Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Mother and Son: A Duet

“I thought at first of swarms of bees covering her white hat and net like a buzzing brown rug. My mother walks toward me, her arms stretched out to hug me. Behind her in the apple orchard, four wooden hives teeter on the hillside, waiting for her to pull out their honey-heavy combs. When I look up from my Time magazine, I see not many bees, but two flies circling desperately in the glow of the television.”

“If I fix wide-open eyes East in this golden fall sunset, I can see him in his small bare room, reading, humming, perhaps rubbing a green apple against the rough blue ridges of his pants. The bees are still. I have stolen their life’s work in a day. I miss my son’s strong hands beside me, his laughter like a bell waking my heart.”

“This is how we make our way home, in twilight dreams, in lonely rooms, on nights hollowed by our mistakes. When I lived there, in the warm California hills, she fed me toast with amber honey on thick pale butter. I cannot drive home to see her. My heart presses into itself. My mouth is dry. I take a sip of bitter water and see her in my mind, the curly hair, the coffee-brown eyes marked by a hundred lines pulling her skyward. I smell her grass-clean scent, and it fills me with longing.”

“I slipped so quickly I had no time to be afraid. I fell into the yellow grass and the earth became my bed. (When I was a child, I used to lie like this, in the evening, waiting to catch the exact moment light ceded to darkness.) It is so cool here. I know he feels the same coolness. A wisp of fog lifts off the ocean and drifts past me, a careless cloud that has lost its way. Perhaps he thinks of me. My thoughts are strong and calm and distant, like the night he was born when the pain was so great I shook it free and felt the universe open inside me. The night when joy and fear began.”

COQ AU VIN

photo 2Last month I got jumped by a rooster. There I was, alone on the top of a mountain, where cell phones don’t work and bobcats and mountain lions roam, fearlessly caring for my friends’ two Savannah cats, two Chihuahuas, seven chickens and one rooster, while they were in Hawaii on their honeymoon. I never imagined that it would be the rooster, not the snarling dogs or the semi-wild cats, that would be my nemesis.
At first the Chihuahuas yapped and yapped, baring their sharp little teeth and refusing to come into the house at nightfall. I imagined finding their mangled bodies in the morning, their long brown-and-white fur matted with blood, or worse, not finding them at all. But no way was I going to let them bite me, so I left them out in the cold, huddled on their pillow bed, snarling.
tn-3The next morning I brought Newman’s Peanut Butter Treats. By noon, Poppy and Candy were following me around in silence. By four, I had them in the bathtub. By five, they were snuggling together on the top of a red leather armchair, their big brown eyes fixed lovingly on mine. Okay, so they were waiting for more treats. Still, it felt like true love every day for the next two weeks.
The cats were a bigger challenge. Savannahs are a mix of the wild African Serval and domestic cats. Lenya, the female, had more wild in her than Jag, the big black male. She sat on a beam jutting out from the loft bedroom and glared down at me with shifty yellow-green eyes. She was beautiful to watch, lean and untamed, her golden fur marked with brown striations. She would jump gracefully from table to chair to sofa to the top of her deluxe cat tree and her bowl full of kibble.
Jag was older than Lenya and three times her size. His striations were less visible on his dark coat, and he had the noble sloping nose of a Jaguar or Panther. I was told he was very affectionate and would come around asking to be petted, but for the first three days, I never even saw him. He hid under the bed and only came out to eat when I was outside.
I bought small chicken drumsticks and left a couple, raw of course, in the food bowl. Lenya smelled them immediately, leaped up and devoured one. Not Jag. I watched through the window as he pushed them aside, preferring his dry kibble.tn-1
On the fourth day, Jag suddenly appeared and jumped up on the dining room table next to my computer. I put out my hand and he sniffed it, then nudged it, then let me scratch him vigorously behind his ears and tail. His purr startled me: a deep roar punctuated by loud guttural meowing, as if he were talking to me. Thus began our ten-day love fest.
Lenya grew a little bolder as she watched Jag throw himself at me, whether I was sitting at the table or lying on the sofa reading. He would nudge me with his big head and start purring loudly, commanding me to pet him, and when I would come in from the hot tub, he would lick and nibble my toes as if they were lollipops.
On the fifth day, Lenya joined him on the table. I held out my hand, and she sniffed it carefully. Then I went back to rubbing and scratching Jag’s head and neck. All of a sudden, Lenya wrapped her front paws around his neck and started licking his ears. Slowly, I switched my fingers from Jag’s head to hers, and she let me run them down her back to her tail without flinching. I went back and forth between them until she finally relaxed and stretched her thin body against Jag’s huge one.
Every day, I brought raw meat for Lenya and let her eat it out of my hand. Finally, one quiet afternoon, she jumped up on the couch and settled herself on my lap. As I stroked her perfect little head, she started purring, a sound as faint and hesitant as Jag’s was loud and insistent.tn-4
I had now tamed the dogs and cats, but the chickens were another story. I would let them out into their pen in the morning and lock them up at night, always nervous that they might peck me to death like a scene from “The Birds,” especially when they pushed past me in a mad flurry of feathers, cackling and beady-eyed. I guess I’m not a chicken person… The rooster always emerged last, looking arrogant and menacing, a magnificent black and white fowl with a bright red crown.
After a week, I had the routine down: unlatch the small coop door, let the brood out, then go around to the big side door and check the grain supply – which was exactly what I was doing when something heavy landed smack on my head, almost knocking me over. Squawking triumphantly, the rooster catapulted himself onto the ground and ran off, crowing in glee. I swore. He had been hiding in the rafters, just waiting for his chance to escape.
I had surely lost the rooster and could not imagine how I would explain his disappearance. No way! I grabbed a rake and started chasing that devious bird through the yard, onto the porch, into the redwood grove, around the trampoline and back to the house. But he was fast and clever, heading me off or turning around to run in the opposite direction, until I finally gave up and went inside, exhausted. I needed a better plan of attack.
After a few hours nursing my trauma and vowing revenge, I had a brilliant idea, at least for someone ignorant of the ways of chickens. I shooed the hens back into their little house and locked them in. Then I opened the door to the pen. This time, that damn rooster would see who was boss. Scaring him with my shouts and brandishing my rake, I cornered him until he had nowhere to run but back inside the enclosure. Eureka!
But the battle was far from over. Imagine my surprise – and anger – the very last afternoon of my guard duty when I arrived and saw that brazen rooster standing like a statue by the front door. The devil had managed to fly out of his pen, as if to say “Ha, ha. I win! Catch me if you can!”
We stared each other down. I flapped my arms, he flapped his wings, and the chase began, a long and arduous one that left me panting with adrenaline but victorious at last. I locked up that cocky rooster and his harem of admirers way before dusk, a punishment he richly deserved.
And that, my friends, is when I decided that coq au vin would always be one of my favorite dishes.

