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.”

 

 

 

 

Somewhere, far, far away, there lies an obscure stone carved with this universal truth for parents, grandparents, and adult friends:  Children will ask life’s hardest questions at the precise moments in which you are least prepared to answer them.  Straighten your back, and get ready.  

And I might scratch on this codicil:  the older the children get, the wider that gap.  The most inconvenient circumstances or seemingly harmless moments yield queries which, if fumbled, you fear could misdirect a child forever.  OK, perhaps one shouldn’t get carried away with notions about the extent of one’s own influence.  Maybe not forever, but you get the idea.

Not long ago I was driving Buddy and Sis (now seven and five, respectively) somewhere while generally tuning out the rising level of dialogue audio floating my way from the back seat. The tune-out thing is an essential, acquired skill, because vigorous debate between these two occurs about as frequently as breathing.  If they are not arguing, on some days, they are probably asleep.  Yet suddenly my attention was arrested when Sis fired my way a pointed, insistent question:

“Evie!  Do you believe God?”

Literate thinker and lifelong proofreader that I am, I was momentarily thrown by her sentence structure.  Had some pronouncement appeared from the Almighty requiring an immediate verification?  (Maybe from the cartoon God guy illuminated on the theater ceiling on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert?  Give it up for God, everybody! commands the comedian, a lifelong Catholic, to the crowd when Cartoon God appears above their heads.  Applause would indicate God has more than a few fans in the audience.  But do I believe what he said?)

Ah, no, wrong track here.  Despite Sis having curiously dropped the word “in”, she actually was asking me:  Do you believe in God?

ACK!  The car continues rolling steadily through traffic, and I am driving.  Keep hands on the wheel, eyes pointed forward, I instruct Me. Waste no energy at this crucial moment on amazement that a five-year-old spouts this question from her car seat apropos of nothing I can discern (see reference to “tune out” above) on a routine weekday afternoon.  

This self-command to focus was accompanied by a tingling chill of apprehension as I contemplated my answer.  If ever the right choice of words could leave an indelible imprint on a young heart and mind, this might be the time.  

What do you say to a five-year-old in response to a question that has altered history since time immemorial?  A concept that has caused wars, changed governments, divided families, rewoven the fabric of society in our nation and so many others?  What’s my job here:  Affirmation?  Persuasion?  Historical context?  Toe the line articulated by the parents?

Shouldn’t there be a grandparent instruction book somewhere on this topic?  Why wasn’t I warned this question would come so soon?

My thoughts drifted back to Sis’ question Sunday afternoon as I sat in a church pew, listening intently at the funeral of the husband of an old friend.  This gentleman was a third-generation church member who contributed extraordinary effort to the well-being of the church—no fewer than four robed clergy shared the dais to testify to that history—but those references were not the things, at least to me, that delivered the most powerful elements of his life story.

Rather, it was the visible and tangible evidence of the life he lived outside the church that spoke so clearly about him as a man of faith.  It was the demonstrative affection his family members showed each other as they filed into and out of the sanctuary.  It was watching two sisters hold hands as they approached the lectern to share their joint reflections about their father.  It was hearing the pastor note that the family had agreed to also stay and receive mourners after the service, as the line had been so long beforehand that time ran out for the family to greet all who came to pay their respects.  

Perhaps the most moving recollection, though there were so many, was the bishop recalling that the gentleman became “more inclusive the older he got.”  He worked as a dentist, and they shared that he was appalled to learn some of his fellow practitioners were turning away gay patients at the height of the AIDS epidemic.  And so he became known as one dentist who welcomed all who needed him.  He brought that spirit into the church, helping the church move through a process of formally identifying itself as a church home that was open to all, regardless of orientation.

Finally, the pastor delivered one of the most striking parallels to the example lived by Christ that I’ve ever heard spoken about a single individual.  In honoring the gentleman’s open affection for people, his natural instincts to respect and support his family, his friends, his patients, his church family, his wife had described him to the pastor like this:  “He just thought everybody was his.”

