Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “parenting”

What’s in a Name?

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Ever since I found out I was going to be a grandmother this coming June, I have had an escalating fascination with names. Well, I already had a bit of an obsession. Naming five children was not easy, especially when two stubborn parents had opposing views (thank goodness for the mediating power of middle names). One of my children, who need not be reminded once again of our sorry lapse of judgment, remained nameless for several days while we battled. Exhausted, we finally settled on an overused family name, which sounded melodious with “Madden” and has served him well so far. But when my Aunt Billy recently sent me a photo of her father and his siblings, I realized just how boring our choice of English names had been when compared with the brilliant idiosyncrasy, not to mention intentional cruelty, of my Nikitovich forbears’ names.

 

In the center of the photo stands Chaslav, my grandfather, the first-born male child and thus the pinnacle of achievement for his tiny mother, Roxana, who is seated below him to his left. His name means honor and glory. Then came a girl, Slavka, to his left, which means celebration. I guess the first girl deserves a party. And then another girl, Radmila, to his right, which means hard-worker, which she would have to be to make up for not being a boy.

 

So far, so good. Daughter number three, just to Radmila’s right, was not so fortunate. They named her Stamenka, which means stop, as in please, lord, stop with the girls! Roxana’s husband, my tyrannical great-grandfather Milisav, was even less amused when along came another girl, the sweet-looking blonde with the big bow who is standing just below her big sister Slavka. For her, he chose the name Zagorka, which means the one who brings bitterness.

 

I can only imagine what poor little Roxana was put through for the sin of bearing four girls in a row. Then came redemption: three boys! Miroslav, which signifies peace, is standing right below Zagorka; Ljubisha, the loved one, is leaning against the older seated woman; Miodrag, the precious one, who died in infancy, is not pictured.

 

No one remembers the last name of that older woman. Her first name may have been Katarina, but the children called her Manta, their version of grandma. Only she wasn’t. She was the leftover mother of Milisav’s first wife, who died after just one year of marriage. Manta stayed on to take care of the widowed husband, then of the new wife, then of their eight children. My Aunt Billy remembers that Manta, who always dressed neatly and wore her long hair in a braid wrapped around her head, was a simple yet wise woman who poured all her love and energy and encouragement into the children and grandchildren. She had a litany of pithy sayings that echo in Billy’s head to this day, such as “Keep your business and your family’s business to yourself, “ and “Don’t let anyone see your weaknesses.” When the children finished primary school, she actually moved to an apartment so they could live with her instead of having to trudge ten kilometers from home to their high school.

 

What is sad is that her son-in-law, Milisav, never thanked her or spoke kindly to her. In fact, he never spoke to her at all. But Manta didn’t need praise or even acknowledgement to sustain her. Beloved by the children, she left a legacy of strength, humor and selfless service that would stay with them for life, a gift far greater than their father’s legacy of fear, anger and unrelenting male pride. And far more memorable than any name could be.

 

Despite the family preference for male heirs, and Milisav’s disdain for girls, all the daughters graduated from the University of Belgrade. Was it Manta who encouraged them? Slavka was a high school teacher who died before my father and my aunt really knew her. Radmila, the hard-working one, became an engineer, Stamenka, a university professor, and Zagorka, that bitter little pill, a chemist.

 

None of the sisters had children. I suppose you were either a workingwoman outside the home or a workingwoman inside the home. To do both jobs in that culture could have meant an early death. Their own mother, Roxana, remembered for her quiet, kind nature, was able to teach only because Manta lived with them, and when she wasn’t teaching, her husband Milisav treated her like his personal slave. My favorite story is the water tale, when Milisav, napping under a tree, roared to Roxana that she must come immediately. She ran as fast as her little legs could take her, and when she arrived, exhausted and sweaty from the summer heat, he ordered her to pour him a glass of water. The water jug was on a table just a few feet from where he was dozing.

 

With memories like that, and in a culture of absolute male dominance, it’s no wonder the sisters chose to avoid marriage and motherhood (except Rada, who married a kind, older man with grown children of his own). Family lore has it that Milisav thought no man was good enough for a Nikitovich. But I can think of another explanation: perhaps their names, like invisible armor, actually protected them from undesirable suitors.

 

The sisters, at least the ones who survived, formed tight bonds. After Radmila’s husband died in 1960, Zagorka (Zaga) gave up her own ambitions to live with her. True to her name, Radmila (Rada) worked hard and successfully as one of the first female architectural engineers in Yugoslavia. Zaga became Rada’s ersatz wife and took care of her for more than twenty years.

