Happy Birthday, Mom

“…Happy birthday to yooooooooouuuuuuuuuu!” I sang over the phone.

There was silence.

“Mom?”

I heard her sobbing quietly.

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I miss him so much. Why did he have to die so soon?”

And I marvel at how Mom can’t remember the last thing she said or the last thing I told her, she can’t remember any finite memories of Dad or anything they did together, but the love that they shared is in her bones, is in her psyche, and she misses that. Terribly, achingly, constantly.

“Oh, Mom. I miss him, too. It hurts so much.”

“Yes. So much. I miss him.”

“I do, too. So much. I’m working today but I’ll come and pick you up around 5 for your birthday dinner.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom! Happy birthday!”

“Mine? Are you sure?”

“Yes! I’m sure! I’ll pick you up and we’ll have dinner on the porch. I’ll see you then; have a good day.”

At 5 pm, she settled into my car. She turned to me, “I have my shoes. Where are we walking?”

I laughed. Again, amazed at how our routine is ingrained in her body. Every Saturday and Sunday we go for a walk, then she changes into sandals and we sit on my porch, her reading the newspaper, cutting it up, taping it into a spiral bound notebook, and me reading a book. I’ve disturbed her algorithm. It’s Monday. We’re not going for a walk; we’re celebrating her birthday.

“We’re going to my house for your birthday dinner and cupcakes.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom.”

“Mine? Really?”

“Yes,” I smiled and clasped her hand as I drove out of the parking lot.

We sat on my porch and she unloaded the tote bag that she always has with her. Running shoes, anklet socks, Hershey’s nuggets candies in a Ziploc bag, today’s newspaper, a spiral-bound notebook, scissors, Scotch tape, felt tip pens (no tops so the color bleeds through the tote bag), a bag of pretzels, 4 pocket size packs of Kleenex, two sets of house keys, two romance novels, and a tank top.

“Mom, don’t start any projects. We’re getting ready to have dinner.”

“Are we going for a walk?”

“Right now we’re eating dinner. It’s your birthday, so we have a special dinner. Fried chicken, sesame greens, cucumbers from the garden, and chocolate cupcakes for dessert. We can go for a walk after dinner if you’d like.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom.”

“Mine? Really?”

“Really!” and I laughed.

“How old am I?”

“79.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

After dinner I FaceTime with my sister and her two children. They talk to Mom as I bring out a cupcake with lit candles. We all sing Happy Birthday, out of sync and out of tune. We tell her to make a wish and she says, “I wish I’ll live two more years.” My heart breaks and I choke back tears.

Mom opens presents, confused what they are and why she’s getting them. My sister and her children are great. They laugh with Mom, not at her. They tenderly say, “I love you, Gammy,” and we laugh and say goodbye.

Mom eats the cupcake – her favorite, chocolate cake with vanilla icing. She again asks whose birthday it is. I tell her it’s hers. I wonder if I could have made my favorite cupcake, vanilla cake with vanilla icing, and if she would have noticed.

I take her home and sign her back in. She waves at everyone sitting in the rocking chairs outside, in the lobby watching tv, saying, “Today’s my birthday!”

Mom and I, masked up, outside my house, on her birthday.

August

Katydids, day and night, chirping back and forth, back and forth, occasional soloist, an intoxicating rhythm.

Warm evenings that hug you as you step outside.

Endless hours on the porch swing: reading, thinking, crying, being.

Ripe tomatoes, fresh from the vine, still warm from the afternoon sun, sliced thick and carefully placed on Wonder Bread with just a smidge of Duke’s mayonnaise and several shakes of salt.

Okra blossoms, the softish of yellow, opening up in the warmth and humidity.

A cool breeze, causing a momentary shiver, a harbinger of fall weather that will be upon us soon.

Dad’s birthday. Remembering him and the gifts he shared. Missing him.

Faith in the Garden

“See, right here where the plant forms a “V”? See this little leaf poking out? That’s a sucker. Just pinch it off.” He held my fingers and showed me how remove the suckers without damaging the tomato plant. 

I might have been six or seven. We had moved to a rural part of the county a couple of years earlier, and Dad had planted a majestic garden. For decades, we grew almost all of our own fruits and vegetables, only venturing to the store for dairy and dry goods. Dad loved to garden. He loved tilling the ground, planting the seeds, tending to the plants, and harvesting. And I loved being near him.

All the years I lived in San Francisco I longed for a garden. I longed to grow tomatoes, beans, okra, eggplant. I longed for my own Rural Hall garden.

The first year I was in Asheville, I traveled so much for work. I was rarely home, and when I was, I was battling the weeds that had overtaken the yard. The second year I gave up the notion of “I can do this by myself”  and hired someone to help landscape the yard (weeds be gone! mulch, welcome!) and build a raised bed. That was in November 2018. I was so excited about the possibilities that lay ahead for the spring. Dad and I talked about what I could plant, where to buy seeds. 

