Yes, yes, yes. What she said. Source: Re-thinking an Essay – After It’s Too Late
Funny, when I started this blog years ago I used the word “musings” to describe it, but I’m not sure I have done that at all. I think I tend to use Facebook for my musings, Twitter for my criticism (most people I know in my age group and older are on Facebook so I can be meaner on Twitter and still not blow my cover), and Snapchat for…well, snapchat.
I avoid writing unless I feel I have the time and inspiration for a full, concise essay with a message and hook and an ending. Why? No one sees this anyway, for the most part! So I’m gonna MUSE!
Yesterday evening, I realized as I stood in line for fresh peach ice cream, a seasonal offering at Mitchells, that at that very moment when my husband and I were capping off a long day of sun, food, and cocktails in the searing late summer Sunday heat, a boy I went to high school with–and with whom my husband would eventually cross office space with–was sitting at a service to bury his 19-year old son who had committed suicide. We had visited with the family at the wake earlier in the day, not knowing what to do or say besides a hug, tears, and the promise of prayers. Being thankful for our mental health and that of our children, my husband and I, murmuring taboo words about what life would be like for this family now that every day would cease to be about managing the lifelong depression and emotional chaos of this boy. Realizing that on the day of his birth, they had a perfect baby and life was just beginning, and no matter what happened in the years after that, on one blissful day that baby was fresh and new like we all are once and nothing was “wrong.”
I wouldn’t look at the poster boards of photographs of the boys as a child. I didn’t know him, had never met him. I didn’t have waterproof mascara on. I was afraid of touching that place which I wanted to avoid.
And then, fully appreciating the possibly obscene juxtaposition of our day vs. theirs, we went off to enjoy Cleveland’s refurbished downtown areas, waterfront, dinner, drinks, ice cream. Celebrating our own fifteen years of wedded bliss, and bliss is pretty much an apt description of it. Why do some get so much on their shoulders, and all that has been on my shoulders, it seems, is the sunshine that I seek so fervently this time of year?
So why write when I have no pat answer or cute meme to punctuate these thoughts? Musings. I’m just musing. And that’s how it works.
And a few less important things that really take up room in my head: I want our local weather person to stop telling me whether to eat my meal on the patio or in the air conditioning. I want her to stop instructing children what weight jacket to wear to the bus stop, and for the sake of all that is meterological I want her to stop sharing recipes. Just tell me the weather. I can make the rest of the decisions on my own.
I think BlueApron or whatever this gourmet food delivery and recipe thing is called is stupid. How hard is it to go the store and buy the six items needed for a recipe? This is another reason why people hate Americans. I know I’m right about this, and I know you probably feel the same way about some things I do, like posting yoga poses and swishing with coconut oil and still having a land-line. But these are my musings, so today I’m right.
Now, after months, I wrote something. So now I’m free to go make a playlist for my noon yoga class, because I feel like that’s fun and this is work. Why, I’m not sure, because I get paid for the yoga and not for the writing. Which is another hilarious turn of events since my intention was not to necessarily teach yoga. But two great yoga jobs were tossed into my lap like a hot potato (vs. a football, because if you toss a football into my lap I will let it fall because I think football is mostly unnecessary in my life, but a potato (hot or otherwise) I will never let pass me by) and I am completely, unexpectedly energized by teaching.
Have a day. No pressure, it’s Monday. Open heart and no complaining.
It is no secret that I have a special mother; she has countless admirable qualities. She is a positive role model, an open-minded and open-hearted friend, a generous spirit. She tries to be a good person, on purpose, every day. She doesn’t like to gossip, but she does like to laugh. She loves shopping and shoes and chocolate, but at the same time she is not materialistic. She is always learning, trying new things, choosing to be productive every day when she wakes up, even after losing my dad last year. She was a fun mom to us: she once brought strappy Easter sandals to school recess so that I could wear them for the rest of the day with my school uniform because I loved them so much (luckily, that was before Instagram). She yelled at us when we bickered, she tucked us in at night, she bought our favorite foods at the grocery store, and she was always willing to be the one who drove our friends around. My mom was devoted to her children, and then to her grandchildren. She is a lady. Where I came from, I have no idea. I had to teach her most of the bad words she knows.
