Remember The Ladies

 ATTENTION: WE NEED SECRET SANTAS!

This all-points-bulletin appeared in the nursing home newsletter.  And it had never occurred to me; while we were busy attending to our Mother’s needs and wishes, there were people all around her who no longer had family; no longer had friends; no longer would receive a gift on Christmas Day.

YES, we responded to the head nurse’s rallying cry. And a-shopping we went; chocolates and sweaters and books and stuffed animals and comforters and what else do you need when you’re ninety?

You need lipstick, a friend suggested.

Lipstick?

Of course; after all, you never lose your vanity.

She was inspired.

But instead of buying a few lipsticks; how about lipsticks for everyone?! And so, in our annual Christmas party invitation, we asked our friends to bring “a lipstick for the ladies.”

And every year, our friends generously purchased not one but several gorgeous lipsticks and carefully wrapped them in beautiful paper with festive ribbons. Together we showered the nursing home with deep reds, shimmering corals and hot pinks.

The response was electric.

The head nurse was effusive: you made our patients happy and when my patients are happy, my nurses are happy.  And when my nurses are happy, I am happy.  You made our Christmas!

She added:  And the ladies noticed the brands; Estee Lauder and Stila and Bobbie Brown and Elizabeth Arden.  You girls are too much!

But actually, it was our friends who were “too much.”  One friend told me that she and a Bloomingdale’s sales assistant both had tears in their eyes as they selected the lipsticks and then added every sample of powder, polish and hand cream they could find. And even friends who could not attend the party sent lipsticks for me to take to the ladies.

I wish they could have seen the smiles.

At the nursing home, an elderly woman approached me:

Are you Hallie Swift?

Uh…Yes.

I am Dorothy.

And out of her pocket she pulled a lipstick and waved it in the air. She giggled; light, melodic, girlish.

I just love my lipstick.  Thank you!

So much for being a Secret Santa…

This year several of my friends have told me they miss the tradition we had grown to relish. For many of us, the trip to buy lipstick became a defining moment of our Christmas season. One friend recently wrote to me:

I say a little prayer for your Mom as I write this, remembering lipsticks of years gone by…

Remember the ladies.

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I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Preface This year I have been apprehensive about the approaching holidays; it is the first time that my husband and I are not traveling to Los Angeles.  Last Friday, I was planning to post my reflections when the horror in Connecticut engulfed all of us in a deep and profound sorrow.

In one of her original 1968 serigraphs, the artist Corita Kent prominently featured the words by Gabriel Marcel “We can only speak of hope.”  During this sad week, these words have become my mantra. In this spirit, I offer you the post originally intended for last Friday:

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

For the last twenty years, my husband and I have spent Christmas in sunny Southern California.

This year, for the first time, we are not boarding a plane bound for Los Angeles.

In the early years, I anticipated our pilgrimage across the country to see my Mother with a jumbled combination of hope and dread. Christmas in LA always loomed as the final duty in a year defined by obligations.

Every year Christmas week beckoned with the promise of a brief respite from anxious clients, corporate crises, and imminent deadlines. Surrounded by the lights and festivities of Manhattan, year after year I dreamed about canceling our flights and staying home; Christmas, New York, and us– just us.

But every year we would pack our bags, board the plane, and head to my childhood home.

In the early years, I tried to balance our need to unwind with my Mother’s gleeful expectation of fun-filled activities with her offspring.  And every year, as the week drew to a close, I felt defeated. For my Mom, who had anticipated our reunion with such fervent longing, the week had gone by too fast.  For us, numbed by exhaustion, it had become little more than yet another exercise in checking tasks off a list.

And suddenly we were right back in our If-I-Can-Make-It-Here world of clients and crises and deadlines.

“Did you have a good vacation?”

“Oh yes, wonderful.”

But then my Mother’s world shifted on its axis, and with it, our Christmas. For the next ten years, we headed to Christmas in LA, but not to my childhood home. For the next ten years, we headed to a nursing home.

In the beginning, we were convinced that our Mother’s nursing home stay was just a temporary detour. I viewed our new surroundings with apprehension and even disdain; we might be here but we don’t belong here; our Mother is going home. During those visits, I stared straight ahead, barely heeding the other patients; my husband sat in the garden with a book and a come get me when you need me expression.

But my Mother did not go home.  And over time, the Christmas sojourn to LA took on a new imperative; imbued with unforeseen joys to be had only in the small, enclosed world of people living their final days.

