Angels in Shipwrecks - Kaitlin Murphy-Knudsen
Angels in Shipwrecks: Place, Politic and Spirit in Modern Life

Windmills, Truckstops and Transitions - Living in the In-Between (For Margaret, I)

Windmills in Western New York, Route 20AWindmills in Western New York, Route 20A, SunsetTruckstop for Ice-Cream



Soon after I drafted this, I made the 911 call that would bring my grandmother, Margaret, to the hospital on the last day of her life. I had been living with her since June, sharing primary caregiving for a brief time with my uncle and nearby family members, while she healed from the severe leg injury resulting from congestive heart failure she’d suffered from for decades.

While my gut had been telling me she would go before enduring another Buffalo winter, to protect her privacy I was reluctant to post what I’d written while she lived. I do hope that now, this post and the next might reach anyone living in the in-between in one way or another, including caregivers or families facing the last stage of life.


A few years ago I stopped enjoying long drives. After nearly falling asleep at the wheel a few too many times after busy weeks, and after seriously considering the ethics of marrying a chiropractor just for the benefits it could mean for my back, I began opting for the train or plane instead.

But last weekend I found my love for long drives again. After a draining week I traveled long country roads lined with windmills, sunsets and Poconos, lightning under low clouds, thunderstorms that passed overhead while the sun still shined, and wide winds that brought cool harbingers of fall after a heat spell that had finally buckled against the night sky.

Somewhere in between where I had left and where I was going, I gratefully breathed the air of being nowhere.

I have been living out of suitcases this summer after moving in with my grandmother, “Nanny” as we call her. Our family has been discussing next steps with her as she slowly comes to the frightening and frustrating realization that she can no longer care for herself safely in her own home.

This week I received the news that the more pronounced lapses in memory we’d been seeing in her recently were likely signs of Alzheimer’s, and I did not take it well.

Overwhelmed by images of the job this devastating disease had done on my other grandmother before she died of pneumonia years ago, the memories flooded out my eyes at the gym one morning to sympathetic stares from trainers at the sight of my puffy cry-face.

She says she is ready. I pray for a merciful exit before her memory becomes worse. She sees her mother during her naps, and after waking one morning this week, said she “wants to go home.”

“But you are home,” my uncle said. My aunt tells me that her mother, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s, says the same thing, and they are looking for their next home.

Usually my grandmother wakes up early, but earlier this week, she slept in and was still tired when she woke up. She did not appear sick or in pain, and did not want a doctor. I canceled with her visitors for the day while she slept and I worked on a freelance assignment from the other room, checking on her every hour or so.

Usually the phone rang off the hook, but that day it was silent, and the quiet in the house was different from other days. I worked for a few more hours and took a walk.

The silence outside, barring the winds that swept dark Buffalo clouds over her neighborhood, mirrored the quiet inside. Passing a cemetery, I thought about how often she had been sleeping. I thought about her memory, and her frustrations with living in this in-between place where she was neither fully here nor there.

I asked the air what was next. Was her time coming soon?

A crow flew from its perch on a gravestone and swept low across my path, its inky-black feathers catching the light in an oily shine.

Really, signs from the universe? Did you have to be that blunt? Was this the cliché of all foreshadowing clichés, or some subtle archetype I could respect? I read more later, and learned crows were not just harbingers of death but symbols of spiritual power and impending change. They symbolized the Great Spirit in some Native American traditions.

Or, I guess it could have just been a crow. But my head doesn’t usually work that way, and I think God/ the universe/ Spirit…knows it.

By the end of the week Nan was back to waking up at six, still taking long naps but chatting with neighbors and friends again, and going out for dinner now that her insurance company’s “homebound” rules have been lifted.

What are the in-betweens in your life? Are they stagnant places of indecision, places to push yourself out of?

Or are they places to accept, finding ways to endure and live them as you prepare for what’s next?

Phrases like “Live in the present moment” or “It is all about the journey” may be good and true, but they are not quite what I want to say about the places of in-between that all of us visit at some point or another.

My grandmother doesn’t like the in-between. She wants to live—and knows she is not able to do much of that here, anymore. I don’t blame her for wanting to get to where she can really live again.

I don’t like my in-between very much either, but my reasons aren’t as brave as hers. The long drive this weekend called to mind my most significant in-between at the moment, a relationship that indecision was making stagnant, and a conversation that I knew had to come soon.

I had been on the fence for a while. On some days, I believed I should marry this dynamic, kind and thoughtful man. On others I suspected something was just not feeling as it was supposed to feel, something difficult to name that was not quite right.

On the return trip to Buffalo when the weekend was over, the wind blew my car into the next lane as I crossed a bridge over a fast-moving river. I lowered the windows and mist poured in, carrying the pungent scent of trees I remembered from somewhere young, yet couldn’t name.

The windmills were going to be beautiful, I anticipated, when I passed them near sundown later. Through a mountain pass, a quick tempo delivered the sad tones of bluegrass on the radio. I stopped and lingered for ice-cream at a Pennsylvania truck stop, stretching out the in-between, almost ready for the week ahead.




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