From adding machines to cubicles

I wonder what I look like. Each day I sit in a 6 X 6 cubicle at work. I sit near the end of the floor so people walk up from behind me, see the back of my head, read my name plate, and turn to say hi if they know me.  Work. The office. Part of my daily routine, a much-needed structure in my life. I drift without structure, a lone survivor on a life-raft, no land, no people, no measure of myself, nowhere to plant my feet. The 6 X 6 beige panels keep me grounded and sane. I’m a Taurus (look it up), which makes me the perfect person to work in a cubicle-ed environment.

Today is my 17th anniversary at my company. Seventeen years is a long time to work in one company. I have a long history of cubicle-dwelling.

My head pivots back and forth between my two 21-inch monitors, as my fingers click-clack on the keyboard.  I bring up a gigantic Excel spreadsheet on the left monitor, and the company’s intranet Web page on the right. As the years go by, we increasingly employ shared Web space for dialogue, data, files, and other equally scintillating work objects. If I stop typing for a moment, I can hear several of my co-workers also click-clacking on their keyboards, in their 6 X 6s, some drumming quickly and some tapping slowly, perhaps composing a difficult email to the senior management.

My thoughts turn to my mother whom I lost in February to cancer. What would she think if she saw me sitting in my cube like an air-traffic controller with the two big screens in front of my face? What would she think about the complicated-looking spreadsheet to my left, or about the never-ending online activity to my right?  I work in a world that would make little sense to her.

I did try to teach her how to use a computer. She was bored with Wheel of Fortune and the usual crap that was on TV.  I was a terrible teacher. My mother frustrated me. Her hands were nervous and twitchy on the keyboard, and she kept trying to guess what I was going to say next rather than listening. I wasn’t very nice. I wrote down what I could so she could learn on her own when I wasn’t home, but it didn’t work out. Once day she called me at work to tell me the mouse was broken. I told her she needed to hold it in her right hand move the cursor across the screen.

“I am,” she cried, “but nothing is happening!” She was truly stressed. She was in her late 70s and this was a different world to her.

“You’re trying to move the cursor across the screen?”

“I’m moving the mouse across the screen, but nothing is happening.”

After another five minutes of this conversation, I burst out laughing.

“You are literally picking up the mouse and sliding it across the monitor, aren’t you?”

And yes, she was.

My mother, born in 1930, worked for much of her adult life. Her last and longest held position was as a bookkeeper for the now defunct Route 138 Motel in Easton, Massachusetts. The motel went out of business in the late 1990s, and now there is a Roche Brothers Supermarket Plaza, a CVS drug store, and medical buildings on the property that once held a grimy old two-story motel.  My mother had a filthy office; the motel owner was a filthy man who smoked cigars until the walls of his motel turned yellow and brown, and who heaped junk into my mother’s office since she only needed so much space. But she had real walls. And a big metal office desk.

easton-motel-outside
On the outside, the motel looked okay.

My mother was the bookkeeper at the motel for 30 years. She got the job when I was four and she was 36, just after she and my father separated. When I was older, she told me she applied for the job one night while sitting at the bar in the motel, drinking martinis.  The owner came up to her for a chat. No resume was provided. She told him about working on the Fish Pier in Boston for Swanson frozen dinners, about doing the books for Tabby Cat Food.  Her hiring at the motel was spontaneous and informal. The year was circa 1966.

motel-inside
On the inside was another story, but I was young enough not to notice. Note the TV. This was the 1960s.

When I was a young kid, my mother would take me to work with her during the day, or when I was in school, on days I was out sick. She would wrap me in blankets, and I’d rest my head against the big Great Dane, Max, who lay on the floor between her desk and the owner’s junk. As I got older I paid more attention, and I watched my mother be a bookkeeper. I was mesmerized by her ability to use a 10-key adding machine, with a roll of white paper to keep track of the numbers, the only piece of “tech” on her desk. Her fingers flew across those 10 keys at lightening pace. She didn’t look at the adding machine until she hit the subtotal button, at which point she would enter the number into a paper book of accounts, a “daily” ledger. She had all kinds of paper ledgers and journals to keep, to maintain the motel’s books. I asked her, “Mom, how can you use that adding machine without looking at it?” She said, “I’ve used it so much that it’s a part of me. I don’t need to think about it.”

adding-machine
The adding machine, very much like the one my mom had

In 2016, as I sit at my desk, I know what she means. I type so much, and have for all my adult life, that I type fast and accurately, if I just let my fingers do it and don’t think about the letters on the keyboard. If I think about typing, I will make mistakes.

