As I sat in my studio the other day, contemplating a 25th Christmas letter, I glanced out my window and saw three moose at the back of the yard — a female lying on the ground chewing her cud and two very large youngsters standing and waiting. I had never seen moose here before and thought it must be a sign. Perhaps they had arrived to advise me against writing another Christmas letter, or to bring me get-well wishes for my recent shoulder surgery, or to case out our barn for their winter layover. When I saw their tracks at the back of the barn a couple of days later, I knew that Mama Moose was thinking about the barn. But having raised a teenager a long time ago, I figured adolescent moose would be just as difficult.
Like some persistent moose call, Jesse kept informing us of his SCCA race schedule. So it was on a bright Saturday at the New Hampshire Speedway that we and a bunch of his friends got to see him take a victory lap in his red Miata for the first time while holding the checkered flag out his window. In October, Jesse and another driver shared the driving of his car to win a 4-hour Enduro race at Watkins Glen, New York. He did, of course, smack a few barriers in some races, necessitating tranquilizers for me and body work for the car.
Jesse’s employer doesn’t seem to mind that he is a risk-taker. This summer he was part of a company team that traveled to various locations for software testing. He also traveled with his girl friend, Lingyan, to his cousin’s wedding in Colorado, and occasionally he played tennis with a gimpy-armed father and an eclectic group.
Shelley has been walking along the lake with her camera, taking photographs of loons. I think she talks to them, too; and I believe they have tried to persuade her to retire from the chaos of providing OT services in two grade schools. She traveled the Sierras with friend Cheryl this summer and traveled to Indiana for visits with mom Mary and brother Craig.
She helped me clean out our barn to prepare for a contractor to shore it up. But the contractor ran out of time before the snow, and the moose arrived; and I have junk stored outside under blue tarps. The moose need to know the barn is not stable enough unless they join Weight Watchers.
My mother’s yard is often filled with a flock of wild turkeys, probably because she used to throw moldy bread and other disfigured produce out there for them. Now that she is 99 and with poor balance, I do chores like that on my daily trips to her house. The trouble for the turkeys, anyway, is that I’m always checking her refrigerator for use-by dates and trying to avoid spoilage. Currently, I am unloading a food shelf in her cellar that holds cans and jars from the dark ages, when people stored non-perishables in case of a nuclear war. Opening these things and dumping them seems like such a waste. Perhaps, it could be turkey food or just good compost.
Turkeys invade our yard too, but I like the chickadees that flutter around my head as I fill their empty feeder. They speak to me and perhaps to you, too; “Who knows? Perhaps the same / bird echoed through both of us / yesterday, separate, in the evening…” — Rainer Maria Rilke
This year I became concerned about my mother, who turned 100 on June 13th. She still lives in her own house but needs more of my help than in the past. Because she did not want a big celebration party, several small groups and relatives honored her with lunches and short visits.
For about the past eight years, I would wake up each Tuesday feeling anxious about the prospect of driving her to the supermarket. I wasn’t sure if it was my fear of crowded places or whether I was worried Mom would experience some catastrophe while we pushed our shopping carts along separate routes — Mom, starting toward the day-old bakery goods while I headed to the dairy aisle. I knew her stability was better when she pushed a grocery cart. Without support like that, she walked slowly with her left eye closed, wobbling sometimes, her gray hair sticking out in a dozen directions. She said her eyes had not worked well together since her stroke fifteen years ago, and so she saw distances better using just her right eye. But she said she tried to keep both eyes open at the supermarket so men wouldn’t think she was winking at them.
On one shopping trip, I spotted her leaning into the freezer case searching for her favorite shrimp scampi dinners. I asked if I could help. She said, “Did you see that hunk in the dairy aisle? The tall one with the good legs?” When shopping, she refused to use a cane because she did not want to appear old. Hanging on to my arm in the supermarket parking lot was okay.
