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?
My parents were pretty private people, considering my dad had a fairly high-profile presence in our hometown and Mom, by virtue of her marriage to him and her longtime employment at a couple of business mainstays around town, also found it difficult to go incognito. They tried though, especially when it came to showing weakness, vulnerability, or just ordinary flaws. That was clearly an attribute or a shortcoming (not for me to judge) of their generation. They both knew though I’m sure that I needed to find and expose something redeeming in their terrible illnesses and in their stories, so I don’t really care if I’m judged for sharing this intensely special moment. I want you to know that when you wonder why I miss an event or say no to an outing, that this is my reason. Not my excuse. My reason for having set my priorities as I have. You set yours and I set mine. Friends accept and support; they don’t judge.
Well, on this day as I reflect on that which means the most, I’ll leave you with this. When you think there is no hope, no solace, and no good in missing something or someone because it doesn’t change a thing, a moment takes your breath away to show you that there is always hope, comfort, and good especially in the ordinary- in what we take for granted every single day-until we no longer have it at our fingertips and within earshot.
Just when you think a page has been turned in the book- the memory book, that is- life has you go back to revisit what makes your heart full, brings you peace, and gives you the momentary reprieve, reassurance, and validation you need.
I hadn’t heard my name, my given name anyway, cross his lips in many months. And tonight, as he has just begun to turn the corner on a bout with pneumonia and was well enough to have an ice cream sundae, he said it, meant it, and knew me. Really knew me. I felt it with every fiber of my being. I’ve never liked my name that much until this evening.
Listen closely after I ask him if he’s ready.
Don’t call me a wonderful daughter. I don’t need praise. I’m just sharing this with you because every single one of us needs to know that individually we can make a difference and that one brief, fleeting moment can make all the difference in our own lives.
This is what is called a savorable memory.
Erma: Ha. You just wait. One day you’ll be looking back just as I am right now and wondering how you survived so many Christmases.
Sylvia: I have no illusions. I’ve watched you, and you’ve always come through with flying colors. Honestly, how have you managed?
Erma: I remember that all of the feelings – the wonder and joy, the sadness and stress- they won’t last. So, in the midst of it all, just show up, Sylvia. Soak it all in.
The most honest thing you can do to demonstrate love is simply to show up! Be present.
The month of December has never been a favorite of Sylvia’s, not since adulthood kicked in anyway. She recalls it also being an incredibly stressful month for her mom, her Erma, who worked her ass off to give her four little gremlins the most amazing Christmases. From decking the halls to writing out hundreds of holiday cards (a task which was the first to fall off the Christmas to-do list as the the years brought with them less time, arthritic and overworked hands, and more grandchildren) to baking the classic spritzes and cherry-walnut coffee cake, Erma did it all, year after year after year.
Looking back, Sylvia realizes her father worked too, of course, to make the holidays happen, but he never participated in any of the holiday preparation which Sylvia now sees as the real magic. If Erma, her mom, was the Christmas magician, then certainly Dad was the sidekick assistant who knew Mom’s routine and didn’t dare mess with it. As Sylvia looks back now, the memory of the side glances her parents exchanged as she and her siblings opened their gifts illuminates as brightly as the lights on the freshly decorated tree on a dark winter’s night. While her father’s look queried, “We bought that too?” Erma’s silent reply made only with her hazy baby blues (glazed over after all because she was the one up all night wrapping) rebuked matter-of-factly, “Yes, that too, dear. Smile, damn it. It’s Christmas. We want them to be happy, don’t we?” At that point, the side glances stopped because Dad knew the battle had been lost. Debt was inevitable. But when all was said and done, he and Mom had “worked together” to create the magic of Christmas. And to that I say, ” Not bad at all, folks, for the couple with the cards proverbially stacked against them – the always smiling, Jewish track star originally from Chelsea and the blonde, incredibly smart, Catholic girl from the project in New Britain.
How did they prevail? They held on tight! They showed up for one another. Don’t get me wrong. They had their ups-and-downs, their sad and angry moments. In the end though, at the close of each day, they were present- for each other and for their family in every way that mattered and made a difference.