My mother took great pride in her abilities as a bookkeeper, and she was a good one. My father used to say she was a great bookkeeper. He owned his own children’s clothing business in Boston during the 1950s and 1960s, and my mother must have helped him with the books. My father mainly criticized my mother, so for him to be so complimentary about her bookkeeping abilities made me truly believe she was a shining star in her field. I do know she loved to work. She was a role model to me in that way, a mother who worked each day and on her own, after she and my father separated.

tanker-desk
I think this is called a “tanker desk.” I remember my mom’s as much larger.

Gone are the days of adding machines, big metal office desks, smoke-filled offices and paper ledgers. Gone is my mother. But here I am, using an updated version of her tools: two big monitors and an Excel spreadsheet, and the newest version of an office – the cubicle.  I’ve been with this company for 17 years, just 13 more before I have achieved what my mother achieved. If I can ever achieve it.

The purge

moms-plaque
My last post: More than I have spent, is about buying this plaque for my mother’s grave. The plaque was installed recently. I was very pleased with it, and equally pleased that the cemetery kept the kitties I had set on her grave before the plaque was available. 

I have been purging my house of clothing, books, junk, and rubbish. The purge commenced after my mother’s death in February 2016. I felt the need to bag up her belongings and donate them to charity. I could not be one of those people who keeps the deceased’s bedroom intact, clothes hung in closet, mystery books on the shelf, and so on, as if she had never died. Some people find preserving the room of a loved one comforting; I find that a purge reassures me. I touch my mother’s belongings once more and say goodbye.

 

Tomorrow the junk men come to haul away her dresser, night table, and the ancient sofa from her bedroom. I have wanted to get rid of that sofa for years – 1970s “fun fur” nearly bald – but my mom had insisted we keep it. “The cats like to sleep on it,” she said. But Monday it goes.

I will only keep the bed and the television. The bed is nearly new and completely clean. I think it’s a great bed but she hated it. It’s hard to buy a bed for someone who can’t come with you to the store. She was very sick in the last year of her life, when the old bed she’d been sleeping on finally broke, after slowly collapsing over a period of months into the bedframe. My mother could not cast off much with ease, not beds or clothes or cars, until they were unusable. One of her cars fell into itself much like the bed did, although the car, shifting on its frame, was decades ago. Her shoes and slippers were always holed with the souls worn thin. My mother was a fashionista out in the world, when she could still get out into the world, wearing fancy, fun, shiny, and sometimes crazy clothes.  But in the house, she clung to the old and known. She hated the unfamiliar bed. It’s a Laura Ashley with a pillow top, firm but soft, too.

“It’s too high,” she’d said after pretending for a few weeks she liked it so as not to hurt my feelings. “I feel as though I’ll fall out of it.” And as she got sicker she did fall out of it, or rather, she slid off of it as she tried to get up to hobble to the bathroom. I discouraged use of the potty that Hospice had left beside her bed, as I couldn’t bear to empty and clean it.  I found her next to the potty in complete darkness on the night I made her leave home. Her back against the bed and the floor lamp, the back of her head stiff and low against the wall, impossibly angled down, as if someone had glued her head to her shoulder. It’s hard to believe someone could spend an entire day in that position. She didn’t have the strength to move at all, never mind get back on the bed. She’d spent the day peeing on the floor. Once again, she had refused to press the alert button that would have summoned me home.

“I’m calling an ambulance,” I said.

She cried, “No!!!, I’m not going anywhere tonight!”

I screamed, “Yes, you are!” 

She screamed, “Just give me my shoes and I can get up!”

This was not true; it was one of her delirious thoughts. The week before she had insisted the landline phone could not make callouts correctly, as she had tried to dial her credit card account number rather than the phone number. I demonstrated several times that the phone worked perfectly but she couldn’t believe that, had in fact, forgotten how to dial a phone. There she was in that strange, twisted pose, all day on the floor. She had to go. But she was my mother, and I didn’t want her to leave me, so I tried to pick her up to get her back on the bed, get her to her feet, to keep her home, but every time I touched her to try to lift her, she screamed in fear and pain. And I screamed back in the same way.

“I’m calling an ambulance!”

“No, Cindy, Cindy!!!!!”

And then I went outside so I wouldn’t have to hear her. When I went back in, she was still screaming my name. It was the most desperate sound, “CINDY, CINDY, CINDY,” as if I’d shoved her off a life raft. I went back outside after screaming again, “The firemen will be here soon!”

In addition to the bed and the television, I also saved her black and gold sequined dress outfit that she wore to my brother’s wedding in 1986. She wore it for other occasions, too, like her 50th high school reunion. The last movie we watched together before she died was Rentacop with Burt Reynolds and Liza Minelli because she wanted to show me that Liza had worn her outfit in the movie. I kept my mother’s ratty, ripped red sweater she’d worn for the last two years to keep her bony body warm.

the-dresser
This was the ancient dresser in her room, worn and broken, that I had hauled away. The books (and my more of them) were donated.

