I don’t believe in heaven. Not as a destination anyway. Well, let me further amend that to say that I don’t believe that “good” people -those who lived life both honestly and vulnerably, with purpose and love in their hearts for themselves and the world around them, those who atoned for their “sins” (you know, […]Sylvia Knows Heaven on Earth
Who knew that the sixth time something happens it still has the capacity to take one’s breath away, to give pause, to cut to the core? If the first is a surprise and the third is old hat, then certainly the sixth time should be tedious and uneventful. Not the case. At all. The passing of her father’s sixth roommate in not quite four and a half years shook Sylvia. One would think that she would have grown accustomed to death, that it would have become easier to handle and accept, especially in light of the daily visits to the nursing home. Not true. Not for her anyway.
Out of respect and privacy, I’ll refer to the dear man who left this world at around midnight, late Friday/early Saturday last week, as Mr. H. He was frail, ailing, aging, and I’m hoping he was at peace. I’d like to think he left on his own terms and had made peace with himself and anyone and anything else that gnawed at him in this life, but who knows, right? I only know what I know and what I saw.
Mr. H had been at the skilled nursing residence for some time; it was his home for better or worse. He and his older brother had made the skilled nursing facility their mutual residence in their later years, living and rooming there together as each dealt with his own infirmities. They had each other and that was a lot. Maybe that was everything. I think it just may have been! When his brother died, Mr. H moved upstairs into my father’s room. In my mind, once people share space for an extended period of time whether under the best or worst of circumstances, it makes them family–automatic family because (1) you are living together and not necessarily by choice; and (2) you’ll be privy (whether you want to or not) to all of the intimate and likely not-so-pretty details of the other’s life- family dysfunction and bodily functions. Let’s face it, folks. Once you’ve shared space, passed gas, and dressed and undressed in front of another day in and day out, you are no longer strangers. Again, for better or worse. So, Mr. H became family. Although he and my father never engaged in conversation, I do think that each found quiet comfort knowing that there was life, another being, just a few feet away.
Here is why six is so tough though. I came to know one through five through their visitors, their friends and families. Whether frequently or sporadically, each was visited at some point by someone who cared. I had the honor of seeing each man engage in life at various moments and experience joy, even if only for a few minutes at a time; when a daughter or son dropped by on the way to or from work; or when a wife was able to find the physical and mental fortitude and/or transportation to make the trek. The little chunks of time shared with a loved one made all the difference. The “brothers” whom my father came to know in his own way, they were allowed to be who they had been all their lives, authentically and intrinsically themselves because of their relationships and loves, rather than who they had become as a result of the injustice and weaknesses of their illnesses. Six, Mr. H, was different. He never had a visitor. He hadn’t had one since at least six months before the pandemic. Think about that. Not one person. No one in this world felt the need or desire to visit Mr. H. Did he really have no one?
I could write forever ad nauseum about this, but I won’t. Frankly, it’s upsetting; and those to whom I’m trying to make a point are those who failed my father and will likely fail others who hang on to a love that cannot be reciprocated or offered unconditionally. I don’t know. I’m not their judge, but I do recognize a hubris, a lack of accountability, and a seeming nonchalance about their role in a loved one’s final days. Mr. H at some point in his life engaged with the world. Perhaps he was mean, a recluse or curmudgeon. Again, I don’t know. However, don’t we as human beings owe one another something – a morsel of decency and a little tenderness, especially in the end? Just as we all came into the world being anticipated and welcomed, wouldn’t it be lovely to leave the world or to help someone leave the world knowing that it’s not all bad? He or she mattered. If all another teaches us in the course of his, her (or their) life is how not to live and what we don’t want, then they have done this world and likely all of humanity a huge service. They have made your life, my life, more meaningful.
Six was hard. Mr. H, I hope you know that you made a difference. You were family. I will not forget you. May you rest in peace. Say hello to your brother and brothers, my father among them now.
Sometimes, almost always these days, Sylvia hastens to remind herself that we only learn how to live by watching how others are treated or mistreated, especially as they approach death. How to say hello comes naturally and easily. How we learn to say goodbye? Not so easy. How will you say goodbye?
Sylvia carries a great deal around with her. On her mind. In her heart. And yes, especially in her purse. “The contents of a woman’s purse, or pocketbook as many of us refer to the bottomless bag of life, are sacred,” Erma declares to her friend. And Sylvia, her mind wandering to the bottom of her bag, quietly pronounces in agreement, “Mine are for sure.”
