I suck at home improvement. I mention that basic fact only because I spent the better part of three hours this weekend trying to get a clogged pipe to magically unclog. Living in a house with a wife and three daughters (and only one bathroom) has a way of filling the plumbing system with enough hair to cover the Taj Mahal. There are hair products in the bathroom closet that I can’t even pronounce the names of, for God’s sake.
One day, my father-in-law taught me the technique and proper use of a plumbing snake. If you’ve never seen one, it’s basically a long thick coil of wire that is inserted into the pipe and worked through until it clears the clog. I have these nightmarish visions of this long piece of coiled metal slipping out of my hands before disappearing into the bowels of my septic system never to be seen or heard from again. That particular scenario never played itself out but I did have to go to Home Depot in search of a longer, better snake. I was using a 15’ and instinctively knew a 25’ would surely do the job. I’ve never been anywhere near adept at any home repair skill and can usually manage to screw up any simple task to the point of “you better call a professional before someone gets hurt”. Cooking? No problem. Want a nice stir-fry? Maybe a nice dish of Beef Stroganoff or a Chicken Tarragon Salad sandwich with alfalfa sprouts… That stuff is easy. But show me a project that may involve the use of power tools and a tape measure and I’ll run away faster than King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Truth be told, I’ve never had an interest in plumbing or electrical or basic carpentry 101, although I can totally admire someone who does have that talent, especially if they’re bailing out my sorry unskilled ass. I’ve thought many times about taking a Night Life course in basic wiring or plumbing but something always keeps me away. Maybe it’s just that I feel a bit insecure when I walk up the power tool aisle of Home Depot and think out loud, wow, I wonder what the hell that thing does. The woman (a manly woman at that) working the power tool section overhears me and launches into a 20 minute discourse on the advantages and benefits of owning a Rigid router and lathe. Lady, please speak English.
At least I admit my inadequacies and damn it, I know my boundaries. Actually, my inability to fix the leaking faucet in the shower still astounds my wife (and rightly so). She scratches her head and wonders how someone so brilliant in some areas could be so incredibly stupid in others. I’ve got the problem solved though. The trick is to get my daughters to marry guys who are, how shall I say it, sympathetic to my cause? (Oh, he’s a plumber? We just gotta meet him!) This is going to work out just beautifully.
I did manage to unclog the pipe the other day but not with the 15’ snake or the 25’ snake but with an old crusty, mundane bathroom plunger. A few pushes and POP…look at that water go down! After I start the Coq au Vin, I’m going to take a look at that leaky faucet. You know duct tape is really underrated…
© michaelm 2005
Several years ago I sold the house I’d grown up in.
It turned out to be much more difficult an ordeal than I originally thought.
I wrote a piece in an attempt to journal my emotional state at the time.
I put it on the blog in the hopes that someone somewhere down the road may find that they went through the same labyrinth that I did and yes, life does go on.
The piece is a bit lengthy, sorry about that.
Should you connect with anything in the story, I’ll be a happy camper.
The Goodbye House
The house I’d spent the better part of my life in was sold. The feeling that coursed through me was that of guilt because I was the one who decided it needed to be sold and I didn’t know if that was right or wrong. An intrinsic part of my childhood history was on the auctioning block destined to go to the highest bidder and I never had a chance to rescind that decision.
Time had come to clean the rooms and closets that had once held the bittersweet secrets of my life. Memories descended on me like white-capped waves washing the shores of some distant but familiar beach.
There was more of me here than I cared to admit, but the job ahead needed to be done and finally put to bed.
Mom and Dad fell victim to the affliction we call Alzheimer’s Disease, the memories of their lives turning opaque and as lifeless as their soon to be empty house.
In time, they were both moved from a place they could no longer remember, leaving me with a house I couldn’t forget.
Safe within the foreign walls of their new homes, I was handed the unenviable role of caretaker and property manager, a title that to this day still scares the hell out of me.
In one word, the house had been a ‘haven’ for my twin sister and myself. The world outside was safer to view from inside the four walls of the 15’X15’ living room than anywhere else on the face of the earth.
That feeling of shelter was a concept never taught: we just knew it to be truth.
The skies could be raining boulders but as long as we were inside, life was good. I looked at the scattered bits and pieces of my life, our life, resting placidly, albeit sadly, on the unseen shelves that ubiquitously lined each room.
During my walks from room to room, I laughed at myself for the constant carrying of a box of Kleenex wondering what memory would push up the next batch of ‘eye dew’.