So, as Sylvia stays with her father several nights this week until he falls asleep, she thinks about the gifts she has yet to wrap, yet to purchase, yet to give or receive. She’s going materially minimalist this year. Purposely. She has to. It’s time. She needs to declutter mind, body, and spirit. Oh, she’s purchased more than a few small items, enough to make the stockings bulge and be too heavy to hang. Big items though have yet to make their way through the lines at the stores, as Sylvia is just not feeling like suffering through the drama of commercial chaos at its best. Yes, it’s Christmas, but she is scaling back. Intentionally. Did you catch that- those two words? PURPOSE and INTENTION.
Sylvia and Erma intend to hold on tight. They propose you do the same. There’s purpose in an arm around the shoulder, a peck on the cheek, a phone call, a hand held across the table. The purpose- the goal? Presence.
I’m here. For you. For them. This year though I’m here for me. It’s a beginning. It’s something. It’s quite possibly everything.
Expressions of affection, like putting your arm around someone’s shoulder, holding hands, or giving a kiss good night, involve the principle of honesty.
~ John Bytheway
Erma’s left to go about her day after coffee and conversation with her best friend. She leaves Sylvia to contemplate the day and so much more.
As we finally come into summer weather, I think often of my family, extended and adopted, as well as my many friends- both near and far- who will be celebrating big milestones with and for their loved ones and the country with great fanfare and zest. My heart becomes instantly full. And then, just as quickly, I grow agitated and even a bit sad and disgusted.
I thought about this long and hard before I decided to share these thoughts, and then I remembered, that each of you has the option to either read and reflect or skim and skedaddle. So, I’m sharing because -to me- this is the stuff that we are meant to share, so that we can help each other through the rough spots. And one day each of us has or will have a couple, several, or many very rough spots. That is inevitable.
When my mother became ill in 2007 and she and Dad came to live with me and my family in California, everything changed. Family dynamics. Relationships. Life in general. My mom fought her battle miles away from many, but still she felt connected to the world. She was still a citizen. Still a mother. A nana. A friend. A sister. An aunt. She received calls, cards, visits, emails, etc. That ability to communicate is so often, too often, taken for granted these days because perhaps it requires so little forethought to text or communicate via technology. (Communication though does require thought– for now anyway.)
When one is fighting for life, it is an internal war of massive proportions. Your loved ones try to empathize and offer support and help to fight the daily skirmishes. The war though, the one that will inevitably be lost, which is really not a defeat but a matter-of-fact in life, is a solitary one. Death. Mom fought with all her might. People admired her strength, her guts, her spirit, and her grace. And indeed, my mom was strong, gutsy, spirited, and graceful. My mother was also a fairly private person who had a very public illness. An illness which everyone- EVERYONE- is touched by and despises.
Here’s where my thoughts, sadness, and disgust come into play. Woe is not I. Woe is WE. We fail in so many ways.
My father as you all know battles another dreaded disease- Alzheimer’s. He’s in the late stages now. He, unlike my mother, was a very public person, yet he has been saddled with a very closeted disease. It is we as a society comprised of supposedly loving families and friends who fail. It’s not that people don’t care. It’s not that awareness isn’t growing. I think it’s this simple and this heart- wrenching. The man that people knew is closeted. While he is locked away in his own mind, it is the key that everyone throws away that makes me sick to my stomach. He can no longer walk the streets. He can no longer go to the coffee shop and shoot the breeze with his buddies or those about town. He can no longer enjoy a meal in his family’s presence. Whereas my mother had the choice as to whether or not she would continue to do those things, my father does not. And therein is where my sadness and disgust emerge.
Alzheimer’s does steal from the person who is afflicted, but my sadness isn’t for my father or for myself. I am saddened by and for the many who don’t see him, or their own friends and loved ones with the illness. Dad is not dead. “Life is for the living” I hear time and again. Guess what? The smiling man who looks fabulous in yellow is very much alive. His pleasures are few, but if you could see how he still enjoys a jelly donut, holding a hand, or someone who smiles at him in passing, you’d know he’s very much here. He’s not the same man at a glance, but he’s the same man. And for the record, I am not a wonderful daughter. I’m just a daughter, a human being, who is doing the best she can. I’m the girl who still sees the light and laughter in the man who taught her to step outside of herself and give back to the community and world at large.
