Send in the Clowns

I was talking with my sister a couple of weekends ago, and we both realized that our mom would have been 90 this month, if she was still alive.  And just to show that time does heal, we were able to have a little chuckle at her expense (Mom, if you’re watching from heaven, forgive us!), talking about how weird it is to celebrate someone’s birthday when they’re gone. Kind of like celebrating your wedding anniversary years after your spouse is gone.Which we’re experts on because our mother would get furious with us every year if we didn’t send an anniversary card to commemorate the day, years after our dad was gone. Which I consistently refused to do, with the result that I celebrated her anniversary by getting an earful every fall.

OK, so I was a bad daughter.  And it gets worse. I pointed out to my sister that if Mom was still here, we would have been tensely planning yet another birthday celebration for her.

I know, I know, I’m horrible.But her 85th birthday party almost did us both in.

We were good daughters and we carefully planned a lovely luncheon for her. Surprises for people in their 80s are generally a bad idea, so we worked with her on the attendee list. Instead of bringing gifts, we asked guests to bring memories, along with a small remembrance of the event.

The day of the party came. It was February and it was Cleveland. So we slogged through the snow and ice to the restaurant. My sister, Joan, and I had cooked up a little memory of our own to share, but we knew we’d need several glasses of wine first to pull it off.

The room was filled with chattering ladies, many of whom were of a certain age. I was politely chatting with someone whose name I didn’t remember, when my sister, Joan, took my arm in a death grip and pulled me away.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, not really that sad at being rescued from a conversation I was totally lost in. “Oh my God,” Joan responded. “Do you see that lady over there, the one in the purple? Well, I couldn’t remember her name or who she was so I asked her the most innocent question: ‘How’s your lovely family doing?'”

She paused to take a big gulp of wine before continuing. “And do you know what she said? She said that her husband died last month and her son died three months before that and that her daughter-in-law had a stroke!”

Another gulp of wine. “So then I went over to talk to that lady – the one in the plaid skirt. Because I’m an idiot, I asked her the same question. And she told me that her only child died last fall and she’s all alone in this world. Now I’m terrified to talk to anyone!”

Together we drained our wine goblets, and decided it was clearly too treacherous to make nice chit chat with people we don’t know. So it must be time for the happy birthday ceremony. We clinked wine glasses and got everyone settled down for lunch and birthday cake.

After everyone ate, sang and cake slices were passed around the table, Joan and I left to get ready for our big close-up moment.

Years before, we celebrated yet another birthday with our mom by taking her to a spa in Cleveland for the works – facial, massage, hair and make-up. What we didn’t know was that we had apparently chosen a spa popular with Ringling Brothers, because the make-up we received was so thick and dreadful that we looked like clowns. You could scrape it off with a credit card…

As a family, we’d had many belly laughs over this experience, and so to properly share it with our mom’s friends, I had bought clown outfits for us – big shoes, big horns, red noses (although by then we had enough wine that those really weren’t necessary), wild wigs. Giggling so hard we were in danger of peeing on ourselves, we emerged from the ladies room to bewildered stares.

Well, we OWNED that moment! If I do say so myself, we had the whole room convulsed, and all memories of dead family members were tucked away for awhile. It ended up being a wonderful party, and a good time was had by all. Although I’m certain some of her friends still think we’re more than just a little whack.

But my sister and I agreed: we were traumatized by the hidden pitfalls of chatting with nice old ladies. And if we had to do this again, we would simply run away to circus. After all, we had the perfect outfits to wear.

10,000 Slides

Over the last few days, I visited Paris, Thailand, Romania, Brazil and Greece. I spent time at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico. I met up with more relatives than I knew I had. I saw myself as adorable, geeky, oh-so-hot and oh-so-not.

I made this amazing journey with my sister, as we painstakingly picked our way through dozens of old photo albums and box upon box upon box of old slides. Reviewing all those images and deciding what to save and what to toss were the final steps in wrapping up our mom’s estate.

Although tedious, time-consuming and occasionally mind-numbing, this was actually kind of a wonderful way to say our final goodbyes to our parents. After all, our most recent memories of our mom was when she was so sick and in pain. Being re-introduced to the vibrant, elegant lady who I used to know was really something special.

Our dad has been gone for seven years, and so my memories of him are no longer dominated by the last few truly dreadful months of his life. I remember him as my dad, and such an important part of my life.  But did I remember him as a young father? Did I know that his face lit up so much when he visited his homeland of Romania? Did I know how handsome he was as a policeman in Palestine, or how earnest as a young physician in the U.S. Army?

We came across more than photos.  We found our dad’s old sketch books, letters from our grandparents, immigration papers documenting how most of our family fled anti-Semitic Europe and found safety in Palestine, Brazil and the United States. (Some of whom were not so fortunate died in the death camps of World War II.) We found out how much our Aunt Pearl helped our father come to America to attend medical school. We found the lists of every single medical school in the United States and their admittance requirements that our aunt had put together for him.  We found his meticulously kept records of his academic record and qualifications. We found the numerous rejection letters – and the glorious acceptance letter from Case Western Reserve that changed his life and began ours.

