Sparked by Words

Forward is the Only Possible

Like smells that dissipate over time – skunk and cinnamon, lemon oil and wet dog – past fame doesn’t fill current space. Whatever accomplishments I achieved yesterday – a good deed for a stranger, a well written paragraph in my work in progress, an angry retort I wish I could annul (not glory but shame) – are not enough for today. Tomorrow waits to be filled with distinction.

The past is a nebulous landscape, the future a cryptic horizon. Only the slipstream under my feet energizes today. Today exists for an infinitesimal moment, archaic while the moment passes.

Waft cautiously, ingest deeply. Exhale with resolve. Roll up my sleeves, engage today’s pursuits. Smells invigorate this moment, an elixir of potential.

 

 

Just a Thought 31

 

 

Alchimiste, 1648, by David III Ryckaert

This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

 

 

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This is the Wrong Post

I planned to write about the majestic launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. I didn’t want to write this story.

I’m mad. Angry and insane with grief. I want to throw the computer across the room, tear out the plastic cartridges that hold the ink, drag the printer down the street till it shatters into a thousand pieces. Then I wouldn’t be able to tell this story.

This is a story of death. Four people died this past week. Four people I know and love. The doctor, the mother, the judge, and the animal rescuer.

The doctor was the father of my friend. I taught my friend’s children at our temple. She proved to be a parent on whom I could count to bring cookies, to call other parents, to compliment me on the lesson. She made sure her son and daughter were well prepared. We shared confidences. I looked up to her as someone whose low key demeanor belied her inner strength. We spoke often about our dads, each of us proud of these two men who were family physicians – heroes to us. I don’t know about her genetic inheritance but it is evident her father impressed on her a strong work and community ethic. He raised a good person who became a good friend to me. My hero has been gone nearly ten years. Now hers is gone also, a tragic catch-up of circumstances.

The mother lived at the memory care residence where my mother lives. Her daughter is my friend. My friend’s mother bequeathed her remarkable beauty to her daughter, also her grace and composure. My friend’s mother did not speak often but she always looked at me with a smile and sparkling eyes. She and my mom shared meals together, afternoons of music, discussions, or games, and casual walks around the gardens, happy to be in each other’s presence. I’m not certain my mom will realize she’s lost another friend. When you have Alzheimer’s, it’s the blessing of the disease that you cannot remember who your friends are or when they are gone. I’ve been holding my friend’s hand as she remembers her mother before the disease.

The judge was a family friend. Forty years ago, his mother- and father-in-law danced with my parents every week. Thirty years ago I drove his older daughter to Hebrew school with my son. Fifteen years ago he married my older son to the loving woman who bore our two older grandchildren. Ten years ago, his younger daughter became friends with my nephew at the party we threw for my parent’s sixtieth anniversary. Two years later my father, the doctor, died. The calendar marched in step with the moments that annotated our families’ lives. Important moments in three generations were shared as if we were family. In a few days we will bury the judge only a few yards from the doctor’s grave.

It is the final death, of the animal rescuer, K, that is killing me. She died last night after a nearly five year battle with very aggressive cancer. My younger son’s wife, our daughter-in-law, has lost her mother. She treated my son as her son. My younger grandchildren have lost the woman who watched them every Wednesday so my daughter-in-law could work. She got to know our shared grandson, now four, and our shared granddaughter, only two. She underwent surgeries, chemotherapy rounds, and traditional and experimental drug protocols, trying to find a cure, or at least gain more time.

When K was well she ran a wild creature rescue service. She was respected in her community as a fiercely independent spirit with an intellect as bright as lightning. She had many, many friends. She and her husband were active in their church, and lifelong advocates for social justice. I only got to meet her a half dozen times as they live more than a ten hour drive away from us. Not the kind of situation where you can drop in on someone frequently. But I enjoyed every moment I got to be with her.

She struggled. We prayed. I wish she’d had more time – for all of the family, more time. I grieve for my children and grandchildren whose grief is unbearable.

At the end of the evening, a few hours after hearing of the deaths of the judge and the animal rescuer, when I thought I’d shed all the tears my body could muster, we watched NBC’s  This Is Us. It was the episode about the funeral of the father. A TV show, reminding me of four actual upcoming funerals. From the launch of a rocket to the funeral of a television character, the day has collapsed from elation to sorrow. I really didn’t want to write this story. Please imagine something majestic.

 

A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And the Blood

 

Until they bleed, writers stand in a circle, before one, behind another, scratching each other’s backs – reading, writing, reviewing. Yours is so well written, exciting, mesmerizing, now read my book.

Once in print, writers turn like a carousel for the public circuit – Facebook, talk shows, conventions, book fairs, trade shows, congregations, schools, radio broadcasts, audiences anywhere – whoever will listen. Arrived in a dream, born of my soul, please read my book.

