Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Tag, you're it

The house is so quiet. 

Just the hum of the fridge and the white noise of the baby monitor. A clock ticking. The muffled chirping of a cardinal outside.

The girls returned to school yesterday after two weeks off for the holidays. Both were crying about how they missed Grandma and Grandpa. And how they'd miss Annie, Dad and me. How they didn't want to go to school. Mondays are tough. This week, the Mondays were on steroids.

Lily told me grownups were happy that school was back in session. "You just want a break from the annoying kids," she said.

Had she seen my celebratory "only two more days of winter break" dance the other day? Overheard me talking about how the kids just needed to go back to school?


It's not that I don't love the kids. Of course I love the kids. Not that I don't enjoy spending time with them. I do. Our New Year's Eve spent playing Exploding Kittens and Who Did It? (The No. 1 card game about No. 2) was near as perfect as any I can remember. We chatted. We giggled. We were all in bed by 10. It was glorious. 

Over break, we watched deer wandering through the woods at Grandma and Grandpa's. went on a bike ride. Walked the neighborhood to sell Girl Scout cookies. Took turns trying to get Annie to laugh. 

The time off reminded me how funny, bright and kind-hearted they are. Gave me so many moments I wanted to bottle to drink up when the kids are older and surly. 

But I just really need a break from the constant input from their output. There's been so much doing. Shopping, baking, decorating, cooking, wrapping, hosting, driving, visiting, cleaning– just an endless stream of verbs none of which seemed to include anything along the lines of "sitting" or "reflecting" or "idling." 

When the girls are home the house is lively and warm. It's nonstop entertainment for Annie. But it's also noisy and cluttered. 

There is an endless dialogue- someone is always talking. Whether it's reading stories out loud or asking when lunch is or wondering what's for dinner or lamenting the lost key to the new diary or requesting help with the construction of a Lego set or craft kit or needing a ponytail or fighting over who touched the other person's butt with their butt or singing various renditions of "Jingle Bells" that sometimes involve blood and death or screaming over stubbed toes or yelling at the Eagles to win the game.

It's all the emotions and all the sounds all day.

The other night at bedtime, as I reached the precipice of my patience, Jovie began narrating everything that had occurred in the previous 10 minutes in a breathless stream of words ("And then I put my pajamas on and then I brushed my teeth and then I tried to climb on the bed and fell out and then you read this story..." you get the picture. I couldn't get a word in. Coincidentally, the words I needed to get in were: "Please stop talking, it's time for bed."

I said already that I love my children right? 

For them, the color of December is firelight and glitter. It's stuffed with evergreens that are stuffed with a rainbow of baubles and ribbons. It's platters of cookies and stacks of wrapped boxes. It's all the hugs from all the relatives. 

As I get older, those colors have muted. Blued in the way Riley's memories become tinted in "Inside Out." The sweetness of all the joy stained with the realities of getting older and having a different awareness of the season. The exhaustion and financial strain. The familial tensions. And knowing that as they get older, my children's perceptions will evolve away from the unabashed elation they feel now toward disenchantment. 

That sounds really melodramatic. It's just that Lily is already so practical. At 8 she's looking ahead at her life and aware that school will only get tougher. That her days of freedom and endless playing are behind her. Jovie is both perpetually innocent and instinctively wise. She looks at Snacks' graying face and worries about how many more years we have left with him.

It all goes by so fast. Lily's reading the same chapter books I did as a kid. Jovie is asking for makeup. I mean ... gosh ... aren't I still the child? How else could I remember so clearly riding the new peach-and-gray-colored 10-speed around my cul-de-sac on Christmas Day when I was in fourth grade? How excited I was about that bike. How could that have been 27 years ago?

At the Jennings' family annual Christmas party, I was chatting with Brad's grandmother. Grandma's 93. The past couple of years have been tough for her. Failing health has caused her to move from an apartment near friends where she'd lived independently to a room in an assisted living facility. She's been in and out of the hospital for various falls and ailments. A couple months ago she fell and hit her head. She developed a brain bleed and needed brain surgery. Brain surgery. At 93. She's recovered from it more or less. A long scar showing through her snowy hair the only obvious sign of what she'd been through. The surgery hasn't seemed to affect her memory or lucidity. Or her sense of humor for that matter.

