One…twoooooo…THREEEE!! The young mom on the other side of the fence was swinging her little ones as I jabbed at the clay in my sorry garden plot. I think most of us know the ritual count required for swinging children. “One” and “two” are drawn out in order to make the anticipation as unbearable as possible as the swing is pulled up a little higher and a little higher, with that white-knuckled orb-eyed trusting little person sitting in it. Then “THREE!” at the highest point, and the letting-go, the joyful shriek, giggles, the plea for more. The numbers tumbled over the fence in light-hearted rhythmic trinity.
Another jab or two at the clay — would it ever be real soil? — as the numbers sank into me.
Toward the end, when dementia was tightening its death grip on him, Dad became very weak; getting up from his favorite chair, a recliner, was hard. Visiting Nurses taught me how to help him; there was a certain placement for my feet, a certain way to hold on to Dad, and then the count: “One… two…THREE!” Dad pushed, I pulled, and up he came.
The first time Dad said “Do one-two-three,” I didn’t understand him. Then I realized he was telling me he wanted to get up. Do one-two-three? My father? The man with the Master’s degree in mathematics? The physics teacher? The writer, historian, quoter of all things Shakespearean and Dickensian? Manager, speaker, violinist ? Do one-two-three?
The hard clay seemed suddenly defiant and mean. One final, angry jab and I gave up on it.
I am earth-bound; my grandson is not. He lives on some invisible trampoline which distinguishes him from most other mortals: he is ever mid-air. His feet want nothing to do with the ground.
I think I have never known anyone so impelled to translate every feeling into movement; his body rends the air, kneads it, plumps it, slices it, as his arms and legs transcribe, rendering in muscle what words cannot, and I believe he might be a dancer. Speaking as someone who has a close acquaintance with walls and other obstacles, I might not be the proper judge of who is a dancer; however, I don’t know how else to say it. When a body cavorts in the ether, winged by an act of will, isn’t it a dancer’s?
But there is another way he sculpts the air: he builds. He studies a castoff and soars from what it is to what it might be. To me, egg carton; to him, ice cream shop. Vision. The leap of mind. Then it’s down to work for him, and he composes angles and arcs, layers and dimensions, once again demanding the air make room for him. An architect?
Self: that person he is. It is growing literally by leaps and bounds. Searching for the tipping point, then plotting against it, he measures personal best by how complex the stack, how high the jump. If he crashes in flight over three flower pots, why not four? (For me, why not two?) The crash says only “go higher” to him. An astronaut?
The man he is becoming will one day do things I cannot now imagine. Isn’t that fine?
I’ve been thinking about how caregiving makes ripples in our lives. And then I thought how stupid that was. Caregiving isn’t some pastel pebble skipped across the surface of some silky woodland pond or dropped from some picturesque mossy footbridge into an equally picturesque gurgling brook; it’s a tsunami that heaves an ocean. Its effects are Vesuvian: flora and fauna ripped up and tossed, salad-like, into incongruities; skeletal waste, rusted hulks washed onto alien shores; twisted, gaping remnants of life and home wrenched away and down only to bob up again in some unexpected place and time. It changes everything, brutally rendering the familiar strange.
That’s caregiving. No ripples.
I was Dad’s caregiver. It’s been 14 years since he died. There: two deceptively simple statements that really say a tsunami crashed and debris has followed.
But there was so much else: Mom, Aunt Jean, Aunt Edna, three cousins, an uncle, my friend Betty all died. Death clusters in families are not unusual. But such clusters, frequently combined with other losses, can bury the caregiver with the dead, with the destroyed; she does not realize the weight of her losses because she’s surviving by not realizing.
And so, as post-caregiving years go by, things wash ashore, bob in the waves, protrude from the sand, all within the caregiver.
When people say “this too shall pass,” they’re not talking about caregiving.
I’m a bed-maker. I confess. Or do I proclaim? Whichever, it is my parents’ doing, and perhaps their parents’. I have no idea how far back this compulsion stretches in my DNA, but I know it now to be receding: neither of my sons inherited it.
I grew up in a small flat with its three bedrooms visible to visitors. Are you in the kitchen? You can see into the back bedroom. Are you walking through our house? You might notice either of the middle bedrooms. And if you have to use our bathroom, you see both middle bedrooms. This layout made my mother a bed-making maniac.
There was also a moral dimension to bed-making since, for both my parents, beds were something to be got out of, and the earlier the better. That made bed was proof that no one was in it, its smoothness a denunciation of sloth. If our beds could have been hung on pegs by day, as the Shakers hung their chairs, they would have been.
That was my parents’ rationale: our beds were public commentary on our housekeeping and on our work ethic. What is my rationale? My bed is on a second floor and unseen. The moral stance against laziness suggested by made beds is, at the very least, dubious. Still not only must I make my bed every morning, but also I must chase myself from side to side, as though playing ping-pong with myself, being sure the coverlet edges on both sides are equidistant from the floor. Does that make sense? Not for a minute.
My sons maintain that making beds is an unconscionable waste of time. I reflect on this as I survey the angles of my pillow prop.
My young granddaughter loves sparkles and speaks of bling, and she is becoming concerned about the lack of both on my person so (apparently) feels a missionary’s call to my wardrobe. “Take me to your closet!” says she. I would, of course, follow this adored child to the ends of the earth. But not into my closet.
