Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Passed Along

The tiny sticker on the underside of the silver pitcher reads “15.”  Somewhere, in one of the bins and boxes from my parents’ home that have migrated to our attic, is the list of Mom and Dad’s wedding presents. If I wished, I could search out that list, flip through the pages, run my finger down to #15, and find the gift-giver. 

Mom gave me the pitcher just months before she felt sick.  For a while she’d been trying to whittle down the belongings accumulated over fifty-five years lived in the house.  She’d opened the kitchen cupboard and waved toward four pitchers on the shelf, saying,  “Take one if you want.”  Silver is not the usual in our rustic, 1782 home, but I really liked this graceful remnant from an elegant era. 

When I noticed the “15” on the bottom of the pitcher as it dried upside-down in the dish rack, my nose prickled in imagining the wrapped gift arriving at Mom’s childhood home, 12 Upper Ladue, sometime in the fall of 1951.  

Since Mom passed, I’ve come to know her young self far better through her letters.  My father was stationed in Germany and Mimi wrote to “My Dearest Darling Paul” every day. She was nineteen years old and missed her man fiercely.  She yearned for marriage and a time when they could be together, but everything was uncertain, threatened by the possibility of Paul’s deployment to Korea.  In letters to his father, Paul spoke of his loneliness and fear that “this troubled world” and deployment might prevent a future with Mimi.  

He was only twenty-two. A boy far from home at Christmas… and in reading his letters, my heart ached for that lonely, young guy who became my father.

Their handwriting, so familiar to me, appears fresh on the page. Despite sixty-five years stored in a cardboard box, the blue stationary has held its color.  I know how life turned out for Paul and Mimi: they married, had three (wonderful) daughters, four cherished grandchildren, lifelong friends, travels, careers, and collections.  And with their pitcher in my hand, my eyes fill to think that it all lay before them when first Mimi opened that package and unfolded the white tissue within.  

  
Now that my mother’s life has ended and I have moved into the matriarch phase she just left, I am acutely conscious of the passage of time, and each generation making way for the next.  As Dave and I decorated the house, changed bed sheets, put up the tree, and wrapped gifts, I recalled the aura of past Christmases at my grandparents’ homes: candles flickering, flaming plum pudding, stiff needlepoint chairs, fancy dress, and the expectation that kids keep a low profile.  

When my grandmother died and Mom took over, my grandmother’s candelabra found its place on my parents’ dining room table, and the needlepoint chairs, around it.   The plum pudding was dramatic, but never tasted as good as it promised to be, so my brother-in-law’s silky fudge and rum sauce over ice cream replaced it.  And the children?  Far from low profile, they became the focus. Still, those homes of the past made us feel cherished and safe; Dave and I hold the grandparent title now, and strive to embrace our kids and their families in those same ways… minus the plum pudding and finger-to-lips admonitions to behave.   

When my sisters and I divided the contents of my parents’ home, I did not clamor for the needlepoint chairs or the candelabra, and certainly, none of us wanted Mom’s white plastic kitchen chairs, but I really wanted the dry sink in the den. It was the first piece of furniture Mom and Dad bought together, and I loved its heavy, primitive look. Plus, it is scarred with a twisting groove that teenaged Lea idly carved with an ice pick while talking on the phone with friends.  


Since our marriage in 1975, Dave and I have been doing an every-other-year rotation between the  Sylvestros and Ingersolls for the holidays, and this would have been a year with Mom. When we discussed what the new plan might be, our new grand daughter Lexi was just weeks old and Eleanor was still afloat in Casey’s belly, so it made sense to hold Christmas at our house in Connecticut. My sisters, Rita and Francie, and their families, were willing to make the trip and stay minutes away at the humble, but reasonably comfortable, Hotel Hi-Ho. 

For years, the Hi-Ho, conveniently perched on a slope just above the Merritt Parkway, was rumored to have been a trysting destination, a pay-by-the-hour sort of spot.  While its huge, red, neon sign was easily visible to cars whizzing by, more often than not one, two, or three letters were out of order. So the “HO_EL HI- _O” was a local joke until recent renovations spruced it up.  Tucker, Lisa, Paul, and Lexi would stay with us, while Casey, PJ and Eleanor live nearby.  

In the week before Christmas, Dave and I attacked detailed To-Do lists each day.  As has been tradition since first we were married, Dave rolled out his homemade lasagna noodles, simmered the sauce, and assembled two huge casseroles. I baked “Happy Winter” fudge cakes and made crepes. We shopped for non-perishables on Monday the 18thand perishables on the 22nd. Mixed up artichoke dip and blanched crudité on the 23rd.   Ordered window shades for the guest room and crossed our fingers they’d ship in time... They did not. 

The dishwasher was crammed with the detritus of those preparations.  Mixing bowls, plates, ladles, and spoons.  Measuring cups, spatulas, dishes, and mugs. 

“Hon?  Be sure to run the dishwasher before you come to bed, will you?” I said on the evening of the 22nd

I was brushing my teeth when Dave entered the bathroom, grim of visage, and said, “The dishwasher’s not filling.”

“Not filling?” I said, or whatever garbled response might have emerged through the toothpaste. 

Yes.  The day before our loved ones arrived, the dishwasher broke down. When I spoke to the repairman’s rep the next day, hoping for a mercy visit given the circumstances, she laughed and said, “That’s how it always goes.” 

Ah well.  As my sister Rita said, plenty of bonding at the sink. Plus, she’s a party diva and after my desperate call, she arrived with bags of paper goods.  Would my grandmother have tolerated such a substitution? Maybe not, but Mom would have welcomed it. 

