Why Open Another Box?

A unconditional conversation between mother and daughter...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spaghetti Box Cars

Tonight, I remembered a time in my Mom’s life when she was able to eat spaghetti. As I wrapped long noodle strings around my fork at dinner this evening, I saw her. Of course only in my mind, but quite clearly, I saw her. She would twirl her own noodles in a red cyclone of meat and sauce, but unlike me, would use a spoon as a prop. The spoon was not only purposeful for noodle twisting; it was a great drip-prevention utensil. I could see Mom artfully lifting her united fork and spoon midway between bowl and mouth. Only then, would she release the spoon to take an effortless bite. My attempts to shadow this process were always done so in vain. Those who know me will not be shocked at my lack of form and dexterity in spaghetti twirling. I won’t even “go there” when it comes to the execution of my sloppy, spaghetti bites. Even tonight I can spot a few flecks of sauce on my t-shirt.

My memories of a healthy Mom are few. Those that are vividly imprinted in my mind (like the “spoon and spaghetti” incident) are even fewer. More often than not, the vivid memories are the ones I’d rather forget. I remember distinctly, visions of my mom slumped over the toilet seat, arms limp at her side, trying desperately to mumble something in the way of instruction to me, her mouth and voice mottled by muscular atrophy. I remember distinctly feeling helpless, embarrassed and terrified. I lucidly remember feeding brownies to my Mom at the kitchen table, drool seeping from the corners of her mouth. Just as lucidly, I remember looking away, pretending not to see. Or, I receive a blinding flash to the moments when my Mom was so frustrated at being trapped in a useless body, that what little strength she had, was used to propel her head onto the table for repeated, long intervals. The flash of me standing behind her as she banged her head over and over, willing her to stop, but unable to make myself move, is perhaps more blinding . My memories of a sick Mom are many.

I used to cower from unpleasant memories such as these. Recently however, I’ve changed my tactic. In the last year or so, some wise person shared an interesting meditation philosophy with me. The individual in question began by sharing of a frustration he had experienced while trying to meditate. He found that he was unable to quiet his mind because he was plagued by a constant stream of his own thoughts. His first instinct was to try to shove the thoughts out of his head. To his dismay, the more he fought the thoughts, the more frustrated he became. He was later taught by someone, to imagine his thoughts as individual box cars connected to a train. Instead of dispelling his thoughts, he was encouraged to let each one travel through his mind one at a time-- as its own box car. Eventually, he was able to reach his desired level of meditation by allowing his thoughts to pass through freely.

Now, when a sad or ikcy memory involving my mom’s illness makes its way to the forefront of my thoughts, I don’t try to shove it out. I give “it” a moment, and let it pass on. I find these less desirable memories pass quickly now. The memories that are few, from a time when my Mom was well … now these are a different story. These I let float around my brain for as long as I can. I encourage the pre-illness memories of my Mom to flow out into all the recesses of my consciousness. The ones that aren’t as clear, I try to focus—like I’m adjusting the lens on a camera. When I have the perfect shot, I hold onto it for awhile—spoon and spaghetti .

Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, I focus my lens with such precision, that another good memory shortly follows. Tonight for example, when I pictured Mom with her long blond hair, curling spaghetti with fork and spoon, I remembered her classic practice of drinking water out of a glass. I recalled the exaggerated parting of her lips, pursed but wide, so that her teeth were prominently exposed as she tilted the glass to her mouth. I remember as a child, watching this drinking method of hers with sheer fascination, wondering why on earth my beautiful Mom resembled a horse trying to drink from a water glass. I later learned that this “practice” was applied in an effort to evade lipstick transfer onto her water glass. I didn’t care about things like lipstick stains on a glass then … not at ages five and six. I was more interested in the mysterious, quirky ways of my mother. And just like my desire to emulate her fork and spoon spaghetti ritual, I remember taking the water glass from her hand. Once again, in vain but earnest attempt, I exaggeratedly pursed my lips, teeth exposed and tilted the glass. The end result of this process for me, typically yielded a bonk of the glass on my nose and water spills on my shirt.

The best part of my failure to copy-cat my Mom’s rituals, whether involving spoon and spaghetti or parted lips and water glass, was the echo of her laughter to accompany it; the crisp, hearty laugh of someone full of life and health; the laugh that only could belong to my Mom.

Today, I let the box cars in my mind run free. Sometimes it feels like more cars are filled with coal, than precious cargo, but every now and again … I get a really great one. When that shiny red box car comes round the bend, I grab for my lens and get ready to focus. A time or two, I’ve even caught myself laughing at a memory; the crisp, hearty laugh of someone full of life and health; a laugh that sounds a little like my Mom’s, but a laugh that could only belong to me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everything I Was and More

*Pictured Left: Grandma Carol and my Mom
*Pictured Right: Mom & Me

When I first became a mother,

I used to worry

that as Erin got older,

I wouldn’t love her as much

as when she was a cute, cuddly infant.

