The White Room

Whar are You Waiting For?The walls are not actually white, but a not totally unpleasant pale taupe. The sheets are white, though I supplement them with a blue and white geometric print comforter, which I remove from the closet, unfold, and put back at the foot of the bed every time the aides fold it up and put it away. And it’s true, he is warm, and the room is warm, but I know he likes it this way, and I know the blue and white comforter has been on his bed since 1978, and it’s pretty and ordered and architectural and civilized, and he would like that, not to mention the whole normal-life-ness of it all.

If he could see beyond the blue and white comforter folded over the footboard, he could look beyond to the grinning cherry-lipped sock monkey sitting on the desk, and behind him the full-size French flag pinned to the wall. The flag is new. Not new but newer, and still the red edges which hang toward the floor are a fringed jubilee of red threads from so many summers high atop the rafter at the peak of the beach house, burnished by the sun and whipped into a Marseillaise frenzy by seabreezes and Northeasters and summer suns. Our older version, which we still have, split into thirds at the color joins one winter, the white section ripped completely apart. My father sewed a white pillowcase between the blue and the red and ran it right back up the pole, undeterred, until one of us gifted him the new version, which was perhaps less fitting but rather more socially acceptable among some of the less imaginative locals.

The drawings that fill the walls are black on white, an aging white that claims an “I’ve been around the block and I’m still the best looking gal you’re liable to lay eyes on” cachet, and it’s true. The houses, varied and elegant and in no way restrained, are all hand drawn (“there is no art in a straight line,” my father said), and show evolutions of design and clientele and becoming and grabbing back and unleashing again. Above them is a long rectangular work made my grandmother, a Paris art student who spent her later years tearing up perfectly nice books to make collages that are rather stunning.

The large and exuberant artworks on the not-quite-white walls were made by his children, of which I am one, and framed and hung and moved from house to house and office to office by my father over the course of 49 years. That’s love, or at least the love I know.

And so the room is not very white. I won’t let it be white. But white is for beginnings and I see them everywhere here: the once blank pages, laundered and bleached sheets warm from the dryer, the cord for the call button, the slats of blinds that let in or keep away the light.

There are moments when he looks like he’s praying, and you might think prayer is white, but I think not.

I wonder if there is enough to hold him here, but he was never one to walk away from a challenge, or sit quietly. Never one to be bored or tired or to say “I’ve done it all” because when you’re game to take on the world, there’s always always more and backing away is never even a smidgeon of a thought. And you can say, “but there is fatigue,” but I’ve never seen that, or any kind of “been there done that” because creators can’t not create, can’t stop making the world new and bright and more than it was.

Some find it hard to wait in rooms like this, to watch and breathe the breaths and count the seconds between, to dampen the forehead and smooth the ruffled hair, to watch the face I’ve known for 60 years morph through the day from the rattling of an 86 year old man with pneumonia to a man of 40 taking a 20 minute rest between the morning feat and the afternoon magnificat. The familiar snore that might stop of a sudden with an abrupt sitting and then a booming voice and jubilant invitation to walk the beach or lay a terrace or thrust fingers into fresh-boiled crabs or hoist a kite.

The pillow is white. His hair is white. His breath comes in staccato bursts that punctuate the Rachmaninoff like a practiced bow. The watching and holding of a heart is joyous, and not unlike the watching of his children as they slept in early days, or my mother through her final nights. This man who almost never slept is sleeping, and I watch, and I’m not sure what this is like, other than a heart breaking.

Fifteen years ago I bought a house with white walls, which had come into vogue again and were shown in all the crisp magazines. I whitewashed the floors and gave it a good go, but within a week I had bought paint in pretty greens and set about glazing the walls until they sang, or perhaps more accurately, until I sang. It’s funny that we can love something without being able to live with it.

One day soon, and perhaps tonight but no longer than next week, the room in which I sit and he lies will be white again. Not because I have removed the colors of a life but because he is gone, with his fully-feathered largeness and 86 years of stories. There are little breaths now in my ears — a soundtrack of life. They sit with me while I wait outside the door during changes or turnings, and sing with me while I walk to the end of the hall and back to get the blood moving.

