Friday, November 23, 2007

Yesterday Was the Day



Well, at long last we reach the end of this part of Lynda's story. She died yesterday about 5pm, peacefully and in no pain or discomfort. Though I wasn't with her, it was nice to know that Cheryl was, and that the smells of good food and the sound family talk and laughter were filling the house. What better way to pass on than with the smells of food and the chatter of family in the background?

Of course, now there are any number of things that have to be done before the last page is written, and it is my intent to follow up on these words by continuing to write about our lives together. This is her legacy to me now; I am released as the writer I've always wanted to be, and, beginning with the fertile ground of our memories, I will be able to raise more than just maudlin recollections, reaching instead for those resonances that I know to be to essence of being and being together.

Today is not a day when I have much to say. The tears long held back do not seem to be near the surface, yet I am sure there'll be a moment when it'll feel good to cry. Right now, the feeling is one of relief, both for her and, quite frankly for myself, since I have not had much opportunity for recreation in the past year. Selfish though it may be, I am now free to spend my time in pursuit of the things I enjoy, like playing golf! This is a pleasure I've not had enough of lately and now I will be able to pursue it without feeling conflicted.

There are many other such conflicts now resolved by Lynda's death, and though I will be absent the great friend and loving person that was my Mother, I am finally grown up. No longer the son, I am now the father, and a new chapter begins.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving

Well, today is Thanksgiving, and Lynda is still with us. I seriously thought yesterday was going to be 'the' day, as when I arrived after work about 3, she was very drawn and of course as unresponsive as has become the norm in just this past week.

I think she knew that Steve and I were there, but we sat and talked about life and family as if she was part of the circle even as she would stop breathing for so long that we were compelled to get up and see if this was the last. But it wasn't and after a couple of hours, we both went home to take care of the ordinary chores of life. Honestly, I lay down and took a nap. Funny how easy it is to feel guilty for what should be an easy gift to oneself, but the nap felt good as did dinner, which Valery had prepared while I was sleeping.

I went back to Lynda's after dinner to read and just listen to the rhythm of her breathing, which, oddly enough, was much more regular and therefore much less alarming. After a few hours it seemed as though she was going to make it through the night, and, apparently, she did. I haven't called yet this morning but I will as soon as I get ready to go visit.

Thanksgiving is a big day at the restaurant. It's one of the three days of the year that we serve brunch, so the joint will be jumping from 11 am to about 11 pm. Sara is opening today but I have to go in before it gets too busy so I'm 'in the flow' so to speak as we really get busy in mid-afternoon. Today is cold and windy, so it promised to be a tough sell for the patio tables and nothing in the yard, which may prove to be our undoing. Nonetheless, Sara is very gifted at this sort of thing, so while I'm nervous about how it will all work out, I'm also convinced by experience that it will indeed. I do look forward to coming home to our own Thanksgiving day table, which will hopefully still be littered with the remains of many delicious foods and surrounded by a sated and happy family.

The table has always been the focus of our home life. We always at dinner together as a family when I worked only at UT, while the children were growing up. We made a tradition of every day being thanksgiving, since Valery and I agreed that it wasn't just on the November holiday that one should be thankful. So we began every meal, and still do, by joining hands and being thankful to the Lord for bringing us all together and in good health for 'one more day'. Each day that I said this prayer I though of Lynda first, knowing that 'the' day would eventually come and being as grateful as I knew how that 'that' day was not 'the' day.

Well, 'the' day may finally have come and guess what? It's actually Thanksgiving! Lynda and Bill were married on Thanksgiving in 1955, so the day has been a melancholy one for her since his death in 1981. I doubt she actually knows what day it is, though, and for many reasons I actually hope that she doesn't die today. Not least because it would then be associated with the day for us, but also because it's likely to spoil Cheryl's Thanksgiving day feast, which she is holding for her family at the house. She's been such a kind and wonderful caregiver, I would hate to burden her so on this day. There is nothing I can do about it, though, except get dressed and go see her. So I shall.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A penny's worth of beans...

I am a middle child, first son of Lynda's second husband, properly named Wilbur Earl but called Bill all his life. The connotations of this birth position are many but it is mentioned here with one purpose: to illustrate the fact that I was, all my life, also the son of an older-than-average mother, one who could actually claim to have lived through the Depression. And, oh did she!

