childhood

If I Have Time, Don’t You?

Memories of my grandmother..

Each year, unfailingly, we received a heftily substantial box of homemade cookies and treats around Christmastime.  My sisters and I scavenged ravenously for our favorites, most often your frosted sugar cookies that made a swift departure to our bellies.  Love in cookies.  Love absorbed by our bodies and satiating in your absence.

After Grandpa died you started spending winters with us.  Every morning at the crack of dawn at which you naturally (inhumanly) arose, you set the thermostat heat on high so we were all warm by the time we (humanly) awoke.  

You love the sun. I wonder if you remember us lying in the reclining chairs by the pool or in your backyard at your new condo here in California.  You would bake to a dark tan while I would burn to a bright red.  But that was not important.  Of importance was the time spent with you.  Time.  A commodity rarer than I could ever anticipate.

Christmastime again.  You formed the sugar cookie dough deftly and with secrecy.  None of us to this day know the exact intricacies and ratios of the flour and leavening you combined to create cookie magic.  A cookie magician.  Trees, angels, bells, reindeer.  All frosted in reds and greens and blues and whites.  What simplicity and innocence spiked with a little shortness, but we overlooked the thorns.  

We got you a dog to keep you company.  Elsea had a serious issue with barking that drove you to insanity, but you took one step further the day she ate your dentures.  We have forever joked about this famed event, even commemorating it with a Hallmark card portraying a dog with human teeth.

You started to hear music – Elvis, the Star-spangled Banner – things we could not hear.  At first we chalked it up to eccentricity and a little senility.  We took you to the doctor multiple times.  Mental status exams repeated, one after another.  You could never draw the clock, but you remembered “Obamack” as the President with little difficulty and marked distaste.  

Your driving worsened.  We became physically afraid to be in a car under your direction.  You left the stove on and forget details and events.  You stopped your activities of daily living – bathing, styling your once impeccable permed curls.  We had no choice.

I created the shadowbox hanging next to your room door at Sunrise Assisted Living as artistically and artfully as I could muster. I believed you deserved the best shadowbox on the floor, in the building for that matter.  The deep crimson duvet we bought for your bed paired well with the luscious green carpet running wall to wall.

I moved to Oregon a little while after your move into Sunrise.  My memories stop here.  I have heard stories of your decline from Daddy – hoarding, inattention to care of yourself, a move to another assisted living facility, misconceptions about our lives.  Stories.  I neglected to delve deeper.  

Last Wednesday, the teacher overseeing our memoir independent learning class graced our presence at our weekly meeting with several activities designed to stimulate our creative thought and writing capacities.  The activity I chose involved reading “All My Relations” by Linda Hogan.  I was enamored by her telling of how before and after collective prayer, the constituents gathered to pray would intone “all my relations.”  The repetitiousness of this utterance inspired me to write a short piece about my experience on Baha’i Pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel, using Allah’u’Abha as my refrain.  Our teacher also supplied stationary and cards upon which to write messages to people whom we loved or wished to thank, also conceptually spawned from the Hogan piece.  I had some time left in the hour and decided to write a card to my grandmother.  I have minuscule handwriting and attempted to write as largely as I could so that she could be sure to read it.  I knew enough to keep it simple with a loving update of how we all are in Oregon.  My teacher supplied a stamp, and I texted my father for her address in Los Angeles, letting him know I was sending her a card.  I received a heavier return text than anticipated.  As anticipated, her address was listed, although it was accompanied by a I do not think she will be able to read it, sweetie.

Tears began to flow copiously, and I tried to staunch the flow before my classmates noticed, albeit unsuccessfully.  I lost it.  I was bombarded by feelings of selfishness.  If I have time, does she not?  Can’t time stand still?  Aren’t we still baking in the sun like the cookies in our oven?  I have not seen her in five years, nor have I spoken to her more than a few times.  Life has encapsulated me, and I was ignorant not to ensure her concurrent encapsulation.  Time on this plane is linear.  How can I expect life to continue for me, but to freeze as a crystal in a cube for her?  Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease.  I fear I have missed my window to connect, to say goodbye before the disease speaks the words for me from my lips.  In the card, I promised to write and to visit this fall.  There is a possibility that I may find an empty, unmade bed, hoarded newspapers, and disarray in place of the tanning, baking curmudgeon I have known my entire life.  I pray to God our worlds collide at least once more.  Please do not leave this earthly plane before I have planted a kiss on your cheek, listened to your stories, and present you with my closest interpretation of your Christmas frosted sugar cookies.  Grant me this.  I promise to commit you to memory in memorial of the memories, the skills you loose each month, each week, each day.  If you remember one thing and only one thing, let it be this: You are loved.