It’s funny how many times you can think, “He’ll be fine as soon as we can get him home.”

For Sherman Pardue, 1929 – 2015, child of New Orleans, who loved my mother and his, architecture, travel, music, New Orleans and French cuisine, furniture design and fabrication, cooking and family, spending many weeks of the year sitting on the lawn of the family home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He was a spirited pianist, playing entirely by ear, a prolific writer, a determined gardener, and a lover of fish ponds, designing and building them for every home of every family member throughout his life. He took joy in everything he did, researching the process and going at it full throttle, as comfortable laying bricks and digging drainage ditches as taking pencil to paper and designing estates or writing poetry. He shared his love of exploration, both territorial and philosophical, with his children and grandchildren, and was delighted when his eldest grandchild Jason followed him into the field of architecture. He studied at NC State School of Design and Harvard, attending small groups with Frank Lloyd Wright and studio sessions with Buckminster Fuller, and received a national award for Classical Design in 1992.

Past, Present, Future (with Sun, Sand and Bracelets)

I’ve never been called the adventurous type, and I have to admit that social gatherings scare me. I should drink more, but what can I say? I’m a lightweight. I suck at keeping up with people, and that includes the people I love most as well as those I’ve loved the longest. I’ll spare you my soul searching on that one, and only share that this past weekend, a lovely spontaneous possibility presented itself, and I didn’t say no.

Instead, I settled into a glorious reunion with my two best girls from college, neither of whom I’ve seen in something approaching thirty (!) years. The wait was way too long, but, you know . . . best laid plans . . . life intervenes.

Nature Boy ElliotI spent some time on the ride home wondering about the nature of friendship. I met Jeanne and Carol pretty much by chance and proximity. We shared a dorm, a hall, and adjacent rooms. That could have been our only bond, but it wasn’t. Out of 5,000 undergrads, they remained my closest friends throughout those years. Away from home for the first time and wading our way through growing up, it worked. But what about now? We’ve never spoken on the phone, and letters and emails have been sporadic. In fact, it took another friend to get these balls rolling again for three introverted girls.  Nature-Boy Elliot made sure we found each other again.

And here’s what I’ve learned. Life is often scarier than you anticipated, but friends still help you through. Was our friendship chance? I don’t think so. Would we still be friends if we met today? Absolutely.

What did we do? We ate, we explored, we watched the waves and got a bit sunburned, we ate more, laughed more, learned more. We posed in front of the camera for Jeanne’s SuperHost Husband Rick. What did we talk about? Exactly what we always talked about: life, family, love, ups, downs, figuring-it-all-out, and a bit of nonsense. And we did what women do best — we reaffirmed. And so I emerged on the other side of the weekend a little browner, a little more relaxed, a little happier, a little more loved, and a lot more anxious to stay in touch with those who have helped make me who I am. I miss our abundance of innocence and idealism sometimes, but we still pretty damn well rock it.

xxooxx

Know Thy Selves

Our Bodies, Our SelvesRemember when it was all the rage to sit on the floor of the campus gym sans pants, whip out your compact, and examine your vagina? No weewees, no woohoos, no girliebits; we were hot to call a vagina a vagina, and we were determined to get up close and personal enough to be on a first name basis. Our Bodies, Our Selves was the handbook, although I seem to remember the 70’s bearing a rather unbalanced focus on the Bodies half of the equation. Frankly, it was a whole lot easier to find a group of women ready to shed their clothes for Enlightenment than to find one who actually carried (or owned) an actual compact. Makeup was for sissy girls.

Women 1970's via ourbodiesourselves.orgWe were a Gung Ho sort, and even if we read our Sartre naked in the bathtub with a guy we’d met at the falafel house only an hour earlier, we were hungry to know it all, do it all, feel it all, read it all, live it all, conquer it all, save the world, free women from centuries of silence, get it out there, and live it real. We were ready and primed to Make Life Our Bitch. We all looked like Ali McGraw, and we were determined to be taken as seriously as Gloria Steinem. We brought womanhood, for a time, from darkness into light, and it all started with a fierce determination to know ourselves, vaginas and all.

