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.

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

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

Dragonflies

Image by Rona Kline

Image by Rona Kline

As I write this, my dear friend Marina lies dying in a lovely room inside the oldest house in an historic and pretty New Hampshire town. A wonderful woman who worked with her in the local general store has taken her into her home. Hospice has set her up well with a hospital bed that adjusts in many ways and keeps moving different parts of her body to prevent some of the pain associated with not being able to get out of bed.

A mere six months ago, Marina was celebrating the purchase of a little house in New Mexico, old stomping grounds for her. She envisioned growing old there while making her art and reconnecting with the culture in an area of the country she has long loved for its people and its wide, open skies. She planned to move there this month, just after celebrating her solo art show at The Newton Free Library the first week of June.

Covid 19 would likely have postponed the show, as it slowed or halted so many things. The pandemic burst into dominance at the same time that my friend had a scan that looked very suspect.

Her journey has been fraught with suffering and pain as the diagnoses and prognoses grew increasingly dark through the weeks. She has had deep sorrow, and also joy and gratitude and acceptance. I’ve written a bit about this already, and it isn’t actually what I’ve come here to the page to say.

We humans can be so apathetic about being incarnated. We act as if we have unlimited time, as if each day isn’t positively bursting with beauty and grace and opportunities to bring meaning and comfort to at least one other being.

Many of us are quite good at identifying what we don’t want and don’t like. We tend to focus on those things, and it can feel easier to blame the ensuing feelings on outside circumstances. We seem to expend enormous energy tearing each other down.

Though I am a great advocate of the practices of presence and loving kindness, I’m far from immune to the easy drop into anxiety and despair. I can make an impressive list of Everything That Sucks as fast as the next person. I can bemoan the ways in which Other People are directly contributing to the pain and suffering of the larger world and to my own little sphere as well. I can list twenty ways the shutdown has created enormous distress and anxiety for families like ours that include an individual with special needs.

The pandemic and cancer diagnoses are among the teachers that remind us how little control we actually have over many of the circumstances of our lives. Those same professorial forces can illustrate our superpowers. We all have them. Most days, I think, we can choose to do and to be in ways that can make an enormous difference to all living things—people and animals and trees and flowers. We can choose to be present with each other, to listen deeply and hold each being with respect and regard and learn great things that can alter the ways we treat each other and our earth.

Each life is precious. Life itself is an exquisite gift. Everyone has a story, everyone carries pain and joy. We are all works in progress, weaving tapestries of our memories and experiences. No two will look the same, and we have so much to teach each other.

My friend has stopped eating and drinking, and she is mostly nonresponsive now. I know that she’ll graduate into the great love that surrounds us and created us. She knows this, too. “Look for the dragonflies,” she told me a few weeks ago. A few days after that, “Look for dragonflies. Especially the unusual ones.”

Dragonflies represent transformation and adaptability and wisdom. They are associated with water, that magical, life-giving, shape shifter element that adapts to every container and circumstance. My friend has had one tattooed on her left arm for quite a long time, now. I didn’t tell her that I’ve never felt a strong pull towards them. I know that is about to change.

–Melinda Coppola
Post Script: Marina Powdermaker passed away in the first hour of Sunday, June 28, 2020. She was two months shy of her 59th birthday.

Time, Place, Classroom

WHEN

The world gets so noisy. Too many voices
straining, pushing past their natural limits to be heard. Our small ears can’t discern provenance or factuality. Reactions quicken, turning knee-jerk, protective.

WHERE

There is the place where trees thicken into extended families, root systems entwined beneath the earth. Look for the leafy canopy that forms an arch. You’ll know it when you arrive. There are plenty of seats to be had, and no prior coursework is required.

WHEN

Class begins just after the tree frogs cease their urgent croaking. If you prefer to tell time mechanically, it’s around 3am. The instructor will sweep in on a dark, cool breeze. Plan to sit awhile. Class ends at chorus call, when the winged ones stir and lift their beaks to sing the dawn into being.

WHAT

The velvet hour, the lull between cacophonies. Your professor is the apparent silence. You’ll be asked to get very still. Open all your senses, and train them towards the slightest movement or sound or scent. Your assignment: to glean the evidence of life happening all around you. It is in the soil beneath and the trees above. It’s in the air that hangs or wafts or hurries by. It hums steadily in the space you thought was filled with quiet.

Listening is sacred. Listening is a practice.

Listening is a sacred practice.

I marvel at the way it is possible to hear what we already know in someone’s else’s words, when we get quiet enough for long enough. When that happens, things can suddenly sound new and full of meaning and promise, and this is what we do for each other, when we show up and open our ears and hearts, the ears of our hearts. When we
press ourselves into the present exactly as we are, wounds and all, open to a new way of being and seeing.

Consider the way we can make a gift of our listening when we give our earnest attention to others, especially those whose lives are quite unlike our own. By truly receiving their words, we can be a mirror through which they can see their own humanity and beauty reflected. We can give each other new vision and energy and this, too, is what we’re here for, to show each other, again and again, what might be possible.

Listening is a sacred practice.

–Melinda Coppola

.

When all this is over…

WHEN THIS IS OVER

Bring bread,
chewy and warm,
wrapped in that red
checkered tablecloth
that always sings
picnic,

which is short for
happy family,
easy friendships,
peace and plenty
in our town
state
country
planet.

