“I Thought of Her as Leonardo da Vinci’s Descendant”

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I’ve found, on occasion, that some of the most life-affirming experiences I’ve had have occurred at a funeral or memorial service for someone whose life has been well-lived.

I had that honor today (Sunday), attending a memorial for a 92-year-old woman whose friends’ recollections often included the phrase “Renaissance woman.”

The woman being memorialized was not someone I’d known for many years or been extremely close to. I had actually been introduced to her by a mutual friend who knew her much better. But she had such a warm, enveloping nature that I felt our friendship was longer and deeper. That, in itself, is a gift, but this woman’s gifts were bountiful.

Her energy level was one. We belonged to the same gym, and I would see her, when she was well into her 80’s, scrambling up climbing devices and lifting her small frame in successive pull-ups—a strenuous task that requires using one’s full body weight.

One of today’s participants whom I hadn’t expected to see was the terrific personal trainer my husband and I work with once a week. “Pat was one of my clients,” he told me. “She came to me in her 80’s because she wanted to be able to go back to canoeing.”

He’d put her on the treadmill wearing a backpack, and she’d complain, “It’s too light; I need more weight.” He’d add 10 pounds, then 20, then…And before long, she’d returned to her canoeing, even carrying the canoe when necessary.

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“Pat was an adventurer with a particular love of the outdoors, canoeing, and camping,” read her obituary. She traveled widely, and one of her two daughters recalled a canoe trip when she was no longer strong enough to paddle.

With her daughter at the stern, they found themselves heading toward whitewater. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I’m going to kill my mother!’” the daughter said. “But she just laughed and laughed, having the best time.”

She was a PhD psychologist who’d had a private practice for many years. Her own life was not easy. There were suggestions of a stormy relationship with a difficult, demanding mother. There was a happy marriage that ended too soon with the death of her spouse, followed by a marriage ending in divorce. There were many health challenges. But still, as one friend, a fellow therapist, said: “She was always a glass half-full person. And she knew when she needed to talk to someone, and she found the best person to talk to.”

When she retired at age 62, she hooked up with Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit organization that builds homes for people in need. This wasn’t her first experience with hammer and nails: she’d been one of the first women to teach shop in a public school in the Bronx, New York. A natural organizer, she brought together fellow Habitat volunteers in her home—a group subsequently called “The GreyHeads.”

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As she told a regional reporter who wrote an article about the group, “My work with Habitat has been the most important experience of my life. I love working with tools and building houses. Every minute is a total joy, and walking through a finished house is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience.”

A number of the Greyheads spoke about Pat at today’s gathering. It was clear not only that they cherished and respected her, but also that the presence among them of this tough, small, and tenacious woman had profoundly affected their views of women’s roles and capabilities.

And the hands that hammered and sawed also fashioned delicate, beautiful sculptures made of clay, stone, and bronze. Many were nudes—some more sensuous than others. One of the Greyheads said that, raised as a good Catholic boy, when he first saw her sculptures, he headed to confession. “They were better than those magazines,” he said with a big smile.

images-34What else did those incredibly versatile hands do? They played the piano and harpsichord, and the organizer brought together like-minded musicians for Friday evening musicales in her home. She was known to play with passion, and she was especially fond of baroque compositions. “I knew never to call Mom on Friday nights,” her daughter said.

Is it any wonder that one of the speakers said he always thought of her as a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci’s?

She was also deeply concerned about both her community and the larger world. She marched for civil rights, worked to make the playgrounds in New York’s Central Park safer, and sought to obtain an emergency alert system in her home town following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

A few years ago, when it became evident that she could no longer remain in the house and town she loved, she moved to an independent living community near one of her daughters. For a while, she was deeply unhappy, finding little to occupy her time and few like-minded people to talk with.

But in true Pat fashion, that funk didn’t last for long. As one speaker said, when asked what had made her spirits brighten, she responded: “I went to the lumber yard.” Soon she had translated her Habitat for Humanity experience to make Habitats for Wild Birdity: she organized a group to make little birdhouses to hang around her new environs. This action was totally in keeping with yet another aspect of her nature: her love for animals.

