Sunday, October 11, 2015

Gone are the days when...

It’s our 19th anniversary. I’m sitting at the dinner table with my husband and two daughters. I’m on my second glass of Prosecco, a dainty, champagne flute if you have to know, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a pleasant, giggly buzz thing happening.

 We are listening to Pandora. Isla is trying to do her homework. Esther is sitting at the table being irreverent and teenagerish, but in a pleasant way that makes me laugh. At least when I’m drinking champagne laced with creme de cassis. Pretty much everything is pleasant, unexpectedly so, about this scene.

Isla’s homework involves looking up the definition of her spelling words in the dictionary and writing them down.

I get her our giant Oxford dictionary and thesaurus, a book that Ian determined with his handy dandy kitchen weight-- yes, my Brit husband uses a kitchen weight because he only cooks with British cookbooks, finding ours inferior, apparently-- weighs 4 pounds minimum and is bigger than Isla’s head by far.

Since we had just finished a candlelight supper and I really do like the way I look in candlelight, as well as the sparkly ambience candlelight creates, I didn’t want to spoil things by turning on the light.

No one could read the dictionary in that light, so I told her I would look up the words for her on my laptop as I sit here fiddling with Pandora.

Kick: To extend your leg away from the body.

Take: To get into one’s hands.

“What was that one,” Ian asked, in that way that said, 'I am the expert in the English language around here, what is that rubbish.'

So, I repeated myself. “Take: 'To get into one’s hands,'” I said, as I simultaneously took another sip of my Kir Royale and, catching Ian catching me enjoying my anniversary champagne he had bought without my even asking, raised an eyebrow up and down at him.

Big mistake.

“Mom,” Esther said.

“What?” I said. Thinking she was going to call me out on enjoying my champagne a bit too much, which is exactly what I was doing.

“You have no idea how wrong that just looked.”

“What?” I said, feigning innocence in the most inept way.

“I saw that,” she said. “Did you hear what you just said?

“What?” I said.

You said, “'To get into one’s hands', then you made that weird face at Daddy. That’s just creepy and wrong.”

Man. Gone are the days of surreptitious flirting right under your oblivious and naive children’s nose.

Gone are the days.

Esther is taking selfies. and sending them via Snapchat. Her iPod died so she has snatched my iPhone. Ian is acting disapproving at the way Essie is acting, and using my phone, and giggling wildly at some video her friend just sent her. He doesn’t have a clue what she is doing.

Disapproving is kind of his job around here. I think he's jealous of her youth. I know I am.

He's now helping, teaching, Isla how to use the dictionary. And I am here typing, and Esther is raucously "communicating" with her childhood friend, the girl who lives just two minutes away as a crow flies.

And I'm sitting here recording it all, and not feeling remotely put out by the minor detail that Ian and I are not on a romantic adult date. Because what better way to celebrate 19 years together than to be sitting right here in the middle of this imperfect, unfinished kitchen, giggling with my entire family and making fun of Ian in his reading glasses, which look always askew since one of his ears is lower than the other.

How is it I've never noticed that before?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

I don't want to give my children Back to School

We have run away, as we so often do when the butterscotch light of August comes lurking into our windows just past supper time. Run away. Run away! My  M.O. for most of my life. Run away.

First we picked Essie up from Logan airport, where she came in on a flight from London Heathrow-- this kid is beyond lucky spoiled lucky blessed--after having spent an entire month with her cousins England, with a side visit to France and Scotland. The big-sister/little-sister reunion was as sweet as I had imagined, though I am kicking myself for not having the camera ready for the part where Isla leaped into her big sister's arms and wrapped her stretched-in-the-night, almost-10-year-old legs around her waist, nearly knocking her over.

We swept off to a secret lair in East Boston to let Essie recover. Rather than resting, we trolled the streets of East Boston, found the coolest dollar store, ever, spent an absurd amount of time trying on shoes in a Payless Shoe store,

and delighted in the fact that the store mannequins all over the town have, get this, real live bottoms. No skinny, tidy and pert baby buns, but bubble butts, muscle butts, real butts. And thighs too...

Please excuse us our superficiality and possibly even blatant sexism and or discrimination, but this, in our minds and our sore eyes, was a cause for celebration. Aside from the impossibly perky breasts, these mannequins were our people.