 

I met Zaga when my father took me to Cacak, in the former Yugoslavia, to the home his family had used on weekends. Cacak had grown into an ugly, sprawling town filled with the stench of car exhaust, and the house itself was dusty and tomb-like, nothing like it looked in pictures. But the yard was still lovely, and we ate outdoors under a huge oak tree. Along with a horde of relatives I had never met was the last living son, Miroslav, with his wife, daughter and grandson, and the last remaining sister, Zaga, who presided over a picnic table laden with cheese pita, roasted peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, homemade cornbread and, the pièce de resistance, a whole suckling pig, its mouth stuffed with a red pepper that looked like a bloody tongue. Zaga’s lively stride, mischievous smile and warm brown eyes made her seem anything but bitter. She was so excited to meet “the Americans” that she kept hugging my father, my husband, my daughter and me.

 

After dinner, Zaga expertly rolled some slim cigarettes and offered me one. When I declined, she asked, “You don’t smoke? Why not?” One doesn’t tell an eighty-year-old smoker that cigarettes are bad for you, so I told her I didn’t smoke because it was too expensive. Without missing a beat, she gave me a bemused look and said, in Serbian of course, “Maia, everything good in life is expensive!”

 

I am not about to suggest names for the new baby, but I would be a wee bit upset if they pick a name such as Apple or West or Blue or Blanket. Life is hard enough without the burden of a ridiculous name. If, however, I had to translate my Serbian ancestors’ names into English, they would sound equally ridiculous. For a girl: Party, Worker, Stop or Bitter. For a boy: Honor, Glory, Beloved or Precious.

 

Of course, none of these can match a name I once heard in Florida: Placenta. I guess it sounded lovely to the mother after all that pushing. I can hear the doctor, unaware of the power of his words, exclaiming, “Here comes the placenta!” And the mama thinking, “That’s it! The perfect name…”

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My Father’s Chicken Marengo

Image 2My 88-year-old father is making Chicken Marengo for me. He has made it many times before, but these days it is a labor of love, effort and infinite patience. I watch as he slowly debones and slices the chicken thighs, his head stooped over so he can see.

“Why didn’t you buy boneless thighs?” I ask.

“I couldn’t find them,” he answers, with that quiet, resigned smile he uses so often now.

I don’t know if he means the store didn’t have any or he couldn’t find where they were. Shopping is a daily ritual for Pavle, one that can take several hours, and the meat and produce he sometimes forgets disintegrate in the refrigerator until someone throws them out without a whisper of the deed.

I offer to help, but Dad says he doesn’t need any help. He tells me to go outside and relax, as if I could when I know he is sweating in the kitchen alone.

In Denver today, the temperature reached 100 degrees, and in the cramped kitchen, it is still 100 degrees even though it is past seven. My father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Actually, he doesn’t believe in home improvement of any kind.

The screens are ripped. The carpets are stained and shredded. The wallpaper is peeling in every corner. The curtains sag from one or two stalwart rings, while the rest of the fabric hangs like a sail from a broken mast.

And yet Pavle is the most elegant man I know, even at his age. He wears dark slacks and a pressed collared shirt every day, often with a cravat tucked in at the neck. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts, and his white hair is carefully combed back from his high forehead. He has always been a handsome, well-groomed man. How is it possible that someone so formal and meticulous with his person can tolerate such abysmal surroundings? Maybe because people are full of contradictions. Or maybe because many men without women lose their sense of order.

To get to the garden, I must pass through what used to be an enclosed porch but is now a wasteland of junk and broken furniture. Around the outside patio, huge untrimmed juniper bushes hide the balding lawn below, where mushrooms sprout with abandon. The patio chairs are torn or sagging. The white siding on the house looks gray, and the wooden roof shingles are all askew, just waiting for the perfect storm to fly far, far away.

Which I will do in a week, leaving the scene of a disaster that would make my deceased mother, a lover of nature and beauty in all things, wail.

What became of her carefully tended flowerbeds?

Where has her beloved glass dining room table gone?

Pavle lives at that table, now buried under bills, papers, magazines, newspaper clippings, containers of nuts and random piles of crackers and cookies. Sometimes he sits at his computer writing his memoirs or trying to access his e-mail. Sometimes he scrutinizes his pile of junk mail as if it contained the secret to immortality. Helter-skelter files surround his feet and precarious bookshelves lean from the wall behind him, where an abstract oil painting has tilted up to the ceiling, caught by a wayward curtain.

