Monday, June 08, 2015

My heart is squeezed by my own hand

The demands never stop
my heart is squeezed by my own hand
milking it
palpating it
waking it up
reminding it that life is good
and wonderful
and worth the pain

Judging life during the ebb
and forgetting all about the flow
 is a mistake

I've been stuck in ebb mode
caught up in an endless circling eddy
for week upon week

 I don’t like it but am at a loss to escape it
 at a loss to figure out how
to muster the courage to break through
the transparent wall of the bottomless whirlpool
and take a lateral leap
out into the flowing fresh water

This constant round and round leaves me dizzy
and filled with what feels like depression
but is probably grief
I’m heavy

If I were a cow
I’d be lowing in a distant meadow
head hanging
jowls jiggling in the breeze

Staring at the magnificent green clover
 but having little desire to eat it
 Not one bite

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The last time I wrote about my father, alive

It’s Wednesday night and I'm on "nightwatch" at Mom and Dad's.

My dog Birdie is snoozing, stretched across the living room rug, an Oriental to match all the other rugs in this house. The rugs are a fitting accent to the shelves filled with old books, and all those things that remind me of my childhood surrounded by pretty, pre-Ikea, inherited things.

I just put my dad to bed: A practice in patience, of finagling him out of his clothes and into his "overnight underpants" and his pajamas. The trick is to catch him before he buttons all the buttons you just unbuttoned on his shirt, and unbuttons all the buttons you just fastened on his pajama top.

I took him into the bathroom and helped him brush his teeth, put his dentures into their overnight Efferdent "bath." He brushes what's left of his teeth for minute after minute, taking solace in one of the few things he remembers well how to do. How many times has he brushed those teeth? He brushes and brushes and brushes, each time remembering and forgetting how long he has been doing it. Was it just a few strokes ago, or 100 strokes?

He sits on the edge of his bed and  I take off his slippers and his glasses. He smooths his hand over and over the sheets, approving of how warm it feels where the electric blanket has done its work. I have to cajole him into lying down.

“Put your head down, Dad. Don’t you want to lie down in that cozy bed and go to sleep."
“Yes, I do,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

He finally does lay down, curling his knees into his torso,  rolling away from me and onto his right side. I lift the blanket to ease his feet under.

He looks so much like a child, his head on the pillow, the covers pulled up to his chin. I can’t help but pet him. I put my hand on his forehead like I do with my children. I stroke his hair a bit. All the while, I'm fearing he might call me out for treating him like a baby. But he doesn't.

“Nighty night,” I say; the exact words my mother used with me the countless times she put me to bed.

“Have a nice sleep,” I say, turning off the light then leaning over to stroke and kiss his forehead one last time. I’ve never had the urge to touch my father so much as I do now.

“Thank you for taking care of me,” he says.
“It’s my pleasure,” Dad, “I like taking care of you.”
“And it’s my pleasure to be taken care of by you,” he says.

The arrangement works. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to see my father this way.

In the Bromley bar a while back, after Esther’s final ski race of the year, he went mute as he so often does in noisy places. He just sat there, back erect and awkward, smiling and staring. Not following the conversation, not leading it either. Just being.

And when he's like this, I wonder if he's uncomfortable. Is he confused to the point of feeling anxiety that he can't remember how to express? I imagine he’s experiencing that feeling of being close to succumbing to sleep, when your mind starts to scatter and split into shards, too many thought snippets headed in too many different directions to keep track of. When you find yourself thinking and sometimes saying words aloud you don’t even know the meaning of, and you cannot keep hold of one simple, unshiftable thought for long enough to feel it in your hand, or on your tongue, or nestled safely between your temporal lobes.

Just the other night, while I was trying to fall asleep again in the middle of the night --an angst- ridden time when my mind is unguarded and the demons tend to prowl -- I thought of the divine poetry that is my father having Alzheimer's and my mother remaining lucid.

My mother can handle old age. She's self forgiving. Grace is within her grasp at all times, so hammered into her as the only way to be-- graceful, gracious, pleasant, patient-- and can therefore experience the losses, the failures and flaws of old age without raging against them.

