Christine's Blog

Clear Blue Spark

It started slowly. The moments of loss, like pebbles tossed into a pond, tiny droplets of water rising above the surface and then disappearing, leaving behind ripples that wipe away all. 

The signs were there, but I closed my eyes and ignored the alarm sounding in my head.

Through child’s eyes I watched her light touch us all, now that light slowly fades. 

I wish for childish things: a magic carpet ride to a world where sickness and pain do not exist, a time machine to transport me back to the moment my path lay open to endless possibilities, arms to protect me against forces for which I have no ammunition and no power to defeat.

The choices are now mine to make, a role reversal, a world turned upside down. I am the only one—only me—trying to hold onto what is slowly slipping away.

My hands, so like hers, fasten the buttons on her sweater. Our eyes meet and she smiles, thinning lips pulled back to reveal the familiar overbite. Her smile seldom reaches her eyes, but today is a good day. I see her there in those clear blue eyes. I see my mother. I see it all. 

My first memory of my mother was her eyes. She is telling me the story of my guardian angel as I lay tucked beneath the covers. She smoothes my hair and places a soft kiss on my forehead. I am mesmerized by the spark in her clear blue eyes. My father called them smiling Irish eyes.  

We are late for her doctor appointment. I feel an invisible hand pushing me forward through a maze of hospital hallways to Dr. Medhi’s office. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to talk about my mother as if she is a science experiment: we can try this new drug, or these series of exercises. We both know there is no cure; even Mom, in her rare moments of lucidity, knows this is all a game. 

She is silent on the ride home, sitting in the passenger seat like a mannequin, lost in a tangle of malfunctioning neurons. Then her face comes to life, “Is the little girl coming today?” 

She asks that question daily now and it never fails to break my heart.

By the time I entered adolescence I had little in common with Mom.  She was the ultimate housewife; I thought housework and cooking were a complete waste of time. She worshiped my father, and while I did share that quality, I did not long for a husband. She doted on me; I never had a strong urge to become a mother.

It was our love of old movies that brought us together. Every Sunday afternoon we snuggled together on the beige leather sofa and watched the drama and heartbreak. I was enthralled by my first glimpse into the adult world, to all the obstacles, tragedies and betrayals that complicate life.

We arrive back home. I settle Mom into her chair and turn on the TV.  Love is a Many Splendored Thing  —one of our favorites—is playing. “Oh I love Jennifer Jones, she’s so pretty,” Mom says as I drape a blanket across her legs. And then five minutes later, “Oh I love Jennifer Jones, she’s so pretty.” How can she remember the name of a long dead actress and yet not realize she keeps repeating the same sentence over and over?  I take a deep breath and answer her again, “Yeah, Mom. I like her too.”  

Before the movie is over she dozes off. She smiles in her sleep and I wonder; is she set free in her dreams? Does she dances around the living room in my father’s arms as she did when he was alive. I remember tip-toeing from my bedroom and watching them through the wooden rails of the banister, her auburn hair flying as he twirled her around and around.   

I make a cup of tea and think about meditating, the words of my therapist whispering in my ear. Claire you need to take care of yourself or you won’t be able to care for anyone else. I see her once a month to placate my husband and Dr Medhi, both watching me carefully, as if I too have Alzheimers. But neither can feel my devastation; I am watching my mother disappear.  I forgo the meditation and instead sip my tea as Jennifer Jones stands on a lonely hilltop and cries for her lost lover.

I spend the afternoon doing household tasks: laundry, dishes, starting dinner. At three-thirty Maddy bursts through the door talking a mile a minute shrugging off her backpack and jacket. My mother’s face lights up, “Oh the little girl is here!” 

My daughter glides into my arms; I snuggle against her warm little body. She leaves my embrace too quickly, off to her grandmother. “Hi Grandma, it’s me, Maddy. I missed you today.”

My mother does not remember her granddaughter.  Every day I watch the same scene, my daughter, Maddy, happily introducing herself to her grandmother.  And every day I wonder if that is my Karmic payback, the penance for my sin. 

Later I find Maddy polishing my mother’s nails a bright purple color— that in another lifetime my mother would never tolerate.  Maddy talks to my mother as if she is one of her dolls.

My husband arrives home; we sit down to dinner as Maddy chats about her day. My mother interrupts the conversation, “Where is your father?” she asks me. “He’s going to be late for dinner.”  

There is silence. All eyes are on me. “Mom, Dad died. Remember?” I say gently as I hold her hand. In my mind I scream. 

