The Space Between

THE SPACE BETWEEN

sumos quo sumos

-Lake Woebegone Official Motto

LARRY RICHARDSON
They say, (the people who know), 
the universe is mostly space. 
An empty place. 
Furthermore, these people who know 
insist that the same is true 
for me and you. 

We are all, it seems, 
just lots of nothing 
between tiny bits of solid stuff, 
just barely enough 
to hold us all somewhat together and,
to the world, make it appear 
that we are here. 

But this one thing I think I know for sure: 
a person needs a God to know 
and room to grow. 
And one place where there’s God and room,  
from everything I’ve seen, 
is the space between. 

Larry Richardson

Physical Therapists came yesterday to get Mom to stand and transfer to the reclining chair. The goals for her care have been the same for several days now. They are written on the dry erase board.

  1. Keep systolic blood pressure under 180.
  2. Increase awareness.
  3. Decrease oxygen demands.
  4. Out of bed.

The two therapists aimed at Goal #4. When they asked if she wanted to get out of the bed for a while (the orders are for two hours,) Mom said “No.” When coaxed about three times, and asked if she would help them get her up, she said, “Okay.” She helped to swing her legs around off the bed, and the female therapist said, “Well, look at you! And you’ve got a pretty pedicure, too!” When each therapist linked an elbow to each of Mom’s for support, she tried to push herself up with her hands, one of which is laden with IV needles and tubes. She got up, sort of, but she had no strength to turn herself to the near right to sit on the chair.

After the third try, they put her back in bed. She bent her knees on command and helped them scoot her up in the bed. Then they adjusted this fancy bed to simulate a chair.

She fell asleep as soon as they left the room. When her head bent dramatically to her shoulder, I lifted her head and re-positioned her pillow to make a support.

I wondered, What are we doing here? And then I thought, She really needs to be at home.

This morning, two nurses used the fancy lift in the room to move her to a chair. That machine is amazing! She ate five spoonfuls of oatmeal, drank half a cup of milk, and has been sleeping ever since. The breakfast tray sent earlier was not touched. At lunch, she tried to drink V-8 juice, but it didn’t taste right to her.

Getting her to eat is not one of the goals, even though she eats very little. I’m pretty sure I can prepare food that she won’t eat as well as the hospital does. (I threw that little funny in to make sure we see a little humor.)

The plan is to move her upstairs to what I have always called a step-down unit, a section of the hospital for those moving from ICU to regular hospital rooms or skilled nursing facilities. The criteria for that move is when she is medically able. While she is there, the caseworkers might usually plan for her move to a rehabilitation center. That is not going to happen, the move to a rehabilitation center. I’ve put that out there for everyone.

This morning, watching Mom sound asleep, crumpled in the bed, vulnerable to whatever treatment she receives and whatever is going on around her, I know she needs to be at home, in her own familiar bedroom, with Dixie, Dave, and Neil, and normal routines. (Well, “normal” for the Compound residents might not look normal, but it’s our normal.) We can plan for Home Healthcare, and we will provide true care at home.

She is more lucid than she has been, and she understands a lot of what I tell her, but she is still not completely in the real world. Or maybe it’s that she is in her world, and who’s to say that’s not the real world.

Now I wonder if she will ever be medically able to leave the ICU and at what point the doctor says, “Okay, I give up.” A nurse told me, “They don’t do that. They just keep trying different things.” Her awareness has increased. Her oxygen demands have been met and could continue at home. She’s helped out of bed each day. But there’s that first goal: If she did not have the high-powered drugs delivered by the needle in her arm, she would stroke within hours.

Today, three nurses tried twice each to start a new IV. Mom’s veins are fragile. I asked, “Okay, what’s the next step?”

A pretty blonde nurse answered, “We call in the professionals, the IV therapists.”

About thirty minutes later, a tiny woman appeared with gear in hand. She looked experienced. I asked if I could watch. On the first try, she couldn’t get the IV in, but on the second try (in the other arm), she made a perfect deep stick and entry. I learned a bit and was glad she let me watch, but that’s not really what I want to look at. I hope I never see another needle in Mom’s arm.

I like to picture Mama sleeping in a gauzy forest bed of flowers between two white veils. Through one of the semi-sheer curtains, she sees and feels the comfortable life in her apartment in the Compound and the beauty of all the blooms and foliage right now outside her kitchen window. Dixie runs over to lie in her lap every morning. Dave cares for her as he would his own mom. Neil fixes things and makes her laugh. I’m always there for her. She drinks orange Gatorade every morning followed by her favorite homemade mocha, enjoys her lunch from a tray on her lap, and eats sliced strawberries soaked in sweetened milk. Her nightgown is laid out on the bed each evening, along with night underwear and hospital socks.

Behind the other veil, there is a beckoning Bright Light, so bright that the semi-transparent drape almost disappears. At some point, the Love in that Light will become irresistible. The soul will make her choice.

At the end of this day, I watch her sleep soundly in her ICU bed. Today, she has fulfilled the requirement of getting out of bed and proven her awareness has increased by remembering her full name and the month she was born every time someone asks. (1931? She doesn’t come up with that.) She receives the oxygen well and is not struggling to breathe.

Her blood pressure spikes again and a nurse starts the IV drip.

I think, for this moment, Mama is warm and happy in the space between.

-0-

Woman of the Years

Just a few short months ago, Mama was truly declining. And then, a couple weeks ago, not long after I wrote the last blog piece, Mama got up from her chair!

Mama didn’t like that motorized wheelchair. Her physical therapist told her if she didn’t want to use that, she better get in gear and exercise those legs! I heard her when she made her first trip to the kitchen sink and did kicks and stretches for fifteen minutes. Then I heard her again the same day. She started walking laps around the apartment with her walker.

She didn’t say it to me, but I heard her. “You just wait and see what I can do.”

After about three days, she started dressing herself in the mornings, cleaning if there happened to be an accident in the night. She layered on the Thrive Causemetics eyeshadow stick to match her shirt, penciled in her eyebrows, and fluffed up her hair. About two days after that, she went to the kitchen and poured her own Gatorade (her way to start the day) and got her pills from the daily box, put her eye drops in, and ate her probiotic gummies.

