It started after the doctors declared his death was probably less than six weeks away and recommended that he be placed in hospice. Family members were called, rushing home from around the world.
Their visits perked him up. The doctors reversed themselves after three months, returning the ninety-eight year old to a nursing home. That’s when he began his habit.
Every night at seven, he would prepare for bed by walking around his bed, straightening the blankets and pillows. Then he folded the blankets back, adjusted the pillows, and circled the bed, smoothing out the wrinkles. His process consumed about two hours.
Nobody complained. How could they? It was good for a man of his age to be active, even if his habits mystified everyone. After all, if they reached his age, who knew what their habits would be?
Debby told me and Emi a story when we were all visiting Mom for her birthday. This was about twenty-five years ago. Debby had a habit of making a coffee drink at home in the morning and topping it with whipped cream. She’d then go out into her Florida home’s backyard to enjoy it. Trying to rebuild her life, she’d started going to college while working at night, leaving her children up north for their grandparents to raise them.
A squirrel approached her during one of her early mornings. Debby thought the squirrel was interested in her drink. Debby put some whipped cream on a spoon and offered it to the squirrel. The squirrel hopped over to her and lapped it up.
That started a daily habit. Debby and the squirrel met every morning to share a spoonful of whipped cream. Their ritual continued for four years. Then, one morning, she went into the back yard and found the squirrel dead.
Debby’s life had been a struggle since a brutal assault in Jacksonville had taken place in her early twenties. She kept trying to rebuild, and kept getting knocked back. After a miscarriage, she endured a three year stretch that saw a business bankruptcy, personal bankruptcy, and divorce because her husband was unfaithful and a drug abuser. Then she learned that her husband hadn’t been paying taxes to the IRS for over three years. The squirrel had been a symbol of change. Now the squirrel was dead.
Debby cried when she told the story. Emi and I cried when we heard it.
Come forward to last week. Mom had passed away. Home to make her funeral arrangements, Debby, Emi, and I were remembering our lives with Mom. Debby recalled how her parents had taken her children in, so I mentioned the squirrel tale, because it was part of that same era.
Debby looked blank. “Nope. Wasn’t me.”
Emi said, “I don’t remember ever hearing that before in my life.”
Their response stunned me. I guess the memory was just mine.
It really makes me wonder.
He used to tell himself, “I’m feeling lucky today.”
It happened a few times a year. Feeling lucky, he’d rush out and buy lottery tickets.
Nothing was ever won. He began re-thinking his process. He wasn’t buying tickets because he felt lucky, but because he was feeling unlucky, and was hoping he could change his day, his status, his life. Once he understood that difference, well…it made a huge difference in how he lived.
He came across a disaster. Dead ants were spread everywhere. Most were smashed into small, curled bodies. Some were obliterated. Ant parts were everywhere.
He couldn’t imagine what’d happened. Down on his hands and knees, he ignored the traffic in the street beside him and mourned their losses, watching as the bodies were collected and carried away. After the final body was gone, he went to rise when he saw the ants come out and face him. All were still for several moments. When he felt an appropriate amount of time had passed, he bowed his head and said, “I’m sorry.”
The ants retreated to resume their lives, and he went on his way.
Had beers with friends the other night. I hadn’t seen one of them for a few weeks as he’d been traveling to visit family. I asked him how they were, and he said, “Well, they’ve seen better days.” His sister’s caregiver said the doctors thought his sister would go into hospice soon.
Then, as we spoke, “She hadn’t really seen better days. She spent most of her life taking care of her parents.” She’d lived in their house, serving as their caretaker. When they died, about ten years ago, she thought she could finally start living. By then she was sixty and had a chronic disease. Now, five years later, she was going into hospice, even though she was ten years younger than him. All of it terribly upset her.
I thought about it a lot the last few days. She’d never married, never seen better days. She’d a boyfriend for a long time but she was taking care of her parents and didn’t think it would be fair to him so they stayed as semi-serious companions. Then he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
As I walked around, thinking about her situation, I kept humming “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out)” by Citizen King (1999). I’ve done this song before, but it’s been over a year, and I think it fits the days. Most of us have seen better days.
Then the bottom dropped out.