Once at a supermarket pharmacy, I left her at the pharmacist’s counter to pick up her pills and suggested she wait in an adjacent chair until I returned with a couple of grocery items. Moments later, I saw the pharmacist and his assistant hovering above someone who was lying on the floor. Mom had sojourned to the magazine racks, returned, and slipped over backward, landing on her back. “She says she’s all right,” they said.
She took my arm, and we exited to the parking lot, “I think there was a wet spot on the floor,” she said; “I saw a man with a mop on our way in.”
“I thought you were going to wait for me until I got back.”
“I should have.”
“Are you hurting?”
“I landed on my back, bumped my head a little. But I’m alright. I’ve got a hard head.” Then she laughed. Mom had always had a sense of humor and was still a tiny lady who laughed frequently, perhaps because she had outlived three husbands. Nurses and doctors remarked that she was one of the cheeriest women they’d met.
Each day I stopped my car at the bottom of a steep, tree-lined driveway that stretched up for two hundred feet. Until the winter after turning 97, Mom had trudged down the long driveway and back up twice a day — once early for the newspaper and again midday for her mail (in winter, she wore metal cleats on her boots). But as she lost the stamina to do that, I began driving to her house after lunch to retrieve mail and do chores.
At the top of this steep driveway on a knoll surrounded by trees and a small yard stands her tiny, single-level white house. Each Tuesday shopping day I would find Mom sitting on the sofa where she read, wrote cards and letters, did crossword puzzles, ate, and snoozed. She liked reading large-print novels like Jodi Picoult’s Lone Wolf, Robert Parker mysteries, and even Fifty Shades of Grey, which she said wasn’t very good.
Except for the falls, Mom said she had no pain. My pain was mostly worrying about her next accident. When she was first alone, I’d had the local hospital install a Lifeline system, thinking she could just press a button if she were in distress. But she wouldn’t wear the Lifeline wristwatch and said she’d call me if something happened. When she ventured outside, she carried her phone in her pocket. She could be stubborn, especially when it came to anything marking another loss of independence.
Once we returned to her house after grocery shopping, I would unpack her groceries while she sank into her sofa. I’d load her small freezer with microwave dinners and pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Before leaving, I always said we would talk on the phone at eight (our nightly ritual). She always said, “Thank you for everything you do for me. I really appreciate it.” Knowing she was grateful helped me on days when I despaired about her decline and our awkward relationship.
I knew Mom struggled with her fear of dying, as many of us do. A few years earlier when she complained of a pain in her left ear and neck, she seemed convinced it was her carotid artery. She spent sleepless nights wandering around her house, worrying whether her time had come. The examining doctor said she’d probably strained her neck, which seemed reasonable in that when she dozed from a sitting position on her sofa, her head dropped back and her left leg hooked over the arm of the sofa.
When she stopped eating much in late October and was sleeping more during the daytime (often in her clothes in bed), Shelley and I thought she was nearing the end. As caring for her became more complicated, Shelley called Home Healthcare to Mom’s house. They recommended Hospice. Just before Thanksgiving, my sister flew in from Colorado so that she and Shelley could attend to Mom, who kept fighting to get out of bed. As she weakened, Mom asked why she felt so bad.
Shelley asked her why she thought she felt bad. Mom said, “Because I’m old and dying.” Shelley said, “Your spirit is strong, but your body is very tired.”
Mom died at home in the early morning hours of December 2nd. Besides her novels, she loved visiting art museums, painting local landscapes in watercolor, gardening, and swimming in the lake that she had loved since childhood. She loved life. It made sense that she was afraid to leave it.
This year the biggest concern was my health and the harrowing events that began back in September when a routine colonoscopy revealed that I had colorectal cancer. I have decided the best person to perform cancer surgery is a doctor of the opposite sex who thinks you are cute.
One who holds your hands and tells you not to be afraid. One who says your surgery will be easier because you are not fat. One who says that robotic arms are the best tools for defeating the enemy. The greater the emotional investment the doctor has in you, the more likely he or she is to pull your mind out of its dark places.
