For Rose and Realness

For Rose and Realness

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 

– Margery Williams

             It’s October and my Empress Plums are gorging the tree limbs, bowing to the weather with the egg shaped amethyst fruit. I’m making plum chipotle sauce and canning it for the desert winter ahead when we’ll need the spice and shock of sour and sweet to remind ourselves of the colorful days on the other side of the year.

I get a call from the hospice I volunteer with asking if I’m up for a vigil tonight from midnight until 3 a.m. in a care facility a town over. This is called “11th hour,” when a vigil is called for volunteers to sit at bedside with someone who is actively dying. I agree and write down the following during the call: Patient is Rose[1] M. 99 years old. No family, never married, no children. POA[2] is a former student. Rose was a teacher. Living in facility 17 years. Presbyterian. Requests no meds. Room 11. Diagnosis: failure to thrive. She is actively dying. Facility staff don’t want her to be alone.

            It’s not a lot of information, but it’s all I think I’ll need. I pull the last batch of plum sauce from the pot and stand in the kitchen for a while eating the spoonfuls of vinegary autumn that won’t fit into the last jar with a piece of white cheddar. I love hanging around the jars as their lids click down to seal. Pop!  I think about Rose and wonder if I should go sooner. But like a woman sent home from the hospital early in her labor, I know to listen to the nurse and wait until later. I sit down with a half read book of Thoreau and let the hours fade.

At 11 o’clock, the alarm on my iPhone goes ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding! like an old rotary. I change into a dress with leggings and clogs. I pack my tote with a sweater, water bottle, my journal, a book of John O’Donohue blessings, and I am pulling out of the garage in 10 minutes. I have done this dozens of times and while each situation is different, I am not nervous.

As part of this routine I’ve established, I drive to the Maverick gas station just before the freeway and get a 32 ounce coffee with half and half. I am finicky about my coffee during the day, but it doesn’t matter at night. I need the caffeine and warmth to occupy the next several hours. It tastes like last time.

At the assisted living facility, I put my hospice volunteer name badge on, pack my coffee and tote with me, and ring the after hours doorbell. Rose is living in the small apartment-like room of the low-level care wing, just as she has for so many years. Well, she’s living and dying here right now. I’m glad that she is here and wasn’t moved.

A very young man lets me in and I tell him I’ll be with Rose for a few hours. He looks confused.

“Like a sitter?” he asks.

“Yeah, sort of. I’m on her hospice team,” I reply and he points me down the hallway in the general direction of her room.

The facility is outdated with overhead florescent lights, white railings down both sides of white walls and not much else. A med cart sits outside of a room and the nurse’s station is empty. I make my way towards the end of the bleak walk and find the door ajar to Room 11. I knock and enter with a soft “hello!” A woman sitting near the bed stands and walks towards me. It’s Camilla, another vigil volunteer. We’ve met before in these midnight alliances.

“She’s pretty good, but she’s getting restless. I just adjusted her pillows.”

Glancing over at the bed, I see two dark canes propped on top of pillows over a quilt puffed up with more pillows under her lower body. A flurry of white at the top of the bed exclaims her hair, with her head to the side. I hug Camilla. She’s warm and smells like Yardley’s lavender.  There’s great intimacy between strangers in the presence of dying.

“Thank you so much, Camilla. Get some rest.”

I wash my hands at the sink in the bathroom as Camilla leans over Rose and tells her goodbye. She gathers her things and leaves. Only now do I take my seat in the chair next to the bed. I take a deep breath and take in the focus of all my attention.

Rose is wide-eyed, brow furrowed, mouth open, breathing rapidly but silently, with the top of her chest rising like a small bird is under the covers. The stiff arms over the quilt are mottled with pooling blood, rivers turned to estuaries. I realize that she is in her last hours. Prediction is futile and there have been many vigils that went on for days, a week once, when the dying person held on without any water or intervention for an inexplicable moment of release. But something is different here. I feel more sure this time.

