EMBRACE OR ERASE

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Exactly two weeks ago, my beloved and favorite uncle sat down and hand wrote me a lovely two-page letter. He included, as he often did, an article of interest from the local paper. Then he mailed it, drove to a deserted parking lot, put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger. And while I wonder if he aimed perfectly at his heart, I also wonder why he would never want to see his granddaughter’s face, taste the sweetness of a fresh-picked strawberry or even hear my voice on the phone again.

Aging is as hard as growing up once was. There is no vade mecum to tell you how. You stumble, fall and brush yourself off ad infinitum. You just have to keep going and learn how to take the curves. That mindset was especially hard for my uncle who had always been an avid and highly competitive athlete. Too many botched hip and shoulder surgeries later, he was a shuffling shell of himself and he knew it. Plastic surgeons are skilled at raising our faces, but it is our minds that need the real ‘lift.’  In the end, that is something that only we can do.

The only real way to prepare a ‘face for the faces that you meet’ is to strengthen your inner thoughts. Bench press your brain when your limbs fail you. Pull up your focus on the beauty of today. T. S. Eliot said, “April is the cruelest month,” but I choose to find it the loveliest—even now–as spring begins to unfold after a too, long winter. Dogwood flowers burst into bloom from the backyard and daffodils shake their heads in the breeze out front. It is hard to find spring when the mind is mired in darkness. We are our thoughts. Ultimately, they become our actions. May you make them ones you want to embrace, not erase.

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DON’T SIT THIS ONE OUT!

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No, he’s not my husband.  Five minutes before this photo was shot, I had never laid eyes on the man.  But let me explain.  It all began in 1968, as I was leaving for my first high school dance.  As I headed for the door, Granny called out:  “Now remember, Dear, dance with EVERY boy who asks you.”  Her feeling was that to ever say, “No, thank you,” would be crushing to a fellow who had worked his courage up to ask in the first place.  So, I did and in the years since, not only have I never ‘sat one out,’ I have even taken to doing the asking myself. 

 Such was the case last week as I shopped for produce at Whole Foods.  Somewhere between the flowers and the blueberries, music began to play; lovely, danceable music.  As I turned towards the musicians, I noticed an older gentleman standing off to the side keeping time with his foot.  I walked up and asked him to dance.  He said, “No, thank you.  I’m just here to listen to the band.” 

 Frankly, he took a bit of coaxing but within minutes we were moving to a song whose name I can’t remember.  By then, I had dropped my coat and shopping bag to the floor.  His shy smile began to beam as others stopped to watch us.  Emboldened, we began to widen our circle and grasped hands.  Neither of us had a clue as to what we were doing, nor did we follow any kind of actual step like the waltz or foxtrot.  We just danced, this complete stranger and I.  From the corner of my eye, shoppers stopped to smile, a grinning cashier paused at his register, and a little girl pointed us out to her mother in wonder. 

 Why does she ‘wonder’?  I ask myself.  Our brief lives should be filled with moments like these; times we simply drop what we are doing and move to the music.  Moments don’t just happen.  We make them come alive by risking and yes, dancing.  These moments become our memories.  If we don’t make them joyful, we are doomed to a bitter old age.  Besides, the music doesn’t play forever.  So, to Granny, ‘Thank you for that advice.’  And to Vernon, ‘Thank you for the dance!’

 Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” a memoir of the 13 years her ‘advice-giving’ Granny descended into Alzheimer’s.

http://www.amazon.com/Kissing-Tomatoes-ebook/dp/B007CMNJKW

 

HERE’S TO INDEPENDENCE!!

     Today may be a celebration of our country’s independence, but fireworks on this night have always reminded me it’s Granny’s birthday.  She would have been 110 today.  I said “Good-bye” to her at 95 but the truth is she left me in body only.  Every hug, tear and piece of advice she ever gave me is still intact in my memory. 

      On this date in 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden and wrote the book which would define him.  He would remind us that man and nature are inextricably connected, so we must preserve it.  The same holds true of the invisible threads which bind us to each other.

