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Living the Wrong Dream

Living the Wrong Dream:  On Brain Injury, Thought and Dreaming

One of the most surprising things about my head injury was that as tired as I felt, I rarely slept.  In fact, I often lay for hours on end in excruciating pain, awake though exhausted.  Being unable to sleep was nearly maddening, but what I recall most vividly was how my mind never shut off.  Sometimes, the only way I knew that I was still alive was by the thinking that was non-stop in my brain.  Even when I could not so much as move my hand, my brain was firing, less in the very beginning, but often times early on, seeming to be as active as it had been before being injured. Not as happy or as focused, of course, but still active, in motion.

Experiencing the physical pain of my skull trying to fuse, my meninges trying to repair itself, the tissues and cells of my neck and spinal column fighting to regenerate–open up–unswell, my nose a constant mass of smashed to pieces, all so overwhelmingly painful that I used to try to do everything I could not to experience any or the whole of it–not to pay attention to these areas or my condition–even though the pain was so intense, so chronically grabbing me, pulling me often times into a raw panic…rushing the best I could without falling to the window for air, the bathtub for hydrotherapy…and then back to my bed, a womb or coffin of sorts, clinging to the mattress where unexpected muscle atrophy would follow, along with the fibromyalgia it caused, things I’d never experienced before…not to mention the emotional changes and the trauma, the post traumatic stress that arrived to plague me further.  No exercise, and a body growing increasingly weak, rigid.  Once this all ended years down the road, I wondered if this hadn’t been the true root of my subsequent fatigue: so many years of fighting the beast that was post-concussive syndrome, of my brain fighting to right itself and my body.

To get through those long days and nights, I would lie in bed otherwise helpless, often limp, sometimes restless, and I would try to follow my thoughts. I entertained myself, if you can call it entertaining, by paying attention to what my brain was doing, what my mind was thinking. I marveled at the fact that my brain still seemed to be working, in its way, anyway.  I didn’t know if I was going to live or die, but it felt like dying while I was not opposed to living.  A notable but sort of checked out, indifferent state. My life became an observation.

No matter how weak or how ill I felt, ideas never stopped arriving, rolling and tumbling through my swollen, bleeding, traumatized brain.  This continual thinking rather amazed me–like a lifelong battery that never lost its charge even though the radio case was broken.  Yet, at the same time the act of thinking seemed unsurprising.  After all, this was how I knew myself.  I had had such an active mind that without it I really would not recognize anything in me.  I wouldn’t have had anything to connect to, since I could scarcely see my face and rarely bothered to look in a mirror, if ever (it took me seven months to see that my teeth had been cracked and chipped).

Creative thinking was possibly the only way I knew that I was still me.  Lying in bed like a carcass, because my brain was somehow familiar, somehow kept thinking, at least I felt connected to myself.  Off work, I thought often about my children, about my parents, my husband, my dog who was always by my side and who I let up on the bed whenever my husband was at work.  All the past was on hold, as was the present and the future.  There was no time really, only love…love, confusion, and fear.

While I had seizures, the thinking subsided, seemingly stopped.  Those were scary times, but frequent and surreal.  Eventually, the seizures stopped, nearly as unnoticed as they had arrived.  I would proclaim to my husband, “HEY, I didn’t have any seizures today!  Did you notice that?  Did you see that?  WOW, no tremors! WOW, no spasms!  WOW, I’m not staring into space!”  Seizures always frightened me, but my husband took them in stride.  We rarely discussed them, just waited for them to pass.

Sleep during my head injury was rare and tortured, and it seemed that dreams had all but stopped.  I missed dreaming nearly as much as I missed sleeping.  I remember several years into my recovery (perhaps four) shrieking, “I had a dream!  I had a dream,” feeling like I was just given water after a long dehydration.  Then the doctor put me on some kind of medicine; I was never good about taking any of my prescriptions–couldn’t remember to take them, couldn’t generate the effort to swallow them or to get myself water, and I just plain didn’t like putting chemicals into my body, a little afraid to actually.  One you have been so hurt physically, you want to avoid all possibility of any further damage. It’s ironic, I know, since the medicine is meant to help.  Still, one medication (was it Lyrica for the fibromyalgia?  Was it Ambien to help me sleep?) made me dream vividly.  It was a kind of heaven–not because the dreams were necessarily idyllic, not because I could articulate them (I generally couldn’t), but just because the act of dreaming had returned when so much else had been stripped away from me.

I have always been interested in dreams.  So much so that I once took a graduate course in the study of dreams.  After a semester of study and reading about five or six books on the subject, I concluded that the most plausible dream theories examine how dreams make us feel.  In other words, it isn’t so important what dream symbols stand for as it is to consider what we experience during the dream, what we feel in terms of emotion–the dream being expressly connected to the dreamer. The theory being that emotions that we suppress during daytime experiences emerge in dreams so that our psyches can work out what we tend to withhold.  Because we don’t want to or can’t act barbarian in daily life (with pressures to behave in dignified and controlled ways at the office, to be pleasant in the classroom, civilized on the city bus, polite at the stop sign), during the dream we experience all more vividly.  The theory is that during the dream we are free to be more authentic both in our emotions and even in our responses, because there are no real consequences, beyond those filtered through the dream.

As I was studying dreams, I experienced lucid dreaming, which I do not recall experiencing much at all since my head injury.  I was able to predict remote occurrences and events while first dreaming them, and did so with chilling accuracy. I had a few recurring dreams primarily of places, whereas now I don’t recall any…though I do sometimes dream about people from the past more recognizably than places of the past.  One thing since my head injury that I have experienced in dreaming that I do not especially recall happening before the incident is that I dream about the deceased.  Maybe that has something to do with losing a mother or someone I cherish, but since the blow to the head, I have had some expressly fulfilling dreams where I notably get back what I have lost (more specifically, whom I have lost).  Of course, this is also very telling in the emotion and symbolism department, particularly to one who has recovered from a threatening condition.  It’s also interesting to note that the dreams I have had of deceased family members have been dreams that are memorable and ultimately joyful.  I think that says a lot about the brain’s impulses–to capture and to apprehend…as well as to live a life of joy, even as we realize our mortality.

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This is Day 26 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

Remembering John Denver

 John PEACE

Today is the 18th anniversary of the fatal air tragedy that took the life of popular American folklorist/singer/songwriter John Denver.  You can find a vast amount of information about John’s accident and his career on the internet.

I have also written about John Denver frequently on this blog.  A lifelong fan, I was led to an even deeper appreciation of his work during my recovery from acquired head trauma.

Please feel free to remember John by visiting any of the following links:

On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

On Writing It Down

Aspen In October 2012, Introduction, Part 1

(there are three posts that follow this):

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

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This is Day 12 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

The Old Man Who Cared

I heard a touching story today.

An elderly gentleman was leaving a doctor’s appointment.  On his way out of the office building, he saw a woman sitting outside on the steps.

He wouldn’t have given this a thought, except he noticed that the woman’s shoulders and head slumped down low into her body.  She looked dejected.  He wasn’t sure if she was physically hurt, or dangerously upset.  Something about the sight of her seemed alarming.

The old man with the wobbly gait and arthritic hands held onto the railing as he slowly made his way down the stairs, gingerly navigating one concrete step at a time.  His legs carried pain that couldn’t be treated.

He noticed the woman’s face, and described it as “tortured.”

There was no denying the woman looked uncomfortably sad.

The old man did not know what to do.  He felt bad for the woman, and wasn’t sure if she was okay.  All of this began to make him worry.

He wondered whether the woman was safe enough to speak to, since one never knows in cases like these. You can’t just approach strangers that you know nothing about, he thought to himself; you don’t know what they will do.

Still, the man sensed the woman needed assistance.  Though he didn’t want to bother her, he imagined he ought to try to do something.

“How’ you doing?” the old man asked, the words spilling quietly from him.

The woman, who appeared disheveled, with hair unkempt, looked to be about 45 years of age.  Much younger than the man.  Yet notably careworn.

The woman, looking tearful, turned reluctantly toward the man.

“You are going to be okay,” the old man reassured her.  Then, with an urgency:

“You are the best there is!”

The woman remained silent.

The old man could see that the woman was utterly dispirited.  He was just hoping to help in some small way, uncertain as to how.  Her crisis was unclear, but he felt badly for her unknown suffering.

“You are the best person you know,” the man continued.

The woman slowly lifted her head into the sunshine.

“Don’t ever doubt yourself,” the old man added affirmatively, “There is no one better than you.  You know that.  No one is better than you.”

“Thank you for your words,” the younger woman said, “I appreciate them.”

The man nodded his head and started at last to move on.

With hesitation and a bit more concern he added, “Do you have a ride?”  He didn’t feel she should just be left alone in the state she was in.

“Yes,” the woman said, “A cab is on the way to get me.”

“Good,” the man said, turning to go, taking another step away.

Yet again, something made him pause, perhaps it was her sadness, the thought of where she might have been or where she might be going.  Would she be safe?

“Do you have kids,” the old man asked, not meaning to pry.

“Yes,” the woman said quietly, “I have three.  But, one committed suicide,” she added.

“Ohh, that’s hard,” the man said, “really tough.”

The man then opened up to the woman with the very first thing that occurred to him.

He knew it might not be the best thing to say, but if he could, he wanted to make her feel less alone, hopefully less despondent.

“I had a similar situation,” the man confided.  “My own son became seriously ill.  Eventually he died too. It was very hard.”

“Both situations,” the man continued, “yours and mine–they’re so terrible.”

“We can’t give up.  We just can’t, even though it hurts so much,” the man concluded.

The woman agreed, and now lent her sympathy to the man as he shared with her a little more about his son.

“I am so sorry to hear about your son, Sir.  I’m just so sorry,” the woman offered.

“Well, you just remember what I said,” the old man said.

Then, as he turned to go the final time, he said:

“You are valuable.”  “Your other two kids need you.”  And then he repeated, “You have as much right to be here as anyone else.  No one is better than you.”  “Don’t forget I said that.”

