musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

Category: Musings (Page 1 of 8)

But for the grace of god

Dear Diary,

I had a ‘but for the grace of god goes I’ moment today.

For many months, I’ve been absorbed in my life, my self-doubts, my madness. And then I was forced off my little island, away from the comfort of my lair and into the big, bad world.

Julie, the spoiled; Julie, the privileged; Julie, she with her head up her ass
with her first world problems and neuroses.

I was in the Lynn Economic Opportunity office. I had no business being there, among the truly needy — single moms struggling with multiple jobs to keep their kids fed, clothed and relatively healthy; older folks trying to get by with meager, monthly social security payments.

Why was I there? I was trying to get income verified for a Barrier Mitigation Grant, a program administered by Mass Save and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources for middle-income homeowners so they could grab a chunk of money from the state to get rid of asbestos containing materials during a home improvement project.

As I sat down to wait my turn, it occured to me that many of those who came into this office were likely homeless or living in section 8 housing. There were WIC brochures and information about Head Start and fuel assistance programs in kiosks on the wall.

And here I was, with my canvas bag full of mortgage papers, account statements from my brokerage, a passport, a list of estate debts and an inheritance.

Julie, the non-hispanic white caucasion; Julie, the fortunate;
Julie, the loathsome.

When it came time, I took a seat at the woman’s desk and prefaced my financial story with a lame apology, something to the effect of “I’m a bit embarrassed to be here, as I’m much better off than many,” followed quickly by, “I just want to say, you’re doing very important work here. Thank you.”

It sounded ridiculous, and I felt like the pathetic, self-righteous, holier than thou white girl that she was no doubt sizing me up as. But she handled my awkwardness graciously and seemed pleased with the compliment.

I wonder now how those in the Lynn Economic Opportunities office feel about acting as a clearinghouse for what’s certainly a stream of middle-class folks trying to get those elusive cash grants. She was polite enough not to let on.

What was more embarrassing was that, taking just my income into consideration, she said it looked like I was in their low-income range. Surely not! I have substantial stock and IRA portfolios, my own house, and last year, before mom and dad passed away, they supplemented my income whenever I had trouble paying the bills. But because I was a freelance worker, they immediately knocked 40% off my wages for their calculations. That’s the rules. It seemed wrong somehow.

Dad would say, jokingly, “We never should have raised you to be so honest. That will be your undoing.” Perhaps. But they also raised me to be compassionate towards others, and to recognize injustices, however slight.

They both worked in the medical field, helping people in large and small ways. Mom was a registered nurse. Dad was a medical equipment researcher, with patents for light and sound scanning devices that could detect breast and prostate cancers. They both served in the Navy during World War II. After retirement, Mom volunteered at the local blood bank and cared for an elderly neighbor whose own family had abandoned. She became my adopted grandmother. When I was young, Mom brought me along to collect old clothing for the Revitalization Corp, a charity group in Hartford. Me? I’m a wannabe writer with a few clients and a half-baked notion to write novels “someday.”

Julie — the underachiever, the anxious, the unwashed.

Helping people afford asbestos abatement, whether they’re low income or middle income isn’t really a big deal. It’s expensive work, and many people earning even $45,000 a year, especially in the Boston area, won’t have $10,000 available for a home improvement project, even for one that could have health ramifications. Truth be told, a $7,000 abatement grant is nothing compared to the special treatment in place for the wealthy, from tax loopholes to offshore bank accounts, so that they can hold onto more of their money.

Do the wealthy also ponder the unfairness of it all?

Maybe I’ll get some assistance. Maybe I won’t. But one thing I do realize now is that I must find a way to give back, somehow, to those not as fortunate as I. This is the real reason I was in that office this morning.

Julie, the awakened; Julie, the humbled; Julie, the grateful.

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Choose Wisely

NativeAmerican_scene_1000

In the dream, I was at some sort of gathering. At one point, the hostess brought me to a low, large table, on which many beautiful and interesting items displayed. I was told to pick out an item from each of three or four sections that I especially resonated with.

I went to work on doing this. There were large, elaborate sculptures and smaller precious pieces that appeared to be quite valuable. It was all quite overwhelming, and I felt like I was taking a very long time to choose.

