Monday, April 22, 2013
Four eleven-year-old girls stand on a sunny school playground. Three are in eleven-year-old bodies. One peers out from the decades-older body of their teacher. One girl, a happy healthy athletic bursting-with-happiness-and-energy long-limbed girl, does a cartwheel out of nowhere, for no particular reason beyond the invitation of the warm bright air and her own inner joy.
The three other girls watch and admire her form, and so she does another, also with perfect cartwheel form: First one hand on the ground, then the other, with legs going perfectly overhead, each landing in its turn, the torso perpendicular to the ground the entire time. Perfect 360 degree rotations. She ends each revolution with a victory stance, arms raised high, exuberant grin on her face.
The peeking-out girl says wow, that was amazing, I've never done a cartwheel.
One of the other girls laughs and says I can't do one either. She's about to show them her not-doing-a-cartwheel when the fourth girls spins out three in a row. Her audience watches in admiration. This is not someone who looks like she could do any cartwheels, let alone a beautifully executed series. Short of stature, short-limbed, solid, the best artist in the class with an artist's intense inner focus and no previously apparent athletic inclinations. She barely smiles at the applause and praise offered by her peers, but the blush pushing up from her collar reveals her pleasure.
The peeking-out girl asks how did you learn to do that. Thinking about her own short solid body that she could never coax into the light freedom of a cartwheel.
The reply from the artist: gymnastics, lessons from the time she was a much littler girl.
The peeking-out girl remembers a childhood where there was neither the money nor the parental energy for gymnastics or dance (she desperately wanted to be a ballerina) or piano even (let alone the harp she knew she was born to play). She recalls friends trying to show her the steps to a cartwheel, and her frustration at not being able to follow the simple instructions, and the shame voice saying stupid fat girl. She thinks she remembers being laughed at, although she's not so sure about that any more. She remembers the hot flush of humiliation, her fury at a body that would not bend to her mind's demands, her decision to never try again.
Do you want to see me try offers the girl who has said she's never done a cartwheel either. This girl is a soccer celebrity who plays whatever sport a season has to offer. A child of supreme confidence in herself despite a life where adults betray and disappoint her in heartbreaking ways. Without waiting for an answer from her audience, she spins herself awkwardly around, head down, her body moving in a twisted "u" shape, her limbs going every which way but where they should. She lands on her bottom, laughing, her face alight with joy.
Everyone claps for her, and laughs with her, and then the three in-time eleven-year-olds wander away, distracted by a kick-ball game. The peeking-out eleven-year-old, safely hidden behind the eyes of her sixty-year-old body, marvels at what she's just seen. Success by someone who wasn't a cool kid. Failure by someone who was. But failure that no one saw as failure. Failure seen as fun and not one bit of anything more.
She offers a question tentatively, inwardly, longingly. Maybe we could try again?
The sixty-year-old teacher stands watching her students frolic like wild things on a sunny spring playground, holding her own inner eleven-year-old close. You know it's too late for cartwheels in this body. But look, it's not too late to see that shame does not have to be a part of that loss. It's not too late to understand that not doing cartwheels never ever meant there was something wrong. It's not too late to finally realize that you are as wonderful, talented, and beautiful as any of the girls you watch every day with envy and yearning.
Together, they form a picture of a freckle-faced girl with braids and strong sturdy limbs, banged up knees and bare feet, doing a perfect hand, hand, foot, foot, perpendicular rotation in the long faded sunlight of a North Idaho summer. It didn't happen, but it might have, and they applaud the girl together. A girl no longer defined by an unaccomplished cartwheel.
Monday, April 1, 2013
The view from my office window is bookended by two trees.
On one side is my beloved red oak. The tree that a few winters ago was bent double by ice and now stands thirty feet tall, straight and strong. Its fall fire red leaves have faded to the apricot of age-faded red hair and thinned in the same way. A close examination of branches would reveal the new life waiting to burst forth, but from this vantage it still looks very much a winter tree.
On the other side is a big leaf maple that we transplanted from the edge of the yard just a few years ago. By the time the breezes of fall have escorted in the wilder winds of winter, its leaves are long gone. And it's one of the first trees in the yard to begin unfurling the new-green glory of spring.
I feel suspended exactly between the two. Neither winter nor spring, but yet both somehow.
