It’s so hard to know what to do these days, isn’t it?

Watch the news, or turn it off?  Cook like a rampaging mother of six, or support your local cafe with takeout, at the curbside, of course?  Undertake a new hobby?  (Spare me.  Only the ultra-privileged would utter such nonsense.)  Here’s one for writers: Can you list all the words you hope to never hear again, when this is finally behind us?  (Hint:  Mine starts with “unprecedented.”)

Who has the right advice? The most Zen approach for navigating?  The most authentic social conscience?  WHO KNOWS?

Through it all, one thread runs true and bright:  We can’t control what is happening.  Could that be the hardest part of all, for many of us?  We destiny-slaying, choice-savoring, independent-at-all-costs souls, we can’t self-direct or self-actualize or self-whatever-the-hell-our way out of this one.

So, what CAN we do?  What matters, at a time like this?

Pondering this question in the mirror the other morning, I found my gaze zooming in on an interesting dose of reality.  The mirror was filthy. ICK!  I barked out loud to the only nearby listener, the ever-vigilant Dachshund who shelters in place with me.  This is GROSS!  Have I been spitting toothpaste as a subconscious act of defiance? What sort of uncivilized pig lives in this house?

Dropping the gaze lower, I realized the sink was worse.  Encrusted with, with, things that, ugh, things that should have passed through labyrinths of pipe and into another sub terrain eons ago.  We’re in the middle of a pandemic, for God’s sake!  How was I not seeing the surface of this sink?

Suddenly, I was mad with motivation.  Seizing the Windex, the Lysol, and the paper towels–and grateful to have any–I went at it like a trained operative on Seal Team Six.  And a surprise awaited.

I liked it.  I, who hate housecleaning like the proverbial plague, so to speak, liked it.

The euphoria of accomplishment was instantaneous and intoxicating. Restoring the shine to that glass, the smooth squeak to the counter surface, so clean it reflected back at me. Rubbing madly away, I thought feverishly, this MUST be done. THIS I can do.  I can’t go out and save lives on the front line; I can’t protect my mother inside that senior facility; I have no jobs to offer those without work, no solace to offer for the fear around me or the desperate grief, shock, and confusion.  There are still no answers for the questions that never end. But THIS moment, today, this inch forward, this tiny, microscopic accomplishment, too minuscule to even be visible to anyone else, THIS blow I can strike.  This right here, this I CAN do.

Time is a blur these days, but it still seems that our relationship was in its tender, early stages when suddenly, with the onset of a national emergency, we became captives together.

Maybe not captives exactly, but we are tethered here by a togetherness that is unrelenting, with no end in sight.  In this unprecedented time, “sheltering in place” as ordered, we are compliant and thus far safe, we fervently hope, at home.  Day after day, with every strange flip of the calendar, I am here, he is here, sometimes not even six feet away.  No matter where I go in the house, here we still are.

And he worries.  He can’t help himself.  A tad anxious by nature, he is even more antsy in these unfamiliar days that struggle to find a rhythm he can recognize.  If I get up from the work table for coffee, he watches carefully, his furrowed brow telegraphing a preference that I would stay still, where I can be regularly monitored.  Sometimes he follows, wondering if he might be needed, just making sure that, with hot coffee in hand, I will return as promised.  At first, I tried reassurance:  Don’t get up, I’d say patiently, I’ll get it, there’s nothing for you to do, relax.  Then I gave up, realizing that like many stubborn males with protective instincts who I have been fortunate to adore, he wouldn’t listen.  After the first couple of weeks, occasionally he would stay put, thinking perhaps he could trust me to come back, weary of the burden of fretting every second, turning his attention to matters of his own concern.

The odd dynamic of shared confinement is not just emotional.  I am embarrassed about my hair; I need my roots done and can’t remember when I last showered.  He needs a bath and most certainly a haircut.

If he wasn’t such a thoroughly charming little dog, he’d be driving me nuts.

Gus came to join my little household early last fall, very soon after my beloved hound dog died of cancer after 13 hilarious years.  It was too soon, really, to get another dog, thinking back on it now, if such decisions of the heart were measured strictly by traditional guidelines for grief recovery. Too soon for me to accept him for who he is, such a different little brain and spirit than she was; too soon to accept the love he offered so readily, after being abandoned following the death of his previous owner.  Too soon to care much that he had different taste in treats, a different pace on a walk, and a solid instinctive obligation to stand guard and warn me against the hazards of all unknown comers.  My deep grief over her passing and the suffering she endured at the very end did not dissipate, and while I was glad to keep Gus safe and well-fed, on some days I looked at him from a distance, almost as though he was someone else’s dog.

This is probably why there are so many divorces among people who remarry too quickly, I thought idly, then immediately feared I had a different problem, thinking that way about a dog. A few months trundled past and slowly, I began to adjust.  He is the first of so many things, I reminded myself, trying to achieve the grace of patience—my first boy dog in 25 years, my first with a long coat and its riotous tufts spiking every which-a-way, my first Dachshund, with their renowned sensitivity and (only occasionally amusing) stubbornness.  I had no idea what hygiene might be required around what the vet called “his little PoPo,” no idea why saying No about 46 times didn’t appear to make a dent.  Do long-backed dogs automatically have the cleanest colons of the canine kingdom?  I can’t fathom why this dog poops at least three times a day, sometimes four.

