Harvest

I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.photo

It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.

Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.

The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.

Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.

But they didn’t die.

When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.

I figured he would forget.

But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!

“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.

“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.

Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.

When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.

He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?

I. Didn’t. Get. It.

Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”

The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”

I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!

Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.

But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.

When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.

And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.

My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.

He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)

After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.

“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

I love you, Dad.

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Mary ama dormire (Modern Mary loves to sleep)

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love to sleep.

Whether waking or sleeping, Modern Mary makes sleep a priority. Postcard image by Trish Grantham

It might be in my genes. My father has always been a notorious sleeper. Give him 5 minutes in a comfortable chair, regardless of the hour, and he will give you a nap.

I’m not so much the napping type as I am the sleep-for-10-hours-at-a-time type. I often tell Mr. Bailey, “You know what I’d like to do? Sleep for two weeks.”

In times of stress, I like to head to bed around 9:30 and sleep, preferably, until 8 or 9 a.m.

If you’re a sleeper like me, you know dreams sometimes play a role in the experience.

Since my mom died, my dreams have become rich, offbeat and resonant parts of my nighttime routine.

It seems every suggestion or fear is immediately processed into my subconscious and put into the dream queue.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the absence of constant conversations with my siblings, the important conferring, the unity of our family as we fought cancer collectively. I am in the midst of deciphering what our family will be like now that my mother, the spoke, the emotional home of our unit, is gone.

In my midnight dreams, my three brothers and I are in my grandmother’s old house, together, sharing memories, looking around the dining room, theFloridaroom, laughing, when suddenly we hear the new owners arriving home. We all run into the yard, dashing like mad from our nostalgic breaking and entry.

I keep forgetting to put my hair up in rag curls at night!

I’m running blindly, trying to keep track of my brothers, desperate. Where have they gone? I catch flashes of their clothes as I dash down a set of stairs somewhere. We need to stay together, I insist.

Awake, I have fretted about the coming holidays, with their ties to home and family, memories like glittering lights on a twinkle string. They seem to illuminate only sadness without my mom.

At night, my third eye takes me to a future peculiarly reversed. It’s a future in which my father died instead of my mom. There we are in the midst of the holidays without him, all of us gathered where we always do – in my parent’s kitchen, surrounded by friends, family, trying to make sense of the first holiday without him.

In our daylight conversations, Mr. Bailey suggests we do something completely different and take a trip toNew Yorkright before Christmas.

As I lay sleeping, I dream we are stepping out of the airport into aNew York Citydecorated to the hilt with festive lights, swaying in a brisk winter wind. I feel the straps from the luggage I carry (with two kids we always have lots of luggage) dig into my shoulder as we cross a busy street to our hotel. Then we’re walking through a warm hotel, a corridor decorated with trees and ornaments and people milling, all sorts of people, here, and not home, for the holidays. It feels strange, exciting.

When I wake, I tell Mr. Bailey about myNew York dream.

“You are so impressionable,” he says, his eyes twinkling.

The dreams sometimes detract from the restfulness of my sleep, and sometimes enhance it. I wake with a sinking feeling so often it’s become a part of my morning routine. I imagine actually sinking into my bed, being swallowed by it. It’s not unpleasant.

Eventually, when all of the fantasies of slumber have been dislodged by the slanting soft light of morning, I get up. I RSVP for tonight to my sheets, my pillow, my comforter, my dreams.

Wrestling with Hope

You know what hope is?
Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar, a cheat
and a tease. 

Hope comes near you?
Kick its backside,
got no place in days like these.
–Picture Window, lyric by Nick Hornby, music by Ben Folds

I have been hearing the lyrics to this song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby over and over in my mind over the last week. It’s a brilliant lyric I wish I had written.

Not sure how thoughts and emotions bounce around inside of you, but sometimes my brain cannot think anymore along linear pathways. It’s not capable of rational thoughts that further my growth. When that happens, music tends to take over.

I hear the music of poems I’ve read, snippets of stuff I’ve written and then – as though filing through an old-school rotating round Rolodex, I hear my brain flipping through 34 years of music and lyrics for that One.

Sometimes I hear a foggy, faded version for days until I can consciously recall the words and the tune, solidly.

When it does finally jam into gear, the song usually flattens me. Literally. The best way to channel this music and tune it into my emotional center, to let it express that which I am unable to access rationally, is to lay flat on the ground next to a speaker and play the song. Loudly. And repeatedly, if necessary.

Ryan Russell Design

It sounds crazy, surely. Maybe it is. But it works for me. When I’m sung out, wrung out, cried out, a mellowness comes over me and the wave of song has disintegrated, is being pulled back out to sea.

This song came to me out of nowhere, driven by two things happening: 1) letting myself venture into the anger stage of grief, allowing the fury I feel at the whole bullshit cancer saga my Mom and my family went through and 2) suddenly remembering Mr. Bailey, at least a year ago, singing part of this lyric as he listened to it for the first time. I did not recall what it said entirely. Something about hope was all I recalled. But suddenly, I had to track it down.

After my ritual, I realized “Picture Window” should be handed out *preferably at the precise moment a cancer patient/caregiver gets completely sick of hope* as a cathartic listening device. I’ve come to appreciate the song’s power too late.

