Death and renewal

Flowers on the table

Posted by on Jan 30, 2011 in Death and renewal, Mother in Laws | 5 comments

Such is the marvel of modern marketing and shipping I was able to carry a bundle of beautiful blooms to my mother in law Friday, even though I drove through the snow to visit. She is in her end days now, in hospice care and happy to see even me when I come to visit. After a hug and several minutes of friendly conversation she looks at me and says, “Now you are of the family, right?” She then introduces me to the nurses and aides around her, all of whom know me already. We smile indulgently, like one would do for a child with an altered view of reality. Secretly all of us breath a silent prayer that we will die with our mental functioning intact.

She rolls her wheelchair into her room expecting us to sit and talk, but this is not the plan for the day. She tried to hold on to us, because even through a fog of dementia she still has some comprehension that her world is getting ready to shrink again. Armed with a few extra sets of hands and a 12 foot rental truck we are following the blunt instructions of the extended care facility where she has made her home for the last 20 years. “Mrs. Haley can now be best served by the health care unit. You need to remove the contents of her room and two storage lockers within the next two weeks.” Perhaps those are not the exact words. I’m not sure, because unlike my in laws my relationship to material objects is tentative. I have already discarded the letter.

A few weeks ago we cleaned out the first storage locker and in doing so disposed of what seemed to be a lifetime’s accumulation of magazines, cards, rubber bands, plastic bags, free calenders, used envelopes, and rusted paper clips. Now as I open drawers and boxes I discover that I have underestimated how many useless objects one can actually acquire and save during a lifetime. It is a grim and tiring day, as we first attempt to sort and discard as we work, but as afternoon approaches we begin to spend more time loading and less time discriminating. Our cousin Keith comes back from one trip to the truck with the news that Margaret (the MIL) has escaped the medical unit and is determinedly wheeling her way down the long corridor to what she calls her “home”, the room we are ransacking like viking raiders. He bravely throws his body into the lurch, gently intercepting and diverting her. He returns later with her demand that she knows we are somewhere in the building and we better not leave without seeing her. My husband distracts her by carrying her TV to her, a plausible reason for his absence. We go back to stuffing teddy bears, home recorded music tapes, silver coins, and old shoes into boxes and bags.

This morning I started unloading my car and the truck my husband “white-knuckled” over Afton Mountain long after dark last night. I cannot move the monstrous box that staggered him as he loaded it into the truck. I’m afraid to tell him this last indignity, but it is filled to the brim with color slides. I flash back through all the years we spent trapped in the living room of various parsonages with Pop running the slide projector and my step mother in law narrating. “Wait Carl!” she jumps from her seat and touches a wavering image on the screen. “See that flower box in the window? That was filled with the most beautiful petunias I have ever seen. I tried to find out the variety so I could get some seed and plant them here. It’s a little blurry in this picture Carl. Don’t we have a few more that are better?” …and he did. So it went, ad infinitum. I laugh in spite of myself at the memory and start carrying them into the already cluttered basement.

Over the next weeks and months I will be sorting through these along with thousands of pictures, letters, ledgers, and household object, the vain attempt we humans make to leave some monument, some legacy. After I am finished I will reconnoiter my own life’s accumulation of object as to not burden my children with this vanity of material goods. As the children of the depression leave this earth, it is my generation, the boom time children, who are sorting and clearing in amazement. We indeed cannot know the fears they lived by as they could not understand our cavalier outlook on the world. Cousin Keith takes this all in stride, but he keeps saying to me, “This was not in the marriage contract, now was it?” He tells me of his wife’s father who never forgave or forgot the $2.00 he lost when his bank shut down during the great depression. He went through the rest of his life hiding money in books and drawers without regaining his trust in financial institutions. The laughter we share is not without a certain forbearance and endearment for one who took life lesson too literally.