When the pandemic slammed the nation shut in early spring, Gus had been here almost seven months.  Weeks now into our shared isolation, he’s getting pretty smelly and stoutly declines to wrestle with the restless cat upon demand. Yet with time to observe him more fully, I am amazed to watch how he does his nervous, short-legged best to adapt.  This week, I noticed I could go to the bathroom alone.  He waited quietly, without protest, for his morning potty relief when I overslept one day this week.  I denied a request to go out late one afternoon, citing an important conference call about to launch, and watched him return patiently to his bed in my home office, though not without giving me the eye.

The other day I dropped onto the couch in a low moment, staring out the window in despair.  I miss my daughter, my grandchildren, all my family, my friends, my co-workers, like we all do, of course.  And I realized how fully my heart had finally relented toward this funny little dog when he jumped up next to me, and I encircled him in a crushing hug.  I’m SO glad you are here, I told him.  I don’t know what I would do, if you weren’t. I’m glad you let people hug you.  Your predecessor, rest in peace, would never have tolerated such.

He turned when I released the hug and looked me straight in the eye, bestowing a gentle, tiny, tentative kiss on the side of my cheek.

And then he burped.

I guess little boys will be little boys, in the face of whatever the universe brings.

 

If there are many things that lift the heart faster than making a child laugh, I can’t name them. The other day I tried a little trick with the grandkids with a bit of an ulterior motive, and it got a better laugh than I expected.

Hey, Buddy, I said casually, do you hear the birds chirping?  Sitting across from me at the table and drawing while I was looking at a catalogue, he turned to look out the window.  I tugged quickly on my right ear, fast enough that he didn’t see the motion, which generated a tiny, bird-like squeak.

He spun back around toward me, searching my face for clues.  “I don’t see a bird out there,” he said.  Look again, I responded, pointing out the window.  As he did, I tugged on the ear again, repeating the little chirp.  Almost nine years old and nobody’s fool, my grandson examined my expression again, analyzing the prank he smelled.  “You’re making that noise,” he conjectured.  “How did you do that?”

Oh, it’s a special bird-chirping magic trick, I began, and then relented under his analytical gaze. Actually, it’s my hearing aid. The one on this side makes a little feedback sound if you adjust the position of the tip.  Sounds like a birdie, doesn’t it?

“It does!” he agreed, laughing.  “That’s pretty cool.”  Later, I demonstrated for his younger sister, with similar success.

Ever since my two grandchildren grew old enough to converse, I have worried that my severe hearing loss would strain the fabric of our relationship.  Young children are generally hard to understand for most adults, even for those with normal hearing.  For those of us who live daily with significant hearing impairments, it can be darn near impossible. As it happens, that encompasses a very large group of people.

According to the National Institute on Deafness, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, one in eight people in this country aged 12 or older has hearing loss in both ears—that’s 13 percent of the population, a whopping 30 million people.  For those of us in grandparent age-range, the rate of disabling loss nearly doubles to 25 percent of individuals past 64, and it rises to a full HALF of senior adults age 75 and older.  Another national research institution ranks age-related hearing loss as the fifth-highest debilitating condition in the world, behind only low-back pain, migraine, major depression, and diabetes.  That’s a whole, whole lot of people who might be in line with us at the grocery store or down the aisle at the movies or waiting patiently in the early voting line who may struggle to understand any audio cues or words at any given time.

Family history, as in so many things, may also dictate the course of hearing disability.  We have a very strong family pattern for hearing loss on my father’s side of the family, beginning much younger than average.  In an effort to resist career setbacks or disrupted relationships, I acquired my first aids long before I was 50.  As with most technology in the digital age, aids are getting better all the time, with capabilities that adjust for infinite variations in sound. Still, as with other disabilities, it is a constant challenge to maneuver daily life.

Struggles range from the tiny to the enormous.  Aids cannot compensate for the direction of sound, so if someone turns from you on a noisy street, their words blow away in the wind.  Whispering in the movie theatre?  Forget it. Background music at your friend’s dinner party?  Torture, unless you prefer to dodge the conversation.  That acclaimed expert speaker you went to hear, when you bought that expensive ticket and queued up early for a good seat—that presentation was completely lost, an experience equivalent to watching TV with the sound off. The speaker said, “Can everyone hear me?” And when no one said no, he walked away from the microphone because he didn’t like to use it.

Some, like my father in his later years, largely give up in group situations rather than asking people to repeat and fearing that’s a burden to others.  Even the kindly friends and family members who are aware cannot possibly catalogue and accommodate for all the varying conditions that may isolate a hearing-impaired person from his surroundings. Decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act created requirements for physical access and other important accommodations, hearing loss—as distinguished from deafness—is the secret disability. My own theory is simple:  It’s because it is invisible.  Some days, it is like walking around inside a glass capsule that defines your freedoms but is unseen by everyone you meet.

So, how to deal with children that you love?  Their little voices and unconstructed sentences and funny stories are so precious to the ears and heart. Some days I have shivered with anxiety, worrying these young souls who light up my universe like moonbeams will find my presence irritating, my understanding incomplete or bizarrely twisted, my conversation useless.

