What Matters Now

July 13, 2013 — 6 Comments

Sometimes I think we made a huge mistake by moving my dad to the nursing home. It’s not like he was doing great in his own apartment, and I’m sure I’m romanticizing it now, but he could at least make his way to the bathroom from the bedroom and from the brown chair to the dining room table, right? If I brewed his coffee the day before he could microwave it in the morning for breakfast. And he had us all on speed dial and Stacy would take him for walks and his adorable neighbor would come over and pick up his TV remote when he dropped it. But remember? Remember how he couldn’t see at all and how it couldn’t go on and you couldn’t believe you were leaving him alone, each night when you left?

But now it feels like the nursing home is killing him. Like that’s their job…to usher people to their ends. Because he just keeps getting worse. He’s so weak he needs help getting up from his bed. He’s lost interest in music and books on tape. He won’t eat anything resembling real food. He doesn’t remember what day it is or if he had lunch. His world is comprised of his TV and his sweets and his call button. His final companions are people who work for minimum wage. His final companions are no one who loves him.

I keep thinking he would get better if I took him out of there, that if he just drank enough coffee (I’ve heard coffee can help stave off dementia and other maladies) or got some fresh air or lived in his own apartment again he would learn how to get from one place to another and regain his senses and he would be OK. He would start playing his piano again and maybe we’d even go out to hear music at the Jazz Showcase. Maybe we’d have brunch. And even though I know, really, that he’s not going to learn anything new, that he’s just going to keep forgetting and forgetting, I can’t help but feeling like somehow it’s the place, it’s not him.

*

A few weeks ago, I took him outside for a walk. It was a beautiful summer evening. A storm had been threatening earlier but the sky had cleared, and you could see a huge swath of the wide sky. His nursing home is in the suburbs but to me it feels like the country. We walked past mansions that have probably been here for a hundred years. We walked by an ugly ranch house surrounded by a rusty metal fence. There are no sidewalks so we walked in the street. You notice every crack when you’re with someone using a walker. He had to stop every few steps to pull up his pants, the belt pulled to the tightest notch. He was hunched and shuffling, gripping his walker. We started up a hill. “Isn’t this nice?” I kept asking, “Isn’t this nice?”

For me, it was nice. I’d been stuck inside all day and the air smelled clean. And for me the outdoors is where I go to get healed so I thought it might do him some good. So I signed him out like he was some sort of package and we walked up the hill in the middle of the street and we hadn’t gone far but he was winded and he was worried that he was going to miss something important back at the nursing home and I assured him that there was nothing important going on back there. He wanted to know if we’d gone on this exact same walk before. I said we’d gone on walks but not this exact walk. And he said he was feeling shaky and wanted to get back but I pushed him to walk a little longer because I really wanted him to get some exercise. And then he said he felt shaky and woozy and so I said we could turn back and suddenly I was responsible for him and he belonged in that nursing home not in the world. It was like he belonged to them and I’d made a terrible mistake, like the kind you make in your dreams, like disconnecting someone from their deathbed IV and taking them sky diving. And we were only five minutes away from the nursing home but like they say we might as well have been on the moon.

I tried to help him turn around to sit in his walker, which doubles as a chair, but his feet got kind of tangled and he couldn’t turn and he let out this helpless cry and I thought he was going to fall in the middle of the street so I got him turned back around, holding onto his walker but he said he wasn’t going to be able to make it. And just then a car was passing by and without thinking I hailed the driver and he stopped and I said “I know this is asking a lot but could you give us a ride” and of course he could. People really, really are lovely and they will help you if you ask.

And we made it back to the nursing home and I didn’t tell anyone what happened. And we got back to his room and I got him settled on his bed and after a while I left.

A friend of mine, who is a social worker, once told me, when you want to give someone a hug you have to ask yourself, is this hug for them, or is it for me? And as I sat on the train, heading back to city, I asked myself, who was this walk for, but really, I knew the answer.

*

Last night I went to visit my dad again. It was another gorgeous summer evening. When I got to my dad’s room, he was wearing a sweater. He asked me to turn the air conditioning off. I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk and he said he’d rather not. He said being outside tired him out. So we just stayed in his room and talked about this and that, while I tinkered with his voice-activated phone. He asked for a tissue and I gave him a tissue. He asked for a drink of water and I gave him the cup and he drank from it and I set it back on the table. Before I left I made sure the TV was set to Channel 5.