Sitting at home tonight nursing sore muscles and a lingering cold I sort through all the tiny boxes tied up with string and the omnipresent rubber bands. There are treasures and trash in abundance. Here is a note from Lord Bottomly, an uncle, with a commemorative coin from King George’s coronation enclosed. This tiny leather box is stuffed with presidential campaign buttons that vary from the plain pewter “Hoover” tie clip to the patriotic colored and hysterically innocent “I like Ike and Dick” buttonhole pin. Here is a cardboard necklace box chocked full of arrowheads, side by side with a collection of keys from long ago forgotten doors. As I handle each object, look at each picture, glance over each birth, death, divorce and adoption decree, some part of who they were seeps into me. While a portion of the knowledge I gain is burdensome, some is liberating. The balance between the two shifts constantly.

Burdened with this new knowledge I find some strange yearning in me to know how the young girl in the pictures became the wrinkled bedridden stranger I see. Not having been blessed with the patience of Job I found it impossible to talk to her when her mind still retained some clarity. The new revelations about her I am unearthing tell a story of a very different person than the one I thought I knew all these years. The fault of her not revealing herself to me rests ultimately on my carelessness. We were natural antagonist from the minute we met. I used to pride myself on being deceptive enough to let her think that was not true. Now I wonder if she believed she was behaving in the same way. This much I know however. She and I were both born innocent. She has come full circle to the point where she will likely die with a mind just as innocence. She gave me her best crinkled smile as I put the blooms on the table beside her. Then she looked at me earnestly and asked, “Who sent those beautiful flowers?” I smile back but don’t try to tell her. It is enough that she delights in them.

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Posted by on Dec 31, 2010 in Death and renewal, Holidays, Mother in Laws | 1 comment

I sit with a blank page on my laptop watching my reflection in the large black monitor on my son in law’s desk. The picture I see looks like a ghost of either Christmas past or Christmas future, perhaps both. It seems a line has been drawn across my life this year with bittersweet endings on one side and uncertain beginnings on the other…

The long and arduous relationship with my mother in law appears to be coming to an end as she lies in a hospital in Roanoke gravely ill. I have never been able to feign any words of endearment toward her, although I recognize that she has accidently taught me many lessons. It still makes my stomach churn to think of her lying there alone, even though it is doubtful that she is aware of much around her. I cannot count the times I have wished her out of my life, but now I find there is no triumph for me in her passing. I believe that in this I have followed my children’s example of forgiveness and acceptance. My husband’s mother passed before he and I married and my mother lived far away and died when they were young. So with all her faults she has been the only grandmother that has had a relationship with them.

My mother would have been proud of my daughter for taking on the duties of Christmas this year. Although my children do not remember much about my my mother, the ceaseless work and attention to detail Eva showed preparing a wonderful meal for friends and family reminded me so much of her. In contrast, I did not so much as put up a tree this year. I admit that the passing of the reins is not without some trepidation. After so many decades of sitting in the driver’s seat it was strange hearing the words I used to tell everyone else directed at me. “Just sit back and relax”. I have no practice at this indolence and I find it bewildering, like being a child told to stay out from underfoot.

I empathize with my newly mobile grandson who clammers at the baby gate, wishing to be in the thick of things. Looking at him I know I should not waste a second bemoaning times past. Both of us just need to acquire the necessary tools and understanding to function in this new order. It’s nice to have so much in common with him actually, although I doubt he would see it that way. I am bursting with optimism about the future and it is obvious he feels the same. He is unaware of how much I am learning from him about persistence and ignoring barriers.