What is most remarkable about my mom is that she was never “mothered”. Not the way that we were. She was raised by her Polish-speaking grandparents who loved her and her sister, but she missed out on the more traditional mother-child relationship and nurturing. There were no sleepovers, and no one came to her school performances. She always said that the reason she knew how to mother, how to love, cuddle, advise, and provide security for a child, was from her Aunt Dot (my Godmother). Aunt Dot has been gone for years now, but as Mother’s Day nears again, I’m reminded about all the important ways in which we are mothers to each other.
Someone took the time to be a positive influence on my mom when she was a youngster, to show her fun and discipline and family ties. Aunt Dot spent time with Dolores and Midge, which is all that they really needed. I know how lucky I am to have the mother that I do, and I’m reminded of it often by friends and acquaintances who joke that they wish they had a mom like mine. That’s because my mom has mothered other people, as well. She mothers every friend of hers, every friend of mine, and most strangers whom she comes across. Despite having the gold standard in moms myself, I can’t help but reflect on some other wonderful women who have mothered me as well, in ways large and small.
Of course my sisters were forced to mother me, since I’m the youngest in the family, but they also put forth effort of their own volition. When I bounced my first check at around 18 years old, I found a twenty-dollar bill on my dresser, not realizing until weeks later my sister Coleen had silently put it there. And Judy still doesn’t make soup at home without bringing a bowl to my house. My best friend Steph got on a plane with her kid to fly home to visit me just because I was having an emotional crisis about fifteen years ago.
But even people who might deem themselves as ancillary in my life have made contributions that have truly shaped my character. My high-school cheerleading coaches, a mother-daughter duo themselves, didn’t allow us to miss practice, ever, without the punishment of sitting out a game. They didn’t let us talk to boys when we were in uniform, and I will never forget Mrs.Toth’s advice: “when you have a problem, whatever it is, talk to your parents. No one else has only your best interests at heart.” They were parenting us, teaching us how to act appropriately. A high school teacher who had formerly been a nun signed my yearbook and made a comment about me having inner dignity. Dignity? Me? (I guess the stress was on the word inner). But it has stuck with me. She was trying to tell me something, to lead me to follow the right thoughts. My childhood pediatrician told me, plainly, “Don’t be such a brat.” My co-worker Mary Helen made a big deal of my birthday even though I was in my twenties. My seventh grade teacher has asked me one thousand times over the years when I was going to go to college (I can finally shut that one up)! My co-worker brought me a rosary, blessed by not one but two Popes, from her visit to Italy. A friend of a friend at a jewelry party sat me down and told me, when my dad first got sick, that I must take feelings out of it and do what is best for my parents, even if they got mad at my sisters and me. Another friend sat all day at the hospital with us almost twenty years ago when my sister’s baby was having heart surgery. My next-door neighbor kept a key to my house on her windowsill, knowing how often I forgot mine. Another neighbor once climbed up a weeping willow tree to get me down. An insurance company representative brought me a gift card instead of business documents when I was having a bad day. My mother-in-law sends me newspaper articles that remind her of me; her sister is constantly handing me beautiful leather goods like jackets and boots, items she bought but decided weren’t for her. The lady at the library lowered my fine to whatever I had in my purse that day. Someone, somewhere, may have lit a candle for me and I don’t even know about it.
There are countless more instances, more than I could ever commit to paper, of women taking the time and effort to mother me, and others. My own mom is not perfect (just today, we had a role-reversal conversation, in which she apparently played the sulky teen):
Me: Why do you make me yell at you?
Doe: What now?
Me: There are two newspapers on your front porch. If you leave newspapers on the front porch, someone will think you are away and break into your house. How many times have I told you that?
Doe: Many times.
Me: I tell you to pick up the papers. And you say “I will!” But then you don’t!
Doe: I will.
Still, I don’t even want to entertain the idea of what kind of person I would be if I had not been blessed with the devoted, sacrificing, savvy mom that I have. But because of her, I do understand the importance of other sources of mothering, as well. I’m not advising anyone to discipline their friends’ children, because that would undoubtedly end badly. Let’s just take care of each other when we have the opportunity to do so.
