Retarded

It’s currently considered rude to use the term retarded when referring to people who are developmentally disabled, even though a few decades ago that was the only term used.  The shift in language is important, because there is great stigma attached to the word, and it inappropriately lumps together a host of developmental disabilities with a wide range of effects.  But there is a state the word conveys perfectly, which Adrienne uncovered in the months after Eric died. 

“Hey, we’re retarded,” Adrienne said one day when we were sitting on the porch, unable to read, unable to garden, unable to do anything besides sit there and stare and talk now and then.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, retard means “1. A slowing down or hindering of progress.”  Bingo.  No progress other than breathing, a slow down in every function of our daily lives, like getting out of bed in the morning, cooking meals, doing dishes, making phone calls, getting back into bed at night.  We were good at grieving and spending time together and not much else

Unfortunately, the definition of retarded still means “affected with mental retardation,” and the slang definition for retard is “a disparaging term for a mentally retarded person.”  But retarded can also mean “relatively slow in mental, emotional or physical development.”  Take out the “physical” and “development” and there it is.  We were definitely relatively slow in our mental functioning and our emotional state was stuck in a permanent wail.  We were bogged down with grief, slogging through each day, and unable to process even basic bodily signals like hunger and the need to sleep.  Retarded.

What brings this up now?  Although my sister’s diagnosis of a recurrence of cancer is nothing like Eric’s, and she is already on a treatment that has a good chance of working, just hearing the news of cancer returned in the body of someone I love set off the grief retardation tremors. 

“I was retarded yesterday afternoon,” Adrienne told me, a couple days after we got the news.  “I just sat on the couch and stared into space.”

And I have been retarded too.  My reading dropped off, my concentration was shaky, and I felt this extra weight across my shoulders, making my already tight neck muscles like stretched strings.  It’s eased up, which is how I can now see that it happened.

Retarded.  I’m making a case to reframe the word in a way that isn’t disparaging to a diverse group of individuals, but rather affirming of a natural reaction to the tough side of life.

Haiku XVI

Waiting room patience
Clock hand sweeping in circles
Hallway squares in line.

Country Weekend

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“I’ve been practicing Noel Coward quips all week,” David said as he, Mackenzie, Daisy and I drove west on the Mass Pike.  “I’m going to be a country weekend house guest!”  We were on our way to spend a  weekend at Daisy’s Dad and his girlfriend’s country house, in the Berkshires.  They’re from Manhattan.  We’re from the country.  We spend a lot of weekends in the country, but not in the country house of a New York couple.  We have people come spend country weekends in our house.

As soon as we arrived, Daisy’s Dad came out to greet us.  Dad’s girlfriend came to the door, then out onto the brick walkway, lined with boxwoods and hydrangeas.  There behind them was the house, a country dream.  An antique colonial, the house sat with an aged authority on its patch of meadow.  We went in to examine and admire the original plaster and paint on the walls and woodwork, the artfully hung art, the fireplaces and mantles with age softened colors, and windows with glass so authentically old and rippled none of the windows open in the main part of the house.  The former owners who restored the house didn’t want to risk breaking any of the old glass by making the windows functional.

The “new room” was built from old carriage sheds that formed an ell at the back of the house.  At the end of the room, on either side of the fireplace, were full wall windows.  The seed heads of ornamental grasses flagged in the wind just outside the glass, with a meadow beyond the garden, then trees and then the line of one mountain dipping into the next drawing the horizon.  A living masterpiece. 

Sunday morning we got up to coffee and the NY Times at the thick, wooden kitchen table.  David and I went for a walk, past the dairy farm next door, down the slope of a field to the winding river, the mountains darkening as rain spit in fits.  Then a rainbow arched over the clouds ahead and disappeared into the blue-black clouds to the west.  We talked about children and parents, love and loss, ambition and expectation, and the tangled twist of family we’ve found ourselves in, moving together through a meet the parents weekend without a full set of parents among us.  Yet there is no tangle, just simple threads of love and connection and a weekend built around talking, looking at books of poetry and art, and eating together. 

