My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Hume, wore horn-rimmed glasses and dark dresses. I remember little else about her, except that she placed me in the bluebird reading group and seemed very old.
The year was 1960, an election year. Even though I was only six years old, I was aware that two men, Kennedy and Nixon, were both hoping to win the contest for president.
My father did not like Kennedy at all. Whenever he appeared on television, Dad called him names and gritted his teeth. Both he and my mother were voting for Nixon. If I had been old enough to vote at that time, I would have voted for Nixon also.
On the day before the election, Mrs. Hume brought it up in class.
“Who are your parents going to vote for?” she asked. Perched atop a small desk, she listened and nodded slightly after each child in each even row of desks responded. A couple of children did not know who their parents were voting for. But by the time about half of the children announced their votes, it was apparent that Nixon would win. The rest of the kids knew it too, so the remaining ones yelled out Nixon’s name as though they were running his campaign. The few who quietly admitted their parents’ choice of Kennedy heard boos and hisses from the rest of the class.
After everyone had proclaimed their parents’ vote, several children asked Mrs. Hume in chorus, “Who are you voting for?”
Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “Oh, no, I can’t tell you that. It’s my secret.” She clutched her throat and raised her eyebrows as she said the word, “secret.”
Silence swept over the first graders as we digested this announcement. We had just told her how we—our parents—were voting, but she wouldn’t tell us how she was voting. We each had told her because she had asked us. We had no choice. She expected a response. She could do that.
The silence continued as the powerful truth settled. This truth gripped me through many of my student years. She was big, I was little. She was old, I was young. She was teacher, I was student. She could do and say just about anything, and I would not challenge it, not until I was big, old, and a teacher also.
I found an old journal entry from several decades back. At that time I was exploring the language of the natural world while wrestling with love problems, work challenges, self-doubt, and general heaviness in my life.
The setting is the Southwest, among sandstone boulders and cavorting ravens and a canyon head and high desert vegetation. I had visited this particular place many times seeking comfort, and always left feeling full.
…I went in search of a tree to see if I could communicate. I walked to the pour off and found a small bonsai pinyon clinging to the wall of the pour off.
“Is that it?” I questioned. I had in mind a large juniper, all gnarled with age. But this tree had long and hard experience, so why could I not learn from it just as well. I sat next to it and ate my apple. I hesitated a bit, because I really didn’t quite know how to approach it.
First, I walked all around it, and admired its beauty. It was small but vigorous. Its short trunk twisted into a barely perceptible crack in the rock. Several handfuls of brown needles below its branches had collected along with a scattering of windblown sand. Spots of dark moss took advantage of the nourishment there. Its body, all bent and contorted from years of battles with the wind, stood sturdily and proudly gracing that rock slope. The branches spread to meet all available sunlight. Rosettes of green needles glistened. Pure drops of pine resin dripped from its branches; they were its life force and jewelry.
This tree seemed to have grown in a very inhospitable place, but it expanded joyfully into the world, fully and lovingly. I admired its strength and courage. Even though it seemed handicapped, it nonetheless gave itself to me. I found it hard to concentrate on entering it, but I did reach its spirit in a way. I pressed my forehead to its prickly needles and breathed love on it. I cradled its layered bark and imagined its root traveling for a short way into that rock, dissolving its hardness as it went. This tree was a little old lady, but it was happy to be where it was. It was determined to live its life fully.
Thoughts of my upcoming visit with (a person) invaded my talk. So instead of ignoring them, I told the tree my problems. It listened without judgement.
I called it my trouble tree. Before I left, I felt it would be right to take some of its resin to remember it. Before I put the resin on some paper, I impulsively rubbed a dab on my forehead. I thanked it for its kindness and left…
After reviewing that entry, I thought, I’m that little old lady now. I hope I am as gracious to the young people who seek my ear as that bonsai pinyon was to me.
I hoped he would go away soon. My friend and I were sipping our fresh coconut waters in a restaurant on an island in the Maldives. But the restaurant manager/owner was trying to be friendly, probably so that we would feel welcome to visit again and spend our tourist dollars there.
“Hello, where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from the US, and my friend is from Canada.” This chat won’t last over a minute, I thought.
“What is your age?” He smiled, but all I could think was, huh? Why does he want to know my age? And who asks a paying customer from another country her age within one minute of greeting her? Okay, sure, in my Asian travels people have asked my age after an extended conversation. That’s because the questioner wanted to know how to respectfully address me, and my age would determine whether I would be “mother,” “auntie,” “sister,” or “grandmother.” I was rarely addressed as “grandmother,”—only by the youngest–and was usually “mother” or even the dreaded “madam”—a term most frequently used in India.