Some time had passed, and it was later on, after this exercise, which felt like I was being given gifts of my own choosing — what I wanted or wished to be.

I looked at what I had chosen, and at first was very disappointed. Before me was a set of plain leather pocketbooks in various color shades of suede or leather. Practical, perhaps, but not terribly exciting. My initial thought was that I had chosen poorly — that out of all these exotic, beautiful things, I had selected a boring set of bags.

Did I only see myself as capable of just basic things in life, and nothing extraordinary? Had I lost my high ideals and visions?

The hostess told me that it showed how I wanted to be seen by others, but she saw my disappointment. So she said she would bring back just a small selection of items and I could make another choice.

She explained how they selected many, many items as part of a class assignment, so they could do this exercise for various different people. Now it began to feel like a special gift, a sort of divination.

She set before me several sets of postcards or little pictures. I looked through them. One or two sets depicted Native Americans; perhaps some were engaged in tasks. I set aside these two sets of cards which somehow merged into one larger set.

It was after I did this that I realized what this exercise had been about. It had to do with my recent inquiry and struggle to find who I really was.

My spirit guides were helping me in my search for self and my quest for purpose.

During these excruciating months, while I have been reviewing every single possession, both at my house and my parents’, unbeknownst to me (I thought I was just being over-materialistic), I had been unsure of my true nature and unclear in my direction. What in my life held the most meaning for me? What was most important now, going forward?

It was less about reinventing who I was to be after the death of my parents, to whom I had been extremely devoted, and more a re-discovery of my true nature. I had felt lost, adrift, and now I was in the process of being found, with the help of some friends in the spiritual realm.

Waking up, I wasn’t disappointed in my lack of vision, but instead, was extremely grateful.

I had been led through a very long, dark corridor, back to myself.

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The Dollhouse

TheDollhouse

In the 1950s, it was a home of the future. There were shiny linoleum floors and wall-to-wall carpeting, with gleaming appliances and a neat lawn. The child’s dollhouse, much the same, designed to make a little girl’s dreams come true. She imagined it as her own private place — just the same as the home she grew up in.

In her land of make-believe, the rooms were handsomely appointed, neat and tidy. The master bedroom had as a regal, golden bed and elegant headboard, with a baby sleeping in a wooden cradle. A gleaming tile bathroom was right next door. There was a child’s festive bedroom, with a circus elephant, various plush toys and clowns waiting patiently for children to play with. The home, though it was modern and pristine, seemed sad and empty.

TheDollhouse2

TheDollhouse3

The living room, too, awaited inhabitants. A comfy red armchair, upholstered in a rich Asian fabric, kept company with a sparkly blue-black chair and round, low black marble coffee table. A white silk divan stretched out luxuriously, all under the watchful eye of a stately white marble grandfather clock, which presided over the glamorous décor with a sense of haughty importance.

TheDollhouse5

This was a room imagined for gracious dinner parties, and a cocktail trolley stood waiting to entice guests with refreshments. Upon more careful inspection, there was one single child, who sat alone on a red leather sofa.
But where were the parents? In the kitchen, there was no one, and the table, sink and counter were oddly free of plates and dishes.

TheDollhouse6

The little girl who was busy playing with her imaginary family wondered this also. Would the children be left unattended in such a well-appointed home? Surely not?

Her young, innocent gaze pulled back from the individual rooms to take in the entire structure. And it was then that she saw her. The woman of the house was harried and staring off into space. She sat slumped in a chair against the outside wall of the small patio on the second floor, with a look of distress on her movie starlet’s face. Her hair was untidy, and she wore a dirty dress that had a blue and white blouse and white skirt. Her bright red shoes were the only indication that she was once a great beauty who lit up dance floors and loved to spend the evening sashaying to big band music. This was when her life was more carefree and the world, a simpler place, was filled with limitless possibilities.

I can tell you that her husband was busy at work, researching and designing medical equipment that would one day save many lives. He loved his wife and their children, of course, but he was so involved in his work, it was so all-consuming, that it might have, at times, seemed like he suddenly awoke and found himself in a family unit not of his own choosing.