Daisy has been learning the art of bread baking and brought a cinnamon loaf and the dough for baguettes.  Saturday night, before dinner, Daisy baked the baguettes.  They came out with a perfectly crisp and chewy crust and smooth and light on the inside.  We gathered in the kitchen, artisan cheeses, a rose of roasted figs in a grape leaf and sliced pear on a platter, and broke bread together.  A blessing slipped through me and went out into the country air.

Haiku Hiatus

Haiku hiatus
Who makes rules, who enforces
One breath, trap door step.

I’ve been out on the internet, looking at haiku blogs, and found many haikus that don’t conform to the usual 5-7-5 syllable scheme, with seasonal images and a turn of some sort.   One blogger said a haiku is essentially an experience expressed in a single breath, that’s all.  No other rules.  While the Wikipedia definition does point out that the 5-7-5 scheme is part of traditional haiku, that refers to moras in Japanese, which aren’t the same as syllables in English.  The definition does include a seasonal reference, and some sort of turn to another image, or a “cutting word.”

Right now, none of that seems particularly relevant.  The fly trying to escape the coming winter is buzzing like mad at the sunny window in my study.  Very annoying, which fits my mood.  It’s been a packed week with too many late nights working and too much clutter in my head to stay focused on 17 syllables expressions, whether a single breath or not. 

Another trap door has opened up in my life.  I got the “trap door” reference from Forrest Church’s book Love and Death.  He talks about the sudden challenges and losses in life as trap doors — grave illness, the death of a loved one, those life events that make you take a sharp turn to the left, or right, or maybe not a turn at all but a fall through a gap in the floor.

Cancer had been marching closer for two weeks.  First, the partner of a friend at work was diagnosed with a plum sized tumor on her ovary.  Then another close friend’s husband was scheduled to start hormone treatment for his prostate cancer, a step they’d been putting off as long as possible due to the grim side effects.  Then my sister, a breast cancer survivor of 19 years was diagnosed with cancer on her spine.

Suddenly the floor in front of me is an open door and clunk!  I’m in the basement again.  Okay, I know the basement.  Get out the flashlight, stoop so I don’t hit my head on the rafters, wave my arms around in front of myself as I move so I don’t walk into cobwebs.  It’s cold and damp and dark down here and I’d much rather be in the living room, on the couch, next to the fire.  But I know there are stairs out of the basement, and I won’t be here forever.

Cancer sucks.

Frost

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The cars are sheened white this morning, and there are patches of white still on the grass where the sun hasn’t reached yet.  The delicate ice of frost rims a red leaf, frozen dew, fall finally here.  When we got up Friday morning the temperture was 74 degrees, yesterday it was 37, today the frost fell before we woke. 

Yesterday we picked apples with my parents, and the trees were loaded with fruit.  Trying to eat local as much as we can, apples are the fruit we’re eating right now, and we have a refrigerator bin full.  The old maple tree in front of the house is getting bare, and the leaves that are left are yellow and orange and red.  Today we’ll bring in the plants from the porch, I’ll clean off the garden, and pick whatever basil didn’t get browned by the cold.  We’ll finish taking down screens and washing the windows, clearing the path between inside and out.  We’re turning into the dark and letting in light.

Yom Kippur

Two years ago on Erev Yom Kippur, I went upstairs to change for services, and lay on the bed for a few minutes, to collect myself, and to let some tears loose.  It was my third High Holy Day season without Eric, so I was getting used to not finding Eric at the Temple when I went to services, and David was in my life, so I wasn’t feeling the wrenching loneliness I’d felt in the first year after Eric’s death.  But it had been another hard summer, losing David for a time during his return home to be with Laura and their children on her journey to death, and reliving a quick cancer death, even though it was happening to a family I only knew through David.

Sam came into the room and lay down next to me on the bed.  “What’s up?” he asked.

“I’m just getting ready to go to services,” I said, wiping at the tears. 

“You know what I think about every year at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?” Sam asked.

“Daddy?” I said, half laughing.