Since my mother died, I bring her with me in one of my favorite totes–yes, bits and pieces of her with me everywhere I go. Literally. Though much of her bodily remains are tucked away peacefully in a carved rosewood box she now shares with my father, awaiting their intermingling, I do keep some of “her” in one of her old medicine bottles- the ultimately inconsequential labeling has long been removed. After all, it’s been over a decade since she died and since her wish to be cremated was fulfilled. I change pocketbooks frequently too, so the little brown vessel that held one of the life-saving or rather life-prolonging concoctions she required has traveled and withstood the test of time. Those bottles don’t crack easily, but admittedly, that is not the point here.
Last week as I moved Mom from the black-and-camel Michael Kors bucket bag to the bright pink, Kate Spade satchel to the less cumbersome, multi-colored, crossbody Coach, I came to a realization. Well, two, actually. First, I’m a bag lady. Second, and more of an epiphany of sorts: I’m not bringing Mom anywhere. She’s gone from this earth. And yes, even to this day, I get a lump in my throat and a knot in my belly when I say those words out loud. Here is what I’ve been bringing with me on my travels, whether to the grocery store or local “Stomping Ground” or to Brooklyn to visit our favorite young man (there is no doubt in my mind that she would have proudly bestowed upon him that moniker). That little bottle of ashes represents my mother’s greatest gift to me. It’s the constant reminder that (1) life is fleeting; and (2) when we leave this world, everything tangible has little to no real value. Those things with the greatest meaning aren’t things at all. They are people and memories of shared experiences. The sum and total of one’s physical presence on this earth is reduced to ash, dust in the wind. The heart and soul of the person, his or her spiritual presence, lives on in those he or she loved, cared for, or touched in some way while on this earth. The ashes that I carry I’ve come to view as Mom’s ultimate lesson to me. We don’t get second chances. Make this life count.
And as I start this new day, I’m thankful for so much, the very least of which is the tiny, amber-colored, prescription bottle that travels with me. Where will I go today and who will accompany me? I don’t know every detail, but one thing I do know is that I’ll do my best to make moments count, to tell people who matter that I love and respect them, and to keep creating my life. It’s not over until it’s ash. I’ll keep adding to my bonfire.
Sylvia is reminded of one of her favorite passages– and so, she’ll keep going:
Intriguing isn’t it? One day you are the king of your world. And the next day, you stand aside, watching it all burn. Ashes slipping out of your hand, you just stand and stare, your glassy gaze fixed on something no one else could see, no one else could know…
People will talk as people do talk. And they will walk over the ashes. And the ashes will dance in front of you, reminding you every second of what was and what might have been. And you will almost give in.
But my advice is, don’t give in. Because one day, you will decide to turn the corner. Put it all behind you. Just stand strong and still as the great wind comes and takes all the ashes away with with it, leaving fresh air behind. Fresh for you to make a new world, a better world.~Aleena Yasin
“Wide open. Closed. Squinting. Teary. Winking. They say it all, don’t they?” Sylvia asked of her friend rhetorically. Erma, with a quick roll of hers, replied.
At once, the two friends sitting across from each other with masks covering all but their eyes, broke out in laughter. Their friendship was so easy because they knew each other deeply and could read each other’s movements. Words, though never lacking, were rarely needed these days. Their eyes always recounted their stories.
Almost nothing need be said when you have eyes.
I know. I know. Most of you are probably thinking that because we are a month into summer, Sylvia and Erma are preparing to rant about swimwear, body image expectations, and disappointments in both. Nope. Not at all. While Erma has accepted that the hourglass form she once coveted has erupted into collagenless dunes, so much so that she avoids the mirror for anything other than lipstick application, Sylvia is only mildly disappointed in her glow this year. Though a little less than satisfied with the topography that this past year has mapped onto her flesh given the angst and havoc being wreaked globally (let alone her corner of the world), Sylvia is not sizing herself up like that. At all. She’s measuring life in memories and moments– not inches or centimeters. Sylvia finds herself missing little things, simple tidbits that she thought would be a part of her life but that she hasn’t experienced at all yet. She also laments huge unfathomable and immeasurable losses this year. A tape measure, a scale, a barometer? No, none of those will suffice, even superficially.
