He ambled away from the car, the lanky, 6-foot, 16-year-old boy with chin-length hair, the blonde of his early years highlighted with dark streaks and applied color. The curls would be the envy of any girl plagued with straight hair in a society that glorifies a full head of locks.
“Have a good day,” I call as he heads toward the school. The presence of a girlfriend in his life has improved his mood. “Thanks,” he responds.
What I wanted to say: Oh my precious, grandson. May today be filled with joy and peace. May you feel special. I love you more than anything.
He would have called his mom to ask what was wrong with Grandma.
At home, I enter my writing shed and eye the calendar this dear boy made me for Christmas, each month displaying a picture of him in earlier years. A few days late, I flip to March, to the blonde, buzz-cut eight-year-old swinging a golf club. I want to hug him. I miss his squeaky voice, unending chatter, his exuberance for . . . everything.
Parenthood slams one with a love unexpected. Years of responsibilities, heartaches, and joys pollute the love until one is just relieved when the children make it to adulthood in one piece. Grandparenting is another level of love. Unobstructed by the responsibilities, no longer concerned about public opinion, a grandparent can love unconditionally and aim to spoil the children in ways they never did as parents.
Having no grandparents to remember, I wonder if my grandchildren will cherish the memories of the love we give them. When they are grandparents themselves, will they realize the depth of our love? It really doesn’t matter. The love I have for them now is enough for me.
Grounded by a daily dose of Zoloft, I am rarely brought to tears. Sad stories elicit empathy, not pathos. Except for some reason when a dog is involved.
(Yes, Betty, this is not child Mary.)
I did not grow up with dogs in the family. In the 1950s, dogs roamed the neighborhood or were tied to chains in unfenced yards. As I roamed the wandering streets, I flinched when a dog charged me barking. My best friend Betty had a dog, Penny, a cocker spaniel, I believe. As much as I would have liked to cuddle her, she was devoted to Betty’s mother. I don’t recall us ever playing with her.
Although we occasionally entreated our parents for a dog, our father had grown up on a farm in Iowa and asserted that dogs should be free. He had no interest in an animal in the house. As an adult, I had to agree. I hate seeing animals confined and alone.
Skip to adulthood, much later, when a friend introduced us to the beagles which she bred. They were darling puppies. Our young son standing wistfully at her side, Helga frequently implored us to adopt one of the pups. We were realistic: Mike, too, had never had a dog. Neither of us wanted the responsibility.
Skip ahead once more, when that young son, now a young man, living on his own, introduces us to his new puppy: an American bull, other wise called a pit bull, named Jigga. A pit bull? C-boy assured us that he had done his homework: easily trained, good with kids, little shedding. Okay. Jigga was an adorable pup. And C-boy had done his homework, training Jigga well before deciding to seek his future in Chicago, leaving the dog in foster care with ED. Foster care became permanent. We enjoyed watching Jigga grow in ED’s home with her two young boys, and got well-acquainted with this congenial canine when we visited them or she visited us. So when we moved into this house together, Mike and I with ED and the two boys, Jigga adapted easily and quickly took control of our safety.
I have heard of unconditional love of a grandparent, but my grandparents were gone before my age of awareness, so never received that reward. But Jigga showed unconditional love. She waited restlessly at the door until everyone was home. After extended absences, Jigga’s 50 pounds of muscle pounced into my arms. Yipping and yapping, Jigga paced atop my bed regaling me on all that had taken place while I was gone. If I used a short-tempered command to her, she did not respond with days of cold shoulder, as would a child. Her mood was loving as soon as I calmed down. And she calmed me down. No matter my mood, she was loving.
Thus when we had to send her to doggie Heaven, even Mike shed tears. To this day, even Zoloft cannot squelch tears when I think of Jigga. So this past Sunday, Martha Teichner’ssegment on CBS Sunday Morning about a dog chapel brought me to tears. As did her book,When Harry Met Minnie, when I read it several months ago.
We now have Luna. Luna was adopted from rescue via a Mexican dog rescue, Barb’s. I have visited Barb’s a couple of times and would have adopted several of the animals except Mike was with me and, thankfully, stood guard. Thank you, Mike. (Please send donations to Barb if you are so inclined. It is a well-maintained, loving establishment providing care for 400 dogs.)
