Tree Love

Tree Love

 

I think about a tree, once a great friend to me, an essential element of my daily life, close, close, close within my hands, tactile beneath my fingers and toes, a loamy odor up my nose.  Does it still stand, straight and tall, incrementally shading the emerald grass carpet of a suburban backyard some ten miles from where I sit now, remembering?  Does a loose-limbed child yet scale its elephant-skinned truck, so finely creased and wrinkled?  Do ants draw their fine ribbons along its sturdy boughs, leaving chemical traces of their intent? What about the birds that nested annually in its crown – do they keep a home there even now, half a century later?  How many lizards, cocoons, webs, and pods litter its branches?

 

Suddenly, I remember a photograph I captured several years ago, when I took my husband on a visit my old neighborhood to see the house I grew up in.  Scrolling back through my phone’s photos, I stop at the façade of my childhood home, immediately registering the blank space in the upper right-hand corner beyond the roof – no tree. How could I have missed that when I took the picture?  Failed to register the chasm rent in my past, yawning blue and blank as the sky now nakedly revealed? MY tree, the keeper of my secrets, witness of my heartaches, companion to my tears.  Gone.  A life extinguished, a body drawn and quartered, roots wrenched from clinging soil, leaves raining down in grief.  How long ago had I lost it?  Why hadn’t its absence redounded in my soul?

 

Every child should have a tree, it seems to me, of substantial girth and deep roots, with accommodating boughs that will support the scrambling of bare feet and toes.  Mine was a beech, already thirty feet tall when we moved into the three-bedroom, yellow stucco, ranch-style house on Ranney Street in 1965. At four years old, I was initially too small to reach the long, straight branch that jutted out at like an Ent’s perfect elbow four feet above the ground. And so, I played among its roots, gnarled hardwood fingers pushing up through the dirt around its base, perfectly delineated arenas for my plastic animal figures longing for respite from shag carpeting and furniture legs.  What a cornucopia of animal feed – twigs and frass, pulled weeds, grass clippings, leaf litter, and scattered seeds.  My horses and goats and giraffes and elephants were at home there in the silty dirt and so was I, concerned not for dusty knees or hemlines.  Pill bugs and earwigs, snails and ants, caterpillars, spiders, moths, bees, wasps and butterflies – all were abundantly extant, accepted without prejudice.   My world was close and dear, familiar to me as my own skin, which was slicked and furred with its detritus.  I belonged among this organic stuff, breathing in its scented oxygen, long blond hair littered with sticks and leaves, toenails and fingernails packed with peaty earth.

 

As soon as I was tall enough, I would hook my right knee around that long straight branch and spin myself to sit upright, the branch almost the same width as my spindly thighs. For months, this was my perch, five feet above the ground, a new vantage point from which to view my animal kingdom nested placidly below, a veritable god among the leaves.  Wrapping my arms around its substantial trunk, I’d press my cheek against its cool bark and feel the green pulse of sap, invisible but present.  The tree was a body, just like I was a body, with mysterious inner fluids and resilient flesh.  A much larger, older body that could hold and contain mine, which felt insubstantial and pliable compared to it.  I felt the tree abiding through starlit autumn nights and sunbaked summer days, breezes rustling among its branches, soft summer sprinkles moistening its leaves. Without ascribing it words, I was aware of its subtle, diffuse consciousness. Amidst the profligate foliage of that suburban backyard – which seemed so wild and untamed to my childish eyes – my tree was the undisputed king, the tallest, broadest component among herbaceous borders, fanning palms, clipped lawn, and trimmed hibiscus.

 

Growing up the oldest of five children, all born within seven years, I was desperate for a space to call my own.  As soon as I could make the climb, I claimed the topmost limbs of the tree as my personal den, an aerial retreat lofting above the chaos and din of an 1100 sq. ft. bungalow mushrooming human