In my mind, I grab each plate full of pot roast and mashed potatoes and throw them across the room. I imagine globs of food running down the walls falling onto the floor. In my mind, I move to the living room and toss all the framed photos of pretty smiling faces into the air, and visualize the glass shattering against the hardwood floor. In my mind I scream once more, a primitive, macabre shriek. I scream until my throat is raw.

 I am pulled back to reality by my husband’s hand, warm on my cool arm. The look on his face makes me wonder if I’m on a parallel path. He leads me from the room and pulls me against the solid wall of his chest. My face nuzzles his neck; I inhale his scent and feel his arms press against my back. He doesn’t speak. He just holds me. Tight. After a few moments, when my breath returns to normal, he sways a little, back and forth. I hear his breath in my ear. I think, thank you, thank you for this man. And I let the tears come.

When we return to the table Maddy is teaching Mom a song she learned in school. They are singing and laughing. “I can teach you too Mommy,” she tells me. 

Later I help Maddy with her bath. I marvel at the perfectness of her little body: the way the water slides off the smooth skin of her back, her pointy toes, the multicolored strands of blond woven into her brown hair. But it is her eyes that captivate me. They are the exact blue of my mother’s eyes, the same shape, with the same fringe of dark lashes, and they have the same power to move me. I get lost in the clear blue depths and I remember….

I sit still as stone in the chair, waiting. I am not ready, I am not ready, I chant over and over inside my head. I don’t let any other thoughts in. I am not ready, I am not ready. The nurse calls my name. I rise and follow her down a corridor of closed doors. One of those doors is for me. I strip off my clothes and put on the paper gown, it is rough against my skin. I wait. I chant. I am not ready. 

 My mother’s sad blue eyes break through my chanting; I cannot keep them out. I hear her words.  It’s a life Claire, a life. Life is precious. Sometimes our blessings come from unexpected places. Think hard and be sure. Then I see another pair of eyes, so blue, so clear, so deep, and in that instant I feel the life inside me.  Not a movement, it is much too early for that. I feel a spark.  

“Mommy, Mommy.” I am released from the past by a small wet hand on my face, “Can I have hot chocolate before bed? And Grandma too? She likes hot chocolate” I wrap my daughter in a fluffy pink towel and press her body to mine. 

After the hot chocolate I read Maddy a story and tuck her into bed: I smooth her hair, kiss her forehead, and tell her I love her. She is asleep before I leave the room. Then I help my mother prepare for bed. I watch her brush her teeth, slide her nightgown over her head and slip beneath the quilt. I turn out the light and move toward the door. Her words stop me. “Will the little girl come again?”

 I walk back to the bed and sit beside her. I smooth her hair and kiss her softly on the cheek. “Yes, Mom she will. The little girl will always come.”

 

On The Precipice

There are moments that stand out, segments of time that will not be surrendered into oblivion like most of the mundane minutia in life. We all have special events that qualify: births, weddings, graduations, promotions, retirements.  And, of course, we never forget the tragic events: deaths, accidents, losses, failures, disappointments. Rarely does an ordinary day cross into the memorable category, but I can almost guarantee that time spent with a grandchild will easily succeed. 

My almost fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Madison, is working on a career day school project, and I am to be her interview subject. We drive to a local chocolate/coffee shop which seems like a perfect venue—a hot chocolate and brownie sundae for her and a hazelnut cafe au lait and scone for me. The car ride is filled with expressive adolescent chatter about friends, teachers and, of course, boys. I ask her if she is excited about entering high school in the fall, and she responds with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. 

We sit at a cafe table of her choosing, and she opens her notebook to start the interview. The long slender fingers that flip the notebook pages are graceful and purposeful, no longer the hands of a girl. She tilts her head slightly, her voice measured, her focus direct, as she asks the first question. “When did you know that you wanted to be a nurse?” Her question barely registers. I am struck by repeated glimpses of a more mature Madison. I stare at her and it takes me a beat or two to answer. Her face is no longer childish, but neither is it an adult face. Silver threads of braces cover her teeth, iridescent eye shadow sparkles on her eyelids and her long lashes are covered in mascara; her girlish giggle still lingers, and yet for the first time I see the young woman she will become.

Over the next thirty minutes I answer her interview questions but my mind continues to wander. Memories of a plump, loud, wild, curly-haired, bug-loving, adventure-seeking little girl keeps emerging and contrasts with this slender, graceful, doe-eyed, thoughtful, fashionista, with perfectly straightened hair. It isn’t the physical evidence of her growing maturity that packs the biggest punch, it is something more subtle, more profound. 

