The Sixth Dimension

Said he would call you shortly, my father texts from his bed in the cardiac unit. He’s referring to the “hospitalist,” a relatively new term as annoying and ambiguous as the passage of time in a hospital. Thought today or over the weekend for possible discharge.

Could he be any more vague? I respond.

Hospital time. That indeterminately noncommittal measurement of consults and rounds, case updates and test results and discharge dates. In a hospital, time takes on a nonlinear dimension, its flow seemingly in perpetual limbo. In a hospital, time knows no hour.

I’ve entered this dimension before.

I’ve felt that indeterminate uncertainty in the numerous trips to the ER with my mother and father and husband over the past five years. Waiting for calls, for answers, for something, for anything to propel us forward, each time alternating patience and persistence with irritation and anger.

And here I sit, surrounded by old clocks that stopped years ago. Stuck in this time warp of an old farmhouse where my father once lived, unwound like my mother’s descent into dementia. Here, time carelessly unspools, its ebb and flow as unconcerned as the tides in our cove. Because in the end, I realize, life is all about accepting what is.

Short List

Last day of August. The sun casts weak shadows on a tepid afternoon. Ahead, a school bus unloads its passengers. A few orange leaves flutter on the windshield. The finality of summer hovering in the air.

We’re on the way to my father’s future.

“Did you know,” he begins, in that drawling professorial voice he likes to use when he’s imparting dad-wisdom, “that the phrase ‘Bucket List’ refers to death?”

I shouldn’t be surprised at his train of thought; after all, he keeps a list entitled “The Departed” on his refrigerator—names of friends and acquaintances who have recently passed away scrawled on a yellow sheet in the shaky penmanship of an octogenarian.

Plus, he’s old. For him, death is closer to reality than something to be feared.

“Bucket,” he went on, “as in ‘kick the bucket.’ As in, to die.” He took a sip from his root beer float.

As far as I know, plans for his immediate future do not include death. To keep the inevitable bucket-kicking at bay, he has finally agreed to move into the assisted living lodge in his senior community. The decline has been fierce this summer: trouble walking, trouble swallowing, intestinal trouble, driving trouble. What is surprising is how remarkably willing my father is to admit his diminishing abilities, to accept the olive branches of help this new community will graciously extend. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge the aging process has been replaced with gratitude. The mule becomes a lamb.

Yes, he’s slowing down, but at 89, he has checked off nearly everything on his bucket list: diving with Jacques Cousteau; arctic exploration in Greenland; publishing three books; sailing every summer for 60 years; traveling the world. Although he’s outlived most of his friends, he’s anxious to meet new ones. To add more items to his Bucket List.

And yes, death is inevitable. But like my husband’s tattooed reminder: Not Today.

Alone, Again

A Thank You Note to an Understanding Spouse:

It’s not the first summer I’ve spent away from you at my childhood island home, but it’s the first time since my mother’s passing this spring. And it’s the first time I have been fully present to pursue a life of writing.

We’ve known all along that absence makes the heart grow fonder; twenty-two years of business trips and sales conferences and family caregiving drama confirmed it. And now, as I move through a life without my mother, I thank you for understanding. For understanding how I need space to grow as a writer. For understanding how I need to spend my days this summer in reflective solitude, writing and creating something, anything, published or not.

The needle of this record—my life, my story, my song—remained stuck for so long in the groove of my past on scratchy repeat that I couldn’t write the next track.

Yet here, in this moment, this house, my mother’s studio, the ocean and the woods become a launchpad of courage. My confidence stretches when I am alone. I am braver.

And so, I create. Art, stories, essays, articles, poems. A collaborative sketchbook of my microessays and my mother’s drawings completed and submitted. My self-induced summer island writing retreat is a success.

These varying levels of absence, that void my mother left and our own distance apart, continue to expand and shrink, the way August heat surrenders to autumn’s cooler days. I believe I can be both here and there, in body and spirit. Like the ghost of my mother.

Alone, but not lonely.

And for this, I thank you.