Were they there, Mom and Dad?  Beyond the toasts, tales, memories, and love?  Beyond their touch on the pitcher and wooden dry sink?  Beyond their names carried on in their great-grandchildren, Eleanor and Paul?  

After he died, Dad arranged a bounty of signs to let us know he was still around, while Mom kept her peace when she passed. But I have to think they could not have resisted a Christmas visit to see Jared and Campbell - now men in their twenties - on the floor playing cars with little Paul.  To see Tucker and Casey, holding each other’s babies. To see three elfin great-grandchildren in matching pajamas, and little Eleanor, already an activist, pumping her fist in the air.  To see Bill and Rita prancing in Santa and reindeer outfits.  To see my sisters, giggling all the way, smuggling in two of Mom’s sheet-shrouded white plastic kitchen chairs. 

Yeah, I have to think they showed up.  








Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Sleep Thieves

Default suggestions and corrections are often frustrating and sometimes humorous.  I supply plenty of material because I’m the worst typist ever. On my tiny IPhone, I have the excuse that my fingers are too big for that puny keypad.  “P” is too close to the edge and more often I hit “O” by mistake. And “M”?  Forget it.  It’s right next to the delete arrow, so that’s what usually happens.  In my enthusiasm, I admit I overuse the word “love,” but almost without fail, “live” is what I tap, turning a buoyant comment into an existential observation.  A chorus of audible grunts of disgust always accompanies my typing. 

On email, I can’t blame defaults, and I tend to overlook the warnings of green wavy underlines. Proofreading is a necessity to be approached with the keen scrutiny of Robert Mueller pursuing a lead. Recently, though, my typo gave birth to an incisive new word.  

My friend Otie and I had exchanged Christmas greetings and commented on the joys of visiting grandchildren. Otie wrote, “We have a houseful, and some of them get up early.”  

Leisurely mornings are my favorite retirement perk, but waking to grandson Paul’s sweet voice and dear little face still scrunched and adjusting to morning light is a gift. In my response to Otie, I told him how much I would miss that and added, “As you say thoughtcrimes, sleeping in will be good.” 

“Thoughtcrimes”?

I didn’t catch the typo and Otie made no mention of it in his next email. I happened to see it while reviewing the thread for a quick refresher before writing back a few days later.  I had no idea what I’d intended to say, and told him as much.

Otie has a philosopher’s soul and he did not take my finger-slip lightly. He mused about a conversation he’d had with our mutual friend, Moo, who’d said, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just the middle of the night.”

Was this a commentary on our troubling times and a “this too shall pass” insight, or merely an insomniac’s lament? Otie pursued the quote with the persistence of one who has spent countless wakeful hours in the dark, a victim of thoughtcrimes and their not-so-stealthy theft of sleep.   “Problems are magnified by darkness and a little confusion, which leads to more sleep disruption, allowing time for more problems to try to take over our souls, and soon, dawn arrives.  But I have taken a certain comfort in Moo’s theory, and if I can remember to repeat it a few times, I can bore myself back to sleep.”

Ah, if only I could bore myself back to sleep! For me, “it’s not the end of the world” leaves plenty of room for post-apocalyptic scenarios that are not the end, but gruesome enough, so that mantra gives me no comfort. 

It’s usually around 1:16 that my eyes fly open.  I go to the bathroom for a quick pee and then snuggle back in bed praying slumber will re-find me. Ha!  As if. The hours tick by as I manufacture heated conversations with family, friends, Republican leaders, and Trump himself, working myself into an adrenalin-fueled fury that leaves no room for sleep. Or, hearing my beloved Dave snuffle and snore beside me, I begin with a smile and gratitude, then hustle myself along a spiraling path to tears and what would I do without him? To-Do lists can wrestle sleep to the mat with ease, and a quick mental reminder turns into an exercise in obsessive repetition to make sure I don’t forget whatever pressing task I’ve come up with. Guilt, too, is a rich well of sleeplessness.  I can dive in there and swim in that heavy muck for hours. Or, I think of warnings for my children after I’ve read the latest health scare in “The Week.” Thoughtcrimes!         

Dear Otie is more optimistic than me.  In so many words, he said that branding these ruminations “thoughtcrimes” offers the vigilant an opportunity to recognize the thief, seize him by the scruff of the neck, and banish him from the bedroom.  My friend closed with this comfort, “When I wake up early and start worrying about something that isn't going to happen and that I can't do anything about anyway, instead of the end of the world thing, I'll quickly dismiss my troubles with, "Thoughtcrimes. Sleeping in will be good." 

Thanks, Otie. 




Sunday, December 2, 2018

Waiting...

Oh, waiting is cruel. Whether it be for good or ill, for grades, test results, or a child’s Christmas morning extravaganza, waiting is agonizing.  And waiting for the birth of a baby?  Every month, phase, appointment, and scan holds it’s own particular excitement or worry.

Three years ago, Dave and I snow-shoed a slushy trail beyond the lake at Mohonk Mountain House while yearning for word from Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital where Tucker’s wife, Lisa, was in labor.  Later that afternoon, we skated in circles to tinny Yuletide tunes at the Mohonk rink while yearning for word.  The next day, we stood, yearning for word, holding our plates in the dining hall breakfast buffet as a portly chef flipped our omelets. Kind people we’d met on the trail, at the rink, and at dinner the night before asked, “Any word on the baby?” 

I’d never had to worry my way through a delivery, and as the disquieting number of our “nothing yet” responses mounted, anticipation had turned to concern.  Lisa’s labor was long and perilous… but gratefully, ended with the hoped-for results.  Lisa would recover and heal, and baby Paul has grown into a captivating little boy. He is smart, curious, and funny, but I admired Lisa’s courage in facing another delivery when we learned she was pregnant again.


