An Unexpected Gift

Sunday was the HardLox festival in Asheville, the Jewish Food & Heritage Festival. I wanted to go simply because I admired the wittiness of the name. I asked Mom if she would like to go with me. “Sure!” she said, which is the answer she gives when she isn’t sure what I’m asking.

We arrived and wandered in and out of the booths, looking at handcrafted jewelry and tasting treats for Sukkot. As we were walking, the Beth HaTephila Kol Simcha Choir started performing. Mom asked to walk to the front of the stage. We stood there, listening to various songs and hymns in Hebrew and English. I was mesmerized by the conductor, obviously finding joy in this performance, adoration radiating from her entire body. I watched each of the individual members, also joyful, singing whole heartedly and without abandon. I glanced over at Mom, and she was mouthing the words as well. I glanced over again. We’re not Jewish. We didn’t grow up singing the songs of Israel. But here was Mom, whose Alzheimer’s makes her struggle with everyday language, and remembering words, and comprehending language, singing along with the chorus of songs she had never heard before, deeply engaged. I was silently grateful.

The music ended and we decided to get something to eat. I thoroughly enjoyed my kosher hot dog and mom picked at her bagel. I asked her if she’d like to stay longer or head home. She stared at me blankly. “Let’s go see who the next performers are, and then we’ll make our decision,” I suggested.

We sat on the curb in front of the stage as the Bandana Klezmer band tuned their instruments: accordion, fiddle, guitar, cello, harmonica. They played their first song and Mom said she’d like to stay. We tapped our feet and clapped our hands. After the second or third song, the band mentioned that there was a wide area in front of the stage, and their songs were perfect for dancing. I turned to Mom and jokingly said, “Do you want to dance?” “Sure!” she said, and handed me her purse. The next several minutes were a gift I could not have expected. She laughed heartily as she joined the circle of women and children dancing. She followed along with steps, raised her arms, and clapped. As each song ended, she looked for me with a panic-stricken expression, and I got her attention and motioned for her to continue dancing. After a few songs, she came and pulled me into the circle as well. We joined hands, danced to the right and to the left, waved our arms, and laughed together. Having witnessed so many things that she can’t do these days, this was a wonderful gift of what she can do, and can do with gusto, and love, and joy.

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Dancing to Bandana Klezmer

Being the Change

I had heard of the NC Western Gala but had never been in town when it took place. I returned home on Friday from a work trip and skimmed through emails from the week. I noticed the Gala was on Saturday evening and took a moment to think about whether I had the energy to attend or not. I was tired, really, really tired. The past few months were catching up with me. And, this was important. One of the things that influenced my decision to move back to North Carolina was because I felt my voice, my contributions, my volunteerism, would have more impact here than in California. I decided to sleep on it.

On Saturday morning I received a text from my friend from college days, Justice Mark Davis, saying he was in town and could we catch up for coffee or a late lunch. I texted back an enthusiastic “yes!” because surprise get togethers are one of my favorite things in the whole world. And then I asked if by chance he was in town for the Western Gala. He was, and that tipped my decision to attend.

Over a delicious late lunch at Haywood Common we updated each other on family, on travels, on work, the talk that comes easily with good friends who you haven’t seen in a while. He mentioned he was recently in Winston-Salem attending shabbat services, and Rabbi Mark shared my father’s name as someone recently departed. The bittersweet feelings of happiness, pride, and sadness swept over me all at once. Gosh, I miss Dad. I miss being able to talk to him about work, about travels, about interesting articles I’ve read, about something I’ve seen that I know he’d be interested in. I miss telling jokes with and hearing jokes from him. I miss his ever present smile and gentle nature. I miss theological discussions with him, wondering what comes next, if there is a next. I miss discussing politics with him, and what the future of our nation is. I miss having us attend the Western Gala together.

The Gala was more fun than I expected. I met candidates running for local, state, and national offices, and chatted with them about where they stood on various issues. I had great conversations with new folks about what they felt were priorities for the state. I came away from the evening with such respect for those willing to run for office.