Since February, I have bagged up approximately 75 green garbage bags of her stuff and a few things of mine. By green garbage bags I mean those enormous ones for lawn and leaves. Yesterday, I threw a good 300 pounds of books from 10 garbage bags into the book donation box at the Ahavath Torah synagogue parking lot. I have donated nearly $2,000 worth of clothes, from items ranging from $2 to $10, so hundreds of shirts, blouses, shoes, skirts, dresses, and so on. I buried her in a smart black and purple dress that I remembered her wearing in her younger days. So that item of clothing was not donated.

 

Some of her things still lurk in the nooks and crannies of my house, more clothing stuffed into the third bedroom closet, including some winter coats. More sweatshirts and slacks folded long ago into plastic storage drawers when it seemed to matter to hold onto these things. Her room is empty, but it seems there are always more spaces to purge.

Post script: the next day.

The junk guys came, and I leaned against the arm of the living room chair as I watched them haul heavy furniture downstairs: that fun fur sofa from when I was nine years old and living on Bay Road, my mother’s dresser and night table, purchased when I was thirteen when we moved to the condo in Knollsbrook, and the desk and bookcase she bought for me the same year, knowing I was a kid who loved books and writing. I nearly cried as they moved all this ancient, junky furniture out of the house. I hated the furniture, but the decades marching out the front door reminded me of the lifetime that had passed.

 

 

More than what I have spent

Yesterday I bought a cemetery plaque for my mother’s grave.  The inscription will read, “Loving mother, kind soul, and free spirit.”  My brother came up with “free spirit” because my mother lived life on her terms. She was separated and divorced in the 1960s when splitting from your husband wasn’t so acceptable. She did as she pleased as a single mom, again, before this ever became okay with society.  I came up with “kind soul,” because of her gentleness and thoughtfulness toward others, her compassion, much stronger than my own. I watched my mother cry over dying peers while she, herself, was dying. She felt bad for people on vacation in summer, people she did not know, if it rained all week. She was no saint, but she was our mother, so “loving mother” was easy to come up with. She died six months ago today on February 6, 2016.

The plaque costs $2,600 with installation at Sharon Memorial Park. It took me a long time to adjust to the thought of plunking down so much cash for an item that is essentially unnecessary. My mother’s body lies in that grave at Sharon Memorial, but that body no longer houses her essence, and that body will soon be nothing but bones.

I have shopped online a few times since she passed to try to find “a deal,” something that might knock $500-$600 dollars off the price. The Zelman side of the family, my father’s side, has a tradition of always seeking a deal, even in the circumstance of death, apparently.  You can buy anything online now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon.com offered cemetery plaques, but I didn’t actually check their website.

The cemetery won’t allow anything but bronze plaques to pay tribute to the dead buried there. My research showed that at most, the online dealers could save me only a couple of hundred dollarsor. So, each time I researched, I delayed the purchase, hoping that prices would improve. I was not ready to commit to the plaque. Mourning takes many forms, including the inability to spend a few thousand dollars to honor your mother.

In the end, I didn’t trust the quality of product or the customer service of any online monument store. Who is behind such websites? What if I needed to return the plaque? What if I found a defect after it had been installed? Would I have to dig it up and ship out a 100-pound rock? In the end, I chose a local monument dealer, and the price included a marbled granite frame to anchor the plaque. Very pretty.

Today is Saturday and my mother died on a Saturday.  She had been such a pretty, vibrant woman for most of her life, but Saturday, February 6th was the last day of her life. When I arrived at the nursing home, her breathing was so shallow that every breath sounded potentially like her last. She had been in a coma for eight days. She had surprised the hospice nurses by lasting so long, the time in the coma and not eating or drinking for the last week she was conscious. Yet her body endured for fifteen days without nourishment. She had a strong heart. She had a good heart.

“It will be this weekend,” said Karen, the morning nurse. “Your mom will pass this weekend. I don’t think it will happen on my shift, but soon.”  I watched my mother and listened to her shallow breath for a few hours. I said, “I love you, Mom,” but I don’t think she could hear. I was told that all the senses go as one dies, with the hearing going last. I knew she was already blind, having seen her focus-less, clouded right eye, when the lid had been opened inadvertently while the hospice aide washed her near the end. I had squandered many a chance to tell her I loved her or to apologize for my bad behavior while she was still conscious. Perhaps she knew of my feelings anyway. My poor mother is dying. I shifted, got up from my seat, and left the nursing home for a break and some lunch.

I was watching television as I ate my sandwich, trying to find the will to travel back to the nursing home to spend the afternoon with my mother. I procrastinated for nearly two hours after I finished eating, with dread spreading through my heart and soul, as well as crawling up and down my limbs. I had been visiting her for two and a half months at the nursing home, and each day, she was sicker than the last. I almost couldn’t bear another minute. Eventually, I did make it to the car, but it was well after 4:00 in the afternoon. My mother was spending her last weekend on earth breathing shallowly, and I had waited so long to drive back, instead had decided to spend time watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore show.