My dad will never again see the sky. Not because he’s blind, but because he’s stopped looking up. The sky is not what matters, nor the wind nor the sun. What matters is that he can reach the Kleenex box. What matters is that someone’s there to hand him his cup. And no matter how much I want him to go for a walk, I’m just gonna hand him his cup.

I just told my husband a story I’d never told another living soul. It was the story I’d kept in my back pocket, the story I’d been saving for all these years, the one that would make me famous, just as soon as the time was right.

I don’t know what prompted me to tell him after all this time. Maybe it was because we were on vacation, and I had just told him another story he’d never heard before, and it had gone over well. It was the one about my brush with a homicidal cult leader. “And that’s why,” I finished, “my number one piece of advice to the kids is to always trust their gut.”

Or maybe I told him because it made me feel as if we were dating again and just getting to know one another. I had forgotten how good that felt, that peeling back of layers, exposing yourself to someone you know is listening, smiling, wanting to know more. The drudgery of housework and bills and carpools melt away. You’re not just the person who is always late and has expensive taste and forgets to close the front hall closet. He’s not just the person who chews too loudly and never gets a good night’s sleep and is always losing his keys. For that instant, you are new to each other.

Maybe that will be my number two piece of advice to my children: “hold something back.” Which is my habit. I often think of something to say, and then think the better of it, and feel stronger for it, like I’ve swallowed a butterfly and absorbed the colors back into my body. My husband sometimes accuses me of being secretive, but I don’t mean to be. It just feels safer that way.

The act of telling a story, the act of hearing one, is the most important transaction that can happen between two human beings. If I tell someone a story and they’re not listening, it’s as if my words are spilled on the ground in front of me, some dirty stain on the sidewalk. And then there are the people who tell you the same stories over and over until you realize all you are to them is an audience.

And besides, once I made the mistake of telling someone all of my stories (well, almost all).  It was a failed experiment in total honesty, and afterwards he would become physically ill if I was in the same room with another man and I would sometimes spend the whole weekend explaining why I had been 15 minutes late for dinner.

So, there in the pool room at Pokogon State Park, I launched into my big story, the one I’d never told anyone in all these years.

And in the telling, the story was, well, disappointing. Boring really. And anyway my husband was distracted because check-out time was at noon and we hadn’t packed and the kids were still in the swimming pool so he didn’t really say much, just looked at his watch and said he’d better go back to the room. I realized it wasn’t much of a story: I’d done something stupid, and had narrowly escaped, and ever after, when something kind of bad happened I would think, at least you didn’t get caught, that one time, and feel just a little bit luckier.

Maybe if I’d told it to someone right when it happened, it would have meant something, but now, there were too many details missing and there was nothing at stake. It was just an old story written on yellow parchment that had turned to dry dust.

But when my husband got up to head back to our room I asked, “do you feel differently about me?” And it was the first time in a long time that I felt meek, like I couldn’t take anything for granted. And his face broke into a smile, a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time, like he was granting me absolution. And he kissed me before he walked away to pack up our children’s things.

This piece is meant to be listened to, but you can read it too:

listen:

 

It’s Cubs baseball season again, and not a moment too soon. Yes, it signals the arrival of Spring, a portent of the long summer nights ahead. Yes it means a fresh start, as last year’s season is forgiven and mostly forgotten. But the really great thing about baseball season is that it gives my husband and me something to talk about.

I don’t mean that we have run out of things to say. On the contrary, we have lots of subjects to choose from. There’s the banal: will Target take our returns even though the receipt expired three days ago? There’s the vexing: does the fact that our eight year old son claim we’ve failed him as parents bode poorly for his teenage years? Then there’s all those topics that can lead to a fight: money, politics, housework (especially housework).

And then, there’s baseball. Ah, baseball. Such a neutral, pleasant topic of conversation. Where the stakes, at least for me, aren’t so high. I love discussing baseball with my husband, because there is almost zero chance that the conversation will lead to a fight. It’s fun to debate whether Schierholtz or Hairston should start in right field, but in the end, I don’t really care. Where baseball is concerned, my husband is the expert, and I the neophyte, so of course I am going to defer to him. He thinks the Ricketts are pure evil? I think the Ricketts are pure evil. He says Soriano was an overrated acquisition? I mock his home run swing on every pitch.

