Eat the Ice Cream

If she brings it, eat the ice cream.

This morning mom comes over with ice cream and a chocolate.

What’s this?
Ice cream on a stick. She smiles.
For breakfast?
Why not?

I can think of so many reasons why not, but I don’t speak them.

I put the ice cream in my little beverage refrigerator. I don’t have a proper refrigerator/freezer at the moment, but that’s another post.

It will melt in there.
I know, but I need to finish my coffee first, I say, sorting out in my head whether I’ll really eat the ice cream or simply toss it after she leaves.
And, here’s a chocolate.
Thanks.

I rarely eat ice cream or chocolate, especially not for breakfast, but that’s what she brings me. This isn’t a remembering thing. She knows these aren’t proper breakfast choices. But she loves them. Especially the ice cream. Ice cream on a stick. If you tarry at her house long enough, she’ll offer you one.

Mom leaves. I can see the ice cream on a stick through the glass door of my little fridge. I sip my coffee.

I don’t want ice cream for breakfast.

Then I remember that a week ago, my son had stayed over after bringing me from the airport. Mom came by in the morning hoping to visit with him a bit. She had ice cream.

What’s that for?
It’s for Sam.
He’s still sleeping.
Oh, she looked disappointed.
But you can wake him up. I’m not sure he’ll want ice cream this early though.

She knocked on his door. I sat back down at my desk, sipping coffee. I could hear them talking.

Thanks, Mama Nick! Hug from pillow.

After she left, Samir sauntered into the room where I was working.

So, how was ice cream for breakfast? I asked, expecting at least a partially snide answer.
It was great!

I don’t know how to help.

This journey is unbalanced. I’m sure I’m learning more from my mom than she’s getting from me.

I make little spaces in my day for mom, but I don’t really know how to help. I take her to visit her sister. We stop for lunch. We shop for groceries. I look for activities she loves to do. We’ve lined up some furniture to refinish, and at least once a week, when I’m here, I invite her over to make jelly with me.

I don’t have to remind her to come over to make jelly. She remembers. Most times, she shows up with dinner. While I eat, she washes all the dishes that have collected in my sink to make room for jelly making.

Tonight we made jelly. She scrubbed the ginger I brought in from the garden, stirred the blueberry juice and sugar, poured the jelly into the jars. Like I said, it’s unbalanced. I’m the lucky one.

I don’t know how to help mom, so I make space in my head. My first notion this morning is to tell her, Thanks, but I don’t want ice cream. Just take it with you and put it back in the freezer when you go home. I stifle that notion and put the ice cream in the little refrigerator.

For after I finish my coffee, I explain.

After she leaves, I have the toss-the-ice-cream-on-a-stick option. Then I remember Samir.

It was great.

I eat the ice cream. Samir was right. It is great. I eat the chocolate too.

Be present.

I’m not boasting about my choice to eat the ice cream nor about the small spaces I make in my days for my mom. I’m only giving these things voice because I mostly fail when faced with these choices.

Can I call you later?
Not today.
I’m swamped.
I have a meeting.

I’m giving the breakfast ice cream voice because my mom didn’t teach me a lesson exclusively for Alzheimer’s caregiviers. The lesson is universal.

Be kind at encounters.
Be grateful for gifts.
Be thoughtful in response.
Mostly, make space on your calendar and in your head for your people.

Make space.

Sit down with the child and make the marble maze together. Fix some coffee and put your good-listening ears on for your friend. Show up with lunch to visit with your aunt. Take a day off to help your dad or your daughter.

Eat the ice cream your mom brings for breakfast.

It will be great!

©Copyright Pennie Nichols 2018. All Rights Reserved.

I won’t miss you

I won’t miss you.

I don’t and I won’t.

My I won’t miss you secret

For years I struggled with this little secret, and concluded I was a little broken because I could never honestly say I miss you! to a friend or family member or partner when I was away. I just didn’t.

Did you really miss me?