In this dark room, the wrought-iron chandelier my mother found in Mexico is always on, but the ugly coils of low-energy bulbs have replaced the pink candle-shaped lights she favored, and their harsh, unforgiving glare intensifies the dusty chaos below.

Sensing that Pavle would enjoy my presence, and knowing how slowly he moves, I insist on coming inside to help him. I chop the garlic and parsley and boil and peel the tiny pearl onions as he sautés the chicken.

Both my brother and my nephew, who live with my father, have gone out this Saturday night, and the house is unusually calm and quiet. Outside, if I look up through the circle of trees at the waning silver light outlining the blue-gray clouds of a Colorado evening, I can almost imagine I have traveled back in time. I am still married, and my husband is pitching to one of the boys. The other children are shrieking as they slide down the Slip‘n Slide. My mother is cooking inside. My father is leading baby Malia around the patio by both hands, trying to teach her to walk.

Today is Malia’s nineteenth birthday.

As I set the patio table, I try to recall how Mom’s pink and white Iceland poppies swayed in the evening breeze. How her off-tune voice seeped through the open doors from the kitchen, where she sang in French as she cooked for her children and grandchildren.

Only the rhythmic hum of crickets and the poignant calls of birds remain the same, enduring talismans of those summer days. The rest is ruin and loss, neglect and decrepitude.

But in the kitchen, my 88-year-old father is alive, cooking Chicken Marengo, just for me.

I gauge his progress while I refill my wine glass. Here, wine is a necessity, a buffer against reality. It is still unbearably hot inside, and Pavle is trying to cool off with his second whiskey and soda. Meanwhile, the chicken and mushrooms are swimming in a broth that won’t reduce to a sauce, and he is worried.

“Stop worrying,” I tell him. “Sit down and let it reduce by itself.”

He has been standing for at least two hours, and he looks weary.

The kitchen is in shambles. Dad has left all of the drawers and cabinet doors open, and herbs, onion skins, utensils and dirty dishes litter the chipped brown Formica counters. As I clean, I try to imagine what this once-beautiful house might look like if anyone still cared.

When I am sure Pavle has gone back to his dining room headquarters, I sprinkle Wondra flour into the soupy broth and stir until it finally thickens. Through the kitchen door, I can see him hunched over the New York Times, munching on pita chips.

As requested, I make a plain green salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Anything else, he has told me, “just doesn’t go with Chicken Marengo.”

The baguette is already hardening in the dry air as I slice it. My father never eats a meal without bread, preferably warm. Maybe it’s bad for his health, but he is the one who is 88 and still reading the New York Times!

I shut off the television droning in the background for no one, and put on a Norah Jones CD. Her mellow voice fills the heated air. “I don’t miss you any more,” she sings, over and over again. The CD is a cheap copy and skips repeatedly. I think of my mother and my ex, my grandparents and my children, my friends and family scattered everywhere. I will always miss everyone who once mattered to me.

Norah sings, “What do you say when it’s all gone away?”

Nothing, I guess. There is nothing left to say.

“I’m starving, Dad!” I shout, knowing he is going deaf. When he doesn’t move, I feel bad and walk to him, then touch his shoulder gently and ask if he wants to eat. By now, it is dark and nearly nine.

“Yes, yes, darling,” he says, smiling that familiar, resigned half-smile as he rises painfully from his chair.

He makes his way ever so slowly across the family room and down to the patio as I add the olives and pearl onions to the perfect sauce, pour it into a bowl and top it with chopped parsley. The air outside has cooled, and we sit down together to eat.

Before we start, Pavle tells me his version of the history of Chicken Marengo. On June 14, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte won a narrow victory over the Austrian troops occupying Italy on the Marengo Plain. While he was waiting for the second half of his troops to arrive, late due to his own geographical miscalculation, he got really hungry. He sent his soldiers out to forage for food in the surrounding villages. They found chicken, olives, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Napoleon’s chef was on fire that night and created Chicken Marengo.

Fortified by a full belly and a second-wave of soldiers, Napoleon beat back the Austrians.

When he finishes his tale, my father takes the first bite and says, “Don’t you think it’s a little too salty?”

