Oddments

In search of story


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The match

“He looks good.”

As Dad’s caregiver, I became a tinderbox. Days and nights of heading him off at wrong turns, pulling him back from precipices, throwing him life preservers, and that is what I heard from people: “He looks good.” I wanted to yell in their faces “OF COURSE HE LOOKS GOOD! HE HAS A FULL-TIME DAUGHTER!” I was this close to combustion.

What does that mean, “he looks good”? Doesn’t it express some doubt that there is anything seriously wrong with him? Like you would know! You can’t SEE dementia! There is no rash, no swelling as outward sign. Dementia victims who are intelligent and socially skilled will hide it from you expertly. The caregiver sees it in behaviors behind walls, behind pretense, in deep daily ruts, in frightened eyes.

“He looks good.” Isn’t there an implication that I’ve been over-reacting? That I am flitting around him like some possessed moth and therefore the problem is in me and not in him? I noted that no one told me that I looked good. Were people implying that I was the sick one, and that Dad was fine?

Sparking flint, crackling tinder.

One day Dad and I were in a curtained alcove in the ER. He was angry about “the rude people at this party” and kept referring to me as “that young man.” A good, kind priest we knew happened by and spoke with me for a few minutes, looking over at Dad. “He looks good,” he said. Did I really want to strangle a good, kind priest? Yes, I did.

What is it with “he looks good”? Is there nothing else to say? Can no one hear the implications for the caregiver? Can no one smell the smoke?

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Homeroom

September 1958. Sophomore year, first day. I new, the school old. Two thousand kids. I knew maybe ten.

The office sent me to Room 116, which turned out to be a black hole of a study hall, with miles of desks, enough for two homerooms, one mine and the other — gulp — seniors. Were you ever 15? Then you might know how I felt.

My new homeroom teacher waved me to an empty desk in the back of the second row from the wall. I needed binoculars to see it.

I sat behind Bill. For three years. In that time he partnered with Donna as a debate team while I bungled along in Extemp, and the three of us forged bonds stronger than kryptonite in weekend speech meets. On many mornings, Donna walked through our homeroom just to jab at Bill with some incendiary word to keep the fires burning in their Peanuts vs Pogo feud. Our corner of homeroom — Roger the suave, Sandy the effervescent, Bill the brilliant, me, the nice-smile-and-you’ll-go-far, plus the pedestrians, hormones and opinions in high gear, on their respective ways to other homerooms — was the real core curriculum. What I didn’t learn there I didn’t need to learn.

When Bill and Donna made their commitment to be debate partners for life, I was maid of honor. Our lives remained intertwined. Then, recently, mysteriously, we turned 70. We celebrated together with a birthday cake patchworked from a Lilliputian pastry shop. We threw caution to the winds and stayed up past 9:00. In a true flashback to homeroom, we split our sides over Bill’s take on pickle labels. They met my grandchildren.

Of all the floors we’ve walked throughout the years, it’s possible that those worn old hardwood floors of homeroom were the most important.

Because life comes in all flavors, and a lot of it is sticky.

Because life comes in all flavors, and a lot of it is sticky.


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Clock

It’s happening. The crickets and cicadas are outsinging the birds. The river birch outside my kitchen window is changing its clothes; it will, as always, cast off the green and try on gold but opt in the end for bark naked.

Marigolds kindle the garden border with a ruddy glow that makes me think I could warm my hands over them. The sun and all the best reds in the crayon box blaze in those little boutonnieres. They are proud of their colors; you can tell.

The herbs elbow one another, crowded now. They wear miters of seeds atop their skinny heads and offer up pungent incense. Nose nirvana.

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The dill explodes like fireworks, lime-yellow flares brightly bursting over its green feathers, thick with homey fragrance. A stout Pickwickean bumblebee is busy in it, balancing his girth with easy grace on the airy flower heads. He does not look up at me; he does not have time.

Time.

That is the thing measured in the garden. It is time for green to go to gold, time for birds to pass the baton to insects, time for herbs to don seed hats, time for dill to crown the late summer.

Exactly twenty gazillion writers have said all that. And to this overwhelmingly predictable body of farewells to summer, I want to add my hooray. Yes, hooray! My half of the year is coming! It isn’t that I love cold and dark — I don’t — but that I love the long evenings and short days. I love closing the blinds and turning on the lights. Time seems held close then. Thoughts, less rushed, seem clearer. The power to warm is more important than the power to cool. Inward becomes easier than outward. Home is nest. I look forward.