On the Way

red rosesMy mother died on a cool Monday night in October. It was no surprise, just the last moment in a slow surrender of her body to its 92 years and encroaching dementia. Having noticed the subtle signs of a body changing its earthly direction, the director at the nursing home called my father that morning, and he and my siblings kept vigil with her all day. But in the conceited fumbling the living do to calculate or control the dying, everyone figured she would linger through the night.  And so, the nurses counseled Dad to go to the lounge for a nap, assuring him they would alert him if it seemed she decided to go.

Which she did – about 5 minutes after he settled into his lounge chair.

I don’t know why she chose to leave us on that day as there was nothing special about it.  No anniversary or birthday, not even the end of a long week, when a person might be glad to lie down and sleep for awhile. Maybe it was her intention to slip away like that. An average day, another soul passing.

Regardless of the reason, Mom’s passing set in motion the plan she had laid out for the last ceremony she would attend, her funeral.

Like any good party planner – and she was a good party planner – Mom had locked down all the details of her final event, what she would wear, who among her children would do the readings, sing the songs, and, no, the wake was not to be held at the family home. She didn’t want all those people traipsing through the house she had furnished with such care over 50 years.  She even specified that she be buried with her first-communion rosary and prayer book. At some point, while she worked out her plans during her decreasing moments of lucidity, my siblings and I joked that we would pack a flask of her favorite cocktail – a Manhattan – into her casket so she could toast us once she got past the pearly gates.

As part of her plan, she had requested that her six grandsons bear her casket during the funeral. Her wish meant my 15-year-old son would need to be prepared for his role as pallbearer, an idea (and word) entirely new to him. As he’s a reticent child, I took extra care in explaining to him why his grandmother required his assistance at her funeral.

“Well, in a Catholic funeral, see, someone has to carry the casket into and out of the church. And so your grandma wanted you to be one of those people,” I said.

He looked at me, eyes wide, as if he had just been asked to leap untethered from an airplane.

Trying to normalize what to him, I imagined, seemed like a very strange task, I slipped into my teacher role to explain further.

“It’s primarily a symbolic role,” I said. “The funeral director will tell you what to do, and you’ll have your cousins to help. You probably won’t have to carry the casket very far because they put it on a cart to move it around. It’s just in an out of the funeral home and church. There’s not likely to be any real heavy lifting; your grandma weighed only 90 pounds when she died.”

As my son’s entire teenage wardrobe consisted of T-shirts, jeans and sneakers – passable attire for any event in the Pacific Northwest but not in the least bit acceptable for a solemn ceremony in the conservative Midwest – my husband and I patched together suitable clothing for him to wear — my white button-down Oxford shirt, a tie, belt and shoes from my husband’s collection, and a pair of black pants hastily purchased at the local Target store. I called my daughter, who was away at college, and arranged for her to meet us in my hometown for the funeral, a trip best accomplished by bus. Along with arranging the ticket, I instructed her to bring the navy blazer she had borrowed from me for her brother to wear. So, with borrowed clothes packed, the dog stowed at the kennel, and airline tickets in hand, we set off for the heartland.

Though Mom had died just before midnight on that Monday, the funeral was scheduled for the following Saturday to allow long-distance relatives (primarily us) to get there. My daughter arrived in town on the bus on Friday afternoon. The three of us flew in that evening, which meant we missed the traditional calling hours at the funeral home. I didn’t mind, as I couldn’t imagine standing around the funeral home for several hours while friends and relatives filed past the open coffin, talking in low voices about how good Mom looked.  Of course she looked good.  This was a woman who never missed an appointment with her hairdresser when she was alive (or after she’d died, for that matter.  Her favorite hairdresser did one last curl and spray for her final party.)

Although we didn’t get there in time for calling hours, we did arrive in enough time to get dinner before checking into the hotel.  My husband, ever the food hound, had already researched local restaurants on his cell phone, and directed us to an Italian restaurant tucked away on a side street in a neighborhood I’d never seen before, though I had lived in the area for 20 years. The restaurant resembled a 1920s speakeasy, with a buzzer to ring at the door to gain admittance and a long wooden bar behind which stood rows of glass bottles filled with varying levels of colored liquid.  Along the walls were framed photos of famous people like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, but the overall mafia vibe was broken by the Willie Nelson songs playing loudly over the stereo system.

Hungry as we were, we ordered too much food – an appetizer and huge plates of pasta, along with salad, bread and beverages. While we waited for our order, I sought out the women’s restroom, which was down a flight of stairs lined with stonework. There were even more pictures along the way, the most noticeable of which was a larger-than-life painting of a man on the wall just inside the restroom door.  This man, painted to resemble Michelangelo’s David, was nude, except for a fig leaf placed in the customary spot. In the center of the fig leaf was a silver knob, much like you’d find on a cupboard in your kitchen.

There are moments in life when your brain registers what’s coming just slightly behind the motion of your hand.  I pulled the knob in the middle of the fig leaf, which lifted a small door to reveal the man’s penis painted in detail on the wall beneath. As if that scenario weren’t mortifying enough, the door was rigged to a siren that blared loud enough to be heard upstairs in the dining room. Jumping swiftly back and dropping the door, I quickly went about my task and returned to the table, trying not to look sheepish.

Between the salad and entrée, my daughter decided she needed to use the restroom. The three of us left at the table heard the siren, and shortly thereafter, she slunk back into her seat, face flushed to the hairline.

“Did you lift the handle?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

She nodded rapidly, head tucked between her shoulders, eyes looking alarmed.

We laughed then, and dug into our pasta, which had finally arrived.

The next morning at the hotel, we all got dressed in our formal clothes. I stood watching as my husband helped my son tie his unfamiliar tie by reaching over his shoulders from behind while both looked into the mirror. I smiled at the contortions of my husband’s face, tongue tip angled toward the corner of his mouth, while he thought through how to tie a tie that wasn’t around his own neck. Then, we drove to the funeral home for the last viewing and the subsequent caravan to the church.  My husband and children sat in the row at the back of the room where the casket was, and I went to the front row to sit beside my dad. More friends and relatives, including cousins I’d not seen in 30 years, filed into the room and took seats while John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High” played in the outer room.

Dad was holding up pretty well for his 91 years and the effort of receiving everyone who had come to the previous night’s calling hours.  Around the room were displayed flower arrangements, a cherub carved from stone, and a collection of photos of my mother at various events – my parents’ wedding, cocktail parties, and a formal dinner at which my mother wore a slinky green dress, dangling crystal earrings, and a bouffant hairdo that made her look like a movie star.

