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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Someday I will no longer have to worry about how the dishwasher is loaded. Being just a tad bit OCD, loading it up in "perfect order" has been one of the few joys of housekeeping.

Like a master puzzle maker, everything sorted according to its size and shape, the goal has always been to use every square inch of space, in an orderly fashion of course.

I tell myself that it is to "save water" and the planet in the process, but really, in a world spinning out of control, it is one of the few tasks that brings peace and order to a chaotic world.

I lost that job when my 95 year old mom moved in. I did not lose it right away, but in tiny increments as her dementia deepened. Though it was her decision to move in, for the first four months she "raged against the machine", which in this case was me. Hurtful things came out of her mouth, reminiscent of the less than affectionate barbs slipped into conversation throughout my life.

But in those hard times, I made a conscious choice to just love her, regardless of the emotional climate. Whether it was that determination or the progress of her disease, something in her turned, and she began a transformation into a loving, gracious person…someone I had not experienced most of my life.

I think, though, that probably it was the dishes that turned the tide. Your see, she wanted to be helpful, and washing dishes was a joy from her childhood, so I agreed she could "pre-wash" them. She would get up from our shared table each morning after breakfast and totter as though intoxicated, carrying our dishes to the sink. Like a new mom, I would hover to make sure things did not get dropped.

Then I remembered that broken dishes can be replaced, but stolen dignity could not. It was a lesson I would have to learn over and again.

What started out as a quick rinse, as she progressed in her decline, became a ritual that grew each day. "I am going to do the dishes now," she would announce, and I would remove myself to let her do it all by herself. Many mornings, I sat and watched her stare out the window lost in thought, and I would wait for inspiration to return for the task at hand. Then an inner light would switch on and she would shuffle over to the sink, dishes shaking like small buildings in an earthquake, her slow almost crablike walk creating an arrhythmic thump on the tile floor.

Then the water would be turned on and I would hear the dishes being washed one at a time and set on the sink floor. A few moments would pass, and then she would turn the water on and wash them again, not out of cleanliness but forgetfulness. Over time, my teeth would no longer grind as I listened.

It is just water. And she is happy.

Every day when finished, she would come in and proudly announce the dishes were done. Often she would take my hand and lead me into the kitchen, unaware that I had been surveying her work from a distance, watching her glide like a manta ray on the ocean floor over the counters looking for things to wash and organize.

"I don't know what we would do without you,” I would tell her every time. Her face would shine like a schoolgirl who had just passed an important exam. Doing the dishes had given meaning to her life.

The newest wrinkle developed over time. A towel would get placed on the counter, and she would create a little pocket to put the silverware in and then place the washed dishes on the remaining towel. One day I opened up the cupboard and found the "washed dishes" - traces of breakfast still intact on the sides, neatly stacked.

I thought to myself, "It is time to teach her how to load the dishwasher."

We all worry so much about legacy, or maybe it is just me, wanting it to be something deep and meaningful. But this, after 95 years, was hers: She washed dishes....with great tenderness and great love. It was her act of sacrifice, done for me, the daughter she has come to love openly as we wander through this journey to the end of her life.

Someday, I will be efficient and save water and do my little organizing task with great planning and orderliness, and the sound of her shuffling across the floor and the rattle of dishes will be only a memory that haunts this house. But today, I will teach her how to load the dishwasher. It will be messy and chaotic and will, in all likelihood, turn a five minute task into an hour long ordeal. But in the end, what we will have together is something better than order...

We will have love made visible in the chaos... (Note: My mom died two days after I wrote this draft. On her last day on earth, she loaded the dishwasher and raked leaves...what she would have called a perfect day

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

I wish I could recall the name of the harmonica player, but the truth is, he slipped into our lives one day without an introduction and slipped away just as quickly.

At my 83 year old mom's urging, we had agreed to play a concert for an adult day care program located in the basement of a moss covered local church tucked under a tangle of trees. As we descended the steps into the musty basement, we were greeted warmly not just by the volunteers, but also by a small group of differently-abled adults who were assisting them in serving meals to several of the seniors also in attendance.

Since we had anticipated only seniors, we had prepared an hour's worth of oldies but goodies, including the closing sing-a-long "Good Night Irene" in honor of my mom. As we began our set, one of these differently-abled adult helpers pulled out his harmonica. In a child like voice, he yelled out a request to play along, a request we quickly granted in the casual environment of our basement lunch concert.

He jumped out of his chair and bounded over next to me. As we led the group in some Pete Seeger song, he began to robustly play along, his harmonica in a completely different key and his skills somewhat less than stellar. But as the song ended, he looked up at me, his eyes shining, and he announced with a wide, toothless grin, his voice heavy with a lisp,

…rock and roll...we did that really good...rock and roll..

For the rest of our time, he bounced between his role as lead harmonica player in the band and lead dancer for any unpartnered lunch guest. He worked the room like a seasoned Vegas showman, and when it was all over, he sidled up one last time as we were packing up.

There was a swagger in his step as he took my guitar from my hand. "I want to carry your guitar," he said, smiling his toothless grin. "I will help you with the equipment." We walked out a side door and down a small concrete path wide enough for only one person at a time. He led.