In the examination room at a large Boston hospital, I felt anxious. The city, the hospital’s crowded corridors, the sirens — not the atmosphere for a country boy. But when a smiling little woman with a long skirt and doctor’s coat entered and held my hand in hers, my heart eased. So began my fourth inspection in less than a month. Afterward she rolled her stool against my knees and cupped my hand in hers. She said, “I know you’re scared but try not to worry. You’re going to be okay. We’re going to defeat the enemy.” Weeks later, she said something even more comforting. After guiding us to her assistant to set up a surgery date, she grabbed my hand again and smiled, “You’re so cute.” Then she hustled away to other patients. It was unclear how “cute” described a small, anxious man, but her remark said she saw more in me than a damaged patient. I think Shelley and I loved her then despite the knowledge that she would soon be cutting me up.
I have depended on Shelley this year for more things than I can count. I am indebted to her for moral support and for being with me through all of it. She has been (and still is) a stellar example of love when her husband is at his worst. She has continued to e-mail my progress to friends and told of those who have prayed for me.
I began writing about the arduous process of defeating the enemy. In previous years I had documented other traumatic events in my life. I had read that the act of writing heals. Also, the memories. Not as in remembering someone’s name, but in recalling events. But Koren Zailckas, author of the memoir, Smashed, says: “I don't know where the idea originated that memoir writing is cathartic. For me, it's always felt like playing my own neurosurgeon, sans anesthesia. As a memoirist, you have to crack your head open and examine every uncomfortable thing in there…Ultimately, I think a memoir leaves its author with more terror than comfort, more questions than closure.”
What the hell! Each day, while trying to keep my head intact, I wrote and hoped for healing. And if anyone wanted to hear another cancer story, I could deliver all the personal details along with the emotional repercussions. Call it narrative medicine.
I glanced out my window the other day and was concerned about a red fox that was scouring the ground underneath our bird feeder. A week earlier, I had seen this fox exploring our friend’s driveway; and later, resting beside another neighbor’s front step. It is skittish now though, I think because our friend’s large orange cat may have spooked it as he has in the past with unwelcome dogs that had to run for their lives. I have no proof of a cat-and-fox fight other than no neighborhood sightings of the fox venturing into Mango’s driveway again. But Mango likes people and dogs with whom he has a previous and cordial relationship, and he always talks to me and bumps my leg until I scratch his ears.
If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with watching the fox, I might have paid more heed to Shelley’s warnings that our roof needed to be replaced. It had almost 30 years of moss growing on it. But then a heavy rain caused dripping onto our staircase and sent me crawling into our never-go-there attic to arrange some buckets. Our contractor sent a young man and woman with a grizzled older advisor who lasted only half a day. I was concerned about a woman lugging 80-pound packs of roof shingles and shoveling off old shingles on a cold and windy day, but it turned out that Ms. Roofer was 29 and had been up on roofs with her father since she was 12. When I asked if they might take a day off when the prediction was for cold rain, Mr. Roofer said they tried to work each day because they had five kids between them to support.
Needless to say, I am thankful for our Jesse and that he is fully self-supporting. After selling his old race car this summer, Jesse bought a new factory Mazda adapted for pro racing and plans to race it next summer. His employer continues to send him to various locations for software testing on high-flying aircraft. As a gift, he created an internet website for me to link viewers to a dozen memoirs and essays that were published in various journals this year.
Shelley and I continue to hike as stamina permits: a wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida; garden, woodland, and oceanside trails in Boothbay, Maine. This fall Shelley, Jesse, and I made a small hike up nearby Pitcher Mountain and climbed up into the Fire Tower at the summit. There we talked with a state ranger, who identified mountains and lakes and told stories about those who start fires on purpose. Our descent passed by a pasture of long-haired Scottish Highlander cattle with horns so long that they could have impaled a few nasty politicians simultaneously.
Although I’ve had many significant milestones in life, the most important were marrying Shelley and becoming a father to Jesse. When I think about my thirty years with Jesse, I feel the same as Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs when he said to a friend that becoming a dad was, “10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done. Once you have a child, your heart is forever outside your body because you are more open and sensitive to things.”