Books, Brains & Breasts

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When I was in college, no one talked about sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. And if it did happen, who would have believed a woman anyway? And yet even one incident can remain embedded in memory for life. For me, that incident had the power to make me doubt my intelligence and writing skills for years. No, decades. Maybe still.

My advisor and professor of literature in college was Dr. K. He was my teacher, my mentor, my god, and not a weekday went by that we didn’t meet in his small wood-paneled office, its walls a tapestry of books, a sanctuary of thought and feeling and trust.  For three years, I listened to his voice, low, lilting, Southern honey, urging me on. “Your poetry is so vital,” he would say. “Your critique is so brilliant.”

Oh, there were signs that last year: a brush against the thigh as he, always courtly and formal, pulled out the leather armchair to seat me before he took his own place. His gentle eyes, rheumy behind their thick rimless glasses, may have peered a bit too intently at my breasts as I leaned to pick up my notebook. But I would quickly sit up straight and fix my gaze on the seabirds circling above the bay.

But the talk, the talk was always clean. No signs there, no froth. We swept through Faulkner and Hemingway and Melville, Whitman and Eliot and Pound. He told me he was finishing his book on Faulkner, the definitive study, fifteen years in the writing, and his own novel, on hold for now, but destined for greatness.

My thesis, a study of modern female voices in American poetry, was almost finished, my orals scheduled for the end of May. It was a bittersweet time, the years of study and writing bearing fruit in my confidence and mastery, while the knowledge that this was my last and finest hour shadowed me from dorm to library to classroom to Dr. K’s hallowed office.

As the date of my last literary examination approached, the Florida heat became more and more brutal. Each day was a hurdle toward graduation, the ultimate goal, the ultimate validation, but also the severance of youth, with an abyss beyond which I refused to contemplate. I put aside my fears of the bleak workaday life that seemed to be an adult’s destiny and soared in the reaches of pure thought, then plunged into my writing as if to penetrate the deepest secrets of my heart and soul.

The scent of jasmine permeated Dr. K’s office, and each day, he shifted closer, as if to say, our communion is complete. Perfect and complete.

Sometimes his fingers would land awkwardly on my bare shoulder, or linger too long on my upper arm, gently kneading the flesh. His balding head would bead with sweat, and his half-closed dull blue eyes would slide back and forth behind his glasses. Yet I didn’t let myself see or feel anything but the restless shimmer of his brilliant mind.

The day of my orals was so thick with heat that my clothing clung to my skin the minute I stepped outside. I wore a short white skirt, a white halter-top and leather thongs, a typical outfit for a sweltering day.

The bay was opaque, a flat green. The clouds were ominous. Students moved as if slowed by time, unwilling to release themselves from the final throes of childhood.

Dr. K opened the door for me and took my hand in his. I was as tan as he was pale.  Moving toward my usual place, I felt his moist fingers on my neck. “You’ve pulled your hair up,” he whispered. “You have a beautiful nape.”

I stood still. “Thank you,” I said. “Shall we begin?”

His fingers caressed my back and his bony hips pushed into my buttocks, hard and insistent. He didn’t pull out the chair, just stood behind me breathing on my neck. “Your skin. You have the most beautiful tawny skin. I’ve always wanted to touch it.”

“What are you doing?” I turned and backed away toward the bookshelves. “Please, Dr. K, don’t do this.”