Then, and only then, did she call me to come up from my downstairs office. (I call it The Study. Dave calls it Your Cave. I try to make it down there by 6:30.) It was close to eight o’clock, which means I have almost an hour and a half to take care of some kind of business before caretaking duties begin.

Now, when I greet Mom, it’s only to finish up daily cleaning tasks in her bedroom and make us both a cup of coffee. Well, she drinks a homemade instant mocha mix that we strive to keep enough of in her canister. We visit about this and that, mostly her reporting what she has learned on the phone with friends and family or the TV. I do housework and laundry in between tales.

On shower day, she helps as much as she can. I wash her back and make sure her hair is rinsed well. We both dry her off and get her ready for the day.

I go back to give her some lunch, or some days, she reheats leftovers from the day before, and I sit down to eat lunch with her about three days a week. About five, I return to make a light supper and do her “turn-down service.” I lay out her gown and night socks and a couple pairs of underwear on her bed, check her c-pap to make sure it has enough water, and place her evening pills in a shot glass on the kitchen counter.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. My mother has been bouncing back her whole life.

March, it turns out, is Women’s History Month and one of March’s days, the 8th, is International Women’s Day. I thought I’d tell you a little story about when Mama made her stand for her rights and equal pay with her male colleagues at Texas Boot Company.

When a new Department Head came in a few years after Mom began her stint as a Regional Credit Manager, he interviewed all the managers, sort of a getting-to-know-you outreach. His name was Jim, and the departing Head, Bill. At the end of their talk, he said, “And I’m going to continue Bill’s work on trying to get your pay up to the men’s.”

I can just see Mom’s eyebrows. “Oh?” she said. “Just how much do ‘the men’ make?”

He said, “I’m not sure of each one, but I can find out.” He reached behind his desk to the credenza, pulled out a black notebook, and thumbed through until he landed on the right page and put it on the desk in front of Mom, upside down, and left the room.

Mom could always read fast, especially if she was looking at numbers, and she got what she needed to know in the few seconds the book lay open.

***

She called me the next day and described what she saw.

“Do you know a lawyer who would take my case?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “but you really need to file a complaint with the EEOC.”

“Alright. How do I get started?”

“I think I’d just call their office downtown and ask what you need to do.”

She did. It didn’t take long for her to get an appointment. She called and asked if I could drive her to downtown Nashville. Always ready for a fun fight and rarely finding one, I was happy to take the day off and oblige.

I’m surprised they let me go into the meeting with her but there I was, listening to Mom give voice to a wrong, headed toward the right.

When she was finished, she crossed her hands in her lap and let out a long sigh. “Do I need to find an attorney?”

“You have an attorney. He’s coming through the door.”

Both of us sized up a very tall, muscled black man standing in the doorway. He introduced himself.

Mom said, “Nice to meet you,” and I said, “Likewise,” and we shook his hand in turn. Mom said later that she was thinking, “Well, if they don’t give him what he says, he could just beat it out of them.” It made me laugh.

Texas Boot was owned by General Shoe Company. Both the EEOC attorney and the General Shoe attorney, a woman, arrived the next day. The EEOC man came first and called General Shoe. The company’s attorney was in New York but arrived just after lunch.

The General Shoe attorney’s assistants started pulling personnel files, Mom said, to try to find something against her that they could use for leverage. There wasn’t anything there.

In less than three weeks, Mom received a check for several thousand dollars from the company’s treasurer, accumulated underpayment for years of service as Regional Credit Manager for the West Coast. Harry Vise, the former owner of Texas Boot, and now GSI’s head of the Lebanon plant, called Mom to his office. He said he wanted her to know there were no hard feelings on his part.

Then they talked about old times. Mom and Dad went way back with Mr. Vise. Both had worked in the factory many years before when he owned the company. Dad had been a Cumberland University married student with a wife and two children and needed part-time work to help support the family. Mom’s income as a fancy stitcher on Western boots was their main income. Mr. Vise, who was Jewish, knew Dad as a minister and called on him often when someone in the factory needed guidance or spiritual help. There was always room in some department when Dad had hours he could work.

At Christmastime, Mr. Vise insisted on a company party, where there was a small show and the singing of carols. He always requested Joy to the World. (We never understood that.) I remember singing for that party when I was about eight years old. I think I performed my rendition of I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas. At the end of every party, every employee received a gift basket from Mr. Vise. There was always a turkey in the basket—and a ham.

The local head of human resources asked Mom if she was really staying with her job. She said yes, and he asked if she would like to be Jim’s Assistant department head.

She wondered aloud what kind of increase in pay might be at hand. He said none, but the duties would change some.

She declined on the spot and said if the company ever intended to pay for a real Assistant Head, she’d like a shot at it.

The General Shoe attorney called every morning for several weeks to ask Mom if she was being treated well. Mom said she hadn’t noticed any difference, that she’d always got along well with all the men.

She kept her position, receiving regular raises until she retired at age 67. She kept in touch with several of the men she worked with and talks to her old department head every couple of months just as she did with Mr. Vise until he died in 2015.

I’ve loved Women’s History Month so far, learning about, or remembering, women who have made rich contributions to life in these United States. This morning, on The Kelly Clarkson Show, a guest said he would like to go back in time — I can’t remember how far — to experience life before technology and such.

“Wouldn’t you?” he asked.

“Well, no, I wouldn’t,” Kelly answered quickly, “because I’m a woman!”

Mom and I both laughed and cheered. Mom said she didn’t want to go back to any place in time because she loves right now and is excited about what changes come in the next few years.

No wonder she’s my International Woman of the Year. Forever.

-0-

Caregiving. Sad.

I am weepy today, and I’m not sure why. There was a power outage last night for a couple of hours. Trying to get air from my c-pap machine woke me in the pitch black at midnight. I was reminded of old dreams of the dark.

I moved slowly to the bathroom just in case something might trip me. “Shower day,” I thought. “Today is Mom’s shower day.”

The alarm sounded at six.

Mom is doing well except for her lack of mobility and searching for words. She asked for something after her shower, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. She said, “I want my …” and I said, “What, Mom, what do you want?” She answered, “I want my …” two times more after the first. One time I said, “Lotion? Do you want more lotion?” She shook her head. “Do you want a different top?” She didn’t answer and didn’t pose another question. I never found out what she wanted.

After we dried her off, I combed and arranged her hair and applied eye shadow and eyebrow pencil. She wanted to do her own lipstick.