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An Open Letter…

This is an open letter to my beloved sisters.  Love you both dearly..

Dear Hannah and Samantha,

Life is cruel and unfair, is it not?  You know this far better than many people I know.  And I know it is because of me that you know.  You went from playing with Animal and swimming in pools to spending nights alone while our parents visited me in hospitals and cared for me with the passion and intensity necessary, yet damaging to your little lives.  Bones grew and lengthened in a world foreign and ill equipped to offer the necessary calcium and minerals for healthy growth.  My illness has not only taken so much from me, but it has taken part of your world, your childhood, from you.  Unfortunately it continues to do so, and my heart breaks with every breath I stifle and every moment I sequester from the feeble existence I have created for you.  No words I write or utter can return a childhood, a happiness to you, but I shall try.  If at most you read them, my heart will be sufficed.

Hannah, thank you for the eight months you put your life on hold for my care.  For twice a week you made the approximately 55-60 mile trek to Kaiser Sunnyside to take me for electroconvulsive therapy treatments.  We left often before six o’clock A.M. in darkness and fog, and while I often slept for the duration of the car ride, you were forced to remain alert and diligent.  You would then wait in the car in the parking lot for over five or six hours as I received treatment, and then you would drive over an hour to take me home.  This was your life.  My life was your life, and it still is.  You drive me to all doctors’ appointments and pick me from the train station at every beck and call.  You are even relegated to take me to get haircuts.  Our lives have become so enmeshed, and in this enmeshment you have lost your identity while retaining mine.  I must work to cut the tethers, allow you to live once again.  I promise you that I will try to do this, as it is pinnacle for your survival.  I pray, please find your way.  Go to school, work, anything of the sort, but be happy.  I want nothing more than to see you happy.

Samantha, you would not remember this, but when you were still very young – maybe seven years old – you hugged me when I was in a moment of anxiety and rage.  We now do not talk very often, and my illness distances us.  You suffer, too, ravaged by depression and anxiety.  I wish there were something that could bring us together, to hug one another in times of down and times of anxiety.  I am so proud of you for moving on with your life – attending college, living on your own, going on dates – and if the best that our relationship can sustain to be is distance at this point, I, as I do for Hannah, want you to be happy.  Hopefully someday we can mend our wounds, close the distance and reconcile, but your happiness is what I treasure in my heart.  I send my love and apologies for the hell you had to live through, and I know not yet whether these wishes have permeated the barrier of your heart, but I will continue to try.  I will not give up.  For neither you or Hannah.

You have always lived in my shadow – my good grades, excellence in music and other extracurriculars.  Teachers would often refer to you as “Alex’s sister.”  How painful it must be to have an identity defined by someone else’s shadow, not to be one’s own person.  While I did not choose this position, I certainly filled it.  Please know that you are so special and unique, probably far more so than I.  I beg of you, laugh, smile, and move on in your lives.  Claim what is due to you, what you deserve.  I will sit here quietly and wait for our connections to tie once again, but most of all, I would like to say I love you.

Love,

Alex

Fractures

Colors.  Our sun bleached blond and red hair messily restrained in lycra swim caps, goggles tight across our faces.  We take turns as the leader calling out red, orange, yellow, green blue, white, pink… as the other two of us swim as stealthily as we can muster across the deep end of the pool.  Red, orange, yellow… I splash as I attempt to make it to the other wall untouched, but I feel a tug on my leg and know I have failed.  We all laugh and begin again, playing for hours on end, burning to a crisp in the hot Southern Californian sun.  The concerns of life were simpler, punctuated by swims and games of Sailor Moon in the small orchard alongside the house.  What would we not give to return.