Luna is not Jigga. I’ve decided that they are like children coming through very different routes to a loving home. Luna learned to survive in a kennel, thus she is happy with whomever is playing with her and enjoys going to doggie day care. Jigga was raised from her weaning in, essentially, a single home. She bonded closely to each member of the family. She would have been extremely hurt if we had put her in doggie care, thus we always hired a sitter when we were gone for extended absences. Luna knows to use the doggie door; Jigga waited for us to open our door. Because she took such good care of us, I didn’t mind.
Three and a half years after her death, we still mourn her. Her ashes reside in a beautiful box in our buffet. I suppose we will spread or bury them when we leave this house. Jigga taught me that every dog is as unique as every person is unique, which tells me as much about people as about dogs. And so I write this with tears in my eyes. Love you forever, Jigga.
The pain was excruciating, sharp bolts attacking my inner ear, radiating through my jaw, paralyzing my mandible. Every jerk of the car, a 1957 Chevy, bounced my head propped against the window in the backseat, exacerbating the pain. It was early 60s; I was around 12 years old. We were returning home from our family vacation at the lake. Unsurpisingly, I brought my usual souvenir: ear infection. If I had been offered a death drug, I would have taken it.
Our summer vacation was the highlight of the year for all of us: my parents, my older brother and younger sister, and eventually baby brother. We spent two weeks in a basic cabin at a “resort,” which sounds more elegant than what it was: a group of basic but well-maintained cabins on a lake in Minnesota. We swam, fished and ate fish, ran through the woods, and met up with other families. We felt free. The price I paid was dirty water infecting the middle ear. I was susceptible to ear infections and at 72 years old, I still am. We didn’t know about rubbing alcohol to dry the middle ear after swimming.
On this trip, I sustained myself during the long drive back to Illinois by trying to ignore the noise of siblings and our mother’s incessant chatter. Our car was cooled with 4-50 air: 4 windows down, moving 50 miles an hour. By the time we arrived home, my mother, who preferred to ieeeee our illnesses, hoping they would go away, knew I was sick. She summoned a neighbor who was a physician. Dr. Weissmann arrived with a shot of penicillin in hand. Despite my repulsion to needles, I welcomed it. By bedtime, the pain had lifted, and I felt normal. Even then I was amazed at the instant response.
Injections of penicillin decreased, according to one doctor, because of the risk of allergic reaction. Oral antibiotics became the norm. Even so, an initial dose of amoxicillin or something similar would reduce my symptoms of infection within hours. Life was good. So it is humbling that it now takes the entire course of treatment to get results. I won’t go into the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. I am talking about the aging body requiring longer to heal. Not just infections, but surgeries, fatigue, injury, lack of exercise.
I recognized the signs of bronchitis this past December 19. It is now February 1, and I think I am over it, leaving signs of allergies and silent reflux. The recovery was slow and not steady. Throughout the process, I reflected that there may come a time when I don’t recover, that a simple infection might lead to systemic breakdown. My visits to the doctor affirm that I am healthy but aging: thin skin, easily fatigued, meds to control cholesterol. But each battle with illness reminds me that I am mortal.
Lest you think that I am despondent, I assure you that I am not. This is all observation. Like an anthropologist observing a culture, I am observing aging. Perhaps there should be a handbook for people for their 60th birthday: Aging for Dummies. Alas, we all age differently and there would need to be a series: women who deny aging. Men who think they look like they are 25. Seniors who have always been old. You can add to this list.
Some people resist aging, asserting they will be forever young. NEWS FLASH: no, you won’t. In our minds we may feel 25, but our bodies will attest that they aren’t. This is a major topic of conversation among our friends. Those of us who remain relatively healthy laugh about it. All of us know someone who is no longer laughing.
So we share our stories of decline but stop short of speaking of our bowels, the ultimate frontier of aging. That we keep to ourselves unto death.
“It was the summer of 69,” sang the band at a local bar, covering Bryan Adams. In Sun City, no less. My kids think it funny that there are bars in Sun City with live music. Boomer bands are popular there. After all, the median age of Sun City community residents is 72.7, solidly baby boomer. Therefore, I was disappointed that much of the music was unfamiliar to me that night.
