Saturday, December 24, 2011

This Christmas Eve

She passed away peacefully today while we played at the beach with our cousins. We were with beloved family members as was she.


Grandma came home last Thursday for good and family members decamped to her apartment--a title for her home which inadequately describes the place we celebrated holidays and birthdays and ate summer dinners and congregated, just to chat and check in.

Husband and I hadn't discussed how we'd talk about the plan for his mom with the girls. Big Sis overheard us talking about her going home, though, and her eyes lit up. "She's going home!?"

Going home. A sign that things were better. A sign that we understood her wishes. A metaphor: so many meanings, contradictory and synonymous.

Husband was ready. I was more conflicted. The week prior, the week it was decided, I was angry, not about how this would go, but that she was robbed in the first place. That a stroke turned her life on a dime, irrevocably. Going home should always be good. Instead it felt portentous, momentous, and ominous. What I didn't understand--know then--was that her homecoming would be good, beautiful.

And so Big Sis overheard us talking about her going home, while we were still processing what it meant, what it would look and feel like.

"But it's your Mom!" she pleaded, crying, eyes wide at her dad. It's your Mom."


When a family member is ill, in the hospital or convalescing for an extended period, there's an emergency mode you enter and in which you dwell, on a precarious perch bound in part by unceasing worry and also the reassurance of rules, protocols, and safety measures.

But when hospice is in place, practical matters once significant become irrelevant, like her failed swallow tests. Grandma tasted ice cream, apple pie, some margarita with her family.

Other practicalities take on new meaning. She had her hair cut on Tuesday night, because it would feel good. There's a lovely clarity of purpose we too often lack in our everyday lives: comfort, simple pleasures, being with loved ones.

Her eldest son's family, wife and three grown children, were all together for the first time in ten years. They walked Grandma to the beach on Monday.


We spent hours each day with family members at her apartment, sitting in her office chair, her beloved blue chair, and on folding chairs and lawn chairs. Temporary relationships were struck with nurses, the chaplain, case manager. Her neighbor and best friend did laundry, dropped off breakfast, lunch, and unexpected snacks. Stories were told. The girls played Go Fish, drew, watched TV, played with Grandma's Beanie Babies. They held her hand and talked with her.

There was time, too, to cook, work, answer emails and phone calls, update Facebook. I imagined ancient cave-dwelling people doing then much like we were: tending to daily life while keeping vigil over a loved one passing through in close, safe, reassuring quarters. It felt so very right.

During a quiet moment, girls drawing, Grandma sleeping, nurse recording notes, Big Sis paused. "I miss Grandma," she shared, and then resumed coloring.


Cousins and siblings and aunties and uncles and nieces and nephews reacquainted and connected at Grandma's side. Family members gave what they could and how and when, in a seamless ebb and flow of being with her and together. Sides and strengths of personalities, in many cases dormant for having not yet endured this, emerged and developed. Admiration, love, and respect for one another grew.


So few relationships in our lives are unfettered by titles and hierarchies, history and unforgiven deeds, our own selfishness and demands and obligations. Jealousy, mistrust, and hidden agendas. My mother-in-law gave me and us a simple uncomplicated and unconditional love of no demands. Without question, negotiation, or agreement, our family's relationship with Grandma Shirley was organically good, always. I loved her so easily.


Our family's holiday traditions include taking Grandma to the Hotel del Coronado to view the giant decorated tree and ice skaters and have a holiday drink and appetizers. We dress up and take pictures. We eat spicy nuts and toast with our hot chocolates and martinis. To enduring love, to family, to little luxuries to count on.

All the things we are appreciating so much this year.

