A Hard Fall

A lot of people dying. That’s what’s happening.

Death is happening. The word “hospice” seems to be on everybody’s lips. “She’s in hospice.” “He’s in hospice.” This is code for it won’t be long. It’s a signal, the yellow light shining before it turns red and everything stops. The rocket ship is on the launch pad, my friends, and the countdown is about to begin.

What do you do when someone is in hospice? Do you make amends? Do you say, “Hey, I heard you are in hospice. Can we talk about our relationship? That seems peculiar since one person in the dyad is in hospice and not likely to be pondering relationship issues, the other is just struggling to get off the hook before the hook disappears.

It has been a week of unpleasant reckoning.

It would be easier if there wasn’t this rush to the exit that seems to be happening with people I know. It would be easier to handle if it was just one person and then several months or years later another, but it hasn’t been like that. There seems to be a bit of a pile up.

I want to go to the dog park with my dog. That is my answer to all this hospice business. I want it to be cold and maybe a little rainy. I want the sky to be gray and thick. I want to wear boots and thick socks, pull my hood up over my head. I want to smile at other people and dogs but not speak. I want to be outside.

Yesterday I was at a funeral that was a combination of Unitarian and Buddhist ritual. It was purposeful and serene. I watched the people in the pews in front of me relax their shoulders, seeming to fall into the pool of tranquility and patience offered, and so I tried to let go of the things keeping me from serenity so I could be like them. But all I could think about was finding my friend who was the widow of the man who had died (who had been in hospice) and letting her know I had come. Representation is so important to me, showing up, being present, so that was my priority. I couldn’t sink into serenity like the others. It wasn’t possible.

After the funeral, at dinner with friends, I learned that someone else was in hospice. This made three for the week. This was someone I had known well for a long time, who had been a close friend of mine, but whom I had not seen in years. Yes, she was in hospice now. So there was that. I carried that small, burning fact out of the restaurant in my pocket.

We went from dinner to the symphony where we sat in the back row listening to music I can’t name but which involved four French horns playing parts that sounded like husbands mourning their wives. On the way out, we shuffled behind a thousand old people, readying themselves for the rain outside, and I wanted to sprint past them, push my way through the revolving door, and walk arm in arm with my husband, our paces matching all the way back to our car.

Prepare a Place for Me

There was only one reason why my father would be calling me. My mother must be dead.

He explained how it happened, how just last week he had given up taking care of her at home, that for the third time, she’d gone limp in the bathtub and he’d had to call the fire department to come lift her and take her to the cherry wood bed they’d bought as newlyweds 64 years before.

He apologized to me. If he hadn’t been holding their ancient wall phone, he would have been wringing his hands. She had only lived a week in the Alzheimer’s Unit and he had visited every night, he said, taking tapes of the music he thought she would remember and playing it on the old Press Play tape player they kept in the basement.

He was sure she still knew him. He told me how she had kissed his hands when they last said goodbye. She had taken both of his hands in hers and kissed his hands. I couldn’t imagine it. It was my mother whose hands would be kissed. It was my mother’s impossibly soft cheek and the smell of her face powder and English Lavender soap that drew us to her seeking the blessing of kissing her. Alzheimer’s had changed a lot about her.

The realization that I was, temporarily at least, sibling in charge, hit me hard after I got through Chicago traffic and on to the smooth raceway across western Michigan that is I-96, mile after mile of rolling countryside with no interruptions except the tiny roadside wineries giving away free shots to interstate drivers. I found every possible reason to delay. I sampled the wine, hunted for snacks at massive trucks stops, and even pulled over to check the old Michigan map to make sure I hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to drive home.

What was I thinking being the first responder on the scene of a catastrophe? That was my brother’s job. I stalled as long as I could, going the speed limit and not a mile faster, but eventually, I made it to my folks’ driveway and, within thirty seconds, my dad was standing at the screen door.