My father, on the other hand, has never relented in his expectations of human perfection. If he were fully present, able to experience what's happening to his mind and his body-- the loss of memory, muscle tone, balance, coordination, continence-- in a lucid state, he would be in a constant state of self-directed rage and inner tantrum.

I know this because I can imagine this. I know this because I am my father’s daughter and I have mini inner tantrums, sometimes daily, brought on by my own perceived flaws: My inability to glide seamlessly through life and part the seas without making mistake after seeming mistake.

Back at my father's bedside once again, after hearing him muttering, "sonofabitch!" and shifting restlessly in his bed, I began the game of coaxing him into the bathroom. After getting him to swing his legs over and sit upright, I took his still-strong hands and pulled him to standing. 

"Where did you come from," he said.
"You," I answered. "I'm Doug Shaw's daughter."
"You are?" he said, surprise in his voice and wonder in his eyes.
"But you're so big and strong."

Friday, March 20, 2015

I'll have this scar on my chin forever

I have this scar on my chin.

It tells the story of a childhood played out against a backdrop of cold, white snow and ice and hills and mountains. 

I was 3 when it happened. At least that's what I remember being told. Too bad my mom didn't have a blog.

I was sledding with my older sisters and some neighborhood kids and our beagle mutt, Victor, in a meadow behind our house. I don't know what month it was. Was it cold or mild? I am guessing it was cold, after a thaw, because the snow was crusty and aggressive. The kind of snow that growls and fights back when you step on it, and bites and cuts at any bare skin.

Victor used to get excited at the sight of small children flying down the hill. Funny, our former dog, Ruby, did this and our current dog, Birdie, does this as well. It must be instinct. The instinct to protect, to herd. But maybe they are just confused about our sudden, seemingly-magic propulsion. Confused or jealous.

Victor chased us, barking wildly, and bit at our clothes with manic, snapping jaws--often grabbing hold of snow-caked woolen mittens and pulling them off. I'm not sure if I remember it happening, or if my memory is stolen from my siblings retelling of the story, but, Victor got hold of my sleeve as I was moving down the hill and pulled me out of my cold, aluminum flying saucer.

I lurched, face first, into the crust-- face plant-- and emerged-- or did my sister's pluck me out--crying and bloody. The fun ruined, we marched-- a trail of tears-- back across the meadow toward home. This is the part I feel I do remember. In my mind's eye, I see myself--snot-nosed from blubbering, and bleeding-- walking across that endless field to find my mother.

I ended up in the blue clapboard home/office of our family doctor, Doc Harwood. Doc Harwood pulled me and all five of my siblings into this world. Doc Harwood drove with my parents to the hospital each time my mother went into labor. Dad in the driver's seat. Doc Harwood in the passenger seat. My mother in the back, laboring quietly, while Dad and Doc discussed sports and politics, and ignored her.

Doc Harwood and his unforgettable, bristly-caterpillar eyebrows and grinding-gear voice, cleaned and stitched the wound on my chin. Thankfully, I have no recollection of that.

Joe Markey, my father's best friend, joked that Doc Harwood might have used a backhoe to do the stitching job. The scar he left behind is not pretty--it looks rumpled where it straddles my jaw bone-- but it's mine.
Ever tried to take a flattering selfie of your chin? #startingtofeelbadaboutmyneck

My childhood boyfriend had a striking, far more impressive than mine, scar on his cheek near his jawline. I used to think the fact that we both had facial scars, acquired in early childhood, connected and protected us somehow.

I have no problem with the flaw of my scar. Many people don't even see it. But I love it when someone does notice. Because then I get to tell the story, my story, of my "big" sledding accident. I'm proud of my adventurous childhood in the snow and ice.

Isla, 9,  said the same thing about her scar recently. I told her that when she was finished growing, plastic surgeons from Shriners Hospital could make her burn scars less visible. Having been a patient, she is considered a member of the "Shriners family" until she is 21.

"I don't want them to make my scars look better, she said. I like my scars.  I like when people ask me about my scars. It makes me feel special."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Playing ping pong with my father

The one enduring thing that makes my father’s eyes light up, besides my mother, of course , is an offer of a game of ping pong.

He loves that paddle in his hand. The focus required. The single mindedness. No conversation has the power to harness his mind like the challenge of hitting that little plastic ball back across the net to his opponent. No memory is more vivid it seems, than muscle memory.

