Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Long Goodbye

Yesterday, I took my mom to visit her sister Marge. Marge is moving to a nursing home facility in Birmingham today, and we went yesterday to pack her things and say goodbye.

Marge is the oldest of all of my mom's 6 siblings. 15 years older than my mother, Marge was more mom than sister. She never had any children of her own, but she had a very exciting life, traveling the globe with her husband, living in foreign countries for most of their married life, and finally retiring to Florida, where they both enjoyed golf on a daily basis.

I guess it was around 1988 or so that things started to slip for Marge. She was caring for her husband at their home, and becoming more and more reclusive. He and she were inseparable, and when he finally passed away, she was nearly inconsolable. She said over and over that she was supposed to die with him, that her life was caring for him. We all thought that was an initial reaction, that she would get over it in time.

That depression stuck around, and brought some dementia along. Marge began to forget where she was, who we were, what she was doing . . . all signs of Alzheimer's. Over the years, she has gone from living on her own, to living with my Aunt Rita, to living in an assisted living faciliy, to living in a nursing home near my mom. Her progression has been agonizingly slow; she is such a healthy person that her body seems to live on and on and on, but the lights of recognition in her mind have slowly, slowly dimmed, leaving her bedridden, unable to speak or do anything for herself.

Before my dad got sick, my mom went to the nursing home every afternoon to sit with Marge and feed her dinner. I'm not sure that Marge knew who my mother was, but it was a comfort to my mom to hold Marge's hand, comb her hair and to see Marge smile, which she often did. Mama would talk to Marge about Anniston, AL, and there would be flickers of recognition, but none so bright as when Mama would talk about Chet, Marge's husband. Those brought the biggest smiles of all.

Since my dad has been sick, my mom has only occasionally been able to get to the nursing home. Then of course, SHE got sick, and for the past 3 months, she hasn't been able to go at all. I have tried to go as often as I could, mostly to ease my mother's worries about Marge, but I have been too busy to go more than a time or two myself. To their credit, the nursing home has taken excellent care of Marge, and that has been an enormous comfort to my mother through all of the trials of this past year.

My uncle in Florida, my mom's oldest living brother, is the executor of Marge's sizeable estate. For years, he has carefully managed Marge's affairs, paid her bills, and planned her estate so that she would have continual care, and she always has. He and I spoke a couple of months ago, and at that time, I offered to help relocate Marge closer to me, or arrange for Marge to move closer to my mom's sister, Rita (my namesake) in Birmingham. My cousins and my aunt realized pretty quickly that my sister and I had our hands full with Mama and Daddy, so the decision was made that Marge would be transferred to Birmingham, and it has taken about this long to get things organized.

Yesterday, as I packed Marge's clothes, I could see my mother's hand in everything. Every flannel gown had been handpicked by my mother, every little pair of socks had been carefully labelled with Marge's name in my mother's careful print. Every pretty picture, every little bit of cheer in the dismal nursing home room was my mother's attempt to make things nice for Marge.
As I packed, my mom sat beside Marge's bed, holding her hand, sweetly talking to her, encouraging her to wake up. Most of the time, Marge appears to be asleep, although with encouragement, she does "wake up" temporarily, make eye contact and smile.

As she stroked Marge's short silver hair, my mother began to tell me, "You know, when we were growing up, we never celebrated birthdays. There were too many of us, it was the Depression, and we just never had celebrations. But I remember that Marge bought me a pocketbook for my birthday one year. I must have been about 6 or 7, and she made a cake and had a little party for me and the other kids in the neighborhood all came over . . ." She kind of trailed off at that point, and I was biting my lip, still folding clothes silently, not wanting to cry. "You know, there aren't very many happy memories from back then," she continued, "Daddy was a drunk, and Mama was always so sick, we were poor as dirt, but Marge always took such good care of us . . ."