But he was like a deaf and blind man. He followed me and pinned himself against me and thrust his tongue into my mouth. I whipped my head from side to side as his hand reached my breasts under my halter.  He swept his clammy fingers down across my midriff and almost seemed to whimper.

“Please,” I begged. “Please stop.”

In a short story I later wrote, the girl being harassed grabs her professor by his bony shoulders, calls him a dirty old man, and shoves him so hard that he falls backward and hits the edge of his desk. His glasses fly off his nose and he crumples to the ground, dead.

But that is not what happened. Dr. K looked so pathetic that I felt sorry for him, standing there with his shoulders stooped and his eyes fixed on my breasts. Slowly, I turned and walked toward the door. He followed me, reaching for my naked arms. I recoiled but said nothing in protest. Instead, I reached for the doorknob before he could say or do anything else and left, not even slamming the door behind me.

Outside, seagulls screamed and the air was so thick that I felt as though the sky were crushing me, suffocating me under the relentless weight of this awful day. Had I been his joke, then, his private avatar, his dreams made flesh, all of my work laid bare to mockery, signifying nothing more than the perturbations of his middle age? Now it seemed Dr. K had praised my writing and my papers not because I was a good student but because he found me attractive. That’s what it would always be in the man’s world I was about to enter: attraction would always trump intelligence.

He had tricked me into believing I was so smart, so gifted, a budding writer coddled by the lord of professors, honing me like a literary weapon to cut through the dross of his own stale perceptions.  But maybe I wasn’t as smart as he had led me to believe.  Maybe he had always had something else in mind.

I didn’t report Dr. K. The thought never even crossed my mind. And I didn’t tell anyone except my best friend. Instead, I changed into my bikini and went to the beach, where I floated in the salty water, baptized by reality.

About fifteen years later, Dr. K called me at home, his voice a little slurred and hesitant. He said he was contacting all of his favorite students to find out where life had led them. My life had led me to marriage, motherhood and mundane editing jobs, which I glamorized a bit to impress him. He never mentioned our last meeting. Now would have been my chance to tell him how his advances had pounded the nail of self-doubt into my heart. But I didn’t. By now, I understood men better and felt even more sorry for him. I imagined him on the other end of the line, an aging man devoid of all sexual appeal, grasping for remembered fantasies.

Sometimes I wish I had yelled at him in his office and demanded an apology when he called. I would hope my two daughters would do that if the same thing happened to them. But the woman I am today would still not have the courage to protest, let alone report, a man who had taught her so much. He was, after all, just an ordinary, imperfect man, and I was just a naïve young woman, oblivious to the lure of youthful flesh.

