Monday, December 5, 2011

An Intimate Yoga Class

Yoga class was particularly crowded this morning. We burgeoning yogis moved our mats closer together to make room for more people than the space could easily hold. Lying still no more than a foot away from our closet neighbor, one could hear the intimate breathing of our floor mates . . . the inhales, exhales, sniffles, coughs, grunts, and all other sorts of human noises made during the course of class.

It was all very intimate.

We wiggled this way and that in order to reach our arms along the floor, move our legs from side to side, to just "be" on the mat. The yogi-in-training to my right has a history of bad allergies at this time of year, so her breathing was at times labored as she struggled to inhale through congested nasal passages. The gentleman to my right moaned softly. I wasn't sure whether the postures were too strenuous or whether he had reached a state of near Nirvana.

I wondered whether such intimacy would detract from my yoga practice, particularly when on this very day when I'd set my intention to accept myself, my life, and the world around me. Okay, maybe I bit off more than I could chew. But I thought I'd give it a go. Maybe all these people lying so close to one another were a test of some sort, a yogi exam. If I could do my downward dogs without worrying that my tail was in someone else's face. . . if I could manage a plank pose without collapsing on someone else's mat . . . if I could breathe freely and not be influenced by the breath of someone else . . Then maybe, just maybe, I was on my way to enlightenment. Well, okay, maybe just en route to a cheerful afternoon.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Game of Scrabble

My elderly parents’ decision to relocate to a small, quaint two-bedroom house in a sleepy Ohio town just a ten-minute drive from my sister’s farmhouse came out of left field and confused the heck out of me.

“We considered your area,” my mother explained in a phone call, trying to make certain that I didn’t feel slighted. “But it’s such a big city and so expensive.”

I was relieved. Overseeing my parents’ care in the last years of their lives was not on my “To Do” list.

“And while I’d love to live in France at John’s place, your father would never agree,” she said somewhat wistfully. “So when your sister said there was a house for sale in Yellow Springs, we decided to have a look.”

My baby sister had one upped me without saying a word.

“And?” I said.

“And it’s adorable.”

I couldn’t envision my parents squeezing into a small house after having lived in large, beautiful spaces for most of their adult lives. But more power to them. I admired their guts and their faith in a future. How many people in their late 80s moved anywhere except into a nursing home or in with a son or daughter?

“Dad’s willing to live in Yellow Springs?” I said. “What about golf? And the winter?”

“For now, we’ll go there in the summer and fall and come back to Sarasota for the winter.”

“Does the house need work?” I said, wondering whether my sister knew what she was getting herself into.

“It really doesn’t need much, though we’re talking about putting on an addition off the bedroom. And we might fix up the attic, put in a bathroom, and a separate entrance for live-in help, if and when we ever need it.”

I should have known. My mother and her plans. Always one step ahead of the game.

“And the fact is that now we’ll be only a short plane ride away from you or a five-or-so-hour drive.”

The initial relief at not having to care for my parents quickly turned to guilt. I was the oldest child, the one who should have made the offer. But there was no way I could bring my parents to Chicago. I was back at work full-time. And my mom could barely walk up the front stairs of our home the last time she visited.

“When are you moving up? I said.

“As soon as we can.”

My sister had plenty of time on her hands. She hadn’t been employed for years. Sure, she had her art and her farm that kept her busy. But it wasn’t the same as going to work every day. Besides, she had a close-knit group of female friends who knew and loved my parents. I was sure that they would pitch in. I vowed to visit often and prove to my parents that I loved them as much as my sister did.

It didn’t take long for my sister to call and ask if I could stay with my parents while she and a friend went camping. I was pleased to help her out but had to hold back reminding her that she’d gotten herself into this whole thing. What did she expect?

My dad was at the side door when I pulled my car into the driveway. “How was the drive?” he said, giving me a quick kiss on the lips.