“Maybe a teensy bit,” I answer after I swallow, surprised that his taste buds are still as sharp as his memory for stories. “But I love it the way it is.”

And I do. Yet, as I sit under the infinitude of stars on this warm summer night, what I love most is not the taste but the sense of my father’s love in every delicious bite of Chicken Marengo. The dish he has made, just for me.

PAVLE’S CHICKEN MARENGO

Image3 TBS oil
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, whole or in pieces
1 chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Bay leaves
1 TSP dry or fresh thyme
12-15 pearl onions or more, cooked and peeled
1 can chopped tomatoes or 5-6 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup black olives
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 TBS tomato puree or paste
2-3 TBS (or more) of Wondra flour
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the onion until it is soft.
Brown the chicken in oil. Drain the fat before adding the chicken to the cooked onion.
Stir in herbs, broth, wine, garlic, tomatoes and tomato puree. Thicken with Wondra.
Add mushrooms and pearl onions and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
When the sauce has thickened, adjust seasonings and add the olives and parsley.

With due respect to my father, serve with whatever you think “goes” with the chicken!

And make sure to cook the dish with love for those who matter the most to you.

In Praise of Mothers

IMG_3884I heard an awful story the other day. A mother, on her deathbed, whispered to her daughter, “You came into this world to make my life a living hell.” I cannot imagine how terrible that daughter must have felt, or just how cruel the woman who uttered those words had to be, with no chance to ask for forgiveness or to make amends.

As mothers, we have all made hasty and thoughtless comments to a vulnerable child. Perhaps we regretted it and later apologized. Perhaps we live with the memory, like a thorn in the heart. Or perhaps we don’t remember what we said at all because we were too busy doing a million other things. But the child always remembers.

My mother, who was unusually kind, once remarked that my new very short haircut looked like a Brillo pad (it was a terrible mistake for someone with curly hair…but the bleached greenish blonde disaster before it was even worse). I wore scarves for months, going for the gypsy look. Now when I see pictures of myself I think I actually looked kind of cute. The comment still hurts, though, even if I admire the young teenager who, on pure impulse one stifling day in New York City, let a student at Vidal Sassoon cut off all her hair.

But that impulsive streak has worked against me with my own children. I wish I could take back so many things I said and did. I am sure each of my children could tell a horror story or three that would bring tears to my eyes and a raw clenched feeling to my heart. And I am truly sorry for the damage done.

We mothers spend a lot of time feeling not good enough, no matter how much we do for our kids. We drive them to piano and swimming and soccer and gymnastics. We arrange play dates and overnights and birthday parties. We take them on family vacations and read to them every night. We cook their favorite foods and get up at dawn to pack their lunches. When my first son told me he hardly remembered anything before he was ten, I was shocked. All that work for nothing?

But I don’t really care if they remember or not, or if they thank me or not. When they were happy, I was happy, and I never thought of those duties as sacrifices. They were blessings because they gave my life meaning. I am convinced that what you do for and with your children makes them better people. The trouble starts when you do too much and expect too much, packing their days with so many activities that you rob them of dream time. I was guilty of that at the beginning, but by child number five I had realized that trying to mold children into society’s model of perfection — studious, attractive, athletic, artistic and ambitious — was misguided and usually backfired. After all, we didn’t order them from a catalog, and they didn’t come with instructions.

When my youngest said “no thank you” to soccer, ballet and piano, I admit I was relieved. She liked to read and write in her journal and play in her room. Nevertheless, I did feel a wee bit guilty, as if it were my fault for not encouraging her enough.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, but if you are a mother, every day is mother’s day, whether you are lauded or not. Of course you make mistakes. Sometimes you nag. Sometimes you say the wrong thing and hurt a young soul without realizing it. Sometimes you over-schedule your child and create anxiety rather than pleasure. Sometimes your children do put you through hell. But if you love them, and if they feel it, you have done your best at a very difficult job. And in the end, knowing that you loved and were loved is all that really matters.

What is Happiness to You?

ScanA friend recently asked me why I never write about happy things. I wonder too. So I started to think about my memories of perfect happiness. And surprise, surprise, they were all quiet moments of reflection when a scene, a feeling, a thought or an experience was suddenly stamped into my consciousness, never to be forgotten.

The first imprint on my mind seems cosmic and invented, but to me it has always felt real: a man with a beard and kind eyes turning his palms up to me. They have holes in them, and he says, “Don’t worry. They don’t hurt at all.” He smiles, and I feel safe and loved.

