As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently downloaded a magnifier app for my phone. I can save images from it, making it a good camera app for macro images. Today Amber jumped up on me for the umpteenth time. While my mom was alive Amber wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, but in the subsequent months she has completely attached herself to me. Like Peaches, like her littermate Spooky, Amber is fourteen years old, and I know she won't be around forever. I wanted to get a zoom of her amber hair, but she kept moving around, blurring the image. I did have a little more luck getting portrait shots of her, though.
Sunday, October 01, 2023
Saturday, September 30, 2023
|Newspaper text imaged with phone magnifier app|
When I worked in the entertainment manufacturing business, it seemed I was constantly noticing news about music, movies, manufacturing, and the latest developments in ways of getting music and movies to consumers. When I was in the travel business every other commercial seemed to be for a travel website, every news report about this major weather event or that failure of an airline's computer system. When I moved on to work at a cable/telephone/internet provider, every commercial seemed to be trying to get me to switch to another provider. In my current job, almost every commercial and news story seems to be directly related to what I'm doing.
My mom had many physical issues in her final years. She hadn't driven in nearly ten years, since an accident that landed her in the hospital overnight and did minor damage sufficient to total her previous car. (Except one time she apparently snuck out of the house and used the car she had bought as a replacement without anyone knowing. I noticed it later when I found that the seat and steering wheel had been adjusted for someone much smaller than me, her assigned chauffeur.) She was losing dexterity and strength in her hands; she couldn't hold things without dropping them, had difficulty writing, and couldn't raise her hands above her shoulders. Her chronic joint pain caused her to slather her knees with pain-killing ointments. The posts on the caps on her teeth lost purchase in her jawbone, requiring removal of all of her upper teeth and replacement with an upper denture plate. Her blood chemistry was problematic, requiring regular blood tests and frequent tweaks to her medications. Her breast cancer, once dealt with, never returned; her heart valve replacement served her well; her knee joint replacements were problem-free, until the day her one leg snapped just above the knee joint.
After my mom died, every commercial seemed to be for something targeted towards her. Some were things she already had, or was already using. Others were for things she could have used, things that would have made her life better. Things she doesn't need anymore.
She was losing her eyesight thanks to macular degeneration, a condition we dealt with through frequent trips to a specialist for treatments and the purchase of a great many magnifiers of all sorts. She loved to read the obituary pages every day, and regularly read Reader's Digest and the weekly checkout magazine Women's World. For the last few years I had subscribed her to the large print edition of Reader's Digest, but there was no such option for the daily newspaper of Women's World. Most magnifiers top out at 1.5x, a rare few at 3x. We experimented with many different styles and types of magnifiers, and had settled on a lighted rectangular 3x magnifier for the kitchen table, and a slightly less powerful handheld magnifying glass for the bathroom. Even with these, she still had difficulty reading.
Today during a meeting it occurred to me that I would like to get a USB-connected microscope for my Chromebook. No special reason, I would just like to get one to look at stuff. Later, while doing a search (on my break), I came across mentions of a magnifier app for your phone. I had considered full-page magnifiers for the newspaper for my mom, or something that could connect to a Chromebook. My mom was never interested in computers, which is why we never considered simply having her read the online edition of the newspaper with the text set to Large. Nor did she care much about the smartphone she had to trade up to when her old flip phone became obsolete and unsupported. (Her lack of finger dexterity made the new phone virtually unusable.) So I never even thought about the possibility of using the camera on her phone to magnify the text in the newspaper.
Seven and a half months after her stroke, I can report that the magnifier app would have worked just fine to address her reading issues.
Friday, September 22, 2023
Monday, September 11, 2023
This past Friday would have been my mom's 90th birthday. She had really been looking forward to it. She fell short by six months and a few days.
I had another dream with my mom in it. I wanted to capture if before it fades.
I was in graduate school. Graduate school for me was a truly miserable experience - I have described it as feeling like being mugged while drowning. This version was not much better. I was doing horribly, and so was everyone else around me.
On a whim, inadvisably, I chose to take a weekend off. I spent it with some friends in the Poconos, doing the things we did back then: drinking, hanging out, watching movies, screwing around. Outside of the dream, it was fun remembering those carefree days.
But then it was back to work - or in this case, school. The professor declared that we had all been doing terribly on tests and he wanted to get to the root of the problem. So he gave us another test, but this time he wanted us to write out our reasoning for each answer.
This was graduate school for physics, but the test focused exclusively on advanced mathematics. For every question I was completely stumped: not only did I not see a path to a solution, but I didn't even understand what question was being asked. I scrawled that on the test, noting that I was a physics major, not a mathematics major. I tossed the test aside and felt like a miserable failure.
I heard a ruckus outside. My mother was there, confronting a school administrator. She was young, not much older than I am now, about the age she was when I was in graduate school. She was smartly dressed all in gray, with a gray scarf and gray topcoat. She looked like she had just left work and driven straight to where I was going to grad school - in real life, a nearly three hour drive.
I left the room to speak to her, and she immediately began berating me: Why hadn't I called? Why had I just vanished this past weekend? Why didn't I let her know what was going on?
This made me furious. How dare she embarrass me like this! Why wouldn't she just let me be my own person? I would call her when I damned well felt like it!
I stormed off back to the classroom, telling her not to call and not to come and visit unannounced. I would call her at some point, maybe.
And that's where the dream ended.
|My mom visiting me in Delaware in 1990, after I had dropped out of grad school.|
She had come to pick up Josie, a cat who was being given up by her
owners because they had to move and couldn't take her.
She was 56 or 57 in this photo. I'm currently 55.