“I got caught in the usual morning rush hour traffic in Chicago. After that, it was a breeze. Took me less time than I thought.”

“Good. That’s good.” He put my suitcase down on the driveway. “Listen, I want to talk to you before you go inside.”

Now what? I ‘d only just arrived.

“Things aren’t going well with your mother.”

“What’s wrong?” I said, already wishing that I hadn’t come. My sister wanted my parents close by. She should have been there to handle this.

“It’s just so hard to see her like this.”

“What’s ‘like this’ mean?”

My dad choked on his words. “She’s not herself. Her memory is shot.”

“It must be hard for you,” I said, trying to mirror his feelings when I really wanted to ask him why he was spending every day on the golf course instead of with my mother.

“I can’t take it anymore. It’s wearing me out.”

“How do you think mom feels? You think this is easy for her?”

“I don’t think she has a clue.”

“Oh, sure she does. But she’s made up her mind to accept things. She told me on the phone the other day that she’s just happy to be alive.”

“Well, I’m not! This getting old business is for the birds.”

I laughed. “You mean ‘not for sissies.’ That’s what you’ve always said. ‘Getting old is not for sissies.’”

He didn’t crack a smile. Where had his sense of humor gone? He’d always been the kibitzer, the one making the jokes, a lot of them off-color. Now he’d turned into a bitter, old man whom I no longer recognized and didn’t like.

“And I can’t get her to do a thing,” he said. “She spends half the day in bed.”

My sister had told me that my mother loved to go out and be pushed in her wheelchair but that my dad was never willing to go along.

I wanted to push his buttons, to see for myself. “Well, maybe we can go for a walk into town. Get an ice cream. Mom loves ice cream.”

“We’ll see,” he said without conviction.

“How’s your golf game these days?” I said, picking up my suitcase and moving toward the house.


“But you’re still out there, plugging away.”

“It’s a waste of time.”

“But it gets you out of the house.” Away from mom, I thought. But I swallowed the thought. I was afraid that he’d yell at me or, worse yet, never love me again.

My mother sat in the small living room with an unopened book on her lap. She looked good, a bit heavier than usual but more relaxed. Maybe it was a blessing of sorts that she no longer had to create those “To Do” lists and worry about managing her life and everybody else’s. She recognized me. That was all that mattered.

I was shocked when, later in the evening, my mother suggested playing Scrabble.
I glanced at my dad, trying to gauge his reaction. In years past, our family often sat at the dining room table and enjoyed a good game of Scrabble or a couple rounds of Word Duel. My mother was almost always the winner and usually racked up double the points of her nearest competitor. But now she had trouble doing simple things like following a recipe, completing a crossword puzzle for beginners, or following a conversation. She was a shadow of the sharp, responsible, powerful woman she used to be; I couldn’t count on her for much of anything. And that pissed me off. How could she abandon me and apparently not give a damn?

“Well, are you two ready to play?” my mother said. She’d made her way to the small breakfast table with the Scrabble game in hand.

Again, I looked at my father who hadn’t budged from the wicker chair. I thought of our conversation earlier in the day and wanted to encourage him. “C’mon, dad,” I said, grabbing his hand and pulling him up from the chair. “Let’s play Scrabble.”

My mother dropped a few of the word tiles on the floor, and that drove my dad nuts. “Shirley!” he said. “Quit dropping the tiles.”

“Oh, Mor,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”

“They’ll fall into the heating vent. That’s the big deal.”

I hated my dad for being so damn insensitive. Each time she dropped a tile, I shot him a nasty look, bent down, and picked up the tile. None of them ever got close to the vent.

My mother was having trouble making a word. I looked at her letters and saw at least two obvious possibilities. I resisted helping her because I thought she’d be humiliated.

“Shirley,” my dad said in that accusative voice of his. “You’re taking too much time.”

She looked at him and glared. All I could do was shake my head in disgust and wonder how my parents had stayed together for sixty-eight years. I ached for them and vowed not to let my own marriage sink into the depths of barbs and misunderstandings.