But as a customer sitting in a restaurant for a drink, this question seemed abrupt and unnecessary.
So the dark-haired man stood there, expecting me to tell him my age, and I didn’t want to tell him. I just looked at him, saying nothing, until he said, “Oh, let me guess.”
Danger. Yeah, DANGER.
Never, I have learned, NEVER allow someone to guess your age. Especially in another country. Especially in an Asian country, where people appear ageless, and their skin always looks smooth and beautiful. Where even wrinkled skin is beautiful. And never do this if you’ve not fully embraced and made friends with your wrinkles and your uneven complexion and your thinning eyebrows and sagging jowls and….you know what I mean. And don’t do this if you’re from a culture that is obsessed with appearing young, where people spend thousands of dollars on creams and makeup and diet pills and surgeries and “health” products all geared toward fooling the eye of the beholder. Including the beholder in the mirror. And don’t do this if your mother carefully applied her face daily and frequently commented on your appearance.
So here was this man—who was probably about my age, I thought–wanting to guess my age. I wish I had said, “No thanks.” But I didn’t.
Maybe a part of me wanted to hear him say, “Fifty.”
Oh, to be fifty again…Or to appear to be fifty again.
“I can tell from looking at you that you were once very beautiful,” he said. He couldn’t wait to say that. I said nothing, and had to consciously maintain a neutral expression as my thoughts went wild. Once very beautiful? You mean I don’t appear beautiful now? I’m old and wrinkled and saggy and undesirable? Was he looking at my double chin? Furrowed neck? The creases around my mouth? Could he tell that I still apply highlights in my hair in a vain attempt to camouflage the creeping grey?
Did he think he had just given me a compliment?
I looked at my friend across the table. She was grimacing. Her turn was coming.
“I think you are sixty-five?”
“No, I’m sixty-four,” I replied. I didn’t just reply, I almost spat those words, and thought, stop now, buddy. Just stop.
I had just turned sixty-four. And he was even standing on my good side—the side of my face with fewer wrinkles.
Then he turned to my friend. Don’t do it, I thought. Just walk away…
“And you, I think you are seventy?” He smiled again, speaking slowly, mustering all the Maldivian hospitality he could. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. You see, my friend gave up coloring her hair years ago, and instead wears a lovely helmet of grey. I hadn’t seen too many Maldivians with grey hair. Or maybe I just hadn’t been looking. Of course, most of the women in the Maldives wear the hijab, covering their hair.
“No, sixty-five.” She wasn’t amused. How she managed to say her age with any semblance of pleasantness is beyond me. He was only one year off for me, but he had aged her by five years! Plus, he didn’t tell her she was once very beautiful…But wait, that wasn’t really a compliment, was it?
“Well, I hope when you return to the Maldives you visit us again.” He turned and walked off. He probably uses hair color, I thought.
My friend and I looked at each other, mouths open, heads shaking.Then we thoroughly discussed the exchange–that moment of cultural intersection that slapped us both on our wrinkled faces. We didn’t return to that restaurant during our visit to the Maldives.
We did try to laugh more, and explore, and appreciate the sunsets, and poke fun at one another, and enjoy the fact that two women in their mid-sixties were traveling in a remote corner of the world and enjoying the heck out of it.
I stood hanging on to my shopping cart, mind blank. A fog had descended. I stared at the guy in front of me, picking through vegetables. I remember him, because on the back of his navy blue shirt were the letters, “EMS.” I would meet him a little later.
“Can I help you find something?” A store employee looked at me. I wanted to answer, I really did, but my mouth moved and I made no sense. She took my arm and guided me to an enclosed room and made me sit. I grabbed my purse from the cart. I’m pretty sure there was some produce in the cart—things I had no recollection of putting there.
I knew something was not right.
So started my most intriguing journey of lost memories.
Just before I had dashed into the store, I exercised for a couple hours across the street. I was pooped. The last thing I did in my workout were five one-minute planks, with one minute rest periods in-between. I was proud of how strong I felt at 63 years. I was making great progress. Once a week I did strength training under the guidance of a trainer, and four or five days a week I rode my bicycle for 50 minutes on the dirt roads near my house.
But now I was sitting in this darkened room. The woman and someone else were asking me questions. I was underwater—the air felt thick, sounds were muted. She looked at me, her mouth moved, I tried to answer. A water bottle appeared in the chair next to me. How did it get there?
Then I met the EMS guy. He asked me questions: when did you eat breakfast? What did you have? What is your name? I didn’t remember breakfast, but I knew my name. And I was told later that I kept correcting him. “It’s Terry, with a “T.” I don’t remember doing that, but I often make sure people hear my name correctly.