So, during this ensuing week of remembrance, post Memorial Day, remember that the sorrow you feel and condolences you offer to the caregiver while appreciated are not warranted and do not make the caregiver necessarily feel better. I am caring for someone who is still alive. Very much alive. It is a slow process of dying, but the end is not here. In my mind and in the eyes of a power greater than any of us, my father and others who live with this disease are still human, still feel, and still contribute. They are teaching us to value life. I and others who have Alzheimer’s in their faces each day would much rather you see, really see, that our person- our father, husband, brother, uncle, and friend is still there. Is still here. Send a card. Make a visit. It may be hard for you, but trust me, the small battle of getting through the day would be so much easier for the Alzheimer’s patient if he or she was not totally forgotten and closeted. Being locked in his or her own mind is bad enough. And I guarantee that if what you are looking for is a moment to stop and appreciate what you have and to get outside of yourself, Alzheimer’s is the wake-up call.
Remember. Remember. Right now you have that extreme luxury.
Wishing all of us peace, joy, and the power of remembering what it means to live and love fully and with intention and purpose.
So many things come to light when Sylvia sits out in the sunshine on the cove.
It’s 10 a.m. Sylvia is contemplating the day, doing laundry, writing, and pouring another cup -multi-tasking as most women do- when Erma phones.
Erma: Good morning, Sylvia. What are you up to today?
Sylvia: Nothing exciting, Erma, but the day is young, so there’s plenty of hope. I am wondering though if life will always be like this. Full. Of nothing and everything.
Erma: Here’s how I see it, Sylvia. As long as it’s full of anything, you are moving. Moving is key. Motion is living. Of course, each decade brings with it a new definition of motion, but let’s not get into that. Semantics aside, at my age- any age, really- moving simply means you aren’t dead, so that’s a real plus! In that alone, there’s hope.
Sylvia: I’m grabbing another cup, my friend, so prepare to give me your overview of moving through the decades.
Erma: Here goes…
At twenty, we live with anticipation and energy and the goals (for most of us) are to make tomorrow come faster, to have fun today, and to remove ourselves from what we looked like yesterday. We are chameleons in fact. Changing and moving at the speed of light but too often without direction.
At thirty, we live with hope that tomorrow will be easier; today we will get ahead a bit or at least stay afloat, and we hold out hope that our mistakes from yesterday will not be repeated. Alas, we repeat many of them, but that’s okay because we are charting our own course- or at least we think so.
At forty, we live with anxiety and fear that tomorrow we will find that we do not have enough of anything- time, money, love, or patience. Today we went through the motions and have little recall of what actually transpired. We long for the lack of both the accountability and the responsibility we had in our youth. Yesterday was not so bad.
At fifty, we live with intent and purpose. Tomorrow is getting close. Too close. It promises nothing, so we must accomplish all that has to be done without delay. And somehow, because we have either become more efficient in or less critical of how we perform our tasks, we will also manage to carve out a little bit of time for ourselves, even if it’s only a second to reflect, breathe, write, or have a bit of conscious “me” time. Yesterday, though we intended to do just that, time slipped away and we cannot get it back. Today though, today, for sure, we convince ourselves.
And here’s where Sylvia and Erma stop to welcome their many wise and witty friends of a certain maturity to add their two cents to the decades, which undoubtedly has greater value than anything they could pretend to know or even imagine.
This we know as it has been said time and again: tomorrow is not guaranteed and yesterday is done. Here and now is all we have! Have an amazing day or at the very least a day lived as best you can with intention, purpose, and some self-care.
We are putting another pot on because we have so much more to figure out and so much more life to live.
Cheers with coffee. Gotta keep moving.
How ironic that one tiny, fleeting moment can fill the heart, and that the resulting fullness renders one nearly weightless!
Savoring moments like velvety spoonfuls of an ice-cream sundae, Sylvia and Erma discover the key to successful dieting.
Being happy. Zero calories.
Erma: Sylvia, you can’t measure the immeasurable.
Sylvia: Thank goodness, Erma. That explains why I’m at my lightest when I’m at my happiest.