My mother continued to stare at her letter tiles. At one point, she picked up a letter and started to place it on the board. I held my breath. “No,” she mumbled, realizing in that split second that she’d forgotten whatever word had filtered in and then out of her mind. It was pathetic, really. The woman who could do The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle without a dictionary could no longer form one stinking word.
“Shirley,” my dad said again. “You’re taking too much time!”

That did it. My mother threw her tiles on the table, shoved her chair from the table, said something about “Play your own damn game,” and marched into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

I sat, my arms folded in front of me, fuming. “You’re a mean man.”
He flinched but, instead of hollering, he asked me to please go talk to my mother and bring her back to the table.

“That’s your job, not mine,” I said, trying to keep my voice down so my mother wouldn’t hear.

“I just can’t stand to see her this way,” he said, trying to explain. I didn’t give a damn about his feelings. He’d become a stranger to me.

“Please, Jane,” he said. “Go get you mother.”

I knew my going wouldn’t solve a thing. My parents needed to work this one out themselves. “You should go,” I said. “You’re the one who upset her.”

My dad put his hand on top of mine. His hand was severely sun damaged, covered by red and purple blotches and open sores. The blotches disgusted me.

“I’m asking you to go get your mother,” he said, no longer softly pleading but commanding me to act.

I pulled my hand from under his and placed it ceremoniously on my lap.

My dad had removed his glasses. The deep indentation from the nose clips on either side of his long, prominent nose and the dark, puffy shadows under his blue but now milky eyes made him look like the old man he was. Despite myself, I felt sorry for him. Sorry for him, for my mom, and for me. Our family was falling apart, disintegrating in front of my eyes.

“I’m doing this for me,” I said, getting up from the table, pushing the chair away.

I found my mother standing at the end of the bed. She’d taken off her robe and was wearing a cotton, sleeveless nightgown. I couldn’t tell from the blank look on her face whether she even remembered what had just transpired.

“I am so proud of you, mom,” I said. And I meant it. “Most people who have memory problems would never dare to suggest playing Scrabble. But you jumped right in and gave it your best shot.”

She looked at me adoringly. “You’re the best daughter any mother could ever ask for,” she said, encircling her arms around me and pulling me close.

I nestled my head in between her large breasts and felt safer and more comfortable with her than I had since she betrayed my trust and read my diary some forty-five years earlier.

“Why don’t you come back to the table?” I said, reaching for her hand and leading her back to the kitchen.

She shuffled behind me, taking small, uncertain steps.

My dad managed a faint smile. “Glad you’re back,” he said.
I bet you are. I saved your ass.

I pulled my mother’s chair out and, still holding her hand, placed her body squarely in front of the chair before having her sit down.

“Now where were we?” she said enthusiastically as if nothing had happened. She reached into the velvet purple bag and picked seven letter tiles, carefully placing them on her wood rack.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Every morning until she turned ninety, my mother —wearing a sleeveless, silk nightgown and nothing else — stood at the kitchen counter, sharpened a #2 pencil with a full eraser, studied her appointment calendar, and then neatly printed the day’s “To Do” list — a list she would complete “come hell or high water.” My mother was a planner who believed that order and structure could fend off life’s messy surprises. She’d apparently been caught off guard and greatly disappointed often enough that she’d vowed to try to control the future, thus controlling her fate.