I’m probably splitting hairs (I tend to do that), but overused, abused, misaligned words annoy me. I have similar misgivings about that four-letter word love.

I miss you! Little white lie. I wish you were here might be more accurate, but maybe not even.

I miss you! Or do I just need you here to help me with something? I can’t reach that shelf! or My computer won’t reboot!

Even if I die?

But what if I die?, you ask.

Really? It’s actually different, isn’t it? I didn’t go away, you did, and I’ll grieve. I’ll wish you were here when I do those things I once did with you. I’ll wish you were here to laugh about this or fuss about that. Maybe technically I’ll miss you, but it’s different.

I’m splitting a different hair. I’ve never gone away or been left behind and felt all sorts of something summed up in a sorrowful I miss you! I don’t. Never did.

I’m not writing this to judge those who do feel that “miss” that I’m missing. I’m writing to affirm that I’m not broken. I’m present.

Change and flow

My life events are in flux at the moment. Mom is battling Alzheimer’s and I try to be available, my partner has been in Puerto Rico for a month and I’m transitioning there. Our home, our pets, my children, my parents, my partner are all caught up in revolution, upheaval, shakeout. Mostly, uncertainty.

A friend asked me, How are you feeling about all the changes, this move . . .?

I’m not from the meh generation, but I literally said, Meh. Not in the meh, I’m so bored I don’t care way, but meh, I’m fine. I’m happy wherever I am.

My friend’s question reminded me: I don’t miss anyone.

Confession 

During my first visit to Puerto Rico, I found myself revealing my little secret to my partner, the one who just a few days earlier told me on the phone how much he missed me.

I don’t miss our dogs or the birds. I don’t even miss my children! What’s wrong with me?

You’re not broken. This is about independence and dependence. You don’t have an unhealthy dependence on other people. By the way, I didn’t say “I miss you” because . . .

I wasn’t judging you! I get it that people miss their people. I just don’t.

I was going to say that I missed you because I wanted to share this new experience with you.

I know, and I’m here now.

I’m here now.

Maybe that’s the gear that grinds in my heart when I’m away from my friends and family. I’m here now.

I don’t miss you but I look forward to seeing you.

That’s better, isn’t it? And we can both take comfort in this: I may never miss you, but I’ll always be present when we’re together.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018

Make Time

Let me preface the main message about how I make time with a couple of notes:

  1. It’s easy to look “derelict” or collapsable in Louisiana because the mildew/mold embraces even the least embraceable of us.
  2. My house isn’t falling down. It’s solid.

A few days ago, a friend was giving me advice, and folded into it was a comment that might have insulted or angered some folks. I don’t remember the exact words, but they entered the advice something like:

. . . because your house is falling down anyway . . .

I think the reason I don’t remember her exact words is because I was not angry or insulted. Besides, I had experienced a similar comment from a stranger. “Derelict” was the word he had used. One good pressure wash sent that mold and mildew into space (or maybe to a neighbor’s house), and a friend (not the falling down friend, but a different tidy, appointed-house friend) exclaims “your house looks so great, so fresh.”

My house is solid.

I Make Time

Back to my friend who has this idea that my house is crumbling: it’s not true, but her perception is not without cause. It’s about time. My house and my projects need some attention, that is, they need my time.

A day or two before the falling down conversation, the same friend and I were talking about the bead run for our Mardi Gras Krewe.

“Let me know which days you have time to go and we’ll plan a run.”
“I don’t have time. I make time.”

I never imagined that, empty nest, I’d be battling time. But I do. Surprised? No. My dad stands, sword unsheathed, furiously battling the minutes of each day every time I visit. I don’t think we were born time warriors, but the work ethic, the (over)commitment, the creative yearnings, the desire to do, these traits and habits shape us, until one day, midlife, no young children to blame for time challenges, we find ourselves atop a mountain of obligations, endeavors, and relations, battling to make time for them all.