My favorite inspirational phrase this year is on a card at my work desk, “Life rewards those who let their actions rise above their excuses”. This quote is reportedly by Lee Colan, an organizational guru, and it was passed to me in an email from my director. The same email also quoted Jedi Master Yoda “Do or do not, there is no try”. I am ashamed to admit that although I have read an reread them, I have not taken the words to heart like I should. Instead of doing I have been trying. As I have watched my grandson Logan progress from being stuck where ever he was placed by an adult to a fearless independent locomotion I recognize his total grasp and application of the attitude I am striving to learn. The fact that he would walk straight off the edge of a cliff with his newfound skills is not lost on me and neither is the inordinately strong and ultimately ineffectual will to live exhibited by my step mother in law. I however have no excuses not to succeed at anything I want. I have the common sense not to walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon and jump, but the health and fortitude to strap on a parachute and leap out of an airplane. I’m not saying skydiving is in my immediate future but perhaps something equivalent, only slightly less terrifying. I’ve never quite overcome my fear of heights you see, but like the young Jedi I am not trying. Let me just say welcome to the fresh new year and give you one more homily, this one from

“Death is more universal than life. Everyone dies but not everyone lives.” ~Alan Sachs

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Leap of Faith

Posted by on Oct 10, 2010 in All things natural, Death and renewal | 0 comments

At first I look only at my toes as I position my bare feet close together on the rocks at the edge of the quarry cliff. Poised, I stare down for a brief unblinking moment at the flat face of the water far below. I am seventeen, trim, tan, immortal, and surrounded a crowd of college friends. Quickly I lift straight slim arms over my head, cross my thumbs and make my hands into the point of an arrow. Bending at the waist I push off, head first, eyes open, stretching my body long and taunt to become the arrow shaft, my feet the feathers. I fly straight and weightless though air that is hot as exploding firecrackers, always falling down toward the cold soundless black surface of the water.  As it rises rapidly to meet me I fill my lungs with air and shut my eyes against the expected blow. The dive is clean, but the water more shockingly cold than I anticipated. My reflexes slow slightly, but as a colder thermal layer overtakes me I bend the arrow’s tip upward, arch my back to slow my descent, and begin my resurrection. A third bitter cold thermal skims briefly over my torso before I start to rise. My arms reach up now, cupping water in my hand and pushing it forcefully behind me.  My mind reviews the whispered rumors of sunken horror in the unknown depths below me, making seconds seem to hang like hours as I point my body to the murky light of the surface. Suddenly my head smacks square into the warm sunlight and I suck the hot air in big gulping breaths. I arch my neck and see my friends far above. I smile, wave, and pretend indifference as I try to estimate the extent of my idiocy. Is the cliff thirty feet, twenty five? I am not good at guessing and the passing years have only magnified it in my mind.

I swim to the shore where the less reckless are gathered and shimmy up onto the rocks exhilarated. Still shivering, I find my feet and walk past them to scale the cliff and jump again. Once is never enough when death is being cheated.

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A Minor Occurrence

Posted by on Jan 23, 2010 in All things natural, Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal | 0 comments

It seems indecent to post her picture here, this wild thing, mute and still in death. I do not know if she died from hunger or, struck by a car on the road, she limped here to rest. Before I found her I had followed the story her hoofs made in the deep snow, crossing back and forth, x and o, circle, and around again. I saw where she had scraped the snow back searching for food by the tree, and there a branch shows her teeth marks. When I am almost to the edge of the water the unexpected smooth brown fur startles me. I freeze in place and watch her, waiting for an explosion of motion when she realizes I have found her sleeping place. As I stare at her belly for a tell tale sign of breath I walk back in my mind through my noisy passage to this spot. No living deer would be within miles of the clumsy ape that rules this forest, my feet like thunderclaps across the still landscape. As minutes pass and she stays there, motionless, I notice how the snow covers her front hoof, how the crystal ice on her rough coat catches the sun and clothes her in precious gems like a woodland fairy. Back inside my warm house I think back to reading a story to my eldest son from an old book that had belonged to his great aunt, Deer In the Snow, by Miriam Schlein. It was an idyllic tale of young children who lived with their parent in the woods where game was abundant. They notice three deer that seem to be hungry and the father goes to the feed store and buys oats and alfalfa so the children can keep them nourished all winter. The book was written in 1956, long before deer suffered from overpopulation. In fact in the 1930’s the white tailed deer came close to extinction in the US. It is difficult to imagine today as recent estimates put the deer population at around 30 million, enough to qualify as a nuisance in suburban and even smaller urban areas. Yet here I am looking at the picture of one fallen deer and I cannot help feeling sad. I suppose if I had known she was hungry I would have tried to feed her, even realizing it would be a stupid thing to do. It’s just that there is a difference in the millions of deer that trample down our suburban flower beds or throw themselves in the paths of cars and this one dead helpless creature lying nestled in the snow, glittering in the sun, under a sky as blue as cornflowers. It is always thus when we are directly confronted with natural selection. I suppose in that stopped clock way Joseph Stalin was correct when he stated that, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Today under my tree, by my lake, during my watch, a lovely creature breathed her last breath, hungry, cold, and alone.