“Rose, my name is Sarah,” I say. “I’m from the hospice. I’m going to be sitting right here next to you. I’m going to pick up your hand. I want you to know that you’re not alone and whatever you need or do is ok. Can you squeeze my hand, Rose?”

The cold fingers in my palm do not respond. Her nails are shaped as almonds, specked with the remains of ivory polish.

I forget my coffee, my journal, my book. I stare at Rose as she is tethering away from me, away from this world. She holds my attention unreservedly and I find myself breathing shallowly with her. I count 26 in one minute and have to gasp to fill my lungs full. I am alert to my own breath and how fragile this space is. I hold it for her.

Holding space is what a vigil is. It does not encourage, interfere, judge or shrink. I may be here, but I don’t do anything but keep the intention of a peaceful death and affirm her life as she goes alone. An hour passes.

I finally look around the room. Framed needlepoint of elaborate flowers hang on two walls. Did she sew these? Were they gifts? A few books are by the television. I look for a photo album but there is none. A slim fabric covered volume stands in the stack and I lift it out. It’s the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. I flip through the first pages. Rose Meyer is written in the top right hand of the first in cursive, just as I write my own name in mine. The next page shows original publication, 1922.

Rose was 6 when this came out, I think.

I start to flip through the tender pages and there is the same cursive hand up and down the margins on page after page, all showing a close reading and great care for the story inside. Oh, Rose! Without doubt, I am sure these are her annotations.

I sit back down with Rose and begin to read, “There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen…”

Around 1 a.m., Rose begins to moan and her eyes shut and open, open and shut. She shifts around in her bed, visibly aching.

“Rose, are you alright? Rose?” I feel her hot forehead and she doesn’t react. She arches her back a bit and tries to pull her chest up.

“Rose, are you in pain?”

No response.

My heart beats in my throat. I scan up and down her body for any sign. Her feet move. She moans again and I freeze. I remember that she hasn’t had any medication. Usually, people are sedated with morphine or a Fentanyl patch. Sometimes medication isn’t needed if the patient is in a natural coma and seems comfortable. This is not normal. Or is it?

I step into the hall while dialing the on-call nurse on my phone. Jan answers.

“Jan, this is Sarah. I’m with Rose M. She is in pain, moaning, and moving around. Her forehead is scrunched. She’s not responsive though. What can we do?”

Jan pulls up her chart. “Well, she was clear that she doesn’t want any meds. We can give Tylenol, but that’s it. Do you want me to come out?”

“What could you do?”

“I can be there with her if you want to go home.”

I pause and take a good ten seconds before answering, “No, I’m ok.”
“Ride the waves, hun. Sometimes it’s like a birth. Remember she’s wants it like this and we have to respect those decisions. Hold the space. Call me back if she’s in any danger or you want me to come over.”

I end the call and walk back in to Rose’s room. She is hurting and I start to cry. I wipe away the tears and take a deep breath. Many, in fact. I sit back down and take her hand as gently as a dried flower.

What had I been doing at each vigil before now? Had I been a sitter? That’s not completely true, right? Was I really competent and comfortable only with sedated patients? So many questions disrupt everything – my sense of place, my role, my reason for being here.

Suddenly, I am the patient. I quit my mind, accepting that I can learn from Rose’s realness. God, I think, like the Velveteen Rabbit. I start to read again.

Rose draws up in bed, this time, her shoulders raise off the bed. Her eyes are open, but she can not see. But I believe everyone can hear until their last breath, or beyond. When I was in training to become an End of Life Doula, our teacher told us that the body shuts down fragmentally. Just because the breath is gone, or the heart stops beating, doesn’t necessarily mean brain activity is done and it can take several minutes after. Or sometimes brain activity ceases before the breath does. Once I was with a man as he died. As I sang to him, he passed away. It’s a good way to describe it, “passing away.” I stayed still by him and a couple minutes later, he breathed one last time, but I knew he was already gone. It did give me a fright though and I’m glad I knew to stay.

