Remembrance, and Moving On

A couple of years ago I wrote about the the end of a friendship — as slow as I was to acknowledge it, I finally had that moment of letting go.   Two months ago, Martha wrote me a long letter, something by way of apology/explanation, though in fact not quite either.  One phone call, one letter, thirteen years.  And this is how I know I have let go:  it did not really matter.  Not the letter, not the contents.  The questions I asked myself — was it something I did, why was I not worthy, could I have changed anything — those questions and the sadness were long gone, liberated two-and-a-half years ago by the simple act of “delete contact.”

We have our medical school reunion in a month.  Martha says we will see each other then; I think not.  My wonderful therapist has a different take on this: the meeting would be a closure for Martha — letting her know that it is OK for her to stop feeling guilty about me, to stop feeling guilty that I am not one of “her people.”  She too can let it be.

In the winter of our 4th year in medical school, one of The Amigas had her daughter.  The day Martha told me Caitlin had the baby was the day I found out that (1) she had been pregnant, and (2) she married the father of the baby many months ago.  On that day (yes, slow to catch on) I knew I was not a friend and had never been.   Today, from the sidelines of co-chairmanship, I am an observer of this group of middle-aged women who have managed to remain friends for almost 30 years.  They have known about all the major events in each other’s lives, they have bitched and shared and celebrated together through the years, and this fall, they will gather again to bitch and share and celebrate.   I wish them the best of times.

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Procrastination

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A Little Old Lady (my Mom) lived here.  Years before she died, the 12-foot vertical blinds started to shed slats.  She stopped opening the blinds because as soon as she did so, another slat (or two or three) would fall down.  And my parents dutifully left the fallen slats in a neat pile at the bottom of the windows so that my brother, who promised he would reinstall them, would know which slats went where.

This went on for a couple of decades.

The last time I visited Dad, I decided it was time to take care of the blinds.  More slats had fallen since Mom died 3 1/2 years ago, to the point that the HOA cited Dad for having gaps in the blinds clearly visible from the street.  I brought curtain panels that DH’s Mom had made for our first house 25 years ago, figuring that those curtains could not possibly look any worse than gap-toothed vertical blinds.  DH and I installed the red-and-yellow floral curtains first — and not a moment too soon.  A few more slats fell and then the blinds refused to slide at all, but luckily they stalled on either side of the curtains so that it all looks intentional.

Feeling inspired, we tackled the other set of windows.  Until a week ago, the windows at the right had the green-and-pink curtains only on the bottom, while the top had two large pieces of cardboard.  Yup, cardboard.  For FIFTEEN YEARS sort of cardboard.  I always thought it strange that my OCD mother did not make curtains for both windows.

I found the two brand-new curtain panels in her linen closet: she had indeed made enough curtains, but didn’t hang them at the top.

Well, of course Mom did not put them up — she needed my brother to do that for her.  And he procrastinated, and procrastinated, and at some point, my mother gave up.  She lived with the cardboard for all those years because my brother could not spare 15 minutes out of his day.  The “deferred maintenance” list grows every time I visit: the non-existent weather-stripping on the patio door, the leaky shower head, the leaky tub faucet, the toilet that no longer flushes, the bathroom sink that does not drain, the washer tub that fills between use, the kitchen faucet broken since last summer.  Dad doesn’t live there any more, but I know Mom knows about the list.  And the slats continue to fall.

What is procrastination?  It is one way of saying “fuck you” to the world: my time is more important than you.  Not just your time, or your needs, but YOU the person.

I am due for another visit in October, and I bought TWO return tickets.  One for a return in 2 weeks, the other for a return in 3 days . . . .  because if the kitchen faucet still isn’t fixed (it has been a year since I pointed it out to my brother, and the only other sink downstairs is the one that does not drain), I really was going to go home early.  I’ll be damned if I am going to keep listening to Mom complaining.

The Three of Us

My medical school preceptors considered me a rather mediocre student; it was not necessarily a wrong assessment.  I kept my head down, I made no waves, I just wanted to be done . . . .  because being lower than whale dung really sucks.  Other students were much more savvy: look eager, ask lots of questions (especially ones you know the answers), flatter the attendings.  Get good evaluations, and you are on your way to the rest of your life.  

The rest of my life did not follow, but it is many years later now, and it is a reunion year.  The alumni reunion coordinator had no volunteers to be our class co-chairs, so I thought, “Why not?”  Why not, indeed.  This is not altruism, it is an experiment on myself:  I have time, I want to know if this could be my personal Creative Morning, and I am curious how my former classmates define success. 

I wrote a reunion letter so inspiring that am tempted to go to the reunion!  And then, the coordinator gets not one, not two, but three more volunteers:

The three of us are willing to be the co-chairs for the upcoming class of ’93 reunion. None of us have a whole lot of time . . .  blah blah blah . . . 