Two weeks ago she moved into a shared room at a nursing home where she'll be able to receive 24-hour care. 

Brad's family is relieved that she's been able to find a bed in place that would meet her needs. His mother and aunts had been taking turns staying with her to keep her company, ensure she was eating properly and not getting up to walk around without help- her independent streak the culprit of many of her falls. Everyone's nerves had been frayed with worry over Grandma. 

"I heard your new place is pretty nice," Brad said to her during the party.

"Oh yeah? Who told you that?" Grandma replied, making clear her feelings on the matter.

I told her I imagined it was hard moving into a new place. That she probably felt like she'd been shuffled around a lot recently. She just shrugged.

I remembered not that long ago, back when she was living in her apartment, there was a discussion about whether to get rid of a chair that was eating up some space Grandma needed for her new walker. Grandma was insistent that the chair stay. It's the chair her longtime companion Paul would sit in. Paul rented the apartment next door, but basically lived with Grandma. He passed away several years ago. I think the chair helped her feel close to him. Looking at it reminded her of him and maybe made it feel as if he were still in the room.

The chair went. Not that it mattered, because pretty soon Grandma would move and have to downsize most of her belongings anyway.

I know she's frustrated by what's happening to her body. She arrived at the Christmas party in a wheelchair. It had been a year since I'd seen her last and she looked so tiny and sunken. She can't eat solid food anymore. Her voice is hoarse and strained. 

I see her trying to fight for agency. She didn't want Brad to skimp on her serving of the birthday cake Aunt Ann made for Brad's cousins and sister. She was annoyed when, during the White Elephant gift exchange game, someone selected a gift for her while she was in the restroom. I get the sense that she's weary of her children and grandchildren trying to dictate her comings and goings. It's not as though she's not aware of her limitations. Or that everyone just wants to keep her safe. 

Her eyes are still bright though. Her mind sharp. She heckled Uncle Bill for taking too long to pick a gift during the game. When I brought Annie over to meet her for the first time the two studied each other quietly and intently. Annie reaching for her great grandmother's scarf (probably to chew on it). Grandma stroking her cheek. The memory of that moment warms me.

"I heard you had a big bingo win this week," I told her over raspberry punch.

"It was only a $1.50," she replied. 

I asked her what the most she'd ever won playing bingo was.

A thousand dollars.

She went on to recount the story of her big win from years ago. How she hadn't even planned on playing bingo that day, but a friend talked her into it. How there was a bit of a snafu over the chair she sat in- apparently some other bingo regular had claimed Grandma was sitting in her usual spot. How she was nervous about calling "bingo" for such a big pot lest she not have the right numbers and embarrass herself. 

I asked how she spent her winnings. Did she treat herself to something nice? 

"I probably just used it for groceries and bills," she said. She didn't need to do anything fancy.

Later on in the night, I was talking with one of Brad's cousins or maybe his nephew's wife about nursing (there have been five new babies added to the family in the past two years. A bit of a baby boom. It's hard to keep track of what kid-versations I had with whom). Someone had asked about what to do when your baby bites you while breastfeeding. I said that when Jovie had bitten me, I'd yelped, pulled her off and gave her a stern, "no." 

Grandma chimed in that when Brad's mother bit her- she bopped her on the head. This made me laugh out loud. Because I could totally relate to her reaction. Getting gouged in the nipple by a prickly little infant tooth is not pleasant. And here she was remembering something that happened 70 years ago like it was yesterday.

When we were saying our goodbyes, I told Grandma I was so glad she was able to come to the party. That I always enjoyed visiting with her. She gave me a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek, but her reply saddened me. 

"I can't do much." She seemed more disappointed in herself than anything else. 