Mom was still lucid when Tucker whispered that news to her in late February, a secret kept from the rest of us for months longer.  At Mom’s memorial service in March, Casey privately told her brother about her own pregnancy, again, a secret from the rest of us for a while, just to be sure. Casey says she made Mom promise, during those final days in Muirfield, to be a guardian for whatever little ones she might spawn, and Mom said, “I’ll watch over all of you…” So, in addition to the image I hold in my heart of a Heavenly Couch reunion, hoping that my belief and reality intersect there, I am counting on Mom to fulfill her promise.

Due to her previous birth experience, Lisa scheduled a C-section in October, and Lexi was born without the hand-wringing anguish of Round One.  Three years ago, it was weeks before Lisa felt strong and well. “I feel I missed out on Paul’s infancy,” she says.  When Dave and I went to visit two weeks after Lexi’s birth, Lisa insisted on making dinner. To our offers of help and our wish that she relax, she said, “I enjoy this.” She is thrilled and surprised to feel like herself, and have her beautiful baby girl.



Casey planned on a natural birth.  She was in good shape, took hypno-birthing classes, did a lot of reading, and hoped that genetics would play a role: both of my deliveries were smooth.  Sure, my contractions had been painfulbut I could imagine worse… and those early weeks when a new infant was in my arms? I picture them now as fatiguing, but surrounded by a blissful, golden halo.  “Mom, I think you’ve forgotten a lot,” Tucker tells me often.  “This is really hard.” 

Possibly. In general, I’ve forgotten a lot.

As a Pilates instructor, Casey is in tune with her body, and as her mother, am in tune with her. As her pregnancy progressed, her ribs felt bruised and painful.  I don’t remember feeling anything like that when I was pregnant.  Should I worry?  When her baby kicked, it hurt.  I don’t remember anything like that.  Should I worry?  During the last month, Casey’s fingers went numb.  Whoa.  Weird. I definitely don’t remember anything like that.  Should I worry? 

Truth is, I’ve worried a lot. When I was young and my stomach was ballooning, I felt only joy at the baby rolls and kicks within me. Armed with Lamaze training and copious reading, I was raring to go and ready for the birth battle. I wasn’t worried at all.  But it’s been a different thing entirely having our two precious girls facing that miraculous, but arduous, journey to produce life.

My daughter’s due date came and went. With her stomach huge and ungainly, sitting, lying down, and walking were difficult, leaving few positional options.  Throughout her pregnancy, in hearing of others’ scheduled inductions, she’d been resolute in stating, “No one’s taking this biscuit until it’s fully baked!”  But as nights passed, sleepless and uncomfortable, she conceded that a scheduled birth had some appeal.  

For several days, she experienced abdominal tightenings and cramps… were they contractions?  At 1:00 AM, in the early hours of Thanksgiving Day, she was pretty sure they were.  As they became regular and increased in intensity, she was certain. 

Then, after six hours, they stalled.  Argh.

Our nephew, Trevor, and his wife, Lisa, had offered to host Thanksgiving this year since Dave and I had no idea what that day would hold.  When Casey’s husband, PJ, texted us with news of Casey’s progress, and then, the lack thereof, we wondered what we should do: make merry with the Connecticut Sylvestro clan while our daughter faced the biggest physical challenge of her life, or stay home to worry and stew?  
  
It was tempting to text PJ every ten minutes.  What restraint we showed in sticking to an every-two-hours communication!  Without distraction, we doubted we could hold to that, so we picked up Dave’s mother and headed to Trevor and Lisa’s. 

It was a lovely afternoon of delicious traditional foods… and full family focus on getting that baby out. Dave decided to make a video to cheer Casey on, and Steve, his brother, composed lyrics to the tune of Happy Birthday.  We sang with loving gusto, "Have your baby right now.  Have your baby right now. Don't wait til tomorrow... Have your baby right now!"

Throughout dinner, we texted PJ periodically… hesitantly, guiltily… knowing he was busy supporting our girl.  By late afternoon, Colleen, the doula or birth coach, had arrived and was helping Casey (and PJ) stay calm.  Where was a doula to keep me calm?  I definitely could’ve used one.  Finally, at 9:30, PJ texted that they were on their way to the hospital.  Thank God!  That gave us license to go too, and at least we could be near our girl in her efforts.  The baby would be here soon!

Not so fast…

PJ’s mother, Janine, who loves our kids as much as we do, was just the right company as the three of us settled in for what would be a very long night. Initially, we shared our wait with an expectant father and his two remarkably well-behaved sons, a toddler and a child of about five. A big-screen TV ran a series of Christmas movies and religious shows, but the sound was on mute and we couldn’t drum up enough interest to figure out how to turn up the volume or change the channel. 

Every few hours, I allowed myself a walk down the hall to Labor and Delivery to check on my daughter. She was amazing in her bravery and concentration on the work to be done.  Dressed in a white johnny bedecked with blue diamonds, and connected to an assortment of wires and monitors, she breathed slowly through contractions.  PJ sat by her side holding her hand, and the doula stood at her head, stroking her hair. 

It was hard to feel so out of place as I remained by the door, my unhelpful hands clasped humbly before me, as Colleen, a woman I’d barely met, stroked my daughter’s hair while murmuring encouragement and tips. wanted to stroke Casey’s hair and murmur encouragement… but I didn’t know the tips, or the exercises, or what those lines on the monitors meant, and the doula did.  

