Update on Dad

I realize that I sidestep the issue all the time, dancing around, skirting the elephant in the room.

It’s far easier to talk about the brindle boxer that is about to be euthanized than it is to talk about my father.

“How’s your father doing?”

Golly, how many times a week do I hear that question? It’s such a kind question, too, coming from a sincere concern for a man who touched so many lives.

This road only goes in one direction, I want to tell them.

But I don’t.

Usually.

He’s having more trouble with incontinence, I think to myself, but don’t say.

That’s not the kind of thing one talks about in the lobby of the gym or the checkout of the grocery store.

He needs help getting dressed.

He’ll spend ten minutes scraping an empty bowl after lunch; he can’t stop himself from pursuing every last bit of soup that may remain.

He spends hours at his dresser, rearranging his military insignia and lapel pins and tie bars.

He has taken to sorting cards. At first I thought he was playing Solitaire, but it’s actually a sorting exercise and I marvel at the way he pushes himself.

He’ll have half a dozen books piled on the tray table next to his chair, but he’ll still scan the bookshelves and pull off another with that so-many-books-so-little-time mentality.

Even though he can still read, I don’t think he gets the sense of what he’s reading.

His favorite book to read: The Oxford Dictionary.

The dictionary that his father gave him before he went to college still sits on a shelf here. A few months ago, my father pulled it off and said to me, “We should probably get rid of this. It’s falling apart.”

But I know why he kept it all these years — and I’m not going to throw it away.

Some things you hold onto, and clasp to your heart, even though they’re old and falling apart.

“How’s your father doing?”

“He’s happy,” I tell them. “I’m so glad we can keep him at home.”

And they pat me on the arm, or look knowingly at me, and smile.

“Thanks for asking,” I say.

It’s nice to know people care.

The Brindle Boxer

When I pulled in to the veterinarian’s office, the red-bearded man with the brindle boxer was standing out front.

Maggie was fluctuating between ecstasy and fear. She had been delighted when she got to go for a ride in the car, but she recognized the building when we pulled in. The dog out front delighted her — Maggie is very social — but the door just beyond terrified.

She jumped willingly out of the car. The boxer squared off in the middle of the sidewalk.

It was a big dog, solidly built. She laid claim to the sidewalk, blocking our way to the entrance. The man made no move to move her. I nudged Maggie to my right side so I would be between her and the boxer. I knew Maggie would want to give an exuberant hello and I wasn’t the boxer shared the sentiment.

The man watched me shift Maggie.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “she can’t see nothing.”

I had already launched into my usual Maggie’s-biggest-problem-is-she’s-overly-friendly line when I heard him add as we passed, “She’s dying anyway.”

His words seeped in as I took Maggie through the door.

I should go out and say something, I thought, as I sat on the bench in the waiting room, but Maggie had already started her shiver-and-shed routine. She really doesn’t like visiting the vet.

Maggie at the vet

While calming Maggie, I made small talk with a woman who had worked with my father. Her cat waited quietly in a red backpack cat carrier on the bench next to her. We waited and chatted while people dropped off and picked up their cats, mostly. Through a window, I could see the man with the brindle boxer standing outside, still owning the sidewalk, although it looked a lot less like ownership now.

A technician came out and called a name. Three people, a woman roughly my age and two young adult children, stood. The girl went outside and came back in with the man and the boxer.

“We have a private room here,” said the technician as she opened a door behind her.

I couldn’t see the other faces, but I could see the man, pressing his lips together, the corners of his mouth turned down, as he slowly led the boxer in. A few minutes later, the girl came out again, her eyes red and puffy. She went outside and came back with an older man, who walked very slowly.

The door to the room opened.

“Pop, we’re in here,” said the red-bearded man. His voice broke.

The girl followed her grandfather. She was openly weeping now. With her back to me, I saw the large sparkly letters on her gray hoodie — “LOVE LOVE PINK.”

I wished I could magically change it to read “LOVE LOVE BRINDLE” because I knew that’s what she was feeling.