Everyone listening was offered this inspiring illustration of the impact of actions as testimony to belief.  It’s a tenet often taught and discussed in houses of faith, but I wondered as I listened how many times we are gifted with real-life examples of how that works.  Today’s public discourse is so barbed with extremism, hidebound by rigidity.  The journey of believers can be made infinitely more difficult, seemingly impossible, by such things.  What if, instead of telling people what they should think and what they should and shouldn’t do, we testified by living like my friend—by loving and supporting others as if they were ours?

That reflection sparked a small hope that my spare but firm answer to Sis’ question back in the car that day may have, after all, been acceptable.  I agonized about it afterward, wondering if I should have embellished it, could have told some story, should have something more eloquent and specific to help a five-year-old understand.  But listening to the stories I heard that afternoon reminded me that as her grandmother, my best chance to demonstrate faith will be through the humdrum, sometimes unimportant choices of daily life.  That’s no small challenge, and no small privilege.  But it won’t come from one answer, one hot summer day, to one pointed question from one eager little girl.  

Because all I said was this:  “Yes.  Yes, I do believe (in) God.”  No questions in return.  No instructions, no testimony, no promises.  And I drew a deep breath when she responded, energetically (as she does with nearly everything), “Me, too!”  At five, can she possibly understand what that means?  Who knows?

For some reason, I left it at that.  I hope it was enough.  Actually, I pray it was enough.  

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“It’s Howdy Doody time!”

Shouting that storied response from the Golden Age of early television was the happy chore of a few dozen Boomer kids watching the popular live show from the bleacher seats known as “The Peanut Gallery.”  Those lucky devils—who among us didn’t want to be one? — also provided the spontaneous live laugh track for the long-running show featuring America’s favorite, freckled puppet and his pals.

Legend has it that the term “Peanut Gallery” originated in vaudeville, where attendees in the cheapest seats took a freestyle approach to their feedback, shouting insults and hurling peanuts at performers who failed to deliver the goods on stage.  This tradition, along with the Howdy Doody version, spawned a common parenting phrase, heard many times in our rowdy house of four children.  When too many of us were talking at once (i.e., most of the time), my father sometimes interjected sternly, ‘Hey!  That’s enough from the Peanut Gallery.’  Or, when back-talk wandered into the danger zone, he often shut it down with a firm, “No more comment from the Peanut Gallery.”

I heard echoes of the Peanut Gallery the other day when a duologue version emerged in the back seat of my car. Late summer brought a great chance to spend some extra time with Buddy and Sis (now ages 7 and 5) while helping their working parents cover some gaps in the summer camp schedule.  As we tooled around town in the car or hung out at home, I soaked up a constant stream of commentary, spontaneous debate, and the occasional shockingly precocious projection about something weighing on their minds or seen out the window. The snippets below are offered as evidence that kids do indeed—to use more Boomer vernacular—say the darndest things. They are re-created as accurately as possible, though I swore off actually recording these chats.   (G-ma maintains a rather strict viewpoint on the use of devices for anything other than quick snapshots when the children are around.)

(Scene:  En route to produce market; kids buckled into back seat.)

G-ma:  Hey, guys, you want to get a watermelon?

Both (shouting): YEAH!!!!

Sis:  I know!  I know how to tell if it is ripe!  You touch it and cut it open and see if the seeds are the right color.  You can eat the white seeds but not the black ones.

Buddy:  You can eat the black ones, but you don’t have to eat any seeds.  You can dig them out and leave them on the table.

Sis (top of lungs): NO!  BECAUSE I’M THE ONE WHO WILL HAVE TO CLEAN IT UP! (This an apparent reference to her recent acquisition, at her own request, of a child-sized cleaning set.). And the seeds get squished.  And if they get squished something might come out of the inside of them and MAKE A MESS!! AND I’M THE ONE WHO HAS TO CLEAN!!IMG_7168

Buddy (with patient condescension):  Seeds don’t get squished.  They might fall out, but they don’t get squished.  And I’ll help you clean it up.

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(Scene:  Back porch, dusk falling, kids finishing after-dinner popsicles.)

G-ma:  Look, guys, the lightning bugs are out!

IMG_7126Buddy:  Evie, are lightning bugs nocturnal?

G-ma: (Stunned, very slow to stutter an answer.) Yes.  That’s correct.