Over the years, I’d gotten used to my mother’s “To Do” list; in fact, I thought them so handy that I’d taken to compiling my own. My lists were never properly printed but scribbled on the back of grocery bills, torn envelopes, or, when nothing else was available, on paper napkins, often adorned with lipstick blots or remnants of lunch or dinner. I felt a sense of accomplishment when, at the end of a day, I could look at a list with nary one item left to do. Funny, but I think I lost my love of lists around the same time my mother stopped bothering with them all together. By then, she had trouble seeing, difficulty hearing, and her memory was a shred of what it used to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flashback to one of my visits to my parents who by then had long been retired, living first on Longboat Key, Florida, in a condo fronting the Gulf of Mexico and then in an apartment across the bay in Sarasota. The latter two-bedroom was situated on the eleventh floor in what was a state-of-the-art senior living facility with swimming pools, a dining room, theater, work-out room and all kinds of other amenities for those lucky enough to use their social security checks as chump change, not as their major source of income. The developer of the complex had turned the interior decorating over to his wife who, in my humble opinion, must have been on a bad acid trip when she picked out the furnishings, mixing as she did striped and plaid couches with flower-patterned carpets, fake plants (in Florida, no less!), statues of dancing children (attempt to remind the seniors of their youth?), and garish chandeliers dangling from ceilings in every room. The trek from the front door, through the lobby, up the elevator, and down the long, the value of wearing dark —very dark — sunglasses.

My parents and I had returned from dinner at a local seafood restaurant on Highway 41, the main drag leading in and out of Sarasota. My mother, still dolled up in her designer mid-calf black skirt and matching long-sleeved jacket, handed me a copy of something called a “Guaranteed Security Plan” — some Madison Avenue brander’s gimmicky name for a funeral and burial insurance policy.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” I said as I stared at the folder.

“Well,” said my mother, “this way you guys won’t be burdened by making decisions about coffins and head stones after we die.”

The ‘you guys’ referred to my two younger siblings and me. As the oldest, I was burdened with hearing this nonsense before the others and for making sure that the funeral primer was followed down to the last shovelful of dirt heaped on my parents’ coffins.

I stared out the windows facing north and west. A sliver of a new moon hovered against a dark sky dotted with a host of twinkling stars. “Isn’t this a bit premature? I mean, you’re in your early eighties and hopefully have years left before you . . . “

“We aren’t going to live forever, you know.”

My mother seemed so cavalier about it all, as if death weren’t a big deal. But it was a big deal to me. It had taken years for me to move forward after my brother’s suicide on his thirtieth birthday. I wasn’t ready to face my parents’ deaths, unable to imagine life without them. I counted on them for too much, moral and emotional support and sometimes some extra cash when things were tight or a free trip to Florida in the middle of a tortuous Chicago winter.

“So,” my dad said. “I’ve got a joke for you.”

“Oh, not another one of your off-color ones.”

“No, this one is fine for the whole family.”

His bushy white eyebrows accented the top of a long, narrow face, the shape of which both my younger sister and I had inherited. There was a twinkle now in those blue eyes. He loved telling a good joke, almost as much as he loved playing a round of golf.

“There's an old rabbi who wants to try pork before he dies. But, being an Orthodox rabbi, he can't eat pork in his community, so he goes to a restaurant 50 miles away. On the menu is a dish called ‘Suckling Pig’ so he orders it and they bring it out on a beautiful tray with an apple in its mouth. Just as he's about to take his first bite, in walks Goldberg, the president of his congregation.
Goldberg says, ‘Rabbi, what are you doing? What are you eating?’

The rabbi replies, ‘Goldberg, can you believe this restaurant? I order a baked apple and this is how they serve it to me!”

“Very funny,” I said, laughing despite myself. Leave it to my dad to turn the conversation from death to rabbis eating pork. He was as uninterested in discussing burial plans as I was, probably even more.

Still, I had some questions. “You went along with this?” I said, pointing to the folder sitting in front of me.

“You know your mother. When she sets her mind on something, there’s no way out.”

“Oh, Mor,” my mom said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “That’s not true.”

The truth was that my mother almost always got her way. She could be relentless. I pitied my dad having to live with such a force of nature, all packed into a woman not quite five feet tall in her stocking feet. But he seemed resigned to taking orders from her and hadn’t yet begun to put up much of a fuss.