Smoke floats across the yard, carrying the occasional oak leaf with it. Walt's burning last year's cuttings and brush - so much accumulates from a place with so many trees. It will take a couple of days before the pile is reduced to a gray circle surrounded by grass, the perfect symbolism from which cliche is born.
I wonder how long it will take for my deadwood, my dead leaves, to be replaced with new life, fresh hope, a lighter perspective.
Winter was hard this year. Not the weather of winter but the length of it, the death inherent in it, the darkness of it. It clings to me still, even as I soak up the sun of a new season. I wonder at its persistence. I worry that I won't be able to shed the last of the dead leaves, and that somehow, this time, the new growth won't come in.
Is this what being older does? Makes winter hang around a bit longer every year until there is nothing left but that? No. I refuse that notion. There will always be new green to counter the ashes. There will.
But in my suspension between seasons, I have a sense of transformation. Something that requires more than a planetary orbit to complete. Something that manages to include both winter and spring no matter what the calendar says. Something I can't quite yet name - or grasp.
That, I believe, is connected to being in the shallows of old age. The horizon I see is significantly different than at any other time of my life. My body refuses to be ignored. My mind ignores me all the time. My feelings are alien to me, much in the same way as those of adolescence. Death and the mystery of what lies beyond are real, and loom every so slightly larger every day.
This suspended space reveals my dreams in the oak tree. Some lived to their fulfillment and long off the tree. Others unfulfilled and still hanging from the branch, dry and dead. I see the possibilities of new dreams in the maple, but I can't reach those until I release the oak dreams. Until I accept and grieve the dreams of my younger life that will never come true, I cannot aspire to new ones.
The sun is out finally. Smoke and the occasional oak leaf continue to drift across my line of sight. The maple branches nod gently in a breeze that shows up every afternoon at this time. I will walk, pain-free and powerfully, into the vibrant air, on the lookout for expressions of spring and the songs they might sing to me, the secrets they might unlock.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Dear Furry Friends,
While we may not have been completely appreciative of all you did for us during our three weeks in your care, we'd like you to know we've landed in the catbird seat for sure. We still miss our first human a lot, but every day he becomes fainter and fainter in our memories. The two humans you gave to us are more than satisfactory replacements.
You wouldn't believe how posh our new castle is. There are many many rooms to explore, and two levels. We can explore, and hide, and play to our hearts' content. There is a tree much like the one we loved at your place with the exact same tube I (Alex) felt so safe in. There are more toys than we've ever seen before, each one more fun that the last. I (Bunkie) especially love the flying feathers that allow me to demonstrate my magnificent acrobatic skills.
The food is plentiful and tasty. The female human even understands we each need our own space to eat. Bedtime treats are provided in the form of lovely green morsels both humans feed to us by hand. We're so happy you gave us such well-trained humans.
There are many soft places for napping, including two laps. I (Bunkie) have taken advantage of both, and am still deciding which I prefer. It's so nice to have variety, and I may need more time in which to choose a favorite. I (Alex) still don't want to be anywhere I can't make a quick escape from, so my lap time has been short. I'm a bit worried Bunkie will take them both over before I've had a chance to get braver.
We've already chosen our favorite spot from which to view the outside world. Our humans seem to have gone to great trouble to create a place for birds to come just for our pleasure. We would prefer a softer viewing post, and will be making that desire clear in the future.
These humans seem to understand our language surprisingly well. Every time we speak to them, they respond immediately, and mostly correctly. As they seem to be fairly bright for humans, we expect they'll get better at that over time.
The same cannot be said for the very large dog who lives here. That is the one complaint we might have about our new home. He seems very slow to understand that we have no interest in being friends no matter how much he wags that ridiculous tail or how often he approaches us with an invitation to play. Since we know that what we don't see doesn't exist, we expect he'll be vanishing soon.
As humans go, you all are as good as they come. What you did for us, and what you do for so many of our cousins, is worth gratitude and more - even from those of us who don't ordinarily believe in being grateful for what is our just due. We would purr for you any time, as we purr now for our new and forever humans.
Alex & Bunkie
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Someone told me recently that cat years are calculated this way: the first two years are twenty-five in human years, and each year after counts as four human years. Emma made it to ninety-nine.
Knowing her days were numbered. Watching her decline. Making the same trip to the vet twice before with her sisters in the same year's time. None of it helped.
