Thursday, April 30, 2009

Open Faced

My mother had a stroke this year, and it has been a rollercoaster ride for the whole family. One that has brought us closer together because, well, frankly we are seeing a whole hell of a lot more of each other than we did previously as we went about our busy lives. Somehow our lives were full to capacity and we only had time for occasional family gatherings. Now, we’ve made space – for mom – and for each other, and even though we are all still living our lives, there is an opening, where we slow down to sit, talk, care for, and laugh with mom and each other and it shows on our faces.

Recently, as the sheer weight of surviving this ordeal has lifted from my mother’s shoulders, and she has begun the earnest task of rehabilitation, the floodgates of emotion have opened up. The kindnesses of friends, relatives and the nursing home staff and residents cause my mom to cry. She cries as she looks around and notices the struggles of the other residents and their families. She cries when she makes progress, and she cries when any of us show up – which we are trying not to take personally. And, because in my family, one can not get away with crying for long, something must be done to cause laughter, or at the very least, swearing.

The other day was a good day. Mom was working hard in physical therapy and making great strides, literal strides with her walker, which in a surreal role-reversal, had me snapping photo after photo of her walking achievements.

So, things were good and it showed on our faces. As I headed for the door to leave, a man in front of me tried, unsuccessfully, to key in the door code several times. Normally, I’m not a patient woman, but I’ve learned a lot about patience in the last few months, and about being softer and more open, especially in this place. So, I helped him enter the code, smiled and said nothing. He must’ve recognized an opening when he saw it, not just of the door, but of another soul with more in common at that moment than we had differences. After all, if you are entering or leaving that door – you know something about each other. He turned around as we stepped outside and began to tell me about his son; his 21 year old son, who’s been in care facilities for a while due to a variety of physical, cognitive and emotional issues. Some of what he told me should’ve made me sad. As a parent, it was heart-breaking to think about my child in a similar circumstance.

However, the conversation was anything but sad. His eyes danced as he talked about his son. He was tremendously proud of the intensely unique and amazing person he was lucky enough to parent. He talked about his son’s intuitiveness, his openness to the world and those in it; his inability to say and do expected things, which has caused some embarrassment at times (singing “baby got back” while in line behind a bountiful woman at the grocery store); and yet how liberating it is to be with someone who has no regard for social conventions. I stood there for over fifteen minutes, realized I might be late to pick up my healthy, happy child, but I did not head toward my car. I stood; intimately close, to this man who needed to tell someone about his life – not just about his child, but his life as it has come to be. I’m sure those who passed us thought we were close friends, or family. It felt like we might be. While he talked, I sensed in one brief second that my face felt soft. I was not looking tired, agitated, hurried or otherwise occupied. I was open – open-faced. Interestingly enough, there was no need for me to tell my story, and he did not ask. I was quite content to hear him, to be whoever he needed me to be at that moment, to listen to him. Then, when he was done, we simply started to part, walked toward our cars and drove off. I don’t know if I will see him again, but I won’t forget his face, nor will I forget to keep my face open.

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