For me, being a Cubs fan is not emotionally loaded. I have not been following the team since I was nine years old like my husband. I never lined up outside Wrigley Field at 4:00 in the morning, hoping for a chance at playoff tickets. I cannot glance at the box scores in the newspaper and be able to tell you exactly why the game was won or lost. I did not boycott the team for two years when
they blew their chances to go to the World Series with just five outs
to go. Mention the 3 digit section number for any seat in Wrigley Field, and my husband can tell you exactly where in the park it is, the microclimate of that section, and whether there’s a column obstructing your view of home plate. Me, I’ll never understand the infield fly rule, no matter how many times it’s explained to me.

So from now until October, I’m looking forward to plenty of harmonious evenings rooting for the home team. After which I’ll start quietly counting the weeks until next year’s opening day. And try to steer clear of touchy subjects like where to put the remainder of our 401K, or whose turn it is to wash the dishes. On second thought…when does football season start? I’ve heard the Bears are going to be good this year.

It was taking a long time to finish any of my longer pieces, so I thought I’d write a poem in the meantime. But that took a long time too.

Every morning on the way to work
In the packed commuter train car
I peer out the tinted green windows
And wait for my favorite building.
It’s grey brick
built by some modern architect.
The wall facing the train seems to be made almost entirely of glass
thin, shimmering windows, held in place by black wooden frames

It’s a building I could never find if I were driving or walking
I have no sense of direction
So to me this building exists in some mythical city
Some unreachable place
somewhere between the Morton salt factory and the end of the line.

The train is not going particularly fast at this point
The windows of the building have no shades or blinds
You can see right into the immaculate apartment
but only just
can see a low couch
The rug, perfectly aligned
framed photos on the walls
From here, the apartment is as black and white as a photograph.

In the quiet train car
A sanctuary of almost total silence
My fellow commuters’ fingers on their keyboards no louder than the clacking of rosary beads
The rustling of newspapers no more disturbing than the swishing of monk’s robes
I look for the place where I should be
But can never find.

Liking what you have to do

October 21, 2012 — 12 Comments

My dad needs socks. My dad needs underwear. My dad needs quarters for laundry. My dad pressed the wrong button on his TV again and now it won’t turn on. My dad needs Glucerna, Lactaid, Peptol-Bismol, Listerine, razor blades, lottery tickets, a haircut, and a cheeseburger from McDonalds. He needs a new Sony Walkman so that he can listen to the tapes of the music he wrote 20 years ago but can no longer play on his piano. He needs someone to look under his bed for his flashlight and someone to take him to the doctor and someone to remind him the order of the names on his speed dial because he can no longer see the buttons.

List of my father's voice mails to me

And since my dad is unsteady on his feet and nearly blind and since he doesn’t have a wife or a girlfriend, and since his only sibling is dead, and since I live five minutes away, that someone is usually me. And sometimes I am happy to help him, and sometimes I resent every minute of time I spend with him. And sometimes I say no and feel proud of myself for setting boundaries. And sometimes I say no and feel awful.

 

Whenever I enter his apartment, he asks if it seems dark in here to me. I say no, looking at the lamps that blaze in every corner of the room.

“This vision thing,” he always says, “is really getting worse.” I nod sympathetically or say I’m sorry. He has a degenerative retina disease and there’s nothing to be done. His apartment is stuffy. The table and counters are covered with crumbs and spilled food. His beige carpet needs cleaning: there are dirty grey pathways between the kitchen and the dining room table, from the dining room table to the brown recliner. While I’m there I pay his bills, refill his pill dispenser, pick up all the things he’s dropped, heat up something for him to eat. If there’s time I’ll take him for a walk. He hasn’t left his apartment by himself for over three years, not since he missed the orange construction cones outside of his apartment building and tripped, ending up with a purple bruise that covered his face for a month.

I get ready to leave. As I watch him grope his way from his table to his chair I can’t believe I’m leaving him alone. It’s like leaving a baby by himself. It’s like witnessing a car accident and doing nothing, every single time. I let the door shut behind me.

You’d think we, my brother and I, would just put him in assisted living and be done with it. If there is anyone who needs assistance, it is my dad. But there is the matter of preference, his, and he doesn’t want to live in “an institution.” We give him talks. I’m good cop, my brother the bad, but my dad is stubborn. And even though his memory is going and he seems relatively helpless, he is canny. He has figured out ways to get what he needs, from me, my brother, even his neighbors. He is like a drowning man who will do anything he has to in order to survive, even if it means pulling the rest of us down with him.