Lately, mostly due to work obligations, the most honest response to most requests begin with “I don’t have time.”Make time

  • I don’t have time to go.
  • I don’t have time to visit.
  • I don’t have time to attend the ball.
  • I don’t have time to Mardi Gras.
  • I don’t have time to write this blog.

I don’t like the don’ts, and they bring me to what I told my friend.

I don’t have time, but I make time.

This is how I do battle atop my mountain. I make time for people and tasks that matter most.

I don’t always make time to take a shower. But I’ll make time for a friend who drops by. I probably won’t make time to dust or mop unless I’m having a get together. But I make time to visit my parents every month. I may not make time to tidy my office. But I’ll steal those extra minutes I save to write a story, post a blog, or tinker with jpegs. I don’t make time to organize that spare bedroom. But I’ll always make time to help you lift a brick off your chest or to join you for a laugh or a jig.

If I do anything that isn’t work, I made time.

I admire people who keep well-appointed homes. I have friends who do. My mom does. I’m not like them.Make time

They make time to appoint their rooms. Those moments in between work and friendship, when my friends might dust shelves and vacuum rugs, I’m writing or making something. Maybe you’ll come to my house and think “It’s falling down.” But I started a novel. Maybe you’ll notice that I didn’t finish moving the ponds, but I finished a screenplay. Maybe you’ll see the dust and birdseed on my end table, but I’m so happy that you’re wearing the earrings that I made. And did you see my garden?

Time and Choices

We all make choices about how we spend our time. Judge me if you will about what I don’t do in mine. I don’t judge you if you do, and I don’t judge you for choosing to chase the dust. I mainly hope I have time to finish Elle’s story so you can read about what happens to her when she lands in 2019 from 3014 after a time hiccup. Sweet Ophera also needs my attention. She’s anxious to reconcile with the grandmother she ditched on a restaurant patio.

Make timeI have a couple dozen personal projects that wait patiently mid-dream for me to make time. Dust collects on the furniture. It will always collect, and no matter how often I pull it away, it will always return. I’d rather make time to till my words, dig my stories, write my garden, fire enamel, and photoshop my friends, the ones who come visit me in my falling down dusty home and the ones who fall from my foggy head into that shimmering computer screen.

I’m not yet a celebrated novelist or screenwriter, but I take comfort in stories about folk such as JK Rowling, who explains how living in squalor is the answer, and other creative humans, who sequester themselves to concentrate on creative endeavors. They confirm for me that squalor and sequestering pave the path. I took my time getting here, and now I’ll make time to follow this path.

My friend’s falling down comment didn’t upset me. But it gave me pause to ponder my choices. Falling down is my validation. This is my path. and, like my house, it’s solid.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.

Penny Nichols: Why We’re Connected

Penny Nichols from Baton Rouge died yesterday.

I’m not referring to a metaphorical death. The death was real. But it wasn’t me. I’m P-e-n-n-i-e Nichols.

Penny Nichols’ heart stopped on April 12, and, although she was revived by paramedics, she slipped away on Sunday, April 18.

I’m sad. Some would say sadder than I should be. We weren’t close friends, yet I feel the loss as if we were.

We knew each other because of our names. It started when I received a phone call from New York in the era of clunky phone books with thin gray pages and 411 operators. I thought he knew me. He greeted me by name. Only after a few references to “that time together” did I realize he had the wrong Penny/Pennie. I offered to look up her number for him (after all, I already felt chummy with him). He was grateful. We laughed. I was pretty sure Penny would too.

After the second call for Penny not Pennie, I wrote Penny’s number down and pinned it in a place I could easily see. I learned things about her through the calls: her Pillsbury prize for a chicken recipe, antique linen upcycling, love of travel and wine, and more. I took to telling her friends as we would hang up, “Please tell Penny Pennie says hi!” I wanted to be her friend too.

One day she called me. This misdirection was for-Pennie-not-Penny: she had received a graduation announcement for one of my daughter’s friends. The misdirection gave us occasion to chat for the first time.

“We only live about three miles from each other!”