“Yes,” the woman said, still looking sad, still disheveled.  She did seem perceptibly a wee bit stronger, her head and shoulders a bit less slumped, perhaps breathing a little deeper.

“Take care of yourself,” the old man said as he walked away, hoping he had made some difference, that he had been of some small help to this sad, broken woman he knew so little about.

“Sometimes,” the old man–who was actually the one telling the story–said to me, “The smallest fact is everything you need to know.  That’s when a small fact can become the major fact.”

“That’s a good story,” I said to the man telling it to me:  “I love you, Dad.”

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This is Day 11 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

The Space that Keeps Us Honest and True: Last Night and This Morning

DSC03123_Fotor john prine

John Prine fans love stories.  Beyond the American folklorist’s songwriting success is a fundamental interest in writing, as described here: “I guess I always loved to write, but I never had anything to really encourage it. I never thought I could be a journalist or novelist or anything, I just had a wild imagination and songwriting gave me enough rope to run with it.”  This doesn’t sound exactly like an authentic John Prine quote to me, maybe it’s a paraphrase, but there is no disputing that John does have a wild imagination, and no doubt John experienced an early interest in writing.  He and I certainly have that in common, even though he makes a lot more money than I do.

Indeed, John Prine generally has had greater fortune than most of us.  Like some of us, however, the famous lyricist has had his share of health scares, and like some of us, he continues to work hard to persevere.  Without any of these challenges, he would still be admirable. Yet, I might point out that his health challenges likely include the sort of debilitating fatigue that is the focus of this 31 day writing challenge for me.

Certainly it feels a bit disingenuous to be comparing myself to John Prine, but as a writer, comparisons and differences come automatically.  They are instantly recognizable, and then sometimes, well, undeniable. The fact that one of  the greatest living songwriters of our time shares interests and ailments in common with one of the most unknown bloggers on the internet seems a rather compelling synthesis–and this connection with the ordinary person explains, in part, what makes John Prine’s writing so successful.  His humility enables him to identify with his fans, and we in turn, identify with him.  He comes before us as a regular guy, albeit in his trademark black suit and carrying his guitar or guitar case, but on stage he laughs with us, he connects with us, and even shows his appreciation for us.

In all the John Prine concerts I have attended, my favorite ones have occurred since my head injury. Because of my growing adoration for him, my gratefulness to still be here able to enjoy art, and at that very moment, his music in particular…or maybe just because of the emotional lability that comes from concussion, after his finishing a song with his band (which is awesome and worthy of its own post), I have screamed to him on stage at the top of my lungs, “I LOVE YOU, JOHN! I LOVE YOU, JOHN!”  During last summer’s 2014 concert at Red Rocks near Denver, Colorado, he clearly heard me (we were in Row 11; although I am pretty sure he heard me at other concerts, too; it may have been that he even recognized me as that screaming fan again), to my surprise, he didn’t turn away or act annoyed, but instead looked right at me and said with love, “Thank you.  We appreciate that.”  The man has a heart so big that he truly appreciates his fans’ appreciation. Like all great artists, neither joy nor sorrow escapes him, and we hear this in his music, we witness it at his concerts.

One characteristic most praiseworthy about John Prine’s work is that he takes cliche’s and spins them into extended metaphors of high art.  Or to borrow a teaching metaphor, he turns “D” writing into “A” writing. I’m not sure he has to work all that hard to do this; at least he makes it appear effortless.  His Irish whimsy and sense of the absurd seem ever present, and this elevates his language from prose to poetry, as if his inner William Butler Yeats is always there having a beer with him.  His lyrics are filled with literary embellishment that employ tropes, wit, satire, sarcasm, irony, and even once in a blue moon, allusion.  The best thing is when he draws his own characters, real or imaginary, such as “the oldest baby in the world,” “Sabu,” “Mr. Peabody,” the “big old goofy man dancing with a big old goofy girl” and “some humans [that] ain’t human.”  Like a fine novel, his songs will make you laugh and they will make you cry.  He’s like a modern day Dickens contrasting the great expectations of a people, large and small–but mostly examining the life of the small.  Or, as John Prine plainly puts it in “Humidity Built the Snowman, “The scientific nature of the ordinary man / Is to go on out and do the best you can.”

That idea is certainly the philosophy behind Stumbler.  We live our lives, take a few hits and a few falls, pick ourselves up as long as we can, and keep trying.  That’s what’s happening with this piece, too, as I write spontaneously and a bit rushed to finish it a day later than hoped–hoping to have the day I hope to have today.  Yesterday, I just got to busy living and then too tired to write about it. So, because writing is what matters here, this is what I stitched together last night–after the Cubs beat the Cardinals 6-3 in the second of five games in the National League Divisional Playoff Series–Lord knows (and John surely knows) that that was rare tv worth watching.  Even though it was his birthday, John even may have been following the game himself…

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It’s just past ten o’clock on the 10th day of the tenth month of the year, October, 2015.  It also happens to be the tenth day of my 31 day writing challenge and one of the busiest Saturdays this woman has seen in a long time.  I completed Day 9 of this writing challenge at about this same time last night, however mostly with my eyes closed.  I’ve got no guesses as to what all of these tens could mean, but hopefully I will figure out something.  I’m a little slap-happy here, but let’s see what happens.  We can relax, because even though we’re on the internet and all, it’s only blogging.  And we don’t really care that much; the point is to write.  Sleepers may sleep, but we writers–we don’t sleep.

As I fight the fatigue that has plagued me for so long by forcing change in the ways I have been discussing on this blog and more particularly in this challenge–and mostly by just good old fashioned keeping busy–I find the days flying by, seemingly as quickly as the years that are already gone, including the long-suffering ones which were all but lost entirely.  The decade and the decades–gone in a whoosh!  But that’s cliche, I know.  So I hope everyone will forgive me if nothing gold comes from this keyboard tonight–because I really hate to have to be writing this on the fly.  Real writers write ahead of schedule; they make no apologies, but I’m just working a  writing challenge, trying to figure out what all to say, and mostly trying to make my deadline by midnight tonight, because…

Today is the birthday of the great American singer/songwriter John Prine.

That is 10/10/46.

He is (or was) 69 years old today!

You would think that on such a great writer’s birthday I could get it together to permit the possibility of writing earlier in the day when one hopefully suffers less fatigue…but alas, I could not.  I’ve been busy planning another birthday party; in fact, this one for my father’s 85th–a mere one week away.  I had to get the cake ordered, the balloons, the photos…and there’s been some drama.  So, stay tuned for all of that.

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I just figured out the significance of all of these tens…even though it’s probably passe’ to say it now,

John Prine is a 10!  /  John Prine is a 10!

So, please allow me to trace, if you will, a summary of my affiliation with “John,” as most of his fans know him.  I first heard John’s music coming from my brother’s bedroom stereo around 1971.  Back then, I didn’t pay much attention; my brother was always listening to music; I just heard it enough to notice that it wasn’t Cream’s “White Room” or Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”  I remember lifting my head toward the newness, then I kept right on staying out of my big brother’s hair, the way he and I both preferred.  Most likely, I was on the phone.  The land line.  We called them house phones back then.  They plugged into the wall and they had cords that were coiled and cords that were extenders, so we could walk around the room, kind of like we walk around the mall now, phone in hand.  I had a phone that was pink.  It was called a Princess Phone, and it had a rotary dial.  I wonder whatever happened to all the phones people had.  Was there a telephone landfill?  John Prine started out as a mailman.  I don’t think he ever worked for the telephone company, though lots of people did.  Telephones have changed a lot over the years.  I don’t think John has ever written a song about telephones.  Maybe Bonnie Raitt has.  If you know, you can tell me in the comments below.

So, my brother was a senior in high school, a gymnast, and four years older than me.  John Prine was six years older than my brother; that is, the “middle” one–I had two older brothers, so one year older than my oldest brother, I would later learn, and also, whadd’ya know?, a gymnast, as both my brothers were–which was a huge deal in our family–and at a high school not twenty miles down the road from where we lived. I’m not sure what all these coincidences mean, other than it must have been meant to be that I found John Prine.  I’ve got to be one of his biggest fans, in my way; certainly much bigger than my brother who still listens to him, but has become more like one of the people John sings about…

But back to then, the 1970s and 80s–years that felt like days passed….I didn’t hear John Prine’s music again until I was with my brother during his senior year and my freshman year of college when we were driving the long distance back home from the university we both attended (because my parents, imagining he would look after me, made me go to the same school as my brother).  Of course, he didn’t look after me at all…but we did drive to and from school together whenever the occasion arose.  Actually, he drove while I endured his driving.

So, one spring day toward the end of the semester, we were driving along in my brother’s old Pontiac Catalina convertible, listening to an 8-track audio tape of one of John’s most famous songs, “Illegal Smile.” Since this time I was stuck in the front passenger’s seat of the car with nothing but time, I now listened more carefully.  My brother has always been more prone to “illegal smiles” than I, but to see us both, you would expect that even this first time listening that I was enjoying the song every bit as much as he was.

I remember how my brother and I laughed when John sang the surprise ending, which includes the words–with a big, sloppy caesura, a catastrophic pause to set the scene–

“Sonofagun /my sister / is a nun!”  

We laughed at the irony of the tale of a stoner pulled over by a cop, nervously reciting all the excuses lawbreakers do to try to persuade cops to let him off the hook…because way back then, marijuana was not even close to legal.  We laughed, too, at the wordplay of the sister being a nun, since as Catholics we always knew nuns really to be sisters…and of course there I was in the flesh, the always holier than thou, in fact biological, sister!  If neither one of us was stoned at the time, we both certainly were beginning to feel like we were.  As we laughed, we were bonded in a collision with our innocence, and I always remember this as one of my favorite memories of being with my brother.

The years went by, and we experienced tragedy in our family.  Above all, we lost our oldest brother, whom we were both closer to than each other.  It ripped the hearts out of my brother and me, and of course out of both of our parents.  We all dealt with it in the individual ways that people do, and before we knew what to think anymore, my brother and I; that is, my only living brother and I, had grown divided and stopped speaking to one another altogether.  In our disunity, we both remain John Prine fans to this day, some thirty years after the drive with Sam Stone in my brother’s convertible.