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
On the Habits of Cats
Cats are creatures of habit
what they do today, they probably did yesterday
and will almost certainly do again tomorrow
Peaches is doing different things
My mom caught her fourteen years ago, barehanded
she had lurked in our yard for weeks
hiding in the garden, watching me mow the lawn
hissing at me if I looked at her
Her mother was a feral tortoiseshell we called Tortoise
she had a single littermate, a white kitten we called Cream
Cream died after a few weeks
and then their mom vanished
and we knew we had to take in the little peach-colored kitten
My mom died six months ago
all the cats took it hard
Amber, the amber-colored tabby, sulked for weeks and then attached herself to me
Peaches did, too, sitting at my side at all times
sitting on my hand as I tried to use my mouse
until one day she wasn't there
She had moved onto the kitchen table, curled up on an empty spot
or perched atop a stack of mail and documents
that my mother had set aside as important
napping throughout the day, or sometimes
staring at the ceiling, or the wall
until one day she stopped
Now her spot was on the floor
curled up in front of the oven
sometimes staring at its reflective surface
and waking up crying like a frightened baby
like she didn't know where she was
or where anyone else was
maybe crying for her Mommy
until my voice assured her that I was there, we were all there
that I loved her, that we loved her
that her Mommy loved her and would love her forever
Yesterday she wasn't on the floor in front of the oven
she wasn't on the table, in either of the boxes I had set up as beds
I searched the house for signs of her
for a glimpse of her eye, a spot of her peach-colored fur
twice I searched the house
and finally thought to look in the bathtub
there she was, sitting, contemplating
whatever it is she contemplates all day
she did not object to me bringing her out to eat
but each time she returned to her bathtub
I gave her a bowl of water
and the bowl of lasagna sauce she loves to lap up
last night she fell asleep in front of the stove after her late-night meal
but this morning she was back in the bathtub
I do not know how long this will last
or what will come next
When she dies I will pluck some of her hairs
and have her cremated
and take half of the ashes and work them into the soil of her mother's grave
the rest I will keep for myself
but for now she is in the bathtub
and it's almost time for lunch
Sunday, August 27, 2023
I never made a record of when I got my first Chromebook. It was sometime in 2012 or 2013, I believe. It served me well for several years, but then began to experience multiple breakdowns, and I eventually bit the bullet and bought another one. The new one was also an entry-level device, also with a 10.5 inch screen, also priced under $120. It also lasted only a few years before it, too, broke down. (I believe, more specifically, it shorted out; perhaps the cool patterned-aluminum case was not the best idea.) It was followed by a third, and a fourth, with each gradually breaking down before a complete failure, giving me an opportunity to back up many of the photos and files stored locally.
The most recent failure signaled its arrival for several months, first as a physical failure (the hinges crumbled and broke, first the left, then the right), then as a failure of the right-hand charging port and the charger itself (a replacement charger also failed after a while) and then increasing difficulty convincing the Chromebook to turn on. Finally yesterday, it shut itself off at one point and refused to turn back on, regardless of how much coaxing I did. I tried recharging it through its working charge port, and it took a charge but still refused to turn on.
I could probably get this most recent Chromebook repaired, but at what cost? Is it worth it for the handful of unbacked-up photos, files, and scans, most of which came from other devices or were subsequently preserved in emails? Last night I decided it would be better to buy a new Chromebook. None were available for the prices I had paid before (my last one was purchased new on sale for the deeply discounted price of $70), but I found a model that represented a significant upgrade - and could be delivered the next day. I ordered it, it arrived, I fired it up and here we are.
This time, though, I splurged on the two year extended warranty.
Tuesday, August 08, 2023
It's been about five and a half months since my mom died, and I finally had my first dream about her. I want to write it down before it fades.
In the dream my mom had suffered brain trauma similar to the stroke that ultimately killed her in real life. But in the dream she had not died, but had recovered, in what could best be described as a lobotomized state. She was awake and ambulatory and aware of her surroundings, but could not communicate or be communicated with. If you spoke to her she might appear to be listening, or might just as often completely ignore you. She was living in a nursing home with a companion nurse who watched her and exercised her and generally took care of her needs. One of her greatest needs was a photo ID; she had lost all of hers and the only thing that came close to serving was a photo ad for the nursing home that featured her prominently.
One theme in this dream was me needing to get ready for work as time ticked away. I kept seeing a clock, with its hands showing later and later times each time I looked at it.
Another theme was me trying to get the latest COVID-19 booster. It turned out I wasn't eligible because it is only being made available to people over a certain age (which is also true in real life.)
At the end of the dream I heard my mother's voice. She said "Get up, it's nearly 10:15." I got up and checked the time. It was nowhere near 10:15.
I had sleep apnea three times last night. Bad sleep apnea, the type I used to get where I realize my airways have blocked, and if I can't unblock them I will die. I shoot upright in bed and force my airways open. It has worked every time, so far. I think I know what brought it on, and will try to avoid it in the future.
Monday, July 17, 2023
A memory I want to preserve before it fades.
The Word to Word poetry reading on Friday, July 14 went off very well.The structure of the reading is unusual: three poets blindly send four pieces of poetry each to each other, and then endeavor to order them in a way that makes sense. The idea is that the poets will be "in conversation" with each other through their poetry. The problem was that we are three very different poets, and our poems touched upon very different topics. After weeks of pondering this, I noticed that many of the poems mentioned or could be placed in a time of day: the hours before sunrise, midday, the afternoon, dusk. That suggested an order that gave a nice flow to the poems, and gave the final poems a synergistic punch. The four that I chose were "Night, April 21, 2020" (set at 4:00 in the morning), "dancer" (which can be found here), "Ora Pro Nobis," and "Cardinal."