Karen’s shift had ended well over an ago, and as I was driving, the afternoon shift nurse, Kelly, called.

“Mom passed” she said when I answered. I was five minutes from the nursing home.

“Okay, I will be there in a few minutes.” My mother was dead. I arrived at the nursing, and spent a couple of more hours with her  corpse until the funeral home picked up her body.

The words “Mom passed,” still ring in my ears every so often, when the late afternoon sunlight hits my dashboard as I drive through my home town. Down Pleasant Street, soon to take the turn onto Prospect. “Mom passed.” A bright, sunny day in February, the words and the scene play like a touching and sad film in my head.

My mother would not have wanted me to spend money  on a plaque for her grave. She especially would have balked at my spending such an exorbitant sum.

“Save your money,” I can hear her say. “I don’t want you to spend it on me.” She hadn’t even wanted a funeral, because she was afraid my brother and I would have to pay for it. In the end, she had saved enough to pay for her own funeral, although I was the one who made purchase on a cold winter evening, picking out a coffin and answering questions about prayers and limosines.

I have spent the last six months trying to come to terms with her no longer existing on this earth and no longer living in my house. Sometimes the mere sight of some house detail – like the blue and light gray stone floor in the kitchen where she stood as she cooked meals and did the laundry for more than a dozen years – can render me speechless. Or the sight of the staircase, with its worn beige carpet, where I witnessed her climbing to her bedroom each and every night. On so many of those evenings I joined her to watch TV. Thousands of evenings.

A plaque is a way to memorialize and honor my mother, but someday, the rest of the family will be gone, the human race may be gone, and perhaps we will have blown the earth to bits. What a waste of $2,600 should the plaque explode with the entire earth someday.

Most of the time lately, I do not want to move out my house although I periodically bandy about the idea of buying a condo, of moving out of this town. I have lived in the house for fourteen and a half years, most of those years with my mother, until I had to push her into a nursing home nine months ago. She kept falling, she was incontinent, dehydrated, often she didn’t make sense, she forgot how to use a telephone, she wouldn’t press that goddamned “I have fallen down and can’t get up button.” She was entering end-stage cancer. I could no longer care for her.

When I am not considering moving, I decide I will make the house new again – refinish the hardwood floors, possibly have hardwood added to the stair case and bedrooms upstairs, new paint, new furniture, same house, but reborn. These kinds of upgrades cost money. I have been feeling paralyzed and unable to proceed with any house upgrades. My mother’s grave needs a plaque.

I dreamed about my mother last week. One night, before I fell asleep, I said out loud, “I miss you mom. I’d like to dream about you.” And she came to me that night. Nothing significant happened in the dream. She was back in the house, although my house appeared different. I’m not even sure she spoke a word, yet I felt our connection. I thought I was awake during the dream, as her presence lingered. In the darkly comic tradition of my family, I said to her, “You know you’re dead, right? You know you can’t stay here.”

The day my mother died, I was aware of my heart; it felt enlarged and warm, very present in my chest as if her soul were passing through mine on her way to her new existence, a place I could not comprehend as an earthbound body.

This week, I woke up knowing I would buy the plaque. Not only did I realize this, but I looked forward to making the purchase. My heart felt the same warmth and connection as the day she died. After I left Quincy Memorials and left a down payment on this useless, impractical, expensive piece of granite and bronze, I felt my heart swell. The next day, I also found myself calling a handyman and junk haulers, something I had been unable to do since her passing. I  spent $229 for two tickets to see Rent in Boston when it tours in 2017 for its 20th anniversary. I felt free to spend money on my house and on myself only after I spent $2,600 on that useless plaque.

Sometimes, events need to arrive in a certain order that may contradict, if not actually defy, logic. Honoring my mother had to come before hiring someone to haul away her dresser. Her death had to come before my regrets. Her no longer existing on this planet made me realize how important she had been in my life. My compassion came after her death.

“Loving mother, kind soul, and free spirit.”

You are worth so much more than what I have spent.

 

 

Mother’s Day 2014 – I don’t remember writing this

Apparently, I wrote this in the spring, but I just stumbled upon it in my files. I don’t remember having written the piece, though parts of it are familiar when I read it.  I think I decided against posting it on Mother’s Day so as not to depress my audience during the holiday. Very thoughtful of me, right? You should know, that although my mother is still functioning all of these months later, the “decline” I mention in this piece has become more pronounced, which is to be expected, I”m sure. That doesn’t make it easy.

