Tuesday, March 04, 2008

no time for old ladies, or, soon and very soon

I can’t remember if it is February or March that historically is just a crap month.

August usually sucks, the holidays are often kind of hard, and then one of these transitional spring months usually does too. I know the saddest day of my life occurred in March 2005– though if that’s as harshly as tragedy brushes my life I’ll be a lucky woman.

Maybe the alignment of the planets just made the spring transitional suckiness a bit earlier this year.

My friend who kept my child from 5 months to one year so that I could go back to work has been caregiving and ministering to the needs of the little family in the trailer across the road from hers. The grandmother’s been desperately ill for a long time, but she was the sole guardian of three little girls, her granddaughters, ages 5-11. The mother’s in prison.

My friend’s entire church and neighborhood family has been knocking themselves out to keep that little family cared for and together. The old lady probably didn’t have access to care and resources that might have postponed her death. The girls in my friend’s community got together to clean the trailer once while she was hospitalized. They said it was nightmarish.

Once she broke her back a year or so ago, it’s been downhill from there. But she fought it every step of the way. The hospital finally sent her home with hospice care to die in dignity and comfort (such as it was) surrounded by loved ones. Liver failure finally got her– maybe hepatitis from a blood transfusion?

The Sunday night before President’s day they sent the girls to church so they wouldn’t be there for ‘the end.’ My friend walked across the road to say goodbye– she could only stay gone for a minute. She gave her two little boys popsicles and told them to stand in the window and watch mommy till mommy came back across, and they did. My friend was thoroughly heartbroken and shaken by the sound of what must have been the death rattle, and sickened with sadness and pity by her physical condition.

She said goodbye, and said she loved her and they would watch out for the girls, and went home, and it was only a short time after that. The girls are destined for adoption, everyone prays by a good family who will keep them together. My friend’s best friend took the girls to buy new dresses for the funeral and jewelry for Nanny to wear in the coffin… the youngest was still asking ‘but who will stay with Nanny?’ because someone had stayed with Nanny at all times through these bad days… and a chapter everyone fought so hard for so long to keep open, has closed.

Civil Rights hero Johnnie Carr had a stroke in February. I just couldn’t even think about her dying, even though she was 97. When these old ladies go on and on, with such perseverance and dignity and loveliness, you don’t think about them going on finally.

She has been a fixture, all these many years, at every charity or organization dedicated to creating a better community and social justice, probably right up until the day before the stroke. I saw her out and about one year and heard her speak in a voice that was still strong, clear and lovely. But she did give up the ghost, and we listened to her funeral some — 10 am until –? over the internet, until the signal got bad and wouldn’t stream any more.

Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. I am okay with death, especially when it’s someone who has lived a long and fruitful life. I just hurt a little, selfishly, for the gap left in our community– or at least, what I perceive as a gap. But more on that some other time.

Then last week my mother wrote to tell me our beloved old neighbor up in Virginia where they all live had died. Sitte (Lebanese for grandmother) was born in 1916, and so would have been 92 this May. For me, this was sudden. I know she was almost 92, but again, when you see an old lady persevere with dignity, strength, and loveliness– and perhaps when she’s not strictly family– you just don’t see it coming.

Sitte was also a fixture. She raised three children by herself, cutting hair, and had to continue raising them and their own children, and now she had great grandchildren. She was about 4 and a half feet tall. Her wit and observation was greater than that of most folks 1/3 her age. She was never without her gold bangle bracelets, and her hair was thick and curled so beautifully. She wore it 80’s style, layered and curled away from her face and a little poofy. Well, because she could, right?

She trudged around visiting the neighborhood in bootee slippers. She worried that people had enough to eat and a warmup for their coffee or tea. She smoked about 5 cigarettes a day, sitting on her picnic table with her feet on the bench, and avoided the neighbor who always bummed Sitte’s cigarettes because his wife wouldn’t let him smoke. She had lung disease, and that’s what killed her, but at 92 who’s going to quibble over 5 cigarettes a day? At least she still got outside. She was notoriously private and denied any health problems at all, but she was also marvelously open and asked the hilariously honest questions and made the tricky observations most people were still too foolishly delicate to address.

I got to know her because her son, who’s just younger than my parents, moved in across the street and began to take care of my grandparents during my Grampy’s decline. My parents didn’t move up there til my Grampy passed away (In the shitty month of August, 1998). Before that, Jok cleaned their pool, mowed their lawn, hung their Christmas lights, fought with the recalcitrant shades that were supposed to roll down over their screened in porch, did anything they needed.