I’m not a mom, but I so appreciate the opportunity to be a Godmother, a step-mother to adults, an auntie, and soon, a granny! Thank you for letting me sing to your babies, “ride” the MRI machine with them, hold their chubby hands, check their homework…even clean up their barf. Somehow, I also managed to be the adult on duty when someone got her first period. Thanks for that. I’m not a mom, and I’m in awe of all of you who are moms. May your children not grow up to embarrass you in print.
Happy Mother’s Day all!!
Walking On Water
In the summer of 2013, I was 44 years old. I feel like myself only in summer, the kind of person who is miserable for the long Cleveland months when the temperature is below, say, 64 degrees. Obviously, I live in an inhospitable climate. But during the summer months, I am alive. I carry spare shoes everywhere with me in my car to walk outside, I practice yoga in parks on tree stumps or bridges, and I don’t begrudge the ugly humidity that makes everyone look shiny and slimy, with dirty hair. I love and embrace it all. It’s easier for me, no doubt, because I am currently taking a break from employment to finally go to college full-time, so I don’t need to put on layers of spackle and hairspray, dress in a suit or Spanx, or worry about armpit stains on my blouse. I gladly parade my sweat as I walk with my ear-buds tightly placed, eating as many meals outside as possible and refusing to come indoors. These summer days, as hot and oppressive to some as the whoosh of air which accosts your face when you open an oven on Thanksgiving, are what I spend the rest of the year waiting for.
This past summer, however, my Polish/Irish/Lebanese fair-in-winter, olive-in-summer skin had barely seen the outdoors. It was the summer of Hap—that’s my dad’s name—again. Two years prior, it was also a summer of Hap, when my dad took a final rapid slide down into a well of a dementia marked by hallucinations, violence, and delusions. Since then, my mom and sisters, along with our husbands and children, had visited him daily in his residential nursing home—a nursing home made necessary by his physical strength and that of the aggressive delusions which plagued him; hallucinations of people harming us, his family, which left him no choice but to try to take down the aggressors. Our dad, our defender.
Over time, Hap grew weaker, physically and mentally, and then, the summer of Hap 2013 became about his final days. He had been hospitalized for a while with digestive issues which seem unresolvable at that point in his illness, and then he had been sent to hospice-care to transition through to death. My family members and I had seen nothing but the inside of his medical bedrooms for the better part of two months. In the end, we were grateful that his final time occurred in the summer, because his grandkids were home from school and around to visit him, and to spend time within the cocoon of the very last days we would all be together as a complete family, the finals weeks, days, hours, minutes with our beloved mentor and patriarch, our team captain.
The time was rich; irreverent, fruitful, angry, dark, food-filled, and emotional. We ate fistfuls of Honey-baked ham and packaged cookies to pass the time. We talked, recalling old memories…we sang (John Denver, poorly), we mocked each other. We chastised my dad, who was mostly unconscious and certainly unaware by this point, for keeping us cooped up all summer. We made funeral arrangements. One day in July, I slipped out into the sunshine to a waiting bench near a statue of Jesus, and I wrote out my dad’s eulogy in longhand, a speech I had been giving in my head for years, knowing always that it was incumbent upon me to try to do this remarkable man justice in words. A nun saw me from the window of my dad’s room and assumed I was sunbathing. I did not correct her. There was something perversely funny to me about tanning in the back of a Catholic institution meant for the dying.
After more than a week in hospice, I looked at my calendar one day at my dad’s bedside, and realized I had signed up for a stand-up paddleboard yoga experience on Lake Erie for the next day. I’m sure it had seemed like a grand idea at the time, a group decision with a couple of yoga friends. The daughter my dad had known would never have attempted this—I was not an athlete by any means, spending much of my life a little overweight and a lot under-exercised. I was not a strong swimmer, if you could call me a swimmer at all, and I don’t know if you could. I may or may not be able to keep my head above water and make some progress in a time of trouble on water, but I’m not certain the resulting action could accurately be labeled “swimming.” Yoga was the only exercise I did, and even that was the result of my recent search for peace during my dad’s illness, not any physical prowess. I also have a healthy fear of large bodies of water, and no confidence in my ability to perform this scheduled outing. It was decidedly out of my comfort zone.
