Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: This Body Talks: Self Acceptance

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It was the heat, which had soared to new heights, then settled at an acceptable glow (punctuated by random sizzles) on the skin, and that swimming pool before me. They brought me thoughts of summer and body, confidence and a little uncertainty, a big dose of happiness. I witnessed the last before me: daughter, Alexandra, held close one toddler twin granddaughter (encased in a life jacket that bobbed at chin) and in they went. Splashed, squealing, as they sank into so-blue water (painted concrete a tropical hue) with bursts of gaiety. The other twin looked on, a finger to lip, head at an angle, wandered back to a chaise lounge, then back to check the water with tentative toes. I desperately wanted to jump in but was fully clothed so contented myself at the edge, feet dangling in soft, clear, cool water. Alexandra had been suddenly moved by the spiking temperature and inviting water when I’d visited, unprepared. But the duo in the pool radiate delight, voices raised in summer celebration. Soon those little girls will learn to swim.

So I need to order a new swimsuit. I have an older one that I used when enjoying pools at hotels when tagging along on business trips with Marc, or on vacation. I’m ready for something comfier and fresher, admittedly perhaps done with a suit that displays greater jiggly parts, even the nicer ones. Though I stop to consider my older body less than the ageless spirit: just let me in that water, let me slice through it but gently. I have enough confidence to jump right in. I want to do a breast stroke, side stroke, back stroke, then float from one end to the other. I’d even dive in if I could.

I am not great at the simple crawl–partly, no doubt, because I must keep half-opened eyes above surface if I want to keep contact lenses intact, yet also see. I need prescription swim goggles if I take to water more. Still, swimming is not my best athletic activity. It might be one–I am a water lover from way back when we kids and adults all jammed into old Central Park swimming pool. But I’d need a pool more handy. If there also was no pandemic to beware. For now I need to find place and time where I’m able to swim without being bonked on the head with sudden flailing feet or a crocodile floatie. My own neighborhood pool is likely re-opened; part of a recreational center, it is indoors only, however. I want sunshine bathing arms, chest, face, legs–not a glare of overhead fluorescent lights.

I watch twins and daughter and decide I will buy a new suit, pronto. I will swim, too. Even if the thought of my flesh exposed gives me a a very minor pause. What can I tuck away, what can be freed up? Does it even matter to me? I go home when the fun is done and recall how it has been thus far to romp about in this body. It has been pretty much a blast.

Wasn’t it, isn’t it?

Overall. The higher points making up for the low, and far more often than not, anymore.

******

Okay, let’s get the hard part of the story over with. There are pictures of me I wish were never taken; many have been torn up and tossed. We all have those, of course. But for me they reveal several years of telltale signs of a life unwell. The sharp truth of things. I look into those bluely hollowed eyes and ask: Where were you? Who took over? Yet it was me, all along, only hijacked here and there. Taken leave of a full array of senses at times. Hungry even if unaware of it, often lonely, unfortunately rather angry though trying hard not to be, and tired. I often seem grim even when trying to smile, as if I begrudged anyone daring to snap the shot. And see the reality: Cynthia, surviving but struggling.

I was far too thin. I don’t think I knew how thin until I saw the photos. So thin that I had trouble finding clothes to fit without checking the youth section–finding a women’s size 0 or 00 was almost impossible. This is not preferred when you are an adult. Not when everything hangs from your spare shoulders and bony hips, as if you are a mannequin. Yet, how often other women remarked they wished they had such a “problem”… I must emphasize: it was a terrible way to live. I weighed perhaps 100 pounds, often less. I know this not because we had a scales; I mostly haven’t had one, at all. But my doctors weighed me every time w ith a shake of the head, and remarked on it as it dipped, fell and then rose a tiny pound or two–and it left me without much fat on my bones. I dreaded those scales.

I look, in those pictures, emaciated. I look, during those times, haunted. Exhausted. I’d be awake until 1 or 2 am, doing laundry, ironing, planning for the next day’s schedule for five children’s activities. Writing a bit. Then up by 6:30 am.

Which would have been alright in my twenties and thirties except that I could barely eat. I did sleep, wiped out each night. All young parents get tired. They just have more fuel than I had to get up and do it all over again. I was chronically ill but didn’t yet know how ill.

I had been diagnosed with colitis at 21, and the years following was given more related diagnoses. They all meant the same thing to me: challenges to overcome. A body that sometimes seemed to hate me as I grew up, one I have needed to love and care for. We had been in happy cahoots so long…not so much, anymore. I tried to be as strong as I needed to feel. It worked as long as I could act as if all was alright.

But I also sometimes drank too much; it took less than you’d imagine to do the job with little fat on my body plus a history of substance abuse as a teen. Two or three stiff mixed drinks gulped when everyone was gone, a quick shot in the shower. Believe me, even a few weeks of this impacted my life–and using up a great deal of energy. It didn’t improve things though it numbed part of the pain awhile. But not all. There were marital problems, kid worries, money challenges–all the time, all those years. Digestion problems had been in my life since childhood and then alcohol did more damage to my system.

I ate what I could manage; eating had long and often made me sick as if I had flu or food poisoning. It was a challenge to enjoy any entire meal that I prepared daily for our family. I ate a few scraps as I washed their plates. And a lot of bread with butter, jam, a dab of peanut butter as that usually settled okay.

Gastroenterologists gave me medications that were frankly addictive. I ended up in the hospital for substance issues and was seriously informed I was beginning to starve. It wasn’t pretty, it was first another ER and then writhing in bed feeling caged and too ill. I had severe gastritis, and the colitis had worsened. It was a shock to me, the near-starving part. I didn’t drink a lot, not as much or often as others; I took my prescriptions and had found them difficult to cut back, stop. The fact was, I ate the best I could and never could keep any good weight on. I smoked Newport cigarettes and drank too much coffee and I only learned later that these added to the problems.

At some point I thought I’d get stronger, enough to keep on, and so drank protein drinks once a day as well as a very ight meal and engaged in body building at the gym 4-5 times a week. I developed much better muscle and better peace of mind, but my 5 ft. 4 inch body was basically all muscle and lots of obvious bones…No one helped me with nutrition those years, and I knew too little to sufficiently address my needs. I had tried to trust doctors so turned to them again: Find me safer drugs, I have a busy life to try to manage! Eventually I got a bit better. Again, shuffled drugs to maintain some semblance of eating.

This went on so many years it was just life, the weight up and down–105, 100, 95 lbs., lower. (Once a little boy asked his mother if I was a boy or a girl when at the swimming pool. I was wearing a bikini but was so skinny it was apparently hard to be sure…) Because I was in chronic pain when I ate, but in chronic pain when I didn’t. It could fell me, bring on gritted teeth and blinked away tears and send me to the emergency room. I tried to hide it from the children, even hid myself until it passed; I did not complain unless it was too much. I had to keep going, that was all. It was just colitis acting up, it wouldn’t kill me I had been told. (At 21, when married the first time, I sipped on a bottle of paregoric gotten in an Appalachian pharmacy during our honeymoon. It was needed to keep on and eat at all; we were camping, I wanted to be alright. Six months later I was in the emergency room seriously ill with much blood loss but recall nothing of the week there except IVs and being nauseous when offered real food again.)

In any case, I had attended university and a decade later believed I needed to accomplish far more. So I got a nice job that started my human services career. And took care of the growing kids as my husband travelled more, climbing up his ladder of success. I exercised and worked on staying alcohol free and staying off prescribed drugs that were still problematic (being narcotic- and barbiturate-based). I was successful much of the time although that made the s symptoms harder to bear. Discouragement dogged me. One doctor suggested a partial colostomy as a final option. Or just live with it. I left in tears, yet was determined to find another way.

But how? It was what it was, and I did know it could be worse. I was not terminally ill as long as I stayed sober and clean. I still found much to appreciate in my life. It just took some work–except for my children, whom I loved beyond reason. For whom I so wanted to be well.

Years passed. There came a more committed sobriety, a couple of divorces, a move to Oregon, a new battery of doctors. Food intolerances, I was told, were the big bad extra culprit. I could learn to help myself more! Discovering I was severely lactose intolerant was a revelatory experience. It wasn’t the entire answer, but a major change in my well being. I learned about other foods I tolerated poorly. I discovered that it was a kind of genetic Achilles heel–most of my birth family had similar or the same diagnoses, I discovered when talking more with them. (Also, my children have coped with this to some degree.) I began to eat more healthily, a diet I could better live with, and began to gain a bit of weight. Even if I had the same diagnoses, I learned how to manage all more effectively.

I was in my early forties before I knew all this. For a short time I bitterly asked God why I had to lose so much time, be sick so long along with all other ordeals. But that attitude got me exactly nowhere fast except in a pit of self pity, as usual, so I looked forward to better times.

One day my young adult son told me after a big hug “hello”: “This is how my mother should feel when hugged!”

It stunned, perhaps hurt a little at first. Then I knew I had done some things right. We may not know what family and friends truly think, how illnesses widely affect them. They accepted me as I was, yes–they loved me. But they had worried a long time, too.

It took what it took. I figured out how to avoid some foods and cautiously eat others, and feel safer about food, in general. I have had ups and downs with this; I still have digestion illnesses to manage. But in time I began to add more pounds, and discovered more energy. I was excited about often being outdoors again–hiked, walked and more. Daily. I quit smoking. I got better jobs, went back to college. I learned to steer clear of abusive relationships. Soon I embraced my life in the Pacific Northwest and became more resilient and at peace as I enjoyed a healthier lifestyle. I was opening to more happiness. It took redoubled efforts if I failed my goals, a stubborn faith, and the peculiar dance of time. I still have to intelligently oversee health problems– there are a few at 71, but none I can’t recover from, so far. But I am not thin, anymore. I am closer to an average sized woman. I am so relieved and glad of it.

Close to thirty years ago, people began to tell me I was changing, even looked different. Some from my twenties and thirties told me they didn’t recognize me, at first. My face and body changed, yes. But I had long been such a serious person and a person who kept her head up even when it hurt to raise it, and walked hard with shoulders squared to keep from feeling beaten down and falling over. But I had begun to soften around internal and outer edges, smiled more readily. Laughed. And tears were not swallowed.

Well, I said, I am healing up…I got through some stuff. And I watch what I drink and eat–I never eat dairy that has lactose– and I hike!

Long, long before all this, I was a child and youth at ease in my skin, my body filled with energy and my mind confident of much. Enthralled with life’s offerings even with hard times coming and going. I was engaged in a variety of physical activities. So here I was about to enter middle age, and I’d begun to think I was undewrgo8ing a true transformation. It seemed a bit like a return to that more whole part of myself. Step by step, prayer by prayer, more knowledge each day.

I was no longer anxious about seeing myself in a photograph. I looked in a mirror on tough days and felt compassion–for the woman I had been and the one I was becoming.

******

I early on felt I was born fortunate, given a life to live that had a plethora of opportunities and good times. My parents taught me gratitude, about being humble; I learned it also at church. Counting blessings was something done every night during prayer around our dinner table. And I was thankful for people in my life, for different kinds of abilities, for opportunities to enjoy learning and wondering–and in a pleasant city. I deeply appreciated our yard and fully utilized it, as if it was a few acres for continual exploration, not just a moderately good city yard. It was one of many spots I grew up with a basic optimism and my “companion” of curiosity.

