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

Happy Birthday, Sis, Assuming You’re Still Alive

If you are estranged from a family member, you might not know whether he or she is still alive. This is an odd concept for many of my friends whose families vacation together, babysit each other’s kids, and celebrate every holiday together. Would anyone tell me, I wonder, if my sister died? And what would my reaction be? Assuming I didn’t hear about it months after the fact, would I go to her funeral? Would anyone there know who I was? Would they even know she had a sister? You see, I come from a long line of family estrangement Olympians. We’re not amateurs here given to snits that last a week or two. Ruptures aren’t measured in months or years but in decades. Children go from diapers to driving cars during our estrangements. People get gray hair and lose their hearing. They change careers and move across the country. But because we are estranged, people stay in the same emotional place as they were when the break occurred. If someone was angry, frustrated, quick to react, unthinking in words chosen, she stays that way, frozen forever as someone to cast out, someone whose casting out was justified. Even though the one casted out might now be serene and compassionate, introspective and calm, careful and measured. My sister is 70 today, assuming she is still alive. We haven’t spoken more than two or three sentences in twenty-three years. The last time I saw her, several years ago, she was standing with my brother on a hill in our home town cemetery after the graveside service for our mother. There was no mutual comfort, no shared responsibility for our mother’s funeral or for the taking care of our aging father. An opportunity to reconcile missed by mutual consent. Years before, deep in a 10-year estrangement with my parents, I’d driven many hours to the same cemetery to pay my respects to my grandparents. Driving up the dirt road, turning left at the oak tree, I parked and right away saw two headstones with my parents’ names on them. “Oh my God, my parents have died,” I told my husband. “They died and no one told me.” I’d imagined this happening for years, figuring that the only way I would ever know they were dead would be that Christmas would pass without getting a Christmas card from them – our only contact for years. But they hadn’t died, not yet. In typical fashion, they had, however, planned ahead. Both headstones were ready for them with only the end date to be filled in. We stayed not long. Unnerved, I wanted to get out of the cemetery, away from the shade of the oak tree, and be long on the road away from the decisions I’d made that resulted in our estrangement. I’m not happy that my sister and I are estranged nor do I feel it’s justified on either end. The loss is enormous, a loss so big I won’t understand it until we are reconciled. And yes, I’ve tried to make things different but to no avail. The person who was my sister doesn’t want that role. “I have everything I need,” she told me the last time I contacted her. I paused at that line in her email.  So tight and final.  She doesn’t need what I have to offer.  She doesn’t need a sister.  She just doesn’t.  But I think I still might.

______

Originally posted in 2012.

In 2008, I wrote a piece published in Newsweek called “The Power of ‘I Am Sorry’.” It’s about ending the estrangement with my parents. Many people have found it to be helpful in sorting out their own situations. Here’s the link. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/09/05/the-power-of-i-am-sorry.html

 

At My Mother’s Knee

Showing up after ten years’ absence when your mother is ill with Alzheimer’s Disease and having her look at you and say, “I never thought I’d see you again,” and realizing that if you had waited, like you wanted to, for another six months to pass before coming home, she would probably forget who you were, all of this is a very big deal. And it’s an important story to tell even if I don’t know exactly how to tell it.

I’d been warned by my father about my mother’s deepening Alzheimer’s Disease or A.D. as he called it in his letters. Our written correspondence had been going on for over a year, the melting of ten years’ worth of silence into drops of questions and information. I told him about his grandchildren, one of whom had been adopted during our estrangement and whom he had never met. I told him her story and he wrote to me, “she wouldn’t have had a chance without you.” I smoothed that letter out on my desk and left it there to see; it felt like praise, what he had said, and it was like rain on dying grass.

Finally, it was the time to make the trip home. My mother seemed so much the same to me. Still trim with her button shirt tucked into a pair of tailored pants, leather loafers, her hair neat, but she was off. Halting in her speech, quiet much of the time. But because my mother had always been very quiet, a conversational minimalist at best, the change wasn’t dramatic. Small things. Pointing to a picture of her sister as a toddler and calling her ‘that little one’ because she’d forgotten her name. Sitting still with her hands folded. Going to the pantry in the basement to organize the canned goods into pyramids that she decorated with Christmas bows. Being present but absent. And sad, well, maybe not sad, melancholy as if she knew what a bittersweet thing it was for us to see each other in what was probably the nick of time.

It made me sick that I had kept the estrangement going so long. When she was well, she had made her own contribution to our stalemate but now that she was ill, what I had done seemed unforgiveable. My children had grown up without their grandmother; she had missed everything about them. It was a permanent and irretrievable loss. And the breach seemed impossible to repair especially with her diminished capacity to understand and communicate.