While we waited for the signal from the funeral director to begin the last prayer, Dad pointed to the enormous spray of blood-red roses blanketing the closed lower half of the casket. They are stunning and highlight the polished cherry wood of the casket itself. Then Dad tolds me the story of the first bouquet of roses he bought Mom for Valentine’s Day after they were married. They didn’t have much money then and Dad couldn’t afford to buy a whole dozen, so he brought home six red roses, set them in a vase on the sideboard, and leaned a mirror against the wall behind them to make the bouquet seem larger.

I laughed at his description and asked, “Did she notice?”

He chuckled. “Yep.”

After many years of similar bouquets, given on similar occasions, she eventually told him to stop bringing her flowers as they would just die and she’d like something that stayed around awhile. Most likely she meant something shiny.

A few moments later, the funeral director ushered the priest into the room and we all stood for the final prayer before the casket was closed. When the priest finished, each of us filed past Mom, lying still on her white satin lining in her refined black knit dress. As I bent to kiss her goodbye, I noticed that along with her prayer book and rosary was tucked a recipe card. My sister had not forgotten about the flask, but decided it would be better to include the instructions for making a Manhattan instead, to be sure God got it right when Mom arrived.

Climbing into the car in the parking lot, my husband, daughter and I found ourselves third in line after the hearse, behind my father’s and brother’s cars.  My son had stayed behind to carry out his task as pallbearer.

As we waited for others to get into their cars, the funeral director worked his way down the line, planting a small black flag on a magnetic base on the hood of each car. He told us to keep our headlights on.

And that’s when the questions began —  not from my son or daughter, as I was expecting, but from my husband,  and I realized I had wasted the time preparing my son so carefully; he seemed to be carrying out his role without concern.

To understand the origin of his questions, you need to know that my husband was born in Japan and so he was not familiar with the Catholic rituals surrounding life (and death) events.  As a scientist, he is also of a curious mind (which I mean in both senses of the word). When it comes to the final ceremony in his home country, it’s all about swift cremation and enshrinement in an urn in a closely packed cemetery on a hillside. There is little pageantry, and the deceased is tucked away within a couple of days.  He had never attended an American-style funeral.

“What’s the flag for?” he asked.

“That’s just to mark that we’re part of the procession,” I answered.

“Why do we have to keep the headlights on?”

“I dunno. It’s just tradition, a way to mark the solemnity of the event.”

“What happens now?” he asked as Alan joined us in the car, the casket having been loaded into the hearse.

“Well,” I began, “First we go to the church for the funeral, which should last about an hour.  After that, we go out to the cemetery for a brief ceremony, and then we’ll go back to the school beside the church for lunch.”

And that’s what happened next  – the slow procession of cars behind the hearse through the side streets of town to church. Alan and his cousins carried out their role as pallbearers. During the funeral Mass, the priest recited the necessary prayers and sprinkled the casket with holy water. Dad entered Mom’s name into the final record (though he had to start over because he began at first to sign his own name). My second sister and I read our assigned passages, and my first sister sang the designated final hymn.

In the car on the way to the cemetery, my husband’s questions began again.

“What’s that police car doing up front?” he asked, nodding at the cruiser preceding the line of cars moving slowly away from the church.

“It’s customary for the police to lead the procession to the cemetery,” I answered.

“Why are those cars pulling over on the other side of the road?”

“Well, that’s a traditional sign of respect – the living acknowledging the passing of the dead.  It’s kind of a nice honor.“

“How come we get to run the red lights?”

“Why can’t we drive faster?”

Once again my brain was slow on the uptake, and I found myself – ever the teacher – shifting from the inkling of irritation over explaining the obvious to studiously answering his questions. Moving from annoyed wife to erudite instructor, I realized that, yes, this was actually my mother’s funeral we were talking about, and my irritation melted into amusement.

When the procession arrived at the cemetery, the police car turned off and the rest of us followed the hearse to park randomly around the gravel paths separating the rows of headstones.  We got out of the car and took seats graveside, waiting for the priest to arrive. The watery blue sky reminded us that fall had arrived and we could hear the slight wind rustling the dead corn stalks in the field behind the cemetery.  Maybe this was the reason Mom left in October – to avoid having to face another frigid Midwestern winter.

The casket had been set on its frame over the grave, and the area around the grave, including the chairs we were sitting in, was sheltered by an awning erected on poles.

My husband, scrutinizing the casket on its frame above the deep grave, noticed the finely polished wood, the shining brass handles.

“How much does something like that cost?” he asked.

“Um, it depends,” I said, “on what it’s made of.”

“But that’s a nice coffin,” he stated. “Do they just put it in the ground like that?”

“No, dear, they put it in a vault.”

“What’s that?”

“That big concrete box sitting in front of the first row of chairs, with the etching of a dove on the lid.”

“They put the casket in that box?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Um, I don’t know.  To protect it? That’s just how it’s done.”

“So they put all that in the ground?” he said in amazement, trying to figure out this strange protocol.

“Yes.”

“Will Alan have to get down in the hole to help?”

“Uh, no.”

“How do they get it down there then?”

“Um, I don’t know.  The funeral director takes care of all that after we leave. I think they use a machine to lower it in.”

“So they could bring it back up?”

“Um, yeah, in theory they could, but we don’t usually do that, unless there’s been a crime and the body has to be exhumed.”

Just then, the priest stepped to the side of the grave and began his last round of prayers. When he closed his book for the last time, everyone stood up and began milling around the seats and out into the gravel pathways. Like my siblings and a few others, I stepped up to the casket and removed several roses from the flower blanket that still adorned the lower end. People came to speak to my father and shake his hand or offer a hug before they drifted off to their cars or to look for other dead relatives in other parts of the cemetery.

We stayed awhile under the awning, helping Dad greet those who came to honor her and console him. Then we moved out among the rows of headstones and, as my husband stood surveying how the cemetery was laid out (and apparently how the dead were laid out in it), the questions began again.

“So all the dead people are down in the ground?”

“Yes.”

“So we’re standing on top of dead people?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Well, if these are called headstones, shouldn’t the head of the person be under it?”

“Well, yeah, that would make sense, but the stone is usually already in place before the person dies. I think it’s good enough to make sure the head is at that end.”

“How do they know they’ve got her head at the right end?”

“Um, well, I think there’s some sort of indicator on the casket.”