He told me to repeat a phrase, something about the sky. And I remember thinking, I can say that, and I did, I thought, and I enunciated clearly. But he kept asking me questions. He was right next to me, and he said something like, “I want to take you in.” And I said something like, “yes, this isn’t right.”
It was the heaviness, the pea soup, drifting around me. Ordered thoughts were just out of reach. They were there, lurking about, all the information I needed was there, but I could not snag the right thoughts and spit them out.
Physically I felt alright, just tired from my workout. No weakness, no tingling, no paralysis. When Lorenzo the paramedic took me to the ambulance conveniently parked outside the store, he firmly gripped my arm. I wondered why he was clutching me so tightly. He asked where my car was located. “Over there,” I said. Somewhere.
In the ambulance I asked him how long he’d been a paramedic, and said I had been an EMT. His report that I saw later stated that I was repetitive. Really? I was just being chatty and pleasant. But the dense air filled the ambulance, splitting my thoughts, which swirled around with no particular order. A blood pressure cuff went on, and an IV went in. I learned later that placing a second IV is standard procedure for certain patients—stroke patients—just in case they had to use the clot busting drug.
He asked my birthdate. That was easy, but I could see each word streaming from my mouth, as though my mouth were typing the words. He asked my age. I couldn’t remember if I was 61 or 63. Very disturbing. He pulled out his calculator and figured it out.
His demeanor was casual, but he was moving rapidly. I felt no alarm, really. Instead, I felt rather removed from the situation, and gazed out the back window. Then the sirens raged. What fun. For some reason we needed rapid transit.
I looked at Lorenzo, and said, “This is a stroke, isn’t it?” I wasn’t scared. Lorenzo didn’t say anything.
After an ambulance ride that took at least thirty minutes but seemed like no more than ten, they rolled me into the ER. Six people looked at me. Someone commanded me to do all kinds of things, but I’m not sure what. I remember getting a Cat Scan.
I was there for about five hours. I still wasn’t scared, didn’t feel ill, and was mostly curious about the whole thing, thinking something’s amiss, but what was it? All my tests came back clear—no blockage in my head arteries, nothing seemed wrong. I was still having trouble retrieving information about myself, but things were getting better. Except I had to listen to the patient who was loudly cursing hospital staff and apparently spitting blood on a doctor outside my room.
The ER doctor released me with a diagnosis of a TIA—transient ischemic attack—a mini-stroke. There was a blockage that resolved itself, apparently. But when I saw the neurologist a few days later, she was certain I had experienced TGA—transient global amnesia. This is a relatively uncommon condition marked by a sudden inability to make current memories. Sometimes it is triggered by physical exercise, but what causes it is not clear. It is not likely to happen again and it appears that it does not cause lasting problems, although I felt a bit scattered for the next few days.
The event evoked a range of emotions. A TIA—that’s a warning for a deadly stroke. I’ll be on drugs forever, I thought. This isn’t fair—I exercise, my blood pressure is low, I don’t eat meat, I’m not overweight, what else am I supposed to do? And I could have died in a flash. I wrote my son and mentioned updating my will. Bad move. He called immediately, voice shaking. I hugged my other son, and told him I was proud of him and loved him. Death seemed imminent.
Then I was happy. Elated, in fact. I was walking and talking. And I could pet my cat. And the sun was warm. And the mourning dove had such a lovely coo. But then the daily regimen of aspirin and statins made me sick, anxious. Dark thoughts emerged. Not fair. I had so much left to do in my life.
Thankfully I saw the neurologist who corrected the diagnosis. Now it’s a good story I can tell. With a happy ending. How lucky I was to be shopping for vegetables at the same time as Lorenzo the paramedic. He told me he never got to buy his vegetables. If I ever see him again, I’ll buy him vegetables, whatever he wants.
Life is so darn short. So short. Every moment, every moment is a precious now. I want them all. I want every single now. I want them to keep going. And I want happiness around me. And love. A blanket of love.
Earlier this year my 96-year-old mother passed away. Mom assigned me to tell this story at her funeral services. When I was a girl she and Dad had bought a small farm in Indiana, where on weekends he enjoyed playing farmer and she enjoyed out-fishing her husband. The kids fooled around mostly—we swam and fished and hiked around and pulled ticks off our legs. Then we drove back to our home in Cincinnati and looked forward to the next weekend at the farm.
Mom made me promise to tell her story the night she, Dad, and I went to dinner, after they had sold the farm some 25 years later. We all had a drink, and were getting kind of loose-tongued.
That’s when I learned Mom was a criminal.
