mind, in his faculties? You say, “He insisted with a strange urgency that I go for a walk, out in the woods where we used to play>” What was strange about his desire for you to get some air? Could he be feeling ill at ease that you spend so much time in his chamber and might he merely wish for you to care for yourself by visiting the scene of so many of our innocent games? Has Dr. Morgan noticed a change in his demeanour?
Now, Bridget, I come to the part that most puzzles me. To calm your father, you agreed to the walk (good) and strolled down the path to the pond (how well I know that lane!). As you walked, you told me, “the trees became strange.” In what sense, Bridget dear? Odd? Your tone implied that the trees, the ones we climbed, that grew as we grew among them, were unfamiliar. But how could that be?
And then your story becomes strange indeed. You wrote that a fog, a “miasma, a mist full of venom,” filtered through the trees. No — wait; you write that it emanated from the trees. (How could that happen?) It was, you maintain, an unnatural fog, one that thickened behind you and, you seemed to say, breathed a venom that drove you, running, toward our pond. Please explain how a mere fog was “venomous.” Was it truly poisonous or, perhaps, was it infected by your fears for your papa, by the sometimes fetid air of the sick room? I do not doubt you as much as it might seem, but I want to be sure I understand what you’re telling me.
Bridie, you end so wildly!: “Bait! Bait! Nothing but bait! My skirt covering nose and mouth, I ran ran ran. Instinctive feet, somehow home. And a note to you.”
If you wrote me after such a shock, I can well understand why your earlier note carried such a pall with it, a pall that has only grown heavier after reading your letter today. Again, I urge you to write swiftly back to your
Autumn is good and finally here. For weeks, the flowers & trees have seemed still & quiet — waiting. But now they begin to ring out with glory and colour. It started with the drifting, spinning leaves of the locust, floating down like slow-motion largesse, looking like the tinkling of a wind-chime in a lazy breeze.
But now the reds & oranges ring out on the trees and bell out that ‘Fall has come!’ in deeper tones than even the aspen can manage. There is a mystery to the liminal seasons, a mystery of which I never tire.
You are laughing, I’m sure, at my florid prose, but I am even more sure you will forgive and indulge
And on a similar note, if #30inks30days interests you, then join in for Inktober: 31 Days, 31 Drawings. Inktober was started in 2009 by Jake Parker “as a challenge to improve my inking skills and develop positive drawing habits. It has since grown into a worldwide endeavor with thousands of artists taking on the challenge every year.” The rules are pretty simple:
1) Make a drawing in ink (you can do a pencil under-drawing if you want).
2) Post it*
3) Hashtag it with #inktober and #inktober2019
Note: you can do it daily, or go the half-marathon route and post every other day, or just do the 5K and post once a week. What ever you decide, just be consistent with it. Inktober is about growing and improving and forming positive habits, so the more you’re consistent the better.
That’s it! Now go make something beautiful.
*Post it on any social media account you want or just post it on your refrigerator. The point is to share your art with someone. 🙂
The site has links to tutorials and advice on tools and how to “do Inktober.”
In addition, Goldspot pens (and I have no affiliation with either Inktober or Goldspot) is running an Inktober 2019 Giveaway with writing prompts for those who prefer sentences to drawings or who want to do both. Tom Oddo writes that “In the creative spirit of this challenge, we are broadening the scope of Inktober to include writers as well as artists. To inspire you, we have a list of daily prompts and a special giveaway raffle prize for those that complete the challenge.” Now, there are two inspiring excuses to develop whatever kind of journaling suits your style or to experiment with new approaches to keeping a diary.
I have great ambition to take on the Inktober challenge, both the “traditional” version and the one for writers. My hope is to turn the pieces into a story, but fiction has never been my forte, so we’ll have to see how far I get with that.
I did get through last year’s Inktober. Here are few of the less cringe-worthy pictures I drew:
In my last post, I wrote that my mother’s story became mine, and that is true. But it is not mine alone, not by a long shot, and I am beyond grateful for that, for having family with whom to navigate this odyssey. However, I do not have permission to share their parts in this story. I have not even asked for it because I am not ready for the suggestions and censorship that would inevitably ensue. So I’ll restrict this posting mostly to what pertains to my mother and myself.
In early February — on the first of February — my mother fell ill and wound up in the ICU. The expectation was that she had only days left to live. She told me later that she had gone to the hospital thinking, hoping she’d die there.
