Sunday, September 23, 2012

Listening to the Moment

I am tired of getting bad news, of then being the bearer of bad news, of trying to temper that bad news in front of my children, and of trying not to let that bad news affect my kindness toward others--particularly my family.  And I can't always do that.  I try--really I do--but I just don't make it everyday, maybe not even most days.

And so after a long day of it all, I am sitting here mulling the huge things and the big things and the semi-big things and the routine things that make this life into this life.  I should go to sleep, but I just can't right now.  Just. Can't. 

And I probably shouldn't write except that I think that I'm not alone here.

I think that many of us sit up after hard days and ponder.  We may try to calm ourselves, get our frustrations out at the gym, even self-medicate.  And at the end of it all, we are still up--watching TV, sitting on the couch, or staring into the darkness of the bedroom--not sleeping.

And in that moment, I wonder if we our own breathing coming again and again.  It is the gift of life that makes our heart beat and our chest rise and fall, and even if life may be complex and tortured at the moment, it is still a gift, and we still have it in this moment. 

I wonder if we hear the breath of those around us.  They don't have to live with us.  We can live alone, but still some of the sounds of the outside world creep in.  We may feel alone, so very alone.  But we are not.  There is always someone, something.  The first time I ever lived by myself I had a single dorm room in Boston.  In moving in, I inadvertently trapped a fly in the room.  During that first day, George, as I fondly dubbed him, seemed a real annoyance, but when my family left and I was actually alone for the very first time in my life, I was oddly grateful for the comfortable, if noisy, companionship of my small friend.

But back in this moment, I am listening to the gurgle of the water in the pipes, the obscenely loud hum of the refrigerator (oh, please, don't quit on me!), the whirring of the computer fan, and the chirping of the crickets. 

And over it all, I hear that small voice, that voice that my daytime activity--the hunt for socks, the chasing of children, the rush to meet deadlines--drowns out. 

Today the voice tells me what it has to tell me today.

And my soul says, "But...." 

My soul always says, "But...."  You would think that after all these years my soul would learn, but it hasn't.  It still says, "But...."

And the voice says, "Shhh.  Just listen."

And so I sit.  And listen.  And hopefully, I hear.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Yeast

The week gets busy.  Dinner needs to be started before the boys get home from school or it all goes to pieces between their needs, checking their folders, overseeing their homework, supplementing to provide what hasn't been covered, and preparing to arrive at whatever activity we are due to attend, preferably at the time we are supposed to attend it.

Such was the case Friday when I breezed in my house at thirteen after three, exactly twenty-two minutes before I usually head to the bus stop.

Friday is always a busy day for me, and this Friday was even moreso.  There had been somewhere to be (for which I was late) all day long.  So when it came time to think of dinner, my brain was kind of stumped.  There wasn't any warm rice, and I wasn't really in the mood for it (I'm never in the mood for warm rice).  I scrounged through my refrigerator, found my left-over low fat/low acidity tomato sauce, and immediately had an idea:  pizza!

The problem was the yeast.  I usually buy a little bottle of the dry yeast because it seems to last longer, and I use much less of it per time.  But I was beginning to think my yeast was dead because the last few times I made pizza, the dough didn't rise.  At all.  Not a bubble.

But a glance at the clock assured me that there was no time to run to the store to pick up anything, and, since I had no other ideas, I rolled my eyes and said a quick prayer, "God, the boys really need dinner, and I'd really appreciate it if the yeast worked today.  I know it's probably my own fault for keeping it too long, but please either let this dough rise or help my children love the pizza with flat dough."

And I mixed up the dough not completely sold on that prayer because it's been a pretty hard summer, and sometimes I wonder if God is listening.

Thirty minutes and two sweaty, talkative, jumping, backpack-slinging boys later, I walked back into the kitchen, and lo and behold my dough had more than doubled.

