Remains of the Day

Today, the fates granted me four uninterrupted hours with my teenage son. If you don’t have a teenage son, you might think this is no big deal. You would be wrong. Usually, he is either away with friends or behind a closed door. To have him in my immediate presence and speaking to me is a miracle.

Here is how it all went down, in case any of you want to try it yourselves.

The Set Up:
For most of the past week, my son spent time with 3 to 12 (the number changed hourly) of his nearest and dearest friends doing Spring Break things. Then, two days ago, for reasons that only another parent can understand and which would require a complete blog post of its own, he sprayed air freshener all over his hands and arms. One day later, his arms began to itch. Two days later, with a weekend looming and arms still itching, he agreed to see a doctor. This whole thing should take 90 minutes, tops.

The First Hour:
As I filled out forms at the doctor’s office, Teenage Son asked if I could take him to a friend’s house after the appointment. Sure, no problem. He ate two lollypops and texted his friends, was in constant communication with them the entire time. (Note this for later ironic twist.) Once in the exam room, he explained the origin story of the itch, at which point the medical assistant turned to me and said, “Kids.” We left for the drug store to pick up a prescription. “Then you can take me to Friend #1′s house?” Yes, sure.

The Second Hour:
At the drug store, Teenage Son picked out one candy bar, a packet of gum, a King Sized package of Reece’s Sticks, and a self-inflating whoopee cushion while we waited. After 20 minutes, we were told that this particular pharmacy was completely out of the medication we needed. So we purchased Teenage Son’s merchandise and headed to the next closest store. In between texts with his friends, Teenage Son tossed the partially-eaten Reece’s into my cup holder and said, “Here, Mom.” And he was shocked – SHOCKED – when I rolled my eyes. “Why would you do that, Mom?! I got that to share with you. Geez.” So I thanked him for sharing the candy I bought him. We picked up the prescription at drug store #2 and headed back toward Friend #1′s house. “No, no, no! We need to go to Friend #2′s house! No one is at Friend #1′s house yet. They are at Friend #2′s house.” Still texting the whole time.

The Third Hour:
We drove to Friend #2′s house. No one was there. (What was the point of all that texting over the past 2 hours? Insert irony here.) Where were they? At a Starbuck’s. Which one? (more texting) Downtown. No. “What?! What am I supposed to do?” I pulled over and played on my phone until he figured it out. After 10 minutes, the Texting Teens decide he should go ahead to Friend #1′s house after all because that is where they are going from Starbuck’s. They were leaving any second and would probably be there by the time we arrived.

The Fourth Hour:
Friend #1′s house was deserted. I discovered this after Teenage Son got out of the car and wandered aimlessly in the driveway. He was Not Happy when I refused to leave him there for goodness knows how long. “Why, Mom?! Who does that?! What kind of parent are you?” Would he get back in the car if I agreed to take him for a snack? Sure, but they will be back any minute so hurry. One double-cheeseburger, fries, and a root beer later, we were back at the driveway of Friend #1. Waiting. For half an hour. Then a car arrived, unloaded four gangly teenagers and my son was out of my car to join them faster than you can say Snap Chat. Not a word to me.

But we had four hours together! Uninterrupted. Sometimes with actual non-arguing conversation! He’s got food in his belly, less itchy arms, and a very annoying mom. I’ve got these remains of our day…

Fossil record of four hours with my Teenage Son

Warm Words

One of the blessings of being immersed in a completely new role (hospital chaplaincy) and unfamiliar situations (other people’s grief and loss) is that it allows me to see my own life in a new way. The frame of reference I used to have raising funds to address systemic issues is now replaced with work on a more personal level. When you stand with people in their times of crisis, you can see connections between their pain and your fears, between their comfort in memories and your unfolding story, between their response to extraordinary heartache and your everyday life.

My colleague Mike recently used a moving image to describe a moment when family members were gathered around a dying loved one. They said their goodbyes by “covering him in a warm blanket of words.” I imagined their words holding precious memories of the past, and also being part of the narrative of their family going forward, keeping the lost one wrapped together with them. Words allowed them to express themselves individually and also to articulate the bond that held them together.

This image has stuck with me for days. It speaks to more than just one family’s pain or even of grief. Words connect us to one another, they carry memories and bear emotion. While touches and looks have immediacy, words can connect people through time and across distances. They can bind entire cultures…or individual families. And so, the image of this family’s warm blanket of words connects their particular experience to any of us when we use words or allow them to land on our shoulders.

As a writer, the idea of words being a warm blanket is inspiring and a little scary. I want my words to comfort…or carry the emotion I intend. But once words leave your mouth or pen or keyboard, you can’t really control how others take them in. I hope when I tuck my daughter in at night my words are a warm blanket for her. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that no matter how warm my words seem to me, they probably grate on the ears of my teenage son. I know the stories I tell my children about their deceased grandparents keep those forebears enfolded in our family. If that is how my words can touch people I know – how might my words (or yours) be felt by others? People you don’t ever see or know? Words can have a life of their own.

Even on a summer night, it is nice to imagine thoughts, memories, and emotions enveloping you. Wrapping you in relationship. Holding you in community. Like a warm blanket.

The important stuff

Last month, I visited my mom in North Carolina to help her go through boxes and boxes of stuff. And in those boxes was a bit of my dad, things that helped me remember him or even explain him. There is a lot more to “stuff” sometimes than we give it credit for.

Sorting “stuff” is a task my siblings and I have helped with ever since my father died a little over seven years ago. First it was going through medical papers and condolence letters. Then Mom moved so we sorted through half a century of books, clothes, furniture, toys, untold heaps of letters. My parents had kept and moved many of these boxed belongings multiple times from the attic of one house to the garage of the next and then the spare room of the next.

I am proud to say we were able to get rid of a lot. Three huge bags to trash/recycling – and a car trunk full of donations. There were things in those bags older than I am that had lived with my parents longer than I did.

At this point, I need to give some background about my dad. He was a genius. Seriously, he was very, very smart. One of the brightest chemistry students at his college – at his 50th reunion they told my mom no one had topped him. He was a physician and medical researcher in a pretty esoteric sub-speciality. Analytical, articulate, focused, patient, collaborative. He was a high-level thinker who was also amazing with children and had a keen sense of humor. I loved his handwriting and after he died I kept samples of it.

Back to the boxes, Mom and I opened one that was filled with not-so-old medical files. And between lists of prescription meds and recovery plans, I found these:

This is my Dad learning to write again after he had a stroke in 2002. It isn’t the handwriting I grew up admiring. He lost the use of his dominant right hand and also had some judgement problems, though he still had most of his complex intellectual abilities. (He could talk all day long about the Theory of Relativity but wasn’t allowed to cross the street by himself.) All of the focus he used for years in the lab was now turned to recovery with a goal of returning to work. He never made that ultimate goal, but he worked hard and made a lot of progress. He was not a quitter.

Tucked away in boxes, was all this evidence of my dad’s long recovery from a scattershot stroke that took away his most basic life skills in a unpredictable pattern. (It didn’t affect just one side of his body, for instance.) Learning to write and use utensils, not being allowed to use knives, having favorite foods put on the banned items list. All these changes happened in a twinkling and while he was at the hospital he didn’t know how he’d handle it. But, sure enough, once he started rehab he became laser focused on regaining lost skills and renewing old habits. (I began to have a secret desire to go back in time to share some of his lost, beloved activities, like eating steak or blue cheese.)

All of this flooded back to me from looking at a few pieces of paper. Pharmacy receipts, physical therapy and occupational therapy plans, worksheets filled with chicken-scratch handwriting. My mom kept all these for years thinking they contained important information we’d need for his care. But going through them, they became important as a way to remember our lives with him. There is a lot of your life that can be unveiled in papers. Artifacts don’t duplicate life in the moment, but they do contain truth.

I might be a secret hoarder – but I actually kept some of the papers I found in my dad’s box of stuff – not many, but a few. Mom was ready to toss them, but I’m still analyzing and reminiscing over the contents. He isn’t here to tell me what they meant to him, so I am interpreting his life based on my memories, some stories, and boxed keepsakes. It makes me wonder how different that is from when I could talk to him directly, because I am sure he interpreted his own life differently than I or anyone else has. Maybe what we humans are is a collection of our own and other people’s impressions of us. You don’t get the whole picture until you put all the impressions together…maybe not even then.

Dad’s papers also got me wondering what my papers will say about me. After I die, what will people remember about me? Will it be what I think it is, or entirely different? And will my “stuff” tell them things about me that even I don’t fully understand about myself?

There is a side of relationships that is archeological. One of the sweetest things I found in my dad’s dresser shortly after he died is a small container of teeny tiny teeth from all four of his children – I guess he was the tooth fairy! And the archeology of relationships is not just with the departed. I learn things about my daughter when see what she keeps in her backpack for school. My son never tosses old video games, even if he won’t play them again, perhaps because each one contains his high score and hours of his time.

Whatever the case, I hope I don’t curate my life too carefully, keeping my most erudite essays and tossing embarrassing photos. I’d like to leave a few surprises in my boxes of stuff so that people can still get to know me. It worked for Dad, whether he knows it or not. I’m still getting to know him and I hope I always will.