To be honest, I was just guessing. I have no idea how to tell which end is up. It’s not something I’d ever thought about. But once you assume a role, it’s hard to give it up.  So I concluded confidently, “The funeral director probably knows which end goes up.”

My husband’s mother had died several months before my own. Had we been able to attend her funeral in Japan, I would likely have had similar questions and would have welcomed the explanations. But I doubt my husband’s irritation would have made the same transformation as mine.

A few days later, I was back in my classroom on the west coast, where the students were asking about how much detail a writer should include in a descriptive essay.

“It depends on the knowledge base of the audience,” I replied.

And there it was – the perfect chance. “For example, here’s what happened to me over the weekend….” I began. And I told them of my husband’s questions and my answers, and found myself amused all over again.

On that night in October, Mom slipped her earthly bonds and left her slightly odd family behind. But — she left me this story to tell.

 

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The Dog in the Trunk

dog leashCarol was 80 years old and, for most of the past 40 years, had lived alone in the small house she’d grown up in, on a shaded street in a tiny town in Indiana.

She had had no husband. No children. But many years of work at a desk, first in the accountant’s office, then at the concrete foundry. Tallying the balance sheets, recording the accounts. Looking after her elderly parents till their passing. It had been enough.

But as the years streamed by, she understood more deeply the meaning of death (and consequently life), and when she retired from work, the house felt increasingly empty—the air too thin, the TV voices turned up to fill the silence. When she turned 67, she began craving the warmth and attention of another living being, and so she got the dog — a golden retriever for her golden years.

Molly was 3 months old when Carol brought her home, a fuzzy golden bundle, the last female of the litter. Never having raised a dog, Carol found the initial months of puppyhood intriguing and exhausting — the whimpering through those first nights, the sharp teeth nibbling at her hand and, oh, the frustration of housebreaking – the soggy newspapers, puddles in the corner. As a puppy, Molly was a clumsy ball of fluff. As a dog, she grew slender, with a feathery tail and a slobbery grin.

They’d gotten there together now, into old age. Carol had seen Molly through a diagnosis of epilepsy and three surgeries to remove ingested socks. Molly, in turn, lifted Carol’s spirits after a hard fall on the unforgiving church floor, the broken elbow and leg keeping her in the hospital for a dozen weeks.

Now, here they were at the veterinarian’s office. Molly had stopped eating and was vomiting strings of foam.

“Well, girl, it’s time to say goodbye,” Carol said as she sat by the exam table, stroking the gold and graying fur around Molly’s ears. She couldn’t put the dog through another surgery to straighten out that twisted colon, but she dared not think about returning alone to a silent, barren house.

“Thirteen years gone,” she said. “You’ve been a good dog.”

Molly lifted her head to lick Carol’s hand.

When the vet confirmed that the drug injection had worked, Carol walked slowly out to her car in the cold parking lot and opened the trunk. The vet’s assistant followed, carrying Molly’s loose body, and laid the dog gently on the green blanket, which Carol had spread in the trunk. Molly had lain on that blanket on the way to the vet. Neither knew then whether they would go home together again.

Carol had already decided not to bury Molly in her yard, as was the custom for family pets in that town. Instead, she drove the 30 miles to the pet cemetery, where Molly would lie with other family pets beneath a low headstone that would be weathered by wind and rain.

 

March 8, 2016

Insurance

For my daughter on the eve of her departure for college

 

I hand the white plastic card to youInsurance card

over the hard, gray kitchen counter.

On it are embossed the numbers you need:

the ID number,

the group number,

the number to call for health claims and emergencies.

 

What the numbers don’t show,

Daughter,

are the years you have been a part of me.

 

18 chances for me to get it right –

day by day, month by year —

to prepare you:

to feed yourself

and your soul;

to clean your body,

and your dishes;

to organize your room,

and your mind;

to defend yourself,

and your words.

 

Together, we’ve watched the strong women on film:

Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,

Viola Davis in The Help,

even Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

She rides and fights and finally

goes mano a mano

for all us women fighting in a man’s world.

 

This card,

cracked and faded in my wallet,

will now reside in yours.

 

September 2015

 

The Dog Explains (or Why I Ate the Chocolate Cake)

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Dear Big Female,

Look, I know you got really mad at me a couple of days ago, when I leaned up on the kitchen counter and took a bite out of the cake the young male had just finished baking, but you know, I just couldn’t help myself. See, it had been a tough day in the dog world. It was that day after the two days when all you people are around, coming and going, zinging in and out of doors all day long.

After those two days of activity, I’m used to having a day of rest, when I curl up in my white domed house outside and sleep all day. Yeah, it’s kind of depressing, but I’ve gotten used to it. Matter of fact, at this point in my life, I need that day of sleep. And if I get too bored, I get out of my house and run around in circles trying to catching that stump on my backside, just for the hell of it. I haven’t managed to catch it yet. I’ve seen other dogs do it, but it’s easier for them. They have those long droopy sticks on their backsides. I might have had one once too, but I don’t remember.

Our days here usually begin with the opening and closing of doors before I’ve been let out of my crate down in that room with those scary white boxes that bang and hum. Most of the time, you make those machines bang during the day when I’m not in the room, but sometimes at night, after you’ve brought me into that room to go to bed,  the machines are still banging and humming and I see you open the doors on them and move clothes from one to the other. I know these are clothes for everybody because I see them on your bodies on different days, and I’ve figured out which ones you wear for the night when everything in the house gets real quiet. I refuse to get in my own box at night until I see you or that younger female in your night-time clothes. (I know you and she are females because you smell different than those other two, with their shorter hair and harder voices). I figure it this way – I ain’t gettin’ in that box to spend all those dark hours, and some of the light ones too when the air is warmer and the trees have those flat things hanging on them . . . what ARE those flat things anyway? They just look like grey blobs to me.

As I was saying, I’m not gettin’ in that box till I know the house is going to quiet down. And I know the quiet won’t come till you’re in those night clothes. I just hate to think I might miss something, you know. And yeah, sometimes I get funny and refuse to get in the box till it’s YOU who puts me there, not that younger female. Sometimes, I just like to see how much control I have. I’m a dog. I can’t help it.