The small talk ended. My father’s friend and I both watched the drama with heavy laden eyes as the family closed the door to their private room at the vet.

“So hard,” she whispered to me.

Yet, we were witness to a well-loved dog surrounded at the end by three generations.

Sometimes the most terrible things are also the most beautiful.

The Dream Job

Not quite a year ago I challenged myself to learn the names of the early morning swimmers at the pool.

Yes, I was lifeguarding, which I suppose sounds weird — to be pushing 60 and standing on deck with a rescue tube — but it was a fun distraction from the weightier things in my life.

Plus pools are one of my happy places. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved swimming.

So I lifeguarded from 5:15 AM to 7:15 AM.

And I loved it.

Friday was my last day on that shift. It was a little bittersweet.

“Was this your choice?” one of the early morning crowd asked when I told her.

Yes, it was. Sometimes it’s important to review priorities.

But I had unfinished business — some names I hadn’t yet learned.

When I lifeguarded, I would scan the pool and repeat the names of the swimmers to myself — Bonnie, Karen, Louise, Jean, MaryAnn, Maureen, Scott, Mike, and so on.

One woman came every Monday, Wednesday, Friday — and I could tell you a lot of things about her, but I couldn’t tell you her name.

She was elderly.

She walked with a limp.

She wore a unique gold necklace that I asked her about once. It was a track medal that her father had won in 1916 (or something like that) and she had it made into a necklace.

She had limited range of motion on one side.

She always walked down the steps in lane 1 and then ducked under lane lines until she reached lane 8. It was like a game of Frogger the way she crossed lanes without interfering with other swimmers.

She swam a modified elementary backstroke.

She always smiled and said good morning as she backstroked past the lifeguard stand.

One morning a couple of weeks ago I saw her stop to speak with another swimmer. I knew the other person well enough to ask her the name of the woman I didn’t know.

She told me — and it was a name I immediately recognized but couldn’t place.

I asked my husband. He’s got a great memory when it comes to people.

“Oh, I know her! She was a pediatric neurologist,” he said.

Ah — my dream job. When I didn’t think I’d be able to have children, I wanted to be a neurologist. Specifically, a pediatric neurologist.

So, back in the day, my ears had perked up when I heard that the hospital had hired a woman pediatric neurologist.

I spoke with her last week.

“You know, you had my dream job,” I told her. “I used to want to be a pediatric neurologist, but instead I had a family.”

“And I always wanted children,” she said to me.

I was so humbled.

I’ve been haunted by her words and mine.

I would never trade any of my children to be a pediatric neurologist. As it is, my life is rich and full.

I imagine her patients, too, are grateful for the path her life took.

Life has a way of working out.

I love being a mom —

I’ve had my dream job all along.

A Year With Merton

2019 is the year of Encouragement.
(I wrote about it here.)

2019 is the year of No Snark.
(I decided this after laboring over a response to an upset swim mom in December. She had been rude and unreasonable, so the first things I thought about saying were on that level. Then I went snarky. Then I wrote a reasoned response. I thought, I need to train myself so that the reasoned response comes more readily. So I’m setting snark aside.)

2019 is the year of Merton.
(Thomas Merton, that is. I realized that I’ve read essays and quotes but never a whole book of his. I’m going to start and keep going to see how many Merton books I can complete in one year.)

I finished my first Merton book today — Ishi Means Man. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. I don’t think it’s one of his better known works.

Honestly, I thought I had grabbed Seeds of Contemplation. That sounded like a nice way to begin the year. But when I settled in my chair on the morning of January 1, I saw that I must have pulled off the shelf the book next to Seeds of Contemplation. 

Chapter One — The Shoshoneans. Merton comes out with guns blazing. Literally. He goes back to the days of our country when the Native Americans were called Indians and considered a problem. We found a solution.

