A Woman’s Power to Rise

First of fourteen March Madness Scrabble games in as many days / photo by shf

Settling into a private space, provided by a dear and generous friend, I feel myself swept inward by the white sage incense and my journal and a pen and a snifter of cold water and a poetry collection whose spine caught my eye — Slow Work Through Sand — which I had misread as Slow Work Throwing Sand. How right it sounded. I had just completed two weeks of living in the mandala of my mother’s life, stretching outside myself to be in her zone. After each day’s repetitious round of hours, I wilted onto a taut cot in the middle of my mother’s living room floor, my eye pillow erasing the piercing lights that seethed through the mini-blinds. How I missed my bed.

The sense of throwing sand felt apt after fourteen days of wake-up calls from a hospital bed’s morning strains, the first signal of Mom’s six a.m. rise to power. I met her in the bathroom for the disrobing from the damp nightie and the sour pull-ups and pads, squishy with urine. I tore loose the accordion-paper sides of the disposable underwear to free her from the pungent wetness. The load landed in the trash can like a caught trout flopped into a pail. From there, tasks multiplied like the loaves and fishes.

Softball-shaped wheels pivoted her wheelchair in all directions, frequently backward and sometimes too fast. The apartment walls and corners showed it. Shaky-legged tables did, too. She’d transferred her disease to all the once rigid sheet-rock angles and called herself the Queen of the Booboos. She’d gone so far as to conjure a family she called the Boo Family. Mama Boo led the pack, which included her three caregivers, Honey Boo, Sugar Boo, and Sweetie Boo, along with her daughters, whose Boo names shrank us to toddlers and which will remain unexposed. We were all witnesses to Mom’s booboos, big and small.

Mom is a generous, stubborn, OCD treasure, an optimist, above all, who, she recites “can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). She praises His Name and plies Him for answers and gives Him the credit for her survival of all she’s endured. She’s a living revelation, a modern day sister of Sisyphus, rising to suffer the daily: chronic pain, functional incontinence, limited mobility, a failing memory, and no cash to spare. To be a disabled woman of nearly 90 doesn’t come without cost.

Still, she chooses to face the morning with a song on her lips. Great is thy faithfulness, oh God, my Father. She laughs at her imperfections as she rubs moisturizer on her forehead. Despite her tummy roll, she insists that it’s never a bad idea to have a cinnamon roll for breakfast. Midday she toodles (her word) into her bedroom for her Bible reading with the accompaniment of the Christian radio station that replays sermons from the ’50s. The rigors of Scrabble follow as I fill our racks with letters down to the last one in the bag. We play by the rules. Later the Buzzr channel blares and either numbs with nostalgia or maddens with misogyny depending on the view from your seat.

The old school game show network steals me back to more wretched times, decades ago, when I couldn’t hear my soul speak over the loneliness, the clanging need to belong, the confusion of becoming somebody I didn’t recognize and not yet realizing that I hadn’t learned to think for myself. “Mom, it’s traumatizing for me to watch this channel,” I tell her, as Charles Nelson Reilly masks his queerness just enough for the twentieth century network. She doesn’t respond. Not until I began to write poetry at fifteen did I gather the power and permission I would need to begin to know and trust myself. That took more than twenty more years, and I haven’t stopped writing yet.

As I linger, tired and mute, on the heavenly memory-foam mattress of a friend’s inspired guest house, trying to clean up this reflection after my best night’s sleep in weeks, I am left with the memory of the precious, slow work of throwing sand, of honoring the humble and harrowing mandala of my mother’s life and the weight of awareness that all but for the Grace of God, go I.

Leaned back in her power chair, Mom watches Purdue play Saint Peter’s, the winning and favorite underdog.

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