Here is a John Prine song that encapsulates some of these sorts of experiences between siblings, between me and my only two older brothers, both of them now gone from me.  It has the lines, “We lost Davey in the Korean War / We don’t know what for / Don’t matter any more,” called “Hello In There.

Hello In There

Here is another song I shared yesterday on the John Prine Facebook page, called, “All the Best.”

All the Best

Awww, shucks, this has been fun.  Yesterday, I woke up thinking of John on his birthday and then throughout the day.  What I’ve found is that I could just write and write and write about John Prine.  Maybe I will have to write about him again another time.

Fortunately, thank the heavens, I got some living to do.

Fortunately, thank everything I know, I got some gold inside me, too.

Here’s to all of you, John Prine fans old and new, remember always “You Got Gold.

You Got Gold

This is Day 10 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

How to Call Up Your Happy: On Writing and Identity

BUGLE CORPS

What do you do when something terrible happens?  When the bottom falls out, and you just can’t imagine a worse case scenario?  How do you get through?  How do you restore yourself?  Do you have good resources available that you can count on, or do you fall prey to self-destructive habits that only make matters worse? What if there are no answers?  If it just is what it is?

I have suffered a heartbreak this summer, and along with that received some rather devastating news. Whenever things unravel in these ways for me, I think hard and fast about how I am going to hold on, how I am going to get through the necessary adjustments.  It’s never easy, but one thing that always helps me is to write.

I have been wanting to get back to journaling for forever, and when one has fallen behind, trying times are always the perfect place to start anew.  In addition, blogging helps because it requires focus and creativity, and it renders a kind of artwork that feels like an accomplishment.  It takes all sorts of courage to share a blog post.  Yet somehow all it takes is the mere completion of a post to make me feel back on track.  Like I’m going somewhere, moving forward somehow.  When I am lucky I might also get one or more kind words about something I’ve written, which is more than enough to make any writer’s day.  The exchange of writing to posting, you might say, pays dividends.  Something about the simple delight of sharing electronically–so fast and so certain.  While one creates, one provides.  That is the sort of zen of all artistry.

In providing for others, we can heal ourselves.  As I enjoy journaling–which is for me alone, no one else–I also enjoy blogging.  Perhaps I just like placing words on paper, typing words on screens.  The fewer words inside, the lighter both my head and my heart feel.  I also enjoy scrapbooking.  The more design we add to images, the more they tell a story.

When we’re hurting, it is important to hold on, dig in our heels,

and try to do what we enjoy.

One of the first things I did after the horrible news came was to plant flowers.  Flowers can be therapeutic, just as mowing the yard can be.  Planting flowers always reminds me of my grandmother and other soothing memories filled with sunshine.  Planting flowers somehow feels like one of the most liberating acts we can do. Like giving life when we feel dead inside.  Cradling our creativity in an earthy collection of color.  I love yard work, so this week I mowed, picked up sticks from the storms, and planted flowers even as my throat tightened and my chest heaved heavy sighs.

Another thing I decided to do to find strength was to join an online photography group, where starting today and for the next one hundred days we share one photograph from that day that brought us joy.  The idea is that what you focus on multiplies.  So, if you’re always looking for something to delight you, you will experience more delight.

Lord knows that when a heart is broken, one needs all the balm it can find.  As today was the first day, I thought I might blog on some of my discoveries in the days ahead.  That way I will be looking for happy photos, AND blogging about them.

Ever since the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26 to allow same sex marriage in all fifty U.S. states, my husband and I have been honoring marital privilege by trying to spend more focused quality time together each day. Because this ruling occurred before my bad news hit, some of that quality time together has been spent simply by holding each other while I cry.  My husband is a compassionate soul, but much as he tries to understand what I am feeling, it is really my burden to carry.  He aches for me, but he can’t change the circumstance any more than I can.  All he can do is be witness to my heartache and try to help distract me from it.  One of the things we started doing to help is to walk five miles per day.  That is how much I walked daily before suffering a head injury that changed everything; it has been a long anticipated goal of mine…and at this point we really need one another to stay motivated to complete the distance.

Today, we incorporated our walk with my photo sharing     group.  I started in town by taking this photo of some potted flowers by city hall.       The colorful arrangement brought instant happiness to my eyes, and I was grateful for that.  I leaned in to get a closer look.  We continued on our way in 90 degree heat, making our destination my high school alma mater, which we are near only because we moved back to town temporarily to help my aged parents.  As we approach the 40th celebration of my graduation in 1975, we were enthralled to see the construction at the local high school for installation of an underground pool.  So much so, I thought THIS might be the photo I would share with my 100 Days of Happy Photos group:

swimming pool construction

But then we came home and I checked my Fitbit dashboard.  For the eighth day in a row, we had completed a walk of three miles or greater.  My body had various aches and pains, but I had managed to lighten some of my heartache.  Reaching our step goal made me feel hopeful.  I found myself posting this rather pedestrian photo for my first day:

How can anyone not be cheered up by those lime green smiley faces with their big, happy smiles?

After I posted to the group, this meme appeared in my newsfeed:

15 Writing Ways

It reminded me that I am first and foremost a writer.

It reminded me that I am inspired.

It reminded me that I have #1 in the bag, as I have already started looking for things to smile about by participating in One Hundred Days of Happy Photographs.

It reminded me that I do, indeed, feel pain deeply–that this is what writers do.  And this slightly lifted the burden of my devastation; maybe it’s okay to feel distraught…depending on circumstances…at least for a time.  Maybe I could hold on.  And maybe this is how we write, by waiting; by knowing; by enduring.

It reminded me that I am always going below the surface of things, that I rarely live on the periphery–that my heart and my imagination drive me right smack to the middle, whether it is the desert or the garbage dump, I am all in.

Perhaps most importantly, I smiled again.  As I read #4, I had to admit that I do, indeed, study people.  It is something I always do whenever we are anywhere, particularly in restaurants.  While others are on their cell phones, I am inventing profiles, scenarios and dialogues with the people I observe either nearby or across the room.  My husband and I always laugh about it.

Sometimes I share my observations, but when I am silent and deep in thought, my husband will occasionally interrupt, saying with an emphatic smile, “Oh, you’re writing…”

“Yes, that’s what I do,” I admit proudly.

“That’s just who I am.”

 

When we feel gutted, when we feel lost, it is at least good to know who we are.

______________________________________

                                                    © Debra Valentino, all rights reserved.

 

Magical As A Fresh Snowfall: The Story of Lova

 

magical snowfall

Magic keeps us going, keeps us paying attention.

Leaving the house before daybreak always seems at least in part like an interesting adventure.  On this week’s Monday morning, I had it planned to drive with my husband through the dark of night to his meeting, so that I would have a vehicle to drive later that morning to my own.

A pre-dawn snowstorm created these two unusual occurrences, since 1) these days I rarely have cause to leave the house so early, and 2) it is, after all, spring (or, supposed to be); just last week temperatures had risen to the 70s.

Perhaps you have already seen that

variables like these are the ones that lead to chance meetings.

We traveled quietly alongside one another, observing the billowing snow.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” my husband noted.

“Yes,” I replied, with a throat already tightening, eyes watering, “but it reminds me of my mom,” I answered softly.

“I know,” he said, “it takes a long time.”

“I should be good in about two more years,” I guessed.  “I still can’t talk or think about it.  But moments like this–well, they just…bring her back…”

“So palpably,” is what I was thinking in that deep barrel that can be known as grief.

As the outside visibility grew poorer, I was able to admit this mystery–the mystery of one’s presence beyond life, beyond their natural life.  This admission from me, who cannot bring myself to acknowledge or count the months that she has been gone, yet vaguely realize that it is somehow already nearing two years.

Moments later, just before 5 a.m., incredibly dark with a heavy snow accumulating, I dropped off my husband, kissed him goodbye, adjusted the car seat and mirrors, fastened my seatbelt, and proceeded into the snowy night–just me, a few streetlights, and two other cars distant on the roadway.

Not far from home, I saw in the darkened light the shadow of an old woman. She was trudging along the curb toward oncoming traffic.  Already driving slowly, I had time to look hard and long, as confusion began to flood me.  Her walking on the street seemed dangerous, though I noticed the sidewalk was fully covered while the road was not.

I looked in each of my mirrors to see no others, and came to a hesitant stop not fully knowing if I wanted to say what I was about to say; then pressed the electronic button to roll down the car window.

“Do you need a ride?” I called with a start in my heart.

The woman’s face was undecipherable, cloaked by a babushka, and she seemed as confused as I was by this unexpected greeting.

“Oh, please,” she said, her figure uncertain through the falling snow.

“Wait there,” I called, “I’ll pull in–there,” I pointed, to the driveway not fifteen feet ahead.

Then, I worried.

Could she shoot me?  Could she be mean?  Would she?  Was she a she? Might this spontaneous action end the story that was my life?  I had been warned never to pick up strangers on the road…

And then before I had any time left to fret, the car was in Park and she was opening and entering the passenger’s side door.

She entered wheezing, bungling her way into the front seat, breathing heavily from the walk.

“Where are you going,” I asked incredulously.

“I’m going to the train station,” she answered; “I need to catch the 5:20 train.”

“Oh, my gosh,” I said, “so early in the morning; it’s still so dark outside!”

“I have to work,” she asserted.

“Well, I know just where the train station is,” I added; “I live right near there,” to let her know she was not inconveniencing me.

An immediate calm filled the car for us both, it seemed.

“I live on Elm Street,” she said, seeming to let me know she felt safe, and also to indicate how far she had already walked.

“I grew up on Elm Street,” I brightened, surprised at the delight that followed, and all the energized talk about her house number, along with that of her friends’, the current neighbors of the house that was for so many years my home.

“You poor thing,” I said.  “You are walking to work on this cold day.”

“One more year!” she repeated, “One more year!”

“Ah,” I said, “retirement!  And then you will retire!”

“Yes, yes!  I am an old woman.  It will be about time!”