In putting the Indian under tutelage to our own supposedly superior generosity and intelligence, we are in fact defining our own inhumanity, our own insensitivity, our own blindness to human values. In effect, how is the Indian defined and hemmed in by the relationship we have imposed on him? His reservation existence… is as close to non-existence as we can get him without annihilating him altogether. I fully realize that this will arouse instant protest.The Indian is not confined to his reservation: he has another choice. He is free to raise himself up, to get out and improve his lot, to make himself human, and how? Why, of course, by joining us, by doing as we do, by manifesting business acumen and American know-how, by making money, and by being integrated into our affluent society. Very generous indeed.

Was Thomas Merton just snarky?

In another chapter, Merton tells the haunting story of Ishi, the last of the Mill Creek, or Yana, Indians in California. I always thought that genocide was something that happened other places — Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia. But we annihilated an entire tribe. I can’t read the story without feeling sick inside.

Honestly, one of the things that has bothered me about Germany’s holocaust is the question of what the people who lived on the other side of the death camps did. How can someone live on one side of a wall enjoying warmth and food and relative prosperity, while on the other side people are being slaughtered? I never want to be the idle bystander.

What would I have done if I lived in turn-of-the-twentieth century California?

What will I do in 2019?

Ishi Means Man seems an inauspicious beginning to 2019. A little foreboding.

But Seeds of Contemplation seems to be missing now from the shelf and I’m not sure where to go.

How about here?

 

Top Fives

Three Top Fives of 2018.

Top five books — Les Miserables, The Hate U Give, Imitation of Christ, Conscience, and the whole series of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.

Top five places I visited — Ales Stenar (the sun-ship in Sweden), Troldhaugen (Edvard Grieg’s home in Bergen, Norway), kayaking in a fjord (Gudvangen, Norway), Laity Lodge (with my husband!), and Charleston, SC (with Mary).

Ales Stenar

Edvard Grieg’s composing house

Kayaking in a fjord

Threshold at Laity Lodge

Mary and her French toast at Toast! in Charleston

Top five encouraging moments. (I want 2019 to be the year where I practice encouragement, so I’m trying to learn from looking back.)

1. Andrew Peterson — at Laity Lodge (which is the nearest place to heaven I know in the United States). After insulting Andrew (I think I told him that he looked nerdy in his glasses — and then I wondered why on earth I said such a thing), I finally bolstered the courage (thanks in large part to my friend, Kim) to ask him about the possibility of a caregiving session at Hutchmoot.

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “Check in with Pete (his brother) in a couple of months when we’re starting to plan out the sessions.”

I’m an idea person — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had ideas shut down right from the start. It can be crushing. Even if an idea is totally wacky, encouragers can see the glimmer of good in it and water the seed a little. Andrew did that for me.

I already knew that Andrew was an encourager. At my very first retreat at Laity Lodge, when I was saying my good-byes, Andrew touched my arm and said, “You have important things to say. Don’t ever doubt that.”

2. Rachel Speer Donahue — Well, I did the session at Hutchmoot.

I was so full of doubt about my tiny portion of it. I had sent the written text of it to my friend, Alyssa, who also is an encourager. Her words helped me go through with the whole thing. (Seriously — up to the last minute, I considered politely bowing out.) Afterwards, my mental replays of my portion were all of me babbling. (Side note: I saw a book recently called, “Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk” and I wished I had read the book before Hutchmoot.)

Enter Rachel. After Hutchmoot, the guy who puts together the photo book put out a call for quotes. Rachel was an early responder — and she quoted ME. I was horrified and honored at the same time. The horror has long since subsided, and I go back to that moment over and over. Rachel sat in on my session and valued what I said enough to quote me. It was a HUGE encouragement.

3. Jonathan Rogers — I’ve taken a number of writing classes from Jonathan Rogers. The best thing about his classes are the critiques he gives to the submitted assignments. He is blunt and honest. Jonathan has told me when things I have written are unclear or, worse, boring. He’s always right on the money.

Jonathan recently started a subscription website of writing advice called Field Notes for Writers. I HIGHLY recommend it.