I confess I was never a pop music aficionado, concentrating on classical piano and flute. In the 60s teens relied on the radio for music, limited to whatever the DJ presented. There was no Spotify or Sirius to cater to our whims. Sharing a room in a full house, I danced to the transistor radio when I could isolate in the bathroom for my bath. My friend Betty and I listened to our small library of albums in her basement. I was almost out of high school before we had a radio in the car.
Getting married, graduating college, and beginning a family took most of my attention in the 70s, widening my distance from pop culture. My children exposed me to a smattering of music in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
On the dance floor, that night at the bar, a dance partner—the advantage of today’s dancing is that you dance in groups, mixed genders—commented—no shouted—that she didn’t remember the summer of 69; she had been in junior high then. I had been in college. I remembered that summer.
The band played on, music with a good beat, easy to dance to. I danced but couldn’t shout out the lyrics with others. Back at the table, I googled the lyrics on my phone. Thank goodness for Google.
What happened to the music of the 60s and 70s? My suggestions to a band I sat in with were met blank stares. Really, how can a band not know American Pie?
I suggested to Mike that we host a party featuring only music of the 60s and 70s. Knowing my friends, they will show up, for the food, drinks, and laughs, although many of them are younger than I. They may try to sneak in some 80’s music, but I will be ready to block them. After all,it’s my party.
I had finished my morning iPad games when my phone alarm alerted me to move: 8:20. Plenty of time to get up, grab a morning snack, and pick up my friend for coffee at 8:50. It took three minutes to walk around the bed, per bedside clock. Into the bathroom for morning ablutions. Now 8:33. It’s surprising how long it can take to brush your teeth.
I ignored the grandfather clock in the kitchen, set permanently at 5:00. However, the kitchen wall clock timed me at five minutes for the twenty-foot jaunt. Three feet to the microwave claimed another two minutes. I finished checking messages and mail on my phone before heading to the garage. Thankfully, the clock on the car dash subtracted three minutes, moving me back in time. I could reclaim a year of my life if I could figure out the pattern. I checked the time on my phone, aging me another four minutes and spurring me to step on the gas.
I used to trust our atomic clock watching over us in the living room until I noticed it was inconsistent and learned that it can lose time because of faulty signals. Now the iPhone is my go-to since it updates regularly. My goal for this day was to calibrate the clocks. It took a few minutes as I waited with my iPhone in hand. As soon as the Apple satellite jumped a minute, I reset a clock. I should be good for another few days. Meanwhile, Friends, if I am late, blame it on my clocks.
I sat at the piano, running through music at home to perform as a volunteer at a local hospital. The music manuscript sitting on the stand above the keyboard should have been simple for me. By sight, I recognized the A♭ major chord and inversions transcribed as arpeggios, lots of black notes smearing the page but interpreted as a single word. My fingers reached for the keys. But my mind interrupted, questioning the motion long enough for me to stumble.
How many times have I played that pattern? Hundreds? Thousands? Often enough that it should have been automatic. Instead, I struggled as I did when I was 10, drilling chords and inversions. Although I still enjoy playing the piano, I am constantly reminded of the decline in skills, which appears due as much to cognitive as motor skills. The hesitation between sight and motor response is long enough to increase my chances for error. So I slow the tempo, to allow time for the signal to move from eyes to brain to motor response, the mechanical-chemical-electrical miracle. Music I could play by sight years ago now requires analysis and repetition. And endurance. My back aches as I realize that I have tensed my shoulders.
My performances now are informal, with no pressure for perfection. I play in the lobby of a hospital, most people passing through long enough to hear only a few bars of music. Occasionally someone stops to listen, or to dance, or just offer thanks. When I make a mistake… oh well. Long ago I learned the importance of recovery when performing, and I quickly adapt.
I haven’t attempted a Bach Invention in years. Like books that gave me joy to read, I can’t give away those manuscripts of music that were my lifeline when I was younger. Just perusing them reminds me of Saturday mornings with my teacher, Lucy Brandicon. I marvel at how accomplished I once was. Much like I marvel when I see photos of myself as a young woman. Why did I think I was fat and unattractive? Although not a virtuoso, by amateur criteria I was a pretty good pianist.