What I did know was that the smiley face on the white board was still on the circle that indicated 4 centimeters dilation. Despite 30 hours of labor, that smiley face had not moved. How I longed for an eraser to rid the board of that simpering sign of stalled progress. How could Casey bear to look at it?

After each visit, I trudged back to our post with my discouraging report.  Dave and Janine would look up hopefully at my entrance, and then shake their heads at my words. Dave would return to his crossword puzzle, Janine to scrolling on her phone.  Wisely, I’d brought Robert McCammon’s “Boy’s Life,” a riveting story of a boy’s encounter with mystery, bigotry, and the supernatural. I hoped an escape with twelve year-old Cory might help pass the hours of waiting. 

The young father and his sons received word of a birth around 3:00 AM and left us.  They were soon replaced by two grandmothers, a daughter and grand-daughter who settled in to wait for their loved one to produce. As the hours passed, their numbers grew as more siblings and cousins came to check on progress.  In the muted light of early morning, we all wished each other luck, shared cheese and crackers, and were comforted in waiting together.  

Poor Casey!  Several times, PJ emerged to tell us she was fine, but still no change in that 4 cm dilation. 

The sun rose, and our friend Joanie arrived with pumpkin bread, chocolate covered espresso beans, pomegranate beverages, and cozy socks and fleeces.  Sustenance and warmth!  Cheese and crackers go only so far.  Missy and Paul Sr., PJ’s dad and his girlfriend, joined us, along with a few more cousins of the other family-in-waiting.  They were feeling the strain of the passing hours and were aghast to hear how long Casey had been in labor. 

When I snuck down for another glimpse of my girl, that infernal smiley face still grinned from the 4 cm circle.  The doctor, the doula, and Casey had agreed it was time to nudge things forward with an epidural and Pitocin drip.  Casey was exhausted and resigned, “I’m okay with it, Mom.  Don’t worry.” 

was worried, but not about the epidural. I just wanted the baby out, and my girl to be okay.  And finally, the 4 cm smiley face was erased, and a large pink heart filled the 8 cm circle. Thank God.  

The family of grandmothers and cousins had received their happy news and took turns visiting their loved one and her baby.  Joanie gave us hugs, sent Casey her best wishes, and headed home. Another expectant dad with his siblings and, again, two remarkably well-behaved small boys, claimed the remaining seats in the room. What wizardry had been used in raising the children that waited with us? And when was our new child going to make her appearance?  

Around 5:30 PM, I returned to Labor and Delivery in time to see a bustle of activity around my daughter. A blue cap placed on her head. A doctor explaining medications and risks.  A nurse untangling another IV line and preparing to insert it. PJ standing stock still with his back to me, holding Casey’s hand, unable to look away from his wife. Casey, weepy, her lip trembling, saying to me, “They’re going to do a C-section. Colleen will fill you in. I’m okay; I just can’t talk about it right now.”  And she turned away to inhale, exhale, inhale, and exhale. 

Colleen was packing up her things in the corner.  “The baby’s not responding,” she said.  “But it’s going to be fine.  I’ll be down to explain everything to you in a minute.”

“The baby’s not responding?” Omigod. 

Dave had left the hospital to feed and walk Casey and PJ’s dog, so it was Janine who saw my stricken expression and rushed to hug me.  “They’re doing a C-section.  The baby’s not responding, but they assured me it would be okay,” I stammered.  Paul Sr. and Missy didn’t speak. Janine and I held each other and sobbed.  It would be okay.  Casey would be okay.  Her little girl would be okay.  Of course they would. Thank God for C-sections.  But, I knew Casey was scared and distressed. And what about the “not responding” part?  

“Mom, you promised…” I prayed to my mother and father, to God and my grandparents… to anyone who might be listening and could intercede.  Who knows how the Other Side operates?  

Colleen entered the room, pulled up her rolling bag, and parked on the seat next to me. “The baby’s heart rate and blood pressure are fine, but she’s not moving or reacting to stimulation.”

 “Then how do you know she’s all right?” I asked, my eyes searching Colleen’s for truth. 

“They’d be running around like crazy if it were an emergency and they’re not.  It was measured and methodical in there.  It’s going to be fine.  Casey’s 9 cm dilated, and the doctor said she might be able to get the job done naturally, but mom and baby have had enough.  They’re both exhausted.” 

Dave returned with wine and lemon shrimp risotto, and I filled him in on the C-section. He took a deep breath and said he was relieved. "Actually, I've been hoping they'd make that decision. It's been too long."   

Elias, an expectant father whose wife was 7 cm dilated, took a break from the labor room and joined us for a glass of wine.  The other families had left hours ago.   How long do Caesareans usually take?

Finally… finally!  PJ strode into our midst.  “She’s here!  Casey’s in repair, but doing fine.  You can see her soon.  The baby’s beautiful.”  He held out his phone and swiped through pictures of an adorable chubby baby with PJ’s cheeks and Casey’s mouth… and a full head of dark hair.  

Welcome Eleanor Jean West!




To see the video composed Thanksgiving Day to cheer Casey on, click below and follow the link:

Sylvestro Thanksgiving Song for Casey

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Strong Girls

“Mom, I’m waddling,” Casey’s voice on the phone was rueful but good-humored.

“Hate to tell you, Sweetie, you’ve been waddling for days,” I replied.

With only weeks before her due date, Casey is short of breath, uncomfortable, sleep-deprived, and… waddling.   She has kept photo documentation throughout her pregnancy and recently invited me to join a shared album, “Belly Chronicles.”  My Lord! The female body is astonishing in it’s ability to stretch to encompass new life.  Two weeks ago, the doctor estimated her unborn child’s weight at 8 pounds, 3 ounces.  “I just want to meet her,” Casey said with plaintive yearning while stroking her distended stomach.   

