Respite

Sometimes you don’t truly feel the heaviness of what you are carrying until you put it down. Driving away from Pittsburgh, into the Laurel Highlands, I was struck by a feeling of lightness. Perhaps this is how astronauts feel, I thought, driving deeper into the mountains and leaving Mark further and further behind. Having blasted through the thick edge of atmosphere to interplanetary space, friction, heat and gravity give way to silence and the simplicity of light, dark, inside, outside. Light as a feather.

Then I started crying. Deep sadness, frosted with a layer of the occasional kind of panic I remember from early parenting. The OH-MY-GOD-DID-I-LEAVE-THE-BABY-ON-THE-ROOF-OF-THE-CAR kind of panic, bred of exhaustion, responsibility, and fear of failure. I kept this up, vacillating between the wonder of freedom and the crushing weight of what I was leaving behind, periodically on the trip. But. But, but, but…

Do you know how beautiful it is out there, free of gravity? Blindingly, shockingly, stunningly, searingly beautiful. I drove an hour and a half that first day, until I reached the long gravel driveway of a friend-of-a-friend’s mountain home. The car wheels crunched past still-green trees, the asters and goldenrods betraying the season as they bent under the weight of white, purple and yellow blossoms. I found the key to the house, put the cushions out on the sunny deck, and checked my cell service. None. I laid down and fell asleep, waking an hour later to the crunch of my friend Lisa’s car rolling up the driveway.

Respite. From Latin, ‘Refuge; consideration.’

This was not a vacation, it was respite. A refuge from my personal years-long storm, a time to weave onto my rattled life a buffer of myriad blankets of things I love. I did this in a way that provides shape, texture, and warmth for who I know myself to be. When I left the mountain house, full of friendship and food, I headed directly for the ocean. Along the Connecticut coast, I ate a $33 lobster roll in an empty bar while talking to the young bartenders about their lives. I silently strolled the darkening streets of wealth during the softest hours of dusk. I watched monarchs alighting along the ocean’s edge and biked through quiet towns heavy with pumpkins and colonial blue doors. I spotted egrets hunting on the edges of honey rushes and cormorants diving into steely masses of silver fish. I drove many, many hours.

When I arrived at Alma and Adam’s doorstep in western Massachusetts, a gift of hot chai tea in hand, I was crying. “I made it,” I stuttered out. Alma laughed and opened their arms wide. I hadn’t allowed myself to believe I could be there until I actually was. For four days, we ate, hiked, explored, and talked. It had not occurred to me that I had not seen Alma’s world in three years. An eclectic, life-filled apartment exactly as I’d imagined. Their cat warm and friendly and then suddenly the fierce hunter. The short walk to the edge of the churning Connecticut River, where Alma spots bald eagles along the edge of the hydroelectric dam. Ominous black vultures spinning constantly in the sky overhead.

While I was in Connecticut, Alma had texted me. “How about this for a sentence? We can go to a bog and go to Vermont.” Alma knows me very well. This sentence was like giving me rocket fuel and telling me we were flying to the moon for a day. Thrilling. We drove winding roads amid changing trees to one of the endless unassuming trailhead signs dotting the region. The colors, the smell, the bog ecosystem with plants that I’d not seen in 30 years. Alma jumped on the boardwalk floating on a sea of crimson red sphagnum moss. The ground undulated like a waterbed. The silence permeated the air. I felt complete.

There are many other stories of the trip. Lunch and a long walk with my dear old friend from Chicago, Rebecca. The “Big E” regional fair, with fried everything, salmon-on-a-stick, ribbon-winning preserves and tatting, and the opportunity to for me to yell “Sooie!” over and over during the pig races (to Alma’s horror). Eating along the edge of the Connecticut River in Vermont, then driving into New Hampshire for a hike. Hiking the mushroom and pink lady slipper-ladened conservation area near their apartment that Alma and Adam each walk to for their own regular respites. My own solo hikes, bike rides, and moments of music and contentment while driving.