Bear in mind that the last three--not one, not two, but three--pizzas I made with this same yeast did nothing.  I had kind of been of the opinion that, after the whole Passover thing, God might not be a big yeast fan, but if He can bring even a little budding fungus back from the dead to swell the dough for my boys and then make both of them like the pizza on the same day (unheard of in my house), well, then, maybe He's listening to the rather bigger requests we're making too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I have been gifted this summer, so very gifted.  Oh, it's been a hard summer, but so very, very special.

You see, at the front of it all, my nephew came this summer.  My in-laws keep thanking me for taking him.  Thanking me! Can you believe it?  I was in heaven over and under to have him in the house this summer.  I wished his sister and all the family could come too.  I feel so awesomely privileged that they trusted me!  I should be thanking them!

Almost everything we planned this summer, we planned around his visit, and we were absolutely delighted to do it.  There was both joy and frustration in finding his dirty socks wadded in the corner, under the couch, and on the second shelf on the side of the entertainment center.  There was something endearing about knowing that no matter what time I woke him up and set him in front of the door with his shoes, he wouldn't put them on until a few minutes after we were supposed to be wherever.  His efforts to escape speaking English were humorous, extravagant, and downright entertaining--and when the little one finally tricked him into uttering this detested tongue, the only word he actually said was, "NO!"

But he had to go back.  The time came when he had to go home.

"Noooo!" wailed my little one when I told him Hyung had to leave. "He doesn't miss his family!  He likes living with us!  He wants to live here FOREVER!"

And part of me wished that too--the part of me that hangs his towel in the bathroom to remember him, prays over his forgotten glasses case, and refuses to throw away the Science Camp pin with his name on it.  There are days I still expect to see him in the twin bed in the boys' room.  Neither boy is ready to sleep there.  They are waiting for Hyung.

And it all reminds me of a verse, verses actually:
"Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their (the Pharisees' disciples') malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.”
And they brought Him a denarius.

And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”

They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”

Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
(Matthew 22:17-21, courtesy of

These verses always sit a little heavy on my heart.  Not the first section--my husband dearly wishes I cared to hold on to money just a little more than I do.

No, I'm having trouble with the second part.  For I see God's likeness imprinted on those I love.  I see His look in their eyes, His hand in their faces. And God has done some calling this summer.

On the surface, it is Hyung and family members.  For a decade now, I have felt these small going-home "deaths" over and over. It's not the death of the person, but the separation.  Again and again I say goodbye.  And hello.  And goodbye.  It doesn't get easier.  It gets harder.  Each time I love them a little more.  Each time I wish apparation wasn't something J.K. Rowling dreamed up (and we can argue about its geographic limits another time).  

But as hard as goodbyes are, my family is still here.  Beyond arm's reach, maybe, but here.

But there are those who are not here.  God has done some of that calling this summer too.  And as I have stood this summer looking at broken families, as I stand just this week watching four daughters weep for their lost father, a childhood friend mourn the loss of her babies, and a friend and her grandson waiting for his mother to die, I fear the day God asks me to render what is His.

And as I gaze at my little ones sleeping in their father's arms this evening, I thank my lucky stars that I have been blessed with one more day.  And the joy of their being catches in my throat because it's too wonderful.  I'm afraid to bask in that love for fear that the next time it's my turn.  

But the other half of me reprimands myself, "What do you think your friends would do if they had one more day, one more moment?"

And so I'm daring to rejoice.  I have been so very gifted.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Sometimes life gives you a preview of what lies ahead, and I'm not sure those previews have been approved for all audiences.

When I was six- or seven-years-old, my grandmother developed encephalitis and forgot almost everything.  I don’t remember all that much of it either.  As a child wrestling with the scope of my own agency, I thought that I somehow controlled the world around me.  But that world was going horribly wrong, and in my elementary-school mind, I was a complete failure. 

The memories were fuzzy, but the pain of them is still there.  After losing a baby, my mother discovered that her own mother was very, very ill.  How long Grandma was actually in the hospital is not something I know, but I do remember lying awake late at night listening to agonized phone calls.  Sometime around those first calls, my mother had surgery and, after a very brief recovery, took a trip down to Florida with her sisters to help her dad take care of Grandma. 

