Friday, January 28, 2011
The Sand Dollar...
My mother was losing her wallet, her keys, forgetting to pick up her mail. This is a woman who had always prided herself on being so reliable and well organized (it skips a generation, apparently) that she has never paid a late fee in her life. Not for a late payment of a bill, not for an overdue library book because even if it was a ten-cent fine, that fine would be a black mark of judgment against her, a poor reflection upon her as a member of society.
When she started to decline more sharply, what was most telling to me was that she became blasé about the things most characteristic of her – orderliness, organization, being dependable – to the point where I was the one darting around her place, looking through drawers filled with dozens of unused spiral notebooks and under the bed for library books that were due. Also, as the easiest of easy targets, I had feverish visions of someone horrible following her home from her daily walk to her usual haunts – the pharmacy, the sandwich shop - and slipping into the building behind her. There were so many other concerns, too: She couldn’t be trusted to take her medication right, she couldn’t figure out how to use the phone, I was worried about her remembering to turn off her stove. When it came time to make the decision to move her in with us, it was an easy one. The decision was easy: the living together, that is the hard part.
People inevitably ask me why we didn’t try assisted-living. Simple: she is not able to care for herself enough to be accepted into one. Why not a nursing home, then? They have activities for residents, she would at least be around people closer to her age. My mother is fuzzy about a lot of things these days, but one thing she is very clear on is that she desperately does not want to go into a nursing home and I think her instincts are right on this one. I have seen her in those environments and she becomes very anxious, scared and uncomfortable. She is still lucid enough to know what a nursing home would mean for her. Although that is likely on the future horizon, we’d like to delay that as long as possible as it will be the end for her.
We’ve had to learn all about medications this year and how they interact, that all chairs need to be pulled out and pushed in, that when my mother gets even a simple cold everything falls apart, that becoming distracted in the grocery store could result in her filling her cart with bags of frozen shrimp that I will never cook in a million years, that “the red thing” means her purse and “the white paper” is usually a piece of mail (we still don’t know what “the yellow thing” is), that if we don’t take out her hearing aids for her, she will put them wherever (check the mantel first), that she cannot simply go to bed without a whole, elaborate ritual.
My husband is a thick-skinned, patient type of person, a typically stoic Minnesotan who manages to also be kind and nurturing. In other words, he’s a much better person than I. When it’s one’s own parent, though, our buttons are much more easily pushed. One effect of my mother’s condition means that even though I work very hard to care for her, I still get treated like a shady sixteen-year-old who is asking for the car keys again whenever I try to carve out time for myself. It’s like the old dynamic between us remains intact, frozen in time. Even when my husband is home with my mother, she expects me to keep to a curfew and despite how this activates every last rebellious synapse I have, I’ve learned to roll my eyes and abide by it or I will be pestered to the breaking point.
This year, I have learned all about pyrrhic victories, how to identify them and, when I have the self-discipline, how to walk away from them. Sometimes, though, it takes every last bit of resolve. In those moments, when my own nerves seem to have been lit on fire like the wick on dynamite, I try to imagine myself as Wonder Woman or Supergirl in a bright red cape and leotard, able to deflect anything life tosses my way with my handy wristlets. This helps somehow, even while I know that I’m still the one standing there, wristlet-free, squeezing my hands into tight, clenched balls.
It is not always bad. Most weekdays consist of her napping and watching games shows or judges squinting at defendants in TV courtrooms. I sit in the sunroom and I write, edit, read, research and generally try to lose myself in words. Mornings and evenings are our rough times, trying to get my son ready for school when my mother wants her medication, trying to get him calmed down for bed when my mother’s television blares in the other room. Our clash of lifestyles and the very different temperaments we were born with has not brought out the best in me in such close quarters. All it takes is for one seemingly minor, mundane irritant (my mother eating potato chips – gah! Another irritation! - out of the bag instead of a bowl, for example, leaving crumbs everywhere and why-oh-why of all those lifelong traits she abandoned did neatness have to among them?) to send me spiraling. It’s not the crumbs, of course, or the potato chips: it’s everything. It’s never having taken care of herself so she’d have a stronger foundation, it’s losing my personal space, it’s rearranging everything in our lives, it’s the lack of privacy, it’s the helplessness, it’s still being treated like a juvenile delinquent in my forties even when I was never one to begin with, which brings me back to all the old baggage. It’s funny how potato chips can do that to a person.
Caring for a chronically unwell parent whose best hope is to not get worse can bring out parts of yourself that you’d rather prefer remain dormant or at least hidden.
