Monday, August 29, 2011

Maybe Heaven is Pluto . . .

I live in the Bible Belt where strangers come to the door to deliver invitations to attend their churches, curious to learn if I have a church when the truth is that they are curious to see if church has me. A mother and her four children, two of whom looked as if they should be in school, rang the bell this morning.

Here, in the Bible Belt, people define themselves as Christians with family values while classifying Catholic and Mormon families as something else, especially if their religious preference comes packaged inside brown skin. Some in my state are probably proud that voters in this State were among the first to approve a law prohibiting the use of Sharia law when arguing in one of our courts, and many have not ever been on the side of Israel.

You see, folks in the Bible Belt suspect those who have not been born again in Jesus, especially Muslims, of being in league with Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Satan--the devil. And I guess you could say tolerance is not one of our strengths. I guess you could also say that here in my homeland, people have only the vaguest of notions about the branches of government, the truth about the Founding Fathers, and Christian charity. They say the poor will always be with us so, being philosophical, they take the position that we should just let 'em be poor, except at Christmas, around Thanksgiving, and of course, Easter. Bible-belters say that nasty Separation of Church and State doctrine prevented early Congresses from printing a Bible for their own use, and they are deeply concerned about being saved from the fires of Hell.

I am not much like my neighbors, and I must hasten to emphasize that there are many more like me. We tolerate difference and change. We embrace the amendments, every one of them, and we’ve read Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower so we’re pretty clear about the Founding Fathers. We are not afraid to let our children dip and delve into controversial matters, believing that they are stronger for having considered all sides of an argument before making an informed choice. We even go so far as to declare that the nation really does need to have a conversation about war and peace, rich and poor, social supports and flying without nets.

And how did I set foot on the path of tolerance? Mother. She is one of the first to have nudged me toward that path. Remember she encouraged me to know about segregation and Civil Rights. She believed in the Voting Rights Act, the very one over which the state of Arizona is now suing the federal government, claiming that the law forces a state to bend to the will of Big Government (also known as Big Brother among the Ayn Randian millionaires and billionaires who spur these old horses into life).

Mother offered two ideas about religion, the first about the truth of Genesis and the second about Heaven, both in response to questions I posed, questions kicked into life by stuff I heard from my peers. About Genesis, Mother said she was pretty sure that the origins of the earth predate the creation of a calendar so how could anyone be sure that those seven days just gave the Creator 168 hours to begin and end his project. About Heaven, Mother said she’d always wondered if “up there” might be Pluto or some place beyond the sights of man. Both answers jarred my imagination and opened my mind to figurative interpretations rather than literal ones long before I’d read about translations and scrolls and such.

Mother also insisted that I complete a full summer’s worth of study about the religions of the world, a course offered by the church we attended then. I was struck, as I’m sure she thought I would be, by the common ground in all those religions and their stories that guide believers to similar core values and convictions about living a worthy life. Many years later, Mother asked me to read a book about Christianity and Judaism. She was still a seeker and would be still if only Alzheimer’s were not such a cold-blooded thief, wrapping its tentacles around ideas and memories, squeezing until they are gone.

Still what I inferred from Mother’s answers to my questions and her own search for spiritual well-being live through me. I am very glad about that.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alzheimer's Strips Away the Map that Leads Us Home

I remember one of the last days of my grandmother’s life, spent in a hospital bed in a private room, close, narrow, and cramped. Cool green walls closed in upon me. Grandmother slept most hours in a drug-induced peace, her back curved, knees bent, her head resting on one arm, one hand gripping the aluminum rail. Waking, she labored to lift her shoulders, raise her head. I moved to help her, to comfort her, and she spat mucous from corrupted lungs into my hand. Then, her throat clear, she whispered, “Help me go home,” and let her body sink back into the bed, a groan rising from those cancer-stricken lungs.

Mother was away, taking care of Dad, and I was on duty, an eight-hour shift, one-third of a day after day shared with two other people, neither one family. I pushed back the nausea and dread, but I held close her words, the last that she spoke to anyone.

To which home did she long to go? An ethereal home or the one from her childhood? The one she made with her first husband, the simple one she had shared with her last husband, the boat dock where she fished most weekends, or the assisted living home where she had most recently lived? Or did she ask me to help her find her way back to memories and language? Grandmother had Alzheimer’s, too.

Recently, I accompanied Mother to several doctors’ appointments. She told them, regardless of their specialty, that she needed a way back to the time when she could remember, when she could form words and calculate numbers. She wants to know the things I know, and she wants to be able to do things I know how to do.

Mom, who prepared nutritious meals from her early teens until the age of 81, no longer remembers to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, or if she’s eaten. She likes ice cream and brownies; she loves cabbage. She no longer recognizes popcorn or likes it, a change that took place in fewer than 90 days. She cannot read menus. She cannot push buttons to make a microwave hum. She needs suggestions and guidance, caregivers and helpers.

Mom, whose home was spotless, no longer sees any problem with eating from a spoon, running it under cool water, drying it with a towel, and putting it right back in the drawer. She does not see cobwebs in corners, dust on baseboards, lip-imprints on glasses, or spots on the tile. Someone else has to clean her house for her, and she gets grumpy when I tell her to put her dishes and utensils in the dishwasher.