But I was inspired and bolstered by a billboard I’d seen on the way to my parents’ house. I remember it was sponsored by the Church of Latter Day Saints, showed a picture of family members embracing, and carried this message: “If you think it’s too late to make things right, you’re wrong.” I pondered that the rest of the six-hour drive; that message that seemed meant just for me alone.

After dinner that first night, I went looking for her, first in the basement where I thought she might be rearranging the cans of green beans and hash, and then in their bedroom. She sat there in the corner in a rocking chair, moving back and forth ever so slowly, the light on her dresser casting a golden glow.

“What are you doing, Mom?” She just looked at the light. I considered leaving her there. She looked content. I could go back with the others; she wouldn’t mind.

Instead, I knelt down in front of her. She looked at me, waiting. Now was the time to say what I had to say. “I want to tell you that I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry for what happened and I’m sorry it took me so long to come home.”

She answered me right away, speaking the only full sentence I would hear from her that day or for many days. And what she said made the billboard true.

“It’s okay,” she said, patting my hand, “You had a long way to come.”

Honoring Hard Times

Wooden fish

There are times in my family’s life that are never spoken of. Hard times, rough patches. Every family with any substance, especially families that have taken on the challenge of growing by adoption, has had these times. I don’t trust families who’ve had just smooth sailing and can’t manage their way around a police station or an inpatient unit. I joke. Somewhat.

When there is a hard time or, say, a great disappointment, it can be an estranging thing. One generally doesn’t want to be around people who disappoint them or anger them or, maybe the worst of all, puzzle and confound them. So we withdraw and protect ourselves. It’s a reflex more than a strategy. This can happen even while the two people are in the same house, but it’s easy as pie when they’re under separate roofs, when you have to go out of your way to see the other person. Estrangement is an ivy that can cover a building overnight.

Many years ago, our beloved house on the shore of Lake Superior burned to the ground. The fire, which became visible to the townspeople several hours after we’d left to come back to Milwaukee, destroyed everything despite the best efforts of the volunteer fire department and many others to get fire equipment through high snowdrifts amid strong winds coming off the lake. At one point, the house exploded, I think because of Coleman canisters for our camp stove. The progress of the fire was caught in a series of photos taken by town’s lone newspaper reporter; I looked at them once and put them back in the manila envelope. They’re somewhere in this house but I don’t know where.

The fire occurred during a particularly hard time in our family’s life. And in some ways, the rubble that was left became the metaphor for how our discouraged we were about our ability to be good parents to three special needs adopted children. Our children were fighting with each other, we were frustrated and trying to manage their conflicts and, in the process, having a lot of trouble presenting a united front. Everything about us, now including our dream house on the beach, was flattened, burned, and ugly.

And then my husband found the fish.

We marveled over it. Other than shreds of carpet, little pieces of dishes, and lace from a pillowcase, this was our one souvenir from inside the house.

He right away found a place for it. Outside, on a post of our woodshed which had been untouched by the fire because of northwest wind. He insisted on putting it up despite my protests; it seemed crazy to put a burned thing on display. Better to put it in a closet somewhere, out of sight. But soon every time I saw it on the side of the woodshed, it made me happy. It seemed cheerful, not depressing.

It was a little thing that he did, hanging up the fish, but it meant a lot to me. It meant that we would keep going. We would have a future. We would be ok.

I never thanked him for doing that, for giving us hope. For knowing, somehow, that it’s ok to remember hard times, perhaps even honor them.

Maybe today’s the day I thank him for that.

My Father Mended Me

1940 Roy with Majorie in background at Chrystal Lake MI _002

I’ll leave it to other people to talk about how swell their dads were, how their dads taught them to fish and play ball and inspired them to be honest and hardworking. I have a different story to tell. It’s a story of how my father mended me, how he stitched up an old, tiny oozing wound, how he held open the screen door after ten years and told me to sit down while he finished making dinner for me and my family.

I sat down in the chair I’d always sat in and I watched him put a bowl of instant mashed potatoes in the microwave and take a turkey loaf out of the oven. One of those cheesecakes out of a box with cherry pie filling on top sat on the counter. He had gone all out.

We ate dinner. After ten years of not seeing or speaking to each other, we simply ate dinner. He asked about the drive. We told him it was fine. He asked my kids about school and sports and whether they liked someone special.

He never asked me where I’d been. It was if in some other life that didn’t include selling appliances at Sears or running a dime store or playing the trumpet in dance bands he had sat at the feet of Rumi and heard these words spoken for the very first time.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing or rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We were meeting in that field. Six months before, I’d gotten a letter from him. It sat on the dining room table all afternoon while I waited to open it, thinking that such a rare letter probably carried the news that my mother was dead. Why else would he be writing a letter to me?