Mother’s Day, 2014, and in terms of the weather, it’s one of ten perfect days we get each year in Boston. A perfect day is 80 degrees, no humidity, no clouds, crystal blue sky, and soft breezes. Aside from these ten days, the weather sucks: it’s too hot, too humid, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too gray, too stifling, too raw, too anything. But today is perfect. There are nine perfect days left, so I expect a few in June and a few in September, and one or two sprinkled amid the stifling hot summer months.

There is nothing else perfect about today. I said it’s Mother’s Day. When I read Facebook I realize Mother’s Day is supposed to be a joyous event to celebrate our wonderful mothers, dead or alive. My own mother is in between dead and alive.

She should be out in this sunshine with the perfect breezes and sky, before it’s all lost to the body she resides in, the one that is slowly declining. But she can’t get out. I can’t get her out. It’s as if there is a glass wall between us and she must stay on the inside of it, while I look reluctantly in at her from the outside. I turn my head and  leave.

I am at the deli, cheered up by the endorphins and caffeine streaming through my blood, ordering my mother sliced deli meats, cream cheese, buying a quartered pullet because she wants to cook chicken soup. These are part of her Mother’s Day gifts. There was the time when she would have driven down to the deli and market herself to buy these things. There was a day when I would have driven her, but she would have gone into the stores herself. That particular day was just a couple of years ago. Now she can’t get there, even if I take her.

It’s Mother’s Day, the weather is perfect, and my mother is in decline. She has stage 4 breast cancer. She is 84.

Yesterday I was shopping in Bob’s to try to find her polyester stretch pants, the kind she wore in the 1960s and 1970s, like Laura Petrie wore on the old Dick Van Dyke show. I tried to explain to her that they may not make such slacks anymore, not in the way she remembers them.

“Polyester pants were now basically workout gear,” I say to her.

“I know that, I know that,” she said, a little abruptly. The answer was miraculous enough – that she knows that, which I believe she does, but that she heard what I said, without the nearly constant, “What?” .

As I was driving to Bob’s yesterday, and while I was in the store trying to find polyester pants, I kept seeing my mother bent over. These days, 90% of the time, she walks through the house bent over and gasping, as if she’s in great pain. For the first time since her cancer diagnosis, I thought: I think she’s going downhill, she can’t stand up straight. I felt so sad, nearly sad to the point of speechless, maybe to the point of tears, although most of the time, she makes me feels so frustrated. It’s very hard to repeat oneself up to four times in nearly every attempt at communication.

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m not even home with her right now. It seems cruel, on the one hand, to leave her alone on what might be our last Mother’s Day together, and yet, I don’t know what I would do with her if I stayed home. She would still insist on creaking up and down the staircase bent over in pain to do the washes, to load and unload the dishwasher, to get in my way as I try to prepare some food. I cannot offer to help her. I cannot say, “Look, let me do the washes.” She would look at me dumbly, as if I’d just spoken in Greek or Chinese. Her mouth would hang open. Her aged faced would look nearly ghastly and close to dead. I can’t take it, the emotions inside me crash and bang and I have to keep it all in so I don’t make the situation worse for both of us.

On a very bad day, she will let me load the dishwasher, and that’s when I understand she is terminally ill. I have been banned from the dishwasher in the past because I apparently am very bad at loading it. So I watch her load and unload it, and the laundry, bent over like a what? Like an old lady on her last legs. Like a dying woman.

I don’t know if being bent over so much of the time is from the cancer, the osteoporosis, the collapsed vertebrae, or just from old age. But she has most definitely declined. And as she declines, it becomes more and more difficult to talk to her.

I received a call a few days ago from a woman who works for the Steward Medical Group, a company that owns all kinds of doctors’ practices and medical facilities in the area. Although the call, and the knowledge the woman had of my mother’s medical condition, felt a bit like invasion of privacy, I suppose as owner of these facilities, they have access to medical records.

She was an older woman herself. I could tell from the crackle in her voice. She said, “I’ve seen your mother’s diagnosis. I’m calling to find out if she’s able to afford her medication. I see here that she just wants comfort. I’m trying to find out if she has the pain medication she needs.”

I tried to explain the situation.

“Well, she lives with me, you see,and right now, she’s still functional. She can go up and down the stairs, use the bathroom, take a shower, all that. I’m there with her, well, actually, I’m at work, but I’m home with her, I mean I live there. I mean, she lives in my house.”

“We will also be having a social worker call on a regular basis to see if she can be of assistance to her and to you.” That would be nice, to have someone of assistance to me. I could have used that person eight months ago, when I was trying to get referrals and appointments, but I am sure I will need the help now or soon.

“Um, okay.” The help sounded like a good idea to me, yet I’m always suspicious when some outside entity starts watching over you. Yet, what’s the difference if they try to control my mother’s life, which I don’t think they are trying to do, but if they were, what’s the difference? How much longer can she have left?