Wildfires were burning up Southern California.  Ash was raining and smoke hovering.  As my world burned, I retreated within, further falling into a zombie-like trance.  I went through the motions with little knowledge of my doing so.  It was another nondescript day at high school, and I wandered from class to class.  Once again I had slept too much and not completed my assignments; I was starting to see no way out of this.  My lack of functioning plummeted me further into the depression, igniting a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.  The world was ashen black, and the narrative music had ceased.  My Bach and Beethoven transformed into sinister voices speaking about death, urging, encouraging.

It was lunchtime, and I sat in zombie trance as I heard over the loud speaker a secretary beckoning me to the front office.  I was too tired to question or ponder this occurrence and trudged in a slow shuffle to the office.  My mother was there, waiting to pick me up, and again, unquestioning, I obliged to her offer.  Once in the car, she explained that she and Dr. Azad conversed, and I was going to spend some time in the hospital.  In my state of emotional indifference, all I could offer was an “okay,”  I imagined a hospital room with machines and a bed – a bed I could sleep and sleep and sleep in, endlessly.  Little did I know that it could not be further from the case.  I was to imminently enter a little prison that would sequester me for the next five weeks.

We arrived at the University of California, Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute Adolescent Psychiatry Ward, or 2-South, as I would come to know it.  A psychologist completed an intake and mental status assessment.  I was quiet and confused, but compliant.  My naivete was a sedative drug, overriding all brain function and nervous system response, for had I known the domain I was to enter, storm clouds would have rained torrentially.  The naivete was a protective factor, stemming from my interminable internment in a vortex of a tornado untruthful and unforgiving.  So yes, I complied, with what composure could be mustered.

The five of us sat in the Suburban, father driving and mother in the front seat, sisters and I in the back with the dogs.  The windows were all down, the air rushing and blowing in, twisting and turning loose strands of hair, coaxing the laughter from our throats and carrying away with it the happiness gently oozing from our depleting stores.  We drove through the streets of Westlake Village, and as we did so, we honked at strangers on the street, waving enthusiastically in the ruse that we were acquaintances or knew each other well.  Some strangers waved back in confused embarrassment from an apparent amnesia, while others stared blankly in confusion.  To us, it was hilarious, a wonderful warm afternoon pastime.  

Every evening, twice daily on weekends, my mother made the drive to UCLA to visit me for five weeks, and continued to do so for the following five hospitalizations.  As we played cards in the dining room on a plasticized wooden table, two sisters sat at home in the care of my father, who himself was distant, existing in a world that was slowly deviating from our collective.  In fact, we were all shifting into and out of different collectives.  Fractures forming.  We played gin rummy every night, the only rope that could draw me out of catatonia.  Two sisters, hours without their mother in the prime of their childhood.  My father was no longer allowed to visit.  I could not tolerate his presence.  Fractures.  My illness tore through the burlap of our family fabric with the ease and adeptness of a razor shaving hair.  First the tibias and fibulas broke.  Then, as time progressed, the femurs, the metacarpals, the bones necessary for the cohesiveness and function of the family.  A mother’s sacrifice twofold.  An ailing child in the hospital and shrinking children at home in the loss of a childhood, a forced maturity.  Loss, on all accounts.

Every Sunday, my sister would don her Cleveland Browns jersey and watch the Browns football game with my father.  Two peas in a pod, one large, another growing, nesting in their pod as they cheered each touch down, groaned at every fumble.  She was still young, bleach blond hair not yet turned brown, swimming in her jersey, swimming in the camaraderie and happiness, the naivete still nursed to her from the bosom of childhood innocence.  She was deserving, and when the milk ran dry, roads diverged, carrying her youthful body far from the familiar into terrain rough and rugged.  Thirsty, she was, perpetually thirsty.