bodies.  Wedged in the deep vee of its split trunk, I would survey my realm, peering into the neighbors’ backyards, noting the dads’ departure to and arrival from work; marking whose bike was flung on which friend’s lawn; calling out to scratching dogs sprawled on cement patios; watching the clouds drift, swirl and separate like cotton candy against a tonal backdrop of baby blue.  Here, I would inscribe the initials of a decade-spanning crush, my best friend’s brother, four years older, inhabitant of an unfamiliar universe of baseball cards, ten-speed bicycles, driveway basketball, and Beatles’ singles on the record player.  I loved the golden blond bangs that swooped across his forehead, hiding one eye; his bronzed arms with their gilding of platinum hairs; the loping ease with which he rounded the sandbags thrown into the cul-de-sac to serve as bases. I loved his deepening voice and the confidence with which he teased his sister and me.   I loved him with the blinding, unrequited passion of prepubescence and the tree was my only confidant, lending its invisible ears to my ceaseless suffering, seiving my salty tears through its toothed leaves, soothing my heartache with its gentle green caress.  I read countless books nestled in its green halo, my limbs entwined with its, my spine supported by the iron column of its trunk.  It was a clear space where I could read words aloud and feel the timber of their inflection.

 

At night, in flying dreams, I invariably launched from my tree’s crown: first I would stand, both feet wedged in the deep vee, then I would spread my arms and fall, soaring, hands spread, body undulating, hair streaming back. Through my winding, circumscribed flights, my tree would orient me, a beacon of feathered green, shimmering in the moonlight, a silent sentinel, peaceful and approving.

I never ventured out from neighborhood, fully entranced by the dew-spattered lawns, the curtained and shuttered windows like a line of sleeping eyes along the blacktopped corridor of Ranney Street; cars slumbering curbside; sidewalks chalk white and empty; hoses curled like cobras on hooks flanking garage doors. The incongruity of darkness costuming the mundane and ordinary captivated me, misting my neighborhood with a portent that wasn’t accessible in daylight.  I was aware of conversations happening on different frequencies, invisible embroidery that laced and looped between fauna and flora, knitting the world together, infusing it with intent.  Buoyed by an intense recognition of home and well-being, I would wheel and plummet, circle and dive, assured of my absolute safety in the nightscape.

 

***

 

I miss my tree.  Even more so now that I’ve realized it’s physically, not just geographically, gone.  Within its penumbra I once embedded with nature.  Seamlessly integrated, absorbed by my environs, I played and dreamed and cried and read and didn’t hold myself within edges, outlines or borders.  Awareness percolated within me, rising like sap within my veins.  Thinking was diffused, unstructured. Undisturbed, I could focus on the voice inside, rather than those outside, my head.  The episodic drone of airplanes overhead, children’s voices punctuating birdsong, tires whirring over asphalt, dogs barking, the occasional siren – these aural layers blanketed the ambient stillness, enhancing, reinforcing my arboreal cloister.

 

It’s been a long time since my boundaries have blurred; I rarely go barefoot outside or get really dirty.  I don’t fondle pincher bugs or discover twigs woven in my hair.  My knees are never scabbed.  Play is something I do with letter tiles on a tablet screen; reading, curled up in a papasan chair with the lamp on.  Ants are, in general, to be avoided.  I haven’t had a flying dream in 50 years.  I’ve lost my physical connection to nature; though I still appreciate the palette of a brilliant sunset, the whistle of wind rushing through trees, the sharp note of fresh grass clippings, the eely feel of a slippery river stone, these days they reach me across borders and edges, corralled within outlines that delineate their separation from me.  I can no longer hear sap rising, in me or a tree.

 

I saw my childhood crush – that best friend’s brother – at my parent’s golden wedding anniversary almost ten years ago.  He was puffy in that way former military men get when they retire to the couch.  His sweeping bangs had been domesticated into a crew cut, his skin now pallid, his voice husky and phlegmy from what may have been years of smoking.  I avoided him completely, my heart beating like a drum within my chest, not wanting to taint the sanctity of my years-old passion.  Somewhere I keep his initials within the outline of a heart, carved into the uppermost branches of a beech tree that no longer exists. I no longer sense invisible networks of pheromones or lose my edges to waves of passion.  I am contained within borders, stranded within my own treeless plain of consciousness.

Photographic Evidence

Photographic Evidence

Assignment 3 in Personal Essay and Memoir course

FIRST: Choose a selfie from your phone. Examining the selfie, describe the following elements, in 400-600 words or so:

  • the specific location in which the photo was taken, and why
  • your attire in the photo, and why
  • one detail in the photo that stands out as unique or remarkable (and why you find it so)
  • at least one element about the environment that could not be deduced from evidence in the photo, for example, smells, sounds, activity in the next room, etc.
  • your mood at the time the photo was taken, and why
  • the person who was physically closest to you in the photograph (Keep in mind this may not necessarily be someone visible in the photograph.)