It is now that fantasy and reality merge, as the young girl, playing with the dollhouse, wonders about her own parents and her upbringing. Pictures of the dollhouse, being sold in an estate sale, stir something undefinable deep inside her. She allows herself to feel the grief of her recent loss, pushed out of the way to make room for endless probate papers, settling of bills, clearing of family possessions and all the other hard work that accompanies grief.

She asks herself these questions:

  1. Why was mom so sad? (it was likely related to the physical abuse she suffered as a young child)
  2. What could she have done differently to make mom happier?
  3. What questions could she have asked to show dad that she was interested in his work?
  4. Was she really uninterested in his medical research, or did it just seem too far over her head for her to comprehend? (she probably felt intimidated by his superior intelligence)
  5. Why did dad feel at a loss in relating to his young daughter until much later in life?
  6. What was it exactly that made dad so mistrustful of people? (very likely the knowledge that he was a “mistake,” an unwanted child)
  7. Did she do enough to support them?
  8. What can she do, now that they’re gone, to properly honor their memory?
  9. What would they have wanted the most? (for her to be happy, as they often said, but how does one achieve that?)

She is left gazing at the dollhouse, surrounding by sadness and unanswered questions. But a small voice inside implores her to continue, to push on, to work through it — and to write it all down.

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Outgrowing One’s Life

Why am I emotionally attached to all this junk? There’s a painted Japanese vase that was broken and repaired, the cracks still plainly visible. A tackily painted Asian tin container. A cast iron statue of an Egyptian cat covered in a sickly green powder that rubs off on your hands. Glittery and garish, 2012 New Year’s glasses. A plastic wind-up angel that moves her wings and glows in the dark. A new age sun, moon and stars tealight candle holder. A pair of long wooden sticks that hold small, thin candles. A round container that houses a collection of shells, stones and driftwood collected from unknown locations.

All of this once meant something to me, I’m sure of it. Some items were cherished gifts from friends and family. But now? It all feels like tacky kitsch. And yet, I hold and observe each useless dust collector, wondering if I would miss it.

It can’t be the item itself. Each one is of dubious value, in the scheme of things, and I’m not even that fond of them now. However, I do feel an undefinable sadness as I take each one off the shelf of my fireplace mantle, adding it to the “sell” pile for the planned Connecticut estate sale.

There are other things, too. Like handmade Christmas ornaments from a casual acquaintance, with glitter and plastic fake jewels that look chintzy in the late afternoon light. A gaudy gold painted clam shell. Once magical, they’re now curious, vaguely unpleasant oddities.

Clearly, I’ve been through a major shift of consciousness in recent years, despite everything feeling horribly stagnant. These things haven’t changed, no, but I have.

I’ve outgrown my belongings, outgrown my life here, and it is long past time to move on — if not physically, then at least mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But such reluctance! Does the inmate hesitate when the prison door is opened to his freedom? Of course not! And yet, here I am with my broken, torn and tattered past, unable to let go.

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The Private Investigator

M+Ds_Bureau01

On this day, I spent considerable time playing “the concentration game,” matching empty CD cases with stray CDs.

What else did I do? Looked through about 1/3 of dad’s old classical albums. Continued to find priceless family photos and random items of interest in cartons of electronic devices, hardware, tools and parts. Discovered occasional mathematical calculations or parts lists on index cards and scraps of paper.

It was a magical window into my father’s mind and his life. It was strange to think that despite visits every two weeks since mom died, multiple calls a day and endless long conversations, I did not know him very well. How he must have viewed me, with my spiritualist ideas, running off to rock concerts and posting crazy philosophical articles on my blog, from his scientific and agnostic perspective!

Upstairs, I was in my mother’s realm. While looking through their bureau drawers, I came across two books, hidden away beneath clothes. One was an interesting looking memoir by Vernon Jordan. The other was a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. Although this surprised me, it made sense, since she kept her early history tucked away like a terrible yet precious jewel. She told her psychiatrists about her past, but we didn’t talk about it as a family, as close as we were.