“How old are you” I asked, feeling the press of time as we made our turn toward the station, and with more surprise in my voice than I meant to share.  It felt like a script I had never read, a scene I had never envisioned.  More thoughts raced through my mind than I had time to moderate.

“I’m 80,” she said, seeming to know that that was awfully old to be commuting from the suburbs to the city.

Immediately, I envisioned the walk she must have ahead of her once she arrived downtown.

“EIGHTY?!” I declared.

At once, yet again unexpectedly, I flooded with pride.  I felt proud to be a woman.  Proud to be a woman helping this woman.  Knowing the work of women…the hard, hard work of women.  Knowing both how little and how much separated me from being that woman myself.  How it would have been like me not to retire before 80.  Or, 81!

“This is so nice of you,” she said smiling wide; “I am so grateful…This is so nice!”

And then she looked at me hard and long as if studying a return route.

With what seemed her brightest smile, she exclaimed:

“YOU ARE MY GUARDIAN ANGEL!”

And then, ducking and lowering her head closer, she repeated, “You are my guardian angel!”

The words hit large.  The confusion returned while, as if wanting to offer her more than just one ride one day in the snowy dark of night, I found myself saying, “My name is Debbie.”

“My name is Lova!” she proclaimed, smiling cheerfully.  And then repeating, seemingly for emphasis and separating the syllables:

“Loo-va!”

Her accent was thick.  Beautiful.  Her country eluded me.  Was she Czech?  I couldn’t be sure.

I felt I heard her clearly, “Loo-va.”  “Lova.”  Like a song I heard once but would never forget.

Back home in dark warmth and the light of my computer screen, I googled, “the woman’s name Loova.” And this is what I found:

http://www.nordicnames.de/wiki/Lova

Lova

And then it hit me…a completely unanticipated connection.

The neighborhood snow had me thinking of my mother.  Hurting over the loss of her.  And here was this woman of thick, stocking-ed calves, bundled up like a grandmother, heavy with time, going to work.  A woman I could help.  A woman who undoubtedly had given so much help herself to so many others in so many ways.  A woman still helping.  A woman named “Love.”

I tried to stem the wonder.  Could this on some level have been my mother, greeting me from the beyond?

Could the great gratitude this woman had, on this day that she said I made for her, this day that happens to fall on the 26th anniversary of the birth of my son–the day that he and I nearly both died in a complex labor–could any or all of that be in any way connected to any day I might have “made” for my own mother…or to the day the birth of my only son made for me?

Probably not.

But maybe.

We never know.

We just never know where a day will take us.

Because life is hard, but life is magical.

It is pretty much up to us to find the meaning in our days.  To add the joy to our own Happiness Jars.

I will just say that I am grateful that on this day–this day that echoes a time when I once labored so hard, this day when I was missing my mother but trying not to, on this snow-covered spring morning in 2015– that I was able to be open to the moment, and because of this able, in some small way, to be of use.

Here is a poem that also speaks to this experience:

 “To be of use” by Marge Piercy

                                                                                         © Debra Valentino, all rights reserved.

After Grief and Loss: Princess Mommy and the Grandbaby

mast

2013 was a horrible year for me as a case of pneumonia ended up leading my mother to require a medical ventilator that she did not authorize, even though afterward doctors said she could recover.  Her removal from life support and subsequent death was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life, and something I’m still processing.

2014 was not much better.  Although I took a memorial trip with my daughter in my mother’s honor, the minute I returned, I had to break down my parents’ home and move my father to a new environment in order to help him adjust to being a widower.  The work was extensive, exhausting, and disruptive to whatever serenity might be available to those in deep grief.

We all have similar trials of one kind or another.  The trick is how to hold on–how to endure during the hard times, how to move forward and when.

In much of life, if we can just get through the storm, somehow a rainbow appears.

One day, somewhere in the mix of so much upheaval, my step daughter-in-law invited my husband (her father-in-law) and me to be present at the birth of her (second) child.  Since their first daughter had been born to her and her husband (my adult stepson) years before (long before I entered the family), I felt especially surprised and honored to be included. At the time, we weren’t at all anticipating any new grandchildren.  Also, until now we hadn’t grown very close to my husband’s children, primarily because there had been some unwarranted distance in the family.  At last, this was an opportunity to improve our relationships.

This baby is my husband’s fourth grandchild, following a second grandson born several years before–the same month that my husband’s first wife passed away after an extended illness.  When I entered the scene, there was plenty of ongoing grief still happening in my husband’s family, which I accepted with compassion. Even before losing my own mother, I understood that sorrow doesn’t always make for the easiest transitions.  But then there was the break down of my husband’s family homestead, a few moves, and mounting anger by family members who were not ready for all the changes.  I, of all people, got it.

Through it all, I was not exactly welcomed by all of my husband’s family members.  This was obviously an additional source of heartache for my husband, who also found himself caught in one unanticipated storm after another.  It seemed at the time that no one was being empathetic to anyone’s plight.  We felt we finally had little choice but to let everyone adjust on their own timetable.  At least we hoped that everyone would adjust.  Even without the challenges of being blended, families can be complicated.

With family tension still thriving, my husband and I were nevertheless excited to join his son and family.  We prepared for the big day and left in the dark of night to drive hundreds of miles for the birth of this first grandchild born to our marriage.  In the end, we would be utterly amazed by the healing delivered with this baby, a granddaughter–the baby sister to my husband’s firstborn granddaughter, now a teenager (in pre-school at the time of her paternal grandmother’s passing).

If we can just get through the storm, somehow a rainbow appears.

The thing that intrigues me about the rift in my husband’s family is both how unnecessary it is and also how the mother of this first grandchild of mine (my own children are not parents yet) has risen to the occasion to create a solid and nurturing environment for her child.

t-shirtIt is as if she did some hard thinking, made some tough choices (hopefully with the aid of her husband, my husband’s firstborn son) and emerged from it all with good sense, like the regal queen that she is. “Princess Mommy,” I call her affectionately.  “Glamma,” she refers to me, as I joyfully accept the task of bringing the glamour…the sprinkles and the sparkles (both literal and metaphoric).  It is fun, because together we make it that way.  We share so many joys now.

This is an amazing shift that my step daughter-in-law created in our family–accomplished simply by making the choice to include me.  A shift I alone could not secure.  By including me, she provides both of her daughters an additional set of grandparents, her husband a renewed relationship with his beloved father, and endless opportunity for the family to grow healthier.  “Family is Everything” the graphic on her family wall displays.  These are words she has chosen both to display AND to honor.  Clearly, she recognizes that “family” often extends beyond blood, beyond DNA–and not just to in-laws, but to in-laws through re-marriage.  Surely this could not have been any less an adjustment for she who loved her mother-in-law, who honors her husband’s grief, than it would be for anyone else in the family.  Yet somehow, she decidedly made this leap.  In so doing, she also created a new relationship for herself, a new support system for her parenting.  She includes me, and in turn, I am her biggest cheerleader.  This is also remarkable because we have different talents, some differing interests, and almost completely different politics. We overlook any and all differences seemingly with ease,  find common ground, and have even become good friends.  In fact, we both make all of this work profoundly well.  It’s amazing what a cooperative spirit can bring about.

orange chair

I have one sister-in-law like this, and if you have one, too, you know what a blessing it is of which I speak. Our daughter-in-law’s inclusion has fostered a friendship between herself and me that feels ideal.  She stays connected and texts me frequently.  She sends pictures of the baby, which make me burst with glee.  In fact, it feels like I go into some sort of withdrawal without them.  I am crazy about this kid!  I am always thinking about her and her sister; I have become quite attached to both.

We visit now as often as possible, spend holidays and birthdays together–and when we can’t do so, I send gifts, cards and letters to the girls who look forward to receiving them.  We’ve got a sort of rhythm going, and together we had the best time sharing the baby’s first Christmas and first birthday–for which I designed the decorations (shown partly in these photos).  We have genuinely developed a rapport that is a gift to us all — one where we can talk comfortably, laugh readily, plan and execute, and where we treat each other with sincere love and respect.

IMG_6470

Above all else, I am amazed at how connected I feel to this new grandbaby.  It truly feels as if she is my own.  And she represents to me not only that rainbow, but indeed the sunshine that comes after so much stormy darkness. She is like the mythical phoenix bird rising from the ashes, helping to revive my fallen spirit–and for that she will always hold a special place.

Indeed, I feel privileged to be one of the adult stewards of her well being.  I want her to thrive and be joyous…to know beyond question that she is loved and valued by many, including myself.  I want to encourage her to read and think, to love literature, and maybe even to write.  Why not?

o n e
Perhaps this happy turn of events gives us all something to consider.

Some people like to defy definitions and/or fight their role in a family.  Some people insist on rebelling, on forging a new way, on walking their own path.  There is certainly a lot to be said for individuality…

Yet, it seems that when it comes to family, if everyone would just do his or her part, the family would thrive.

Unfortunately (and probably far too often), some people work to create harmony, while others feel compelled to cause disharmony.

If you feel you cannot create family, perhaps at least you can understand why.

Here are some questions to consider about family relationships:

  •    Where do you fit in your family?
  •    Are you a harmonizer, a peacemaker–or are you trouble-maker, a divider?
  •    Who are you rejecting (and why)?
  •    Who are you including (and why)?
  •    What action can you take to improve your family dynamic?
  •    What is beyond your control?
  •    How much time will it take for you to embrace a fully functioning, nurturing family?

IMG_6569

“We do not heal the past by dwelling there;

we heal the past by living fully in the present.”

— Marianne Williamson

© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

“Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants…. Sentimental literature is “tear-jerking” literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience.” — Laurence Perrine, from Sound and Sense

 

 

We love people for all sorts of reasons.  We love celebrities, it seems, for fewer reasons.  Sometimes it is their looks, but more often it is a celebrity’s talent that captures our attention.  We are fortunate when celebrities take up causes that we care about, and sometimes we care about the celebrity because they care about the same things we do.  John Denver’s interests in the beauty of nature, a sustainable environment, ending world hunger and attaining world peace are revered by so many that he has secured an audience of hundreds of thousands of faithful followers since the 1970s, most still active today, even though he’s been gone from this earth since 1997.