We liked the art, and the message of the art, and the parking lots, as well. But the path we followed just as the sun began its nostalgic August descent in the Western sky, led us to one of the most stunning scenes of all: Boston. From a vantage point we'd never seen before.

We woke up early the next morning and drove to catch the ferry to a secret island I've been sworn not to call by name. Why? Maybe because it's the kind of place where neighbors check on each other with telescopes. Where there are no cars and no golf courses or amusement parks or fancy restaurants or boutique shops, or alcohol for sale, or ATM machines. Where, if you time it just right, you might see a beautiful woman with a gray pony tail walking down the hill, past the white picket fence, on one of the few paved streets to the island store, in her apron--perhaps to get some butter, sugar, or flour, as if the day was any other day and her town was any other town, surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic ocean.

Sorry, I don't have a picture of that woman. But I do have these...

And so, from a distance, back to school continues to beckon. You can smell it. You can taste it in the salty ocean spray. You can feel the slight tension, anxiety, the sense of dwindling magic time, the end of something that cannot be contained, on the breeze.

Well, maybe I'm projecting. Just a little bit.

Monday, June 08, 2015

My heart is squeezed by my own hand

The demands never stop
my heart is squeezed by my own hand
milking it
palpating it
waking it up
reminding it that life is good
and wonderful
and worth the pain

Judging life during the ebb
and forgetting all about the flow
 is a mistake

I've been stuck in ebb mode
caught up in an endless circling eddy
for week upon week

 I don’t like it but am at a loss to escape it
 at a loss to figure out how
to muster the courage to break through
the transparent wall of the bottomless whirlpool
and take a lateral leap
out into the flowing fresh water

This constant round and round leaves me dizzy
and filled with what feels like depression
but is probably grief
I’m heavy

If I were a cow
I’d be lowing in a distant meadow
head hanging
jowls jiggling in the breeze

Staring at the magnificent green clover
 but having little desire to eat it
 Not one bite

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The last time I wrote about my father, alive

It’s Wednesday night and I'm on "nightwatch" at Mom and Dad's.

My dog Birdie is snoozing, stretched across the living room rug, an Oriental to match all the other rugs in this house. The rugs are a fitting accent to the shelves filled with old books, and all those things that remind me of my childhood surrounded by pretty, pre-Ikea, inherited things.

I just put my dad to bed: A practice in patience, of finagling him out of his clothes and into his "overnight underpants" and his pajamas. The trick is to catch him before he buttons all the buttons you just unbuttoned on his shirt, and unbuttons all the buttons you just fastened on his pajama top.

I took him into the bathroom and helped him brush his teeth, put his dentures into their overnight Efferdent "bath." He brushes what's left of his teeth for minute after minute, taking solace in one of the few things he remembers well how to do. How many times has he brushed those teeth? He brushes and brushes and brushes, each time remembering and forgetting how long he has been doing it. Was it just a few strokes ago, or 100 strokes?

He sits on the edge of his bed and  I take off his slippers and his glasses. He smooths his hand over and over the sheets, approving of how warm it feels where the electric blanket has done its work. I have to cajole him into lying down.

“Put your head down, Dad. Don’t you want to lie down in that cozy bed and go to sleep."
“Yes, I do,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

He finally does lay down, curling his knees into his torso,  rolling away from me and onto his right side. I lift the blanket to ease his feet under.

He looks so much like a child, his head on the pillow, the covers pulled up to his chin. I can’t help but pet him. I put my hand on his forehead like I do with my children. I stroke his hair a bit. All the while, I'm fearing he might call me out for treating him like a baby. But he doesn't.

“Nighty night,” I say; the exact words my mother used with me the countless times she put me to bed.

“Have a nice sleep,” I say, turning off the light then leaning over to stroke and kiss his forehead one last time. I’ve never had the urge to touch my father so much as I do now.

“Thank you for taking care of me,” he says.
“It’s my pleasure,” Dad, “I like taking care of you.”
“And it’s my pleasure to be taken care of by you,” he says.

The arrangement works. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to see my father this way.

In the Bromley bar a while back, after Esther’s final ski race of the year, he went mute as he so often does in noisy places. He just sat there, back erect and awkward, smiling and staring. Not following the conversation, not leading it either. Just being.

