Mar 15 2013

Real life

“Well, I’m back.” That was what Sam Gamgee says at the very end of The Lord of the Rings as he returns home from his great adventure. And now I’m back too, back to my family, in my own home with all my own things around me. Back to real life. Back to being just Hilarie.

During the last week of my stay in NJ over a year ago, as I rode in the car with my husband, I told him how much the residents at Monroe Village whom I had gotten to know, said they enjoyed eating with me and would miss me, how the healthcare staff told me how great it was that I had been there for my mom, how much people from both the States and Sweden told me that they enjoyed reading my blogg. He reaches over and pats me on the head and comments that maybe he should have rented a larger car model so as to accommodate the size of my swelling head. He said it with a smile but I could hear the whooshing sound of the air leaving as my head shrank back down to normal size and I landed 0nce again on solid ground.

This made me think about the “instant celebrity” phenomenon so prevalent in our society today. Somebody sings a song on American Idol and suddenly they are SOMEBODY. Somebody that everyone is talking about, that everyone wants to meet or talk to. Everyone is saying how great they are or how wonderful they sing. I can say that I am beginning to understand how easy it is for them to begin to believe the hype and all the complements until finally they end up thinking, “Wow, aren’t I great?? I truly am SOMBODY!” And diva-ism is just one step away.

Yet still, something remarkable happened in those 4 weeks at Monroe Village. I went there to say good bye to my mother, to be with her as she lay dying – a sad, difficult, grief-filled experience. Yet I didn’t have to go through it alone. The people who had known and liked my mom took me in and gave me their friendship. The people who took care of my mother took care of me too. And I had time – time to sit and think, to use words to shape the experience of being with my mother as she lay dying into something I could understand and take with me.

And now I’m sitting here in a Wayne’s Coffee on Sveavägen, watching people and once again thinking. I was too busy at 40 being a new mom to have a mid life-crises then but now at 60+ I think I’m having a sort of 60 year’s crises instead. What is the meaning of my life? Who am I? Where am I going? I feel like I’ve become a teenager again, asking those questions – but with a lot more of life experience, with a body that is starting to show the effects of a lot of wear and tear, more tired, more cynical and more negative. And some of the questions have changed: what have I accomplished in the past 40 years, what more do I have time to do, what do I really want to do with the time I have left? And while no one really knows what the future holds, the big difference between being 18 and 61 is that there are a lot fewer years left.

So now I find myself with the next 1/4 section of my life staring me right in the face. I go towards it as a relatively new orphan, with my only child standing on the cusp of moving out on his own – to be independent of his parents, with the prospect of unfamiliar coupleness once again, with retirement from my “working” life just around the corner.

So I look at myself and ask , who am I? Am I just like everyone else? Or am I someone special in some exceptional way?  What sort of “SOMEBODY” am I in this real life?

Jul 8 2012

The fuschia coat

Hi Mom, Did you see me? I was wearing that bright fuschia jacket. You remember –  the lightweight down one which you used to wear as a winter coat. I never had a chance to ask you if I could take it back with me to Sweden. You had already left by then, but I figured that you wouldn’t mind my taking it. Its more like a jacket on me and it’s been perfect for the chilly Spring and early Summer days we’ve been having here in Stockholm. I never had a chance to say it, but thanks Mom.

I think about you a lot since those days back in December. Every time I’ve worn that jacket I’ve said a silent Hi Mom. But, mostly,  in the evenings, when dinner is done and I haven’t quite decided what to do next, I think of you. I remember how every evening, for the past 4 or 5 years, I would think “Okay, I have to call my mother now”. I admit that it wasn’t always a pleasant thought – it was more like a chore – something I felt I had to do. I always called you, because it was more difficult for you to be able to call me here in Sweden. Since you got sick and had to leave your beloved house in Homestead and moved into Monroe Village, the kind of conversations we would have weren’t really about much of anything anymore – just superficial chatter, both of us trying to be cheerful.  Before I would start up Skype I sat for a bit to try to think of cheerful things I could tell you about my life here in Stockholm.