We never went on one,
a picnic,
not once in all our
together years

even though we had that red
checkered cloth,
and enough love
and hope
and time.

Bring bread, baby,
while we can still bake
and chew,
while we can still be
alive together,

while earth still
hosts the wheat, the rye,
the farmer, so trusting,
sowing seeds.

–Melinda Coppola

The Wisdom of Clouds

“ You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.”

Pema Chodron

CIRRUS

You are wisp, feet rarely touching dirt. Your gaze cannot be met. They call it lazy eye, but we know better. How could anyone expect you to hone a vision when you straddle a few different dimensions most of the time? Those who get impatient with you should try doing that pose and see how fuzzy every little thing appears. Focus is one constant in your Rolodex of epithets.

CUMULUS

Fascinate me again, you multi-layered being. When I have you figured as a mountain of fluff, pretty yet inconsequential, I can blink real slow and you flash-forward darker, heavier. If you were embodied you’d be a person of substance, radiating a hefty beauty. I want to think I could hold you, but when I try, you move right through me. Or is it me, moving through you?

STRATUS

Stay low to the ground. Earth is delighted to allow you to bounce off her surfaces. You told me, once upon a time, that it is better to shower bits of yourself across the whole of life. Don’t wait until you see a form you can slip inside. When you have a little energy, toss it up into the sky and let your offerings partner with Brother Wind. It’s a hop, a skip, and a jump to eternity if you travel this way.

NIMBUS

You made me cry. Or rather, you evoked tears in me. You were snake charmer, and man, could you wheedle and cajole that ropey trail of wetness from my eyes and heart and soul.

It wasn’t all sad. Despite what you said, life never is. I believe in tears of joy

even now.
even now.

A single day is at once ephemeral and eternal. It’s all in how you cast your view.

–Melinda Coppola

Prospecting for Grace

Praise

The faithful sun,
generously stirring
energies of Earth
and atmosphere,
coaxing every green thing
towards the rising
song of spring.

Parents
walking with their children
outside, smiling
and laughing, nodding
at neighbors
out washing their cars.

Quieted streets
yielding their usual
ruthless noise
to melodious birdsong,
squirrels rustling in the brush,
the wind whistling
in the still bare branches.

Moon, conducting
the rise and fall
of seas everywhere,
the call and response,
organic and lyrical,
in all bodies of water,
even ours.

Every incremental sign
that goodness and hope
are alive and well,
seeding us with patience
through this reckoning time—

There I’ll set my gaze,
invite my pen to praise
all that.
Praise all that.

–Melinda Coppola

Communicable


PROPAGATION

I’ve taken to humming
in the produce section
while caressing the plums,
sneaking sniffs
of the cilantro,
eyeing the lemons,
audacious in their yellowry.

It’s a low, soothing thing,
the thrum of air
over vocal chords,
nearly a buzz,

and I am almost
a bumblebee,
hovering over color,
circling the end caps

as I admire
the mottled plantains,
the papery shallots
with their secret,
chambered cloves.

Outside the store
there are doomsayers
on every sharp corner,
the shattered remains
of a national normalcy
cutting feet,
drawing blood,
speculation,
and despair.

Even the sunlight
serves only to magnify
the sparkle of
all that broken glass.

The lines in the parking lot
seem repainted every night,
with more space
between the spaces,
to keep the usses
from door-dinging
the thems,

but inside
the flamboyant vegetables
nestle up to their neighbors,
fragrant fruits
and bags of nuts
coexisting,

and there I’ll go
humming and hovering,
covertly cross pollinating,
to propagate
a kinder world.

–Melinda Coppola

Harmonious Discord

This morning I walked early,
mismatched garments
layered to repel a cold, spitting rain.

I’d pushed his baseball cap
down hard
over the knitted ear band
I bought to share
with her, which she
most emphatically rejected
for not being soft enough,
or pink.

Featherweight Bean jacket—
the one that lifts me to frequent
if silent praise
for its tireless rebuff
of even the most bitter winds—
warmed me companionably,
its soft arms moving along with mine.

This walking time—
tucked carefully into the space
between my early rising
and her wake up song,
before the gentle time to get up
directive I save for him—
has become sacred
in my other-centered life.

Rounding the first corner
of the favored route,
I looked down
and had to laugh
at mismatched gloves,
one pink and hers,
one turquoise, mine
by default,

and the shoes, laced oddly,
partially, with big gaps
between eyelets three and six

to nurture the well worn feet
whose dorsal surfaces
are temperamental, and
wavy as the sea.

The thought
and the smile
bubbled up together:
I am a walking exhibition
of my pieced together life.

This quilt of a family:
The daughter
with all her needs hanging out,
her talents slowly
coming to light
in explosions of art
and word
and song.

The man who adapted
to both of us,
stepping in, a little
closer every year,
to father her.

The felines,
who sleep tirelessly,
rising long enough
to eat and coat us
with their fur
of many colors.

Middle aging me,
holding it all together,
multi-hued patches of love,
bits of colorful string,
a plush batting of hope.

An ode
to harmonious discord
is not such a bad thing to be,

Said I to self
out walking.

–Melinda Coppola