Sis:  What’s not, not-turnal mean?

G-ma:  NOC-turnal means something that comes out at night.

Sis (waving popsicle-free hand for scornful emphasis):  Then you can just say, ‘lightning bugs come out at night.’  You don’t have to say not-turnal.  Right?

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It is a wise woman who remembers, even with grandchildren of her own, to listen to her mother.  Chatting with mine on the phone a couple of days later, I shared some excerpts from the Peanut-Gallery-of-two improv act, as Mom loves to hear what the children are up to.  “You better write these things down,” she directed, rather ominously.  “You’re going to want to remember them later, and you’ll be sorry if you don’t.”  So, I continued giving that my best when they returned the following day.

(SCENE:  Children snarfing through dripping peaches while seated side-by-side on the porch, where their grandmother has been nurturing a small garden of blooming plants in pots.  G-ma arrives to catch the tail end of a conversation already in progress.)

Buddy:  …..Spit doesn’t do anything for plants.  Plants need dirt and sun, and that’s what makes them grow. Spit does not help.

G-ma:  (Pausing briefly to achieve nonchalance, glancing at the thriving red salvia in the large pot in front of their seat):  Did you spit in the plant?

Both (solemn, wide-eyed). No, ma’am.

Buddy (in effortless diversion):  Spit has DNA in it.

Sis (shouting assent): YEAH!  LIKE HAIR!

Buddy:  Yeah, DNA is in hair and spit and everything in the body.

Sis (with expression of distaste):  Like BLOOD?

Buddy (diversion achieved, still determined to make point):  Yes, blood and hair and spit and skin and everything.  But spit doesn’t help plants.

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(Scene:  Kids in back seat again.  We have just left a local market where I’ve given each a dollar to insert in a donation box supporting a local rescue mission for the homeless. The proprietor matches the donations.)

G-ma:  Hey, guys, remember the other day when you asked me if we should give some money to that man you saw standing on the corner with the sign saying he was homeless?  Well, that box where you put the money, that money goes to help lots of people like that guy.  So, you can give to an organization that helps him and lots of people or you can give to the individual.  There’s more than one way to help.

Sis:  Yeah!  Let’s give to that organization, like you said, because they need clothes and maybe they give clothes to lots of people.

Buddy: They have clothes! He was wearing clothes!

Sis:  But he only has one pair!

Buddy (shaking head in disagreement):  They need money to get a job, so they can work and get more money and get a house. It costs money to get a job. Maybe he would have taken the money and used it to get a job.

Sis:  What if he took it and spent it all on candy bars?

G-ma: (Silence, biting tongue severely.)

Buddy (with firm finality): He wouldn’t do that.  No one who needs a job would do that.

And that, for the moment, was that.

 

 

 

 

These are my Easter shoes.  Pretty spectacular, yes?  They tend to attract a lot of comments when I wear them, at least once every Easter season.  But these aren’t just fabulous footwear.  These are shoes with a story.

In early fall of 2012, our family faced news for which there is no preparation.  My beautiful younger sister, Jane, learned that fall that cancer had penetrated her brain.  More than four years into her fierce battle with the most aggressive form of breast cancer, the disease took a huge leap forward into the control center of her mind and life.

After we received the news together in the doctor’s office, Jane and I quietly parted ways outside and each turned homeward.  The diagnosis at that stage was not yet pronounced as terminal, but clearly, we were now in the most desperate of battles.  Cancer in her brain?  Cancer messing with the synapses that twinkled in a soul that was born to serve others, to spread love everywhere she went, to give all she had?  How was it even possible for a just universe to allow it?

I’ll never know what Jane did over those next couple of hours as the news began to sink in.  Shock and grief spur the most bizarre things.  I’m not proud of what I did, but here’s the truth:  I went to the mall.

I mean, really.  But I couldn’t go home alone.  I couldn’t go back to the office, couldn’t answer anyone’s questions, risk crying in front of someone.  Yet I was desperate to avoid isolation, to observe people going about daily lives, to stare hard at the ordinary and believe it would ever exist again.