And I sure didn’t think one thing or another about how I looked or came across to others. I wore glasses by the second grade as I was very near-sighted. I may have been teased a bit about the thick lenses, but it rolled off me. I was average in size, perhaps leaning toward thinner, and nothing special. My mother sewed most of my clothes–expertly but, still, they were seldom bought until I was a late teen. Everything seemed okay, good enough. Mom rarely said anything about my appearance– except that I ought to keep my bangs off my face or get them cut short so she could see my eyes and I could see the world. One of my sisters teased me at times about being thinner than she was, as she liked to eat more than I did (I’d already had a few digestion concerns), and carried some extra weight. But to me she was just my closest sister– until she explained how that was for her years later. What I knew as a kid was that she was a fantastic softball player, a good musician, sometimes hard on me but often fun.

I loved to engage in creative pursuits from a young age (a family proclivity)–music, art, dance, writing– but I was equally passionate about getting physical. Riding my bike, swimming, tree climbing, running races, playing “Kick the Can” at twilight, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing, croquet, badminton, hopscotch and jump rope, baseball and basketball, water skiing and snow skiing, volleyball, tennis, a little boating–well, you name, I’d try it. My parents didn’t like to fish or seriously hike (though we camped in a pop-up) or I’d have done those, too. They were a bit athletically inclined: Dad played tennis, loved to cycle and enjoyed sailing; Mom was on a girls’ basketball team in school (unusual for the mid-1920s), had terrific energy and stamina. By the time I was born they were forty years old, far too busy to play a game with me often.

I got a charge from the slow mastery of skills with new active endeavors. That sense of gradual confidence was powerful and pleasing. Plus, it was fun, even thrilling to feel muscles stretch and grab, the heart pump, senses sharpen; to reach new goals, to help a group win a competition. I didn’t feel inferior to other girls or boys I knew and don’t recall being harassed for being a girl on any team or for “playing like a girl” in its negative connotation. I played hard, worked to gain better skills and had a great time doing it. A competitor at heart, it was easy to get in there and push myself.

I had a basic physical confidence. I simply had the drive to move (even when playing my cello or writing or drawing). Despite not always feeling well. Despite wearing glasses until I was 14–when I became a cheerleader at school, why not? (Despite childhood abuse, which hadn’t quite caught up with me.) Over the years I studied and faithfully practiced figure skating, and ballet and modern dance. There were times I thought I wanted to be an athlete–or a worldwide adventurer–or at least a dancer–when I grew up. There was simply not enough time to do all of what brought me joy. I wanted to fully inhabit the pleasures of strength, competence and power that came from moving within my body, with purpose, for fun or serious goals.

Being alive struck me as a fantastic chance to do and learn more, human senses vibrant and responsive to all. Every nerve woke up with me as I awakened and stood up: a new day. It was pure magic to smell the flowers beneath my window, hear the babble of voices downstairs mingled with music, see the honeyed light fall across my toes. It was youth, it was being present in flesh and soul. It was simplicity of ordinary happiness.

None of that had much to do with what society thought of me, how my body or face were viewed, what I wore, how I fit in with the rest. What mattered was learning well and then doing. And just being me, living among the great span of humanity, feeling part of and also accounted for in the infinite universe. I believed in myself even if someone doubted me. I felt I could do things and so I got started and did them. My parents supported this spirit–usually.

Yes, I know I was born fortunate and that made a big difference. And I continue to enjoy discovering opportunities to embrace new skills, expand my limits, experience something from another perspective. Pushing the limit. Heart disease? I’ll walk faster, longer, harder. Gut troubles? I’ll take the pill if I must and step out in the sunlight, go on the best I can. I am relieved to be able to welcome life. To live it also amid heartache and hardships. To do this, that and the other as attentively as possible. And I have learned to accept, too, the reality of limitations when it is clear they are to be heeded. I can gain focus and restfulness by sitting out a hike or swim or dance, as well. Patience brings insights, more peace….as long as I go along with the natural rhythm and order of things. The mind and soul remain active. We have this time to take it in, accept some assistance, and give some back. And soon I am back on my feet, one way or another.

Hopefully into a new swimsuit and into the water. I want to play in the pool with our fabulous twins, help them learn to float. I want to abandon all and drift upon the lulling surface, dive to the bottom and rush back up. So I have a bit of weight on me these days, my hair has streaks of white and ordinary scars and lines map my face and body with human travels. I am not impressed one way or the other.

I think of what has been endured thus far, how my human trajectory across time has been punctuated by divine interventions, beautiful surprises. I have taken–dragged, lifted, tolerated, ranted at, had mercy for— this body with me for the long haul and it, me.

And I am not ashamed of, or embarrassed by, this loosening fleshy envelope within which I live my life. It was given to me as a grand opportunity to do what I could and still can. I have treated it much better than when I was still uneducated. fearful, lost or too ill. And my body has served me with a certain flair, and has granted me grace more often than I can count. So even with the pain: I thank you, my earthly transport across time, for carrying me still. We’ve got this–so let’s swim!

Photo by Juan Salamanca on Pexels.com

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Nettle Creek and Love’s Rocky Terrain

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When Merle plummeted from the ladder while trying to work moss off the cedar shakes roof, I was sure he’d be a goner. He’d been doing that for near forty years but there comes a time when a man has to tell himself no. He isn’t great at that. And despite breaking his back, he’s not so good at quitting. He got surgery and recouped, and before I knew it, was back on his feet. I caught him eyeing the ladder and I locked it up. But he sits more, takes rests on our big bed. Usually there’s a sharp knife and a few pieces of wood nearby or he’s studying our weekly newspaper, acting like he can see the fine print. But the carving he can mange fine–he was born with the talent.

I can’t say he’s keeping things up so well, he uses a cane more often than not. I’m good sized and strong. As my father always told me, “strong as a mule”. (“Sly as a fox,” Mom said, as I solved problems pretty good.) That’s why he had to name me James, he thought I was to be a boy and when I was coordinated plus was strong I often was treated as such, dressed for the woods. Mom added a second name, Marie. Weirdly. I can take or leave dresses and other fancy things but like a pretty blouse and a full skirt for special occasions.

Merle says, “You never need paint on your face, you’re fresh as roses to me.” The first time he said that I about smacked him–I never had heard such a thing in my fifteen years and couldn’t figure it out–or him. But it sounded better over time. He could be generous with his admiration then. Now he says “Roses” if he’s trying to make me smile.

“Jimmie,” Merle asks me this morning as he often does, “is this a day we go or a day we stay?” He leans in toward me, two hands on his cane, the one with the eagle head for a handle.

He asks that–some days with a flip in his voice, sometimes all serious– mostly because I foretold the miracle of May Cousins. (The other reasons is because he’s just one who thinks on dying more as he ages. Not me. ) She was drowned a short time at eight but I was sure she’d come back, live and eventually be alright. Which she did, and still is, and teaches kindergarten in the next county. But I haven’t made a habit of such things, in fact, keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be blamed when things go sideways. Don’t care for the limelight, either.

But I’ve been right about a few other things kept to myself. I have been right about Nelda sometimes. For sure about Merle getting injured (it may have just been the odds) but wrong about him dying and that’s good. I made plenty of stink about it long before he fell. Later I reminded him of it once, when he was lying there and I worried he’d never get up. No matter, he knew he had paid the price of pride. He even apologized, to my amazement, as they carted him off in the ambulance, siren blaring its alarm through woods and village. His friends lined up at the hospital until they knew he made it.

We got through it all–many months of it, surgery we couldn’t really afford, rehabilitation trials, misery—and we still get on alright. It takes some work. But he had quit drinking at 49, so most things had already automatically improved. Now we’re just settling more deeply, two ole dogs by the hearth. His ornery back, my creaky knees.

“I guess we’re stuck here in paradise, it’s another good day. You got half the beaver carving done for Ted– and another one started, right?’

“Don’t know what the second one is yet.”

“It’ll reveal itself, always does, the wood talks at you.”

He let go of the cane with one hand, pats my arm as I make breakfast, then clomps out to the round blue table put on the screened porch in summer. I have a little song humming in me and put another sausage in the gravy running richly over hot biscuits. He’ll eat well and feel better and get right to that unknown carving.

Long before he broke his back and soon after he quit drinking, things were far different. I stopped and gazed out the window above the counter, over Nettle Creek to the house beyond.

“You coming with the coffee?” he calls out, a touch of crankiness setting in. You’d think caffeine was more potent than Jim Beam the way he acts. But I know he has pain and needs those jolts of coffee pleasure, and thank the good Lord every day and night he grasps his steaming mug and not the bottle. And so does he. Or this would be another story.

******

While he naps, I finish chores and sit on the porch. I’ve been trying to stick with a book about Hawaii, a fat novel from a yard sale. It about makes me want to see that exotic place but I’ve not been anywhere for more than a few days. Just here in the mountainous, forested areas around Nettle Falls, our town, and Nettle Creek. I’ve known most of my neighbors–such as they are, scattered here and there–forever. I know this Northwest haven like my own face; it’s in my blood, three generations of it. Our son Tate, he moved, but he’ll be back one day.

Nelda, now, she’s the same as me in that way. Never wanted to pull up roots and find another place to roost. Never wanted to travel any farther than the coast to stick her toes in the salty sea, which we did many times, Merle and me, her and Gerry before he died. We stuck together, like small town folks do. I always have a sense of what she’s up to, even now. For one thing, I can mostly see her house kitty corner from ours, the whole thing when the leaves fall and only conifers stand tall and more sparse between us.

Her house is bigger than ours with a deck across the back facing the creek. (Always thought that a poor idea; mosquitoes–we do get fewer than imagined–can get you.) I could see her raising her three kids, note right off how they changed fashion and friends and how much beer they stole and drank, hear her and Gerry’s arguments and happiness when the breeze was right. We could walk over mossy rocks in the creek to visit each other in a minute. It was like having a sister, which I’d not been given, only we were best friends, too.

Then Nelda put up a half-wall right after she made the biggest mistake of her life. She paid a pretty penny for Hermann and Sons to erect it. I watched it being made and was baffled that she left it at shoulder height; I could still see over the top pretty well as we are on a rise in the ground; I could still see much. It was as if she wanted me to see her life go on as it did. To see how few people socialized with her, her kids less around.

I made a habit of keeping an eye out less after all was done. I doubt she wasn’t much looking our way, either. It felt wrong, for the first time. Why bother with someone who did what she did? Everyone felt like that if you listened to the gossip, for a good year. Then no one said much at all, but they were leery of her, some more than others. As for me–I eventually had sympathy and grief to contend with on all fronts, and all that near drove me over the edge more than just the terrible error. I refused to shun her, and told the others they’d better think twice before they carried on with it. I half-nodded at her when we passed each other, no eye contact. But that was all, so maybe it was close enough to shunning.

