Monday, May 28, 2018

The Divine Miss M

She runs into school each morning, her smile as wide as the moon, excited for whatever the day holds.  She is maybe 6, and she sparkles, all almost 47 pounds of her.  She sparkles from her blond curls to her glittery sneakers.  She has several pairs of them, in silver and gold and pink; some have bunny ears, and some have pink kitten noses.  We were talking one morning, my little fashionista friend and I, and I said, "You know, I have silvery glittery shoes like that."

The D Miss M said, "You're not wearing them."

"No, I'm not."

"Why not?"

"I don't know," I replied, in resignation.

I thought about why I bought these shoes and what happens inside my head every time I put them on. "I'm too old."  "They're too dressy to wear to work."  "They're too casual to wear out."  "They're too flat to wear with pants."  "They're too flat to wear with dresses."  "They make my feet look too big."

I thought about the other child, a young man, really, who I thought had taught me this lesson, 8 years ago.  Too ________.  Always too ________.   Too ________ for what?  Who was doing the judging here?  Why?  And I wondered why I couldn't allow myself to sparkle just a little bit.  They're only SHOES after all.  They make DMM very happy, and DMM has every reason NOT to be happy.  She has dyslexia; her brain learns differently.  I don't think she knows yet that school could become a struggle for her.  She is happy and curious because she has teachers who know how to teach her the way she learns best.  I devote every one of my working minutes trying to creating a world where children like Miss M never have to lose their sparkle.  They don't have to be judged for what they can't do, and we do our best to honor what they can.  They deserve the best teachers, the best chance in life.  They deserve all the promise that Miss M holds when she runs through that front door, radiant in the morning sun with the future ahead of her.

The next day, I said to Miss M, "You know, Friday is a dress down day."

"It is?"

"I'm going to wear my sparkly shoes."

"Then we can be twins!"

"Yes, we can."

"Pinky promise," Miss M. insisted.

"Pinky promise," I affirmed.

And I did.

These interesting, creative minds deserve the best teaching, and I pray every day that the little Miss M's of the world will never have to know the kind of struggle that will extinguish their spirits.  Yes, they need to struggle enough to develop grit, face challenges, stare failure in the face, and push beyond it.  They also need teachers who are willing to share their best selves.  Just like our students do, we need to be able to own our challenges, but we also need to be willing to shine.  We need to light their way. We need to reflect their light.  Shine on, Miss M.  Thank you for the lesson.  I hope you will always sparkle.

PS - I have no financial or nonfinancial relationships to disclose with TOMS shoes; however, if you are not already aware of their mission, you should be.  For every product you purchase, TOMS helps provide shoes, sight, water, safe birth and bullying prevention services to people in need.

Monday, April 30, 2018

November, 2013: In My Life

In My Life

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more

-John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Sunday, April 29, 2018

November, 2013: How Deep Is the Ocean

I leaned over and brushed a single tear from my father's lapel:  fifty years, one infinite ocean, balanced on my fingertip.

Friday, April 27, 2018

November, 2013: It's My Party (and I'll Cry If I Want To)

My mother had nothing to wear.  It was her last social engagement, and she was the guest of honor.

In the years that she was ill, she stopped paying attention to things like her wardrobe.  She did little socializing during those years, and comfort had become her most important factor in selecting clothes.  She had become progressively smaller, and even though her closets were overburdened with clothes, she truly had nothing to wear.  There would be no "trying on everything in the closet."  We did begin there, even though it felt intrusive to be standing in her cold, abandoned closet fidgeting the hangers back and forth over the rod.  We would need to buy her a new outfit for her funeral.

While my father went out to buy a new suit, my sister and I set out for the mall, armed with his debit card.  Realistically, we needed to buy everything my mother would wear that day.  It occurred to us on the way there, that we had no idea what size to look for.  There is no handbook on how to dress your mother for her funeral.  We did the only thing we could think of; we stopped at the funeral home and asked.  We explained, probably unnecessarily, that our mother had wasted away, and we had no idea what size she wore.  The very understanding undertaker said "I'll go check for you," as if this were a question she was asked every day, and surely this is part of the training in undergraduate funereal management programs.  "Size 14," she told us upon her return.  We were astounded; how was it possible that our tiny mother needed a size 14 dress?  Back in the car, the logic of it occurred to us, individually, and we acknowledged that this was not a situation in which "too big" would be a hindrance.

There were so many issues to consider.  Pants?  Dress?  Skirt?  What would she have chosen for herself?  Colors?  What would she have liked?  Black was out of the question, but it couldn't be a festive color.  Money was no object, but realistically, it was.  We wanted to respect the gravity of our mission, but this outfit, much like the wedding dress she had worn 50 years earlier, would not be worn again.  She had to look nice, but she couldn't be overdressed or underdressed.  The myriad considerations were overwhelming.  We decided on a pantsuit.  It was purple, just the right shade of purple to be serious and age-appropriate, to be respectful.  It was the sort of thing you might want to wear to your interview for the afterlife.  We found a patterned blouse that was neither floral nor jaunty; neither trendy nor old-fashioned.  We were stupid-giddy-broken-heartedly exhausted as we entered the lingerie department to finish the final items on our list, and God help the poor young woman who inquired innocently "Can I help you?"  A moment of silence passed, and we erupted into perfectly inappropriate guffaws of laughter.  The number of ways in which the salesclerk could not help us was unfathomable.  We each thought of explaining our mission but decided against it; politely, we declined her help, periodically giggling as we finished our shopping spree, weeping over what we had lost and laughing at the absurdity of what we were selecting.  As the saying goes, I guess you had to be there.

