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.

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.

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

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

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

.

Collateral Sorrow

Art by Marina Powdermaker


It’s been a time of times, a steady landslide of uncertainties. Yes, the Covid, the shutdown. Yes, Bink and so many other adults with disabilities being home all day every day for many weeks, with all the usual programs and activities canceled. Yes, the mass suffering and loss that has accompanied this pandemic around the globe. Like so many others, I’ve been all over the place emotionally and mentally.

All that has paled, though, in comparison to another great big unfolding. Marina, a dear friend of mine, has been diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive cancer. Stage four. She lives in a different state, and I haven’t been able to see her.

The news about her condition came at about the same time everything began to shut down. In a dizzying 9.5 weeks she has been through a surgery that was far more extensive than she expected, dealt with the after effects of that with multiple pain medications that haven’t worked very well, grappled with treatment plans. Each subsequent appointment with specialists has brought grimmer news, with predicted possible life expectancies going from a possible two years down to months. Yesterday a doctor told her that if she opts for no treatment at all, she may only have “days to weeks.”

She had a chemotherapy port installed in her chest, but crippling daily and nightly pain led to more diagnostics, and then confirmation that the cancer has spread into her bones. Radiation, which can’t begin until next week, may help the pain but will delay chemo. The first available chemo appointment may be almost two weeks away. She’s been told hospice is not an option if she opts for chemotherapy. Can you imagine riding on this monstrous roller coaster, exacerbated by Covid complications that keep her from close contact with those she loves? If ever there is a time someone needs hugs and loving touch, this is it. Her beloved cats, whose affection has been balm to her, had to be rehomed due to her inability to care for them.

During this turbulence, Marina, who has given me permission to tell you about her, dipped into Laurie Wagner’s free offering of her Wild Writing course. Each morning for 27 days, participants received a video of Laurie reading a poem, and were encouraged to use the lines as a prompt for free form writing. I’ve yet to take one of Laurie’s courses, but I’ve heard many good things.

Marina is a multimedia artist. She’s never considered herself to be a writer. During the Wild Writing course, she wrote on the days she could manage it, and she’s shared some of her words with me. Such raw and achingly beautiful writing! I keep telling her I want to see it all on the page, and online, for everyone to experience.

I’ve been pretty blocked (understatement) in my own writing lately. It’s true that my main daily focus has been keeping Bink occupied and well fed and reasonably content. There hasn’t been a lot of time for writing, or editing. My bitchy inner critic has also been strident in her attempts to silence me, and I’ve let her. There have been pockets for painting and drawing, but those creations seem to be content with five or ten minutes of attention in between the cycles of care giving.

There is so much I want to say, about endings and beginnings and life and death and change. If Marina can pick up a pen and allow such fierce and tender writing to come forth in the midst of her great challenges, than I can certainly let some of my own wordy impulses break free and overwhelm the block. I can do this in her honor.

For today, just one more thing. Please check out Marina’s art HERE.
She does layered, amazingly textured pieces that, like opals, look different in every light.

Take good and gentle care of yourself, and maybe go call or text or write someone you care about. Tell them a specific something you love about them. The world and all her people need more love.

–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