The Confliction of Five and Ten

What follows is a post I wrote in the fall of 2009.  Sean was five.  He is now ten, on the verge of 11. And once again we again find ourselves wobbling unsteadily between two worlds.  The one constant in the midst of the never ending river of change that is childhood is Mr. Monkey – he is still there, albeit a little frayed and wobbly himself, but still an ever present and never faililng source of comfort.

August 2009 – The  Confliction of Five

As of late, Sean has been trying to convince me that he is over being a baby, that being a baby is so yesterday, that he has moved on, that he has joined the ranks of the big boys.

But like a politician, his actions don’t always line up with his words.

The other day as we were leaving the house for a play date, he ran back to his bedroom and grabbed Mr. Monkey to take with him in the car. As we are walking towards the garage, I notice his grimy little boy fingers, set to automatic, busily working and petting Mr. Monkey’s muzzle.  Mr. Monkey used to have a nose and a mouth. But they have long since been loved off.

His fingers are long and delicate and even pretty.  I remember how I marveled at them, the first time I saw them, how fragile and breakable they felt in my hand, how they moved as though powered by batteries. I was fascinated by his fingernails, miniature and as fine as tissue paper.  The thought of trimming those itty bitty fingernails terrified me.

I still marvel at those fingers although now they are scraped up and have a good amount of dirt under the nails which need to be trimmed.  Even so, they are still long and delicate, and even pretty.

As we walked towards the car, I watched him out of the corner of my eye, his fingers methodically twitching over Mr. Monkey’s muzzle. I wondered if he was feeling anxious about the play date.  Then he turned to me and said, “Mom, I don’t care for cartoons anymore. Those are for babies. I prefer real shows with real people, like The Food Network and Survivor Man.”

“Oh really?” I said more than asked.

I was struck by the composition, the stark contrast between the boy clutching Mr. Monkey and the same boy telling me he has moved beyond childish cartoons.

He is conflicted.  He is a boy wobbling and balancing on a high wire between two worlds.  On one side of the wire is a soft and sweet and safe place, where all the anxiety and ills of life can be soothed by a fraying and well loved monkey. On the other side is a not safe and not soft world that calls to him to come taste new and exciting things.  And he is conflicted. He wants to live in both worlds.

I’m conflicted. I want him to live in both worlds.  And daily we swing wildly between the two.

waitingfortheboy

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Antique Mommy 1, Easter Bunny 0

I always think I should make Sean an Easter basket or fill a Christmas stocking.

But I never do.

I think the last time I made an Easter basket for Sean, he was four or five.

That was the year I had the bright idea of filling Easter eggs with coins instead of candy.  I am still finding quarters in my flower beds.

Every year, I think that making (or even buying) an Easter basket for Sean is something I should do because all the good moms make awesome Martha Stewart-Pinterest worthy baskets and they post pictures of their happy faced Easter-basket-holding kids on FaceBook.  But by the time I remember it, which is like the day before, I don’t feel like going to the store.

And then after it’s all said and done, I would be left with plastic stuff that I don’t want in my house or candy which I don’t really want him to eat.  And Easter grass with it’s Velcro-esque properties that sticks to everything including air is evil.  Like glitter and those little green bits that shed Christmas greenery, Easter grass is insidious, it gets everywhere — once it enters your house, it NEVER leaves, never decomposes. It is FOREVER.  When the world perishes in a big ball of fire, and God sweeps up the remains, in the dust pan will be glitter, Easter grass and green Christmas bits.

So on Good Friday I was starting to feel something that resembles guilt over depriving Sean of this childhood memory, of not having what all the other kids have, so I said to him,  “Sean, I’m sorry that I don’t have an Easter basket for you.”

To which he replied, “What’s that?”

“You know,” I said, “An Easter basket, plastic eggs filled with stuff, candy? Coins? Stuff?”

“Oh. Yeah. Whatever.  That’s kind of lame.”

So then, I cancelled that order of guilt and went on my merry no-frills parenting way.

Score:  Antique Mommy – 1, Easter Bunny 0

Pi Day

Today is Pi Day.

It is the day we celebrate the elusive, mysterious and incalculable mathematical equation known as pi, or the constant ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.

