Yesterday was a good day. Looking at it by the amount of time it takes to travel from just outside of Washington DC, into the heart of Chester County, Pennsylvania, I spent a little over a quarter of the day behind the wheel of my tiny, teensy, tiny little car listening to music on the Spotify, as the radio dial has become the hard slog of woe, depression, agony, war, pestilence and death. Knowing that it exists in the world is one thing. Being bathed in it day after day is a drain on the soul. Listening sucks the joy out of every possible moment. So instead, Spotify and SoundCloud and gorgeous tonal landscapes and music from old movies and childhood serve as the backdrop to rolling fields of corn and soybeans, old trees pushing forth waves and crests of greens from light to the deepest almost blackly blue-greens.
Most folks take i-95 and zip past a lot of stuff in the mad rush to get from A to B and pound the steering wheel and stop and go behind the brake-lights, and curse the tolls that pay to keep the roads in a constant state of tearing down to build up to tear down the roads.
I too will take those interstates to get past the bigger cities, with all the noise and the lack of green and the crowing people all scrabbling hard for an inch of space, slammed up against each other in the life struggle.
My favorite part of the journey is when I take my exit from the interstate, past all the big box stores and people stuffing their big cars with more kids and more food and more of more, onto the turnings where stores get fewer, and the roads get narrower, and the trees grow and knit their green canopy into vast cathedrals of dappled tunnels. Four lane roads drop down to two, air condition turns off and windows open to catch the smell of the woods, dank and loamy and musty. Fresh air and life teams outside the windows as I wind my way past the regular folks, people who have lived in those little houses for years, up the street from the biker bars and diners and sleepy little businesses that don’t have names up on the internet, big marketing campaigns, and two for one deals. Just a few hours from city life is the other side of America, watching the fast-moving on the TV they might watch on occasion, but most are too busy tending the fields, working their gardens, raising their kids, going to summer country fairs to spark in the moonlight and eat greasy treats by the garish lights. Amusement rides held together with spit and a promise. Old firefighters with eyes that have seen more than their mouths will tell, directing folks into fallowed fields to park.
On past them and into the dark and the woods, and over the Conowingo Dam (now sponsored by some big faceless energy company.) I pass by the sign that I’ll pass again on my way home, wondering why they fixed most of the neon, but never seem to got around to fixing the ascenders on both the “N” letters. Past the big concrete with high water and sluices on one side, and a big valley of scrub brush and boulders and hard scrabble on the other. Past “Fisherman’s Park” on the lee side of the damn where I spent childhood weekends on stolen time with my father, scrabbling over rocks with my little Zebco fishing rod, impaling worms with my hook and trying not to draw blood, as tetanus shots when money was tight could push our teetering family into a crisis. Catching sunnies and trout. There was a time when we could eat them. After hearing of Peach Bottom and Three Mile Island, we threw the little wounded soldiers back into the river after we caught them and then eventually just stopped fishing altogether.
Past more fields and old stone houses and deep woods and valleys until the sides of what once were farm hills begin to be dotted with the steady march of McMansions, 10 bedroom houses pushed heel to toe against one another so millionaires can look out their bathroom windows into the bathrooms of the house next door. Under the overpass, beyond the ever-present Walmart and parade of strip malls, past the monument to a long-dead family of polluters and baby-rapers and their lovely “Fountain Festival”, beyond the valleys of the warehouses where we put the infirm, and the criminals, and onto West Chester.
The street where my Grandmother lives is in a constant state of change. Young professionals with expensive cars and important jobs have discovered the old neighborhoods where the unwanted were pushed. Small two and three story brick houses with oak floors and old brick sidewalks and gardens with gates, presided over by women who have survived their husbands, with eyes not unlike those firemen, who have seen much that their mouths will not tell. Those gardens are full of plants and trees and herbs that you can’t find anymore. Roses that still have a smell. Hasta plants as big as a small car. Lillies and Iris and plants given as parts of Easter Baskets and birthdays 50 years ago and planted in corners of the gardens have had years to mature and grow with abandon. The ignorant gardner who just comes in and cuts with his weed-wacker destroying years of history, only to find that once he was fired and the garden allowed a chance to heal, only takes a year or so for those old deep roots to come back.
Inside the house, there’s no air conditioning. It makes her cough and turns those quiet aches up to agonies, so she takes to the old ways, wearing a housedress, pulling the blinds, baking very early in the mornings when she did bake to allow the heat to dissipate and not sit on the body like a warm blanket in July. The house is tidy and filled with the curios of past birthdays and holidays. Pictures in frames of relatives who now only seem to gather when a death comes.