To the Hallowed Halls of Excess I went, and I wandered through the entrance nearest the first parking place I spotted.  I staggered inside and aimlessly turned right, then ambled without aim into the first store where a smiling face invited my approach.  I won’t name the designer here, but let’s just say I would never, ever, at my age and on my budget, have set out to make the shop my destination.  Yet there I was.

And there were the shoes.

Like I said, shock can be the strangest dynamic of the soul.  I’m not sure why I thought the shoes might make me feel better.  Granted, retail therapy is one of the oldest jokes in our materialistic culture, but this ran much deeper.  Certainly, I had never seen a pair like them, never worn anything on my feet half that expensive.  Maybe I thought I would strike a blow at the pain by spitting the Budget in the Eye, like some perverted twist on the theory of the ring in the cow’s nose.  Or something.  Maybe I was too stunned to notice the price.  No doubt, I was too distracted to fit myself correctly, because they are half a size too small.  And so, the nonsense piled up on top of itself, while the shoes went into a bag and homeward with me.

I shocked everyone who knew me the first couple of times I wore them.  I can’t remember if I ever wore them for Jane before we lost her about 10 months later.

When I admitted this escapade to a friend many months later, the friend asked kindly if I would ever enjoy wearing the shoes again, or if the three-inch heels would tap out too many unbearable memories with every step.

Grief charts its own course, with no pilot to decide the direction or distance of the journey, and Mercy often blurs the details over time.  I can’t remember when I first knew to bring the shoes out for Easter.  Or when I realized that the answer to my friend’s question is actually the opposite of what she feared.

As I dust them off and admire them anew this Easter season, the shoes require me to remember that after unbearable pain gently alters over time, something beautiful may remain.  They are my colorfully absurd, ridiculous reminder about the eternal nature of love, even though love may walk together with agonizing sacrifice.  Acquired on one of the darkest days imaginable, they somehow make me accept yet again that Jane’s love, shared so freely with me and so many others, does, truly, endure forward, and forever, not to be diminished by time or space.

So, it’s time again to cram my complaining feet into an ironically high-fashion, shamefully secular tribute to a beloved soul who went ahead and yet remains.  Never given to impractical extravagance, a stunner who made any brand look stylish and expensive, my sister would laugh her head off at the very idea.  And I love her for that, still, as I know she loves me, and all of us.  Hallelujah.

Back Camera

It’s a funny thing about sisters and brothers.

You might long for them if you don’t have any.  But if you do, nothing in your life will ever drive you nuts in quite the same fashion.  That is, if you are like most of humanity.

Ours was a family of four kids, so common in those boomer days, three girls followed by a boy. My memories of my siblings as young children are distinctly unremarkable.  They might have been the bathroom wallpaper or the kitchen chairs–just there, the landscape of daily life, to be worked with, or around, as daily functioning might require.  No more, no less.

And then there was later, when inevitable dissonance and occasional outright war emerged with the arrival of adolescence.  Cruelty comes so easily then, and we devised our fair share and pointed it at each other.  When my older sister embarrassed me in front of, heaven help us, a BOY, I wrote a filthy epithet on her bedroom mirror in Vaseline (an interesting tool, yes?), using words I had never uttered out loud and might not have been able to define.  This awkward retribution earned me one of the most significant punishments of my young life.

But we three girls earned an even better one when we decided to show our young brother that he could not expect privacy in our shared bathroom.  When he sensibly resisted by locking us out, we picked the lock with a coat hanger and burst in before he could finish his business.  Our strict father exhibited zero tolerance for such bullying, thank goodness.  And really, remembering how we often we tried similar nonsense, it is a miracle that my brother is not a serial criminal, and still speaks to us.

Such stories, added to the routine family dynamics of adulthood, can crowd the heart at times.  So, when my daughter used to joke that she wished for a sister, I joked in return that I would happily give one of mine away.

That was before we lost one.

Back Camera

Perhaps more than any of the rest of us, my younger sister Jane signaled very early the adult she would become.  Named for both my parents, she was my mother’s spiritual and emotional twin, a magnetic personality endowed with faith and energy and a focus on others that drew people to her like hummingbirds to red petunia blossoms.