We laughed about the phone calls I had been receiving for fifteen years. We talked about the other two Penny Nichols in town.

“We should have a Penny/Pennie Nichols get together!”

“That would be lovely! Let’s do!”

Flash forward another five years, I was shopping at the farmer’s market. I was no longer receiving calls from Penny’s friends. 411 operators and phone books where Pennie Nichols preceded Penny Nichols entries were out of fashion. I gave a cheese vendor my debit card.

“Oh, you’re buying this for Penny?”

“What?”

“You’re buying this for Penny Nichols?”

“Sure. I’m buying it for me. Why do you ask?”

After a few awkward moments, I convinced the vendor I hadn’t stolen Penny’s debit card. She directed me to Penny’s antique linen booth, and I met Penny for the first time. I was sure I wanted to be her friend.

Although we became Facebook friends, and I felt like I knew her well, we never hung out or traveled together.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because we never had the Penny/Pennie party. Or because I never joined her for tea or wine on her patio.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because I’m projecting. One day there will be an obit for Pennie Nichols. Some acquaintances have already called my daughter, concerned.

The projection is not just a name thing. When something happens to a friend, I tend to imagine myself in his or her shoes. I don’t think I’m the only one. I remember, when I divorced, most of my married friends shared stories about their marriages, their fantasies about divorcing or their struggles to avoid it. My divorce opened a door to stories they hadn’t shared before. Maybe they projected my circumstance on theirs, maybe they felt connected to my story. I’m not sure, but I do know that when something happens to someone else, we tend to personalize it, connect it to our own experiences.

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be. I had been connected to Penny for over twenty years, after all, starting with that first call when I listened to her friend’s story for five minutes before I realized, I’m not that Penny. We're connected

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be because I did lose a friend.

I didn’t die this week. But Penny did. And a little bit of Pennie and of a friendship imagined was swooped away with her.

I will miss the connection. A connection that wasn’t young, but a friendship that was just budding. Peace, Penny, for you and your family.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Open Letter to a Lost Friend: Cancer Sucks

This is one in a series of letters to a lost friend. You can also read about Mona and Sandy.

Dear Dela,

We had so many good days together. May 26, 2010, wasn’t one of them.

  • I was out when you called.
  • I didn’t hear my cell when you tried it.
  • I didn’t have a car that day.
  • You were already at ER when I returned your call.
  • Did I already mention? I didn’t have a car that day.

Every bit of alignment was off. I’m not sure that a swimmingly perfect alignment would have made a difference. Your body was weary of battling that monster. I couldn’t have saved you. But I could have been there. My absence still pains me.

Dave dropped you off! We told you all along (I feel the same now), we don’t like Dave.

You were alone in the ER. I was home without a car. But I had a phone, so I scolded damn Dave, and, desperate for a ride, I called a friend. She happened to be at the hospital!

“I can check on her, let you know how she’s doing.”

Leukemia is a sneaky monster. Your complexion, your posture, your gate, they never betrayed your illness. Your cheeks always rosy, your smile always quick. Damn leukemia.

“She was a little groggy, but she seems okay. She kept asking me if she could get me something!”

You were always the gracious hostess, Dela. Even in your last hours. I relaxed. This was good.

A midnight call: “I’m on her emergency list but I’m out of town.” Cracking in her voice. “They say she’s not going to make it. Can you go?”

My partner, home by then, hoisted me off to the ER. Running. “How can this be happening?” Long, wide, confusing white corridors. “Damn Dave!” Panic. Fear. “How does anyone get to the right place!?”

But I found you. Leukemia was no longer hiding its ugly face. Those paddles couldn’t save you, but in the effort, they had beaten you to bloody bruises. Your head was cushioned in blood-soaked hospital towels.

The doctor’s pointed question: “She’ll probably crash again. Should we keep doing this?”

Everything you feared. Everything you didn’t want. How could I respond, “Yes! Beat the bloody hell out of her again!”?

I thought perhaps you’d linger a bit longer.