You think you know bling, child of Now? I’ll tell you about bling. It isn’t skulls and peace signs and hearts that glint and glitter; it’s beanies! Beanies that light up! What’s a beanie? Ah, my bright-eyed descendant, how much you must learn. Beanies were little upside-down bowls we wore on our heads. So where’s the bling, you ask? Well, listen up.
I was a little kid in a neighborhood with few houses. There were vast wild regions known as empty lots — thickets of ragweed for tunneling through, frozen ponds for sliding on, everlasting mud for slipping in, all distant lands in obvious need of exploration. And there were four of us explorers, intrepid and small. That meant eight parental eyes on watch, and at disadvantage on summer evenings. So our mothers bought us beanies with lights on top! We were four tiny lighthouses, and our bouncing beacons told our parents where we were. But more than that, our heads lit up! Talk about bling!
We blended in perfectly with the lightning bugs, but somehow our mothers were able to spot us and call us in when twilight turned to bedtime, the saddest moment of a summer day. In that way our twinkling heads betrayed us, but in other ways that twinkling was our passport to mosquito-thickened air of pure adventure. THAT was bling.
He warned me. The piano tuner made it clear that the age of the strings and the length of time since the last tuning boded ill. As with all things, age and neglect are not the best of all possible combinations. But still when the sproyoyoying came, it hurt. An F# was felled, broken and limp among its taut brethren in the chest of the baby grand.
I regarded it sadly and was reminded of a Middle C I once knew. I was in high school, trying to eke Beethoven out of my mother’s old upright Kimball, the stalwart that had seen two generations through piano lessons. More and more it balked. I wanted music but it gave me mere sound. I was working at the Sonata Pathetique, getting nowhere. The first lines always seemed to me to be about something ominous and something weary; there was a controlled threat and a controlled grief in those lines but I could never capture them with my fingers. And then there was no more control and the music tore loose — or was supposed to, I thought. The wild ride in the next section hinged on the most important Middle C I’d ever met. My right hand begged the piano for that while my left hand negotiated with two lower Cs. Three octaves of Cs and me. There was nothing else in the cosmos.
The lower Cs rumbled with some conviction but Middle C gave me nothing. I tried it again. And again. Beethoven was NOT in there. Once more with more force, no, with outright anger. And there it was: lying before me, on the ledge just behind the music, the hammer for Middle C. It had given its all. I felt like a murderer. I sat there, guilt- and angst-ridden, staring at it, with its deeply lined head and long broken leg; Middle C was no more. With it had gone all hope of coaxing (or beating) Beethoven out of that old piano.
Did I learn that anger doesn’t make music? Not at all. I did learn that pianos can get even.
I saw a snowball bush today. At least that’s what we called it when we were kids. In that instant of seeing, I was no longer driving on my way to Saturday morning errands but was in my grandma’s front yard, next to the grey-painted wooden steps leading up to her screened porch. Though my body was at a stop sign and I was watching traffic (I hoped), my mind was thumbing through old yellowed snippets of sight and smell. I never liked that snowball bush. But what was it that grew next to it, with the demure white flowers that sweetened the air? Ah — a break in traffic and I turned out — mock orange! Now there was a spring flower. The heady fragrance proper to spring.
Another left turn. Grandma didn’t consider herself much of a gardener, and I suppose she wasn’t. Along the side of her house, squished between the wall and the sidewalk, were lilies of the valley, foolishly deemed weeds by some. To me they were as magical as they should have been. I’d pick them and marvel. The trick was to pick them low to the ground so that each stem was long. It took some patience to pick each stem properly but the bouquet that rounded in my hand was charmingly worth it.
Now a turn to the right. What was that song? “White floral bells, upon a slender stalk/lilies of the valley deck my garden walk.” Or something like that. We used to sing it as a round.
Grandma grew moss roses in the back yard every summer. Now I do too.
And then I was at the store, rummaging for the list, for the here-and-now, though the there-and-then called my name.
If a towering amorphous being made up of events, persons, times, feelings stood in front of me and flashed “I am a story” in oversized neon letters, I wouldn’t see it. I cannot see the story. So how can I be a writer? This is the question.
I started writing a book about caregiving while I was still a caregiver, though at the time I didn’t know it was a book; I was only turning to writing as a way to cope. Also my years of caregiving coincided with my first computer and therefore my first emails. The writing took off, not in any polished way, but in my unfettered, if silent, daily wail. Later, when I revisited the writing (and the experience) and tried to create something coherent out of it, I perceived only moments, pieces, oddments, never the whole, and certainly no story.
I still struggle to find — and tell — the story, not just about caregiving but about anything; I still perceive only moments, pieces, oddments. But I’m coming to think that maybe they hold their own, these oddments, that maybe I can just tell about them and readers can find the story that is veiled to me. And maybe I’d still be a writer.
So this is a blog about oddments. Trying to write about caregiving has caused me to value the oddments wherever I come upon them. So I write about them, small and disconnected, part of caregiving or not, and honor them for what they are. In so doing, will I miss the big picture? Possibly. But others get the big picture and so I leave it to them. I will be more the selectively myopic hiker who misses the redwood because she’s entranced by a single leaf. And maybe that’s all right. Maybe the story is in the eye of the beholder anyway.
But, because I want to be a writer and writers tell stories, I will keep searching for story.