28 May 2013

Now, As It Is

Love is not only the answer- it's also the question.

This morning began with a ritual that's been in place since my 83 year old mother got home from the hospital: I gently shake her awake, bring her some water with lemon and mint and ice cubes, and start doling out a seemingly endless list of pills, while making cheerful, meaningless conversation in order to help both of us ease into consciousness.
"I saw a fox this morning, Mom, in the backyard . -No, we only take that pill at night, take the pink pill instead.-Why do foxes always look mildly guilty? -Ooops, the mint is stuck inside the straw, that's why you're having trouble. Here, lift your head up a little. -Okay, fixed it.- There was a cardinal yelling at the fox, from a tree nearby. You know the way cardinals do...it's funny how most birds sing, but cardinals yell. Bluejays scream, robins chirp, cardinals yell. Cardinals all seem like they're from Brooklyn.-Okay, you ready for your tea?"

These days, there is a hospital bed in the living room. There is a walker, which has broken but we can't yet afford to fix it;  and a wheelchair, and a chair set up as an impromptu nightstand, big enough for a phone and three antique bracelets, and otherwise overflowing with pills...there are two other bags filled with pills, and a grownup version of a sippee cup nearby, filled with water and mint and a straw. There is a radio that always plays NPR; there is a copy of "The New York Review of Books", but it's three months old, because her cataracts make it hard to read these days. There are sculptures from long ago travels to the Pacific Northwest; there are paintings shining on the walls, gifts of artist friends; there are photos of the grandchildren and great grandchildren, the kids whom she is not exactly not allowed to see, but not exactly not. My brother has never explained why he stopped loving her, three years ago. Mom no longer asks. She is gallant and optimistic and loving and utterly heartbroken, a heartbreak made worse by bafflement...isn't losing your husband supposed to make your kids be nicer to you? But we don't talk about it anymore. I hear her cry at night, and go hold her hand. There is no explanation, and no resolution, and what can not be fixed must be endured.

 Mom's house is making the transition from being a home, to being a history: and my job here, is to make sure, as she approaches a similar transition, that she does not have a stranger at her bedside.

In an adult's life, this kind of time out of time that I get to have right now, usually signals a major transition in both lives. In my own life, it is a moment when I get to take a deep breath after the end of a three year roller coaster ride. It is a moment to mourn lost deeply held and never before even questioned assumptions  of what family is, or "should" be. It is a also chance to actually learn lessons, really learn them, cell deep and forever. Learning involves a combination of brokenness and surrender, and who wants to feel broken, who wants to surrender?  But since all opposites actually mirror each other, getting broken can also mean getting made whole. Surrender can lead to a whole new kind of power. Mostly, what happens in circumstances that are worse than one expects, is that one learns to listen.

 One lesson is that I have to be the family, I want to have. If that makes sense. Another lesson is that, yes, we are each alone in this body,  this nautilus shell that makes the noise of the ocean, which is a fanciful way of saying we are all alone..and never, never alone. What I'm learning is that making mistakes doesn't make you a bad person, but repeating mistakes does make you an ineffectual one...learning to face facts without being defeated by them, seems to be a useful thing. Learning that forgiveness and love, really are more important than "being right" and "keeping track". Not for abstract moral reasons, but because it works better. It just works. Better. 

Families fall apart over money, and old resentments dressed up in new clothes, and who's better, who's wrong, who's worthy, who has given more, who taken too much...and all we're looking for,really, is love and affirmation. I have watched "good" people make an old woman miserable in the name of "what's best for her". I have watched "bad" people continue to do sorta bad things...but make the old woman feel happy and safe and cared for. And i don't for the life of me know, which camp I fall into. Or care. What I care about is the happiness or lack thereof, in the life of the people I love.

Because what I'm learning is that love is a verb. In the same way that God can be Unconditional Love in one person's usage, and in another person's usage, the same God can be: a lucky charm, a big brother who will kick your unrighteous ass, and a reason to hate the same folks they seem to believe S/He "made". None of this makes sense.

Anyway, when nothing you thought you knew makes sense anymore, what does make sense is just doing what's in front of you.
What makes sense, is doing what's in front of me. Doing the dishes; making the oatmeal with dried cranberries that Mom finds tasty and will therefore actually eat; doing the laundry; trying to sort out my finances, her finances, the cat's finances...give me a finance and i will leap into action. My financial action usually consists of staring uncomprehendingly at a statement; entering things into Quickbook; accidentally erasing said things from Quickbook; calling the insurance company/financial institution/ credit card company and attempting to explain to a seemingly endless array of voicemail options and uninterested people in foreign lands, why they are wrong and can I have my money back now, please?