I texted my yoga-friend Jenny, because the excursion had already been paid for, and I hoped that she could find someone to take my place and enjoy the experience. But as the day went on, I felt a nagging pull at my consciousness to consider leaving my dying father’s bedside for a few hours to do something completely out of the ordinary. I was scared, not only of being able to navigate the actual physical activity, but that after all of these days and nights spent in this room, my dad might slip away during the one time I was absent. To be truthful, I also feared the impression it would leave with others: my family, the nurses, the general “people” who would undoubtedly ask, “what kind of daughter would leave her dying father’s bedside to go play watersports on a summer evening?”
I think it was that final bit, though, that actually convinced me. My dad, a man of many unique and wonderful characteristics, was most known for walking his own path, no matter what anyone thought. He sold investments to wealthy clients wearing a Cleveland Indians tee-shirt (he was about to be buried in one, too). He drove goofy vehicles which had personality (most recently a cobalt-blue turbo-charged Subaru) no matter how luxurious a car he could actually afford, and he took his wife (our mother) on all of his business trips because he wanted her to see the world with him. If he knew that I was bailing out on something I’d committed to simply because I was afraid of how I would look to other people, he would shake his head at me. It began to occur to me that this activity could actually be a tribute to my dad, that he would get me through it and inspire me to appreciate the beauty and accomplishment and camaraderie of what I was about to undertake.
I had a talk first with Paula, the wonderful hospice nurse who had been taking care of my dad every weekday of his hospice stay. She was a friend by then, it being such an intense time for sharing family stories and feelings with intimate strangers. She also knew my dad, his physical condition, very well. It had started to deteriorate more rapidly, and we knew the end was nearer than it had been. I asked, “Paula, what should I do? If I have a thing to do tonight, do you think it’s okay for me to leave to do it? Or is he close?”
Paula (who by the way, my dad would have absolutely loved and would have probably nicknamed something like “Scrappy” because she was small but fierce), looked towards my dad’s bed, looked back at me, and repeated both actions. Then she said, “You know him. What would he tell you to do?” Well played, Paula. And right on. So, with the confidence born from the knowledge that nothing else can possibly even matter when you’re about to lose someone forever, I walked out of my dad’s room that evening, not knowing if I would see him again alive. Of course, as I grasped his hand and kissed him goodbye, I said (as I always did), “See ya tomorrow!” But I felt like something had changed. Something bigger was happening, and it almost felt as if my dad had already left that body.
Incidentally, one of the most valuable things about hospice for us was the way that it gave us our dad back, restored to his old self in a way. The dementia had been so grueling, and his perceptions and statements so out of character, that once he was debilitated enough that he could no longer speak, we were left with his beautiful blue eyes (for the first day or two, until he became semi-conscious at best) and the feeling that he had been delivered from dementia, and instead lay dying here as his former self, in his right mind. The hospice caregivers changed his bedding every day before we even arrived, shaved him, brushed his teeth, washed his hair, made him look like he was in his own bed at home, no longer hooked up to IV’s or tubes. So when I leaned over him that day, he smelled of shaving cream, toothpaste, and soap, just the way I remembered him. I carried that smell with me as I drove away, recalling how it would come down the stairs ahead of him on Sundays, when he was the last one ready as the rest of us waited to leave for church. A man with a wife and three daughters is last in line for a shower.
The day was one of the hottest that July, maybe in the nineties. Despite that, I drove to the lake with my windows and sunroof open, drinking in the moist heat and the dangerous feeling that I was somewhere I was not supposed to be. I felt fragile, and grateful that the friends I was about to meet for this excursion were not close friends yet. They were women around my age, with similar interests and problems, compassionate and supportive, but I knew they would not ask me questions, hug me too tightly or lingeringly, or ask if I was okay. They knew, probably better than I, what I was there for that day and the restorative power it might have over me. They had each already buried a parent. Their support was silent, but loud. The remaining participants were strangers. It was a welcome feeling to just be an anonymous body as we all schlepped the cumbersome paddleboards off of a trailer and toward the Great-Lake Erie. Only my two yoga friends knew that I was in a liminal space, “the one whose father is actively dying.” But we couldn’t concentrate on that: we had to worry about getting up, and then staying up, on the boards bobbing under us on the water inside the break wall of the lake.