Over holiday break, when my mother was in Texas visiting my aunt for three weeks, we had the a chance to go away, to run for the hills or the valley or wherever the hell we could go that was far away from here, and we sprinted toward it with the panting enthusiasm of a pack of golden retrievers chasing after a ball at the beach. And to the beach we headed: Florida, land of orange groves and amusement parks and palm trees and miniature golf and fundamentalists and Jews and pelicans and the Atlantic Ocean. No medication that needed to be dispensed, at least not by our hands. No litter box that needed to be scooped and no sidewalks that needed to be shoveled by us either. The only chairs we needed to push out or in would be our own. We were going to Florida. Three trilling syllables rolling off the tongue, a happy song, a stone skipping on the water before it sinks to the ocean floor to hang out with the starfish: Flor-i-da.
The snow on the ground in southern Georgia was the first sign that it wasn’t exactly blisteringly hot in the Sunshine State but it was a lot warmer than Chicago. It did not matter. We were away. My husband and I immediately fell into our natural rhythm of traveling together – basically, research where the vegetarian restaurants are and then let the interesting points in between them become the little dash marks – and our son was more than amendable to it. We became that unit of three again that functions so well together.
On our second day in Florida, we were on the beach in St. Augustine, a place with a name that sounds as far away from Chicago as possible, the first time my son had seen the ocean since he was four. There were shells everywhere we looked and it was finally warm enough to cuff our parts and walk into where the tide had just pulled away. We started instinctively putting shells in our pockets for my son’s classmates, squatting down to examine the radius around us, the foamy water fizzing over rocks. Strange brown birds unknown to me ran on skinny legs along the tide, a kite bobbed nearby, children climbed on the rocks like billy goats. It was during one of those moments when I was crouching in the sand on the balls of my feet, reaching for shells with my son and husband in the near distance when I thought, This is peace. I hadn’t felt that way in years, the feeling of not having any responsibilities or expectations, just of pure enjoyment and being. It was amazing to me with what ease I could transition into beachcomber mode, to being someone who only cared about where the next interesting shell might be found. The only thing that occupied me was plucking my fingers through the sand like nimble tentacles.
After an hour or two, we needed to leave to find a hotel. Walking back, something brought me farther out to where the tide had just rolled out and I crouched again over the popping foam, unable to resist the lure of more discoveries. As I was about to take a step, I crouched again, noticing a small off-white circle in the sand that looked like a drawing of a flower with a stick. Pushing the sand away, I kept digging until my fingers were around a big, perfect sand dollar. Five notches exactly under the flower’s petals, a small star in the middle, a loopy etching of a flower shape on the back, elegant symmetry. Even when I was holding it, turning it around in my hands, I was in disbelief, my jaw open as if I’d just seen a mermaid splashing in the waves.
I am a city girl by choice and temperament. I marvel at architecture daily, at the diversity of accents and faces around me when I’m on the train, at the crackling, robust energy all around me. It’s not so often that I’m given the opportunity to be blown away by the simple, magnificent design of a sand dollar discovered by my own eyes. I’m the sort of person who always looks up a second too late to see a falling star, who catches the merest glimpse of yellow feathers before a gold finch darts away. Nature’s magic show is going on out there, I know it, but it’s always been elusive to my own eyes. Here was something perfect in my hand, something labored over, a home designed out of necessity but artfully crafted without any shortcuts.
What I held in my hand was the sun-bleached skeleton of a sea urchin, the protective bone a spiny animal once covered before the evolutionary drive compelled him to become burrowing creature. The scratchy flower shape is created by the sand dollar’s tube-shaped feet, which are used for breathing. There are scientific explanations for the design and symmetry of a sand dollar, having to do with respiration, gas exchange and evolution. The thought that a spiny sea urchin would work so hard to find food, survive and fight the current - young ones are even thought to ingest sand to better plant themselves to the ocean floor – and still leave behind a work of beauty without expecting a word of praise from its aquatic community kind of impresses me. Just by living, they create a beautiful home in the process, a natural by-product of life itself.
I finally held up the sand dollar, unable to stop grinning, and my son and husband came running toward me, whooping. I could barely speak. Whenever I looked at my son sitting in the back seat of the car for the rest of our vacation, most likely he was turning that perfect disk around in his hands, staring at it in that wide-eyed way he has about him.
Sometimes life can be really, really challenging. We’re just trying to get through our day, get from Point A to Point B, and we’re sent spinning. We’re without an anchor, we can’t see where we’re going, we’re drowning in it all. Burrowing in, though, we can create a beautiful life as something to leave behind. Maybe no one else will ever notice or appreciate it. Maybe our lives will just look messy and confusing and unnecessarily challenging to other people. Maybe it’ll look that way to us, too. At our best, though, we know what we’re doing. We’re digging in and building beautiful lives as if there were an evolutionary drive toward it. A beautiful life is not one without dark, petty, horrible moments and breakdowns. It is seeing our shortcomings, looking at them without fear, and trying to do better, trying to etch pretty little flowers on ourselves just because.
I’m working at it. Sand dollars don’t happen overnight, either.