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Posted by on Dec 6, 2009 in Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal, Mother | 0 comments

Slamming the door in anger was not allowed in my home. The punishment was to be spanked, and then with deep shuttering sobs shaking my body, I was required to go back and close the door gently. Sometimes it took three or four repeats to make the closing sufficiently soft to suit my mother. I think I was about eleven when I finally learned the lesson that my anger would have to be expressed more covertly. I do not think it was the lesson my mother intended. It was around that age when I started stealing money from one of her many pocketbooks on an almost daily basis. She carried a different one each day, leaving a wealth of change jingling in the bottom of all the others. It was money she never missed, money I did not need, money she would have given me if I had been able to explain why I wanted it. I did not care to explain even if I had known why. I took it and spent it at the drug store on cherry fountain cokes or strawberry ice cream sundaes, often treating my friends too, the ones my mother told me really didn’t like me because I was whatever thing she was annoyed about at the time.

We were at eye level by the time I was eleven but I grew three inches in the next year, making her the smallest, but still the most terrifying person in my world. Although we never spoke a word about the changes happening in my body, my mother’s tight lipped disapproval seemed to increase as I morphed rapidly from child to woman. It was that summer that I finally stood defiant and stared her down the last time she ever dared to punish me physically. I did not sob or even speak. I waited until she was finished shouting her angry triad and hitting me, and then I walked quietly to my room and shut the door softly, just the way I had been taught. Behind that closed door I sat dry eyed and felt the power grow in me.

I became a stranger to my mother that day, as she did to me. It was not that moment alone, but the accumulation of blows both physical and emotional that made me close the door gently, my rage sucked inside. Since that time I have traveled many miles and years from my childhood home, often being self destructive, very rarely turning my anger outward. I never realized how much I let it control me until the spring day in 1994 when my sister called me and said, “I’m afraid I have some very bad news.” Although Mother had been ill, the death was unexpected. None of us believed a woman so strong and fierce could actually die, especially not during what her doctor said was a simple surgery. I was numb inside for many weeks, but pictures of that time come to me in dream-like memories.

My husband drove the twelve hours to the place I once called home. My children sat in the front of the van, frightened, while I lay silent and almost comatose in the back seat. I wish I could say I tried to find words to comfort them, but I was an empty husk, moving only mechanically, unable to even hear their loving attempts at condolences. Sometime later that evening I sat in the enormous bedroom my mother shared with her husband of fifty eight years and listened as my family tried to figure out how to arrange a funeral without Mother’s supervision. No one asked my opinion. I was the outsider, a role I deserved, but there in the middle of my chest I felt the old familiar anger at my mother for bringing me to this place with these feelings. Right beside the anger was the grief for the mother I always wanted, and hidden beneath it all was a terrible guilty relief that I never again had to hear her tell me why I was a failure.

Thousands of people who loved and revered my saintly Mother filed past her casket where she lay so tiny in death. She wore an unfamiliar blue suit, my brother’s choice of clothing. On her cold left hand was the diamond my father had given her for her 50th anniversary and on the right the Eastern Star ring I had never seen her wear in life. My sister had insisted the jewelry be buried with her. Somehow in seating people for the funeral my family and I ended up on the second row, with me on the far end, directly behind one of the giant columns of the First Baptist Church sanctuary, while my father, brother, sister and all their children sat in front. It was only later I realized I had still been praying that in this last goodbye I would somehow finally be a child beloved, cherished, asked to come to the altar rail and receive her blessing. The symbol would be lost on her of course, because kneeling in public was a scorned ritual of the Methodist Church that I had joined despite her objections.

