As I laid next to Marc in the hospital bed, I traced the column of his neck, his chin. I curled my hand around his shoulder and lingered there. I leaned closer, breathed in. My Marc was still there. I wanted to remember everything about him and file it deep inside for retrieval at a moment’s notice.
His four brothers entered, two by two. Unexpected but a welcome site. They gathered around the bed, talked to Marc as the ballgame drew attention away from the reality of the situation. Someone joked about how people say family was gathered bedside at the exact moment their loved one took their last breath. What were the odds of that happening?
Marc was listening.
The timing between his breaths lengthened. Each brother touched a part of Marc. Ankle, foot, arm. It didn’t matter. We were all connected to the man we loved. Silence was broken by loving thoughts, muttered sounds, a sniffle. The nurse was called. She turned on the monitor above and behind me. No sound. I glanced at the continuous line rising with his intermittent heartbeat. Marc gasped and the nurse pumped in extra morphine.
“Go see Doris. It’s okay to sit at her table. You know the one in the townhouse. Talk about what’s in the paper. I’ll see you soon.”
I leaned in and whispered in his ear. Something I’ll keep private. Was that a tear in his eye?
Marc, a man who didn’t like the spotlight, who often deferred to others, who would rather listen than lead a meeting. Marc, my man, orchestrated his last moments, giving us the perfect gift; to be part of the exact moment he was ushered from this world.
Moments after he passed, a swirl of something brilliant left his body. The force in which it corkscrewed skyward happened in a blink. I glanced back at the bed. My Marc was no longer there. Just a body. I don’t recall if I looked up or just saw behind my eyes a pleasing vision: Marc in his blue suit, a hand in his pocket, smiling as he chatted with another man.
Three months ago today Marc passed. I’m changing because I have no choice. My whole world is different, unfamiliar and scary at times. I remember him daily. I remember us. Marc made me a better person. And forever I will be grateful.
I had curled up beside him in the bed. His body still, his mouth gaping. An absence of anything fresh, anything home or cozy surrounded us there on the narrow hospital bed in the dim room with no windows.
A TV hung from the corner of room. I watched the World Series, recapped a play, as much as I could, and tried to make light of the situation. We were partners deeply entangled in love, clinging to hope that something miraculous would happen. But we both knew I would live on, leave this place. Time was cruel and yet yielding, allowing us more moments.
They say hearing is the last to go. He was listening. I was sure of it, so I rambled on about the game, laughed. Did he know he was dying? I cried silently.
Then he skipped a breath. I touched his arm. Gentler than the jabs I needled him with in the middle of the night when his nasally foghorn snores woke me. Finally he breathed. I breathed. I kept reminding him to breathe. At some point I realized I didn’t need to.
He was on hospice. No life saving devices. No sustenance.
What happened then was beautiful. No, his life was not spared but God stepped in an orchestrated the perfect end to my sweet Marco’s life.
Or maybe it’s a brooch from grandma, a cap gramps wore that summer he caught the salmon in Alaska. Sadly, the memorabilia often ends up in a drawer or tucked away in a closet. The next time we happen into said drawer, we pause, trace a finger over torn edges, missing stones. Tears stain our cheeks. Then, whack. The drawer shuts, present day returns.
This scenario is often true.
My children didn’t get to meet my mother. Oh, there’re pictures. But, what child is interested in faded photos of a stranger?
I CREATED AN ACTIVE MEMORY.
A deliberate attempt to insert my mother into my children’s life. I keyed on my own childhood memories. When sick or melancholy, my mother made buttered toast, cut lengthwise. Originally, the toast strips served as dipping sticks for soft-boiled eggs. Somewhere along the line they morphed into a catch all comfort food.
WITH MY MOTHER IN MIND I NAMED THE TREAT LOIS TOAST. LOIS LIVES ON IN HER GRANDCHILDREN’S LIVES.
In a world that urges us to move on, I say we pause, reflect and remember the important people who shaped our lives and allow special memories to enter our busy lives. By creating active memories, we breathe life into something good, something forgotten.
Here are a few ideas:
Upcycle old jewelry (or a host of other memorabilia), into modern bling. The site Mili, offers workshops and examples of amazing transformations.
Reimagine a photograph into a puzzle.
Hire an artist to design a comic strip of grandpa’s favorite one liners. My father, Ken, had a slew of odd conversation starters like “When you getting your hair cut?”
Change the game pieces of your favorite games to beloved relatives by using their face or name. Think Clue, Monopoly, Life.
Purchase a special bowl to serve or bake a passed down recipe in. Whipping up the recipe with a family member creates conversation, opportunities to share memories.
You’ve seen a park bench dedicated to a special someone. Rename a piece of your own furniture, car, bike or surfboard.
I’m sure your mind in buzzing with ideas of your own. Active memories live on. Now excuse me while I make myself Lois Toast and a cup of tea.