French Lessons

Scan 10He had been a difficult man, my grandfather, or so my mother and grandmother had always told me when they recalled the many days the two of them had spent alone while he disappeared from dawn until dinner to hunt or fish in his beloved Gironde countryside. I called him Papi, and when at nine I was sent back to France for a year, I did not find him difficult to love. The difficulty, I thought then, was proving myself worthy of his love, and it was only much later that I understood what Mami had gone through, living with a man who would never change a single habit to accommodate woman, child or society.
My grandparents were to meet me when La Covadonga, a rusty Spanish freighter my parents had been misled into believing was a safe luxury liner, docked in Bilbao, Spain, after twelve days at sea. Since I had traveled alone save for a promiscuous French chaperone, who never slept in the cabin or ate with me or watched me at all, Papi had agreed to fetch me by car, but he had lost his nerve at the Spanish border, and Mami had come the rest of the way by train. He was, she told me fretfully, an impossible, stubborn man. Could I imagine, she asked, that the one time he had gone to Paris with her and my mother, he left the very next day because he claimed hotels made him sick?
What I could imagine, after just a few days in France, was why he would not want to leave a perfect place. Never had I had a garden from which to pick strawberries, or cornfields in which to play hide-and-seek, or doves and rabbits to feed.
With great patience but stern discipline, Papi set out to teach me everything I didn’t know, and that, he said, was a lot. Every afternoon that summer, he would close the dining-room shutters, and, in cool semi-darkness, I would study reading, writing and recitation with him. He had been a teacher all his life, as had Mami, and he spoke in a loud, clear voice, enunciating every syllable and defining each difficult word. My American accent irritated him even more than my American ignorance, especially since my first language had been French. He made me repeat sentences, often tongue-twisters, endlessly, and memorize and recite all of his favorite fables by La Fontaine. I imitated his rolling Southern intonations so assiduously that to this day, I speak French with the inelegant and provincial “accent du Midi.”
Since Papi scorned those who slept late, I learned to wake up by seven. He was up at six, working in his garden before it was too hot, and I would run down the sloped garden path to see him after I had gulped down my café au lait. When I kissed him, his cheeks were rough and fresh with the scent of lemony cologne and dew.
In those days, Papi kept two gardens, one in La Réole, the small town we lived in, and one in Barie, Mami’s childhood home in the country, where we often spent weekends. There, he had plum, pear, apple and apricot trees. He kept bees, too, handling the hives with his bare hands, and he made me swallow a teaspoon of honey, which I hated as a child, every morning, for long life and health.
In one of Barie’s many attic rooms, Papi kept pigeons trained as tree decoys for hunting palombes, the wild pigeons that flew up from the Pyrenees every fall. He and his friends built elaborate fern tunnels and hunting cabins in the woods and spent every autumn day waiting for the birds to alight in the specially cleared trees, a wait that would prolong itself as both the woods and the hapless birds dwindled over the years.
When it wasn’t hunting season, it was fishing season, a time of lazy late afternoons by the Garonne river, where, if I was allowed to tag along, I had to be perfectly quiet amongst the flies and tickling weeds and smells of cow dung and rotting fruit, my small bamboo pole in hand, praying with fervent concentration to catch a fish and prove my worth.
For Papi was my hero, unlike anyone I had ever met in America. A short man, he appeared tall because he was compact, trim and strong. He preferred old comfortable clothes, a beret, worn boots and baggy brown pants, and he insisted on using the same soap to wash, shave and shampoo.
One night, as I lay under a lofty white eiderdown beneath a distant ceiling, I heard him telling Mami that I looked more like my father than did my sister and brothers. Since he had never forgiven my Yugoslav father for taking away his only child and for being foreign and dark-eyed and for eating delicately and sleeping late, I took his comment as a sign of disfavor. To win his approval, I tried to be the perfect student, and I was, except when it came to the violin, the instrument he played so well. Having failed within a month to sense any progress in my playing, he declared, wrongly, that I was tone-deaf, just like my mother and grandmother, and he took back the tiny violin he had given me.
Whenever we ate, Papi observed everything I did and commented, often unkindly. His eyes were very round, nut-brown and deep-set, and his mouth, tightly modeled, was quick to move. “You must take a bite of bread after every morsel of meat and salad,” he would say. “You must not trim the fat off your meat. It reminds me of your father picking the fat out of his salami.” He complained that Mami ate like a bird and was far too skinny, not like she was when he married her.
I learned to eat the way he ate, the French way, and I would flush with pride if he said I had eaten well: chewing the little bones of the birds he roasted in the fireplace, or crunching the heads and skeletons of fried “ablettes,” the tiny fish he caught in quantity in the springtime.
Once, I displeased Papi by refusing to finish my meal. I had choked on my lunch after learning it was my pet rabbit, Annie, my Easter present, butchered and baked without my knowledge or consent. As a Frenchman, he believed that such pets were meant to be eaten when full-grown, and that I should have learned that by now. Though he seemed contrite afterwards, and tried to comfort me by playing a violin jig in front of my locked door, he did not hesitate a few weeks later to dispatch my two pet ducks.
In school, Papi expected me to be first, and after a dismal and difficult start as fourteenth, I studied my way to third, second and finally first. He was proud of me, he said, very proud.
Then summer came, and my mother arrived with my brothers and sister, and Papi no longer bothered to scold me or even correct me. My French lessons had ended.

The year after we got married, I took my now ex-husband to France to meet my grandparents. I had been there several times since that childhood year and had noticed Papi’s gruffness turning to rancor, his dislike of socializing turning to misanthropy. He drove less and less. He abandoned the garden and orchards of Barie. He cursed the modern world, the church, the government, crime and industry, and in his escalating stinginess, begrudged every franc Mami spent on what he called “frivolities.” He had become an old man, more difficult than ever, a man afraid of death and shattered by the indecencies of a weakening mind and body.
Never sensitive to anyone’s feelings, Papi now demanded sensitivity to his. One day, Mami took us to Bordeaux by train, and we arrived a little later than planned. We found Papi at the window, cradling his round head in his hands, crying. “He’s always afraid I won’t come back,” Mami said.
When he forgot something, Papi would sit at the kitchen table and rub his temples with his calloused thumbs, until he was so frustrated that he would shout, “What did I go out to do, anyway?”
The day we left La Réole was a warm September morning, soft with the silvery light of Gironde. From the train station, we could see the wide Garonne river, twisting, brown and treacherous, through the rich valley of small farms, the land rising gently into hills of green and purple vineyards and patches of just-fading trees. Large cranes bordered one side of the river, and Papi told us they were dredging all the gravel, making the river a deathtrap of whirlpools. He pointed to other factories along the banks and said they had killed all the fish; it was no use fishing any more. He repeated how much he hated the modern world — he couldn’t understand why it destroyed everything. As for hunting, it had become a farce, the way they fattened up the partridges and released them for slaughter by weekend amateurs.
Everything had changed, he said, everything but him.

In Praise of Love, a French Mother and Glorious Food

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Today, January 6th, was my mother’s birthday. Her name was Gisèle, but those close to her called her Gigi. I won’t say how old she would have been in honor of one of her Frenchwoman’s commandments: Thou shalt not tell thy age. The goal was to stay looking and acting young, not moaning and groaning about how old you were. Plus, she said, it was nobody’s business: if you looked too good for your age, people wondered what you had done; if you looked really bad, people felt sorry for you.

Until the very end, when she seemed to shrink and crumble in pain, my mother looked beautiful and had a youthful spirit that brought joy to everyone around her.

