"they say the owl was a baker's daughter. lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)

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Monday, June 20, 2011

When You Feel Defeated

This week-end, I drove to Ohio to visit my grandmother in her new home, a care facility where she was admitted against her very strong will. At 98 years old, and with a broken leg, she just couldn't reasonably care for herself independently anymore. This was the best, although certainly not the easiest, solution for her safety. On my way there -- through the Township Roads, that wove me so far off the Interstate that I was concerned I might never be found again -- I received very few radio stations. To my good fortune, NPR came through loud and strong and I was able to listen to the winners of a recent essay contest. During one essay, I heard a beautiful phrase, that I will quote to the best of memory. "My biggest dilemmas in life have been answered in moments, not in words."

I enjoyed a thoughtful and caring visit with my grandmother, in which she bossed me six ways til Sunday. I tucked her in and left Saturday evening more fatigued than my busiest days managing a household of seven people. This I know is true: she's getting even with me. That little voice in her head, saying, "Well Nettie, if you're going to make me stay here, I'm going to make you work for it." And indeed, she did.

I stopped in again before leaving town on Sunday morning and found my grandma in bright spirits. She was sitting in her arm chair, putting her make-up on. Preparing for Coffee Club with her friends at 10:00. After applying her lip stick and brushing her hair, she looked up at me, with such innocence and asked, "Nettie, do I look garish?"

"Of course not, Grandma. You look like the lady you are," I replied.

We talked for awhile. About this. About that. I put my hand on her leg, told her I had to leave. And in that moment, without any words, everything changed. She laid her head back against the chair and lifted her feet slightly off the foot stool. She seemed so small, swallowed by the enormity of it all. The realization she was staying. That I was leaving. And home -- for both of us -- was somewhere far away.

She closed her eyes, and pulled her arms across her chest, and just began talking to me, so quietly: her back hurts, she's lonely, she doesn't get the rest she needs, she wants to go home, the bed isn't comfortable, her leg is sore, could I get her a Tylenol before I go? And then, everything changed again -- in the moment not with words. She put her feet back on the foot stool, readied herself, and turned her wedding bands on her fingers. My grandmother, the widow of almost 30 years, still wearing her wedding bands. "I just need to give myself a good talking to."

And in that moment, she taught me, how you behave when you feel defeated. You put on your lipstick, you comb your hair, you indulge a moment of despair, and you let it pass. You cling to the things that fortify you: a husband, a wedding band, a memory. And you are firm with yourself.

It was hard to leave, but it always is. Leaving is one of those things in life that doesn't get easier the more you practice it. As I was winding my way back to the Interstate, on roads that have long since been forgotten by the Department of Highway Safety, Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" forced its way through the speakers of my Subaru. There is so much determination, so much intention, so much spirit in the opening of this Act of opera. It's impetuous, it's stubborn, and it's willful. Forget the ways in which it has been used in political history: it is undeniably beautiful, majestic, and complicated music. And I couldn't help but envision my grandmother, head down, shoulder forward, charging down the carpeted hallways of her nursing home, whipping the wheels of her chair, all 4"8' of her, marking her 10:00 arrival at Coffee Club. Singing her battle cry, just like a Valkyrie would.

And so I learned, when you are feeling defeated, be indomitable.

Ok, grandma. I will. Thank you for the moment.