For the fundamentals of daily operation, there is gentle coaching.  Turn toward me so I can hear you, I coax, as patiently as I can, over and over.  I really want to hear you, I sometimes add, hoping it helps, because what you say is important to me.  Yes, those words you see on the TV screen are supposed to be there.  They are called “captions”, and they show what the speaker is saying, in case I can’t hear it fully.  On and on it goes.  Hoping that what is routine becomes easier to accept, and not so different or awkward, I openly share the mechanics of the “personal audio system.” I show them how the aids fit into the ear, explaining how I can adjust it by touching a button lightly on the back of the tiny mechanism.

Only once have I received a snarky response from one of the children to my request to repeat something. Maybe because it was so hurtful, maybe because I was tired and out of steam, I elected to meet this full-on.

Repeating yourself may be frustrating sometimes, I say bluntly, right into my grandson’s wary face. But you know my ears don’t work well, that I can’t hear what you guys can hear, and that’s very hard for me.  So, the kind thing to do is help me, not make fun of my problem. Don’t ever let me hear you joke about people whose bodies function differently than yours.  Would you say something like that to a person in a wheelchair, be mean to them because they couldn’t go up the steps?  Of course not.  I know you wouldn’t.  This is no different.  Do you understand?

This rant yielded a remorseful nod, which I took as an apology, and in turn I delivered a hug to seal our peace treaty.  Children so seldom intend to be unkind, but sometimes they need help seeing the nuances of reality.

I hope the coaxing and straight talk help in the long run, but the humor may leave the best imprint in the little hearts.  The other morning, I was fixing breakfast, and the children were hungry.  Sis likes to hover around and help in the kitchen, and suddenly I had to halt the preparations when the battery died in my right hearing aid.  Feeling pressed for time and foolishly wrestling the tiny battery into its miniature compartment without my glasses, I forced feedback out of the aid unintentionally a couple of times before getting the battery in place.  When accidentally prolonged, the feedback is more of a squeal than a chirp, and it made me cringe. Meanwhile, I mumbled to Sis that the food would be ready soon.  Watching intently, she heard the familiar noise, but I didn’t look up when she first commented.

“It’s a nice noise, really, you know.”  What is? I asked, still on task and distracted.

“Birdsongs.  They’re pleasant sounds, you know, I like them.” This last is attached to a persuasive smile and a little shrug.

Never in a million years would I have risked embarrassing her by probing for the double meaning I fervently hoped was there, even if unintentionally.  I had to settle for a big smack of a kiss on her forehead and getting on with breakfast.

 

 

 

It’s a surprisingly moving cinematic moment, when delivered as beautifully as this one is, to see an older man connect to a younger one by asking about his favorite stuffed toy from childhood.  The older man is the legendary Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks in the hit movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers is trying, in his quiet, measured manner, to befriend a cynical young journalist named Tom, played by actor Matthew Rhys.  Tom has been assigned, over his angry objections, to write a short magazine profile on Mr. Rogers as an American hero. He is bitterly skeptical that this red-sweater-wearing star of children’s television should be anyone’s hero, anything like the character on the screen, so kind, so gentle, so beloved by so many.

Waving a worn, familiar puppet, a regular character on the show, Mr. Rogers responds to one of Tom’s interview questions with one of his own.  “Did you have a special friend like this when you were a child, Tom?”  Yes, the annoyed writer responds, testily. Now can we get back to the interview?

“What was his name, Tom?” Mr. Rogers persists.  Rabbit, answers Tom.  Suddenly he pauses, struggling with surprise at the catch in his voice when he adds, “Actually, it was Old Rabbit.”

It was one of the quietest moments in the theater during this heartwarmng film.  Nearly every adult present surely was thrown back through misty memory to the warm days of childhood, remembering, maybe even longing for, that most special animal.  The particular one that is so tightly wound to the heart of so many young children.

Everyone except for me. Instead, I was thinking about the time just a few years back when my mom sent me an ape.

Seven or eight years ago—when I was in my fifties, mind you—I had some minor surgery.  It was nothing unusual, but I dreaded it, and I told Mom as much a few days before the procedure.  “You’ll do fine,” she assured me, “and we’ll check on you.”  My sister, a registered nurse, accompanied me to the procedure and hung around a day or two to make sure I was following instructions from the doctor. The next day, the mailman brought a little package showing my parent’s return address.  This produced a smile from the patient.  Ripping into the box, I thought: Chocolate, to sweeten the long post-op hours?  One of my mother’s baubles, to hand down, maybe?

It was a small stuffed ape, a chimpanzee, I guess.  About six or eight inches high, he commands a permanent seated position, his fat, velvety feet pointed ever upward. The plump hands at the end of his long arms feature Velcro strips in the palms, in case you want to walk around with him hugging your wrist, like a designer purse.  Most intriguing of all, his eyes are fixed in a sideways glare that is part surprise, part wariness, and part sarcasm, like he has just rolled them upward at your lame joke.

My sister and I looked at each other, puzzled. My mother’s gift selections have been at times renowned in the family for, shall we call it, creativity.  Still, this was a rather surprising selection for a post-op patient. What on earth?  I said, and my sister just shrugged, unsurprised.  I named him Harry, after my mother’s father, an uncle of the same name, and also because he’s a…well, you get the idea.

Hey, Mom, thanks for the little ape, I chirped the next time she called to check in.  What, um, what made you think to send me this?  “Oh, I just thought he was cute,” she said cheerfully. “Now, when do you get your stitches out?”