Lynda's first husband, Jack, was killed in the War, and left her with a three year old son, my brother Stephen, and a daughter, my sister Anne, not due for three months. Technically, they are in fact my half-siblings, but I have never thought of them as anything other than my brother and sister. When you are young, such distinctions are meaningless, and when you are older, if you have a good relationship with your siblings, as I hope I do, the distinction is of even less significance because of all we have shared over the years. This relationship that we have in common is much more than a mother, it is a lifetime of memories with still more to come. What was significant, though, especially when I was young because it was so unavoidable, was the difference in our ages. Stephen in thirteen years older than I; Anne is ten.

The other unavoidable consequence of having a mother born in 1917 was, as I've said, the fact that she had lived through the Depression. That the one with the capital 'D'. Now, for the generation ahead of me, or, even half a generation, in the case of my older siblings, this situation may have been considered normal, as they were indeed only one memory away from that terrible time.

But for me, having a mother would could not just recall being poor (as we certainly were still), but desperately so, was a condition that made my situation unique, or at lest it felt that way to me, sitting at the dinner table, staring down that last horrible pile of cold and nasty rutabagas with the admonition that I would not be relieved of my self-imposed nightmare until they were all consumed because once, a long time ago...

"When I was a girl," the story began. It always began the same way, of course, because it was the kind of story that you really only needed to hear once to remember, but it was trotted out at so many opportunities that I actually had it memorized long before I memorized the first three lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (fifth grade).

"Four score and seven..." No wait, wrong memorization...

"We were so poor that my Mother used to give me a nickel to go down to the store. 'Gladys', she would say' 'Go down to the general store and get us a penny's worth of beans, a penny's worth of rice, a penny's worth of fatback, six eggs and and quart of milk.' And that would have to last us, sometimes, for a couple of days."

"I used to dream of the day," Lynda would also often recall, "When I would have two dresses in my closet."

And, dream she did. She also realized her dream and much more. She did indeed get the two dresses when she went to work, and managed to clothe her mother and sister Anita as well. Work was the means to the end, and the end for Lynda was an escape from poverty.

Certainly, though I may make light of it, and often did through the years--a luxury made possible by that work--the grinding poverty that Lynda was born into is not easily escaped, even by those with iron wills such as Lynda. She gave up a lot, beginning with her formal education, to not only break out of poverty, but to ensure that her family, including her mother, whom she supported for twenty years or more, would not be poor and would not face the possibility of sliding back into poverty while she had anything to do about it.

Lynda's philosophy of life is one I have inherited: "Get up, make your bed and go to work". This ethic was born in the crucible that was terrible want, and not just for the many useless perceived needs invented by consumerism, but for the basic necessities that would make the difference between going to bed hungry or full.

I never went to bed hungry.

Often, I ate more rutabagas and perhaps chicken a la king that I wanted to (like a bite) but I was never hungry. Not really hungry. And I even know what that feels like, but I didn't get the opportunity until I went away to college--that is definitely another story. Suffice it to say that I do know now what Lynda was protecting me from then by forcing me to clean my plate. I am glad to have had a childhood free from the kind of existential fears that she had to face. Hunger was just one of those fears, and doubtless, not even the worst.

I didn't force my children to eat everything prepared for them, but I certainly saw to it that they never went hungry. The preparation of and sharing of food is a key component of the legacy that Lynda has given me, for I will never forget that food was at one time a scarce commodity for many, even a luxury for some. That nickel has gone a long way, after all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Not the last day

I took today off from work at Hudson's, thinking that this might be the day, but in truth my motivations were more self-centered, for even though I expected to spend more time with Lynda with the whole day free, I actually could bear no more than my usual hour or so, and then I retreated to the comfort of chores and buried my thoughts with choices about tires and traffic. The mundanities of life are strangely appealing when faced with the alternative. In my case, my best efforts to stay focused on Lynda and ease her burdens here at the last have, it would seem, already come and gone.

Today, when I entered the room, there was no recognition, no awareness of my presence In the face of this reality, I can stand only so long before I have to step back and seek ground in the details lest I be dashed to it with unrelenting force. I am safer here in the low altitudes for now; soaring is just tempting the release of the flood of emotion that needs still to be contained.

So, curiously, even after writing about how the feelings are pent up, the writing of this diary has allowed so much to be released that I do not now fear the end for my own sake. There was a time when I was nervous about my reaction to Lynda's final breath, yet now I know that the reaction will not only be natural, but it will also be no more or less than I make it.