I couldn't even see by then, and I was trying so hard not to sob. I just kept blinking, trying to catch the tears streaming down my face with the tip of my tongue so that she wouldn't spot me wiping them away with my sleeve. I kept folding the little clothes, placing them in the cardboard boxes, and willing the lump in my throat to allow some air through.

It dawned on me that this would likely be the last time my mother ever saw Marge. Birmingham's not far from Atlanta, but as sick as she has been, my mom hasn't felt well enough to travel 20 miles to see Marge, never mind 250.

I finished my task and turned to see my mother quietly sitting alongside Marge's hospital bed, still speaking to her in quiet tones, looking for signs of awakening. Seeing her there, my mother, in pain even then, knowing that she has cancer, and seeing her lovingly stroke Marge's hair, her sister, here but gone, passed away but still alive and breathing, was almost more than I could bear. Finally, my mother stood from her chair, still holding Marge's hand, and leaned over the hospital rails to kiss Marge's cheek. Quietly sobbing herself, my mother seemed so, so, frail to me, and it was the most heartbreaking and most loving sight I think I have ever seen.

"I guess this is goodbye," my mother said quietly as she laid Marge's hand back onto the bedcovers, stepping away, wiping away tears. She was so small as I held her there, quietly sobbing. She has lost so much weight, she feels like a child in my arms now. I wanted to just hold her there, and I did, wanting to protect her from the pain, from losing Marge, from the cancer, from her fear, from it all.

And I can't.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

No good deed goes unpunished . . .

So, after the excitement last week, I received a call from my contracting agency (or my "pimp", as I lovingly refer to the folks that keep me turning corporate tricks for cash).

This group negotiated a contract for me last March. The company that I have been shucking and jiving for is an up and coming telecommunications company, seemingly making money hand over fist, but experiencing definite growing pains. I walked into a chaotic atmosphere and met overworked folks trying to desperately keep up with the constant stream of salepeople screaming for help with proposals and customer presentations.

I'm used to that - I have been doing this stuff for years. The work wasn't terribly complicated, but the guy that I reported to was kinda nutty. No matter, we found some common ground, and after I rescued a few projects at the last minute, he seemed to get comfortable with our working relationship.

So, the contract was supposed to be one year initially. The company asked for a review/renewal at 6 months, which is also pretty standard.

We are at the 6 month mark, and repeated emails asking for the review and approval for the next leg of the contract have gone unanswered.

Finally, the contracting agency pushed the issue last week, and after alot of squirming and grumbling, the nutty guy admitted that he couldn't get approval for the second half of the contract, that some new hotshot VP had decided to "toss things up", and with that, my employment went the way of the wind. Fini.

Oh, and my mom grew very ill over the weekend, and just sobbing with pain and depression.

How many times do you think I can keep saying "I should be thankful - cause at least my house isn't underwater!" and mean it?


Thursday, September 8, 2005

Volunteer work

I am exhausted.

I have spent the last several days completely turned inside out with grief for the folks in the Gulf - all of them. It has been hard to sleep, and watching CNN isn't helping, trust me.

I have been organizing informational email campaigns via Craigslist and through mailing lists of local churches and civic organizations. I haven't wanted to work a lick at my "real" job, but my mind continually focuses on helping these people. I have sorted clothes, delivered donations, made phone calls, posted volunteer opportunities, and whatever else I thought needed doing.

I still feel pretty helpless.

Yesterday was a rare treat, though. I broke away to go volunteer in my daughter's class. The kids have been studying weather (oddly enough), and in the span of about an hour, me and 3 other mothers helped 27 kids make rain gauges from 2 liter bottles, barometers, windsocks, and other really cool weather-related doohickeys.

Since it was the end of the school day, I stuck around and took my daughter with me. She was thrilled for me to be at her school and in her class, and even more thrilled to be able to ride home with me. Change is always exciting.

On the way home, we stopped at Wendy's. Her class eats lunch at 10:30 in the morning (yuck!) so by 3:00, she is usually pretty hungry. It was nice to have that time with her to just sit and chat about school.

