Karla's dad passed away last month. Jill was in the ICU with her father over the weekend.
It seems, a neighbor points out; we're getting to “that age.”
That age. A grown up age, insinuating some bad stuff coming our way.
Before, we were just kids doing grown up things. Got married, taught our boys to ride a bike, had the neighbors over for a Mohita when someone new moved in on the block. All dressed up and passing Bruschetta in the back yard, shopping for the cut of meat that tasted like (the REAL grown up) Mom’s pot roast, ordering crown molding, giving our kids "time outs” and cringing when college kids called us "mam" and “Mr. Stewart.” Afterall, we just got out of college. We look just like those kids.
"I need to get that pot roast recipe from you, Mom." It became our closing line - a joke - because we never got to the recipe during the phone call. "Talk to you next week!"
“That age” came earlier for me than my neighbors, Karla and Jill. My Dad died after our wedding. Lung cancer. The lesson I would teach my kids who were not yet born.
"You will never smoke. Remember Grandpa Ed,” I tell them to this day.
They stare at photos of his smiling eyes, bulbous nose - bewildered. Lung cancer.
I'm still mad at him for that. Dying. And I’m sure he’s mad up in Heaven at me for using him as a scare technique. He hung on until we arrived home from our honeymoon. Passed away a week later. A beautiful, gentle man that I really never knew when I was an adult.
Karla makes the drive from Chicago to Green Bay every week to take care of her mom. Her mom never got the hip surgery she was going to get before she was widowed. Now she has trouble getting around. Karla takes her to get her hair cut, to buy bologna, to order the death certificates.
Then Karla rushes home for her part time psychology work, her family, her house, her yard, Pebbles the dog. I tell Karla that I don't remember mourning my Dad: the worry for the widowed mother consumes. I don't think I'm giving her advice. I think I'm just getting some mourning in while I can. This is what Karla does for us all. She’s a listener, and she has a way of making you think your story is so much more important than hers. She’s the neighborhood Mom.
I was luckier with my mom, then I was with my dad. Grandma Kay held my babies, taught our oldest gin rummy and let him cheat, fed Goo Goo Cluster ice cream to them all before they were barely off formula, sent the kids cards for holidays I never knew existed. She died when my oldest was five. 80 years too young.
I caught pneumonia at her January funeral in Minnesota, where the earth was too cold to bury her. I sat in the ICU for a week first, watched her breathe miserably until my brothers and I agreed to her written wishes to pull the plugs. Writing out the living will makes so much sense when we are dressed and dining and sitting upright in the living room. She’d always bring it up over Thanksgiving when the family was together. And she’d get a chorus of “Mom! We know – don’t worry about that! Don’t worry!” Then we’d move on to talk about something really important like the time my brother Paul ran naked through the neighborhood and no one could catch him.
As soon as we took her off life support, I wanted to grab her, hold her, shake her, breath my life into her. I wanted to leave and crawl into bed and wake up somewhere else.
Before I fell asleep this past weekend, I text Jill at the hospital. My neighbor Jill is a storyteller. She could create a best seller out of a trip to buy white bread. She is six feet tall and has long blonde hair, gigantic blue eyes. She is a walking Barbie doll, kid magnet, head turner. The only child of two teachers. To talk is to teach.
"How's your Dad? What's the story?"
"ICU. Defibrillator,” is all she texts back.
A parent in the ICU takes your story away, sets your blood racing so that there is no feeling in your fingertips, shuts your mind down.
After my mom died I went home to Chicago. As the pneumonia lingered on, I came down with the shingles. This was my introduction to vanilla skim lattes. I was so drowsy from the pain medicine for the shingles, that I needed caffeine to safely drive my toddlers to pre-school.
One morning, sick from everything, I sat on the bathroom floor throwing up, when I felt a tiny tap on my shoulder.
"Yes," I said as I wiped my face with toilet paper.
"Can you make me a glass of orange juice?"
This is the cruelest part of losing a parent, as well as the saving grace. Life goes on.
Later, I sat in the carpool line at Montessori. Watched kids jump out of cars, run in, laughing. The teacher helping unload the cars took extra time with the mini van in front of us. Chatted it up with the mom, plucked each kid out in slow
motion. I put latte to lips and answered, "yes" to unknown questions my kids asked me.
“Blah blah blah blah blah?” my sons asked.
“Yes.” I slurped and stared ahead.
The whole world was happy except for me. I felt my eyes dead in the sockets. Blank. At the grocery I bought more coffee, stayed away from the meat aisle where every package said “pot roast.”
Karla has those blank eyes. I speed walk with her and listen which is really, really hard for me to do with her. She feels terrible for “going on”. I sneak in a sideways hug because she says she doesn't want to be touched; she doesn't want to start crying today.
“Don’t do it – don’t hug me,” she tells me, trying to laugh at
“You psychologists are weird,” I tease her, make her smile.
“I know what I’m talking about.”
This is a blessing. To know something and hold to it – when your world has fallen out from under you. I mastered my Starbucks order. Could spit it out during rush hour, with a line behind me. It’s the little things. I leave a pan of lasagna on her doorstep later. It's hard to cook with those eyes.
The neighbors get together for a graduation party on Karla’s patio for her oldest daughter. While I put my blush on I see I have to rub it in a little better – I’m starting to get that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane look. I notice my roots are a little gray.
At the party I see solid folks with strong shoulders who have come out of the hospitals, the funeral homes, the years of Alzheimer’s or cancer care-giving to celebrate this darling girl’s graduation. The shoulders come out, but they are sloped slightly forward. Over our chests like umbrellas, protecting our hearts. As if somehow the body knows – there is so much more to come. I see mine in the patio window, framed by ivy that was probably planted when Karla’s kids were young. I pause at the reflection- it looks like my mom.
We munch on smoked salmon now - while pining for thick Bruschetta - and talk about the colleges the kids are choosing. How damn young they look.
We celebrate with these baby-faced 19-year-olds and we celebrate anything else we can. An unknown Hallmark holiday, a clerk who calls me "miss," a juicy pot-roast.