Of Mom’s painful childhood, I had known since I was 12, when she had to be hospitalized for an extended period and we had to attend family and group therapy sessions. Dad told me, and I’m not sure how I took it then. I remember being smitten by an eighteen-year-old patient at the facility. As for her reticence to discuss her past with me, I took that to mean that she never really addressed it, but I realized upon seeing this book in her drawer that I was wrong. Just as the subject of incest was considered ‘taboo’ to discuss at the kitchen table, so too was a book about the subject considered too delicate to leave out on a dresser, exposed to public view.

I flipped through its pages and was further surprised to find a small newspaper clipping about a book written about Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was said to be a rampant sexual predator, and his connection with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was invited by him to his country and politically exploited. Between later pages, there was a bank envelope containing $140 in $20 bills. This was further proof that the book had been moms (and not dad’s reference of how to be a supportive husband). She liked to keep a stash of money around the house, discretely hidden, “just in case.” She had asked my dad to keep an envelope of $5 bills handily tucked away in another drawer, to use as tips for the aides and others who would come and go to help care for her.

What other surprises and unexpected windows into their lives would I uncover as I moved deeper into their belongings? As I hunted for family mementos and tried to prepare the house for the estate sale, I felt like a private investigator.

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My Father’s Basement Workshop

Basement_Wood

It seemed to make sense to start in the basement. There was something about beginning at the roots, the foundation, that appealed to me. With some trepidation, I walk down the few concrete steps into the dusty, musty space.

Immediately, I think of Dad, of how he spent his time since his retirement. He never took well to retirement. His work had been all-encompassing. First in his own companies as a research engineer and entrepreneur, and then as a key person in the R&D department of various organizations, he designed and built diagnostic imaging equipment to detect breast and prostate cancers. This is not the type of career one simply walks away from at society’s pre-determined age.

He kept up with his interests and his research into other medical equipment with an old work partner, until the poor gentleman unexpectedly died. At the same time, he cared for mom, who was ailing in later years, as only a devoted partner and engineer could. With the purpose of making his tasks easier and mom’s physical existence more comfortable, he embarked on ambitious projects to address mobility issues and day-to-day care.

The basement décor tells the story in randomly scattered vignettes. There are piles of wood in assorted cut shapes, some with drilled holes and some without. Curious materials such as PVC pipes, rubber components, foam pieces and plastic sheeting are stacked all around. I smile when I see a round wheel attached with short PVC tubes to a sturdy wooden base. Its intended use was to stand Mom on it from her position in bed and be able to turn her to be seated on the commode, without having to hoist her up and sideways — a difficult feat if Dad was alone, which he often was.

A separate room within the basement served as a mini machine shop, with a drill press and various other tools. It was also a dark room, where Dad would develop and manufacture his own printed circuit boards for his various electronic designs. Scattered around were all the necessary supplies and solutions. It was the home of a brilliantly mad scientist.

Incongruently stuck into a tool holder above the large, cluttered tool bench is a postcard of Woody Allen holding a blow-up doll, from one of his early movies. He was one of Dad’s favorites. I put aside the postcard, along with some tools, even though I have very little use for them.

The estate sale person told me that I didn’t have to go through anything. They would do this as part of their job of preparing items for sale. But what would they make of the commode contraption? I take this as well, for use as a funky industrial style lazy Susan on my kitchen table.

I stand in a sea of components and circuitry for the many projects he would tell me about, both professional and personal, which somehow were always, eternally, “in progress.” He would complain about never having enough time to complete them. But it was in the research and design phase where he’d get the maximum enjoyment, and it kept him sharp and productive until the very end.

I’m surprised at the depth of my emotion amidst the cobwebs and clutter.

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Finding Solace in the Guest Bedroom of Our Family Home

A simple, quiet corner.

A simple, quiet corner.

The house, the family home. A place of rest, of solace, surrounding by family photographs, mementos of vacation travels, little comforts. But, in later years especially, a comfortable prison.

It kept others out, but it also kept its inhabitants in, like birds trapped in a cage. And a moldy, dusty, static and spider infested cage, at that.