I was surprised to discover, however,

that instead of loving her less

as the years passed by,

I loved her more.

Even during the possessed-by-demon phases

Erin went through

at ages three and six,

I found myself becoming

increasingly addicted to her charms.

Now I look in wonder

at my twelve-year-old girl

because she has become

such a complex and interesting person

who will become much more complex

in the next several years.

The fact that the older Erin gets,

the less I will know about her

is fascinating to me.

When she was a baby,

Erin was the center of her universe

and I was the golden orb

revolving around her

and seeing to her simple needs and wants.

Over time,

other people were recognized as part of her universe.

There followed even more people

and objects and feelings

and attitudes and ideas.

As she became less dependent on me,

Erin became more the unique individual

she is destined to be as an adult.

My daughter keeps growing and changing

and will continue to change

until her life is over

yet I know in my heart

that all the things I loved about her

as she grew up

will always be a part of her.

The beautiful, happy infant,

the bright, adorable toddler,

the enthusiastically social preschooler

and the outgoing, creative person

she was in elementary school

are all still insider her.

Everything she has experienced

in her lifetime,

including all the treasured moments

I spent with her,

are pieces of the total Erin.

To put it simply,

Erin is everything she was

and more.

While reflecting on the miracle

of my daughter Erin,

my heart was pierced

by a sudden, painful understanding

of how you, my parents, feel

about your daughter, me.

You see me struggling to cope

with an illness

that is destroying my muscle tissue

and leaving me wasted and helpless.

There is nothing you can do

to protect me from this experience

or to bail me out of it

the way you used to do

when I was young,

the way John and I try

to protect our children.

Sometimes you must look at me

and think back to happier times

when my health was good.

I imagine that your memories of me

roll through your minds

like biographical newsreels.

You see the round, blond “Gerber” baby,

the even rounder toddler,

the “little mother” I was

to my younger sisters and brother,

and the director of childhood plays

and musicals.

You see the moody, introspective teenager,

the opinionated, intense college student,

the creative teacher,

and the dedicated wife and mother.

I became a very complex person

through the process of growing up

so that the longer you knew me,

the less you knew about me.

As I grew and changed,

your love for me increased

even when some of the changes

were baffling or hard to accept.

And I know in my heart

that your love for me will deepen

no matter how my illness changes me.

Yet I also want to assure you

that none of the changes

on my inside or outside

have wiped out the baby – little girl –

big girl – woman – wife – mother

I once was.

Everything I have experienced

in my lifetime,

including all the treasured moments

you spent with me,

are all pieces of the total Laura.

In other words,

I am everything I was

and more.

Whenever you think of me,

please remember that fact

and find comfort in it

as I have done with my daughter.

It helps!

By, Laura Schiller

June 1988

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dear Mom ... I Choose to Learn

*I had initially intended on posting a story I wrote based on my first reading of "Dear Erin ... To Learn or Ignore?" but upon my second reading, this is what came out. In my mind it came out of "nowhere." My great writing mentor Pat Berge however, once taught me that sometimes nowhere produces the best kind of writing--or perhaps the most sincere ...

Dear Mom,

I’ve been wondering what it was about this last post on “our blog,” that has had me twisted in an emotional pretzel all week. I read your letter about the fish tank analogy in the not too distant past. I cried when I read it then, and yes, I cried when I read it again. But there was something else in the cry this time.

It was something in the carelessness of the stack of letters I’ve kept from you all these years. Amidst the untidy stack, I noticed a phone number for “Sears Portraits” scribbled in pink highlighter across one of the letters you wrote. Others had liquid-stained splotches and still others had corners missing, and/or the paper was crumpled.

I was seized with guilt as I re-read your beautiful words about humanity, fish and God. I doubt I ever read that letter at the time you intended me to read it. If I did, it was far beyond my incapacitated, juvenile, and alcohol-drenched brain to comprehend. I didn’t give a damn about choices then, unless it involved instant gratification, which typically involved choosing between one sort of destructive behavior and another. My only choice then, was to make the choice that would make me forget about you ... and the disease. So, it was easier I suppose, to cast your decadent words aside and trample them with pink highlighter, liquid spills and crumples.

For all my short-sightedness, I’m thankful I saved the letters. Maybe both of us hoped in the back of our minds I would. Maybe one or the both of us had enough ingenuity to foresee that your letters would serve a greater purpose and enlightenment at a later time.

More than being sorry I didn’t read the letter (I just posted) for so long, I’m sorry it took so long to write back. I want you to know: I think I understand what you mean about consciousness and to a lesser degree, about God. I know much more about choices now, and you will be pleased to know those in front of me today are infinitely better than when your letter first came to me. I am working on resisting the urge to flee from that big hand that dips into my fish tank, realizing that maybe I’m being spiritually fed rather than terrorized. I hope you take a little comfort Mom, as I do, in that I want to learn from all this—you, ALS, alcoholism. My days of travel on the path of ignorance and denial are over. Thank you for loving me before I was able to make the right choices.

I love you,