The Most Typical Time of the Year

It’s almost Christmas.  Yesterday I sat down with the kids and told them how this week will unfold if everything goes the way I suspect it will– that there will be fun but also boredom; sweet moments but also snippy responses from siblings and parents with cabin fever; excitement but also hints of the blues, maybe.  I reminded them that Christmas morning will come with presents under the tree, but also visits to two separate nursing homes, where my grandparents wait out the ends of their lives without knowing what day it is.

I wanted my kids to be prepared for the everydayness of this week–the truth that, even with the sparkle of the season, there’s going to be plodding and flashes of frustration.  Even in the happiness, there might be secret (or not-so-secret) undercurrents of grief and insecurity, as there are for so many of us.  I wanted them to understand, when they’re slightly let down after ripping the last package open, that having mixed feelings about all of it is OK.

Because I feel that way, too.  And so do most people I talk to about this season of high expectations.  It’s only when we accept that joy will steal up on us while we’re not expecting it, that it will be interspersed with normal–even banal–things like loading the dishwasher, standing in the doorway of a hospital room, or serving cookies to someone who can’t quite chew them the way she used to, that we are set free to celebrate the baby who was born in a drafty barn on an ordinary night.

*For another take on helping kids set reasonable expectations of the season, see this.*

Prom (A True Story)

He squeezed his forehead, thumb and index finger working his eyes in a vain attempt to chase away the memory of the last few hours. He blinked and his eyes swam with those floating amoebas. He had to race home, change into a jacket and tie, and head to the retirement home. Lillian needed a date. They were having some sort of prom for old people and she was alone.

Please, his mother-in-law had begged him, just do this for me and I will owe you. He had grimaced at his wife as he held the phone away from his ear. She’d shrugged and smiled.

Of course he would be her date. He started the engine of his ten-year-old truck and smelled an acrid waft of burning oil.

Deathbed, he muttered.

Thirty minutes later he pulled into the parking lot of Bright Futures Retirement Village. It looked like a third grader’s mouth, empty spaces gaping between the odd used Honda. He eased into a spot near the front door and got out, straightening his tie. A woman with frosted hair buzzed him in. He smiled at her as it seemed that this was least he could do for someone who’d sat there all day. He turned down a wallpapered hallway until he found the room with the memory box beside the front door. He paused before sticking his head inside the doorway.

The old woman sat in her room, alone, watching the biggest big screen television he’d seen in a long time. He could see a talk show through her hair featuring two tiny Asian girls dancing across a stage. The T.V. audience roared its approval.

Her wheelchair mostly obscured her but he could see that she wore a red formal dress with short sleeves. Underneath it was a white turtleneck. She shifted in her chair.

“Lillian?” he began. “It’s Jim. I’m, uh, eight minutes early for…prom. But we could talk in the meantime or something.”

She turned halfway around to look at him. He thought he saw the beginnings of a smile. Or maybe it was disgust. It was hard to tell. She fluttered one arm in the direction of the television.

“OK,” he ventured. “We can watch Ellen. There’s a corsage for you in the mini-fridge. I’ll get it.”

He turned and opened the fridge. It stood empty except for the gaudy wrist corsage his mother-in-law had placed there hours before. One scratch from it and Lillian would bleed. He bent and fastened the corsage to her paper-skinned wrist.

The requisite eight minutes passed and it was time for pictures. The two of them would pose and smile as if all of this were real. It would be like high school, except for the thousand years represented in this place. He cleared his throat.

“Lillian, I think it’s time for us to go find the others. Could you show me where to go? I don’t know my way around here.”

She nodded. He stood up and pushed her out into the hall with one hand, pulling the door closed with the other. He said something, he didn’t know what. She answered his questions, stammering over syllables. He did not help her with words. Something warned him not to.

At the end of the hall they reached a clog of elderly people decked out in their finest suits and floral dresses. They waited in a worn-out snake of a queue for the photographer to call out their number. He parked Lillian’s chair at the end of the line. A plump, middle-aged lady approached them, a piece of hard candy in her mouth.

“Honey, you need to take a number. Here,” she said, handing him a plastic card. “You’re number 27.”

“What number are they on now?” he asked.

“Thirteen.”

His eyes fell on the line of wrinkled women, their skin triple creased and soft. He could see gravity calling them back to the earth, one inch of flesh at a time. They stood swaying slightly, some with sticks. They were desiccated, water and seeds long since gone. They needed those sticks to die standing up.

“Number twenty-seven, please!” a shrill voice finally announced from the front of the line.

“That’s us, Lillian,” he said.

He wheeled her chair over the short pile carpet to where a rickety, white arch stood. One tap of the wheelchair and it might collapse on them. He arranged her chair under the bower and positioned himself behind her, squatting so that his head rested on her shoulder. He wondered for a second if she’d allow this. She was not a woman to be touched. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her smile. The photograph would be ridiculous, the kind that gets sent around the Internet. He didn’t care. The smile had made him feel sad all of a sudden. Sad and foolish.