When did we lose touch?

A year ago today I sat in my kitchen with a close friend that I see only twice a year. She was waiting for test results from a biopsy, which would be positive. I had cancer too but didn’t know it — didn’t suspect — and wouldn’t until much later that spring. When did we move from living our lives armed with mirrors and books and knowledge and experimentation to living our lives with long and mostly irrelevant To Do lists, blindfolded against our innermost secrets? When did answers become written in water, and taking care of Our Selves become a second fiddle melody? When did we move from Knowing to Not Knowing, because Knowing has become so damn hard?

Contrary to popular belief, Our Bodies Our Selves was not about sexual liberation, even though most of us seemed to read it that way. In fact, it was about women learning to care for their own health. Forty-ish years later, we pretty much take care of others instead.

We march; we speak out; we advocate for free mammograms; we rally; we sit with each other and shave our heads in sisterhood; we refuse to be talked down to; we have each other’s backs. But we still never quite know what’s inside us at any given moment — a sobering reminder to seize the day.

Cousin Cousine 1975In many ways, 18 was bliss, wasn’t it? Knowing our bodies was largely a pursuit of pleasure: learning to kiss, trying exotic new tastes from multicultural gems near college campuses, teaching our muscles to scale mountains on weekends with adventurous new friends, getting silly with markers or grimacing under tattoo needles. At 56, knowing my body means something else entirely, and mostly what it means is discovering how much of what I’ve learned to love is now on the list of things that I’m forced to un-love (exotic tastes and climbing mountains high on the list). Making peace with the woohoo was a hell of a lot easier than making peace with organs that mutate in silence, and oh, how much more fun!

And so these later days reprise that urge to know, deep down; to feel, deep down; to live, deep down. If there is no magic mirror to show me what monsters lurk inside or to predict which cures will simply kill me another way on another day, I need to be in tune enough with my spirit to hear the longings of the body I yearn to heal: feed me; love me; take me out dancing; sing me a song; let me spend the afternoon painting my body with daisies and then giggle loud and long enough to wake the neighbors; or linger in a field of wildflowers way past time for dinner. Feed me a daily moment of bliss. Or three.

P.S. Dedicated to Carol, Susan, the MoHos, Jeanne Beanie, Carol H, the Duke Forestry School, my Love, my family

Red

Finally, I am mad. I guess going through stages isn’t really my nature, and maybe it isn’t such a surprise that I have accepted cancer so graciously. I’ve never been one to make a fuss. It isn’t expected of me, and the times I’ve expressed strong thoughts in the past, the diversion from my usual temperament has not been well-tolerated. And so it goes, these days.

I’m not immune to “life” — or as I sometimes call it, “crap.” Part of this gift of experiencing the universe is learning to navigate with grace and wisdom, and if it were all easy, we’d die just as we’re born — still fighting to keep our toys. I’m game for the paths, wherever they lead, but I do wish for a few small courtesies along the way.

Large courtesies I’ve got in spades – love, fabulous friends near and far, sweet notes, red lipstick, sock monkeys, cocktail jelly beans, new teas, funny photos, tomato pie, taxi service, Tuesday dinners out and Wednesday date lunches. I have blessings upon blessings. Every time I pass a radiation patient waiting wordlessly and alone for a taxi ride home, I know I have it better than the laws of fairness would dictate.

But here’s the thing. At 57, I’ve spent a lifetime taking care of other people, from a childhood spent trying to keep peace between my parents, to various boyfriends, three husbands, two kidlets, four stepkidlets, and miscellaneous pets — some of them not even mine. I spoke up for my mom at every appointment while she fought leukemia for six months, and sat with her while she died. Now I try my best to help my dad maintain some quality of life and sense of autonomy while he struggles with a growing dementia and paranoia. And, oh yeah, I work to grow a business. All this is life, of course, and I love living it full tilt. Cancer? Just my luck of the draw, and I can handle it.