“I realize that Daddy had the life he wanted,” Sam said.  “I used to think he just spent his life working for The Man.  That he was cooped up in these jobs that weren’t what he really wanted.  But now I understand that he loved his work, he had a great family life, he spent a lot of time doing things he loved liked hiking and kayaking.  He had a good life.”

“Yes, he did,” I answered.  “He said over and over in the weeks he was dying that he didn’t regret anything.  There was nothing he wished he hadn’t done, and nothing he wished he could go back and do.  That’s a gift.  To die without regret.” 

“And you’re really lucky,” Sam said.

“Well I think so too,” I said.  “But I’m interested in why you think I’m lucky.”

“You had something with Daddy that a lot of women don’t get even once,” Sam said.  “You had real love.  And now you have it again, with another wonderful man.”

I smiled.  I got up and we went to the Kol Nidre service.  Last year neither Sam or Adrienne were home at Yom Kippur.  This year, Adrienne was home, beautiful and pregnant with a grandchild Eric will never know.  We have a new Rabbi, David came to Kol Nidre services with us, we broke our fast with a private, home-made memorial service with Mark and Andi, on their new patio under their ancient maple tree, then went and celebrated the 60th birthday of Eric’s best friend John.  It was a fun party, a joyful conclusion of the Days of Awe. 

But my contemplation of atonement and forgiveness and the repeating cycles of life and death is not over.  The Rabbi’s stories and sermons are still reverberating in my head and somewhere in my heart too.  I’ve been weepy off and on since walking into Rosh Hashanah services without Eric, yet again, 11 days ago. 

I’m feeling lucky and sad, maneuvering my way past regret.

Gloversville

“We glove you,” a plaque above the high doorway on an abandoned building declares.  Downtown, almost every building is abandoned, with more empty storefronts than any place I’ve ever seen.  Gloversville was built on leather works, tanning, cutting, stitching, with gloves a central product, and that work has all gone overseas.  “‘Hell,’ people said,” says Richard, who has lived here all his life.  “‘We can send this work to South America where people will work for 17 cents an hour and we can dump all the toxic shit in the rivers.'”

Grandma Knowles lives in a high-rise behind downtown, full of elders like herself.  Her second story windows look out on an old brick building with “Zimmer’s Gloves” written in big faded letters across the side.   I walk around her apartment looking at all the family photos and she talks about her friends and her family and her sweet cat and how grateful she is for all she has, even though it’s been a hard life and she’s lost a child.  Laura, David’s late wife, was her daughter, and we’ve come to visit, to be with Grandma around the anniversary of Laura’s death.   We fill up the apartment, David and his children, Melia and Mackenzie, and Daisy, Mackenzie’s girlfriend, and me, meeting Grandma for the first time. 

David rented a mini-van so we could all ride together across New Hampshire, then Vermont, and into New York.  Rolling up and over mountains and hills, woods and pastures and short views and long vistas stretching out along the route, we are all assaulted by memories.   For David, Melia and Mackenzie, this was a familiar family trip.  For Daisy, we pass signs for the route to Peterborough, where her grandmother lived, Grandmother who died in June.  For me, the first third of the trip, to Brattleboro, is most of the route to Lisa’s house.  Lisa had been my best friend since I was 11 and we lost each other in the year after Eric died amid a confusing swirl of grief and inappropriate boundaries and an over reliance on the comfort of intoxication. 

We all carried our own pieces of emptiness, into this empty town, spilling out of the full mini-van at snack breaks, pee breaks, stretch our legs and stand up so it’s easier to hug breaks.  Grandma Knowles is full of love and kind words and sweet appreciation for the richness of her life.  We take her out to dinner, and the next morning to breakfast, Laura’s brother Richard joining us for both meals.  We pass the empty stores, most of them not even posted for rent.  Why bother. 

We drive up into the mountains in the rain to visit Laura’s grave.  I leave a rock on her gravestone and explain to Grandma it’s a Jewish custom.  “I like that,” she says.  And then when I hug her she pulls my face down next to hers and says into my ear, “Take care of David, because he needs taking care of you know.”

“I know,” I say.  “We all need taking care of.”