<shameless plug> If you are in North Carolina or not, I encourage you to support two candidates in particular, Justice Mark A Davis, the first Jewish American judge (ever!) on the NC Supreme Court (it took 200 years) and a dear friend, and Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the first African American woman Chief Justice on the NC Supreme Court (ever!). One of the things I love about both of them is that they are real people – they’re easy to talk to and insatiably curious. They love North Carolina and the people who live here. They are dedicated to upholding the law and place that as a priority over party politics. I came away from the evening excited about the upcoming months and vowing to encourage everyone I know to vote or volunteer or contribute. </shameless plug>

The Magic of the Cape

A while ago, a dear friend sent me a postcard from Cape Cod. And happened to mention that I should come visit on a future date when she’s there with her family. And I thought, “Yes!”

And then this year came, which has simply been hard. And she reached out and acknowledged it’s been a hard year, and wouldn’t I like to join her family in September on the Cape? She warned me that they were spectacular loafers. And I thought, “Yes!”

And I booked my tickets for a long weekend, and dreamed of lobster rolls.

And then got news that the company that I work for, Automattic, would be closing on the acquisition of Tumblr the exact dates that I planned to be on the Cape. And I thought, “Noooooo….”

I pondered. Should I cancel the trip? I talked to a colleague and she suggested that our work would be done well before closing (and in a perfect world it would have been). I thought about it some more and decided to go to the Cape and work from there as needed.

And there were things to be done, right up until the minute we closed. And I sat wrapped in my hoodie on the porch with a cool Cape breeze blowing and sent offer letters. And reviewed immigration cases. And responded to emails. And reminded myself that we get one shot at this life and I was on the Cape with a dear friend and her lovely family and jigsaw puzzles and lobster rolls and people who loafed like it was their job and their laid back attitude permeated the very air surrounding us. And each day before opening my computer I took the time to say good morning, and chit chat, and add a few pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, and dream about lobster rolls for lunch. And it might have been my most perfect vacation yet.

 

How Does Your Garden Grow?

One of the things I was most excited about when I moved into this house two years ago was planting a garden. Home-grown tomatoes! Herbs! Okra and zucchini! And other delicious garden delicacies!

The first year passed, and the garden didn’t get planted. There was travel, a family of raccoons nesting in my chimney, and the never ending struggle of pulling weeds on my front bank.

I didn’t want to let another summer go by without the prospect of a garden. So, in December of last year, I had someone help landscape the yard with native shrubs and flowers (which I naïvely thought meant I would not have any more weeds to pull…) and build a raised planter. There weren’t many ideal places to build the planter bed. I wanted the front yard to be flowers and plants, something new blooming all year round, a surprise each day I left my house, a haven for butterflies and bumblebees. The back yard is way too shady, but a paradise for hostras and ferns and moss. And the side yard has a bit of space that is ideal for a garden. So one bed was installed in December and I dreamed of the day I would be able to plant.

And then I moved to Winston-Salem to care for Dad and Mom and when I moved back to Asheville in June, the planting season was over. Or was it? They were still selling seeds at the hardware store. So I planted tomato plants around the perimeter. And rows of kale, radishes, and okra. For days, I watered a bed of dirt. I wondered if anything would grow. I left on a work trip, came back, and there were sprouts. Sprouts!

I patiently fertilized and watered and tended each day. I noticed tender young kale leaves when I watered on Friday. I dreamed of the salad I would have. I went out on Sunday morning to pick the kale. And was met by what appeared to be blades of grass. Something had eaten the kale completely down to the stalk. Every single leaf of kale was gone. All of them. I would not have recognized the plants as kale had I not planted them myself. What could have done this? It could have been our neighborhood bear (but if it was, he or she was mighty careful). It could have been the neighborhood rabbits. Or wild turkeys. Or deer (I haven’t actually seen deer in our neighborhood, but I’m guessing they could be here). Raccoons? Maybe. I was glad that it provided a meal to something. And that they didn’t bother the tomatoes, radishes, or okra. Yet. 🙂

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Happy Birthday, Dad

Facebook reminded me this morning that it is Dad’s birthday. As if I could forget. I woke up, ready to FaceTime him and sing a very poor rendition of The Beatles’ Birthday song, as I’ve done every year for the past, oh, who knows? how many years. And have him listen patiently and laugh at me.

I cried a few (okay, a lot of) tears, wishing that we had just one more celebration together. One more chance to tell him how much I loved him and how grateful I am that he’s my Dad. But I guess that’s how every milestone will be from here on out. Wishing that Dad were still here, wishing I could tell him one more thing.

