It took four people seven hours, but I think we finally did it. We found a name.
“It’s often a matter of sitting in front of the computer and worrying. It’s what writing comes down to—worrying that things aren’t going to work out.”
- Khaled Hosseini
I’ve made a new discovery. It’s called Sleeping Late. It happened by accident, like most bolts of genius. I dragged myself out of bed at my regular time, 6am, and stumbled into the kitchen. I made the coffee, read my email. I sat down to read the paper. My leg encountered something sticky, and I slid off the chair to find a blot of something viscous (salad dressing?) stuck to the seat fabric. I decided to read on the sofa. After a few minutes, my feet were cold so I pulled the blanket over me. That was the last thing I remember.
Next, the clock read 8:30. I had slept two extra hours. I felt fantastic. On that day I learned so many wonderful things about Sleeping Late. First, you can read the newspaper without squinting. At 8:30, your brain can follow complex subject matter without re-reading whole sections for clarity. Coffee tastes better when you’re well rested. As a special treat I heated the creamer in the microwave and poured it into my cup mimicking the moves of a flamboyant waiter who served us café au lait in Paris long ago. While my toast browned, I watched a woodpecker attack the thick trunk of the tree in the back yard. Was this the same sound that drove my husband to throw open the bedroom window and scream: “Stop that hammering!”? The rat-a-tat-tat seemed downright musical today.
I went upstairs to get dressed and was astonished at what I saw in the mirror. At 6am, I look like unmolded clay. My face is creased and misshapen, lined from the pillow and from age. Even the dog does not have the courage to look at me. But at 8:30, I look positively human. My skin is flesh-toned, and my eyes are actually open with a fair amount of healthy white sclera showing. The gray crescents that usually hover above my cheekbones miraculously evaporated somewhere in between 6am and 8:30. I did not require concealer makeup after Sleeping Late.
I checked my calendar and transcribed the details of the day’s necessities. I gave the dog an extra Milkbone before leaving for work. On the highway, I slowed down to let a car merge in front of me. At lunch, I made all the calls on the list brought from home without banging the phone on my desk while navigating voice mail mazes, and took a brisk walk along the Mall. I took a group photo of a group of tourists, provided instructions as to how to use the automated meters. After work, I went to the gym, picked up a few groceries, and even collected the dry cleaning.
It’s now 8:30 pm, and I’m going strong. Who cares if “the early bird gets the worm?” I never liked worms anyway.
I am considering setting my alarm clock for 8:30 every morning.
I think I’m on to something.
I had huge expectations for today. Wake early and work hard. The novel’s next section needs reorganization. The structure must be reconsidered, rethought. Details must be secured, loose threads knotted, characters groomed. There is too much to do.
I overslept, did two crossword puzzles, returned non-urgent emails and checked FB in case anything important was posted (as if). Most importantly, I made a mental list of current excuses for not writing: I only have five hours before I leave to teach my class I have to call the electric company about an errant charge on my bill Both sons have moved back home - not sure how this interferes with my writing The chapters are impossibly scrambled, complicated, mottled with errors… I need to focus. I need to concentrate. I need to…THINK.
I remembered the words of an extraordinary instructor Margaret Meyers, at the Johns Hopkins University graduate program in Writing. Margaret said: “Make time to think.” Genius. Margaret scheduled an afternoon appointment with herself once a week. She reserved a private room in the library at American University. She brought with her no electronics, no reading materials.
This was her exclusively reserved/preserved time to THINK. Thank you Margaret. Signing off…
My mother is living with me now. Her home, the house she shared with my father for forty-seven years, the house where my sisters and I grew up on Long Island, just sold. The nursing home where my father lives now is just six miles from my house, so it made sense that she would live here during his “incarceration.” That’s what we called it: incarceration. As if he was serving a term. As if he would ever get out. Four years ago, my father was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia, like the people profiled in Denise Grady’s piece in the Sunday New York Times series titled: The Vanishing Mind. However, unlike the families in that article, my father’s mind is not vanishing any more; it is gone entirely.