Madison is leaving the comfort and safety of childhood behind for an unknown future. She is fast approaching that precarious transition from adolescence to adulthood. I realize she’s on the bridge, sometimes taking baby steps, sometimes sprinting. All of life’s major choices and decisions are still head, waiting for her. When I think of this I feel a curious mix of wonder and melancholy. I remember myself so clearly at that age, the thrill, the possibilities I felt. And then, of course, I think of all my disastrous mistakes, my regrets. I remind myself that despite our similarities Madison is not me, she’s less impulsive, smarter, kinder, more thoughtful. She will be a woman in a time of better opportunities for women. I comfort myself with this knowledge, and I hold my breath. 

She completes her questions while we devour the last bits of our sweet treats, and all too soon we are heading home. She’s quiet on the return ride, and I suspect her mind is on her project. Then she smiles at me and asks if being a nurse is like Greys Anatotomy. I laugh, and she joins in. I assure her that real life nursing is nothing like the TV show. I see a small spark of disappointment in her eyes and I think about all the disappointing revelations ahead of her. She thanks me and kisses me goodbye, a small peck on the cheek. She opens the car door but instead of leaving she leans across her seat and embraces me in a tight hug. “I love you Grandma!” she says. Her long legs quickly cover the sidewalk to the door. She waves before she enters; I wave back, and she is gone. 

I sit in the car for a minute thinking about our time together and wondering what the future holds. Madison will make her share of mistakes on her journey to adulthood and beyond. But unlike the agony of watching your child make mistakes, watching your grandchild make them is somehow less painful. It’s difficult to describe the powerful, all encompassing, yet freeing feeling of loving a grandchild. I relish and sink into that feeling every time I look at her. It’s effortless to fully live every moment we spend together. I appreciate everything about her: the good and the not-so-good. The whole of her delights me.

I drive home with the mingling thrill and trepidation of watching the transformation of the young girl I know so well, into a woman I have yet to fully envision. I will see her life continue to unfold and grow. I will watch her wings unfurl and soar. A smile curls across my lips while tears sting my eyes, I’m grateful to be a part of her future. 

 

Gratitude

Gratitude: a subject that has gained popularity, from Oprah’s lips, via her gratitude journals, to Cheryl Crow’s lyrics, It’s not getting what you want. It’s wanting what you have. Elizabeth Gilbert, the Dali Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have written profoundly on the subject. The premise of increasing happiness and contentment by actively practicing gratitude is a concept I have been trying to adopt myself. Like most in this country, I have much to be grateful for. 

Not that it’s easy, this gratitude thing. It’s more than just a few daily moments of thinking, “Yeah, I’m grateful for my family, my new car, my dog, blah, blah, blah.” We can all do that. It’s easy. But if we move forward with our day as usual by mentally (or literally) cursing out the car in front of us for not plowing through the yellow light because we are late, if we look past a homeless person and only think, I’m glad that’s not me, or worse, That could never be me, if we think less of minorities, look at the poor or homeless as lazy or not deserving, then the practice of gratitude is meaningless. The true practice of gratitude is more than a few moments of acknowledging our blessings because merely counting blessings will not counter our many grievances or bring forth meaningful change.

Gratitude is an eye-opening experience. It has power. It is a virtue that leads to action and is the link to other virtues: hope, empathy, generosity, tolerance, kindness. It allows us to see our need for others. 

So how does one go about this gratitude practice? What steps are necessary? I asked myself those very questions. I started where, I suppose, most people start, listing the people I’m grateful for: my parents, husband, children, grandchildren, friends; then moving on to the comforts: a warm house in winter, reliable transportation, a job. I am very fortunate, the things in the “comfort” category are quite long, and working in healthcare constantly reminds me of my gift of health. 

Like all things in life that are important, learning gratitude was a process for me. And I’m a slow learner. After a few months I noticed that familiar feeling of unease was still present. What happened to the contentment I’d been seeking? I began to take a closer look at the things I was grateful for and realized most were superficial. I’d often drifted to negatives: I’m glad this didn’t happen or I’m grateful that I’m not like him or her. Although I started with good intentions, I’d taken a wrong turn and focused on things that do not build lasting happiness. I thought I was practicing gratitude, but I was mistaking gratitude with superiority and fear. I used gratitude as a barrier to protect myself, to keep me safe from my fears. I thought solely of myself, and what I might gain. And I found that when the main motivation is yourself, the practice of gratitude is doomed. 