He asked me if he could use one of my pieces for an exercise he calls “Line Edits.” With great fear and trepidation, I gave permission, but when I watched the video of his edits of my piece, “Old Porch,” I was so touched. Seeing my writing through his eyes was such an encouragement.

You, too, can receive encouragement from Jonathan by taking any of his upcoming classes or attending his free monthly webinar.

4. Elizabeth Dunn — We’ve been attending Methodist churches for five or six years now (maybe more). I am NOT a cradle Methodist and honestly don’t understand the inner workings of the Methodist Church. I had never been to a “Charge Conference” until this year.

At the Charge Conference, Bishop Webb came and heard the reports from the various committees in the church. Then he asked for people to share what good things were going on in the Cooperstown Methodist Church. The first person to speak was Elizabeth. She said, “Sally Zaengle has been playing her flute during church and it really adds something special.”

Let me back up to say, yes, I play the flute, but not terribly well. It’s something I do for fun — and more, it’s something that helps me worship. I believe music is a language God speaks.

When Elizabeth acknowledged my playing and that it blessed her — that was so encouraging. Even with all my bloopers, it adds something positive to the worship.

5.Lisa Birdsall and Kristen Griger — My role changed with the swim team this year. With my father declining, I couldn’t commit to coaching again. It made me a little sad, but Lisa (the Aquatics Director) and Kristen (the head coach) found a new role for me — team registrar. As team registrar, I handle all the athlete registrations as well as all the meet entries.

I love my new job! I love learning new things and I can do much of the work from home. Additionally, I’ve been working to educate the new parents on the ins and outs of swimming by holding informational meetings and sending out regular newsletters.

Lisa arranged for me to have an email address with the facility. While that sounds like a small thing, it really isn’t. I’m the only part-time person with a Clark Sports Center email and the recipient of the last email address available on their server.

Not only that, but Lisa started referring to an empty office there as my office. My office. Of course, it’s not my office yet. Someone else needs it while some work is being done outside her office. But I’ve never had an office before. I may still never have the office. You never know.

But the thought of an office is an encouragement. And the email address is a reality — a real work email.

You really never know where encouragement will come from.

In 2019, I hope a little encouragement will come from me.

Important

My Rabbit Room gift exchange package ready to be mailed.

I took part in the Rabbit Room gift exchange this year. Below is a letter for the person whose name I drew.


Dear Rabbit Room Gift Exchange person,

I am so so sorry.

Spoiler alert: I bought a Baseball Hall of Fame cap for you. Since I live in Cooperstown, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, I included some something from there with my RR gift. I know, there’s nothing rabbit-y about the Hall of Fame, but it’s a little piece of me. Cooperstown is where I live and the Hall of Fame was my first job. There’s some more rabbit-y stuff in the box, too.

The baseball cap sat on the piano in the living room blithely waiting to be wrapped and mailed.

The other morning I went to check on my father. He has some dementia. From the dining room I could see he wasn’t in his chair. When I went in, I found him by the piano wearing your cap. It was awkwardly perched on his head because he hadn’t noticed the cardboard inserts inside the cap. He had, however, ripped off the tags and held them crumpled in his hand.

“DAD!” I fairly shrieked. You would have thought he was about to burn down the house.

He looked up at me, startled.

“No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-NO!” I said. “That’s NOT YOURS!”

Clearly he didn’t understand what was happening as I pulled the cap — your cap — off his head. I stomped off to the coat room, found a Red Sox cap, and brought it back to him.

“Here,” I said, not very nicely, “You can wear this one all day and all night. This one is yours.”

“Why would I want to wear a baseball cap all night?” he asked innocently.

I changed the subject. “This one,” I said, waving the Hall of Fame cap under his nose, “is a gift for someone.”

He looked at me blandly.

“It’s not yours,” I said again.

“I didn’t know it was something important,” he said.

“Yes, it’s important,” I said, even though I knew in my heart that it wasn’t.

For the next hour, he brought me things and asked the same question every time.