I was born in 1952; my sister in 1950.  We forget how very close to the end of World War II that was, and how the war shaped so much of our lives.  Going through these photos and documents brought it to life.

I confess.  If it had been up to me, I would have trashed all those slides, photographs and documents without looking at them.  Going through boxes of old stuff is not something that I would normally do.  But my sister, more sentimental and more sensible than me, insisted. And by doing so, gave us the gift of time travel and refreshed memories. And what a wonderful gift that is.

Grow Old Along With Me

Last night, as Scott and I were comfortably ensconced in our favorite chairs, catching up on old episodes of Law and Order, Criminal Intent, I looked over at him and realized how lucky I am – to be spending my life with someone who is so kind, so smart, so funny… just so good.  My timing was auspicious, as on Thursday, Scott and I will celebrate 37 years of marriage to each other.  Not bad for a couple who, according to all the statistics, got married way too young (I was just 21).

I was a new college graduate; Scott was halfway through the University of Minnesota’s medical school.  We scrapped by on very little.  Don’t laugh, but I tried to keep our grocery budget to under $14 a week (possible although not delicious in 1974).  We ate a lot of questionable hot dogs in those days.  And anything else that was on sale. We lived in a condemned duplex. We had the downstairs and our friends, Irwin and Reid, had the upstairs. The mice had the run of both floors plus the very scary basement. In the winter, the snow piled up on the windowsill in our bedroom – on the inside, that is, sometimes creating a little snowdrift on the floor.

Scott graduated in 1976, and we used our last few hundred dollars to rent a truck and drive to California for his residency with UCLA. Where I discovered that places exist on earth where it’s 70 degrees out in January and that four seasons, while lovely, can be overrated.

Did we ever fight? Like cats and dogs. Did we ever disagree? Constantly. Did we have battles of the will? Ha! Have you met me? Now imagine me even more opinionated and you can envision Scott.

It took time – years, really – to reach a place where we could live together and coexist peacefully. I grew to accept that vacation meant going to Montana to visit his family, and he grew to accept that I was going to have jobs that required a lot of travel. We had starter children (dogs).  After eight years of marriage, we took the plunge and had real children (Carolyn and Andrew).   We moved three times to find the right house, neighborhood and school system.   We expanded our vacation horizons from Montana to Hawaii, then Greece, Thailand, Peru and beyond.

We turned 30.  Then 40.  Then 50.  And like clockwork, 60 is around the corner.

And it’s OK.  We’ve lived a lot of life in our 37 years together.  I hope for many more years together, but I take nothing for granted.  Scott lost his dad at age 68, so we know there are no guarantees in this world.  So we treasure each other, enjoy each other, and only occasionally fight like cats and dogs.  Really, life is too short…

Grow old along with me.
The best is yet to be.
The last of life, for which the first was made.

Robert Browning

February 23

A year ago, I was in Cleveland to help my mom celebrate her 88th birthday. She was in great spirits, completely recovered, or so it seemed, from her near-death episode of Thanksgiving. I shook my head in wonder, muttered something about Lazarus, gave her a huge hug and prepared for the birthday festivities. Which were pretty great.

My sister and I took her out to dinner at the restaurant of her choice, a Cleveland downtown hotspot which was the favorite hangout of the Cavs, including that traitor LeBron James. She started dinner off with her traditional gin martini (very dry, two olives, straight up, don’t skimp on the gin, now), and went on to enjoy a huge dinner of lobster and shrimp.  We finished the night off with birthday cake and, to my Mom’s delight, a near-meeting with Shaq (who was hard to miss – do you know how many minks had to die to cover that big body in a sad fur coat??) and LeBron.

You never know when you’re experiencing the last of anything, and this birthday dinner was no exception.

Oh sure, we knew she had terminal cancer, and that we almost lost her the previous fall. I had been in despair for months over it.  But that night, she was so…great.  Her old self.  Happy, energetic, and with a great appetite. In fact, I told my sister that I really saw no reason to keep coming to Cleveland on a monthly basis – Mom seemed fine.

So I stopped.  And the next time I went, she was in her final decline, and a week away from her last breath.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. So stupid. Why did I stop going, when she was in good enough shape for us to appreciate each other? Do you know she didn’t know who I was at the end? She knew my sister but she didn’t know me. She’d point at my sister and say, “Joan.” Then she’d point at herself and say, “Shirley.” And then she’d look at me with a blank look on her face. Sad, sad, sad. So sad.

I’ve been dreading today for months, because I knew how painful a day it would be. And yes, I know next year will be easier, and the one after that even easier.  But today is a tough day for me. A day of sweet memories and bitter regrets.

I loved my Mom, and all I want is to tell her about her new great granddaughter, the recent terrific book I read that she’d love, too, and then hear about her bridge club friends and how miserable the weather is in Cleveland in February.

I can’t do that in person, but I’m thinking about her today, and I miss her.  I miss her a lot.

Laughing with Steve Tyrell

Years ago, Scott gave me the album New Standards by Steve Tyrell, and I was hooked.  Since then, I’ve collected every album he’s done.