And when he's like this, I wonder if he's uncomfortable. Is he confused to the point of feeling anxiety that he can't remember how to express? I imagine he’s experiencing that feeling of being close to succumbing to sleep, when your mind starts to scatter and split into shards, too many thought snippets headed in too many different directions to keep track of. When you find yourself thinking and sometimes saying words aloud you don’t even know the meaning of, and you cannot keep hold of one simple, unshiftable thought for long enough to feel it in your hand, or on your tongue, or nestled safely between your temporal lobes.

Just the other night, while I was trying to fall asleep again in the middle of the night --an angst- ridden time when my mind is unguarded and the demons tend to prowl -- I thought of the divine poetry that is my father having Alzheimer's and my mother remaining lucid.

My mother can handle old age. She's self forgiving. Grace is within her grasp at all times, so hammered into her as the only way to be-- graceful, gracious, pleasant, patient-- and can therefore experience the losses, the failures and flaws of old age without raging against them.

My father, on the other hand, has never relented in his expectations of human perfection. If he were fully present, able to experience what's happening to his mind and his body-- the loss of memory, muscle tone, balance, coordination, continence-- in a lucid state, he would be in a constant state of self-directed rage and inner tantrum.

I know this because I can imagine this. I know this because I am my father’s daughter and I have mini inner tantrums, sometimes daily, brought on by my own perceived flaws: My inability to glide seamlessly through life and part the seas without making mistake after seeming mistake.

Back at my father's bedside once again, after hearing him muttering, "sonofabitch!" and shifting restlessly in his bed, I began the game of coaxing him into the bathroom. After getting him to swing his legs over and sit upright, I took his still-strong hands and pulled him to standing. 

"Where did you come from," he said.
"You," I answered. "I'm Doug Shaw's daughter."
"You are?" he said, surprise in his voice and wonder in his eyes.
"But you're so big and strong."

Friday, March 20, 2015

I'll have this scar on my chin forever

I have this scar on my chin.

It tells the story of a childhood played out against a backdrop of cold, white snow and ice and hills and mountains. 

I was 3 when it happened. At least that's what I remember being told. Too bad my mom didn't have a blog.

I was sledding with my older sisters and some neighborhood kids and our beagle mutt, Victor, in a meadow behind our house. I don't know what month it was. Was it cold or mild? I am guessing it was cold, after a thaw, because the snow was crusty and aggressive. The kind of snow that growls and fights back when you step on it, and bites and cuts at any bare skin.

Victor used to get excited at the sight of small children flying down the hill. Funny, our former dog, Ruby, did this and our current dog, Birdie, does this as well. It must be instinct. The instinct to protect, to herd. But maybe they are just confused about our sudden, seemingly-magic propulsion. Confused or jealous.

Victor chased us, barking wildly, and bit at our clothes with manic, snapping jaws--often grabbing hold of snow-caked woolen mittens and pulling them off. I'm not sure if I remember it happening, or if my memory is stolen from my siblings retelling of the story, but, Victor got hold of my sleeve as I was moving down the hill and pulled me out of my cold, aluminum flying saucer.

I lurched, face first, into the crust-- face plant-- and emerged-- or did my sister's pluck me out--crying and bloody. The fun ruined, we marched-- a trail of tears-- back across the meadow toward home. This is the part I feel I do remember. In my mind's eye, I see myself--snot-nosed from blubbering, and bleeding-- walking across that endless field to find my mother.

I ended up in the blue clapboard home/office of our family doctor, Doc Harwood. Doc Harwood pulled me and all five of my siblings into this world. Doc Harwood drove with my parents to the hospital each time my mother went into labor. Dad in the driver's seat. Doc Harwood in the passenger seat. My mother in the back, laboring quietly, while Dad and Doc discussed sports and politics, and ignored her.

Doc Harwood and his unforgettable, bristly-caterpillar eyebrows and grinding-gear voice, cleaned and stitched the wound on my chin. Thankfully, I have no recollection of that.