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Well gosh.  The Three of Us and Bisy Backson, all in one!  

The coordinator has sent my inspirational reunion letter on to The Three of Us, and is sure that they will “connect” with me.  She is so optimistic — but I suppose she has to be to deal with medical alumni. 

I am back remembering the day I realized that The Three of Us (or rather, The Six of Us, of which The Three of Us was a subset) and I had never been friends.  These women were a clique back then, and they remain a clique now.  And of course, the core truth of a clique is that while you-the-outsider can clearly identify them as the clique, they do not identify you as anything because they never think about you at all.  On that day I remember my truth: “How stupid am I?”

But there is hope yet for my inner Opie: the memories are vivid, but they no longer sting.  And that is very good news indeed because I am, of course, on tenterhooks waiting to see whether I will be noticed by The Three of Us Bisy Backsons!

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Tenter frames, Otterburn Mill, Northumberland

Treasures

Almost three years after Mom’s death, I continue to find things she — and Dad — saved.  Yesterday was a day of days as I tackled cobwebs.   Mom feared open windows and closed doors:  open windows meant drafts, and closed doors signified  secrets.  So of course all the spider places are along window tracks she never used, behind open doors she never closed.  As I crawled around cleaning, I was distracted by cabinet doors Mom never dusted — but then, who wipes down cupboard doors, or any other doors, these days?

I found her sewing box in a wet bar cabinet.  It is a plastic multi-tiered affair of avocado green, and inside I found a mostly unused spool of lime green thread.  Mom bought that thread for the  pants I made in my 7th grade sewing class.  The pants were indeed lime green, high-waisted, flare-bottomed, with a zipper at the back.  I remember getting an A on the project; I was so proud of that zipper!  Mom, on the other hand, had nothing good to say about my pants:  she hated the color, the fabric, the cut.   A few years ago, Mom and I were talking about something to do with sewing, and I said I was too scared of zippers, and she said she remembered that I did a good job on the pants zipper.  I am sure in her memory, she liked the pants too!

In the wet bar, in a drawer that is a repository of obsolete remote controls and cordless phone sets, I found a small ziplock bag with a few bits of broken shells and rocks.  When  the College Student was 8 or 9, we stopped at a beach in Santa Barbara on our way to a family reunion.  The College Student forgot the bag when she packed to come home, then she forgot about the shells entirely.  Mom saved it, because she’s Mom.  She would  not have wanted to tell her granddaughter that she tossed her little treasures.

Kiri's shells

 

 

More Things I Forgot to Remember

During my medical training, attendings reminded us again and again to treat patients with dignity:  simple things, such as addressing them by title and last name, keeping them properly draped during physical examinations, sitting down at eye level when possible. The physical nature of the relationship between doctors and patients does not always bode well for that injunction:  there is no dignity in the rectal exam, or in dropping an NG tube, or in any of the many invasive things we do to patients during the acts of healing.  Nevertheless, there are certain things we can do that serve as reminders that our patients are adults, and that their bodies and minds deserve care with compassion and dignity.

So I had forgotten with my father.

“Dad, please eat the last few bites.”  I feed him.

“Dad, you need to take a shower.”  I undress him, I put him in the shower, I soap, I wipe, I dry, I redress him.

“Dad, time to brush your teeth.”  I put toothpaste on toothbrush, fill the cup, watch him brush.

“Dad, wash your hands.”  I give him soap, or hand sanitizer, and I watch to make sure he cleans his hands.

“Dad, please don’t use the stairs by yourself.”  I sleep on a makeshift bed, a human barricade on the staircase landing so that he cannot go downstairs in the middle of the night.

All these things that I think my father need to do, but that he refuses to do on a regular basis.  They are for his own good, right?  Why would he refuse to take care of personal hygiene, or to eat, or to get out of bed, or to do any number of other things that any reasonable human being does, as he did do for most of his life, but has stopped doing since Mom died?

My father is his own person, with his own reasons, making his own choices.  Who am I to try to force him on a course he doesn’t want to take? He wants to be with Mom, and as a thinking being, he is doing something about it.  And it’s about time I remembered the lessons of compassion and dignity.  No question it is a hard thing to watch my father dying, and to let him go on his own terms.  I choose to believe that is his gift to us:  that we are not his parents.

Conversation of the Month:

Me:  “Could you make sure after guests leave Mom and Dad’s house that you clean the                     toilets?  They were filthy after _____ stayed for 8 days back in May, and I had to                     clean them when I got here, 5 months after the fact.  Not fun.”

Brother:  “I did check the toilets, they were fine!”

Me:  “Did you flip the seats up and look underneath?”

Brother (in bewilderment):  “Why would I want to do that?”