And yes, it was Merle’s grave error, also. Let’s face it, he had equal blame though many were quicker to release him of guilt, and who knows why? Because Nelda was a woman, though a widow woman just over eleven months? Because we were best friends and you don’t do that to friends? Maybe because Merle was newly sober just nine months? But not soon enough, as he’d already lost his good job at the post office over in Scappoose (got it back a year later; retired after his back stayed bad)–so he couldn’t be judged too harshly. That was it–finding his way with no whiskey or beer? Well, I said, yes, true, he was a blind man feeling his way though the dark alleys of his life–and he found his way right into Nelda’s tanned and glowing arms.

Was I really all that surprised?–a few of the women asked me boldly. Merle was good looking, strong-built and even though quiet he radiated a sort of warmth that drew in everyone and still does. Sure, girls admired him when we were still in school and beyond–and the boys had an eye on me. Looks are no good excuse, he was a family man, and I found it shallow of others to suggest there was a way out of his part.

We had cemented our bond at the start. And we two couples had enjoyed such good and bad times together; there was faith in our friendship, we were growing older together with ease. We had real trust. But when Ger had an aneurysm and that was that, it was a sea change. Not only missing him. We three felt like a wheel without enough spokes, and our friendships stopped rolling on quite right. Then it slowed, limped along. Sometimes we just sat by the creek, a stunned trio, then faded into a “goodnight.”

For all the unbalance, I was with Nelda, of course I was– right till the moment I found out. And it did not take a detective. I saw them. There they were on her deck, having pie and coffee when I was recovering from a bad summer cold. That was okay with me. But it was the way they were sitting side by side, their heads put together, shoulders touching, his hand moving to the small of her back. Then their lips locked. But quick-like and they peered across the creek, its rushing waters frothy and golden with early evening light. They had dearly hoped I was still in bed, sleeping, too hot and achy and snuffly to move. But I was standing at our bedroom window, paused for what reason?–to see if Merle was outdoors. Still having coffee and then checking her new umbrella clothesline’s wobble. I had been on my way to the kitchen for water, felt a need to look out. If truth be told, had a feeling. That feeling that tingles in my stomach, strikes me as something.

At first it seemed like a fever dream. I blinked, looked hard again. Merle and Nelda got up, took plates and cups inside, and shut the door against the languid heat. Or to keep it in. They didn’t come out until darkness fell and I gave up hoping for different, leaned back. Was exhausted by tears and drifting into sleep before I heard his footsteps in the dark, then porch steps. By the time he got to our room, I was plunging into an abyss of heartache. He slithered out to the couch.

Sleep pulled at me. My falling thought: Damned traitors, bet those sheets smelled bright as sunshine, mine all twisted around body and heart, hurts deep…

It took time, as all things do, with Merle. I am stubborn even if enraged. Do you throw out an entire lifetime together when one of you fails to stick to the rules? How much weight does sexual commitment–with its duty and occasional boredom–carry in the long run? Is it everything, is it the soul of a marriage–or actually a smaller part than you believed at the start? What mattered here? What do you deep in your gut want, I asked him over and over? It wasn’t the surrender to desire, that basic act. It was what we all fear and loathe: trust shaken, torn, hard things to mend. We made choices together once we got through the thorns.

The reason I stayed is that we took our time healing, made no sudden moves. He remained here despite regret, his shame. It’s love, that’s all. The kind of love that had long ago put its stamp on our hearts and carried us through near every sort of weather. And Nelda—she was heart shocked about Ger. She gave in to greater needs. Maybe he did, too, though I didn’t and won’t ever ask that. I didn’t need all the sorry facts, just solutions. besides, I about reacted to his failure by doing the same. Then stepped back right in time. No one knew–but I did.

No, it was Nelda who I lost the hardest, the worst, the biggest, and who with a desperate kiss lost me. Even though I pitied her, I could not entirely, sincerely forgive someone I had so long called Sis. Not even after praying for her all those years. Twelve of them.

******

So I watch her deck and house because she has not come out in eleven days. Well, she came out because once I heard her car leave and return. But no sitting outdoors. No hanging out laundry–she still liked to hang her sheets and towels, yes, that sun and wind. I know it is eleven days because I count as I used to in the old times and worried about her. Because Nelda gets depressed. Not just like after she and Merle had the fling and Ger had passed on which was quite bad but her daughters helped her then, and even her stuffy pastor, I heard, gave her some good advice so she got counseling. Got back to more living, got a job in the office at Dean’s Hardware.

No, this is something I don’t anticipate, though I feel concern as the days added up. I sit an hour and with each second sense her more. It builds up until it hurts my chest and rings in my brain: help.

“Merle,” I said, sticking my head inside when I hear him rustling around for a snack. “I’m going over the creek.”

He thumps his way to the door as I run down the steps.

“What did you say?”

I give a short wave backwards and keep on, my tennis shoes seeking hold on the flat and rounded rocks, trying to avoid mossy slipperiness, finally sliding into cold water running about my shins, the bank seeming far off. But when I make it I run to the back of her house, around the fence, to the gate, and find it locked. I rush to the front door, throat constricted even as I call out her name.

“Nelda! Where are you!”

The front door is unlocked, not too unusual, and so I enter for the first time in over a decade to find heaps of magazines sliding to the floor and piles of clothing on the couch and a few used paper plates with plastic forks on the coffee table. The television is on, sound muted.

I rush to the large airy kitchen but she’s not there–then the bedrooms, one by one. Not there. Where?


“Nelda, it’s Jimmie! Where are you?” My voice cracks; I gulp air.

I open one bathroom door, it’s acrid, stuffy, empty. Then another one.

And there she is sitting on the toilet lid in faded knit shorts and a baggy, stained pink tank top. Her longish, once-blonde-going-white hair falls over her hands, which barely hold her head, her head which dips to her knees as I enter. On the floor is an open prescription bottle, pills spilled and rolling all over the black and white tiled floor.

“Nelda, what have you done to yourself?” I cry out and fall to my knees.

I take her head into my hands, pull her to my shoulder so that she crumples, slides down to the floor and falls hard onto me, her once-full body light like sticks in my sturdy arms. I look at her and see a once-velvety forest woman now a sad one with her insides turned out, her fineness ripped and frayed.

“I’m going to give up,” she whispers, “why are you here…go home…”

“Did you take too many? Tell me!” I reach for the bottle and see that its an antianxiety medicine. “How many?”

“Four, five or dunno, not counting…”

I hold her head up so I can look at her. Red-rimmed, half-open eyes in shadowy sockets; sunken cheeks; pale lips gone slack; unwashed hair that sticks to her face, neck. She needs a shower. A meal and coffee. A new life.

She first needs a doctor.

I pick up the bottle, then lift her and nearly fall over as my knees complain. I carry her to her bed. Then I pull out my phone, call the number on the bottle. Can the pharmacist tell me what to do? Yes, go to urgent care or if she breathing is shallow and is less responsive, her eyes closing, call 911.

“Jimmie? Jimmie…you real…” Her words are slurring. She rolls over, nearly falls off the bed. I grab her and sit by her on the edge of the mattress which, I realize, has no sheets.

“I’m here, we’re going to get help.”

I call Merle and tell him to to get to the car, drive over fast.

“Nelda, I’m right here. We’ll get you better.”

“You’re…” she says as tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Which begin to close.

“Nelda, come on, wake up!” I shake her but her eyes remain half shut, her mouth opens, her silver fillings dully gleam.

I call 911 and carry her out the front door and Merle sprays gravel as he halts in the driveway. I sink to the ground with her limp body clutched to my chest. He shoots out the car door, limping to my side, hand over his mouth.

******

Two months. That’s how long it’s been since Nelda had her stomach pumped. Then monitored, then in inpatient treatment for severe clinical depression with suicidality and generalized anxiety. That’s what they called it, as if she has a fancy predisposition to some alien thing when it was in fact a close decision to end it all. I can’t abide the psychobabble but glad they helped her. She was released after three and a half weeks, and seems much better.

Was, that’s the word we can use now. Was going to die, not now going to die. She is back in therapy, on different medication and on her feet–what a way to put it but quite true. She’s even thinking of taking a dance class at Jody’s Studio in Scappoose; she loved ballroom dancing when Ger was alive, so why not? I’ll likely cheer her on.

I don’t understand it, not all of it. Neither does she, she says, just that she can get so low and then goes to the pits and needs help but waited too long. I can’t abide thinking that I about lost her once and for all. Nelda insists this is quite true, I was there in spirit all along and that helped her hang on. Really? I shake my head. Maybe, though my sense of things was too slow to alert me quite soon enough. Wasn’t there in person until near late and how do I get over that? By living and being better, I guess.

I’m right sometimes with my feeling about people, wrong other times, and that’s just how it goes. I have no special power, that’s for sure. Just love, I guess.

It was a wimpier, half-lonely time without our friendship. Like I’d been so hungry but got used to it though I was craving more. Maybe we can both finally fill up more, a little at a time. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s time passing and time found, and life knocking off more of my edges. I’m freer inside my mind and spirit.

Still, I’ve felt the burden of my neglect since I found her in the depths. It sliced a gash inside me. My not being there all those years–knowing what I know about Nelda– is the real crime here. I want the bleeding to stop, the wound scab over–as she wants hers to close. Her old humiliation, that lingering shame. The only way beyond it is getting up. going on, and learning each other again. We’ve begun to share tales and news in person over coffee a couple days here, a couple maybe there. Merle gives a brief, hearty greeting then disappears. One of these week-ends I hope and pray–I pray for everything, that’s the way I do this– we’ll grill a fine dinner in summer’s green beauty, all together. It won’t be like old times. There is no going back. We’ve been ignorant. Suffered the hurt. Left each other, found each other. We’re getting whiter, gimpier. Maybe wiser. What a saga we have woven. But in the end there’s just what lies before us this day. And we want more peace.

We keep an eye on each other from across Nettle Creek, our creek, where I never got much of a nettle sting yet and love to hear the water running, cascading no matter what goes on. It feels about as good as it can. But I’ll aim for better, I tell myself when I feel whipped by the upkeep of our acreage and house and Merle gets cranky. Then I up and call Nelda Sis, it slips out, isn’t that seeing the bright side? I’m still just Jimmie, best friend, or as she says Jimmie Marie which gets on my nerves– except when she says it anyhow.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Gift of Caring and Learning to Receive

I am learning something new the past few weeks. I might not have to be quite as alone in my life as I crawl past the sudden death of a granddaughter. And worsened chronic illness, a year of my spouse’s unemployment, various troubles for five adult children here and there. And, yes–the pandemic, how can I note that last? The toll it has taken on humanity. On us each. That there might be care and aid for this woman–me, Cynthia–is amazing to me even after a fulfilling career offering help of all sorts to others. In truth, I was considering calling a therapist but put it off each week, waiting things out. You know…I can do this, it all takes time, I will get through this and be alright, I can tread water a lot longer….I know how grief fans open and closed and open…that sort of putting it off.