Where to even begin? It all feels oppressive, every object of my youth and my upbringing, laid out as if in a museum. And yet, at the same time, it’s strangely comforting. If I focus on each item separately — a lamp with a crystal figure of a child, and a large, serene, beige lampshade, its neat and orderly creases at the top, coming down to the bottom in perfect straight lines; a pop-art metal wastepaper basket with black and white film stars on the outside and crazy black, orange, yellow and red cascades of geometric diamonds on the inside, the outside with splashes of beige-colored paint that was accidentally spilled over it at some point over the long years — I can realize some sense of peace from within my current state of mental turmoil. I am alone in this house where once there were three of us.

In a few short months, there will be a multitude of strangers pouring over these oddities, these museum artifacts of the mid-20th century, considering their purchases, haggling about the price, and eventually, hopefully, carting away little pieces of our lives. The crystal lamp, which I have in past days grown particularly fond of, won’t be part of this untidy clearance of a lifetime of memories. The trash can likely will.

I look around the small guest bedroom where I find myself this morning, before dawn. Piles of old sheets, sell. A puzzle of two bluebirds in a garden that has been glued together and hung up? Sell. Until I remember that my mom and a beloved friend and aide put it together one day, and my dad decided to glue it to a backing and hang it on the wall. A painting of my aunt as a young woman (or so I thought; turns out it was of an unknown woman), painted by my uncle. Bequeath to my cousin. An early portrait of the Obama family, whom my mother dearly loved. Keep. A nightstand that’s part of my childhood furniture, beige French Provincial from the late 1960s, with tacky gold trim. Sell. Rustic vintage carved pictures from Israel. Keep. Queen sized air mattress with cotton and hypo-allergenic fill comforter. Keep. It’s a strange exercise, an odd form of grieving a mere two weeks after my dad passed away and my life changed. Every object I glance at, attach whatever memories I can summon and then, as dispassionately as possible, I place it in a category of “sell” or “keep.” Excruciating. But to let these feelings linger for any longer than absolutely necessary would be far worse.

I’ve chosen to sleep in the guest bedroom, even though I am not a guest here. It’s the only way I can keep somewhat detached and retain a piece of my sanity throughout this ordeal. Once I open the door, I will be flooded with my past and its accompanying tsunami of emotions. Directly in front of me, across the narrow hallway, will be my parents’ room, where my mother died and where my father slept for nearly a year after her death. His ashes stand waiting now, in a small, neat box in the walk-in closet, where hers had been 10 months earlier, as we waited for spring to scatter them. Another spring, another loved one to say goodbye to, in a nearby park where we visited when mom enjoyed greater mobility.

To the left is my childhood bedroom, in recent years transformed into storage space, the bed removed, and in its place, practical metal shelving. The desk and two bureaus are still there, holding some of dad’s clothing in addition to miscellaneous electronic parts, computer equipment, books and a storeroom full of supplies for mom, when she was cared for so lovingly by dad and a revolving cast of nurses and aides. It’s no longer a bedroom, not a place of rest and recovery, but a wide-awake, utilitarian reminder of the mechanics of their daily life.

So, you see, the small nondescript guestroom with a few creature comforts and decorations is my temporary sanctuary.

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The Lost Notebook

It wasn’t until much later, after I brought Dad home from the hospital, after I deposited the plastic bags that said “personal belongings” on the living room floor, after I set up appointments from the visiting nurses and physical therapists, and after he were getting resettled in our family home, that I realized the notebook was gone.

It was a 5-inch by 9-inch three-ring-bound loose-leaf notebook with a yellow cover. I bought it for him at a CVS next door to the rehabilitation facility where he stayed for a month to undergo IV antibiotic treatment for a septic knee.

It had been a rough several months since Mom died. At first, I thought that despite the sadness, it would be freeing for him, a chance to catch his breath after 5+ long years of caring for her at home. As Mom was completely devoted to the two of us for so many years, he was devoted to her, specially preparing meals and administering medicines, dealing with her bed-ridden state and training a steady parade of nurses and aides who came through to offer varying degrees of assistance.

Despite the loss of his soulmate, he would now have a respite, a chance to take a drive to buy groceries without having to worry about leaving her alone for 30 minutes. There was now the opportunity to go out to Starbucks for a cup of coffee and be out in the world again (so to speak), or to go out for a relaxing meal. He had now been set free, to look after himself and consider his own needs first, instead of always being focused on someone else’s well-being. However, when we came to that moment, the reality of the situation bore no resemblance to my hopeful imaginings.