One reason I volunteered at the hospital was to force me to keep up my skills. I joined a boomer rock group to force my mind to think outside the box of classical training, also known as paper-training. What I am learning is that there is no coasting at this time of life. Just keeping up is an uphill climb. Whether physical or mental, I need to exert as much effort as if I were training for a new job. Living with our daughter and grandsons keeps me up with pop culture which I see lacking among many of our friends who do not have regular interactions with teens. I can see that isolation would lead to rapid cognitive decline.Therefore, dare I say? I need to stretch our house-sharing out as long as I can.
When my mother moved into a retirement community close to us, she admitted to wanting to play a program of Christmas music at “The Home” as she called it. She never did. Instead, she recruited me into several programs with a guitarist as well as with the chaplain, beaming with pride as I performed on piano and flute. Now I realize she was living through me. I wish I had done more for her. I was her touch when she lost her touch. There is no one after me.
How do we fade away? I am not sure how to define myself as my skills decline and are no longer useful. I can be socially active, but music is more than a social life. Although I love listening to good music, playing it is at my core. I enjoy traveling and eating out and going to concerts, but those are passive. Playing music and writing give me purpose. When I lose those, will I just be occupying space? Ahh, the conundrum of aging.
Forced by COVID to isolate and wear masks, during the height of the pandemic I remained free of respiratory infections which normally plagued me once or twice a year. The two cases of COVID that I experienced during the pandemic years were mild compared to my usual illnesses. The one time that I sensed a cold coming on, I had to think hard about how to treat it, and thwarted it early.
Thus it was annoying that upon return from a hectic December weekend in Chicago, I was felled with bronchitis and sinus infection. We had masked and tried to stay away from the risk of crowds, but the combination of travel, cold weather, poor diet, and alcohol lowered my immunity. Naively I hoped a good night’s sleep in my own bed would ward off illness. But the inflammation in my lungs as white blood cells waged war against the evil bacteria kept me awake. By the next morning, I knew I was sick. What to do? At some point I remembered that I would take zinc to contain the infection. Although I tried, it was too late. Two days later and three days prior to Christmas, I decided to beat the holiday rush and visited urgent care. Antibiotic, cough syrup, and inhaler in hand, I settled into my room. The day before Christmas, I went through an entire box of Kleenex, carpeting the floor with tissues. By Christmas day, I was able to join the family for a low-key celebration before retreating back to bed.
I hear from my friends and family that COVID and other illnesses are rampant right now. So far, Mike is the only inhabitant of our house to escape illness. But it ain’t over yet. There is still time for him to jump on the bandwagon.
I will say it for all of us: I am sick of sick. I am sick of preventing sick. I fear that masks will be a permanent accessory, that avoidance of crowds or at least awareness of risk will flavor our lives. In the history of mankind, three years is but a dot on the calendar. In the autumn of my life, three years feels like a decade. A decade I can’t get back.
The stalker was clever, remaining invisible, infrequent, and unpredictable. I assured myself that I was imagining it. The tingling in my abdomen passed as I sipped a glass of wine. Over time, several weeks, the stalker transformed from a suspicion to a shadow that elicited anxiety in my belly. I could feel the shadow outlining my body and deforming my facial structures, pulling down my mouth and darkening the circles under my eyes. This wasn’t sadness or frustration from the challenges of life. This was depression and anxiety. I increased the strength of the happy pills, “upped my meds” as my friend expressed it—as in, “I’ve upped my meds, now up yours.” Each morning gloom greeted me when I awoke, reluctant to leave the cocoon of my bed, procrastinating the start of the day. By late afternoon, I began to self-medicate. I made an appointment with the doctor.
Here is the thing about mild depression: I can function, I can have fun, but I drag, preferring to hide away in my room, reading or dozing. Here is another thing: I can be very creative in music and writing. I describe myself as melancholic, as described by Susan Cain in her book “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole”. Melancholy itself is not depression although psychology has ruled it thus. Melancholy can make one sensitive to beauty and heartache. It can attune one to other’s joys and sorrows, while crippling you.