A few weeks back, me and my four gal pals trekked to Park City. Our time together goes something like this:
Pajamas until noon
One mega feast – our version of charcuterie
We’ve known each other a gazillion years. Our secrets are out. Make-up goes by the wayside. Laughs abound, along with a cry or two. I drink in every moment with these girls. I’m grateful for what we have. And the bond we share.
Something new happened this trip — we bowled.
I can hear you saying…so what.
Insight, I realized, isn’t always exposed in brilliant moments, rather kooky flashes when you least expect it.
Here’s what I gleaned from our bowling foray:
It doesn’t matter how you throw the ball down the lane. Takeaway: The well-treaded path is not always your path.Do you, regardless of who’s watching. In bowling and in life.
A rather slim gal in our posse appears frail at times. At least to me. Until she picked up her bowling ball and flung it down the alley. Strike! Take away: Strength is within and often hidden. Show others, verses tell them. And use it wisely. Especially when bowling.
The birthday girl throws a mean ball. The best bowler, in fact. A serious glower appears on her face above the ball, poised high as she surveys the pins. This is a new side of her I’m seeing. Owning the alley, fearless and focused. Take away: Be open to surprises. Even our closest friends have hidden gifts waiting to be exposed.
Fun often needs a helping hand. I’m lucky. Five friends tossed in the drink and combustion occurs. Voila: shenanigans ensue. On the next lane over, a crowd amassed. The lights dimmed. Music swirled the lanes and pins splintered. High fives showered from both parties. I realize this fun equation is a gift the five of us have mastered. Still we’ve learned to share it. Take away: hoarding fun is selfish. Brighten someone else’s day.
I’ll admit we threw a few gutter balls, a fair amount of splits. But I doubt anyone remembers. Only the laughs. And of course, the Fireball.
A lucky handful of women my age still have their mothers.
At twenty-two I lost mine. And I didn’t truly miss her until years later.
Moments ago, that admission fell out of my head onto the paper. Kerplunk. My stomach aches and I’m embarrassed.
Numerous times I’ve asked myself, why it took so long to miss her?
The answer circles my thoughts, hidden amongst the shiny distractions. Shadows are sometimes hard to see. Forgotten places where self-loathing hides.
Picture a self-focused, immature girl. That was me.
I wouldn’t say I didn’t care about my mom’s battle with cancer. More a fear of standing to close and witnessing her diminished frame, weak eyes saying something I couldn’t’ bare to see. She was dying. Yet my thoughts lingered on how this affected me. Would my eyes reveal the horrible possibilities jumbled in my mind? What if she doesn’t make it? What if I’m left alone?
What if anxiety consumes me and I puddle on the floor?
Fears holds people at arm’s length. Unsaid words settle between us, widening the distance. Oh, how I wish I would have held her hand. Asked about the big C. Said I’m sorry.
Many times, I sputtered past her house, a lookie-loo, afraid to venture inside. Sharp stones ripped at my belly. I couldn’t suck in enough air. Only when I motored away, a good block or two, the pain subsided.
One sunny day, a temperate breeze lifted my spirits. I pulled up my big girl panties, found a brave face and sat beside her on the couch. I rubbed her legs. Pain pooled in the creamy hallows around her eyes. For a time, her mouth gaped, absent of words. Then she smiled. A faint wobbly smile, slow to hold, as if the mere act took effort.
It was the best day ever.
The day I chose to remember.
If I could go backward, I would demand a do-over. But the truth is I did my best; or at least the 1983 version of my best.
My watercolor adventures produced a fair amount of failed paintings. Notably lopsided buildings, pale colors, awkward brush strokes and poorly placed objects.
After rinsing my brushes and stowing my pallet, I darted to my laptop filled with insight and inspiration. Here are my take-aways.
Use the whole canvas
New ideas for our W.I.P. flash brightly and serve as excellent high-level concepts. But that alone doesn’t make an 80,000-word manuscript. White space awaits character development, exposition, sub-plots, snappy dialog. And the beloved hills and valleys (the wild ride, I like to say.)
In painting, I imagine Van Gogh’s swirly clouds as the precipice for The Starry Night. Alone they are breathtaking. Add the arch of stars and moon framing the sky. Next the quiet city tucked against the mountain ridge. Paint a tree or two in the foreground to show depth. All built around the infamous swirly clouds.
Take away: Flesh out your bright idea. This takes time and hard work. Map out your plot, sub plots. At least determine the beginning, middle and end. The site How to Write A Novel provides popular techniques to do this. And don’t forget the wild ride.
No character should appear ink black or alabaster white. In painting you can create infinite shades of red. Contrasting or harmonizing colors deepens the sub context, creates emotion on the canvas. In writing your characters must jump off the page, believable and intriguing. When your characters speak, show their inner array of colors. Characters are meant to collide (conflict) and snuggle up to each other like blue and blue green sitting cozy on the color wheel.
Take away: People watch and take notes. Give your characters flaws, and visual interest discerning them from the average Joe. Create characters with desires and demons. Often writers pattern their protagonist after an actor or person they know. Give them cracks and unearth a unique character.