But I can’t handle this: an almost complete lack of time/space/breath/peace/environment/solitude/conduciveness/peace/breath/space/time for healing. I can’t put myself anywhere physical or metaphysical where life and needs stand still long enough to shut down my caretaking heart and brain and simply be for enough moments to whitelight this insipid invasion. I can’t fill the reaching hands full enough to be able to let them go and hold my own hands for a day, or half a day. I guess I don’t know how, or maybe it just isn’t my turn yet. But I need this self-handholding, this affirmation, this love that comes from within and focuses on me. Just for a time.

When the kids were growing, a good friend told me that I didn’t seem to do anything for them. I still have no idea what she meant — I thought I was teaching them independence, along with every skill I knew. Another told me that I sure didn’t have any trouble taking time for myself — when I told her I had enrolled in a yoga class for one hour a week. I’ve been told that my (my!) priorities are skewed, and that I was “a failure as a wife, a daughter, and a mother.” In other words: “Don’t be who you are; be who I need.” I’ve dealt with it. I’ve been Zen; I’ve persevered; I’ve adapted and chameleoned and given time and again, and still maintained some sense of self.

I’ve almost learned to let the words of idiots roll off my back, but then there are those with valid needs. I can’t be mad at my father for needing me, for calling six times a day and going through the same conversations and concerns and solutions every single time. I can’t be mad at a husband who wants me to put the computer aside for an hour a day, even though I have three more hours to go on top of the eight already used. I can’t be mad at siblings who are working their tails off to make their own livings and their own lives. And I’m fighting the urge to be mad at myself — for not being fast enough to accomplish mountains in minutes of time, for my tenuous grip on patience, for my occasional need to bitch and moan and my wimpiness for not just standing up and screaming when I need to.

So I don’t know where to point this anger, but it’s here. Finally, I am mad.

23

Mosaic Portrait by Pamela GoodeHaving just finished a self portrait from a photograph taken when I was 23, I’m rather enamored. She’s hanging on the wall across from me and, flaws aside, I like her. I like who she was — timid, too quiet, gentle and reticent — and I like who she’s become — brash, passionate, level-hearted, and wild for life. I like looking at her and knowing that she’s okay now, and that I am too. I like considering the deepness of her eyes so young, and knowing that I made her, moment by moment, each of 21,020 days now, give or take a few leap years. I like looking at her as she is, unaware of the intervening decades, and as I am now, aware and more or less okay with them. And I wonder, if she had peeked out the window in 1978 and caught a glimpse of us at 57, what would she say to this older self?

Would she be surprised at the friends I still hold close? And those I’ve let go?

Would she be surprised that I still sew, that I still read Faulkner, Eliot, and Nabokov, that I still write, that I’m still slow to speak?

Would she wonder how I found the nerve to travel alone, to open a business, to finally crack in the face of inequities and speak out, make waves, lose friends?

How disappointed would she be over my first marriage? How angry that it took me so long to learn to speak? How devastated over the too-many-times that I kept my mouth shut?

How much in awe at knowing our children, so like her and yet so not?

How stunned to realize that they are both older now than she is?

Our mother died six years ago, and missing her has changed my view of aging — a bit. I used to surprise myself by seeing her in the mirror now and then, and finding her skin across my legs and arms. Sometimes I scan the road ahead of my car, and I know I’m looking through my mother’s eyes, seeing with her hazel irises and interpreting my view in that funny way she had. For so long, I didn’t like these intrusions of age, but now I welcome them as a little more time spent with the woman who gave me life and shared it with me longer than anyone I know.

And when I glance across the room to 23 now, I’ve got that motherly thing going on. I want to protect her, to encourage her, to give her a fear of not living, to make sure she wrings every drop of life out of her years. In a way, I’m re-mothering myself, and she’s re-childing me.

Here’s what I miss most about those early years: knowing what you love and believing you’ll never, ever let go of it, for any reason; the certainty that everything is possible; being an impetus for change rather than fearing it; sharing a comfortable relationship with time; believing you’ll always be beautiful.

So yeah, she’s staying on the wall right in front of me. I suggest you post an image of yourself on the wall too — it’s quite the kickstarter.