If you would, then, look above: the photo provides a semblance of what solace can be and do for me: losing self by creating an interesting scenario; meditating on curiosities and life’s beauty; being still; listening/watching/feeling. I could insert a photograph of the sea or mountains or a path winding through dense forest. Nature is clearly a focal point but not always. It might be playing favorite or new music or letting my own sudden singing flow; making a bit of art or dancing on my twilit balcony, hidden by trees. It might, then, be two lanterns, a solar kaleidoscopic sphere, and a flower. Sitting in the darkness as light sifts through it, seeing varied shapes amid softening colors. Birdsong in tiny bursts about me quieting at end of day, while the owl resumes its part with haunting calls. These cover me with ease, the simplest things. That presence of divine creation flows to and fro. I take it in, nourishment for my great hunger. I feel fuller, better.

Solitude–literally, figuratively–has been a close companion of mine for the duration of my life. Its arrival can be bittersweet, but first and last familiar, so an overall welcome state. Sometimes warm and cozy, sometimes cool and detached, it is like a second skin, a delight yet protective and flexible, as much a part of me as the blue myopia of my eyes.

I don’t think being solitary is completely a choice but an ingrained manner of living. A habitual behavior. I don’t readily stop to enumerate all options– and those that do come to mind are often due to being taught other ways. That one can have solitariness and connection with others–even though we are, of course, all by our human selves ultimately. But I apparently don’t have to expect always to be left to my own devices. A novel idea when first informed of it, and not quite accepted as truth. I am still working on it at 71; it seems that with age comes a bit of wisdom then greater leaps of learning.

Don’t get me wrong, solitude is a good thing much of the time; it appeals to the creativity I nurture, the writer and musician and thinker that stirs daily in me. I am at home with it in a myriad ways and for different means. And I was trained how to behave in the public at an early age, to interact with people in a civil, appropriately warm manner. It was a good thing. But solitude and being so much a solitary person–alone–are not quite the same, either.

Solitariness ceased being an action taken consciously–that drawing deep into self, figuring out how to endure then flourish alone, perhaps later with others –when I found myself alone as a child and desperately needed protection. But didn’t get it. Ever. Not even when my mother–a good mother but a mother constrained by societal expectations and her circumstances, her own fears– knew I was in need. I fended for myself and played my roles well enough. But then it was on to a turbulent and risky, oftentimes dangerous, youth and adulthood. Walking on a knife-thin edge while trusting my own intuition and sense of balance didn’t 100% pan out. Still, I developed survival instincts that, if not always physical rescues, were more emotional and spiritual saves. At a price. Surviving comes with a price one must be willing to pay. I have been willing. And able. That or give up, and never give up, I used to counsel myself, so outwit the victimizers, the everyday charlatans. Find the path through the world that allows you to stay alive, keep moving and keep sight of the Light.

I noted as a mental health/addictions counselor that such attitudes and behaviors are common for those who experience crushing, life changing events. If it soon is clear there is no rescue, no aid of any sort, clients devised creative ways to cope and survive. Or gave up. PTSD is brutal until it is understood and managed but in truth, there may be more harshness or (real or perceived) “punishment” and repercussions to cope with; life brings us a wide array of experiences. People can judge wrongly.

It takes arduous labor to move beyond this, years of praying (for me) and identifying markers or warning signs both within and without–to identify actual reasons for self defense and let go of misperceived experience. Then there is a pull back, and then construction of new coping skills. It is largely practical, not just emotional change. It becomes more natural to choose the healthy versus the unworkable response. And a person develops healthier perspectives, better decision making, freedom from past reactive or self destructive behaviors. It can be done, is being done by people every day. They learn to trust step by step–themselves first and, slowly, others.

If I know all this, why the persistent belief that I need to deal with life’s eruptions, twists and random barriers primarily alone? Habits are hard to change at the root. And they can seem comfortable, even when not the best. Change can be jarring, confusing, but it doesn’t tend to kill us; bad habits can and do. What can we do to save ourselves? Can I–can you–take new risks required?

Or, somewhat more complicated, can I actually “wake up” enough once more to see that I am being offered simple aid? We may think we are alert and smart enough….Consider how I had to pay attention anew, let go of old belief and practice other behaviors. It has just begun to sink in the past few days. The immensity of its impact has been worth musing over.

I shared this briefly before in a recent post, but there is a greater point to it. Skip this part of you need to but continue if you can…

I was grocery shopping on June 17 at 2:58 pm. when my phone dinged and showed a picture of my daughter, Naomi, standing on my front porch. I thought it was a weird joke she was making. I brushed it off and kept shopping, but my heart started to race. In a few moments I went outside to look at hanging flower baskets. And then I responded to her with disbelief: Is this real? Because Naomi lives in S. Carolina and only recently had driven to Colorado for the summer, where her guy lives–and I am in Oregon. When she affirmed she was standing on my porch, I nearly lost it. I raced home and found her and we hugged and hugged and I would have bawled if I wasn’t so excited. And then a bit worried about Covid-19, though we are both vaccinated. (That anxiety passed; we have been safe enough.)

Let me tell you something about her–besides that she is a sculptor, an award-winning educator, an international traveler, a brilliant woman (a talented/gifted-identified kid by 9, flew through college SATs at 11) who could flourish in any number of careers. Of course I am proud of her, as I am of all my children. But who she is can seem a true mystery and was from the start. Who creates block designs and buildings for a few hours without stopping, no distraction at just over two years? Then you get to know her more…although she explains almost nothing abut herself….And when she knows and cares for you, her loyalty is deep and wide. She has heart far bigger than her 105 pounds can keep to itself. She has soul, the kind that is hitched to the stars but swooped down here to see what she can learn and offer. She has a dry, quirky sense of humor, can offer lightning speed solutions to many conundrums, can be so quiet you have to look for her nearby. Is a workhorse when it comes to interests and passions. Self directed; don’t try to deter her. She shares characteristics with her equally individualistic–we are not so much a moderate or ordinary… if there is one of those–sisters and brother. But Na is, well, Na. (Those who know, understand this statement.)

So if she sent me a picture of herself smiling at my doorstep–“just in the neighborhood, thought I’d say hi”— it could be a digital joke, a forecast of the future, or a dream come true.

But who hops in a vehicle and drives across the country not only to see her guy Adam–but then her mother? Not for any particular reason, or so it seems at first glance…and without ever telling the mom–me? In fact, tells her she cannot make it out this year, likely. But then tells her siblings (and aunt and uncle who come later) to keep it a secret. Naomi does. But her sisters and brother are in on the plan. Maybe it was the fact the most of my birthdays the last ten years have been impacted by a family member’s death (and some of Marc’s family) and funeral. It happens so often, it is quite peculiar. Or perhaps it was that she heard something in my voice during phone calls she made sometimes twice weekly and daily texts for a couple of months–the weariness, spaciness, tears held back. And, without a doubt, she needed to see her family as much as coming for me/us. She could not make it for our Krystal’s funeral. To hug her sister Aimee beloved mother of Krystal…and share the love with everyone else.

Over the course of about ten days with us, Naomi slept on an air mattress in our living room without complaint. She did so many considerate things, it’s harder to recall what she did not do for me, for us. She made delicious food. She went out and picked berries in heatwave-blazing sun to give to us all though she has very pale, sensitive skin so must slather on heavy SPF to be outside too long. She joined Aimee and me for an indulgent pedicure even though she is not about pedicures. She scheduled and visited her siblings and their kiddos in safe ways (due to Covid). She visited Annie, widow of my brother, Gary; she’s an artist, too, so they caught up about their work.

Naomi also brought me a beautiful handmade ceramic cup; she knows I value unique ceramic mugs and cups almost as much as she does. She wants us to get a dog and kept showing me pictures, offering to go with me to a rescue center (declined, not ready for one–they die). We took walks together. Talked, talked, talked. Debated. We don’t always see eye-to-eye; both of us argue a point well and learn stuff in the process. She brought home a shiny green succulent for no good reason other than it is attractive, and not killable as it’s hard to keep plants alive in our shady home…its name is Bertha or maybe Jeanne, we shall see. She washed up dishes, cleaned some, kept her things tidy. And updated with Marc each night when he got home from work, shared anecdotes and laughter. She can talk to anyone, I think, I have seen it occur anywhere. This from a kid who rarely spoke unless absolutely required. Who hid, and yet has embraced the world and living.

When we went to visit her brother, Josh. It was a good time–we rode little motorbikes, crazy fun, gabbed. She gave him two huge walnut and metal sculptures that their father, a builder and sculptor, made decades ago. (He is deceased.) “The Guardians” are perhaps over four feet tall and heavy, but she drove across country with them in the back of her SUV. And there was a third that Ned, their dad, had never finished; it is now Josh’s to finish. (He makes art, too.)

For all I know, she also gave gifts to her sisters. This is her way, little surprises in the mail or hand delivered.

The night before she left to meet up with her guy in CA. and to explore the redwood forests –he was pausing on a meandering motorcycle trip–she insisted we have an “art party”. I was tired out from having so much fun, and was preparing for imminent arrival of my brother, sister-in-law and our sister, plus a couple of cousins. But Alexandra, her youngest sister, arrived on time as ever, and so we sat down at the balcony table. Naomi got things sorted out for us, then snip, paste, add some color, snip, position and paste magazine pictures on a small piece of watercolor paper. Little artsy collages began to take shape as we gave way comfy quietness with quips here and there. We were at it for an hour, then lined them up. Not too shabby. Yes, it was time I’m glad we shared!

It wasn’t an aching goodbye the next day. I was distracted by planning the casual lunch here with more family the day after. Marc and I were also frantically trying to locate an air conditioner, something we never need in OR. but this June the historic heat wave had commenced with ferocity. (Found a clunky one at a “grow shop” of all places. If you don’t know what t that is….Oregon legalized marijuana.) Naomi noted she and Adam were going up the Oregon coast (he on motorcycle, she in car) and might stop at Cannon Beach where my brother, sister-in-law, Marc and I were soon headed. So, it was a cushy hug but not a last-of-visit hug.

This, then, was the first portion of my repeat lesson in being offered and accepting loving care. But you know how when, for example, someone compliments you and it slides off you until it catches you off guard later? That’s what happens to me. I am continuing to figure out how to acknowledge and be present with deliberate, genuine kindness. To be open to/accepting of love like that–yes, even with family.

The second part of my tutelage was about to happen.

My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Judy–came out to visit Marc and myself, our sister, Allanya, and other family members. Their trip was also cross country but it was planned to include taking photos at scheduled stops, as well as taking workshops with photographers throughout the states. This is one of their true passions, creating great photographs; they excel at it. So it was a first big trip to do that and see family in two years as the pandemic began to wane. They’d spend three days in the Portland area, then Marc and I would share a beach lodge with them for the final days of their visit.

How to describe a brother I knew minimally for 40 years or more? He is seven years older than I am, and one of four older siblings often busy and gone, then off to universities by the time I was nearing teen years. In this brother’s case, college led to the military for about 30 years. Then came marriages and children; we lived in cities far from one another. I didn’t know him at all. I recalled he laughed easily when young and teased me a bit, but far less so for years after Viet Nam. I was very affected by his new quietness and faraway eyes. I wanted to know him, but did not get a chance. He moved elsewhere.