      As I waved my youngest off to New York yesterday and reminded her to “drink plenty of water,” it was really Granny talking.  When I hugged my oldest at the gate en route to look at colleges in California and my tears began to fall, I remembered Granny doing the same when I left her.  My children are already navigating that long road that we all have walked— to independence.

      We repeat ourselves generation to generation.  We do it in different languages, under different skies and in different times but the pattern doesn’t change.  We’re born, make the same mistakes our parents did (or invent our own), have children, watch them grow as we age and then we die.  Some of us die fighting like those who won our independence.  Some of us have no fight at all.  Most of us lie somewhere in between.

      What all of us have is a teeny, tiny window of time to look out on the garden of Life.  “It will only be as beautiful as you make it,” Granny once said, “and it takes work.”   Someday, if my children remember me on my 110th birthday, I hope their gardens are as full of color and rich with possibilities as mine is.  I learned how to tend it from a woman born in 1900; the same one who also said, “Plant lots of seeds.  They won’t all take.”  (Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” a memoir of the years before and after her grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s.   http://www.helen-hudson.com).

KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN

     I saw my first dead body up close when I was 12.  It happened quite by accident.  I was walking home from school in New York City and happened to pass by a church.  There was a long line outside, and always curious, I stopped to find out what was going on.  “It’s a funeral,” someone said.  “But why is everyone lined up out here instead of going inside?” I asked.  “We’re waiting to view the body,” another added.

     That gave me pause.  “View the body.”  What exactly did that mean? How do you ‘view’ a dead body, with a special magnifying glass or something?  Was the person dressed?  Were they stuffed?  If they were already dead why would someone want to look at them?  All I could think of was that if I were dead I certainly would NOT want anyone “viewing” me.  That would be pretty embarrassing. 

        Now I was really curious.  I just had to see what this was all about.  Casually, I sauntered to the end of the line.  Since everyone else had on a serious face, I put mine on, too.  We moved soberly toward the front door of the church, then down the aisle towards a large, glossy, wooden box.  One by one, the mourners ahead of me stopped in front of the box, looked down briefly, crossed themselves and then left.  I was getting closer.  My heart was beating so fast that I could hear it in my ears. 

     There was a man in there!  He was all dressed up in a nice, new suit and really, shiny, leather shoes.  He looked perfectly fine with a nice haircut and everything, only his eyes were closed and he wasn’t breathing.  I know because I stood there long enough to be sure of that.  I had never seen anyone so completely still before.  Then I noticed his hands.  They had been placed on his chest in a way that I imagine he had never put them in real life.  His fingers were stiff and awkward as if they had been sculpted by a very, bad artist.  Indeed, they did not seem to belong to his hands at all! 

     I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  I didn’t even stop to wait for my bus home and ran all 27 blocks.  As long as everything was still moving on me, I planned to keep moving it.  Gotta keep your eyes open as long as you can.  Someday, someone else will be closing them.  Until then, there’s always something around the next corner and it might just change your life.  (Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes.”  http://www.helen-hudson.com)           

ALZHEIMER’S AND “KISSING TOMATOES”

     Spoke last week at the American Counseling Association’s national convention in Pittsburgh.  My topic was, “There’s No Place Like Home:  Caring for the Alzheimer’s Patient At Home.”  Having cared for my grandmother for 13 years in our home, this is an issue both personal and philosophical. 

     In 20 years, the US is predicted to have 11 million people diagnosed w/ the disease.  Add that number to the families & caretakers that will be involved & you have some idea what lies ahead of us.  If we don’t figure out how to care for our elders in their final years with both dignity & compassion, as other cultures have done for centuries, America will be sadder for it.  So will we.  We are all going to die.  If we are fortunate, we will all live to old age. 

     Our LAST chapter should be just as important as our FIRST one.  Indeed, by then one hopes we will have added something real and of value to the world at large.  Our babies, while precious and sacrosanct, have yet to offer us anything.  That will come with time.  Our elders have given us EVERYTHING and yet we abandon them in their last chapter.  It is their loss.  If they have Alzheimer’s, they will likely not even know it.  But we know it and ultimately it is OUR loss.  (http:// www.helen-hudson.com.  Read the first chapter of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” my memoir of those 13 years with Granny).