In this country, especially, real gratitude is discouraged. Maybe not actively, but surely our drive to do more, have more, achieve more hardly lines up with gratitude. Our obsession with perfection and having all the right things that scream success hinders our recognition of the meaningful aspects of life. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements telling us we need and deserve this or that: things that are meant to bring happiness and contentment. With the focus on things instead of each other we are often left thinking, “Is this all there is?”

Genuine gratitude is the antidote for this. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are here to serve and help one another. That is what brings forth true happiness: the doing for others, not the gaining for ourselves. The most important aspect of gratitude is that it helps us focus outside ourselves and on those around us. We can become less self-serving, and more connected. 

After acknowledging my failure and confronting my own sense of entitlement, I’ve come to understand that real gratitude is a state of being. It is the ability to release fear and to find and focus on the positives in any situation. Gratitude is the pathway to deeper connections in all relationships; it is not something that can be held or possessed, but rather something to be lived. 

 

 

 

Smoke Alarm Hell

It started on Christmas Eve. Those seemingly innocent white disks attached to the ceiling started messing with me. For some reason (probably a building code put in place by some genius whose house had burned down as a child) the builder placed 8 of these possessed smoke alarms around my small, 1,400 sq. ft. one-story house. Seems like over-kill to me. 

For years, every freakin Thanksgiving when I toasted bread for stuffing, the damn things went off. Then I formulated elaborate steps to thwart off the demon alarms: the exhaust fan must be set to high, the kitchen window opened, the ceiling fan whirling furiously, and each time I removed the pan of toasted bread from the broiler, I must huff like I’m giving CPR to an elephant until I become so light-headed that my vision narrows and I see stars, all while hopping on one foot. (Ok, I threw in the foot hopping for effect.) 

I have never been able to just blow out a candle, no, no! I must put a lid over it to snuff out the flame, lest a small tentacle of smoke escape and get sucked up into the deranged, white disks. I swear there were a few potent dog farts (Kyra’s) that set off the C02 detector. So, I think I’ve made my point: those fucking things are too sensitive. 

Back to Christmas Eve. Mark and I return home from our most important Christmas errand: buying wine at the liquor store. As we enter the house I hear the dreaded CHIRP! Now I realize not everyone has the same reaction to this particular sound. So I will explain what that chirp sound does to me. Imagine a demon riding a sharp object, like a knitting needle or an ice pick, into your eyeball or ear and traveling to the center of your brain, then spinning like a blender, assassinating every brain cell in it’s path, brain cells that I cannot afford to lose! And my dogs, Kyra and Abbey, feel exactly the same, just increase the reaction by ten thousand million percent. Abby shakes like a she’s having a seizure, and she’d crawl right up my butt if I let her. Kyra pants and whines and paces like a lion at the zoo before dinner. 

It is apparent that the chirping started while we were gone, because as soon as I step into the house Abby attaches herself to me like velcro, and Kyra whines and weaves through my legs like a blue ribbon winner at an agility dog show. I watch Mark’s eyes roll back in his head because he knows this has become his problem. He has 3 frantic females (1 human, 2 dogs) counting on him to fix this. Quickly. 

All four of us stand in the hallway glaring up at the evil entity. The smoke alarm light on the right is flashing green, but the CO2 alarm on the left is flashing it’s evil red eye. I look down at Kyra and wonder if she released one of her infamous lethal farts. I sniff; the air holds only the faint scent of peppermint from the Christmas candle I had burned earlier. Then another shrill chirp sends the dogs to the far corners of the earth and I kiss a few more of my brain cells goodbye.  

Mark grabs the step stool and presses the re-set button. And we wait. Silence. I continue to stare at the evil red light with a wary eye, but miraculously the chirping stops! Even as the silence continues, I am unconvinced that the problem has been solved because that damn red light keeps flashing. Then I hear the pop of a wine cork and my attention shifts. My husband does know how to fix things! 

The night passes uneventfully with no further chirping…..until Christmas morning....at 5 am. CHIRP!!! When you’re in a deep sleep, that chirp is magnified. Unless you are Mark and can sleep right through it. I fly out of bed, press the reset button, and try my best to calm Abbey who is shaking so badly that our is bed vibrating like magic fingers in cheap motel. (Mark continues to snore peacefully) The next chirp comes about 8 am, Mark says he has no idea what can be done on a holiday; he will try to replace it tomorrow. That is not an acceptable solution. I decide to call the fire department, they should know about smoke alarms. Right? 

After wishing the firefighter a Merry Christmas and apologizing for such a lame reason to call, I recount my smoke alarm hell. He is very kind and patiently tells me that either the battery needs to be changed (we had just changed the batteries in October) or the smoke alarm needs to be replaced. He also gives me confusing directions on how to disconnect the alarm, which, because of my destroyed brain cells, I am unable to decipher. We decide to change the battery. But the ominous red light still flashes, mocking me, letting me know that this is not over. 