“I’ll go home to get a few things and come back, sit with her until her brother arrives.”

What the hell “things” did I need? Stupid! The misalignment of thought and circumstance persisted.

In my driveway, I was poised to run into the house to grab this and that thing when the doctor called.

Dela's dragonfly

I found myself surrounded by dragonflies in my garden the day you died. Coincidentally, my daughter named her purple car Adelaide, and the day she traded her in, this guy was perched on her antenna. Were you reaching out?

You slipped away around 2 am on the 27th of one of my favorite months.

I take comfort in this: While I was still at the hospital, trying to decide where it was safe to touch you without causing pain, I found one of your hands under the bloody towels. I breathed in the story you had told me about your father, who, during his last days, seemed to fret over cemeteries with no vacancies. You told him, “It’s OK day, Dad. They have a place for you.” He passed that day. I exhaled: “It’s OK to let go. I love you. You are a mess, but you lived life beautifully.”

I spoke at your memorial service. When it was over, one friend said half-jokingly, “That was beautiful. I want you to speak at mine.” Her comment reminded me: Say it now. Let your friend know now why she or he is special to you.

Since May 27, 2010, more friends have become entangled in the cancer web. Most have found their way out. We try to understand how to be good friends to them. We tell their stories responsibly. I’m telling yours again. Next month, it will be six years. We still don’t like Dave. We still love you. This (A Beautiful Mess) was my tribute to you.

A Beautiful Mess

This is the story about me and Dela. Dela was beautiful. I’m a mess. End of story.

Actually, the “mess” is the elephant in the room and I like to kick sedentary elephants around whenever I get a chance. I often end up with a sore foot, sometimes a new perspective, but I always learn something in the process. So, for just a minute or two, I hope you’ll bear with me as I give this elephant —the mess— a kick.

Dela was a beautiful person, a beautiful friend. She was a mess of interesting things and interests. She had countless circles of friends. And for every friend in every circle, there’s a different story of Dela, a different bright moment of joy he or she remembers. I’ve been getting messages from friends of Dela, some of whom haven’t seen her for as many as 30 years. They want to tell their story of Dela. She had an untidy network of friends. She traveled through that mess of a network with grace and touched and lifted up many.

So . . . what is a “mess,” anyway? Sometimes it’s a tangle. Sometimes it’s an untidy clutter. Sometimes it’s just the noise or the pace or the plans. What is a beautiful mess? It doesn’t have to be a bad or ugly thing. It just is.

Dela was a beautiful mess, and if we focus on her home for a moment, we can get a glimpse of the breadth and depth of her mess, her life, her circles of friends, her fields of adventure.

  • A china cabinet full of dainty teapot and tea cup sets.
  • An armoire full of exquisite French linens.
  • A small kitchen bursting at the seams where she prepared ratatouille, homemade biscotti, and Tanqueray and tonics with lots and lots of lime . . . all of this on small counters crowded with fancy dishes and gadgets that didn’t quite fit in the cupboards.
  • A beautifully resurfaced wooden floor, strewn with newspapers, often turned to the sports page for baseball scores and stats.
  • Boxes and piles of amazing paper: textured, colored, handcrafted . . . all kinds of paper.
  • Shoes. Lots of shoes.
  • The dining table loaded with a flat of Ponchatoula strawberries in the winter or sweet Washington Parish watermelons in the summer.
  • Shelves and shelves and shelves of books.
  • A maze of beauty products to fight off signs of passing time.
  • and so much more . . .

Many of us close to Dela occasionally fussed at her about the different piles of mess in her life, sometimes we’d even try to tidy things up for her. But there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

Now . . . I miss her mess. But mostly, I miss her graceful way of living through, above, and in spite of any mess.

I’ve had messes in my life. On occasion, she sat down in the middle of a mess with me. She was better than I was. She never judged my mess or me for it. Dela simply brought joy into the place where we sat. She brightened the moment with her humor and acceptance. She lifted our thoughts and our emotions above the mess, whether it was physical, emotional, or spiritual.