Rose is showing me another way. Maybe I am not here to help her die peacefully. I’m here to learn to live more fully, the way she wants. I’m here to hold this space and breathe with her. She’s choosing to embrace this experience its fullness and pain and mystery and I’ll be damned if I’m so arrogant to think it should be done otherwise.

Looking at my watch, I start counting Rose’s breaths. She’s down to 11 or 12 per minute and she’s calm again, motionless with her eyes closed. I return to an underlined section of The Velveteen Rabbit.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

At nearly 100 years old, here is Rose, body broken and dying with a stranger. But I know she was well loved through her life. I know this in my soul. I love her now, truly. What could be more authentic than this? Two people who don’t shy from suffering, who go their own way, who love to read. This is Rose’s final gift, her last lesson, to her last student: When we expect others to mask their distress to make us feel included and outgoing, we’re not genuinely connecting. If we are holding a space that’s been covered by a coping mechanism, a lie, a crutch, an addiction, a shadow of our fullness, we’re missing the aesthetics of life, the part worth living and loving. I think of the ways we numb and cover our grief, our disappointment, our sense of shame. Are we real when we’re anesthetized?

This is the first vigil during which I don’t write in my journal. Instead, I keep by Rose’s side, telling her that she is brave and loved. After an uncomfortable hour, she does relax and her breaths slow to 6 per minute and then 4, gasping between long stretches of nothing. Rose dies at 3:10, give or take some minutes, in the morning. Her body is instantly a husk and it is over. I call Jan and sit next to this body who is not the real Rose, incredibly grateful for this lesson, and my tears start to flow.

[1] Due to HIPPA, names and other identifying information has been changed.

[2] Power of Attorney, legal guardian in this case.

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Death

Death

What’s a good death? Good about death?
Good about saying goodbye to breath?
I am your land. You are my sky.
How shall we speak a world’s goodbye?
How make good the cosmic ache
Of universes going to break?
How make good the final kiss,
The final friend, the final bliss?
How make good the final sight
Of final day forever night?
You quit the form I slept so near.
And still you’re dear.
But am I, dear?

– Lucy Berry

The World’s Gift

The World’s Gift

I sit in front of maps and measure with my fingertips the distance between us. In this space, I tell the ocean to make itself smaller, we argue. I tell it please, I am in love, and it allows me to palm it in my hand and hold it tightly there. I wish the roads away. I grab the forests by the handful and plant them elsewhere, plant them in our backyard ten years from now. Like this, I slowly make the spaces between us smaller until I can walk across them. I take the ground by its edges and pull it until it’s gathered like a rug beneath my feet. I bundle the sky under my arms and don’t mind that the clouds are raining on my feet. I can walk the inches to your door and knock the wood and see you standing there in all your shocked silence. The question of the sky and the ground and the oceans all piled up around me. I can say ‘hello, look, it’s me, I love you, I’ve brought the entire earth for you.’

– Azra.T

Essay 1 – Creative Writing 347

Essay 1 – Creative Writing 347

Annie to Aureila, 1906-2010

Aurelia Josephine was born June 11, 2010. My mother Kelly braided my hair and rubbed my back while I labored. I don’t remember talking during those days. We didn’t need to. I feel the fortune and the heartache of my life and the mothers before me in my daughter. She is my breaking and my mending. It is my greatest task to walk ahead of her and move any obstacles I can from her way to let her push further forward. It is the American dream in my blood.

When my great-grandmother Isabella Lawson Morris arrived in America from Perthshire, she was seven months old and likely in her mother Annie’s arms. It was March 25, 1906 and little Isabella Lawson held that name that was also her grandmother’s, who was named for her legendary grandmother, born also in Scotland in 1786. This is a family with deep roots and respect.