When the reading was over I made my way back to the car. I had had nothing to eat but a large stack of French Toast at midday, and now, nearing on 8:30 PM, I was hungry. I stopped at Burger King, the Burger King where my mom and I would sometimes stop to grab a quick lunch after one of her appointments. I got my usual two Whopper Juniors (two for $5) and splurged on some fries. I noticed a skinny gray-and-white cat in the parking lot, picking at a scrap of food. I tore off a chunk of one Whopper Junior and psspss'd to the cat. It watched me with curiosity until I tossed the meat in its general direction, at which point it retreated to the forested area behind the Burger King. Maybe it came back out to grab it before anything else did. Maybe.
I stopped at a supermarket on the way home, fifteen minutes before it closed. (The supermarket and its parking lot were a setting for a previous story involving a cat.) I dashed in to buy a horrible list of groceries: one small package of half pork-half beef to make meatballs (I was really looking for ground beef, but they were all out), two bags of potato chips (Middleswarth Weekenders, once 14 oz., now just 9 oz.), one container of ice cream (once a standard half gallon size, then 1.5 quarts, now 1.44 quarts.) I made it to the self-checkouts just as the store closed.
I came home and packed up the remains of my late supper and my groceries, locked the car, and proceeded up the hill to my back door.
As I climbed the hill I was greeted with a light show: dozens of fireflies, some airborne, some on the ground, all flashing their HEY BABY WANNA HAVE SEX? lights at each other. I chose my steps carefully, not wanting to tread upon any of the luciferous insects. I wished them well in their reproductive endeavors as I walked up the hill. May they be fruitful and multiply.
Lord knows we need more of their kind to light up our summer nights.
Sunday, July 16, 2023
My sister and I were there when our mom died.
Her breathing had been getting shallower for days, but for the final hours it seemed merely a mechanical action, punctuated by a -click- at the end of each cycle. My sister was on one side of her, holding her hand. I was on the other side, typing on my Chromebook, trying to capture everything she had been in a few inadequate notes.
Her breaths got shorter and shorter. Finally there was one last breath, and nothing followed. My sister spoke my name. I checked the time, made note of it. We waited a bit, then called the nurse. We had already called my brother some time earlier, to let him know this was it.
We left the nurse with her briefly to do the things she needed to do. I posted the announcement of her death. When we returned to the room we saw the nurse had done the traditional thing we had only recently learned: she had opened the window and placed a candle - a small electric candle - in the window. My brother arrived shortly afterwards. He would wait with her for the funeral home to send someone to take away my mother's body. My sister and I quickly stripped the room of my mom's personal possessions, the artificial flower arrangements, the favorite blanket that had kept her warm these past eleven days and would now serve as a comfort to her beloved cats.
We left my mother with my brother and headed home.
Saturday, July 15, 2023
This started out life as a poem. That's not where it ended up.
Remember man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
I tried to tell the priest who she was. To encapsulate her life in a brief conversation held two days before her funeral. He had never met her. He had never met me. He was four years younger than me. He took over the parish in the second year of the pandemic. By then we were well into the groove of watching the weekly Mass online, on the tiny screen of my Chromebook. He put an end to that a few months later. Pandemic over, no reason to stay at home, no reason to stream the service for those few holdouts who would rather hide at home.
She had already been cut off from her beloved church, the church she had grown up in, the church where she had been married, the church where she wanted to have her funeral, even if it were the last service ever held there. But it was not to be. The diocese closed the church at the start of the pandemic, as they did all churches, and then the parish - the combined parish - chose not to reopen it, even as other churches were being reopened. Their argument was that since it had been closed from the beginning of the pandemic, it clearly didn't need to reopen. The reasoning was bald-faced nonsense. But the decision held. In a few months the old parish priest, the priest my mother had gotten to know over the previous two decades, was forced into retirement despite previous assurances that he would be allowed to stay on beyond the normal mandated retirement age. My mother's only connection to the parish was now the online service which she attended faithfully until, without warning, the streaming ended.
We had asked that the old priest be allowed to conduct her funeral service. Nothing doing: the new priest was in charge of the parish, and he ran the show, and he would conduct the service.
So I tried to bring him up to speed, to let him know who she was. I told him her life story, her involvement with and love for the church, her work history, the story of our family, the story of her final months and final days and death. How do you sum all this up in a half-hour, an hour, a day? How do you encapsulate a life of nearly eighty-nine and a half years in any less time? But I tried. I'm something of a writer, and a poet. I tried.
I failed. The priest took one small aspect of what I told him - she had worked as a bank teller from about 1978 to 1998 - and built his entire eulogy around that, around what he imagined a bank teller did. The old priest, allowed to quietly concelebrate the Mass, sat mute.
A priest had come to her room in the hospice on Ash Wednesday to offer her ashes. He gave us ashes as well, making the sign of the cross on our foreheads with his thumb. He tried to make conversation, but it was awkward, almost confrontational. We thanked him. She died two days later.
We went to the cemetery. I rode in the limo at the head of the procession. I did not know that the new priest had high-tailed it to the cemetery and left the old priest behind. My cousin saw him standing, looking forlorn, and gave him a ride.
At the chapel the new priest completed the final prayers, said a few more words, and declared things to be at an end. The old priest rose and said he wanted to say a few words. He told us about how my mom was familiar with the neighborhood he had grown up in, and the favorite candy store of his childhood, and how since he had become the parish priest she had always given him gifts of chocolate-covered peanut butter candies from local candy shops at Christmas, and Easter, and his birthday, and whenever else she felt like it. His personal recollection brought me to tears, and broke the spell of gloom.
