Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Death of Harry: Not a Widow's Lament

This morning, as I was peeling cucumbers to go with the children's sandwiches, I didn't hear the usual anticipatory squeaking from our guinea pigs, who have always been remarkably attuned to the soft whoosh of the fridge door opening, the rustle of plastic wrap, and the sound of any vegetable being sliced. Alas, Harry, our fat, enthusiastic father-of-thirty-six, was lying on his side as if he didn't know what hit him. I'm no vet, but I think he must have been sinking his teeth into a cucumber peel one minute and having a massive heart attack the next. Although I knew right away, I couldn't help thinking that all it would take to have him up and squeaking was a slice of apple nearby, and I put one down near him. Nothing. His wife, Ginny, had retreated to the top floor of our piggy housing development, and did not return to the lower levels until my husband had removed Harry's body.
We buried him in the garden this evening, his winding sheet a clean old dishtowel, his coffin a cardboard Ikea desk lamp box--exactly the right size. A few days ago he was chasing his wife, enjoying connubial relations with her (not bad for a guy of, approximately, 90) and even stealing food from her.
So we had a proper service with an Ave Maria, a few memories from the kids of interesting adventures with Harry (watching him stand on his hind legs when our eldest played the clarinet, clawing his way up mom's pants leg). And a doxology. And now may he rest in peace! We brought Ginny, his wife of some eight years, out for the ceremony, but she seemed not very impressed, and was glad to be back in her home eating a carrot.

I'll leave the last words to Robert Lowell:


'Of late they leave the light on in my entry
so I won't scare, though I never scare in the dark;
I bless this arrow that flies from wall to window...
five years and a nightlight given me to breathe—
Heidegger said spare time is ecstasy...
I am not scared, although my life was short;
my sickly breathing sounded like dry leather.
Mrs. Muffin! It clicks. I had my day.
You'll paint me like Cromwell with all my warts:
small mop with a tumor and eyes too popped for thought.
I was a rhinoceros when jumped by my sons.
I ate and bred, and then I only ate,
my life zenithed in the Lyndon Johnson 'sixties...
this short pound God threw on the scales, found wanting.'

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Student from Wartornia and the Critical Mom

It's the fifth week of classes and my office hours are over for the day--I'm heading for the gym.  I've got my key in my hand and my athletic bag over my shoulder.  A student with a worried--no, desperate--face appears, and do I have a minute?
Could she possibly enter my Edwidge Danticat class now?  I know I was supposed to register before, she says, in heavily accented English.  But--I didn't.  I have a visa problem.  I do not want to go back to--
I'll call it Wartornia. You see the country on YouTube, you read about in the New York Times.  She's far from being the only refugee, but some of my other refugees are only fleeing the impossibly expensive American University system, or they're from third world countries they were lucky enough to have removed themselves from before Ebola loomed.  She's the first I've seen who doesn't want to get returned to a place where soldiers with guns could shoot her dead the minute she's back there--or she won't be able to find food.  She is so distraught that I know she'll be  a terrible student because she cannot concentrate on anything other than how she can manage to stay here, where she is safe, and, once that is established, how she can help her family.  The contents of my course, which concerns a  traumatized island nation that is always in the middle of an earthquake, a war, or political uprisings, and which is anything but kind to its women, are not likely to soothe her. I wonder if she can stand to read material that must be so close to home. But I am the one she thinks will let her into the course so late in the semester that we are about to have midterms. If she shows up, I think it will help her to stick to the regularity of classes, readings, papers. If she doesn't, at least I'm not the one who turned her down when she asked to get into my class.