Eventually, I recalled trying to listen to it when Mr. Bailey first presented it to me. But I wanted none of its bluntness or pessimism then. Hope was my only friend, my only consolation and I didn’t feel able to disrespect the notion of it then.

Now, I’m fine with it all. Why? Because hope isa bastard. (Or as my Mom used to tell me, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch!”)

Hope by George Frederick Watts

Sometimes, hope just flat out lets you down.

And still we hope. This song expresses what I didn’t want to express then – the desperate position one is in when they turn to such a fickle (yet powerful) notion like hope and proceed to make it the center of their perseverance.

Hope made my Mom take that last chemo treatment that made her last months a hellish physical battleground. Hope brought her down to 100 pounds. Hope stole her hair, her beautiful eyelashes and eyebrows. Hope kept her injecting herself with insulin, bloating herself with IVs, swallowing pills, forcing down food she couldn’t taste. Hope influenced so much of how we approached life during those two years.

And we got a cruel result.

Perhaps years from now, I’ll have a better grasp on Hope. I’ll be able to find some cockeyed and optimistic way to tell you, dear readers, that the Hope we had and used to

our own advantage made everything – or even something – better. Or maybe not.

In the meantime, I’ll have this song.

(Click here to hear “Picture Window” in full.)

I can see clearly now and your underwear is way too small

When someone you love is fighting for their life, a lot of stuff goes by the wayside.

A more basic version of you emerges. You develop a predator-like focus on the beasts you’re fending off. For our family, those beasts were cancer and death. We were on the side of many more years and love overcoming illness.

Our eyes were opened, and focused on beating cancer -- and not on so many other things.

Once the battle was over, my focus seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces of distracted attention.

Lately I’ve been working with my SuperGlue, in tongue-over-lip concentration, trying to fit at least a good portion of the pieces back together again.

The pieces are interesting! And shocking.

Take, for example, my daughter Prima’s bedroom closet. It was bursting at the seams with too-small clothes, socks and shoes. While I was the cancer predator, I just shoved new stuff in there, making small pliant promises I would go through it all later.

Later came the other evening. My younger daughter out with her dad, we dove in and began culling through the mess. I tackled her underwear drawer first. I found my 8-year-old daughter had been squeezing herself into size 4, 5, and 6 panties.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” she told me bluntly, when I apologetically pointed out the size discrepancy. “They stretched out.”

Oodles of guilt and shame were followed by a profound love of my Prima, who tends to find the silver lining, especially when she can spare someone’s feelings.

Another interesting piece was our desk. Sheesh! Outdated bills had started mating under the piles of unrequited junk mail, coupons that shouted, “FREE!” birthday cards never sent and school notices that never notified us. (Me: Did you know Prima has a half day today? Mr. B: No, did you?)

The Bailey's desk was about 1000 times worse than this, and remains a work in chaotic progress.

A carefully placed stack of colorful woven baskets yielded bills from the early cancer predator days, shoved away and now outdated, thankfully, and easy to shred.

I’ve woken up! And the living room needs painting and the floor needs changing and our lives need a fresh coat of paint.

The cancer predator was cruel, but it’s over now. And as much as I miss my Mom (with every thought and every breath, every single day), I am glad it’s gone – even if I have to start with tight underwear.

It’s a Messy (Wonderful) Life

When I first started writing this blog, I was telling a friend about a little frustration I was experiencing with Mr. Bailey. She gasped and smiled, astonished and relieved.

“But I thought it was a ‘Wonderful Life’ for you!”

The truth will set you free, even if the truth is a emotional mess. Art by Max Fujishama

“Are you kidding me?” I told her, laughing along. Right then, I silently vowed to make sure this blog wasn’t just some cherry-coated version of my messy life.

It’s been really messy lately.

I lost my mom to cancer 12 weeks ago yesterday.

Her death was the culmination of two years of head-spinning living. (She was never dying, until the very end, when she was.) Chemo and vacations, radiation and celebrations, laughing and crying, wig shopping, nail biting, port accessing and tests that went our way and, then, didn’t.

There were highlights – a family trip that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, a closeness with my dad and my siblings, an appreciation for what the day would bring and, ultimately, a good excuse for me to get off the crazy breakneck pace treadmill of modern life and focus on what really mattered.

Maybe by that list you can tell I am an optimist, a half-full kind of girl.

But the truth is, since my mom died, it’s hard to be half-full.

When you walk around missing an essential part of yourself, of your spirit and guide, your own personal unconditional, it’s difficult to feel fully committed to optimism.

“Write,” Mr. Bailey would tell me. “Write,” my best friends would softly suggest. “Write,” my therapist would encourage.

I made all kinds of excuses.

Modern Mary contemplates what and where to write from here.

“I can’t get into Modern Mary’s headspace right now,” I would say.

“It’s too fresh,” I would rationalize.

“No one wants to hear about my grief,” I would moan. And some days that really feels achingly true.

Today I realized with all my excuses and all my faux writer’s blocks, I was breaking that vow to be honest with my readers about my messy life.

I think my readers can handle the muddle because life is messy, just like my Mom used to tell me.

Sometimes it’s so messy it can take your breath away and make you doubt what you know to be true.

But the mess is beautiful and difficult, and ultimately what makes us fellow travelers on this journey of life.

And all we can do sometimes is just to share it.