So anyway, it had been two days of the coming and going. The voices of all of you, the footfalls in and out. First, the door out to that place where you keep those other two big white machines, the ones with the wheels. Those are the machines that come and go, that make creaking noises in the room where my box is. When I hear the first creaks, I know the day is about to begin. After the creaks stop, I wait in my box for awhile, hoping someone will come let me out. If you make me wait too long, I get frantic and scratch at the box, start in with that high-pitched bark that I know will get your attention, until you come to let me out. When you do let me out of the box, though, I just can’t go through the door to the yard right away. I need you to pet me for a while, and I make sure I get you to do that by looking up at you with my pathetic expression and sitting on your foot. You grouse about that, but it almost always works. If it doesn’t, I do my doggie bow – front legs stretched out, head low, tail up. I’ve heard you call it the “downward facing dog” pose and I’ve seen you try to imitate it. Frankly, I can’t figure out why you humans would want to be imitating us dogs; it’s you guys who have all the power.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut back to the day of the cake . . .

After I had been let out of my box, the younger male plonked my breakfast down in that shiny bowl outside the kitchen door, the spot where I spend many hours practicing my sad look through the glass. I had already done my tour of the yard, to make sure no intruders had appeared in my territory while I was in the box. Sometimes, I can tell those puffy gray critters with the stripes on their tails and faces have been snooping around again. They leave behind a nasty fishy smell and they never clean up after themselves. You pulled me away once when I had one up a tree and another time when one was hiding under the deck, but they’re enemies, I tell you. All my barking at them is just my fair warning that they’re on my turf and should expect consequences.

That particular morning, the yard was pretty clear of invasion – just a few slugs headed for the garden and those black things that move through the sky. (Some of you people call them crows, some of you say they’re ravens. Frankly, I don’t care what you call them. I just know they make a lot of noise. Between watching them and those other white ones that sit on top the house dropping clam shells on the driveway, I get a crick in my neck.) But that morning, there was that other male in the house, that tall one with the light hair who’s been coming around recently. He stays real close to the other female. They watch a lot of moving pictures on the screen downstairs, in the dark room with the big couch. I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often, You older people have gotten older too, gotten some of those light hairs on your heads like I now have on my snout and you’re gettin’ a little soft about where you’ll let me be, especially when I practice my pathetic face through the kitchen door or it starts to rain again, like it does so often here. When you fall for my trick and let me in, I figure it’s wise to be polite and I offer my thanks by stretching out in my down-dog bow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo as I was saying, I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often. The room where the food is served is my next target. I’ve managed to sneak over there from the kitchen a couple times already. The advantage of being an Aussie is my grace. I may be male, but I am dainty, I tell you. The hard brown floor scares me because I can’t get any traction on it like I can the white tile in the kitchen, but I can tiptoe soundlessly from the kitchen to the rug in the eating area without you even hearing me, especially when my toenails are clipped, like they were at that dog hotel you left me at a couple weeks ago, the one where they got me wet and rubbed foamy stuff all over me. I loved the rubbing, hated the wet stuff, and that scratchy, funny-smelling paste they scrubbed my face with. It makes me itch and then you fuss at me for leaving wads of fur on the downstairs carpet from my scratching. Don’t EVER let them use that stuff on me again.

Besides the outside, I figure it’s my job to watch the intruders in the house too. This new male smells pretty safe. He must hang out with a lot of other interesting animals, dogs among them, and he knows how I like to be pet. But the young female is different when she’s around him. She shows her teeth more and changes the way she walks. She likes it when the new male gets really close to her on the downstairs couch, and especially when they start rubbing their faces together. But I just can’t allow anyone to be touching anyone in this house besides me. I get agitated and just have to speak, which usually stops the touching. I suspect you just might be letting me in the house on purpose when he’s here, just so they won’t be touching.

So there was that male in my territory, and the young male, the one who actually lives here, is always noisier and more active when the other one’s around. They wrestle around sometimes like they’re litter mates trying to determine who’s the alpha dog. That morning, they started playing with the little machine that zips around the floor making a loud whine, a smaller version of those white-wheeled machines that make my room creak. For this, the young male holds some sort of gadget in his hand to direct it. He thinks it’s fun to make the thing chase me, and it hurts when it bangs into my ankles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALater that morning, the three of them were moving around the kitchen cutting up round yellow things (at least I think they were yellow; I’m never too sure of my colors) and squishing the juice out of them with another type of buzzing machine. Then they were banging the dishes around and making tantalizing food smells. And then the big male and female went down to the beach with a couple of puffy shirts and some long sticks. I wanted to go with them to see what they were going to do. You KNOW I hate to miss anything. That’s why I follow you wherever you go, even if it’s back up the stairs you just came down. But this stupid band around my neck, the one with the little box attached to it, started beeping when I got to the edge of the yard, and I knew that, if I didn’t stop, I was going to get zapped like I have sometimes.

I usually stop when I hear the beeping, but sometimes the temptation is just too much to ignore, like the time you and the little male put that smelly food out on the upper lawn, where I’m not supposed to go. It had something to do with a project the young male was doing for school. I knew that if I didn’t get to that food first, those brown things with the thin legs and pointy sticks on their heads would get to it first. The taste of that stuff was well worth the momentary zap.

I also needed to go with the young female and her friend because it’s my job to keep my people together. You know, I get really anxious when you all split up and two of you go off one way while the other two go another. It just feels wrong, and I worry that I’m not doing my job. Like when we ran into that bunch of goats on the beach one day. They were wandering in all different directions, the silly things. I know they didn’t belong to our pack, but y’know, something just came over me and I had to gather them up, get ‘em in a tidy group, even if it meant nipping their ankles. You stood by horrified (after all, who would expect to find goats on a beach?) but the owner of the goats knew what I was doing. HE knew, and didn’t mind.

So when the female went off with her male friend, I got nervous. Things appeared to be spinning out of my control, so I did what I always do when it seems that way, especially when that nasty neighbor comes down the path with his big black and brown dog. It’s not the dog I mind because he and I are of similar mind. It’s that human. There’s something wrong with that male – even the female trainer you hired for me once said so, and I can never know when he might decide to throw stones at me again. Never mind that we both saw him beating his own dog with its own leash in our yard that one day when the dog wouldn’t come after he called it. Or he would prowl around our house with his dog if I wasn’t out barking at him. When he comes down the path to the beach, I run madly along the edge of the lawn and bark and bark and bark. Sure, all the running and barking is exhausting, but in the dog world, things must be kept in order.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell after awhile, I got bored with running and barking while the young female and her friend were down at the beach, and you know that didn’t take too long. You know, I’m a smart dog, smarter than those dumb yellow dogs up the street who spend their days chasing the same ball hour after hour. They’re always just thinking “throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball!” It must drive their people nuts. See, I figured it out pretty quick. If I bring back the ball you’ve thrown, you’re just gonna throw it again, and that’s no fun. I was willing enough to learn “sit” and “down” in that class you took me to, but when you got to telling me “stay,” I thought, “Unh-uh. No way. I ain’t doing this anymore.” First off, if I stay, I’m probably gonna miss something interesting somewhere else. Second, responding promptly to commands just means you’re going to be ordering me around all day. In that case, I might as well be as dumb as those dogs up the street. I may be just a dog, but I have to have SOME dignity.

