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?

Dec 22 2011


Tuesday, December 20 – the 12th day I am here with my mom and the first night of Chanukah. And I am not with my son or husband this year to take out the candles and organize the celebration or even to make latkes. But my husband called me on SKYPE and asked where the menorah was and if there were any candles. I told him where the menorah was kept and that candles were in the same place. So after about 15 minutes he SKYPED me again and I could join them for the Chanukah candle lighting and watch Bevin say the prayer. Its a Star Trek world and videophone is alive and well. But as far as latkes are concerned they will probably have to wait till I get back home.

Last night I met with my mom’s doctor. I want him to tell me how my mom is. Actually, I want him to play God – to know how long she has left, to tell me for certain. But he isn’t God – just an ordinary, geriatric specialist type of doctor and he doesn’t know. I asked him if we could take a few blood tests to see how her body chemistry is but he said if we do that and discover how badly she is doing then he would have to do something to try to fix it. Because he is a doctor. So we will just let her be, let her body do what it has to do.

So I wait. I sit in her room, sometimes next to her bed, sometimes in front of my computer. I help to feed her. She is given puréed food now. She would at least open her mouth when she felt the spoon near her lips. But now she is hard to wake up for meals. She sleeps. Peacefully. Seemingly without pain. And I wait.

December 30th keeps coming closer. That’s the date on my return ticket. Whenever I think about it I get very anxious. Worried. Scared. What will I do if she keeps continuing this way? I can change my ticket but not for too much longer than that – I have a job I need to get back to. A life. Do I leave, only to have to return a week later? Do I stay longer but its still not long enough? I can feel the anxiety building. So once again, I tell myself “One day at a time, just take it one day at a time.”

And tonight has become Wednesday already, the second night of Chanukah, commemorating God’s miracle of light.

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.

Apr 3 2011

The relay race

My mother was recently in the hospital. She’s back home now, but not really home, not in her own apartment but in the rehabilitation health-care center of the independent-living facility that she has been living in for the past two years or so. It seems she had a pelvic fracture and had trouble standing up or walking. So she is there for them to look after her and give her physical therapy to help her heal. When they are not busy torturing her with exercise she spends most of her time in bed watching the television. I call her most every day and talk to her, ask her how she is doing, telling her about small things happening here in my home. Its really all I can do, living so far away. She sounds tired as I talk to her. She still manages to be cheerful but often she sounds tired. Anyone who has had to spend more than a few days in bed just watching TV knows how tiring that gets to be after awhile. You start wanting to be able to leave the bed and get on with your life. Start doing things again. But doing things has been getting harder and harder for her to do.

Talking to my mom makes me think of my grandmother. Not that my mom is anything like Grandma, she is definitely much nicer than my grandmother ever was. But the tired thing. It reminds me.

I remember a day, standing in front of the large bathroom mirror in my parents house with Grandma, looking at our reflections. We were dressed up for some holiday family get together. Grandma is in her 80s. She looks at herself and says she doesn’t recognize the person she sees there. She doesn’t feel as old as that person looks. She talks about how she used to be as strong as an ox but not anymore. I didn’t really understand what she meant then. After all, I was barely 30, strong and healthy, still.

I recognize my grandmother in the black and white photographs that I have from her. I see her in my mind’s eye in the story she told of herself, newly arrived and processed at Ellis Island after her 2 week-long journey from Poland in 1920. She was 20 years old then, just a few months older than my son is now. She sees her brother Nathan, standing there in the large hall, tall and well dressed, waiting for her. She runs into his arms, knocking off his bowler hat in the process. Her life is just starting. She has almost a decade of good years after that, and then the Depression starts. Her married life during the 1930’s, her thirties, bring with it all the years of economic hardship, but she struggled through it. Followed closely by the 1940s and the discovery that almost all of her family left behind in Poland were gone. In 1948, she and Grandpa made a nice wedding for their daughter and saw Evelyn start her life as an adult with my dad.

I didn’t know Grandma then. I was born when she was already in her 50s and probably younger than I am now. I can remember her loudly arguing in Yiddish with Grandpa in their kitchen in their house in Budd Lake. I was over their house when I was a kid, playing in the backyard. I saw a snake crawling through the grass. I ran into the house screaming, afraid of the snake. My grandmother ran out, grabbed a hoe and killed the snake. I thought she was the strongest and bravest person I had ever met. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old.

I think of my mom. I turn over in my mind, memories of her, mind photos you could call them. I think of her when she was a young woman and I was just a kid, in her 30s and 40s, active, working, volunteering, raising children. Competent, taking care of things. Getting on with her life. I knew her then but didn’t give her much thought. She was my mother. I took her for granted. When I was 18, my father and mother drove me off to Brooklyn with all my transportable belongings and delivered me to the dormitory at Pratt – starting me on my journey towards adulthood. They continued on their trip back home to Budd Lake to live their life, to retire, to move to a new home in Columbus, New Jersey, taking with them boxes of my stuff I had left with them in Budd Lake.

I’ve known four generations of my family now – Grandma Bertha, my mom Evelyn, myself of course and now my son. I’ve seen these generations as they go by. I’m 10 years older now than my grandmother was when I was born. I’m almost the same age as my mom was when I moved to Sweden. I’m at the age I am now as my son is starting his first tentative steps into adult life. Our generations overlap. They are like a part of a revolving relay race through time. Each generation handing on the baton to the next. A real relay race has an actual begininning, at the sound of the starter’s pistol. But this generational relay race has no real beginning – before my grandmother started, there were her parents and before them more parents; and hopefully, it has no end, though sometimes it does when the next generation isnt born. But my personal race has a beginning. It started with the oldest family member that I actually got to know – my grandmother and is continuing with my son. That is my snippet of the eternal ever-revolving relay.

In my snippet, my grandmother stands at the starting line, waiting for the sound of the gun. Off she goes, running as fast and as strongly as she can. Sometimes the path is straight and easy, sometimes it’s curving and difficult but she keeps on going. There ahead of her she sees the next member of her team. That’s my mom – there, jogging along the track in the hand-off zone. They run together for awhile, both running strong, working together. And there it is – the hand-off! Now its Mom who has the baton. She’s in the field now, running her own race. Grandma of course doesn’t stop running immediately after the hand-off. She keeps on going, slowing down gently, but still running along. Now Moms coming around the bend. I enter the track, start jogging in the hand-off zone. We both run together until finally, the time is right and Mom hands me the baton. I’m off! Running my race through Art School in Brooklyn, then life in New York City, then the big curve – moving to Stockholm. I’m now approaching the next hand-off zone. I see him there entering the field, my son Bevin. He’s starting to jog while I come up along side him. We run together a good pace while he comes up to speed. Soon, very soon, I will hand him the baton and he will be off on his own race as I wind down, slowing my pace, preparing myself to stand on the sidelines cheering him on, as my Mom is now doing for me.

This race of ours is a good one, as we all make it around our track in our individual legs of our journey. I hope my son gets to run a good race on his leg of the track and as he runs, remembers the runners he has met that have helped to hand him the baton.

Oct 13 2010

Chronic life

Now, if I were to, one more time, remark on how the crinkling my face does when I laugh has now become permanent and thus, can now be officially called wrinkles, I would only be stating the obvious. But it seems that there are now other things that are also here to stay.

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