In the Autumn of My Life

When white American men get angry and scared, they elect someone who is all they think they want to be.  He is white, he has gobs of money, he is a taker of women, money, property.  He is a racist, he is anti-intellectual, he is apparently amazingly potent — look at the much-younger beautiful-but-thick-as-a-brick wife, the many kids!  He would turn back the clock for all these angry and scared white men to a time when everyone knew where people of color belonged, where women belonged, where there were no such things as LGBT people (let alone rights for them), where Americans were home-grown and had a special relationship with God, where American military-industrial complex governed the world.

As a citizen, an immigrant, a woman, an intellectual, a believer in the rationality of science, a basically ethical human being, I am saddened by the election.  As a historian, I will take the long view, and I know America will survive this.  I don’t believe in American exceptionalism, but I do believe in American resilience.  I am happy to live in a state that did NOT vote him in, and I will do something I never really did before: pay attention to state’s rights.  As a doctor, I am glad that Colorado has become the 6th state to allow right-to-die measures for the terminally ill.  It was a sad election day, but with bright spots and hope intact for the future, for the next four years I will do my best to take care of my little corner of America.

In that little corner, I have other things to think about:

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It’s not just any old knife:  I coveted this knife for the last two decades, and almost two years after Mom died, I brought her knife home.  Today I took it to Jim, my favorite knife sharpener.  He has been retired for years, but he sets up his tools every year during the summer outside one of our local grocery stores, and the rest of the year he sharpens knives and tools out of his garage.  Every time I bring in my other Mac knife (swiped from Mom years ago), he tells me how much he loves these Japanese knives.  Dad took care of Mom’s knives the old-fashioned way, with a whetstone.  This knife was Mom’s everyday/everything knife, and in the last few years, Dad stopped sharpening it for her, much the same way he stopped doing various things around the house for her.  Since her death, he has also stopped doing things for himself.

Dad is down to skin-and-bones now; he can barely get himself out of bed, he needs help bathing, he has a walker he hates to use but has to because he fell and broke his wrist.  Dad was a skinny kid and a skinny young man.  After he came to America, he finally developed a belly.  That belly would go up and down a bit and up again, and when it got too Pooh-like, Mom would put him on a diet.  For 50-something years, he had that belly, and he lost it all in the last year.  I help him bathe, and I am shocked by all he is now.  No fat, no muscle, just skin and bones.  He is so brittle.

I wait for Mom to take him home.

Oars

From Anne of Green Gables (the Kevin Sullivan production of 1985):

Marilla to Matthew, while discussing Anne’s invitation to the Christmas ball: “Remember, in the beginning, I told you not to put your oar in.”

I should have remembered about the oars — and the fact that oars can propel one forward, or backward:

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Image courtesy of National Media Museum, UK

I thought I would have a chat with the Bride-of-the-Century about being kinder to her mother.  This is the mother who went into debt to give her daughter the Wedding of the Century and then could not understand why said daughter ignored her on the wedding day.  This is also the same mother who routinely got the cold shoulder for inexplicable reasons, along with the “dumb as shit” eye-roll treatment when she and BOC got into (usually pointless) arguments.  Anyway, I didn’t get very far.  BOC went running to Mom to complain that I was “freaking her out” by wanting to have this talk, and furthermore, this future conversation was ruining her upcoming spring vacation.  Mom of Diva told me in no uncertain terms that really, I had no business trying to have a conversation with her daughter, and that she would never do this sort of thing with my daughter without clearing it with me first.  BOC is TWENTY-EIGHT years old this year, gainfully employed, a wife, a mother (unfortunately to budding Diva #2, but that’s another post). Who knew I could “freak out” both mother and daughter?   I genuinely thought I had been in BOC’s life long enough — watched her grow up and all that — that I could offer some minor words of wisdom.  I thought I could help.

I could not, of course.

BOC’s life is one of drama, and where there is none, she manufactures it.  We are all expected to be spectators, and I should have known all that based on her wedding production.  It did not occur to me that Mom was not only willing, but was in fact an absolutely essential participant.  I used to rag on BOC’s Dad for his seeming unwillingness to rein her in; I now realize that it truly was more than his life was worth to even attempt to interfere in the incredibly entwined mother-daughter relationship.  It is a dysfunctional relationship, but one that both need in their lives.

I regret all the times I told The College Kid that she had to babysit Diva #2, had to go have dinner, had to participate in some event or other . . . .  not because those things were not important, but because I should have let her to manage her own relationships.  I hope she would have done all those things anyway because she loves her godmother, but nevertheless I should have trusted her judgment, young as she was.

Now I sit in the back row, or perhaps I am actually up in the gods, but I am at least much more removed than I used to be.  The view from here is just fine, and of course too far to toss an oar.