Grandma was apparently not Grandma.  She accused Grandpa of making babies with the nurses under the bed.  She stripped her pants outside because a chameleon ran up her slacks (okay, I'll give you that she was on an enclosed patio, and I might have done the same thing even without being mentally compromised).  She didn't know her friends.  She didn't remember the nurses.

In spite of the worry over her mother, my own mother has repeatedly said that the memories of that trip are the best memories she has of her dad.  I'm sure that she had been thinking of him, a man with three daughters and two granddaughters who had always wanted a boy, when she and my father applied for and were accepted as adoptive parents--for a little boy.

And it's a good thing she had that visit because not much later, about six weeks after my brother arrived, my grandfather suffered a brain aneurysm and died suddenly. 

My grandmother remembers none of it and accorded herself a failure too.  She was passed between her daughters' houses as much as any of them could handle her.  It wasn't that my grandmother herself was difficult, although she did some really crazy things like constantly sneaking branches from the spruces and hiding them under the chairs as a remedy for the fleas, which ruled the house after our dog had given birth to puppies and couldn't be dipped.  The fleas never went away, but we did stop walking in bare feet.  After stepping on the needles a few times, nobody when into the living room without shoes.

But the spruce branches were bearable.  Watching Grandma was unbearable.  My grandmother had become just a shadow of who she used to be--and a strange shadow at that, one that seemed oddly contorted by the dim slant of her waning intellect through the clouds of encephalitis.  It was simply too painful to stomach for weeks on end.  And so they shuffled Grandma back and forth.  Life was hard for Mom and Dad with Grandma there.

On the other hand, I was not having such a good fall without Grandma.  I hated school, cried when I was there, and never wanted to go. For a while, I missed at least one day a week. Then Grandma came to stay with us.

She became my heroine. Grandma rode all the roller coasters and never got dizzy or nauseous. She would buy sweet-and-sour suckers and sneak them next to our pillows during the night. She took us to play in the sand pit by the long jump. She never budged for anybody, even the junior high track coach trying to coax her out during a meet. She watched "One Life to Live" every afternoon. She fell asleep on the floor in a patch of the afternoon sun, and when I came home from school, my little sister would be sitting on the slumbering Grandma and eating microwave popcorn. Sometimes Grandma would groan. My sister would stand up. Grandma would roll over, and my sister would sit back down.

It didn't matter to us that she didn't remember anything, that she had forgotten that my grandfather had died, that my sister had to show her the way to the elementary school when they sometimes walked up to meet me.  It was magical, walking home while basking in the light of Grandma's glowing attention.  It didn't matter what old wives tales she told me: that I'd better not grow too big for my britches, that I needed a peck of dirt in my life time, that it was bad luck to open an umbrella in the house.

I don't remember craziness from Grandma.  I remember a woman who listened to my problems (okay, well, sometimes she fell asleep, but that was probably her medication).  I remember a woman who would read us one bedtime story after another without complaining.  I remember a woman who could tell stories of her own crazy childhood and her four brothers and how she had to learn to eat without chewing or her brothers would eat everything.  To me, Grandma wasn't a shadow of a brain but the embodiment of a heart.

Eventually, Grandma didn't want to remember that time.  Like a bitter aftertaste, the absence of her memory--particularly the memory of her husband's death--lingered.  But to me, it was the highlight of my childhood, the cream center of the iced chocolate cupcake.

And it was somehow fitting that it was Grandma who realized that I was forgetting things a decade later.  I'm not exactly sure when it happened.  I had had a concussion a few days after starting college.  I went straight back to school, but things weren't right.  I just couldn't recall things--not so much things like the derivative of x-cubed or the chemical formula for sucrose but basic things like who my roommate was and what classes I was taking.  I know that I forgot them because I started writing about them.  Then I realized that if anyone ever got hold of my diary, they could convince me of anything.  So I started hiding the journal pages.  I still find them every now and then.  Their tone surprises me.  The amount of paranoia, off-putting at first glance, makes sense when you realize that an amnesiac (and an Alzheimer's patient) believes everyone is lying to her.  She would never do something like that.  And certainly, if she did, she would remember.  And then again, in a culture in which what you do makes you what you are, if you don't remember what you do, are you who you think you are?