It is also Einstein’s birthday, a curiously divine celestial arrangement.

But to me, March 14th will always be the day my dad gave up his battle with cancer, a year ago.  It is fitting.  Just as pi is in constant harmony to it’s circumstances, so was my dad.  No matter his circumstances, large or small, he was content.

In early December of last year, knowing that the sands of the hour glass were falling fast, I traveled back to Illinois to spend time with him.  Other than the fact that he couldn’t get warm, he was doing okay.  He napped a lot but he enjoyed visitors, getting out and could walk a short distances.  I put up a little Christmas tree for him which he loved to look at from his recliner.  I took him to get his hair cut.  I took him to Wal-Mart.  When he stopped to pet a display of flannel shirts I bought him one and he wore it every day that I was there.  But mostly I just sat nearby so that when he woke from a nap he could see me and we would just pick up the conversation right where we had left it and pretend that he hadn’t dozed off.

The day I left he tried to get out of his chair to see me off.  I told him to keep his seat and I bent down and kissed the top of his head and promised him that I would see him again.  And that’s a promise I intend to keep.

A  year later, I am compelled to record the day we returned my father to earth from whence he came, a spot only a few miles from where he lived his whole life.   Beyond the fact that it was blindingly sunny and 31 degrees with a lacerating north wind, I want to remember three unexpected things that marked the day for me — the first being the unexpected sight of a crowd of mourners, which I think would have surprised him, particularly given that he had outlived all but one of his lifelong running buddies. I had assumed there would be 15 maybe 20 people at most.

My dad was the kind of guy who didn’t want any sort of fuss made over him.  He had pre-planned his funeral years ago to be the simplest of affairs.  He didn’t even want his obituary published until it was all said and done.  He  didn’t want flowers or awkward post-mortem displays of affection.  So it was really surprising on that bitter cold day that such a big crowd of people showed up to see him off.  In spite of my dad’s best efforts to keep it low-key, word got around.

The second thing that I recall from that day was the unexpected sound of a voice out of place.

My father’s death was not unexpected.  I had cried an ocean of tears for him off and on in the preceding 18-months. On the day of the funeral, I was more or less numb and occupied with the details of the day.  I was holding it together.  Or so I thought.

As people began to gather graveside, I greeted friends and relatives whom I hadn’t seen in years.  Then I heard the sound of a familiar voice behind me.  I reeled around to see my friend Ruthie who had flown in from Texas to St. Louis and then driven two and half hours north through the cornfields and flatlands to be with me. And I lost it. I just fell into her arms and sobbed, heaving big ugly mascara-melting sobs.  It was like when I was little and had hurt myself and I would hold it together until the moment I saw my mom and then I would melt down into a puddle of tears.  I will never forget that she came to walk alongside me that day and how hearing her voice released the floodgate of sorrow that I thought I had bridled and what a comfort it was just to have her near.

The third thing was an expected sound with an unexpected reaction.

My father chose to have a simple graveside military funeral.  The military chaplain warned us beforehand that they would fire three gun shots.  I have attended military funerals before, so I knew that and I thought I was prepared.  Yet when the first blast pierced the air, the shock of it forced the air from my lungs in a bellowing gust, like I had been punched in the gut.  That awful sound that had come from somewhere deep within me, hung large and heavy in the thin air in the immediate silence that settled over the crowd after the first blast.  And then it dropped to the ground and shattered at my feet. When the second and third blast came, I startled and shook, but I did not bellow.  There was something about the sound of my breath, the very essence of my life, being expelled from my lungs with such force that made me feel all too mortal and I will never forget the sensation or the sound.

When the funeral was over, the crowd dispersed in a hurry, anxious to get out of the wind and back to the warmth of their cars.  But I couldn’t make myself leave, my feet were literally and figuratively frozen.  I didn’t want to move forward into a new life without my dad, I wanted to somehow stay in my old life.

I stood by the coffin with my bare hand resting on it, thinking about the handprint I might leave upon it, thinking about the handprint dad had left on my life and Sean’s life and my brother’s lives and most importantly on my mother’s life.  I watched people walk away towards their cars and back into their lives and I felt invisible, like I was watching a scene from a movie.  I turned my back to the thinning crowd and put my forehead on the coffin and watched my tears turn white as they slid onto the metal.