It was borne in on me long ago that it would be wise to emulate my mother’s habit of not over-thinking things, so I moved on along to her destinations for the conversation.  Harry soon took up residence on my bed, about four decades after a stuffed animal had last been found there.  He perches in front of the fancy pillow shams, directly facing the corner spot where the cat spends about half her life dozing.  (If she is unsettled by the presence of an ape nearby, she has never mentioned it.)  Sometimes Harry serves as an excellent prop for an open book, his wide feet pointed at just the right angle to boost up the lower edge of the cover.  My grandkids occasionally relocate Harry to the guest room for the night; he serves as an excellent stand-in if they are sleeping over and forgot their own favorite friend.  And if I am fully forthcoming about Harry’s occupation here, I must admit he has been tear-soaked through more than one episode of deep grief, when my sister died a couple of years after that surgery, my father soon after, and my beloved old dog more recently.

My grandkids have never questioned why their grandmother would have a small stuffed ape on her bed and would share him as needed.  Instinct probably tells them what special grownups like Mr. Rogers and my mother also know—that if we are lucky, and open to it, we let the lovelights of childhood continue to illuminate adult hearts.  The tender desires of the very young—for love, comfort, simplicity, friendship, self-respect, encouragement—don’t really change with time. Once in a while, when buffeted by adult-world difficulties, we might need a small symbol to remind us of that. Mr. Rogers knew it.  My mother would never give herself credit for such an insight, but she knows it, too.

Then there’s Harry to remind me, sitting patiently his post, watching carefully out of that side-eye glare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a little black dog curled up with his head under my chair as I sit here typing.  He has shaggy, spiky-haired ears that make him look like Gandalf suffering from bedhead. There are fluffy, long tufts of hair between his large front toes, furthering the wizardly image.  When furrowed, which is often, his ginger-colored eyebrows create a facial expression of intense scrutiny and concentration.  Usually when I look down, he’s watching me (can he hear my head turn?) and those eyebrows telegraph a lot of questions.

I’m not sure how he got here.  No, that’s not quite right.  The brain knows the facts, dates, and details about it, but my heart is still puzzled about the whole thing.

When your dog dies, people quickly ask, “Are you going to get another one?”  I had been pondering this myself for some time, long before my ailing 13-year-old Basset Hound fell victim to cancer just about eight weeks ago. She had been declining for more than a year, so I had lots of time to consider it.  I decided, and even said to a few people, that it was time for me to take a break from dog ownership.  I’m gone all day, there’s travel occasionally, it’s tough to always find dog accommodations. Then there’s the constant wallet punch, as veterinary expenses continue to skyrocket.  Maybe later in life, after retirement from a regular office schedule—that’s what I said.  And some part of me believed it.

Yet, here is Gandalf the Frowner dozing quietly, hairy toes curled contentedly under his chest as he recharges his batteries from a fierce game of fetch.  GTF, whose real name is Gus, puts roughly 500-percent effort into everything the universe brings. Then the balance of nature requires the restorative nap.

I honestly can’t remember when I began to realize how deeply lonely I would be without a dog.  The timetable is fuzzy, but some time over the summer, as my old pal got slower and sadder and sicker, I began looking at breed rescue sites and a couple of shelters that are well-run, just to watch what was happening and acquaint myself with the process.  I put in a couple of queries on dogs with irresistible photos, but all had been claimed.  That was just fine.

Then the Big Bang happened. Within a matter of less than four weeks in late summer, my old girl was diagnosed as terminally ill, she died, and Gus came here to live.  That sounds as though he showed up at the door, rang the bell, and demanded entry, and of course he didn’t; he’s way too short to reach the doorbell. He appeared on a website for rescued Dachshunds in Tennessee, I put in an application, was approved, and drove a couple of counties over to bring him home.  The whole process was strangely surreal and watching myself do it almost an out-of-body experience.  Though a deeply Christian person, I don’t put much credence in the concept of being “led” to do something.  Yet wherever the pilot resided, there was another power somewhere driving me to connect with this dog.

If that weren’t strange enough, Gus is in many ways–nearly all ways, come to think of it–the dog I never wanted before.  Let’s start with size.  Raised with big dogs, I was fooled into thinking that small dogs are dumb and yippy. Gus is a long-haired, standard Dachshund, a sturdy and muscular 20 pounds, twice as large as the most-common wiener dogs.  That’s still small to me.  Moreover, his energy level sparked a shocking adjustment; Bassets are soul relaxants in canine form, ever-mellow, relaxed, and universally happy to live and let live. Dachshunds are intense little thinkers, bustling problem-solvers who move everywhere at a rapid clip, miss nothing, and insist on explanations for the unidentified.  Apparently, they are also astute listeners.  Two nights ago I said, more rhetorically than anything, “I wonder where your ball is, Gussie?” He stared at me briefly (translation chip processing, perhaps?), then trotted off out of sight to another room and returned with it.

Ask a Basset such a question, and the return is likely a look that indicates, “Beats me. If you find it, have fun.  (Yawn.)”

As anyone who has ever rescued an animal will tell you, you must prepare to work with whatever you agree to take on.  With Gus, it’s been surprisingly easy.  Estimated to be about three years old, he arrived fully house-trained, very sociable with adults, children and other dogs, and game to achieve detente with a dominant and opinionated cat.  He doesn’t chew or beg.  His adjustment to routines of the household and the new days of his life was—rather like his dancing little gait—fast, efficient and precise.