“Here,” my mother said, handing me a manila folder. “I want you to keep this in your files.”

I flipped open the folder and glanced at the “Guaranteed Security Plan” my parents had signed. “Mogen David casket with an oval top.” You’ve got to be kidding! “Poplar wood exterior with a walnut stain.” Jesus. My parents had chosen their “merchandise” as if they’d purchased a new car, selecting various packages to upgrade the basic product. Maybe the policy would make for a seamless funeral and burial. But I had my doubts. Even a planner like my mother couldn’t always have things her way.

I continued reading. A two-inch by one-foot by six-inch granite grave marker to “match that of Robert Mersky in Space 1.” Space 1? Is that what we become? Spaces? That was my brother, dead now for over twenty years. I slammed the folder shut. I was sick of having to be the responsible one. I’d played that role all of my life and yearned to let go and let someone else pick up the slack.

My mother reopened the folder. “Did you see this?” she said, pointing to a document titled “Travel Care Plus +.”

“No,” I mumbled.

I hated talking about death. But maybe I needed to buck up. Face the inevitable. After all, I was a grown woman in my fifties. As my mother said, she and my dad weren’t going to live forever. But when they died, I’d be the matron of the family, the one supposedly in charge of keeping us all together. My mother was so good at that. There wasn’t a happy occasion or a funeral that she didn’t miss and to which she didn’t try to drag the rest of us. To her, family was everything. And she wished more than anything that my siblings and I would be good friends and get along long after she was gone. I’d never be able to promise her that. My sister and I were good buddies. But my surviving brother and I had had a rocky relationship ever since I could remember. He never approved of me, my middle class lifestyle, my choice in men. It was if he saw in me a replica of my mother, and nothing I could do or say changed his mind. I’d given up trying.

“So,” my mother said as she closed the folder and pushed it in my direction. “Put this away for safe keeping.”

When I returned to Chicago, I stuffed the thing in a larger red folder marked “Parents” and didn’t open it again for eight years.


Yes, there are many things for which to be thankful:
* We have somehow escaped another 9/11.
* Despite the floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters that have reeked havoc on many corners of the world, planet Earth and the humans who inhabit it remain
. . . for now
* The Republican field for President has managed to implode, one candidate at a time.
* Participants in Occupy Wall Street have at last given voice to the real "silent majority" in this country. Some folks may not like the tents, the drumming, or the lack of one grand leader, yet the majority of Americans support the issues of inequality and want to see something done to level the playing field.
* The Arab Spring and Summer have reminded us how much men and women crave freedom and how they are willing to put their lives on the line to secure it.
* Greece and Italy were rescued from the brink of financial collapse.
* Italy's Prince of Debauchery has been booted from office. It will be harder now for him to summon his harem and party on down.
* The thugs at World News Corp are getting their just due.
* With the economic mess has come a renewed appreciation for the importance of family and friends. For some, it has afforded a chance to reinvent. For others, it has taught the valuable lessons of financial budgeting and restraint. Still, we'd all be happier if more people could go back to work.

* A return to sanity among at least 51% of the American voting public
* A new discussion about election reform
* A renewed emphasis on alternative forms of energy
* The dismantling of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy
* A health care law that covers every American
* Fiscal responsibility for the social programs like Social Security and Medicare that keep millions of older Americans afloat
* A decrease in weapons of mass destruction
* A revived American and world economy
* Legalization of marijuana
* Continued passage of laws to enact gay marriage
* Improved educational systems that reincorporate art, music, dance into the curriculum

Gee, I could go on, but you get my drift. We are blessed to have the opportunity to make meaningful changes to save ourselves, our kids, and subsequent generations. Do we have the will?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


A dear friend of my husband and mine died suddenly of a heart attack at age 68. One minute he was dancing the funky chicken at a niece's wedding; the next, he was on the floor, moaning in pain. Henry (not his real name) had been my husband's college roommate and a dear friend ever since. They shared a love of making art, of travel adventures, and a bond of unshakeable friendship. Unshakeable, that is, until two years before Henry's death when, upset about something to do with his terminally ill brother, he severed all communication. Several attempts at reconnecting - letters, a birthday card, emails - failed. Henry had made up his mind. He wanted nothing to do with my husband or me.