As a former college English instructor, I became interested in the history of a letter writing tradition that once took place during the annual John Denver Tribute Week in Aspen, Colorado.  It was difficult finding locals who knew of this event or who were wiling to discuss it.   Instead, I located representatives from Australia (where John has a huge fan base to this day) and Monterey, California, USA (where John’s experimental aircraft went down).  These affiliates very much wanted to see the tradition revived in Aspen.  When I was unsuccessful at securing interest or writers, I found a tribute radio show that would run live from Aspen that was willing to let the letters be read on air during the broadcast.  I gathered the letters written by fans in California and Australia, and when I couldn’t find anyone willing to write one from Aspen, composed one myself.  When it came time to read the letters on air, I looked for volunteers and found one woman visiting from Australia and one woman who used to live in California willing to fill in as readers — and I read my own letter.

How long has it been since you wrote a tribute to someone?  A love letter?  It’s an interesting exercise worth pursuing.  However, love letters are sentimental, and as such are off the radar of most English teachers, who are consumed with form, with style, with craft.  My training taught me to be self-conscious and dissatisfied by such sentimentality.  Yet given the kind of October I was having (stuck with an unusual and persistent cough that went on for six weeks, along with lingering grief from the loss of my mother the spring before), the opportunity to express such heartfelt sentiments seemed somewhat healing and oddly liberating.  Maybe expressing our love for something or someone–no matter how schmaltzy the end product turns out–isn’t such a bad idea after all.  Remember, in his songwriting, John Denver himself was often accused of this sort of simplicity by jealous critics and fellow artists who never reached the peak of popularity he still receives. There’s something inspired, it turns out, about writing straight from the heart.  At any rate, here is the text of the letter I wrote and read last October to the great spirit of John Denver:

 

Aspen, Colorado / October 11, 2013

Dear John,

It is hard to imagine all that this world lost when we lost you sixteen years ago. Not only did we lose a man we all felt close to, a man who just happened to be of incomparable talent and perspective, a man of keen wit and perception, but it seems even more evident than ever before that when we lost you, we also lost a treasured compass–our guide and our guru. We knew when we lost you that the road ahead would never be the same, but we never envisioned how we would carry on—what it actually meant to live without your remarkable influence.

All these years later, we lament that many of the causes you dedicated so much passion to continue to go unresolved. We haven’t ended poverty or world hunger. We are only marginally closer to non-polluting sources of energy independence. We continue to make weapons and feed the war machine, spilling untold billions of dollars and tens of thousands of human lives each year. Our economy has been suffering as you predicted it would, and we are probably more politically divided as a nation than in any time since the Civil War. Without your voice, we are left yearning for the kind of comfort, optimism, leadership, and direction your songs so triumphantly celebrate.

We want you to know that we continue to honor your memory. Inspired by your work, we have stayed close to your ideals. We care for our land in small ways and big. We walk and we ponder, and often we look anew with the eyes you taught us to use. We see the hawk and the eagle, and we continue to marvel at the wondrous skies and the beauty you saw and now we see in all of nature. In these ways, we are consoled, and yet we still grieve.

Every October on the days surrounding the anniversary of your death, many of us who love you most gather across the continents to pay tribute to the gifts you so lovingly shared with all of us. Here in Aspen, we visit your Sanctuary; we travel to Windstar to see Spirit and walk the land, which to our dismay was recently sold. We ride the gondolas up Aspen Mountain. We renew old friendships and make new ones with people from around the globe. We share stories, sing your songs together, hang out into the wee hours of the night at Mountain Chalet sing-alongs.  We laugh and we hug, grow closer, smile a lot, find the healing we seek, and say, “FAR OUT!,” and even occasionally “MAGOOMBA!!!” And sometimes we cry.

We attend concerts and campfires, go on hayrides, enjoy the fresh mountain air, and have a luncheon at the Cookhouse. The thing we want you most to know is that we have become a family. We call it, “Our John Denver Family.”

We know that you would be so pleased with the friendships we develop, and we feel a fulfilling sense of pride in all that you gave to us, not the least of which are these shared experiences. We remember that this level of recognition, this sense of community and at oneness is something you always wanted for yourself and for all of humankind.

In addition, because current times provide us with a wealth of resources such as text messaging and Facebook, we even manage to communicate with one another daily. You are always the main topic of conversation. On the internet, we also have access to your autobiography.  We have websites and Facebook groups dedicated to your memory. Nightly, we visit recordings of your concert performances, music videos, and television appearances. We feel incredibly fortunate to be your fans and your family. We feel lucky to have known you, to understand what you were all about.

Our dearest John, you gave us your energy, your talent, your spirit and your time, and we celebrate it all with unfaltering gratitude. We are the brothers and sisters your vision created. We are the world peace you sang for with all your heart. Your grand life was full of purpose, and it mattered to all of us and it continues to matter. We love you, we miss you, we appreciate you, and we thank you.

All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino

 

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

death is not rock

Steve Weisberg
November 14, 1949–May 22, 2014

John Denver fans from all over the world, affectionately known by many as the “John Denver Family” grieve today the passing Thursday evening of John’s lead guitarist from the 1970s, Steve Weisberg.  Steve was diagnosed in March 2013 with a lymphatic cancer he thought he’d beat.

For eighteen months, Steve rode the oscillating wave of cancer treatment, even while traveling to play in concerts across the country, most recently in Florida, Milwaukee, and Texas.  He had another concert scheduled just ahead, in early June.  Steve, lovingly known as “Pokey” to his friends in the music industry (for having shown up late one time to a recording session), was otherwise generous of time and spirit, a passionate man with a tender heart.  You might say he died as he lived, playing his famed guitar and expressing to the untimely end both love and gratitude for his friends, his life and talent, and all his many blessings.

young steve w.

Steve Weisberg, a boy with big dreams in the experimental decade of the musical ’70s, was a man who, in the end, seemed to have his head screwed on straight. He not only didn’t take himself too seriously, he found humor in most situations and he laughed readily and heartily.  His laughter was so infectious that whenever he laughed, you laughed, whether or not it was as funny as Steve seemed to find it.  Never oblivious to the ironic or to the facetious, his trademark saying–also attached in his email signature–was Steven Covey’s, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

A liberal arts major in college and an accomplished songwriter in his own right, Pokey loved a good story, and he created them regularly, both out of ordinary experience and out of the extraordinary. He was in every way a lively and natural communicator, never hesitant to pick up the phone and call friends to share an idea or just connect.  Like his famed boss and band mate John Denver, Pokey was truly a people person, “invested in the human race.”  He made himself accessible to everyone he met and cared for–and if he met you, he generally cared for you.  So friendly was he that he even included a direct telephone number on his website.  In his way, he was a regular sort of guy, and in including the telephone number he likely figured, “How else are they going to find me?”  He frequently helped up-and-coming musicians by encouraging them, and even by playing with them in gigs and informal jams wherever life brought him.  It was in this way that he came to know personally many John Denver enthusiasts, who now remain “family” 17 years after Denver’s fatal plane crash in Monterey Bay, California.

About his condition, in a public Facebook post in May 2013, Weisberg wrote:

When I was referred to the oncologist 2 months ago I was ready for the worst. But what he told me was too good to be true: That my type is now so utterly and completely curable, I have a 98% chance of it being gone forever by July. This is not remission, which expects a return visit. This is…’gone forever after round one of chemo’. I’m now halfway through a very easy, uneventful treatment program. He said my optimism would let me handle this little ordeal much better than another person might. The optimism came from being 24 years in recovery, which led me to God. And getting to know God led me to the actual belief that everything (everything) will always, somehow, be okay.

They say we’re only as sick as our deepest secret, and I do believe this. This illness has brought me closer to God than anything I could have imagined. But trying to hide such a big secret has distanced me…from God, and from those who would help me celebrate the fact that I was spared the expected rigors and outcome of other forms of lymphoma. Mine is called Diffuse Large B-Cell lymphoma. It’s a laydown pussycat for today’s sophisticated chemos, unless it’s spread to the brain, or detected too late. Medical science has deduced that I do have a brain; that it is cancer-free; and that we detected this in time. The new look I’m sporting, as many of you guessed…was not optional.

Those of us in any type of 12 Step program know our illness became our greatest asset….once we had a little recovery under our belts. Life is sweeter than before that problem existed.

Recovery from cancer is an even bigger cause, for me, of celebration. I wish all others with the disease could be so lucky. Bizarre as it sounds, I have never had a more joyous experience being alive…..than right now.

Photos and tributes to Steve are being shared in abundance today on social media, as fellow musicians, friends and family express their shock at his passing and their gratitude for his many contributions.  In a correspondence with Shawn Garvey, Weisberg’s friend and a minister by trade, who recently performed in concert with Steve in February, he muses, “Pokey and I had a special friendship based upon things that ran very deep within us, and I’m profoundly blessed that was where our friendship resided.”

In his Facebook tribute, Pastor Garvey goes on to say:

By virtue of the kind of chemistry we had, and my vocation (I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ), our friendship very quickly developed around matters of profound depth. Steve was a man on a journey, and he felt comfortable enough with me to share a very personal, spiritual side of himself that led us down all sorts of conversational pathways. I met him at a point in his life when he was re-discovering his love and spiritual connection with music–especially John’s; and he’s the first to admit that at the time it was all happening with John, he was too young to truly appreciate what that music was doing for people. In the time that I was blessed to know him, he got it.

He not only got it, he was profoundly appreciative for the genuine and miraculous gift that it was; to the millions it reached and to himself. He began to find more avenues and opportunities to share in his gift, and by the last few years he’d been able to do what we talked about at length for such a long time: go back to playing music full time as his vocation. I was so incredibly happy for him that he’d achieved that after such a long and complicated road since his days with John.