“You can try calling her if you want,” I said to the lady on the phone, since she had expressed an interested in doing so. “I will warn you that she doesn’t always get what you’re saying. You might have to repeat yourself. I don’t know if she’s kind of deaf. I don’t believe she is demented, but she’s hard to communicate with. Here is the number.”

When I arrive home in that evening, my mother tentatively walks into the kitchen and hesitates, and I know she has something to say about the woman who had called me, and then her, earlier in the day.

“I don’t understand what she called for. You’ll have to explain it to me.” I do my best, not entirely sure either what the woman had called for since she is not Hospice.

“It’s the Steward Group,” I try to explain. “You know, they own the hospitals and even Dr. Choi’s practice.”

Silence.

So I say it louder, no response. So I say it louder still, no response, so I say it perhaps a fourth time followed by, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” and a bit pissed, she replies, “Yes, I understand.” I guess she chooses not to respond

“They are a company that owns the hospitals and the doctor’s practices.”

“I know who they are!” she says.

I say, “Don’t worry, they are just calling because it’s their job.”

“She said some other nurse would be calling me. I told her to call you, that you are handling all this.”  It is the social worker who was going to call her, who will now be calling me. My mother doesn’t understand, and this makes it so hard to help her. And this is why she is alone right now on Mother’s Day, because it is so hard to help her. And I’m a bitch, or I’m at the end of my rope, but the rope needs to be longer, because she isn’t gone yet.

A few hours later, my mother says, “What a jerk that woman was. You know what she asks me? She says, if it’s an emergency, you will call 911? What does she think I don’t know that? Why doesn’t she call 911 for me?”

“She’s just trying to be supportive.”

“What?” That eternal “what?”

“Nothing,” I say.

I have been trying to decide about where I will live when she’s gone. Will I stay in my house, give it a makeover, maybe find a roommate and feel comfortable again within those walls? It is my home, after all, and there is so much good about it. But will her ghost in every room freak me out? Will the house just feel strange and bereft and make me feel insane with her missing from it? I don’t know.

I have been looking at condos in the area, most of which give me a great deal of anxiety – the complexes look horrible, some of them are nothing more than converted apartment buildings from the 1970s. Projects once, projects still with the low owner occupancy rate. I might be sharing walls with noisy neighbors, punks, screaming children, heavy metal played at full blast at 2 a.m., or maybe the condo association will piss me off and I’ll walk into a meeting with an automatic pistol. The automatic pistol, you should understand, would be my mouth.

But today, before I went to the deli, I drove into Knollsbrook, which is a condominium community I lived in as a teenager. It’s one of the nicer developments in my area, like a small town all its  own. Way, way in the back, there is a one-floor, 1,200 square foot, 2-bedroom- 2-bath unit for sale. I’ve seen those units. They are beautiful. I could afford it. The outdoor porch is enclosed in screen. The view is of the woods. I want to sit in that screened in porch with my two cats, listen to some soft music, read a book, do some writing, and start my life over. I want to buy this place, probably one of the nicest and one of the most affordable units in the complex, but I hear they won’t take animals. I hear you can get fined or even thrown out, if you have pets. Yet I hear they may not enforce that. And  as I drove in the first thing I saw was a couple unloading two dogs. They might have just been visiting.

I want to look out my windows and see the perfect landscape, the snow removed without any effort from me, swim in the three outdoor pools and the one indoor pool, as I did as a teenager.

I am searching for the place I will live when my mother is dead.

It’s Mother’s Day, and Knollsbrook looks perfect for me, but I have to leave and buy deli meat and a quartered chicken and cream cheese and bulkie rolls and bring them home to my mother and try to talk to her so she won’t feel alone on this day, perhaps the last Mother’s Day she will know.

The weekly post I promised

I have not finished this piece. It is a short scene from February 2014. I am hoping to turn this into something more, but if not, at least it’s here, a record of a moment.

This is what it looks like: My mother is lying on a gurney for the second time in two months, the first time to remove an enormous tumor that was pushing through her breast, stage 4 breast cancer.

This time we are at the hospital for a needle biopsy of her lung. There is a chance her lung could collapse during the procedure. She says she’s more worried about peeing in the bed.

I said, “That’s a good thing to be worried about, I mean, it’s better than worrying about the spot on your lung, whether it’s lung cancer or breast cancer.” (Did I really say all that? I must have thought it.)

I had to ask four questions to get the oncologist to explain to me why the lung biopsy would be beneficial, given his stage 4 “incurable” diagnosis.

“We need to know whether the spot is breast cancer or lung cancer,” he said.

Imagine a six-foot three tall, skinny man with dark hair and a wan complexion. He looks like he should be a funeral director. I guess as an oncologist, he nearly is one.