She said she’d always wondered what all the fuss was about with marijuana. She decided to find out. At age 60 or so, when the kids were gone and she was spending a lot of time at the farm, she started her own cannabis patch. She said she’d gotten some seeds from one of her children. It wasn’t me, so that leaves one of the other three. Seeing that they looked similar to radish seeds, she said she stored the dope seeds in a radish seed envelope she had emptied. I thought that was clever.
One day she collected a bucket of composted manure from the barn, and hauled it to a place she said will never be revealed, but it was near a wooded area. She dug a hole, filled it with the fertile compost, and planted seeds. Rain did its work, and two seedlings emerged. One of them in particular thrived, growing as tall as my mother. She visited her cash crop every other week or so, monitoring its progress, hoping that the farmer neighbors wouldn’t get suspicious at her going to this place on her land which she would never visit otherwise. She said Dad knew what she was doing. He thought she was foolish but didn’t stop her.
Mom was cautious and conservative in a lot of ways. I don’t remember her ever talking to me about drugs. I do know that she served on a jury where the accused was charged with something having to do with possession of marijuana. She told me the jury convicted him, one of the reasons being that she thought marijuana was a gateway drug and he was headed for heavier stuff.
So back on the farm, Mom raised this really big healthy marijuana plant in conservative rural Indiana. The details about consuming her gateway drug were a little fuzzy, but she does remember that she harvested some of the leaves and took them to the farmhouse kitchen. She vaguely remembered having some white paper, and generating smoke by burning the leaves. She said she got smoke in her mouth, but she never inhaled, just like the president. Her husband, who was watching, told her, “Get that stinkin’ stuff out of here.” Which she did.
As she told me this story, I was incredulous. For one thing, she smoked the leaves, not the buds. What a waste of homegrown weed. And what happened to her plant? She said she stripped it of its leaves so no one could identify it, and never visited again. For all we know, it continued to grow, reseeded itself, and now a healthy patch of marijuana is growing in the backyard of some unsuspecting farmer who now owns the place.
Recently, when I spoke with Mom about her adventure with drugs, she said, “I was stupid. It probably would have been very bad.” And she begged me not to write the story down, but I reminded her that she made me promise to tell the story, so I had to get it right. It is, after all, your legacy, I argued. She was laughing over the phone, quite tickled over the whole thing. I asked her, “Mom, do you really care if people think you’re a criminal for what you did 35 years ago?”
“Not really,” she said, and added one more thing. “Back then, I couldn’t understand why it would be so bad to grow a plant.”
After reading this account to my memoir-writing class, the oldest student, at 88 years, said, “I want to meet your mom.”
I was in Laos, visiting a place called 4000 Islands, when I got the news by email: “Grub is not doing well.” My big boy Grub, the fattest cat in town, had not eaten for four days and was in the kitty hospital.
As a youngster, he loved to eat, probably because he was a starving kitten when rescued. He was also white, with blue eyes. The name “Grub,” then, was a natural. Over years of limitless food, he ballooned to 26 pounds at his heaviest. He was a favorite at the vet’s office, and rivaled the size of the vet’s cat, Bubba, who was a mere 21 pounds.
The only other pet I’d had was Pal, the Airedale terrier that was the family dog when I was a girl. And then later there was my crustacean Hermy, the hermit crab that lived in a giant brandy snifter.
But Grub was my first real pet. He had a sparkling personality, huge paws with sturdy claws, and a grand purr. He was inseparable from my son. In his younger years, Grub chased Dylan, taking him down as a lion would, just for fun. He slept next to and on top of Dylan, edging him out of the bed. When Dylan’s dad play-fought with Dylan, Grub joined the battle, protecting his boy and batting at his dad.
Aside from his boy, Blackie the cat puppet was Grub’s favorite plaything—he’d drag it around, fall to the ground and rip at its head, overcome with a weird sort of bliss. Sometimes he played like a dog, fetching a rolled-up pipe cleaner I tossed for him.
In the mornings he joined me in the bathroom, where he hopped on the sink and drank directly out of the faucet. Then when I tapped my shoulder he put his front paws on me, and I carried him to the living room and plopped him on the couch, where he would spend the next 20 minutes. When he got too bulky to be very active, he sat outside underneath the bird feeder, and looked up at the birds now and then, never making a move to grab one.
So here I was, traveling with a friend in this distant land, far from my cuddly monster Grub. When I got the disturbing news, I recalled the morning I left my house about six weeks earlier. It was 6:00 AM, and Grub was sitting next to his empty food bowl. He looked at me with his regal blue eyes, begging for food. But he was on a very strict diet to help him lose weight, so I declined to give him any, even a snack. Instead I gave him a scratch, and said, “You’re going to be here when I get back, aren’t you?” He just looked at me.
