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When my mother was dying, a friend suggested I keep a gratitude journal as a way to recognize some small joys during what was a terrible time. I was sure that I had failed my mother, unable to keep her in her home, as I had once promised. She had moved to Pittsburgh after her first stroke, then a second stroke had left her flailing, unsteady, her right hand almost useless, her legs weak. Getting in and out of bed became dangerous; she had fallen several times, but refused to have anyone with her in her apartment. I did her laundry, cooking, and shopping, but I couldn’t be there 24 hours a day. Her kidneys were failing and her heart, even with a pacemaker, was not working the way it should. After talking it over with my husband, and my brother, who lived in North Carolina, I moved my mother into a skilled nursing facility close to my home.
We had been so close, talking to each other daily when she still lived in Columbus. I would visit her every few weeks and we would shop, go out to eat, watch the old movies she loved, and talk about the books we had read. The move to Pittsburgh was a difficult transition for her. She became withdrawn and depressed, didn’t want to go out and some days didn’t want to get dressed. The second stroke was devastating, made her brain an enemy that refused to send messages, refused to translate meaning, left her struggling with remembering how to use a stove, how to start a dishwasher. She hated the skilled nursing facility, hated feeling helpless and dependent. My vibrant, fiercely independent mother was filled with anger, mostly at me, as if I had somehow allowed this to happen to her. I knew that underneath she was filled with fear and grief at the loss of herself. I too was filled with grief and fear, rage and resignation, was so tired, driving back and forth two or three times a day to visit her. I often found myself sobbing on the way home, other days all I felt was relief. I knew I needed some way to handle what was happening to both my mother and myself, some way to escape the terrible sadness I was feeling. I bought a notebook, thinking I could try to write about those moments when beauty or joy made itself known. The notebook’s cover was the blue of robin’s eggs, its pages as blank as my mind.
I found that notebook a while ago, three years after my mother’s death. Inside were lines about seeing a quarter moon, one goldfinch perched on the birdfeeder, a late April snow that patterned tree trunks, and how the ferns my husband had planted glowed in sun. There was a list of spices that I used in cooking; nutmeg and turmeric, cardamom and ginger. I even wrote the names of healing stones that I had placed on my desk; quartz, jasper, and carnelian.
Now, in this year of fury and virus, I need beauty and light even more. I watch my husband string lights on our magnolia tree, wrapping trunk and branches. At night they glow pale blue, as if an unknown constellation drifted into the yard. I light the Chanukah candles, find one perfect honey-locust leaf, a mosaic of yellow and red, on my front step. I name these simple things joy; the way one stalk of lavender still blooms under the first snow, how the early morning sky becomes canvas, all lilac and rose and a solitary crow scripts its way through air.
I am Jewish and my faith tells me to remember, to be thankful. Often I whisper Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer thanking God for bringing me to this season, this day, this moment. I love that a group of starlings is called a murmuration, like a thousand-thousand hearts beating as one. I believe in the alchemy of butter, flour, and salt transforming to dough, to crust, how it embraces onions caramelized by heat into golden sweetness.
I live in the borderland of grief and joy, the opposition of them woven into my cells, forming their own double helix that binds them to my every breath. Some days, grief is the dominant force, burning through time’s fog, illuminating painful memories sparked by a line from a song or a stranger’s perfume. I read an article in the New York Times, appearing before Thanksgiving. It told of a woman cooking complicated recipes, while her mother, across the country, guides her over the phone. I am in tears before I reach the end. Memories arise of when I would call my mother after her first stroke, when she still lived on her own in Columbus, repeating over and over the way to make spaghetti sauce. Her brain was beginning to unmake connections and lose logic, unable to move from step one to step two.
I have a photo of my mother on my desk, when she was strong and happy, her hair the auburn of her youth, her brown eyes clear, and her nails the same color as her lipstick, a glamorous red. She is beautiful. And as I look out my window, a red-tailed hawk erupts from an oak tree across the street, skims the roof of my house, its body a silver sheen in sun.
Valarie Bacharach is a poet and writer who lives in Pittsburgh.
Copyright 2020 Valerie Bacharach