Sunday, February 20, 2011

sadness, but with hope, for a good sail

As I sit on a cloudy Sunday evening, I think about how I had the best intentions on Friday — to write about my weekly long walkabout with Ronald Reagan (the dog, not the president), and Saturday —about trying to squeeze the old muffin top into a new pair of pants — (didn't work). But there was napping to be had and dinners out and the Sunday Times, and a full moon, and I'm still trying to figure out that newfangled camera. 

But when I think about what I have been putting my mind to lately, it is this: four people in my life are either in the final stages of life, or are caring for people who are getting close to the end of their days. End stage. Hospice. That. And my heart is sad. Though I have witnessed life's end before with my husband's parents, with beloved animals, I am lucky. Both my parents are for the most part pretty healthy for people in their early 80s. And because of that, I can't know what my friends are feeling. And as the good Book of Common Prayer says, there is no help in it. Nothing left to do now but pray. For peace. For comfort. But that does not seem to be enough.

One of the people I love is the 93-year-old mother of my best friend since 8th grade. She lives on the farm where with her husband she raised horses and cows and a daughter to raise horses and cows and three children — raised all of them to be good citizens of this world. 

I know her phone number by heart. (Years ago, living in the country they had a party line, something unknown in my tiny small town. At my house the phone was always ringing because of my physician father. At their house, you had to know their ring to know when to pick it up.)

I last saw Nana for a quiet New Years. We shared a toast, a collard, pork and black-eyed peas — traditional talismans for a good year. She was tired, didn't stand by the kitchen sink chopping celery like she used to, but she was still Nana, telling us how to. 

She calls me one of her girls, and I think of the nights I spent in her rambling house in high school, sharing life secrets with the child she raised. How she welcomed me to her table, fed me her famous biscuits. How though I taught her to make my yeast rolls when she was 90, I never learned how to make the biscuits.

The day before I got married, Nana swooped into my childhood home and created beautiful flower arrangements for the chest in our family room and anywhere else she thought ought to feel fancy. I want to go to her, to make her feel a little bit fancy right now, but she is just not up to visiting. I hope she knows how much I love her. I know how much she loves me. In all of our meetings in the past few years, she has never, ever, failed to tell me so.

You would think that a 93-year-old is supposed to slow down, but Nana hasn't at all, at least not until the past year. She has watched the July 4th fireworks explode over the Albemarle Sound with us, raised a glass for birthdays, listened to my stories, asked me more than once to taste her potato salad to see if there was enough salt. 

When her heart began to fail for the umpteenth time a week or so ago and her daughter called 911, they asked if Nana was confused. No, she was in the bathroom putting on her makeup. And had just asked her daughter if it was the 7th or the 8th of February, to which my dear friend said: Hell if I know, and checked her phone to be sure. That's our Nana.
Another of my friends nurses her husband as his own end looms. Her email this morning held the familiar: hospital bed, home health care, Hospice, the power of prayer. He has been given last rites, yet clings to life, so they wait.

My friend Pat, West Virginia strong with a shrewd wit, goes to my church, and when I first saw her daughter when she was young, I thought she could easily be mine, she looked so much like I did when I was the same age. Our daughters, just a year apart, have been friends since youth group. I used to teach essay writing in Pat's high school English class, to unruly teenagers who balked at putting sentences together to make a point about themselves. But they loved her. 

When Pat retired a year or so ago after teaching all of her adult life, she wrote that after so many years of teaching them, she discovered she didn't like teenagers so much after all. I could read between her lines. Though she really loved those unruly teens, what she needed more was to spend time with her husband. Her emails about their journey are scattered with her wit, and I know this has helped them all stay a little bit sane, in the midst of the insanity of cancer.

My neighbor down the street has been fighting breast cancer for several years, and it has now spread further into the body that has been fighting it, valiantly. Her daughter and mine danced ballet in stiff crinoline costumes when they were in second grade. My neighbor played college tennis, was fiercely competitive, and I learned years ago that she and my sister had crushes on the same boy in jr. high school, though we lived an hour apart.

In the past year, though her body has been failing, she has resisted help, and so we send her cards, sometimes leaving flowers and casseroles on her porch, just to let her know we are thinking of her. And we send prayers. The last time I saw her was on April 18, 2009, the day of my daughter's wedding. The last time we really visited was in June the year before, when she asked me to help assemble programs for her daughter's big day. I was honored to be invited to sit at her kitchen table, to share in a small way in this passage for her family. How does this happen, that you used to see someone at least once a week, pass them in the grocery aisle, giggle as you watched your girls tiptoe across the stage? But living just down the street from each other now that your kids are grown, the times in between now turn into a year, even two? 
My sister-in-law drove from North Carolina to Florida yesterday because her mother is dying. When I think of her mother, I see an beautiful woman always smiling. I think of her wedding gown, which my sister-in-law wore, scattered with soft flowers, beautiful.

She sends me a Christmas card each year, and I feel badly that this year I sent none. She had cancer before I knew her (over 30 years ago), lost her husband, moved from Delaware to Florida, made a new life for herself. Fought cancer again. Her daughter, whom I have always said brought color into our very beige family when she married my brother, does not readily show her sadness, though when I talked with her this week, I could hear it in her voice. She and my brother are expecting a new granddaughter in May, and everyone has been hopeful the two generations of women can meet.

Marti and my brother love Disneyworld. They took their children often because their grandmother lived close by. And in a couple of weeks, they have plans to take their 4-year-old grandson. They will still do that, they say, because that's what his great-grandmother would want, though she can't be there. Probably nothing will make her happier than imagining a new generation of her family spinning in those teacups,  watching the twilight world take shape below on Peter Pan's flight.

I like to think that dying, as God designed it, is supposed to be like Peter Pan's flight. Magical. That you have that chance to watch, as the little ones you love are tucked into bed, listening to a good story, and then you float through the window on a boat with a colorful, wind-filled sail out into the heavens, the streetlights below lighting the path toward your new, fuller moon. Then right toward that second star and straight ahead til morning.thx absu

At least it is my prayer. For all the people on my list.