I moved to the Northwest at 42; three other siblings lived In WA. and OR. I felt somewhat close to all three, more so very shortly as I was welcomed. (It was Allanya who persuaded me to leave MI. with two teenaged children and settle here.) Wayne and Judy lived another life back east. It was only when they flew out that we met up. I visited at their home three times: when my young brood and husband visited long ago, then for his 70th and my 60th. And at some point things changed, perhaps when Dad, then some years later, Mom both passed away. It was us five siblings, orphaned. He and Judy visited the Northwest more. They’d travelled the world often but when retired from the military, it became most of every year. So what a pleasure to see them here and there. I felt we got more familiar with each other, stayed in touch more regularly. With the pandemic, there were more check ins.

But I was not prepared for their response when Krystal died. They knew her minimally, for she passed at 28 but did not grow up here, had lived overseas for some time before returning to Portland. They reached out often. It meant so much to hear their voices, their sympathy and concern gently offered.

When Wayne–long before that– had emailed their plans about visiting this June, it concerned me a little. Would we be safe, even with vaccinations? Wouldn’t it be hard to relax inside our home with other people? It was a strange thought–mingling, talking in person! But when June crept up, I was looking forward to it. Arrive they did, first visiting Allanya who lives with her partner in an assisted living facility. She, to our confoundment, has dementia.

It was the day Naomi left and they arrived that I noticed something different. How the distance between us felt smaller. What a joy to welcome them even with the cloud of sadness around my shoulders and brain. Later, at lunch with our sister, conversation ebbed and flowed, food was tasty, the surroundings pleasant in an air conditioned restaurant as temperatures rose ever higher outdoors. Allanya, thoughts shared occasionally, seemed happy, too. They insisted on paying the bill. I thought Okay, next time but no; this continued.

Lesson here: be gracious. Pride is not all that helpful. Accept despite a cringing discomfort. Marc and I have tried always to pitch in, have taken good care of ourselves and family. But sometimes the life’s loads shift. We’ve helped others and this time we may need to appreciate being recipients. So I told myself. ( Marc is recently employed again, things shall improve–amen.)

Following lunch, we visited a classic car dealership with Allanya. She loves to see and touch the old polished, fancy cars–I took a picture of her posing cheerily beside a vintage turquoise Thunderbird. We all have admiration so took more photos. Then we ferried her back home, and fell silent. What can be said of gradually losing parts of a sister in plain sight…it is misery. We love her so dearly.

The following day, our lunch gathering took place. Our house was filled with expressive exchanges–we are a loquacious bunch–with burgers, chicken kabobs, hot dogs grilled and more. I oscillated between tending to needs, listening, smiling and feeling blank, staring out the window at flowers on the balcony as they slowly wilted in the 112 degree heat. Time passed, the place emptied. When might such a meeting of family happen again, all parties present? It went so fast. This thing called time!-it flashes by and before we know it…

Then to the beach–Wayne, Judy, Marc and me. Allanya had wanted to go until she decided not to go…disappointing but, too, she’d get dizzy on mountain roads and it might be too much being away from her partner and their dogs. Not only short term memory is lessening; she is much less apt to get out and go even with me. How fun it may have been, siblings hanging out at a pretty spot close to the sea. She once owned a weekend home on a bay of the ocean…we stayed there so many times. Followed furtive deer. Studied starry skies.

The next 24 hours were not easy, just as it had not been the previous week. I have been alone so long. Most of us have been. Yes, Marc and I have gone on outings, but mostly he tends to do his thing, I do mine, like any longstanding couple. Now he is employed again and the rooms are empty of other voices. And I can weep, write poetry, read, be deeply silent, leave any time. All by myself. People can be taxing. And they can be wonderful. But life and death, they move with us, like my hands at labor or rest, like my soul and mind.

The lodging was attractive: high ceilings with beams, many windows to encourage drifting sunlight, rooms a-plenty– it was giant cabin. I was still glad to be there despite tension in my shoulders, a nagging headache, a slight loss of internal balance. Did it show too much, I wondered? I had tried to be present for a week with family, even when the undertow of sorrow and exhaustion pulled hard.

So what was the 3.5 day schedule, the agenda? There was none, other than to eat when we got hungry, sleep when tired. Marc and I roamed the beach as early eve arrived half-golden, then blue, then on fire with sunset. The sea’s visual infinity, its music and the sand underfoot buoyed me. I opened my lungs, breathed in the air and wind arriving all the way from who knows where. It helped, but not entirely. Still uncertain of myself, my role somehow–who was I without our other siblings, who are we in the current iterations of life’s flux– we finally slept, fitfully, at a distance. The next day, a short visit from Alexandra, her husband and the twins for lunch–they drove out from Portland to see her aunt and uncle once more. Marc and I walked the beach for miles; knots loosened from my shoulders, head cleared more. And then he left for home for the work week.

I got a clue and conceded the obvious: the whole point was to do nothing. The trip to Cannon Beach was to gather loosely, unwind, take it easy, enjoy whatever desired. Have a respite. To hang out with Wayne and Judy, sometimes do things on our own, other times shared. Wayne offered information about photography and camera functions, nicely gave me items I could use with my Cannon. Judy and I caught up at length; it was lovely getting to know her better. To feel the time, miles and experiences that separated us move aside so more connecting points might be made. They are intellectually stimulating, responsive, accomplished and cosmopolitan–and caring people. More independent and driven than am I, they know their way about the wide, mad world. Yet we are only people trodding the paths; we each have our own.

I slept better, dreaming my way through nebulous panorama of night. Awakened later than planned. It didn’t matter. We whiled away the morning, slipped into afternoon. Naomi and Adam arrived and joined at the table. Joshua (who, days after Krystal’s funeral, came upon a gruesome dead body on a remote hike; remains distressed, in addition to our own loss) and his wife and stepsons joined us awhile. We enjoyed beach time then dug into a decent meal; more talk, then off they all went. We had a carousel of family get togethers over a few days. Naomi and I resolved to see one another before another year passes…and so, farewell, firstborn daughter.

That night I slept as I hadn’t in weeks. Just as I had eaten and savored food as I had not in far too long. Up early the next day, we packed and left and that was the end of that side trip. Wayne and Judy went on to other states, seeing friends and photographing more landscapes and architecture or whatever pulls them in for a closer look. Saying goodbye to two more family members was warm, sweetly sad.

“Sister,” my brother said as he hugged me.

“My brother,” I managed.

The two weeks were a sort of magic. No, more–they were restorative, a start of healing. I had prayed for help and yet everything given me was a surprise, a reveal of mysterious powers of love. I have been paused and re-set–I have come back to my more balanced self a little more. Since I was able to try to accept these gifts, I regained a clearer, broader viewpoint. It took some defense shedding; there have been fewer, though, since mid April. I imagine God has more work to do with my participation, in any case. I am an eager student once more.

For every death of a loved one, there is a doorway that takes us back to all others we mourn and it begins to feel like nakedness in the world, and as if we must protect ourselves more. We are helplessly laid bare in sorrow. We are like children, or like souls whose bodies are useless. So it took more willingness to receive and also give back–attention, trust, time, compassion, empathy.

You might think it would be natural; I do know much about helping others gain human skills and strengthening attributes. But I have limits as we all do. I was struggling before my daughter and brother arrived–with the powerful weight of life amid the subterranean anchor of death, with exhaustion from too much happening too fast. With the strangeness of juxtaposition: beauty and wonder with shock and horror. The day Krystal died was the twin granddaughters’ second birthday. It was a bright and joyous day…and we got the call and raced to her apartment building. Saw the medical examiner at the door. Aimee and Alexandra and I saw our loved one, suddenly gone unbelievably still. It stays with us every day and night. My daughter Aimee struggles with her grief as anyone would who has lost a child, wants to hide away–though she and her partner came to our family luncheon, unexpectedly. I can only stand by, powerless except for my love and that pains me though I understand it.

In my birth family circle Wayne and Allanya and I are who we have now. That ole fast talking, laughing, insightful Allanya we knew best and longest recedes a little with each visit. We have lost our parents, a brother and sister, a nephew, a brother-in-law–there is no pretending things are otherwise. But I have the blessings of my children, the grandchildren still alive including Krystal’s brother, Tyler. Things happen when you least expect it. Yet one greets each day as it comes. We culture our hope like a pearl, the abrasion of living polishing, turning it over. And we aim for goodness in ourselves and others. Open our hearts as much as possible so we can take a chance on love. Even happiness.

I know when I am stuck in that cave made of “I can manage, I am praying, I am greeting each day with a hello” typical of my solitariness, my family can bring compassion, perhaps food, some tears, some laughs. Yes, I can do it alone, find solace in my own company more often than not. I’m a writer, for one thing. But I was taught: chin up, stand tall, always do well. But I don’t have to do it that way. There are others who do care and how much of an unanticipated rescue is that? It can be everything. More so during these times. I will rejuvenate–then be better here for them. For all that I can do.

Wednesday’s Words/ Short Story: An Inheritance at Play

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

“I’m sorry, your name again?”

He was cupping his ear like an old person but he couldn’t be more than mid-forties. He–Neal, he’d said–sported a crewcut with a smidge of silver, a cherry red running jacket with sleeves pushed up to elbows, navy short-shorts with two whites stripes on either side, white tennies and two good legs. He was shielding his eyes from the sun that lent its heat to every unshaded surface in the courtyard garden. She wondered if he was stuck in the eighties but when she imagined him in a straw fedora, grey linen shirt and pants, in leather sandals, she instantly liked him better.

“Sparky, like spark plug, a spark of fire, first syllable of sparkler, whatever helps you fix it firmly in mind,” she answered briskly and returned to parsing her book but could make no sense of it, a corny romance she’d found in a free box by the elevator. No wonder it was tossed. She closed it with a smack of her hand.

He jogged a bit in place. “Like the Dalmatian firehouse dog of a kids’ story I read a few decades ago?”

“If you like.”

“We’re both newer, I guess,”‘ he continued, and ran around her chair. “I work from home so will likely run into you again. Nice to meet you.”

Sparky glanced up and gave one short wave. “Likewise.”

“Ok, number 32 if you need anything,” he tossed over shoulder as he bounded away.

Oh dear, she was 38, so he would run into her and vice versa. She’d hope to avoid people a bit longer. And would appreciate no more intrusions on her sunny spot for the afternoon’s remainder. But fat chance. This was the third resident who felt compelled to speak to her. Mira? Kendra? Talley? Or Mariah and Candy? Talley for sure, who was a graduate student but it seemed a made up name, as if he wanted to be in movies. No matter, they at least hadn’t engaged her much–the two women, barely that– and she had only bobbed her head so on they went.

It was disconcerting to sit in public and be vaguely acknowledged by passersby as one would a perhaps an odd new plant. She’d likely be startled, too. It was so different from her home where you had to unlock the gate to even get onto the winding driveway. Sparky had to pinch herself each morning to determine she wasn’t trapped in a nightmare. If not for the faint bruising that had begun to appear on her left upper forearm, she might still believe that was so. Every morning, a rude awakening, indeed. The pinching had to end, she was no masochist despite the situation.