My mother commutes to the dementia ward every day where she watches him sleep, walks the halls hand in hand when he is awake and helps him with meals. He can no longer discern between the tray and the food, and will eat his napkin if left on his own. My mother knows every nurse and every administrator in the nursing home. She learned the family histories of each the aides. The security guard assigned to my father’s door had fled the Ivory Coast after his father was imprisoned for selling goats to a dissident. The day aide, named Sunshine, lived with three other families in a two-room flat. She works twelve hour shifts six days a week and has not had a day off since last spring. My mother is entranced by their stories. I suppose they take her mind off the reality of my father’s illness, or perhaps she’s just a busybody. I don’t really know.
For a while, our lives were dominated by my father’s condition. His dementia spiraled into aggression: he bit, hit, swore, threw furniture and screamed as if stabbed with spears. He held my mother by the neck. He sobbed like his heart was breaking; that was the hardest day and we stood in the hall, my mother and I, clinging to each other as if waiting for our executions. My father never touched me in anger. During those enraged outbursts, he very definitely did not know who he was, who we were or what he was doing. I’d like to think that somewhere buried in his brain stem he knew that he would not harm his own child, but I’d be deluding myself.
And so we did not concern ourselves with small matters of her residency. I have a lovely guest room in my basement. It is comfortable and quiet. My husband moved a television into her room to keep her company and we bought a Bose radio so she could listen to the opera on Saturdays. She worked hard at being unobtrusive. She kept all her clothes in her suitcase: her underwear was sealed in one Ziplock bag, her socks in another. She stowed her laundry in a garbage bag in the closet and ran the washing machine early in the mornings when she knew I wouldn’t be using it. After a few weeks, my husband and I went to Pier I and bought a dresser and a laundry basket. We stopped at the drug store to pick up a dental night guard for my clenched teeth and at a liquor store for obvious reasons.
“Unpack everything from your suitcase,” I commanded my mother, “and put your things away. That way you won’t feel like a guest.”
She met my demand with a blank stare. “Grandma doesn’t listen to a thing you tell her,” my young son had confided years earlier, after spending a week with my parents who, he reported, permitted chocolate pudding for breakfast, snacks before dinner and bedtimes not at all. Nothing had changed; except that now my son was a half-grown adult and my mother was the one whose diet I monitored. She still didn’t listen to me. Sometimes, when she’s at the dementia ward, I take her few clothes and her bath towel and I run a load of laundry. I leave the clean and folded items on the foot of her bed like a sacrificial offering.
To my friends and coworkers, I announce: “My father is in the dementia ward and my mother is living in the basement.” But that is somewhat sarcastic. In the privacy of my own mind, I am overwhelmingly proud. My mother is living with me during her most extreme time of need. I am helping. When I get old, I will look back on this period as the most impressive thing I’ve ever done. That is not to say that our living arrangement is easy.
One morning, I was working at my desk, when I sensed a timid knock on the door. “Come, “ I shouted with out looking up.
“I don’t want to bother you.” She stood there with a lipstick smile. Lipstick, at eight in the morning. “Can I make you some toast?”
My stomach rumbled. “Okay.”
I concentrated anew. Another knock. “Rye or wheat?”
“I don’t care.”
She thought for a second. “Rye.” I waited, fingers poised above the keyboard. She whispered, pointing at my head. “Are those the headphones I sent you?” I had to smile. Clearly the pleasure she was feeling at helping my career was worth a moment. I pulled them off, holding them out for her to see.
“Yup, these are the ones you sent. But I think they’re more of a psychological prop. I never even loaded the batteries.” I laughed at my own ruse. She’d sent the noise-reduction headphones years before, when I complained that a household construction project interfered with my ability to think. They worked. Even without the batteries.
“Well, I don’t want to interrupt.” She pulled the door closed behind her.
Later, another knock on the door. “I’m sorry, Lisa. Do you have any raisins?”
“I don’t like your bread so I’m making scones and I wanted to put raisins in them. I remember how you liked them.” There was flour on the front of her sweater, as if she’d pressed her hands to her chest. “I found this one bag,” she held up the oversized red pouch. “Do you know if you have any more?”
More? The bag was from Costco. And it was practically bulging with raisins.
“No,” I said, turning my back to her. She retreated and I tried, tried to concentrate. No. It was not happening. I saved my work to the external drive and went downstairs.
My mother stood at the kitchen counter, elbow deep in dough. When she saw me, she smiled so brightly I almost flinched.
“I’m making muffins,” she said, shaping a ball of dough and dropping it on the cookie sheet.
