My granddaughter is perfect in every way—clear satin skin, tendrils of delicate pale hair like find gold floss. Her smile is engaging and her teeth glimmer. And then suddenly she cries and wriggles from me and clings to really just her sadness. It’s like a motor she has turned on and as she continues to cry the motor warms up and takes over and she spins and spins in this circle of frustration. She’s 18 months. She has a slight fever and congestion and she doesn’t understand why she gets some comfort in the whirling dervish of tears and baby anger.
I get it.
I pick her up to comfort her, but the motor revs up even more. She just wants her mother, my daughter (29), or maybe a corner behind a door or a corner in her crib where she can howl, until exhausted she falls asleep. And when she wakes up, she might forget about her fever, have a blank page to mark on.
She will give it another go. She will smile and get up and play.
I’m getting older. So is the world. It’s all about numbers now. Here in Southern California the pages of the LA Times are splashed with numbers: stock market numbers; the see-saw price of a barrel of oil; 32,000 jobs lost in the first quarter of the year. And politics: on CNN, in the newspapers, on You Tube—all numbers. You can’t win if you don’t know the numbers.
I wrestle with mine. A significant number in my life: 1,681 miles from Iowa to California.
Sometimes I too want to crawl behind a door or get into my bed and blubber. But I don’t. The phone is ringing. Email and snail mail are piling up along with appointments and things called obligations. And there is always the question: what good does crying really do? I’m an adult.
My husband (62) has a chronic illness. He still works 11-hour days and sometimes forgets to take his medication. We are very much in love after all these years (38), but he gets crabby when I mention the medication. My oldest daughter (33), who lives in New England, just lost her job. My mother (92) lives in Chicago in an assisted-living facility, 5 hours from me. She has chosen this because her sister (96), my aunt, has dementia and lives at the same facility. I explain to (92) what dementia is and beg her over and over not to yell at (96) about forgetting things. I send (92) dementia information that I download from the Internet.
(92) has short-term memory loss. If I tell her to pray for (33) who has lost her job—she says certainly, yes. But when she wakes up the next day her most recent experience will be a blank page. (92) could hang out with my granddaughter. They’d be a pair.
It’s February when I visit my granddaughter. (62) is back home in Iowa buried in snow. He tells me of wind chill factors. He coughs into the phone. I should be back home, making him tea, cooking warm soups, and making sure he gets enough sleep. (62) works like a crazy person. He should retire.
So I tell myself every day—we will be fine.
And things will work out for our son (19), who aside from going to his college classes doesn’t really know what to do with his life. He tells me on a regular basis that he loves me, that we are joined at the hip. Then I can go on.
In the best of all worlds, (62) and I, right this minute, would sell our home with the 4 bedrooms, and move to a comfortable cabin on a warm sea. There we could hear birds calling, watch them endlessly soaring into clouds shredded by wind and falling light. Oh where is that place? Our children are scattered. We need to sit tight, wait to see how it works out for them, wait for (92), wait for (96)…
We must be poor planners. We must be like our granddaughter waking from her nap, forgetting to connect the dots. Why didn’t we sit down with those who are profoundly connected to us, those we love fiercely and say: now sit tight, wait to see what happens, don’t go too far—we might need you or you might need us; curtail your desires; be practical; only fall in love with things that are constant—like partners, careers, jobs, cars, even plumbing, electricity, and computers. Keep it steady, keep it even, keep it together.
(29) has a whitened scar on her beautiful wrinkleless forehead—it’s high up on the right side, the lingering sign of the skin exploding when her head hit the window in the car accident.
I was driving, driving my adult daughters on a weekend vacation. If I go there to remember it’s like PTSD. I start to shake and another explosion occurs, tears coming into my eyes. The crying thing.
I was driving and I am their mother. (33) concussed. The concussion left no damage. But now there’s the job loss. (29) needed plastic surgery. But it’s over now, both daughters are living their lives. (33) is smart, she’ll get a good job, no it will be a great job, better than the one she had. (29) pushes the hair off her forehead as she types on her MAC. I see the scar. She’s also super-smart. When she wakes each day to my granddaughter’s cries or soft jibber jabber, she is thinking about her thesis for her master’s degree and that she might be pregnant—she is not thinking about the scar.
The birds in Southern California soar, miles away from my house with the 4 bedrooms, 3 of them empty, but waiting. I pack my bag to go home to snow. (62) calls and we talk about how he will pick me up at the airport after his latest doctor visit. He says he is feeling good and tells me about his blood work, rattles off more numbers.
The cabin by the sun-drenched sea floats in my vision, warming my body and my mind. Sometimes I go there and cry, not a frenzied cry, not an out of control cry—just one to help me release. There has to be some good about this crying thing. I’ve read about stress-induced proteins in tears. Crying releases them. Pain goes away. For me it’s that blank page. When I stop crying it will be like I just woke from a nap, my recent experience transformed to a page that is mine to take hold of, to set sail on—no scars, nothing chronic, nothing dying or lost. I will give it another go. It’s called trust. It’s called living.
UPDATE: 96 died a few months after this was written; 92’s dementia is severe and she is now living in a complete care unit; 33 got a great job in the green movement, 29 has had two more amazing beautiful grandchildren—two boys, and 19 is about to graduate from college; husband 62 is now 65 and feeling good. We are both beginning to look for the cabin by the sea.
THANKS TO www.fabafterfifty.com for publishing this piece.