My adult brain was only about half-baked when she left. To be honest, most of the time it feels only about half-baked now. If I was any good at math I could probably calculate the true fraction of understanding I had of the world when the person I relied upon for almost every answer was cruelly and without warning ripped from my life, but I’m not, so I’ll just round up and say “one tenth of not much”.
It wasn’t until she was gone that I realized how much she had taught me in our short time together. Even though I can’t pick up the phone and call her anymore, which makes my heart twist like spounge any time I think about it, I still talk to her and she still reminds me that there are a few equations that solve almost all of life’s problems.
- People are always more important than things so give whatever you can
- Smiling and laughing, even if you don’t feel like it, cures a bad mood
- You can never earn more time so spend it like you know that
The detailed memories of our time together may fade with each year removed, but every Mother’s Day they burn brightly again and take up their rightful place in my over occupied mind. Mom even calls me sometimes, like she did today, and gives another important lesson-
Always show your work
I had no clue where to find Matthew when my aunt asked me to set her handheld, electronic Bible to the first chapter of that book before leaving after our visit today. “It’s the first book of the New Testament” she said as a means to help, but not realizing how little that meant to me. I don’t feel bad about not knowing how many clicks forward from Deuteronomy or back from Acts I would need in order to get her all queued up for tomorrow’s lesson. After all, the Bible really isn’t my thing. And, although technology is my thing, her little gadget was just a simple black box with a couple of buttons, lacking amenities like a screen that could have displayed a table of contents and made the task much simpler for a King James novice like me. I managed to figure out the proper combination of key strokes to move between books rather than chapters within books and got on a roll. The deep, calming voice of the iBible began solemnly rattling off “Judges. Ruth. 1 Samuel…..Ezra. Nehemiah” and intermittently having its impecable pronunciation cut short by my frantic pressing of the downward facing arrow. “Am I going in the right direction?” Before she could answer, the speaker uttered “Job” and she told me to go ahead and stop there. I don’t know if she was just trying to give me a break or if something about the spoken-word trip through the old testament triggered a need to focus on that particular book. I’ve decided that I’ll ask her about it when I see her again next week.
Over the past couple of months I have been visiting my aunt in her adult foster home. I spent a good deal of time with her as a child, but we haven’t been a part of each other’s lives since. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve seen each other outside of funerals over the past 30 years, so finding talking points can often be difficult. There is only so much reminiscing that can be done to fill the time. Upon arriving for our visit today, I started with the usual inquiries like “How are you feeling?” “What’s going on in the world that I should know about?” “Did you eat lunch yet?” She answered all of the questions, some with more gusto than others, but today would end up being about more than small talk. I recently learned that she loved to write and that she even saw a few of her stories and poems published during the 1970s. I had those writings with me today. Since she is no longer able to see small print, I asked if she would like me to read them to her. “Yes, that would be nice” she said, still stunned that her sister-in-law had held onto the original publications all these years and then passed them along to me. Seeing her smile as she listened to the words she’d penned so long ago, discussing what had inspired them, and then sharing some of my own work with her made for a very special day.
So, what does my fumbling around in the Bible at the end of our visit have to do with this story? Whether she was writing a poem celebrating the second coming or a short story that illustrated the kindness of strangers when her family was new to town and her father fell ill, my aunt’s work was inspired by her Christian faith, something that is almost totally foreign to me. I realized today that we have a real connection through writing and I’d like to foster that in any way I can. Who knows? If I study her book maybe we’ll have more to talk about or even write a story together. At the very least, I’ll be able to find the book of Matthew the next time she asks.
I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day as an adult. Sure, during my early twenties, before I came to believe that February 14th was no more than a day to get all “show offy” with romantic gestures because we had all been so crappy toward each other the rest of the year, I stressed over planning the perfect expression of my undying love, which usually manifested itself in the form of an overpriced dinner at a restaurant that made both me and my date completely uncomfortable paired with the obligatory flowers and chocolate. When I see those boxes of tooth shattering candy hearts with their sappy beseechings and earnest promises begin to takeover shelves and endcaps of every grocery store, I’m not overcome with a longing to wine and dine anyone; no offense to my partner. This year I discovered why I am so strongly indifferent to the holiday as it’s celebrated today and why I want something different.
The first thing that invaded my thoughts as I woke this morning was a note that was included in the Valentine care package my mom sent me when I was 24. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, it would be the last I would receive from her; less than a year later she would be rendered incapable of putting together care packages or writing notes. Somehow, despite the fact that I’m a fervently adept minimalist, this note managed to survive that time when I was unaware how important it would become and has made every move with me for the last 22 years.