As the time without her has slipped by, I have shed my anger a bit each year, like a snake letting go of its skin in order to grow. In those rare times when I have lost my temper with one of my three children I have done my worst by going to my room and slamming the door. The boys accepted it and left me alone, but it always made my daughter furious to hear the noise, the closing off of communication. I have come to understand that my resolve to never spank my children did not free me of the curse of my own childhood. The slamming of the door is no more helpful in teaching them to deal with their anger than the blows from my mother’s hand. I had to invent a way of showing love, and allowing anger, and letting my children know how amazing they are to me. In those areas where I have done badly I have gone, pride discarded, and asked their forgiveness. Hopefully I have not made them suffer too much because of my ignorance of mothering. I do not want to have to die to set them free.

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Black Box Number 08-060

Posted by on Sep 23, 2009 in Death and renewal | 0 comments

It was a dreary rainy day in a long series of rainy days when the cardboard box showed up on our front porch. It was wrapped loosely in a plastic bag and left there anonymously between the newly painted railing and the cat food bowl. If the door bell rang I never heard it, even though I was up at dawn and working quietly on the computer at my dining room table. My birthday had been the day before, but I was not expecting presents, early or late. I carried the package into the house, removed the damp plastic bag and sat the box on the hall table. There was nothing on it by way of identification but the 08-060 stamped on the return label, but I knew immediately what was inside. Later when my husband woke I mentioned to him casually that his father’s earthy remains were sitting in the foyer. He gave no outward sign of interest. The day went by, and life continued to go on around the preacher’s ashes as they waited, patient and oblivious.

Our daughter arrived late Thursday evening from Arlington. She came in exhausted from her long work day, the dark rainy drive, and the weight of the baby boy that dwells in anticipation inside of her swelling body. Against all reason she has come to run the Richmond half marathon on Saturday. She has somehow involved me in this mad scheme. I had hoped for weeks for a miracle that would stop me from having to participate. Far from doing extra training for the race like I should have, I have been more slack than usual. I really do not want to do this and I am aware that I am stubborn beyond reason. Rather than try to argue with a child who makes me look like a sheep by contrast, I took my best passive aggressive stance, thereby shooting myself in the foot.

Reality kicked in Friday afternoon as we headed out into a cold windy rain to collect our shirts and the timing devices for our shoes. Inside the arena we shook off the cold and got our bearings. Our names are on one of the giant tables on the wall along with our numbers, 12467 and 12468. We follow the maze of paths through the circus of vendors and health gurus. We bought shirts with amusing sayings on them, got bum packs to carry our cell phones and energy shots, and I waited while she got a chair massage. Amid the music and fanfare I pretended I was one of these lean athletic beings in the flush of youth. I have no mirror to tell me I am lying. That comes tomorrow.

Friday night I still hope we will have another day of monsoon rain on Saturday. I practice trying not to sound phony when I tell the girl how disappointed I am about the cancelation. My husband and I go out dancing Friday night for my birthday, dismissing the tut-tut of our daughter that I am breaking training. My new shoes twirl wonderfully well across the floor. A lady in the bathroom line recognizes me. “Oh” she says, “I remember you. You were here a few weeks ago and girl, you can dance! I love watching you.” I laugh and thank her, tell her I practice every week religiously. At 11 the band is ending their second set and my husband insists we need to go home if I’m going to get up early tomorrow. I dance through the parking lot to “Johnny Be Good”.