I tried to withhold judgment when Grandma forgot little things.  I was far away, and if she forgot I was married or that I had boys, not girls, well, that was understandable.  After all, she didn't get to see me much.

But then there was the day that she put something on the stove and then went out back with her dog Ginger.  As she chased Ginger through the yard, the pot boiled dry and started to smoke.  Of course, I understand burning dinner.  I understand setting off the fire alarm and inadvertently alerting the security system company and, subsequently, the fire department.  What I can't understand is how she came to be surprised to meet the fire marshal in her living room, how she had missed the fire engine in front of her door, how she had failed to recognize that the approaching sirens were coming toward--and stopped at--her own house.

It was time for us to look for a different living situation for Grandma.  If we didn't know it then, her trip to my parents' house that fall cemented it.  Grandma didn't know who I was.  Sure, she remembered her granddaughter; Bethy was four-years-old and very special.  When my mom needed to go into the hospital that weekend, I came to stay with Grandma--to make sure she felt comfortable, to keep her calm, and to force her to eat something since she kept forgetting she was hungry.  She couldn't remember my son's name, even though he sat on her lap and reminded her frequently--to the tune of every 45 seconds.  She kept calling out for my aunt to help her--my aunt, who had stayed in Ohio, 300 miles away.

So, after much heartache and tantruming on all sides, Grandma now has a small apartment in an assisted living community.  She is unhappy, but we are all relieved.  We don't worry that someone is sneaking in at night.  We don't fear that she will burn herself to death.  And we know that if she doesn't remember to eat, someone will come knocking on the door to check on her.

But I remember what it was like to forget.  And so it is now that I sympathize with my grandmother.  I don't correct her when she, the Queen of Microwave Popcorn, insists that she's never had the stuff.  I know what it's like.  As she loses more and more years of her life, retreating further and further into her childhood, I don't try to bridge the gap.  My aunt was both livid and morose the other day.  "She thinks I'm her sister!" she said.  "I thought, 'Look in the mirror, woman! I don't look that old.' Her sister, my foot."  I understand.  It is crushing to watch.  But I don't let the sadness linger.  If Grandma thinks I'm a peer, so be it.

Of course, some days she's so lucid I wonder if she really needs assisted living.  And then, during the same phone call, she is suddenly not on the phone.  I can't reach her calling back.  I wonder if she has just fallen asleep or if she has truly fallen and can't get up.  I make an emergency call to my aunt.  "Can you call the facility?  Please ask them to check on Grandma.  She was just on the phone, and now she's not."

It turns out, the call was just disconnected.  Grandma didn't know how to call me back.  I'm wondering if she also didn't know how to hang up because I certainly couldn't reach her when I tried calling back.  And I realize that, yes, despite my own hopes otherwise, Grandma needs the help.

Even the little ones know that.  Shortly after Grandma's visit, my youngest son and I were at the library where he was unsuccessfully lobbying for me to check out a comic book with teeny tiny writing to read to his brother and him.

"I can't possibly see that behind two squirming boys," I told him.  "I'm too old."

The little one immediately dropped the book and took my face in his hands.  Putting his nose tip to tip with mine, he searched my eyes and asked very slowly:

"You are really old, Mommy?"

He paused.  "Do you know who I am, Mommy?"

And finally, so close that I felt I could smell every chocolate chip the child had eaten on his breath, he whispered, "Who am I, Mommy?"

"You're my little boy!" I cried, tickling his ribs and giggling right along with him, to the thorough disdain of the librarians.  In spite of the giggles, though, I wondered.  Will it be me?  Someday, will I forget my little boy?

Some people say that Grandma's not the woman she was anymore.  That may be.  But who is?  She wasn't herself all those years ago, but the love was still there.  And, in our phone conversations, it still is.