The echoing voices of last days of school and first days of summer softly careened off walls barren as the Sahara desert during a dust storm, back into my heart where I prayed they would somehow always live and knew they would always belong.
Finding myself in the den, Mom’s piano called longingly to me. I felt the dusty keys as if waiting for some divine inspiration to strike but it never came.
I looked inside the rickety piano bench through sheet after disintegrating sheet of music and found “The Burning of Rome”, a two-step written decades before I was born, a piece of music that my mother loved playing. Oh, how she could play!
The piano brought her so much happiness and peace.
Who would take care of this sad and abandoned instrument now, I wondered.
She loved to play Christmas songs around the holidays and always made my sister and me sing for our guests. Now, most of her music books sat untouched, collecting more particles of dust than stars in the heavens and I wondered if anyone would ever love this piano the way she did.
I didn’t feel I had the heart to sit down and play but I did anyway, for old times’ sake. It was a very short and old-fashioned song she used to play:
Toorah Loorah Loorah, hush now don’t you cry…
But I did cry.
Oddly enough, the piano reminded me of a child’s music box, out of tune but pretty in its sweet own Irish way. Closing the fallboard, it occurred to me that I wrote my first song on this piano. I couldn’t remember the words or the music but I remember the feeling of writing it; of creating art out of thin air; of running to my mother ecstatic I had done it and Mom trying not to be too excited saying, that’s my boy.
Being left alone with all these emotions has a way of changing you and my insides were changing from room to room. Stripping away all the furniture and belongings that had accumulated over some 50 years was no easy task.
It was murder, plain and simple.
A part of me was dying and I had no choice but to let the spirits of the past fly out of the open windows and into that black void where all shadows go.
The second floor was the toughest emotionally.
My bedroom was the first door on the right when you reached the top of the stairs.
The walls were a soft knotty pine (good for hanging up posters- and yes, I did have the Farah Fawcett one) and covered most of the room except for a foot of bare wall that bordered the room before reaching the ceiling.
Once upon a time, there had been an orangey rust colored shag carpet covering the floor, but that had been ripped up years earlier exposing what would now be considered ‘art deco mocha’ floor tile.
It was spattered with what looked to me like black and white drops of paint.
I sat at my desk and rummaged absentmindedly through the drawers.
I pulled out a crinkled pack of firecrackers as my mind shot me thirty-five years back in time. Mom and Dad used to play cards in the dining room with neighbors and friends because Saturday night was the time for Gin Rummy.
The particular Saturday night that came to mind was different.
I had been given some Black Jack firecrackers from one of the ‘bad apples’ in the neighborhood and I decided to try and see if I could light one and get the fuse to go out before the firecracker exploded.
I guess I did it because that’s what curious (and dim-witted) boys did.
Hearing the enormous bang, Dad came bounding up the stairs two at a time assuming I had just committed suicide. He shoved open the door only to see me sitting at my little desk with that ‘deer caught in the headlights’ look on my face.
He surveyed the room wondering why it looked like a winter Nor’easter had just blown through with firecracker paper everywhere.
I had lived to re-live the tale sitting at the desk.
That night was coming back to me in living color, the pungent sulphur odor from the exploded firecracker singeing the hairs in my nose and filling my mouth with acidic smoke. But as bad as that night was—was as good as the memory made me feel.
From the window in my room, I looked out over the neighborhood I once ruled as Daniel Boone; a neighborhood I knew like the back of my hand in the dead of night.
I suddenly wanted to tell the kids moving into the house where the best salamanders were and how sliding in the winter will never get better than the Collins’ backyard and how ‘ya gotta watch the sand that covers the road on the cul-de-sac turn when you’re on your bike ‘cause if you don’t you’ll wipeout.
The seasons of my life stretched out over the neighborhood as I said out loud: I can’t say goodbye to this house when there’s still so much of me in it!
My voice echoed off the tile floor of my bedroom wanting a reply.
It would be months after the closing of the house and that final locking of the door before I would see some closure enter my life.
Business often took me near the house but I chose to stay on the highway, not wanting to admit to myself that someone else was living there; looking out windows I once looked out of; playing the piano I once played; watching the sunset from the deck in the backyard, the sky painted with deep royal purples and cotton candy pinks as stars twinkled on, one by one—that was my sunset.
But one late August afternoon, after flying into Providence after a business trip, I had the chance and the time to drive by and sneak a glimpse of the old gal.
I was happy to see that her lawn had been freshly mowed and that there was a canoe resting against the shed out back.
I couldn’t put my finger on it but the house had lost its blues.
She didn’t need me any longer.