So here she was. At Mistral Manor Apartments. She turned to scan the building, situated in a horseshoe shape about the dappled central courtyard. There was a sort of gate, alright–a worn black iron, double gate with pronounced points atop it. It opened out to a circular drive–with fountain, no less, which was just turned on in the warm weather– that split off and led to parking behind. One could get to the apartments as well as the courtyard through this gate, but also via a big main entry at each end of the brick horseshoe.

The courtyard she found quite pleasant, at least, with round tables and chairs–metal and once a pale blue, in need of a re-do–scattered throughout the shady area. There were two Japanese maples and a lovely Pacific madrone tree, a few white oaks. And flowers–well, begonias, petunias and pansies, that sort of thing. Oh, it pained her to not be in her own garden where her peonies and hydrangeas and tiger lilies would be blooming, soon the rose bushes–yes, just looking out over the long, rolling lawn right that moment.

“You need to give it up, you simply cannot stay here forever, the taxes alone will do you in within two years,” Melody, her one and only child, had insisted to Sparky for the last time. “Your fine home is now one of well over a dozen, and those are so shiny and contemporary this one looks like a forlorn plain Jane in comparison.”

“I could have hung on that long and, anyway, who made you my financial advisor? I already have one.”

“Mom, please, all three of us have gone over this already. Conservative use of funds, right? And it’s been my home, too….and when Daddy… well, it has remained ours, been only ours and for at least ten years longer than even imagined.”

“When your father left us, you mean, twenty-four years ago, it became just ours. Well, now mine. When you imagined things might get worse, you mean. I never gave it a thought, I was making good money on top of the settlement and then my set design career took off like gangbusters. Boy, was he shocked. But I expected to be in my home until they dragged me out heels first.”

Melody slumped into the chaise lounge beside her, looking down the hill to the pond. Several large orange koi fish flashed in golden light as they swam about. What would become of the koi?

Sparky wondered, too– what of the sweeping garden? What about the little bonsai planted in a tall, heavy pot by the front door? The set of wooden chimes that made the most sonorous sounds all day and night? Should they stay? But how would she sleep without those rich yet light tones ringing in the night? It was all too much to contemplate.

Melody stirred and looked at her mother. Such a face. Those arching eyebrows, that short wavy silver hair with an impulsive burgundy streak on a small wave; snaky lines tracing her eyes and mouth, the pursed lips line atop her upper lip especially pronounced. But she looked well and strong at sixty eight, was feisty and smart and dramatic as ever. It did hurt her to push this at her mother.

“Anyway, it’s the money and your ailing leg, that’s that, so please just move into Mistral Manor since it is only a half hour from me. And do think over the house. If you want to sell after you lease it for a year…or hang onto it awhile or…”

“Huh, that’s that.” Sparky ended the words with a grunt. “Your father’s daughter, simplify everything to its meanest details. Oh, my apology, to its very bottom line. If I hadn’t broken my leg skiing last January at Tahoe, you’d not be so adamant. I’d be working full time, for one thing. Swimming daily at the club. Dancing a samba–who knows?”

“Oh, stop, Mother, you know what I mean, it’s time to move on…you work part-time, on contract now. And five bedrooms, four baths, three levels, two acres of land. Who lives like this at your…time of life? It was country living at its best, a short commute to the city. But now, it feels like a threat to a kinder future– for us both.”

And that got to Sparky. A threat to a kinder future was not something she wanted to face, nor did her daughter.

So she concurred with reasonable deductions and let Melody’s co-worker and his wife rent it for a year. She moved to half-charming, dusty Mistral Manor, also no doubt once fine country living for the rat-race-weary, but now part of a sprawling suburban neighborhood that had never seen a grand past, honestly. It was good, though, to save money, just in case. In case something else waylaid her future.

But it was not even close to being a joy, not the merest joy, to be there. Even Melody admitted it was not going to feel very tolerable, at least at first. But she would do her best to hang in there and appease Melody. At least she hadn’t suggested a live in nurse or sent her packing to the rest home while her leg healed more. And her new tenant’s substantial rent payments were good, this they agreed on. He and his wife would be buying a house of their own after the year was up. And Sparky’s house? Who knew what would happen then?

******

She still walked with an ungainly hobble when she felt tired out, and with two grocery bags she was bound to tilt off balance just a bit.

“Let me assist you,” Neal said, rushing up to her. In his arms he held a grey cat with a very long ringed tail, it might have been a racoon if she hadn’t double-checked. It jumped down as soon as he loosened his hold and waited at her door.

She allowed him to take her apartment key which hung around her neck, and he unlocked the door and took the bags in. She suspected it was only to snoop about her place, and she was right. The cat had similar intentions.

“Such vibrant colors though they’re earthy, too,” he noted. “I like it, rich textures and a great use of the spaces.”

“Are you an interior designer?” She was unloading the food but keeping an eye on him as he cased dining and living rooms.

“No, but my father is and my mother’s a textiles artist. I got a few of their genes, and they expected a similar career trajectory of me but no, I’m a video game designer.”

“Oh? Now, hmm, do I use this avocado tonight? It has one soft side…”

Neal leaned on the counter dividing dining from kitchen. “Use it, I leave mine longer, then regret it. So how about you, are you a designer?”

She had knelt down to the vegetable bin, and with tomatoes and French onions in her hands she looked up at his open face, narrowed her eyes against light creeping in from the many windows. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Aha, I knew it. I can tell from a mile away. Commercial or residential.”

“Stage. Set design.”

She grabbed hold of the counter to pull herself up. Neal restrained himself form helping.

“Oh, different. For live theater?”

“Well, yes, people moving about a stage, throwing out lines, strutting their stuff in fabulous costumes and so on. A lot of Shakespeare for some years. I do television sets and other things, as well. Or have…” She slowly righted her body. “Now that you have the basics, may I finish my grocery organization in peace?” She smiled with teeth showing, tried to sound nice but enough questions.

“Aren’t; you going to ask me what sort of games I create?”

“I’d just as soon not, but I get the gist of it. You design and I design, so there you go, creative, aren’t we?” she said. “Leave my key on the counter on your way out.”

“Well, not that you’d likely know much about video games, anyway. Nice chatting, just wanted to help and welcome you. You know where I live. Later.” He said this with no malice, but some resignation, as if this was the norm for him.

The door shut firmly on his way out. Sparky left the vegetables out and went to her front door and opened it; the cat snipped out between her ankles. She caught a glimpse of him as he trotted down the hallway. “Neal, thank you for helping me out. I appreciate it!”

He stopped, turned, made a little half-bow, one arm crooked in front, the other at his back. “My pleasure, Sparky. And that was Esmerelda, by the way!”

Nothing like having the perkiest person in the building a few doors down, she thought, and she laughed. It was lucky for her he was trying to befriend her. She could use one or two friends. But did he create those gruesome warrior games? Hard to imagine it. Likely to him she was just a quirky old granny. She’d have to disabuse all of that stereotype with much better conversations.

******

Mariah and Talley were sitting in the corner, heads bent to one another. Sparky had been thinking of her koi and made a note to stop by and check that Jacob, her tenant, was taking care of things. She had considered getting an aquarium; she wasn’t sure she was allowed such things. Then that thought stirred up aggravation. That she even had to ask whether or not she might have a few fish living with her! It was absurd. All her adult life she’d made her own choices, lived as she chose–with the exception of Marty, who had also made his own choices many of which crowded hers, until he and that woman…well, it had come to this.

One year to go, then she’d move back. Or sell and buy another house. Or go wild, buy an RV, who knew?

She put down her task list and leaned in to try to catch what the two across the courtyard were saying.

“It isn’t right, she certainly ought to have left you more than that,” Mariah said, alto voice rumbling its way to Sparky.

“I know, that’s the thing, after all the years summering with her on the island, helping her out, keeping an eye on things when she got sick…” Talley was gulping his words a bit, voice muffled, sadness or dismay. “I so wanted that cottage.”

“But, Talley, your cousin has first rights– he’s her son, after all.”

“Who languished in Cayman Islands all these years, not a care in the world. When did her visit her? Now and then at Christmas. What does he want with an Oregon seaside cottage?”

“He’s coming here next week, right? I mean, the meeting with the lawyer and all.”

Talley nodded, then let his head drop on crossed arms atop the table. Mariah patted his back, glanced at Sparky and frowned.

“Sorry, words carry out here…” Sparky called out and went back to her list, added more items she had to do and buy. Or wanted to buy. A new place, different stuff was required. A lifestyle change deserved a good backdrop.

Two metal chairs were pushed back, scraping the flagstone floor; footsteps crept up to her table then stopped. Sparky did not look up. She was chewing on the end of her pencil, thinking what was the one thing she’d had to remember to get–that she then forgot.

“Are we too loud for your work?” Mariah asked.

Talley studied her. “Is it Sari?”

She looked at them one at a time. Two earnest types. “Of course not. And no, it’s Sparky. Oh, for goodness sake, don’t look like that, you’d think it was the strangest name in the world. I assure you it is not.”

The young adults shot each other a look.

“Hey, it’s a nickname, to clear things up. I’m a set designer, and I was first briefly a costume designer for theater, then television. I had a thing for sparkly accents and attire and a crazy sparkly kind of personality so they said–of course, I wasn’t jaded yet– and then others found me capable of sparking a wildfire of tempers over the smallest set details. One thing led to another; the name stuck. Sparky. “

They looked at her, nodding, then opened their mouths.

“But I have a real name if you that sticks better–Serena. Though I doubt I’d answer to that.”

“Oh, pretty,” Mariah said, smiling.

“It doesn’t suit me as well, so…”

“Alrighty, then, just saying hi, wondering how things were going,” Talley said. “And I’m an actor–part time amateur, but still, something in common, right? We should talk more later. I know a director who needs help…” His eyes skidded over her list. “Not to further interrupt you, but I was going to ask if you’d ever do that to a devoted nephew– leave them out of your will.”

Sparky blinked twice. “Will? Oh, your relative with the seaside cottage.”

Mariah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that one.”

“Who knows? Not given it a thought. I have a niece in India working with the poor, so likely not, she actually took a vow of poverty… but maybe I’d leave her money for her causes. My daughter Melody? She does very well in advertising. Unless I still have the house when I kick off, then we will see…”

“But I loved that house, it kills me…”

She was afraid he’d start to bawl right there. “I’d likely do what was sensible. It seems your cousin has money. Maybe he can care for it best even from a distance. My daughter, Melody, adores my house and she made me move. I’d have remained there another couple years, but she keeps a hawk eye on me as if my business is her business. Prods me to make decisions not needed. Though it may be time to be more cautious financially.” She swung her body around to face them, gesturing with her hands, pencil flying off. “What do you think, would you insist your own mother do something she didn’t want to consider doing yet? Or do you think it is all part of a dastardly scheme to get me out so she can slowly take possession? Sell it, maybe, and send me off to the old folks farm?”

Mariah wiped the sweat trickling down her forehead with the back of a hand. “No way would I do that, my mother wouldn’t have it. But she likely just wants you to be….okay, right? I mean, mothers are important, they deserve respect.”

“Well said, I like your answer, Mariah.”