“Why,” I ask, “do you need to know which cancer it is, since you’ve already diagnosed her as incurable?”

“Because it could be lung cancer.”

This guy could have played Lurch in The Addam’s Family show.

“And if it’s lung cancer?”

“We would want to remove it.”

And once again, given that he has diagnosed her with incurable stage 4 breast cancer, I ask, “Why?”

“Because lung cancer could spread faster than breast cancer.” Couldn’t he have just said that first?

It was the only sentence that answered my question. Will it make a significant difference, – say add a year to her life as opposed to two months? I don’t ask because I don’t know how many questions it will take to get to that answer, or even if there is an answer, or if I want to know it. I cannot process any more information coming from this ghoulish man.

Renewal and Re-invention of…yourself

Another method of renewal - Expressive Art, led by my friend and artist Lynn Rosario of Art Answers. This is the art that graces our studio.
Another method of renewal – Expressive Art, workshops led by my friend and artist, Lynn Rosario, of Art Answers. This is the art that graces our studio.

I am learning about ways to renew and reinvent myself. Although I can’t go into details, several years ago, it was imperative that I reinvent myself at work – and I did. I now have a great job and work with terrific colleagues. But this blog post is about a different kind of renewal or re-invention, a more personal one, a renewal of self, that self that wants to sink into despair every so often. We need to wake her up to life. I don’t know what it is you do — paint, draw, play music, sing, take photos — or if you’re like me — you write.

When you get really “serious” about writing, things start to happen, like you gain a following, you get invited to read in public, you start publishing some of your work, you want more and more of these kinds of affirmations of yourself as a writer. Well, I do. I like the attention. Writing has always been central to my life and part of my identity, so when I see things happening for me, I’m pretty thrilled.

And yet.

More workshop art from Art Answers Expressive Art Workshop
More art from Art Answers Expressive Art Workshop

It’s easy to lose oneself in the business and the (small) glories of writing, the trying to get published, the hope that someone will notice you and invite you to read somewhere (really hope this), and the feelings of inadequacy that always arrive when your actual writing life (or life in general) doesn’t live up to your (ridiculously) high expectations.

So, this is a long-winded introduction to a way I’ve found to renew myself as a writer and as a human being. Simple, and we’ve all heard of it — free writing — reminding us why we started to write in the first place – to connect, to express, to understand ourselves and ourselves in relation to the world.

Thank you to fellow Solstice MFA Alum and good friend, Hannah Goodman, owner of The Write Touch. Today, Hannah led one of her workshops (she’s fabulous, come on down to Warren, RI next Saturday) and she helped all of us to “Release the Writer Within.” Below I will post my “free write.” This ain’t literature but it’s me re-birthing myself, reinventing myself. Again.

From the prompt: What Blocks Me?

(a 7-minute free write, imagine it in messy handwriting.)

It smells like envy. Does envy have a smell? I see limes and avocados. Limes are pungent; envy smells like a lime. The avocado gets stuck in my throat and mutes me.

What blocks me? It feels like responsibility. What does responsibility feel like? It feels like caring for an 82-year old woman. I know what that feels like because I do. She’s at my house right now, in her bedroom. The cats are ignoring her, which is heartbraking, but that’s what you get when you shut your door on them for the first two months they came to live with us.

Of course, she’s lived her life shutting doors on everything. As I age, I worry so much that I will do the same: lie in bed with a cat rather than a lover. Grow old alone, watch cats die. First I will watch my mother die. I’m her only company at this stage in her life. That’s sad. I’m shitty company for her.

I need to feed the cats. Pick up their pee and crap from the litter boxes. Did I tell you I have a bunny, too? He’s sweet and loveable, and I spend a good portion of my evenings picking up his droppings as he hops around the kitchen floor. It’s a big floor. I like to let him out of his cage.

Cages. What blocks me? The cages I set for myself – the envy I mentioned. Everyone is a better writer than I am. Everyone is a kinder person than I am; they don’t get angry and yell at their old mothers.

Her door is shut. She was born shut. She a nice woman. But who the hell knows her?

Who the hell knows me?

Thank you again, Hannah, for freeing me to write whatever I wanted, however I wanted, without worrying about it being “good” or “publishable,” or anything but what I needed to write at that moment.

If anyone is interested in attending one of Hannah’s classes, please let me know and I will get you in touch with Hannah. Warren, RI is not that far from the Massachusetts border.

To get in touch with Hannah to find out about The Write Touch writing workshops, see http://www.hannahrgoodman.com/

To get in touch with Lynn Rosario of Art Answers to find out about the Expressive Art Workshops from Art Answers, please email her at: myrosario2@verizon.net.

I need to take one of these Expressive Art workshops. Lynn and I want to find a way to merge our talents - art and writing - and build community. Now that's reinvention and renewal at its best.
I need to take one of these Expressive Art workshops. Lynn and I want to find a way to merge our talents – art and writing – and build community. Now that’s reinvention and renewal at its best.