Afterward, my friend Laurie and my mentor Diana told me my mother had been beautiful.  It seemed strange to me at the time.  They didn't know her, and as I had watched her fade away for two years, beauty had been the last thing on my mind.  But our brains don't actually see color; instead, they see the reflections of the light waves that are not absorbed by the objects in our gaze.  I believe on that day, as I looked at my mother for the last time, what I saw was the reflection of my own heartache.  It was empty.  Exhausted.  Broken.

As the last 4 years have passed, time and struggle have brushed against the rough edges of my experience, smoothing them out and buffing the colors into soft and cloudy memories.

When I call up my mother's image now, what I remember is not fear, loss, or heartache.  What I see reflected now is love.


Friday, May 13, 2016

November, 2013: Not With a Bang but a Whimper

"Honey, Mom's gone."

Later, my sister and I would confess that our first thought when the nurse had woken us up from our unexpectedly deep sleep in the TV lounge in the hospice ward was "Where the hell could she go?"  My mother had been a stubborn woman, which we would all agree is an understatement, but she had been unresponsive since we agreed that a morphine drip would be the best way to keep her comfortable.  Still, it would not have surprised us if she had stood up and walked away.  She had, that summer, gotten into the driver's seat of my parents' car because she wanted to go home --even though her license had expired, and she hadn't driven in almost two years.  My second thought was actually that they had physically lost my mother in the hospital.  But no; the nurse had walked by the room and peeked in on her, and she had simply stopped breathing.  She quietly slipped away.

The moment I had been the most afraid of was the split second that she passed from Before into After, and we had all slept through it.  We had been reassured by many lovely, well meaning people in the hospice ward, that many people choose to let go that way, to wait until no one was watching to make the giant leap.  11/11/13.  1:11 a.m.  Maybe it was 1:10 or 1:20, and my brain craftily turned it into 1:11.  Poetic license.  We noted that it was Veterans' Day, and we would never forget.

We held my father's hand and watched while the nurse listened for as long as she needed to for my mother's absent heartbeat.  The nurse told us to stay as long as we wanted to.  We stayed as long as my mother would have wanted us to, which was long enough to say goodbye and respect the moment but no longer.

It was strange to pack up our various bags of things:  our knitting; the bag of socks my father had brought with us; the rest of the Halloween candy; my mother's clothes; my father's comforts from home; tea bags; laptops; e-readers.  We walked off the ward.  I thought fleetingly of all the things that happen in the dark of night in the hospital, in the hospice ward, so that families like ours could leave in dignity and peace.

Someone drove my father home.  I vaguely remember driving his car at some point.  Jamie went home to be with our son the next morning because his parents, who had been babysitting all week, had to get back.  I slept for a very long time in my hotel room until my sister called, and I was reminded of all that we had ahead of us.

A lot of work goes into letting go.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

November, 2013: Angels Among Us

I have seen them everywhere.  Shuffling in the parking lot at Trader Joe's; taking slow, careful steps in the library; sitting in the audience at the elementary school chorus concert.  They're mostly women although that may be coincidence.  They are ghosts of themselves, with their thinning hair and translucent skin, barely hanging on to their husbands/children/sisters.  Their effort to remain in the world is almost too much to bear.  I can't make myself look at them because they envelop so much loss.

We began losing my mother much more quickly than I expected but exactly as I feared.  She spent 7 long weeks undergoing intensive chemotherapy in 2011.  We celebrated her birthday the first weekend she was admitted.  Celebrated is not the right word - although we tried.  When I left her, I hugged her harder that I was ever able to hug her again.  I was afraid of the word chemotherapy; afraid of what it would do to her.  I was afraid I would never see her again.  She hugged me back and told me it would be okay.  She was never the same.

Because I lived two hours away, I spoke to her a lot on the phone during those weeks in the hospital.  She remembered a lot; she always knew who I was and asked about Duncan and Jamie.  She also talked about the who were keeping her imprisoned in that place and how poorly they treated her.  I couldn't tell if she really believed she was being held hostage or if she was using a metaphor.  She talked about the clouds in the corner of the room and sometimes about the angels.  The same mother who raised me to be a card-carrying, devout agnostic...We began to develop our sense of dark humor as we knowingly spoke of "chemo brain."  Sometimes, it gets better after the treatments end, and sometimes it does not.  I imagined a complete recovery followed by five years of remission and counted to five obsessively, wondering where we would all be in five years.  I really believed we would have five more years with her, and even though five years is really no time at all, it can be a very long time if you spend it well.  It would not, in the end be five, but you see how those fives add up, optimistically, when you count them over and over by five.