Her innate sense of right and wrong was maddening when we were younger.  Constitutionally incapable of tolerating unkindness or rule-breaking, she became an incorrigible tattle-tale.  For this saintly behavior we christened her Susie Good, and we dispensed revenge any time we could manage it without being caught.  We mocked her teeth, adding the nickname Snaggletooth (from the villain in the cartoon Quick Draw McGraw) and denied her entry into many of our games for no explainable reason.  Once on vacation we told her the only place available for her to sleep was in the closet, then watched with waning teenage superiority as she made the best of it and refused to cede victory by complaining.

A disposition to care for others that was embedded in her bones drew her to nursing school, and for a quarter century she nursed surgery patients, wounded diabetics, birthing mothers, and a long list of others.  She left active practice a few times, unable to disregard frustrations at the system, but she always went back to where she could get her hands on people in need.  When I observed that she would have made a great doctor, with more money for less hours worked, she rolled her eyes and shrugged, noting sarcastically that nurses are often closer to patients than doctors, and wasn’t that, after all, the point?

I can’t remember when I went from mocking what I perceived as a campaign for sainthood to admiring the person she became.  It might have been when I noticed that she showed up at every major turning point in my adult life.  She spent the night before my wedding, dispensing meds for the wedding-day diarrhea, my system’s physical signal of the unspoken fears that I was making a terrible mistake.  She took turns with my husband coaching me through labor, joking with the doctor about my cranky demands and patiently explaining every step.

Years went on, but her pattern remained.  With my older sister and brother, she came to unpack on moving day and stood by as I sobbed through my daughter’s graduation.  She drove an hour to my house so I didn’t have to be alone to tell my daughter the cat died.  Then my daughter married, and her aunt helped coached her through the birth of her first child.

My opportunity to try to balance the ledger of debts arrived way too soon, in the way you think happens to other people.  Suddenly, other people were us.  Diagnosed in her late forties with a rare and lethal form of breast cancer, she set out to wage war, and she succeeded so well for so long that at times we allowed ourselves to assume she would be among the few who beat the odds.  Whenever possible, I showed up for appointments and treatments and tests and sat in as bench support.

Even with all her professional insight, the system occasionally failed her, with an insurance snafu or a small clinical step overlooked.  At those moments, I bared proverbial claws and wanted nothing more than to use them to rip flesh somewhere on somebody, anybody, creating an uglier, bloodier version of Shirley MacLaine’s rant around the nurses’ station in Terms of Endearment.  My ferocious anger at any missteps astonished even me, but it didn’t take psychoanalysis or genetics to understand its roots. Watching her struggle was the tiniest millimeter away from experiencing it, since a sister is the nearest replica ever created to a woman’s own being.

When she said she just wasn’t up to attending the birth of my daughter’s second child, instinct told me time was short.  Diagnostic affirmation soon followed.  Along with her own two daughters  (both steadfast, brave and pragmatic like their mother), all three of us siblings took turns at her bedside in those final days.  In my heart, deepest dread joined with surprising gratitude for the privilege of being nearby, of witnessing the final steps in a journey she had defined so remarkably, all the way to the end.  As I bent to say my farewell on the last day I saw her, I said, “I’ll see you again.”  And I still believe it.

A person who lives life in service to others leaves behind a wide legacy of gratitude and, for one taken so young, profound heartbreak.  My own sense of loss at first seemed strangely functional, oddly physical.  It was like a power tool had ripped away one of my toes or fingers, or like I sat on a stool with a leg missing and was dumped sharply onto my butt on a concrete floor.  When grief is described like a part of you is missing, I had never before known how literally that’s true.

Thinking of her so constantly three years after she left us, I’m watching young siblings in our newest generation.  Their bonds and conflicts, their tender affection and dissonance, all ebb and flow with time and context.   After Buddy and I viewed a spectacular exhibit of antique Italian cars one day recently, the first thing he selected in the museum gift shop, without pausing to ask, was a present for his sister.  A couple of days later, I stepped in between them just in time as he screeched in frustration and lunged for her.  Her mistake?  She had boldly subverted his demands that she stay on her side of the line (literally) and color on her own dadgum side of the page.  And so it goes.