The first was a bobby pin — “Is this important?”

Then 17¢ in loose change — “Is this important?”

A scrap of paper with a grocery list written on it — “Is this important?”

A photograph.

A book.

A garden stone with the word “SUN” carved into it.

A spool of thread.

“Is this important?”

After about the third thing, it hit me how unimportant things are.

“You’re important, Dad,” I finally told him — and was glad for the lesson that I learned.

So I’m sorry about the crumpled tags that I stuck in the cap before I wrapped it for you. They served as a reminder to me of how easily I lost sight of what is important.

Enjoy the cap. May it (and this little story) remind you not to lose sight of what’s most important.

Merry Christmas!

The funny shaped package is a baseball cap.

 

 

The Lucky One

I was sitting at the train station in Charleston, South Carolina.

The evening was a balmy 60-something — balmy in comparison with the 30-something I left behind in New York that morning. The station was clean, well-lit, and sparsely populated. I sat on a blue bench playing word games on my phone while waiting for Mary’s train to arrive.

“Last time I rode this train, it was an hour and a half late,” a man said. I looked up to see a wiry African-American man with gray bristle-y hair poking out from the edges of his Kufi. “Folks waiting for me in Savannah had to change their plans all around because of this train.”

I just smiled at him. My train experience is pretty close to nil.

A few minutes later my daughter texted me from the train. “Conductor says we should be in Charleston around 8 – 8:15.” Over an hour late.

Image result for north charleston train station

North Charleston train station, photo from abcnews4.com

The man was pacing the train station. On his next pass near me I told him what Mary had said.

He shook his head and sat down beside me. “This train never runs on time,” he said.

How we got from there to where our nearly hour-long conversation took us, I don’t know. Before I knew it, he was telling me about “Mama.”

“I was the lucky one,” he told me. “I took care of Mama. They was eleven of us, and I was lucky number nine.”

He shook his head and smiled, a gesture he repeated often as he remembered his mother.

“Mama was smart. She got her degree in journalism. You better believe we learned how to write. She and Daddy sent us to parochial school in New York — all eleven of us.”

I thought of how my parents valued education. My grandfather, my father’s father, never went to high school, but each of his children went to college and graduate school.

“Mama worked for Richard Nixon. She helped with his campaigns in New Jersey and he gave her a job with the federal prisons there.”

My father loves to tell people how he met Haile Selassie. Rubbing shoulders with the mighty.

“When my daddy was dying, he called me to his bedside. ‘Ali,’ he says, ‘Ali, you take care of your mama.’ I said to him, ‘Daddy, of course I’ll take care of Mama.’ But he says, ‘No, I mean it — you really take care of Mama.'”

He shook his head and smiled. “I was the lucky one.”

My father outlived my mother — but I watched him take care of her and I helped where I could. Making sure my mother was well-cared-for was a priority.

“I moved in with Mama.”

I moved in with my father.

“Mama fell and broke her femur. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said nobody would operate on her. She was too frail. 90 years old. 90 pounds. All they give her was morphine to ease her pain. That was her last month alive. I kept her in her own home.”

We aren’t there yet. I try not to think about my father’s last days.

“I give the eulogy at Mama’s funeral. I look over at my brothers and sisters boohooing, and I said, ‘What you boohooing about? You didn’t come see her. You didn’t take care of her. You just feeling sorry for yourself.’ I said that to them. And they was mad. Hoo-boy! They was mad.”

He chuckled a little to himself. “But, you see, I was the lucky one. I got to care for my mama. When she died, I didn’t cry. I had given her everything I had.”

No regrets living — I could relate to that, too.

I’m thankful that my family pulls together. My siblings help — but I know that I’m the lucky one, too.

The train pulled in to the station and we both stood.

“Been real nice talking to you,” he said, and he extended his hand to me. “I’m Ali.”

I already knew that.

“I’m Sally,” I said, and shook his hand.

“Been real nice talking to you,” he said again.

It had been real nice listening.