Writing from the level of the frame (again, you can think of this as the level of the voiceover or quasi-omniscient narrator), describe your mood, or what was likely the case, based on past habits and routine behaviors. Think about how you move between the details you do remember and those you don’t.

Then, writing from the level of the story, as if the events captured by the photo are unfolding in real time, repeat the exercise using a photograph of you taken by someone else. This photo should be completely unrelated to the selfie except, of course, that you are the subject of each.

Pioneertown

Selfie: Susan and I have come to Pioneertown, located in the high desert just out of Joshua Tree State Park, to visit her as-yet undeveloped property.  While she walks the boundaries checking for traces of flooding patterns, digging out thorny bushes and other unwanted interlopers, I sit in a folding metal chair she’s brought to accommodate me.  After several minutes tracing her dwindling figure among the lightening-amputated Joshua trees and fire-seared cacti with my phone camera, I accidentally flip it back on me.  I’m not a big one for selfies as the portraits I capture inevitably appear to be of no one I recognize.  But this time is different. This time it is ME looking at back at me, the me of decades ago – aged, for sure, but still within the general outlines of the person I recognize as my Self.

I am wearing my beloved J. Peterman hat that appears to be cowboy grade leather but is actually a cotton acrylic blend that fits my head so well it looks like it grew from it.  I can feel the gentle, sage-scented breeze that lifts my longish blonde hair, providing a cooling counterpoint to the desert sun.  Several rounds of braided black leather from which a tarnished charm and a polished bit of amber hang encircle my neck; beyond the shoulders and upper neckline of my black tee shirt, not much more of me is visible.  (This is how, along with the pinpoint focus of my gaze, I can tell it is a selfie and not a photo Susan took of me, which is how she remembers it – oh the vagaries of memory!)

Perhaps it just evidences the amount of weight I’ve lost in the last year that my real face has emerged from the black hole it dropped into during my forties.  For years, the puffy, mildly confused person staring back at me from photos appeared lost within the frame, unclear how she arrived in the tableau, unsure of the way out.  Now, in this photo, I am slightly amused, relieved to see my own eyes, a bit red from the sun and wind, staring back at me.

Or maybe the reappearance of my Self is indicative of the welcome exhilaration that an exodus from suburbia has provided – Susan just as enthused as me to put Orange County in the rear-view mirror in favor of open horizons and the bird-tatted silence of the desert. I am now counting years since I have left the United States; its intangible borders feel more and more intractable and stultifying these days.  Within the frame of the selfie, though, I am the emigrant who can see free again.

Halloween 2018

Photograph: I am sitting aslant on John and Emily’s living room couch, the only person seated in a nighttime babel of drink-holding, costume-clad, party-voiced revelers.  Fortunately, the anime-face mask I’m wearing hides the misery and exhaustion I’m feeling.  Emily, who has yet to discern my marked lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, hands me another glass of alcohol (there is an untouched Moscow Mule in a plastic cup gathering beads of sweat on the end table beside me) and squeals “Hurry Mike – over here! Let’s get you guys’ picture!”   Mike obligingly drops down heavily beside me, causing me to fall against him.  Draping his arm around my shoulders, he beams at the camera, one bushy eyebrow raised. An irrational fury adds hiss to the roiling of my stomach: three days of continuous vomiting, vertigo, and diarrhea have left me humorless and hating everyone.  I landed in Cincinnati a mere four hours ago; we immediately got on the highway to make the two-hour drive to Lexington for this party.  I so hadn’t wanted to board that plane, worried about both the uncountable ailments that had persisted despite all my efforts to appease them and how I would manage them for six hours in a cramped airline seat.  But when you live 1600 miles from your spouse you don’t cancel conjugal visits lightly.

Now, husband beside me, I can’t even manage to hold his hand for the photo.  Instead, my left hand clutches my right, white knuckles glowing, in a silent plea to make it stop, return to normal, quiet the mounting dread I have that something is really wrong. My mask is askew; the eye holes are black and bottomless, no sign of myself peering out.

Three days from now I will wake up to neon-yellow tinted eyes, sallow skin and brown urine in the toilet bowl.  Five days from now I will be informed by my horrified primary care physician that my liver enzymes are the highest she’s ever seen and within a week I’ll be discussing liver transplants with my new gastroenterologist.  But the night of the photo, I have no information, only uncountable pain and misery, irritating people surrounding me, and a plastic mask to hide behind.

Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

“Yvette!  WE’RE GOING TO THE POT STORE,” my dad shouts from the driveway up to my bedroom window over the garage as if the message was in the all-caps print he favors.

“Great Dad. Now I and the rest of our neighbors know where you’ll be for the next hour or so.” Looking down, I can see my mom climbing into the passenger seat of Dad’s jumbo-jet sized, luxury SUV.

“And no one says pot anymore, by the way.  Say weed.  Or better yet, just dispensary.’”

I sound so like the snarky teen I once was that I have to do a mental check.  My dad’s awareness of marijuana had its foggy beginnings during my middle school years, when he shifted from beat cop to narcotics, grew his hair long, donned a uniform of loose peasant shirts, suede boots, and bell-bottom Levis, and played The Guess Who in our tangerine-colored family van.  He might have adopted the trappings, but he was miles from cool.  Shouting out his destination in our smartly landscaped, ethnically diverse, Tesla-littered cul-de-sac reminded me of his past indiscretions.

I surmise that properly identifying cannabis and recognizing its psychoactive effects might have posed a bit of a challenge for a small suburban police force back then, mostly because my oldest brother had the actual plants growing in our backyard that my dad routinely watered every weekend when he did yard work.  Dad could never tell when we were high, which was more often than not during those years.  I do remember him spouting the inflammatory prophecy of it being an evil “gateway drug” which would inexorably deliver its users into full blown heroin, cocaine, LSD, and/or psilocybin addiction.  (Though my siblings and I dabbled in those substances, most of us ended up in thrall to sporadic quantities of crystal meth – oh, the all-nighters studying, cleaning, organizing, writing!)

Now my parents are rabid, copious consumers of all things THC- and CBD-infused – cookies, gummy drops, oils, lotions, and patches.  Their dispensary expenditures routinely exceed $300-400 per month.  Nothing I would’ve ever predicted in 1975, but probably the most mind-altering consequence of living in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal.  (And heavily taxed, I might add.  HEAVILY.  Another example of liberals putting their money where their mouths are, I’m just saying.)

I reflect on this reality whenever I open my desk drawer and see my vape pens rolling around with the Pilot G-2s and Sharpies.  Getting high is such a mundane aspect of life these days, for many reasons preferable to imbibing alcohol, which used to be my go-to relaxant until I suffered a (very) scary bout of elevated liver enzymes a year ago.  Mostly I employ it as a soporific, taking a hit or two prior to shutting off the lights for bed.  Zonk – menopausal insomnia cured!   Occasionally, I’ll take it along for a coastline jog; nothing corrals the chattering distractions of the running brain like the hypnotic, looping effects of a little THC. But mostly I don’t think about it.  Unlike high school, I don’t have to deal with shady strangers on corners or someone’s lascivious cousin with his own apartment in Downey or the manager at the local pizzeria who charged a 200% markup over street prices but gave you a free pie as a cover.  I just drive the 2.6 miles to the local dispensary, park under the watchful gaze of the armed security guard, wait in line behind five other convivial senior citizens to present my ID to the woman at the front desk, and am buzzed through to an emporium of products presented in myriad flavors, sizes, strengths, and delivery mediums.  Capitalism has transformed the War on Drugs into a surprisingly pleasant shopping errand.

Subsequently, I don’t know if the high itself has changed or its integration into the routine of life has tamed its tantalizing qualities, but it certainly doesn’t hold, at least for me, the cachet that it once did.   When I was fourteen, my relationship with psychoactive substances sprang from the nascent desire to fathom the teleological difference, if there was any, between mind and brain. Suffused as I was with Buddhism, Beatnik writers, Schrödinger’s cat, Platonic ideals and rudimentary Catholic theology, one can imagine how effectively a marijuana high could contribute to my efforts.  Now, I just want to go to sleep.  Same feeling, different outcome.

