Gotcha Day

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I am so busy writing grants my head spins right now.  I’m way behind on most of the things that matter to me.  The day I have to turn in the biggest, most high-stakes grant we’ve ever applied for is María’s “Gotcha Day”.  Out walking tonight, I thought about that.  Then I got to thinking about her name and something I wrote a long time ago.  It is good that I will be busy all these days leading up to that day, now that I also know only too much about the day you have to let go.  What I wrote all those years ago still stands.

My mom wasn’t given a choice.  Her mother informed her that her first-born son would be Hans Knut, in honor of his grandfathers.  When I was born it was likewise:  Rosa Vera, even if my mom had hoped she could call me Caroline pronounced in the Swedish way, the rolling r, the emphasis on the last vowel and “line” pronounced “leen”. It sounds like music.

I don’t know if my grandmother Rosa’s name suited her.  She died long before I was born.  Vera’s name fit.  Hard sounding.  It has to do with truth.  Vera knew some truths.  She knew that the sheets in the VIP suite at the hospital where she died were butt ugly and beneath her.  So she sat and waited for 2 hours, life slowly ebbing away despite her strength, while her driver fetched the ones she liked.  Only then did she get in the hospital bed, so she could be true to herself even unto death, a death that came just moments after she lay down.  I don’t know that Vera knew anybody else’s truths, but she certainly knew hers.

I’ve always felt sad for my mom that she could not name me.  I tried not to pay too much mind to a set of names I wished I didn’t have.  I turned instead to think of what I might name a little girl-child of mine.  And then, the daughter given to me by God brought with her a name of her own.  Luz María.  Light.  Light shining in the darkness. Mary. Like that brave young woman who said yes to the impossible.  

I would never have dreamed of such a hopeful name.  Her name was not my gift to her.  Her name has been her gift to me. 

Pure Defiance

Because some days this is the only song that works, even if it’s corny…

She’s fed up with throwing in the towel
She is pulling herself bit by bit away from the cobwebs
Hasn’t slept all night and isn’t tired
Doesn’t need a mirror to know she’s looking good
Today she’s put mascara on her eyelashes
Today she likes her smile and isn’t estranged from herself
Today she dreams what she wants and refuses to worry
Today she’s a woman aware of her soul.

Today you will discover that the world is just for you
That no one can do you harm, no one can do you harm
Today you are going to understand
That fear can be broken by slamming a door
Today you’ll make others laugh
Because your eyes are tired of being of being lament, of being lament…
Today you will discover that the world is just for you
Today you’ll even find the way
To laugh even at yourself and see you made it
That, today, you will be the woman
You damn well know you can be

Today you are going to care for yourself
Like no has before
Today you will look forward
Cause looking back already hurt too much.
A brave woman, a smiling woman
Look how it unfolds
Today the perfect woman they were waiting for was born
She has broken without shame all the rules that made
Today she’s wearing her heels to make sure her steps are heard
Today she knows her life won’t be a failure

Today you will discover that the world is just for you
That no one can do you harm, no one can do you harm
Today you will conquer the sky
Without looking down to see how far it is from the ground
Today you will be happy
Even if the winter is cold, and long, and long.
Today you’ll find the way
To even laugh at yourself and see that you made it.
Today you will discover that the world is just for you
That no one can harm you, no one can harm you.
Today you will understand
That fear can be broken by slamming a door.
Today you will make other laugh
Because you are eyes have gotten tired of being lament, of being lament
Today you’ll find the way
To laugh even at yourself and see you made it.

 

Where It’s Really At

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I don’t intend to diminish what I accomplished yesterday in any way.  It was a wonderful moment in my life.  I had originally intended to fly into Birmingham on Saturday, pick up my bib and timer, meet my walking buddy Marsha, have a nice dinner and hit the sack early to walk the next morning.  I planned all along to catch an afternoon flight back to Fort Lauderdale.

