WALKING HER HOME

Adrift. That’s the word that floated into my teary vision as I sat in my car outside the facility my mother has resided in for the past seven years. These after-visit pauses have become part of my ritual in the past few months.

There is always someplace else I need to be, fitting in my mother’s care and comfort as I do between the over-arching needs of my autistic daughter and the other pieces of my life’s work. I just can’t seem to rush off the way I used to, though. I need these little islands of time and quiet to process the latest iterations of mum’s decline. The downhill roll has picked up speed, it seems, as she moves ever closer to the time she’ll leave her body.

My mother and I have talked about dying, death, and the afterwards for decades, beginning when I was a teenager. Sometimes in snippets, sometimes in long, deep conversations, we’d discuss some new perspective one of us had gained through a book, a life shift, or our individual growth. We share more than a few overlapping beliefs about the life of the soul. It’s a sturdy connection between us, a deep comfort during this time where so much is tenuous.

Mum’s body is weakening. At 93, cancer and several peripheral conditions seem to be simultaneously consuming her from within. Her cognition is variable, too—sometimes sharp and clear, her signature intelligence and humor intact and vibrant. Other times—more frequently by the week now,—she is confused, delusional. The combined body-mind decline makes it exponentially harder for her to complete simple tasks like getting dressed and staying hydrated. She chafes against what is happening, has told many in her web of family and friends that she’s lived long enough, has no intention of reaching her 94th birthday. At least once a week, we’ll have some iteration of this verbal volley:

Mum: This isn’t the way I planned for things to go.

Me: I know, but we don’t get to choose.

Mum: Yeah, but this is taking too long.

At which point one or both of us will manage a wry sigh.

Mum has been traveling a great deal lately. She’ll relay her trips to me and my siblings when we call or visit.

I’m exhausted. I was in England last night.

Oh? Where in England?

At the palace.

or

I was up in Maine with so-and-so. I had to sleep on the uncomfortable bed in the cabin. We couldn’t get back here until today. I am sooo tired.

Several times, she’s been upset, almost frantic, wondering where we (her four children) all are and what she is going to cook for our supper. There has also been frequent mention of a baby that she needs to take care of. She isn’t sure whose baby it is, only that the child is in her charge.

My late father has shown up a few times, too. Though they were divorced in 1976, his appearances seem benign, even welcome.

She will often be at least partially aware that she is describing an illusion, but each feels very real to her. I think she is straddling different dimensions, moving almost fluidly between them. I’ve said as much, and if the cloud cover in her brain is minimal that day, she’ll agree, or say maybe, but it’s not fun.

These past ten months or so have been all colors of challenging, fascinating, sad, beautiful, and draining. I’ve been aching to get some of it down on paper. Time, and concern for her privacy, have kept me from trying. A few weeks ago, though, when she was quite lucid, I told her that I want to write about it. I don’t want to be disrespectful, I said. I don’t want to intrude on your inner life or claim it. I just want to write about my experience of it, of moving through this with you. Her answer astonished me. How can it be disrespectful? she said. It’s what is happening.

Recently, she misplaced her lower dentures. Logic led me to look behind her bed, which is where I found them. She was amazed at this, and exclaimed that it must be my fairies that told me where to look. (I do often ask the angels for help when something is missing, and while I didn’t call on them that particular day, she remembered this.)

Mum: What do your fairies say today?

Me: They say ……. they say it is a honor and a privilege to help walk someone home.

And so it is. Only those that predecease their parents avoid this bittersweet reckoning, these fraught goodbyes that will render us orphans. It is gut-wrenching, but if that’s my experience I know my dear mother is living it one hundredfold stronger. I’m grateful to be there to help ease her way. When I’m wrung out and not sure how I can keep rising to the dual caregiving of daughter and mother, the fairies will be there to remind me— it is a honor and a privilege to help walk someone home.

What Do You Know?

What do we know for sure? I find myself wondering, lately, if we mostly hold the beliefs that suit our ease.

For some, self-contempt can provide a kind of familiarity which becomes belief. For others, there is ease in what’s left after all the anger—which is really a mutation of pain—gets bored and leaves, or burns away. Some find their peace in caring for others. Some may see truth in the days that offer little resistance to their status quo. Most of us may host a little of each of these.

Here’s a piece of what I know.

The dresser in my bedroom chafes at being called mine, or ours. It doesn’t relate to our words bureau, chest of drawers, or, for that matter, dresser. It prefers to be called proprietor. For this I hold deep respect, just as this proprietor holds my property.