This note got me thinking about the Valentine’s Days of my childhood. It made me think about the year that Dad bought a single red rose for all three of his girls. It made me think about how Mom required that I bring a card for every student in my class, even those I didn’t like. “Yours may be the only card someone receives. Think about that.” she would tell me, needing no further explanation to make her point. It made me think about all of the special dinners Mom planned for us to share as a family. I’m sure there were times when Mom and Dad celebrated as a couple, but it always seemed more important to them that the holiday have a wider reach. It was a day to share with all your loved ones, not just your romantic partner. So, when Dad called to ask if he could take us all to brunch I guess it wasn’t surprising. It made perfect sense for my sister and I, our partners, Dad and his girlfriend, and our aunt to all share a meal today.
As we reminisced over old photographs of those family members who are no longer with us and laughed as long forgotten stories were remembered, I could feel Mom there too, urging us to make this our new Valentine’s Day tradition. I’m pretty sure she also told me to get a frame for that note if I intend to keep it from getting ruined.
This is a story I wrote about my experience volunteering for Housecall Providers, a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that provides both primary care visits and hospice in the patient’s home. The story was published this week in the quarterly newsletter that goes out to all of their donors.
My phone chimes and the pop-up notice displays simply… Jean, reminding me that it’s time to get on the road. I hardly need the prodding, for Wednesday has quickly become my favorite day of the week. When I enter Adella’s Adult Foster Home, the women she cares for are sitting around the dining table in the cozy, warm common area, finishing up their breakfast. I am always struck by how perfectly kept this home is, how comfortable all its residents appear, and how welcoming Adella is to me. All of my preconceived notions about care facilities were quickly forgotten when I began visiting Jean. “Miss Jean, Chris is here!” Adella says with an enthusiastic smile and then quickly gets Jean settled back in her room for our visit.
He’s long and lean with sinewy muscles that contract and ripple as he runs his abbreviated routes. Golden hair with swirls of black accents give him an exotic look. When he arrives the place becomes electric with happy, anxious energy. He’s greeted with a boisterous “Neil!”, much like the portly accountant Norm was whenever he planted himself in his regular spot at the far corner of the bar in the television show “Cheers”. He excites the crowd as he prances in, towering over all of them and grinning big under a nose that can’t help but lead the way. He’s Neil the brindle Greyhound, one of about 40 dogs that spend their weekdays at Virginia Woof Dog Daycare while their people toil away in the city. Continue reading
“I found these on the sidewalk” he said through alcohol saturated breath as he proudly showed off the cellophane wrapped bundle of carnations with their tips glowing hues of red and yellow. “Nice” I replied, hoping that would be the end of it and went back to frying my brain with social media. He wasn’t done. “They’re usually $8.99 at 7-Eleven” he continued. “Do you think she’ll like them?” I barely heard him ask the question and I didn’t answer it, but something compelled me to put away the iphone and give him my attention. I never learned his name, but within just 15 minutes as we swayed, squeaked, and pinged through the many stops leading to mine along the #12 route, I connected with him more than I could have possibly imagined.
I agreed with him when he stated how cold it was and that he should probably get a new pair of gloves. He had lost his at some point, most likely at a friend’s place, but he wasn’t sure. I celebrated with him when he told me that had won $614 playing Keno. I commiserated with him when he taught me that “anything over $600 requires that you find a way to Salem in order to claim it”. I laughed with him when he told me that the lottery officials took his photo, complete with a desert oasis backdrop, for their “winner’s circle” marketing campaign and it was now posted in the bar where he had won. “You wouldn’t believe how many people hit me up for money after that! It was gone fast.” I smiled with him as he reminisced about how he and the love of his life had run off to Las Vegas to get hitched and then enjoyed “a great life together” living in SW Portland. I said “I’m so sorry” when he shared that his wife, who had been an emergency room nurse, died at the age of 49 due to complications from the diabetes she had suffered since childhood. I touched his arm and said “it’s ok” as he apologized profusely for his tears. I just listened as he told me he had fallen into a battle with alcohol and then homelessness after her death.
When my stop came, I stood, put my hand on his shoulder and said “Take it easy”. He grabbed my hand and replied “God bless you. Thank you for listening to me”. As the bus pulled away and I made my way up the street, I started to cry. I cried for him, his wife, and because of what I wish I would have said “Yeah, I think she’ll like them”.