**Note: This account is mostly true with a bit of fictionalized tweaks where my memory blurred. But even the fictions are true on many days and might have been true this day. I like for my kids to see that I value writing, to encourage them to write fearless. It is a safe place to be “reckless” as consequences are minimal. So, it is only fair that I should do what I ask my kids to do — write fearless even when uncomfortable. What is the worst that could happen? That you won’t like it, that I won’t like it, I suppose. Nothing to fear there.
Summer solstice invited them out-of-doors.
It was evening, supper time actually, but for once nobody asked the question — “What’s for supper?” The day’s heat had lifted, clouds swept the sky, and breezy fingers strummed gentle music among the trees and teased her skin.
She heard the giggles of a son and two daughters and the squeaky springs of a rusty trampoline. A door thumped shut when her teenage son stepped onto the porch, and the whir of her husband’s saw sounded from the backyard.
With the flow of family edging her awareness, the woman dug another hole and plunked a cinnamon-leaved coral bell into place 18 inches from the hosta. Thunder rolled, the breeze kicked, blood danced in her veins, and something called to her. She looked up, wondering if she would finish planting before it rained. The air was electric, molecules buzzed against her skin, filled her lungs — movement and stillness, an expectancy, a held breath. A certainty was coming — her arms, legs, bones, and skin reached toward it.
Exhilaration bubbled through heart valves, pumped into her fingers, toes and marrow. Wanting to laugh, she dug another hole, half expecting and hoping the sky to rain absolution and praise on her. She settled a coral bell with burgundy leaves close to another hosta. Her sister had given her the hostas, had dug them from her own yard. This coral bell came from her mom, who gave her a plant every week, claiming she couldn’t care for plants anymore, too much trouble for an old woman.
She laid a thick layer of pine needles around her new plants. Seven years since they had moved into their house on the hill in the woods. All those 7 years held her longing to plant a flower bed along the front porch, to grow grass in the front yard for bare feet. The woman didn’t miss much from childhood, but she missed the brush of grass on bare feet, especially dew-kissed grass on a cool spring morning. The grass, too, waited almost 7 years, due to finances, poor health and because it took time to learn how to grow tender living things in hard red clay. It had been harder than she had imagined, and year after year, her yard had remained dry, hard, rough and painful to exposed soles.
Her patch of earth still didn’t grow the lush grass of her original dream, but it was mostly covered with soft, green growth — clover, plaintain, unidentified weeds and grass — and she was content. This year, honeybees gathered nectar in her yard.
Her daughters flitted across the soft green in bare feet, wearing their older brothers’ play cloaks, cloaks too small even for their 9- and 11-year-old frames. But the girls didn’t care, their imaginations making the cloaks what they wanted them to be.
The woman exhaled. The certainty broke over her, and she grasped it, pulling it inside her — my dream, I am living my dream. She heard her husband’s hammer, building her bench. She saw her older son tinkering under the hood of the car, while her daughters and middle son carried sticks and imaginary worlds.
They were all here, her family, together, home.
With the gift of a few extra minutes added to their day.
Sidney, my 16 yo son, took the SAT several weeks ago. In preparation, he looked up SAT essay prompts online and wrote timed essays. It probably comes as no surprise that the essay prompts left him groaning. One prompt, in particular, left him feeling that he had absolutely nothing to say on the matter . . .
Is it more courageous to show vulnerability than it is to show strength?
Honestly, when I first read that prompt, I cringed too, unsure how to coach him on that one. SAT takers are advised to include examples from their studies and own experiences to support their essay thesis. At the tender age of 16, Sidney had given little thought to showing vulnerability vs showing strength and his short life has given him little experience with either.
After a moment or two of thinking about vulnerability and strength, a clear image formed in my mind — 94-year-old Grandmother Louise, my husband’s grandmother and Sidney’s great-grandmother. She, more than anyone else I could think of, is the epitome of a courageous vulnerability.
She buried her dear husband and 3 adult children. At the age of 80, this tiny fragile woman hopped on a plane to Tokyo to visit another son. At 86, she moved from her flatland home in Kansas to the mountainous landscape and curving roads of North Carolina. This move brought her to live with a daughter and son-in-law who could care for her. She gave up the independence of driving and exchanged her church denomination for her daughter’s church. Her willingness to give up her old life and habits, to bring herself under the care of another was an admission of vulnerability, her need for help in living. Grandma Louise’s quiet acceptance was graceful, courageous and even joyful. Perhaps her embracing of joy was the most courageous part of her life.
For the last 8 years, Grandma Louise lived next door. It is an easy walk through the woods and donkey pen to my inlaws’ home, where she lived. She never once walked the path through the woods to our house — the uneven ground a threat to her balance and breakable bones. Eventually, she exchanged her cane for a walker. Hers was a quiet, scheduled life of meals, medications, shopping on Fridays, church on Sundays. She could have withdrawn from the world into depression or apathy. She could have become bitter as the people she loved died before her, and little by little, she lost strength, ability, independence, hearing and memory.