We had one of those deaths a few months ago, when one of my Grandmother’s youngest passed away of Cancer in his throat. He was born with a defect in his heart. Most of our family has one kind or another, but his was a weakness in a part of the muscle that would actually open inside his chest and leak blood. He wasn’t supposed to survive. that’s what the doctors said, but he did. He survived. He went to school and made his family proud. He was going to go to college and did briefly, but as many do, he may have experimented with things left alone and started down a long and harrowing road of dependency. My Grandmother did all she could to be there and to help and support him. Its what you do when you love someone. The dependency was strong. There were group homes and doctors and programs. And one day when the teeth were especially sharp in that dependency, he drank something. Some say it was windex. others say it was rubbing alcohol. All we know is it took most of his sight.
Now legally blind, there were more programs. These seemed to work better. He got machines to help him work a trade that would magnify things large so he could see them. He was placed in a group home where the support structure was stronger and where he could grow. My grandmother talked to him a few times a day, bought him whatever he needed. cared for him.
And then Cancer set in its teeth. The doctors poked and prodded and experimented as they do. Sometimes those experiments work and remission comes, as it did for my brother in law. Other times, the Cancer has teeth that are too long and it has its way.
My dog, Tilly, also has Cancer. When I bathe her, under her beautiful coat, the lesions grow and spread. I could take her to the vet and have her poked and prodded and filled with all sorts of chemistry meant to battle. To make the Cancer’s long teeth break and hope that its hold will be released.
She is 12 years old. Lhasa Apsos live to between 15-20 years sometimes. She would not understand why I’d want to load her in a car and have her hurt over and over and over again in order to try to squeeze a few more years out of her life. I have chosen a different path for her. Its a path where I work from home to keep an eye on her. Its a path where she gets “people-food” more often than she’s supposed to. She likes frozen broccoli and frozen pre-cooked meatballs. She likes cold leftover roasted chicken with a little milk and a bit of chicken broth. She likes to sleep in my office under the sleep inducing white noise breezes of the oscillating fan, and bark at strangers in her tiny dog dreams, where during the days, she lives to look at me, and tries to protect me in her little dog ways, and asks for tastes of whatever I’m eating, and because she is my little fur-kid, she gets whatever she wants. She is spoiled rotten.
This is how I choose to let her live out the end of her life. Being near me. Eating whatever she likes, getting good walking time and smelling time in on the good days. Letting her sit in the sun on the deck or sleep on the cool bathroom tile.
My uncle’s life ended with tubes and fear and beeping machines and pain, and poisons pumped through the body in hopes of breaking the Cancer down. The doctors finally let him go to hospice care where he soon passed away. He was my grandmother’s anchor and focus of her life for years. There was a funeral at which my eldest brother showed up. My eldest brother always shows up at every funeral and is always the last to leave the wake. He always sits close to the front of the church. One of my other Uncles gives a sermon that grates upon my nerves and I am thankful that I arrived late and missed most of it. There is a man who died young in a box in the front of the church, and all my Uncle can think to bang-on about is whether the grieving people have attended church enough and have been “Saved.” Funerals are supposed to be about solace for the living. They shouldn’t be a commercial to “come on down and get your Jezis on.” The funeral ends and those closest to the deceased are allowed to leave first, so they can prepare for the procession to the graveyard. As a person who tends to avoid funerals completely, I spy a chance, slip out the door, give my mother a hug, open the door while they are still waiting to load the coffin into the hearse, and reach in and give my Grandmother a hug. I don’t bother with too many words. They all ring hollow in that emptiness that death leaves behind.
Then I escape.
I don’t want to go to a wake and look into the faces of the people who really were not there for my Grandmother’s lonely battles she fought alongside my uncle with dependency and illness. They were all there now once he’s dead to show their faces and bask in the glory of their own righteousness. There were those in the family who helped. I don’t wish to be unfair to them. One of my aunts in particular called several times a day to check on my Grandmother, picked her up to wind her way around the grocery store she likes. Not the one closest to the house, the one where she likes to go. Others stopped by to check on my Grandmother. To offer solace and a listening ear. But most of those shining faces in their funeral finest didn’t.
