Care in the Time of COVID

In a recent poll,fifty percent of Americans said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. My guess is the percentage is much higher because, you know, denial. “I’m fine!” is our trained response to “How are you?” even when, or perhaps especially when, we ask ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to care about people in the abstract and people we know up-close and personal, including ourselves, and how we can’t effectively have one without the other. When I saw a recent photo of a large, white (and unmasked) man screaming in the face of a state trooper in Michigan during a protest against government mandates put in place to flatten the curve, my initial response was, Wow, what a jerk! and then, after some time to think, I wondered, What do we have in common?

Take away his disregard for the health and safety of those around him, I saw a person whose actions were motivated by fear (both rational and irrational) and not by an overarching compassion for humanity. “The government can’t tell me what to do!” is not born out of anger. Anger itself originates in fear, and in this case, fear that the government can, and will, tell people what they can do.

There will always be folks who lose their shi*t and those who keep it together no matter what crisis they’re faced with. While I am often the former, I live with the latter, one such folk who keeps it together. Even though Jim feels the underlying emotional impact of the uncertainty right now, and the fear of “What if I get it?” and the economic toll it’s having all around, he expresses his fear by caring about people, not screaming in their face.

Here’s what I mean. You know when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you can’t type another word or read another word or watch another minute of news? I reached that place on Friday. I couldn’t think anymore. I needed to talk to Jim. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and started walking across the yard to the garage, gathering emotional steam along the way.

The dog had run out of the door ahead of me and she announced my impending arrival.  Jim appeared in the doorway and his smile quickly turned to concern.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and all that pent-up fear disguised as anger came tumbling out.

“I miss my kids, I miss my grandkids, my knee hurts, and I’m a horrible writer!”

He wrapped his arms around me and I sobbed into his sweatshirt for what felt like an hour. When I started to pull away, he pulled me closer, and I cried even harder.

“You did the right thing coming out here.” He knows I would stew in silence, or make mountains out of mole hills that had nothing to do with what was really bothering me, kind of like the protester.

We sat down and devised a plan for a social distancing visit with my daughters and the grandkids the next day. There was nothing we could do about my knee except talk about it, but acknowledging that it’s messed up and needs to be replaced helped untangle the abstract fear I have of never walking again. As for being a horrible writer, I know this is not true, but the fear in that statement is that I’m not good enough and that I’ll never be good enough, and saying it out loud lay bare that fear, too.

Listening, saying “I hear you,” can mean so much anytime, but especially now.

It doesn’t mean fears go away just by saying them out loud. But saying them out loud to someone who cares takes them down to their bare bones and they become more manageable. Solutions become more clear. Or if there are no immediate solutions, we can better eke out a way to handle the fear rather than deflecting it on to other people.

I’m heartened to see, in contrast to protesting, so many people demonstrating their care for others through their gifts and talents, their livelihood, and through simple random acts of kindness (even wearing a mask is an act of caring). Something I look forward to almost every evening is poet Billy Collins’s twenty-minute poetry reading/mini lecture on Facebook. Instead of watching it on full screen, I like to read and sometimes participate in the comment conversation that streams up the page. I feel less isolated, even for a short time.

Statistically, half of you are in the pandemic-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-your-mental-health camp. Or as I said earlier, probably more than half. How are you taking care of yourself? That is both a rhetorical question and a genuine inquiry. I might not know you, but I care.

 

A Love That Could Never Be

I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him. 

A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return. 

My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.

That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age. 

On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, heanthurium-red called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.

On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter. 

“This is Carlene,” I said. 

“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other. 

He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture. 

Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer. 

One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he. 

Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way. 

cassboys

Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too. 

 

A Tale of Two Valentines

Love has come and gone in my life (through a revolving door, some might say), but it’s the big-time first one I will always remember, as well as the two Valentine’s Days that infused that relationship.

Valentine’s Day, 1982

I was pregnant. I didn’t mean to be. Bruce and I were planning a May 29th wedding and a honeymoon in the Poconos. (Heart-shaped beds were the rage!) I was living in Minneapolis with my parents and Bruce was living with his parents on their family farm 200 miles away. We commuted on weekends to see each other, and Valentine’s weekend was my turn to be on the farm.