Garvey concludes:

I think what I’d share for those of you who primarily connected with Steve through the music was that he’d come to a very deep understanding of how the music touched all of you, and how there was great power, healing, joy and transformation inherent in that. John’s music and John’s personality continues to do that for people, and Steve came to a very special understanding not only of that reality, but that he played a part in it and continued to do so these last few years. This was something he regarded as a magnificent blessing.

He’d want all of you to know that – and that it meant the world to him.

In the video that follows below (linked “Sunshine on My Shoulders”), we find the two friends sharing in synch a song written by the beloved John Denver, whose music brought them together five years ago when Garvey reached out to Weisberg in a fashion similar to that which, many years before, Weisberg reached out to Denver. In both instances, Denver received Weisberg’s enthusiasm and talent as Weisberg received Garvey’s…and (to echo another famous John Denver song) this reception opened doors for both musicians.

Filmed in 2011 at Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham, NJ, it is also apparent in this video clip that Weisberg himself was inherently touched by the music he made (see link below).  In this example of one of Steve’s many musical encounters, this time with a fan who became his friend and spiritual confidant, we see clearly that Weisberg himself exuded the musical element.  With Garvey on vocals and Weisberg on lead, we see Weisberg “in the groove” he often referenced.  As he plays, we observe the guitar riff resonating in his body–so much so, that his fingerpicking becomes not just an accompaniment to the song, but seemingly a dance his body cannot contain. A beautiful dance of joy, a celebration.  We witness firsthand the music that lived gloriously in the man we now grieve.

Shawn Garvey and Steve Weisberg perform “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

RIP, Steve Weisberg


With permission.

All rights reserved, © Debra Valentino.

Driving Away for the Last Time

to reupholster

The dog was with me when I pulled away. The seatbelt alarm rang from the weight of him, panting in the passenger’s seat. As I drove away from my parents’ home for the last time, the past two years whirled in my head. Then, all the comings and goings over all the years. This time, with a pickup truck full of furniture to reupholster and the console sewing machine my parents bought me for my 8th grade graduation.

How many memories I have of this same act, yet going in a different direction, with contents other than these…babies in the backseat, containers full of Mom’s homemade leftovers, the new bike rack my dad bought us to haul the kids’ bikes….It seemed appropriate that it was still dark outside, 4:30 in the morning, with not a soul stirring except the ghosts of one’s entire life.

Every single part of my body ached, not just my heart, though I wasn’t focused on the pain. It had been a surreal week of long air travel and all its implicit stressors, followed by hours and days of endless sorting, moving, and deciding, taking things out, putting them somewhere else, then dealing with many people both in person and online wanting lowered prices lower…millions of bodily movements to match a few sharp, recurring and sometimes unexpected emotions. How does a person keep from being swallowed up by all the minutiae of breaking down a home?

I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t so bad. That it wasn’t really the house I grew up in—the house where indelible memories lie. But it was the house where my cousins grew up, the house my aunt drove away from on her lunch hour, the house where on Christmas I opened the best gift I ever received (an Easy-bake oven I could not wait to try). I had plenty of memories here. After my parents moved from our house to here, my brothers and I hosted a surprise 25th anniversary party for them at this house, even as we each returned for the weekend from college. I remember scrubbing the basement steps in preparation.

They were the same stairs, later carpeted, where in my nylon-clad feet I slipped and fell, tumbling rapidly down, breaking my tailbone (for the first time). I have so many memories of these stairs that they alone probably belong in a poem.

emptied cabinetThis was also the place where I found out that my fiancé had a brain tumor. Much later, this became the house where I dressed on my wedding day. Later still, the house my baby shower was held for my firstborn. It is the house I read so many books in, both inside and out. It is also the house that one summer (while lying outside on a chaise lounge reading a book) I decided not to return to graduate school, but to go to work full time instead—a decision that changed everything for the rest of my life.  This house. The house where I breastfed my babies, and where I sat panicked at age 34 with a stack of seventeen books on breast cancer–trying to learn what it meant exactly, when the doctor said preliminary testing showed I had it.

No house really, no matter the circumstances, is safe for a writer, a scrap-booker.  I walked somberly about, taking final pictures of the hollowed rooms. As I stood with my phone camera, my husband arrived unceremoniously and I heard myself say to him, “This is the room where my grandmother died. Right in that corner there.”

pegboardAll that was left of a generation were remnants. The last of the last of what no one had  use for–no one in the family, no one at the garage sale, no one on craigslist, none of the neighbors, not evenbox any of the charities. Stuff that somehow couldn’t even make its way to the garbage: my mother’s handmade peg board that displayed the necklaces she crafted in her last years; the ornate shoe shine kit (well, the box, anyway) someone (it had to be my brother) gave my dad one year, possibly for Father’s Day; an ironing board…my mother’s ironing board.

On the walls in two rooms stood the calendars. I couldn’t bear to leave them hanging there. My dad, so fastidious about time and date, surely had others, and so had left these behind. He had written on them in his hand and now they said May 2014. Life in a sheaf of pages–just like that–and there they remained, the calendars. May 2014. Leaving them behind was like marking in time the end of all things. A family’s life. Making human life as disposable as all the stuff we accumulate. I quietly removed them, as if it was my secret. As if no one in the world but I would understand what calendars mean.

 

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All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino.

On Writing it Down

"Perhaps Love" lyrics

I’m just back from what has become my annual Mother’s Day excursion with my dearly beloved daughter Lia (pronounced /Lee’-a/, long “e”-schwa “e”).  My heart is full from the experience we shared (this time on our memorial trek to my mother, as introduced here). I’m still more or less “deplaning,” and during breaks, trying to catch up on the Facebook tributes to moms.  What a great thing when we can celebrate together across the miles through words and pictures.  We live in such extraordinary times.

Of course I can’t think about Mother’s Day without thinking of my own mother and grandmothers–all now gone, which in itself seems surreal.   It’s amazing how such losses change our perspective on just about everything.

As I was reading, this news clip on Sarah McLachlan gave me an insight.  Maybe resilience is not so remarkable after all; maybe it is our true character as humans.  To be strong and to overcome great misfortune, when you think of it, is something most of us do several times.  Sometimes, many times.  We find it amazing because on many levels it is remarkable to survive and to overcome tremendous physical suffering and emotional or psychological anguish–but maybe it is actually our natural composition.  “NBD” (“no big deal”), as my twenty-something daughter says.  The life force.  It gets us through.  It permits our healing.  That is, for those whose time has not yet come.

Mother’s Day and the life force.  A heady contemplation while still jet lagged.  But jets and Mother’s Day also always bring to my mind another great and favorite spirit (and through him, his own mother)–both also now gone.  That’s four grandmothers, four mothers, and one son/father/grandfather/husband/singer-songwriter-musician/ humanitarian/ environmentalist/activist.  “JS,” (just saying).

{Language moves through the generations like the fluent, flowing hands of a conductor.  “That’s money,” my anti-capitalistic twenty-something son says to mean, “That’s a good thing.”  I think.  Anyway, he says it ironically.  Or wait, not ironically.  I mean, it’s ironic because he seems to have very little interest at this point in money.  The root of all evil, you know.  And who am I to argue?  Anyway– (We are always first and foremost the roles we hold dearest).   Is anyone following me?  It’s okay if you’re not; I’m just writing.  Anyway–}

John Denver, who wrote some 300+ songs and performed all over the world, said he wrote “Perhaps Love” while thinking of his mother, Erma Deutschendorf, even as he was experiencing the heartache of separation and divorce.  “Perhaps Love” (also purportedly John’s first wife Annie’s favorite song of his) was performed live at the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Japan with Placido Domingo at a Mother’s Day concert in 1984 with John’s mother Erma in the audience.

John Denver was truly an inspired man.  He could stand on a mountain top and write a song (“Annie’s Song).  He could round the bend of a road and write a song (“Perhaps Love”).   He could pack a bag and write a song (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”).  He could return home and write a song (“Back Home Again”).

As a student of poetry, I can’t stop studying him.

He saw art in everything–in his life experiences, in nature, in injustice, in ideas, in what his heart felt.  His creative process seems so much like my own–he was always composing, always writing.  This is how I have lived all my life.  Must I be embarrassed to say that? I’m saying not only that I love his work and so many things about him, but that I identify with his artistry–even though the differences are vast and obvious.  I think we can identify with something vast and grand (and in John Denver’s case, wealthy and famous) and not be those things ourselves.  I think it is okay not to want to be any of those things, but simply to enjoy them, to experience them.  We can’t all talk at once.  Some of us just need to listen.  “Listening” is its own art.  Indeed, some people should be better at it than they are.

Anyway, as I was saying, I am not at all musical.  I don’t even play an instrument. Although my dream as a child was to play the piano.  John’s dream was to play the guitar, and his grandmother gave him her guitar when he was 12.  When I was 8 years old, I asked for a piano and got an organ.  Two keyboard levels and electronic.  I started writing poetry instead.  At 8.  But I almost never share my stuff with anyone.  To this day, when I have an opportunity to sit at a piano, I plunk out melodies I make up spontaneously.  They are there and then they are gone.

John shared readily and easily and generously.  There are a lot of things that go into such sharing–believe it or not, besides talent.  In fact, one of the things that develops talent is the actual sharing.  But anyway, I digress (again).

What I finally want to say is that I miss my mom.  I miss my grandmothers.  I miss John Denver and his work.  I am sure he is glad he wrote down that song and performed it in front of his mother at the Met.  I am also sure that she would have loved him just the same and ever as much even if he hadn’t.  Mothers love their sons no matter what, and that is a fact.

The point is to write it down.

And to be grateful.  No matter what.

Thanks, John.  Thanks, Erma.  Thanks, Mom.  Thanks, Nana and Grandma.  Thanks, kids.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

 

 

Identification and Survival — How Scrapbooking Saved My Brain

online card example

Part 1.

I’ve been watching CBS’ 60 Minutes most of my life, but I missed last night’s interview with Liam Neeson, because I was busy cooking for my family.  The minute I learned that Neeson was the guest, however, I actually felt relieved that I missed the show…then immediately began to breathe rapidly, feel slightly anxious, unwillingly revisiting the panic I felt when his wife, Natasha Richardson, died five years ago from Traumatic Brain Injury.