“Thanks for coming, Janice,” he said, like I was the last guest to leave a dull party. To add to the oddness of the night, my father than hugged me. I was 53. My father must have hugged me before this night but I don’t remember it ever happening. So when my father hugged me, I told him I needed to go to the drugstore right away.

“What do you need? We probably have whatever you need here,” he said.

“I need to buy make-up, Dad. I left home without my make-up. So I need to go the drugstore and buy stuff, you know, like mascara,” I answered.

Barely having put my keys down on the table, I grabbed them back up and started toward the door. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” As I walked out the door, I heard the familiar screech as he pulled the level to bring up the footrest on his La-Z-Boy rocker. He was sitting in his chair where he belonged, I thought. In a minute, he’ll turn the TV on and resume watching CNN with the sound muted and then he’ll pick up the book on top of the stack next to his chair and start reading where he left off when he’d heard my car in the driveway. I knew exactly what he was doing. I felt relieved that he was doing what he always did. He wasn’t crying or hugging me. He was being himself.

The drug store had that fluorescent weird feeling that all stores have when it’s eleven o’clock at night and no one is there except the girl working the check-out and the guy in back restocking the Fritos. I walked up and down the cosmetics department. L’Oreal, Maybelline, Max Factor. I got stuck at Maybelline a long minute looking at the mascara and wondering if they still made the little red plastic boxes with the tiny brush and bar of dark color that required a little squirt of spit to moisten. I remembered the little box in the right hand drawer of the cherry wood vanity, sitting atop an embroidered guest towel that my mother used as a drawer liner, and next to the mascara box was the eyebrow pencil she used on her beautiful, business-like eyebrows, and, sometimes, to give herself a beauty mark low on her right cheek.

In the evenings, she would sit at her vanity table with the small lamp casting a yellow light in the darkness of her room, a place so serene and cool and off-limits, and she would paint her nails red leaving perfectly lined half-moons. She was as ephemeral a person as ever lived on this earth and she was not going to be there when I went home. Was she?

We talked about my mother’s funeral. “Whatever you think is right, Dad,” I kept answering whenever he asked what to do. Should we have a graveside service or a full-fledged funeral? My father, once practiced at snap and sometimes life-changing decision-making, was clearly stuck. For the first time in his 88 years, he was indecisive.

“John thinks we should just go with the graveside service. Not that many people would come to a service at the funeral home. Do you think that’s right?” He had just hung up the phone after the third or fourth phone conversation about this topic with my brother, stuck in bad weather across the country.

“I think that’s fine, Dad.” I didn’t really think it was fine. My mother deserved the whole funeral shebang. Plenty of people knew her and liked her. I didn’t want anything about her funeral being quick or cheap. I held my tongue. I had been estranged from my parents for ten years until just a year ago. It wasn’t my place, I thought, to have an opinion.

We picked out a casket together and the clothes that my mother would wear. I took off my pearl earrings and asked the funeral director to put them on my mother along with the locket my dad had given her 65 years before when they were engaged. Later, I drove back to the funeral home to make sure they knew to curl my mother’s hair. In her Alzheimer’s fog, she had taken to wearing a baseball cap over her straight hair. My father may have remembered her curled hair but he couldn’t do anything about it.

Dozens of people came to her wake. My father stood in the center of the large room, my mother lying in her open casket off to the side, and he talked to everyone as if he was hosting a cocktail party. He talked about golf and bowling, two things they had done together. He greeted former employees from their Ben Franklin store and listened to their stories about how wonderful and kind my mother had been to them. He looked toward the door every few minutes to see if my brother was there. But he never showed, still stuck in bad weather in Oregon.

I prepared for my brother not being there the next day when we would follow the hearse 90 miles to her hometown and bury her next to her parents on a hill in the cemetery where, during our estrangement, I had seen their headstones already in place, waiting for them.