The updates indicated that my 13-year old cat was very sick, but he was receiving lots of tests, antibiotics, an IV, and lots of attention. My hopes were high that he would pull through. I looked at his photo on my I-Pad, and sent him lots of love and good wishes. I really wanted to be by his side, but thinking about him was the best I could do.
In the evening I sat in the open-air restaurant, by the river there in Laos, listening to the water and thinking about Grub. Suddenly the head of a scruffy dog pressed on my lap; his eyes looked up into mine. I was so surprised, I almost shooed him away. His rank odor made me pull back, and here I was getting ready to eat. But instead, I reached down and scratched him behind the ears, and whispered, “good doggie” to him, and kept scratching. His eyes bore into mine. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude from this dog, as though it was the first time he had ever been scratched behind the ears. I thought about Grub, who often heaved his bulk into my lap like this, looking for a little attention. And I’d scratch him and whisper endearments to him, just as I was doing right then.
After a few minutes, the dog lay down at my feet, and I ate dinner.
The next morning I got the dreaded message. Grub died in the kitty hospital. Taking into account the 13-hour time difference, he passed right about the time the dog planted his furry head in my lap.
Through my tears, I told my companions. The Laos guide’s eyes widened when she heard my story. She spoke with the restaurant hosts, who told her they had been very surprised the evening before when the dog put his head in my lap. That dog was usually afraid of people, they said, and never behaved with people as he had with me.
My sweet Grub came halfway around the world to say thank you and goodbye. I’ve never grieved so much for the passing of an animal as I did for Grub.
I rescued the quivering ball of fur from the jaws of my cat. Its tiny head stuck out of one side of Coco’s mouth, a grey tail trailed from the other side. I wasn’t even sure he had anything, but as I followed him on our evening walk, he had crouched and flicked his tail. It was the hunting crouch.
The creature had wandered away from its nest, shoving its little body inch by inch into the brave new world, then it lost its way. Not more than a few days old, I surmised. When I realized he had something I grabbed the scruff of Coco’s fluffy black neck and told him to drop it. I scooped up the creature; Coco paced.
Sometimes I detest my cat. Especially when he kills small creatures–lizards, baby rabbits, deer mice, packrats. He’s even taken down a fully grown jackrabbit. So I stood there with that baby trembling in the palm of my hand, its eyes barely open, and I could only think ill of my cat. That was so unsporting of Coco. There was no challenge to the hunt, no courtesy, no consideration at all. The poor thing had not a chance. It was a baby, for gawd’s sake. But since I retrieved it so quickly, Coco had not yet gotten to the crunch.
It was a kangaroo rat, with oversized hind legs, long face, and brown and white fur. It was so smooth and tiny, weighing barely an ounce. Little claws dangled from little padded toes. Its long tail curved around the back of my hand, almost clutching it, like a prehensile digit. I stroked its back, feeling for broken bones, looking for punctures, blood.
Its warm heart pounded. I put my ear close and heard its cry–like a teeny whimpering puppy. Coco sat down, admitting defeat, but he was on the lookout for more prey on this fine summer evening. The juniper trees fluttered their needle-like leaves, and I stood there.
The den was nearby, under a massive juniper tree branch. All the holes dug in the dirt appeared to be plugged, making it impossible to identify which ones were actively used. I didn’t dare put the little fellow down while Coco was about. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and asked my son to get off his computer action game and help me with the situation. I had a cute kangaroo rat in my hand and I couldn’t manage the rat and a slobbering cat at the same time.
My son appeared and transported Coco back home, while I contemplated my new charge.
So warm. So helpless. So alive.
What to do? I put him down on the dirt above what I thought was the den. He just lay there. I looked around, searching for tracks, other lost babies, open holes, anything that would tell me he’d be alright. A mom, maybe? Nope.
Oh gawd, what have I done, he’s dead. My heart sank. I crawled back to where I had placed him and picked up the limp bundle. His heart was still racing and he squinted his eyes.
I could not find a clear hole into the den. How did he get outside the den? What had happened? Had Coco massacred the mom and the other babies, leaving one lone baby to be crunched later?
I took him to my neighbor next door imploring him to help me keep a kangaroo rat baby alive. He suggested kitty milk formula in an eye dropper. Hours of caring for a rodent infant filled my head. This sweet creature, now no bigger than a walnut, would grow into a hopping kangaroo rat, hungry for seeds and exercise in my house. He’d be roommates with Coco. Yeah, sure, that would work.
I went out to the would-be kill site again, searching for the den entrance. As I approached, a rodent hopped beneath the juniper tree, then disappeared down a hole I had not seen earlier.