For months Henry haunted us. We searched our memories for what might have sent him over the edge. But it was all a series of guesses; we didn't have a clue. We'd been declared dead and gone without any cause of death. In some ways, the not knowing catapulted me back to the suicide death of my brother. Sure, there were some plausible reasons - at least, in my brother's mind - to take his life: his fragile psyche, the reality of life without hard drugs, a complete lack of direction. But my family and I would never know for sure. And the not knowing, as much as his death, plagued me for years. Only when I'd pursued every lead and come to a dead end every time - when I'd talked to young people who had attempted suicide and lived, to family members and friends of those who weren't so lucky, to experts of every stripe - did I finally accept the not knowing, absolve myself of guilt, move beyond the anger, and the palpable pain.

Henry's wife, (I'll call her Sarah) also a dear friend for over 45 years, is a therapist. She's also an Orthodox Jew whose parents disowned her when she announced that she and Henry, then a lapsed Catholic, were getting married. As far as her parents were concerned, their daughter was dead and buried. The hurt was too much to bear. Sarah had a nervous breakdown. Only when Henry promised to convert to Orthodox Judaism did the parents welcome their back-from-the-dead daughter into their lives again.

Given that history, one would think that Sarah would remember the pain of being banished and would do all in her power to convince Henry that he needed to at least communicate with us and tell his side of the story. That never happened. So, when the phone rang early on a Sunday morning with Henry's sister on the other end telling us that he had died, I burst into tears for him, for his wife, and for us - the dear friend who would now never be able to restore the friendship.

"You're the first people we've called," his sister said.

"But . . we haven't spoken to Henry in two years."

"That doesn't matter. We want you here at the memorial service this afternoon." I hesitated. Did this mean that Sarah had agreed? Or was Henry's sister acting on her own?

"We'll be there."

We arrived at the funeral home later that day and waited for Sarah. She darted into the private room for family only, talking on the phone I was told to her son back in Phoenix who was saddled with making all of the funeral and burial arrangements. When I saw her come out of the room and head toward the women's restroom, I followed her.

"I'm so sorry," I said, wrapping my arms around her. She stiffened.

"How are you doing?"

"What do you expect?"

I began to feel very uncomfortable. "Is there anything we can do?" I offered.

Sarah stared at me, her eyes not filled with tears but with rage. "It's too late."

She turned and walked away.

I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to grab my husband and leave. I hadn't come for abuse but for some kind of a start toward reconciliation or at least some understanding as to what had gone so wrong between us. That was not to be. Sarah, even in her grief, refused to reach out to me for support. She'd made a conscious decision not to open the door, even a tiny bit.

And I made the decision to remember the good times we had shared and to move on.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sleeping Like A Baby

Okay. So I waited almost three years before subjecting myself to a second overnight sleep test. Sure, I knew I had sleep apnea along with approximately 30 million other Americans, but when my neurologist pointed out that during my first sleep test, at one point, I'd stopped breathing for a whopping 54 seconds, I gasped.

"I can't hold my breath for 54 seconds!" I said.

"Well, you did."

He then lit into a litany of possible consequences of stopping breathing during one's sleep (not including the final ending): heart attacks, strokes, impotence, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

So, how could I continue to refuse to treat my sleep apnea?

The major stumbling block? Having to wear one of those ugly Darth Vader-like masks every night. It was bad enough that I've been inserting a mouth piece nightly that prevents me from gnashing my teeth but positions my jaw so that I resemble a baby monkey. Not pretty!

Still, it's a big step up from a clear mouthpiece to a mask with an oxygen tube connected to it.