One of the many memories that keep Gigi alive for me is of her flitting around the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand, an apron protecting her elegant, often white, clothing, scampering from stove to sink to refrigerator as she prepared unforgettable meals. She had been an intellectual in Paris, never needing to cook until she came to the States and started missing her favorite French dishes, mostly those from her region of birth near Bordeaux.

Gigi’s mother, my Mami, had cooked good, simple meals, excelling at the puddings, pots de crème and tarts she so loved. Mami only liked sweets, taking tiny bites of meat or fish and teensy sips of soup to placate her husband. Toward the end, when she was in a nursing home, she refused to eat anything but desserts, and the Catholic Sisters were kind enough to oblige her.

But my mother’s grandmother had been a stellar cook, turning out sauces and stews, roasts and cakes with nothing but an icebox, two gas burners, a big kitchen fireplace, and well water that had to be pumped and carried up the stairs.  Gigi had spent many hours by her Mémé’s side, assisting and absorbing, and when the time came for her to cook for her own family, she instinctively knew what to do.

As a guide, she kept her grandmother’s cookbook, published in 1929, Traité de Cuisine Bourgeoise Bordelaise by Aleide Bontou. I treasure that little green book with its brown and tattered pages. There are no pictures, and very few measurements, just general directions in paragraph form, as if any decent cook would know exactly what to do when told “faites une liaison avec jaune d’oeuf et beurre.”  Translation: bind (or thicken) with egg yolks and butter, a tricky culinary maneuver, which , if done incorrectly, results in a curdled mess.

Here and there, I find my mother’s underlining in pencil, or a recipe slipped between the pages, and I feel as if she is in the kitchen with me. I also have many of her index cards with favorite recipes copied in her loopy script, recipes that made her reputation as the best (and prettiest) hostess in Denver, with a magical je ne sais quoi in the kitchen. I remember her laughing when she told me that her friends always asked why her coffee was so much better than theirs. She maintained she had no idea, but she did: she put real cream in every cup, not skim milk or some awful artificial whitener.

In Gigi’s mind, there was nothing wrong with cream or butter. She believed that many Americans were fat because they ate too much and the food they ate was artificial and tasteless. At the height of its popularity, margarine never crossed our threshold, nor did sugary cereals or peanut butter or ketchup.

Gigi thought the best breakfast for children was a thick piece of French bread slathered in butter and topped with a mountain of grated dark chocolate. In my goody-goody phase, I used to be appalled knowing my children were eating this at her house every morning (and probably every afternoon too!), but it was the same little decadence my grandmother had prepared for me when I lived in France as a child. I had loved it, and now they did too.

Sometimes Gigi would make her grandchildren macaroni and cheese with so much Gruyère that they could pull a strand of it up with their teeth, vying to see whose would break first. The winner would usually be standing up on his or her chair, while my mother laughed and my father scowled.

She also made their favorite stew, which she called Sauce au Vin (Wine Sauce), a variation of Boeuf Bourguignon. She never measured, but it’s an easy recipe. Take good stew meat, which you have asked the butcher, ever so sweetly, to cut into medium-sized cubes, toss them in flour and brown them in oil, with a little butter thrown in just because. Put the browned meat aside and sauté a lot of sliced onions in the same pot. Add a bouquet garni of bay leaves, thyme and parsley, then pour in a whole bottle of decent wine, preferably a Cabernet or Merlot or Bordeaux. (Gigi shunned cheap wines, believing they resulted in lousy stews and sauces. She would not, under any circumstances, have used Two Buck Chuck!) After the sauce has reduced a bit, put the meat back in the pot and cook the stew at very low temperature for about four hours. Check periodically and pour in more wine if necessary. Add sautéed mushrooms at the end, if desired, and serve over buttered egg noodles.

Gigi loved mushrooms, especially cèpes, which we know as porcini, and chanterelles. She had hunted wild mushrooms with her father as a child and was bewildered to discover that Americans didn’t know what they were. Surely they were somewhere to be found in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Later, when mushroom-hunting became popular and friends would bring them to her, she would cut them into smallish pieces and sauté them in olive oil with garlic and parsley, then serve them, sometimes as garnish, sometimes in velvety sauces, and sometimes as a filling for an omelet, eaten at lunch or dinner, never at breakfast.

Every year since Gigi died, I try to make something she loved on her birthday. In her last days, her one true love was still oysters on the half-shell. When we were kids in New Jersey, after dragging us around New York City, she would have to stop at the Oyster Bar in the Port Authority Bus Terminal and order a dozen oysters and a glass of white wine. She taught us to put only lemon juice on the oysters, and to make sure they hadn’t been washed, since that removed the taste of the sea. Before I learned to like oysters, I would watch in horror as she poked each one with a little fork to make sure it was still fresh and alive before she swallowed it.

I can’t shuck oysters no matter how hard I try. Unless my brother is with me, that dish is out of the question. But Gigi also loved scallops, and made a great Coquilles Saint-Jacques, with butter, shallots, white wine, mushrooms and a touch of cream. I think I’ll make that tonight and savor it as I drink to my beautiful mother’s memory.

Before I go shopping, though, I hear her voice in my head with another Frenchwoman’s commandment: Thou shalt never go out looking sloppy or badly dressed. It’s bad for you and even worse for those who have to look at you.