Back when I was still young and living in New York, I called you quite frequently – just to chat or to ask you your opinion, or how to do something or just quite simply as a sounding board for some of my own thoughts. But I wasn’t able to have those kinds of discussions with you much anymore. Mainly I called just to make sure you were still answering the telephone.  I also was trying to edit what I talked to you about. I tried to only tell you good things – to cheer you up – so you wouldn’t worry about me. Successes Bevin was having in school, what I was working on at work, the funny things our cat had done and what I was making for dinner. If potatoes were involved in the dinner, I always made sure to tell you. You liked hearing about us eating potatoes. I know you tried not to ask but you always wanted to know if I would be coming to visit and when. I know it saddened you when I had to say that I wouldn’t be able to come visit until later. Sometimes I would hear the regret in your voice that you were no longer able to come to see us anymore but I would say, that’s OK we would come to visit you. Later.

If I wanted to discuss something from the past it seemed like you couldn’t remember what I was referring to or maybe it was just that you  didn’t want to remember that long ago. Your days had become a routine of indignities and infirmities and I think you were trying to protect me from hearing about them – to keep me from worrying. And you were always trying to be positive and cheerful too. You would never tell me if you had fallen or hurt yourself. I often found that out much later. I was so glad when you met Marty. The world changed then for you. You had something to look forward to each day and to brighten your life. And when it got really tough the last year, he was always there to be with you. I am so grateful for that. You weren’t so alone.

Its summer now, I’m on vacation and we are at our summer place. A few days ago I was wearing a short-sleeved, navy blue cotton cardigan over my tank top. That was also yours – found in your closet, never worn. I wear it now – its perfect for Swedish summer and I’ll wear the fuschia coat in the winter. That way a part of you is with me all year round.

Oct 7 2011

A good man

October 15 is the yahrtzeit or anniversary of my father’s death. He died in 1997. My mother called me here in Sweden a few days before, to tell me that the doctors had said there was nothing more they could do for him and she had decided to unhook him from the machines he was attached to. My husband booked me on a flight to the States the next day. Mom picked me up at Newark airport and we drove directly to the hospital. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting there next to my dad, holding his hand. I don’t know if he knew if I was there or not, but I like to think he had been waiting till I came. That night, sometime around midnight or so, the hospital called to say my dad, Milton Cutler, had peacefully passed away.

me and my dad

me and my dad

While my mom kept herself busy making funeral arrangements, I sat down at her computer and wrote a eulogy for my father. I thought those words had been lost long ago on some old hard disk. Recently, while I was helping my mom move, I found a printed copy of the eulogy and brought it home with me to Stockholm. Now on the anniversary of his death 14 years ago I want to give that eulogy once again. Here it is.

My father was not the kind of man who created a stir when he entered a room. He was a little man, almost petite, and spoke softly. He wasn’t the kind of person who could tell riveting stories or captivate an audience. But I remember when I was little, he used to read to me before I went to sleep. He didn’t read to me ordinary run-of-the-mill bedtime stories. He read me Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Aku Aku, the book about the statues on Easter Island. He liked those kind of stories and that was what he found interesting to read to me. For my tenth birthday I received a subscription to National Geographic from him and long after I moved away from home, the issues kept coming every month to the house, with my name on them, but not really for me.

He also loved Science Fiction and that love I’ve inherited. I read my first Sci Fi book when I was 11 – The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, it was Daddy’s book. After that I read every Sci Fi book Daddy had till I started to buy my own.

He was a quiet man who rarely voiced his own opinions or demanded to have things his way. I think he came from a generation for whom the expression “self-fulfillment” would cause a feeling of discomfort and the idea of “doing your own thing” was an alien concept. For him, it was more important, to do the right thing. He didn’t drink, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t chase after women. His life wasn’t easy but he stuck with it. He worked hard and tried to give the people he loved in his life as much as he was able to. And when his time came, there wasn’t much time left to do the things he had wanted to do.