Dinner began with salad, an iceberg lettuce wedge underneath three pastel tomatoes, all of it drowned in sweet vinaigrette. He looked over at his elderly date. She stabbed at a tomato with her good arm. The kitchen staff whisked the salads away in record time, replacing them with the main course, a piece of beef in colorless gravy. It was chewy but harmless enough. He watched Lillian nibble at her baked potato. From time to time she looked up at him with faded eyes. He tried to remember to smile at her without nodding, but he realized too late that he’d done it again. Nodded as if she’d asked him a question. In a way, she had.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to finish up dinner. It’s 5:30 and our live entertainment will be arriving soon in the foyer. We hope you’ve enjoyed your special meal with your loved ones,” the director intoned.

At a nearby table a lady with an imaginary lover smiled, her face radiant. Jim and Lillian moved to the main room where people were already gathering. A young man staggered into the foyer dragging two turntables, a silver laptop, and an oversized speaker. He wore baggy jeans and a backward baseball cap. As he passed by the growing audience he flashed a toothy smile. Jim felt disaster looming but, to his relief, when the deejay played the first song Frank Sinatra’s lovesick voice filled the room. The old people began to relax and drum their fingers on their armrests. Lillian mouthed the words to songs from a different life.

A few people swayed, eyes closed, transported to a time when legs were able and arms were willing. Lillian couldn’t get up, so he tried to sing along with her to let her know that he understood. A woman in the center of the room had positioned herself under an imaginary spotlight and moved back and forth, hands inches from her walker. She jerked from one pose to the next.  Without warning she moved away from her walker, her arms floating on their own. For a brief moment she was young. Then everyone’s fear; knees buckling, she sank to the floor, legs in cheerleading formation. Ladies in uniforms rushed to her, creating a human wall.

After a moment of confusion, they parted and Jim could see the fallen woman standing again, smiling feebly. No broken hip, but it was too late. The lighthearted mood in the room had passed. The crowd murmured and began to thin and Jim asked Lillian if she’d like to go back to her room. She nodded and he wondered what he’d say when they arrived at her door.

He didn’t have much time to think. The chair’s wheels protested as he scooted them over the carpet in her living room. He positioned her in the same spot he’d found her hours before and adjusted the volume on the television. He could see her face growing older, harder. Prom was over.  He bent and kissed her cheek. Her skin felt soft on his lips.

“I had a great time,” he said. He surprised himself by meaning it. “Is there anything I can get you before I go?”

Her eyes flicked to his for a moment and held them. He thought he could see her face as it had been.

“No. Nothing. I had a great time, too.”

It was ten minutes until 7:00 and he had to get home. He touched her shoulder lightly.

“Ok, then. Bye, Lillian.”

He walked out the room and closed the door behind him.

(names have been changed)

What My Daughter Thinks of Me

The living room is gentle in gray walls and we sit in our corners on opposite sides of the room.  My daughter is wrapped in a blanket on the couch and I sit across in the striped chair with my coat still on because I’m always cold.  We look at each other, same blue eyes, and then I let myself glance away to float on the sun stripes that dissect the floor.

I wish I could crawl into her heart, sometimes, to see what’s there.  She’s Rapunzel’s tower, tall and secure.  Let down your heart, I call from the ground below.  She is kind and nine, a mystery I’m left to solve.

She rubs a lazy hand over the triumphant dog perched on top of the couch, and her face is soft with private affection.  Her lips curl over braces we just paid for and that puffy mouth makes her look like a baby.  She murmurs something to the dog, then pulls out the bobby pin that holds her growing-out bangs and shoves it into the loose-weave of the blanket.  I open my mouth, check myself.

I am driven, though I wish to God I wasn’t.  She is a dreamer and I remember being a dreamer once, too.  If I let myself, I can still summon childish surprise at the physical world, feel the solid return to pavement after flying.

And now?

Now I press hard on the lid of the snake-in-a-can inside, hoping all the striving, and teaching, and trying, and dying will stay contained.  Yes, I teach my daughter but what does she learn?  I stare at her face to capture a glimpse of the truth before it darts away, that silver fish that eludes my net.

What I want to ask her is this:  Am I too much for you?  Will you keep dreaming?  Is my shushing and smoothing and  fussing and judging and defining ruining you?  Because I can only be me, and Jesus changes people, but sometimes he goes slow.  So?

But what comes out of my mouth is, Tell me something.

My daughter tilts her head to one side and says, Like what?  Then I tell her to give me advice on what kids need.  But what I need is to take our pulse, hers and mine.

She thinks, then says, “My advice is to go outside everyday if the weather lets you.  And dogs are important.  They are the best part of the day.”

Well, this isn’t what I meant, though a part of me is relieved.

“Also, it feels bad when you correct me.  I remember it, but it fades.”  She pauses.

Here comes everything else, I think.

“I know one thing,” she says.  “People should let their kids sew.”

She smiles at me and shrugs.  My heart contracts.  I still don’t know what she thinks of her mother, but right now I don’t care.