I suspect the clothing and jewelry held therein does not necessarily enjoy being called those words we use for them. I’ve no way of knowing this, for I don’t have a conversational relationship with them. Well, except for the pyramid pendant that belonged to my mother.

Everything is sentient, but everything doesn’t always choose to be perceived that way. That is my experience, and therefore it is fact in my world. I feel no urge to lay that belief on you, though.

My daughter’s ways of being defy most norms. Manners are a great challenge for her. If anxiety and compulsion press her towards your nose, looking for the relief that a single light touch seems to bring, your negative reaction can send her spiraling into a small terror. She will remember you and that moment forever. Years from now she may be able to recite the day and date that you recoiled from her attempted touch. She will be repeating any comments you made, in a pretty good approximation of your volume and tone, into her tape recorder and into the air. She will scrawl about this in many a scribbly journal. She will not like you. Progress means she didn’t vomit when you said NO.

My daughter, a grown woman by any age standard, remains delightfully child-like in the ways she reacts to the world around her. She knows the colors of every song you could play for her. She struggles to understand that you don’t have such a skill. She sings when the urge strikes her, audience or no.

In the past few years, she is increasingly able to relate the experiences of her past. This can be…

Quite wonderful;
On 4/7/16 you started having gooey oyster. (Her words for my soft hair).

Enlightening:
The reason I cried on the bagnadahl grass girl Teletubby Wednesday is because the rice had cold texture. (No, I can’t tell you exactly what this means, but she clearly did not like the rice on that day!)

Horrifying:
“Mommy XYZ dragged me and pushed me and screamed at me.” XYZ was a teacher she had when she was under 10 years old.
“Mommy why XYZ said I hate you?” Daughter does not know how to lie, so I have no doubt this happened to her. “I didn’t have the words to tell you back then.” These particular deeply upsetting revelations led to my first two dozen attempts to introduce the word *abuse* into the teaching moments about how others should treat us.

I do not question what my daughter knows for sure, just as I wouldn’t second guess your right to name your own knowing. You don’t need to hear the proprietor speak in order to believe that I do. It’s the free sharing of our individual lived experiences—which includes deep listening—the alchemy of honesty and curiosity and respect, that seems to prod the important conversations. Rich fodder for growth.

–Melinda Coppola

Conversations with a Ghost

A Dead Friend Speaks

Almost a year
into my exit from flesh,
what we call,
when embodied,
death,

You talk to me,
wonder if I help
when you struggle and worry,
soothe
when you rage and grieve.

You ask
if I’ve retained shape
and color,
if my long and wild hair,
blonde with streaks of fine silver,
still tumbles down my back,
if I jog and cycle daily
in some shimmery,
cancer-free realm.

Am I still an I,
you query

or has my essence
mixed and mingled
with all the others
wafting in great waves
of something like wind
around and through
cosmic caves
and mountains
glowing in a light
your human brain
can only begin to imagine.

I will neither
confirm nor deny,
sister of my soul.

These
are not your questions,
you
do not
seek answers.

You have always known,
were the one
to reassure me
as my flesh wasted
and my fears grew.

Look for dragonflies,
I said,
and a couple dozen
appeared
in odd places
after I left.

My disembodied
face floats in corners,
signature hair swirling
as if I just dipped
my head
beneath my new surface,
peering through the murky waters
checking in on you.
Sometimes you look up,
acknowledge me,
smile.

Why, then,
do you question?

I am not an I,
but I am as me
as any of us ever are,
just as you
were alive before incarnation,
and will live on
after you discard your body.

Trust is a thick cloak
woven tight with
threads of wisdom
and surrender.

It will always
keep you warm,
as long as you remember
to put it on.

–Melinda Coppola, remembering Marina Powdermaker, who was born 8/27/61 and left her body 6/28/20. We do speak often, she and I.

Look up! The world is out there.

Reckoning

Inside,
just shy of sunrise,
all over the land
people awakened,
reached for their small screens,
hungry for the tiny words and pictures,
memes and videos designed
to amuse, entrance,
distract from stress
and angst of bad news
streaming 24/7.

The people found ways to laugh,
or groan, and see themselves
in the scowls and smiles
highlighted in the glowing rectangles
carried lovingly in their hands
on the way to coffee, couch,
another screen or two
or three.

