Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Devoted

I have been away, looking at colleges in another state with my girl. It was a productive trip in that she saw one school she liked a lot that she had never even considered—we only visited it because it was in the general area of the other two we planned to see—and two schools that she agreed were perfectly "nice" with very beautiful campuses and buildings and facilities, but they helped her understand very clearly that she didn't want to go to school "in the middle of nowhere," there had to be a fairly bustling town with coffee shops and cafes and funky little shops attached.

And she's begun to contemplate other aspects of the college equation, too. In church this morning for Easter service, she kept noticing the little kids, which she always does, because she is very gentle and natural with little kids, they delight her, and there was one boy in particular who kept squirming and mouthing to his mother, "I'm bored, I'm bored," and he looked like he could barely remain inside his skin, he was so eager for the service to be done, and my daughter kept laughing under her breath because she thought he was so adorable.

Walking home, she said, "You know, maybe I am a kindergarten teacher." And then after a few more steps, she said, "Or maybe a child psychologist." And as we rounded the corner to our block she said, "Hmm, a child psychologist. Maybe I should look into that some more." We just nodded and listened and made assenting noises and her dad made a joke about nuts making good shrinks and we asked a question or two very casually, because really, she was having a conversation with herself and we just happened to be there which allowed her to have it out loud. Who knows what she will do with her life? Who knows what path will beckon her ultimately? We met an admissions officer at the college she liked and he told her, "Remember, you don't need to know what you want to do yet, you just need to know what you're passionate about." I think she is lining up her passions.

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My husband did the altar arrangements for church today, as he always does on Easter, in honor of his mom who loved Easter services and often did the flowers for her church when she was alive. It was something they shared, as he would often assist her. His mom used to teach classes on the subject when he was in teens. Flowers were her art, her creative passion, her divine gift, and so my husband honors her by doing the flowers on this day. They were beautiful triangle arrangements of white roses and greenery that graced the front of the church. And every time I looked at them, I could feel how much he was trying to say, how much he misses his mother, how even now he wants to make her happy and proud. He doesn't talk about it. It's not his way. But now, on the morning before Easter Sunday he rises before dawn and heads down to the flower district to pick out his blooms. And he quietly and patiently creates the altar arrangements, holding his mother in his heart, wordlessly expressing his love.

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When my mom is in New York, she and my husband go to church every Sunday together, my husband holding my mother's elbow so she doesn't fall as she pushes her rolling walker into the church and takes a seat in the pew. I prefer to wake up slow and putter in the Sunday morning stillness of my house. Lapsed churchgoer that I am, I am still always so moved me to see my husband and my mother all suited up and leaving together for services on Sunday morning. They are partners in faith, both devoted to that little Episcopal church across the street from the police precinct. They are part of its band of activist worshippers who march for worthy social causes and the inclusion of all God's children and welcome everyone into its pews. My husband likes to say it's a little church but it casts a big shadow. At church, they think he is my mother's son. My mother doesn't correct them. She loves him so.

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At the beginning of the service this morning, a church regular I had not seen in a while (because I hadn't been to church in a while) walked in pushing her rolling walker. I was stunned and saddened to see how much she had aged, how frail and stooped she'd become. For some reason, seeing her brought home to me how aged my mother and all my aunts are, how any one of them could go at any time, and there are six wrenching services ahead of me. Silently, I promised myself to be there for every one, no matter what, no matter when, because these six women, my mother and my five aunts, have been my life's example of devotion and selflessness and a love so deep I can't even convey it properly. They have loved each other through everything, and now they are all declining, physically growing smaller before our eyes, battling cancer and tired hearts and leached bones and limbs that refuse to follow their commands. Their humor is as fertile as ever, but their bodies are wearing out. 

Lately, the sisters have been journeying to New York to see their oldest sister. Last week, the middle sister Maisy came from Virginia on her off-week from chemo. This week Aunt Grace, at 84, made the trip from Toronto to spend a few days with her sister. They have heard how diminished she is, and they can no longer hold conversations with her on the phone, so they have to come in person and look into her eyes. We all ate a meal together at Aunt Winnie's home this afternoon, with yet another sister, 82-year-old Fay, arriving from New Jersey with her family and her oxygen tank to join the gathering.

Aunt Grace told me that she and Aunt Winnie were both awake at 4 this morning, and that Aunt Winnie was trying to tell her what to do about her funeral arrangements. "She is so used to being in charge," Aunt Grace chuckled (the sisters don't do maudlin). "She's afraid we won't know what to do. I told her not to worry, we'd blunder through." Then Aunt Grace told me that Aunt Winnie's face crumpled and she said, "I can't even move my  body. I've stayed too long. I'd rather die than live like this."

The cousins worry that as soon as one of the sisters goes, all the rest will follow like dominoes. It's as if they are joined by an invisible thread, a force of devotion that we took for granted when we were younger. But now we know better. Now we understand that theirs is a love so fierce that not many get to witness its kind up close. It has a tensile strength that will outlast us all. And that's what Aunt Grace told Aunt Winnie in a way. She said, "The body dies, my love, but the soul goes on, so you won't be rid of me ever." At that, Aunt Winnie 's face fell open and she laughed. 


10 comments:

  1. I love the way you cherish and nurture and observe and adore your family, young and old. And you don't know how much sharing the details of your aunts' and mothers' aging HELPS me, it really does, so much.

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  2. beautifully written post. i love that your daughter is thinking of all the wonderful things she can become. the world is her oyster; she will conquer it.

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  3. I read this and all the while I was thinking of this post
    http://www.gradydoctor.com/2011/04/something-for-everybody.html
    and how your family embodies that message.
    Bless you, Angella and please know that you always make my heart sing, you always make me recognize something I didn't know I knew.

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  4. I love how you weave the stories of your immediate family with your extended family -- so beautiful and moving. The image of the sisters, falling like dominoes, is an amazing one -- we are so conditioned to hearing this about spouses, that it was startling to read it about a bevy of women --

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  5. What I can only describe as a feeling of completeness fills me as I read about your mother and her sisters. They embody a specific image of wholeness that I don't know up close. What a gift you have in them and the gift is magnified by the grace with which you speak of them, of all your family. I hope it was a beautiful Easter. xo

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  6. Your aunts are beautiful women. They remind me of my grandmother who just turned 96! She misses her sibblings, mostly her older brothers who died in the concentration camps.
    I love how you talk about them, the respect, the love. You are such a great soul.
    And your daughter, whatever path she chooses, she knows that you and your husband will not only guide her, but respect her choices. It's priceless. And lastly. Your husband is a gem. Reading you always soothes my soul.

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  7. You shared such dear stories of your family with us today. Heart warming. The image of your husband rising before dawn to go to the flower market and making the flower arrangements for Easter as a way to honor his mother -- now that is a strong, sure man! x0 N2

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  8. I read your post and the one before it yesterday, and was filled with such a warm, loving feeling, and I was unable to put any of it into words. I still can't, except to say your words and your family are a marvel, and to thank you for sharing them with us.

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  9. I am filled with gratitude for every one of you here. thank you.

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