Erma: How can you miss something you’ve never known, Sylvia? Why do you torture yourself with wanting the unknown? Remember, the grass isn’t always greener.
Sylvia: Don’t you know by now that I can’t give up. I won’t give up. It’s not a matter of the grass being greener. It’s not even that I want morsels of life that are out-of-reach. What I’m missing are pieces of life that I eagerly anticipated, those which I thought I’d have to look back on by now. I don’t miss memories of times or places I have visited. I miss those memories that I thought I would have made by now- that I should have made by now.
Erma: See, that’s the problem. You set a schedule, a timeline for your happiness-years ago- never factoring in life changes.
Sylvia: That’s just plain silly. Of course, I anticipated changes. I knew I’d graduate. I knew I’d work. I knew I’d become a mother and a wife and a million other things. I factored change into the life equation as a variable.
Erma: Ah, there it is. That was the mistake. Well, maybe not a mistake but surely a misguided assumption. Change isn’t a variable at all. Change is a constant. Everything else is a variable!
Sylvia: Working. Motherhood. Marriage. Relationships. They have consistently made up my days. They most certainly have felt like constants- cores of my being.
Erma: I fear you’ve really missed out on how to assess your decades or even if those years need to be examined, quantified, and qualified, my friend. I never thought you quite so naïve.
Sylvia: I don’t think it is naivete at all. I simply never factored in death – the demise of relationships and final goodbyes of those I loved deepest. I say “simply” but it’s anything and everything but simple.
Those moments and memories that Sylvia feels she’s missed out on? They are not inconsequential, but what she has learned and continues to navigate is they aren’t everything. She has made choices, set priorities, and picked her figs from the tree as they have been dangled or dropped before her. Perhaps what Sylvia feels she has missed in life is not lacking at all. She has time, not to regret or reshape memories but to make more. She is finally realizing that life is not one tree with many branches; life comprises many trees from many different orchards.
Erma: Stop trying to measure. Inches. Centimeters. Pounds. Barrels. Bushels. Baskets. So many ways to quantify everything. And I’d rather believe that life is not made to be measured at all, not by what we have or what we don’t have. Life is meant to be savored- in totality- after all or most of the fruit has fallen or been picked from the tree. You’ve eaten the plump and juicy, tasted the bruised and rotten parts, and made a whole lot of juice.
Stop measuring. Squeeze out the juice. Press on.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Sylvia: I’ve been sitting here with my coffee waiting for a daydream, but nothing is happening. What are you up to today?
Erma: Not a whole lot. I’m doing what I do best- making lists and micromanaging others’ lives. Sorry. Not funny but perhaps mildly amusing. And what do you mean you can’t have a daydream? Of course, you can.
Sylvia: No, I’m serious. I really can’t. I pour the piping hot coffee, sit at the head of the table, and let the steam wash over me, all the while hoping that the fresh brew will stir something delicious within. And nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not a single spark or errant provocative thought. Sadly, Cam and/or anyone else who might scratch the proverbial itch is nowhere to be found.
Erma: Oh, nonsense, Syl. Cam’s there, after all you conjured him up a few times before; and if he’s not, someone else is ready to jump in, stir the pot, and get your juices flowing. You know what you really need though?
Sylvia: I’m almost afraid to ask, but you haven’t steered me wrong yet, so what the hell? What do I need to get my mind moving in the right direction?
Erma: Jelly doughnuts. You need one or two jelly doughnuts to go with that coffee. Trust me. What you need is in the filling!
It’s now a good two months into the new year, and as I have done almost every year for the last six or so, I remain true to my one and only resolution and vow: this year will be different. I, along with Sylvia and Erma, have consumed enough coffee to wake the dead on a slow day. I’ve had it black, sweetened, flavored, and iced. In a mug, a delicate bone-china cup, and an insulated tumbler. I’ve cried over it, had it come out my nose while laughing, and even choked on it. Coffee isn’t everything, but God and the gals can attest that it sustains me most days. However, sadly, it is no longer enough. I need filling. We all do!
I’ve no other choice- well, I do, but I’d rather try options that are less harmful to me body and soul- so, jelly doughnuts it is!
Sylvia: Hey there, lady. Usually I’m the one missing calls and scurrying about. What have you been up to?