My father was one of those small, inconsequential men that the world out there doesn’t take much notice of. But he was a good man and in this day and age, just simply being a good man is something worthy of our respect, deserving of our praise and should be cherished in our memories.

Jun 29 2011

The big six oh

Tomorrow I am going to be 60! How did I get this old? Where did all the time go? I still remember the days when I lived in Brooklyn, when the slogan going around at that time was, “Never trust anyone over 30.” For that reason, my thirtieth birthday was a hard one for me. But it was alleviated by the fact that I spent it on a sailboat out in the Stockholm archipelago. It was my first visit to Sweden. A man named Håkan took me sailing for a week and he gave me a box of chocolate with a picture of Silvia, the Queen of Sweden, on it. That was a great birthday, in spite of my no longer being trustworthy. And that birthday was 30 years ago. I’ve spent 30 years of my life connected to Sweden. And now I sit, out at our country place in Stavsnäs, in the little house that was the original house on the property, typing these words. My husband, the same Håkan from that sailboat ride, and my son are just across the yard in the newer, bigger house we built together. Probably wondering why am I sitting out there and why am I staying up so late. Actually, probably not. My son is sitting peeled to his computer screen and definitely isn’t thinking of me and I can see my husband watching TV.

A bunch of friends, most of them part of the “family” that I created here for myself, think I should have a big party to celebrate. A number of them have had big blowout celebrations for their 50th birthdays, recently. (Most of them are younger than me, you see.) But to celebrate what? That I’m not dead yet? I feel sort of dead though. I feel like I’m at some sort of crossroads, with so many different things all tugging at me, trying to pull me in so many different directions. I want to yell STOP! Leave me alone! But life doesn”t do that. All that tugging and pulling is what life is about.

A like-aged friend from childhood, told me about a birthday party she recently attended. The theme of the party was “I Am 60 Going on 17”. I love that idea. In a way that’s how I feel – like a teenager all over again. Like during my teenage years, my body is metamorphasing into something I don’t recognize. And its not a good thing, let me tell you. The hair that I used to have to shave off my thighs is gone now. Great you might say but it seems to have moved over to my chin and upper lip. Who asked for that? And when I spent my teenage years waiting for all those new bulges to appear, it seems like they are now appearing but in all the wrong places! But the main similarity with teen years lies in those big questions: Who am I? What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What do I want to be when I grow up (or older?) I’ve given up on the growing up thing. I didn’t want to when I was 10 and I don’t think I want to even now.

Some of my friends in my age bracket talk about how they are so looking forward to retirement. But what does that mean? To stop working and spend time playing golf? I hate golf! And to stop working is something I cant imagine. Its like declaring that what I spent my life doing wasn’t worth anything. Maybe if I worked on an assembly line or in the post office sorting mail all day I might want to stop doing that. But what I work at is what I do, its who I am. I want to be able to continue doing it till my hands freeze-up from arthritis or my mind stops working. So imagining retirement doesn’t take up a lot of my time.

Other questions do though. What is my role as a mother to my son, now that he doesn’t need me so much? I spent 20 years being a mother. How do you just stop being one? How do I reinvent my couple-ness with my husband? How do we become a twosome again? And then, there is my roll as a daughter to think about. How do I help my mother as she ages? What do I need to do for her? How do I offer my help without making her feel like she is losing her independence and self-reliance? And how do I do it from so far away as I am?

Mother, daughter, wife, artist, creator, friend. All of these things are pulling at me, tugging me into the future, putting demands on me to make decisions, to be responsible. But I don’t know what to decide. I don’t know where I’m going.I don’t know what to choose. Who the hell is this person?
All I know is that I want to eat princesstårta on my birthday. Cake made of layers of whipped cream and yellow cake with light green marzipan smoothly covering it and a yellow marzipan rose on top. That’s what I want for my Birthday – the big six oh.

And now its the next day. While I was writing this the clock turned over to June 29. And now I am 60.