Mom, who remembered every appointment, every medicine, every incident--from her own filtered perspective, of course--can no longer tell you which day of the week it is, which companion was in her home just a few hours ago, what television show she currently watches, or her own birthday. She relies upon others with a strong dose of suspicion. She tells herself and me that everything will work out, then asks where she put her money or whether I have paid her bills or what the workman said about the condition of some faucet or icemaker.  And she asks me over and over and over and over. I pat myself on the back for repeating myself over and over and over and over without snarling, snapping, or ‘tude. I use the same soft, neutral tone each and every time because to do anything less or more would be to alarm an already alarmed woman, alarmed because words and numbers and present and past are slipping out of reach even as she claws at them.

This is, I believe, the greatest cruelty in Alzheimer’s: it takes away home, and home is where we all long to be.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sometimes a Sweater is Much More than a Sweater

We spend so much time trying to select the perfect gifts for those we love, and we spend as much time anticipating the gifts we receive. How few of those gifts really endure in our homes and our memories?

One that I treasure is still with me although she has an old pillowcase over her head to protect her from dust. She now sets in a closet, and I wonder what to do with her. Once she was a dear doll, almost three feet tall, brought to me by Santa one Christmas Eve. She stood under the tree, waiting for me to arise and claim her, wearing a delicate lace veil over a satin wedding gown so pure and white that it reflected the multi-colored lights like rainbows painted across banks of snow.

Mother also selected an elegant, brilliant dinner ring as my gift for having earned a degree at the end of four college years. It is two concentric circles of fiery Australian opals at the center of which is the largest and most alive stone. I still take out that ring and admire it although I have few places where a dinner ring is actually a necessary accessory. I never moved in grand circles and rarely dress for dinner.

After my daughter was born and I had long since abandoned all hope of ever being fashionable again, Mother gave me a knit sweater befitting my October birthday. It had autumnal hues, including a background of deep, dark soft green, the color of pumpkin vines. Upon this backdrop set ripe pumpkins and a cornucopia full of Nature’s harvest. The effect was beautiful, and like Keats’ Ode, “To Autumn,” celebrated the season of my birth.

Today, this sweater might be the topic of derision in a Worst Holiday Sweater contest, not because threads sprout from it, pulled by children, sharp drawers, and cats’ claws, but because of its big design. Nevertheless, I send it to the cleaners each spring and bring it out each fall. I wear it in my home where the thermostat is set in keeping with energy savings--at a modest 67°. I wrap myself in this sweater to keep warm, but it is the memory that keeps me warmer than the knit.

When Mother gave me the sweater, I thanked her and told her that I thought it one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. She said that we should always try to give a birthday gift that the recipient would never buy for herself because of the cost or the impractical nature of the gift. Mother must have noticed that all my money went to child care and gymnastics or soccer and art camps each summer. She was probably well aware that I had not bought a pretty thing for myself in a very long time, and she gave me that pretty thing: her attention without criticism, her love and support. Oh, and a sweater--a beautiful, comfortable sweater.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mom Made the World a Better Place

Dad had many notions and, in my opinion, delusions. He listened to Rush Limbaugh in the last years of his life, believing all the muck raked by such men. Dad often held forth on the economy, programs for the poor and hungry, and race. I usually offered counter opinions to which he once said, “Where do you get your information? I don’t hear that.”

I snapped, “Of course, you don’t. Are you listening to BBC World News, NPR, PBS? Are you reading a wide range of sources, or are you just swallowing the lies that Limbaugh feeds you?” I regretted my tone: sarcastic, harsh, critical. I did not regret the conviction: listen, read, and learn; being a ditto-head is un-American and dangerous and has hurt this nation.

Dad inherited his right-wing zealotry. His father, my Grandpa Oak, hissed at everyone in the entire house to be absolutely silent as the stock report zipped by on the nightly news or during a radio broadcast. At the end, he never failed to shake his head and declare that Democrats were going to ruin the nation. He also taught me to come in the house when the man came to mow the lawn. Grandma pulled down the shades, and we sat still as mice, trying not to draw attention to ourselves until he left. I found this utterly baffling until I read--much later in life--about the white man’s need to protect his women from black men. The man mowing the lawn was an African-American, only allowed to knock at the back door for his wages.

How then did I escape the bigotry that could have been my inheritance? Mother. She had other lessons to teach me, and she did--without ever actually revealing that lessons were underway.

Recently I found boxes full of speeches and essays I had written through public school. Year after year, my subjects were equality for all races and genders or tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. or other Civil Rights leaders. I marveled at the frequency and conviction because I was not a well-read kid. I did not tune in to the evening’s broadcast and follow the thread of current events. I read Life magazine cover to cover, but only for the voyeuristic thrill that comes from studying lurid crime scene photos. Thanks to Life, I have a keen interest in thrillers and murder mysteries; I also have an unhealthy imagination about what can happen to good people when serial killers find an open door.

