Are we dying, or are we really living?
Last night we had a very small gathering which was only in part about my mother’s birthday. I made a cake; or rather, I made the best frosting ever, and fucked up the cake on eighteen levels, and Ralph saved the day with his amazing cake re-animator skills, and it turned out an *awesome* cake. We dressed the kids up nice and packed up the birthday gift and homemade card and headed to meet family.
My father’s brother and sister had arrived in town to stay at my parents’ house hours after the piano has been moved and minutes after an adjustable bed (complete with oscillating air mattress to forestall bedsores), wheelchair, and oxygen tank had been installed. My mother hadn’t been happy at first when it dawned on her my dad wasn’t well enough to go out to dinner (the original plan). So after a talk with me on the phone she decided to pick up dinner. Now I’m in the living room talking to my aunt and uncle, the kids crawling on everyone, Ralph fixing my aunt and I a cocktail, and my mother nervously chopping up a salad. She’s feeling glad for my family’s help yet somehow “responsible” for everyone’s food, good time, and happiness. P.S. her influence is something I struggle with daily – being a hostess, but not taking on The Weight Of The World by doing so, either.
My dad sits quietly. Sometimes his head is in his hands. Sometimes he smiles. He joins in the conversation then sinks away. We ask if he needs more medicine. After he has a coughing fit that lasts a while, Nels approaches his knee gravely and tells him to drink his water.
After dinner the kids are absolutely obsessed with the electric bed that’s not in the living room. I tell them after dinner, wash hands, let us make it up, then you can get in. In tucking in sheets and sorting out pillows I realize I am making up my own father’s deathbed. Sometimes I get these dramatic sentences, they pop in my head. But it doesn’t need to feel bad. Why not a deathbed? I remember us making up my bed for my son’s delivery, at home. This was an occasion too of worries, of expectation, of the unknown. The more time I spend at my parents’ home the more similar and deep the experiences of birth and death seem to me. It’s not even as simple as one event is joyous and the other sad, although I know so many see it that way.
The kids are in the bed, giggling. Nels says he’s “dying”, sticks his tongue out, dramatically falls back in bed. Sophie manifests a convincing consumptive cough. Ralph ministers to them by pouring out “medicine” (Diet Coke!) in a teaspoon. They love this. They cuddle-wrestle. My mother moves the bed into different positions. Nels snaps to this concept and when my mother leaves he immediately finds and operates the bed control. She returns, scolds him. He is banished from the bed for the evening.
This morning my mom arrives on the bike to deliver some leftover baked sweets that came into her life. People bring food to her home and it is appreciated, so very much, although I think people (including myself) may be bringing a few too many sweets – at least in the days when it’s just my mom and dad in the house. But food doesn’t go to waste around here. For instance, I made her a pie last week from fresh-picked berries (actually I made three, gave them to various and sundry) and she was able to take it to church and share it, something I knew gave her satisfaction.
I don’t mean to go on about food. My mother’s mood this morning is almost elated, girlish. She has somehow escaped hostess duties for a little bit of exercise, a drop-in visit bearing gifts. She hugs the children and cuddles the youngest chick before revealing what’s probably really got her happy: “David slept really well tonight,” she tells me (they had both slept poorly the night before). “He only woke up coughing once and I gave him some oxygen. I think that bed really helped.”
Life (death) will get difficult again. But last night our family gathering – interrupted with a welcome and sweet visit from two friends bringing, yes, pies and singing two-part “Happy Birthday” – wasn’t co-opted by maudlin experiences of sickness and dying, even as we were in the presence of such and indeed had gathered because of it.