Talley leaned closer to Sparky so she could smell his cologne. It was cheap but had cedar in it. “I’d say you need to keep an eye on your house. Families can be be surprisingly disappointing!”

Sparky stood. “I think you both have good points. As for the cottage, Talley–maybe have a chat with your cousin, see if he’ll share it with you. Certainly that would be equitable and he has a Cayman Islands abode, after all. Maybe he’d get tired of it, too.”

They walked to the gate, let themselves out and said their goodbyes.

“Sorry for eavesdropping.”

“Sorry for assuming the worst,” Talley said. “Can we talk about set design some day? Fascinating.” His almost-handsome, mobile face was a sweep of pleasure following his earlier consternation. Born actor.

“Come by number 38 sometime and I’ll give you my card to give your director. I consult for a fee–but you and I can chat again, of course. Theater people have to stick together, eh? I just can’t get you paying jobs based on a chat, you know.”

“Right, catch you later.”

He actually bounced a little. Talley likely believed she’d get him auditions. Maybe she could; maybe she could not. But Sparky couldn’t think what to say to Mariah, a genuine girl and his sidekick. She waved and gave her a toothy smile. A real one.

What a funny, congenial sort of place it was turning out to be.

******

Melody came by with almond and chocolate croissants and steaming coffee one Saturday morning. They sat on Sparky’s balcony. It was too early to get fully dressed and go out in public, even to the courtyard. Besides which, she could hear children clamoring and yelling out there. It might be a day inside with a book or a script. Sparky had awakened in a mood.

“It’s hot already, then it rains and it’s chilly, then sunshine blasts for two weeks and all my little potted plants are about give up, green tongues hanging out as they fall over. I wish I lived where there was an automatic sprinkler system and everything stayed green and brightly blooming…like at my own house. A place where I had air conditioning that hummed, not shouted.”

“And good morning, Mother, how is it going?”

“I have made three friends and am about to get two closer to my age. Alan and Greta, number 44. They have a schnauzer–which is a breed I can’t abide if you recall–but they seem interesting, have travelled a great deal. They like to cook and I like to eat, not a small thing.”

She smoothed her wrinkly hibiscus-covered green palazzo pants and thought that she needed a new iron. Melody looked impeccable–it was a strange need in her– in grey jeans and a white shirt with the collar turned up. Her shining hair–blonde, cut straight at the shoulder–needed streaks of darker color or a slight mussing or just a sparkly barrette. A little drama to offset the conventionality. But of course, not happening. She was the daughter every parent wanted. Sparky had been the mom her friends wanted. But mother and daughter were not that close until the last ten years.

Melody stretched out her lithe legs and let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t spoken to her mother for over ten days. They’d had words about the koi pond, which took attention the tenant was not too interested in giving. Sparky had taken to stopping by at any old time every other day to check on her fish. And examine the grounds, look inside the windows. It had to stop and it finally did the prior Wednesday.

“So did you get my landscape guy, Paul, to come by twice week to take care of things?”

“I did, and all is well. And I got a good price for you.”

“Alright, topic closed for now. How is work?”

Melody waved that aside. Dismissed, next. “Same as usual. I’m interested in you and what you think of Mistral Manor.”

“Okay, how is Leonard and how is the IVF going?”

Melody shook her head and looked out at the grove of trees. “Len is well, as ever, and his golf game still stinks but so what? The IVF goes as it goes, it just inches along. I’ll inform you of positive changes, Mom, don’t worry… Seriously, are you still angry I insisted you move here, after a month?”

Sparky knew she had to choose her words carefully. Which of many things was she still a bit angry about? What was least and what was most an issue? Was she mad that she didn’t have as much work as five years ago? Was she irritated that she needed to work, or maybe that she chose to work because what else was there actually to do at this in-between age? Not too old but so young. Not even close to done with life but great experiences not especially knocking at your doorstep. Was she lonelier here than back home, where the neighbors were a five minute walk away? Or less so where you were surrounded by others?

She didn’t quite fit anywhere, that had always been the problem. The thought of a senior community frightened her to death, being squeezed in with oldsters who could care less what she did for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twenty years ago. And perhaps the same lack of true regard for them.

But here there was Neal the gamer guy and his sanguine cat, Esmerelda, who pranced around the place when visiting, tail high in the air as if she claimed the entire territory and welcome to her remarkable world. That cat always looked as if she was smiling, green eyes gleaming–leading lady, she was. Talley with his chronic whining–and flair for mimicry. Mariah and her desire to please and her graceful, strong body meant for dance–she was in a ballet company. The place seemed to be teeming with artistic types and brainiacs, though maybe Sparky was just lucky to have met the few who were, and quite friendly. Some hairbrained, avoidant author was also likely writing convoluted plot-driven novels in a top floor corner apartment, a pallid cast to her skin from such little sunlight.

Surely there were junior accountants and car salesmen, ambitious computer technicians and hair salon stylists–somewhere. Or was it just the artsy ones who failed to make enough money to move on? Well, Sparky had money. She just wasn’t going to broadcast that, nor use it casually these days–or she might use it up. She was here of her own accord and temporarily, after all. But what of this would Melody understand and in the right way?

“It’s a decent place, I’ll grant you that. The residents are so far, so good. I can use up our hour telling you about my new almost-friends, or we can enjoy relaxing and the view while we eat.”

“Whatever you like, Mom,” she said, biting off a huge chunk of croissant, coaxing it down with sips of hot coffee. “:I just need to know you won’t hold this against me forever.” She took another whopper bite.

The girl was always hungry, that was the problem, she didn’t allow herself indulgences. When had that started? Less restraint, more spontaneity, she’d taught her but it hadn’t stuck.

“Oh, if that’s what you’re worrying about…stop! No one makes me do anything, I have my faculties, thank God, but my beloved house has felt too big for a few years. My leg, meanwhile, is still full of pings and zings even when I’m not on it; I need to get another look at it. Maybe the nuts and bolts are coming undone. I’ll be bent over with a cane before you know it.” She laughed robustly, which told Melody she was talking nonsense, having fun with her. Although, really, it hurt too often still.

Of course it wasn’t all terrible there, and why not make Melody feel better about things? Poor mother in need of simpler lifestyle so just had to make cost saving interventions. It was all done, and the next move would be Sparky’s, anyway, not Melody’s. She had been thinking about the will business ever since Talley had brought it up.

“It isn’t that cheap here, as you know, being on the historical register. I love all the original woodwork, high ceilings, tall windows. The elevator is a boon for you, I like that though it creaks all the way up. I can see why someone would choose to happily here, it has real charm, doesn’t it? And I’m relieved you like it alright–for the time being, while you think about what you want to do next.”

“You have to see the courtyard again, it is the best spot here. But I don’t want to do anything next. I want to stay here for the duration then return home. Listen, if I sell, I sell, and that money affords me a very comfortable lifestyle the rest of my days. I just want to put it off, see what my investments do.”

“Right…but I thought we might one day move into it…Len and me and…”

“I’d take that profit–it’ll be handsome– and travel around a couple of years. I might get my own set and costume design consulting business in a small, sweet office downtown. I might buy land by a river and build a cabin on it for week-ends, for my much quieter old age. But I am going to sell it– one day. It was my home for thirty-nine years. And your father’s for quite awhile. And at some point it will be someone else’s. You and Leonard have the money to build the house of your dreams, too, Melody, and I hope it also holds a child or two.”

“I see, I suppose you are right…”

Sparky saw her daughter let the mask fall, saw a person who felt hurt, too, by changes. Tall, boney and vulnerable while hiding in her fancy summery pants and matching sleeveless top; restless hands twining long fingers that once played upon oboe keys, pearly nails glistening like opals. Her oval face was gaunt, all cheekbone and pale mouth, slightly tilted hazel eyes that reminded Sparky every time of her ex, her Marty’s. But that mouth was set so as not to let disappointment show. Her nearly pointed chin raised ever so slightly so her precision cut hair swung away from a tight jaw. Driven, overworked and anxious, even–and full of deeper sentiment, feelings gone subterranean. Like her own feelings beneath sharp words, an impudent toss of head. She understood self-protection and ambition, both.

But who was this daughter she had born and raised? A woman now of means, a once-young woman who set her own course and sailed away as soon as she hit eighteen, and who now feared her mother might be moving along a sharp timeline to a faltering stretch and then the dreadful arc of slow decline, and if that happened who would she have? What and who would be left for the children Melody hadn’t even managed to conceive yet? Her father had disappeared into Canada with his Vancouver-born mistress who became his wife…so long ago.

Sparky saw this not, perhaps, for the first time but wondered why she hadn’t accepted it as real before.

For Melody, there was also house love and a house burden as it was another thing that could be lost. Their only lifetime home, after all. The land, the modern structure with such varied rooms, two fireplaces and a third if counting the outdoor one, and the koi pond, the many places she’d played with her toys and read all those wonderful books and painted pictures alongside her mother, standing with big and little easels on the patio…

“But if you really, really want it, of course we can talk more, honey, I didn’t think it was as important as that…”

Melody put her face in her hands and wept.

Sparky scooted close to her daughter’s chair and put her arms around her. They both had a small cry. Sometimes it was the only way to say what needed to be said.

It looked like there was more to think over. One never knew what was next, anyway, a year from now she might be nursing some other injured limb though she had learned her lesson about blithely trying new sports. But Melody, that was another story. She was, in fact, close at hand. And would be staying there, she surmised, her heart swelling with gratitude a little more.

Still, a cabin on a river!….such a tantalizing scenario, if not quite for her.

******

When they all managed to make time and gather, her Mistral Manor guests bore gifts of favorite dishes. It was an informal affair but Sparky had cleaned top to bottom and put on the best of her music collection of swing, they’d have to suffer it awhile. The tablecloth had been ironed, it took forever even with the new iron, but it was white with elegant vines with a smooth sheen beneath white china she had unpacked to wash, only six of twelve place settings. Just enough. The peonies were earthy of fragrance, a deep pink at table’s center. There were Alan and Greta, Talley and Mariah, Neal and herself. She had made place cards for each and why not? Treat a potluck dinner like a happening and good things came to be, people had fun. All life was an interconnected series of acts, and full-bodied, deep-hearted actors coming forward with wants and needs awakening– just as the Bard said–and Sparky was happy to be be quite able to set the appropriate scene.



Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Getting Lost and Finding One’s Way

Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on Pexels.com

I’ve been this way many times but manage to take one turn off too soon. We are heading into city center and a primary destination of Powell’s Bookstore, a favorite place recently reopened. Anticipation pumps up adrenaline. But I am embarrassed and frustrated about missing my turn and try to discern my way within a warren of unfamiliar streets that skirt the area desired. How did this happen? The traffic is moving along at a fast pace; I am talking with my daughter as I drive and didn’t bother with GPS because I know where I am going. Good reasons or not, I know I need to find 10th or 12th Avenues–or any north-south streets, for that matter– then head to east-west Burnside Street. It’s simple, after all; I know this city. Until I get turned around in notoriously puzzling hills in this section of SW Portland.

I shake my head, tell Alexandra, “I don’t know what happened, I do know where I am going!”