We found out about the baby 10 days earlier and our relationship had become strained, mostly because his parents were politely pissed. Well, at least his mother was polite. His father wasn’t one to hold back how he felt about anything, especially when it came to me. He didn’t like me. Not. One. Bit.* But Bruce gave me this V-Day card, and it filled me with hope:

V21982

As I got ready to drive back to Minneapolis (which in hindsight, I should have), I noticed blood on my underwear. Panicked, I told Bruce and he told me to ask his mother about it (one of those times when a cell phone would have been really useful…). She and their Sunday company were drinking coffee in the kitchen, so I asked if I could talk to her privately in the living room. She was noticeably nervous talking about such a private matter, but I was desperate. She said she’d heard that spotting could happen during early pregnancy (my words, not hers) and advised me to call a doctor. I found one in the Yellow Pages, and when he called back, he told me to meet him in the county hospital emergency room 11 miles away.

I was 18, and only one other doctor had ever been in my VJ region before. I was scared and I didn’t have the words to ask the right questions. Bruce was clueless, too, but he stayed with me. After the exam, the doctor told me to go home and to call if I experienced any more bleeding. Home was 200 miles away, so I went back to Bruce’s parents’ house, and in the early morning hours of February 15, I painfully and quietly miscarried in the upstairs bathroom.

Bruce took me back to the hospital and I had a D&C. His mother visited later that afternoon and brought me a jar of peanuts. I can only imagine she didn’t know what to do or say, but she showed up and, god love her, I appreciated that. The next day, I went back to Bruce’s parents’ house to recover, which lasted five minutes before the fight. His father told Bruce that he no longer “had” to marry me, and my response was epic: I threw my engagement ring at him, and I launched f-bombs everywhere. I was tired, grieving, and not at all prepared for a reasoned response. Bruce took me to a friend’s house and somehow…we got married on April 3, the earlier date we’d chosen because of the baby.

Valentine’s Day, 1983

Valentine’s Day was on a Monday. We lived on the farm; his parents had retired. After lunch, Bruce said he was going to town, and I probably sent along a grocery list. I was less than a month away from birthing Carlene and I didn’t fit behind the steering wheel anymore. It was probably snowing and minus 100 degrees outside, I don’t remember. What I do remember was that after he left, I was in the living room watching All My Children when he sneaked back in the house through the mud room – the place he took off his coveralls and muddy, shitty (literally shitty, we were farmers) boots after chores – and went down to the basement. I didn’t say anything because it felt…private. His business. If he wanted me to know he was there, he’d have said something.

He tried to be quiet, but I heard him rummaging around. A minute later, he was gone again. When he returned, he handed me two roses in the bud vase from the basement and this card:

v1983

With another year of getting used to each other under our belts, the doe-eyed love we once had was replaced with the real, work-for-it kind of love. When he died five weeks later, I knew no Valentine’s Day – or any day – would ever be the same .

* When Bruce died, his father was devastated. I don’t know exactly what moved him, perhaps it was his faith and guilt, but he lived the rest of his years loving me and his granddaughter with no reservations. And I loved him, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels

Have you ever put on your spring jacket after a long winter and found a $5 bill in the pocket? Or looked in the glove box for a pair of sunglasses and found a Hershey Kiss?

That’s Past Us taking care of Present Us.

We don’t plan those little surprises; they just work out that way.

For instance, last month, money was really tight. Zu needed to take her monthly heart worm and flea medicines. I knew I had a heart worm pill, but I was out of the flea pills, which cost in the neighborhood of $10 each if you buy in bulk and $17 if you buy one. I didn’t have the $60 for the bulk discount, and $17…well, it was going to be hard to come by. When I dug through the crate in which I keep Zu’s treats, brushes, and toys, I found the heart worm medicine AND, tucked way on the bottom, one flea pill. Thanks, Past Me!

Also last month, I thought I was out of Zu’s favorite dog chews. It would be a few weeks before I could buy any more. Then I spotted a package behind her bin of dog food. Thank you, Past Me!