Saturday the day dawned misty, cool and “perfect for running” according to my girl. I woke when my daughter’s cell went off in the bedroom next door. The clock said 5:37. She was chirping like a canary whose cage cover had just been removed. My stomach hurt as I pulled on my shirt that said, “This seemed like a good idea three months ago.” As I pin on my 12467 bib I note grimly that 08-060 is sitting on the table below the mirror. Eva is already wearing 12468 with the “baby on board” sign she glued on last night. I make coffee for myself and some scrambled eggs for us all. Because he is so supportive of both of the crazy women in his life, my husband drove us downtown and dropped us off as close to 7th and Broad as he could get. Inside my head I keep hearing the echoing tin voice of the Borg mantra, “Resistance is futile.”

We found our way to the starting corral and shivered for a few minutes until a sudden restlessness let us know it had begun. After about a half a mile we were spaced widely enough to start jogging. It was around the mile three mark when I slowed to a walk the first time. My daughter had been waiting for me to warm up enough to pick up the pace. I saw the first hill and somehow thought that if I went real fast on the down hill side the momentum would carry me over the top. Perhaps it would in cartoon world, but not for me, not this day. My feet seemed made of concrete, and the rest of the race is to be spent determining exactly how unprepared I am. Eva encouraged me by telling me bears were chasing me. I thought in my heart that a swift death from tooth and claw might be a blessing, but out loud I just gasp again that I am giving it all I have. Around mile ten I was doing a run/dance to the music of one of the many bands along the route when I heard the siren of the police escort for the man who was winning the full marathon. When he passed us the time clock on the pace car said 2:02. He ran with the same effort I use to attend a cocktail party, as perfec and beautiful a thing as I have ever seen.

I am inspired, and ever so briefly I run again until he has faded into the distance. Then the pain in my right foot and knee tell me I am neither a Kenyan nor am I 22. I slow to a walk again. I make brief stabs at the running every half mile or so as the cameras click and the zero body fat runners roll past with varying degrees of effort. The female winner surges by as I pass the Village on Grace Street, the bar where I used to hang every weekend when I was in my twenties. I wonder briefly why I never did anything like this then, but I remember immediately that my darling daughter had not yet been born. Even with the pain of every step I realize how blessed I am to have her in my life.

Turning the corner we head into the home stretch. Cary street lies before me, an easy gauntlet of screaming crowds, all downhill to the end. My girl and I start to run, ignoring the warnings our bodies are giving us. The crowd roars for someone, perhaps for her, perhaps for me, but I only care that it is almost over. She surges ahead at last, knowing she is safe to leave me, knowing I won’t stop now. I lose sight of her as she speeds away and I push harder, past the man who has paced me for most of the race. Suddenly the orange bar is under my right foot and then my left. The clock is still under three hours when the buzzer rings us past. I try to stop, but I feel my knees buckle. A lady grabs me, holds me up briefly and puts a medallion around my neck. “Keep walking,” she tells me. “Cool down.” I take her advice and walk until I can stand still without toppling over. I find my husband in the crowd and hang on to him across the bars that block off the street.

As we trudge uphill to the car we are exhausted and every step is agony, but we are giddy with the endorphins, laughing and talking the tale into family legend. I tell my girl that the part that inspired me the most was going by the retirement home at Imperial Plaza and seeing the line of wheelchairs parked, the old eyes watching in envy. When we get home the first thing I spy is the box on the table labeled 08-060, my father-in-law’s earthly remains. We take off out numbers and put them on the table beside him. Something about the juxtaposition makes me feel more alive.

The next day I got an email offering a discount for next year’s race. I asked my daughter if she wanted to do it again. She says she does and then, like an idiot, I remind her that she will have a baby then. Her quick retort assures me she is aware she is pregnant and reminds me that I have bought her a jogging stroller that will make her the envy of all the smart set in Arlington. On Monday I was able to walk again, not far and not fast, but the next day it got easier, and the next, and the next. This afternoon I ran three miles of a five mile course, alternating with walking. As the sun warmed me I suddenly realized that I missed the cheering crowds and the children holding out cups of power ade and water. I come into the front hall breathless but in high spirits. The black box sat on the table looking very much like a bear that might be chasing me. I got out my credit card, pulled up the web site, and signed up for next year’s marathon.

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