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.

Take the Plunge

Afternoon, late July. The heavy veil of fear shrouding my latest creative project, a sketchbook tribute to my mother’s artistic talent told through her artwork and my words for the Brooklyn Art Library, has floated away. A wisp of memory now, like early morning mist on the cove.

Fear that it will look cluttered and junky, like a child’s coloring book. That I will miss the deadline. That I’ll lose my motivation. That my once-nimble fingers will ruin her delicate sketches. That my limited skills as an artist are just that.

Fear. A residual effect of the pandemic? Maybe. Yet, left unchecked, it corrodes confidence and ambition. Immobilizes my spirit.

But, like all the unnerving things I’ve had to do in the past two weeks—venturing up to the attic after the summer’s first sighting of mice; trudging through the flooded stone-and-mud-cellar in too-big rubber boots to reset the furnace; jumping off the rocks into the 58-degree sea; scrubbing the old-man-living-alone- grunge from my father’s apartment; two-a-day writing sessions with an online global community of other creative types—taking the plunge turns out to be remarkably freeing.

So what if the sketchbook is a cluttered jumble? Or if I emerge from the cove, teeth chattering, ready to curl up in a flannel shirt? So what if my dad’s a hot mess? If I’m out of my comfort zone among other writers? Or whether the mice are now the official mayors of the attic?

My talent—like my mother’s–is painfully, creatively chaotic. The ocean refreshes my soul. My dad is almost 90. Most writers share the same self-doubt.

And the mice were here first.