Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Magic of Change

This morning I was flipping past some photos of a Christmas Eve a few years ago and suddenly asked myself, "How did I feel about last Christmas Eve?" I came to the conclusion that I felt pretty good about it.

Let me back up.

For my whole life we celebrated Christmas Eve at my paternal grandfather's home, the one we called Roundabout House, because December 24th was his birthday. Even when we headed to the maternal grandparents home directly afterward, arriving in the wee hours of Christmas Day, we still stayed there for the Eve. I do remember that we occasionally had a stint at someone else's home but mostly it was at Robbie & Biddy's.

When they were gone there was a little shifting until we moved to the cottage that Biddy (and her first husband, Herb) built a little further north. That was good, too. It was weird not to go to Roundabout at first but many of the Roundabout things were there and the people, barring Robbie & Biddy, were the same and we'd had a chance to say goodbye. We've had a lot of practice at goodbyes.

This last year when I called to see what time to be there and what I could bring someone said, "We're going to Tim's!" Logistically my cousin Tim's home made the whole event about a million times easier for me, personally, even though it's not about me. It's also an absolutely gorgeous home and I had a wonderful time and felt quite fortunate.

Traditionally, though, I am terrible at changes. If you know me at all you'd think that any change, especially around Christmas and especially as a last minute surprise, would send me into a bottomless spiral. But it didn't. I'm not entirely sure why.

Earlier this week I took a super quick trip to Maine. Let me define super quick: I traveled 20 hours in the space of about 38 hours. I wouldn't do that for just anyone, of course. Anyone who has ever tried to get me to have dinner in Bushwick, Brooklyn will tell you that. For my 5th grade teacher, Barbara Martin, though, I would do that. And more. So my long time friend, Sara, picked me up in Boston and drove us up to Winterport and we had a sleepover in an airbnb-approved church basement and the following morning we visited Barbara  and her partner, Margaret, before reversing the whole trip.

5th grade was magical.

Even with 10 hours in the car to discuss it Sara and I couldn't figure out why but we kept finding those starry moments. Sara remembered that a friend in another class brought his pet snake to school and our whole class was invited to watch the snake be fed his mouse. I am terrified of snakes. I have no memory of this event but near as I can tell Barbara let me opt out of that event.

The year before, on Friday afternoons we were herded into a nearby classroom to watch educational movies. Sara remembers some fun nature-focused films. I remember terrifying ecological horror movies with dire predictions of our imminent demise. I cowered in the dim classroom and tried to send my mind elsewhere, frantically braiding bits of my hair to pull my focus off the fear, as the screen showed children with swollen bellies, dying sea life, and jammed highways belching exhaust. A couple of years ago Sara's mother asked me why I hadn't told anyone I was so scared and asked not to go. I replied quickly, "No one would have listened to me." I didn't ask so we'll never know but that was certainly what I believed then and I'm pretty sure I was right.

In 5th grade we were heard.

Barbara played classical music. She gave us that test on following directions where the 2nd direction is not to take the test. On field day in the tug of war contest she upped her offer of ice cream sandwiches to motivate us to keep tugging! At 5 sandwiches each we triumphed! We learned the state capitals and we learned to say what we meant. We learned that she loved us and that was, somehow, most magical of all.

Barbara has dementia. Margaret had warned us and solicited photos and emails so she could use them to keep Barbara engaged and for months Sara and I have been working on this plan to get up to visit. We didn't know what to expect. Margaret hadn't described anything specifically but she had a sense of urgency to all her requests. So we went in a little blind, with the best of intentions, and not a little fear. "As long as she's happy to see us this is a good idea." "It's as much a visit to lend Margaret our support as anything." "It's the right thing to do." We're good little girls and highly motivated by the right thing to do.

Barbara didn't know us but she knew us, you know? She has some aphasia so often you can see that she's clear about what she's telling you but the words she's saying aren't the words coming out of her mouth. Other times she's quite clear. She asked questions that we could answer and some we couldn't. In it all, though, we could tell that she was, truly, happy to see us. Whether she knew precisely who we are is unclear but she was able to sort us into the right category. She knew we were to do with school even when it came out schooner. She knew she loved us and that we loved her.

Barbara is magical.

So is Margaret. We had so much fun sitting and talking with them, playing with their sweet little dog, and watching the guinea hens from next door peck along the back lawn. Barbara brought out photos she'd taken before the dementia took the camera out of her hands and insisted that we each take a few. She toured us around the art hanging in their home and what she couldn't identify Margaret filled in. Their home is bright and sunny and beautiful and we heard stories we hadn't heard before and, being who we are, hoarded them away in our memories.

Again, being who we are, I suspect that Sara and I will try to visit another time. We don't know how long it will take us to manage it, though. We're also clear that when you visit people in their 80s there are no guarantees. Those memories may be all we go away with. I guess I shouldn't speak for Sara but in this case I think she wouldn't mind. If those memories are all we have we are grateful. We are full.

There's a procedure we use in animal training called Counter Conditioning. You pair something that upsets your learner with something they love until they become less upset about the first thing and, ideally, learn to love it. So if my dog is afraid of big black dogs I feed him chicken every time he safely sees a big black dog and eventually he thinks that big black dogs bring chicken so big black dogs are A-ok.

Humans are animals. We learn the same way even though we often make it more complicated. Perhaps I've paired enough change with enough lovely things that I'm starting to tolerate it. Maybe, finally, I'm learning.


  1. 1st It was great to see you blog again! 2nd: Although I read about this on FB, this made me understand so much more about the trip. You are lucky to have great memories of school!