Our gravesite was just a dozen steps from the chapel, and I invited everyone to come join us there to watch the workmen lower her into the grave. I told my friends the story of how, when I was an altar boy serving at dozens of graveside services, my greatest fear was that I would slip on the wet grass around the hole and fall into it. My brother had randomly found a Hershey's Kiss on the floor in the pew where we were seated at church. He tossed it into the grave with her. They lowered her in, and now the ceremony was truly at an end.
My mom was born September 8, 1933. She lived a full life. The last three years of her life I had kept her a virtual prisoner, protecting her from COVID-19 and anyone who might have it. But I didn't think to protect her from the ambulance crew that took her to the hospital after a fall on February 8, 2023, just a few days after she had come home. She tested positive for COVID-19 on February 13, 2023, had a COVID-induced stroke the next morning, the morning of Valentine's Day, and died eleven days later, on February 24, 2023. Her wake was held the evening of March 1, 2023, and she was buried March 2, 2023.
Remember man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
I haven't had dreams that I've remembered in quite a long time. Now I had them two nights in a row. I want to record them before they evaporate.
The first dream was from Friday morning. (I don't go to bed until after midnight.) I was back in college, and had just taken a particularly brutal final in some unspecified Physics/Electronics Engineering class. (I have "back in school" dreams a lot, but these are usually the common "I started this class, forgot to go all semester, and now have to take the final/can't find the room for the final" trope.) In this dream we had already taken the final - we being me and two of my best friends from college, friends I have stayed close to for the decades since we graduated, friends I have grown closer to because of different tragedies in our lives (death, divorce, and life-threatening cancer "with a very good five-year survival rate.") We all knew we had bombed to the final exam, and we went to check the bulletin board where our grades were posted (a physical bulletin board, as was the standard in the 1980s) and confirmed it - none of us had gotten a grade higher than 45%. We commiserated in our failure, and sometime later checked to see our grades for the semester, and saw that thanks to grading on a curve our final grades had hardly been affected, and were all pretty good - 89, 92, and 94, enough for B+ and A- for the semester.
This morning's dream was quite different. I was at my house across town, and discovered two benign creatures sheltering there - a small skunk and a small red lizard that looked like a little tiny dragon about four inches long with huge eyes and purple wings. The skunk had the friendly, pleading face that skunks have, while the miniature dragon had a more fearsome appearance, but mainly wanted to cling to the skunk or climb on me. I gave the skunk a bath in my kitchen sink, and only as I dried it off did I consider the possibility of being sprayed. I carried the skunk and the miniature dragon across town to my mother's house. The miniature dragon appeared to undergo some distress, climbed up on a small (about sixteen inches tall) painted figure of a man, and seemed to die. A visiting friend noted that the dragon on the figure closely resembled a dragon-wearing character from a TV show about an imaginary Victorian London where magic and magical creatures abound, and then demonstrated that the dragon was not dead but resting and possibly in a state of estivation. Meanwhile, the skunk had found a square hole cut into a wall, crawled into it, and refused to come out.
No idea what, if anything, either of these dreams signify. The more recent dream followed a very successful poetry reading event last night as part of the "Word to Word" series, where I was one of three poets who read our poems "in conversation with each other": we had each presented the other two with four poems, and then agreed upon a sequence of readings that reflected their relationship to each other. Our poems had very little connection to each other, but many of them indicated a time of day setting. I toyed with an order that started with poems about the creation of the universe and a late night/early morning stargazing session at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ended with two close of day poems that were also meditations on death and dying. The order of the poems, and the poems themselves, went over very well, and the night left me feeling very buoyed, despite the absence of several people I wished could have been there. I am realizing now that creatures resembling miniature dragons, known as "pseudodragons," are beasts appearing in Dungeons and Dragons who often serve as wizards' familiars, enhancing the wizards' magical skills through their presence. Perhaps this was some hidden memory of pseudodragons, telling me that I am ready to enter the wizard/sage role that I have been building towards all my life?
Monday, June 12, 2023
We knew it was coming. We had plenty of warning.
Wildfires are burning in Canada. Not just in forests, but in large areas of monocrop forests planted to provide carbon offsets - essentially sin-eater forests, grown to absolve others of their environmental sins in places where old mixed forests once grew. Where there's fire, there's smoke, and plenty of it. And some of that smoke was heading for the northeastern United States. For us.
I first noticed it early last Tuesday morning as I drove home from my day in the office. The just-past-full Moon had risen and was hanging low in the southeastern sky, shining through the clouds as a deep red egg the color of a dying ember. It shouldn't look like that, I thought. That's the smoke.
The next day I met a friend for lunch, the first time we had seen each other since November. Since before my mom died. We had a good lunch, but in a surprisingly short time I began to feel uncomfortable about leaving the cats alone in the house. We finished up and headed out to our cars. At that point it was obvious that something had changed. The air smelled of smoke. A haze hung in the air, dimming the nearby mountains, obscuring the distant walls of the Wyoming Valley. After we made our goodbyes, I decided to stop at the cemetery on the way home. Now the smell of smoke was even stronger.
I don't remember if the coughing started Tuesday or if that was later. I know that when I woke on Wednesday the sunlight coming in the windows was somewhere between pale amber and lemon - it reminded me of times I would wear yellow swim goggles to look at the outside world. Pictures of the sky began pouring in, locally and from places like New York City. Some pundits compared the view to images coming back from Mars, but I noted that the color tones were more similar to footage from the surface of Venus.
I didn't get any photos of the sky, but there are plenty out there - look up the yellow sky in the northeastern U.S. on June 7, 2023.
I actually didn't want to go outside at all, but Wednesday is garbage night, and I had to get the garbage to the curb. As others had suggested, I strapped on a mask before I ventured outside. It allowed me to breathe relatively comfortably. Still, I had coughing spells throughout the rest of the day. The Air Quality Index locally came in at 389, where 200 is considered dangerous.