  
Like bins of photos scanned into one thin, portable disc, this year  - with all its richness, sorrow, joy, and anticipation – feels condensed.  It wasn’t long ago, mid-January, when Mom confessed to feeling punky.  Within a few days, I headed to Philadelphia with my friend, Joan, to visit Mom and attend the Women’s March with my sisters. In the wake of Mom’s diagnosis, the events, exuberance, and power of the march were overshadowed as Mom approached her death with grace and courage. 

In the weeks that followed, we stepped out of life’s habitual stream into the cocoon of Muirfield. After Mom passed in March, the three hours from Connecticut to Pennsylvania became so routine they seemed to shrink to an easy commute as I drove back and forth to help my sisters sort through the furniture and keepsakes of generations that had come to rest in Mom’s house. During the summer, July held a trip west for us; August, time in Weekapaug.  Since then, again, we have been… waiting.  Gratefully, this wait has been one of joy as we have been waiting for… babies!

Yes, babies… plural. Casey is not the only one expecting. Long before telling the rest of us, Tucker and Lisa whispered news of Lisa’s pregnancy to Mom during their last visit with her at Muirfield.  And in watching our two girls prepare for the births of their babies, in watching them swell, nest, worry, weather discomforts, and yes, waddle, I’ve been reminded of a sign I particularly loved at the Women’s March: “Here’s to strong women.  May we know them; may we be them; may we raise them.” 

Two weeks ago, Tucker called with news of Lexi’s birth. His voice was happy, loving, and relieved as he reported that Lisa was tired but doing well after delivering their chubby, baby girl. 


Lisa’s mother, Jan, had flown in the week before, and Dave and I headed north after getting the call. Francie and Matt were in Boston visiting their son Campbell, so they joined us at the hospital as well. Within ten months, two hospitals have been our haven – for such very different reasons - allowing us to retreat and reduce our circle of concern to what matters most: those we love and their well-being. 

Our grandson, Paul, who’s not even three, seems such a big boy now that he has a baby sister.  When first he held little Lexi, he gently touched her fingers and asked, “She has such tiny… um, what do we call these?”

“Knuckles,” said Tucker.

“Oh. Knuckles…” repeated Paul.  And then, “Okay, I’m done,” he said, eager to have Tucker pick up the baby so he could scramble to the floor and play with his cars.


But, yes.  Aren’t those tiny knuckles a wonder?  I’ve held many babies, and still those tiny hands, fingers, and feet amaze me.  I could gaze for hours at Lexi’s tiny nose and tiny mouth, breathing deep her sweet baby scent, regretting only that while nestled in the crook of my arm she is not close enough to nuzzle her soft, kissable cheeks.  And where now, she sleeps and flops loosely over my shoulder, in six months, she’ll be smiling and sitting up on her own. So many surprises, miracles, and potential nestle within this brand-new human. 


When my kids were little, I wished desperately that their happiness and security would last forever. Maybe it’s because I’m older and know more, but life seems tougher than it was then.  Like the sign said, these girls will have to be strong.

And their parents are on it.

Before long, Tucker and Lisa will start reading to their daughter.  Paul has several shelves of books, and his sister will probably love “Curious George,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and “Click, Clack, Moo” as much as her brother does.  Soon, tales of Disney princesses and adventurers will join those selections.  A neighbor has already added “Baby Feminists” to their library, so Lexi’s heroes might include Michele Obama, Malala, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as Moana.  

While Casey and PJ’s baby has not yet arrived, her room is ready for her. It is adorable and inviting in violet and light gray, with elephant accents and a pink braided rug. Long before brushes were dipped in paint or the color palette for the room was chosen, Casey ordered two signs for the walls. One, a Shakespearean quote, reads, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”  The other promises, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will move mountains.” 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Still Here...

Today is Rita’s birthday, so, while we want Mom to go as soon as possible because she is unhappy whenever she wakes up and sees she’s still here, we hope she hangs on until tomorrow.  Two days ago, not knowing what her situation would be in the days ahead, Mom rallied briefly and sang “Happy Birthday.” Rita listened, her smile wide, her eyes glistening, but we all had to chuckle when Mom wrapped up the song with “Happy Birthday dear Matt….” Ah well.  We knew what she meant. 

Right now, she is snoring softly, thank god, fast asleep.

Two days ago, frustrated with what was, to her, a snag in her passing, she keyed into the refrain her doctor, nurses, and Hospice staff have repeated:  “You can do whatever you want.  You can refuse food and drink.”  We have all learned that Morphine does not hasten the end; that common belief has evolved because it’s generally the medication patients are taking at time of death.  So, exercising the tiny area over which she still has control, Mom has stopped eating. 

She has been here at Muirfield for a month… as have we. Dave, Matt, and Bill have been extraordinary in supporting us and keeping everything chugging while we girls stay with Mom.  The men have done laundry; run errands; cleaned house; cooked delicious dinners for us… and more. 

Yesterday, I left Dave asleep at 638 when I headed out to take the morning shift at Muirfield. I clicked the “unlock” button on my car key and… nothing.  Must have pushed the wrong button.  Tried again. Listened for a hint of an engine purr. Nothing.

“Please, oh please...” I begged while stabbing the button about twenty times.  No luck. Still nothing.

Argh!  I love my hybrid C-Max, but she has failed me before, and this was really bad timing.

Fighting tears, I stomped back into the house, up the stairs, and woke Dave.

“My car’s dead!” I wailed.