She headed for her chair in the den while I got her morning pills and Gatorade and freshened her water bottle. I gathered all the towels, the pad from her bed, nightgown, and hospital socks, took them to the washer, threw in the detergent pod, and set the load for Small so the water and additions would all get mixed together quickly. Then I added the clothes. “I want my…” I said to myself.

Later, we sat together in the den. After coffee, she sipped water from her purple container (We always try to match her outfit of the day) and I drank a Diet Coke. “Do we have any…” she asked. When she can’t find the word, she clasps her fingers and thumb together over and over. She told me that my step-grandmother made that particular motion after her stroke. Her name was Ethel, too, and she’d been married to my mother’s father for sixty-plus years. She was more like family than my real grandmother who died of lung and liver cancer in California a few years ago. Granny Ethel couldn’t ask a question, though. She just said, “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee,” and made that clasping gesture.

Mom pointed to my Coke again and asked, “Do we have any…” and I said, “Coke?” She shook her head no and I asked, “Iced tea? I just made some fresh tea.”

“No-ooo. Oh, you know…”

I didn’t.

“I drink it,” she said.

“Root beer!”

She was nodding her head. “Yes, yes, yes. Root beer.”

“You have plenty in your supply closet. I’ll put some in the refrigerator, okay?”

I left for the kitchen and forgot why I went before I got there. It always helps to bend over the sink with my head in my hands. If that doesn’t work, I have to retrace my steps.

Ah, root beer. In the closet.

As I finished placing the last of the six-pack, it occurred to me to ask, “Do you want root beer now?”

“Yes, I just want to drink a little root beer now.”

“Here you go,” I said as I set the bubbling glass on the table beside her chair. “Now I’m going downstairs for a bit. I’ll be back to get your lunch.”

“I’m not hungry now.”

“I know. I’ll be back when you get hungry.”

It was 11:50 when I closed the elevator door and pressed Down.

I asked myself, “What is this sadness?”

A friend sent a funny, funny video in a message and I laughed like crazy! It made me think to look on Facebook for some inspiration or another chuckle. I started to write this piece for my blog and thought to change the cover photo. I never know how to do anything in WordPress. It’s always several trials and even more errors.

Media. I needed to go to media to see which photo to use to capture the reader’s attention and give them some kind of insight into my theme. In those pictures, I saw the story of our ten years here on the ravine.

When we first moved here, we had a large skulk of foxes. We watched them with delight for two years, and then they moved on. I retired and lost the years and years of friendships I’d cultivated at work. One deep friendship gave way to the new distance between us. I left church–and relinquished a community. Mom and Dad stopped attending their church and that peripheral group was gone.

We have no more grandBABIES…The oldest one is 18 now, the youngest 6. That happened all too quickly. No more Grammy Days, or rides in GrammyVan, or the little liars telling convincing fictional stories tricking us into believing that they were reality.

Dave’s closest friends have passed away since we moved here, and the Corner Pub, the afternoon gathering spot for them closed. Murphy, our fifteen-year-old Shih-tzu, crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.

Dad died. I almost lost myself.

Mom is sliding away. She tries to be present. I’m still her baby. She’s still funny at times and we laugh and laugh. But I know she’s going. I feel her leaving.

Last week, Neil, the one I called our semi-permanent houseguest, moved on. As frustrated as I could sometimes get, I miss him.

I don’t grieve for the older losses like I did when they first happened. I feel community and warmth from a group of fantastic women in my book club and in my writing group.

There’s a bunch of birds at our feeders. One little house finch lives in the eaves of Mom’s porch and greets me almost every morning.

Dixie, our three-year-old rip-roaring personality in a mix of Shih-Tzu and Poodle, is a gift of affection and loyalty. Maybe she’ll be around twelve more years.

Diana (another Diana) moved into The Cellar and brought a delightful breath–no, a light wind–of fresh air.

And Dave still loves me unconditionally. We’ll be married 25 years in April. Those years passed in fast-forward speed, it seems. Something in me wants to ask, “How many more years will we have?”

This isn’t the regular, or normal, depression. I’d recognize that.

This is different. I just get sad.

For the love of firefighters…

We knew it was going to be a rough night. There were pictures of red mornings all over Facebook, and besides, Bree Smith on Channel 5 said so. The rain started in the early evening, we went to bed, and then the weather sirens blew, all the phones sounded the alarms, and we turned on the TV where Meteorologist Kikki Dee was saying “Go to your safe place…”

I swapped my pajama bottoms for a dirty pair of cargoes and headed over to wake up Mama. See, we all gather downstairs in The Cellar, the efficiency apartment where I used to write and cook and sew. Now Neil lives there. We knew he’d be upstairs shortly to herd us down, and he was. Dave told him we were headed down.

Mama used to go down the stairs from our den to The Cellar. She can’t do that anymore, so I knew we had to get her down the lift. When I got to her bedroom, she was ready to go–except for having any clothes on. Actually, she did. She was wearing her red metallic Easy Spirits. I dressed her in a clean gown, grabbed her robe, and got her to her walker, and she began a slow trek to the lift. God bless that lift!

Dave took Dixie and headed to our safe place. Neil was at the ready.

I turned on the lights in the elevator and edged Mom in. She sat on her walker, and I pushed the button.

I said, “I didn’t get my bra on, but I’ve got it tucked into my pants.”

She looked up at me. “I didn’t even have time to get my dentures.”

“Yeah,” I said, “we’re a sight.”

We were about a foot from the floor in The Study when the electricity went out.
“Uh, oh,” she said.

“Hmmm,” I said, “I wonder how the battery kicks in.”

I felt around the outside. Nothing there. “I better call Dave.”

The storm raged.

“We’re stuck,” I told him.

“Where?”

“We’re stuck in the lift. How does the battery kick in?”

“I think it should come on automatically when the electricity goes off.”

I could hear Neil in the background. “I’m headed that way.”

Here he came with a flashlight. I guess he had to prove to himself that we were, indeed, hold up in the lift. He looked around for access to the battery.

“Don’t worry about Dave and Dixie. They’re socked in over there. Dave said he was going to take Dixie out. I said, ‘No, you’re not. You stay right here.'”

“Oh, my goodness,” Mom said.