Finally AD tugged on my arm, telling me it was time to go and gently reminding me that Papa Ed wasn’t there.  That I knew, but still, I just didn’t want to go.  If I couldn’t stay in my old life, I wanted to at least be the last one standing by him in my old life.  After a few minutes, AD tugged on my arm again.  It was time.  The cemetery staff was standing at a respectful distance, no doubt anxious to do what they do when the family leaves.

I patted the coffin one last time and promised that I would see him again.

The Good Pilot

Years ago, back in the mid-70s I think it was, my beloved Godmother had a heart attack and flat lined on the table.  She miraculously pulled through and lived many more years.  She had always been a fragile sort, not much of a fighter, and had many health issues.  Without ever saying, I always supposed that John, my robust Godfather, a Lithuanian who could hoist the world upon his shoulders, would long outlive her.

But if there is one thing I know for sure, and I for sure only know one thing, it is this:  God decides the number of our days.  We knoweth not the hour or the day.

Year’s later, after my Godfather had passed away from stomach cancer and my Godmother was in assisted living, we spent an afternoon on her sofa holding hands and just visiting as she drifted in and out of sleep.

In between naps, she told me the story of the day she was on the operating table and how she saw her mother standing in a bright light, calling to her in French, “Rose! Venez! Venez avec nous!” Come! Come be with us!

She said she longed to run to her mother.  But she couldn’t.  “I can’t go now Mom,” she called, “I’ve got to take care of John.”

As ridiculous and unlikely as that seemed at the time, that Rose would outlive John and would need to care for him, that is exactly how it played out.

My Godmother passed away a number of years ago but it is one of those conversations that I have replayed in my mind many times, particularly of late.

In the past several months, we have had to transition AD’s mother and stepfather into assisted living after George got really sick.  George has a long and complicated health history, so when he got sick it was not a complete surprise.  But then while he was recovering in rehab, Cleo got really sick, which was a surprise, and neither of them could get well enough to live on their own again.

While George was sick, we braced ourselves for the worst believing that what remained of his life could be measured in days.  But George has made a full recovery.  And as of this writing, it is Cleo whose days seem to be numbered.

When George was sick, I sat by his bed wondering if this would be our last visit.  Flat on his back, with his eyes closed, he lay in his bed in a pitiful unshaven and disheveled mess, the picture of a man waiting for that one last clear call.

In a raspy voice, he struggled to tell me how Jesus had come to him in the night and given him permission to let go.  He said he had never been so sick in his whole life and he longed for the discomfort to end.  “I told him, Lord, if you want me, I am ready,”  he whispered, “But I need to stay to take care of Cleo.”  Then a tear escaped and zigzagged through the stubble of whiskers into the pillow.

At that moment, the idea that he would recover to care for Cleo seemed to be a machination of delirium.  He was flat on his back and she was ambulatory.  But that is exactly how it is playing out.

Yesterday, I spent a good part of the day with George as we sat by Cleo’s bedside. She is mostly in a catatonic semi-sleep like state, mumbling and thrashing.  At times, she would reach out her hands, to whom?  Is God near? Is he giving her permission to let go? Does she feel His breath on her neck? Is her mother calling to her, “Come Cleo! Come be with us!”  Does she have a reason to stay?

Throughout the day she would occasionally pop her eyes open and have several minutes of clarity, recognizing Sean and AD.  She would chat as best she could with a lazy and thick tongue. In one awakening, she reported that a pilot flew her up to Tulsa, where she lived as a young mother when AD was three.   And then just as quickly as she comes into our world she is off again.

Who is this good pilot who takes my beloved mother-in-law joyriding through the days of her life and gently touches down so she can chat for a moment or two before whisking her off again?

And when will he take her off to be with those we too long to see some day?

We knoweth not the hour or the day.  But we know Him, the one who numbers our days.  And that’s all we need to know.

The Grocery Store

Today I had to go to the grocery store.

These days that task is as mundane as it sounds.