Erma: A little of this and a little of that. Nothing too distinctive.
Sylvia: Oh, but the sum and total of it all is what? Huge? Voluminous? Overwhelming?
Erma: Not huge, but substantive.
Sylvia and Erma are huge believers in quality over quantity. So, although they love and eagerly anticipate their morning conversations over coffee, they are aware that life often gets in the way. They have come to appreciate all of the little things in their relationship and in other important bonds between family and friends in their lives.
Little things. Gentle gestures. They share them. They look for them. They treasure them.
What small act today will you witness or be a part of that will impact you or another in a wondrous and everlasting way?
“And for a moment she pauses. She thinks back and smiles broadly. The seconds of joy and tenderness that her father shared with her son had the most impact. She sees it every time they see one another now- it’s always in their eyes.”
Sylvia: Happy birthday, my dear! Older and wiser!
Erma: I don’t know about wiser, but I’m hopeful!
I don’t know what time she was born. I guess I could dig out her birth certificate and find out easily enough. To me, my mother was born the day I came into the world. Obviously, she had a life “b.k.”(before Kay), but I didn’t know her then. All I know of that woman who became my mother, both the little girl who wore braids and gingham and the young, blond-haired teen who played the drums before it was cool for a girl to play the drums, has been conveyed to me through others’ recollections, her own accounts as she would share an anecdote from her past with the slightly veiled purpose of teaching a lesson, and the photos that I have. And what connects all of the snapshots, real and those that I’ve taken in my mind’s eye which remain guarded like priceless treasure, is her eyes. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, it follows and must be that my mother, b.k. and always, was and remains one of the most beautiful, trusting, and trusted souls God could have offered this world.
Most of us, not all, love our mothers and have been loved by our mothers. I’ve been accused of worshipping mine. (In fact, my mother often reminded me, especially as she neared her last days, that she was indeed human, flawed like the rest of us, so she too should be allowed to make mistakes.) She would often say that the one bad rap that mothers had to endure was that they were held to a higher standard than everyone else on the planet! Now that I’m a mother, I admittedly understand this so much better. I digress though. I did worship my mother, something she never demanded or expected, but it happened nonetheless. How did it happen? Ah, that’s the question. The trusting and trusted eyes!
My mother had xray vision, vision that led her to know exactly what another human needed. To many and certainly to her family, this special sense- some call it a sixth sense while others deem it intuition- was who she was and how she lived her life at the very core. And while she may have regretted not doing all the things she had hoped to do before she died, I do believe she lived a purposeful life and her legacy is an honorable one. Her legacy? Her gift? She left it to everyone who had the honor and pleasure of looking into her eyes. My mother made those who crossed her path feel important, no matter their lot in life. She gave others hope. She found and saw something redeeming in everyone. She wasn’t oblivious to the harshness or evils of the world. She wasn’t naïve. She wasn’t optimistic. Mom was hopeful. I do believe there is a big difference between optimism and hope, and I think her trusting and trusted eyes became reflective of that difference.
I’m babbling a bit because as we all know the totality of a life cannot be put adequately into words. Indeed, my mother’s life cannot. Her legacy can though. Hope. She believed in me. She believed in her grandson. And if you had the good fortune of meeting her, befriending her, working for or with her, she believed in you. That belief – those trusting and trusted eyes- keep me hopeful. I don’t believe that life is perfect and I’m far from thinking everything will turn out well in the end. However, I am hopeful.
On her birthday, I’m going to trust her and her legacy. I’ll go to celebrate her life with my dad today, and in that gift alone, I’m offered hope.
Thanks, Mom. And I’ve come to realize that you never wanted to be worshipped; you wanted to be loved. You were. You are. You always will be.
Out on the deck and under the umbrella, before the real heat of this August day, Sylvia wondered. Would it be more of the same? Coffee, household chores, lists. Or would she experience something new today? Perhaps a first of the best kind? As she gazed out into the woods behind the house, her curiosity wasn’t piqued by the panoramic view of the landscape that had recently changed in her life. From the quiet, seamless lines of blue where sky meets water on the cove to the lush drapes of greenery that fortressed her now, the change marked a beginning and an end. Or an end and a beginning. And that is where she stopped. The order of things had her baffled momentarily, yet with the very next sip from the sweaty tumbler of iced water, she was struck by a concept that she had never really thought about until that very second. Beginnings and endings are always, always, always firsts.