When I was working in the garage, sorting things to eBay, I was jonesing for something sweet. I opened my desk drawer looking for a paper clip and found a Salted Nut Roll I forgot was there. Thank you Past Me!

The other day, I was feeling really low, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. Then I found this photo of 19-year-old widowed me with my daughter Carlene.

20181105_144513

Thanks, Past Me.

 

 

A Memory for Claire, Who is 11

Claireleaves My first grandchild, Claire, turned 11 years old yesterday. And while I mostly, and not altogether reluctantly, accept that she’s 11, I will always cherish her younger childhood. I wrote this on March 17, 2010. I remember and I still feel this day in my heart.

Claire, 2 years, 5 months old – Visiting Grammy in Clarion PA

I used to think of walking as merely a way to get from point A to point B or a means of exercise. Sometimes both. A walk is a walk is a walk… That is, until I walked with Claire.

The girl doesn’t know it, but she always knows exactly what to do and say to put things in perspective.

We decided to walk uptown to the post office and library. She put on her Dora sneakers and tan jacket, and I surprised her with new purple mittens with hearts and rainbows that I bought her on winter clearance. This made her very happy.

I put on my pink backpack loaded with the envelopes that needed to be mailed, my phone, and some money since I was pretty sure I had library fines to reconcile. Claire put on her Dora backpack and off we went.

The weather was lovely – sunny and about 40 degrees. Since sidewalks are inconsistent for the first few blocks, we cut down an alley to avoid street traffic. As we passed a garage, Claire asked, “Where’d my shadow go?”

“What, honey?” I asked.

She stopped. “My shadow, Grammy.”

Shadow? But of course! I hadn’t thought about my shadow since I was a kid.

“It’s hidden by the garage,” I told her. “Let’s move back into the sunshine.”

“There it is! It’s big!” she said. “You have a big shadow, too, Grammy!” and she waved. “See my hand?”

I waved back with both hands. She giggled.

“I see your fingers in the shadow,” she said.

When we turned the corner we were back on a sidewalk and our shadows were in front of us. Claire hopped over each crack for the rest of the block, thrilled that her shadow kept up with her.

We got to a corner and had to cross a street. I was holding her hand and was just going to walk her across when it dawned on me that I could teach her how to properly cross a street.

“Always stop before walking out on to the street,” I said. “Look to your left. Do you see a car coming?”

Looking very concentrated, Claire peered down the street. “No,” she said seriously.

“Now look to your right. Any cars?”

“Nope.”

“OK, that means we can cross safely.”

We walked down a street I’ve walked for years, but I’d never really noticed that the old Victorian house on 7th Avenue was blue or the rental next door had green trim until Claire pointed it out. Then she spied tiny purple flowers in the next yard.

“Those are crocuses,” I told her.

“Crocheches,” she repeated. Close enough.

I wouldn’t have noticed them on an ordinary walk. I long to see them in my own yard after a long winter, but crocuses are even better when you’re not seeking them out, and spectacular when you unexpectedly get to introduce them to a 2-year-old who loves the colors purple and green.

“I run real fast, Grammy!” and she took off. I kept up by walking more briskly, but it was fun to let her get to the next house a little before I did.

We were getting close to another corner and she took my hand. We stopped, she looked both ways.

“No cars,” she said, and led me safely to the other side.

We went to the post office first, which is next door to the library. I handed the envelopes to the mail clerk.

Claire pulled on my jeans. “I wanna see.” I lifted her up to sit on the counter.

“I like your mittens,” said the clerk. Saying nothing, Claire smiled and looked down at the hearts and rainbows.

“Can she have a lollipop?” he whispered to me. I nodded.

“Would you like a lollipop?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said rather boldly, and I thought, Yeah, I’ve always preferred candy over compliments, too.

From under the counter, he produced a brown grocery bag. Claire reached in and pulled out a small chocolate flavored Tootsie-Pop. She’s definitely my granddaughter.

“What do you say?” I asked her.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, staring again at her mittens, but he heard her.

“You’re welcome!”