Writing is a deeply, intensely private affair, conducted in silence in a space illuminated by the flame in our bones, propelled by the curiosity of our minds. Writers crouch over their words, bodies immobile, obsessed with story. Years of hard work, crafting the vision, someday read my book.

Only the fingers move, the fingers, the imagination –

And the blood.

 

 

 

Just a thought 30

 

 

Image of super blue blood moon

 

 

 

The Road Best Traveled

A book is not a concrete highway going straight to purgatory. Plenty of people are trying to get there fast but who needs to be reminded? It’s not a rambling road with divergent tracks in multiple planes going nowhere. Well, maybe scatterfall stories are that chaotic, but I haven’t written one of those since I was six. Eventually we want the story to end, well or ill, but first to travel in spellbinding fashion.

A book is more a path in some order of forward movement across stepping stones of events. How I lay those stones is endemic to my tale and my writing style. How you traverse the stones is influenced by your willingness to step where the path is tricky or unpersuasive. Did I convince you that you’re safe and the stones are worth crossing? A lot of metaphor here, yet reading a book is as much a leap of faith as writing one is, and there is no bigger metaphor for life than that. (Perhaps, you say, and you might be right.)

I can’t write every single detail and neither would you want to read them, no matter that you as reader may still have questions at the very last word. Knowing when to stop, when I’ve said everything germane, when the plot has run its course, and the characters have learned everything or nothing is my decision as a writer. Readers begin their opportunity to interact the moment my book is in print. (That’s another story!)

This may sound like an authoritarian mandate but it’s really more a question I’m asking myself. My newest work in progress is based loosely on stories my parents told me about their childhoods. In order to protect their dignity and privacy, in order to protect myself from angry relatives, all names in the book have been changed.

As I began to write I had immediate questions. Like, whoa there, the dates don’t align, how could that be true? Or, hey dad, can you provide a few more details so the story has more gravitas? Or, mom, are you telling me this actually happened? Really? Do either of you know of a few juicy incidents that might make someone stop in their tracks and sob – or scream – or run? Because that’s the stuff stories are made of and I could use a little help here. Everyone just got quiet. Hmm – secrets?

In my case I’m at an impasse. My father has passed and my mother has advanced Alzheimer’s, so there are no answers forthcoming from the folks who told me the original stories. Perhaps held back those most controversial or unflattering – read interesting moments. Cousins know a few details but not enough to fill the gaps.

So I’m doing what writers do – making stuff up. Emerging from the inchoate racket in my head is a story of a different sort than what I’d originally intended. Not memoir, not creative non-fiction, barely recognizable as lives related to my family, the story is entirely fabricated. And that’s OK. A good yarn is what I wanted to tell.  Gather around the fire, and let me begin. Once there was a young boy and a young girl who…

We’ve all stood there at the fork in the road, wondering if a unicorn waits at the end of one path, a treasure chest at the other. We’ve all wondered what if? What if I’d taken the other road, would my life be better? If I’d asked more questions of the right people when they could be answered, would I know enough to write a better story, a more exciting one? If I had never tried to base this story on any semblance of my parents’ lives but chosen to create entirely fictional characters?

The unknown is all I have. It’s all any writer has. It doesn’t really matter which road I take. It matters the adventures I invent, the people who confront and resolve their crises, what truths I expose along the way, and how riveting a story I write.

So here I go, right foot first, left foot next, each leading until it is the one that follows. You, dear reader, will have to fill in some of the blanks along the way (Hey, writer, you missed the butterfly with seven wings) but I certainly hope to lure you down a merry, magnificent, mysterious path. We’ll only know if it was the best choice when you come to the end and declare what a fabulous journey onto the unknown path it was.

Or don’t. Because the other one might have been just as good or even better – had I written it instead.

(Thank you, Robert Frost, for the reminder.)

 

 

Painting Road Leading to the Lake by Paul Cezanne

 

 

 

Open Heart

End the argument with a slammed door, the house will crumble

Turn away with a shrug, we will speak again

Face disappointment with clenched fists, the fury will resume

Share thoughts with open palms, we will be friends again

Stitch a broken heart with regret, the wound will fester

Mend it with self-examination, we will love again

Because

Our wedding certificate was sealed with fading ink

But our hearts beat like the first time we saw each other

Our journey canted through unknown territories

Though we planned on traveling together always

We spoke in rage, acted from frustration, stomped with fear

Please meet me for coffee, I want to give it another chance

I know your name as it is also mine

 

Just a thought 29

 

Painting The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

 

Rage and Reason

Candace asks for another cookie and when denied because it’s so close to dinner time, she wails the annoying cry recognized the world over as brat syndrome. She’s two and a half years old, and her self-centered demands come with the territory of preschoolers.