The storm raged harder.

He tried to open the door. No, there is a safety on that door to keep it from opening to spill its contents onto the concrete floor in my study. Probably a good idea.

“I’m going to get some wrenches and try to get the door off.” He ran out the door to my dad’s old tool bench in the garage, the garage containing my study.

My mother asked, “Are we about half up or half down?” Her inflection asked me to choose between the two.

I peered at her through the dark. “We’re about a foot from the ground.”

“Oh.” She seemed satisfied–and she didn’t seem to hear the storm as it came closer and closer.

Neil loosened screws, dropped them, pried, pulled, all with no success in loosening the door.

“Maybe you should just throw us some cushions from the couch,” I told him.

“Maybe I should just call the fire department,” he said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I told him.

He walked back to the garage and I heard both him and the dispatcher talking.

After getting the correct address, she asked him, “Is this a house or apartment?”

“It’s a house,” he said.

I yelled, “It’s the APARTMENT!”

She asked him the nature of the emergency.

“I’ve got two elderly ladies stuck in an elevator.” (I made a mental note to speak to him about his definition of elderly.)

I yelled, “Wheelchair lift!”

“Are they cognizant and breathing?”

“Oh, yes, they’re breathing,” he said.

“Are they having any difficulty?”

“Well, yeah, I guess they might be having a little trouble breathing. I mean, they’re stuck in an elevator.”

I yelled, “It’s a wheelchair lift!”

“Do we need to send the paramedics?” she asked.

“Noooooo!” I yelled.

He kept talking. “They need to come through a garage door, so I’ll have it open for them. How long you think this will take?”

The storm whirred overhead and I heard crackling and something falling, it seemed like on Nolensville Road, about a quarter-mile away.

Neil called from the garage, “You hear that tree crack?”

I heard him open the garage door manually.

“Yes. Neil, you need to get out there to meet them so they know where to go.” (I mean, we still get lost from each other in The Compound, and I wasn’t sure these would be firemen who had been here before, even though we’ve had the full assortment from the stations on the South side of Nashville.)

Neil came back in The Study and said, “They should be here pretty soon. I think we just heard the worst of it pass.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I believe so. Sounds like something hit a couple streets over.”

He paused to take a picture of Mom and me in the lift. We all laughed.

“Oh, good grief, Neil,” I said.

“Don’t worry, Grandma, I only got the back of your head. Oh, I think I hear them.”

He called out from the driveway, “Yeah, right here!”

The fire truck moved a bit. Surely they didn’t drive into the driveway with that monstrosity. I still don’t know if they did.

“Right through here. I’ve got one ninety-year-old in there. The other is a young seventy-two.”

Yeah, he knows, I thought to myself. He’s trying to redeem himself.

“Are they okay?”

A good-looking fireman with a big white moustache (We’ll call him Sam Elliott) stuck his head in and then out again.

“Oh, no,” Mom said, “He got a look at us and he’s leaving.”

He came back in with two buddies. I recognized Sam Elliott and a young one with almost the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen (Leonard DiCaprio with short hair.) Leonardo spoke first. “Oh, man, I was fearing a lot worse than this,” he said.

“Yeah, you thought it was an enclosed elevator, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s what would be a lot worse.”

Leonardo said, “The worst of the storm has passed. We came from Antioch and had to dodge trees down across Old Hickory Boulevard and then trees down on side streets, and Nolensville Road has some power poles down.”

“Yeah, we heard it,” I said.

Sam Elliott and Neil talked. “What we have to do is get this door loose.”

“I tried,” Neil said. “I think I’ve loosened everything that can be loosened. It must be the magnetic lock assembly.”

Fireman #2 (I never got a good look at him) relayed that message to the others. I think he suggested a crowbar.

Nooooooo, I thought. Thousands of dollars ran through my mind. Nooooooooo.

Sam Elliott spoke to Mom. “What’s your name, Ma’am? Your last name.”

“Blair. Ethel Blair,” she said.

“Mrs. Blair, don’t worry. We’re going to get you out of there.”

“I’m not worried,” she said.

Neil asked if we needed water or anything.

Much discussion continued, and many wrenches changed hands. Neil ran back and forth, here and yon, and found exactly what they needed. Sam and #2 were able to get to the “inside screws.”

“Almost,” #2 promised.

And then they all cheered.

Neil had already set up a ladder in case they had to get in the lift to get Mom out. He took that down and set up a step-stool. Sam Elliott said, “What we need is a little stool.”

Neil came running with a Rubbermaid kitchen stool, the perfect thing.

Leonardo hadn’t been too active in the rescue, but he was fine to look at. He helped #2 open the lift door. He invited me to step out and down. First, I had to get by Mom, and that took a little bit.

Both took Mom under her arms. Sam Elliott told Leonardo, “We’re going to have to lift her down. She can’t step down that far.”

“Mrs. Blair,” Sam said, “We’re going to lift you down to the stool. Can you stand on it?”

“Yes,” she said.

“No,” I said.

Her feet barely touched the stool as they got her feet on the floor and guided her to the wheelchair that Neil had provided.

“Is everybody okay?” Sam asked. “Can you handle it from here?”

“I’ll take care of them,” Neil said.

The three of us gave our gratitude.

One of them said, “It was our pleasure.”

Thank God for first responders. Thank God the lift made it almost to the floor. Thank God for Neil.

Just as they got through the garage door, Mom said, “They can come get me any time. Whew.”

Neil and I both laughed. “Grandma!” he said.

“I can still look!” she said.

Thank God for first responders. Thank God the lift made it almost to the floor. Thank God for Neil. (Neil is handsome, too.)

How’s your mama’n’em?

Friends frequently ask me, “How’s your mother?”

What I answer depends on who asks.

For relatives and friends with whom I don’t communicate regularly, it’s tempting to say, “Fine.” I can’t see that more explanation would be helpful, certainly not to me. When close friends ask, I try to gauge the amount of time I have to answer. Sometimes I say, “She’s requiring more help now, but her mind is still sharp.” If they have time to listen, and I have a few free minutes, they might click that button that says “Learn more.” Then we engage each other briefly.

I am completely honest with my writing group, The Five Ladies-in-Writing. I know they genuinely require some details. If I haven’t asked myself the question, I sometimes have trouble formulating an answer. That’s how I learned to talk to myself about Mom; I try to speak to her condition, her care, and even my worries about the future near and far.