Once we were all assembled and following the leader, I noticed bystanders watching from shore. Looking through their eyes, I realized that we looked fierce, like models on a women’s magazine, unaware of our ages and instead feeling like lithe, strong teenagers. We had on an assortment of swimsuits, board shorts, yoga clothes. No cell phones, no watches, just sweaty hair up in ponytails because all of us still wear it long (I heard somewhere that if a woman can remember Gerald Ford being President, she is too old to wear a ponytail). We attentively listened to Deanna, our instructor, who seemed to embody light: blonde hair, bronzed skin, with a strong and casual manner, competent. We were in good hands. We had already developed some confidence in our strength through yoga, these friends and I, but we were all shy about our abilities on this giant, often angry lake. There was little conversation, only concentration, bodies held at attention, and deliberate motion.
As we traveled up the shoreline, past indescribably unique and lovely homes and a bit away from the safety of the shore, Deanna led us through yoga poses. Yoga inherently employs “pratyahara,” the act of suspending the senses, of coming inside…so while there was a handful of us sprawled out some yards from each other, going through the same motions, we each practiced in isolation. I could feel my friends Jenny and Beth near me, all of us supporting each other with our presence, with our intention, and our breath, sending waves of friendship out from our hearts even as we were fighting hard to maintain various balances on a floating board. We generated immediate and copious sweat, which ran down not just our faces but our entire bodies, pooling in our bellies when we lay on our backs, making our hands slippery when we stood inverted in downward dog. We were ruddy, our ribcages heaving with exertion, slow, steady exertion. It was like being squeezed out, a sponge from a pail of water. Loose hairs frizzed around our faces or stuck to our temples. Any remnants of old mascara had long since smeared away.
I opened my eyes and squinted around me, the glare of the fiery evening sun slapping the dark glassy water, the sky so bright my friends were rendered just silhouettes to me. My eyes burned from the salty brine of sweat, wind, and emotion. It occurred to me that my dad was just such a silhouette now, too. I suddenly felt positively impervious to any attack, ten feet tall and bulletproof. I was aware of my upper arms and shoulders rippling in smooth strength as my paddle dipped into the water, pushing my hips forward, potent. I was as strong as I had ever been, as beautiful as I would ever be, and as capable as any other person on the planet. Without warning, I sensed my dad’s presence so strongly around me that I said aloud to my friends, “I know now that there is absolutely no place else on earth that I should be at this moment then here on this lake with you.”
I wondered if this sudden peace and feeling of connection with my dad meant that he was slipping away, even as I was gliding along in this moment of bliss. I contemplated what I would feel like if my dad took his last breath while I was on this lake, while my mom and sisters sat close and held his hands and spoke soft words to him. I knew in that moment that it would be perfectly correct if that’s the way it happened. My inner voice reminded me that I was the one who lived next door to my parents, I was the one who worked with them for fifteen years. Maybe it would be a wonderful gift to my sisters for them to finally have as much of a portion of my dad as I had always been so spoiled to have. If he passed away in my absence, I would not regret my decision to choose this spiritual experience of my dad on this lake.
At the end of our practice, as we drifted, lying on our backs on the paddleboards with the cinnamon-hot July sun setting behind us, I closed my eyes and felt buoyant in mind and spirit. This body of mine, this body of water, and this body of friends and family was stable and certain. This mighty lake may as well have been the very palm of my dad’s hand, and the deep, wide well of his heart. I relaxed. I thought of my dad’s broad, brown hands and how they had held me up on countless summer vacations, held me by my ribs in oceans and hotel pools, tossing and playing with his kids like toys. We were never afraid. He always caught us, held us aloft. He always would. The palm of my dad’s hand, the palm of our Father’s hand. More gargantuan and mighty than this lake, but tender, both.