Mom? Mom! She was searching for her kid kangaroo rat. Kangaroo rats never leave their den during the day, instead basking in its safety with all the entrances plugged. Unless a mom was looking for her lost babe.
Giving the little guy one last stroke on his silky fur, I placed him in the hole entrance. With a mighty shove from his spindly rear legs, he propelled himself into the earth, disappearing into its snug shelter.
Breathing a relieved sigh only a mother knows, I waited a few moments, just to make sure mom wasn’t going to kick junior back out the door. Then I imagined her smothering him in licky kisses, scolding him for straying from the nest, and then offering him some milk to soothe his trauma.
I needed a drink myself. But before fetching a glass of wine, I thought about the bigger picture. Was the encounter some kind of personal message?
There’s that children’s book manuscript I wrote that has not yet found a publisher. One of the main characters, King Cyrus, is a kangaroo rat. Maybe the encounter was to remind me that I need to nurture that story, do a little more to assure it would find a life in the greater world.
With glass of wine nearby and laptop on my stretched-out legs, I started pounding out yet another query. Please please let this be the one that leads to the birth of The Dreaded Cliff and its heroine, a precocious packrat named Flora; please let the story find its place in the bigger world. And her friends would go with her–King Cyrus, Dayana the cottontail rabbit, and Paco the porcupine.
And please Coco, please don’t mess with a porcupine. Even a baby one.
I don’t know why I pulled away. I had tried to get the old woman’s photo the day before, and the day before that. Right then was the perfect opportunity. She was practically inviting me to snap her portrait. “Vanga!” creaked her voice.
But I acted as though I didn’t understand her welcome. Everyone watching knew I understood. With the bowl of hot pongal in my hand, I just smiled at her and walked away, and people at the small Kali temple in the Madurai neighborhood kept looking at me. They all knew. They all knew I understood the old woman, and yet I walked away.
She was curled up on top of her cart. Unlike the previous day, when I saw her sprawled on the doorsteps asleep, she was awake and vibrant, noticing everything around her. Including me. Her lips were drawn around her toothless gums, and her wrinkled arms waved in the air.
One of her neighbors had told me all she did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep. That meant that her neighbors fed her, noticed her, looked after her. The old woman.
“How old is she?” I asked at least three people. The first flashed all her fingers many times, open closed, open closed. I couldn’t count.
“Hundred,” she said.
I asked another woman, who had just stepped around the sleeping old woman. “Is she your grandmother?”
“Yes,” she said. Then I realized that a street-dwelling woman that old was everyone’s grandmother.
“How old is she?”
“Hundred,” she said.
Obviously, no one really knew how old the woman was, therefore she was a hundred. Maybe she really was a hundred years. A century.
I wanted her photograph, but I thought it would be rude to take it while she was awake. Somehow, it seemed as if I would be taking something from her without her consent, because she probably would not understand what I wanted. It was also rude to take it while she was asleep, but I tried to get the shot anyway, the day before as she was draped on the doorsteps. I just had to make sure no one was watching me; that would somehow make it okay. But everyone noticed me. People emerged from their houses and greeted me. So I slipped my camera back in my bag, and didn’t get the photograph. I instead ended up in her neighbor’s home after being invited for tea.
I could have visited with the old woman that morning as she called her greeting. I could have sat on her cart with her, and held her hand, and listened to her talk to me. She was deaf, someone had said, so I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with her. Maybe that’s what sent me away. Or maybe her age frightened me. I would feel uncomfortable, sitting next to this weathered woman tucked in a worn sari, who had survived all kinds of struggles: having enough to eat, raising children, an absent husband, and life on the streets.
I could have met her for a little while, and exchanged good feelings with her. But instead, I walked away, feeling a pang inside of me.
Would she be alive tomorrow? Would I see her again, all bright and aware, sitting scrunched up in her cart, watching the world, and calling vanga to passersby?
As I walked away, I hoped she would be there the next day, awake and alert. I would sit with her awhile, and pass the morning with her, and hold her hand, and smile.
I would meet this ancient woman and honor her. And honor myself.
Read more about this Madurai neighborhood and my meeting the Grandmother for the first time on a morning walk at this link to my travel blog.
I stared at the email message, feeling assaulted, punched in the gut. There was nothing gentle about those words, even though they also said my mother had not been in pain.
I guess I was in pain—gazing at my IPad, lying alone on a bed in an apartment in Taipei, a world away from the hospice in Ohio where she died.
That stark written message was not how I expected to learn of her passing. It was devoid of the warmth of an emotion-filled human voice that would then pause to welcome mine.