Here’s hoping my sarcastic nature has diminished as I’ve aged, even though author Laurie Halse Anderson says sarcasm is, “An excellent blade to carry when life is beating you up.” Still, I’m not sure it is healthy to always be carrying a blade. I know that surviving an ordeal like cancer has made me a wiser and kinder person. And more thankful for each new day.
Last year my primary care doctor retired, and the clinic assigned me a new one — a heavy, darkhaired woman with a mustache. She thought at my age I should have a bone scan, which revealed a slight case of osteopenia (bone thinning). She decided I should begin taking a prescription drug called Fosamax. I had read about possible serious side effects with this drug, so I suggested that I first try building bone with calcium supplements, more exercise, and calciumrich food. She said it was too late for that, implying I could no longer build bone mass. What happens if I don’t take the drug? She said I was bound to “fall, break my hip, go into a nursing home, and die.” Seriously. I called the clinic to see about getting a new doctor, and they said the shortage of doctors meant no switching at the present time. Meanwhile, like my mother, who had osteopenia and lived to a hundred without breaking a hip, I will try to fall on my rear.
To prevent the possibility of falling while mowing grass this past summer, I bought a John Deere tractor which meant, for my hip’s sake, I only had to avoid tipping it over. I was the last in the neighborhood to buy a ride-around mower. I’d always loved walking along behind my push mower and didn’t want to become like one of my neighbors, who rides his nearly every day from early spring to late fall and had complained to the woman next door that her mower had spit some of her grass onto his lawn.
When Jesse wasn’t racing on weekends this summer, he and I played tennis with friends, with me dashing around and risking a spill that would begin my predicted demise. Jesse’s first season racing Mazda’s MX5 Cup series in Alabama, Ohio, and Oregon meant Shelley and I were glued to our computer screen, watching live race-day broadcasts and worrying about his demise. But his badly battered car from the Portland race was fixed in time for the last race in Monticello, New York, and so Shelley and I drove to a venue where friends and family rooted for their driver. One hotshot’s family wore matching jackets with their racer’s name on the sleeve. In the first race this hotshot bumped Jesse from behind, launching him off the track. In race #2, Jesse’s 7th place finish beat the guy in the fancy jacket. Retribution, I suppose.
Jesse continues to travel to Florida and California for software testing on high-flying aircraft. One of the pilots said he’d begun flying at Jesse’s age, rekindling Jesse’s aviator fantasies. I don’t know yet if Lingyan is ready for life with a pilot. She is currently caring for patients at Hampstead Hospital while finishing work on her master’s degree in nursing.
In September, Shelley and I drove north to the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine and then Prince Edward Island in Canada. At our Bed & Breakfast in Maine, the hosts insisted on serving their gourmet breakfast outside at café tables on their veranda that overlooked the bay. Because it was chilly, the hostess gave each couple lap blankets to cover their legs. Maybe my being hunched into a coat and hood meant I needed more TLC because she returned with a heated blanket and draped it across my shoulders. It was like a last rite because Shelley and I intended to climb on rocks where the ocean waves came crashing, meaning I would surely slip and fall and…But I made it intact to PEI, where we hiked, visited the Anne of Green Gables heritage site, and had picnic lunches on warm beaches and at the top of red cliffs that overlook the water.
“All of life is falling. You fall in love, you fall out of love. You fall out of grace, you fall into luck, you fall out of favour. You fall out of one life and into another. You fall on your knees, you fall on your face and when you hit the ground, all your bones shatter and you wish you didn’t have to get up again. Yes, I am very afraid of falling.” — H. Leighton Dickson, Songs in the Year of the Cat
Kurt Schmidt's essays have appeared in the Bacopa Literary Review, The Good Men Project, Your Teen Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, and the "Adelaide Literary Awards Anthology.” He also authored the novel, "Annapolis Misfit." His current project is a coming-of-age memoir. Links to his work can be found at www.kurtgschmidt.com