Every day since she turned twenty last summer telling her I loved her. Holding her close. Breathing her in. Praying gratitude as I petted her increasingly-less-silky fur and felt the soft percussion of her purr under my hand. Counting blessings and reminding myself that our forever was about to expire as I cleaned up after her and lost hours of sleep while she meowed through the house in the middle of long nights.
In the weeks I was home recovering from surgery she was my constant companion. She was so present and demanding, it seemed that she just might live forever. Those were days of extreme presence in the moment for me. I had to be aware of every pain and movement. And so I was deeply aware that, appearances aside, I was being given a special gift in these last days together.
I started walking, fast and unhindered, with a cane in those December days. The nearby park once again became my territory, and every day I went a bit farther than the day before. The glorious freedom of it lightened my soul and my steps for hours after. Emma's decline paralleled my healing.
Two days before Christmas she stopped eating. I wasn't ready. So we made a deal and she gave me two more weeks. I still wasn't ready, but she was, and so I helped her go.
One last trip to the vet's office with her. This time to the one room with its own outside door. Holding her and talking to her, sharing her with Walt reluctantly. And then she was no longer Emma. No longer the beautiful tabby who went to sleep on my chest every night. No longer the hunter of rodents large and small, and the occasional bird. No longer Toby's curled up companion. No longer the demander of certain foods, the claimer of my chin and my chair and every spare bit of my love and attention. No longer there to respond to my greeting when I walked through the door at the end of the day.
We carried a surprisingly heavy and warm blue bundle into the night onto which some kind vet tech had sharpied a small heart. We buried her in the garden next to her sisters, aware that she might have preferred the field instead, where she could have reigned supreme and solo even into forever. We moved forward without her.
Three weeks of empty house now. It's almost impossible to comprehend how eight pounds of fur and attitude can fill a space so completely, and leave it so decimated. I start to call her name a dozen times a day. I look for her in all her usual places. In the morning when I feed Toby, my body wants to finish the routine with Emma.
This is the first time in our marriage of twenty-five years that our home has been feline-free. I looked at cats a few months ago, not wanting to be in this place. But the only one I was drawn to was a young female with much the same personality as Emma's when she was younger. And I couldn't do that to my aging queen who had barely tolerated her own sisters.
I started looking again last weekend. Not to replace Emma. There will never be another relationship with a cat in my life like the one we shared. She can't be replaced. But for someone whose home once held two litters of kittens and assorted adults (nineteen in all), I know my heart has room for much kitty love. And this time, in a surprise gift of heart, Walt has joined me.
We bring Alex and Bunkie home tomorrow.
Monday, December 17, 2012
This is a season of darkness. Night barely gives day a chance to speak, and even then the skies are thick with rain-dense clouds. Terrible things are born in the deep shadows, then burst forth into the light before being consumed completely by their own black hearts.
Two years ago today, my adult daughter was overcome by her own inner darkness, unable to believe that light could break through. Many days now I don't think of her at all. But when I do, the thing that strikes me over and over again is the permanence of her death. There will be no more chances for her, for us, for a different sort of future.
On this unwanted anniversary I think about the other members of this club who helped me find my way in the earlier days of grieving. I know they mark their own anniversaries in a variety of ways. I know we've all learned to live and love though hearts exploded and tender and healing. I know the ending of our children's lives was just the beginning of a whole new landscape of endings for us.
The club grew by a significant number last week in a public and horrifying way.
This is also a season of hope. In a few days the Christian world celebrates the birth of a baby whose presence is a promise to defeat darkness forever. A birth symbolized by a shining star, one brilliant diamond of light in a night sky. A birth so threatening to the forces of darkness that great efforts were made to extinguish the light of that babe before he had a chance to become. Yet become he did.
In these last weeks as I've rested and healed, time has stretched long before me. Without the day-to-day to distract, and in the midst of gray gray hours, sparks that fill existence frequently unnoticed seem to be showering down:
A hundred Pine Siskins filling the air with fairy music, flurries of feathers, and flashes of sunlight embedded in their wings. Tame. Fearless. One so close I might have reached out to touch.
A Bald Eagle flying low and close, the first I've seen in months.
The kindness of friends willing to take time out of busy lives to make mine easier in a myriad of ways.
An owl duet in the pre-dawn.
Lilac buds, tight and green and full of promise.