Then I remembered that my mother-in-law would be less than two hours away and it wouldn’t take much to see her.  I changed my flight plans and got to her assisted living facility at about 3:30 on Friday. The afternoon was beautiful and she was having a good day.  She’s muttered during recent visits about the fact that Sherod’s truck is impossible for her to get into.  I had a brand new Toyota Camry rental so we wrapped her up and I took her for a drive.  We went to see a part of town where old buildings are getting renovated.  Juanita was curious and wanted to check it out.

Then she wanted to drive by the house she and Papa Earl built when Sherod was in Junior High.  As we drove over, she told me that she’s heard that there are 5 or 6 shoot-outs most nights in her old neighborhood.  The beautiful trees and roses she and Papa Earl planted and tended to have all been cut down. The house looks forlorn.  Then she wanted me to see where her mama lived so we drove a few block over.  Juanita stopped and visited her mother just about every single day of her adult life.  We talked about the fact that both of us think of our mothers daily–she told me there are still times she wants to reach for the phone and call her mom.

From there it seemed only natural to go on to the cemetery where Earl is buried, on the outskirts of town.  She couldn’t walk to his grave but she wanted me to go look for his gravestone and wave when I was standing next to it.  I found a discarded plastic flower between some tombs and put it on Earl’s grave. Juanita liked that.  Then we stopped at the Live Oaks Cemetery, in front of the Derryberry plot where she could look at the large tombstone that marks the spot where her mother, sisters, and brother all rest.  We went back to dinner and on our way home she told me the most delightful story I’ve ever heard her tell.

She needs a walker now, and is frail.  Sometime in the past week, she was headed from the dining room back to her little efficiency apartment, walking side by side with Dr. M. She explained he had once been her surgeon.  Then she told me he looked at her and said, “let’s race”.  She assented and the race was on.  At first she didn’t pick up the pace much and she let Dr M. get ahead of her for a good part of the way.  But then, when they were getting really close to the finish line, she gave it her all, got past him and won fair and square.  Juanita is not one I would ever describe as impish.  But she had the most impish smile on her face imaginable.  She’s a chess player, that one, a smart competitor who beat her surgeon at a race when she was 96 years old and dying of lung cancer.

Then there is Mrs. M., pictured above, trapped in a body that is so worn out it can barely stand.  Mrs. M starts out for the dining room a good 15 to 20 minutes before each meal.  The hallway is not long–I can certainly get from one end to the other in under a minute.  But for Mrs. M, each and every step is a victory of epic proportions.  Each requires that she stop and rest and regather the strength to take the next.  She does it quietly, she walks with dignity. I have watched her any number of times and I have never seen her complain or look sour.  She just gets on with her life which includes this journey she must repeat, over and over again.

I go to Cedar Hill frequently enough now to have a sense of connection with this community. I know it’s a bunch of old folks who each have their own foibles and eccentricities.  Their own deep flaws and sins.  I  watch them lose ground, become more feeble; some have died or had to move to nursing homes.  Perhaps I watch them so intently because I know now that all they are is a little further down the road.  There, by God’s grace, will it be I.

Whew

2013-02-17 10.36.41I did it.  Avg pace: 15:42; I finished the race in 3:25:42.  It was not as good as I had hoped–but way good enough considering how many Birmingham hills we went up and down, and up and down again.  At the end I was wheezing and wished I had an inhaler–it’s been a good three years since I had to deal with this kind of stuff. I guess the combination of all that climbing and cold  had my lungs confused. 
It is a strange and beautiful thing, this kind of event.  I wanted to jump out of my skin right before we started with 4000+ anxious people crowding in.  They kept referring to the those of us who were not running as “The Walkers”. That amused me. I kept weeping along the way and I could never figure out why, except this mattered a lot to me.  The people cheering you on is delightful. I wish I had had the time to stop and take pictures.  In the crystal clear air of a cold winter morning, from the highest vantage points of the race I felt like I could see forever.  Birmingham is sort of cool, especially around the Five Points area.  And now it is over.  I will spend far more time at airports today than I spent rocking the asphalt.  My feet hurt and if I could, I’d put them in a bucket of ice water.  But that is that; Marsha and I are talking about the next one.