P.S.  Several months later .  .  . she never showed up again, of course, and I was afraid she'd been shipped off. But I spotted her in a local, never mind which one, store. She looked fine. I'm glad she's okay.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Wildlife and The Critical Mom

While coyotes are trotting through Riverside Park, moles and other critters are making themselves at home in my part of Germany.  I looked out at the racks of clean laundry I'd just hung out to dry on our patio and observed a red squirrel on top, stuffing an article of clothing into his mouth.  
"Get out!" I screamed, startling my husband, who thought I was talking to him.  The rodent ran. There was the time I opened the patio to air out the living room--something I've been doing for years with no ill effects--and during the nanosecond when my back was turned, a critter (species unknown, but I suspect a cat) left its calling card under the dining room table.
 Spiders--big ones--sometimes big hairy ones--find their way into our living room, and children ask me to get the plastic cup quick, Mommy, and take them awaaaaay, and of course I do.  Then there's the bird's nest in our newspaper holder, and now, on the edge of our mailbox, a scene straight out of the final chapter in Charlotte's Web:  a family of tiny spiders, each the size of the head of a pin, seems to have descended on its northwest corner.  Thinking of the three little spiders who befriend Wilbur at the very end, I can't bring myself to smoosh them.  Besides, they eat mosquitoes.  If I let them have the edge of the mailbox, maybe they'll tackle the spider problem. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Critical Mom and the Aged P

 I wish taking care of my Aged P were as easy and pleasant as Dickens makes it sound in Great Expectations.  The father of John Wemmick, a bill collector, the old man sits by the fire in the castle home with which his son has furnished him, enjoying the small drawbridge, flag post, and the daily firing of the cannon, an event that always nearly blows the old man out of his chair.
Dickens' Aged P is easy to get along with.  His son Wemmick says to Pip, the main character, "Nod away at him Mr Pip; that's what he likes. Nod away at him, if you please, like winking!"  The old man is happy, and it is soothing to spend time with him. 
 My 93-year-old mother--with whom it is never soothing to spend time--lives alone in her own place, does her own shopping (in the fridge sit open cans of green beans topped by Mom's Au Bon Pain breakfast corn muffin, from which she's taken a bite or two, and which she's decided to "save.") Also two meals worth of leftover Chinese food and the many cans of Vanilla Ensure I sent her via Amazon.  
"You could let the social workers do the laundry," I say with the most casual tones I can summon, as I strip the bed I slept on the night before.
She bristles.  "I'm not helpless!"
Dust coats bookcases, surfaces.  The kitchen is not one I'd be happy cooking in without a morning's work with Clorox. The elegant wrought-iron cage elevator door--as well as the front door to her non-doorman building--are heavy for me, but she scowls when I open them for her. 
"Don't hurt yourself!" she growls.
When I let her struggle with the front door, as she wishes, she mutters, "Guess I'll have to get stronger."  She broke her hip some months ago, and still favors one side, going up the steps by placing her right foot on the step, leaning heavily on the bannister, and hauling herself up.  By the time she gets home, she's ready for a nap, and so am I, but we don't take naps.  We walk to the bookstore and she buys me four books, one for me and several for my children.  The glare she bestows on me when I mention the assisted living facility in which even she admitted enjoying "my three squares," when she was recovering from her broken hip, is potent.  
"I don't want to be around all those old people!" she tells me.  When I write to the social workers who look in on her, they are legally required--or feel morally obligated--or both--to inform her that "your daughter is worried about you."  This nets me an enraged look and a not inconsiderable concern about my inheritance.  She promised to wear a device  on her wrist that would let her push a button and call for help if she happened to fall again and be unable to reach her phone.  The time she fell and broke her hip, she tripped over her phone cord, "So it was right there!" she said brightly.  "They came in four minutes."  I've reminded her about getting that device ("Yes I know! Glare, glare) as have her social workers, but Mom has yet to acquire one. 
"You could get those three squares without the assisted living place," I say.
"How?" She looks interested.  I have hopes.
"Meals on wheels! They deliver three square meals a day."
She shakes her head.  "Oh, I don't eat that much."
Like most modern children of Aged Ps, I live in another city--in fact I live in another country.  I patch together a group of friends and neighbors to look in on her, but these young people, all of whom love and admire her, are always off living their own lives.  One got a job in another city, and one went home to Japan to visit her own Aged P.
"We had such fun times together, the three of us," Mom laments.
I waved goodbye through the back of my taxi.  She's determined to live to 120.  Knowing her, she will.