Monday, December 7, 2015

DECEMBER 2, 2002. 8:00 AM.

I have just returned from school where I told the principal about my mother.  He has sent me home.  The light on the answering machine is blinking.
“Linda?  This is Dad. Mom passed away at 6:45 this morning.”

DECEMBER  14, 2002.10:00 AM.

Image result for church kneelersThere is something comforting about the rituals learned in my childhood; genuflecting at the altar, bowing on the padded kneelers, reciting words learned in long-ago catechism classes.  Though my beliefs have grown and changed and I have left much of this ritual behind me, I am still able to take consolation in the smell of the incense rising to Heaven.  So many images of Mom assail my senses!  Sitting next to her during Sunday morning mass, the hats she kept carefully in hat boxes on the top shelf of her closet perched on our heads.  Mom fingering her white rosary beads, kneeling in the pew while I--years away from my first communion--play with the doll that is attached to my white winter muff.  Mom taking me around the Stations of the Cross at Easter, the sunshine streaming in through the stained glass windows.  And now I kneel, remembering her, letting the familiar words of Father Ray’s recitations wash over me and comfort me.  I have no words of my own now; the tears are too close to the surface to risk speaking just yet, but the ancient words of the Catholic Mass for the Dead seem to say it all for me.  I am comforted.
Image result for white rosary beadsMom is gone from our physical presence. We formally bid her farewell today.  But here in the front pew of Saint Edmund’s on summer Sundays to come, I will feel her spirit.  She will continue to touch me in a thousand ways.
Godspeed, Mom.  We did all we could for you in our finite human ways.  When we knew we could not save your life, we tried to give you a dignified death.  In the days to come, I will continue to do things for Dad, things you would have done if you were still here.
And your love will guide me.

DECEMBER 21, 2002.  10:00 AM.

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I am a motherless child.  The words of the song echo in my head today as I go about household chores: laundry, shopping, cleaning.  I rearrange the Christmas Village, organize the gifts, to hang the Christmas stockings although I am not really in a Christmas mood.  I made a dark joke at breakfast this morning, commenting on how the excitement of the holidays frequently made Mom sick.
“She topped that this year”, I said.  “This year, for the holidays she is dead”.  But I apologized at once to Heaven, and to Mom who was certainly listening.  Maybe I am coming into the anger stage of grief, mad at her for leaving me too soon, before I was ready to face the world without a mother.
I almost welcome the pain, the pinpricks of it that stab at me in the odd moments of the day.  I test it now and then, like one tests a sensitive tooth to see if it still hurts.  It is proof that I am still alive, that I can love, that my mother really did exist and was not just a beautiful dream I have awakened from.
Image result for cup of teaThere are reminders of her everywhere.  A song, a word, a color will remind me of her and bring the smart sting of tears to my eyes.  Sometimes--in school, for instance--I can fight them back, but sometimes I am so choked up with my grief but I have no choice but to let its spill out of me, over the lids of my eyes and down my cheeks, damn the make-up.  Some days are harder than others for no explicable reason.  Wednesday was one of them, a day in which I met Mom at every turn.  We were hosting three groups of preschool students for the annual Holiday House and on the second group I broke into tears when Monique walked into my room with a cup of tea.  She hugged me and told me to go take a break, she would take over.  I found some solace in my own cup of tea in the faculty room, sat in the office and talked with Pat for a few moments, rejoiced that I had caring colleagues who understood what I was going through in some way. 
Sometimes, I just need to cry.  I tried to explain this to Ron, who feels the need to hold me when the tears start.  But there are moments when my grief is too personal to share, when I need to curl up in my own little hole and just weep from my childhood and the memories of it that died with Mom.  Only she held the moments of my birth in her mind and in her body, only she knew what it felt like to hold me in her arms for the first time.  As much as he might try to understand, I tell Ron, he cannot, he has not lost his mother.
Image result for sad christmas treeDennis called today, wanting Christmas ideas and knowledge of our plans.  I have no plans, not really.  It seems too ludicrous to be concerned with gifts and parties when I’ve just recently watched my mother breathe her last.  It will be a low-key Christmas, I tell him.  Don’t go overboard.  And he concurs that he, too, does not much feel like celebrating.  There is an awkward moment at the end of a conversation.  I say,” I love you,” quickly and he says, “Me you, too”.  Am I dying myself?  Dennis has not admitted to a loving me since he was 10.  Bonnie tells me he has been calling her cell phone every couple of days, just to talk.  We are all trying to stay connected. 