I reached for the coffee pot, but it was empty. “Oh, sorry,” she said over her shoulder. “I didn’t realize you wanted more. I washed the pot. I used steel wool because it was stained at the bottom. Now it’s like new!”
I sat at the table and watched her. She looked like a kindergartener playing with sand at the beach.
“What happened to the scones?” I asked, not really caring. I shook out the newspaper and began to scan the headlines.
“I didn’t like your raisins,” she said, plopping another blob of dough on the pan.
I looked up. “You didn’t like my raisins? How can you dislike raisins?”
She clapped her hands, snapping off the excess flour and bits of dough. “They were expired.”
She slid the pan into the oven and set the timer.
“Yes, they expire. I checked the expiration date,” she said. “So. We’ll have muffins instead.”
I watched her, bustling, busy, cleaning. I knew that she didn’t want to be here, she didn’t want to intrude on my life. But this is where we were. I remembered what she said recently when talking about my father’s illness and the sad progression of the disease. She said: “this is part of life too.” She sat with me and we waited, the two of us, together, for the buzzer on the oven to ring.
I had a tense disagreement recently with a cousin who disapproved of my unsentimental disinterest in material possessions. “Don’t you CARE?” She was insulted! I had just spent a week cleaning out my childhood home. We exhausted two dumpsters and three industrial wheels of trash bags – and this was AFTER we donated most everything of usable value. Our meaningful collectibles fit easily into the back of my sister’s car.
When I returned to my own home, I considered my own stuff that had amassed over the last twenty-plus years: I have a soup tureen in my basement - a wedding gift I think. I have the black-tie maternity dress I wore to my sister’s wedding in 1988. I have all the Halloween costumes my children wore, a guitar that belonged to my grandfather, golf clubs that were my father’s. What am I saving these for?
“Your things define you,” my cousin said, adding: “When I’m gone my kids will find comfort in the things I’ve collected, things that meant something to me.” I completely disagree. Once again, Jane Brody says it best. Here, she hits two of my favs: getting rid of stuff and taking vacation from the 24/7 internet umbilicus. Enjoy.
I’m starting with a new creative writing class today. As always, I wonder how to inspire them, how to excite them.
A phrase lurks in my mind: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Dr. Sanjay Gupta said those very words at the U of Michigan graduation ceremony this past Saturday. It’s easy to say, “don’t be afraid.” It’s decidedly harder to do.
An article in the Sunday NY Times has given me a great opener for my new class.
It’s about failure and gaming (yes, I know, in direct conflict with my Words With Friends position). “I’m a gamer. I’m used to failing,” Jane McGonigal said at the end of the article.
Failure in gaming is common; it is expected and anticipated. It taunts, challenges. Failure is not embarrassing. In fact it inspires renewed determination and vigor. Now there’s a lesson!
I got pulled over.
I waited on the shoulder as the State Trooper assembled himself. I saw him in my rearview mirror. He adjusted his tie and his collar, stretched his neck and then fastened on his monster hat. He came to my window and began babbling: something about “traveling 76 in a 55…” He had pimples all over his bristly chin. He looked sixteen. “I’ve never had a moving violation before,” I started.
That was not specifically true. 26 years ago I was looking at event spaces with my mother, planning my wedding.
At one intersection - and in a bit of a hurry - I rode on the shoulder in advance of the proper turning lane. Lights flashed almost immediately. As the officer approached the car, my mother punched my arm. “Cry,” she said. She was serious! I didn’t cry, and I ended up paying a huge fine.
This time, I received only a warning. The Trooper even waved at me as I sped away.
Many years ago I was a both a part time sailing instructor and a full time crew member on the Vice President’s plane. One day, I was giving tours of the plane to airport personnel during a 5-hour stop in Miami, FL.
After finishing up the last tour, one of the escort vehicle drivers told me he had to drive around the airport to perform a security check. I asked if I could join him as I had nothing else to do for a few hours and am an avid aviation buff. During the drive he asked me what I did when I wasn’t flying with the VP. I told him I instructed new radio operators (my crew position) but on the weekends I taught sailing.
He said he had a sailboat and a power boat. I said that was odd, since most people had one or the other. He said “I look at it this way, if I need to go somewhere I take the power boat, but when I get on the sailboat I’m already there!” I’ve never heard it explained better than that!
- Mike Nelson