What is it with the people who are going around these days saying, “My life is FABulous. I have a BIG LIFE.” As my friend Josh says: “What are you, a foreign dignitary? Are you a sheik?”
My friend Lisa has a slightly different take on such folks: “You have a BIG LIFE? Well, get away from me, then, cause you’re in the way of my teeny, cramped life of struggle, loneliness, and pain!”
I’m thinking a lot these days of my mother. Mom lives in a 12’ by 12’ room at an assisted living facility in Dover, New Hampshire, and even that’s too big for her. Some people hoard; my mother divests. Mom’s the opposite of a clutterer. Give her a present and ten minutes later she’s given it away, or donated it to Goodwill, or wrapped it neatly in about ten layers of used grocery bag paper, labeled, taped, and indexed it, and put it in the garbage.
Weeks after my father died, she’d disposed of his belongings, sold the house in which all eight of us kids had grown up, and moved into a condo that would have made the cell of a cloistered nun look baroque. “Oh I don’t need any of that malarkey,” she’d say, waving off the offer of a pair of slippers to replace the ones she’d been wearing since the Reagan era, or “I have notecards” (a pile of scrap-paper from the backsides of church programs and bills, torn into uniform size against the edge of a wooden ruler leftover from when we were in grade school).
That was 11 years ago. Three years ago, she moved into assisted living and, as the Alzheimer’s progresses, so far she gets more herself, not less. She’d already gotten rid of her piano and then she got rid of her books and then she kept losing the remote so now she’s gotten rid of her TV. I talked to the people at the nursing home last week and, at her request, they were in her room removing “the wires.” I get the feeling she’s beginning to eye the walls and floor, figuring out how she can lose them, too.
Yet when I talk to her, she still sounds upbeat and absorbed. She reports on the walk she takes every day around the perimeter of the hospital next door. She’s grateful, as she always has been, for the tiniest thing. “Well thank you so much for calling!” she’ll say, or “You didn’t have to send all that!” (a birthday card).
Far away, she seems ever closer. As she moves toward the future, my own memory telescopes more and more toward the past. “The sky is so BLUE today!” The time we walked through the woods behind the house and she showed me the pink ladyslipper. “Boy is it GREEN this spring!” The purple velvet dress she sewed for my baptismal day. “I’ve never SEEN the stars so bright!”…The way, when all the other girls were wearing makeup, she told me: “Let your light shine through”…
Is time short or is it long? Is a life big or is it deep?
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As syllable from sound—