Yet stashed somewhere among the new dog beds and lighter leashes and different treats there is a tiny hoard of guilt that lingers.  It’s too soon for me to return in equal measure the grateful adoration he works so hard to express. The adjustment that has not yet arrived is the one deep in the heart, where the pain of losing my long-eared friend and housemate of 13 years stubbornly remains.  The other day I heard a deep bark and thought for a split second it was her.  I need to take the unopened cans of food she never ate to one of the shelters and clear space in the cabinet, but I can’t make myself pick them up.  I have been forced to realize, all predictions to the contrary, that this little guy who fetches like a demon and burrows deep next to me on the couch is not the wizard (however Gandalf-like) who can wand that grief away.  It is wonderful that he is here, but healing and surrendering the heart again is a different matter, something on a different plane, with its own timetable.

“How’s he doing?” the neighbors ask when we are all out walking the dogs, and I respond, brightly, “Great!” Because it’s true.  They don’t ask how I am doing, thank goodness, because some days the answer would be uncertain. Grief is the most unpredictable of all companions.  All that can be done is to walk on through the days (or, rather trot on, lest I get left behind) and apply faith to the forward motion.

On the first Saturday in October, our church honors the traditional Feast of St. Francis with an annual Blessing of the Animals.  Gussie and I made our way carefully through the mixed crowd of small and gigantic (at least, to him) dogs and stepped around a crate of lovely red hens.  The service is a favorite rite of fall for me, and last year, my old hound dog received the blessing.  We stood in the cool sunshine in a circle, people and their animal friends, and as we bowed our heads for the opening prayer, I looked down at the little face looking up with a gaze of utter focus, those ginger eyebrows knit in concentration.  Tears sprang suddenly out and down, big fat ones like the first drops that smack the windshield to herald an unexpected summer storm, as the pastor began to read out the Saint’s familiar words:

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.”

 

 

As high school reunions go, our 45th was pretty darn good fun.  A core group of stalwarts who stayed in my hometown have been great about planning these gatherings regularly, and hats off to all of them for excellent planning and hospitality.  As a regular reveler at these affairs, I can testify that after you attend a few you begin to anticipate some basic, recurring fundamentals.

There will be those who looked exactly the same, and those who are utterly unrecognizable.  (You can only hope to be categorized as the former, but who knows?  The mirror is a tricky partygoer.)  There are always surprises with those who journey from long distances, especially characters who you wouldn’t have recalled giving a rip about high school. Inevitably, there are poignant absences among classmates who live a stone’s throw away but don’t show, due to life’s heartbreaking difficulties. As the decades progress, conversations at these soirees migrate from career arcs and notable achievements (I try to leave my envy hat at home, but in our crowd, it’s a tough one to shed) to the tallies that matter more in late midlife:  Headcounts of grandchildren, losses of parents, and retirement travel plans.

On the relationship and behavior scorecard, there’s always one who you wouldn’t have expected to get plastered so early in the evening; this time, a svelte athlete, perhaps too thin to hold the liquor, or too dedicated to sport to know how to imbibe responsibly. There’s going to be someone you wish, at an awkward moment strangely reminiscent of teen angst that should have dissipated a half-century ago, would remember you.  And as surely as bourbon flows from Kentucky, there will be at least one attendee you’d desperately prefer to forget, or just as frantically hope has forgotten you.   (And possibly even think: If he pats my shoulder or rubs my back one more time, I’m going to shriek something that my mother would describe as “most unattractive.”)

And if you are one of the lucky ones, as I have been these 4.5 decades, you have a steady friend with whom to attend and navigate these choppy waters as a team.  My best high-school pal, Jane, and I have attended nearly all of these together, still being the best of buddies after all these years. Facing the music together adds immeasurably to the side-splitting moments and helps to assuage the others.  Even better, we’ve got a circle of additional friends from the old gang who keep in touch and generally turn up, so for us it really can feel like old times.

As much fun as it was to catch up with everyone, and to gab about people we hadn’t really known well in high school but thoroughly enjoyed seeing—the reunion that mattered most to me was the smaller, quieter one that followed.

The following morning, Jane and I drove the short ride to a tiny town less than an hour east, in Central Kentucky, to visit my 88-year-old mother and take her to lunch.  It was to be the first time they had seen each other in person in more than 30 years.  What a long litany of changes on both sides in between meetings—marriages, divorce, children, death and widowhood, cancer, unemployment.  It’s been a life saga no one could have chronicled when Jane and I were bouncy teenagers, spending as much time in each other’s homes as we did in our own, growing to love each other’s parents as extended family, the kind you could count on to lend an ear or a 10-spot for food after the game, maybe even provide your first approved cocktail in the safe environment of home.  When her mother’s health began failing three years ago, I was determined to get in a good visit while time still allowed. Other losses had taught me that nothing prepares the heart for loss more profoundly than the chance to say anything that needs to be said, while we can still say it.  While we didn’t discuss it in those terms, perhaps Jane felt the same, this trip. My mother in many ways is holding her own, but the last two years have brought serious bumps, and who can forecast the time and seasons to be given to an 88-year-old?

Timing, as fate would have it, was not great.  Mom moved just two days before our visit to a beautiful new home with all the help she needs, but moving is a tough gig for anyone.  Jane and I were prepared; we discussed it and agreed we would roll with whatever we encountered on arrival. A preview phone call from my brother, followed by a text, forewarned us that Mom was not having a good day.