"You're in good health," the doctor said. "Why take a chance when you can do something now to prevent any future problems?"

I'm not sure why his argument made sense when in the past I was willing to take my chances. Maybe it was my mother's experience. She was ninety and hospitalized with all kinds of ailments. One night the nurse walked in, saw that my mother wasn't breathing, and called a "Code Blue." Not once, but twice. The nurse and doctors thought she'd had a stroke. Only later after my panicked father had driven to the hospital, after I'd made a plane reservation to fly to Florida did the hospital staff realize that my mother had stopped breathing because she had sleep apnea.

I gave in and signed up for my second overnight sleep test. I didn't know until I checked in that this time I'd be tested wearing the C-PAP mask. Now, these masks apparently come in a variety of types. One of the least invasive is one in which small tubes carrying oxygen are placed in each nostril. But there's a downside: You cannot breathe through your mouth. If you do, the flow of oxygen stops and, as I was informed, stopping the flow too often during the night causes the oxygen to escape, drying out your mouth and reducing the effectiveness of the treatment.

But the technician was insistent. "Let's try this one first," she said. "It may be weird at first. And if you don't like it, we can try a full-face mask."

After I was all hooked up and ready to go, the technician turned out the lights and closed the door. Immediately, I panicked. What if I couldn't get enough air? It was like the first time I'd used a snorkel. I did my best to relax, breathing in and out through my nose like I do in yoga class. With some effort, I calmed down, only to feel my left nostril tightening. I was going to suffocate. I was sure of it.

"Bernadette," I said. "Can you hear me?"

She'd told me to call her if and when I needed something.

"Yes, I can hear you."

Thank goodness. For a moment there, I thought she'd decided to take a coffee break.

"I want to try the other mask."

Bernadette fitted me with a second mask. This number covered my nose and mouth with what felt like rubber edges to prevent the oxygen from escaping. It was a tight fit, but I didn't care. I could now breathe any way I wanted.

"Good night," Bernadette said a second time as she turned out the lights.

I thought about how brave my mother had been lying in that hospital bed with doctors and nurses trying to revive her. I'm sure she was confused, scared, terrified. But when I saw her a day later, she made light of the misdiagnosis and said all she wanted was to go home.

And that's all I wanted. To fall asleep, get this test over with, and go home.

I tossed and turned. The melatonin I'd taken didn't do a thing to relax me. I reached for one and then a second prescribed sleeping medication. Finally, I fell into a deep sleep that was interrupted about five hours later with a throbbing pain in the bridge of my nose.

"Bernadette, are you there?"

"Good morning. What can I do for you?"

"The mask . . . it's killing my nose."

"We can end the test," she said. "But first I need you to follow a few instructions."

Like what? I wanted the mask off.

"Close your eyes and don't open them until I tell you."

Couldn't she see? My eyes WERE closed."

"Okay, good. Now open your eyes and keep them open until I tell you."

What did this have to do with anything? I was going to rip the mask off if she didn't hurry.

After what seemed an eternity with additional exercises ("Look to the right." "Look to the left." "Wiggle your right foot." "Now your left.") Bernadette saved the day and unhooked the mask.

It's two days later, and the bridge of my nose is still sore. But what's a little soreness if I can breathe through the night, stop snoring, and maybe just maybe enable my husband to stop wearing earplugs for the first time in years?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wheel of Fortune

M.K. and I bonded over "Wheel of Fortune," not the TV fare with Vanna and Pat but the online version with poorly-animated "contestants" and a wheel spun by pressing "Enter" or "Return."

M.K. was a member of the group for which I volunteer every Wednesday afternoon at Misericordia --- a residential community of care for people with mild to profound developmental disabilities, many of whom are also physically challenged. M.K. was frightfully thin, his matchstick legs and arms appearing as if they might snap and break at the slightest provocation. Unable to walk unaided for more than a few steps, he moved about in a black wheelchair that required someone pushing on the back end. His dark, straight hair was matted under a baseball cap that was absent only after a bad fall necessitated a slew of stitches.