James also asks for another cookie and when denied because it’s so close to dinner time, he lets off with a string of foul language demands. He’s eighty-seven years old and his unfiltered anger comes with the territory of one who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Candace will grow up to become an engineer or a software developer or an astronaut. James* was a Major General in the United States military, and worked at NASA developing critical rocket defense systems. I sobbed at his memorial because I’d never gotten to know the brilliant man in his prime and only met him when the disease that eventually killed him had reduced him to behaving like a toddler.

You may think that Alzheimer’s only affects those with a low IQ, or who eat like sumo wrestlers, or who lie around on the sofa all day clicking the remote and guzzling diet sodas. It doesn’t. It’s an equal opportunity monster that drags victims from every demographic and forces them into the pit of loss of executive function. Loss of every human function. When we discuss the disease, we’re talking about traumatic brain dysfunction moving people backwards. We forget their achievements and focus on the bathroom problems, the odd clothing choice problems, the inability to communicate effectively problems. We focus on the problems because they are always front and center.

Pearl walks out of the dining room, her purse stuffed with essentials like socks, a scarf, comb and brush, and bedroom slippers. She has only taken a bite of her lunch but now stands at the reception desk of the community residence where she lives insisting that her daughter is coming to take her home. The receptionist reminds Pearl, for the fourth time (the seventh, the fourteenth) that her daughter went home after visiting in the morning. Pearl curses the receptionist, declares her daughter doesn’t love her, and wants to phone the police to complain about the service at this awful place. I ask if she’s had dessert yet. When her eyes open wide at that word, I lead her back to her seat and encourage her to take a bite of her meal, promising that she’ll have ice cream soon. She’ll be up in another minute or so, back at the front desk demanding to phone her daughter and insisting she doesn’t live at this place. I know she does – she’s my mom’s roommate.

Gladys’ hair is coiffed in a silver cap of curls, her jacket and slacks are highlighted with a string of glass art beads, her pedicured toes peak out from open front silver flats. She was a model when younger and walks with grace. A few days ago she mumbled unintelligible speech to me and I answered with pleasantries suited for any occasion. I wasn’t prepared when she quickly got up from her chair, cast me a look of fury, grabbed my coffee mug, and tried to throw it at me. I managed to hold on to the mug so only a tiny bit of the hot brew splashed on another resident. Her husband has told me she owned her own business for more than two decades and made decisions that her employees complied with.

Melvin wants to go to the bank. He’s concerned about his taxes and shows me his briefcase. Inside are a blank yellow legal pad and two pens. He asks if I know the bus schedule so he can be on time. I take his arm and lead him to the table where a jigsaw puzzle is half put together. We sit down and find a corner piece and two other pieces that fit together. When I leave five minutes later, he’s peering intently at the puzzle and holding pieces in each hand, trying to figure out where they fit. His briefcase sits on the chair next to him, his taxes forgotten. He used to be a high school math teacher much beloved by his students.

This is the everyday world of Alzheimer’s sufferers. It’s a realm of behavioral inconsistencies – from intelligence to gibberish, from reason to meltdown, from joy to confusion, anger, and rage. Those of us who love them, family members and caregivers, struggle to engage and care for them. We try not to raise hackles, to antagonize, to remind them that they should “know better.” It’s we who must know better. We sons and daughters, husbands and wives, have become their parents and bosses. We hate the job.

I will always remember James, the man who was involved in our space program at NASA. The man who had become a child by the time I met him but who always greeted me with a smile. I remember all of the men and women who once were someone else.

 

*James, like all the residents whose lives I’ve presented here, is based on a real person whose true identity I will not reveal.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

 

Photo of pier and ocean courtesy CCO Creative Commons, not requiring attribution

 

 

 

The Greater Humanity

 

We know who we are by the silence around us

We know who we aspire to become by the pulse within us

We know the sound of footsteps by the memory of those who came before

Listening immerses us in the universal mass

Keeping quiet allows us to hear everyone else

Remaining still informs us that we are not alone, thank God, we are not alone

 

Common choir makes all languages one word

Dance corpus combines all movement into a single motion

Every tongue longs to taste a sip of water gathered from the ancestral spring

Closed eyes reveal stock dreams of flight and sanctuary

Thoughts of love blend every sense into a solitary embrace

Holding hands reminds us that we are not alone, thank God, we are not alone

 

We remember who we are by the footprints of the billions and billions

The ones who hunkered in the trees, the ones who crouched in the caves

The ones who paddled across the seas, the ones who climbed the peaks

The ones who trudged across the deserts, the ones who tramped the jungles

All of them with the single wish to give all children the future we cannot see

Bowing our heads teaches us that we are not alone, thank God, we are not alone

 

Just a thought 28

 

Drawing of Vitruvian Man courtesy of Leonardo da Vinci, around 1490