So, self and caregiver, how’s she doing?

Things are definitely different than a year ago.

Last year, the first time I saw Mom each morning, she was sitting in her recliner in the den. She’d made her bed and emptied her bedside commode. She’d washed herself (showered on Thursday and Sunday), put on clothes and makeup, and coordinated her jewelry to complement her outfit. She’d taken her morning meds and checked her blood pressure and weight. More often than not, she’d be drinking her morning cup of mocha. I’d found an old recipe for Instant Mocha; non-fat dry milk, powdered creamer, Nestle’s Quik or a store brand of chocolate drink mix, instant decaf, and Truvia. The TV would be on Channel 5 so she could watch Gayle King and the boys.

She’d ask what I was cooking that day, and tell me whether she’d like to have some of it. If not, she would cook for herself. She’d remind me of appointments, mine and hers, for the week, and ask me what I was going to get into that day. She’d tell me what she’d put on the grocery list, so far. Dixie would come flying into the room and demand that Mom give her an animal cracker kept on a shelf in a table by Mom’s chair.

After her treats, Dixie would settle into Mom’s lap to get morning loving.

Nowadays our morning usually goes like this. Mom calls me when she wakes. I give her a few minutes, maybe five, to sit on the side of the bed to get herself acclimated to being up. When I get there, she has part of her clothes on, or none. If she hasn’t been in the bathroom to wash, I bring her hot washcloths and towels. Somedays, we clean more than others. Maybe the bed is wet, maybe the rug beside the bed, maybe just her gown. We finish dressing. Sometimes she wears an outfit that is clean that she wore the day before. Sometimes I choose more clothes–and shoes to match. Sufficiently clothed, Mom begins the twenty steps to her dressing room with her walker.

(On shower days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, our routine varies a little. But this story is about all the other days.)

While Mom is making her way to the dressing room, I go the opposite direction through the house, turn on lights and lamps, check the pad I keep on her lift chair (she doesn’t use the lift!), unplug the new motorized wheelchair that she’s yet to master, and retrace my path to her dressing table. Sometimes she is on the vanity stool, more often just beginning to sit.

We begin her beauty routine. She applies cream to her face. I arrange her hair with a plastic pick, making curls around her face and smoothing the back. She loves hairspray and the curling iron when she’s the stylist, but I find that both make her hair brittle so I spray it with some texturizer and tweak it a little. I’ve found the softest eyeshadow pencil that both holds its color and goes on smoothly. She has blue and hazy purple. She chooses the color for the day. She wants eyebrows. I pencil them in with a charcoal pencil. She would like mascara, but the woman has double fur framing her eyes akin to Liz Taylor’s so I’ve convinced her to skip that step. (Actually, she tells me every once in a while that she wants mascara, but I tell her “Oh no, you’re not going to cover up those furry eyelashes! I’ve seen what happens when she applies mascara and I don’t even want to try it.) Lipstick: She needs dark, bright colors. She chooses from several Maybelline New York 24-hour colors. If she is feeling well, she puts it on. If not, I do it. Either way, we are as likely to miss as hit her still perfect natural lipline. I clean the oops with micellar water. She usually applies the gloss.

“Do I have earrings?” she asks. I turn to her bedroom to find a pair to match her outfit. She clips them on. If one is loose, I re-clip it.

“Okay, am I ready to go?”

I answer, “Looks like it to me. You look beautiful.”

While she walks through her dressing room, Dad’s bedroom, and down a short hall to the den, I place her morning pills into a shot glass and pour a glass of Gatorade. I take both to the den and set them on the table beside her chair. I grab her water bottle from her walker seat to exchange it for a clean one full of ice and water.

In her chair, she finds her bottle of probiotic gummies and eats them with her Gatorade, applying eye drops for her glaucoma. I return to her bedroom, empty and sanitize her bedside potty, turn the lights off, and wash my hands in her bathroom.

I ask if she’s ready for her coffee. She still drinks the mocha mix, just wants to call it coffee.

Sometimes I drink my second cup of coffee for the morning. I ask her what she wants for breakfast. She usually wants a shake, but this morning she ate sausage, half a serving of rice pudding, and toast. She drank a glass of milk.

Dave calls to ask if she wants to see Dixie. She always says she does. After Dixie eats a plate of scrambled eggs, two animal crackers, and a small handful of cashews, the two of them begin their daily love-in.

That never changes.

The things that come to mind

Dad’s birthday was September 25. He would have been ninety-two this year had he not died at eighty-nine.

I don’t really believe in heavenly birthdays. I mean, if you’ve arrived at that perfect resting place to walk streets of gold and sing in that angel choir, I can imagine a more logical celebration might be of the day you got there. That would be that day you made the transition from earth, flying to the skies. For Dad, that would be November 19.

Still, I think of Dad every September 25, and small and large events always pop up to remind me of him.

This year, a Saturday, I was in my study editing a book for a friend when Neil (our semi-permanent houseguest) knocked on the door. He held out an old pocket knife with a faded tiger-painted pearl handle and said, “I just found this. I bet it was your dad’s.”

I took it from him and answered, “Looks like his. Now if one blade is broken…” It was. I didn’t know Dad still had the knife, but I remember asking him, “Why don’t you get a new one?” He told me, “Because I like this one so much. I’m used to that broken blade. In fact, it’s come in handy in some situations.”

I laid the knife on the base of my computer monitor and stared at it for a while. The last time I saw Dad use it, he was cutting bright red string to secure tomatoes to their cages. I tried to get him to use something less showy, maybe green, but he got a big roll of crimson twine, free, from a packing company and was proud to use it.

Since Dad died, I moved my office from The Cellar to The Study. The Study was Dad’s place on the ground level of their apartment. He had it framed and made into a room when they first moved in. It was where he hid from Mom and the TV. His old wooden desk, a sofa, and all his books (about 600) and sixty years of sermons lived there, too. I sold most of his books and moved his desk out, and brought over all my furnishings and books from The Cellar, the efficiency apartment in the basement of the main house and now Neil’s place. This year, I got artwork on the walls and started using this room every day.