Claire insisted I open the wrapper before we left the post office. I didn’t want her to bring it into the library, so we sat on a bench out front and she ate her lollipop.

“A black truck,” she pointed to the street. “That’s Papa’s truck.” Her dad’s dad is Papa and drives a pickup.

“No, that’s not Papa’s truck, but it looks like it,” I said.

“That’s a red car,” she continued and crunched her lollipop.

“Hear that?” she asked.

“That’s a blue jay,” I said.

“Blue jay,” she repeated and took another bite of her lollipop.

After going to the library, we walked home in similar fashion. Birds. Cars. Flowers. Cracks in the sidewalk. Watching Claire observe the world around her, the world I’ve very much taken for granted, I felt a profound sense of belonging. I have a shadow. I know love. Oh that the world could feel such peace.

Love is Patient. Love is Kind. (Dammit, I keep forgetting.)

In the Bible, specifically Corinthians I:13 (v. 4), the apostle Paul wrote that love is patient and love is kind. He said that if we give to the poor without love as our inspiration, or if we work hard only to brag about it, that we’re nothing more than a bunch of clanging gongs and background noise.

Love in this context is a noun; an affirmation with no excuses or conditions. Love isn’t “sometimes” patient when we’ve had a good night’s sleep. Love isn’t “once in a while” kind when the people to whom we choose to be kind are “worthy” (i.e. they dress OK, seem to be “trying,” speak our language, can potentially give us something in return…). Nope. That’s not the way Love works.

Paul, for all his faults, is spot on about Love, and his words still resonate with an old agnostic like me who often places conditions on Love in everyday encounters.

This is hardly a confession, and it won’t shock any of you, even if you’ve never met me, but I am not always patient and I am not always kind. I’m not the poster child for presence in those moments when patience and kindness are most warranted; those times when I’m tired, sad, late, frustrated, or just want to get home, take off my bra and watch Jeopardy.

Last Monday morning is a particularly good example of a day that had more than a few gems of moments in which I was presented with the choice of being patient and kind, or being jerk who makes strangers feel bad because they were in my way/slowing me down/not being considerate in the way in which I define considerate.

My first stop was the grocery store. I picked up four items and got into the express lane. The woman at the checkout was paying for her groceries with dimes and quarters. She laid them out on the conveyor belt one at a time. When she was done, the cashier picked up each coin, one at a time, and counted the amount in her head. This went on for 10 hours. OK, not really 10 hours, but isn’t it funny how a few minutes fly by when we’re listening to a favorite song or eating ice cream? I could feel my irritation building, and for a second I considered posting something on Facebook like, “OMG, who pays in change?” But pretty quickly that thought felt really, really shitty, and my phone stayed in my purse. The transaction ended, and the cashier handed the woman her receipt. “Thank you for being patient,” she said. The cashier smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”

Driving to my next destination, after encountering an unusual number of red lights (clearly karma was riding shotgun), a construction worker walked out in the middle of the street and stopped traffic. An electric company vehicle needed to pull out of a driveway so someone in a bronze Jeep could get out. I remembered something Buddhist nun Pema Chodron said years ago about traffic, and how it’s the perfect place to practice patience, love, and kindness. OK, I thought, the guy was just doing his job, and the person in the Jeep needed to go somewhere. Either of them could have been me or someone I know, but more broadly, they were fellow human beings. Neither of them deserved my angst. Score one for kindness and patience!

I hate it when I get proud and ahead of myself.

Next and last stop: Dollar General. Like the grocery store, there was an older lady first in line and an older man behind her. She was chatty, talking to the cashier about her dog and asking him about his dog. They talked and laughed as she slowly put her change back in her purse. Finally she moved to the side so the man behind her could pay for his few items. Soon they were all talking about dogs.

I won’t lie. I was irritated. I just wanted to buy a freaking $1.35 bag of ice and go home. When the man got his change, I talked over him and said to the cashier, “I just need a bag of ice, thanks.” Would it have killed me to wait five stupid seconds to let the man walk away from the checkout lane? No. It wouldn’t have. And I still feel bad about it three days later, so I’m using it as a lesson to me: I could have been more patient. I could have been more kind.

