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Yes, Valentine’s Day is a greeting card holiday, and we should be celebrating connections with people we care about all year long. The odious onus of finding something to ‘show we care’ slaps us in the head yet again way too soon after Christmas. 

At my library my theme each February, and actually a guiding principle of my life, is ‘Love is Sharing a Story.’ That neatly ropes in everyone, old and young, coupled and uncoupled, childless and, uh, childed.

I ask people to tell stories, write them down, read with their baby even if their baby is 50 years old, or read with someone else’s baby. Write a rap, or a poem, or just spew out your irritation about some issue Lewis Black or Dave Chappelle style. Learn to podcast.

If everyone spoke honestly and spoke up, if everyone read together, or if every adult, parent or no, took a few minutes each day to share a book with a friend or a small child, this would be a different world.  

But I digress.

I’m reminded by the newsletter from my mother’s Church of the Epiphany– “Don’t forget those who are hospitalized, ill or shut in on Valentine’s Day. Send someone a card, or make a phone call. You will brighten someone’s day.”

This is what I hate about Christmas.

That didn’t come out right. I love Christmas. But I have a strong family, work, and social network to share it with. I have tried on, so to speak, Christmas without family or husband or friends. I can’t seem to make it fit. It just feels miserable. I would feel sorry for myself, even if I were comfortable financially and physically, had my health, had good food to eat, and books to read and quilts to quilt… it was just too sad.

So rack your brain or look around for someone who can’t leave the house, or folks you know at the hospital. People with long term inability to get out and fend for themselves in the rat race eventually get passed over in the rat race. Even families with the best of intentions tend to pass over the quiet one– the wheel doesn’t squeak, so to speak.

And then there are the mean old (or young, I guess) biddies (male and female!) or the neighbors always yelling at us to ‘Get off my lawn!’ or even the kids nobody likes or the trio of siblings who, you happen to know, are being raised by a grandmother who can’t even do for herself because she is very ill, won’t even come in and get the kids a library card, sends the kids out to do their own laundry at the laundromat, so they are pretty much on their own (though I know from experience that being on one’s own isn’t the worst thing that can happen, some serious self sufficiency, at least  in terms of life skills, can result, you do what you want, and at least nobody’s yelling at you).  Or the acquaintance who’s divorced or the single parent or the friend who’s ill or having marital troubles. What might brighten their days?

Put some candy in your candy dish. Stop by somebody’s house just for five minutes with a flower or a warm lunch or a pair of fuzzy slippers you found on clearance. Drop a card in the mail. What small good could we do in just a few minutes? Brightening someone’s day literally makes the world a better place and it just takes a second.

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I am doing the unthinkable–forbidden by myself, if not by the rest of my family. I have the fan on and both windows open, and along with sipping my paper Diego Dixie cup of Barefoot Merlot I am smoking a cigarette. Indoors.

This is not a public area of our home– this is my area. I will burn some incense in a bit.

The last time I tried this it stunk up here for days. But tonight I just need the privacy so very badly. We have a court order for 1. 30 min. of Kim time each evening and 2. 30 min. of cleaning the house together each evening. The Kim time needed to come first.

I could write for hours about the experience of watching one of my ‘grownups’ (funny, aren’t I a grownup?) hurting and struggling. Ever since my Grampy died she’s been so independent– keeping her own house, writing her own bills, driving, shopping… it was horrible to sleep in that house across the hall from that empty bedroom, and I ate every Oreo and Pringle in the house before going to bed, trying to stave off the hurt, but still cried myself to sleep. I’ve never been very good at life change. And while I am hopeful that she can regain a fine quality of life — not the same, different, but still fine– adjusting is just not my forte.

It was gratifying to be there for my family at this acute time, although I hated to leave before I was able to take part in the rehabilitation– which should have started immediately, but because she was physically weak with this and that, didn’t start til a week after the stroke.

I spent every spare moment up there either at the hospital or cleaning my grandmother’s house. She’s always been too independent– and time has been too precious– for her to let me do this before. But she wasn’t home. And unlike my mother’s mother, who has three daughters to swap out caring for her and one who lives in, my Grammy has only us.

She’d been getting ready to bake cookies for Santa Lucia– she’s Swedish, and she’d asked my mom to go with her to the celebration. She had quite a few Christmas decorations out. On her dining table were half wrapped presents for her great grandchildren… in the back bedroom were items strewn about in a rather crazy person fashion, which upset me until I realized she was child proofing her house so my little nephew could have a good time when he visits after Christmas (you never, ever saw so many dadgum priceless and worthless tchotches and knickknacks in your life as in my grandmother’s house, and if you break one, she’ll break your arm. I love that she was trying to make it easier for my little feller. And I am *pissed* that she was struck down when she was so happy.

So the first night I was there, she was overjoyed to see me and all the other guests crowding into her tiny hospital room, but by the end of the night my mother and I left so depressed… and the next morning I got up and resolved to be faithful and hopeful.

I ran madly around the house humming Santa Lucia over and over (have I mentioned I have ADD?) and throwing away out of date food, old Chadwick’s catalogs, anything that even she would not feel was worth saving. She’s very possessive of her tchotchkes both priceless and worthless, her ragged dish towels, bath towels and bed linens from the forties on up– it is very difficult to throw much away that she wouldn’t miss. But I managed to get about a baker’s dozen garbage bags out of there, vacuum, pull off slipcovers, clean up cat yark that shows up in the most unexpected places (she has two cats, who are across the street with a neighbor who also has cats right now, thank goodness, I love cats but they are NASTY) wash linens, leave the beds made and the kitchen clean for my little brother’s visit… so much work. And my mom called to say she’d fallen out of bed and hit her head– and was much clearer!

She has shown spark and joy, she has regained a few words (‘ya’, which, because she is Swedish, means yes, I hope the speech path doesn’t try to force her to say ‘yes’– and amen when the big handsome black chaplain in his too fine suit came to pray with us, and okay, and she told my dad she loved him yesterday.Twice!

But since, she has been up and down– absolutely thrilled to tears to see me, and heartbroken, I could tell, that I should see her in this state. She’s regaining strength in her right side but she can’t eat, she cries a lot, and she has horrible aphasia which might resolve itself or might not.

I spent my last night in town sleeping in her room, listening to her breathing. The nurses were so sweet, to me and to her. The CNA’s, especially, were so loving and empathetic. They were so kind it made me cry.

From midnight until six am the nurses just left us alone, and I slept like a rock from two until six. I needed that sleep so bad. I came home to ‘do’ Christmas in whirlwind style… which is what I need to go and resume right now. We let the kids open the big gifts– Wii, Rockband, a laptop for my stepson and a DS for my stepdaughter– so they could enjoy them for a time before they have to leave town, too soon, on Friday.

We still have gifts to wrap, a tree to finish decorating, supper (lentil sloppy joes and home made sweet potato rolls and baked sweet potato fries, TOO DAMN DELICOUS and all vegan, duh!) to eat, and church, and whatever we can fit in, in between and after.

This is what growing up is– holding the heartbreak of change and loss in one hand and the responsibility for a joyful holiday with those left behind in the other. I am often near tears– that’s nothing new at Christmas time. I think of all the people who still suffer and hurt at this time of year, especially children. My favorite song right now is Good King Wenceslas, as sung by The Roches, in their sweet, lolloping style, although I’ve just added Loreena McKennit’s version to Facebook. Neither is a thing like the usual stately boring stuff you hear, which probably has little to do with how it was originally sung… you who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing!

Shaking off my guilt at the plenty we enjoy– changing the world starts at home with my own children– back to the Wii and Rock Band!

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