I could give over my entire life to him. If I let it, it would happen. He would be appreciative. He would be thankful. But he would take it. You can’t blame him really. You can’t blame a drowning man. But I already have a full-time job. I can barely keep my only family fed let alone cook for him. “I wish there were two of you,” my 6 year old daughter tells me as I put on my coat to visit my dad, “and the real you could stay here.”

My mom, who was married to him a long time ago, tells me my father is a selfish man, that he has always been selfish. I know she is trying to make me feel OK about putting him into assisted living if it makes life easier for me, but as her words sink in, I feel devastated. Like I’m a fool for having spent so much time helping him already. Growing up, he wasn’t my role model or my hero or even a person I felt I could lean on or count on in any way. He was weak, and I knew it, even then, even when I was my daughter’s age, and when I was older he would say, “Was I a good dad?” and I would grit my teeth and say yes or later I would refuse to answer and then he stopped asking.

And even though my mother’s words upset me, they also, eventually, gave me joy. For I realized that in the end, it doesn’t matter what kind of dad he was. What matters is that someday I’m going to look back at this time, and I will feel good about how I behaved. I will know I did the right thing.

At the community college where I used to work, there was a sign by the Admissions Office that said, “The secret to happiness is not doing what one likes. It’s liking what one has to do.” I’m always repeating this saying to my eight year old son and it makes him furious. But right now, what I have to do is help my dad. Have to endure his bottomless, at times unendurable need for me. And sometimes I don’t mind, and will spend hours making him books on tape, whistling merrily all the while. And sometimes I can’t stand to be near him another minute and have to get away. If I focus on my output as some sort of quid pro quo equation, measuring what he did for me against what I should do for him now, he’ll lose, but so will I. So in the end, I’m doing this for myself.  And perhaps that makes me selfish too. But I don’t know any other way to do it.

A few months ago, my friend Jim gave me some advice that has been reverberating in my mind ever since, like a bell whose chimes you feel in your bones long after the bell has stopped ringing.

Actually, it wasn’t even advice, it was a question. And the question wasn’t even directed at me. Jim had decided to hire a personal trainer, and was reading me the questionnaire that she gave to all of her potential clients. The question was, “What are you willing to give up to achieve your goals?”

What? Give something up?

Like most epiphanies, this was neither rocket science nor especially profound. But when I heard it, I realized that it was a question I had never been willing to ask myself. I realized that it was the question I needed most to hear, especially now that I have a goal that’s precious to me: writing my novel.

This question—let’s call it question #8 on the personal trainer application—made me realize that I have spent my life poised between a hundred different goals fantasies, most of them mutually exclusive, like living in the country and the city, or like owning a house that was warm and cozy, every room filled with books and pillows and rugs, yet which also possessed the spare aesthetics of a monk’s cell. I once tried to learn French and Spanish at the same time, which meant I was always saying things like “Voulez vous couchez conmigo?” and not getting far in either language.

Even if my goals weren’t mutually exclusive, there were too many to reasonably accomplish in one lifetime, like going back for an M.A. in literature and perfecting the art of French pastry, being involved in my children’s school, getting a rock hard body, all the while working full-time and raising two children and occasionally lifting a finger at home.

I should stop and say I know I haven’t exactly done nothing. I do have said career and said family. I am relatively happy and at peace—something I would never have thought possible when I was younger. But I still wasn’t satisfied, because secretly what I wanted to do was write, and writing had always been such a difficult and painful experience that I had more or less given it up. Until this spring, I was about as likely to be writing a novel as I was to suddenly own my own island, populated with endangered species who would all live in harmony with me in my treehouse and help me tend my organic vegetable garden.

So, back to question #8. When I heard it, I realized it contained an inherent truth. You cannot do everything. You have to give up some of your goals, real or imaginary, to make space and actual time to get something done. And maybe it was because I had finally found a goal worth giving things up for, it suddenly became easy, in most cases, and to let everything else drop away. Such as:

  • The alumni magazines from the various schools I dropped out of over the years? A no-brainer. Into the recycle bin they go.
  • TV? Buh bye!
  • The Chicago Cubs? I haven’t been that interested ever since Moises Alou wasn’t renewed in ’04.
  • The New Yorker? It was like abandoning my best friend, but OK.
  • Fund raising meeting at my kids’ school? I wrote a bigger check to assuage the guilt.
  • Reading the New York Times every morning while slowly sipping my tea? Sob. Yes.

