Visitors for Christmas

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Here I go again.  It’s that most wonderful time of the year.  Anticipation of and preparation for the season awaken my creative energy and unlock my secret longing for perfection. I envision a totally unique greeting card, individual well-selected gifts, an enormous glittery tree, a front porch to rival Southern Living, and a simple but elegant dinning table. I am dimly aware that frustration, angst and tension may quite possibly be the end result, but it’s still early and hope abounds.  Armed with an arsenal of ideas from Pinterest, I get busy, going through box after box deciding which treasures will go back to the attic and which ones will come out for this year’s grand decorative theme. Gas logs blaze and Christmas music plays, enhancing my yuletide experience.

I fondle some precious ornament, perhaps the one my daughter made in grade school. I hum along to some unnamed melody that suddenly turns sad and familiar at the same time.  I’ve been set up, the trigger is pulled and he appears. He, as in The spirit of Christmas Past, stepping forcefully into the room dragging his good friend Melancholy with him.  After years of futile resistance, I now consider them odd little friends.  My only concern is how long they will stay.  It may be hard to shoo them away this year, because this is the first Christmas without Mother.  I greet them with a sigh and give them time to properly air the memories so that they can leave and I can get on with the present.

They ask me to pause over this red crinkled glass ball,  an ornament from my childhood.  It hung on mother’s tree. Remember that Christmas when Daddy bought Mom all those fancy clothes?  She good-naturedly tried them all on, making the living room her runway, and her children her adoring audience.  The next day she returned everything, anticipating an enormous credit card bill.  Remember the story of how Papaw made Daddy promise to bring Mother home to see him every Christmas before he granted permission for Mother to marry him? How about my first Christmas as a wife of just one month?  We had that crazy little tree with no ornaments so we hung fruit from the branches.  Daddy made such fun of that tree.  I crossed-stitched and framed a dozen ornaments like this cardinal to hang on our next year’s tree.  Here is the wooden rocking horse that reads, “baby’s first christmas”.  Our first baby, my baby girl.  And then two boys. Children, turned teenagers and now adults. I can see their toddler faces on Christmas morning surveying three separate piles of toys from Santa, and that slight pause before they recognize theirs and dive in.  Then all the other Christmases we excitedly wait for each of them to come home because none of them live with us anymore. Now they bring their babies.  We have grandchildren, lovely, loving grandchildren.  One, so new he has no teeth, one has all his baby teeth, two are already middle schoolers, in braces.   They’re growing so fast. Everyone grows so fast, grew so fast.   Mother, you tried to tell me that.  I heard you then,  I believe you now.

Memory hits me hard and brings out a year’s worth of carefully checked emotion.  My senses are all hyped-up.  I see Christmas in all it’s  hysterically twinkly sparkle, it’s spectacular calm and its remote sadness.  I hear choruses radiating throughout the atmosphere and penetrating deep inside my head.  Christmas is strangely new and comfortably familiar.  It feels like long hugs, quick kisses and an achy gut.  It tastes of all things wonderful.  Christmas fills me up and breaks my heart.  It smells like pine trees, cookies, apples and mother. Yes, it sometimes smells like mother.  Mother and Channel no 5 , a fragrance she defines.  That perfume was probably under every one of the trees of my youth, wrapped in department store paper next to her box of Whitmans Sampler.

I get up and go to my room.  The bottle that I took from her house when we packed up her things is on my dresser.  I take it in my hand and unscrew the top.  I ceremoniously put a dab of her scent on my wrist and rub it against my other wrist the way she used to do.  I lay down on my bed and try to smell her, let her presence surround me.  Mother and the memories of 64 Christmases become this moment, this Christmas, and suggest the probability of future holy days.  

In a little while, a new guest arrives.  Her name is Gratitude and she is powerful.  With her in the room, I can allow the Spirit of Christmas Past and even Melancholy to stay.  They expertly choreograph the delicate dance between what was, and is, and is to come.

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Vital Signs

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The moon outside my window looks just like a wedge of lemon, the rind clearly visible and the lighter, fleshy part looking ready to be sliced and placed on the rim of a glass.   This window is my lifeline, my only reference for knowing if it’s morning or if it’s evening.  This is unsettling and not unlike the feeling of being in Las Vegas.  I never really liked Vegas, where there is no difference between day and night, the casinos reek with mysterious choky smells, bleeping bells and buzzers underscore murmurs and music, people stagger from too much booze, and gambling goes on twenty-four/seven, ad infinitum.  They say that what goes on there, stays there, like this place, where people come with wild hopes of beating the odds and conflicting premonitions of unimaginable loss.

We play the numbers, all of us.  Up and down the hallways we come, looking up at the screen where the numbers are posted.  Most of the numbers are in the 66-80 range and people smile, nod and continue to play with confidence.  Our number is up to 148.  Concern creeps in, knotting up my stomach.  A dreaded yellow ribbon cautions above her chart – AFIB.  We’ve seen this before, the other night, when the doctors shocked her, gave her miracle drugs and she converted back to normal heart rate.  We greedily grasped that straw and smiled at our good fortune.  Game on.  The doctor warned us that she couldn’t keep going back and forth like that.