I imagine that by fifty-seven I have followed all the less strenuous, non-academic, quasi-spiritual paths towards figuring out life’s meaning; the mental vistas currently afforded me by THC have become a bit mundane and claustrophobic. Is it maturity?  Monotony?  Resignation?  Smoking weed no longer promises the (wink-wink) mystical elevator into the absolute it once did.  By virtue of their legality, THC and CBD products are heavily regulated to be content verifiable and consistent.  Does this affect the nature of the high itself?  Certainly, smoking dope of this type is not the roulette’s wheel of my youth, when the whispered gems “Mexican Sinsemilla” or “Humboldt Indica” conveyed deluxe, transcendent properties sure to send the mental explorer catapulting into deep space but more reliably, come to think of it, fizzled out into blank stares and ill-advised snacking.  And there were a few, definitely uncomfortable occasions early on, after legalization but before I got the dosage right, when my thoughts caromed off into cramped and circular orbits that recalled the “bad trips” of my youth, anxiety-fraught treks through ricochet-laden mental environs that are even less enticing after so long abiding in the world of forethought and consequences.

Perhaps what I am really yearning for is that breath-stealing, soul-melting experience of magic mushrooms or E(cstasy) kicking in, when the boundary between mind and brain dissolves, liquefying into a non-question, any answer irrelevant to the numinous revelations pouring from within and without. But, of course, when one is fifty-seven there is a larger context underpinning the choice of what to ingest into one’s corpus: will this kill me? Weaken me? Make me healthier? Live longer, stronger, wiser?  Increasingly, the risk associated with most drugs outweighs their various temptations. I see now that death will always have the upper hand, catch me soon enough and provide all the outstanding answers to life’s Big Questions, anyway.

It does amuse me that, after all these years, I am coaching Dad on the socially appropriate way to reference his ‘gateway’ drug in the driveway of the same house where squad cars would periodically deposit my two truant younger brothers after they were caught smoking ‘pot’ in the flood control channel behind their high school.  How times have changed.  What was once the stuff of dire parental warnings and government propaganda has transformed into an AARP-touted pain-reliever and  a sleep-inducer for the Boomer generation.

Perhaps that’s what makes the high substantively different, in the end: anything your parents condone can’t be that much fun, right?

The Bathing Ritual

The Bathing Ritual

Assignment 2 in Memoir and Personal Essay Course: Write a narrative describing an activity that you do regularly which incorporates at least ten steps—something you perform preferably every day, but at least several times a week. With attention to voice, imbue the writing with a sense of character and personality. Pay attention to the way you transition from one step to the next. Connect each step in a unique way that is not merely repetitive like “first I do this, then I do that.” Instead, think about cause and effect. Explain the rationale for each step and why it follows the one before it. You are only allowed to use the words “next” or “and then” twice total.

 

My maternal grandmother was a larger-than-life figure in my childhood.  She was one of the first women to be sworn in as a police officer in Glendale, California, and for years made the 35 mile drive each Saturday to our home in Orange County to share grand tales of her professional exploits with my young mother, housebound with five children under ten.  I would generally hunker down somewhere near the couch, where I could hear what had gone on that week in the juvenile bureau and with her partner, Copie. Since my grandfather’s motorbike accident left him a paraplegic in 1943, my grandmother was the sole breadwinner and his caretaker for decades; to my inexperienced self she represented the epitome of independence and self-determination.  This, of course, was before I appreciated the extent to which care-taking can infringe upon self-determination and independence.

 

These days, GG (the sobriquet bestowed when she became a great-grandmother more than 36 years ago) is 98 years old.  Making her bed, combing her own hair, reaching anything on a higher shelf, opening pickle jars – little things that most of us accomplish thoughtlessly – are painful, almost impossible feats for her, saddled as she is with arthritic joints, frozen shoulders, compromised mobility, and vertigo.  There have been numerous falls in the preceding decade, many of them resulting in trips to the ER and overnight hospital stays. Now, even some of the basics of personal hygiene have become challenging and potentially dangerous.  Like many other common tasks of daily life, it has become a preventative measure to assist her with the mechanics of undressing, getting in and out of the shower, and donning her pajamas once again.   Providing this type of support to her consumes about ten hours of my week, time that I give willingly and joyfully, but which does limit some of my wider-ranging activities and time away from home.

 

GG is a congenitally orderly person who craves routine and predictability.  Hence, she’s happiest if she has a bit of notice that shower hour has arrived so can she prepare herself and the environment accordingly.  Usually, I enter her en suite bathroom to find her new pajamas already laid out on the dresser, her bathmat placed in front of the shower, her towel hanging from the vertical hand bar just outside the shower door.  It is only then, when all elements are in place, that the ritual may commence.