Despite Alzheimer's and prostate cancer that's spread deeply into his bones, his hand-eye coordination has not suffered and may be the last to go. A true athlete-- his identity has always lurked somewhere in the tangles of his strong, coordinated physique and a mentality for constant motion. I like that. It fits.

I also like how he counts the hay bales each time we come into the back meadow on our walk. A walk that has become more slow and more predictable each day. The most predictable part, his stopping to count, out loud, how many hay bales there are dotting the scene in front of him. He wants, no needs, to keep track, as obsessively as he once kept track of his checking account balance.

And the chanting..."Yes, yes, Christ yes"  that has become part of his day, as if he were being preached to by some unheard preacher and agrees with everything he says.

His legs have grown wobbly, unreliable.

He has moments of belligerence.
If you don’t stop that I’ll smack your butt until you are black and blue.

Did someone say that to him as a child? I would ask him, but I know he’s already forgotten what he said.

“What are you doing?” he sometimes says to Isla, in that cold, accusatory voice, when she’s being too boisterous around him. He sometimes even says it to me, when I’ve made too much noise, or moved too suddenly for his liking. Too much or his scattered brain and burned out nervous system to handle.

But mostly, his voice and demeanor are soft.

And grateful.
Thank you for all you’ve done today. Thank you for being here with me. Thank you. I love you.

His body moves so slowly. He sleeps incessantly, as if he's being pulled under by a force that we can’t see. But it’s strong. It’s constantly pulling him, every waking hour. Pulling him back, pulling him down.

It's impossible to know what he's experiencing. When he exclaims "Sonofabitch, Sonofabitch, and "Stop it, you bitch, you bastard,"  is he talking to the cancer? Or is he cursing the darkness that is stealing his mind?

The moments come in such short bursts he can’t answer when I ask, “What's the matter, dad?”

It’s something no one can see. Something discreet and deadly. A thief.

His legs are wobbly. He fell in the bathroom yesterday, a colossal clatter, luckily saved by the toilet before he hit the floor.

Basic dressing and undressing stymies him:
Do shoes come before pants? Do I need two belts? Am I unbuttoning or buttoning? Am I going to bed or waking up? Am I coming or going?

He’s gone so alarmingly quiet, my dad.  Because he can’t stop the clicking of his brain. It's like a wheel and he can’t make it stop. Can't make it settle firmly on the right topic. He can't contribute because we are, everything is, moving too fast for him.

Or is he moving too fast for us? I don’t know.

So he says nothing. My father has never said nothing. My father is a talker, an engager, a joke teller. Rarely has he ever left a space empty of words.

Now he’s often without a voice. Speechless. Nodding. Because speaking takes too much energy, or because he just can't remember the words. The words aren’t making themselves available fast enough. He can’t find them in time. Not the right ones.

His eyes look so vulnerable. His hands are still so big and strong. He uses them to grab mine each time I help him get his arm through his shirtsleeve. He grabs my hand with such abrupt firmness. Such desperate, fatherly warmth.

It startles me, every time.

Friday, November 14, 2014


It's like not knowing how to pick up the phone and call that distant friend you waited too long to call.

It's being afraid, somehow, to just pop back into the picture and act as if nothing happened while you were away. Or being incapable of explaining what happened.

Because what happened was not all that remarkable. But at the same time it was, genuinely, remarkable.

What happened was life.

What happened was legs grew longer

What happened was we drove around a lot, mostly to soccer practice.

What happened was Ian's mother, Granny, died and we went to England to celebrate a life fully lived.

What happened was, we went to the beach and met a dog named Romeo.

What happened was, we painted

And painted

What happened was,we climbed some mountains

And looked out at more mountains. And swam in rivers

And trolled ponds for frogs

And wrote in our journals

And dined by the lake

And turned Barbies into mermaids

And the river called again....

As did the lake....

And back to the river....because it is so amazing and refreshing and alive with constant movement and noise.

 And then what happened was, we picked berries

And went camping on an island in a big lake.

And, yes, we went back to that river and jumped off a cliff and splashed into the water

And there was time for dress up..