When my meds work, I tolerate frustrations with ease. I feel happy. I am energized. But there is a fear that if I discard depression, I lose some creativity. At this time of life, sharing the house with four other people, I need to be at my best. So I visited the doctor, adjusted the medication and now feel balanced. But what am I missing?
The room’s warm, subdued lighting enfolded me as I took a seat in the professor’s spacious den. Accepting her offer of sparkling water gave me time to appreciate the décor. The tasteful but comfortable furniture, colorful Persian carpeting, and sophisticated accessories spoke of education and privilege. The tall ceiling accommodated a bookcase covering the far wall, shelves filled with well-used hardcover tomes. I felt at home.
The professor and I discussed my pursuing a doctorate. She spoke of the joys of doing what she loved: reading, writing, and teaching. It sounded perfect. Many years later, I am unsure what field of study we discussed. What stayed with me was the sensation of being in the presence of all those books!
As part of my never-ending goal of downsizing, I am going through my library, donating books that I will never read again, and re-reading others. I had rid the shelves of textbooks years ago. During our last move, I cleared out a boxful of literature. This past summer, I dropped books in little free libraries at across the country. My sister and I recently traipsed through weeds in a park in Alburquerque, discovering an inviting clearing with a bench for perusing the books in the miniature house storing several children’s books.
I rarely purchase books, especially print books, opting to borrow from the library. If I want one not available through the library, I purchase ebooks via Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Occasionally I get the print version so that I can share it with other readers. I reread books, not for their characters and plot, but for their literature, getting caught up in artful combinations of words that sing. Although my practical side is aware that I can access almost any literature that I would want to read, I still feel as if I am betraying a friend when I place a book in the giveaway box or a little library.
Having time to contemplate the intricacies of life, I ponder why it is difficult to get rid of books. The resources I used to plan a workshop on Carl Jung sit unused, but I can’t part with them. Why am I emotionally overwhelmed when in a bookstore? Because of our living situation, most of our books are hidden. When we stay with our friends who stack books artfully throughout their home, I notice how familiar titles spark the emotions I felt when I read the books. If asked, I could recall few details of plot, character, and, place, but I can recall if I liked the book or not and if I might want to reread it. Thus, Moehringer’s quote resonated with me. I enjoy being in the presence of books, the comfort of what they might say, the abundance of insight and knowledge at my fingertips. I will continue to downsize, but I also weigh the emotional price of removing tomes from sight. My kids can do that when I am gone.
I missed my father’s funeral and the traditional Methodist closing song “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”The body was held for burial until I could return from Europe to bid goodbye. I’ve never understood people denying themselves that last visit, viewing the loved one, as if the sight of a body in a coffin could obliterate a lifetime of experiences. There is closure for me when I lay my hands on the mortal home of a loved one’s soul, touching their clothes, their hair, and their ice-cold hands and face. Yes, they are dead. But the body is still precious. It held and was held by me. Fine clothes, coiffed hair, and artful makeup dress the remains for the final party.
Waking early on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, I rose, made coffee, and tuned in, looking forward to catching some of the music accompanying the event. The public funeral had ended, the procession of hundreds, thousands (?) now marching solemnly to Windsor, kept in step by classical funeral marchesperformed perfectly by military bands.
The “private” committal service took place at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Estate, a grand sanctuary which, for most of us, is beyond imagination. The grandeur of the chapel architecture, the garb of the clergy, and the majesty of the music contrasted with the simplicity of the service. The royal family whose baggage is continually exposed to the world was forced to grieve in public, on television. I wanted to tell them: we all have baggage. And at the time of death, much of that baggage is reduced to pettiness.
As a church organist, I played at many funeral services. There was a time when I played for services at a local funeral home. As a Christian, I view death as a part of life. As a student of psychology, I understand the need for grief. If we didn’t grieve the loss of life, would we protect it? Dry-eyed through funeral services, I cannot contain the tears when the final hymn sounds, even when I don’t know the deceased or their families. The final hymn. The joyful tune testing our sorrow. The deceased’s final song on earth. It’s over. There’s no going back.