December 26 @ 0800, the attack resumes. CHIRP!!! I’m instantly on my feet, adrenaline pumping, dogs hanging out of my butt. Mark is at work, and I am determined to disconnect that wretched alarm. I pull out the step stool, which is tall enough for me to stand on tippy-toes and push the rest button, but not tall enough to allow me to reach the base and unscrew it from the ceiling. I need the ladder in the garage. 

Mark loves to “organize” stuff, especially in the garage. His idea of organization is to put everything up as high as it can go. The step ladder hangs on a peg a few inches from the ceiling. I can barely reach the bottom rung. Of course, my car is parked beside the ladder, further complicating the maneuver. I must have been a contortionist in another life because I manage to release the ladder from the peg without inflicting bodily harm on myself or my car. I carry it into the house and place it beneath the smoke alarm. 

What I find confuses me further. I’m staring up into a circular hole filled with a tangle of wires attached to small white caps. I have no idea how to disconnect it. Mark won’t be home for several hours and I’m so frustrated that I could start chirping myself! Then it comes to me: cut the circuit breaker. It takes a few tries but eventually I find the right one. Success! Power cut! Then I slip out the battery, anxious to see the corpse hanging from the ceiling, finally silent, lights no longer flashing. 

Wrong! That possessed disk was still flashing! “How is this even possible,” I yell! Then I think about a Friends episode where Phoebe tries to disconnect a chirping smoke alarm and ends up smashing it with a hammer, and still that thing kept flashing and chirping. At least a hunky firefighter appears in her apartment, that does not happen to me. But I haven’t heard any chirping since I tripped the circuit breaker.

I decide to take a break and open my laptop when I discover that my wifi is on the same circuit as the omnipotent smoke alarm. That will not do, so I reluctantly turn it back on and hope for the best. Before giving up I eye that piece of crap one more time. Wait…what’s this? On the backside of my nemesis is a small plug. I can just unplug it? How did I miss this? I release a small latch and pull, “Die you sucker!”  Ha, I win! No more chirping. No more flashing lights! I can feel my brain cells regenerating

One alarm down….seven to go.  

 

Christmas 2015

 

Dear Dad,

I celebrated another Christmas without you. The tenth Christmas without your smile. 

I came across a quote today: Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory. When I was young that quote certainly applied. You were my dad, you were always there, it never crossed my mind that one day I would have to celebrate without you.

It’s been ten years since I sat next to you at Christmas dinner. Did I ever tell you that was one of my favorite Christmas moments? Every year as we sat down for dinner, me in my chair to your left, you smiled at me, that great, big, warm, beautiful smile of yours, the one that made me feel loved and cherished, the smile that I felt was mine alone. 

For many, many Christmases I looked forward to that very moment. And every year, as I returned a smile that was yours alone, I thought how fortunate I was to be your daughter and how much I loved you. I’m so grateful that I recognized how precious those simple smiles were, and that I never took them for granted. 

In over fifty years of Christmases, we spent only a handful apart. I know you worked hard for all the presents that Santa brought us throughout the years, and I’m sure it brought you pleasure, watching us rip open the packages and squeal with delight. And although I did enjoy those presents, it was never about the gifts.

One Christmas, I don’t even remember how old I was, maybe 8 or 9, I went with you and your friend George to pick out our tree. I felt so special to be included, and I can still picture that night so clearly. As we drove I pressed my face against the car window and watched the Christmas lights twinkle on the houses and stores. When we arrived I hopped out of the station wagon to a wonderland of pine trees. It was a frigid night and my excited breath came out in small white puffs. You held my hand and we strolled among the aisles of trees, examining them from all angles until we found the perfect tree, which you and George tied to the car. 

It was a big tree that filled the corner of the living room and trailed the scent of pine. We decorated it with the big-bulbed, multi-colored lights, that were popular in the sixties, and sparkling ornaments, some of which decorate my tree today, and lots and lots of tinsel! It was a beautiful tree, and the memory makes it even more so. 

Those are the memories that have stayed with me, Dad. The ones where your quiet presence kept my world in place. So on my tenth Christmas without you, I want to acknowledge all you have given me: all the special moments we shared, all the love and laughter, and to tell you I will always miss you. Always. Forever. And every Christmas, when I see your empty chair at the table, I will smile and remember your great, big, warm, beautiful smile, the one that was mine alone.

 Love, Chris