I had called my sister the previous evening. She said Mom was in and out of awareness, heavy with morphine to dull the pain caused by the gallstone. The words, “If she goes tomorrow” were spoken—but I didn’t believe it would happen that soon. My international flight would leave in 24 hours—I had planned to see her, to say goodbye, to be with her during her sacred time of transition.
Why hadn’t she waited just a couple more days?
The words didn’t change. My insides grew pitted and raw, and I tried not to wail because I didn’t want the Taiwanese family in the next room to hear me. I whimpered instead, gasping silently through my contorted mouth as I lay there on that bed.
After blowing empty breaths, stitching myself inside a hollow cocoon, I busied my mind, calculating what time it was in Taipei when my mother breathed her last. It had been early morning. I had awoken even earlier—when, unbeknownst to me, she was within an hour of leaving. That’s when I grabbed my IPad and looked at recent photographs of her.
Her vibrant, 96-year old face smiled, happy to be drinking a martini with me. I wrote an email to my sister, telling her to tell my mother I was thinking of her, because she could probably still hear, even though she was dying.
As I drifted back to sleep I whispered, “I’m sorry I’m not there with you, Mom. You know it’s okay to go now. I’ll tell the funny story that you wanted me to tell at your funeral services, and make everyone laugh.”
I awoke a short time later to read those final words. Died. She died. Mama died.
I never called her “Mama.”
She was Mom.
I showered and paced the room. It was my last day of my three-month journey—starting from my home in New Mexico to India for two months, then Bali for three weeks, and finally Taiwan, where I had planned to travel another two weeks.
Shut in that room crying wasn’t where I wanted to be. I left, and wandered the back streets of Taipei, watching, through a haze of sadness and dashes of moisture, the city come to life.
But I still felt restless. I needed to go somewhere. Maybe I would find a temple.
I swiped through the narrative and maps of the Taipei guidebook on my IPad, then stopped. The Maokong Cable Car: French-built, completed in 2007, and the 4-kilometer transit rose over jungle-shrouded hills to an end point among tea plantations and pleasant strolls. I would go there.
On the short walk from the apartment to the mass transit station I wondered if my light fleece would protect me from the moist air that had grown cooler from the previous day.
Not really. At the end of the train ride, rain pounded the concrete and the roof of the station. People getting on and off clutched umbrellas. I snuggled in my fleece for warmth. But the rain—the rain. My fleece was not a raincoat.
I would not walk through that downpour to reach the cable car station, a few blocks away. Sighing, I resigned myself to getting back on the train for the return trip. To the empty bedroom.
But just then a cherubic man in an orange vest waddled toward me. He carried an armful of umbrellas, all sizes and colors. He handed me a blue one. I opened it, looked at the steady rain outside, then looked at its small diameter. He gave me a larger brown one, with a hooked wooden handle.
I pranced into the sheets of rain and headed to the cable car station. My sandals splashed on the sidewalk and the bottom of my leggings grew wet. Thunder rumbled, but I was happy at my good fortune that found me clutching the perfect umbrella. I snugged that dome to my head and thought, let’s go!
Just a few people waited in line to buy tickets, even though the guidebook warned of long waits. Nothing would stop me now.
“Too dangerous,” the ticket lady said. “Thunderstorm.”
No, not on my last day, not on this day, I thought. Come on, we’ll wait in this tea shop. I didn’t want tea, I just wanted the storm to let up. After 45 minutes, I returned to the ticket counter where the same lady was all smiles.
“You have an EasyCard? Yes? Then go up.”
There was hardly anyone else around as I clutched my EasyCard, the pre-paid pass good for mass transit in Taipei. I headed up two levels where the gondolas were swinging around a platform, opening their doors to allow passengers entry.
“Come on, Mom, we’re heading up the hill.” I sat in the middle of the seat, facing the hill ahead of us. She climbed in after me, and sat on the seat opposite in the enclosed cabin.
Yes, she was there. She was smiling, her hair was smooth and perfect, a light shone in her grey eyes and her face radiated.
“We’re going on a ride, Mom.” As that car swung off the platform we hovered in space for a moment, until the giant connector on top firmly grabbed the big cable that began pulling us on our journey.
“Oh my, we’re going right up the hill. We’re riding in the air. Look how high we are! It’s raining, but we’re okay in here, we’re safe.”
Had she been there in her human form she would have been uneasy, suspended above the ground, swinging from a cable, viewing high-rise apartment buildings and roads below. The rain splattered the glass sides of our enclosure that swayed with windy puffs. I imagined her sitting directly across from me on the hard seat. As I stared and stared, I thought she would materialize before my eyes.