When we visited her, her sculptures were in various stages of completion, and she pointed with pleasure at the small garden outside her residence. Before long, we heard about several gentlemen who were vying for her attention. Eventually, her glass seemed more than half-full.

Listening to all the tributes today, I felt as I had when I’d heard her health was failing: regret that I hadn’t had the opportunity to know Pat better and longer. But I felt even more strongly a sense of gratitude that I had been able to spend time with and appreciate this diminutive but huge, indomitable and loving, and truly remarkable woman.

As always, please let me know your thoughts and reactions, and share any stories of your own that this post brings to mind.

Annie

My “Freeze” Moment

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When the world is too much with us—as it occasionally is for me lately—we often turn to nostalgia. My fellow blogger JP recently wrote a delightful post about a childhood “Freeze” moment: while playing a piece in a piano recital, he lost his place, couldn’t find it, recovered as best he could, and somehow lived through the humiliation.

I guess we all have “Freeze” moments when we wish we could turn back the clock and get a do-over. JP’s post reminded me of mine, which occurred when I was a high school senior. My current self finds all this quite amusing, but those decades ago, my sensibilities were different.

First, some background: In my junior year, I had been a member of what our school called the “Marching Corps.” During half-time of the football games, we marched onto the field carrying large white flag/banners, which we twirled in unison to the band’s music. We assembled ourselves into various choreographed formations—sometimes spelling our high school’s initials, a welcome to the opposing team, or a similar visual. At the same time, the baton twirlers performed their routines. It was great fun.

Then an astonishing thing happened. At the end of the school year, the music director, a very tough-love but inspiring educator, selected me to be THE DRUM MAJORETTE for our senior year.

This was truly a big deal. The drum majorette led the color guard carrying the flags, the band, marching corps, and baton twirlers. It was an honor and a responsibility. My selection also evoked some envy and consternation—Josie Gorman, for one (not her real name) let me know that she was far more suited for the position than I was.

It had never occurred to me that I’d be chosen. All my predecessors had been tall, leggy, statuesque, and usually blonde. I was (e): none of the above. The uniform I inherited required extensive alterations.

And then there was the high hat, topped by a large plume. The rim rested on the frames of my thick eyeglasses. My nose was fine, but the full set of metal braces that uncomfortably filled my small mouth glistened in the sunlight in a manner bereft of any esthetic value. I sometimes worried flocks of birds would be attracted by me, shiny object that I was.

What did that heroic music director see in me when he made his decision? He certainly was far ahead of his time in terms of female stereotyping, bless his heart!

Though I never knew his reasoning for sure, I concluded it was based on his confidence that I knew my right from my left, which may not have been a universal skill among my fellow marchers. He could therefore depend upon me to get the band to its destination in a safe and timely manner. And yes, I could strut up a storm and twirl a baton, though I faked that part in a way that the baton twirling squad never could get away with.

I could do nothing about the braces—they remained with me throughout most of my senior year—but I persuaded my parents that contact lenses were essential. I’m pretty sure I paid for them from my previous summer’s earnings, but that could be a false memory arising from my sense of drama about my plight, as in: Desperate kid scraped up enough to save self from mortification.

Anyway, they agreed, and voila! I got my contacts. I not only felt better—I could also see better, thereby improving my chances of keeping the band intact. (As anyone who’s severely myopic and has been fitted with contact lenses knows, contacts—positioned closer to the eye—can sharpen vision more than glasses do.)

It was a glorious time. On Saturdays during football season, we would march from the high school to the stadium about a half-mile away. Children would line the streets to cheer, and elderly veterans would take off their hats and salute as the American flag passed by. That scene remains vivid to this day and often brings tears to my eyes. To my mind, it was a slice of Americana that holds up in retrospect. We were oblivious to the outside world; all was right in ours.

The final game of the football season was held each Thanksgiving Day, and our rivals were the team from the local parochial school. That game always received the largest attendance of the season, as many alumni returned to see old friends and cheer on their local team.