When I went back up there the final very difficult time, for Grampy’s funeral, Sitte looked hard at me and said can I make you a sa-alid? You need a sa-alid. She spoke slowly and sweetly but it was not because she was any less sharp– I think it was a combination of a very faint Arabic accent and the Virginia drawl.

She trudged back across the street to her house and then trudged back over to Grammy’s with the most delightful salad I have ever, ever tasted. It was shredded, not torn or even worse in big nasty un torn leaves. It had mint, peanuts, vinegar and who knew what else in the sweet, spicy, sour dressing. Texture and flavor were perfect, just perfect, and that small thing just broke my heart — just the right small thing, at just the right time. It was so healing and comforting.

Cooking is one of my modes of worship, or one of my idols more like, but I have never tried to duplicate that ‘saalid.’ I did try a couple of times to duplicate her baklava– nothing doing. I’ve never had baklava as ambrosial, either. It was so good it was impossible not to eat, and eat, and eat, even though it was drenched in sugar, just drenched and you knew as you ate it that you were headed for stuffed misery and then sugar crash blackout. Oh my goodness.

Ten years later, my parents have been living up there for almost ten years, and I’ve had the delightful experience of getting to know Sitte and sharing shaky baby with her. She truly was family. I don’t know how I’m going to tell my little girl, but maybe she knows.

My mother made my little one a rag doll the size of a five year old, with black hair and flirty pink kissy lips and huge brown eyes and named it Lillian– that’s Sitte’s real name. My baby taken back up — as we used to say in East Tennessee– taken back up with Lillian the Sunday before Sitte’s death. She dressed Lillian and talked to me at length about what Lillian was into. I didn’t really think about it much. Lillian had a date, but I told her we had to go to gymnastics but Lillian could still have her date when we got back.

Baby girl told me the next day that Lillian’s date had been ruined. That was the day my mother and grandmother woke at 2.30 am, unable to sleep, and peered across the street but did not want to intrude, and got ‘the call’ at about 3.30.

Mother never called me when Sitte was in the hospital or when they sent her home also to die in dignity and comfort. She never called me the day Sitte died– she apologized and said she was too upset. I think my mother had been consumed with Sitte’s comfort at the end. The last night of her life my mother was across the street taking care of Sitte’s physical comforts, and I am sure she just didn’t want to think beyond that moment of communion. Then that sleeplessness at 2.30 am, probably moments of recognition and farewell she didn’t realize, and then the call.

I talked to my grandmother and she said ‘that’s the way I want to go.’ I said yes, but please give me some more time! She said I don’t have any control over that. I said I know. But please give me some more time.

That was wrong of me. I need to tell my grandmother how she has been a crucial anchor for me to who I am and who I want to be for so many years. The many kindnesses she shows are precious. The fact that she’s simply my grandmother ties us together. But what really quickens my heart is the blessing that extended family is. We were talking in counseling the other day about what a heartbreak it is not to know who you are. I am so blessed. It’s not that I know who I am, exactly– it’s that I know where I came from. I need to stop being so desperately grateful. I need to appreciate her, and tell her she can do whatever is right for her, whenever she and the Lord are ready.

With my Grampy it was different– he was in terrible pain and in the hospital at the last. We were close, but not ‘like that’. His solitary habits and occasionally hurtful words and old school maleness kept us wedged apart. I knew very well I was loved, very well. We just weren’t close ‘like that.’

He looked at me with those huge brown eyes from that hospital bed– I always wondered if my slightly dandified Grampy, with his long pretty fingers and nails and his fancy leather slippers over dark socks, might be of some Middle Eastern extraction himself– anyway he looked deep into my eyes with his big brown ones and said, I’m so tired. My desperation that he not leave me was matched by my desperate desire that he not suffer. I went away, he died in the night, alone in the kind of dignity that was right for him. I still have his huge Navy issue glasses that he wore to read the paper til the very end, and a tiny, hugely overpriced teddy bear I gave him when I left, to be with him when I could not. And I left, and went home and told my parents this was it and to get up there NOW, and they did, and that chapter was closed.

But my grandmother is a vital, independent lady, ten years younger than Sitte, but in a similar place of perseverance and dignity. I’ll likely get a nasty surprise from her some day, too. I think, pray, she will be healthy til a sudden end. That’s what Sitte always said– I hope I drop in my tracks.

With any luck I’ll get to see her again and tell her face to face how much I bless her presence in my life and how I want to get out of this selfish place and into a more adult place with her. It doesn’t seem like something you’d say in writing or on the phone, could get completely lost in the translation. Of course we’ve always been oddly linked across time and space. So if I’m thinking it she probably already knows. Still, I need to get up there. And I will.