DECEMBER 31, 2002.  4:00 PM.

Image result for black phoneLife boiled down to the essence.  It was a message preached by Pastor Watt not long before Thanksgiving.  It is what we are living now.  Life boiled down to the essence.  Do and say the important things and hang the rest.  Live in the moment, pray for the future, let go of the past.  Even as others offer their sympathies at Mom’s passing, I never fail to say this:  I have peace with her.  Every conversation we had since our relationship with boiled down to once a week phone calls ended with “I love you”.  These were the last words I said to my mother on Thanksgiving night, at least the last words I spoke to her while she was conscious.  That was at 9:00 PM on Thursday; less than 12 hours later, she’d slipped into a coma from a massive brain bleed.  I hoped that my last words were still in her ears.
Image result for guardian angelI am, I’ve told everyone who cares to listen, running on my last cell.  For years, my life has been in upheaval.  Mom’s death has been the final straw.  I’m not quite broken, but bending. I sleep soundly and deeply when time allows, but awaken still craving more sleep.  It is not avoidance but true exhaustion.  It is both physical and emotional.
Sometimes I think of Mom has my own guardian angel now, although I know that the angels are created beings.  Still, it is comforting to think that she can still hear me and understand me.  I ask her questions, knowing what her answer would be.  And I ask her to watch over me and my children.
It is a comfort just to be able to write.  My thoughts are sometimes disjointed.  My memories come in spurts and out of order.  Writing them down helps me to heal and helps me to hang on all at once.
In time the pain of Mom’s untimely death will dim.  I am most afraid of that, of her passing becoming just another commonplace event in my life.  But as long as I can write down the feelings, as long as I can capture in words the emotions of the last few weeks and the coming days without her in my life, her importance in my world will continue.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

An Ordinary Angel

Image result for ordinary angelI met an angel yesterday. Her name was Sheila. The first time I spoke with her on the phone, an hour before I met her in person, her voice was as rich and warm as hot chocolate, with slight Southern twangs sprinkled among her words. “I got your son here with me,” she said. “I want ya’ll to know I’m keeping him safe.”

I was headed South on I-95 at the time, off to rescue my son whose 1998 Mercury Villager had once again left him stranded in North Wilmington. I was tired of the whole rescue routine and pleaded on several occasions to get rid of the car that caused me headaches and put a dent in my bank account. But Allen, living rather precariously on the upper edge of the autism spectrum, is stubborn. Change comes hard. Hanging onto a car that should have been junked months ago gives him some semblance of control over a life that is not really of his choosing. When Allen called me at 1:00 and told me his car had—once again—conked out, I was very tempted to blow my cool. Enough is enough. But God stayed my tongue and allowed me, instead, to make some practical suggestions to Allen.

Image result for ordinary angelTwo hours later, I was speeding towards his rescue, unable to reach him on his cell phone for the last hour and a tow truck from AAA on the standby. All I needed was an address. As I headed south, I prayed: Dear God, send another angel to help my son. Keep him safe.

God loves each and every one of his children, there is no doubt. But I have realized for years that God places special protection over people like Allen, those who have particular needs in one way or another. In the past, when Allen has found himself in a situation that he has often created himself, God has sent angels in the way of a truck driver, a policeman, a pet shop owner, a woman walking her dog, and a guy in a brand new Mercedes. I had no doubt, as I prayed, that God would send another angel his way.

My phone rang almost simultaneously with my “Amen.”

Allen assured me, using Sheila’s phone since his own was out of minutes,  that he was fine. Sheila had given him a drink and some chicken strips and was waiting with him until I arrived. His angel got back on the phone and gave me an address at 4th and Church Sts in N. Wilmington.  I thanked her profusely. “God always sends an angel for Allen,” I told her. “Today, He sent you.”

Image result for ordinary angelSheila assured me she would keep my quirky son safe until I arrived. After she rang off, I called AAA and gave them the address for the tow truck.

4th and Church Streets took me past the exit I used when I got off for Springfield College, my part-time job for the last six years. But I was less familiar with the area down around Front Street. I admit to being a bit nervous. I reminded myself that our Heaven sent angel, Sheila, was looking after Allen. Allen saw me as I pulled up in front of the house where he sat waiting. I saw Sheila put a restraining hand on his shoulder to keep him from darting across the street to me. Although a young adult now, Allen’s presence on the spectrum still keeps him tied closely to me. I help him make sense of a world in which is continues to be a stranger.  I parked—luckily, there was a lot just across the street—and met Allen and our angel.