As I realize now, when Mom died on that cold January day, Dad lost his raison d’être. And another painful truth: there was nothing I could do to change that.

Dad was never particularly good at retirement. Some people aren’t, especially those as committed to their careers as he was. When he went to work every day, researching and designing medical imaging systems that would go on to detect breast and prostate cancers and save people’s lives, he was in his own world. When I was young, Mom often felt he didn’t spend enough time with his young daughter, and she encouraged him to bond with me more (so I was told, by him, many years later, when we had grown much closer). But he would always be more comfortable in the realm of science and physics and electronics than with the everyday concerns and social niceties of human existence.

In his retirement, Dad was always working on something — collaborating with a former work partner, designing devices in his basement workshop, writing computer programs to track his sleep apnea and scouring the internet for articles about technological advances, scientific inquiry and human consciousness (which he would forward to me).

What is the significance of the notebook? It was, or rather would have been, a glimpse into just what happened in those last six months of his life; a window into a life that had been significantly diminished, likely occurring gradually, in degrees. Would the random lists, reminders, telephone numbers and other minutiae read like notes from a trapped soul yearning to leave its earthly confines?

These notes began as an accounting of the challenging experiences in the nursing facility. It was the first and only time he had to live in such a place, albeit temporarily. I had my own notebook, in which I kept a detailed account of Dad’s health status and my ongoing battles with the staff. He wanted your own record, just as he had kept notebooks for his work projects, even in later years. He kept notebooks to keep track of Mom’s doctor appointments and other care, and later, these notes became an abstract of daily chores, parts and supplies to order, phone calls received and placed and other scraps of information.

But this notebook was Dad’s companion during his most difficult hours. I visited and called multiple times a day, but even so, I wasn’t always privy to his innermost thoughts and concerns.


I wonder now, what would have filled its pages? At first, it would have been important numbers — mine, my cousin’s (who lived nearby), and the names and contact information of doctors and nurses at the facility. There would likely have been scribbled notes about the goings-on there. My own notebook had pages upon pages comprising a litany of complaints — from the doses given of Oxycodone, to Dad’s difficult and demanding roommate who commandeered the facility and its staff, to the move to the long-term wing of the building where he and his new roomie, an elderly gentleman who had trouble walking, were often left to fend for themselves.

There was a middle of the night fall from bed, when Dad’s knee was still weak, and the bed side rail was loose. He laid on the floor for a while (so he told me), yelling for help, until maintenance workers finally heard him. There was the argument between the two men as to whether the bed was properly put together or not, and then a subsequent cover-up the following day. There were my endless attempts to encourage the kitchen staff to give him food that he was able to eat. And late one night, Dad very likely saved his roommate’s life, by checking on him in the bathroom after he noticed he wasn’t in bed. He found the man lying on the floor, blood seeping from his head. The grateful man thanked him, and he was told by nurses the next day that he “did a good deed.”

The notebook may have had information pertaining to those events. Or maybe not. Dad didn’t write prose, like I do, but even those small, seemingly insignificant snippets might have given me insight into his thoughts and concerns.

That nondescript notebook might have given me an inkling as to the depth of his grief over losing Mom, and how he felt about the nurses and aides that came to the house to care for him. I know it wasn’t easy, to be on the receiving end of the caretaker/patient equation. He seemed annoyed at being disturbed from his peace by endless phone calls and visits, but I suspected that he liked the company and maybe even secretly liked being fussed over. He certainly enjoyed complaining to me about all the hoopla and activity. I was so grateful that he wasn’t entirely alone and was kept busy, so that I could go back to my life in Massachusetts every other week or so.

Something happened, though, in those months after the rehab. There were times of great disturbance and anxiety, an onset of various physical ailments that were there before but became more pronounced, and momentary periods of confusion. There were a few trips to the hospital with gout attacks and a minor car accident from which he emerged unscathed (though the car was totaled, and with it, his dignity). That might have been the final humiliation, or perhaps it was just one more step of deterioration for a fiercely independent and self-sufficient individual.