However, my mother came from tough pioneer stock and her body held on despite her intentions to die. The doctors put a tube through her back, between her ribs, and into the lung that had been filling with fluid for longer than anyone could guess. Until this procedure, my mother had endured all the poking and prodding, imaging and invasiveness without complaint. But the drainage tube was painful, painful enough that one night it gave her dreadful nightmares of confinement and torture. She thrashed around and dislodged the tube and her IV and woke bloody and wracked. We had no idea then that the pain would never go away.
After almost two weeks in hospital, we took Mom home. Different doctors gave us divergent prognoses: two weeks, a few months, a year. We struggled to make plans. Was it time for hospice? A nursing facility? Could we handle what to come ourselves?
Mom seemed frail beyond belief, almost skeletal, nearly translucent. She had no appetite, no energy for eating. She kept the thermostat at 78º F; in the middle of a bitingly cold Winter, I wore tank tops and shorts and, if the neighbours hadn’t such a clear view through the family room window, I probably would have worn even less.
When the cold drove the cardinals to gather near the patio, my mother perked up. She and my dad, dead these dozen years, kept binoculars by the glass door in the kitchen to watch the birds, and we got them out to watch the red creatures flit through the bushes. (The neighbours never did anything interesting enough to warrant spying, so there was no Rear Window-ing.) My husband, back after a few weeks home, bought some bird seed for the small feeder — an up-side-down stone turtle dish — and the cardinals came and ate, one pecking at the turtle’s up-turned belly as its mate kept watch. (It was all rather Promethean, but I didn’t mention that.) Eventually, the cardinals nested in the bushes lining the patio and in the hedge by the back bedrooms abutting it. It was hard to get a true count, but there were five or six nesting couples. My mother was delighted.
In years past, turtle doves had nested in a flower pot by the kitchen door. This year they flew in, but didn’t stay. I did what I could to coax them back with bird seed and by transplanting some soft ground cover into the pot, but they would only stop by to visit rather to set up house-keeping. They had always been so calm, so trusting, so unfazed by Mom’s comings and going, that she had found their confidence enchanting, and was disappointed that they abandoned her this Spring. I still haven’t forgiven them.
As the rains poured down, as the thunder welled and the lightning flared, Mom grew stronger. I cooked real meals, and she ate just enough to gain some energy. Eating wore her out, though, and she would head to bed to sleep for a while after dinner, always re-appearing just as I finished cleaning the kitchen.
In the hospital, Mom had been put on oxygen and, once home, tubes tethered her to tanks, but the oxygen sharpened her mind marvelously. The forgetfulness we had attributed to age, we now realized had been induced by how little oxygen had been making its way form her lungs to her brain. Nevertheless, Mom would still ditch her tubes to smoke in the greenhouse, sitting there in peace, looking at the yard, the birds, the sunset, and Hamlet’s undiscovered country drawing near. She ate more; the thermostat started to edge down. But the pain from the drainage tube persisted and increased. Meds took off the rim of the pain, but never made Mom comfortable. When others were around, Mom would pull together and push aside the pain, but it would come roaring back and she inevitably paid for her efforts later, panting panting panting from the pain. Despite the on-going agony, Mom was kind and grateful, though being so was patently a Herculean labour.
As Spring came on, the pink-bud bloomed. Bright buds of mauve and purple lined the branches; bright green leaves unfolded; bright cardinals and subfusc wrens perched on the limbs. We enlisted a home health nursing service, but time and again they could not apprehend what Mom needed. They came with pre-conceived beliefs that physical and occupational therapies would strengthen Mom when all they did was wear her out and exacerbate her pain. When we asked for guidance to help with Mom’s anguish over not being able to work, we were told to have do whatever made her happy, but it was being useful, feeling she had a purpose, running the family business that made her feel content.
When we had to make the shift to hospice, the doctor and nurses promised that they would see to it that Mom wouldn’t suffer, but her pain and sense of uselessness were equally anguishing. She felt betrayed by every effort to keep her alive; she wanted the hospice folks to speed her on her way, but state laws forbad such relief. “They promised,” she kept saying. “They promised I wouldn’t suffer, and this is suffering.”
Sitting in the kitchen, looking out at the yard, Mom found herself longing for more colour. I planted such flowers as I could find at the nursery and scattered seeds to bring more blooms later. The rains coaxed out more leaves, more flowers, more growth as my mother flagged and diminished. I intended to go back when there would be more plants available, but Mom started to decline and it was hard for me to leave the house for long.