She was once again filled with life and light. I drove down around the cul-de-sac (that once had claimed all the skin on my left forearm) and came back up the quiet street for one final look before heading back into my own life.
I glanced up at my old bedroom window, saw that a light was on and imagined some young boy staring at the ceiling, wondering what life had in store for him. I managed one last smile for my old friend as I turned on my headlights and headed for new haven.
© michaelm 2005
I saw my mother yesterday. She was awake (a pleasant surprise) and sitting in a wheelchair staring at the wall in her room. She sleeps a lot these days, perhaps a regression back to infancy oddly enough. She seemed to study my face while I was there, searching, maybe, for a feature that was at one time familiar. Now and then she would smile and begin to whisper unintelligible words like a person in a state of deep prayer. I held her shaky hands and talked my way in and out of the one way conversation I’ve grown so accustomed to these days. I didn’t stay long—maybe 30 minutes, before I made my way to the elevators.
I ran into Marion, one of the RN’s on the floor who I hadn’t seen in a few months. I enjoy talking with Marion because she doesn’t come off like some of the dogmatic nurses I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with in the past. She’s a real sweet lady. She looks like a shorter version of Bea Arthur (Maude) with considerably less silver streaks in her short-cropped hair. Marion just has a way about her that makes you aware that she cares. It’s in her voice, her eyes and her unfailing willingness to listen. Sometimes that’s all we really want—someone to listen to us and hear what we actually are trying so hard to say. I feel this foreboding sense of guilt as I talk to her because I don’t visit my mother as much as I should these days. She barely recognizes me and speaks a language all her own and it seems so pointless. Marion says my mother knows somehow that I’m there and that’s what’s important. Maybe that’s not too far off, I just don’t know.
I tell her a few stories about my mom that I’ve accumulated over the years in the hopes it will give her a different perspective, another side of the proverbial hospice coin. I mentioned that one thing I really miss is talking with my mother. She had a unique way of interpreting the intricacies of my life before feeding them back to me with her bare bones translation. She had a knack for filtering out all the extraneous BS in an effort to make me understand what I was really concerned about. That was her beauty. If you were full of excrement and endlessly wallowing in some vat of self-induced pity she was never afraid to tell you so. There’s no one in my life that could verbally cuff me behind the ears the way she could. My wife comes close but the result is drastically different.
As I talked to Marion, I could see her eyes getting teary. This was a part of her job description that no college course had ever attempted to teach. How do you teach compassion? Kindness? Love? As far as Empathy 101 goes, Marion unknowingly graduates magna cum laude.
I left the nursing home cognizant of the fact that as the days go by, more of my mother's spirit washes away from the eroding coastline of her life here on earth. The thick fog of Alzheimer’s is making it harder and harder to see her but I’m not worried. The light that shines inside caregivers like Marion will always be there to guide me.
Over the past ten years or so, both my mother and father were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Currently my mother is in the late stages and my dad is not too far behind.
I mention this not for sympathy but to explain my desperate need to write.
I credit my mom as being the initial catalyst that enabled me to pick up the pen in the first place.
It’s tragic that she will never read anything I’ve written.
Ditto for my dad.
The piece I’ve put on the blog tonight was an early piece I wrote years ago
while taking an online writing course.
I was asked to write from the viewpoint of someone that saw me on a fairly regular basis.
I decided that person would be a caregiver that was currently watching over my mom.
These people see everything, whether they want to admit it or not.
The caregiver’s name was actually Lydia as in the piece.
I loved the name. Her accent made me think she came from the islands.
Jamaica, maybe Bermuda. Either way she was an incredibly caring individual.
What moved me about my mom was her undying desire to go home.
I guess that’s where the heart truly is.
This piece is dedicated to the woman I used to know and the mother that I still love.
It’s the golden, sunny afternoons that she loves.
I see her in the courtyard sitting underneath a dogwood tree, the blossoms like white virgin snow.
She sits motionless on a weather-worn deacon’s bench that seems to consume her frail and withering shape.
Her son, Michael, will come today.
He’ll hold her trembling hands and whisper stories she no longer understands, hoping his words will finally reach those places in her mind that once belonged to him.
Then, he’ll hang his head realizing she can no longer understand, much less listen as the perpetual crumbling of her mind wears on. She will walk and he will follow trying to find something to talk about—something to laugh about—anything that would make sense out of his seemingly senseless visit.
He feels guilt and shame, wearing these emotions like an old blue suit that he never intended to buy.
He’s no different than the others. I see it all the time.