Another is waking up as a tiny child on the sofa in my grandparents’ New Jersey apartment under a multi-colored patchwork blanket my Baba has crocheted. It’s a small apartment, a poor apartment, and they are refugees from Yugoslavia, but it is warm, and I can smell something sweet and yeasty baking in the kitchen. My Baba makes me eggs scrambled in brown butter, my Deda tells me a story in Serbo-Croatian, and I feel safe and loved.

I am ten years old, spending a year away from my parents and siblings to stay in France with my mother’s parents. They have a country house in Barie, a tiny village in the Gironde, and going there on weekends is what I love most about France. It is June. The sun is setting over the flat cornfields and beyond, over the Garonne river. I am sweeping the narrow back deck and stairs while the sky slowly turns orange and purple. I am sweeping and sweeping, sweeping myself into the future, as only a young romantic girl can, sweeping myself into the arms of my prince charming, into an imagined world of perfect love. I feel the ecstasy of being alive, safe and sure that great love awaits me just over the horizon.

Then I am on a train with my brand-new all-American, now ex-husband, speeding from Paris to Bordeaux and deep into the countryside to introduce him to my French grandparents. He is asleep on my shoulder. My nose presses against the window, and when I see the colors start to mellow into soft silvery greens, I feel an overwhelming gratefulness and happiness. I am bringing my beloved into my past so he can be a part of me. In this intimate union, I feel safe and loved.

It is July in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains. My oldest son is almost seven, my daughter is almost five, and my newborn son is a month old. I am walking with my mother in a field of wild flowers. The baby is bundled against my chest, his small sweet-smelling head warm under my hand, and the two eldest are running and laughing and picking flowers. My daughter comes to me with a bouquet, and my son presents another to my mother. They are smiling, their faces glowing in the light of the summer sun, so beautiful, so young, so sweet. I think: this has to be a moment of perfect happiness. And I thank God for keeping us safe and loved.

Buying our first house and sitting on the front steps in the gloaming of an August day, thinking, this is really happening, as we hold hands and smile at each other, is as memorable as anything I have lived. Perhaps not feeling safe, but surely feeling loved.

Hiking all the way down Vail Mountain in Colorado with my ex-husband is an unforgettable memory of joy. Jumping across streams and bounding across fields of wildflowers and through groves of shimmering Aspens, and finally, finally, getting all the way down the mountain, then drinking the best beer in the world at an outdoor table, looking up at our conquest, delirious with fatigue yet as happy as children.

And then there was the first day I ever went camping with my new boyfriend and woke up in Utah under the most brilliant blue sky I had ever seen, with the scent of sweet pines and rich loam filling the air. It was a moment of pure ecstasy, a moment when the beauty of nature suddenly saturated me with love.

But for me, the one highest defining moment of happiness, the one space where nothing comes between me and the infinite joy of being, is lying next to someone I love and who loves me, encircled by warm arms, soothed by gentle hands, feeling beautiful and appreciated. For me, that is the ultimate happiness, the ultimate feeling of being safe and loved. And yet, sadly, those moments are always too few.

As I get older, I don’t take as much time to appreciate the life around me or feel thankful for moments of grace. I get too busy working and caring for others and rarely pause to register moments of happiness. Thank you, my friend, for nudging me to remember what makes me happy instead of dwelling on life’s inevitable suffering and disappointments.

When I think of those poor parents who lost their children in such a senseless school massacre, in a place where feeling safe and loved should be, and used to be, taken for granted, I wonder if the pain will erase their happy memories or if their happy memories will deepen the pain. I pray instead that the memories of the short time they were blessed to be with their children will sustain and comfort them as they grieve.

For in the end, memories are all we have, yet even those can be snatched away by trauma or disease. Treasure your happy memories this holiday season and pause, often, to appreciate the moments that give life meaning. Those are truly the gifts worth sharing.

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Divorcing My Home

IMG_1901Once upon a time, I lived in the house of my dreams. Built in 1905, it was a beautiful Victorian in San Francisco on a shady street just a block away from a gym, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a hardware store, three cafes and several restaurants. My ex-husband and I moved in when our middle child was just a few weeks old. The kitchen had no refrigerator and the stove was an ancient Wedgewood with a tiny oven, but we were in love with that house. I remember sitting on the front stairs with him before the sale had even closed, holding hands. It was everything we had ever wanted.