The tow truck was on its way, but we had about an hour to wait. In the tradition of city dwellers, we sat on the stoop outside, talking and getting to know each other. I was sure we had interrupted Sheila’s day, but she stayed with us. “I never had no trouble here,” she said, “but you never know. Nobody’ll mess with you if I’m right here.”
And no one did. We sat companionably on the stoop, sharing pieces of our lives. I learned that angels, too, carry misery beneath their wings. Sheila’s 14 year old daughter was killed years ago, a victim of gang violence.  “My church helped me, “ she said. “I ain’t too proud to ask for help when I need it.”

Image result for sitting on a stoopNow, Sheila tries to give back when she can. At one point in time, I pushed a twenty dollar bill into her hand. “I don’t want that,” she said. “I know,” I responded. “Give it to someone who needs it.” She told  me about her fiancĂ©, who treats her fine, as opposed to the former husband who did not. I told her about Ron’s car accident and the burdens I carry as the well spouse and the wage earner. She pats my shoulder.

I am almost sorry to see the tow truck pull around the corner and stop next to Allen’s car. I had, for a time, forgotten why I was sitting on a stoop in Wilmington, enjoying the warm November sunshine and a beautiful angel.

I tell the tow truck drive that Allen and I will follow him in my car, and then I turn to Sheila. I have dug a business card out of my wallet, the one for KeCo that names me as Editorial Director. “Sweet Jesus,” she says when I hand her the card. “Just how many jobs you got, Dr. Linda?”

“Three or four,” I tell her. “Depends. This one”—and I tap the card—“is a business I started with my friend John. We believe everyone has a story to tell. We help people to write and share their own stories.” I give Sheila another hug. “You, dear one, have a story to tell. It can help others.”

She nods and I see the tears forming in her eyes. I know what catharsis writing can be. It keeps me from going over the edge. I offer this to Sheila. “My other daughter,” she whispers, “she was there when SeSe was killed. She’s never gotten help. She holds it all inside. She’s got a story to tell.”
“Give her my card,” I say. “I can help her.”

We are just about ready to depart and Allen gives Sheila one last hug before walking across the street to my car. I cannot leave our angel, not just yet. Something is not finished. I linger.

Image result for ordinary angel
“You got a special son there,” Sheila tells me. “But you got burdens, honey.” Don’t I know it. They are burdens I have carried for a good long time. “You offering to help me and my daughter,” she says, “but you needing help, too. Maybe, just maybe, we find a way to help each other. I can help look after your husband a bit,” she says, “and do some cooking, too. I’m a good cook.”

I smile. “I’m sure you are. I think you are right,’ I say. “I think we can help each other.”

One final hug and I leave the angel on the side of the street in Wilmington, taking with me her smile and the faint scent of hot chocolate.  

Maybe, just maybe, God didn’t send this angel to Allen.

Image result for ordinary angelMaybe God sent her to me.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Lessons from the Edge

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I am working on a tedious Excel spreadsheet when my phone rings, the metallic sounds of “Kicking Back” making the phone bounce across my desk. I stifle a sigh as I pick it up and say a quiet, “Hello.”

“I am trying not to freak out,” says the male voice on the other end. “But I can’t find my car keys. Do you know where they are?”

Despite being 29 years old, my son believes that my power at finding lost objects is miraculous. While I have no idea where his car keys are, I gently ask him the standard response to such a question: “Where did you see them last?”

Image result for one car key“I had them last night,” he says, “before I went to bed. The key was in my wallet.”

Now is not the time to have a conversation about keys slipping out of wallets and better kept on a key ring, so I bite my tongue. I sometimes get ridges from biting my tongue. “Retrace your steps,” I say to him. “Did you go out in your car yesterday?” I ask the question even though I think he did not; Allen usually “takes Sundays off”, which means that he goes to church and loafs around the house the rest of the day. It is a self-imposed schedule; at the moment—while he finishes training with Occupational Vocational Rehabilitation--he has no job which defines a schedule.

He gives me the expected negative response. It appears his car is locked and he thinks he may have left the key in a sweatshirt lying on the front seat. Despite some work with a wire coat hanger, he can’t get into the car.