Outside
the skies
performed their daily
variety show,
clouds merging and shifting,
watercolor hues melting into each other.
and great glories of birds
synced their choruses
in time with ascending light.

Stories floated on the early breezes,
timeless wisdoms woven into the mosaics
of bark and leaf and urgent bud,
fed by roots
deeper and broader
than any iteration
of wide screen
mounted
over any fireplace
in any dwelling.

Grass held dew
like an offering.
Silence hovered uncertainly
between chirp and trill,
wind and caw,
waiting to see
who would welcome
the peace, calm and beauty
surrounding them.

Inside,
bonded pairs would grunt in passing—
partners, parents,
children, roomies—
conversations eclipsed by texts
as if seeing and speaking
to one another
were relics
that everyone knew
just stole energy
from the flashier screens
telling them how to think and feel,
act and buy.

Outside and unattended—
solace of cool air,
magic lavender light,
sweet-smelling rains,

the nourishing feel
of earth under bare feet,
dirt beneath fingernails,
crunch of old pine needles
under kneeling knees
in the forest—

a glorious bounty
always free and waiting
beyond our screens.

–Melinda Coppola

For some who left

STAY

I want to dematerialize
and put myself back together
between his reedy young body
and the gun he stole
from his Uncle’s desk drawer
the night they
invited him for dinner.

I want to land hard
between her hands—
the same hands that
had just held
an acceptance letter
for the DC job of her dreams—
and the noose
she’d fashioned in secret
six months ago.

I want to hitchhike
way back to 1981 Vermont,
grab all those who knew him,
and beam us, every one,
to the edge of that Hawaii
volcano where they said
he’d jumped,
so we could form a human barricade
between his anguish
and that black hole.

I want to sing,
yell, cajole, say

It will get better.
It can,
I promise you

The world’s gonna need
you next week, next year,
you’re gonna leave a hole
that can’t be filled

and somewhere there is
someone who will
love you so much
you’ll be wrecked to think
you could ever have left
before you crossed paths

and someday
there’ll be a moment—
a car, a bike,
a wet road
distracted driver—
a child whose life
you will save

whose children
will cure cancer.

Please,
I want to say
don’t go.
Not yet.

Please,
let’s sit
and warm the ground
awhile.

–Melinda Coppola
#nationalpoetrymonth

Little Altars Everywhere


My home is host
to little altars everywhere

honoring lives lived,
seasons arriving and leaving,

the hundred sparks of grace
and wonder, sorrow
and understanding

that pock and foliate
hours and years squeezed
into the dance of this body,

my particular, grand,
unbearably blessed
and gratefully transient
human experience.

On good days
I go bowing through the hours
stretched wide,
humbled by everything.

There are others, though—
minutes, whole
starless nights, mute weeks—
when these dry hands go numb
holding thin skin
tight to my bones

to keep the hope
from draining out
the holes
all the leaving
has left.

–Melinda Coppola

Notes from a Parallel Universe

I’ve written a fair amount about life with my adult child. As I plod ever so slowly towards creating a book about the journey, it occurs to me that the pace at which I’m working on that is in sync with the overall pace and rhythm of our life together. Bink will turn 28 this weekend. I’m not one to fixate on the differences between her development and that of a “typical” young adult, but the anniversary of her birth seems to stir things up for me. From that churn this poem arose.

The View from Here

You say
you just caught glimpses
of your child
as he sped past toddlerhood,
towards those labels
that mean everything
and nothing: child, tween,
teen, young adult.

Glimpses, you say,
as if it all tornadoed past you
while I stood stupefied,
hands in pockets,
by the side of some dusty cow path,
a perpetual look of dull
surprise on my unremarkable face.

Truth is,
over here our lives
are nothing like that.

We have plodded along
like turtles in the too-hot sun,
she and I,

pausing every few feet
to rest, to allow her
a few attempts at integrating
the latest sensory assault,

which could have been a wind
shaking the branches too fast,
or the distant sound
of a jake brake on a downhill semi
from a highway half a mile away.

Her needs are special,
which means our shimmy
is your slow dance,
our milestones
seem like simple addition
to your kid’s calculus.

I’m used to it,
adept at appreciating
the kinds of beauty
that decorate this life
that chose me, and her.

It’s not the pace of it all
that leaves me sweaty
and gasping for breath.