This was the last picture we took together. It was on January 21st of this year and it was our “Hooray! We’re being discharged from the hospital for the last time!” selfie. Except that it wasn’t. We were in the hospital many more times after that. And we always thought there would be more opportunities to take pictures.

Last selfie.JPG

A Garden Hose, For Gosh Sake

I love my local Ace Hardware store. Almost everyone who works there is so friendly, and helpful, and just a delight to interact with. One of the cashiers is a master of puns. I always try to get her line so we can banter back and forth as I’m checking out.

I needed a garden hose. I walked to the appropriate aisle, overwhelmed by the number of garden hoses available. I pulled out my phone, started scrolling through numbers, and then stopped.

Dad wouldn’t answer my call.

Almost every trip to Ace Hardware had also involved a call to Dad, my personal advisor on all things home fix-it. “If I’m cutting a decorative steel plank to cover the gap between the stove and the wall, what’s the best hacksaw to buy?” “There’s a mouse in the house – what extermination methods would you recommend?” “I’m painting my office – is it really necessary to prime the walls first?”

And he patiently walked me through each option, then gave me a recommendation. “Thanks, Dad! Your check’s in the mail!” I’d joke as we hung up.

I was staring at garden hoses. I had no idea which one to buy. I’ve never bought a garden hose before. Why were there so many options?

An Ace Hardware employee walked down the aisle. “Do you need help with anything?”

I took this as a sign my Dad had sent help. He couldn’t be there, but he could send a proxy. “I’m looking for a garden hose.” He didn’t even slow down. “They’re right there,” he said as he continued walking.

I stared at him in disbelief. Like I said, almost *all* employees are so friendly and so helpful, and go out of their way to walk you through options. Dad had not sent help. Or, if he had, he needed more practice.

An hour later, I had bought a garden hose, a nozzle, and a stand to wind the garden hose on for “convenient, easy storage.” Lies. I hooked the garden hose to the storage unit and started turning the handle, which was meant to easily wind the hose into a perfect coil. It simply knotted it up. After a half hour of struggling with the hose, I attached the nozzle and began watering the plants. Or, attempted to. Several of the connections were not tight enough and water sprayed everywhere – in my shoes, in my face, on my pants. I attempted to fix it without turning off the water. Turning the threads the wrong way, more water sprayed me. It was too much. What I once would have thought of as comical, laughing hysterically, I simply couldn’t take. I sat down on the edge of the raised garden bed that has housed nothing but weeds this year and just cried, as I became wetter and wetter.

Later, cried out and dried off, I attempted to read a few more pages in “How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.” I came to a section on “The Work of Grief.”

However, grief is not commonly perceived as work. …Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable. page 16

I can’t even figure out how to use a garden hose. This is what grief looks like.

So Many Tears

I don’t know why this weekend was the weekend of tears, but it was. It’s not an anniversary. Or a birthday. Or a special date of any sort.

Friday Evening
“Can you come over? I need to talk to you about something important,” Mom said. Talking on the phone can be confusing for her, so I got in the car and headed over.

“I just don’t like it here. I don’t belong here. I can’t sit in my room all day. Can I get a job?”

I put my arms around her and said, “That sounds hard. Tell me more.”

“All they do is complain. At dinner tonight the little old ladies were complaining about the food. The food is fine here. Why are they always complaining?”

I found this ironic, given that growing up my most vivid memories of my mom involved her complaining. About everything.

“What would you like to do?” I asked. “I don’t know; I just, I just can’t sit here.” The tears streamed down her face. I held her and tried to hide my tears. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.

I pulled out my computer and started looking for volunteer opportunities. Mom peeked over my shoulder. As I read each one out loud, she said, “no,” “no,” “no,” “no.”

Was this one of the things that she would forget about? How seriously did I need to take her inquiry? Would she remember tomorrow?

“Mom, the arboretum is open for another couple of hours. Let’s go for a walk.”

We walked through the empty grounds; no one else was there on a Friday night at 8:00 pm. We sat on benches and listened to fountains. We walked down mulched paths and watched fireflies light up. We read signs about NC native flora and fauna. We watched a hummingbird go from plant to plant to plant.

On the way home, I asked if she’d like to get ice cream. “Sure!” which has become her default answer to almost all questions. We sat outside in the heat, which was slowly becoming cool, eating the rapidly melting sweet cream.