I was psyched. The weather was great, as I recall, and our practices had been terrific. Everyone looked snappy in our crisp, clean uniforms; we were all dressed up with someplace really special to go.

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The actual image from the back of my jacket, still intact all these years later.

The first half of the game ended, and the players left the field for the locker rooms to rest. The cheerleaders, having energetically bolstered the team with physical and vocal stamina, also got a chance to recharge.

This was our moment. I blew my whistle and marched the band onto the field. Strutting my stuff, I blew my whistle again and held my baton high and to the left, signaling it was time for us all to turn and begin marching into formation.

And then it happened.

I dropped my baton. In front of the crowd in a stadium with nary an empty seat, I dropped my baton.

I quickly bent down to pick it up, but as I did, the band kept marching toward me. That’s when I froze.

Instead of turning around and continuing my strutting and twirling, I spent the rest of the time marching backward. I faced the band while holding my baton in both hands, moving it up and down to slow their advance and prevent them from trampling me. It was inglorious. My magical moment had turned into a self-preservation scramble.

Though I felt that I had disgraced myself and ruined the band’s performance, I don’t recall anyone saying anything to me afterward. Perhaps the crowd assumed I had intended to march backward, directing the band. Maybe they even thought: Look at that drum majorette—she can lead the band marching backward!

Or maybe not. But one thing was clear: nobody cared about it as much as I did—not even the music director whom I felt I’d failed.

These days, I try to practice mindfulness meditation, which encourages focusing on the moment—looking neither forward with worries nor backward with regrets. Mindfulness also urges us to respond to our “inner critic”—that merciless self-judge residing in our heads— with kind acceptance: “OK, so that happened. Interesting, isn’t it?” Though I didn’t know the term at the time, my inner critic was in full mode berating me for my personal catastrophe while most of those around me were oblivious to it.

Obviously, in the scheme of things, my youthful disappointment from dropping my baton was a small blip. And with the passage of time, it hasn’t sullied that happy memory of leading my fellow students through the children’s cheers and veterans’ salutes, never confusing my left from my right, and bringing us all—safely and on time—to our destination.

Please share your reactions, thoughts, and, best of all, your own “Freeze” moment(s) and any lessons learned. I appreciate, enjoy, and often learn from your responses.

Annie

Then, a 20% Chance; Now…

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

   ——–Eleanor Roosevelt

A mini-celebratory brunch is in order: the doctor reported both heart and aorta are sound.

“We’ll take you out,” we say.

“You’ll come here,” she insists. “The best bagels, fresh eggs, delicious fruit, plus quiet and lots of room.”

We relent.

Four years ago, the collapse—after a symphony hall concert.

She attended concerts often—multiple subscriptions, with friends and alone. And the art galleries, the library lectures, the thrice-weekly swims, the scheduled trip to Macchu Picchu…

That evening, she was alone. 

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Ambulance rides to three separate hospitals. Number one: ill-prepared for such an emergency. Number two: heart attack—quick; give her blood thinner. But then the correct diagnosis: a ruptured aorta, meaning the blood thinner was a clearly awful decision. “Won’t operate,” said the head doc. “Too old; too risky.”

But three’s the charm. “Bring her here,” said the vibrant young female surgeon, expert in repairing damaged hearts and valves, at a larger affiliated hospital.

Afternoon next day: We—in-laws and daughters—met with the surgeon, a tall, slender, soft-spoken woman whose brown eyes were at once warm and riveting. She minced no words.

“Without surgery, she will soon die.

“With it, a 50% chance she’ll die during surgery or within the next three days.

“A 30% chance she’ll survive the surgery but then suffer a stroke or other event that would seriously impair her functioning and quality of life.

“There’s a 20% chance she’ll walk out of the hospital and resume her life.”

What would you do?

“What do you think?” we asked the surgeon, who also happened to be kind and empathetic.

“She’s come through all this time, and two moves by ambulance, and her color’s still good,” the surgeon said. “She’s been leading an active life until now—I think it’s worth a try.”