As the story has been told to me, Annie and her husband were half courageous, half reckless, and wholly selfish as far as their neighbors were concerned, to be leaving their families for the feral world. Along with their five-year-old David and toddler Jennie, they packed everything they could fit of their lives into a trunk and left forever. It was dangerous and impassioned, but those children would know a fresh independence and it was Annie’s ambition to show them all the possibilities America promised. Perthshire was green and the only home they’d known, but it was a dark dead end for her young, hungry heart. She clutched her fat, rosy peach of a baby and with her small family, settled into Kansas with the grit that comes after childbirth for all things precarious.

American mothers are mostly the same in this way. It’s a tenet of our revolutionary spirit in this still relatively new country. We are determined to improve the lives of our children, after we survive whatever we survived on the backs of the women who prevailed before us. It’s not purely an economic ambition. We struggle to deliver dreams to our children from wherever we arrived.

My great-great-grandmother Annie never expected the decades ahead to be filled with war, poverty, and some of our nation’s most excruciating years. She and her growing family remained in Kansas and making it sunrise to sunset daily, they endured. Isabella left home when she was 22 years old after falling in love with a man from Nebraska nearly twice her age with blonde hair and grey eyes. Albin Olson wasn’t deterred by the age difference as his parents had married in Sweden when his mother was 14 and his father 24. And so, Isabella and Albin made the most of a rough mid-west life. Annie encouraged Isabella to go, relieved that she was taken care of and happy, no less.

Albin had served in the “War to End All Wars” and our part in it turned this promised land into a bloody letdown. There were over 41 million casualties during World War I and it’s difficult to imagine underestimating the impact that had on the young troops who survived and returned to a changed world. He found hope in this green girl, so full of anticipation. She buoyed his heart and they quieted each other’s fears. Their first son was born in Nebraska on their rented farm at the start of the Great Depression.

Belle, as Isabella was now called, had another son before they headed west to escape the Dust Bowl that swept the Southern Plains in the 1930’s. Wendell, Idaho was a chocolate box comparatively and there they had their third son and a girl named Clarissie. Belle wasn’t sure how to spell her new babe’s name, but it didn’t matter, as they all called her Claire. After living away from family and her old friends and being surrounded with her sturdy boys and husband, Belle finally had a little girl of her own.

Having a child reproduces childhood for parents in many ways. It’s a dreamlike step back through that innocent time in our own lives and it makes it all the more difficult to be removed from our own mothers, no matter how old and independent we grow. As much as her boys were out farming with their father, Belle had time to hold Claire. I’m sure she cried. She missed her optimistic mother, with her oatmeal porridge for thousands of meals and stories of the fortune to come. She dreamt of Scotland and the land she never knew. She wondered if she had made the right choices. Albin’s health began to fail and she desperately cared for him in their little town of less than 1,500 people. Albin died in 1950 and Belle’s buoyed world folded. The three boys were grown enough to work and mostly care of themselves, but Claire was only 11 and alone with her mother and the grief that filled every breath between them.

Belle felt frantic and confused. It’s a hallmark of grief when one loses her other. She couldn’t manage simple tasks and in episodes of hopelessness, it really was her grit that kept her going, though it looked meager.

It was meager. Claire cared for her and looked up to her brothers for guidance. Belle went to Idaho Falls for shock therapy and no one quite knew what to do to help after that. Belle lost a great part of her heart when Albin died and a great part of her mind shortly after.

My grandmother Claire mourned her dead father, who was old enough to be her grandfather, and her missing-while-present mother. She retold herself the handed down stories of strength, the Depression, the Great War, and Scotland and tried very hard to just be a happy girl.

Claire had hair the color of apricot jam, a wide, white smile, and a 19-inch waist. She was raw and yet, too aged for her adolescence. She met her brother’s friend David and with his attention, she began to understand just how her mother could have loved her father that much. Sunlight came back to Idaho. Just after she turned 16, she got pregnant and was practically in rapture for all the promise that lay in the new, changed world. David married her and she stayed near her mother in Idaho, intermittently caring for her while caring for her husband and having six children before she was 24, two of whom died two days after their births.