And then he fell ill in December. And I moved back to Winston-Salem to help care for him and for Mom. And spring came. And Dad died. And I moved Mom to Asheville since she couldn’t live on her own anymore. Well into the summer I planted tomato plants. And still traveled for work. And was so busy. And grieving. And the squirrels came. And the bears. And I found half-eaten tomatoes throughout my yard and on my doorstep. And I cried. And cried some more.

And then came the pandemic. I turned the soil, planted the tomato plants, and caged them. I’m not traveling for work anymore, so every morning after my morning tea I walk outside and tend to the tomatoes. I pinch the suckers carefully, just like Dad taught me so many years ago.  The smell of tomato plants is very particular. I love having that smell on my hands when I go back inside to start my day. 

During one of Dad’s last stays in the hospital, we were alone in the  ICU. I held his hand and we talked about what was happening. We knew he was dying, we just didn’t know when. We thought we had months and in reality it was only days. 

As we sat there, I asked him how he was thinking about what would come next. Of what happens once he dies. The afterlife. His soul. He responded, “We die, and that’s it. There’s nothing more.” I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. Dad was such a spiritual and religious person. What was he saying? I asked some more questions, and he was so matter of fact. Death is death. Was this what he needed to believe to let go and leave this life? I wanted to scream, “NO! There has to be more. You can’t leave me. We have to continue to have a connection even when you’re not physically here. A part of me will die with you if that’s not true.” 

But I didn’t say that. I fought back tears and listened.

I held his hand and we talked about his former baseball career, about family, about friends, about dreams and hopes, and about books we were reading. We told each other we loved each other and held each other tight. 

And today, when I was in the garden, tending to the tomatoes, I thought to myself, “There is something more. You’re still here, Dad.”

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

This morning I spent three hours at the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington for a Digital Justice Gathering. The gathering was focused on amplifying the voices of those impacted by poverty. It will be re-broadcast at 6 pm ET tonight (Saturday, June 20) and at 6 pm ET tomorrow (Sunday, June 21). Most of the speakers are in English; the broadcast is open captioned in English, and also interpreted in Spanish and American Sign Language. Take a listen. It’s so incredibly important.

It is criminal that our country, one of the wealthiest in the world, has the homelessness, the hunger, the teetering on the edge of financial ruin, that we do. And that this impacts the poor and communities of color disproportionately. Add your voice and join the movement.

Happy Juneteenth!

A day of celebration, a day of remembrance, a reminder of the work we still need to do towards a just society.

I started the day by listening to “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” performed by Fresh Cut Orchestra and Melanie Charles, hosted by Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center back in February. I wasn’t able to attend in person, but my goodness, what a performance. I especially love “Tears for Johannesburg.” Take a listen.

A Little Bit of Heartbreak

It’s weird when the people that birthed you no longer exist.

Dad passed away last year. Mom still remembered my birthday last year, but this year had no idea.

A dear friend gave me a mini birthday cake. Even a mini cake was too much for me to eat on my own, so I cut a slice and then boxed up the rest to take to Mom and her caregiver. I passed the cake off at a distance, in the breezeway area outside of Mom’s facility (still no visitors allowed inside). Mom looked in the bag and exclaimed, “Is it my birthday?” I laughed and said, “No, Mom.” She asked, “Well, why the cake?” I told her it was my birthday and she said, “Really????” Yes, I told her with a smile.

I had many calls, texts, emails, and video calls from friends today. I am so appreciative and so grateful of the outpouring of love and friendship. And yet, the people that were there when I was born are no more. It’s part of growing older, it’s the cycle of life, and it’s also so very heartbreaking.

“Why Are They Killing The Black People?”

“Why are they killing the Black people?”

Over the past weeks, I had felt Mom becoming more and more distant. Her eyes were glassy and conversations often didn’t make sense. This was lucid.

“I… I don’t know, Mom. We live in a racist society. I don’t know why they’re killing them.”

“They didn’t do anything wrong. Why are they killing them?”

I could hear CNN, or maybe MSNBC, blasting in the background. I heard Mom start to cry. “I just don’t understand.”

“Mom, why don’t you turn the tv off. Would you like to go for a walk and talk?”

“I need to be alone. I don’t understand.”

How is it that I’m having this conversation with my Mom, 78, with advanced Alzheimer’s, about the insanity of what is happening in our country right now? How do I answer the question that she’s asked? Why are we killing Black people? What do we have to do to stop the killing? To stop the hatred, the rage, the prejudice, the racism, behind the killing?