A morning with my mom as I made apple butter, using her recipe, my house filled with the perfume of cinnamon and cloves and forgiveness. I'm sorry she had to die before I could share my kitchen and my heart comfortably with her. I'm happy that even without her physical presence, it's not too late to learn to love her better.
The pulsing rhythms of drumming class that make music with my heartbeat and chase shadows to the far reaches of awareness.
Packages of heirloom sweet pea seeds, ordered, arrived and now waiting for the season to turn so the dormant life can be buried and then resurrected into fragrant, fragile blooms reaching and twining their way to the sun.
This is a season, too, of unlimited possibility—of choosing to see the sparks. We can reach out to each other in love. We can speak gratitude. We can pray. We can remember that astonishing beauty grows from the deepest darkness.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
I walked through the challenges of the first three weeks like a deer eating her way through the tender leaves and buds of June roses—the thorns barely registering. Every new day brought the gift of new healing, less pain, an ability restored. Last weekend brought my first opportunity to go out into the world, and I embraced that as fully as I had all the rest.
Saturday was lunch out with my dear friend, Patricia, then a long and satisfying visit at home with my teammate and friend, Kelly. I was tired at the end of the day. Well more than tired, but I had an even better day planned for Sunday, so I ignored it.
Sunday was the first day since my surgery that looked and felt like a regular day. Walt and I went to breakfast at The Cricket, our favorite place on Belmont in Portland. Then we went to drumming class just down the street. Then we went to Costco. It was a perfect late fall day, cool and crisp and dry. A pretty standard Sunday for us. Fun. Productive. Relaxed.
Except for all the other Sundays I hadn't just had major surgery three weeks before. And by the time we got home I could barely move. I found Tylenol and ice and my chair while Walt unloaded and put away everything, and got dinner together. I couldn't get comfortable at bedtime and spent the night right on the edge of sleep, beyond exhausted.
I had an appointment Monday morning, which my kind friend Daune drove me to. I actually felt pretty well for that, but by the time Daune dropped me off at home just before noon, I knew I was done for the day. And maybe done for more than just a day.
Perhaps the hardest part of this whole process has been to allow my body to tell me how much I can do each day. To be present and to listen carefully. Nothing is automatic and I have to consider each step I take and each task I choose to take on. Energy is a finite resource, and when it runs out, I sputter to a stop like an unwound wind-up toy. There is no pushing through as I could in pre-surgery days.
So when last weekend my body seemed to say, yes let's try stepping out into the world, I embraced the permission like a long lost friend.
And I stopped listening to the signals.
It's a pattern for me. This is not the first time I've found myself facing a line. On one side is optimal circumstance, exactly where I'm supposed to be. Experience tells me the other side is too much. But because the line moves—every day I can do a little bit more than I could the day before, in life as well as in this healing process—I feel the need to test it constantly. I nudge. I push. I step over.
I step back. This week I took a giant step back. For three days I iced and rested and walked and exercised and iced and rested some more. I listened carefully to every little thing my body had to say. I did what it asked without complaint. By yesterday I was sleeping better, the soreness had receded, and there was a literal spring in my step. I realized I could take several balanced steps without my walker, and I managed a 40 minute outside walk with my walker.
It's a new weekend and my body is saying, Okay let's try this again. Today I'm going to drive for the first time. A short distance, with Walt in the car beside me so if my body says enough, I'll be able to listen and step back. Tomorrow we're going to Tacoma to hear my brother Mark sing in his church's Christmas program, a yearly tradition that is one of my favorite holiday events. Walt will drive. I'll sit in a correct posture, wearing my compression hose. We'll take breaks so I can walk. I'll take ice and Tylenol. I'll nap on the way home. I'll stay behind the line.
I know I'll challenge the line again. Sooner rather than later probably. Like my blue eyes and my curved pinkies, wanting just a little bit more seems to be an unalterable part of me. Fortunately, knowing that, and feeling the consequences of overstepping this last week, will keep me from wandering too far away from myself. At least for a little while.
Friday, November 30, 2012
It's been almost three weeks. A short lifetime of culture shock and new experiences I never expected to have. Not one bit of this time has been horrible, and most of it has held gifts that break my heart open wide at every turn.