Redheaded Angel

“I like your chain,” she said.

English: CVS/pharmacy on Garrett Road in Durha...
This is where love can happen. No shit.

I looked up at the redhead, then down at my neck to see what I was wearing: a simple and inexpensive silver necklace.

We were standing in the CVS Pharmacy for pick-up of prescription drugs. I was in line. She stood off to the side. She was close to my height, about 5 foot 5 inches tall, and slim but not skinny. I guessed her age to be somewhere in her forties, but it was hard to tell. Her face exuded youthfulness despite fine wrinkles evident around her mouth and eyes. Her features were perfect, and yet there was something imperfect about her.

“I wanted to hang something from the chain but nothings fits,” I said. The redhead looked confused so I added, “I mean, nothing fits over the clasp, so I have to wear it plain.”

She nodded and smiled.

Her hair looked kind of like this but red.

She had a full head of hair, in a stylish old-fashioned cut: medium short, just below her hairline in the back, brushed high up on top of her head and flowing down the sides and over her ears. A version of a 1970s shag cut, I thought, decades behind the times, but it looked good on her. Her red hair was beautiful: so full and shiny, more carrot-orange than red. Despite the obvious cut, her hair gave the impression of being windblown and natural. She seemed windblown and natural, like some higher power had just blown an angel into the CVS Pharmacy.

I stared. I smiled back. I felt goofy and mesmerized and could think of nothing further to say. Soon an older version of her, which turned out to be her mother, cut in front of me in line at the CVS.

“You were supposed to be waiting in line,” she said to her daughter. She said it with kindness.

The daughter spoke, “I know, but…” and that’s when I noticed the speech impediment, subtle but there. She had a slow pace to her speech, as if she were retarded, which she was not as far as I could tell, or as if she’d had a stroke, which perhaps had been the case.

She smiled again, this time at her mother. I caught the full-on smile, and my heart melted all over the floor. I wanted to know her. There was something wrong with her, possibly several things wrong with her – in a medical sense – and yet she was perfect: beautiful blue eyes, a little chiseled nose, and small straight white teeth. I gawked. I began to feel like a creep so I looked away and used my peripheral vision. I became a creep peering at her from the corner of my eye.

She took a step and when she did, she revealed a serious limp. Beyond a limp: her left leg moved up off the floor in a big half-moon circle as she walked. When she finally removed her left hand from her jacket pocket, it, too, was messed up. Once we would have used the word “gimpy.” I’m not sure what the correct term is now. She put her gimpy hand back in her pocket. I wondered again about stroke.

Her hair also looked kind of like this but not as long in the back – and red.

“Do you remember this song?” her mother said. A seventies song by the band Chicago, “Only the Beginning,” played in the background.

“Of course I remember,” she said.

My eyes remained focused on her, sometimes directly, sometimes not. I wasn’t sure if she noticed me watching, but I could not help myself.

She sang softly, “Only the beginning, only just a start…” She hummed and sang throughout the song. I listened to her soft singing, riveted. She was singing because she was happy. She knew all the words. Maybe she was even older than I was. She was a red-headed joyful, spirit. Maimed yet perfect. I was un-maimed yet so imperfect. She sang the next song that played over the speakers, another song from back in the day.

I imagined myself walking over to her, to hold her in my arms, for a moment, ten minutes, for an hour, forever. I wanted to absorb her love and beauty. Is this love at first sight? Or this is the reaction when you spot an angel who walks the earth, or perhaps a soul you knew and loved in another lifetime? The law of attraction drew me toward her, although I did not budge an inch.

“What is your name?” Her mother asked the young pharmacist — a lovely young black man I’d seen many times before when picking up my own mother’s prescriptions. He said, “Tyreese.” It was an unusual name; at least to an older white mother, so she asked, not surprisingly, “Could you say that again?” Honestly, I needed to hear it again because I hadn’t quite caught it either. Simultaneous with her question to the pharmacist, her daughter said, “Tyreese” (perfectly) under her breath, and then louder, “Hello, Tyreese.” That’s when I knew she was brilliant and cognizant of all that happened around her. She continued to sing.

I knew I’d never see this woman again. She was just a moment along a chain of moments and events that make up a life – mine and hers, her mother’s, my mother’s (I was picking up my mother’s drugs, which is how I came to be standing in the CVS that day.) I’m writing this all down so I never forget the moment. Not wanting to forget is the reason I write anything, I think.

At the moment of seeing this love of my life, who I would never see again, I knew she’d come into my life for a reason: to remind me of what I need to feel.

She walked past me and looked at me as she left the store with her mother.

I said, “Have a good day.”

“You, too, hon…” she said.