The skies and air cleared a bit on Thursday, and even more so Friday and Saturday, but the smoke is still present, as is my cough. Conditions can worsen at any point. The fires in Canada are expected to last at least through September.
Saturday, May 27, 2023
With Greta Gerwig's movie about how the beloved doll Barbie became Death, the destroyer of worlds* coming out soon, there's a lot of Barbie discourse going around. I am reminded of my own Barbie story.
No, I never played with Barbie as a kid. My sister had Barbie dolls, as did my cousins. I think my sister even had a Ken doll, with preposterous stick-on facial hair. But my own Barbie story comes many years later.
It was probably 1999 or so. The CD/DVD manufacturer I worked for was still classified as a profit center, meaning our role in the corporate ecosystem was to maximize profits. (Years later we would become a cost center, where our goal would be to minimize costs.) We were all flush with cash, and the company expected us to be good corporate citizens and contribute generously to its charitable efforts.
Every year at Christmas we had a "giving tree" covered with tags bearing the names of local underprivileged children and their wishes for Christmas. You could grab one at random, or you could shop around for something that interested you. That year there must have been a major video game system release, because half the tags were kids asking for the expensive, ephemeral system. Others asked for other expensive gifts. But I found one that just said "BARBIE." This one, I thought. This one will get more than she asked for.
I stopped at Toys 'r' Us on the way home, the destination for toy shoppers, which had outlived other toy stores like Kidz and Kay-Bee, though it would itself go out of business in little more than fifteen years. Toys 'r' Us had the legendary Pink Aisle, the home of all things Barbie. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and entered the aisle, an enormous man dressed all in black, pushing a shopping cart, surrounded by pinkness.
I first grabbed a classic Barbie. Blonde, pink skin, blue eyes. About $7. I was prepared to spend much more.
Who am I shopping for? I asked myself. Is she white, black, Latino, Asian? I had no way of knowing. Will she see herself in the doll she gets for Christmas?
No problem. Even then Barbie had a broad racial diversity. I grabbed one of each and tossed them in the cart. Now she will have one that will look like her, and she can share the others.
Barbie needs clothes. I grabbed a multi-pack of clothing, and then another. She would have lots of outfit options. Barbie needs shoes. I found a shoe collection, tossed it in the cart. Barbie needs a place to store all this stuff. I found a wardrobe case. Into the cart.
Then I saw a Barbie playset. Barbie as a veterinarian, with a little girl figure and a dog. Yes, that too. That rounds things out nicely. Into the cart.
I came home and arranged everything so I could wrap it together. I taped the tag to the package and took it in to work.
I hope some little girl had a great Christmas that year.
*Maybe that's the Oppenheimer movie, coming out the same day.
Wednesday, May 24, 2023
It is three months today since my mother died.
A card came in the mail today for her from my aunt, her sister-in-law. I thought that was odd - why was it addressed to her? Why wasn't it addressed to us? She knows my mom is dead. I opened it, and saw it was actually written TO my mom as though she were still alive and recovering. Then I looked at the postmark.
February 8th. The day my mom had her fall. The day an unmasked ambulance crew showed up to take her to the hospital. The day she likely contracted the COVID that would result in a massive stroke six days later, on Valentine's Day, a stroke that would lead to her death on February 24.
So from the time this card was postmarked it took THREE AND A HALF MONTHS to get to us in the mail.
Perhaps I will take it with me next time I go to the cemetery and read it to her.
|The card at our family gravesite, May 25, 2023. I washed and scrubbed the stone off the other day, so there's a lot less lichen and bird poop on it than there was before.|
(Some small consolation: This card was postmarked February 8, a Wednesday. There's a slim chance it might have been delivered Friday or Saturday, but odds are it wouldn't have gotten to us until Monday, February 13. I went to visit her in the early afternoon that day, before the mail is usually delivered. I would have probably come home to find it, would have mentioned it in my phone call with my mom that night - the last time I talked to her - and we would have probably agreed that I should leave it unopened and bring it up the next day. She had a massive stroke that morning, February 14, Valentine's Day, so she would never have gotten to see it anyway.)
Monday, May 15, 2023
Thursday, April 20, 2023
Many years ago, shortly after my brother built his house, he cleared a bunch of rocks that peppered the old tomato field that was now his yard. He brought some of them to our house, where we added them to our rock gardens and used them to ring the cherry trees I had planted. Some soil came along with the rocks, and some grape hyacinth bulbs came with the soil. Grape hyacinths soon popped up around the cherry trees.
For years I have intended to dig up a few of the bulbs (along with some daffodils and irises) to transfer to the cemetery. I haven't done that for various reasons, most recently the proliferation of crocuses at our gravesite - I don't want to kill or disrupt them. The crocuses began to bloom in early March, shortly after my mother's funeral on March 2nd, and the last ones faded after the first week of April. After the crocus flowers fade, the crocuses will throw up long, thin leaves to absorb sunlight to build up energy for next year's bloom.
I wanted to decorate the gravesite for Easter. I didn't want to do anything excessive, so I decided to pick up some artificial flowers at a dollar store. (The quality of dollar store flowers has become remarkable in recent years.) I tucked a few centered on each side of our tombstone, careful not to puncture the crocus corms. I spread them out so they overlapped the crocus leaves on either side of them. This turned out to be a good thing.
A week or so ago I noticed several grape hyacinths growing at the base of the tree near our grave. I considered transplanting one or two over to the soil around our grave, but decided against it. Later I spotted one growing on its own near the tombstone.