“Ugh.  Bummer. Give me a minute to get dressed. I’ll give you a ride over, then call AAA,” he said.  Poor sleepy guy. I knew he’d say that.  So many times he has lifted my burden and made my problem, his. He delivered me to Muirfield, and spent the next four hours dealing with multiple glitches, finally getting the car started, and then, with Matt, driving aimlessly for half an hour to make sure it stayed charged.   

                                    *                                  *                                  *

Mom has gone without food or water for five days and has slept most of the time.  The nurses and Hospice staff tell us that despite all appearances, Mom can hear us. So Rita reports on her birthday dinner; I vent about my car; Francie reads aloud the inscriptions in cards when they arrive.  To give us a break, Dave took the late and early shifts yesterday.  He says he loved having time alone with Mom to tell her what she meant to him, things he wished he’d told her sooner… for it has seemed, increasingly, that she is far away. 

Dr. Spitzer has been on vacation.  Having returned, he has come in to check on Mom.  He stands at the foot of her bed and gazes at her. He turns to leave and whispers, “I don’t want to disturb her.”

“Wait!  Talk to her,” I say.  “Let her know you’re here.”

He sidles up close to her head, strokes her hair, and quietly says hello.

Mom opens her eyes and mouths, “Hi Peter…” 

We all look at each other, wide-eyed.  Wow.  Wow… She’s still here!  Despite what we’ve been told, we haven't really believed she’s heard our whispered love, assurances, and appreciation… but, she has! 


                                    *                                  *                                  *

March 1
1:02 AM
                                                                                    
Dave has returned to Easton, and when not at Muirfield, I am happy here, alone at 638, surrounded by portraits, Persian carpets, needlepoint pillows, and vintage posters: vestiges of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and Mom and Dad. My sisters dislike the musty smell, but I love it.  It wraps around me, the scent of family history, and I envision all those lives that led up to mine, and am comforted. 

When I mount the well-worn, carpeted stairs, I trail my hand along the bannister and then the walls covered with the same paper hung when we first moved in over fifty years ago.  “Hello dear house,” I murmur.  At the landing outside my parents’ room, I call, “Good night, Mom…” It’s easy, not hard at all, to place her on her bed in her room, her favorite, cozy spot.

In the guest room, I wash up, then slip into bed under the crinkly white and pink-monogramed bed covers.  My gaze falls, as always, on my great-grandmother’s green velvet rocker and delicate lady’s desk. A needlework picture of a grumpy grandfather and little girl carding the wool of a compliant sheep hangs on the facing wall. For years I have slept here.  Even as a teenager, I’d tiptoe down the stairs to this room when my third floor bedroom seemed too dark or too far from Mom and Dad. 


With Mom soon leaving, and this house no longer mine to come home to, how can I pay attention enough?  
   
At 638, Mom is everywhere.  Sitting in one of the white plastic kitchen chairs watching Jeopardy or standing before the 1928 Roper stove.  Sipping her white zinfandel in the den, surrounded by shelf upon shelf crammed with family pictures. Stretched out on her bed, flipping through People or Majesty magazines… or ear to phone, keeping up with her friends.  

Oh Mom!  Despite all the CAT scans and hospital time, the cards and flowers, the vigil at Muirfield, the wretched days and this long stretch of sleep… it seems a terrible fiction that you won’t be here.

Who will recommend books knowing I will like them?  Who will be as eager to hear the latest tale of a St. Anthony find? Who will answer the phone at 4997 for a cheery, chatty phone visit?  Who will relish, as much as Dave and I do, the latest on our kids and their families?

You have to know, Mom, how fortifying this time has been for me, Rita, and Francie together.  Who would have imagined, after a half century as sisters, that we could get to know each other better?  But we have… and they have been stalwart, brave, and dear. I am so grateful for them! I think you must be proud of us… Do you remember what Francie said to you the other day?  “We’ll be okay, Mom.  We’ll be there for each other as friends and protectors…” And we will.





Friday, October 5, 2018

Fun... Forever

As soon as they learned of Mom’s illness, Tucker and Lisa booked a flight to Philadelphia for Martin Luther King weekend.  After her own stay, however, Casey worried that Mom might not last that long and urged her brother to squeeze in an earlier visit. 

While Mom knew Tucker was there, she slept most of the time. We felt badly since he’d flown in for the night, would head back to Boston on Wednesday, then return Friday with Paul and Lisa.   But Tucker had steeled himself to see Mom in misery and was relieved when she seemed peaceful and comfortable. 

We all looked forward to Tucker’s return with his wife and Paul.  Mom was eager to see her great-grandson, but didn’t want whatever hazy memories a two-year-old might retain of her to be that of sick-Greemie.  

Who could have foreseen a child’s perspective of Muirfield?  

For a toddler, the facility offered long carpeted hallways perfect for racing.  It was furnished with comfy chairs ideal for climbing and forts.  It contained mammoth desks tailor-made for hide and seek. And there were innumerable, kind grown-ups who, delighted by the diversion of an adorable, happy child, provided markers and paper, balloons and pipe-cleaners. For Mom, it was joy enough when Paul stood at her bedside to show her his dump truck or the drawing he’d made. 



And while the rest of us remained ignorant of the news for several months more, Tucker and Lisa quietly told Mom they were expecting another child in October.  

                        *                                  *                                  *  

Amazingly, Mom continues to look great. Her head rests on her favorite baby pillow, and occasionally she forgets to put on her headband;  I love it when she does.  Her silver hair falls softly around her face and her expression is relaxed and pleasant.  She says she feels totally with it, just weak, but she acts like she’s high. When she speaks, sometimes she takes off on rambling, nonsensical tangents.  We listen intently for insights into her frame of mind or meaningful memories. Often she’ll catch herself, pause, and grin, saying, “I don’t think that makes sense, so I’ll stop there.” 