After I got tired of barking along the lawn’s edge, I came back up to the kitchen door and pulled the usual stunt: park myself outside the glass, perk up my ears, cock my head slightly to the right, and look into the kitchen with my big brown puppy eyes. (OK, OK, so I just turned 9, but you know we dogs are always puppies, till the day we die.) This trick almost always gets to the young male, and I hear him say, in a tone as pathetic as my expression, “Mom, look at puppy. Isn’t he cute?” And sure enough, one of you will come to the door and let me in. Sometimes, when the older male is home, even he will fall for it. He’s the one who first started letting me lie on the floor by the downstairs couch while he watches his own moving pictures.

So like a charm, my pathetic pose worked that afternoon, and in I came to watch and sniff while the young male banged around the kitchen concocting more food and more tantalizing smells, this time with something smooth and dark brown that involved eggs.

They say dogs like these things called eggs, but I don’t know. I never had a chance to eat one before. Blueberries and strawberries, yes. Even spaghetti. Those long strands wrapped themselves around my snout. I used to pick blackberries off the vines at the beach, but gave up because I didn’t like getting scratched on the snout by the thorns. Give me a piece of bread and I’ll pick it up tenderly in my teeth and tiptoe away, so no one can steal it from me before I have a chance to eat it. I may be a gregarious dog, but I fiercely protect my food. And I know that, when one of you drops something on the floor and loudly shouts “Oops!”, you’re not fooling yourselves. Or me. I know that’s my signal to come get the food you’d like to feed me without feeling guilty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there was the young male, mixing things in a bowl with yet another one of those noisy machines, this one with silver things that clattered and spun around. This food didn’t appeal to me at first. The smell wasn’t quite right. But then he poured the stuff in a pan and stuck it in that big hot box, the one with the window in the door, and left the kitchen. Awhile later, he came back, opened the door, and pulled out the pan, setting it on the counter. You didn’t see this because you were somewhere in the house that I’m not allowed to go (yet). But I noticed. And sniffed.

After another little while, the young male came back and took the thing out of the pan, setting it on a plate. It looked to me like a dark round loaf of bread and smelled warm and slightly sticky. Then he did it again – poured more dark stuff in the pan, put it in the hot box, and – when the bell dinged – pulled it out and put it on the counter.

While he was doing all this, the female and her male came back to the house, and once again doors were opening and closing, people came and went, up and down stairs, in and out of rooms. So much commotion. I had a hard time keeping up with it all.

Eventually, the female and her male settled on the couch downstairs to watch their moving pictures (but mostly they were rubbing faces), the young male went off somewhere I couldn’t see, and you went downstairs to the room where you often sit staring at a glowing screen and talking to yourself. I decided to lie down where the young female and her friend were. Someone had to keep an eye on those two. (Better me than you, eh?)

A little while later, I awoke to voices – yours, the young male’s, and a new voice I’d never heard before. It was coming out of a small box you were holding in your hand and then laid down on the desk where you were sitting. You and the young male were peering at the screen and talking to each other and to the voice in the box. You have to forgive me – I was sleepy and confused by this strange voice with no body, and so I had to come into the room and bark. Loudly. And when I did, you got up from the chair, pulled me out of the room by that band around my neck, and then shut the door in my face! Well, I thought I’d better speak louder, to let you know I was there, ready to be of service in case you needed protection from that voice in the box.

And just then, that bell rang, the one with the two tones that mean someone new is here. Now this is a noise that just sets me off. Something about the tone hits me at a place I cannot master, just like the sounds the young female makes with her fingers on that big black box downstairs, the one with the white sticks. The sounds from that box make me sing. This bell makes me bark.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there I was, barking downstairs, frantic because people were jumping up and moving, the young male ran up the steps to open the front door, which is what makes that bell stop ringing. A minute later, he came back down the stairs into your room. The voice in the box was still talking to you. Then you ran upstairs and then came back down to talk to the young female and her friend, who were slowly getting off the couch. The young male was still listening to the voice in the box and pushing buttons to change the pictures on the screen at the desk. Then the young female and her friend went upstairs, you went back to the desk and continued to talk to the voice in the box, and the young male went upstairs too.

I was getting dizzy watching all this and I finally decided to go upstairs to see what was going on. That’s where most of the pack was. I could hear the voices near the front door – the male friend of the female was putting those things on his feet that you all put on when you’re getting ready to leave, and usually leave me behind. The only time I ever get to leave this place is when you put me in one of the big white machines with wheels and you take me to that place where they look in my ears and try to poke something in my backside. Oh, I fight that, I do! Even after you wrap that blue thing around my snout and two of you hold me down in a corner of the room. Or you take me to that place with all the cages and other dogs, where I get lots of attention and play time. I pretend not to like it and grab your leg with my front legs when you turn toward the door to leave. I can’t have you thinking that I really want to be there, but if you let them scrub my face with that stinky scratchy stuff again, I just might decide I really don’t like to go there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what with all the noise and commotion of the people at the front door and all that running up and down steps and the bell and the buzzing, beeping, clattering machines, and the smells still wafting from the kitchen, well – I don’t know what took hold in me. As you know, I have never put my paws on the kitchen counter before. Oh yes, I’ve done my circus dog act, prancing on my hind legs when there was something particularly luscious-smelling there. But I’ve never made contact with the countertop. Even when I’m overcome by the doggie devils, I’ve tried to rid myself of them by bashing an empty milk jug around on the porch or by charging insanely around the flower beds in the yard.

But this time, they got the best of me. Up I went on my hind legs, my paws rested on the counter, and before I knew what I was doing, my snout was in the brown loaf the young male had made. One bite, that’s all it was. And it didn’t even taste good. Too sweet. Not a hint of meat.

And just then, the young female saw me. All the noise at the front door had stopped and she had come back into the kitchen. She shouted my name and grabbed that band around my neck to pull me away. And then, the last doggie devil was let loose in me. I turned my snout and tried to grab her arm with my teeth. It was my food, you see. I had to protect it. I missed grabbing her arm, but she shouted, “No! Bad dog!”