As for me, I visit her a few times a year, like yesterday’s visit. I go up to visit with her and listen. We don’t really talk about the pain. We don’t have to. Its in the room, peering out from the picture frames, lurking in the corners attached to things she bought for her son. Instead we talk about her plants. Those outside the window growing to try to get in. Those inside the house thriving in the windows. She clips me a few pieces of a Jade tree that is threatening to tumble off its ledge and a spider plant that sends its shoots up the inside of the blinds. I pick up my Christmas present. She bought it months ago, and when I was up around the holidays, she was deep in the fight for her son and was not receiving guests. I left her gift with my sister to be dropped off on another day when she was feeling more up to being around people and spent my time visiting with my mother.
My grandmother and I talk about food. We talk about how she used to make cream puffs. She made the cooked dough (choux pastry), but does not call it by that “fancy name.” She works from an old cookbook given to her by my grandpa’s mom. My grandmother and her mother didn’t see eye to eye on some things, so the learning of how to cook came from the mother-in-law and apparently she was a formidable cook. She passed her skills on to my Grandmother in hopes that she would keep her son fed and happy. Because there was love, my Grandmother took to the task. She cooked. She made cakes and pies and candy. She baked fresh bread everyday. She cold-canned the produce that came from my Grandfather’s many gardens that dotted the landscape around West Chester. She raised and fed 12 children out of that tiny 3-bedroom house.
She doesn’t cook as much any more. Cancer set in its teeth to her too, likely through those heavy metals trapped in the clothes of her husband that she faithfully washed for him from the work he did in the steel mills of Coatesville. Metals that land on the skin and burrow their way in. Metals that see your DNA and decide they do not like its symmetry one bit and choose to step in and corrupt it with their own and leave scars that turn to growths that turn to Cancer. So the doctors asked her to sacrifice her breasts to save her live and she complied. And with bared teeth and nails, fought her husband’s Cancer until he died. The scar tissue tightened and made it hard for her to use the tools she loves to make her treats and so she makes smaller simpler meals. My cousins ask her to try to make her cakes again. We walk through her tiny by today’s standards kitchen. Its not the same as it used to be. There was a fire and it burned. Contractors came from the insurance company and gutted the room and took a lot of things that survived the fire, but they chose to take them anyway. They sent in builders to replace the kitchen, but rather than do the job right, they cut corners, and didn’t bother to finish some of the flooring under the cabinets, so the cold comes up drafty through the cracks and makes her arthritis set its teeth in deeper with its nagging pain. The kitchen holds a faded joy for her now and she spends very little time there, passing the tools like a person passes dusty trophies in an old museum.
We spend a little more time talking about politics and war and conflicts. Her mind doesn’t show any signs of aging at all. She knows her current events and has opinions about them that aren’t far from my own. We discuss the issue of Race and her view is interesting indeed. She doesn’t want to be called “Black” or “African American.” She said nobody ever bothered to ask her opinion and as far as she’s concerned, she’s not “Black” like those of much darker skin from Africa, and as she looks across the multi-colored expanse of brown people from Africa and Haiti, and Jamaica and South America, and Cuba, and the rest, that whenever someone asks her when she fills out a form whether she’s “Black,” she says “Do I look Black to you?”
She’s a light-skinned woman with the lines and curves of a face that have lived a life. She has a willful line between her eyebrows, and eyes like mine and my mothers that find it hard to lie, as our eyes and faces tell truths that our mouths might be too polite to speak. Her hair is close cropped and grey with a wave to it that speaks of another time. She’s a tiny woman, getting ever smaller as age has a way of chipping away at your stature.
So when asked what Race she would like to choose on forms, she says check “other” and write-in “Human.”
Makes sense to me. When I look around, I don’t really feel like I belong to the group of folks who call themselves “Black” or “African American” either. I’m one of those mixed children like the President of our country. In our “post-racial” society, us mixed folks tended to stand outside of the tribalism that breaks society down along the neat lines of “White” and “Black.”There are liabilities to being “Other.” Groups on either side either shun us or fetishize our unique-ness. – The way our hair doesn’t look like other people’s hair -The way light doesn’t hit us the same way. They ways we try to fit in with any group but are never quite part of that group.
We are outsiders. Outliers.
That separateness and “other-ness” gives a unique perspective on the world. Somewhat detached. Able to see things a bit more clearly because we know we aren’t really invested in that struggle, because neither side really seems to have an interest in claiming us, so we make our own way.
And so I pack my parcels and head for the door after giving her a hug and thank her for taking out her time to see me. I realize that she is still grieving the loss of her boy, but that she was able to dig out for a moment and give me a little of her time is precious. It was a memory this is etched in my mind and so I felt the desire to share it with you today.