I come down to The Study about 6:00 am every morning. Saturday, September 25, 2021, was the same. I don’t see anyone until Mom wakes up, and I go upstairs to help her get her day started. After Neil presented himself and the pocketknife, I thanked him and, since I’d been whisked away from my editing tasks so suddenly, took a few minutes to get back into a work mood.

I hadn’t slept well the night before, so an afternoon nap was in perfect order. When I woke after an hour-and-a-half, I grabbed my phone to see if I’d missed any messages. Somehow I wound up on Gmail instead of Messages, and a New York Times headline caught my eye. “Breaking News: An Amtrak train derailed in Montana, At Least 3 Dead.”

When it was time to give Mom supper (about 4:30), I sat down for a few minutes in her living room. “Mom,” I said, “Did you see that a train derailed in Montana?”

“Oh, no. You know, that’s what your dad was afraid of when we were on that train trip to California.” My brother Denny and his wife, Bev, had given Mom and Dad tickets on the train from Nashville to California. Mom loved every minute; Dad hated it. He swore everyone that was on that train (the one to California) would be killed. He told Mom that when he got to California, he was going to get back the money paid for the return home from Amtrak and find an airplane with a flight to Nashville.

“No, you are not,” she told him, probably a bit firmly. “The kids gave us this trip because they thought we’d enjoy it, and you’re going to behave yourself.”

He did, but he didn’t like it.

We picked Mom and Dad up in Kentucky, and Dad swore he’d never get on a train again. He didn’t.

Now, sitting with Mom, I pondered what this coincidence meant, if anything.

“And on his birthday,” she said. “Amtrak. We were on an Amtrak train.”

It was time to get home and start dinner for the rest of the family. I took some compost to the porch and happened to look to the lower garden. The red dahlias had burst into bloom. They were always in bloom for Dad’s birthday. He loved red, especially red roses. “Hey, Sis,” he would ask me every September, “Are those red roses blooming in your lower garden?”

“No,” I’d answer. “They’re not roses; they’re dahlias.”

“Well, they sure are pretty. You’re certain they’re not roses…”

“I’m certain.”

This past weekend was the date for the Southern Festival of Books. Dad loved any event featuring the written word. He preferred non-fiction: politics, theology, biography. I’ve been a volunteer host for sessions for years, and Dad always wanted to know about my authors.

Like last year, the event this year was staged virtually, for the most part. I received notice of the authors who would be in conversation for my session. I got three favorites: Bobbie Ann Mason (she wrote In Country), Wiley Cash (A Land More Kind than Home), and Ron Rash (my favorite book from him is Saints At the River.)

Volunteers receive the author’s current work in the mail to use for preparation. We usually make a short introduction for each author, and we prepare questions to stimulate discussion between the authors. Serenity, the woman in charge of the sessions told me, “You don’t have to do much for these three. They know each other, and I expect them to just take off between themselves without much help from you.”

I didn’t get to read all three books before the session. I received Wiley’s novel, When Ghosts Come Home, and Ron’s collection of short stories and a novella, In the Valley, about a week before the event. I finished Wiley’s and read three selections from Ron’s. I received Bobbie Ann’s Dear Ann this week, several days after the SFB. The day before the session, I was still preparing, and the day of the session, I was trying to wrap up bios for each author. I found good information on the publishing house’s author website for Bobbie Ann’s and Wiley’s. I had to go to Wikipedia for more information on Ron Rash.

While I’d talked to each of these authors at book events, I’d never really engaged them. I hoped they played off each other as I’d heard suggested by Serenity.

They didn’t. I had to lead a bit during the session. It felt somewhat awkward at times.

Bobbie Ann appeared a little wafty, but some say that’s normal. Wiley was cute, young, and animated. Ron…well, Ron was thoughtful and quietly funny, subtly spiritual, I guess, the type of guy you just want to pat softly on the shoulder. But I knew what he’d be like. I’d seen on Wiki that his birthday is September 25.

I almost told him the red dahlias are in bloom.

Little Things Mean a Lot

My dad planted Rose’o’Sharon bushes all over The Compound. I’ve even found three purple ones just barely down the bank of the ravine. Rose’o’Sharons are not everybody’s idea of a good landscape bush. They drop those big juicy blossoms on the ground and make a mess. I didn’t enjoy them, either, until we moved here On the Ravine.

Dad brought sprouts with him from the farm, and with no particular plan in mind, tucked one here, one there, one everywhere. The one that made me fall in love with Althea, another name for Rose’o’Sharon is a soft, bridal pink that now stands as a ten-foot tree in the vegetable garden.

In The Study, Dad’s old digs in the ground level of the apartment now overhauled to suit me, a white Rose’o’Sharon fills the window with greenery and the occasional blossom with a deep red center sporting a white stem laden with pollen. Last year, I cut the bush down to the bottom of the window so I could look out on the shady private space on the side of the building. I planned for a future birdhouse, a couple of feeders, and plantings of native wildflowers.

The sweet little plant almost got a haircut again a few weeks ago (it had grown back the foot I lopped off last year), but my attention was drawn elsewhere, and Althea was left to try to catch up to the purple one and another white flanking it on either side.

For two weeks now, I’ve arrived at The Study by 6:30 A.M. I spend the first few minutes just sitting, letting thoughts wander through my mind and breathing with lazy rhythm while I gaze out the window. For the past three days, a hummingbird collecting from every blossom catches my eye. He only leaves the view momentarily to check the pollen supply on the larger bushes beside the window. When I settle in to the day’s work, he stays with me and the Rose’o’Sharon. I look up from time to time. I see him sipping and buzzing around when I leave The Study at about 9:00 each morning to attend to Mom’s morning activities.

It is a rainy afternoon today, I am writing this at almost 4:00 P.M., and here he is again! He provides a sense of calm for a while–again, even a sort of renewal, and then reminds me that it’s time to cook dinner. I say, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” turn off the monitor, and start toward the lift to the apartment.

He hovers to chatter at me before he darts away toward another feast.

I think he said, “None for me tonight, thank you. I’ve been eating all day!”

Mamas and Babies: Things change, but don’t.

I was so scared when I saw the robin eggs at eye level in a leatherleaf mahonia bush in the front landscaping. Could they possibly last long enough to hatch given snakes just out for a stroll in the warming weather? Would the nest blow out of the bush in a strong spring wind? Maybe the eggs would hatch but the naked babies never survive a neighborhood cat’s attack.