Claire is the only heroine in this story who did not leave. Was it determination or fear? David left her and depending on who you talk to, Claire either managed to hold the ground beneath her or barely made ends meet as she disappeared into her own collapse. That’s the thing about promising dreams for other people … we only build up after we’ve broken down and as much as we try to learn from the mistakes made before us, we either repeat them or have entirely different lessons to learn.

Like Claire’s three older brothers who could care for themselves when Albin died, leaving her to absorb harsh life lessons too young, so was Claire’s daughter, my mother Kelly, made to grow up abruptly when her father left and three older siblings coped in the next stage of their lives. Kelly married a different David for probably many of the same reasons Claire married the other, but this time, Kelly left Idaho with David and David did not leave. They made their own new world, entirely unlike what they came from, for better and worse. It’s where I arrived.

It’s such a terrible thing to miss your mother. There are certainly all sorts of mothers, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t want one. Claire married a rancher from California with Portuguese parents. He adored her and much of the second half of her life was spent in comfort and connected to her children. She turned the tide, in her own small way, and crossed an ocean of disappointment. It is possible to leave what needs left or to call something home and return to it. Kelly and her little family went back to Idaho, to her tougher mother and her forgiven father.

I was there with my mother when my Grandma Claire died. I was 17 and the night was filled with soft light and silence. I slept on my Grandpa Mal’s couch and my mom counted Claire’s breaths for hours. It’s a good thing to love your life so much that you don’t want to die and it’s a good thing to want to hold on to someone so tightly because of the big hole their absence will leave. But in the end, no matter who our ancestors are, no matter who we love and lose, we are alone. The sooner we can find ourselves separated from the obstacles of our families, the sooner we can start the work of mastering our own.

This began to happen for me when I was eight years old, standing in my bedroom in a cotton floral nightgown with buttons up to the neck and slightly puffed sleeves. I was watching out the window in our West Seattle home, looking at the cherry tree beside the garage, waiting for my mother to return. This moment is frozen in memory as yesterday, traumatic as it was, because my mother was never gone. I remember no other time until then when she wasn’t there. Now I know she had vowed above all to be present for me because she had been alone so much, so young.

A coolness came over me and I calmed down. I gazed down at my hands, which have always been deeply lined and old looking. I had a gripping moment of awe wondering if I was real and sensing that everything I knew until then was through a lens. I was not my mother and I would be ok no matter where she was. It was a release, a relief. I could see myself outside of myself, outside of all the blood I’d come from and love everyone. Maybe it was that night or maybe it was later, but I grew up with sense that much of the hard work had been done before me and I could push our family tree forward in my own way. It’s still a daily task to be myself. I live for the moments that grip me and I pray to both push forward and let go, with my daughter, with my mother, with my life.

The Daughter

The Daughter

We said she was a negative image of me because of her lightness.
She's light and also passage, the glory in my cortex.
Daughter, where did you get all that goddess?
Her eyes are Neruda's two dark pools at twilight.
Sometimes she's a stranger in my home because I hadn't imagined her.
Who will her daughter be?
She and I are the gradual ebb of my mother's darkness.
I unfurl the ribbon of her life, and it's a smooth long hallway, doors flung open.
Her surface is a deflection is why.
Harm on her, harm on us all.
Inside her, my grit and timbre, my reckless.

– Carmen Gimenez Smith

For My Daughter

For My Daughter

I love her fierceness when she fights me,
shouting "Not fair!" Her eyes slitting
like shutters in cities by the sea.
Her life is rife with bonfires—seen and unseen—
fires that burn through the turning years
bringing her to life again, and again, in a miracle of smoke.
This heat gives her a sense of forgiveness—or so I imagine—
she kisses my back, capriciously, when I scold her.
Maybe she recalls the scalpel by which she was born.
Easy, the mark of its slash in my skin.
She rose from my belly as I slept. We're bound together
by peace, no shrieks of pain, and my modesty.
We're a canvas by Giovanni Bellini: a virgin and a sweet rabbit.

– Antonella Anedda

Kiss of the Sun

Kiss of the Sun

 If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant's tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.

– Mary Ruefle