“Whoa, look at that, Mom, there are gardens and houses below us. And see how big Taipei is with all those buildings.”
Clunk-clunk. Every so often the car would rise up and over the connection where vertical towers supported the heavy cable that held us aloft, floating through the air.
“The wind is blowing, but we’re safe mom.” I reassured her, but she really didn’t need to be reassured. She was very calm and was just enjoying the ride.
I snapped photos, aiming at her place on the seat. I wanted to believe that later I would see her ghostlike image, or perhaps a mysterious light in the photo. I was that certain of her presence.
“You’re a cloud person now, Mom. I’m glad you’re with me, going up this hill. Look at what the French have done for the people of Taiwan! Wow.”
Raindrops streamed the windows. Cars from the opposite direction emerged from the gloom and passed us—most of them empty of passengers. We seemed to own that ride.
We came to a covered station, where the rain let up and the cable and our car turned a right angle.
“We’re turning Mom. We don’t get out here. We just keep going. Look at all the trees down there. We’re going to ride this all the way to the top. I hope you’re enjoying it, Mom. I’m glad you’re here. We’re both safe and enjoying this ride together.”
I didn’t hear her say much—I just sensed she was enjoying the time together as we rose higher and higher in the gray and the rain, in our enclosed gondola, with the silly pink and yellow cartoon-like characters smeared across the front window, obscuring the view below. She could see everything, though.
I stopped my commentary now and then to hear the quiet, punctuated by the clunk-clunk and the spray of rain. No engines, no other people, no street traffic, no bird calls. We rode the mist, higher and higher over the rich greenery. I spotted a temple along the shiny wet asphalt road below and said we would stop and see it later on the return trip. I didn’t want to halt the magic, the feeling of connection and exploration with my Mom. It seemed so easy. No fear, no resistance, no hesitation. Just gliding along, suspended in that airy world, washed by the tears spouting from the gray around us.
I warned her when we approached the end station.
“Time to get out, mom, it’s over.”
We disembarked in a covered station. I opened my umbrella and walked into the spitting rain.
She had left me. I tried to feel her in the restaurant where I drank a latte and ate an expensive bowl of tasteless squash soup, but she had left me.
Several days later, when I reached my mom’s apartment and joined my sister in the task of closing out her physical life, I spoke of the cable car ride in Taipei.
“We rode it all the way to the top.” Then I corrected myself. “I mean I rode it to the top.”
I said “we” unconsciously, which didn’t really fit with how I presented the story of what I did after I learned Mom had died.
But I was correct the first time. Mom had been there with me, just hours after she passed. I hadn’t bid her goodbye in that hospice room when her spirit left her physical body. But Mom had found me. She was the one who had taken me on that cable car, where we shared a precious 30 minutes, riding through the clouds in our silent world, she looking confident and pleased and at peace.
My thoughts have been everywhere lately. Like back in India, where I spent two months recently, just living and discovering the people and their lives in a neighborhood in Madurai. I was pulled by their words, their hands, and their eyes–into their homes with cups of tea and biscuits, and their questions about America, their stories of relationships, decisions, challenges and children and illness and what to buy next with their meager earnings. Life, that’s what it was; I was witnessing life, and their lives, and they invited me to become a part of them.
“Will you talk to him?” a young woman asked after telling me of her short-lived marriage.
“What should I do?” a mother asked, seeking advice about her daughter.
“I hope you find love.” Those are the words that still pierce my heart.
The young man astonished me, time after time. That I found him seemed to have been predestined. He started calling me “Mother.”
After meeting and talking several times, we realized we were reflecting one another. We each communicated what the other needed to hear, or see, or know–just at the right moment. It was as if a wiser self buried in me wriggled past the restraints I had wrapped around her and found a voice through him. A twist on an old perspective, an affirmation of something I had written, a nudge I needed in order to escape a stuck belief, and there she was–my reflection. Hello there. In return, I prodded and questioned him, uttered unexpected words, or smiled, or nodded, and that seemed to be what he needed, right then. He knew my words to be his.
We kept coming back for more–long talks over the telephone, a trip to his native village, a visit to the temple. We ate together–pillows of idli and coconut chutney and spicy podi and sweet pongal. I trusted him, this young/old soul, and he trusted me.
Then he said it. “I hope you find love.” His parting words to me.
My words to me.
And with those words, I had found love. Right there, looking at me, looking at him, there on the noisy street in Madurai.
Sometimes I imagine a sliver of my heart stuck to the cement wall next to us on that street. One of the streets where I became the life in India, and where my life became alive.
Read about visiting Karikalan’s native village at this link to my travel blog: Village Tales.