Swirling, floating, feeling more accomplished than the accomplishment merited, I sensed rather than saw the sun melt low and hot into the horizon, and wondered without fear or anxiety if my dad’s light had just dipped below the surface of this life. I celebrated Savasana, the yoga pose of relaxation, drifting on a trembling sunset, feeling and tasting hot, wet salt on my face, sweat mixing with healing tears, as welcome as they were valuable, flowing unchecked. I never felt closer to my dad than at that moment; I’d never loved or appreciated him more.
Let me move that for you…
These days, as I consider my designated intention for each morning’s yoga practice, my mind inevitably travels to those friends, family members, or acquaintances who are struggling with a challenge. Some of the first who come to mind are those experiencing physical illnesses like recurrent cancer, undiagnosed pain, systemic or autoimmune diseases, and other physical complications which, frankly, may exist completely without hope of resolution. While these are not necessarily more or less difficult to manage than other forms of dis-ease, unease, hardship or disability, the physical aspect reminds me: it is truly a privilege to be able to move our bodies in physical exercise.
I happen to hate exercise. I am lazy by nature, and it is an effort just to get myself out of bed every morning, not because of depression, despair, or any valid reason at all—other than my preference for being as languid as my black cat for as much of my life as possible. I do not appreciate my own sweat, and in fact I am tremendously distracted by it, even during yoga. A competitive bone does not exist in my body—if you want to win, I assure you, I want you to win, because clearly it must be more important to you than it is to me. You may find me walking to music almost every single day that the temperature exceeds 60 degrees, but you will never find me running (as the joke goes, if you do see me running, you’d better run too!) I have weak knees, a family history of arthritic joint replacement, giant boobs, and a surly attitude when it comes to exertion. (Eyes up here, please.) I am not a strong swimmer, I cannot shoot a basketball, and I have gone to tennis “lessons” for the past four summers without ever actually playing a match (don’t judge, it’s a social thing). Golf may be on the future agenda, but there’s a certain petite friend of mine named Vicki who hopes I borrow someone else’s driver next time I try.
Even yoga and walking were activities I embarked upon for reasons outside of the physical. Yoga was for anxiety, when I had such a feeling of generalized unease about my life and family that I developed a constant eye tic. Dr. Google advised me to avoid caffeine and try yoga or meditation, and the rest is decaffeinated rock-n-roll history. Walking is, similarly, free therapy for me: almost everything I have committed to paper (including my dad’s eulogy) has been first written in my head on a long walk, past ducks and lakes and dog-walkers, often laughing or crying behind my sunglasses as a Billy Joel song in my ear buds takes me back to high school, or the Coal Miner’s Daughter soundtrack reminds me of the family vacation in Nashville when a boy gave me a peacock feather to put in my hat at Loretta Lynn’s ranch. The fact that my body is moving, breathing, and benefiting from yoga and walking is just a lucky, unintended consequence of something I would be doing anyway.
But now, I can’t deny that both activities, and every other new experience I have had the confidence to attempt because of them (stand-up paddleboard, riding a mechanical bull) have been so strengthening and liberating that I now appreciate the fact that I am in a position to participate. I am able. My parts work.
A friend of my husband could no longer walk the golf course comfortably because of congestive heart failure. A yoga pal enduring treatment for her fifth cancer doesn’t have the luxury of trying to practice standing on her head, because she is too weak from chemotherapy to even leave the couch to vomit. A relative can’t engage in her beloved gardening successfully anymore because some core abdominal muscles were re-appropriated in a post-cancer reconstruction surgery. Amusement parks and airports are no longer places a senior citizen can easily venture across without wheels. Countless people close to me want to do more than their bodies will allow them to do, but my long, boring history with HIPAA prevents me from providing further thumbnails.
Every day that I wake up and can physically do what I desire to do, independently, I am gifted. One day, an accident may happen, or a phone call will bring a diagnosis, or a flu bug may render me too nauseated to move, and whether the roadblock is temporary or permanent, it will be unwelcome. Too many of us don’t exercise, but we should—because we can. My eyes can see where I am going, my legs hold me up, my stamina is plentiful enough…I can move my body, so I must. Whether or not I want to, I will do so for those who cannot move theirs. Exercise, like aging, is a privilege denied to many.
Now, come on, sixty degrees….