When we arrived, Jane thoughtfully asked if I wanted to go in first, just in case. I found the main entrance and was preparing to search Mom out, but there she was, waiting for us at the door, dressed in bright Sunday best, jewelry on, nails painted, hair fixed.

Leaning carefully her walker as I approached, she accepted my kiss on the cheek, but without preamble for me, demanded, “Where’s Jane?

So, I went and fetched her. And then stood back, out of the way of the bear hug that went on forever, with the tears on both sets of cheeks, and watched as the past and the future melded into one warm, glowing arc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early morning half-light, long before I would routinely switch on bedroom lamps, I drop to the floor in my nightgown to the spot where she is dozing next to my bed. She has never been much of a cuddler, preferring to demonstrate her devotion in other, more dignified ways, but on this day, I am the one who needs a cuddle.  I scoot up close enough to wrap my arm around her substantial torso, then withdraw it quickly after my fingertips inadvertently touch the large tumor under her front leg on the opposite side.  She does not flinch, but I do.

Settling for stroking her head and the back of her neck, I return directly the surprised gaze she fixes on me, curious at this change of routine, knowing as well as she knows the smell of bacon or the sound of my voice that the weekday scramble in the early hours does not routinely include this.  “You are such a good, good girl,” I say quietly, “such a very, very good girl.” Perhaps because this statement is not news, or perhaps because I have morning breath, she sighs deeply and averts her head.  I think I should be able to muster up something more profound to say—as though it mattered to her—but I cannot, so I just repeat the praise and continue the stroking.

This is permissible for about 45 seconds, until it isn’t.  Heaving another of her deep, trademark sighs, she hoists herself out from under my hand, stretches briefly, and begins to lumber away.  She stops briefly in the doorway and turns back, resuming eye contact.  We read each other’s minds pretty well over the years, so I’m pretty certain I got the correct interpretation of the look and the mild rebuke it contained: “This clingy stuff—you know it’s not my thing.   You’re worried about something that’s coming, but I only know now.  And at this very moment, in this particular now, I want a drink of water and a bite of something, preferably with peanut butter on it. You coming?”

My heart is breaking, but I can’t help laughing out loud.   There is nothing to do but get up and follow her.

Obituary

Madeline Basset, renowned canine comedian and grand champion of relaxation, left this earthly life on a sunny day in mid-August after a short battle with cancer, two weeks short of her 13thbirthday.  She is survived by her best friend, G-ma, who raised her from the age of seven weeks, and her many friends, family members, and neighbors, with whom she was a universal favorite.

Namesake of a femme fatale in the comic novels of British humorist P. G. Wodehouse, Madeline was a native of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, daughter of red-haired Daisy and massive Cletus, two fine country Basset Hounds.  While it may be rare to describe a Basset as beautiful, with their blocky heads, stubby legs, and mournful expressions, Madeline received many compliments for her good looks.  Her massive front feet filled the palm of G-ma’s hand when she learned to shake—no small achievement for a dog with her architecture. Her enormous, drooping, earth-dredging ears were favored targets of passing cats, small children, and other dogs who clearly wished for ears as majestic in scope.

While those who knew her best might indulgently describe Madeline as well-behaved, stories of her quintessentially hound-like habits survive her. As an adolescent she was prone to steal shoes left innocently on the floor, though just one at a time, often leaving guests strangely confused and questioning their alcohol intake.  She was once ejected from a family party for repeatedly demanding additional servings from the cheese board, positioning herself near the tray and attempting to shield it from taller party attendees.  She trained a neighbor to come to her porch railing and provide treats when Madeline presented herself at the railing and announced herself.  She was a devoted co-conspirator of a bold cat who shared the house during her younger life; when he leapt on the table to knock off a piece of pizza when backs were turned, she stood guard below, prepared to drag it away to where they could share the bounty if they moved fast enough. Madeline was never happier than when the grandchildren were visiting, as there was always a steady flow of crumbs and food bits dropped beneath the table for a patient hound crouched below.

G-ma is deeply grateful for the many expressions of sympathy she has received since Madeline’s passing. For those who have asked what they can do, she would only suggest:  Go love a dog, and make your life the richer for it.

 

 

 

 

The calendar is a mystifying tyrant, often conveying the passage of time with mathematics that defy the heart’s reality.  This week She commands me to note that this Friday marks six years since my younger sister Jane died after a long battle with breast cancer.  Six years?  Calendar, are you sure?  I can still hear Jane’s voice as if she dropped by yesterday afternoon.  Just the other day, I had the strangest instinct to call her on the phone.

Sitting on the porch during a welcome break in the summer heat, awash in the soothing fervor of the cicadas, I think for the umpteenth time about where to find grace in the aftermath of devastating loss.  Those thoughts ramble, unauthorized but determined, to a story I heard a few weeks ago.  If you hang out in Nashville longer than about 15 minutes, you are bound to encounter such tales. After 25 years here, I’ve heard this one more than once, but I love it still.  It explains the origin of a classic country song.

High on a hill south of town at a benefit concert I attended with friends, outside under a June evening’s sapphire sky, songwriter Kent Blazy recalled his first meeting with a young and eager singer from Oklahoma who was getting nowhere pitching a song.  The young man came to him for help, saying, “I’ve got this idea for a song that’s been rejected eight or nine times already.”  Blazy indicated with a roll of the eyes he was not encouraged by this news, but he asked what the song was about.  “It’s about telling people you love them before they die,” came the reply.