Almost two years to the day later, I held her cool, fragile hand, kissed her forehead, and smoothed back her beautifully white, baby fine, angel hair.  My father and sister were so much better at managing the entire hospital experience than I was.  I was so afraid, already drowning in the weight of loss.  I was still learning to just be there together in the moment.

I met my friend Laurie shortly before she lost her own father and before my mother was diagnosed with leukemia.  In his final days, her father had taken to carrying these silver angels in
his pockets.  He gave them away to everyone he met.  After he was gone, she continued to find them everywhere.  Stacked in her son's room, on the windowsill, under the bed, next to the socks...she gave me one of his angels, and I have carried it in my wallet since.  I pull it out from time to time and stroke it softly, adding three, subtracting two, subtracting 2011 from 2016, smoothing away the years before and the years after.  Always, we end up here, today, where literally everything is different, and we are learning to rebuild life in the shadow of loss.

I see them everywhere.  Shuffling in the parking lot at Trader Joe's; taking slow, careful steps in the library; sitting in the audience at the elementary school chorus concert.  They're mostly women although that may be coincidence.  They are ghosts of themselves, with their thinning hair and translucent skin, barely hanging on to their husbands/children/sisters.  Their effort to remain in the world is almost too much to bear.  I want to hold their cool, fragile hands, kiss their foreheads, and smooth back their beautifully white, baby fine, hair.  They are angels among us.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

November, 2013: Prayer Shawls

While I sat in the hospital in November, 2011, watching plasma and
saline and toxic chemicals drip into my mother, I needed something to keep my fingers busy.  I needed the quiet rhythm of wooden needles marking time against each other while I learned to sit quietly, in the moment, with my family.  I wanted to make her something comforting; although hats were an obvious choice, I was cold in the hospital, and I thought about how it would feel in a hospital gown, in a cold, sterile bed that overlooked the construction of the new hospital wing.  I picked the softest yarn I could find in my stash and held it up to my cheek; I imagined it wrapped around her shoulders.  I picked a pattern that would require little thought and cast on a simple shawl.  It began with just three stitches and grew reassuringly by two stitches at the beginning and end of each row so that it didn't only grow longer but also wider as I worried it, stitch by stitch, into being.  Afterward, I found it in a box of things that had come home with her from the hospital that December.  I don't think she ever wore it, but I wear it now, and it brings me great comfort.  

Two years later, the air was cold and dry as I curled in the chair in the hallway, wrapped in my father's worn sweatshirt.  However I tried, I could not warm myself.  My knitting needles clicked as I knit row after row of soft blue alpaca, stopping periodically to hold it against my cheek and test how well it would comfort me afterward.  Weeks before I had chosen the blues and grays because they resembled the ocean, where she had wanted to go for her birthday in November, 2011, the birthday she spent in the cold hospital room.  When I packed hastily for my trip to the hospital, I needed something to knit, but I couldn't take any of the projects I had already cast on.  They were to be Christmas gifts, and I couldn't knit all that sadness into gifts for other people.  Instead, hour after hour I knit my mother's comfort into a shawl I could wrap around myself in the months to come when the cold and the loss and emptiness would be impenetrable.  Although it makes my heart clench when I hold it against my cheek, that basic shawl, slightly too large because I was reluctant to let it end, helps me to remember that my mother would want me to live my life.  She would want me to start my life over if I wanted to, to go to the beach, to take a nap, or read a good book.  And so I have done these things; I take more risks, I step out of my comfort zone, I tell my son how much I love him.  I wrap that shawl around me and revel in its comfort; I know she is with me.

Prayer shawls have long been part of many religious affiliations.  The Tallit in Judaism, the Mantilla in the Roman Catholic tradition, and Pentecostal prayer cloths are just a few examples of special clothing people have worn during prayer.  Among fiber artists, the prayer shawl embodies the creator's thoughts and prayers for the receiver.  Prayer ministries have formed for the sole purpose of knitting and crocheting prayers into comforting shawls for those in need physical or spiritual comfort. Shawls are begun, crafted, and given in prayer.  In prayer ministries, the shawl may be passed around a prayer circle so that each person can add their own prayers, or stitches, to each shawl.  

Although I didn't realize it at the time, and it certainly wouldn't be traditional to knit one's own, I see now that these shawls, knit at the beginning and end of my mother's illness, were prayer shawls.  With each stitch, I connected with my family, shared thoughts of my mother, imagined how we would rearrange the stitches of our life without her  I wear them now for comfort; always cold, I have been even colder as I have reknit the void left behind by her passing.  I receive a lot of compliments on these simple shawls; for now, I tell the sad story of how they came to be, but I hope that in the near future I will share stories about how my mother taught me to knit, about her aunt Rose who always made the most beautiful baby clothes, about the times that my mother and I shopped for yarn, or about her faith in my ability to knit socks.  I think of my son, teaching himself to knit by watching YouTube, trying out double pointed needles, and becoming entranced by weaving.  We are tied together, stitch by stitch, row by row, threads spun and plied from the past to the present, our future an infinity of combinations of colors and textures made from two simple stitches.  Knit. Purl.