So, out of respect and the deepest love for Gigi, I am going to change out of my sweatpants, put on some lipstick, and head for the market, where I will smile and flirt with the fishmonger, just as my mother would have. Then I will make the scallops and a plain butter lettuce salad, the way she liked it, followed by a simple dessert of raspberries and Chambord with vanilla ice-cream. Before sitting down, I will toast her spirit with a fine Bordeaux while I thank her in silent prayer for being the best mother and grandmother anyone could wish for.

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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On Watching Sports

When the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1995, my three boys and their father raced out the front door of our San Francisco home and roared “49ERS RULE!” until they were hoarse. And they weren’t the only ones yelling… A chorus of male victory shouts rang out through the streets and well into the night.

Not that the 49ers are lacking female fans. My daughters and I are always happy if they win, and we’re not alone. But men seem to share a passion for their sports teams that is almost tribal. I have never heard two women discussing Monday Night Football at a cocktail party, yet I have listened to men meeting for the first time dissect an entire game together as if they were best buddies.

I don’t know of a single activity that unites women as passionately as watching sports unites so many men. There must be a gene that impels males to tether themselves to a seat in front of a television for hours on end, oblivious to everything but the game, the snacks and sometimes the beer.

It’s not just football, baseball and basketball either.  I have two sons who can watch golf for hours, as excited about a putt as they are about a touchdown. One dreary Sunday afternoon in Germany, I even witnessed my brother-in-law watching billiard tournaments!

One of my favorite young men, a former high school athlete, insisted that he never watched sports.  I believed him until I found out that he is obsessed with off-road truck racing. Something tells me that might be a sport…

When he was just a toddler, my youngest son, who never stopped moving and making mischief, would sit quietly next to his dad mesmerized by football. By the time he was seven, he could rattle off names and statistics for players on teams across the country. It was as if his brain had a separate computer dedicated to sports. By the time he was eight, he was on a city team. He played football through the end of high school, and I cheered with all the other parents even though I didn’t always understand what was happening. Every time my son was tackled, I would cringe and close my eyes and pray that he would get up again.

My middle son went through a baseball phase that included playing on a team, collecting cards and memorizing batting stats.  Oh, and watching the San Francisco Giants!

My oldest son loved soccer and traveled with an elite team. When I would hear the hum of some foreign crowd cheering and that peculiar nasal tone soccer commentators seem to share, I would know he was home.

As for tennis, I’ve lived with that male obsession for several years now. It was quite bearable until more and more of the women started grunting and letting out banshee cries with every ball they whacked.

In her last decade, my French mother started to watch the Denver Broncos. My brother explained all the football rules to her, and she would sit with him and his friends happily watching the games. But I don’t think it was football that excited her. It was hanging out with the guys…and her little crush on John Elway.

On Thanksgiving, the television is usually on all afternoon, with just enough of a pause for my boys to eat as much as they can, as fast as they can, before rushing back to their posts on the sofa.

My kids were with their father this year, but I did cook a few things to bring to a friend’s house.  And I turned on the television so I could hear the familiar background comfort of a football game.

Now if only I could remember what first-in-ten really means…

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.

 

My Brother’s Keeper

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When Hurricane Sandy was heading toward New York, my first confused thought was, “I have to call my brother!” And then it hit me inside, like a kick in the stomach: my big brother was no longer in Westchester County. He was in an Alzheimer’s home in France, and I had put him there.

For three years, I flew back and forth between San Francisco and New York to try to save first his condominium, then his life, then his independence, then his rented apartment. Finally, defeated by his deterioration and the expense of New York’s memory care homes, I resorted to taking him back to France, just a few miles from where he was born, and leaving him in a place so far from me that now, despite the work, the worry, the responsibilities, the endless paperwork and all the legal battles I fought for him, I am filled with sorrow and regret.

“You did the right thing,” people tell me. Did I? I see him in my mind, wandering the corridors with empty-eyed men and women twenty years older than he is. I see him going outside to the small fenced courtyard to feed the chickens and stare at the familiar vine-covered hills of his childhood. I see him watching French television, restless and agitated whenever someone approaches, as he waits for a phone call or a visit, both so rare, both of which he will forget moments later.

But when I call him, I can see the smile on his face. “Maia, my sister, how are you doing?” he always asks, recognizing my voice instantly. “Are you coming to see me today?” And I lie. Yes, I lie again and again and again. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be seeing him soon, the way I used to. We’ll go out to dinner. We’ll have fun.

In truth, it may be many months or even years before I can afford a trip to France, and by then he may not recognize me at all.

What is the right thing to do? When my ex-sister-in-law alerted me to my brother’s decline, my first thought was, “Oh, he’s just getting more eccentric with age.” But she was persistent, and I finally flew out to find the most appalling scene I could have imagined. My brother, who cherished and refinished antiques, who was passionate about trout fishing and the environment, who spoke – and still speaks –four languages fluently, who had an MBA from Columbia University and managed the investments of rich foreigners, was living in squalor.