Last year there were eggs, but there were no baby robins. We thought perhaps the mama abandoned the nest when she realized her home was too close to the ground and humans would walk by at least a few times a week.

But this year, there they were just a few days later, wet feathers with oversized cloudy eyes, and mouths gaping for a feeding when I sneaked a peek. Mama threw a fit every time I passed by. Papa sat in a tall crape myrtle and issued warnings.

Just a few days later, there was a nest full of cautious little fledglings, and Mama still told the whole neighborhood when I got close. Two days ago, I checked in and if I’ve ever seen a fuller house outside of a poker game, this one was it. When I looked at them, they just hunkered down and hugged each other. Mama hollered at me from the weeping cherry nearby.

I knew it was time, and sure enough, on Saturday before Mother’s Day, they were all gone. I wondered if all of them learned to fly before something caught them on the ground. I worried that a hawk sat steely-eyed in one of the ravine’s tall trees to only swoop down on a targeted flight.

Mama robins don’t do much caretaking once the babies take off. Unlike their human counterpartresses, they go back to what they were doing before, which I imagine is looking for worms and soaring high, or wafting through the neighborhood to a crape myrtle branch to sing for us. Their next job will be another brood this year. No wonder they don’t mind if their babies never return.

I remember when both my sons left home at the same time. The empty-nest syndrome washed over me like a waterfall. When our children start to fly, human mamas may be proud to see them achieving adulthood but some of us shed a few tears, or maybe more, in their all too silent absence.

We know our babies will return, some to stay for another while, some for just a visit. Some will bring their babies to visit.

My mother and I celebrated our Mother’s Day one day early. The children, grandchildren, and great-granchildren came to visit, cards and presents in hand. My brother Denny sent a generous gift card. There were flowers all over the place, Jeni’s blueberry-lemon ice cream, and a big bunch of laughing. We hugged over and over. My seventeen-year-old grandson cuddled me on the couch and later I got a photo of him sitting on his dad’s lap. The littles whooped and played with the oldest grandson leading the hooroar.

Mom asked me what we would have for Mother’s Day Sunday dinner. I said, “Pork roast. I’ve got to cook the rest of the pork shoulder I used for the chilaquiles.”

“What goes with it?” she asked.

I answered, “Oh, I guess I’ll cook some sweet potatoes and make some coleslaw.”

“My favorites,” Mom said.

“Yes, I knew that.”

“What am I having for dessert?” she asked.

“Pecan pie.”

“Oh, wow!” Mom was thrilled over the menu.

See, if all works right, human kids come back over and over again, and at some point, when the human kids are all grown up, they take care of their parents. How they care for mother and father is not nearly as important as that they care.

We make choices for Mom these days. She’s extremely willing and favorable, especially to the idea that we let her choose whenever possible. Unlike the little robins, humans can go home again. Unlike the possibilities for Mama Robin, Our Mama’s been with her children for eleven years now.

We all say a Happy Mother’s Day to Mom, Ethel, Mama Blair, Grandma, GrandmaMA!

A PRAYER ON MOTHER’S DAY, 1999

Father, we praise you on this special observance of Mother’s Day.  We thank you for showing us your creative, nurturing, loving side, all those things that we naturally associate with motherhood.  We are reminded that while you do seem to bless our mothers abundantly with those special gifts, you offer those same gifts to all, as we learn to live by your example. 

We give you thanks for our mothers and we know that the unconditional love they give us could only come from you.  We ask your special watch over those soon to become mothers and we beg your healing and comfort for those who struggle to conceive. We beg you to bring a child to their home. We ask your wisdom and reconciliation for those who find themselves with child and aren’t truly ready to be mothers.  In your wisdom, bring them to a true soul-blessing through whatever path you design.   We thank you for stand-in mothers, the ones who are just like mothers to us.   We pray your wisdom for mothers in difficult situations, and for those who care for mothers, we claim your guidance and blessing. Wrap your consolation around those who have lost their mothers, whether through death or separation. 

Lord, in your Mercy…..Hear our prayer.

We continue to pray for an end to violent situations in our world and for the people and community of Columbine.  We feel a seed of healing that has already begun and we are so thankful for your comforting power.  Help us to aid the healing and give us the wisdom to work toward peace and safety everywhere. 

Lord, in your Mercy…..Hear our prayer.

Lord, bless our efforts to bring peace to Kosovo.  When we are headed in the wrong direction, turn us around to the right path.  Bless all those who continue to work with the refugees and bring comfort and healing to the displaced people who are being moved to new, strange homes.   Help them to hear your tender voice promising, “I will never leave you as orphans” and use us as instruments of your peace and mercy.   

Lord, in your Mercy…..Hear our prayer.

We give you thanks for the gift of your Comforter.    Make His presence known this day to the sick, the troubled, and the grieving.  We especially remember those on our prayer list…..

And we now pray silently for others who are on our hearts and in our minds….

Lord, in Your Mercy…..Hear our prayer.

Into your hands, our Father, we commit all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

AMEN.

Time, whose side are you on?

I don’t cry much, but when I do, it’s usually because a truck full of Cub Scouts just drove by in a 4th of July parade. It gets me every time.

I didn’t cry when Dad died. The tears appeared months later heading down the street to my doctor’s appointment at St. Thomas Hospital. I thought of the conversations Dad and I had on the way to visits with his primary care physician, and a hole bored through the middle of me. There’s no way to fill that kind of hole. It’s best to just let it scab over and scar.

Mom dreaded this appointment with the cardiologist. At her last visit six months ago, he’d told her to cut out salt entirely and lose some weight. Mama can’t stand for anybody to be unhappy with her. He was just doing his job when he told her to mend her behavior. She hadn’t seen him in a year, and she had suffered congestive heart failure while vacationing in California. He legitimately wanted to curb any fluid retention. She thought he would surely give her a talking-to this time since she hadn’t lost a pound, nor had she completely cut salt from her diet.

On the way to I-65, I tried to make light of Mom’s worry about her encounter about to happen. I told her, “Don’t let him rattle you, Ma. Just say, ‘uh-huh’ and ‘I’ll do better next time.'”