Except for that the grocery store is never mundane, especially if you shop at Walmart as I often do.  Walmart embodies the whole of the broken state of humanity. It is where it all hangs out — literally.  It is the state fair and the airport all in one place.  Every person pushing a cart has some wild crazy Pulitzer Prize winning tragic story.  And I can see that, I can smell it and that lights some sort of fire in me, those stories that hide in plain sight.

And that’s why I love the grocery store.

Even with all that lurid carnival-style enticement, the store is not the same as it was when I had a grocery store buddy, a chubby fisted helper who was thrilled and delighted with all the exotic marvels that the grocery store offers.

I thought of that today as I was pushing my cart towards the checkout.  Right in the middle of the St. Patrick’s Day t-shirts there was a man going up, up, up on a vertical lift.  He was retrieving a helium balloon from the ceiling.  Did his mother never tell him that if he just waits long enough it will come down?

Had my little boyfriend been with me, even today, we would have stopped and watched and marveled at the machine and it’s scissor-like arm reaching for the ceiling.  We would lie with all sincerity about how we wish we could ride the vertical lift.  Except that we would be too scared.  And maybe we would impulsively buy a balloon when we got to the checkout and promise not to let it go.

But today, there were no brave wishes or balloons or grocery store buddy, just a cart full of mundane to get through the checkout.

As I waited my turn in the checkout line, I thought about how much I enjoyed going to the grocery store with Sean and how I miss him hanging off the end of the cart and his running observations and commentary.

And then I caught myself.  Surely that is not really true, surely there were days when I just wanted to go, get groceries and go home — and not have to stop and watch a man on a vertical lift or see how much two apples weighed or see if they had any cookie samples for good boys.

Has the same time that heals all wounds also rewritten the tedious and mundane days of my motherhood into a more lovely narrative?

Maybe.

But if so, if going to the store with a little boy was a chore and a pain, I honestly don’t remember it that way.

And so I should like to do it all over again.

Jane

When my mother-in-law dozed off, I shut the door to her room at the assisted living facility and looked for some place where I could sit unnoticed and NOT think.

When you are visiting a place such as that, you can only really think one thought:  Life is a river flowing in one direction.  Eventually – and more quickly than the mind can conceive – the river empties out into the great delta of geriatric unpleasantness.

Unless one capsizes mid-journey and is swallowed up by the river, the delta is our destiny.  The great contradiction of the delta is this:  No one wants to go there and at the same time no one wants to not make it there.  And so we spend most of our lives pretending we can outsmart the river.

I found a little sitting nook in front of a window outside my mother-in-law’s room that overlooks a little courtyard and I pulled out my iPad hoping it would put me into an electronically induced coma of sorts or at least that it would serve as a Do Not Disturb sign and no one would stop to chat me up.

Within minutes, I sensed her rolling up behind me, chopping her slipper-clad feet at the carpet to scoot herself forward.

“Please oh please don’t stop,” I thought to myself, “Please just keep going.  Please don’t talk to me, please just let me be.”

But she didn’t keep going.  She stopped. She rolled up beside me and didn’t say a word.  I looked up from my iPad and out the courtyard windows, and there she was, her reflection next to mine, both of us gazing beyond the window and down the river.

Finally, because it was all that could be done, I turned to her and said hello.

“What is that you got there?” she asked, pointing to my iPad.

I told her what it was and that I was playing a game on it to pass the time while my mother-in-law napped.

She said she always wanted to learn how to use a computer but never did.  And now it was too late.

Then she told me her name was Jane.

Jane had big round blue eyes and a mostly clear mind.  She had been a high school English teacher in the west Texas town of Odessa.  Jane was a little more tart than sweet and it didn’t take long to fall in love with her.  For the next hour, she recounted scenes from her life in Odessa all while folding and unfolding a piece of paper in her hands.

When she ran out of stories or just grew tired of talking, we sat and stared at ourselves in the window.

“Would you like for me to read you a poem?” she asked unexpectedly.

“Yes, I would love that,” I said honestly.

She sat up tall in her wheelchair and in her English Teacher’s voice, she read:

Only Now –

This is the best time

The only now that

we have time

and soon, much too soon

Now will become then and

will start all over again

Negotiating

Pulsating

Vibrating

Celebrating

Now!!

When she finished, I asked her if she had written it.