That night I searched the house for a Bible, looking for the verse that had the words, “Let not your heart be troubled.” My mother said this to me, so many times, but her version was “Let not your heart be troubled, Bunky.” And so I endeavored to find this passage in the Bible with the idea of reading it (without the Bunky part) at the graveside the next morning. I wanted someone who knew my mother to say something at her burial, not just the pastor at the church in her hometown who she didn’t actually know. I could do this, I thought. I can be the child who does this for her mother.

I found the Bible on the bookshelf in the TV room, the inside inscription with my brother’s name. Of course. Late that night, my brother arrived. We set out the next morning from the funeral home, driving in a tiny caravan to the cemetery where I sat on a folding chair next to my father holding the Bible with the passage marked. I said to myself, over and over, “Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled.” And I held on to the Bible with both hands.

At the end of the service, I stood up, walked across the grassy hill and handed the Bible to my brother, “This is yours, John.”

Janice Wilberg
Prepare a Place for Me
Precipice, The Literary Anthology of Write on Edge, 2012

Sallie’s Funeral

I went to Sallie’s funeral today.

It was in a very old Episcopal church downtown, the kind where you need to leave your coat on because the heat, what there is of it, will rise to the very top of the vaulted ceiling and leave you there like you are sitting on a park bench.

The hymnals were from 1984 which is fine, really, because how many hymns change? Hymnals are timeless, I guess, it’s only the bindings and the pages that wear out. I didn’t sing from the hymnal but I held it open against my chest, held it close to me as if it was very dear.

The man at the door handed out programs along with a small card with a picture of my friend as she looked recently – 84 years old – long white hair pulled back – and the slightest of smiles like she’d just gotten done shaking her head about something – the border, the war in Syria, homelessness. On the back was a photo of her as a beautiful young woman wearing a dancing outfit with a lot of flounce and fluff. She could sew, Sallie could, and I bet she made that outfit.

Two pews ahead of me was a young woman holding a baby. The baby was a little girl, maybe six or seven months old, and she peered over her mom’s shoulder at me and other folks and you could feel the pings of envy from everyone – wishing they had a baby or were still a baby. She had bright blue eyes and a soft open mouth that sometimes looked smiling. She grabbed the gray hair of the woman next to her whom I figured to be her grandmother mostly because of her indulgence and lack of aggravation like she had waited years to have that tiny hand pull her hair.

Sallie would have been pleased that a baby was the focus of my attention. She would have liked the other babies letting out accidental yells; she would have enjoyed the squirming of toddlers, the dad standing up to hold his one-year old daughter dressed in a fancy white dress with what we used to call crinolines underneath, she looked like a doll from the Civil War she was that grand. All of it -the jostling and moving about -Sallie would shake her head and smile and then move the chairs back so the babies could have the center of the room.

I used to spend time with Sallie but that was long ago. I sat in her kitchen many times while she cooked and talked about revolution. For a time, I picked her up before dawn to stand against anti-abortion protesters bused in from out of town to harass local clinics. I remember standing with her one morning, our arms linked with others in a long line with a protester just a few feet away yelling, “Baby killers!” at us and Sallie, looking him right in the eye and saying, “Why don’t you just shut up?” I loved her for that and for standing for choice even though she would never, ever make that choice herself. She just believed in people’s freedom was all.

Sallie and I weren’t close but we had shared history, too complicated to explain, so it was important to me that she died, that she wouldn’t be on the earth anymore. That she was gone made me think about everything while I watched the baby and I was filled with sadness and melancholy about my entire life. The people I know are dying. And the relentlessness of age and passing made me want to zip my coat up and go outside in the driving rain. The wind nearly turned my umbrella inside out.

99 New: I Knew Sallie When

I knew Sallie when

She cooked for me, linked arms

Taught me to put hard bread in too salty soup

To soak up the mistake

That’s what she believed

Everything could be fixed

If we gathered more coats, held candles

Welcomed all babies, early or not

She was feral in this world, gathering up

People and ferns, the tender parts, oblivious

When I left her, I kissed her cheek and said thank you

For things she had forgotten she’d done

 

 

99 New: The Sunday Obits

The world is full of dead people. Especially so on Sundays. My dad always joked that everyone seemed to die on Sunday because that’s when the paper would be thick with obits. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News would have pages of dead people, tiny, grayish print, you had to squint to make out people’s lives. My dad would read each one; he said he had to check to make sure his wasn’t there.