"See the gray van towards the end?" I called up to him. "That's mine." I expected him to cross the gravel lot and meet me at the van, but he stopped cold at the end of the sidewalk and waited. When I caught up, I stepped off the curb, expecting him to follow.

But the only footsteps on the gravel were mine.

A host of thoughts crowded into my mind. Perhaps he liked my guitar. How would I let him know that he couldn't take it home? What if he dropped it? As I walked back to him, I noticed his face had changed. It seemed younger, less confident. I stood next to him awaiting his declaration. Suddenly I felt his touch. He had reached down and taken my hand in his.

I can't cross the street unless I hold someone's hand….

We walked across the lot and loaded the guitar, and then, holding his hand, I walked him back to the safety of the concrete sidewalk. Back on solid ground, he resumed his rock star demeanor and reclaimed his confidence.

"We need to play music again," he called out, " rock and roll..." As I looked back from the car, he was flashing the universal rock star sign.

I want to be like him, I thought, full of life and confidence, able to dance and sing unconcerned about my lack of coordination or my inability to carry a tune. I want to launch into good deeds with strangers and help carry the burdens of others.

But more than anything, when I face any obstacle, any fear, I want to simply reach out and take the hand of a fellow human being and trust with all my heart that I will be kept safe from the dangers that lurk beyond the safety of the well kept path.

The harmonica player gets it.

Someday, I hope to follow in his steps.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Someday I hope to be able to trace the route that bitterness takes when it flees from a soul and takes up residence in a place that contains more fertile ground. For years, that most fertile ground was tilled in my own heart's soil which was rich with memories of childhood scars. Over the years, a garden grew that produced its own bitter fruits which I routinely fed upon in the absence of other sustenance. Absence did not make the heart grow fonder; it deepened the bitterness. Presence, oddly enough, began the process of creating a different soil from which compassion could grow.

In these last few days, there is no corner of my heart that contains even a shadow of that nearly a lifetime of bitterness. My 94 year old mom and my daughter and grandchildren have been experiencing her favorite hot springs resort in Canada.

Everything is a "just one more time" experience for her. She hobbles to the hot pools, and while part of me worries every second about the safety of any step she takes, another part of me knows that this journey is important to her, to her sense of purpose and place in this life.

Her skin is paper thin and her balance awkward. She is good for only nine stairs at a time, but it is still nine. Her vision is mostly gone, but she still tells me to tie my shoes so I don't trip. Her memories of what we have done or not done here are a kaleidoscope of various adventures we have shared over the twenty plus years we have been traveling together.

She is here, fragile and a bit confused, but she is here. And I am filled with gratitude.

On our last night, we go to the Copper Room. This resort dancing hangout's band, The Jones Brothers, has been playing old favorites for over 20 years while mostly aged dancers glide around the dance floor like teenagers, smooth and silky. Our littlest great granddaughter, transfixed by live music, conducts the orchestra from the chair as dancers swirl past. My mom leans over and tells me that on a night like this, her boyfriend and she danced the night away, she in a red dress and heels that he said made her look like a fairy princess. She tells me that when she walked back to her hotel, she heard that war had been declared, and she listened to the beat of horses' hooves on the cobblestones as a nation headed for war with America.

I watch her face as she watches the dancers through eyes almost devoid of vision and wonder of the memories that must swirl in her head. I think about my father, the love of her life gone now for almost fifty years; she has been so strong and independent and resolute in the face of life's difficulties. Nearly every moment of this trip has filled me to tears. Life, precious life, has kept her here long enough for me to heal, and in the absence of old resentments, deep love has taken root and flourished.

Perhaps these last few days have been so poignant because in dressing her the first day, I discovered something that has escaped her aging attention. A very large growth has taken residence in her chest. I see it; I palpitate it. It is hard as stone and terrifying. When I mention it to her as calmly as I can, she shrugs it off as though I had asked her about an insignificant mole. Perhaps it is best that way. And so we have been having mini adventures with her head free from worry and my heart overwhelmed by the thought of what road might lay ahead.

It is 1 am. She may forget her medications at times, but she remembers as she stumbles back from the bathroom feeling the wall for support that she needs to close the door so the light does not keep me awake. When I see her struggling with the covers, I get up and tuck her in. Her face is beautiful in the soft light.

I whisper in her ear, "You are the best mom ever."

I think back to our leaving the restaurant she longed for one last waltz, sure that she still had it in her. As we entered the lobby, the strains of the music following us out, I took her in my arms and we danced. "You have to let me lead," I tell her. She answers that all her dance partners have told her that and laughs. On her way out the door, she tells us all, "This has been my best visit ever."

I am undone.

Time waits for no man and death awaits us all. It should comfort me that these last twenty years of caring for her in some way or another have healed my heart and hers. She has become the mother I had always dreamed of in my childhood.

And so, in these early morning hours, I sit and type and hear the rustling of the covers as she seeks sleep. I think, perhaps, it is time to move over and give her a snuggle, knowing that the gesture will open the door to conversation and a flood of memories of 94 years of living.

Or perhaps I will just let her sleep, and I will sit in my solitary sorrow contemplating the nights that will lay ahead...

Whatever the choice, I know with certainty that this road contains only love, forgiveness and compassion, and I ask for God's strength to have at least a modicum of the courage she had shown in living out this precious gift of life.

And in this, her final dance, I will let her lead as the last song plays out, as she has always done.

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