Joe Markey, my father's best friend, joked that Doc Harwood might have used a backhoe to do the stitching job. The scar he left behind is not pretty--it looks rumpled where it straddles my jaw bone-- but it's mine.
Ever tried to take a flattering selfie of your chin? #startingtofeelbadaboutmyneck

My childhood boyfriend had a striking, far more impressive than mine, scar on his cheek near his jawline. I used to think the fact that we both had facial scars, acquired in early childhood, connected and protected us somehow.

I have no problem with the flaw of my scar. Many people don't even see it. But I love it when someone does notice. Because then I get to tell the story, my story, of my "big" sledding accident. I'm proud of my adventurous childhood in the snow and ice.

Isla, 9,  said the same thing about her scar recently. I told her that when she was finished growing, plastic surgeons from Shriners Hospital could make her burn scars less visible. Having been a patient, she is considered a member of the "Shriners family" until she is 21.

"I don't want them to make my scars look better, she said. I like my scars.  I like when people ask me about my scars. It makes me feel special."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Playing ping pong with my father

The one enduring thing that makes my father’s eyes light up, besides my mother, of course , is an offer of a game of ping pong.

He loves that paddle in his hand. The focus required. The single mindedness. No conversation has the power to harness his mind like the challenge of hitting that little plastic ball back across the net to his opponent. No memory is more vivid it seems, than muscle memory.

Despite Alzheimer's and prostate cancer that's spread deeply into his bones, his hand-eye coordination has not suffered and may be the last to go. A true athlete-- his identity has always lurked somewhere in the tangles of his strong, coordinated physique and a mentality for constant motion. I like that. It fits.

I also like how he counts the hay bales each time we come into the back meadow on our walk. A walk that has become more slow and more predictable each day. The most predictable part, his stopping to count, out loud, how many hay bales there are dotting the scene in front of him. He wants, no needs, to keep track, as obsessively as he once kept track of his checking account balance.

And the chanting..."Yes, yes, Christ yes"  that has become part of his day, as if he were being preached to by some unheard preacher and agrees with everything he says.

His legs have grown wobbly, unreliable.

He has moments of belligerence.
If you don’t stop that I’ll smack your butt until you are black and blue.

Did someone say that to him as a child? I would ask him, but I know he’s already forgotten what he said.

“What are you doing?” he sometimes says to Isla, in that cold, accusatory voice, when she’s being too boisterous around him. He sometimes even says it to me, when I’ve made too much noise, or moved too suddenly for his liking. Too much or his scattered brain and burned out nervous system to handle.

But mostly, his voice and demeanor are soft.

And grateful.
Thank you for all you’ve done today. Thank you for being here with me. Thank you. I love you.

His body moves so slowly. He sleeps incessantly, as if he's being pulled under by a force that we can’t see. But it’s strong. It’s constantly pulling him, every waking hour. Pulling him back, pulling him down.

It's impossible to know what he's experiencing. When he exclaims "Sonofabitch, Sonofabitch, and "Stop it, you bitch, you bastard,"  is he talking to the cancer? Or is he cursing the darkness that is stealing his mind?

The moments come in such short bursts he can’t answer when I ask, “What's the matter, dad?”

It’s something no one can see. Something discreet and deadly. A thief.

His legs are wobbly. He fell in the bathroom yesterday, a colossal clatter, luckily saved by the toilet before he hit the floor.

Basic dressing and undressing stymies him:
Do shoes come before pants? Do I need two belts? Am I unbuttoning or buttoning? Am I going to bed or waking up? Am I coming or going?

He’s gone so alarmingly quiet, my dad.  Because he can’t stop the clicking of his brain. It's like a wheel and he can’t make it stop. Can't make it settle firmly on the right topic. He can't contribute because we are, everything is, moving too fast for him.

Or is he moving too fast for us? I don’t know.

So he says nothing. My father has never said nothing. My father is a talker, an engager, a joke teller. Rarely has he ever left a space empty of words.

Now he’s often without a voice. Speechless. Nodding. Because speaking takes too much energy, or because he just can't remember the words. The words aren’t making themselves available fast enough. He can’t find them in time. Not the right ones.

His eyes look so vulnerable. His hands are still so big and strong. He uses them to grab mine each time I help him get his arm through his shirtsleeve. He grabs my hand with such abrupt firmness. Such desperate, fatherly warmth.

It startles me, every time.