So Mother sent me off to college with a nascent social conscience. The girl who joined the Young Republicans, as Grandpa and Dad brainwashed me to do, thought better of it and registered Democratic. The girl who shook Richard Nixon’s hand during one of his campaign stops in Iowa would believe that justice had been served when he resigned.

My husband and I had many different ideas about raising a child, but we held in common one strong determination to raise a color-blind child, and we succeeded. When our daughter met her future husband, she was completely unaware that his heritage appeared to include African-American. Her friends told her after she had enjoyed several dates with him. She still had not recognized his bi-racial heritage.

Dad never stopped recognizing differences. He teased me about buying a home down the street from an interracial couple, something I had not noticed until he brought it to my attention. Mother did not object nor did she voice her own opinions while Dad held forth, repeating Limbaugh’s nonsense, and she asked me not to hold his prejudices against him. Still, she made her point of view known in spite of Dad.

For example, Mother recalled working in Washington, D. C. with African-Americans one summer. She countered ugly stereotypes without ever repeating or refuting them; she simply said that she found every person she worked with to be kind and hard-working. Mother also pointed me in the direction of tolerance by encouraging me to become friends with two neighborhood girls my age, two neighbors who happened to be of the Jewish faith. Because of their friendship, I experienced Shabbat, Bar Mitzvahs, and Hanukah. Mother also urged me to take part in a course, Religions of the World, offered at our church. She said, in her opinion, all religions have similar moral codes and world-views, then let me make up my own mind.

When I whined about a topic for another speech or researched essay, Mother suggested that I learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, segregation, the fight for equal rights, and civil rights. She helped me think and see beyond the confines of my neighborhood and my father’s side of the family. In doing so, she planted the seeds of doubt about Dad’s point of view, about his parents’ lessons, and about the doomsday scenarios painted for integration.

Mother was ahead of her time, an independent thinker, and woman of conscience. I think perhaps these are her greatest strengths and gifts to me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Watermelons Cooled in the Creek

Afternoons beside the Illinois River are not my earliest memories, but they are certainly memories I hold dear. Sun-dappled waters, clear enough to see the tiny bait fish nipping at our feet; cold stream-fed waters, a pebble palette of pinks and bronzes and eggshell, below and along the shore. Our dog’s soft pink feet grew sore as she padded after every member of our family, patiently keeping watch, waiting for some of lunch to be tossed her way. As strangers floated by in canoes, we waved. Dad gathered clues about where the fish were biting from men in flat-bottom boats.

For these afternoons, Mother packed homefried chicken, Dad’s favorite. He said her chicken was better than anyone else’s, even the chicken sold in fine restaurants. Mom said her secret was being willing to make a mess and clean it up.

“The oil has to be so hot,” she said, “that the batter sears and crisps up while the meat inside turns white. Fried chicken has to cook fast and hot or it soaks up the grease; a cook has to let the oil sputter and spatter, and she has to wipe down every square inch of her stove when she’s through.”

Mother also stirred together the family recipe for potato salad, tangy with dill pickle and a touch of mustard to take the shine off the Miracle Whip. She added bread and butter sandwiches, more pickles, black olives sometimes, warm sliced tomatoes, and watermelon. These are still among my favorite foods--probably because I associate them with picnics beside the Illinois and special occasions like Dad’s July birthday in July.

The picnic lunch filled the back seat between my sister and me. The poor dog hopped in the trunk because we didn’t know better back then and because Mother would not let her go if she would be put in the car, smelling of wet dog.  One of Mother’s first acts when we arrived was to carry the watermelon to the river, dog at her heels, and let it drop. Sometimes, after hard rains, we wrapped a rope around the melon’s length and again around its width, securing one end under a large rock on shore so that the river could not steal our dessert, but most of the time, the river was not at all wild and the melon stayed put.

We learned not to venture in too deep when we’d had the gift of rain after we watched the river catch our dog, Cinderella, and carry her downstream even as she paddled hard upstream. We hopped up and down on the rocky shore, calling her name and shouting for Dad, fishing downstream. He just shifted his pole from left hand to right, as if he’d saved a dog from drowning many times, and grabbed her by the tail as she floated by. We cheered and ran to lead the dog back to us and keep her close.

When the water was not too deep or fast, we climbed into big truck tire inner-tubes and floated, letting the water spin us with the current. We paddled only hard enough to stay away from low-hanging tree branches. Someone told us or we made up a story that snakes hang in those trees just to slither onto the backs of children and hitch a ride downstream. Along the route, we scanned the deep shady pools for big fish, especially lazy, fat catfish. When we sighted one, we hollered for Dad to come catch them, but he only promised to look later while staying downstream, farther from our play, letting the waters wrap around his legs as he cast and reeled over and over.

We ate after Dad caught a mess of fish and tied his stringer close to our picnic place. Then Mom made us take naps on blankets in the shade. When we awoke, the sun was halfway between high noon and twilight and the watermelon was cool. It was never cold, just cool, and Dad never failed to tease Mother about her silly habit of cooling melon in the creek. “Who ever heard of such a thing?” he asked and smiled, but no other melon has ever tasted sweeter to me.