He had become a hoarder, unable to manage his money or his daily life, spending every penny he had on expensive meals and things he didn’t need. From the front door I inched my way through mounds of excess stuff, through a kitchen piled with dirty dishes, through a dining room littered with fishing rods and tackle boxes, to the one usable living room chair, where he sat watching grainy images on his vintage television, his beloved tabby cat on his lap, oblivious to just how bad his situation had become.

Upstairs was even worse: closets filled with dozens of expensive suits, slacks, shoes, shirts, and jackets, hundreds of ties, some with the tags still attached, drawers crammed with t-shirts and sweaters, boxes shoved under the beds and dressers, filled with who knew what. No wonder he was sleeping in his chair: a pile of unopened mail covered his bed.

When I started to sort through those envelopes and all the others littering the condo, I found that he owed every major credit card money, that his condo was about to go into foreclosure, that he owed the IRS a fortune in back taxes, and that he had liquidated the line of credit on his home and every savings account he ever had, including all of his retirement accounts. My brother, once well off and successful, was now completely broke and in serious debt. Somehow, I had to help him.

With the help of his forgiving ex-wife, we began cleaning the place, throwing out collections of empty cat food cans, wine bottles, plastic containers, magazines, newspapers, paper napkins – the list is far too long to recount. We filled one trash bag after another and snuck them out at night, so he wouldn’t see us. Otherwise, he would open the bags and look through them for hours, angered if we were getting rid of anything he found valuable, which was everything, from a pebble to a broken shell to a piece of wood he had found on one of his outings. The back of his van was crammed to the ceiling with objects he had taken from the streets or roads or garbage cans, objects he insisted could come in handy some day.

In the middle of one particularly bad night, he woke me up yelling, his face red with rage. He accused me of throwing out his favorite river rock (he had a huge collection!), a rock shaped like a heart. I was sure I had not, but afraid he might turn violent, I went out to the dumpsters in the biting cold, took back that night’s haul, and looked through every last item, finding nothing, as he sat staring at me in anger. The next morning, I found his precious rock in the kitchen.

I went back in November to continue the cleanup with my daughter. One morning we found him screaming outside in his underwear, angry that the squirrels were eating the birdseed he scattered everywhere, against his condo association’s regulations. People were getting into their cars to go to work and staring as I tried to gently steer him back into the house with the promise of eggs and bacon.

I went again in January, and then every other month. The house began to look better while my brother got worse and worse. Every time I returned, he had put new yellow post-its on the refrigerator, on the telephone, on the kitchen cabinets, on appliances he could not remember how to use, on his stereo buttons and his television remote control. I made him a notebook with all of his important numbers written down, but he would misplace it. There might be four post-its with our father’s number right on the phone, yet he would claim he couldn’t find the number. The message machine was always full, mostly with threatening calls from creditors.

Meanwhile, he had no awareness of his condition. He insisted on taking an exam to maintain his broker’s license so he could work again. He failed it repeatedly, always blaming someone or something and vowing he would pass it the next time.

Desperate to find out what was causing his mental decline, I took him from one doctor to the next. He had severe diabetes, high blood pressure, and cirrhosis.  He was ordered to stop drinking, which he ignored, repeating the same story that he never liked to get drunk growing up and had been raised the French way on red wine mixed with water until he was old enough for the real thing. Both of those statements were true. I had never seen him noticeably drunk, but he had obviously become a big drinker. His supply of expensive French wine was running out, so he started buying beer instead.  If I showed disapproval, he would wag his finger, furrow his brow and give me an angry lecture denying he had a problem.

After an exhausting series of tests, including one for mad cow disease, the diagnosis was always dementia. Probable cause: alcohol and uncontrolled diabetes or early onset Alzheimer’s. I got power of attorney, applied for disability, and put his house on the market.

On February 20, 2010, my sister-in-law called me to say that my brother was very ill and had called her to ask what he should do. The day before had been his 60th birthday, and he had drunk a few six-packs of beer outside of the nearby gas station with some guy he barely knew. He was throwing up blood. She called 911 and they took him to the hospital.

Everything was wrong with him, including a bad case of pneumonia. He went into a coma for days and was put on a ventilator. Once again, I was asked to decide whether or not to keep someone alive by artificial means. This time, I did not hesitate to say yes. He had a daughter I loved, and I was not about to give up on him. I was even naïve enough to think that he might regain his mental facilities!

When he came out of his coma, he remembered nothing. And when he finally returned, after escaping from the convalescent facility through a bathroom window, he denied that he had ever been hospitalized.  He had been gone for nearly a month. He had lost weight and seemed much healthier, but his mind was worse than ever.

And so it went. I arranged for Meals on Wheels and help with his utility bills, and he was approved for Social Security Disability payments. My sister-in-law agreed to come once a week, as did a social worker. But no one could control him, really. He would disappear in his van to feed feral cats or wander the country roads or shop and eat and drink in his old haunts with a new account he managed to finagle before I could close it and pay back all the overdraft fees.

Because the real estate market was so weak, it took months to sell his condo, and when it finally sold, at a greatly reduced price, paying back the liens and fees and attorneys left me with just enough for moving and rent and expenses his disability check could not cover. But where could he go?