Monday morning I had to run an errand in Wilkes-Barre. The return trip took me past the cemetery, so I swung in for a visit. I saw groundskeeping crews at work mowing the grass - the first time this season. As I approached our grave, I saw that they had also been to work with weed whackers, dutifully destroying all of the crocus leaves except the ones shielded by my artificial flowers. They had also trimmed the grape hyacinth near the stone to the ground, leaving shredded purplish-blue flowers to show where it had once been.
But they had left the ones by the tree. That was something. So maybe those will spread and grow and gradually fill in the empty spots around the gravestone.
Friday, April 14, 2023
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 - when people who were paying attention knew what was happening, a few weeks before the official announcement of a pandemic - I went grocery shopping. Already we were seeing shocking footage from Australia and the UK of empty shelves that should have held toilet paper and paper towels, of people fighting over the last available packages. I tried to protect myself with a scarf wrapped around my mouth and nose and plastic gloves on my hands. Somehow I managed to sweat right through my gloves and saturate and destroy the paper shopping list I had thrown together. I knew something sturdier would be needed. I took the cardboard liners from cases of cat food, cut them into strips about 2.5" by 6", and used them to write my shopping lists. I found they were sturdier and harder to lose than scraps of paper, and realized that this little innovation was something that might outlive the pandemic.
Shopping lists are the very definition of ephemera, artifacts never intended to outlive their use. But here and there I have shopping lists written long ago, by my grandmother (who listed I Can't Believe It's Not Butter as an item, meticulously written out without any attempt at abbreviation) and my mother (her handwriting crabbed and difficult to read even years ago.) I even come across the occasional shopping list written by me that has escaped the garbage can or recycling bin. Some are meaningless and generic, but others evoke memories of specific purpose-driven shopping trips.
My mom came home from the rehab center, briefly, on February 3rd. I had spent over a month living alone with the cats since her leg broke on December 27th, and knew I needed to restock supplies for her. She had developed a taste for the salads and jello being provided by the rehab center, and I knew I had to get the ingredients to recreate them. This is my shopping list from February 2nd, a shopping trip I went on immediately after leaving the rehab center.
The Jergens (small) was a gift for one of the nurses who cared for her. My mom (like me) had Winter-dried skin that needed a generous application of moisturizer. When she was at home I was the one who applied her cherry-almond scented Jergens moisturizer to the dry spots on her back. While she was at the rehab center that task fell to her nurses. One of the nurses fell in love with the Jergens, and asked if she could stop by to put it on her chapped hands throughout the day. My mom asked me to get the nurse a small bottle of Jergens she could keep as a parting gift.
The CAKE listed at the bottom, separated from the rest of the list by a line, was the "Welcome Home" cake I had ordered from Sanitary Bakery, a cake that served the dual purpose of celebrating her return home and to substitute for my missed birthday cake from a week before.
She would be whisked out of the house the following Wednesday by an unmasked ambulance crew after she fell and lightly struck her head. On that ambulance ride she almost certainly contracted the COVID that would incubate over the next few days, bring about a positive test the following Monday, and give her a stroke on Valentine's Day morning. She never recovered from the stroke and died on the 24th.
But I still have that shopping list, with the last groceries I would ever buy for her.
Sunday, April 02, 2023
It has been one month today since we buried my mom. It seems like an eternity and no time at all. The house seems much emptier this past month, even though she had only been here for five days and part of a sixth since December 27. But now we - the cats and I - know that she is never coming back.
I have a job that has me talking on the phone for eight hours each day. I work from home four days each week. The cats all like to gather around to listen to my voice. When I'm not on the phone, I am almost only talking to the cats. Most often I say, over and over again, "Mama loves you. Mama loves all of us."
I go to the cemetery roughly every other day. I stopped there yesterday, The crocuses are mostly spent, at least on the sunny side of the tombstone. On the shady side some white and purple crocuses have only recently come into bloom. I never remember crocuses blooming like this, but I have never spent so much time at the cemetery before. The crocuses were only starting to break the soil when my mother was buried. They didn't really go into full bloom until the third week of March, and then faded at the end of the month, except for these late bloomers.
In keeping with Catholic tradition, I have been abstaining from meat each Friday during Lent. This past Friday I decided to make salmon cakes: one can of Chicken of the Sea pink salmon (including liquid), one large onion chopped up fine, salt, pepper, Old Bay seasoning, oatmeal (about one cup), two eggs. For the oatmeal I used my mom's minute oats, which tend to dissolve - something beneficial for this recipe. I mixed everything with my hands, kneading the ingredients into a smooth paste, and set it aside to rest for a few minutes. I heated some olive oil in a pan at medium heat. I rolled the salmon into two inch balls, flattened them slightly, and then cooked them for about ten minutes on each side. I was a little more generous with the salt and pepper than I had been with the meatballs, and was especially heavy-handed with the Old Bay, perhaps too much so. I don't know if my mom would have approved of the final product - she was not a fan of seasoning - but these were probably the best salmon cakes I have ever made. Next time I may use a little less Old Bay.