Then one makes lunch. Often for the next few days. It's best to do ALL the cooking at once, and freeze whatever you think you won't need immediately. You will be wrong- always- about how much you need of what and when, because invalids have tetchy appetites, and today's Turkey Meatloaf Which Is Exactly Right and Gets Eaten With Happy Noises, is tomorrow's Thing That Is Not Exactly Sneered at But Not Exactly Not. 

Then one cleans up, and talks encouragingly, and tries to find a film on the computer that will soothe and stimulate in exactly the right balance. Old movies are best. I'vefound that British films from the 40s, are ideal. Most ideal are what used to be called "omnibus" movies...which, counterintuitively, are NOT films about omnibuses, but films like "Dead of Night" of "Quartet", that are several short films under one thematic umbrella.That way, a smart older person can watch something smart, but not have to feel embarrassed about getting drowsy partway though. 

Mother actually helps enormously with my new book: brilliant editing suggestions, and the kind of Vestigial Mom Authority that gets my bum into the seat to write, when nothing else will. So that is part of the afternoon, as well. 

Then one makes dinner.

And one makes conversation to go with the dinner.

And one makes the best of what one has, both dinner and conversationwise. We have cobbled a very nice dinner out of a chicken carcase, some frozen corn, and matzoh balls; and conjured a matching conversation about the history of "end of the world" scares and cults {Millerites, anybody?], out of my scraps of remembered historical anecdotes and Mother's partially remembered but potentially enormous fund of knowledge, from her years as an Ivy League history professor. Mother pops in and out of lucidity, but since her lucidity, when present, borders on actual genius, it's worth the wait.

And then one does the dishes, and listens for Mother's voice, and sweeps and mops, and hears the voice and goes in to count the pills, and arrange the pillows, and we sing "Stardust" together and she's asleep, mouth open, by the second verse, and i am just so fucking grateful to be here.

Because it's not perfect, or pretty, or even, sometimes, bearable. But I've learned more about the look of love, lately, than I knew before. And by the look of love, I don't mean the dreamy Dusty Springfield song. I mean the act of being each other's flawed but willing witnesses. Love may make vile things precious, but it doesn't make vile things pretty, and it doesn't make anything perfect. Quite the opposite. Quite, quite the reverse.

Love makes lack of perfection the point. Love makes doing the gristly dishes an irritating privilege. Love is not abstract...love is annoyingly concrete, brilliantly ugly, and love, in every way?
Is a verb.
And a question.
And an answer,
And finally?
A reason that you can not argue with.

Off to do the dishes, again. I wish they'd stay done. But I guess the point is, I hope they keep getting dirty. If you see what I mean.

Maybe all we can do in the end, is what's right. Maybe if I do what is right, the phone will ring and my brother will say "Can I talk to Mom?" Maybe if one just tries a little more every day; loves just a little more than the day before, forgives just a little more than 12 hours ago, catches one's self when one falls into old patterns of anger, or entitlement, or selfishness...maybe one day you wake up and the "good" has finally pushed out the "bad".

"Darling", Mom calls out excitedly from the next room. "Come in here quickly! I just noticed that the dogwood tree has tiny green shoots on it already! Look at that! Spring will be here before you know it! Won't that be nice. I can't wait to see the snowdrops again."

I am making Mom tea, now.  I can see  through the huge kitchen window, that both a cardinal and a heavily pregnant  red fox are framed against the white snow,both motionless for this minute, vivid red against the sterile, seemingly hopeless white landscape. In a minute, the cardinal will fly away and the fox seek shelter against the coming evening and the steadily mounting snow.
In two weeks or three, there will be green shoots of snowdrops, where the snow is now. The momma fox will be nursing her tiny red pups. The dogwood's green shoots will be turning into white flowers with vivid orange crosses in the middle. The world will once again be a chorus of kept promises. The snow will be a memory.

And maybe, this time? The phone will ring, and my Mom will join the rank and chorus of those who get to come back to life, to hope and to promises unbroken, in the springtime.

Meanwhile, my other brother and his wife are driving through the snow to be here tomorrow. Meanwhile, tonight, I take in the tea.

With cookies.

Happy Almost Spring.

love, pl
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