And with that shout, the doggie devils disappeared and there I was, shoved rudely out the door to the porch, banished from the smells, the kitchen, and, sadly, from my pack of people.

Later, I heard the young male and female telling you what happened, gesturing toward me and the broken loaf. I saw the young male standing stiff, arms firmly crossed, with a hard, hard look on his face. The female was pointing to that spot on her arm where my teeth grazed her skin. I sat looking through the glass, feeling very, very sad. Even after 9 years, enough years to render me older and wiser, sometimes, the devils still win.

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Thank You, Jennifer and Jason

It’s August 23, a Friday, and where we live, the kids still have 10 days of summer vacation before they go back to school. I have to say that the kids have had a grand summer. Lots of time off, sleeping late, visits with friends for swimming and parties, soccer for the boy, sleepovers for the girl, golf outings for both, their first trip to Yosemite (before the fires). And a Mom (and Dad!) making it all happen. Paying the bills, driving the car, cheering them on. Good for them.

But a hard season for me.

Tired of being in the house. Tired of being in the car. Tired of being surrounded by bodies. When you’re a mom, any time your children are anywhere within earshot, a measurable portion of your brain is ALWAYS in monitor mode. It’s rather like being on call 24 hours a day, all week, every week.

As a basic introvert (the cool thing to be now if you measure all the attention given us recently), summer for me is one long, slow leak of energy as from a battery. Constant. Relentless. The drips of energy slowly draining the tank.

This is the reason moms count down the days till school starts, the reason moms like this one do a happy dance when the school bus pulls away from the curb on that first day of school.

It’s not that we don’t love our kids or enjoy being with them. Never that. (OK, so maybe when they’re whining or rolling their eyes at us we don’t necessarily LIKE them.) But when they overstep their boundaries, pervert their privileges, and need to be grounded, it’s as much a punishment for the parent as it is for the child. Maybe more so. When your parents said, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” they were right.

It’s tough to balance the daughter pulling away to spend more time with friends and the ongoing thrill of the first boyfriend and the son seduced too often by the ubiquitous screens – TV, computer, and any other flat surface with moving images, especially animated ones. (Some day, Bill Gates and the ghost of Steve Jobs will have to answer for creating a nation of zombies.)

So it’s no wonder some parents prefer going to work somewhere else. If co-workers roll their eyes or whine, you at least know you aren’t responsible for their bad behavior. You can chalk it up to their own bad parenting. (I’m convinced that we’d never have gone to war in Iraq if Saddam Hussein weren’t the victim of bad parenting.)

But it’s not just the kids that siphon off strength. It’s the additive effects of worrying about elderly parents far away, changes in job responsibilities, the dripping showerhead needing repair, and the dog commanding as much attention as possible to make up for all that was denied him last school year.

So on this Friday afternoon, when I’m so mentally tired I can’t string two sentences together coherently, the best I can do is slip into that space of escape known as the local movie theater. “We’re the Millers” won out over “The Butler” because I just didn’t want to think about class, race, and power structures, the things that go on in secret in the halls of power, even if the story involves the ubiquitous Oprah. Enough of mental gymnastics.  I’ll leave those to my academic colleagues for now.

I wasn’t expecting much from “We’re the Millers.” Apparently, few others were either. There were only three of us in the theater this afternoon. The move presents a conventional story – a group of down-on-their-luck people who learn to become a loving family. Lots of plot twists, R-rated language (and gestures), and the seductive stripper scene where Jennifer Aniston proves she still has it. Not Oscar-worthy (despite the coy look Jennifer and Jason Sudeikis give the camera after a remark about the dual roles they play in the movie), but very clever, worth the price of a matinee. I laughed at the scenes and admired the finesse of the actors. As their story unraveled on the screen, so too did my dark mood, and that too was worth the price of admission.

So thank you, Jennifer and Jason. Thank you for reminding me that family life is always challenging, but not without humor, and that “parent” is a role, not a person.

Golden Chains

The small box arrived in the mail on a Tuesday. In it was the gift my mother had sent for my daughter.  It wasn’t her birthday.  There was no special occasion, at least we didn’t think there was.

Mom had called a week earlier to ask if she could send my daughter this gift.  Now in her elder years, she is methodically going through the house sorting through her belongings, deciding what to do with the items accumulated over 80-some years of living.  In the course of cleaning out her jewelry collection, she came across a golden whistle on a long golden chain.  This is the gift she wanted to send to my 12-year-old daughter.

I remember that whistle well.  Once upon a time, Mom had given me an identical one strung on a black silk cord.  She had originally bought four of these whistles, one for herself, one for each of her three daughters.  Always concerned with appearances and good taste, she chose the whistles because they looked like jewelry. If you didn’t look closely, you’d miss the slot on the surface where the air could pass through with its shrill song.  You might think it was just a slender gold pendant worn to complement an outfit.

When the box arrived and my daughter opened it, I recalled my phone conversation with Mom. She had said, “It’s for when she goes somewhere.  You know.”

She gave no further details.  The implication was clear. What’s left unspoken is often more powerful than what is said. The unknown people you meet in unfamiliar places.

That whistle would have been useful for my mother on a day she went shopping in the early 1950s. While shuffling through blouses on a rack in a clothing store, she felt something tug at the back of her skirt.  She turned around to see a man running away.  Perhaps he was only after her purse.

My whistle would have been useful one October evening in 1989, but I didn’t have it yet. I had gone out for a walk at dusk to work off some steam from an argument. It was fall in the South, but the air was still heavy with humidity and the leaves had not yet begun to turn.

As I walked the broad main street, the sky slowly darkening, I sensed a presence trailing me across the boulevard. I glanced back to see a thin, ragged man keeping pace across the street and a few yards back — dark, dirty shirt, a fraying pair of shorts, muddy worn shoes, and a baseball cap on his head.

I continued walking at the same pace, thinking he would turn down a side street, or perhaps outstrip me in his own need to get somewhere. But he kept the same pace for several blocks, the same distance behind me, across the street.

To test his intentions, I picked up my pace slightly, hoping it was simply a coincidence that the man was walking in the same direction at the same clip.

He crossed to my side of the street and continued trailing me at the same pace.

I quickened my step again.

Now half a block directly behind me, he sped up too.

