Dust and Bone

It’s been almost four years, and the cardboard box in the purple bag still sits  on the top shelf of my closet, on his side. And I don’t know what to do, even now. I blamed my delays on Covid, but that excuse is ever weaker.

He and I had talked about it in those last sad days.  What will I do with his ashes?

He knew his future, of course. He had chosen hospice over chemo that would have given him only a few extra painful months.  Instead he planned his final weeks and the what-after. Our financial advisor came to talk to us, to assure him that I would be ok. He  talked to friends and family to say he loved them. Love came easily to him in the last years of his life, the years he shared with me.

He decided something of a person’s spirit must remain after death. I was surprised but happy for a thought that must comfort him a little. Was he afraid?  Maybe. He had never talked such things before. I knew his final moments would be his alone. I’d seen death before.

At our request two men in black suits and crisp white shirts came to talk about the arrangements, after. He asked us to play “Ode to Joy.” No service  No religious music. Just friends talking. And cremation.

But what about that cardboard box? When his first wife died, he and his daughters went to Zion National Park and scattered her ashes in a river there.

We talked about the ashes while the men in the black suits waited.  He had decided he wanted the ashes in the back yard, near the white fence of the neighbor. And we should plant a tree over it.  “How about a blue spruce?” he said.  “Not a spruce,” I said.  They get to be enormous.  It’ll get too big. We talked about other trees, rejecting them all, one after another. Too big, too messy, too short lived, not beautiful enough. We spent altogether too much time on the discussion of a suitable tree.

“How about a purple plum?” he said.  We talked about it, and he decided that would do.  A purple plum in the corner of the back yard, near the neighbor’s white fence. 

The men in the black suits said goodbye.

“We learned a lot about trees today,” said one, most solemnly.  (The memory of that remark still makes me smile.)

These days I worry about a purple plum. When I leave our house, will someone chop it down? Perhaps a tree in a park in the city or the state park would be better? Maybe a park where children play. Or some other place. I don’t know.

And the box still sits on the shelf. Dust and bone. My Jay.

Sunday Mornings (Song for a Woman with Alzheimer’s Disease)

Intro: For years my favorite people in the world (next to my kids) were the tutors in the Writing Center at Union College in Schenectady, NY. I just got an email from one of them, Charlie Agar.  Years have passed and he is now entirely grown-up. [You are, right, Charlie?!] He is walking to fight Alzheimer’s and asks for my support. Funny how lives criss-cross. These days I tell stories to nursing-home patients with Alzheimer’s, and every Sunday I sit with a woman in her home so her husband can go to church. Here is a story I wrote about those Sunday visits. It’s sad.  Maybe next time I should post my story about the international gopher museum–not sad in any way at all. Not to forget…to support Charlie, go to http://memorywalk.kintera.org/hays10/alzcare274.

Sunday Mornings

I sit with her on Sunday mornings so her husband can go to church. For more than thirty years, they used to go together. Often she would be asked to speak during the service.
“She was the smart one,” he says. Now he goes alone.
An RV rusts in the side yard. When she and her husband first learned of her future, they traveled round the country to make the most of whatever good time she had left. Inside the house, old-fashioned crafts, cookbooks on a kitchen shelf, photos of her children tell me of the woman she used to be–photos of her grandchildren of joys she can never experience.
She is too young, not much older than I, to be suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. She can’t walk, can’t even change position in her bed or recliner. She can’t dress herself or feed herself. She can’t speak. She’s been this way for years.
Every Sunday, before I come, her husband bathes her, dresses her, feeds her, and props her up in her recliner or lays her back in her hospital bed in the living room. And when he goes, I sit in the chair beside her. I read or knit, recite poetry aloud, or tell her stories. Usually she ignores me. Sometimes she looks at me as if puzzled, as if to say, “Who are you and why are you here?” Sometimes she seems enraged and I stop whatever I’m doing at that moment or resume whatever it is I stopped doing or just get back to my reading or knitting. She never looks happy. She never smiles.
Sometimes I stroke her forehead and cheek for a short while. She may close her eyes. Once, when I stopped, she drew the back of her hand to her cheek as if to stroke her face herself, but mostly she lies quietly, apparently indifferent. Sometimes she gets angry and I draw my hand away. And she never smiles.
It is quiet these Sunday mornings. Her husband leaves the radio playing softly, oldies mostly. I don’t think she pays attention. I have a quiet time to read the Sunday paper, to catch up on unread books, to knit for hours without interruption.
One small detail about this routine is odd. Every week for all these months, I find myself singing to her, singing the same song, in French, no less. Surely I would at least sing a song likely to stir some old memories in her ailing brain. But no, I sing a French-Canadian folksong that I learned decades ago in French class. Heaven knows my voice is flat and off key. When my children were little, they used to beg me not to sing. Still I sing this old folksong every week. She looks my way, or ignores me, or gets angry. If she looks angry, I stop. She doesn’t smile.
“Ah, si mon moine voulait danser…un capuchon je lui donnerai….Danse mon moine danse, tu n’entends pas la danse, Tu n’entends pas le moulin lon la, Tu n’entends pas le moulin marcher.
“If my monk wanted to dance, I would give him a hooded robe….Dance, my monk, dance. You don’t hear the dance. You don’t hear the mill. You don’t hear the mill running.”

Why on earth do I sing it? After all, it’s just a light-hearted song about a girl tempting a monk to dance.

One night I woke up in my own bed, finally understanding what the song means to me and why I sing it. I have thought of myself as a bystander to her troubles. True enough, little is asked of me when I sit with her. But I am not merely knitting the morning away so a husband can have a break. I am affected too. It occurred to me that I’ve been singing the song for myself. I ache for a woman unable to know either the pleasures of life, like the music of the dance, or the work of life, like the sound of the mill grinding grain for a village.
Over and over again, I invite her to dance and mourn the reality. She cannot. She can’t even smile. And I care.
I’ve decided—I shall make a card to carry with me as long as I have my wits about me. On it, I shall write, “Hear the dance.” And I shall remember to smile.

Copyright by Margaret French


Find the song here.


Changing reality, one story at a time

This week I’ve been working on a story about a blacksmith and his wife who invited my family to a farewell dinner when we moved away from Calgary, Alberta. They served us a strange and wonderful meal. The story is for a program I’m doing on May 1oth with Betty Cassidy, another Saratoga storyteller, of stories about the 1950s and 60s. It occurred to me, as I thought about that bizarre meal and my parents’ unexpected response to it, that some of my notions about my parents must have been wrong. My parents would not have been friends with this couple if they had been as uptight as I remember them. They would not have handled the situation with such (relative) aplomb.

Maybe it’s time for me to adjust my reality yet again.  I’m pretty comfortable with a few solid facts.  2 + 2 most always equals 4. Gravity still seems to be in working order. Probably.  But most everything else seems forever to shift depending on my point of view. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that I’m sure of nothing. And the more comfortable I am with this uncertainty.  Oh well.

In this blog, I’ll write mostly about my storytelling, which I love with a passion.  And because my storytelling is always about my trying to figure out the people in my life and this shifting thing we call reality, I’ll write about them too.