We finished up and headed home, taking the back way through an office complex. I was checking in with my mom, talking on my cell, and my daughter was happily watching the world go by when we were approaching an intersection. I had the red, so I began to slow up. There wasn't anyone in front of me, and I was just taking my time, so I was in no hurry to get up to to the intersection. I glanced up just in time to see a little white car zoom through the intersection just as a HUGE Chevrolet SUV was trying to make a left. They crashed, and the little car became like a ramp for the SUV, cause it became airborne, flipped upside down in midair, and landed with an earsplitting smash on the road on its hood right in front of my car.

I had never in my life seen anything like that. It looked like a whale breeching an ocean wave and crashing back into the sea.

Stunned, I hung up my cellphone, threw the car into park, told my daughter not to move, dialed 911 and got out. I heard screaming . . . big screams and little screams.

This little guy came running up out of nowhere and without a second's hesitation or even a glance my way, started kicking in glass, and the screams were louder. He was a small guy, and he slithered in to the front seat. I was peering in, trying to adjust my eyes, scared of what I was going to see. I could barely see anything, but toward the back, large sections of glass were just gone, and I crawled inside. He was up front helping the mom, and I had my hands on the baby seat. The baby had been screaming, but it sounded more strained now. They were both hanging upside down, and between the guy and me, we managed to get the seatbelt undone and I caught the baby seat and flipped it around.

The kid was safe, but choking. The restraint was up under this throat, and it was one of those 4 point harnesses. It had done its job, but if you don't know how to release those things, it can be impossible to deal with. The guy up front had dealt with it for a second, but I screamed at him that I would deal with the baby and with hands moving before my thoughts could catch up, I unsnapped all of the restraints and got him free. I held him close, backing out of the car.

Rational thought started settling in then. The car could catch fire, or roll some more, I didn't know. By the time I started backing out of the back window, there were about 6 people around, guiding me away from the glass bits. When I stood up, people were scared to look at the little one, not knowing what kind of shape he was in, or maybe not wanting to be involved if he was hurt very bad.

Surprisingly, he had 2 bloody knees, and that seemed to be about it. I knew he could be hurt more than that, so I yelled for a blanket, and laid him flat on it under a tree, watching him for something . . .anything.

Meantime, people were just standing around. It seemed like forever before the ambulances came, but it was probably only a few minutes. The mom was hurt, and it was hard to tell how bad, but telling her that her little one was OK seemed to calm her. I kept telling her that he was ok, that she would be ok, but there was a pool of blood around her, and her legs were tangled up in the steering column. She was a big girl too, like me, and there was very little wiggle room.

When it was all said and done, it looked as though she might have had a broken arm, lots of cuts, and maybe a broken leg. The kid (who was tiny, but not a baby; he was nearly 5, just eensy weensy) was unhurt, except for the scrapes and being totally freaked out.

When my heart started beating again, and the rescue crews were asking everyone to step away toward the sidewalk, I looked around and everyone around me was looking at me, sort of stunned. It was a somber scene, standing there, and for some reason, it felt uncomfortable. I was still shaking, wondering if it would be ok to go back to my car and sit with my daughter. Just them, one lady held my hand and said that what I did was heroic, and I told her that I really wasn't, but that the first guy really was. A couple of other young men closeby jumped in, disagreeing, saying that the first guy's reaction was expected, and then saying that I had done something that most "people like me" wouldn't.

What "people like me"? Women? Chubby women? I didn't really get it at first, then it dawned on me. The driver and her kid were black. The first guy, the one that kicked in the glass . . . . black. All of the bystanders, black.

I was the only white person there, and in a week that has been filled with Southern black people crying for help, and white people seemingly not caring, I guess maybe I was a hero. Not for saving the kid, cause he was ok and would have been ok with or without me, but maybe for restoring some faith that whites could maybe be trusted to help and do something besides be smug and hand out charity and set up human warehouses.

I sure as hell hope so.
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