I wanted to give my brother a chance to live on his own just a little longer.  He was much too young for a nursing home, and Medicaid had turned us down. So I lied again and made a great case that he was diabetic but fine otherwise and signed a lease for a coop apartment in a nearby town, where he could walk everywhere if he lost his driver’s license.  We painted the walls, sanded the floors and filled the place with his beautiful furniture, paintings and rugs. It was on the seventh floor, with a view of trees and sky and the sound of trains rushing by on the nearby rails. He loved it, and quickly forgot about his condo.

Wherever we went, he would pick up papers and garbage as he walked, railing against people who were pigs and had no respect for the environment. At home, he would spend hours cutting off loose threads from his towels or picking lint off the carpets with his fingers. Clearly, obsessive-compulsive behavior was part of his baffling disease.

The last time I took him to New York City, he wandered off in the subway station while I searched for him in a panic, calling out his name like a madwoman. I eventually found him dancing in front of a subway musician. By the time he had picked up all the trash on our way to H&R Block, we were very late. He fell asleep in his chair while the tax preparer was talking.

Every week, he would get into trouble of some kind or other, and I would get calls or e-mails from the building manager and his landlord. He kept parking in the wrong spot, usually the manager’s. He was feeding birds on his balcony. He crushed beer cans on the kitchen floor with his hard heels during the middle of the night. He told an old woman who was bugging him to go fuck herself. He got into a fight with the superintendent. One night he locked himself out of the building and pounded on the doors, yelling for someone to let him in, until someone called the police. His unpredictable behavior and angry outbursts cost him the renewal of his lease, although I did manage to get him a six-month extension by filing a bogus discrimination suit.

Finally, in November of 2011, police arrested him for driving erratically and impounded his car. By the time he told me, it was too late to get the van back, although I tried. I had ignored his doctor’s repeated advice to take away his car keys. How could I do that to my brother? Furious when he realized they had taken his precious van to the dump, he threatened to blow up the police department and set fire to their cars.

In three short years, I watched as my brother morphed into a demented man unable to care for himself. But when had it really started? And why had no one noticed when his eccentricity degenerated into madness? I felt guilty as hell.

April 1st loomed ahead of me, with no solution in sight. After his old cat died, we had gotten him a new one thinking that having the responsibility of a pet would help his mind.  Instead, he left open cans of cat food in every room of the apartment and forgot to change the litter. Already fat, the cat became positively obese.

I hired a wonderful woman named Dora to come in twice a week to clean, wash his clothes and arrange his medications.  They chatted away in Spanish, and she coddled him into taking showers and changing his clothes. Despite her efforts, he now slept fully dressed on top of his bedcovers. .

In March, he was hospitalized again for an infection in his hand that wouldn’t heal. He was forgetting to go for his infusions. Once he was better, the hospital refused to let him leave unless I promised he would have 24-hour care. He would wander away from his room, and the nurses would find him in CVS trying to buy beer. How could I afford 8-hour care, let alone 24-hour car?  So I lied to the social worker, signed a paper and faxed it back, and had Dora take him home.

I arrived a few days later. When I came to pick him up for dinner that first evening, he had disappeared. It was a cold wet spring day. I drove around and around looking for him.  I saw a homeless old man trudging through the slush with a black beanie on his head and big rubber boots on his feet. He was carrying two CVS bags, his eyes focused on the ground. He put the bags down and picked something up. I slowed and stared. It was my brother…

I had to hide my tears as I helped him into the car. He insisted on putting the bags in the trunk. As if I didn’t know they were filled with candy and beer! He had a daily limit on his ATM card, and every day he would walk to the bank to get his “lousy twenty bucks!” He was constantly losing the ATM card, or getting conned out of his money or getting kicked out of stores for stealing, a fact he thought he kept hidden from me.

Seeing my lonely brother bent over in the semi-gloom picking garbage off the sidewalk finally broke me. I gave up hope that I would find an affordable memory care home in Westchester County, which he loved so much. I gave up hope that I would ever be able to rent a place and pay for daily help, let alone have Medicaid help pay for it. I gave up hope that I could do anything more for him than pay his bills. He needed to be in a place where he was safe and cared for.

And so I lied again and bribed my brother with a vacation to France. Then I abandoned him to strangers.

He tells me how he has to clean the dining room after every meal – the people at this hotel eat so messily. How he saves the crumbs to feed his big birds.

“You mean chickens?”

“Yes, yes, chickens. “

He says he misses music and dancing.

“But I bought you a radio and your daughter bought you a CD player just before she left. She said she taught you to use it. “

“Really? I never saw them. I’ll have to look. I’d sure like to hear some Lady Gaga…”

Everyone says that I did the right thing, that I did what I had to do, that he’s healthy now and better off. But I would give anything to have him back!  Just to see him smile. Just to hear him tell the same stories over and over again and laugh out loud. Just to let him feel that someone he knows cares about him.

He may have lost his mind, but to me he is still the brother who wrote to me when I was far away in college, the brother who took my son and my daughter out to dinner every week when they lived in New York City, the brother who sent me a beautiful set of serrated knives with wooden handles for my birthday. The brother I love.

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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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four

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