“Or,” I added, laughing, “when he says you didn’t lose any weight, you tell him, ‘Well, you didn’t, either!'” We’d noticed that last time he’d picked up about twenty pounds. He’s always been a natty dresser, and he still looked good in his yellow plaid jacket and blue pants, but we were sure he’d had to purchase some new ones.

St. Thomas is not known for the easiest parking arrangements. There was no space in the semi-convenient open-lot parking downstairs, where we would normally take an elevator up three floors and walk down a long hallway. We had to park in a multi-level garage across the street, walk down a long skybridge connecting the garage and hospital, then directly into the other end of the Heart Institute. In my mind, the distances are fairly equal. There is a small difference, though. That skybridge is ever-so-slightly uphill.

I offered Mom one of the hospital wheelchairs waiting just outside the skybridge doors.

“No, that was way too much trouble the last time we did that. I can do better with just my walker.”

“Okay,” I said. “We can rest along the way if you need to.”

She needed to rest several times. Fortunately, the hospital designers saw the need for padded benches built into the windows every twenty feet or so. The seats are chair-height, so I tried to get her to sit in her rolling walker. She wanted to sit on the bench. Getting up and off the bench to grip the walker’s handlebars was difficult and required assistance.

When we finally reached the entrance to the Heart Institute, the nurse screening for Covid-19 waved us into the large waiting room.

“Go ahead and get her seated up in the front,” she said. “Then you come back and I’ll check your temperature.”

Mom sat on her walker in a section of chairs near the registration desk. I had pre-registered the night before but was still expecting more paperwork, or tablet work, once we got there. To my surprise, there was nothing more to do.

I sat down beside Mom. She was spent and breathing too heavily to talk. She looked pitiful.

When the nurse called Mom’s name from the doorway to the exam rooms, I quickly stood and met her at the doorway to say, “She can hardly make it. This might take a minute.”

I turned back toward Mom. Deborah called out, “Did y’all just walk across the skybridge? Oh, God love her. Keep her right there. I’ll bring a wheelchair.”

“I’ve never seen her so exhausted.”

And right at that moment, I saw my usually lively little mama grey-faced, eyes drooping, and so short of breath that her mouth was halfway open. Maybe what shook me was some form of pre-grief. The Universe suddenly reminded me that I won’t have her with me always.

I know that in my head, but this knowing, this moment of sorrow, was a gnawing in that hole in my middle, maybe opened just enough to make me break. I could not let my mother see me crying.

Mom was relieved to scoot onto the wheelchair seat. The nurse quickly wheeled her to a room, helped her into a chair, and rolled the wheelchair into the hallway. The room is small. I stood just outside the door.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take her back to the garage in this chair. I can come back and get her walker.”

She answered, “Honey, you just relax in here with her, and we’ll take care of the rest.”

The doctor arrived in about fifteen minutes. He seemed so happy! He began by cheering Mom’s blood pressure, her stable weight, and her obvious (to him) sparkle in her eyes. He directed a question to me.

“Don’t you think she’s doing well?”

I nodded. “But wait, what’s that on your mask?”

He answered, “I was just about to tell your mom that we have a new addition to the Blair family tree.” (His grandmother was a Blair in Texas, and he has always insisted we’re all related.)

He pulled his pictures up on his iPhone, turning it this way and that to make sure both Mom and I got a good look at this little six-month old in snazzy yellow plaid overalls, blue jacket. and a matching bowtie on his white shirt.

“Oh, what a cutie!”

“Isn’t he a handsome young man?”

He answered, “Oh, that little fellow has us all wrapped up in him. Oh, my.” He closed his eyes and moved his head from side to side. “His name is Walter.”

“Walter!” Mom said. “My husband’s Grandfather Blair was named Walter.”

After the baby talk, the doctor said, “You’re doing well. I think, and let’s see if you agree, that we should see you again next year. Of course, you can always call if you need us.”

“I guess I’m doing well for my age,” she said.

“You’re doing well for any age,” he answered.

Mom and I got the giggles when he left the room, bemused by the way Walter captivated this cardiologist-surgeon, and relieved that no one seemed unhappy today.

“He was just too enthralled with that new grandbaby to fuss at me,” she said.

The nurse appeared. “Diana, I’m going to take her to your car. You just bring the walker.”

I lifted the walker into the back of the van, backed out, and stopped at the elevator doors.

Mom thanked the nurse and closed the van door.

“Next time,” she tol me, “I’ll take that wheelchair at the beginning.”

We pulled out of the garage. “Ahhhhhh, sunshine!” I said.

“And thank God for Walter,” Mom answered.

***

My Proud Story

Charley Pride died today of Covid-19. He was eighty-six, and the country music community claimed him as beloved. They say he was the kindest man in the business.

Charley started out wanting to play baseball and pitched for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. Baseball eventually led him to a semi-pro team in, of all places, Helena, MT. Charley lived in Helena for several years, and in fact, it was his baseball coach who found out he could sing and put him onstage before every game.

Charley moved his family (three kids by then) to Great Falls when his singing career took off so he could be closer to an airport. He got really good airplay in Great Falls by KMON Radio’s manager Al Donohue. The rest of us in Montana wanted to keep up so we always followed Donohue. KXLO played Charley Pride before his big break, too.

From 1968 to 1973, I did stints as a DJ at a 1000-watt station in Lewistown, Montana. My years at KXLO coincided with Charley’s rise on the charts. At that time, country singers still visited with the DJ’s who played their music, sometimes driving around the country for two or three days to hit as many stations as possible. The Prides were about to move to Texas when Charley graced a bunch of us with a trip around Montana. I believe that was sometime in 1969.

I had signed off my mid-morning shift and was just returning from lunch when he arrived, so the afternoon DJ got to interview him. When I walked into the station, I asked our middle-age receptionist Frieda, “Who’s here in the big car?”

She said, “Charley Pride, the black one.”

I said, “Oh, shoot, Bill gets him on-air. Did he talk to you?”

“He shook my hand,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “It was sort of … clammy.”

Charley came out of the studio in a few minutes. I was still leaning on the front counter.

“Heyyyy,” he said. “You must be Goldee.”

“Yes,” I said, “and I’m so glad to meet you!”

We chatted for a few happy minutes, then he said he had to get back on the road.

He stuck out his hand, but I said, “Can I kiss you on your cheek?”

I got a big bear hug.

Frieda wrinkled her damn nose again.

***

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