At the time of Natasha Richardson’s death, I was unable to cook.  I could no longer follow a recipe, because of my own Traumatic Brain Injury.  I had trouble reading and I had trouble following things in a sequence.  I couldn’t process most information, certainly not automatically or without delay.  I also could not cook extemporaneously, as I was accustomed to doing, or even stand for extended periods of time.  I had actually given up trying to cook or really even wanting to.  At that time, there were many things I no longer could do, and I had given up even caring; because in many ways, I was still fighting for survival.

In March 2009, I identified strongly with Natasha Richardson’s story.  Richardson was a mother and 45-years-old when she received blunt force trauma to the head, and I was snow sports printer's traymother and 50-years-old when I received the same.  Like me, Richardson reported being “fine” shortly after her injury.  Like me, she also refused medical care initially, and then tried to resume her normal activities.  Like me, the full impact of her injury took time to surface; and as in my case, the subsequent swelling in her neck and head, as well as the bleeding in her skull and brain, all impaired her communication skills.  For each of us, this event changed everything.  How I survived and she did not is still a mystery to me to this day.

At times I wonder if not going to the hospital is actually what might have saved me…though I would never advise this to anyone.  In fact, I feel the opposite:  Do not hesitate for any reason; always go immediately to the hospital.  Do not wait, as I did, until a doctor insists.  Not that you’ll be thinking…you’ll more likely be groggy and uncomfortable, perhaps even combative and crying, yelling and screaming as I was (which graduation bannerare all classic symptoms of closed head injury).  So I might amend this to say that if you are the person accompanying a person who suffers a blow to the head, insist on calling an ambulance. Don’t argue with them about it, just do it. The injured person very well may need to receive oxygen, at the very least; but they probably won’t know it, and will most likely thank you in the end.  Just be safe, and call for emergency help.

Natasha Richardson’s family is now left to tell her story, but because I somehow miraculously survived, I am finally trying to tell my own.

spring bouquetkids' birthday cardFive years after Natasha Richardson’s death and nearly seven after my own ordeal, I am back at last to cooking again.  Yet I am still uneasy when I recall her story.  I am still squeamish about watching a television interview about it.  I don’t really like to relive the feelings I felt and the thoughts I thought when I was working hard to recover from my own Traumatic Brain Injury.  It is a bit of a burden to carry, knowing how close one came to death.  And having survived is not always filled with rejoicing. There has been a lot of suffering and chronic pain, endless medical care, and far too much negative change–all of which was completely against my will.

Still, what is also interesting (and what ultimately matters most to those who live) is what a person does, not only to survive a life-threatening condition, but also to endure it.

Part 2:

Inspire cardWhen occupational therapy failed me one summer, one of the tasks I discovered on my own that was exceedingly helpful was scrapbooking.  It was something I could do that was analogous to the kinds of tasks I enjoyed in my job as a professor of English. It allowed me infinite opportunity for invention and hours of creativity, which I had regularly practiced in my reading, lecture planning, assignment making, and discussion leading.  It necessitated a vast variety of materials, new skills and tools, all of which provided a new vocabulary, and consequently a new perspective, which was also at times mathematical.

IMG_1231In addition, scrapbooking stimulated my weakened memory as I sorted through old photographs, at times of events of which I now had no recollection (which was completely unlike my old brain that was detail-oriented, effortlessly remembering dates, as well as what everyone wore and said).  Scrapbooking also provided endless trials of where I put whatever I was using or needing to use.  In fact, I often spent more time looking for things I just had in my sewing cardhands or retrieving things I was certain I put in a particular place, than I did actually crafting.  This was useful, however, because my injury left me deficient in visual recall, and I needed at the time to work on this skill probably above all others.

IMG_3273For me there was a natural progression from scrapbooking to paper crafting, where instead of celebrating and documenting experiences, I created gifts for others and for occasions that celebrated and honored them.  The flexibility of paper crafting was especially gratifying to me as I worked on tags, cards, author's printer's trayprinters’ trays, banners, books, and more.  Really, there is no end to the things one can create with both mediums, but to a writer/technical writer, there really isn’t anything more fun than working with a lavish array of colorful pens, papers, and possibilities.  It’s all in its own way very poetic, and not at all devoid of linguistic competence.

teach love magnet

Because teaching college English did not permit excess time forwall hanging exploring hobbies beyond writing, the opportunity for me to dabble in this new endeavor became a valuable experience at a time when nearly everything else that mattered to me was uncertain, or at the least had to be put on hold.

friendship cardNot only did I learn a good deal by paper crafting, which also helped me to rebuild cognitively while developing new neural pathways, but crafting also helped me to heal further in other valuable ways, including spiritual and emotional.  It was something I could complete when I generally felt worthless or otherwise non-productive.  It was something I could enjoy in a quiet, focused environment, when other sensory 14 ways to share your heart with the world bouquetinformation often felt crowding or even overwhelming.  It was something, during short reprieves of chronic pain, that I could do that left me close to my bed for rest graduation cardwhenever I was overcome by fatigue.  And crafting gave me something to plan and to dream about, as well as anticipate.  Above all, I enjoyed the prayful experience of holding in focus the person and the relationship I had with the person for the duration of time it took to craft something for them.  In this way, crafting was a calming meditation of positive thought and influence, something that inherently brought me great joy.  It never mattered to me that it was joy typically greater in proportion than that of the recipient’s.

Scrapbooking, unlike poetry, generally has the appearance of being easy to accomplish,Mother's Day card when in fact, it can be quite tedious and time consuming, while also requiring tremendous patience.  Poetry, if it is good, often looks more complicated than it is—more arduous to write than it actually was.  This is not to say that writing poetry is easy.  It is just that the two arts are not generally seen in the same light, when my experience shows that they might be.  In an upcoming post, I will explore the experience of writing poetry during recovery from head trauma.

 

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© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On Losing My Mother, and Fulfilling Dreams (part 4): Bon Voyage, Great Spirit!

On Losing My Mother, and Fulfilling Dreams (part 4):  Bon Voyage, Great Spirit!

Santorini, Greece

When grandparents die it can be the end of an era for a family.  Particularly in an ethnic culture where old world ways dwindle and traditions begin to fade.  Such was the case in our family when my grandmother died, though my mom was a good steward of making delectable artichokes, and knew how to make the prized biscotti, pizzelles, rozettes and cannoli, as well as expertly execute the preparation of the manicotti and ravioli with her cylindrical tubes, heated press, crepe pan and pasta machine.  They could have made an action figure doll of her with all her various culinary accoutrements.

so many memories together

so many memories together

I got through this first Christmas without my mother partly by trying to make most of her signature dishes.  It made me feel close to her, and yes it brought unexpected tears and new insight into who she was. I even wore her apron some of the time; perhaps more often than she herself might have, so focused was she always on the process and not the pretty.

I didn’t get the artichokes or the homemade pasta accomplished, but I made almost all of her holiday cookies, realizing the hard way that experience does indeed keep a dear school.  Fortunately, I’m not an altogether bad cook otherwise, and I’ve pretty much mastered the kids’ favorite, eggplant parmigiana, as well as the most important endeavor of making “the gravy,” (known to non-natives as “spaghetti sauce”).  Italian family traditions don’t begin and end with cooking—they just sort of center around it.  There is also history, music, singing, dancing, church, art, debate, beauty, conversation, wine, stories, love, and best of all, laughter.

My daughter’s grief is also great like mine, because she was especially close to my mother.

     my daughter and me              --in our Christmas aprons--

my daughter and me                                            –in our Christmas aprons–

So similar in nature, they were truly kindred-spirits, more so than my mother and myself.  It was a joy to witness their bond, and to hear them cracking-up together when they both should have been sleeping.  So, after my mom passed away, I couldn’t be much surprised when my daughter had the idea of fulfilling one of her grandmother’s few dreams.

My mother had one Greek uncle, the father of my mother’s closest and favorite cousin, whom we always referred to as “Aunt Franny.” She and Franny were closer than sisters, the best of friends, and their relationship alone enriched our family history with endless stories of their adventures.  Because of their

cousins

cousins

bond, we were all closer and happier.  They made us feel anchored, and I can only imagine what my mom’s absence must feel like for Aunt Franny.

It seems my mother’s Uncle John would regale her siblings and her and all the cousins with splendid stories of his home country, and these stories stayed with my mother all her life.  So much so, that even though she was Italian by origin and not terribly well traveled, she would say in her ever-unique way of thinking that she never much cared to see Italy, but she always wished she could see Greece.

(Great) Aunt Jenny, Aunt Franny, (Great) Uncle John

(Great) Aunt Jenny, Aunt Franny, (Great) Uncle John

She wanted to see the beauty of the Mediterranean islands that her Uncle John affectionately painted so vividly with his words, which she said could bring you to tears, and often did him.

And so this year, for our first birthdays that fall so close to the anniversary date of our great loss on April 10, 2013, my daughter and I will be traveling to Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens to see through our eyes what my mother said she always longed to see.

It is just the only way we can bear to say “Bon Voyage” to the greatest mother and grandmother either of us has ever known.

Athens

 

@ Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On Losing My Mother (part 3): Reading, Writing, and “Fanny Fatigue”

On Losing My Mother (part 3):  Reading, Writing, and “Fanny Fatigue”

All my life, my mother was enthusiastic about education, and one of my favorite first memories is learning to read pre-kindergarten in our front yard. It was just my mother and me sitting under the big elm tree on a sunny, weekday afternoon.  My mom got me these awesome picture cards, and as it happened, we were looking at the figure of an elm leaf, learning to read the word, “elm.” This stands out as one of the first and most profound poetic memories of my life. After all, poetry can be seen as a series of embedded connections, and though these were quite literal, it all felt rather metaphoric to me in the moment (even though I hadn’t a clue at the time what a metaphor was).