Not long after I was discharged from my fifth hospitalization, my aunt committed suicide.  My mother and I went back to Ohio to attempt to piece together the remnants of my aunt’s abandoned life – clean her house, organize for donations, and plan a funeral.  The fractures of my mother’s family thrusted to the forefront as many came to converge upon the death of my aunt.  Fracture upon fracture does not hold in firmness and promise a structure capable of supporting a family ailing in many avenues. Following our days in Ohio we returned to California in time for another seismic shift and fracture in the walls of a house precariously resting upon the San Andreas Fault.  My father was leaving the marriage, dissecting the family lines.  A cut through the flesh with a sharp blade.  The casualties?  Two sisters shadowed by an illness and a broken marriage.  Our feet bled as we walked upon the shattered china littering the kitchen floor.

Their sister was thrusted to the forefront, ill and hospitalized, discharged only to return a day later, a week later.  The two sisters metamorphosed in the aftermath of an illness, the melting and drying wax of their dwindling candles slowly molding and melding to the life and care of their older sister.  Years pass, school absences abound.  Depression ensues, anger bubbles from fresh wounds.  Fractures ever more apparent.  One sister spends nearly three quarters of her year driving her sister to electroconvulsive therapy treatments, a sucking, a sequestration of nine months of her life.  No, not her life.  She struggles to exist in the wake of the aftermath of the seismic shifts, her life an entity separate from that of her sister, of the illness.  Enmeshment and inseparability are words served cold with dinner each night.  

A mother plays doctor, suturing lacerations and bandaging wounds, attempting to tie again what has been untied, to meld together what has been fractured.  Such pressure, this role.  Unfair.  Caught between the worlds, the collectives divided by illness and seismic shifts.  Of pinnacle importance?  The knowledge that the body seeks self preservation and perpetuation.  Fractures heal.  Fractures once apparent connect and dissolve.  There exists a remaining faint scar, a reminder that life is messy and that our ills and struggles will crack what we hold to be impervious.

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Hi readers, I want to shake things up a bit and post vignettes and random commentary from my life in addition to the style I have established over the last few months. It’s time to throw some different ingredients in the blender and bake another cake. Hopefully you may be appreciative. Thank you for your reads and your support thus far. Here goes.

 

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Peanut butter and jelly. On white bread. The quintessential sandwich of childhood, memories built around baked bread with bleached flour, ground-up peanuts seasoned to taste, and a pomade of preserved fruit. Simple, yet profound, in its existence, a component of childhood often overlooked in a cacophony of recollections of soccer games and ballet recitals. However it is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that forms one of my earliest memories of childhood – feelings of loneliness and despondency and the bonds of friendship.

I was about six years old, nearly seven, residing in a suburb of Los Angeles. Our family had just trekked across the United States in a blue minivan from the state of New Hampshire. I had two sisters in tow, both younger, one an infant and the other preschool age. I was beginning first grade. It was my first day of school, and my mother had dutifully packed my lunch. It was simple. I am not quite sure what exactly it was composed of, but I know of a certainty there was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread.

When it came to lunch time, I made my way to the outdoor quad that served as what I like to call the lunch arena. The day was warm and sunny, as it commonly is in Southern California, and students of all grades flocked toward one another and formed their cliques and lunch buddy clubs. I took a seat on the concrete towards the side of the quad, not in the action, but not necessarily detached. I took out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, and amidst the first few bites, I began to cry. Tears of loneliness, tears of despondency. I was alone. Devoid of any company, and it stung. One of the lunch aids came over, addressed the situation, and treated me in a brash manner. Had she never encountered a student, experiencing the fear and timidness associated with beginning life at a new school and being friendless in a big pond?

Apparently following lunch, word made its way to my teacher about the incident in the quad, and she took matters into her own hands. See, my elementary school had this program where students received lottery tickets for commendable work or behavior performed, and the more accumulated, the better the recognition and awards. My teacher stealthily manipulated this system to find a set of friends for me. She selected three of the young girls from the class and awarded them lottery tickets should they befriend me and show me the ropes, so to speak, of surviving and thriving at the elementary school. Our friendship spanned far past the first grade and into high school, where we parted ways, as many relationships have the potential to go.

Finding friends can be both the easiest and most difficult task in life, and also one of the most rewarding. Every time I spread some Jif Peanut Butter and Strawberry Smuckers Jam on wheat – not white – bread, I cannot help but recall how this very sandwich opened up a world of opportunities for me in a new school, a new town, and a new community where I could grow, develop, and thrive.