I will treasure those moments.

When one of the biggest messes any of us might fear or dread fell into her life, Dela was, quite simply, amazing. That mess, leukemia, was a pesky, annoying mess. And although this cancerous cantankerous disease followed her around EVERYwhere she went for better than ten years, most people didn’t know it. Dela did not live IN the mess.

Dela chose to live through it, above it, and in spite of it, up until the very end. Where many of us might cringe and hole up, whine and take pity on ourselves, Dela continued to laugh, to live in the light of the moment, and to bring joy to any place she was present.dela-cancer-sucks-2

I am humbled by her grace and elegance as she endured the fears disease inspires, as she sat through hours of treatments and tests, as she thumbed through endless waiting room magazines, hospital bills, and insurance papers. I am grateful she chose, for those ten diseased years, to live her life, to laugh with her friends, and to lift us up even as she was being swallowed by a monster. I am honored to have been one of her friends, and I hope that I can be half as brave, half as beautiful, and half as elegant standing in the messes of my life. Mostly, I hope I told her often enough, when she was present and brightly alive, what a beautiful mess she was and how much I loved her.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Whose story is it anyway?

Your friend has a cancer story. Sharing can be caring.

distressful newsFour times in less than twelve months, I’ve received texts from friends that start something like this: “I have some distressful news . . . ” The bad news unfolded into stories of doctors, hospitals, and scary procedures. The stories belonged to my friends, not to me, but I shared the stories. Mostly to and with other friends, but sometimes I shared these stories that didn’t belong to me outside of my circle of friends. I think I shared the stories responsibly.

But how can I be sure?

Normally, I would not ask myself this question, but a couple of the most recent distressful-news stories were shared abusively. So I had to ask myself: “Am I oversharing?”

I don’t think I’m alone in this. We receive bad news from a friend (cancer, divorce, collapse, death, accidents, drug problems), and the wildfire of story sharing breaks out. Unlike yesteryear when stories moved slowly as they navigated landlines, rotary phones, and handwritten letters, today’s stories are fanned by cellphones and social media, and the wildfire engulfs everyone in an instant.

Most often, the sharing is genuine, a loving effort to let other friends and the community know so that the support network can kick in. In less elevated iterations, the sharing is simply gossip. In its most banal form, the sharing is derisive, a weapon to undermine those who are already suffering.

But what about that place between genuine sharing and gossip?  You were there if you ever asked yourself: “Why did I share this with them?” or “Would my friend be upset that I told them?”

My midlife throttle is wide open, and, unfortunately, distressful news is the new normal.

I created some guidelines for navigating those moments I feel compelled to share a friend’s story. Before I unveil them, a tiny confession:

  • Being the first to inform another friend about the news can be oddly satisfying. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
  • Not telling a friend’s story can sometimes be less genuine than sharing it.

friends-bad-news

Remember the genuine vs. gossip, vs. weapon? Along those lines, I roughed out basic levels of sharing to use as a guideline.

  1. Sharing helps my friend. Does it help spread the news, set up a support network, and so on? If yes, share. If not, next question.
  2. Sharing helps me. Is it on my my mind, does it impact my performance or mood, am I expanding the prayer circle, can I share it without violating my friend’s trust or privacy? If yes, share. If not, next question.
  3. Sharing is part of a casual conversation outside of the circle that includes my friend. At this point, the only relevant question is: “Does it violate my friend’s trust or privacy?” If yes, don’t share.

For me, there are no more questions. If you made it this far and think there should be more, these are the definite don’ts:

  1. Sharing is just an anecdote. If it is just gossip, don’t share.
  2. Sharing is an excuse. If this is a way to get out of work or an obligation, an excuse to ask for money, do not share.
  3. Sharing is a weapon. Wow. You’re not a friend.

The golden rule applies. Your friend is distressed. He/She needs a good friend. Be good. Share responsibly.

Related post: I’m Lifting You Up.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.