It’s my head spinning
as your children date
and learn to drive,
go to college,
get married,
have babies,
buy a house,

flying so far from your nest
you can’t squint enough
to make out the tiny dot
their bodies make
as they soar onward,
commanding the skies.

–Melinda Coppola

LATELY

The ground seems foreign,
new roots and stones anchored
in the middle of familiar paths,

and my feet stumble more,
much more.
Are you stumbling too?

Such heavy air,
a downward press
on the shoulders
makes it hard to look up,
check out the sky.

I can’t speak for you,
but I feel your heart
even as we give each other
wide berth, passing
in the park and on the streets.

I can see your eyes
above your mask,
watch you avert them
long before I’m near.

If I turn on the news these days
it’s to study faces,
listen hard
for all that isn’t being said.

I can avoid the headlines
but still I feel your heart,
see your eyes looking left
or looking right

even as we all dwell
in the center of things.

Can’t we stand still
and see each other eye to eye?

Can’t we soften
just a little,
abstain for an hour or a day,
make a Sabbath, a Shabbat
of not doing the things we do,

not lowering the blinds and turning away from the street where life is happening,

not doing the things that almost seem required of late, that almost seem normal,

not heaving our personal pain onto the steaming pile of angst, then grabbing handfuls of it without looking, with our noses blocked, and throwing it at each other?

As if that helps.

As if that does anything
except maybe keep us distracted
for a moment or a year,
keeps us from breathing
into our common humanity,
allowing movement inside,

letting things rise and break free,
rise and dissipate.
rise and come into the sun to be named
and nourished, or released.

–Melinda Coppola

Medicament

Medicament

This morning’s waking,
tight and tender to the touch,
felt like neck ache,

and all along
the spine of this day
my heart climbed and slid,

ridge-riding
the grief and uncertainty
of these past months,

pushing up towards
bone-like pinnacles,
vertebraic protrusions
of more bad news—
illness and violence,
economic cancer,
people hating their neighbors—

and then
the intentional slide
over cushiony discs
hydrated with hope,

into valleys lush with
stories of great kindness,
dotted with golden gifts,
small sweet buds of peace
that can only bloom
with softened expectations.

Now at the tailbone
of a long sixteen hours,
no Downward Facing Dog
or Bridge Pose can save me
from this hunched pecking
at the keyboard,
almost desperate
to whiplash out a poem
or some semblance thereof.

How many ways
can we find
to harm each other?

and

Aren’t there an equal
number of ways
we can lift and hold,

tilt a hurting person
towards the light,
say

Look—
the way your cheek curves
towards your chin
is poetry.

And

You, over there—
talking to your cats
with your eyes alone,
see how they respond
by blinking back, slowly?

And

Old man, I’ve seen you
water your plants
with deep, unquestioned faith
that they’ll leaf and angle
towards the sun—

and isn’t that grace,

and aren’t we all,
every one of us,
a cure
for someone’s
unease?

–Melinda Coppola

Gifts and Visitations

It’s been just over a month since my dear friend and soul sister Marina died, after a quick and nasty tussle with appendiceal cancer. She visits my consciousness daily, in ways both fleeting and substantial. We talked a lot about the afterlife in her last months. She told me clearly that, when she visits me after her death, she’d make herself known in a way that looks like dragonflies.

The first sighting occurred less than twelve hours after she passed. I was with Bink, walking at one of our favorite Audubon sites. There, a trail unrolls through a little forest before splitting itself in two. To the right, a lovely treed path eventually leads to a small bridged dam, pausing before heading into more woods and on beside a waterfall.

Choice two runs straight ahead at the fork to a wee bridge that cinches a pond on either side. This beckons onto a boardwalk over more water, with an option to follow a path into an almost wildly overgrown bit of land.

It’s a magical place, one that my little family appreciates tremendously. That final Sunday in June was the first time Bink and I had been back since Covid-19 had closed most Audubon trails in mid March. We were delighted to learn of the re-opening, in time to greet the summer growth gracing the land. Across the water, a thick blanket of lily pads hosted frogs napping in the sun. Turtles rested atop rocks protruding from the pond. The air buzzed with insect life.

It was on the boardwalk that the first dragonfly came into my vision. She hung in the air in front of me, sunlight shimmering off her blue-green body. I tried to capture a picture of her, but each time I positioned my iphone she flitted out of the screen.

Soon, I noticed more dragonflies. Different colors and sizes, all dancing and hovering around me and Bink and above the water. Well, I told myself, this is dragonfly heaven! Of course they are here. Doesn’t mean that it’s Marina.