My mother, who is 86, told me that many of the shoppers at the grocery store she goes to always seem to be in a hurry, and some demonstrate their frustration of her slow walk, hearing aids, and near blindness in obvious, rude ways. To say that her story made me angry is an understatement, but I’ve been obvious and rude to someone else’s mother, father, sister, aunt, daughter, at times, too. 

So many of us think we’re being clever posting on Facebook or Twitter about our frustration with people we encounter, be it the grocery store or on the road; writing something about someone who doesn’t know how to use their debit card, or who pays in quarters, or who maybe had no one else to talk to during the day except for a cashier or their dog.

I am ashamed, as I should be. I need to remember something I’ve written here in this blog more than once, that no one purposely gets up in the morning thinking, How can I piss off Lynn today? And so I again challenge myself to be more loving by, instead of reacting, wondering what kind of shit the people I’m judging deal with every day in their life.

Love can be a lot harder to do than hate sometimes, but it feels a whole lot better inside.

I’m often nothing more than a lot of noise, but my goal is to one day be able to substitute my name for Love. “Lynn is patient. Lynn is kind.” I am sometimes, but I’m shooting for always. No excuses. No conditions.

“When we feel dread, when we feel discomfort of any kind, it can connect us at the heart with all the other people feeling dread and discomfort. We can pause and touch into dread. We can touch bitterness of rejection and the rawness of being slighted. Whether we are at home or in a public spot or caught in a traffic jam or walking into a movie, we can stop and look at the other people there and realize that in pain and in joy they are just like me. Just like me they don’t want to feel physical pain or insecurity or rejection. Just like me they want to feel respected and physically comfortable.” Pema Chodron

By Lynn M. Haraldson

The Luckiest People in the World

On the outside, it looks like I’ve done a lot of nothing the last three weeks. I power watched five seasons of “Nurse Jackie” and the new BBC series “Broadchurch,” and I’m well into season two of “Parenthood.” I read six issues of “Arthritis Today,” four issues of “Birds and Blooms,” two books, and every blog entry since October in my Feedly feed. I’ve played countless rounds of Hearts, Canasta, Backgammon, Cribbage, and Words With Friends, and I’ve listened to nine weeks of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcasts.

But when I look really close, I see I’ve also done something that makes me very, very uncomfortable, and I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Barbra Streisand sings what I’m talking about better than I can write it.

“People who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world”

To need is lucky? I’ve never considered my “needs” as a lucky thing. When I need something or someone, it feels inconvenient at best and weak at worst, unless, of course, I can equally compensate the person helping me. But when you go through something like a hip replacement, and you can’t drive or tie your shoes or climb stairs or sit on a normal toilet seat, you need “a village,” and unless you’ve got a lot of money, that village is your family and friends. As I considered the surgery and the recovery, that didn’t feel very lucky to me.

So, I mentioned I’ve been power watching “Parenthood.” The show’s theme song is Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” After 25 episodes, the song’s message finally sunk in:

“May you always do for others
And let others do for you”

The doing for others part is a cinch. I want to help. I want to be needed. Doing is my thing. But the “…let others do for you” part isn’t so easy, because it’s not about paying forward or banking goodness. It means allowing others to love and to care for you without expectation of payback. Period.

When my friend Debbie drove an hour to visit me a week after my surgery, and she brought Panera and we ate in Jim’s bedroom because I was too uncomfortable sitting in the dining room…that’s letting others do for you. My massage therapist texted me just before she left to visit her family in Germany for Christmas: “I’ll be back on the 31st and can help you and will be glad to do it…It can’t be one bit easy to have such a major surgery, and I’m sure it wears on your emotions! I’d cry all the time!” She not only brought her table and equipment to my house for a massage this week, she insisted it was on the house. Letting others do for you.

And then there’s Jim. As if taking me home from the hospital and knowing that for the next three weeks I would need him to tie my shoes wasn’t enough, he called 911 when I had a vasovagal response the night I got home from the hospital, despite me telling him “I’ll be fine!” The paramedics couldn’t find my blood pressure at first, and when they did, it was 77/44. He stood at the foot of the gurney rubbing my feet, and he told me this is what people do when they love someone.