Instead, she actively participated in the lives of her family far and near, in the small ways that she could manage — sending birthday cards to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — all 78 of them. Although her necessary schedule of meal, meds and multiple bathroom trips complicated life, she was always ready to shuffle to the car with her walker and travel 4 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours away to visit family.
Year after year, she faithfully came to birthday parties and music recitals. She patiently sat, observing her loved ones around her, trying to hear our words and understand our lives.
She fully lived the limited life she had. She laughed loudly and girlishly at our lame jokes, clapped her hands when we played the piano or cello. She delighted in our baby goats. She patiently listened to complicated explanations of technological “magic” — her amazement with digital cameras and the internet never waned. She encouraged us, smiled at us.
Quite simply, she did little more than take joy in our presence.
When Grandma Louise could no longer swallow food and water and the only alternative was a feeding tube, she came home to die.
By this time, her short-term memory was so bad, that she often repeated the same question or story within 30 minutes. So I am not sure she remembered that she was dying. My mother-in-law had to remind Grandma Louise that she could not give her water to drink. The water would only go to Grandma’s lungs, causing her to aspirate, making pneumonia and dying in the hospital likely. My mother-in-law could only swab Grandma’s mouth with a wet sponge. Grandma would look confused for a second, then ask, “Is that what the doctor said, Sandy?”“Yes, Mama.” She would then nod her head and let her daughter swab her mouth, trusting her daughter to care for her.
Interestingly, though she seemed to keep forgetting this dying business, Grandma remembered that one granddaughter was due to deliver her first child soon. In her last days of life, she continued to ask for news of this most recent great-grandchild. The loss of her short term memory could not make Grandma forget what was important.
The day after Grandma came home from the hospital, we all walked through the woods for a visit. She welcomed us into her room with a smile and asked the children to play the piano for her. Grandma loved her music and played almost to the end. And she loved to hear others play for her.
Grandma accepted her vulnerability and her need for care, but she did it with a cheerful courage, content to do what little bit she could for the people she loved.
That little bit turned out to be a whole lot.
Those last days that we spent with Grandma Louise were sad and joyful, painful and beautiful. One of those days, she reminisced about the time Sid, I and the children drove to Kansas to visit her. We smiled and nodded our heads.
She stopped abruptly, gave us a quick look and asked, “I’ve already talked about that today, haven’t I?”
Throwing up her hands, she says with vague surprise, “I just keep repeating myself, but all these people keep coming to see me anyway!”
Lots of people did come to see her. They traveled from Tokyo, San Francisco, Minnesota, Kansas and Virginia. They visited with Grandma and with each other. Lincoln played cello for her and relatives reminisced, hugged, ate, laughed, cleaned, played and cried together.
She didn’t think much of herself, but a lot of people still think very much of her.
A few days ago, my 13 yo son, Lincoln, was worried about one of his rabbits. She had been wounded, her eye oozing blood from a predator attempting to get into her cage. After much debate, we finally decided to leave her alone, hoping she would heal on her own. Lincoln felt helpless. He could find no peace, couldn’t focus on school, his thoughts unsettled. I held his hand and prayed with him, encouraging him to “take his thoughts captive.”
A little later, he came down the stairs with a smile on his face. “I was having a hard time,” he said. “I went to your blog and read your latest post and it calmed me down.”
My blog . . . . .I’ve always disliked that word . . . . . . this place where I write — it is my psalm.
For years, it has been my refrain —– an intentional, repeated focus on what is good, true, and praiseworthy.
And also an expression of hope and trust that there will be more joy on the morrow.
At first, it struck me as a novel, and encouraging, thought that perhaps my own psalm could function as my son’s psalm too. Though further thought proved less surprising — my stories are his stories. They belong to him too.
Maybe one day, when he is older and our paths diverge, he will write his own stories, his own psalms.
Mostly, I see the black stroke of our words against the stark contrast of paper in my mind.
And I think, “I’ve never read dialogue like that in any book.”
This past week, I have taken note of Sid’s words, followed by a bit of context.
“You are the architect of my *%$#*$#@ destruction.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . (He told me this after I talked him into staying up late to watch a movie and he realized just how late it was.)
“I admire you dreadfully.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . (I don’t remember the context. My brain hinged on the juxtaposition of admire and dreadfully, trying to decipher his intent. I am still working on that one. Sid tells me he was being all literary and referencing Dickens’ Great Expectations).
“Oh, honey, you know that your desire is for me and I am to rule over you.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . ..(I was very sad and tearful, and I *think* he was trying to cheer me up. Pagans should reference Genesis for further clarity).
“This is one of those times when you love me so much, you don’t realize how much you love me.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .(I think he had done something in the kitchen, not quite like I had asked. I do remember biting my lip to keep silent. He must have noticed the lip-biting and thus . . . .the inane comment).
I feel inspiration for the kids’ free writes coming on. I could assign them the task of writing down their dialogue occasionally. Or maybe give them a bit of real dialogue with the challenge to frame a story around it.