Several times, she has realized her hands are clasped on her stomach. Immediately, she drops them to her sides and says, “I better not do that; it looks like I’m praying,” and we burst out laughing.  My mother is not a religious person. At all.  When in the past she yearned for heavenly intervention, she called on her parents for help… and so far, they have been successful in their vigilance. 

One afternoon, Rita asked Mom what she would like covered in her obituary.  As she thought it over, Mom caught herself “praying” again, and we launched into a mock write-up. “Mimi, known for her knowledge of scripture and given to quoting it.” Or, “Mimi tried to squeeze in the occasional bridge game between the Bible studies she held regularly at her lovely home.” Oh, the relief in that gasping laughter!

Recently, after the girls and my brother-in-law, Matt, headed home for the evening, I turned off the lights and leaned over to give Mom a kiss.  “This is exactly what I didn’t want, “ she said, her voice distressed and fretful in the dark.  “… To linger on and be a burden…”

I laid my head on the pillow next to hers and stretched my arm across her chest.  In tears, I said, “Oh Mom.  We’re so grateful you’re still here!  We don’t want you to suffer, but this time is a gift to us and your friends.  It has given everyone a chance to check in and let you know what you mean to them.”

“It has been good,” she said.  “All the cards and flowers and calls.  Friends coming in even if it was inconvenient.”

An inconvenience.  That is so Mom.  The outpouring of love and admiration has been a revelation to her.  Dad was a big presence, and while Mom is stronger than he was in some ways – he acknowledged this in her nickname, The High Command – she always felt she played a supporting role.  She’d hoped for a quick exit, but these weeks in Muirfield have allowed lifelong friends to fly in from Florida and drive from New Jersey, cousins to fly from St. Louis, as well as nieces from California, D.C., and Massachusetts. Her sisters-in-law have visited regularly, as have friends who live in the area.  If anything, we three girls act as gate-keepers to make sure Mom doesn’t get overtired. 

Almost every day, new deliveries arrive to take the place of the forlorn wilted flowers sitting on the floor by the door awaiting removal. Flamingos, blossoms, bear hugs, and yellow chicks in sunglasses cavort on the cards that line the windowsill. 

Many are hopeful get-well cards; others know better and cloak their good-byes with funny reminiscences or loving words about the role Mom played in their lives.  Her friend Kingie wrote, “I will miss you so terribly much… until I see you again.” My godmother, Aunt Patty, recalled their time together in Germany in 1951 as young brides of soldiers stationed overseas, and closed her note with, “Fun!  Fun!  Fun! And when we are together again, it will be fun forever!”  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Embraced

Francie checks the time and announces, “3:00.  Deb’s coming on duty, and all is well.”

The rhythm of our Muirfield life is governed by Mom’s daily status, meal times, Jeopardy, and nursing shift changes. Within our green-carpeted cocoon, we are blessed with a rotating schedule of competent, caring aides and nurses guided by their mission to keep Mom comfortable.   Tiny Carole with close-cropped curly hair and her love of animals.  Affectionate, kind-hearted Megan who weeps to see Mom suffering on bad days. And Deb, with her wavy, long, blond hair and artfully made-up almond eyes, our friend and Mom’s particular champion. 

After being here three weeks or so, Mom asked for Hospice, believing the organization would send angels of death who would help her cross over more quickly.  Not the case we learn, but dear Dan, a social worker, and sweet Jess, the team nurse, prove additional advocates for Mom’s comfort and eventual release. 

Most surprising, according to Dr. Spitzer who has seen her scans, Mom has experienced minimal pain.  This has frustrated her as she sees pain as the means to more morphine, and morphine as her ticket out.  While she encouraged my father to lie about pain levels to win increased doses when he was dying, she cannot bring herself to do so.  Then, during a recent phone call to a childhood friend, she was chatty and cheerful while reporting, “The pain came – as wanted – this morning.” She felt her request for a boost in morphine was legitimate when Jess checked in that day. 

Jess has fair skin and auburn hair.  She recently lost her grandmother, and her green eyes bathe us in empathy, coloring her care for Mom and for us.  Since we told her Mom is hard of hearing, she leans as far over the bed as she can when she talks to her.  “Mimi?  Can you hear me?  It’s Jess. I heard you had some pain today. We’ll adjust your morphine and maybe get you a gel mattress?  I’ll make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.”

Jess also repeats what Dan and Dr. Spitzer have made clear to Mom before.  “You are in charge, Mimi.  You can eat whatever you want.  We can bring in music or arrange a massage.  You can also choose to refuse food and drink.  Everything is up to you.”  These people are a gift to give Mom a sense of power when so little power remains. 

My sisters and I follow Jess out to the hall where we run into Dr. Spitzer.  The two confer about Mom’s condition and the increase in dosage.  Deb happens down the hall in the course of her rounds and joins our huddle. Unlike Jess, Deb has been with us during Mom’s bad days. She has seen her eyes squeezed shut, jaw clenched, as she’s fought to stay stock-still to quell nausea and vertigo.  “She’s anxious,” Deb says.  “Attavan would ease that.”  There’s discussion, note-taking, and general agreement.  When Deb is on duty, all is well. 