I cried for the rest of the day. I’m not shocked by what is happening. We are a racist society, in which many people (me included) benefit from that racism, and I’m tired of it. We have got to dismantle the systems that allow this to continue.

My friend Michelle put together this list of resources, Racial Justice, A List of Resources for White People Who Are Not on Twitter 24 Hours a Day. I’m donating, I’m writing, I’m speaking out. I have no delusions that it’s enough.

Friends During Quarantine

I had a hankering for egg salad. Who knows why. Maybe it’s because I thought it was the advent of spring, even though it was 50 degrees outside? Maybe because I was nostalgic for Sunday afternoons of my childhood?

I read the recipe carefully. “Boil a large pot of water and carefully lower the eggs into the water, making sure the shells don’t crack.” Well, goodness. the first two eggs into the pot of water cracked. Now what?

As I pulled the eggs out of the boiling water and doused them in ice water, I laughed at the two cracked eggs. One had a mustache and one had a toupee. And I couldn’t bring myself to crack them (more), because of the dynamic conversations that they were having. At some point, I’ll eat them. But for now, they’re great companions. Cracked Eggs.jpg

Thankful for a pandemic

I’m not quite sure how to process this.Today was one of the happiest days in memory.

I realize that the world is in a horrible state. We’re sheltering in place, worried about a disease that is spreading at unprecedented rates. I haven’t had in-person connection for almost two months. There are so many uncertainties.

And yet, I am so happy.

I woke up without setting an alarm, something that is a rare luxury. I meditated, knowing that I wasn’t racing against time, that I could stay in that state for as long, or for as little, as I wanted. I talked to Mom, the same incomprehensible conversation about a man planting a tree for her, six times today. I am so thankful that I’ve learned not to care about the truth, and learned instead to care about connection and laughter. I cooked a new fish curry recipe that turned out surprisingly delicious. I made a beautiful salad with nasturtiums. I joined my San Francisco Glide Zoom service, and clapped and danced and hallelujahed. I sat on the porch, sipping iced tea doing the NY Times crossword for an hour and a half. I completed it successfully; the first time this year! I laughed when I was shown a congratulations message for a 1 day streak. That’s not a streak; that’s a first. I discovered words in the NYT Spelling Bee app and reached the genius level. I closed my eyes and felt the warm winds meet my face as I swung in the swing that prompted me to buy this house. In July 2017, I climbed the 20 steps from the street to the porch, saw the porch swing, swang in it, and declared, “This is my house.” I sat swinging today, thinking that may have been the best decision I’ve made in my life. I came inside and precisely cut material for masks. I had forgotten how much I loved sewing. I love measuring the patten, cutting to the precise 1/8”. I love feeding the material through the machine, stitches even, cutting threads to the quick. I love assembling cloths I bargained for in Zambia markets, in Indonesian markets, in Indian markets. Thinking I would make dresses, and fabric sitting 20 years in a trunk. Pulling them out, knowing this was the best use of fabrics bought eons ago. Listening to jazz and Motown on Pandora. Singing along, imagining my life as a back-up singer, wearing a short fringed dress and shaking a tambourine. And then joining a book club by Zoom, recently reunited, of friends from the year 2000, when we were bright-eyed and new to San Francisco. Unlike in-person books clubs, where the book is rarely mentioned, we discussed the plot, character development, author choices. Another Zoom call, discussing a class we’ve taken online. Another FaceTime call with a long-time friend.

So thankful for connections. So thankful for time. So thankful for choices that have brought me here. And, strangely enough, thankful for this pandemic that has invited me to examine what is important. And what is not.

Pandemic Surprises

One of the things that I’ve loved about this pandemic is porch surprises – both given and received. It’s a delight to drop something off on someone’s porch and text them, “Surprise waiting for you on the bench outside your door next to your rain boots!” or “Enjoy what’s in the brown paper bag on your porch!” And equally delightful to receive a similar message. I received a message saying there was a piece of funfetti cake on my porch (and who doesn’t love brightly colored cake with sprinkles?!?) and was delighted to be able to talk to the givers from a distance, because I immediately ran out to fetch the said slice of cake.

I’m taking a class on the science of well being. One of the ways to increase happiness is to interrupt it, so that you don’t get used to it (hedonistic adaptation), and then you can have multiple instances of happiness. I thought about this when I took a first bite of the cake. It was so good! I can’t remember when I last had cake. Gosh. The sweetness. The sugaryness. The crunch of the colorful sprinkles on the icing. I thought about the principles I had learned about happiness. I told myself I’d have just one more bite, then save the rest for later. And I had one more bite. And one more. And one more. And then I ate the whole thing. And I was pretty darn happy.

Funfetti Cake

I forget to take a picture until it was gone…