At home a few days later, Superguy pointed wordlessly out the window over our kitchen sink. We have planter boxes and a large pot or two on the deck out there. A lone dragonfly hovered in the thick air between a raised box and the plants thriving in the pot next to it. Thirty seconds, one minute. Maybe two. There she is, I thought. She’s here, he may have said.

Earlier this month, we stayed at a small rental on the Cape for a week. It was a hasty decision we made back in February, pre-Covid. The house we’d rented and loved for years had sold recently, and we were mourning the loss of that sweet yearly week. We’d driven down to the area to look for another option, hoping for something, anything, that would be within a short walk to the beach we love.

We found a cottage and were able to view the inside. It was much smaller than the previous one, paneled in pine that was darkened by age. It was also available for a week this summer! We put a deposit down on the spot.

Marina, whom I’d seen the month before, had not yet been diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life. She’d been tired when I saw her, and only vaguely aware of some indigestion.

When my little family arrived for our July week at the cottage, we went around to the back door to retrieve the hidden key the owner had told us about. There was a metal sculpture on the backside of the house. Hmmm, I thought. Dragonfly? No, it looked more like a butterfly.

We went inside. The small kitchen opened out into an equally compact dining area and living room. There, on a shelf looking out towards the front window, was a colorful square canvas with—you guessed it—a beautiful dragonfly on it. Tears welled up in my eyes.

In the bedroom off the kitchen, the same dark wood covered the walls. Superguy was the one who spotted it first: the sole decoration in that room was a colorful cohort of dragonflies, rendered in metal and nailed to the wall.

A few days after we arrived, my love said,” Hey, did you notice the dragonfly art by the back door?” “Oh, yes,” said I. But I think it’s actually a butterfly. Noooo, he mouthed soundlessly, his silver hair catching the scant light from the back door as he shook his head. We went out to examine it more closely. “See this elongated body? That’s not a butterfly. It’s a dragonfly.” And so it was.

Bink loves to swim. Recently, as she swam in a local lake, her head bowed as she dipped her curious, goggled eyes beneath the surface, M landed lightly on her back. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving.

Another day, a dragonfly appeared on the inside wall of our garage. She just sat there, watching and being watched, for a long time.

I’ve made online connections with others who knew and loved Marina. There have been strings of messages between us, and a tender Zoom memorial service this past weekend. We’re scattered around the globe, yet many of us have had dragonfly sightings in recent weeks.

Sometimes, I hear Marina talking to me. It’s reassurance that all is well, that she is indeed in bliss. There’s more, though.

Marina was an artist. Like many creatives, it took her a long time to truly and firmly believe in her art. It was only in the last two years she was financially able to cut her “real world” work to a minimum and give her deep attention to the gestation and birth of her evolving artwork.

She first knew me as a young poet. At twenty, I was untamed and bohemian. Poetry poured through my fingers when I sat with a journal. Through the years, my visiting time with Marina was often spent making art, with hours of talking and laughing punctuated by periods of absolute, easy silence.

One of the gifts my friend tried to give me over the last few years was what she called the YES, AND. Marina understood the constraints of my life circumstances over the past few decades. Through my descriptions, and the perpetual need to do careful advance planning for our scant visits or even our phone calls, she had a good sense of what is involved with parenting a child who has significant special needs.

She knew that I love my daughter without limits and beyond comprehension, that my commitment to her wellness and growth is lifelong and unwavering.

She also knew how I longed, long to have great expanses of unfettered time to write and paint and make art with beach stones and fully explore the wellspring of creativity that has always been part of my bone structure.

“Don’t starve your soul,” she’d say. “YES, you are an amazing mother. YES, your daughter needs you. AND—make time for the art. You have books inside you and your painting is full of Goddess energy and whimsy and you need to let it out. Don’t let it die.”

Sometimes, I accepted the gift of her words graciously, gave them a nod, then dove right back into the thick stew of my life. A few times, I let her words really penetrate. Paintings would come to life in snatches of time. Poems would press themselves out in pieces on my Mac, waiting patiently to be shepherded into something complete and satisfying.

When Marina extends her energy into my moments now, she knows I feel her offering gifts again. If she were in the flesh, she’d say YES. It’s a full plate. Covid has magnified it all. Bink will always need. AND you need to tend your whole garden, sweetie. The whole damned thing.”

–Melinda Coppola