When asked about the prior surgeon’s reluctance to operate, she said: “The patient is 81, with a ruptured aorta—clearly in extremis. It was not surprising he [the surgeon] wanted to head for the hills. But the family members come in and say she swims 3 times a week, is very independent, very functional. That sways away from ‘let the poor old lady go…’”

Shortly after 9 pm, nearly a full day after the collapse, the surgeon came to see us, her lovely face looking tired but illuminated. “It went very well,” she said. “We repaired the aorta, the aortic valve, and the mitral valve.”  The patient, she said, “is a picture: most people after surgery are pale and puffy. She looks like herself.”

Later, she acknowledged: “I had major doubts, but one of the great benefits of a large hospital system like this was that I spoke with my chairman and another specialist in aneurism repair. I said, ‘I know what you’re going to say, but…’ Both felt it was reasonable to operate.”

Three days after surgery, when the patient was speaking and demonstrating an understanding of commands, the surgeon pronounced her, in highly technical terms, “a miracle.”

When we first saw her, she greeted us with a big smile. But when the nurse told her she was about to swab her mouth and make her more comfortable, the former school principal uncharacteristically replied: “Bull s—t!” The surgeon expressed delight: “Profanity and criticizing breakfast are two excellent prognostications,” she said wryly.

“This was a Type A dissection,” she explained to me. “The pipe has burst. You sew in a piece of material, being careful not to leave gaps and not to miss a stitch. It’s like sewing a sleeve into a jacket. It’s not difficult, but you have to be meticulous. If you miss one stitch, you spend a lot of time regretting.”

As the patient prepared to leave for a rehab center at the end of her hospital stay, the surgeon said she expected her to resume her life and live for a number of years more. The surgeon has already been proven right. 

That brings us to today’s brunch, served on china—no paper plates. images-17A nicely arranged platter of cut-up fruit sprinkled with almonds forms an edible centerpiece. After brunch, I have to fight her to let me do the dishes.

She tells us about the concert she’d been to the night before, and the gallery visit the day before that. Her eyes are bright, her face unlined and attractive without a touch of makeup. Her mind totally sharp—despite a stroke some months after her surgery, which minimally damaged her vision in one eye.

She explains—without complaint—that she needs to rest a lot more than she once did. And she’s more concerned about walking about the city in the winter, fearing a fall that might hurt her fragile back (she’s had several fractured vertebrae). “I feel somewhat isolated,” she says.

She can’t keep up with the group of women nearby who meet daily to pursue one cultural event after another. One, in her 90s, lives on the 13th floor of her building, and walks up and down the stairs twice a day in addition to her other activities. I am exhausted just hearing about her.

She talks about my blog, describing the posts she most enjoys. She asks me how I feel about it. “I love it,” I tell her. “It’s so freeing to be able to write about anything I choose, and I enjoy the dialogue with my readers. It’s a source of great satisfaction for me.”

“That’s the way I feel about this,” she says. And she points out her new response to that sense of isolation. Once an art teacher, she has painted and sculpted—both before moving to special ed, then becoming the principal of two schools for autistic children—and since retiring. But those art forms require space and effort expended to clean up. Now, in her 86th year, she has found the ideal medium for her present circumstances: paper collages. 

She points to her “studio”: a corner of her dining area holding scissors, Elmer’s glue, pieces of cardboard and styrofoam for backing.

Suddenly, we see the works, positioned throughout her apartment. Each one is a visual delight—demonstrating a keen esthetic sense and a creative mind channeling itself in a wholly new direction. 

A large one features Eleanor Roosevelt, the Statue of Liberty—its torch the highest point on the collage—and other images and references to that era: Social Security, the UN, the WPA.

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Another—also large—is a replica of her favorite concert hall, pieced together from performance programs and advertisements. One depicting penguins and divers in the ocean is a work in progress. And on and on.

Her sources of inspiration? She combs through discarded magazines and the detritus of junk mail, finding things that strike her just the right way. That sea bird that hovers over one work? “He just caught my eye and spoke to me,” she says.