We love you, Grandma. The girls will have your hands in theirs at the Del this season, and forever.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grandma Shirley

My Mother-in-Law

Shirley who is the anchor in a bustling port
And writes "Hiya" in the subject line
Who is coral and clowns
Who is pelicans and pastels
Whose home is never too small
Is scrambling some eggs
Who tells us we're wonderful
Who tells us not to worry
Whose blue eyes are glistening
Is letting us off the hook
Remembers Little League and sailboats
Is making lists
Is an album of pride and memories
Is grinning tell her a story
Has brought us all here
Who saved it for you especially
Is ornaments and white wine and mysteries
Who validates and cajoles and disagrees and chuckles
Is the forgiving ship in the family fleet
Asking how will you grow from here
How will you grow how?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

'Tis the Season

I'm appreciating my Facebook Friendships with former students lately.  My page is full of college kids counting down days till they return to our hometown, snapshots of the bridge to our small city, and taggings of old friends with new:  "I wish you could meet my roommate/high school buddy; you two would love each other!"  Ahhhh, it makes me nostalgic. 

'Tis the season for lamentations about finals, too.  And I have some sympathy for my modern-day earnest scholar-friends.  I mean, it was hard enough to study in college during the age of doors with dry-erase boards and landlines, the time of no cell phones or computers.  Can you imagine the distractions these days?  The texts?  The TV shows and movies downloaded to the device sitting right there on your desk?  I can't!  Even without those temptations I managed to distract myself in the library, making new friends and talking to lampshades if all else failed.  But I also can't imagine how I found my friends on weekends in college, without phones and "check-ins" and such, what with the whimsy of "maybe I'll hit up that frat wait, I changed my mind; I'm gonna go to the improv show instead."  Nevertheless, I somehow managed a healthy serendipitous social life. 

But I remember final exams.  I remember that when I made my airline reservations in the fall with a return ticket at the end of the semester, I'd always have to book my flight on the last possible day of finals, just in case one of the courses I chose scheduled a final for that 2:00 PM slot on December 22nd.  Most of the time, I had a day or two post-exams to pack and languish in the dorm with the few folks stuck studying, but fall semester junior year, I had the last final on the last day, with a flight out early the next morning.  I would be studying abroad in Italy during spring semester, which meant I had to pack All My Stuff and haul it into the basement that night after my final, where it would await my return fall of senior year. 

I wasn't looking forward to this packing and hauling at all.  I wasn't looking forward to saying goodbye to my boyfriend for an eight-month separation.  The only thing I was glad about was being done with my History of China final, which I thought I had rocked.  That class was my favorite thus far; I had actually read the whole book my professor wrote along with associated readings, and was fascinated by the twists and turns in Chinese politics juxtaposed with the constants of its culture.  To celebrate the end of finals, I planned to enjoy a leisurely Last Supper with friends in the dining hall and then burn the midnight oil packing. 

There's a joke that circulated during finals about a kid taking his exam who didn't heed the warning to turn in his blue books immediately when the exam session was over.  He sat, instead, at his desk and continued to write, even as he was threatened by the proctor that his exam would not be graded.  When he finally finished, he carried his blue books to the front of the lecture hall, where the exasperated T.A. stood beside a table stacked with completed exams. 

"Do you know who I am?" he challenged the T.A.

"No...?" replied the T.A. 

"Good," said the student, as he shoved his blue books into the middle of the pile of exams.  "Have a great holiday!"

Turns out I would have my own blue book mishap, no joke.  After dinner, I returned to my dorm room with my backpack to begin sorting, packing, cleaning, and lugging.  I emptied my backpack first.  I had a habit of grabbing extra blank blue books and using a few for notes or outlining while I was taking exams.  I had turned in the essays and answers and thrown the blue books with notes into my backpack.  Or so I thought.  I recall my gut turning over and blood draining from my face as I realized that instead, I had taken my exam books with me, and turned in my notes.  On the last day of finals.  By this time, hours had gone by, hours in which classroom buildings were being locked, T.A.s were loading up cars and heading home for the holidays, and professors were long gone.  Hours during which I, conceivably, could have been writing exam answers in my room with my course books open, only to claim later that I accidentally turned in the wrong blue books.  I felt completely, hopelessly, irrevocably screwed. 