Friday, March 24, 2023
One of our cats, Amber, developed a special closeness with my mom after another one of our cats, Babusz, died a while back. Babusz had laid claim to my mother for years; she alone got to sleep at her head, she would be the first to get pets, the first to race to the bathroom whenever she sensed my mom was heading there. Amber deferred to Babusz's seniority, and mostly kept to herself for over a decade. When Babusz died, Amber emerged and immediately claimed the position of "Mommy's Special Cat." She did all the things Babusz did, but more so. So when her mom went into the hospital in late December, Amber was very distraught. When my mom came back home on February 3, she and all the other cats hid for the better part of the day - but that night, she finally emerged and let my mom know that all was forgiven. My mom left the house again on February 8, never to return. Eventually Amber came to realize this, and she has become intermittently inconsolable. I try to soothe her with pets and scritches and scratches, with extra treats (as my mom directed), and with words reminding her that I love her and her mommy loves her. Today, during one of these sessions, I suddenly thought of the unmasked ambulance crew that took my mom to the emergency room on February 8, which is the day that she most likely contracted COVID, and I began to curse out the idiots who, after I had isolated her and protected her fanatically for three years, hsd probably given my mother the COVID that caused her to start throwing blood clots that caused her stroke that led to her death. And I wept.
|Keith Nelson (second from right) and the Bindlestiff Family Circus|
A few days after my mom died I caught a commercial on TV about a circus troupe coming to the Kirby Center. That's neat, I thought. I wonder who it is? The commercial soon informed me that it was the Bindlestiff Family Circus, headed by Keith Nelson. I met Keith years ago at the penultimate Sideshow Gathering. The show was scheduled for a work night, but...I could take time off to do something for myself, right?
I wouldn't even have considered it while my mom was alive, not since the COVID-19 pandemic began. If there were no pandemic, I would have absolutely taken her to it; many years ago I took her to see Penn & Teller, and she loved it. (Someday I will find the photo of her standing next to Penn Jillette; she literally came up to his elbow.) But during the pandemic I would never risk exposing her at a crowded indoor event, even in a theater with fifty foot ceilings, nor would I go myself and risk bringing something home to her.
But neither of those are considerations anymore.
I was able to schedule the day off from work. I bought my ticket online - I agonized for a while over inviting someone else to go with me, but the few I had floated this past showed no interest, and I realized that even if I convinced someone to go with me, I would risk having them be bored or disappointed. So I decided it would be best to go to the show solo, as I had always gone to the Sideshow Gathering. And, of course, I would wear an N95 mask the whole while. Even with my mom gone, I have no great desire to get COVID.
I got there more than a half-hour early, before the inner doors were open. I looked around but didn't see any of the local regulars from the Gathering. The audience was full of children, which was great; I knew they were in for a treat. I could spot perhaps three other people in the whole theater wearing masks.
Keith and company put on a wonderful first half, full of juggling and acrobatics and unicycles and a Pennyfarthing. During the mid-show break, I spotted local performers Pat Ward, Harley Newman, and Michael Kattner, along with several other regulars from the Gathering. I hobnobbed briefly until the troupe took the stage again. The second half featured Keith presenting a bit of sideshow, namely sword swallowing, preceded by some light grifting of the audience. One little girl from the audience got to accompany Keith onstage and draw a bayonet from his throat. There were additional acrobatic acts and juggling to round out the night. Too soon the show was over, and Keith and the troupe greeted attendees and posed for photos in the lobby.
So. That was that. My first public outing in three years.
Sunday, March 19, 2023
I used to stay awake for hours listening to my mother breathe as she slept. Sometimes she would scare me by stopping breathing for seconds at a time, seconds that seemed to last an eternity. Sometimes I would hear her breathing take on a deep, sonorous, growling tone, before I realized it was one of our cats snoring. Now it's just me and the cats. And the cats don't snore as much.
I haven't had spaghetti in months. This is because I ran out of meatballs long ago. I don't remember the last time I made them. Ten years ago my mom got on a kick of getting meatballs from Sam's Club instead of making her own. These weren't a bad alternative, but I always preferred homemade. She hadn't made meatballs or anything else in several years, so it was up to me to make them. And after our supply ran out a few months ago, I didn't have time to make more.
Yesterday afternoon, on the way back from the comic book store, the pet supply store, and the cemetery, I stopped to buy some half-and-half - a package of equal portions of ground beef and ground pork. I decided I would make meatballs this afternoon. I chopped a small onion and added it to the half-and-half, along with eggs, salt, pepper, and a generous portion of oatmeal. I mixed everything by hand, then fried it in two batches on the largest iron frying pan I have, all while watching Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames try to outmaneuver a reedy-voiced Sean Harris in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.
I ate half a dozen meatballs as soon as they were cool enough, then tossed another half dozen in some Ragu sauce and simmered them to eat later with spaghetti. Later, I would package up the rest into two-serving size baggies and put them in the freezer for future meals.
They didn't taste as good as when I made them for my mother, possibly because I used a less generous hand with the salt - she did like her salt. I don't know if they were up to my mother's standards. On some level - maybe the most realistic level - I realize it doesn't matter.
But I will keep trying.
With my mom gone, I am having to learn meal prep all over again.
She ate the same thing for breakfast every day: oatmeal with coffee. I tried to get her to eat other things for breakfast, but that was all she wanted. She would prepare the oatmeal by herself, mostly, though in the last few months she found the half-gallon jug of milk too heavy to handle when she would add about two tablespoons of it to her microwave-cooked oatmeal. For a while I was pouring smaller, easier-to-handle portions of milk into jelly and relish jars so she could pour it herself, but in the end I was pouring the milk for her every morning.
My goal with her for dinner was always to serve her a varied diet of things she liked. One day she might get smoked sausage with eggs, another spaghetti or lasagna, another fried sausage, another chili. Sometimes she had meatless meals, pierogies or macaroni and cheese or fried fish. She would take breakfast around 10:00 AM and dinner around 4:00 PM and - that was it. Usually just two meals a day. What she ate, I ate. I would generally have dinner prepared by noon, so sometimes I could persuade her to eat a smaller portion for lunch, but most of the time she preferred just having her two meals.
(I was put to shame by the generous and balanced meals she was served while in the rehab center, and I tried to replicate them during her brief time back at home with yogurt and Jell-o and salads and meals three times a day.)
Now she's not here anymore, and I only have myself (and the cats) to worry about feeding.