Saturday
I tried to meditate Saturday morning. I sat for about three minutes before the tears came. I tried to focus on my breath, and all I could do was sob. That would be my practice for the day. Tears.

Later in the day, after running errands, I decided to get my car washed. As I sat on the bench, waiting for them to finish vacuuming, I stared into the distance. Across the street was Range Urgent Care. Where we took Dad at Christmas 2017 when his legs were swollen and he was having trouble breathing. Where they told us to go to the ER right away and I had to ask, “Where is the ER?” being so new to town. I sat there, dark sunglasses on, hot tears streaming down my face in the warm afternoon.

Sunday
I weeded the yard, much too late in the morning. Fearing heatstroke, I came inside, poured myself a tall glass of iced tea, and started reading. “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies” had been recommended to me. Two pages in, and I started crying. I put the book down. I sobbed for what could have been minutes, but was actually hours.

I called Mom. “Would you like to go downtown with me?” “Sure!” “Okay. I’ll be there in about 30 minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” This last sentence was necessary because when I went to get her last week, I wasn’t in the lobby when she thought I should have been, and she just started walking. Fortunately, the concierge noticed, and called me. When I found her, I laughed it off, saying, “Oh, did you decide to go to lunch without me?” but inside I was terrified that this was a new stage – wandering.

I couldn’t put on makeup because my face and eyes were too swollen. I hoped that sunglasses would hide the redness and puffiness. She was in her apartment when I arrived. We walked around downtown, disappointed that so many stores were closed on Sunday. We stopped by Harris Teeter to buy ice cream. I put one half gallon in the buggy and she said, “More.” I put another half gallon in the buggy and she said, “More.” “Mom,” I said. “More,” she countered. I put another half gallon in the buggy and started walking away.

We got back to her apartment and put the groceries away. “Where are those books that talked about when Daddy and I travelled?” I looked in her bedroom and found the photo album labeled “Volume 2 – Thailand, Turkey, Italy, and France.” We turned through each page, looking at faded photographs and receipts and postcards and souvenirs Dad had pasted in the photo album. As we neared the end, I said, “That really was a great trip you took.” And the tears rolled down her face. “I miss him so much. I love him so much. It’s not supposed to be like this.”

I hugged her. “I know. I know. I know.”

Unexpected Joy

And then there are moments which I could have never planned, which made them all the more incredible.

One of my dear friends from high school, who was also my roommate freshman year at UNC, who I lost touch with probably 25 years ago, messaged me through Facebook shortly before 5 pm. She was in Asheville visiting her mom, and would I like to join them? Without hesitation, I asked where they were and said I could be there in 20 minutes.

As I drove there, I wondered, “Would this be awkward?” “Would we have things to talk about?” “Why had we lost contact 25 years ago?”

And as soon as I saw her, and hugged her, and her family, it was if we were all back in time. So many laughs and memories, and stories to catch up on. What she had done. What I had done. How she ended up where she was. How I had. Changes. After a bit, I left to visit Mom, as I had promised her I would. I left feeling lighter, feeling joy, feeling loved, and feeling seen. What an incredible gift.

(Note: I took a selfie of us, which was so incredibly blurred it’s embarrassing, so I’m including a picture of some glittery Bulgarian artwork instead, which also brings unexpected joy.)

Father’s Day

In hindsight, it really was a bad decision. And honestly, had I given it any thought at all, I probably could have figured out it would be a bad decision in advance. These days, though, I’m more or less on auto-pilot, simply trying to get through each day with a semblance of normalcy.

There were a few things Mom wanted from her condo in Winston-Salem. I knew I would be passing through there this weekend, on my way to/from Raleigh en route to a bat mitzvah. Traffic on Friday was heavy, and I was concerned that if I stopped, I wouldn’t make it to Raleigh in time for the Shabbat service.

So this morning I planned to stop there on the way home to Asheville. It would break up the trip, I could get the things Mom wanted, and I could start packing up Dad’s study, which we hadn’t had time to do before we moved Mom.

You probably already see why this might be a bad idea to do on the first Father’s Day after Dad’s death. Unfortunately, I was focusing on how practical it would be for me to pick up the things while already on another trip, instead of making a special trip there.