When I was finally able to stop flapping my arms, pacing, and hyperventilating, I did the only thing I could do:  call my T.A.  She was my discussion section leader, and we had made conversation after class a number of times.  I admired her; she was wise and organized and kind.  She would actually know who I was.  Maybe trust me.  If I could find her. 

Her number was listed in the phone book, miraculously, and I left a long, rambling, and desperate message on her answering machine.  And then commenced worrying and packing and bemoaning my plight and stupidity.  By the time she returned my call I was resigned to failing the class, the class I loved with the professor who was legendary and my cool T.A.  But she returned my call, and she listened to me and believed me and we made arrangements for me to leave my exam books in her grad school mailbox.  I had probably never felt more relief and gratitude combined before. 

Ah, that T.A. with her mercy and trust in me.  Now an educator myself, I've never forgotten the value of those two gifts in my work with growing and developing humans.  But the real moral of the story lies in relationships.  Had I not connected with my T.A., and had she not made herself available to students, I might have had some insightful but worthless essays, short answers, and identification pairs to take home for the holidays, as well as a bad grade in that awesome history class. 

So, my Facebook friends with finals, make yourself known to your professors, T.A.s, deans, and R.A.s (in all the right ways, of course).  Stay connected with old friends (and teachers!) and bring your two worlds--former and current--together when you can.  Pay forward the strong connections you've cultivated by reaching out to underclassmen and younger siblings.  Share your wisdom and mercy.  Be honest.  Don't forget to double-check your tests and exams and slow down a little.

And while I am dispensing free advice, I'll throw in one more helpful hint:  If you happen to enroll in a class in which the professor announces on the first day that your grade will be based on either the midterm and final, or just the final exam--your choice!--TAKE THE MIDTERM, PEOPLE.  It turns out you can't read all the books about U.S. History from 1900 to 1950 in a week.  Trust me on this one. 

Good luck!  A full night's sleep is right around the corner.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Write Gift

I received former student Lindsey's holiday card in the mail yesterday.  Along with being a gifted poet and person, Lindsey creates and sells handmade paper products.  Her card was hand-stamped (read her process here) and included a postage-stamped postcard to tear off and send someone (Lindsey, by the way, was the inspiration behind my post about postcards earlier this year).  How wonderful is a gift which comes with a gift you can turn and send someone?  Pretty niftily wonderful, I should say.

So I thought about gifts of writing and their value.  And about how low cost they are but also how difficult they can be to produce.  Which, nevertheless, should not deter you (despite the fact that I haven't been able to write here on this blog for the past week and a half, due in part to my obsession with Friday Night Lights, and to various and sundry life events alternately inspiring stress, relief, and mental zombiehood).  Creativity often requires a nudge, a nugget.  Thus I am offering you an idea for writing to and for someone you love. 

Personally, I feel a personal letter written on weighty, significant, or beautiful paper with a pen you love, and stamped and sent, is a simple, lovely, and all-too-rare gift. 

Poems win, though.  And one of my favorites to use as a template for writing a tribute to someone is Sandra Cisneros's "Abuelito Who."  I once posted my own version about Big Sis on her birthday, and here is an example I wrote about a former student:


Jared who is a silent redwood in a willow forest
And asks who is a true friend
Who is songs and docks
Who is camp and a green jacket
Whose smile is genuine
Is writing a story
Who tells us to listen
Who tells us be gentle
Whose eyes are pleading
Is making friends
Remembers summers and boats
Is hopeful
Is a cathedral of joyful voices
Is sad give him a hug
Has moved one time too many
Who hears chords in his head
Is adjectives and verses and tenors
Who soothes and serves and serves and soothes
Is the teaching tree in the listening forest
Asking who is a true friend
Who is a true friend who?

Try it.  I know I'd much rather have a poem (like my husband's wedding vows to me, which are framed and memorialized) than a new water heater.