In this morning’s paper, a young woman had two obits. Same woman, two different pictures, and two slightly different obits – one emphasizing her military career and the other her education. Had there been confusion about whose job it was? Was there an argument about what to include? Neither obit told us why she died which is really what everyone wants to know.

Sixteen years ago, I sat with my father while he wrote my mother’s obituary on his ancient Underwood typewriter, the same one that now sits on the bookcase in my office. He distilled her life into two or three clipped sentences, the name, rank, and serial number of an 84-year old woman to whom he had been married 64 years. I wondered why he couldn’t think of more to say, you know how people talk about their loved ones being terrific gardeners or loving spending time with their grandchildren most of all, that kind of thing. But it wasn’t my place to be disappointed in his postage stamp size bio of my mother. I remember him always saying, you don’t have to say everything you know, which is advice I’ve given to myself many times since, and I bet he’d decided he shouldn’t start in on saying what he knew about her or the obit would never end.

That might be why so many obits sound alike. People can’t really choke out any words so they just choose from the list of popular obit words, like the way brides land on the same five or six pieces of music for their weddings. So beloved, courageous battle, gone to join, reunited with, and loved spending time with family and so many other words and phrases show up like rearranged Scrabble pieces. It’s the rare obit that really stands out. Many years ago my daughter wrote one for her grandfather that started out referencing how much he enjoyed chocolate pudding in his last hours. It was a surprising and unorthodox obit, for sure, but true to the essence of his personality. She knew, knowing him, that Scrabble words wouldn’t do.

I don’t worry what will be said in my obit. It’s out of my control. And it’s not as if an obit is etched in stone unless it’s a particularly memorable one like my daughter’s chocolate pudding gambit. Today’s obits will be in the recycling bin by tomorrow replaced by a new set, smaller because it will be Monday and not so many people die on Monday as we all know. Monday is a slow day for death. It’s Sunday where the action is.

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99 New refers to my commitment to write a new piece every day for 99 days. This is Day 70’s piece.

Failure of Imagination

Last night I dreamed I drowned.

No. I dreamed I was writing a story about my drowning. But the details of it were so vivid, red in their terror, that I would have had to actually drown to know how to describe drowning so well.

After I drowned, I could see my husband walking from the beach back up to our house. He fell down in the sand a couple of times and I wondered if he was fatigued from trying to rescue me or overcome with grief.

It was then, in my dream, that I decided I couldn’t continue writing the story of my drowning because it was too sad. There would be no peaceful resolution, no messages of triumph or hope, there would just be a cut-off limb, an amputation, and I didn’t know how to write about that so I woke.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Luck to Me

I’m wondering if it’s a mistake that my husband’s my best friend.

I see that in obituaries all the time. The surviving spouse talking about how he or she lost their best friend and I think isn’t it enough that you lost your spouse? You should also lose your best friend at the same time? It makes me think I should be more intentional about diversifying.

I do have two women friends to whom I never lie which is, I think, the bottom line in women’s friendships. These are the people I tell that I hate my children, when I do, and they don’t flinch or scold. They nod and keep eating. They also don’t point out the contradiction when next I wax on about each of my lovely children’s successes and fine attributes. They always clear the dishes without being asked.

But I’m concerned about this husband as best friend thing. I think I’m setting myself up for tragedy. For grief of gargantuan proportions. Bottomlessness. So part of me thinks I should start standing back now, join a bowling league, investigate meet-ups, strip off some of the Velcro that stitches us together and has made us twins all these many years. Not get any deeper into this thing than I am already after 34 years. But that seems crass and unfeeling. I shouldn’t question swimming into the deepest ocean holding the hand of a single person and having no life preserver. After all, it’s what people do.

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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash