Estate Sale Blues {On What’s Left Behind}

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Seen at yet another estate sale. MayBelle’s mother used to wear Ferragamos, before she got so old, she’d say, that she had to trade fashion for function.

Often MayBelle doesn’t miss her deceased parents on those days you might consider made for mourning: death anniversaries, family birthdays, major holidays. Most likely she begins to cry, or is forced to her knees, at unpredictable times and in unexpected places.

Like this weekend, when she went to an estate sale, the kind where it’s obvious someone has left the house for good, as opposed to a garage sale intended to make room for more stuff. What’s left is what’s left behind, after the inhabitant has died or moved to a retirement community or skilled nursing facility, perhaps. For some reason, in her mother’s final days, MayBelle much preferred “skilled nursing facility” over “nursing home.” She was choosing her words deliberately, she surmises, so that she might survive the fact that her mother could no longer care for herself in a meaningful way.

MayBelle knows the territory because she’s been there, deciding what stays in the family, what gets donated or sold, what needs to be discarded. How to choose between a memory and a marble candlestick? Indeed.

As she made her way through the tidy townhouse, MayBelle looked for old postcards and photographs, small things she might use as writing prompts or for her art projects. Exiting a bedroom she glanced in the closet, where she noticed clothes like her mother wore in her later years: matching, machine washable, sturdy with a hint of style. MayBelle began to weep, seeing the same brands she and her sisters used to buy for their mother, clinging to any last gesture they might offer her when so much had been taken away. For a while there, MayBelle could tell any woman of a certain era where to get the best deals on Alfred Dunner and high-waisted cotton underwear.

MayBelle is what’s known as a “highly sensitive person”—yes, it’s a thing—and she can be moved to despair at warp speed. Bless her heart. She is also a person with an estate sale problem. Probably she should not spend so much time rummaging around in the pasts of strangers, as it often makes her sad and she does not need even one more tea towel. But this weekend it is where MayBelle found herself, wondering what had happened to the homeowner (was it a happy life?), forking over eleven dollars, and missing her mother.

An Otherwise Ordinary Day {Every patient has a story.}

The next several posts will be about my recent hospital stay for what has been deemed “an acute infection of unknown origin.” I’m writing about my experience in order to process what happened—and is happening—to me.                                                                                    

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I would swear I had a neck when I came in here.

After several days of feeling “not quite right” I wake up and know something is terribly wrong.

“We have to go,” I croak to Precious. So we drag my exhausted self to a walk-in clinic, whereupon I am promptly instructed to go to the emergency room.

“You have neutropenia,” says the doctor. “Something we often see in cancer patients. You’re not a cancer patient, correct?”

“Correct.”

“You have a fever of 101 and your white blood counts are low. You need to get to the ER, now.”

I start to cry, that’s how bad I feel, how frightened I am becoming.

Precious drives me to Vanderbilt and I resist the urge to Google scary diseases on the way. Thankfully I don’t have the energy for it.

I have long been a person who says she “wants to know, even if it’s bad,” but right then I am not so sure.

The nurse at the ER put a mask on me, and repeatedly expresses her surprise when I tell her, repeatedly, that I am not undergoing treatment for cancer.

“No,” I say. “I’ve never had a cancer diagnosis.”

I am convincing myself, of course, that I’m about to get one.

Mother Knows Best

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A favorite photo from several years ago, before Mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Back in January 1922 my parents were born four days apart. My father in Bell, California, and my mother in Tula, Mississippi. They would meet several years later at elementary school when my father’s family returned to its southern roots, and they married in 1948.

Although there were balloons and decorations and cake for my mother on her birthday earlier this month, she would not have known it was her day unless someone had made a fuss. Her dementia robs her of a lot, such as keeping up with dates and important life events. She sometimes thinks her parents have just died and that she wasn’t able to get to their funerals. I hate this for her, that her mind is not only failing her but is also tricking her, goading her into thinking she failed her parents. When, in reality, she was a devoted and faithful daughter until the very end, when she saw her mother and father across the bar and into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi.

So she loses memories and facts, but she retains her grace, and her humor, and her kindness.

At Christmas I held her hand while we watched part of “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I had never seen and for some reason insist on referring to as “Miracle on 51st Street.” I left after Santa was put in the hoosegow, so it is my fervent hope that the poor man got sprung before the movie was over.

When I arrived that day at the residential facility where she lives, she was resting in her chair with her eyes closed. I sat on the edge of her bed and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she took a few seconds to stare at me with love.

“I recognize you,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes were clear and lively, not dulled as they can sometimes seem when she is having a harder time focusing and engaging. It was the same smile I have seen on her precious face countless times before, an upturn of her lips that let me know she is still my mother.

Show Me Your Scars and I’ll Show You Mine

IMG_3730.jpgI didn’t realize I was sick back then—just miserable. I knew I didn’t belong in law school, though everyone around me said I did. Problem is, you don’t drop out in my family. Wilsons persevere.

“I think something’s wrong with your thyroid.” This from my mother at the Thanksgiving table after my dismal semester. Turns out a goiter had sprouted in my neck and I hadn’t even noticed. That’s how out of touch I was with myself, people. (Google “goiter” at your own risk.)

“You better go see Doc Murray when you get back to Oxford.”

I did and it was. The kindly and charming old-school doctor sent me to a specialist, a not kindly and especially uncharming man, who glanced at me and said: “Most times this is cancer.”

My twenty-two-year-old self started crying and ran to call my parents.

“Come home,” they said. So I did. We got another specialist. A nicer one.

After the surgery to remove half my thyroid gland, I didn’t really mind the scar, even early on when it was angry and red. It proves I can weather the storm, if you will, that’s the way I see it. Cliché or no.

“I can fix that for you,” said a doctor acquaintance at a party not too long ago. He was tilting his head toward the base of my neck and stabbing for an olive with one of those plastic cocktail swords. Red I think it was.

“Fix what?” I asked. I wasn’t even trying to be coy, as I don’t think about the scar, which looks a little bit like a short, braided rope.

“Your thyroidectomy scar. The surgeon should have done a better job. You know, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable.”

Maybe your mother should have done a better job with you, I wanted to say. You know, so your personality wouldn’t be so bothersome.

“I don’t want it fixed,” I said instead. “But thank you for your concern.”

Besides the small rough patch on my right hand—a neighbor’s German Shepherd jumped up on me while I was riding my bike (boy was I proud of that banana seat) and I ended up in a puddle of gravel—I don’t have other visible scars. (I’ve had more surgeries, laparoscopies and such, but no additional physical reminders of trauma.)

My mother, bless her precious 93-year-old heart, is riddled with scars: colon cancer, mastectomy, gallbladder, vena cava filter, skin tears every time her body tricks her into thinking she doesn’t need to use a walker and she pitches to the floor.

I don’t know if she minds her scars or not. I could ask her, but the answer might not be based in reality, as dementia is robbing her of such. She doesn’t seem to mind them, though, or much of anything, actually. Instead she comes across as content, happy even, in the moment. She no longer seems anxious and does not spend her days borrowing trouble, a favorite pastime of hers that I’m sorry to say I have inherited.

Usually she just smiles, asks me if I’m her baby, and rolls herself into the dining room to join the other old souls who can no longer live on their own.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I am.”

Scars and all.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: Read Lucille Clifton’s “Scar” and write about what it brings up in you. Write for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

http://www.sunsetcoastwriters.com/blog/scar

The Bright Light of Day {Can I Stand the Heat?}

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I saw this fabulous Chihuly sculpture several years ago at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville.

During Holy Week I heard a lot about being in the dark. From speakers, priests, books I’m reading. Dark, dark, dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor spoke about how she thinks some folks spend too much time focused on “full solar spirituality,” neglecting entirely the darker side. A priest noted that she learned things about herself, and her God, while struggling through a rough time in her life. Much of what I’m reading now focuses on Buddhist and Celtic practices, which reminds me that I have to go through the desert in order to experience and appreciate renewal.

I wonder about people who refuse to acknowledge the death and destruction in the Bible. In our lives. I believe in the power of positive thinking–and prayer–as much as the next gal, but life is hard, people. Denying that reality does not equal faith. Always seeing the glass as half-full does not make you a more steadfast believer. It might make you less able, in fact, to deal with the half-empty days. And there will be such days.

Sometimes I see dark when things are simply murky, though, and that’s a problem. I worry that I’m more comfortable wandering through the night than embracing the bright scrutiny of day. I’m working on it. But I’m not afraid, not on any cosmic level, to sit with people who are grieving or hurting or scared. Maybe it’s easier to companion others than it is to befriend my own soul. What is that about? 

“This is the day that the Lord has made,” read the Episcopal lectionary during Easter. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I respect the darkness, and value what it has to teach me. But today I choose the light, trusting full well there are lessons there, too.