Flat color on the canvas shows the painter’s inexperience. It takes time to learn to create shadows, light the fall leaves with the last drop of summer, or paint a ripe apple so real you could pluck it off the canvas. In writing your characters and scenes fall flat without sound, taste, touch and sight. Breathing life onto the pages doesn’t happen on your first draft. Focus on writing your story, then color the pages.
Take away: Expose the underbelly of a character. Show sorrow that aches bones. Color your pros with strong verbs and paint emotion. Take readers down an unexpected road. Don’t button up the storyline so tight it becomes unbelievable. Let it breathe. Leave readers craving more story on the next page.
View the masterpiece
Most paintings are best viewed from afar. Lines, shapes and color meld into one that the eye might miss in a close-up view.
Writing a book is like viewing a painting up close. Once you have created your masterpiece, tuck it away for a month. Clear your thoughts. Maybe take up painting. When you return to your story, I promise light will shine in areas you missed first go around.
Take away: After a month or more, print your manuscript. Slip into your favorite chair and read with new eyes. Soak up your story line by line. Let other writers or professional readers view the manuscript. Be open to criticism and consider edits. You’re almost done. Bravo!
Sometimes doubt looms above my laptop, shadowing my 12pt. font. Words scatter, no longer making sense. Fingers linger on the keyboard and I slump from the weight of it all.
A bad writing day stunts my writing life, which up until now includes three long ago romances, one promising (at least I think so) women’s fiction. And a sparkly new novel which of course is fantastic.
On those cloudy days, I admit, I sometimes retreat.
More often I fight.
Nosedive into a book that inspires. Read a chapter. Laugh or cry at the pros. Allow the words to seep into my writing soul.
Change my geography. Ditch the office for a beloved niche. Challenge that cloud to find me. Ha!
Reboot the brain. Do anything besides checking emails. A warm up on my tea sounds about right. Did I let the dogs outside? Forcing our thoughts elsewhere gives rest to my fighting spirit bruised by my inner Doubting Debbie.
Shift to another creative process. Admire art on the wall. Grab a pencil and sketch the sunlit tree outside my window. It’s my theory of milk and cookies: eat cookies and you crave milk, only to desire another cookie and so on.
Biting into another artistic endeavor will steer you back to writing.
If the darn cloud prevails, open an umbrella. The sword, they say is mightier than the pen. I’ve found brandishing the pointy tip of an umbrella punctures my cloud.
All imaginary of course. But isn’t’ that what writers do best?
It’s difficult to dismiss a life-long dream. It dwells in our bones. It laps against our feet , awakening our toes like frigid sea water. It infiltrates our DNA, becoming apart of us.
How then, I ask, do you wash it away?
You’ve heard of a drug addict who gives up cocaine and turns to alcohol. Or the gambler who leaves the tables and takes up chain-smoking. We trade one passion for another. Even the healthy passions. We can not deny something that makes our soul sing. We can not deny the soul, no more than denying the body. Food, regardless of its form keeps us alive, waking up tomorrow morning and the next.
I consider myself lucky to have found my passion. Without proper water and feeding, I’ve discovered it gets hangry, restless and eventually wilts, no different from a flower. Sometimes when life gets in the way, I water it just enough to get by. But to intentionally stifle it?
We’re designed to enjoy life, not plod through a daily list to check off. For some passion simmers. Short bursts of brilliance bubble to the surface. Others require a surrogate with their own brilliant ideas (think Pinterest). Inside me glows a neon sign and I haven’t found the switch to turn it off. And I hope I never do.
Disappointment is bulky. Sometimes with rough edges.
If the big ‘D’ proved easy, we would stuff it inside an easy-to-carry duffel bag. Maybe even a purse. Instead, the weighty load requires a backpack cinched tight around our middle. The shoulder straps dig into our skin and press down. Sitting, shrugging off the drudgery, isn’t easily accomplished.
Disappointment requires a response.
Saying, “Yes, I know you’re there,stuck to my back, depressing the hell out of me,” isn’t sufficient. Disappointment is chatty. She won’t relent until you give her what she wants.
Foremost, she demands we carry the burden for a time. Much like treading around the house in new shoes. At first, they pinch toes, rub against tender skin. Only walking stretches the inner structure of the shoe.
I’d like to think, at my age, I’m all stretched out. Or, maybe I’m not up for the exercise. Like a shadow, my disappointment has followed me everywhere this week. I’ve walked miles while she whispers in my ears. Much of what she says, I don’t want to hear. She even pokes me in the gut until my stomach aches.
Finally, the other day she let me peek inside the backpack. On top I found a mirror. Everyday she asks me to look at myself. Some days, I discover something about me I didn’t know. Who knew? Well, I suppose she did.
To my surprise the backpack seems lighter today. And she’s tempered her chitchat. I smiled today. I suspect the big ‘D’ is shrinking.