Fourteen years and two more children later, we divorced.

By then, we had remodeled the house, adding bedrooms and bathrooms and a family room, tearing down walls and revamping the kitchen twice. After the earthquake of 1989, we even redid the entire foundation. That house had been a labor of love, and I was determined to keep it.

In the divorce settlement, I did get the house, but nothing had prepared me for the task of maintaining it by myself. When the family room flooded or the roof needed replacing or the garage door got stuck, I would panic. I had no problem, however, doing the little things: unplugging toilets and drains, mowing the tiny lawn, planting bulbs and flowers, cleaning the pond and the hot tub, replacing clogged tubing in the watering system. As for that supposedly burdensome job so many guys neglect or gripe about, putting out the garbage once a week, what a joke! Compared to cooking and cleaning and driving, compared to shopping, making lunches and washing clothes, it was nothing at all.

I had lost a husband and a united family, but I was determined that my children would not lose the comfort and warmth of the home they loved. Like a stranger in my own house, I would roam from room to room trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Wherever I went, I would see my ex: meditating in our bedroom; lying on the floor reading The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to our children; practicing his Aikido and sword sets in the back yard; watching football with the boys in the family room; laughing and telling silly jokes at dinner, which we shared as a family every night, often joined by our children’s friends who just happened to drop by right at dinner time. I always thought he was happy. Perhaps I had been wrong. I will never know. But now my ex-husband was a ghost who filled every space with waves of sadness.

So I decided to repaint. Instead of a soft white, I picked bold warm colors I would never have thought of using before: a russet wall surrounding the fireplace, a bright yellow family room, a lilac blue bedroom. I even bought a red sofa bed for my little office. Since he had taken the oil paintings with him, I hung colorful framed posters and Mexican art everywhere, with a huge Indonesian wood mirror above the couch and a candle-lit wrought-iron chandelier above the dining room table.

Late one manic night, I had turned the dining room into the living room by dragging each heavy piece of furniture by myself from one room to the other.  Bringing platters of food through the living room to the very front of the house was awkward and impractical, but it was different. And different, I thought, would help me forget.

But no matter what I did to erase the past and make the house mine, I couldn’t get rid of the memories of us. I couldn’t banish his invisible presence. Not that it stopped me from trying. I loved my house, and I thought nothing could make me divorce it.

I refinanced four times in six years, taking out more and more money just to keep going, watching both my mortgage payments and my expenses increase as my finances dwindled.

After the divorce, a friend had made a drawing showing me staring out through the bars of a second-floor window. I had become a prisoner in my own home.

Of course, reality finally sank in: I could not afford to stay in my beloved home. I remember my children’s sad expressions when I told them we would have to move. They were losing the last connection to the family we once were.

The market was dropping precipitously, and I readied myself for a quick sale. People trounced through on weekends, or disturbed our dinners, or made rude comments that made me want to punch them.  No offers came.

I refinanced again, waited a month, and got a different agent. Still nothing.

“You’re holding on too tightly,” said the same friend who had drawn the picture. “Everyone who comes through the door can tell you don’t want to let go.”

Let go? I thought I already had. The house was for sale, wasn’t it?  No, it was the bad divorce vibes that were poisoning the air and turning off buyers. To clear the negative energy, I paid a shaman to walk from room to room muttering prayers and waving a smoking bundle of sage. My East Coast friends thought I had lost my mind. It was sooooooo California.

Two months went by. One day my agent took me aside and, as gently as she could, suggested I move out so they could stage my home. I could tell she wanted to say much more but didn’t want to hurt my fragile feelings. Reluctantly, I rented a small house on a lagoon in Marin County and moved. A month later, the house sold.

A part of my soul still lives in that house. Even after it was gutted and turned into something unrecognizable, I pine for it.  Even though I hate the cold and foggy San Francisco summers, I would give anything to live there again. In the many dreams I have of my old home, I am searching everywhere for something: a child, usually, or a secret, or a forbidden gift. I never find whatever it is I have lost.

Every time I go to San Francisco, I feel compelled to drive by my house. Sometimes I park in my old neighborhood and buy Brie and aged Gouda from my favorite cheese store or a baguette and a French apple tart from the bakery-cafe across the street. Sometimes I sit there at a little outside table nursing an espresso and staring at my lost home’s taupe facade, the only part of it left intact. The tall red maples I planted on either side of the driveway thinking they were miniature Japanese maples now reach the second story.  That makes me smile. And when I have the courage, I walk to the sidewalk in front of my house and read the names etched into the concrete, the names of seven people who used to be a family.