Or so I thought, until that glitch. I dislike being lost, truly lost. But I am only momentarily a little lost. I just need to relax and think clearly, but it is as if I am snagged in a quirky, confounding landscape. I turn this way and that and no matter which way I go I start to feel disoriented. What has happened to my internal compass, so accurate 99 percent of the time? Then she maps things out on her phone, calmly instructing me, sorting things out. Is this what adult children do when their parents get older and older? This thought makes me more irritated and impatient–me, a very patient and competent driver who always finds her way. I joke that this is why an exacting paper map to smooth on your lap to survey the whole picture works very well. And I want to defend myself and do, at which point she reassures me everyone gets lost at times, and the SW hills area is a tough one to figure out on the fly. And it is not a big problem to find the route out and get back on track.

She is correct. She consults her phone and shortly we are headed in the right direction, out of the maze and into the bustling city center. And before long we are in NW Portland, by the bookstore and coffee shop and all else with which we are familiar, happy, relieved to find still intact our beloved, recently beleaguered city.

We have a lovely afternoon. How can book hunting amid endless shelves and stacks of books with Peet’s excellent iced coffee in hand not be wonderful? It is akin to release from a year in jail-like isolation to wander down streets and window shop, walk past groups of chattering people, our eyes sweeping over interesting architecture. Smelling pungent scents of new and old books, noting heft and beauty of each in our hands. Add easy laughs and good talk, something we often plan but rarely get to do, just the two of us, anymore. A successful time for this mother and her youngest daughter. A sense of things being just a little more normal in the world–except for the masks, except for much less crowded stores.

And then, on the way home, I somehow fail to maneuver into a congested lane to avoid funneling onto the freeway, so there we are, caught up in accelerating clots of after-work traffic. Luckily, no true traffic jams. Luckily, I know where I am going. All I have to do is take the right exit and I do. This time Alexandra suggests a lane at end of exit ramp that is not the right one, so I am forced to turn another direction. But it is an easy fix.

At her place, we sit in my car and talk, reluctant to end the outing. I am so glad to have a few more moments together; she is animated, articulate, offers some of her daily life stories, then offers suggestions about an outdoor family reunion/picnic coming up. The first family get together in nearly two years that includes extra family from out of state. Masked and unmasked, all of us to gather to safely enjoy a few hours in blazing June sunshine–under the pavilion roof, under a canopy, extra chairs, grill and coolers lugged along. Once it is all coordinated well. More like normal, for once.

“We’ve got this, Mom, I do this all the time for event planning at my job,” she says, showing me links on her phone, talking logistics. I agree, she will help things go right, she has that knack. But she also has an eye on the time. It’s not easy to enjoy short periods of freedom when there awaits a return to a young family, the multiple demands and needs of twins trumping one’s own need to rest, even eat, work–much less play. I recall very well often lingering at the grocery another ten minutes, hiding out during yard work, finding a reason to delay a return to the fabulous madhouse shared with beloved children who eagerly awaited me. It is the reality: loving others fiercely while also yearning to care for one’s own self. But she says, finally, farewell for now.

I feel her leavetaking. The car empties of her shimmering, bristling, compacted energy. I see her in the rearview mirror, decisively making the way up steps to her home. Time for me to go home, too.

I know where home is, of course. I get there in ten minutes and sipping my iced mocha, I sit under the shade of towering, friendly trees and think on the afternoon. How several times I felt as if in a daze, and vulnerable to The Virus, to who knows what in the stores if I had to squeeze by someone. Then came heady joy when walking in the city under that blue jewel of sky, chatting with Alexandra at my side. Such juxtaposed feelings and moments. It is mind boggling how every person on earth continues to live with threats to our exposed human lives. Except those who do not live. We are, of course, as frail as we are sturdy.

And then I feel that accumulating heaviness descend upon my shoulders and mind. I have had a good afternoon, but I can slip right back to the grief-lined, deep well of restless silence. The lingering loss of a spirited granddaughter and her mother’s (another cherished daughter) everyday, secure life left behind, her harshly torn days, unsettled ache of night hours. The trauma a son experiences since hiking in a remote area and coming upon a violent scene of death of a person, that life gone horrifically wrong. The worry over a grandson’s health as he slowly recovers from Covid-19. The imaginings, the questions that run rampant in my head about the rest of my grandchildren: will they grow up brave and full of love and wonder? Will they- oh God please- just stay safe and alive a long, long, long time?

I don’t know exactly how to navigate all this lately. My head is clogged with it. I am dulled by rumination, stunned by all the events. The fallout makes me feel, at times, unwell. How does one avoid the emotional landmines of unexpected loss? Isn’t most loss unimagined? (Seven family members have now died over the last several years; who would have thought it?) But we cannot often sidestep what crosses our path. Or, frankly, never. The pandemic, for instance. And worse. It is enough to make me shudder and reel, despite getting up each morning and tackling or easing into each hour.

I remind myself that I have spiritual resources and mental resilience, yet cannot put my hand on a good and useful map. Every time I get lost in this life, I have to reinvent my way in and out of places of the heart, mind and soul. It can be like washing up on an island not even charted. I get off the boat/raft that carries me in and out of place and time, and make tentative footfall. But then cannot find balance enough to not stumble or sometimes plummet to ground. Gravity of earth, how tricky a superior force–and if body and mind are not in sync, it is not easy making one’s way after a long voyage. In fact, it isn’t too easy to roll out of bed, find the stable floor and walk in a nice straight line to the sink to splash water on my face. I am discombobulated. This is not my natural state. It is a state of subdued emergency that lingers.

I have a third daughter who suffered (for a year, to varying degrees) from Mal de Barquement syndrome, dizziness with attendant balance issues after leaving an old fashioned tall ship–a strange phenomenon. Seasickness on land. Or land sickness. (And she is an international traveler, independent, confident–imagine the distress over such loss of orientation.) This is an apt comparison when thinking of events during the last three months. I don’t get “dizzy” during most life crises. I function well, manage tasks, tend to others’ needs. Keep my emotions in enough check for all intensive purposes, though if I must cry, I cry; if I need to swear, I swear–and move on. The brain fires away; I take the steps required for the situation. I cope and cope and cope alright. And then, after things settle a bit more, I start to get tired, adrenaline losing steam. Lose sleep, acquire tension in a problematic neck that triggers big headaches, feel somewhat frayed by ordinary stressors, eat less as appetite decreases (chronic digestion issues flare). Mind and soul feel out of sync, thinking has less directed clarity, and I misplace my usual bountiful hope. Tears erupt and recede often. I forget many things throughout the day, have to remind myself again what it is I intend to be doing next. Time slithers by and I can’t make it behave as I desire. I might check the calendar to make sure what day, in actuality, it is. I ask myself: does it matter what day? People are dying everywhere and here I am, like a lame woman hanging from the curve of the earth, determined to get back on. For some reason.

Well, I am not in the moment, something I greatly value and am pretty good at being/doing. No, I am in the land of the grieving, the land of the exhausted, a place I wander through day and night, seeking a long lasting peace.

I spoke to my son, Joshua, today. We shared how we both feel this way since Krystal died almost two months ago. After his ordeal, too, then his son becoming so ill. I asked how he is doing with it all, how he labors with his commercial and residential painting business jobs while he also takes care of his family and himself. He told me what he always tells me: he creates things, that is, makes jewelry, paints scenes, makes music, rock hunts then cuts and polished them, works on his garden and yard, camps, builds things, like a handmade camper. And he holds onto Light of God.

“But I can’t even rustle up good enough energy or clear head to create much at all,” I admitted. “It can be tiring to even talk to my neighbor lately.” I think: My prayers have become weaker recently, too, as if signals are hampered.

“Yeah, I can’t do as much, either. I work and am at home and avoid seeing people right now; I need to have time alone. I rest more, yet sleep isn’t too easy, either.” He paused; I wondered over the pain kept close inside. He is a very macho guy but has a warm, responsive heart. “It’s the past and future that can throw us off badly. I try to stay in the moment as much as possible. The beautiful moment we have, or can make.”

“Yes, you are right,” I said, “I will try to be here right now more. Thanks, son. I love you.”

“You’ve been a pillar for us, let yourself rest more. I love you, Momma.”

How fortunate to have such a son, such daughters, I think again, even when we each pulse with our hurting. Even with our respective emotional junk seeping out everywhere, at times. The daughter who lost her daughter is going to get a summery pedicure with me. It is such a contradiction, to carry loss to the nail salon, us two sitting side by side, engaged in that pedestrian activity, chatting about nail polish colors, calloused heels. Another daughter shared her new Chaplain/ministerial website with me today, which looks good, and her job hunt for something different than usual is underway. The oldest daughter checks in with blurbs from an important Colorado visit, her paperwork for tenure, art pieces in progress. And Marc–well, he is back at work. At last.

I have more time alone. The buffer and elegance of a profound quietness. So much more time alone, so much quietness, it wraps around me. But he is glad to be working again. I can play my jazz, classical and Latin music all day long, dance anywhere I wish. When I feel like dancing. Sometimes I hum and sway, lift my hands to the universe.

So this is the only map I have right now. To be focused on the present, if possible. To be cared about and to care. But other than that, I may just stand still in this room a spell, sit on that verdant hill, eat this fresh food, read and write another line, speak to my friend about her own journey, greet my neighbor who is stony but talks to me a little. Take five steps forward, then turn, proceed down another rocky or warm earthen path, up the incline to see what is next. If unbalanced, pause. If stumbling, lift up each foot high and set it down firmly. Sit down, breathe in perfume of all the breezes from places unknown. Find a new spot, claim it, share it. I am my own mother, as my mother is not here in body, anymore. I lost may parents so long ago.

Because this is how it can be done, a piece at a time. I have experience with many things attendant to being a human creature. It is not an strange land but part of the process of being alive during seventy-one years. It isn’t just me, either; you are in the bigger story, of course. Even mine. It will take its own time, just slowly enough, this healing of being hurt then hollowed out, the dissipation of fears, the emptying of tears. I will find ways to release and let go, hold what is essential, the helpful truth-telling parts. And then the return of a strong embrace of ebullience can happen.

It is the circle, isn’t it, and we keep on moving with it. Sometimes we have to stand way back to see the whole blasted, masterful map. Other times we have to–at least I have to–get up close and find the identifying dot is and say “Yes, I am right here”–so that the greater picture will come into focus better.

So I will get there. Get back to my sharper and brighter, hopeful and grateful self. But if you ever wonder where I am when I don’t show up on this blog, or question the rambling words I write, it is only this: I am working and breathing and trying the best I can with a yoke of life’s sorrows about my shoulders. (I know you have yours and are doing the same if not today, tomorrow.) But I do know my way back home. It is following my heart, nourishing my spirit’s yearnings, placing my feet on the trail and my vision on mountains and rivers, the wild things, ocean and trees and the rest. Those close to me whom I care for more each day. And those not yet met. This is where I live, inside an awesome mystery. Today, I am where I am on the intricate map of the living, and I cannot help but feel for us all, even ghosts roaming this world and beyond. I am tired so need wings to carry me above the fray. But what I see, I wonder over; the unseen is simply unseen at this moment.