I opened the letter. His handwriting, his penmanship learned in the last century. He would have been in third grade in 1920. Isn’t that when people learned penmanship? His writing was neat but manly, with sharp edges instead of the graceful loops of my mother’s. What did he have to say to me after all this time, after ten years?

I am so sorry.

I was dumbfounded. I held the little notecard in my hand and stared at the writing, my father’s writing.

What was he sorry for? He had never done anything bad to me. He had never raised a voice or a hand to me. He’d never let me go hungry or unsheltered. He gave me my first job and sent me to college. He let me hold the screwdrivers and wrenches when he fixed things. He watched from the far end of the rowboat while I learned to put my foot on a northern pike and take the hook out of its mouth with a pair of pliers.

What had happened to cause my ten-year estrangement from my parents really had nothing to do with him. Why was he was apologizing? Or was he saying he was sorry about something else? Was he sorry that he didn’t know my children? Sorry that he didn’t see his granddaughter graduate from high school and college? Sorry that my mother was so close to the brink of not knowing who I was because of Alzheimer’s Disease? Sorry that he worked seven days a week while we were growing up? Sorry that he was preoccupied and tired and obsessed with his business all the time? Sorry that he raised such a sorry daughter who couldn’t find it in herself to say ‘I am so sorry’ after all these many years?

I don’t know. He never said. I just know this.

My father pointed to a field and asked me to go there. And I did.

Happy Birthday, Sis, Assuming You’re Still Alive

If you are estranged from a family member, you might not know whether he or she is still alive. This is an odd concept for many of my friends whose families vacation together, babysit each other’s kids, and celebrate every holiday together. Would anyone tell me, I wonder, if my sister died? And what would my reaction be? Assuming I didn’t hear about it months after the fact, would I go to her funeral? Would anyone there know who I was? Would they even know she had a sister?

You see, I come from a long line of family estrangement Olympians. We’re not amateurs here given to snits that last a week or two. Ruptures aren’t measured in months or years but in decades. Children go from diapers to driving cars during our estrangements. People get gray hair and lose their hearing. They change careers and move across the country. But because we are estranged, people stay in the same emotional place as they were when the break occurred. If someone was angry, frustrated, quick to react, unthinking in words chosen, she stays that way, frozen forever as someone to cast out, someone whose casting out was justified. Even though the one casted out might now be serene and compassionate, introspective and calm, careful and measured.

My sister is 70 today, assuming she is still alive. We haven’t spoken more than two or three sentences in twenty-three years. The last time I saw her, several years ago, she was standing with my brother on a hill in our home town cemetery after the graveside service for our mother. There was no mutual comfort, no shared responsibility for our mother’s funeral or for the taking care of our aging father. An opportunity to reconcile missed by mutual consent.

Years before, deep in a 10-year estrangement with my parents, I’d driven many hours to the same cemetery to pay my respects to my grandparents. Driving up the dirt road, turning left at the oak tree, I parked and right away saw two headstones with my parents’ names on them. “Oh my God, my parents have died,” I told my husband. “They died and no one told me.” I’d imagined this happening for years, figuring that the only way I would ever know they were dead would be that Christmas would pass without getting a Christmas card from them – our only contact for years.

But they hadn’t died, not yet. In typical fashion, they had, however, planned ahead. Both headstones were ready for them with only the end date to be filled in. We stayed not long. Unnerved, I wanted to get out of the cemetery, away from the shade of the oak tree, and be long on the road away from the decisions I’d made that resulted in our estrangement.

I’m not happy that my sister and I are estranged nor do I feel it’s justified on either end. The loss is enormous, a loss so big I won’t understand it until we are reconciled. And yes, I’ve tried to make things different but to no avail. The person who was my sister doesn’t want that role. “I have everything I need,” she told me the last time I contacted her.

I paused at that line in her email.  So tight and final.  She doesn’t need what I have to offer.  She doesn’t need a sister.  She just doesn’t.  But I think I still do.

______

In 2008, I wrote a piece published in Newsweek called “The Power of ‘I Am Sorry’.” It’s about ending the estrangement with my parents. Many people have found it to be helpful in sorting out their own situations. Here’s the link. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/09/05/the-power-of-i-am-sorry.html

The Power of I Am Sorry: Mending Family Estrangement

I’m resurrecting this piece that I wrote several years ago about my long term estrangement from my parents.  It’s the story about how 10 years of silence ended. It also was the first serious personal essay I wrote.  It just goes to show that the most important thing about writing is to have something to say. And I had something I had been waiting a long time to say.

Every once in a while, especially around the holidays, I like to put this piece out there to remind people that if you think it’s too late to make things right, you’re wrong.

The title of the piece which appeared in Newsweek Magazine in September 2008 was The Power of ‘I Am Sorry’; the title’s been changed a bit to The Power of Saying You’re Sorry. I actually like that better.