With growing panic, I turned a corner to a side street, mentally working out the blocks back to my apartment building, hoping to lose him in the neighborhood. I knew where I was. I hoped he didn’t. It was growing darker and my heart had begun to flutter, my breath coming shallower.

He turned the corner too.

Clear now that he meant harm, I sped up again, hoping to make it to the back entrance of the building before he caught up to me. I turned the next corner and tried to keep to the shadows of the old trees lining the street.  Ahead I could see my apartment building, the fluorescent security light bright above the back door.  Running now, I cut through the gravel parking lot, heading for that light.

I almost made it.

In the empty parking lot, just a few yards from the back door of the building, the man sprinted to catch up and grabbed my arms from behind, pinching them tightly together.  I twisted and struggled against his grip. When I started to scream, he pulled a dirty rag from his pocket and shoved it in my mouth.  Then he ripped the gold watch from my wrist, the watch I’d been given only a few weeks before.  My screams had brought other residents from their apartments into the back doorway, and the man ran off into the blackness with my watch.  I staggered into the building, and the landlord called the police, but we all knew the futility of a search for the thief.

***

In the box my mother sent, there wasn’t just a whistle.  Along with the real chain, there was an invisible link from mother to daughter to granddaughter.  The whistle and chain were golden, but the legacy is not. A clothing store in 1952. On a sidewalk in 1989. Even now, my elderly mother knows she needs to watch out for her granddaughter.  Fathers and grandfathers also pass on objects for their sons’ protection, but they are likely weapons, not whistles.

When my daughter opened the box, she held up the chain and said with amazement, “Oh, a whistle!”  I gazed at the innocent expression on her face, her hazel eyes not yet clouded by the pain of experience. I decided not to darken her delight with the shadow of the reason for the gift.

My mother sent my daughter a golden whistle.  My spouse and I signed her up for tae kwondo.

She’s Still There

I originally wrote this in January 2008. Now, on this holiday, I post it here in thanksgiving.

To mom — I’m glad you’re still here.

***

 “Nothin’ wrong with me!” she said, sitting in a chair in the living room four days after Christmas. Five days after she had fallen, when she had been trying simply to climb the two steps up from the living room to the hallway in the house she’d lived in for 46 years.

“Nothin’ wrong with me!” she repeated, chuckling, after each test the physical therapist tried on her.

“Show me how strong you are,” the therapist said, kneeling before her on the Oriental carpet, the rich red of the fibers setting off the gray of his pants and hair. He was easily twice as tall as she was. Kneeling before her seated figure, his head was still six inches above hers.

She hadn’t always been so small. But she was certainly never tall, her five feet three inches increased by high heels of great variety over the 85 years of her life. So many varieties that, as her five children grew up and left home, she overtook their closets to store her shoes, even installing a floor-to-ceiling rack on the inside of one of the closet doors. Any number of black high heels to be worn with her collection of cocktail dresses. Some of the shoes had beads, others ruffles. One pair of clear plastic pumps, a modern incarnation of Cinderella’s glass slipper. Gold, silver, patent leather, straps, slingbacks, pointed toes. Three pairs of pink satin shoes, one with pretty little bows on the heel strap. These she gave to one of her granddaughters the day before the physical therapist came.

She’d come home from the hospital that morning, three days after she fell, insisting that she be released because she had company coming. It was the day of the Christmas gathering.  All the children, their spouses, and the grandchildren would be there, 24 people in all, counting great-grandchildren. Santa was to make a guest appearance, bringing his bag of gifts.  She couldn’t miss the party.

There was nothing they could do for her in the hospital anyway. Monitor her vitals, administer the pain meds. The X-ray had shown multiple fractures of her spine, but none of them were new, and it wasn’t as though the doctors could do anything about them. What can you give to an elderly woman with advanced osteoporosis except drugs to keep her comfortable?

She hadn’t wanted to go to the hospital. She hadn’t bothered to go the first time, when she fell and broke her pelvis several years before. She’d been trying to reach a top cabinet shelf in the kitchen and had pulled over one of the kitchen chairs, the ones with wheels, to stand on. The chair rolled out from under her and she was stunned to find herself lying on her back on the linoleum. She hadn’t gone the second time, after she slipped while walking around the pool in the backyard. That time, she didn’t even tell my father what had happened. He had a tendency to fuss in a stern tone when he was anxious and she didn’t want to hear that.

But this time my sister tricked her into going. It was Christmas night, the night after she fell, when it became clear that the pain of the fall would not let up.  After dinner, no longer able to tolerate her moaning from pain, my sister convinced my father to call an ambulance. Dad had written off the idea of taking her to the hospital the night she fell.  He and my sister had been able to stem the bleeding from the gash on her elbow, and neither Mom nor Dad had thought it necessary to go. The most the doctors did for the previous falls was to give her painkillers while they waited for her body to heal. You didn’t need to go to the hospital for that.

This time, though, as Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed after dinner Christmas night, they called the ambulance. Then my sister went upstairs to put Mom’s shoes on her.

“We’re going for a ride,” my sister told her.

“Oh?  Where?” Mom asked in puzzlement.

“To the hospital.”

Mom didn’t argue.

***

The initial X-ray showed several fractures. The CT scan enumerated them: Old compression fractures of T6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12, and possibly L3. Volume loss of 10% to 30% in several disks. Osteophytes at L1 and L2. Something called Schmorli’s node at the endplate of L5. Protruding discs in the lumbar spine, with a vacuum phenomenon of L5-S1, all indicating degenerative disc disease. In short, her spine was slowly disintegrating.

No surprise, really.

In her 85 years, she’d had 8 pregnancies, raised 5 children. Shopped, cooked, cleaned the house, hosted parties, waited long nights while my father worked, living in the three-story house they’d bought when I was 2.  They continued to live in the small town my father grew up in, the town her family had moved to during the Depression when she was 13. He had his accounting business, served for awhile in city government, and helped with his own family’s beer distributorship. She’d worked as a bookkeeper for a dress shop before they married and always had an interest in fashion. She had accepted the customs of women in our Midwestern town after World War II: try to marry well, follow the Catholic church in raising however many children you ended up having, meet your responsibilities, bear your pain in silence. She never said she was bored or unhappy. At their 60th wedding anniversary party, she stated simply, “It could have been worse.”

But she always loved to go to the big city to shop, especially at Christmastime when the lights twinkled brighter. In the nightstand by her bed, I once found a small black binder, its cover flaking from age. In the binder were her handwritten notes from a class in fashion modeling she’d taken before she married. She and a friend from the dress shop would take the bus to the city, more than an hour away in those days, to attend the class. I remember her telling us three daughters the proper way to place our feet when we were having our pictures taken.