Will love triumph over the oceans of things that shadow sibling relationships over time?  Will they stay close enough to cheer each other’s successes, maybe even help the other one get there? If one is touched by tragedy, will the other stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to fight whatever needs fighting?  Of all my prayers for their future, none is more fervent than the one hoping nothing alters that singular sibling bond.

That, and the chance to be around long enough to see what happens.

An age-old instinct was triggered the other day, when I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, felled by a nasty stomach virus and trapped at home, recovering but still weak and irritable.

I wanted my Mom.

A little old for that, aren’t you, you might say to a woman with grandchildren who is approaching a significant birthday, one of those landmark years that ends in zero.  Who cares?  If your Mom is good at doling out sympathy, why bother to outgrow reaching out for a healing dose?

Mom ranks with the best at dispensing heartfelt consolation to the sick or injured.  (On some other matters, she leans more toward the help-thyself-and-get-over-it methodology, but that’s another story, another day.) Lucky for me, she’s as close as the phone, so I dialed her up, hoping for the desired helping of conversation.

A few months back, it seemed those days might be over.   With no warning signs, Mom was suddenly taken by something that looked and felt like a stroke.  Conversation became halting, confused, a struggle, and in a blink she went from taking daily strolls to being unable to rise from a chair unassisted.

Immediately, painful decisions shadowed the horizon.  Maybe a different facility was needed, with a higher level of care?  And a smaller room, with more reduction of her beloved inherited belongings, another change, another set of caregivers to learn. From where we stood on the path–and certainly for her– the journey ahead dictated hard, hard steps.  My attentive brother and sister, both in the same town with her, shifted into efficient action.  They got her on the list for a good nursing home.  There was a long round of doctor’s appointments, parallel to conferences with the staff at the assisted living facility that has become Mom’s home and community these last two years.

The thing about living with aging parents is the uncertainty.  Those blessed with good genes and life choices may walk the aging path with few health-related diversions, but for so many, there are constant ups and downs that leave us, still the children at whatever age, unable to know what any given day may bring.

Against the odds, the days might bring a pleasant surprise.  A little time passed, and we paused to reassess.  Slowly and determinedly, Mom showed some improvement.  Physical therapy renewed strength and motion.  She brightened up in conversation and felt strong enough to tell my patient brother in no uncertain terms that she was simply not up to moving anywhere, period.  A second episode occurred, but she recovered even more quickly.  The inevitable, detailed physical workups revealed—nothing.  Mysteriously (as modern medicine remains, more often that we think), the doctors told us what didn’t happen, but not what did.  There was no stroke, no heart problem.  Mom has changed greatly in recent years, that’s for sure, but for now, she is pretty much back to where she was before these frightening, inexplicable episodes.

So what does that mean for today, for the journey ahead?

It is hard to fully banish, in the back of the mind, a whispered undercurrent of unrelenting dread.  Practically speaking, of course it can’t last forever.  When my cell phone flashes my brother’s name at an unusual time of day for his calls, a small vise grips the heart.  Is it The Call, the one I don’t want to answer?

Of course, the flip side of this thought process is simple. What could be more absurd than seeking to predict what cannot be predicted?

To release that anxiety and turn to living each day to the absolute utmost, I probably should study the example set by:  my Mom.  Along with the hoped-for sympathy for my embattled digestive system, a rather persistent state of misfortune she acknowledges I probably inherited, there was other news on the recent phone chat.  There were updates on the summer garden, a visit by the great-grandchildren, and a satisfactory report on the interim pastor at church.  A recent surprise engagement party for one of her granddaughters required dressing up and traveling two hours in the car, each way, with a late-night return home.  True to form, she firmly refused to miss a good party. Even with all that time has wrought, and the roller coaster of what has been and what will someday inevitably be–for now, for today, the things that matter, matter still.

And that includes a few helpful details, such as instructions on what to eat when one is recuperating.  “Now, you take care of yourself, sweetie,” she instructed cheerfully, wrapping up our chat.  “You’ll have to eat something to get your strength back.  Bananas, lots of bananas.”

And there was nothing to be said in response except, “Yes, ma’am.”