The cause of death wasn’t given as “profound heartbreak and extreme fatigue,” though it might as well have been. In one of our many philosophical debates, Dad said that he thought a peaceful way to die would be to freeze to death, since you just close your eyes and go to sleep. To me, a person who hates being cold and dreads every New England winter, this sounded horrible. In the end, that’s basically what happened. On his death certificate, “stroke” was offered as an explanation as to why, as hard as they tried at the hospital, they could not keep his body temperature from dropping. Several possibilities were raised and then discounted during that week in hell, where I watched a person I loved, whose life centered around his sharp mind, quickly and steadily lose his mental faculties in what is commonly known as hospital delirium. There were moments of clarity in between bouts of paranoia and confusion. Thankfully, he was always aware of who I was, though there was little I could do to help.

As for the stroke, there were a few hints along the way in those final months, though it wasn’t severe enough that a small army of professionals, a helpful cousin and an overly protective daughter noticed as being anything other than occasional old-age forgetfulness. Dad remained mostly sharp, his cynicism and acerbic wit intact.

And yet, that lost notebook. It represented a missing piece of the puzzle that will forever remain a mystery to me, inadvertently left behind in a hospital room after one of those emergency visits. It was stupid of me not to double-check, but at the time I was frazzled, dragging bags of clothing and supplies out to my car.

I bought Dad a new notebook, so that he could continue to document his daily life. Forlornly written on the first page was “lost notebook.” This broke my heart. It was as if he lost 3-4 months of his life. There was to be no record of it, no accounting for anything that happened during that span of time. I will never know the full extent of how he coped, or failed to cope, on his own.

Was it for the best? It’s a clichéd and trite concept, though in a more enlightened moment, I might be convinced that the universe interfered so that the notebook was left behind in that hospital room. Perhaps I was spared of the discovery that Dad was having more difficulty than he let on, and so I continued to believe he was ok living on his own and not in need of immediate intervention.

What would I have done with a man who was antisocial and fiercely proud of his independence? Could I have done anything differently? Better? These thoughts continue to haunt me.

Whenever I visited, it was a battle to keep my strong personality and concerns in check, so as not to have constant debates over lifestyle choices. We were clearly very different people, diametrically opposed in everything from religious beliefs (deeply spiritual versus steadfastly agnostic) to diet (organic pesco-vegetarian versus meat and frozen food aficionado). To live there full-time was unthinkable — for both of us. An assisted living facility? He had an aversion to the neighbors and any social activities. Unless there was a community of retired engineers and scientists who spent their days pondering the creation of the universe and the meaning of existence, that would be highly unlikely.

And so, the story of the lost notebook — that missing time in between visits and multiple daily phone calls, when Dad may have been quietly battling the slow loss of mental faculties and life force. That missing documentation flies in the face of my obsessive need to know everything. And yet, he remained master of his own destiny until the very end. For that alone, I must be satisfied, and indeed grateful, to remain in the dark.

After all, as Dad would often say, “there are things in life that we will never be able to fully understand.”

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Goodbye, 2017.

I begged the spirit world, the gods and goddesses or whatever deities were in attendance, to not take you from me in this depraved year. The year began in a menacing and unkind way. Mom died on January 23rd, Donald Trump’s first official day in office. Miraculously though, I had been with her, trying to warm her legs, which had turned blue from lack of circulation, and trying to feed her a nutritional drink, to keep her strength up. I am grateful for my presence, watching over her while you went to your doctor’s appointment, but she had already decided that it was time. You reminded me later, when I told you that I still had not cried and could not be completely sad, that in her opinion, it was well past time. “I’ve had enough of this life,” she said, years earlier.

You were completely devoted to each other, and now I realize that you both stayed here, beyond what you thought was sensible, for each other.

It is late December now, and you have left to be with her, despite my fervent, selfish hopes. In one of your more lucid moments, during the delirium, you said, “whatever happens has to happen.” In one of my more spiritual moments, I might believe that. On a good day, I might trust in that. You even reached up periodically to the ceiling of that bright hospital room, to your partner, asking to be claimed and to be reunited.

And yet, I still find myself, in dense waves, questioning every moment of those nightmarish, Felliniesque days (and, in fact, the 10-1/2 months prior). This discontent and self-doubt leads to the type of regrets that can rip apart the flesh and poison the soul.