Sylvia: Firsts are daunting, anxiety-ridden, and paralyzing, Erma.
Erma: Firsts are exciting, hopeful, and motivating, my friend. Just think. When something unpleasant ends, it’s the last of it. That leaves you open and eager for the next step, a new lease, a new beginning.
Sylvia: I get that, but it also signifies the end of an era, a final point in the history of a relationship or process. That’s sad, wouldn’t you agree?
Erma: Sylvia, stop. Not every morsel of life needs to be qualified as happy or sad. It’s not that simple–or in your case, that complicated. Some times, most times in fact, firsts and lasts just happen. It’s not until you look back and you are in the thick or thin of another life experience that you can even begin to really define the impact of a beginning or an end.
Sylvia: Okay, for once I’m going to sit back with my mouth shut and let you explain. At this very second, every first of my life is flashing before my eyes and as I see each of them again, I’m becoming more and more distraught. Trapped somewhere between nostalgia and progress.
Erma: Jesus, Sylvia, it’s now afternoon, and we’re just beginning. No pun intended. I’m going to grab something out of your wine fridge. So, clear your mind, and don’t think until I get back. Seriously. Do not think at all. Do not deliberate, contemplate, and above all, do not ruminate. I’m going to share with you the best and worst of firsts over a nicely chilled Pinot Gris today. You’ll see. You can’t catalog the moments of your life as happy or sad, or as beginnings or endings for that matter. You can only define each moment as a first, for better or worse.
Firsts are when and where life takes place. All of it. Every moment. Some actions and events seem repetitive, and indeed they are! That does not mean that they aren’t different though. Two moments in time are never identical. Erma learned this powerful tidbit over the last seven-plus decades, and that fact alone imparted credibility to her words, even as she explained how brushing her teeth each morning had become firsts for her. She illustrated how she had gone from grinning ear-to-ear as she brushed her pearly whites each day of her teens and twenties to watching a reflection of a waning smile as she lost enamel and gained wine and coffee stains in her forties and fifties. And now, as she thought about those decades of brushing, Erma introduced more examples of firsts. Caps, crowns, root canals, veneers, and partials. “See, Sylvia. There are no instant replays or do-overs. Each brushing is and was a first. Each day is a first.” All of this seemed obvious and a bit comical as Erma so often tried to weave a lesson with just a dash of whimsy. It should have been clear, but it wasn’t to Sylvia. Until she and Erma mulled it over and hashed it out, Sylvia hadn’t considered that firsts represent both the best and worst of life.
Through smiles and intermingled tears of joy and sorrow (none of which either woman could attribute to the rich, sweet, golden elixir or to the fact that they had consumed the entire bottle of it as they indulged in one of their ordinary chats), Sylvia sat looking out on the verdant scenery she now called home. She reflected on those singular firsts which transported her from joyful and full of hope and pride one minute to melancholy and brimming with fear and guilt the next. First friend. First sleepover. First move. First date. First kiss. First one to travel abroad. First “D” and “F”. First one to graduate from college. All her firsts. She paused, took a breath in, and then exhaled. She began again. His first breath. His first tooth. His first word. His first step. His first tumble. His first day of school. His first heartbreak. His first paying job. His first apartment. She beamed for a split second. She hesitated, looked out to the woods beyond the fence, and started again. The first time she heard the word cancer. The first night without her. The first morning they woke up to her empty room. The first time he left the water running. The first time he forgot she had passed. The first time he couldn’t remember her name. The first time he needed to be fed. The first time he looked at her and somehow spoke more clearly than ever with his eyes because the words were no longer there. All firsts. Each and every one was the very last first of its kind. The best and worst of firsts, indeed.
Sylvia (sighing) : I get it now, Erma. It’s how you look at it and what you learn from it.
Erma: That’s right. You’ve got it, my dear. Love it or hate it? That’s not the point. Appreciate it all. Every first is your last first of that kind, with that person, in that place, at that moment. Beginning or ending.
Hopes. Dreams. Wishes. Love. Joy. Trust. Respect. And so much more. You must keep filling your basket which of course requires energy.
Erma constantly reminds Sylvia to take good care of herself first- something Erma learned the hard way but she eventually learned!
The gals’ suggestion for today and definitely for the weekend: Do something just for you!