 

We begin in her walk-in closet.  I pull down her pajama bottoms, she braces herself against the dresser and steps out of them.  Her underwear follows; we carefully preserve the protective pad she has inserted against bladder accidents as disposing of one before its fully soaked is wasteful.  Her pajama shirt comes off slowly, with considerable attention paid to keeping her arms below her shoulders: their arthritic pain is so excruciating she cries out if I accidentally pull her arms up too high.  I remove the button hanging on a chain around her neck that allows her to send an electronic signal to other rooms in the house if she requires assistance, though most often she hits it unknowingly against a counter or her mattress, sending my mom and I flying into her room, usually in the middle of the night, expecting to find her again on the floor. Traces of Oil of Olay waft in my nostrils as I bend close to remove the gold wristwatch, an essential component of her wardrobe that she references throughout the day to track her unbending, self-imposed schedule.  (Lunch is always at 10:30am, cocktails at 2:00pm, dinner 4:30pm, bedtime 7:45pm.  You can set your own clock by her unflagging routine.)

 

Once she is undressed, we leave the closet, GG pushing her walker some ten feet across the tiled floor to the shower stall. Following closely behind her, I marvel at her upright posture.  She moves rapidly, with straight-backed confidence, when holding onto the walker’s handles.  From the back, one might take her to be in her 70’s or early 80’s; her skin retains a rosy vibrancy, its delicate topography a well-preserved, creamy tulle sagging ever so slightly from bones sturdy and true.   People comment, still, on her beauty. It is a quality that emanates from her being, rather than her physiognomy or figure.  By the time once reaches her age, character has infused form; like a light glowing warmly from behind a worn curtain, one is drawn to the illumination rather than the occluding fabric.

 

I deliver her bright pink shower cap and help her position it over her head (those shoulders again!)  There is not much hair left these days, but her hearing aids cannot get wet.  She reaches in, turns the faucet on and waits for the water to warm.  After entering the stall, she lifts her bath brush from the shower knob and waits while I squeeze an inordinate amount of Oil of Olay body wash onto it – despite her depression-era thriftiness, she allows herself small, idiosyncratic extravagances.  She slides the door shut and I wheel her walker over to the counter top and set the brakes; this is where I sit for the next ten minutes or so while she completes her ablutions.

 

This marks a measure of her independence regained, actually, because for months at the beginning of this year I was in the shower with her.  She had broken her right wrist in a fall and wasn’t able to maneuver her plastic-encased cast sufficiently to wash herself.  During this period, I would disrobe, also, and accompany her into the steam-filled cloister of the shower stall, neither of us talking as her hearing is so poor, she is unable to make out words over the ambient noise of the water spray.  If I narrowed my eyes and imagination just enough, I flowed into the stream of consciousness into which so many women the world over daily immerse, the i soul-rinsing experience of communal bathing.  Sharing a shower, pool or sauna, baring one’s skin, scars, bumps, lumps, and awkward angles among a group of females, becomes its own form of cleansing.  I would slowly and carefully pass the brush over GG’s tissue-thin skin, as if it were a baby’s.  This was never an activity I imagined sharing with her when I was twelve, but one that I grew to love for its warm and relaxed intimacy.

 

Now, since she has regained the use of her right hand, I allow her the private bathing that our culture favors. I keep an ear tuned to her movements while I work the New York Times daily crossword at the bathroom sink,  turning occasionally to ascertain that the pink dot of her head is bobbing away behind the obscuring glass of the shower door.  I am usually close to finished by the time she shuts off the water.  Then, the long ritual of drying herself begins.  Because of her compromised flexibility, it takes seven to eight minutes for her to complete the task to her own satisfaction. But, before she will exit the shower, she must thoroughly dry all the walls, fixtures, and door, too, even though we have a weekly cleaning service that ensures mold or mildew never gains a foothold.  By the time I am completing the last few clues, I hear the door slide open and drop my pen to bring her the walker and stand vigilant while she places first one foot, and then the other, under the bath mat, bringing it up to wipe the surface of the opposite foot dry.  This is an important element of the ritual, don’t ask me why.  When this is done,  like an obedient foot soldier I trail her back into the closet.

