Reflections on Standing at the Threshold

Grateful for an Ordinary Day

I am sitting in a Chinese coffee shop in the Sheep’s Head bay part of Brooklyn, around the corner from Amelia’s apartment.  This is my break from being grandma to my bright eyed, head-full-of-hair newborn grandchild, Carmen.  Amelia and Carmen’s Daddy, Brent, are bonding by immersion in parenthood.  How engaging to have such an aware baby who is yet so helpless and in need of their and my protection.

I walk out the door of the apartment, glad to stretch my legs and see the outside world. 

In previous visits I felt the foreignness of the place, a vibrant neighborhood with Asian, Hispanic and Russian people who fill the streets with colorful voices and faces.  Today, in awe of my miracle granddaughter and proud of her young parents, I welcome the faces on the street.  For some reason, on this day I see the resilience of human beings in each face.  It is a blissfully ordinary day and people are out and about doing errands.  I pass a tiny Asian woman in a burgundy hat and grey buttoned-up coat, with a work- lined face.  Tears of gratitude spill from my eyes and a love for human diligence and persistence.  I savor the ability to walk, step by step, along a city street.

Then a reddish-haired white woman walks up to me and speaks quickly in what I assume is Russian. She asks a question and waits.  I pause, smile and say, “I don’t speak Russian.”  She seems surprised.  How can I not be of her tribe? She says in heavily accented English “Large Russian market?”  I turn and wave a hand along the street,

“I’m not from here. There are Russian markets though.”

She turns and wanders off…

I look for a coffee shop and find a Chinese bakery a few steps away.  It is full of Chinese folks of all ages and has a TV chattering with what appears to be a Chinese soap opera.  It strikes me as hilarious to see the same kinds of expressions and emotion on the faces of the actors as American soaps. Most amusing of all are the Chinese subtitles.

There is quite a bustle in here. I buy coffee and pick out something that looks sort of like a muffin.  Seems to be a safe bet.  Turns out to be mostly coconut and I am fine with that.  I take out my pad and pen and jot down thoughts and images.  A tiny Chinese toddler comes up to me and smiles.  Other than that, I feel pretty invisible in here.

On the street again I relish the chance to peer at more faces of all ages and reflect on how we are all doing our best.  That poignant reality stops my mind.  Two men stand on the corner. One is a youngish Asian guy with cool hair that stands straight up.  The other is shorter with greying hair.  They talk with gestures and shifting facial expressions right there on the corner.  They are still there five minutes later when I turn and walk past that corner again. Imagine being one of those men.  What is his life like?  Then I notice three older Asian women walking together down the sidewalk, talking.  At one point one smiles, says a few things and looks at the others.  They smile and nod back.  Again, the lined faces, smiles, the mouths so expressive.  The smallness of these women, a whole head or more shorter than me.

As I’ve been in the apartment here cleaning up the kitchen, cooking, straightening, I am aware of the time and energy it takes to keep things running.  Often these kinds of chores are underappreciated.  I find it hard to keep up with these things at home.

Pivotal Points

The thing about challenging moments is that they may cause my mind to speed up or stop.
When faced with such a moment my tendency is for an uptick of heart rate and a speeding up of the mind. In the past six weeks I have dealt with a number of such moments as I walked “beside” my mother in the last days of her life followed barely eleven days later by the birth of my granddaughter.  I arrived just 30 minutes after she was born. It was a very fast labor.  

For a woman who avoided talking about death-my mother modeled grace at the end of her life.  I have to thank some of the unexpected gifts ofdementia for this contribution to her grace. As her cognitive ability lessened and essentially disappeared over the last few months, her presence emerged as quite fetching, charming, and genuine. She directed at me some of the most tender glances I can remember in her whole life as my mother and for that, I am eternally grateful. The graceful, gradual decline allowed for this slowing down of the sense of time.

I took the cue, mostly, and slowed down my pace of life.  By walking at this pace, beside my Mom, and taking note, as when she was being hoisted out of the transport ambulance and rolled into my home just days before she died, I caught a vivid image of her face in childlike wonder as she felt the sun before being taken into the house. A tiny smile played around her lips as the strong but gentle young transport guys carefully lifted her onto a moving chair. This was especially noticeable as she had not recently been so aware and alert. Once up in the bedroom and settled onto the bed she looked around, noting the sun stream through the windows and the daffodils in a vase catch the light. Then she saw my Dad’s face above her,and smiled deeply. I am sure her blue eyes got bluer. 