There is a lot coming up with Mark, and it’s been an eventful medical week since we’ve returned to the homefront. But I will leave that for another post. For now, I will rest in the memory of my respite. At the onset, I had titled this week away the “Not Dead Yet Caregiver Vacation.” Somewhere along the line, after the crash of emotions had hit the shore and I realized the beach of me was not fully eroded, I understood that I have been aiming too low. Like some kind of muscle-memory, it came back to me. I am alive. I remembered. I felt it. And it was sweet, and it was good.

Rescue

“Someone wants to give you a gift, and they are asking me what to give you. If you could have anything that’s special and not a necessity, what would you want?” Alma asked me a few months ago. “Time,” I answered immediately. Time was the one thing I wanted, the one thing I needed, the one thing I could not readily give myself. I know me pretty well. We are on a first name basis. I know how to take care of myself. I know how to refill. Self-care, spontaneity, creativity, friendship, family, exercise, nature; I know. I just need the time to do it.

“People who haven’t walked in your shoes can’t understand,” said my mom, a cancer survivor. She knew. Lord knows, and she for sure does, I probably did not do enough when she was facing down the gauntlet of chemo rounds. At that point, I didn’t know. Nearly at the end of her rounds, she hit the wall and wanted to give up. My dad told me this. I don’t think I understood it. In my view, she had been handling the whole mess stoically. And so, you know, fine. But with some people, you have to read the edges of their words, watch the shifts of light and shadow and try to figure out what they need. My mother is one of those people. And so, I can be, too.

Except sometimes, I am not. Sometimes, I am the drowning swimmer who finds herself out beyond the surf. “She seems to be doggy-paddling. I think she’s fine,” some watchers say to each other. They turn back to their books, naps and cocktails. I begin to call out here and there. “I’m okay! I’m a little tired, but I’m okay!” Startled, they look up. “She’s okay,” they whisper, “She just said so.” Time passes. Miraculously, I’m still doggy-paddling. “Hey!” I cry out to the picnickers on the beach,”Hey!” Some keep eating. Maybe they didn’t hear me. Others carefully call out, “Are you okay?” “I think so!” I say. ‘You’ll let us know if you need something!” they say, returning to their distractions. The ones who are sensitive, the empaths, the ones who have also at some point doggy-paddled too long, the ones who are open and unafraid, the ones who understand that fears and insecurities are lifelong challenges to face, the ones who know that you never, ever leave someone who needs you alone in their terror, understand that maybe I’m not okay. Maybe I’m getting tired. They keep an eye on me. Eventually, fatigue catches up. I am deeply aware that I am not okay. I am tired, so tired. I see a gathering of lifeguards, and they are talking to each other on the beach. “Help!” I cry as loud as I can, “Help!” “We hear you!” one says. “We are calling a committee meeting to decide how to best help you!” “What?” I yell over the wind. I’m confused. Did they say to keep swimming? Are they coming? I keep swimming. Time passes. Days. Weeks. “Should I keep swimming? Can you please help me! I’m asking for help!” I gasp out. “Yes!” one yells, annoyance in their tone. “You don’t get to decide how we respond. We’ll get back to you when we have an update.”

I stay confused for a time.

Then I decide to save myself. But not alone. Never alone. I calm my mind. I paddle carefully until I find my footing. So focused on the lifeguards, I hadn’t seen them. They had been watching, listening. They had been waiting the whole time. A cadre of people reaching out to grab hold of me. They pull me in. Give me warm blankets. Feed me. Pat my head until I fall asleep. “Rest, rest,” they say encouragingly. I close my eyes. I feel light as a feather. Another swim will happen another day. “Shhhh,” they whisper.

This is my story. It is an epic story of love and loss and life , and I want it to matter. And I tell you this particular story for this reason: no matter how you are doing and what you think you have to give, someone in your life is probably out there doggy-paddling. They may or may not be calling out for help. They may or may not be calling out specifically to you. But if you see them, if you hear them, you know. Do not look away. Do not be afraid. You can help. There is always a way. You can put out your hand. You can swim out there with some food. You can skywrite them encouragement. There is ALWAYS a way.

Listen. Hear. Respond. Mr. Rogers taught us to look for the helpers. Be the help. Be the helper.