Most of the time we were growing up, she was obsessed with house and yard work. I recall the sharp stink of the ammonia we’d use to wash the crystals from the chandelier in the front hallway, and the way the silver polish would make my fingers wrinkle.  I remember the pattern I developed with the mop on the kitchen floor, wetting one square of tile at a time, all the way down the stairs to the basement. I can still see Mom from my bedroom window on the third floor, as she’d carry the bedsheets from the basement, where the washing machine was, to the clothesline stretching along the driveway to dry the sheets in the sun. Or the cold January air. She still puts those stiff cotton sheets on all the beds, though she doesn’t dry them on the line anymore. Too many stairs from the third floor to the basement and back up. I remember hanging out those sheets myself, clamping each flapping end to the line with a wooden pin.

I have told my own children how we’d rake copious piles of leaves each fall, after which we’d toast hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames as the leaves burned in the stone fireplace in the backyard. I can still recall her mowing the 2-acre lawn with the push mower all summer long. I wrote a freshman English paper once in which I described her typical attire for mowing. Barefoot, she’d wrap herself in a beach towel emblazoned with the label of a Budweiser beer bottle, which we’d gotten from Dad’s family’s business. Mom was still shoveling snow just a few weeks before her latest fall.

***

It’s New Year’s Eve as I write this, and I slouch in my desk chair wondering what the New Year might bring for her, for me. At this time next year, will I be unpacking from another holiday visit? Will she preside over the family party as she always has, dressed in the latest find from her favorite discount store? Even though she had just come home from the hospital, she didn’t wear just any old robe to this party.  She put on her double-breasted blue velvet one.

Will she recognize my face when I turn to talk with her on the couch? My father thinks her macular degeneration is what caused her to miss that step when she fell. Last year at Christmas, she cried as she told me how she’d curtailed her driving because she couldn’t distinguish the red and green on the traffic lights.  She often can’t make out the faces of people who approach to speak to her at church or in the grocery store.  But she knows her children, their faces and their voices. To comfort myself now, to distract myself from the fear of losing her, I conjure up the image of her as the physical therapist talked.

***

When she’d come home from the hospital, my sister and I helped her walk into the house. We weren’t a physically close family growing up – never ones to link arms or give hugs — so it felt awkward to touch her. I was afraid we’d hurt her, tear her fragile skin or bruise her once-full arms or hands, the joints no longer able to straighten after years of kitchen work. Though she was present and alert during the party, she seemed diminished in her chair, able only to watch and listen, rather than serve and joke as she had always done before.

When we were children, she had orchestrated the holiday activities, from playing Christmas records – Andy Williams singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – while we decorated the tree, to urging those of us who could sing to gather around the piano at the family party, where my sister or I played “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O, Tannenbaum.”  Those who couldn’t sing were given other tasks. To her own mother, my grandmother, she gave the job of playing the triangle. This time, as I looked at my mother sitting in that same chair my grandmother had sat in, the wing chair next to the piano, I remembered the Christmas before my grandmother died.  Grandma had grown so feeble that she had to be carried into the house by my uncle.

***

Now, on the day I conjure up in my mind, the first time the doorbell rang, it was the home health nurse. The next time it was the physical therapist. Dad and I spent the afternoon standing sentry during the nurse’s exam and the therapist’s assessment. We watched intently, answering questions and fetching supplies.

In the living room, the nurse began her session , and while she spoke, my father, who had been trying to put a good face on his anxiety for days, shifted into the role he knew best – providing the facts and discussing the business details. My mother sat in her chair, body sagging, her face drawn, trying to mask the fear that had taken up residence in her green eyes. With each health problem she or my father had encountered in the past few years, that fear flared fresh in her eyes.

The nurse took Mom’s blood pressure, her pulse, and listened for breath sounds. She examined Mom’s hands and feet, noting their temperature and circulation but never commenting on the toes, many of which were splayed from having been crammed into pointed shoes. She showed us the report of the CT scan and talked about the side effects of the painkiller.  She scheduled in-home aides so Mom could bathe and have her sheets changed.

As the nurse changed the bandage on Mom’s elbow, she asked if we had some antibiotic cream to apply to the cut, which was still draining.  Neither Dad nor I could find any in the house, but Mom suggested that we locate her jar of “Grandma’s salve,” her homemade concoction of olive oil, beeswax and rosin that she swore was the cure for any skin problem. She had even applied it once to the cancerous lesion on her foot. The nurse was kind and complied and Dad went off to find the jar. I marveled at the nurse’s sensitivity and the way she worded questions to allow my mother to maintain her dignity. With each reassuring response from the nurse, my mother’s face began to relax.

“Nothing wrong with me!” she said.

After more than an hour, the doorbell rang the second time, and I ushered in the physical therapist, a tall, lean man who drove up in his pick-up truck. He and the nurse exchanged information and, while the nurse finished her tasks, I escorted the therapist around the house so he could identify dangers that could impede Mom’s mobility or cause another fall. I purposely mentioned that she’d been shoveling snow recently, knowing that he would tell her to stop. I knew she wouldn’t hear that message from me.

The physical therapist was casual in his approach to Mom. There was none of the stuffiness or condescension that professionals sometimes retreat to with their clients. He told her directly that she was in serious trouble and that she had strained her back extensively and had to protect it. And then he began his exam.

“Show me how strong you are,” he told her, grasping her hands. One after another, he took each of her hands, her feet, her toes, her arms and her legs and asked her to push or pull against his hold.  Each time he appeared pleased and said “Good, good!” He helped her stand and watched her walk using the walker we had borrowed from a neighbor. He took her to the kitchen, positioned her against the counter and worked her through a series of exercises that would strengthen her back and “booty,” as he called her bottom. She was so small against him, her head not even reaching his shoulder, but she became determined to do what he asked, seeming to sense the power and freedom in it. She pushed against his grasp, lifted her arms, squeezed his arm hard. He called her a “tough old bird.” By this time, her mood had lightened considerably and she became the good patient, trying hard to show him what she could do, what she, yes, still could do. When he asked her what her goal was for physical therapy, she said she wanted to be active again, even doing things like raking leaves.

I know her time is coming. She knows it too. But as she spoke these words to him, sitting again in the chair by the piano, I saw it once more – the face of my mother. Not the old woman who had overtaken her. My mother.

She’s still there.