GG has uncommonly long, narrow feet; I must remind myself to be patient while she stabs the arrow of her toes at the opening of her underpants as I bend over, trying to corral the moving target.  It usually takes three or four attempts. I pull the underpants up and she spends a minute or so adjusting the inserted pad.  The pajama bottoms are a bit easier. Once those are donned, I hold the top open at shoulder-level as she struggles to place her arms in the armholes and we both shift the cloth up and over carefully, trying to minimize the pull on her joints. Even though the top is button-up, GG insists on being respectful and having all but the very top button fastened, so I don’t need to “waste” my time on buttoning five extra buttons.  I’ve argued about this, to no avail.  It’s an element of the ritual.

 

I then replace the alarm button around her neck and her precious watch around her left wrist.  I run a comb through her sparse locks to lift them back into place.  She kisses me and says, “thank you, thank you, thank you!” no less than three times.  Sometimes more.  She is so very grateful.  As am I. For no matter how insidiously care-taking may infringe on self-determination and independence, I know that both of us benefit.  Though little conversation takes place during this thrice-weekly ritual, the closeness that it has engendered goes beyond mere words.

April 27, 1985-2019

Today my 36-year-old nephew marries his longtime girlfriend at his family’s ranch in Merced, California, turning a date which for 34 years has been saturated in sadness and loss into one of celebration and welcome. Quite unknowingly, he and his fiancé selected the anniversary of his paternal aunt’s – his father and my sister’s – untimely death for their nuptials. My family couldn’t be more grateful and glad. Finally, a happy ending to a dreadful commemoration.

In the last decade, I admit that the date often comes and goes without me paying heed to its significance. How long can one actively grieve, after all? I was 24-, my sister Lorraine 20-years old, when she died. Given our age difference and the fact that I left home at 17 and was largely out of contact with her until I moved back home at 22, my conscious experience of her as an individual is constrained to perhaps 15 or 16 years of episodic memories. And that becomes an increasingly smaller ratio of my life as each year passes. One of the tragedies inherent in dying young is that one’s persona is forever frozen, never accruing the experiential strata that deepen and flavor a personality and connect us to other people. So, Lorraine fades as time accrues, as she is unable to maintain meaningful bridges into the lives of those of us who remain.   No one can ever dissect, commiserate or appreciate her college years, her serious romantic relationships, her career successes and failures, her children’s unique characters and miens, her pursued interests, abandoned dreams, lost causes, or significant personal triumphs. They were all killed in that head-on collision on a dark canyon road in 1985. (I used to picture her suddenly liberated soul floating about the location, untethered, for months after the accident. Did she know that she was dead? Is there a legitimate case to be made for “knowing” you are dead? I don’t wonder about that anymore. It’s been way too long for her still to be lost, if she ever was indeed.)

My grandmother, Lorraine’s namesake, will turn 98 in less than a month. For the past couple years, because she is open regarding her readiness to die, I do not think of her eventual passing as “tragic” or heartbreaking. My memories of her are rich and robust: I distinctly remember many of her milestone birthdays – 50, 65 (she retired), 75, 90. I don’t think it improbable that she will see 100. Yet, she, too, is fading as time inexorably flows. Her ability to span the divide between herself and her family (all her friends have died) is almost completely constrained. Leaving the house solely for medical appointments, she spends all day in her pajamas and bathrobe, reading in her favorite chair. She will not attend her great-grandson’s wedding and feels no guilt nor regret for not doing more. At this point in her life, experience is passively attenuated, never actively curated. And because of this she is becoming increasingly immobile, frozen in time. The less present she is for each progressing moment, the less we will feel her absence when it becomes irrevocable.

In the end, what do we have of anyone in our lives but our memories of them? Each passing minute, most of them not continuously spent in their presence, describes a growing gulf between us and them. For some, that gulf is only days, perhaps months, wide and is easily surmounted the next time we see them. For others, the gap can lengthen into lives diverged, an unspecified point passed which, unknowingly, marked the limit of our mutual ability to recognize and commune with each other. There are people whose presence I believed essential to my daily existence once upon a time (my ex-husband springs to mind or my very best friend from high school) who could be dead now and it would not affect me in the slightest.

I often ponder how I will be a name that might surface (or not) at Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2095, an atavistic tale told by my now two-year-old grandsons to their probably bored great-grand kids under unimaginable (for me) circumstances. We are all destined to fade away and in the grand scheme of things a life of 20 or 98 years is of equal, unimportant length to those who hold no memories of us. Meanwhile, I am glad to welcome another iteration of family to the layers that lie beneath.