 

Who Decides When It’s Time to Die?

 

Lily was 17, a lovely black-and-white American pit bull, wiser and gentler than any dog I have ever known. My son had owned Lily since he was a teenager, but as his drug problem had escalated, his sense of responsibility had evaporated.  He had been smart enough, however, to realize that Lily needed better care than he could give, and he had let his girlfriend take her. Now clean after ten long years, he was driving to his ex’s house to tell Lily he loved her before the vet sent her off to eternal sleep.

Kept in prime shape with a raw food diet and regular exercise, Lily had outlasted her breed’s average life span. Although it seemed she would live forever, despite her arthritis and her hearing loss, despite her cloudy eyes and her mottled fur, she finally succumbed to a kidney infection. Incontinent and unresponsive, she lay on the bed with her eyes closed and her tail limp. It was finally time to say good-bye.

When he arrived, my son cradled Lily’s head in his arms.  She opened her eyes and licked his hand. Her tail came up and thumped lightly against his leg. He picked her up like a baby and pressed his nose to hers. She licked him again.

The scent and touch of her first owner seemed to bring Lily back to life.  My son placed her gently on the floor, and she took a few wobbly steps. The vet was called and cancelled.

Lily was no longer ready to die. Today, she is still getting by, slowly, sometimes painfully, but clinging to life, wagging her tail and enjoying every caress that comes her way. Lily will die sometime soon, of course, but not yet, not quite yet. She still has love to give and people who love her, no matter how frail and old she is.

Ten years ago, the doctors told me my mother was going to die. When I got to the intensive care unit, they had stuck a tube down her throat and tied her tiny hands to the bed. Weak and shrunken to barely 80 pounds, she had still summoned the strength to try to break free from the tubes and lines that bound her. When she saw me, her sea-green eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled into a look of frantic pain, as if she were begging me to release her from torture.

The nurse gave her more morphine.

A team of social workers and nurses escorted my brother and me to a windowless conference room. “Your mother cannot survive,” they told us. “Her lungs and heart are shutting down.” They asked if we wanted them to keep her alive no matter what or refrain from resuscitating her should she start to fail.

We went out to the hall, a depressing dull beige hospital hallway, and wept.

Long ago, my mother had asked me to help her die when she could no longer take care of herself. I had promised, but I later realized that I could never actually “pull the plug.” Now she had been ill for at least three years due to a pulmonary embolism, leashed to an oxygen tank, in and out of hospitals — where, being French and a picky gourmet, she refused to touch their nasty food or sip their cloying Ensure or even drink their water, which she had always hated. To please her, we would smuggle in red wine, oysters and strawberries. No, my mother would not have wanted to be revived, would not have wanted to be a burden, would not have wanted to have us suffer because of her.

So my brother and I signed the “do not resuscitate” order. They removed all her tubes, unhooked the clicking and buzzing monitors, and wheeled her out of Intensive Care. They put her in a little room with a big red dot above the door, a dot that meant “let this patient die.”

But she didn’t die. She woke up, saw us standing by her bed and smiled a big happy smile. She reached for our hands. We kissed her and smoothed back her blonde hair. She called us by name. My mother wasn’t ready to die!

We went out into that hall again and wept under the big red dot.

Every day that I went through that door, the red dot seemed to glare at me. Meanwhile, my mother continued to improve. The nurses and doctors called her “our miracle girl.”

One day, as I was painting my mother’s toenails a brilliant blue and laughing at how silly they looked poking out from the sheets, a nurse walked in. My mother looked up at her with a smile and said, “You see, I’m so much better now that my daughter came.” She gripped my hand and looked up at me with the sweetest look of love and gratitude.

She was giving me credit for her recovery when in truth I had signed her death warrant.

My mother lived another two years, slipping slowly away yet always eager to see her loved ones. She said knowing what her children and grandchildren were doing kept her wanting to live. At the end, we moved her to a hospice, where she received the most loving care.

The last day I saw my mother alive, she told me I was beautiful even though she could hardly speak.  But soon her breathing grew ragged and her translucent green eyes were fixed on a faraway place, a place I couldn’t see. I held her hand and I kissed her and I whispered how much we loved her and what a great mother she had been.  When she was finally ready to die, she did.

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