M.K. sat quietly at the conference table in Room 201. He rarely interacted with other classmates, so I had no idea what was brewing under that baseball cap of his. Then one day when the topic of discussion was Japan, he spoke up, anxious to know exactly where Japan was. I eyed the globe sitting on the window sill, raced over and grabbed it, and returned to point out Japan's exact location.

"Where are we?" M.K. said.

I turned the globe until I fingered Chicago. "Right here."

"What is this place?" M.K. said as he placed his slender finger close to Denver.

"That's Denver, Colorado."

"What do they do there?"

"Well, lots of people like to ski in the winter and hike in the summer."

M.K.'s questions would have continued unabated, but the instructor needed to guide the discussion back to Japan.

But I'd discovered there was quite an inquisitive mind lurking under that baseball cap and made a mental note to use the globe with M.K. whenever the opportunity arose.

A week or two later, I walked behind M.K. as he sat at a computer. Unlike some of his classmates who returned to the same computer game time and time again, M.K. liked to experiment. On this day, he was playing "Wheel of Fortune."

"Can I play, too?" I said, grabbing a chair and pushing it next to his.

Startled, M.K. sat there, frozen. He pretended not to have heard me.

"I used to love watching that show," I said. "Sometimes I could solve the puzzles. Sometimes I couldn't. How about you?"

"I'm pretty good," he said in a whisper.

"Wanna show me?"

M.K. wasn't one to bend to pressure. He did exactly what he wanted. His silence made me uncomfortable. Maybe I'd pushed too hard. Maybe I should have left him alone.

After a long pause. "Sure."

For the rest of my time that afternoon, M.K. and I played "Wheel of Fortune." When I couldn't complete the puzzle, he'd blindly start punching in letters on the keyboard, often sending the game into overload. My inclination was to shout, "No, wait a minute. Let's think this through." And I'm sure I said that a few times. But more often, I just let him type away, hoping that by some miracle the puzzle would be solved or that that the game wouldn't crash.

Week after week, I'd make my rounds, chatting with everyone, answering questions, making supportive comments. When I got to M.K., I'd say, "How about a few rounds of 'Wheel of Fortune?'"

There was never any doubt. M.K. was always anxious to play.

I don't remember talking about personal things. Well, maybe I asked where he was going for vacation (he was staying at Misericordia) or what his favorite foods were (hamburgers and fries). But our focus was on amassing as much play money as possible and dreaming about what we might want to do with all that moola. A trip to Disney Land? Maybe an ocean voyage? Perhaps a visit to Japan?

And whenever possible, I'd grab the globe and show M.K. our fantasy destination.

But the globe was small and difficult to read. I had to squint hard to make out most of the names. For someone like M.K. with poor eyesight (he'd broken his glasses, and it took what seemed like months to get them replaced), reading the words was impossible.

I decided to buy a bigger globe and donate it to Room 201. After a thorough online search, I purchased a 16" inflatable globe and couldn't wait to gift it to Room 201 in M.K.'s honor. But M.K. was absent that Wednesday and the Wednesday after that. He'd been hospitalized but for what and for how long was information to which a volunteer like me was not privy. His roommate visited him, took him his favorite hamburger and fries, and said he was doing "okay."

"I miss him," his roommate said.

"I'm sure you do."

"I just want him to get better. He's my roommate."

But M.K. didn't get better and died in the rehab center where he'd been transferred after his hospitalization. "His body just gave out on him," I was told.

The inflatable globe sits on the window sill next to the older, smaller globe. The person who would have enjoyed it most never got to grasp it in his hands, spin it around, and discover the exact location of some exotic country or to reaffirm his place in the world. But he was able to reaffirm his place in my memories and in my heart.