Your Face

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I rented a car yesterday to drive from Birmingham to visit my mother-in-law. Selma’s about 90 miles from B’ham and the fastest way to get here is to go on I-65 down to Clanton and then cut across southwest, on a small country road. It has always been Sherod driving and I didn’t have to get to Selma at any particular time. On my own in this part of the world, I drove slowly enough to enjoy a sunny winter’s afternoon. The countryside is quite lovely and the glimpses I caught of daffodils and crocuses filled me with elation. As I came to one curve in the road, an old property caught my attention and I had to come back to try to take what pictures I could with my iPhone.

I love these drives more and more. I find buildings and structures that have been in a long, slow process of decay compelling as I glimpse them along the roads. There are lots of them out in these parts of the countryside. I get the sense that what went first was the fluff—all the trappings of purposes imposed on wood and iron and tin and brick by people. There are years, and years, and even more years, of being exposed to the elements, being stripped down further and further to the essential. The sagging when a structure no longer has the strength to stand up for that which others intended for it. The deep, rich colors that come from that strange combination of addition and subtraction—veneer is stripped bare, grit and grime and life gets blown and blasted into what used to be impenetrable.

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Perhaps what I am most aware of is the resistance of what has been built up, what has been created, even if by human hands that know mainly about folly, to go back to the dust. Perhaps all those trees and minerals and dirt first accepted (really, did they have any choice?) and then embraced the transmutations required of them, all the ways they were cut and hammered and forged into edifices far beyond their individual possibilites. Once this new future was embraced, no matter how beyond them it was, there was no going back. I get the sense that all these places that served their purpose and now exist only occasionally, when someone drives by and sees them, will quietly, stolidly, stubbornly, rebel against the notion of once having been something and now being condemned to nothingness. So they endure. The tilt happens ever so slowly and with a grace that only comes with time. All the way to the very end, the bitter and maybe glorious end, they insist on giving witness.

Marguerite Duras, who wrote Hiroshima Mon Amour, is a powerful writer. My favorite of her books: The Lover. It has one of the most magnificent lines imaginable. Yesterday as I tromped around, looking at this abandoned place on the side of the road, I kept repeating it:

I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.

It begins…

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I was at work at 6 this morning and I’m home now; it is time to shift gears.  A seasoned marathon runner and nurse practitioner sent word through her mom, one of the coolest women I know, that training in warm weather and competing in cold would actually be a  little bit of lagniappe.  I got incredible advice over these past few days about what to wear and I feel like I got to make good, informed choices.  I’m going a bit unconventional and I hope I don’t regret it but there you have it.  I’m wearing a gor-tex top and a pair of capri yoga-type pants.  I will have to wait for about an hour around the start line for the race to begin and since that will be early, early morning, I am going to wear an extra layer: a pair of sweatpants and an old t-shirt I am actually quite fond of (pictured above).  These are the throw-aways–what you use to stay warm until you get started and get warmed up. Then you peel ’em off.  The sweatpants were a gift from my good friend Barb Rand. They have served me well but they are quite big on me now and will slip on and off easily.   People walk along the course and gather up all these clothes, wash them and give them to folks who can use them.  I figure Barb would approve of one more hand-me-on.  The dorky ensemble includes a cap that can fit in my pocket if I get too warm.

I have my bib number (3200) and I got my virtual goody bag today. As far as I can tell, mainly, that consists of coupons I would not use but if someone out there knows something really good buried in that virtual bag, tell me!  I’ve even done my flight check in and it looks like Baltimore, where I will make my connection to B’ham–I know, crazy huh–should not be a weather problem.  I’m as good to go as I will be.

Yesterday, as I put ashes on people’s foreheads, thought about Jan Richardson’s exquisite Blessing of Ashes poem and remembered my mama’s dancing and being kissed by the light of that beautiful mountain sun in Boquete almost 2 years ago, I realized that I am walking for her.  And for my daughter.  María got to come to church with me last night, the first time in over a year.  She was so beautiful and as we walked out of the church after the service, she put her arm around my waist and declared,  “that was a fabulous sermon, Mom”.  She is what endurance is all about.  I wish I could get to see both their faces as I cross the finish line.  It is OK that I won’t. I carry them in my heart.