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.

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