And tree climbing

and we went to the beach

Where we saw mermaids

 Esther became a middle schooler and Isla a third grader....

but they still enjoy each other's company... mostly

 Fall came

We put on hats

 And coats

This morning..... there was snow

And I don't have a single picture to share because it's all melted away. Much like the last five months. Turned to liquid that is lapping at our heels, threatening to deepen and swirl around our ankles, ready to lift us off our feet and carry us, suspended and helpless, down this wild, rushing river.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I can hear the sounds of my kids playing at recess

I'm sitting on my back step soaking up the sun, yearning to feel the promised effects of Vitamin-D penetrating my skin and seeping into my veins and stimulating my dull brain.

Writing on a laptop outside, with the midday sun directly overhead, is tricky. It's hard to see the words on the screen for the glare.  What I can see --mirror mirror--is my furrowed brow and deeply lined nose and frowning, lined, mouth reflected back at me. Those lines that say, "you've had your day in the sun. Time for some shade and a bit of overpriced beauty cream, Honey."

I keep dipping my head to see the true color of my hair in the sun. It almost looks blonde. It looks so dark and dirty to me in artificial light. The shallow vanities of a once tow-headed girl turned brown-haired woman.

But back to that sound. That sound-- the sound of children squealing, their bodies exuding the joy of liberation. The joy of being released from the rigid walls, the uncomfortable chairs, the assault of overhead fluorescent lights and the expectations of overly strict teacher's aids--is a good sound. That sound is the sound of a happy childhood. I live for that sound.

Last night after helping Isla to bed, I took our giant puppy out for a final frolic in the moonlight. It was bright. The air was cool but not cold. I could hear the breeze whizzing through the baby-leafed trees and vibrating across the grass. Wood frogs croaked. Spring peepers sounded their sustained siren call. There were thin stripey clouds, like iron bars, waving across the moon. The sky looked like a painted backdrop behind a stage. An illustration in a children's book about Gods, Kings, Knights and dragons and their waiting, always waiting, princesses.

As I stood there, my bare feet numb in the cold grass, I imagined being an Indian. A native American without access to Google and Facebook and 24- hour news and the constant bombardment of perpetually-updated information. Just me. My dog. This meadow on this hillside. Those unmoving mountains in the distance, and that constantly shifting sky, showing off its stunning, unselfconscious moon.

Who was the first person to call the moon "the moon"? What did the Indians, who must have stood here once, looking at that same moon, that same archer Orion who goes from lying on his back across the east mountain, shooting straight up into the sky in December, to standing upright, bold and ready, straight above the house, his bow pointing north in spring, think when they looked at that same, younger, moon?

If I hadn't had an artificially-lit house, a computer and a television and a smart phone, a sink filled with dinner dishes, a pile of unfolded laundry to fold, and two young children calling to me  across the meadow, I would have kept walking in that moonlight. I would have walked straight into the woods to see the shadows cast by the trees. And maybe I would have stripped a piece of bark from a white birch tree and found a sharp stick to write with. And I'd write it all down. I'd write all the words I could think of for how the full moon, and the sky that appears to hold it, suspended, makes me feel.

I would write down every question I had about what it was I was seeing and hearing there and every noise I heard, including the creaking of an unlucky tree that can't yield to the wind as noiselessly, and uncomplaining, as the rest.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Isla's trip to England: A poem

Ian took the girls to England during spring break to see his mother, who is sick in the hospital. Isla wrote this on her way home from the airport.

While their reasons for making the trip were more desperate than happy, they had a good visit with Granny that could very possibly be their last.  Isla stroked Granny's head and helped a nurse feed her. She and Esther both held her hand. Though it was hard to understand her because she is too weak to speak, Esther heard Granny say "I love you" when they left the hospital for the last time.

I'm so pleased they got to see her, their Granny who lives so far away. And I'm even more pleased she got to see them, her curious American grandchildren.

 by Isla

We went to Iagland
I had so much fun
The grass was green and the flowers wear bloming
And the sun was shing like an angul
I walked throw a feald of flowrs.
We went to Wales to see horeses jump like the wind
And their hovs thumping on the growd
Then the nest day we go swimming.
It is Ester sunday
I fill myself up with choclit
It is time to go home
I am sad to leave

Most recent stream of consciousness, which reads more like puddle jumping, can be found here on the BabyCenter Blog.