Now that is a hackenyed phrase, yet I use it with utmost innocence. I cannot expect to be surprised by Lynda's death, so the moment will not rush upon me like a wave, nor will it simply leak out over time by virtue of the spilling of a few words because as much as I prepare by writing, they are, after all, mere words. No, my emotions and feelings will come as combination of the two. It will doubtless be a slow release of an absolutely ripping torrent and it will be mu choice what to make of it. Part of me wants to wail; the other says, hey man, it's just a phase.

That's it then. Death is a contradiction of terms. Although it is the very essence of human emotion and thus fraught with hypocrisy, it is yet, by virtue of its innate inexorability, bound to the unvarnished truth. To put it another way, watching Lynda die has been a tug-of-war between my heart and my head, and simply knowing that it has to be this way doesn't make it any easier.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Death Mask

As we are now in the last days of her life, I can't help looking at the calendar, wondering which of the coming dates will be forever changed in my life by the termination of Lynda's. It's more than a morbid thought; it is also a bright indicator of how my perception of time has been disorted by the slow process of my mother's death. There is little to recommed to others in this decline as I have unable to move it, faster or slower it doesn't matter. The inexorabiltiy of the process is not unlike the way an accident unfolds in milliseconds as opposed to days and weeks and months; it all seems so damn slow there is just nothing to do but wait and watch.

So today we came to observe again, Pierre and I, and we found Lynda in a state more removed that ever before. Today it was apparent to us both as we came in that she has gone down even since Saturday. Her face was more drawn and the mouth more gaping. She didn't respond to my voice or my hand when I held hers, and unlike even yesterday, there was no acknowledgment of my presence at all.

It seems like this could be the night tonite, or tomorrow the day. I have taken off from Hudson's in anticipation of the event, and even though I realize it is unlikely that I'll actually be there when she passes, it is something that I've hoped might happen. Now there is a morbid thought, I guess, since what difference it could make is just about zero. This isn't to be taken as a sign that I make no difference, just that I realize we've gotten to the point I've long imagined and dreaded in the one and the same moment.

The gas lever

These days, with gas hovering around three dollars a gallon, it may seem hard to believe that in 1968, when Lynda and I used to drive around together in her 1963 VW bug calling on potential purchasers of the life insurance she was then selling to support the family, gasoline cost only thirty cents a gallon. Yet, for Lynda, that wasn't necessarily a good deal.

No, for Mom, a good deal was to be had by taking advantage one of the many gas wars that were then underway, so I can recall driving across town to fill up the tank for a mere fifteen cents a gallon! Now, these were also the days when 'gas attendants' actually were available to pump the gas into one's tank, but the odd arrangement of the VW's gas tank under the hood meant that it was my job, at the very least, to jump out and find the latch under the hood that the attendant could never seem to find, and, on occasion, to actually pump the gas while the attendant-gasp-washed the windshield!

Although it wasn't the only reason I was invited to ride along with Lynda on her sales calls, one of my jobs also related to gasoline in the VW was to switch over to the reserve tank when the primary tank ran out.

Imagine this: In the VW bug that we owned, there was no gas gauge but there was a reserve tank. There was a lever to turn on the floorboard just to the right of the gas pedal, so when the driver (Lynda) suspected that we were about to run out of gas (sputtering, coughing and general power loss) she would instruct the co-pilot (me) to get down there and turn it. Often this was done 'on the fly' so to speak, and since we were not encumbered with the burden of seatbelts, it was an easy matter for me to crawl down behind the stickshift and turn the little brass handle to the right 90 degrees.

I recall this bit of trivia because of late I've been thinking of all the things that Lynda and I used to do together, and for some reason the memory of turning the gas lever is a particularly strong one for me. I can recall quite clearly the smell of the sissel floor mats and the oily gasoline smell that wafted up from the back seat. the seats were scratchy and the metal was hot and of course it was very noisy and hot all the time, even in winter.

We drove from Abilene to San Antonio in that car when we moved there in 1968, with me in the front seat and my brother in the back with all the clothes and bedsheets we had crammed in every bit of space. When she went to work for Bankers Life and Casualty Insurance Company, on Saturday mornings, she would gather up the lead cards sent in that week and we would set off to cold call some of the poorest people in the country, trying to sell them life insurance.

I am reminded of the movie 'Paper Moon' where a backcountry grifter travels around with his daughter, selling bibles to widows, because, even though I wasn't used as a prop to sell life insurance, I was certainly there to provide support to Lynda when she would return to the car after another rejection, shoulders sagging and eyes downcast.

I was also there when she'd get a sale, too, and those were very special moments indeed. While I understood the practical benefits of making the sale, it was, of course, a self interest that motivated me as well, since I could expect to get some kind of treat when we went to the grocery store later in the day.