Well, no wonder, Blazy thought. That’s such a downer; who wants to hear a song about that? Yet something moved him to sit down with this beginner, and they worked out a new iteration that was recorded by the young Oklahoman and released 30 years ago this summer. If Tomorrow Never Comes became the first No. 1 single for the legendary Garth Brooks.

Loving the underdog element of this story and a longtime fan of the beautiful tune, I listened closely again as Blazy performed it.  And I noticed something I hadn’t before. While the lyrics were ultimately crafted to imply a romantic viewpoint, perhaps to get past the label’s bean counters, the core of the original idea remains, clear as a bell in the second stanza.  The refrain we longtime fans can sing from memory goes like this:

“If tomorrow never comes

Will she know how much I loved her

Did I try in every way, to show her every day

That she’s my only one

And if my time on earth were through

And she must face this world without me

Is the love I gave her in the past

Gonna be enough to last,

If tomorrow never comes.”

Then the second stanza moves on to the very personal heartbreak that provided that original, long-ago inspiration for Brooks:

“Cause I’ve lost loved ones in my life

Who never knew how much I loved them

Now I live with the regret

That my true feelings for them never were revealed

So, I made a promise to myself

To say each day how much she means to me

And avoid that circumstance

Where there’s no second chance to tell her how I feel.

And if tomorrow never comes….”

In this verse I hear a tiny glimmer that illuminates gratitude about the circumstances of my sister’s passing.  I had lots of chances to tell her I loved her, many opportunities to show her, especially in her final weeks and months, and some divine guiding hand led me to take many of those.  It is not something for which one can claim credit, but simply be grateful, that the universe conspired to make those things possible.  And knowing this was so does not diminish the deepest sense of loss. It simply migrates it to a form that includes, in the wide spectrum of emotion that is grief, a small grain of peace.

That peace joins with special prayers for those who lose loved ones without warning, robbing them of those vital final chances to say what needs to be said.  And that heartbreak, of course, is what makes the promise Brooks made to himself so deeply important—because none of us can know when tomorrow never comes.

If credit is due to anyone for the inspiration to tell Jane so often in her final months that I loved her, it probably belongs to my father.  His habit of freely expressing his love to his wife and children, not necessarily a routine thing for men of his generation, is likely his greatest legacy. It was a pattern he continued until the final hours of his life, which ended just five months after his youngest daughter left us.  As complicated and challenging a man as he was, I am reminded that of all the standards he and Jane set for living a good life, none may be more important than that one. It’s my job now to pass it along.

“…So, tell that someone that you love

Just what you’re thinking of

If tomorrow never comes.”

 

 

 

 

It feels like a tragedy, oddly enriched by the flavors of summer:  The man who picks out my cantaloupes is leaving me.

Oh, no, it’s nothing like that.  Were I in a life partnership with that most appealing of all men—he who cooks—such abandonment would spark a different kind of grief.  Ours is a relationship of a different sort. He’s been more like a culinary life consultant, an openly friendly expert available to anyone who chooses to ramble through the doors.  He has been a steadier presence than men who have come and gone from my personal sphere, playing roles of a different sort, in the decades I have known him.  His name is Eric, and I can’t honestly recall if he ever knew mine; the standard, familiar, “Hey, Girl,” was always fine with me.

For as long as I have lived in the area, Eric has cheerfully helped select the fresh need of the day, as years’, then decades, worth of meals, large and small, were offered at my table. On any given Saturday, he might select a melon that will be perfect tomorrow (or whatever day it is needed), or dispense news on anticipated arrival of the local strawberry crop.  He might even advise against grapefruit from certain locations that might not meet the personal high bar.

In his role as a manager of our beloved neighborhood produce market, The Produce Place, Eric advised on the good, the unusual, and the possibly acceptable with candor that became a bedrock of my culinary life.  How devotedly do we love the purveyor who doesn’t just advise what to select, but what to avoid? With a slight cock of the head, a slight, twinkle-eyed grimace, the kindly warning wave of the hand, he might guide me away.  So many years of listening to my questions patiently, knowing what I was after, yielded honesty of the most treasured sort.  “Ummmm, nah, those might be better with shipments in the next couple of weeks,” he might observe. “I’m not sure these we have today are as sweet yet as you might like.”

Suddenly, today, his 25 years as a valued partner of the edible, an entire quarter century of Saturdays when he smiled that, “Hey, girl,” came to an end. Perusing the red-gold hues of the miniature heirloom tomatoes, my hand extended to snare a carton, I heard him tell another customer that today was his last day at the market.  He carried his small grandson through the aisles, dispensing goodbye hugs to regulars like me.  But, but…where are you going, I stammered, unable to conceive that some cardboard-peach-purveying-grocery-behemoth had stolen him out from under us.  I should have known better.

“My wife and I are going to be house parents at a home for disadvantaged boys in Alabama,” he explained, probably for the hundredth time of the morning, before 10 a.m.  “We are so excited. But leaving is hard.  We both loved our jobs, but we’ve been married 25 years, and everyday we’d get up in the morning and go separate directions for nine or 10 hours.  As much as anything, we are excited about working together.”  Even in my instantly sharp sting of loss, this answer does not surprise me. Lucky boys, lucky woman, I think.  And lucky us customers, to have received the gift of this man’s generous kindness, served up alongside bins of local sweet corn, homegrown snap beans, crowder peas, and rosy clingstone peaches.