Jan 28 2011


“You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being there to help her. You shouldn’t feel guilty that she is ill and elderly and alone, without family near her or many friends nearby. She made her choices and you do what you are able to do, when you can do it, to help her as much as you can. She’s where she is because of the choices she made.” This is what a friend told me recently.

But what kind of choices do we make in our lives? How much thought do we give them? How free to choose are we? And how responsible are we for our own choices and the choices of those near and dear? And even those far away?

I go into the supermarket to buy food for dinner. If I’m just coming home from working hard all day at my job and its getting late and I’m tired, Ill be looking for something quick and easy to make. Perhaps I buy a package of Bratwurst, enough for all of us and a box of instant mashed rutabaga. The bratwurst just goes in under the broiler for 10/20 minutes and the powered rutabaga only needs to be poured into boiling water and stirred and allowed to sit for 5 minutes. Voila! A tasty meal in under a half hour. Add some sliced raw carrots and you are all done.

But if I know that Ill be home most of the day and can spend some time and energy on making dinner then I will buy a different sort of ingredients. Perhaps I want to spend the time making a stew or even a roast. Maybe with a creamy potato casserole to go alongside the roast. For those kinds of meals I buy different ingredients. For the stew, I need to get enough stewing meat, a lot of nice potatoes, a bag of carrots, some onions, preferably the red kind, and maybe even mushrooms. For the roast and casserole I need to find a nice chunk of beef, a bag of potatoes, onions, cream, and a nice cheese to grate into the casserole. Ill also pick up veggies to include in a good salad and maybe even stop off at the local bakery to pick up a nice crusty fresh baked bread.

But for all three of these meals, the fast food and the slow food, I’m required to make choices. For the slow food dinners I might use a cookbook to guide me. It will tell me how long the roast should be in the oven and what temperature for it to come out good. For the fast food, I might read the ingredients on the package of the bratwurst and decide which brand of bratwurst based on what it says on the package. The box of rutabaga will give me instructions on the side of the box and might even give me ideas how to improve it.

But where’s the instructions for life? Where’s the cookbook that tells us what to do, in what order so that when we’ve cooked our life we haven’t burned the meal and ended up hungry?

When I moved to Sweden 23 years ago, both my parents were still alive, still living in the house I grew up in and still working. I admit I didn’t give them much thought when I decided to move so far away. I was more concerned about leaving my friends behind. Now things are different. My dad is gone since 1997 and my mom has moved twice since I moved to Sweden. The 10 years she and my dad had at the 55+ place called Homestead were good years for them and the 10 years there after my dad died were also pretty good. She had lots of friends and activities to keep her busy and I would come to visit once a year, usually dragging my family with me. Two years or so ago, she graduated from Homestead’s 55+ to Independent Living at Monroe Village. There she started off her stay by editing the Resident’s Newsletter, following a life-long love of writing, and she met Marty. Life was good and still independent was a key idea. But last week she ended up in the hospital because she had trouble walking. Now she is spending some time in Monroe Village’s health care center where they can keep a close eye on her and give her physical therapy to get her legs working again. I try to call her everyday. But life in the health care center is pretty boring. While she still sounds cheerful when I talk to her, she also sounds tired. Like life is getting too complicated, with all the medicines, and doctors and feeling in pain and not being able to walk or be in her own apartment. And I feel guilty that I’m not there to be of help to her. And here we come back to the choices we make in life.

I don’t mean only my choice to move to Sweden but also my mother’s choice to live where she lives. She chose long ago to live in Budd Lake NJ. That was pretty far from much of her family which were centered closer to New York. But it wasn’t really her own choice. It was made more by her parents who had bought a summer cottage there and eventually both my parents and grandparents decided to permanently move there – away from the rest of the family. Then when my grandmother died, my folks found Homestead and moved there, even further away from New York. But they loved living there so it was a good choice and an independent choice. Now she lives where she lives. Still independent.

And I feel guilty that I am so far away.