Monday, August 17, 2009

Counting steps

My sister, her daughter, E and I went through a storage unit this afternoon.  When E was in Colorado last year, living in dorm-like conditions, RE and her daughter, L, moved all of E's household goods and furniture into a large garage.  Now my little car is filled to the brim with E's boxes, and we still have to somehow push our clothes into one tiny rectangle of space left.  It will take a feat of engineering to do it...but even those of us in my family who aren't engineers (like E and me) are gifted at packing.  When our kids were little, I'd pack up our van, pick up Beve on the way out of town for the long drives we took through mountains and hills...taking our chublets to Grandmother's house for holidays.  It was no mean trick to fit all the gifts, accutraments of babies, and Beve's giant shoes into the small space behind the back seat of the Voyager, but I did it every time, using every nook and cranny.

At the storage unit, we also sorted through the boxes of Mom's stuff that my nieces and I had haphazardly stuck in boxes when Mom fell the last time and was moved to half a room at the nursing home.  Though we left all her photo albums, wedding book, medical records, we tossed old calendars, huge baggies full of emory boards (Mom was always very finicky about her finger nails, keeping them clipped and buffed, but when I saw her Saturday, they were extra-long, yellowing and beginning to curve around the ends of her fingers.  I clipped them back this afternoon, reminding her of the many times she'd done the same for me as a small child.  It was quite an odd sensation to clip her nails, though, because my hands look exactly like hers.  Eerily like hers, actually.  So it was like my two hands were clipping my two hands...), gum wrappers, pieces of paper with strange phrases on them.

And this is one of those sticky notes:
" 17 steps of stairs. 95 steps from the steps to my room or visa-versa..."

I don't know when she wrote this.  But it tells me that even a few years ago, Mom couldn't easily find her apartment at the retirement complex, and was trying to give herself hints, so she wouldn't walk into someone else's home.  Maybe she even did that a time or two, after forgetting this reminder she'd written for herself.  Mom was quite the writer--of lists, letters and starts of journals.  She noted everyone who called her, everyone who came to visit, and particularly the days when she didn't talk to anyone--or didn't remember that she'd talked to anyone.  For so much of the last decade, she claimed that the only symptom she had of dementia was the 'trouble with words', not being able to remember them.  But when I look through her calendar, her ubiquitious notebooks, I see a woman who knew more than she admitted.  Last summer, when my sisters and I decided that she couldn't possibly make the trip to Boston for "MY YOUNGEST SON'S" wedding (emphasis hers!), she wrote that she'd already decided not to go, and she resented that we'd taken away the one thing she had--the ability to make the decision for herself.  I find this very interesting, and entirely recognizable.  How many times growing up I decided that I'd clean the bathroom some weekend morning, only to have Mom ask/tell me to clean that very bathroom.  Once she asked, even though I'd already planned it, I didn't want to do the task, felt resentful that it had become something I had to do, rather than something I chose.

What all of this tells me, though, is that Mom chose not to admit what she actually knew was true--that she wasn't well, that things were worse than she admitted, that everything felt out of control.  One of the central truths about the human condition, Beve often says, is that losing control is one thing all of us most fear.  Losing control of where home is, one's ability to choose, or just the length of one's own finger-nails.

This afternoon when I left her, she said, "I feel so anxious," and I nodded. Of course she does.  When control is gone, we all feel anxious!  We all feel the need to count our steps and number our days. And maybe--no, probably--this is a good thing, a blessed thing.  After all, isn't numbering our days considered wisdom?  Psalm 90 says so, and I'm inclined to believe it.
So I tell you what, I'm going home and counting the steps from one end of my house to the other. A simple thing like this probably isn't the counting steps or numbering days the Psalmist is thinking of, but watching where our feet take us? Counting the steps we take in all our dealings?  Wisdom, for sure, and far be it from me to eschew anything that can bring His Holy wisdom.

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