He hauled my four-legged potty chair to every holiday function. He built a non-skid stepstool so I could get into his pickup. He’s in the process of rebuilding his garage that burned in February, but he came over immediately when I caused a second-floor power outage when I attempted to run two space heaters (in separate rooms, in my defense) and I couldn’t get down the rickety 100-year-old stairs to trip the breaker. He takes me to the grocery store and physical therapy, and gets me out of the house when it’s the last thing I want to do but need to do.

“And let others do for you.”

We really are damn lucky to need people. It took a new hip for me to really get that.

Need, people! Don’t be afraid. It’s OK. Uncomfortable at first? Absolutely. But try it on. Be grateful. They want to help you as much as you want to help them. “Thanks. Couldn’t have done it without you” is the best thing you can ever say or hear in this life.

The Pause

March 10, 31 years ago, was my daughter Carlene’s due date, but she wasn’t interested in coming out. According to his measuring tape and his best guess, my doctor said Carlene was in excess of 8 pounds and she wouldn’t be born for another few weeks if she had her way.

“Your blood pressure’s high, the baby is big enough,” he said, taking off his gloves. “We need to get the baby out.”

“Ok,” was all I said, like I knew what he meant. Only I didn’t.

He left, I got dressed, and a nurse came in with some papers. Told me to check into the hospital.

“Ok,” I said again, and again, I asked no questions because I was 19 years old and I was stuck between the fear of the unknown and the mandate by which I was raised: never question authority. I walked numbly to the waiting area. My husband, Bruce, met me near the coat rack.

“So, what did he say?” he asked cheerfully, helping me into my coat. Bruce was terribly excited to meet the baby. Every night, he rubbed my belly like it was Aladdin’s lamp. “Come out and play!” he’d say.

“I have to go to the hospital,” I said quietly, trying not to cry. “He said the baby has to be born soon.”

He took my hand and I clutched the papers with the other. We walked outside. Bruce helped me into the car. Nothing was easy anymore.

Bruce slid into the driver’s seat. I looked over the papers the nurse had given me and could feel my heart beating in my temples.

“I don’t know what any of this means!” I slapped the papers. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. Am I having a C-section? Is the baby OK?”

Bruce took a deep breath. “Let’s just sit here for a minute,” he said.

“But they’re expecting us at the hospital! We have to go!” I protested. God knows we had to do exactly what we were told.

“They’ll be there when we get there,” he said. He reached over and stroked my hair. “We need some time to think.”

So we paused. I took a deep breath and loosened my death-grip on the papers. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember not feeling alone. I was afraid and so was he, but we were afraid together. When we felt ready to go, as was always Bruce’s positive approach to life, he said, “We’re having a baby!” Which we did, the next day, at 7:27 in the evening after more than 13 hours of labor. No C-section.

Carlene Rae came out looking just like her father, and as she grew, she took on his nature, even though they only knew each other for 11 days. Like her father, Carlene prefers to take her time, and she chafes against the hectic world and deadlines. She’s the person you want holding your hand when you shake, and she will remind you – with a joyful heart – about the good stuff yet to come.

 
Carlene was the joy of his life, if only for 11 days
   
Our wedding day; Carlene today

Fire

As long as I live, I will never forget the glow of light dancing on the snow outside the front door of Jim’s house. I threw open the door, looked to my right, and saw his barn on fire, with flames shooting 40 feet in the air.

What was burning was more than a wooden structure, tools, and his pickup. On fire was the labor and the love that built it. On fire was the bow tie given to Jim by his mother when he was a young boy. On fire was his favorite dog’s ashes. On fire was the Harley that took Jim and I on many adventures and instilled in me a confidence I’ve never had. On fire was his grandmother’s dining table and chairs, and a dresser his cousin inherited from her mother, who passed away last year. (Jim was refinishing it for her.) On fire was his grandfather’s .22 pistol and the BB gun Jim and his nephews use to shoot targets when they come to visit. On fire were my brother’s snow shoes he bought in 1970, the ones he said gave him a sense of peace when he treked across the fields around his college campus. On fire were the photos of good times with friends and family, a vintage poster for the Sinnamahoning Rattlesnake Bagging competition, and the original watercolors – painted by Jim’s neighbor – of the cabin that used to sit on the site where his barn was built.