“Yes, I did,” she said, “In 1981.”  She handed me the paper.  I re-read the poem and noticed her pretty youthful handwriting.  I saw that she had written down the date and even the hour that she had written it – March 14, 1981, 2pm.  I wondered what she had been doing that day, what in her life had brought her those poetic thoughts and why she wrote them down.  On that particular day in 1981, I was barely 21, at the headwaters of the river.

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Just then, AD and other family members found me and set up camp in what had been my private nook and began chatting and sharing news as though nothing special had just happened.

When I turned my attention back to Jane, she had quietly slipped away and was scooting down the hall with her poem folded up in her hand.  I watched her scoot all the way down the hall and around the corner.

And I wanted to go with her.

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On Being Ruth

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the account of Naomi and Ruth, as found in the short Book of Ruth in the Old Testament.

Naomi is Ruth’s Jewish mother-in-law.  Ruth is a Moabite .  This complicates matters because Israel and Moab were long-standing enemies.  Mother-in-law relationships can be challenging in the best of circumstances, but given the cultural and national differences, there could have been a lot of tension in their relationship but none is noted.

As the story goes, the two women, along with another daughter-in-law, Orpah, also a Moabite, find themselves widowed, which is really bad news at any time in history, but particularly bad in those days because without men folk, women were left to starve.

With no men to provide for them, Naomi plans to return to her family in Israel and urges both of her daughters-in-law to return to their people in Moab.  After much weeping and garment rending, Orpah yields to Naomi.  She returns home and eventually starts a talk show and we all know how well that works out for her.  Ruth on the other hand would not go.  Would. Not.

Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God.

~Ruth 1:16

At this point, I wonder if Naomi just sighed and said something like, “Ruth. Don’t be a martyr. Just go. Please.”  Or was she flooded with relief?  Did her heart swell with love for Ruth’s loyalty as mine does when I read that passage?

Instead, Ruth hitches her wagon to Naomi’s rapidly falling star and together they make the journey back to Israel where she will have to figure out a way to provide for the both of them.

As one who loves security and certainty and comfort and eating regularly, this would have been a really difficult choice for me.  Go home to my family who will take care of me – or?  – embark on a long and treacherous journey with an elderly woman into an unknown land where the people hate me.  I mean, I want to do the right thing and all, but all that potential for discomfort makes me flinch.

But for Ruth the choice didn’t seem difficult at all. That she would stay with Naomi was unquestionable, not even a choice really.

In spite of whatever fears she had, and there must have been many, in spite of her own grief, in spite of Naomi’s insistence, in spite of the legal out she has to ditch Naomi and go back to her own family, she does not abandon her.

Like a stray dog that won’t be beaten off with a stick, she stays.

Ruth sets the bar high for the rest of us daughters-in-laws.

She works. She serves. She provides. She has dirt under her fingernails.

And I think that speaks tremendously of Ruth’s character and her heart — that she would not only remain loyal to her mother-in-law, but that she serves her and loves her so deeply and sacrificially.  And more so, the Bible records no instances where she huffs or sighs or calls her girlfriends for sympathy or sits down for a  pity party.  Unlike me, she does not seem to have a flee response when life gets unpleasant.

Ruth is on my mind a lot lately.

My in-laws have both suffered a number of serious health issues on separate occasions in recent months.  Ironically, it is the one who is not hospitalized who ends up getting hospitalized from the stress of trying to care for the one who is hospitalized. So they take turns, when one gets out the other goes in. And now they are both in rehab together and I am doing my best to take care of the things which they cannot – their house and their bills and laundry and whatever else comes up.

And I’m trying to be like Ruth.

But they don’t see the dirt under my nails.  My efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated or are even sometimes met with resentment.  I understand that they are not fully aware, no longer quite themselves, but these things sting the heart just the same.

Caring for aging parents is an emotional mine field and caring for in-laws makes it even more complicated.  Some days I am spent from all the tip-toeing through the land mines and it invokes my flee response.  I want to go back to my own people and be cared for.

But I won’t.

I will be her Ruth.  Not without question or without tears or the occasional pity party.  But I will stay and glean or clean or do whatever needs to be done, and scrub my nails at the end of the day.

I will stay.

I will be her Ruth.