There is no point to any of that, you would say. To beat myself up for what might have been had I done this, what might not have happened had I done that, is a waste of energy and an invitation to madness.

Instead, I will trust in the course of events and the passage of time. I will focus on the positives. Shock is the universe’s way to roust us from spiritual slumber. Once awake, we can open our eyes and see beyond the appearance of things to discover new possibilities and realize the truth.

The truth, for me, is this. As much as I wanted your life to be happier, more enjoyable and fulfilling, after mom died, there was only so much I could do. You had lost your soulmate and your motivation for holding it all together. There was simply too much of the past for me to unravel and mend, while the present forced itself upon us cruelly. And as much as you wanted me to be happier, there was just so much you could do. I had to take the initiative to honor myself, believe in my own value and be kind yet firm in my interactions with others.

I will do that now, in your memory.

And when, not if, I am successful, I will believe that the two of you will then share in my joy and my sense of purpose.

It is the only way forward.

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On Your Birthday

MomRosesAndBabysBreath

It’s still your birthday, even though it’s dark now. But birthdays don’t matter anymore, do they? You are ageless and timeless now, fixed in amber.

If you were still here, I would have made you a card, filled with my lousy artwork. You never cared for store-bought cards. They were too easy, too automatic. Pick it out, make a purchase, scribble a tossaway line, “thinking of you” yadda yadda, and sign it. Address it, send it, and the person is quickly out of sight, out of mind. There are no lingering thoughts, no emotional commitment.

I made the emotional commitment that you treasured, and I would frequently be there to deliver it in person and hug you while you examined it. Though my artistic ability displayed no measurable improvement from when I was 6 to when I was 56, you appreciated those haphazardly pieced-together cards just the same.

So, where are you now? I often contemplate this, strange as it seems. My friends who are mediums, spiritualists, would possibly say that you’re watching over me — perhaps even now as I write this. It’s odd, but I never told them. I’ve typically been very open and honest with people, but for some reason, I suddenly became very private, secretive, withdrawn. It felt like the right thing to do at the time. Until, of course, I want to announce it to the world. But isn’t that me, the writer, always interested in good material?

With earth and her inhabitants in such abysmal shape — and you, the eternal caregiver — in my mind’s eye I see your spirit rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot, trying to restore peace and compassion, bringing comfort to those in pain and emotional turmoil. It seems like something you would want to do. You were never very comfortable being on the receiving end of care.

As a young girl, you cared for your family after your mother died, though it wasn’t something you chose for yourself, and it was too heavy a burden for an 8-year-old. You did, however, later choose to serve in the Navy, become a registered nurse, raise a child, collect old clothes for the poor, volunteer at the local blood bank and make frequent visits to an elderly neighbor whose own family had abandoned.

Free of the body that betrayed you in later years, are you now visiting parts of the world where your kind spirit is most needed? You never liked to travel, but no longer burdened by physical concerns like packing, luggage, planes, missed connections and stress, perhaps it’s different now. Maybe you’re guiding lost souls in the Middle East or in Northern parts of Africa, giving comfort to children who are homeless and hungry or to people in Puerto Rico who still struggle after the storm. Maybe you’re visiting one of the recent sites of a mass shooting, comforting the victims.

Is it silly for me to think that?

I was struck by what an expert in astral travel said on a friend’s radio show, that we hold our loved ones back from continuing on their soul’s journey. We summon them in spiritualist gatherings and keep them tethered to the earth plane so that they can help us and guide us. Is it our own attachment to forms that keep us from progressing here as well? Perhaps I have created an artificial distance as a form of protection. But I can’t help feeling, as much as I’d like to connect with you and feel your presence, that it’s a selfish desire and not driven by love.

Even before you became so frail, you said that you had enough of this life. Apparently life had not had enough of you! But now you are free. How can I mourn for you, when you were so ready to move on? I would only be mourning for myself and others who loved you, who must now muddle through on their own.

For you, I will honor and celebrate a beautiful life, in service to others and full of goodness. May I find the courage and strength to use whatever gifts I have to do as you did.

Happy birthday, mom, wherever you are.

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