When you walked into Jim’s barn, you walked into his mind, his past, his dreams, and his craft.

Anyone who has lost something special through fire or theft or some other loss knows that when things are more than “stuff,” it is necessary to grieve them for the life-giving, memory-filled things they were. And so it is for Jim. And for me, as I mourn the loss of my antique glider and whiskey barrel and, the most difficult, my bike.

While no one was hurt, I hope and pray our barn kittens weren’t in the barn when the fire started. We haven’t seen them yet, but we’re clinging to the hope that they are hunkered down close by.
So much to process. So much to do.

I Believe

I start a lot of pieces of writing on scraps of paper that I sometimes transfer to a Word document. I save the file as whatever the first typed words are, so the title rarely make sense when I see it days or months later. Every once in awhile, I go through that no-man’s land of strange file names to see if any of them still have relevance. Most of the time I have no idea what inspired me to write a particular sentence or short paragraph, so, like Charlie-in-a-Box and the water pistol that shoots jelly, those files get exiled to the electronic version of the Island of Misfit Toys.

During a recent file purge, I opened a file I’d saved shortly after passing my motorcycle permit test last April. I called it, “I believe.” I remember writing that I believed I could learn how to operate a motorcycle, but the last sentence I wrote completely slipped my mind: “I believe I can love someone.”

Before sending the file to the Island of Misfit Files, I thought about April and where my thoughts were at that time. As many of you know, one of my personal goals in 2013 was to get to the heart of my commitment issues and my fear of letting go and moving on. I wrote about this at the end of December (“The Letting Go Has Taken Place”). For the most part, 2013 was a good year of letting go of what needed to go and letting in that which was best to be let in. This laid the groundwork for the leap of faith I took last week when I moved to a small town 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. I moved because I believe I can love someone, but not in the way it might appear on the surface.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but being single and in love at age 50 is way different than being single and in love at age 20. My life no longer centers around raising children. I have the luxury of being selfish with my time. I like sleeping in the middle of the bed. I enjoy the silence of living alone, and I can take out my own garbage. Loving someone at 50 is something I want to do, not something I need or have to do, which was what love felt like at 20 and 30 and even 40.

When I say I believe I can love someone, I mean, specifically, that I believe I can love Jim and allow him to love me, idiosyncrasies and all. Idiosyncrasies that, in part, are filed under the heading of everything weight- and food-related.

Viewing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is a portal through which many of us would rather not look. I mean, we’re accustomed to who we are day by day, moment by moment. Who we are is who we are. Even if it is our desire to change a particular behavior, we still grasp to that understanding of who we are. Filtered through someone else’s lens, our thoughts, actions, and physical appearance is interpreted  in a way we cannot control or, for the most part, influence. Makes us feel a little naked, right?

At age 20, our life experiences stack up like helium balloons. At age 50, they look more like phyllo dough. At 50, we’ve spent more time in our bodies, taken in vast amounts of opinions and advice, and have pretty much decided – at least in general – what’s what. Some of us tweak our points of view and are open to new ideas, but – in the words of Edie Brickell – “What I am is what I am…”

And what I am in this new house in this new town is a woman whose demons and joys and life lessons moved here along with dishes and furniture and photos of grandbabies. I’m here because I want to love and be loved, to work in my field, to ride new bike trails, drink coffee in a new coffee shop, and add more layers to that phyllo dough of experiences. (Anyone else in the mood for baklava?)

I’m more willing than ever to see myself through someone else’s eyes and to filter that through my own understanding of who I believe myself to be, physically and psychologically. Makes it even more befitting that I moved to the hometown of Jimmy Stewart. His boyhood home is just up the street from me.

It’s A Wonderful Life” anyone? I believe it is.