You may not know it, but you’ve listened to him, too.  Check this one out from Father of the Bride:

Six years ago, shortly after my dad died, I gave a Steve Tyrell CD to my mom, thinking she would like his rendition of old favorites.  I was wrong.  She didn’t like it; she loved it. She played those CDs constantly, and when I came to town, we’d often sit in her music room, play Scrabble and listen to Steve bring those songs to life.  And yes, sometimes we’d sing with him, even if our voices were a bit off key.

So whenever I feel a bit down, I click on one of his albums, and feel like I’m back with my mom in good times. (Even though on her last day on this earth, I brought my laptop to her hospice room and played Steve Tyrell for her as her time dwindled to nothing.)

Being with my daughter during this special time – awaiting the now past-due birth of her second baby – I can’t help but think about my own mom a lot. I remember how she came out to California to help me with my new babies, oh those many years ago, and how her face lit up when she held her grandchildren.  I remember how close to her I felt, and how much I appreciated what she did.  She was repaid by having grandchildren who were close to her from the very start.

I hope I’m half as lucky.

Thanksgiving

A year ago, I was looking forward to a poignant but wonderful Thanksgiving.  Knowing this was likely our mom’s last celebration,  my sister and I made sure all of our children and my grandson made it to Cleveland for the holiday.  We brought family in from Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles and London.

I was set to fly to the Midwest with Carolyn and Lucas a couple days before Thanksgiving.  But I got a phone call from my sister the week before – our mom was in the hospital and I needed to get to Ohio ASAP.  I jumped on a plane and was there within 24 hours.

I have strong memories from that trip. Seeing my bright and put-together mother in a hospital bed, disheveled and completely disoriented.  Getting her home in time for the holiday, only to call the paramedics early Thanksgiving day and have them rush her back to the hospital, with me tossing recipes at my son and daughter saying, “I need you to cook – we have 16 people coming for dinner!”. And having her return that evening, carried down to her bedroom by my son, in a fireman’s hold.

She bounced back from that incident, but I didn’t. I started mourning my mom’s death a year ago, although she was still very much alive. I mourned so hard and so long that when she finally died, I had worked through all the emotions – or maybe I was just numb.

This year it’s a very different holiday. My sister and brother-in-law will be having Thanksgiving in Boulder, hosted by my niece and her partner.  Scott and Andrew will be feasting with my sister- and brother-in-law in Orange County.  And I’ll be in London, where Thanksgiving is not on the calendar, with Carolyn, Juan Carlos, Lucas – and maybe new baby Matilda, if she makes her appearance before the big day.

It occurred to me this past weekend that I can fall into depression because of absence – of family, of friends, of work, of interests.  And so it behooves me to make sure that my life remains full, not empty. Which certainly won’t be a problem for the next month, as I’ll have my hands – and my heart – full helping out with my grandson and my new granddaughter. And then? Christmas, a new year and all that life holds.

Life is of our own making. We can be victims or we can be volunteers. I want to embrace it all, leaving the sorrow but not the memories behind me. Making new memories.  Being thankful for what I have and for what I had.

I love Thanksgiving. May yours be full of good food, friends and family!

 

A House That’s Not a Home

Let me start off by saying I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic god. I don’t think any being is out there watching what I do, judging me, making notes about my place in eternity, trying to help me or trying to damn me. But. That is not to say I don’t believe in a power greater than me.  Because that I most certainly do. Something started existence, and it wasn’t me.

I bring this up because I’m about to start talking about spirits, and I don’t want you to think me crazy or inconsistent. Although I’m probably both.

So. Last month I returned to Cleveland for a couple of reasons – first and foremost was to host a shower for my lovely niece, Amy, and her beloved, Christie. The second was to help my sister continue to clean out mom’s house.

The minute I walked into my mom’s house I knew something was different. The house was dead. The laughter had left the walls. The spirit had fled the premises.  My mom’s house had gone from being a home to just being a building – an attractive one, mind you – but nothing more. The heart  was gone.

I felt so sad standing there.  I wandered through the house, touching things that my mom had loved, hoping to feel her there again.  But no – she’s gone.

Do houses have personalities and a life of their own? Oh, I think so.  I remember being at my friend Betty’s house for a baby shower last year.  This was probably the first or second time I’d been back to her house since she remarried a wonderful guy and was well-situated in her good new life.  “Betty!”, I exclaimed. “This is such a happy house now!”  And it was (and is).

We are more than our physical beings.  Perhaps our most important parts emanate in some spiritual way from our souls and the hearts of our very being.  Those invisible bits of protoplasm escape and cling to the walls and people around us, and they convey our fears, hopes and love. But when we’re gone, so goes our spirit from this earth.

And yet.  And yet… when I look at my mom’s favorite painting, now hanging in my dining room, I feel her standing right next to me. When I stoop down to straighten the fringe on the gorgeous handmade rug in my front hall, I feel my dad watching me, asking if I love the rug as much as he loved making it for me.

Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167

Horatio:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.