When I pulled up to the condo garage, the tears started flowing. Ever the practical one, I thought, “I’ll spend a hour here, say hello to the neighbors, and get back on the road.”

I wasn’t prepared for the punch-in-the-gut feeling when I opened the condo door, and walked into an almost empty unit. I wasn’t prepared for all the memories of the last few months to come flooding back all at once. I closed the door, leaned up against the wall, and allowed myself to cry, to sob, to remember, to grieve. I slunk down the wall and sat curled up on the floor, simply crying, missing Dad, missing our life within these four walls. Missing experimenting with cooking low-sodium, low-potassium meals for Dad. Missing scrubbing up and preparing a sterile environment to change his bandages. Missing turning on the gas fireplace, even when it was warm outside, because Dad was always cold. Missing the one spot in the kitchen where we hugged goodnight every night and said “I love yous.”

After I thought the tears were done (note, the tears are never done), thinking I was okay to do what I had come to do, I rose up, and walked into Mom and Dad’s bedroom to get something from their closet. Again, that feeling. Of not being prepared for the wave of grief. Instead of an empty room, I saw Dad, curled up in the bed in excruciating pain, that Thursday morning that I called 911 and requested an ambulance. I remember the utter helplessness, of seeing him in pain and not being able to help. Of watching the paramedics lift him onto the stretcher and pleading with them to be careful.

I sat in the one chair that was left there, and just allowed myself to cry. And cry. And cry. I felt my Dad’s spirit in the house. Or maybe I imagined it. Or maybe I wanted it so badly I believed it. And I realized that grief is not going to allow me to be practical. I’m on its schedule now.

And there was a cupcake

June 11, 2019

Before he passed, my Dad put our family cabin on the market. It closed last week and I received the check on Monday. Since it was a rather large amount, I went into the bank to deposit it into my Mom’s account on Tuesday.

The teller was quite chatty, and the transaction took a long time, and she had to have someone else approve the deposit, and at some point I started crying quietly. I haven’t been able to enter a bank without crying since Dad’s death. I’m not sure what the trigger is, and I thought perhaps this day would be different, but it wasn’t. I mumbled, “I’m so sorry. My father recently passed away and dealing with paperwork is difficult.”

She excitingly said, “Oh, tomorrow is your birthday! Happy birthday!” I smiled wanly and thanked her. “Are you doing anything extraordinary and special?” And what went through my mind was, “I’ll be celebrating without my biggest supporter, my Dad.” Last year’s birthday was extraordinary and special – so many of my friends came to Asheville to celebrate 50 turns around the sun. And Dad loved it. He always loved interacting with my friends and was always so charming. He reminded me of how lucky I was to have such strong friendships.

Instead, what I said was, “No, not really” and tried not to sob loudly, the tears running more quickly down my cheeks, annoyingly hot in the air-conditioned bank.

“Would you go out and get a cupcake? And maybe put a candle on it?” she asked.

“Maybe,” was all I could muster as I received the deposit slip and walked out of the bank into the hot, hot summer day.

**************

June 12, 2019

Mom and I went to a friend’s house for dinner. It was the happiest I’ve seen her since she moved to Asheville. She had a glass of wine, she ate a full meal, and she accepted a piece of cake to take home. It was the most perfect birthday present I could ask for.

I took her home, we sat on her balcony, we watched the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then I returned home.

As I walked onto my porch, I noticed a cupcake, right there on one of the chairs, next to the mailbox. It was beautiful. A chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting, so perfectly swirled, with two blueberries and one raspberry on top, with decorative papers, and enclosed in a plastic clam shell.

“A cupcake!” I thought, and brought it inside.

************

June 13, 2019

I had back to back meetings all day and didn’t stop for meals. Around 1:30 pm, I was hungry. I saw the cupcake on the counter and took a bite. The icing, so smooth, so just a hint of raspberry deliciousness, perfectly complemented the moist chocolate cake.

I ate the whole thing.

During the last bite, I had a thought. “I just ate a cupcake and I have no idea where it came from or who left it on my porch. I’ve become that person who just trusts people leaving food on her porch.”

And I think I’m okay with that.

And if whoever left the cupcake is reading this, thank you for the second most perfect birthday gift you could have given me.

Note: image is not the actual cupcake. I ate the whole darn thing before I even considered taking a photo.