The mother he loved is gone while this stranger remains, this accidental transient, destined to teach him the true meaning of compassion; love’s purest form.
They walk while he talks about old days, I suspect, when she turns and abruptly leaves him dangling in mid-sentence before disappearing inside, where the unspoken grey walls of the
New Horizon’s Nursing Home swallow her whole.
I find her sitting in her room where she’s weeping softly.
“Why do you cry, Ginny?” I say, placing my hand on her trembling shoulder.
“I’m scared… and I want to go home. Will you take me home?” She barely manages to speak the words.
“Ginny, sweetie, you are home.” I whisper, tenderly rubbing her back in smooth circles.
Michael soon finds us sharing an embrace that he can no longer understand
and he asks that I leave for a few minutes.
I brush away a tear and tell Ginny that I’ll fetch an extra blanket for her bed.
She gets cold easily these days.
It makes me angry that he often calls her by her first name and that he can’t care for her as I can.
Perhaps he cries for a Ginny that I never knew—a woman he undoubtedly loved very much,
an old Ginny from long ago. I try to find the strength and the words to tell him she is still here with us,
but in my heart I know he will never believe that.
I walk to the linen closet to get a blanket and wonder why he always comes alone.
Ginny has three beautiful granddaughters that make her so happy.
Why don’t they come here any more?
These are questions I do not dare ask.
I walk back to her room with a soft blanket when I hear the sweet sounds of music floating through the hallway.
I realize the sound is coming from the small electronic piano they placed in her room when she first came to stay here. The door is open but a crack and I shouldn’t listen, but I do.
Michael is playing a version of “Happy Birthday” that reminds me of a child’s music box.
The music stops and then silence.
I hear her ask him, “Where am I? When can I go home?”
He says, “You are home, Virginia,” then softer still, “you’re home… Mom.”
There’s a brief pause and I hear her say,” Not really, Michael…this isn’t home, is it?”
Her heart breaks day after day as does his, I’m sure.
I knock gently on the door and enter as if I never left.
I cover her as she blesses herself, lies down, and turns towards the window with her blue eyes open wide.
He bends and gently kisses her forehead.
It suddenly occurs to me that in some ways she’s become another one of his children.
He turns to leave looking, as always, drained and defeated.
He says, “Good night, Lydia, please take care of Ginny for me,” and heads for the door.
I touch his shoulder softly and say goodnight.
He is gone.
As I vacantly stare into the pink salmon colors of twilight,
I notice a card sitting on her barren windowsill.
She is sleeping now so I slowly open it
and read to the deafening silence of the room:
Mom- I wish for you quiet moments and gentle hearts…
echoes of a song…
and memories that belong to you.
Happy Birthday – Love, Michael
Before I turn out her lights, I sigh and whisper “Happy Birthday, Ginny”.
It is then that I notice on her face the trace of a smile.
She is home.
© michaelm 2005
Modern day technology has given us some astonishing things: the ability to electronically chat with someone over two thousand miles away (thanks to IM), PDA’s that fit in the palm and possess 20 times the memory that the home PC had only 20 years ago.
There’s Broadband and DSL, 56K and Cable access for modems, Hi-Def and Plasma TV’s thinner than a box of chocolates. We can rip CD’s and fit 40 gigs of music on the Apple IPod. After all these wonderful advances in communication and entertainment we’ve yet to stumble upon a way to be judicious in our abuse and sometimes abhorrent use of the common cell phone.
We use it in the car, in the library, while we’re running on the treadmill, on the elevator and inexcusably in church. But the cell phone wasn’t irritating enough for those zany, fun loving folks at Nextel. They came out with a walkie-talkie that now allows us to listen to not only one side of an abysmal conversation but two. And—we have that nauseating ‘Nextel gets it done’ bleep to deal with as well. Someone please bleepin’shoot me.
I think we should all start actively participating in these inane conversations just to annoy the user. Why not? If you’re repulsive enough to discuss your irritable bowel syndrome bugaboo with a close friend and you’re within my hearing range, please, please, please let me get my two cents worth in.
I recently saw a comedian that wanted to organize a crusade for the passage of a law requiring anyone foolish enough to have a tête-à-tête in public to wear a phone booth on their head. Obviously, there would be space restrictions to consider so let’s make it simple—to make a call in public you must hold both hands above your head and we, the annoyed public, will be allowed, maybe even encouraged, to poke you with sharp metal objects until you are finished with your call. Perhaps then you’ll get the point.
And maybe it’s just me but those new Pepsi commercials are really starting to get on my nerves too…
© michaelm 2005