When we were kids, we had a Sunday morning tradition: go across town to 9:00 AM Mass, then go to my grandmother's with all my cousins and my uncle and aunt for a breakfast of kielbasa, Polish sausage. Sausage needs to be boiled at least an hour before it can be eaten, and we developed a taste for it being fried after it was boiled. My grandmother would walk up the hill from her house for 7:00 Mass, come home, and prepare the sausage while we were at church so it would be almost ready by the time we tumbled in around 10:00. We devoured it greedily and then retreated to another room to watch Sunday morning TV - Sesame Street, The Electric Company, later 3-2-1 Contact and Big Blue Marble, Marlo and the Magic Movie Machine, sometimes retro showings of The Lone Ranger on the local PBS channel* - while the adults sat around the kitchen table and shared news and gossip from the previous week.
One Sunday morning we all gathered at that table for the last time and didn't realize it.
I still enjoy sausage from time to time, and so did my mom. A trip to Jerry & Son market in West Nanticoke three or four times a year was sufficient to keep us supplied. While the Sunday morning feasts featured rings and rings of sausage, a single ring for the two of us would supply four or five meals. We would have sausage every three or four weeks. I would start it boiling around 11:00 AM or so, get it on the frying pan around noon, and when it was ready I would take my pre-work shower.
Today I decided to have a Sunday morning sausage breakfast for myself. I got the sausage in a pot of boiling water a little after 9:00 AM. The water started to boil out after about 45 minutes, so I added more and let the pot boil a little longer. Around 10:15 AM I got it out of the pot and into the frying pan, set on medium with water from the pot added to the pan. Frying sausage is a delicate operation: too low and it never browns, too high and it burns. The trick is to let the water boil away and let the sausage almost burn, then add water to start the process over, turning it once it begins to visibly brown. It was ready for eating around 10:45 AM.
It was a total pain in the ass for someone used to having yogurt or eggs for breakfast.
Nostalgia is fine. But I think as long as it is just me doing the cooking and eating, I will stick to having sausage as a dinner item.
*There was also a Jewish-themed children's TV show whose name escapes me. I don't think it was "The Magic Door." It was hosted by a jolly fellow with a big mustache whose voice reminded me of Gene Shalit.
Tuesday, March 07, 2023
I won't be going to visit my mom's grave at the cemetery today. The journey home last night, as well as dealing with some things at home today, have left me drained. It's too bad, because today would have been a chance to solve a mystery.
My sister ordered a beautiful vase full of roses for my mom to be displayed at the funeral home. After the funeral there was a question as to what to do with them. I didn't want to take them, since the cats would probably eat the roses and baby's breath and would vomit all over the place. My brother and sister also have cats. In the end we decided to take them to the cemetery, where they could be displayed until they withered, and then I would retrieve the vase. My sister placed them on the edge of our marker where my brother's stillborn twin is buried.
Since that time the vase has been knocked over every day.
OK, the vase is top-heavy. I've taken steps to secure it, including creating a depression about 3/4" deep to put it in, surrounding it with rocks, and making a fence of sticks around the rocks. Every day, I find it knocked down again. Every day I prop it back up.
Yesterday I noticed that several of the rose blooms are missing. Gone. The stems appear to have been cut clean, as you can see in the photo above. Is some animal knocking over the vase and eating the blooms? If I had gone out early enough today I might have been able to see rabbit or deer tracks. My mom would have really enjoyed seeing the animals steal a treat.
|From another angle, Friday, March 3, 2023.|
She also would have enjoyed seeing the crocuses make their annual appearance. She missed them last year - we went to the cemetery in late February, before they bloomed, and then again in mid-March, after they were spent. This year she's there just in time for them.
|Crocuses on March 20, 2023. Several purple and white crocuses are appearing on the other side of the marker as well. A single pale purple crocus, barely visible in the top center of the image, has appeared above my father's flat marker.|
Currently at my workplace we are working one day a week in the office and four days working from home. After several weeks spent mostly on FMLA and Bereavement Leave, yesterday was my first day in the office in over a month.
Snow was in the forecast. Predictions kept fluctuating, suggesting we would either dodge the worst of it or take a solid hit. During my final break at 8:00 PM nothing had started yet, and it looked like we might be spared. But the snow was coming down hard when I left around 10:40 PM.
It kept coming down, harder and harder. Flakes the size of goose down, then the size of feather duster feathers. Thick flakes that made the windshield wipers work hard to scrub the windshield clean. My normal commute runs along the south rim of the Wyoming Valley, but I decided to drop down to a lower elevation and come in through Wilkes-Barre. It helped, a little. Still, a drive of 20 minutes wound up taking nearly an hour.
My mother would have been worried sick. I'm glad she was spared that.
Sunday, March 05, 2023
Saturday, March 04, 2023
My cousin located a trove of old family photos and selected the ones that featured my mom prominently. These photos are from shortly after she was born in 1933 to her marriage in 1955.
|Tozia Benus (a Polish diminutive of my uncle's name Benedict) Eleanor 39|
|Eleanor Benus Tozia 1939|
|Caption on back:|
|Check out my grandmother's funky sunglasses!|
Benus (Benedict, the youngest at the time) Pop Mom
|This one says El, Cioci, Toz. The "Cioci" is likely Alice, my grandmother's sister, who lived next door to her with her brother Stephen|
|This is a trimmed-down photo, with much of the caption on the back cut off.|
|Buddy (my father), El, Joe, Mom, Melissa, Marie, Pop|
Front porch of my grandparent's house, July 1957
|Note the isolated bit of color in this picture, on the flowers in the bouquet. At first I thought that it was a stain. |
|Turns out this was actually a color photo. Perhaps all the other colors have faded over the last 67 years, leaving only the violet flowers.|