Again, I am tempted to sigh. Just two weeks ago, we had the lock on the front passenger door—which had not locked since Allen bought the van two years ago—repaired. Silly of us, I know. I suggest places for Allen to look for the missing key, and end with, “You can always call Triple A.” Allen is, of course, the reason I have purchased a premium membership with the car service. Just two weeks ago--yes, the same time I had the lock fixed--I was helping him push the same van off the Governor Printz Blvd while we waited for a tow truck to come.
Image result for red mercury van 
I can tell that Allen has been holding himself tightly together. I hear a big intake of breath. I wait. One does not rush Allen. “I called,” he said. “They said they only did it if a child was locked in a car.” Even as Allen speaks, I have closed out my spreadsheet and am on the AAA web site, checking into our account benefits. “No,” I tell him. “It says right here that lock-out services are covered up to $100. Did you call them today?”
No, he admits. It was a while ago. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t Triple A he had called. Maybe it was the police.

I really need to get back to work. “Okay,” I tell him. “So, we have a plan. Look all over for the key, then if you can’t find it by, say 1:00, call Triple A.” He repeats it to me, thanks me for my help, and rings off.

I am compiling eligibility lists for students to receive Title I services—really, just mindlessly plugging in numbers—so I let my attention wander a bit back to my conversation with my youngest child. He still lives with us as he tries to figure out a world that is often foreign to him. He comes from the edge of the autism spectrum, a place where sensory overloads and multiple directions and thwarted needs are a part of his everyday life. Back in his school days, he would be on a list such as the one I am working on; eligible for special services in reading and math.

Image result for autism meltdown memeI recall what he said at first: “I am trying not to freak out.” Back in June, shortly after psychological testing had indicated Allen was autistic, he had a severe meltdown when he could not find his driver’s license. We have come a long way since then. It is apparent to me that he has struggled to control his emotions and think through situations. While Allen’s home is on the upper edge of the autism spectrum, I live just to the side of it, attempting in any way possible to help him live a full life. I try, despite the language barrier, to “get” him. But, as always, I learn lessons from my last born child that I did not learn from his siblings.

Lesson #1: Spaghetti goes with mashed potatoes.
Image result for spaghettiWhen I was going to graduate school two evenings a week, Allen and his brother and sister needed to take turns making supper at night. One evening, I returned home to find that Allen had cooked up spaghetti with a side order of mashed potatoes. I asked him why he had concocted such a combination and his answer was: “I couldn’t find any soup.” I suppose it was as good a reason as any, but it became our family’s code for Allen’s challenges with learning.  Salad might have made more sense as a side to spaghetti, but you make do with what you have. Despite the alphabetic notations of LD, and ADHD, and OCD that followed Allen around on his permanent record, he did what he could to make sense of it all.

Lesson #2: Money has nothing to do with being rich.
While in 8th grade, Allen had to write an essay about our family. He asked me how to spell the word, ‘wealthy.” I laughed and told him that our family was far from wealthy. He aimed his blue eyes right at mine and said, “But we’re very rich, Mom! We just don’t have any money.”

Truer words were never spoken. What we lack in monetary resources, we more than make up in love and laughter. Our riches are not the kind that will rust and wear out. And while Allen hopes to one day make and sell a robot for “$20,000”, it’s not because he wants a lot of money. It’s because he wants me to work less than I do.

Lesson #3: Sometimes you need a doughnut.
A few years ago when Allen was working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Media, he came home at 3AM with a Dunkin Donut bag and a single doughnut. He woke me up to show me. (I am used to being awakened at all hours; autism has no awareness of time.) “Nice,” I said. “Enjoy your doughnut.” I rolled over and intended to go back to sleep. “But it’s for you!’ said my son. “I was driving past Dunkin Donuts and I said to myself, ‘Allen, you have the world’s best mother. She deserves a doughnut.’ So I bought you one!” It was my favorite, vanilla cream-filled. And yes, he wanted me to eat it right away. And I did.

You should never refuse a doughnut when it is offered. Even at 3AM. Life is full of such surprises, and seldom keeps to a standard clock.

 By the time I get home from work, Allen has called Triple A and gotten into his car, but has not found the key. He is still holding himself together, still making phone calls, and has found a locksmith who can come down to the house and make a key for $75. Which I, of course, will pay. I make a few other suggestions of places he can look, but I am pretty much resigned to the $75 and impressed he has come this far with problem solving.  

I need to finish up the Excel spreadsheet in my office that evening, and as I type away, filling in the blocks with NP and NCE scores, Allen creeps into the room and sits on the couch. It is a habit the kids formed years ago; they just sit and wait. I turn in my swivel chair, my face a question mark.

And Allen, living on the edge of the spectrum and trying very hard to make sense of it all, hands me a doughnut bag, then grins and walks away.

I smile and open the bag. Vanilla cream-filled. He gets me.

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