With a moistening of her eyes, she seemed to move up towards him and puckered up her lips for a kiss.  He leaned down in response and kissed her then had to stumble out of the room and downstairs to allow the sobs that needed release.  She smiled at the others, glad to relax, while I stayed with Dad who cried a few more deep sobs, then suddenly looked up and said, “This is good.” The whole scene stopped my mind, brought tears to my own eyes.

The tale of mom’s final days and hours after that is a story all on its own. Those moments captured the essence of a woman fully in herself even though her cognitive self was gone.  What a mystery.  What a blessing.  How easy it would be to miss such precious moments or even for them not to happen at all. We must give space to the natural process of dying.

Holding baby Carmen in my arms in the tiny apartment in the semi-darkness I notice that her large brown eyes are completely focused on mine.  She is still and easy and almost has the feel of an old, wise person.  I hold her gaze in silence, in awe of her presence.  This tiny person has arrived.  I feel a huge swell of affection.  I remember my tiny brown- eyed baby, so clear and focused just 22 years ago, Carmen’s mom Amelia.    

These events followed one upon the other in of March of 2015. I feel transformed in ways that I don’t yet understand.  I notice that my mind is quiet.

Driving up before dawn to New York with Amelia in labor, I found that I just loved the silence.  No radio, no music.  I didn’t even feel the pull to jot down ideas that comes over me when I am driving by myself.  I just looked ahead at the road, the sky, and trees, the sun breaking through grey clouds.  It was a profound quiet. Only when I was going over the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, when I got a call from the daddy Brent with the baby crying, did I shake out of that quiet place.

Carmen was born!  “Really? Are you kidding?” I say as I hear the lusty cry of my granddaughter.  “Is Amelia ok?”  Tears jump out of my eyes as I cross that bridge.  So what if the NY state police stop me for being on the phone. That bridge will never be the same for me.

A few days after Carmen’s birth:

To walk in the neighborhood on an ordinary day is refreshing after such days as I have experienced. People carry on and do what they do.  On that day I bring from the silence and the presence of my granddaughter, an appreciation of this miracle of an ordinary day.

Lately, since getting back to Baltimore, I feel pulled to walk in the woods. I love walking and often walk for hours around the neighborhood. Now, though, I have to get into the woods. Leaves from last fall still crunch under my feet.  Some soft, dark mud tries to ooze around my shoes. The rhythm of walking, the rhythm of the gracious trees.  They stand there all the time.  They never get up and go anywhere. Whatever is happening, whatever the weather, they just stand there.  They sway and creak and branches come down. And the little people below, come and go for a tiny fraction of time in any 24 hour period.

I feel a certain exhaustion. It is not a bad thing.  It comes from missing some sleep, from doing a lot to take care of things, from emotions stretched beyond their usual limits, and from all of these things combined.  It makes me quiet and still, just like baby Carmen gazing at me in the darkness. I think it is a good thing.  It makes me just sit and look out the window.  It made me walk at Fort McHenry after I had a downtown meeting. I realized I had a few hours, which might not have counted as time in my previous mode of thinking, and I drive to the Fort, a beautiful expansive park right on the water in the middle of the city.

I walk around the long pathway next to the water, watching giant ships moored on the other side.  I feel my feet on the ground, close my jacket to break the wind, squint at the sun, breathe deep of the salt-touched air, knowing that I can just be here. This is what I need to do. A woman with kids sits looking out over the water.  I think how nice it will be to bring Carmen and her family here.  But I am alone now and savoring this space and time. 

Another moment of driving, on my way home after a week with Carmen and family, allows me to savor the alone time in the car.  Suddenly I feel Mom’s presence and I remember her in a flash of images and memories. She is gone, really gone.  All that we did for her at the end and after, the last breaths she breathed with me by her side, that is all done.  That is the end of a chapter.

The reality strikes me as wondrous and I am glad to be alone on a not very full highway so that I can feel it like a wave, the grief.  One moment it feels almost too much, then it ebbs, and I feel buoyed by the wave that is beyond my ability tocontrol. It is for me to ride and honor like anything in nature.

Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub
It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges
We make a vessel from a lump of clay
It is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful
We make doors and windows for a room
But it is these empty spaces that make the room livable
Thus while the tangible has advantages
It is the intangible that makes it useful.


Lao Tzu – a sage who lived in ancient China