I wish I had been an avid gardener and obsessive housekeeper so that I could have given both up and scored oodles more time per day, but unfortunately my backyard looks like an abandoned lot and if my house was any messier the neighbors would probably call DCFS.

Question #8 wasn’t the only voice echoing my new mantra. There was also the generous, encouraging voice of Ann Lamott tweeting to all of us writers, whispering in my ear every day about Time lost and found. There was the experience of performing in the Chicago Listen to Your Mother show this past spring, and realizing once and for all that what matters is that you’ve got something to say.

Even after giving all of those things up, I still don’t have a ton of time to write, but I choose my spots. 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there. The 18 minute commute to and from work on the train. Amazingly, it adds up. Buddha was right: A jug really does fill drop by drop. I don’t walk up the stairs to go to the bathroom, I run, so that I can get back to the writing more quickly.

And what’s funny is, it doesn’t feel like I’m giving anything up at all. Rather, I am profoundly grateful that I have something to run back down to.

I’ve always gotten migraines, since before I could talk, and that pain was always the benchmark for every other kind of affliction. Poison ivy, hangovers, sprained ankles, garden variety headaches, all were bad, sure, but I would take them any day over a migraine, with its wretched, pervasive, monstrous pain.

When one came and I was at work, I would shut the door to my office and lie on the linoleum floor in the dark, trying not to move, unable to contemplate traveling just a few miles through bright sunlight on public transportation in that nauseous, toxic state. I still carry a barf bag with me wherever I go, and a small canteen of water so that I can take my pills the instant I feel one coming on, in hopes of staving off the migraine’s more brutal incarnation.

The only good thing about having a migraine is the way you feel after, the relief at having it gone, and how, for just a little while anyway, you are at peace, and grateful to just be, and you eat your canned peaches or warmed up peas or whatever is left from dinner.

I’m sure there are people with dreadful diseases for whom a migraine would be like a walk in the park, but for me, it was the apex of pain, until natural childbirth that is.

It was very important to me to have an unmedicated birth. In brief: Women’s Studies Major +  Control Freak + utter mistrust of the medical establishment = natural childbirth proponent.

I had a feeling it was going to hurt. And it did. And here’s how I got through it. During each contraction, which lasted between 30-60 seconds, I would say to myself over and over: “At least I’m not climbing Mount Everest. At least I’m not climbing Mount Everest. At least I’m not climbing Mount Everest.”

For I, you see, had read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, the story of the ill-fated 1996 Everest expedition in which 8 climbers were killed while making the ascent. And it sounded like the most miserable experience any person could go through, 20,000 feet up, freezing your ass off, not enough oxygen to breath, in danger of frostbite and hypothermia and altitude sickness and for what, for the chance to say you climbed to the highest place on earth (and more than likely, payed upwards of $75,000 for the privilege)?

I had read it and read it. And it was the perfect way to get through labor and delivery. Yes, it was the most inescapable intense pain I had ever experienced, but at least I was warm! At least the air was saturated with delicious oxygen and I could walk out of the hospital room without fear of a wall of ice falling on my head.

And for years, whenever anything bad happened or I was stressed out, I would reach for my tattered copy of Into Thin Air, which I keep on my bedside table, open to any page at random, and read. It always calmed me down. At least I’m not there I would think to myself. At least I’m not there.

And so, my threshold of pain could be represented like:

Migraine > Childbirth > Climbing Mount Everest

And my little system of  pain classification worked beautifully until the other night, when I woke up out of a sound sleep feeling like the room was spinning. And I couldn’t make it stop. I could barely walk. And usually when you feel sick you just lie down and go to sleep and when you wake up you’re all better? But in this case, lying down gave me the heaves. Made the room spin even worse. I couldn’t think. I was trapped with this horrible nausea and spinning sensation and for all I knew I was going to feel that way for the rest of your life. And you know what I decided? I would TAKE Everest thank you very much. Give me my crampons, I’m going up! Anything but having to have this feeling of Vertigo for one more minute.

Those of you who bore children…do you remember how it felt? And remember how you SWORE you were going to remember how it felt? So that you could tell people? So that you could perhaps think twice about doing it again? But then over the next few days, did you forget? Sure you could say it hurt like hell. You could say “Ring of Fire” and shake your head in disbelief. But did you really remember? For me, the memory of the pain faded. I knew it had hurt but I couldn’t convincingly tell you how bad it was. Because I didn’t remember. But that feeling I had the other night? When the room was spinning? And I thought I might never feel normal again? I remember.