Her comment made me think of her friend Paul, who, in his 90s, was blind and hard of hearing. Paul was so kind. He doted on Lily and Jovie when they were infants. Loved petting Snacks even though Snacks is a total spazz. I only ever knew Paul as an old man, but Brad's family told me he was a pilot in World War II who'd become a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down over Germany. He was sent to Luft-Stalag III (the POW camp depicted in "The Great Escape"- a movie I loved watching with my dad as a kid). After the war, he raised a family and worked as a bookbinder for more than 40 years. 

Years ago at this same party, Paul made a similar comment to Grandma's. He, too, felt like he couldn't contribute much to the party. 

I think about Paul's warmth. His gentleness. How even though he was blind and deaf in his later years, his presence filled the room. I think about his empty chair at Grandma's. How even when he wasn't physically there anymore, his spirit kept her company.

I told Grandma her presence was important. That it was more than enough. 

"You light up the room," I said. My eyes getting teary, because I'm always a little too earnest and I love her so much. Both my grandmothers died years ago. She's been my surrogate for a decade. Always so welcoming and sweet to me. 

I tried to add, clumsily, that if it weren't for her- the whole party wouldn't even exist. She's responsible for raising such amazing daughters, who themselves have raised such cool, fun, generous-hearted children (my husband among them). 

And here we are, attempting to raise her great grandchildren. Brad's nephew and his wife had a baby this year- so she's officially a great-great grandma now. I look at all our babies and see time stretching out in front of us. In years of first teeth and first steps and first days of school and first dates and first jobs. And I listen to her stories and see time stretching out behind us, too. 

I see us all as these little blips of light on this endless spectrum that wraps around and around and blankets us. I imagine the physics of all this is questionable. But the heart of it feels true.

This year, in particular, I feel more weighted down and aware of just how fleeting our time here is. Several friends and acquaintances lost loved ones in the last month. All the sudden, I feel as if I've entered a phase of life where loss will become more commonplace than in the years before and I feel utterly unequipped to deal with it. 

A friend who works as a nursing assistant in a hospital was visiting on New Year's Eve. We were talking about aging and the struggles of navigating the end-of-life decisions faced by the elderly and their families. She told me that over and over again, her elderly patients give her the same advice: Don't get old.

This advice is as heartbreaking as it is impossible. It begs for followup questions and re-examination of how we're aging as a society. 

I'm so grateful that my parents and Brad's parents and Grandma and our aunts and uncles continue to get old. Selfishly, their longevity means more time spent with them. But I hate to think of them aging regretfully. To get to a point when they only feel their only contribution is to take up space in a room. To be the ones telling their nurse, "Don't get old."

I find myself needing to surface from under the swell of the holidays. The decadence of all the memories floating in and out of my brain. The indulgence of all this time together.  

I want to take a deep breath in the crisp freshness of January. To clear my head of all the noise. 

Strangely enough, it's Jeff Bridges who helped shake me back into the day.

During his rambling acceptance speech for the Cecil B. deMille Award at the Golden Globes last night (during which, he was pretty much The Dude), he talked about wanting to back out of a role he didn't feel right for. And how the director told him, "Jeff, you know the game tag? ... you're it." He says he's used that perspective in all his movies and in his life.

"I guess we all have been tagged, we are all alive right here, right now," he said. "We are alive, we can make a difference. We can turn this ship in the way we wanna go, man. Towards love, creating a healthy planet for all of us."

The Dude sounded, frankly, a little stoned. But his observation made me smile. Because his pointing out the obvious- we've all been tagged. We're all alive right here, right now- is what I needed to hear. What I need to hear every day. Our life isn't what happened at the holiday party and it isn't all the plans we have for the upcoming year. It's what we have right now. It's who we are right now. 

And all of us- young, old and in between- we've all been tagged. As long as we're here. As long as we're alive on this planet. 

I'm not much of a resolution person (clearly, I'm a few days late on that anyway). But this year, I'm going to be more aware that I'm it. And I'm going to make it a habit of letting other people know- whether they're young or old or in between, that they're it, too. And that they're enough just as they are.

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