Mom had some good days, too. My kids flew in and out to visit to see her a few times, bringing life and youth and more love into the house, and reminding Mom that she had helped shape the next generation, that part of her would live on in these quick, bright things. When the end became clearly in sight, Mom rallied a few times to tie up loose ends and legal matters. She wrote in her computer journal, committing to the machine stories of her own mother, philosophical thoughts, unresolved sorrows. She and I had time to talk, to argue politics and discuss Shakespeare. We said “I love you” a dozen times a day.
She’d say, “I hope you’ll miss me.”
I’d say, “I’ll miss you like mad.”
Her last really good day came when the neighbours came over with their grown son, his wife, four kids, and a huge, fluffy puppy. My mother, who loved animals,* especially dogs, was enthralled. She sat on the floor with the kids and the dogs and radiated warmth and happiness from the presence of the pup and the knowledge that, over the decades, her life had become so intertwined with these kind and generous people.
In the end, I think it was the pain more than the cancer that overcame her. Even the morphine she had been taking did little to ease the pain. Everything revolved around the regime of pain medications we kept hoping would bring some relief; eventually, because she was too thin for a morphine drip IV, we were giving her pills or liquid morphine every hour around the clock. I snatched occasional, twenty-minute naps and lost all sense of time. The mid-Spring days grew longer and brighter; my mother’s season diminished and faded.
And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.
And I miss her like mad.
* I always said that I never worried about my getting lost in a forest because I knew all the woodland creatures would flock to her and lead her to the nearest house of hospitable dwarves.
I am back. I have been away because, for several months, I was living someone else’s story. And the story was not mine to tell.1
When I left, it was Winter. In the cold days of February, I thought about other topics about which I might write. There were the cardinals that came close to the houses to glean some of the ambient heat, the reds of the males flashing against the greys of the sky and the clouds, the orange beaks of the females, warmer and more welcome than the sparking males. The flock’s calls and clicks that sounded like notes from a wooden xylophone were equally bright — glowing coals of sound, equally cacophony and symphony. I could have written about the way they came close, but not too close, never venturing onto the patio, never coming under the shelter of the roof, but rather perching on the branches of the pink-bud tree that almost — almost — stretches its limbs under the overhang that shelters the patio.
I thought about telling how, years ago, the pink-bud tree on the patio became diseased and had to be cut down. There was debate about whether the unobstructed view or the shade of a tree was preferable. While we waited for the stump to decompose, new saplings twined up from the base of the old tree and flourished. After some years, it was decided that the new trees weren’t growing right, and the trio of trees were cut down. This time, stump killer was applied to prevent new growth. It didn’t work. The new shoots became a proper tree. And now that tree shelters cardinals in the cold and spills out pink and purple buds in Spring.
I thought about writing about the rain. The grey skies cast down unusually generous rains and soon there were thunderstorms with their rumbles and explosions and lightning shows. I stood on the patio, under the overhang, watching the wildness, catching pieces of lightning with the camera on my phone.
And I thought about trying to articulate the strangeness of watching the heart of one season slide into the respiration of the next in a place that was not home, in a span of time that unspooled yet held still, of seeing Winter’s snows become Spring rains that greened the grass and persuaded the trees to cast on shawls of light green, then coats of darker verdancy. The mock pears shone white with their blossoms;
the cardinals paired off and set up housekeeping in the hedge by the patio and the tall bushes by the back bedrooms. The cardinals and wood doves came for the bird seed I put out; I began feuding with squirrels and keeping an eye out for rats.
I considered describing how I went to the tree nursery and brought home blooming plants in vivid hues and stuffed them into pots along the patio.
I cast seeds wantonly into the pots and planters, along the back fence, in front of the house. The continuing rains washed the seeds into the soil and set the seeds to growing.
I thought about writing about how time morphed into strange shapes and lost meaning and days were the same day and different days and it stopped mattering and time escaped altogether.
I “wrote” in my head, but got nothing on paper, nothing entered onto the computer nor on line. I was too enfolded in other matters, in another’s life, to write anything down.
1. Jenny Lawson blogged about this dilemma too, telling readers of her blog back in January, “I’ve struggled with what to say because I don’t know what to say. I am an open book and I write everything, but this isn’t just my story and I want to respect that,“ and “Turns out it’s really hard to write about emotional things and even harder when they involve someone you love whose privacy you want to protect.”