My mother was so good at understanding the mind of a child. She always encouraged us to think and to wonder, to have awe and to be inspired by what we saw. And she always encouraged us to get involved, and to jump right in to enjoy new experiences. Another favorite memory that followed many years later is when we first started e-mailing each other in the early 1990s. Nothing could have felt more appropriate than that first e-mail I ever received from my mother, which naturally contained a recipe. I immediately envisioned the two of us together in another time and culture. I could see us sending smoke signals with lists of ingredients. Anything to get those recipes shared.

Still later, after I sent several e-mails filling in Mom on the quotidian of my and my kids’ days, my mother replied, “I could read your letters all day long. You write so beautifully.” Not given to flattery, my mother never complimented me much, and that these were just letters dashed off during the frenzy of my days made her words ever more memorable. Certainly she was no critic and her words were no true measure of a daughter’s talent, but just having unexpectedly pleased her with something such as writing (that was actually so meaningful to me)–and hearing her say something she’d never before said to me–seemed vital and valuable.

My mother had an interesting ease about her, and her affable nature made her seem genuine and approachable to just about everyone. People liked her so much that they rarely forgot her. In fact, when people recognized me at my high school reunions, they often exclaimed things such as: “Debbie Valentino! HOW is YOUR MOTHER?”

It was the same way with all of my father’s friends and with my brothers’ friends. If you knew any of us, you knew my mom…and even if you didn’t especially like one of us, you liked my mom. She was always making something—from slippers to spaghetti, from curtains to Kleenex boxes, her hands were constantly knitting, crocheting, sewing, counting, cooking, crafting. Even when she sat, she was working on something.

My mother was a complete extrovert who loved staying busy and loved people almost to a fault, and she would annoy me by doing things like knitting booties for all my friends and even some of their mothers and brothers. She didn’t require a lot of attention or praise, she just did what moved her spirit.

One time I wrote a poem about her feeding my ex-husband.  “MOM! HE’S NOT your son-in-law anymore!”

You could not get her out of the kitchen ever.

“Mom! STOP COOKING!”

“I’m not cooking! I’m just baking a cake!”

It is because of these experiences, no doubt, that writing has become so much a part of my life…that I feel at all compelled to write this blog. Critics didn’t stop my mom. Neither did perfectionism. She just did whatever she enjoyed, and that made her happy. She would find my blogging a perfectly natural thing to do. In fact, I can hear her squeals of delight, “You should see Debbie’s blog!” She was always everyone’s best cheerleader. Not just her own children’s and grandchildren’s, but everyone’s. She was high-spirited, and she delighted in the joys and successes of others.

My mother was not a writer, but she was a maker and a doer.  A woman who invented out of bangles and beads things that would last and hold meaning (if they weren’t falling apart, that is). My mom was a maverick in so many simple and yet remarkable ways, but it can’t be re-iterated enough that what she was certainly most accomplished at was providing warm and delicious meals, nearly every single day of our entire childhood and into our adulthood. Even when I was in third grade and she finally “went back to work,” she would stand in her high heels and nylon stockings, working at the stove without a break from the day. We spent hours as a family together at the table enjoying her lavish meals, leading many a friend who joined us to proclaim, “I sure wish I was Italian!”

My mother was also a woman of enormous faith and strength, and she had been tested in ways that would undo almost anyone. Though a physically tiny woman, cross-eyed and legally blind in one eye from birth, she was incredibly resilient, having overcome a lifetime of hardships and illnesses, including surviving three caesarean births when surgery procedures were nearly barbaric—as well as a complete hysterectomy just days after I was born, a thyroidectomy, and tens and tens of other operations (including the partial left lung lobectomy) that left incision scars all over her body. Resulting from the thyroidectomy, she had a raspy, sort of piercing voice with yet another scar that stretched across the entire length of the bottom front of her neck, and somewhat coarse features that made her not at all masculine, but certainly not the beauty of her family…perhaps, to put it biblically, the younger sister Leah to the older sister Rachel. Yet, she would literally say in her indelible spirit and good sense, “I think I’m beautiful.”

She was not vain, and in this way was an incredible role model both to myself and especially to all the female grandchildren. “I’m me, and this is the way God made me. I like myself. If others don’t, that’s their problem. I feel sorry for them.” And I believe she meant it. In this way she was ahead of and yet right in step with Dove’s new selfie campaign.

I won’t say these medical challenges didn’t make my mother sometimes do odd things. She named me after the doctor’s wife, because he saved her life in childbirth; I think possibly for the second or third time. That’s right, his wife.  I was an Italian-American baby with a Jewish name (spelled “D-e-b-r-a”) that I never grew to like or appreciate (at least until after her passing), much less the legacy of being named after a veritable stranger.

That was my mom. She had her own unique logic, and as we were fond of saying, “was a little bit goofy sometimes,” but that was also part of her charm and what made her endearing (if not challenging). She was so spontaneous that she didn’t always consider the ramifications of what felt right to her in the moment, but she never met a stranger and she didn’t suffer any fools, and certainly suffered no regrets, which she made clear to us many times in the months before her passing. “I’ve lived a good life. I accomplished a lot. I want to be remembered for having lived for my children.”

That was just the Caroline we all knew. (Named after her favorite grandmother.)

At least she didn’t name me Ira.

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If there is anything left to say, it has to be said that my mother loved to laugh. The woman who made everyone laugh and sometimes laughed just to laugh, then laughed at others laughing at her laugh could have had as her anthem that Mary Poppins hit song, “I Love to Laugh.” The woman who told endless stories about remote acquaintances, and always asked in restaurants for extra lemons and lots of whipped cream, was also the woman who on her deathbed wrote in her still strong hand that she had “Fanny Fatigue.” She was ready to go when she went, but we weren’t ready to let her go, because we knew that to large measure she was the party no one ever wanted to miss.

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© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On Losing My Mother (part 2): A Return to Blogging and the Creative Act

On Losing My Mother (part 2):  A Return to Blogging and the Creative Act

My mom was the quintessential first teacher for sure.  And this, among other things, is what makes her so difficult to finally say goodbye to.  She was just so much fun in so many ways.  That seems a phenomenal thing to be able to say in the end about any mother…

I suppose I really wouldn’t know.  When I went away to college, I remember being notably surprised to discover that there was such a thing as a bad mother—or even that some people actually favored their fathers over their mothers.  I’ve always loved my dad, but I had also always assumed that everyone’s mother did the multitude of things that my mom did.  When my father would relax after a long workday, my mother’s work would continue.  Even though it was my job to clean the kitchen, my mom would be sewing and ironing, or getting something accomplished before bedtime.  From knitting needles to crochet hooks to needles and thread to needle-nose pliers, my mom’s hands were always doing something. She even called it, “relaxing.”  She was responsible and reliable in every important way, and  I just assumed that everyone’s mom was also that way.

My mother was surprisingly industrious, and despite whatever might have ailed her, it was nothing to come home after school to discover the driveway painted free-hand with the paint left over from the window shutters, large boxes outlining games of Four-square and Hop-scotch, Sky Blue sitting ceremoniously on top.  We would jump right in and play for hours, days, even years. She’s likely the one who mounted the basketball backboard and hoop above the garage.  She was that versatile, that take charge.  You’d often return to find her barbecuing the evening’s supper, snapping peas, or pulling rhubarb to make a pie. You never really knew what she would come up with, but you knew it would be good…and sometimes just downright funny.

Not every idea my mother ever had was a resounding success.  One time, she decided to spruce up the kitchen by putting wood-grain contact paper over the pink tile.  That didn’t look so good for obvious reasons.  And because she was free-spirited and not at all stifling, she let me paint my bedroom with some random can of navy blue enamel.  That didn’t look so good, either.  She loved to try new things even in her cooking, which my dad the traditionalist did not always appreciate: “Do you have to experiment?  Why can’t you just do it the regular way?”  My mother loved the joy of discovery.  In fact, she was so famous for her culinary endeavors that her kitchen was affectionately known as, “Caroline’s Café.” You could have whatever you wanted, and there would always be homemade soup, something exotic, and at least two or three entrees to choose from.  If you said you liked something, it became “your favorite,” and you could count on having it again and again, and again if you wanted it.  You were always healthily fed.

My childhood memories also include groups of us gathered around our kitchen table, laughing, concentrating, and creating.  Homemade play-doh was something my mom regularly whipped up in minutes. Since Math was also important, there were endless games of Dominoes and all kinds of card games and board games to help us learn to add and subtract.  I especially loved Michigan Rummy, because that was always a big, loud crowd, but by the time I was 9 years old, I had mastered the quieter one-on-one game of Canasta to the point that no one could beat me. Yet, it wasn’t the mastery my mother cared much about.  She loved to see us engaged and learning, and she clearly understood that a young brain needed this kind of assistance; she didn’t just put the game on the table and leave (the way as a working mom I myself did too often).  Her time was our time.

My mother’s hard work translated naturally in her to easily thinking of ways to keep us busy—not in a contrived or arduous house-cleaning kind of way, but in a fun, spontaneous, ever magical kind of way.  It is a mystery how she came up with so many great ideas when no one else in the neighborhood seemed to bother or care. She was just naturally creative and imaginative–Pinterest before Pinterest was of anyone’s interest.  While other moms watched soap operas with their hair rolled in hollowed-out orange juice cans, my mom was setting up the Boy Scout or Bluebird group activities for the day.  It truly was her mission to “keep [us] kids occupied”…and this not only included my two older brothers, but also the neighbors’ kids, our school friends, classmates, and of course, our cousins.

My mother would do things like take record albums and heat them in the oven until they were moldable into bowls that we would decorate for chip-dip. She would give us each a beer class that we could slather with glue and glitter, then fill with wax and a wick to create glistening candleholders.  There would be glitter everywhere, but my mom seemed only concerned with the process.  She always put fun before housework—even though it was actually all work for her.  Messes just didn’t bother her at all.  She was much different from her own mother and even from me in this way.  It was like having Mary Poppins around. But my mother was never persnickety and not nearly as anal-retentive (though of course, you’d rather she didn’t sing).  I do wish I could ask her now how she came up with all the enchanting ideas she had.  She was a marvel, and an equally amazing grandmother.

(to be continued in part 3 ——-)

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© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.