Everything about the morning of November 12 was calm. I gave information and followed directions. I said "right hip" repeatedly. I laughed at silly comments meant to ease stress. I didn't smack the overweight, overtired, over-it nurse who couldn't get my IV port in, although Walt looked like he was considering it. I marveled at how many different people I was handed off to in such a short amount of time.
I remember thinking how huge the operating room looked and how medieval some of the tools seemed. There were masked people moving around quietly with clear purpose. I scooted onto a narrow table, swung my legs around to sit as the nurse directed, and saw the anesthesiologist out of the corner of my eye shoot something into the IV port.
The next thing I remember was being asked if I wanted water, if I'd like to get a clean gown, if I could move my feet. It wasn't noon yet. I was snaky with tubes and sticky with I-didn't-know-what and the space between my hip and knee felt like someone had implanted a two-by-four.
For the next two and a half days I lived in a world of diminishment. Diminished freedom. Diminished abilities. Diminished mental capacity. For a while it was also a world of no pain. And when the pain made itself known, the thing I'd worried about most, it was not the devouring monster I'd feared. It certainly was no worse than what I'd been living with. Narcotics helped - given freely and often.
From the beginning I knew that all of it was temporary. Which made the catheter easier to tolerate, and the moaning patient in the room next door, and the absolute weirdness of the whole situation. I'd been telling myself for weeks that every part of the surgical process and all of the accommodations would only be with me for a short time. And in that I decided I could bear anything.
I was right about the temporary part. And very wrong about my decision to bear the experience. There has been nothing to bear. It's all been interesting and freeing. Every minute of every day brings new movement, new healing, new awareness that more has changed for me than a new hip.
Not all has been perfect for sure. There was the night, as I tried unsuccessfully to swing my legs into bed, I fell over nearly in tears with the frustration of not being able to make my body move. There were a couple of days when I overdid (taking my walker for longer walks than I was ready for) and worried that I'd set myself back. And there was the whole detox experience after quitting the oxycodone which caught me by surprise.
But, in what seems to be a new normal for me, the good has far outweighed the not-so-good.
I have traveled these weeks in the most amazing company imaginable. Friends visiting me in the hospital - who knew that would be so fun, so delightful? Flowers. Text messages. Cards. Phone calls. Meals dropped off. Lovely and loving women sitting on my couch visiting, or bringing me a hamburger in the hospital, or baking bread in my kitchen. Brothers reaching out, each in their own way, taking my breath away with their generosity and prayers and attention. Walt doing laundry, cleaning the litter box, cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Walt bringing me little gifts that made me smile and reminded me how lucky I am that he's in my life.
Acts of kindness and thoughtfulness given in grace and without expectation for anything in return. I'm humbled, and so happy to know that this is the life I've earned.
Emma and Toby are my constant companions. Toby is tickled to have me home, but doesn't understand how it's possible that I'm going walking without him. Emma has taken full advantage of the new lap opportunities. I study them, and marvel at the miracle of their presence in my life.
Toby at five is mellow and sweet and affectionate. I look at him and know we're probably halfway through his life, and always feel the smallest pinch of sadness, but even more feel so grateful for his grand company.
Emma at twenty and some months is my North Star through this time. I know for certain that her days are numbered. She's mostly deaf, having a hard time jumping, her coat is lumpy and stringy, and she wobbles when she walks after sleeping for a while. Her beautiful tabby face often has the pinched look of an old cat, something I haven't seen until recently. She still demands attention, food, a faucet turned on. She still purrs. She sits on my chest as I do my physical therapy.
These days at home allowing my body to heal and my self to return contain the surprise gift of extra time with Emma. And in that I've gained this most amazing insight that there is nothing beyond love that is not temporary. I stroke her fur, rub noses, take in her yeasty breath, knowing that soon all I'll have left of her is memories and the love I've learned with her in our time together. So everything can be lived with, and every minute should be treasured, even the hard ones, because nothing lasts.
Nothing lasts. Not pain. Not constraints. Not even grief. It all changes, expands, diffuses with each passing moment.
Only love. And that clearly has the power to make everything else shrink into the shadows with the brilliance of its confident and perfect light.
I'm headed out into the cold gray of this first day of December. I'll walk until my leg says no, enjoying each smooth and rolling step, not limping, and knowing tomorrow I will probably walk a little farther, a little easier - knowing soon my walking companion will be Toby again, and not my walker. I claim all that this day offers with gratitude, knowing tomorrow will be a whole new adventure in itself.