                        *                                  *                                  *

Mom’s not ready to refuse meals, and at Muirfield, that would be hard to do.  The food is amazing. Each morning, she receives three-page menus for the following day.  One of us reads them aloud, and, while it’s Mom choice, we all voice opinions. Tomato aspic with a dollop of mayo is a given, for lunch and dinner.  Mom loves it and doesn’t have to share; certainly no one else is seeking bites. Beyond that, hmmm.  A group effort.  Chicken crepes with champagne mushroom sauce or curried lamb?  A side salad of mandarin oranges, walnuts, bibb lettuce and bleu cheese? Oooh… fried oysters! I love them!  Add that.  Francie lingers over the thought of edamame.  Yes.  Add that too. 

When the tray arrives the next night, heavy with Mom’s choices and our additions, Mom’s appetite is robust… and she eats it all. Oh.  Well, that’s okay!  That’s great. Glad she enjoyed them. 

Deb checks in soon after and with glee we report Mom’s clean plate.  “She even finished off a few tidbits we’d hoped for!”

“Like what?”  Deb asks, and we tell her.

She chuckles, checks Mom’s vitals, and leaves.  Ten minutes later she returns with a hot platter piled high with fried oysters and edamame.  “You know I’ll take care of you,” she says with a smile. 

We feel it so fully, from Deb and the others.  They minister to Mom with medical skills and gentle strength, respecting her dignity, moving her carefully when she’s too weak or too sick, cheering her on when she feels well, easing her way when that time has passed.  And through the weeks, they look after us too.  With hugs, information, humor, and sympathy.  With a gentle hand on the shoulder, a tissue when needed…. And even with oysters and edamame. 

                                    *                      *                      *
     
At the end of each day, the too-small wastebaskets overflow with wadded tissues, empty seltzer cans, and cups.  The TV blathers in the background because we are waiting to watch Jeopardy, but the news is our pre-game penalty.  The anchors report on the world’s torments – an earthquake in Taiwan, Senate budget battles, local and national shootings, Trump’s jealous Tweets when the Eagles get a parade while his remains uncertain – and we wail at Mom to please turn it off. We, her aging daughters, whine that we don’t want to watch this toxic stuff.  She gets to leave all this poison behind soon, and we’ll be stuck with it.  Mom remains firm, “I want to watch.” 

Sigh.

Francie and Mom are Jeopardy regulars and at 7:00 PM, they lean forward as if at a starting gate.  Mom squints in concentration.  Francie nails a lot of answers and never forgets to frame them as questions.  I rarely know anything and on the rare occasion I do, (so pleased and proud!) I forget the question format and am chastised for leaping in and doing it wrong.  Ah, well.

After Jeopardy, we help Mom settle down for bed.  She takes out her hearing aids, “my ears”, removes her headband, and places it on the bedside table within easy reach.  We turn out the lights, kiss her goodnight and then two of us head out, never sure of what the morning will bring.  My sisters and I have started to take shifts for early morning, and in the late evening, we take turns waiting for one of our night angels, Amina or Abby. 

Mom has insisted that we go home and get some sleep, and to allow that, Muirfield has set us up with these extraordinary women.   Kind, gentle, and respectful, both come to care deeply for Mom… and, it seems, for the three of us too.

When I have the late shift, I linger to chat with whichever aide arrives.  Both are in their late twenties.  Abby is slender, studious, and soft-spoken with the lilt of the islands.  When I am not distracting her with whispered conversation, she hunches over her school books by the dim light from the partially open bathroom door in order to study for her courses in nursing. Several times during the day when my sisters and I are on our way to the cafeteria for lunch, we’ve run into Abby in the hall caring for other patients even after she’s spent the night with Mom.  “Omigod! You’re still here!  When do you sleep?” we exclaim. 

She smiles and says, “I’m fine.  I’ll make it up when I can.” 

On top of school and shifts at Muirfield, she’s a single mother who is deeply grateful for her mom’s help in babysitting for her young son.  We share pictures of our children and little Paul.  I have also shown her, and the nurses we are close to, pictures of Mom in her youth and even a few from Christmas when Mom seemed well and none of us could have imagined what was ahead.  As much as they have witnessed Mom’s grace and courage, I want them to have a sense of her as a vibrant, active person with a life beyond these walls. 


 With her streaked blond hair, vests, and slim-fit jeans, Amina is stylish, feisty, and funny.  She has strong opinions and a strong body, which is crucial as Mom grows weaker.  And thanks to Abby and Amina, I feel I can go home to bed at 638.  

On the nights when Dave stays in Easton, Francie and Matt have urged me to stay in their snug guest room with its mermaid posters and Disney decorations.  The bed there is irresistibly cozy with an electric blanket and innumerable pillows. The adjacent bathroom would be all mine… and I love staying there. But I know my nights at 638 are coming to an end. It’s home, and I want to stay there while I can. 

It is well after dark when I pull in, driving over the sinuous black shadows of the limbs of the copper beech, the centuries-old tree that stands guard over the house.  I park, then head back to the tree, stepping gingerly to avoid the expansive root system that stretches through the soil behind the house, breaking through the surface like dinosaur toes.


I spread my arms wide to embrace the trunk, laying my cheek against smooth, cold elephant skin.  “I love you copper beech,” I whisper, as I have so many times before. “I hope the next family loves you as much….” Tears spill over and I wish I could feel a tremble of response, or attribute the rustle of leaves to something more than a passing breeze.  Oh, I will miss the refuge of this house and the protection of this massive being.  


 But, I am grateful… for everything. Mom’s wonderful, long life and my own.  My father. My sisters who have shared that life and shouldered this painful time with me.  This house and this tree.  My Dave and our kids.  For Deb, Megan, Carole, and Dr. Spitzer who have blessed us all with their care and compassion through this final wait with Mom.