And so she meticulously pieces together from multiple sources all kinds of stuff, building new and larger stories than the ones she’s extracted—at the same time enlarging her world and, as we look at these works from all angles—ours as well.

I am in awe of this remarkable woman, who spends almost no time complaining and a great deal of time creating. How many of us will move beyond our limitations and find new ways to reach within ourselves for personal satisfaction and growth—regardless of our ages?

As I think about the doctor who refused to operate on her four years ago because she was “too old” and it was “too risky,” I find myself pondering those nearly impossible decisions about how much to do when an older person is “in extremis.” 

A 20% chance didn’t seem like much, but we in the family are forever grateful to the wise surgeon who felt it was worth the risk, guided us accordingly, and then used her brilliant skills to make that decision the best one.

 

As always, I welcome your thoughts, experiences, stories, and in this case, philosophy about how to confront these difficult decisions.

Annie

PS: Back, by request, is the 5-star like-ometer, below. Click on the star on the left if you find this post “awful,” the star on the right if you find it “excellent,” and so forth. WordPress people continue to have the “like” option below. (You may be able to click on the stars as well; I’m not sure.)

I greatly value your comments and feedback.

 

Thoughts Engendered by Pajamas With Feet

NOTE: Gazing at a lovely picture of a friend’s daughter with her two kids–a newborn and a toddler–I found myself advising her, in full cliche: “Enjoy every minute of this time; it goes so fast!” 

That made me wistful about my own daughters’ younger years. Even though I realized then the flight of time, it still slipped past me far too quickly. 

So I dug out a poem I wrote decades ago, which was published in a local anthology. Here ’tis:

We cleaned out the closets yesterday,
Disposing of the children’s Infancy
   and Toddlerhood
in just a few, brief hours.

We stacked the memories in cardboard boxes
and placed them in the basement,
Where they will remain until my charitable 
   heart,
Massaged by the Internal Revenue Service,
Calls the Salvation Army to
take them away.

There went the Winnie-the-Pooh shirt,
Gently folded by the thin ten-year-old
Whose face is hidden now behind a
  thicket of heavy curls,
Like a small cottage attacked by overgrown shrubbery.
“How tiny it is,” she smiles.
How tiny she was, I remember, seeing her again
As she was then, the nicely shaped head
   covered
With thousands of tight little ringlets 
She let me cut at will.

I tried to wring those early years
of all I could,
Taking to heart the wistful warning from those
Who’d already passed this way that
“You’ll never know where the years went.” 

But
Here’s the evidence of my failure, the
Footed pajamas worn first by one daughter,
Then by the other.

In the accordion of my memory, the years are
   pleated 
Close together, almost superimposed
one on the other. I see
The girls, leaning back against their pillows,
Fragile arms folded behind their heads with 
Comical sophistication, as they listen
To a story they both treasured and selected
bedtime after bedtime.
“Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises
everywhere.”

I recite the words from memory now. My six-year-old,
Deciding which books she is ready to surrender to a
Younger child, replaces GOODNIGHT MOON
On the shelf.  I am grateful to her
For allowing us to retain our shared memory just
a little longer.

Next time, I know, GOODNIGHT MOON will go the way 
Of the footed pajamas and the Winnie-the-Pooh shirt.
Another book, which she now reads to me, will mark
these years for us.  My daughters will grow
Less attached to their childhood memories, 
As I grow more so.

I am too young to be living in the past, I think,
But still, in what I know is a gesture more to myself
Than to the future, when the time comes to dispose
of GOODNIGHT MOON,
I shall pack it in the special box, the one set apart
   from 
The goods for the Salvation Army.

There it will join the hand-knit garments woven
With love by aunts and grandmothers intent on
Warming my daughters with their 
crocheted caresses.

And I shall hope that the mildew of indifference
Spares it
For the next generation.


I hope this poem resonates somewhat, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. WordPress people, if you like it, please remember to click on Like. Cheers!

Annie