At the nursing home, we were surrounded by the basic pleasures of the season: crafts and cards made by local kindergarten children; the communal TV blaring Miracle on 34th Street at FULL volume; a therapy dog stoically outfitted with reindeer antlers; sugar cookies served with fruit punch; fire department-approved decorations covering every available surface; carols sung by enthusiastic musicians; nurses, orderlies, social workers and volunteers working steadily to ensure all was calm, all was bright.

Over the years, I grew to love Christmas at the nursing home.

I loved spending Christmas week with the people who took care of my Mother with patience and care and skill and yes, I think even love. I was in awe of the front desk administrator who stopped by her room every evening to wish her a good night; the aide who carefully selected her outfits–complete with matching socks; the activities director who convinced her to join the festivities; the dietician who always remembered her preferences; the maintenance worker who, knowing she thought he was a beloved nephew, visited her every day; the social worker who calmed her frenzied outbursts by enlisting her ‘help’ in the office (“but,” my Mother informed me “I don’t get a paycheck”); the nurses who efficiently addressed every need and quietly reassured her: your daughter is on her way.

And I loved spending Christmas with my Mother; her wishes fulfilled; her delight apparent even during the toughest years.

We belonged there.

And during those years my husband and I developed our own traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; after several hours at the nursing home, we continued our celebration; joyous times with extended family and friends who became our new family.  Bleary-eyed and happily exhausted, we enjoyed good food and good friends; our new home away from home.

Home.

This year we are not boarding a plane.  This year we are not heading to LA.

This year, I’ll be home for Christmas.

If only in my dreams…

 A Swift Current || My Mother's Last Christmas Eve View from the Nursing Home December 24, 2009

My Mother’s Last Christmas Eve
View from the Nursing Home
Photo by Hallie Swift

The Gift

It was months after my Mother’s death.  There were no more flowers; no more cards; no more donations to the scholarship fund.

“How are you” meant “how are you” not “How are you?”

How was I?  Glad you asked.

I thought I was losing my mind.

No matter what I was doing; my mind would flash back to the moment I learned my Mother was dead.  Walking down a crowded Manhattan street; standing at a grocery check-out; watching a movie; without warning, I was suddenly transported back to the night of October 11.

October 11 at 9.10 PM, to be precise.

Back to the apartment; back to the den; back to the ringing phone.

Hello Hallie, this is the nursing home.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

The words were like a drum beating in my brain; a rhythm that would not stop; a sound heard only by me.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Is she dead?

Yes.

I was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, except Bill Murray was funny.

This was exhausting.

For months, the shrill ringing phone and staccato drumbeat words were my unyielding soundtrack. On the outside, I was “fine.”  On the inside, I was unraveling.

My rescue was equally sudden and unexpected. Walking in my neighborhood one cold winter day, my eyes fell on a newspaper kiosk. A flier in the window stopped me in my tracks:

Be Brave. Write.

I had heard that message before.  Within weeks of my Mom’s death, a childhood friend visited New York. She had lost both her parents. We went to museums and theater and talked and talked and she never tried to change the subject.

At the end of our visit, she gave me a gift: a small lavender-colored book with pressed flowers on its cover and blank pages inside.

Write, she said.

She explained that when she wants to talk to her parents, she writes to them instead.

Writing helps, she said.

Thank you, I might have said.

I put the book on a shelf. It was soon covered by other books. And I resumed groundhog days–my mind repeatedly thrust back to the den; back to the phone; back to the voice from the nursing home.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Be Brave. Write.

This time I listened. I found the book with the pressed flowers and empty pages. And I started to record my groundhog life.  I described every single thing that happened from the moment that phone rang on Oct 11 at 9.10 PM; every single thing I said and she said and he said and they did…

And as the words appeared on the page, the scenes stopped unfolding in my brain. My words, my own written words, were healing me.

The moment did not own me anymore.

Later I met one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, whose stunning memoir A Widow’s Story recounts in minute detail the months following her husband’s sudden death.  At a roundtable discussion, Oates nodded vigorously when I described the flashbacks of the endlessly ringing phone and the interminable conversations replaying in my brain.

She had endured the same flashbacks.

And while that might be the only thing I ever have in common with Joyce Carol Oates, it is good enough for me.

I was not alone.

Writing helps.

As this season of giving is upon us once again, I remember with gratitude the simple gift of a lavender book with pressed flowers.  I remember the blank pages and straightforward advice.
And I remember the healing words.

 A Swift Current || Letting Your Parents Go ||  Be Brave Write


Photo by Hallie Swift