Thank you for all your help all these years, I mumbled inadequately, as he encircled my shoulders with his strong left arm.  “No, thank you for supporting us all this time,” he answered, hugging firmly.

Unlike another woman in the fruit aisle, I held back tears until I got to the car. There they leaked insistently and ran unabated down my cheeks and neck as I rolled to the next stop on the routine weekend errands. I kept my sunglasses on as I went inside, mopping my cheeks with the heel of a hand.

The store will go on without me, he had consoled, before I left. You know the other guys here, they’ll be around.  He is right, almost certainly.  The owner has expertly evolved in his niche as the years have passed, capitalizing on rising demand for locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and dairy, and superior prepared foods.  Eric will be gone, but I will be back, relying not just on the one person, but the neighborhood institution and what it represents.

Maybe I’ve reached the age where so many long-time relationships fall away for one reason or the other, and the tally adds up. But tomorrow when I slice into the ruby-red watermelon for my visiting nephew and his family, I know I will think of Eric, surprised still by the pain of loss.  The dripping fruit, loved like the relentless sun and steamy breezes of summer, will remind me again of the surprisingly rich importance of the relationships of everyday life. Even those that may seem narrow in scope may demonstrate a trust and connection more valued than we realize, leaving us to wish we appreciated them more before they were gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Need a little something to help you sleep?

Of course you do. If you are over 50, as many of G-ma’s readers can proudly claim, it’s a virtual certainty. Sleep problems are a guaranteed conversation topic wherever people of a certain age gather, right up there with the pluses and minuses of joint replacement and the best natural digestive aids–scintillating stuff, of course.

Come, fellow sufferers, and listen to a story about the most powerful sleep aid I’ve ever known. It takes effect within minutes, can be used as often as you feel the need, requires no prescription or pharmacy card, and is essentially free. From now on, you can shun your chamomile tea, toss your Melatonin. A simple command on the TV remote puts it at your fingertips.

Just click your way to your local PBS station and find yourself an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

If you are like G-ma, you will be dozing peacefully before you can say “DVR.” In fact, I rarely launch an episode if not already under the sheets, as I prefer not to spend the night on the couch.

What’s this? Not familiar with the program? It emerged as reality television long before we ever suffered the oxymoron. Billed as PBS’ longest-running series, Roadshow tours the country to cities and historic sites with a band of experts from art auction houses, museums, and antiques dealers, who appraise a wild variety of objects brought by the local attendees. The most interesting appraisals—when something truly rare is identified at extraordinary value, or a fake is spotted and explained—are taped for the hour-long, weekly episodes. For more than two decades now, Roadshow has been surprising ordinary people with remarkable facts and history associated with seemingly every-day objects. If you are not careful, Roadshow will turn you into a dumpster-diving, estate-sale-prowling maniac, for the whole premise is that exceptional value lies hidden in the most unlikely places. That is, if you can stay awake long enough to develop such inclinations.

On any given episode, you might see a stunned elderly man, shocked at the value of a signed baseball he’s kept covered in a sock in his drawer since the Hall of Famers signed it for him while he stood at the dugout fence as an eight-year-old. The next week, here’s a woman who dug an oil painting out of a dumpster she passed as an old office building was being emptied for demolition; the dusty painting with the damaged frame is a rare early find for an international master, actually worth in the mid-six-figures. Or there’s a guy who bought a heavy volume of nature art at an estate sale for $15, only to find it contained early prints from major Impressionists and is valued at something north of the ozone layer.

Sleep habits aside, I’m a total Roadshow fangirl, having watched it long enough to recognize featured items on re-runs. I’ve been known to prowl the house the next day to excavate a small green vase from storage that I’m certain matches a find just traced to a storied Southern regional pottery hub and appraised at an auction value of $7,000. The show has turned me into one of those annoying characters who turns over china to examine clues on the bottom, even in other people’s houses. I come from a family of keepers, my house replete with “treasures” that go back generations. I just know in my bones that one of these days, I’ll learn that the dear departed great-aunt’s watercolor views of central Paris are the work of a renowned master. And my retirement will be therefore secured. If I can foist off sleep long enough to notice.IMG_7911

Because no matter how fascinated I am, no matter how beautiful the location, the lids gain weight on about the second appraisal, and with about 10 minutes absorbed, I’m dozing the sleep of the innocent.

Why should this be, when I truly am intrigued? Hard to say. Maybe it’s the production style—in such contrast to other television these days, the show lights are stable at normal levels, the conversation between appraiser and owner sounds like a nice chat in your living room. There are no loud ads to break up the flow of history, no distracting background soundtrack while the camera stands still or moves very slowly in to disclose key details. The only drama occurs on the faces of the owners who are stunned by what they learn; some shriek, some cry, and some stammer in shock. I can so see myself in their shoes.

Meanwhile, If I play my cards right, I get a about a week’s worth of sleep inducements per episode. The math works like so: I cue up the DVR to the week’s show and fast-forward to something I don’t recognize. I just start there, soak up a smattering of obscure history quietly, thoughtfully, reverently, and….zzzzzzzz. The next night, repeat.

Thanks, Antiques Roadshow. I love your mysteries revealed and still believe you’re going to make me rich someday. Until then, I’ll have to settle for the wealth of great rest.

“…by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”

William Shakespeare