Now, not only did Lynda sell the insurance, after making a sale, it would fall to her to go and collect the weekly premium. Often, that would be the only money we'd have for the week. Sometimes, the people either couldn't or wouldn't pay, and that meant nothing. And, at times, people couldn't pay in cash but wanted to honor their obligation so they would give her something like a dozen fresh eggs or a loaf of homemade bread. That, at least, was enough to keep us from going hungry, but it wasn't enough to keep her from crying, and I have to say I saw and heard a lot of tears in the darkened car on the way home.

If it seems like an odd way for a kid to spend his Saturdays, well, I was an odd kid. The conversations that we had while driving were always part of the motivation for riding with her. After all, I had her all to myself! One thing I have always enjoyed in my conversations with Lynda is the sense that whatever I had to say, she was always genuinely interested in hearing it. So, even though I cannot recall what we actually talked about, I do recall talking for hours with with someone who actually cared. Even if her advice was always the same("get up, make your bed and go to work"), the words were always directed to me, and always in my best interest.

That aspect of our relationship has not changed until now, here at the very end, and even now, I find myself ready to dive down to the floorboard and turn that lever just once more. If only she would tell me it is time.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Resonances



Visiting Lynda now is a much more calming experience than it has been in the recent past, in part because of the quiet setting that she enjoys, but mostly it is because Lynda is herself is so serene.

Often, when I would sing and/or talk my children off to sleep, I would find myself with eyes closed, ready for the release I was offering them even before they'd had a chance to get there, so that last verse or paragraph became quite a challenge, often lost till prodded to wake up so they could get to sleep. It is no different with Lynda, for when I come in and after I've had a chance to say hi and give her a kiss, she is so quickly returned to sleep that I immediately feel the urge to drift off myself, which, in fact, I do.

I pull up the lounger to the bedside and stick my hand in between the bedrail to hold hers and in the very next minute I am sleeping, not soundly, but softly, in response to and in resonance with her own restless repose. There is, of course, nothing really to say that I haven't already said, save the affirmation of love spoken when I first hold her hand and feel her taught and tender skin against my lips, so the communication we have flows between our connected hands and our brains, long used to interacting with spoken words, now silently and softly speak within the language of resonances, physical as well as spiritual.

There is not much discussion of the spirit and/or god in these essay not just because I do not wish to impart my own feelings about the nature of our being into thoughts and comments about Lynda's last days of life; readers may refer to the clearly marked yet deftly obscured subtext for that. In fact, I make no mention of spirit or god because it is simply not relevant. In our many discussions about race and religion and politics, we often talked about god, but never in the context or her death, and that long before it was an imminent condition. What matters is not what will happen after she is gone, but what we've done up to that point. I may be fortunate enough to discover what happens to her after she's gone, but that's no incentive seek spirituality in these final moments.

I feel the flesh fading and know there will be soon only that feeling of resonance left in my empty hand. So, someday soon, I will hold my hand or mouth a certain way; cross my legs or cough, laugh or lift my leg for a fart and I will not just think of Lynda, but in fact, I will be Lynda, or what is left, anyway, resonating still in my body. For that small gift, and the many more to follow, I will be grateful.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Not the time for tears



I have, for the most part, managed to keep my emotions under control through this wild ride, reminding myself that now is not the time to loose the flood of feeling that has been building up behind the eye, lest the blood cloud my vision and prevent me from caring for the rest of my world. Too much of me is needed for the care and comfort of others to dedicate my time completely to Lynda's care. Though I feel guilty for leaving, I know that I must separate myself from the fading flesh and maintain enough personal integrity to actually be of use to others. Allowing myself to wallow in, or at this moment, dally even momentarily in the warm bath that is self-pity is an indulgence that neither I nor my family can afford at the moment.

Not that I don't secretly yearn to fall on the floor and sob uncontrollably at the unfeeling inevitability of the universe, because indeed, that would really feel good for a while, but I am also sanguine enough to realize that such relief would only be temporary and worse, failure to resolve the conflict would only exacerbate the pain.

Such is the case with life itself, for as soon as we succumb to the temptation to be weak and afraid, fear and weakness are already constraining our ability to thrive and we need only continue to wail and rend our hair to realize the ironic fate we so hoped to avoid with our vocal and spiritual laments.