Was it just this morning that her vital signs were stable and we watched the sun come up together? Momma holding on to her bed rails trying to get a better look, me wanting to put beautiful images into her failing mind.  Miles from any body of water, she had seen an aircraft carrier on the horizon. I started to correct her, tell her that it was just the trees in the distance and streaks of color in the morning sky, but she was clearly in a happy place, remembering her younger years with daddy.  I took advantage of her surprising discovery and got her to talk about the time that my grandfather put her on a bus from Richmond to Pensacola so that she could marry her handsome lover.  It was a familiar story, one that I could tell almost verbatim, but without her exuberance.

“He was a fighter pilot,”she gushed with pride and we watched together as she pointed out the airplanes taking off and landing on the ship’s deck.

“That huge carrier looked like a postage stamp to the pilots when they began their descent,” she continued.

“Oh, wow! Yes, I see it,” I affirmed, and I swear I almost could.

I’d acknowledge anything, grateful that she was her sweet, dear, childlike self again; not exactly my mother, but much preferred to the rebellious and accusatory woman who distrusted me and everyone who tried to help her. Her mood swings had become as unpredictable as her blood pressure and enzyme levels.  I was still wounded from an earlier confrontation.

Yesterday, her paranoia had been so great that she feared someone in the hospital would take her jewelry from her. She had given my sister her rings and told her to keep them safe.  Apparently, I was looking quite suspicious because she looked at me with mean, glassy eyes and yelled out, “I want my rings!  You are trying to take my rings.”

“It’s me, Momma,” I quavered, “and it really hurts my feelings you would say that.  You know that I would never steal from you.”

Yet she kept screaming, “Give me my rings, I want my rings” until we retrieved them from her purse and taped them to her thin, shaky fingers.

Her rings, one from my daddy, one from her daddy, were of very little value to anyone but her.   I shook off my own shock and hurt and tried to quiet her by looking at her frightened face and taking her hands in mine.

Her poor hands and arms are covered in ugly black bruises, evidence of failed attempts to find a suitable vein for her IV’s.  My hands are dry from gallons of hand sanitizer applied each time I help her with the potty.  I rub her nearly translucent skin, pray quietly, will her to relax, and struggle to keep my tears from bursting forth.  She did, thank God, calm down.

In the midst of her anxiety, she flashes a huge, infectious smile.  This is always her reaction to the chiming of Rock-a-bye baby on the loud-speaker, announcing a newcomer in the hospital nursery. I immediately think of the approaching birth of my own grandson, due to be born in February.  We are expecting him to enter the world within a few days of my mother’s birthday.  She will be ninety, a fact that she cannot quite comprehend, something she has proclaimed with pride since the day after she turned eighty-nine.  “Can you believe, I’m going to be ninety?” she would work into every conversation.  I skimmed over the thought that my own grandmother died at the age of eighty-nine.  “Didn’t make it to ninety,” Mom said.

So, momma has been where I am now, sitting helplessly watching her own mother tire and fade, change and die.  Next, it will be my daughter keeping vigil over me. I am filled with a mixture of fear, sadness, privilege, loss, wonder, purpose and awe.  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”  I cannot continue this stream of thought just now.  I will try to write about it later, capture it in words, understand it better, remember how this feels.

I am glad I am not alone, I have brothers and a sister. Normally they carry the brunt of the care for Mom.  They live close by her, I’m the out-of-towner which causes conflicted emotions of guilt and relief.  My siblings and I are anchored to a place and time where nobody else was, and we affirm our collective story as we affirm each other. Sometimes, we question if we even grew up in the same house, with vastly different versions of many specific events. We are family and we lean in to each other. We are in pain and we cope using the tools we have depended upon before. When life gets hard, we react; one makes a plan, one gets drunk on beer, one flirts with denial, makes jokes and cries, all of us pray.

There will be difficult decisions ahead no matter what happens during the next 24 hours.  We say to each other, “One day at a time,” a worn out phrase from an old struggle of daddy’s, only now it seems that one hour at a time is more accurate.  There is a new language that we must rapidly learn with words like funeral arrangements, hospice, long-term care, assisted living, veterans benefits, medicare, in home care, DNR, power of attorney.  It’s confusing, overwhelming and difficult.  We wonder where the money will come from.

God forgive me, when I question if it would have been better for my brother to have found my mother a few hours later, when it would have been too late to revive her. That thought is immediately replaced by unequaled gratitude for the past few days of being in the presence of wonderful, unpredictable, beautiful, strong, hilarious, amazing, Mom. Together we are living a nightmare which is frequently interrupted with lavish blessing and I realize that life is not a mystery, it is the mystery, the miracle we cling to.   “She’s lived a full life,” I have said to others and I wonder if that will comfort me at all when my mother is gone.

The moon is lovely.  Am I the only one who appreciates its glow, its shape, its position in the black sky?  I receive it’s infusion of hope.  I want to squeeze every bitter, juicy drop of that lemon-shaped wedge into an icy drink and swallow it down.  Cheers.

Every day’s a Journey

A day with Jesus

Soaring, flying, gliding, stalling,

Slipping, falling, hurling, caught.

Marching, sprinting, walking, stepping

spinning, running, tripping, carried.

Advancing, retreating, toiling, fighting,

inching, pushing, plummeting, humbled.

Dancing, leaping, stumbling, clutching,

climbing, crawling, soaring,  lifted.

Asking, “Are we there yet?”