Today, however, I came uncomfortably close to the release of that suppressed emotive force, not because I wanted to finally enjoy a bit of the bittersweet fruit long dangling before my sore eyes, teasing my hurting throat with the promise of liquid relief, but because I was not vigilant to the insidious attack of a metaphor; a word whose meaning I had not expected to come from so deep and to mean so much without warning. But such is the nature of words in my brain; they hold more information than one can see from any single side, yet when turned around in my synapses, the meanings pile in on one another, multiplying and potentiating the power of sense until it has the blinding force of nuclear fission.

Suddenly without more than a second to contemplate the word, when told that Lynda was convinced that she was on a train and worried about when to get off, the entire force of a million-pound steel behemouth was routed directly to the center of my brain and hence to my half-frozen heart. I did not need the hospice nurse to explain the metaphor of the train, though she did so with great kindness; no, in fact, the many layered implications had already wound their way round and round my spinal column and had me wide-eyed, electric and defenseless against the flood of tears now held back so long I had surmised it might have leaked out the other side to pose no threat, but suddenly realized that it was no imaginary force bearing down on my defenses. The very real feelings of grief and loss that arrived in that moment were possesed of such incredible intertia as to sweep away any matchstick and paper card protection I may have managed to construct in the last year. I began to cry.

All gone, in less than a second as I walked to my car on this most gorgeous and cloudless early November day, so I called Stephen to tell him what a beautiful day it was and how much I enjoyed hearing his voice. He wasn't sure what to say, but it didn't matter, since all I need for the moment was to hear just the sound of human breathing, as if all I needed was to find the right sychnronous rythym and fall into resonance with it.

The tears were suppressed, the breathing brought under control, the vision directed upward to receive the gifts of light and the fragrance of fall that now surrounds us actually made me grateful for this development as the year winds to a close.

It has been more than a year now since we began, and for the first time I sense that the journey is almost at an end. We are not there yet, though it won't be long, there is still something left to be done, and the two of us will do it together, as we planned for so many years now. As I hold her hand, watching her fade in the rich late afternoon sun, it feels right, not just inevitable, and for this feeling I am most grateful.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Art



Although I am the same child who sat in front of the Dallas museum for three hours rather than be dragged though it for the same length of time, I now believe that it is no coincidence that when I learned that I had a choice in matters of study in college, I elected to abandon the international business angle that had gotten me in and turned without hesitation to the study of art. Of course this choice had something to do with the budding relationship I was enjoying with my mentor, but that is another story and a different angle on the same thing.

If I can now claim that I have a love for art, it was not born from but was nutured by Lynda, recognized by the two of us as a common interest that developed into a lifelong dialogue, with a vocabulary shared through countless discussions and reviews.

Lynda, began her career as an artist as many artists do; collecting and admiring the works of the masters, but in a most unusual way. Over her dresser, still, to the right of the heavy cut glass mirror, hangs a tiny colored photograph of a large old white frame house, surrounded by trees and vegetation. It is printed on textured paper that resembles canvas, and the intent is clearly create a painting from a black and white photograph.



What makes it remarkable is not the subject, though there is doubtless irony to be made from more thought on the subject, but the object itself, for it was in fact the reward for winning a contest when Lynda was in grade school. My recollection is that she was in sixth grade, but I have always asked her and promptly forgotten the answer...how many of those questions have I left to discover?

The teacher announced the contest early in the year, and it so caught my mother's attention that it led to one of the most crucial moments of her life; alearning experience about herself, her mother and her love of art. The contest was simple enough; students were to cut out and collect pictures of art that they liked from magazines and turn them in as a portfolio at the end of the year. The prize was to be a painting. Lynda was already interested in art, and had been admiring the pictures re-printed in the Saturday Evening Post. When the weekly magazine was discarded by the adults, Lynda picked it up and read it cover to cover, of course, but also clipped out the weekly painting, mounted it with glue on construction paper and put it in a book. At the end of the year, hse had collected dozens of pictures, all neatly packaged in a portfolio. She turned it in and was most excited. Eventually, it was revealed that Lynda was the only student to turn in a project, but the teacher told her that because she was the only entrant, she couldn't really 'win'!

This upset her, of course, but not nearly so much as it did her mother, who went to the school and raised such a fuss that the school capitulated. Instead of the promised presentation during a school assembly, it was simply given to her in the principal's office, and the feeling of being passed over was one she learned to internalize for the first of many, many times in her life. Nonetheless, she was proud of her award, proud of her mother, and so proud of her collection that she saved it, and gave it to me. I will also inherit the prize 'painting' and something much greater; her love of art.