Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Pink Sweater

Originally written December 20, 2010

The wool pink sweater that waits folded by the door has seen me through six years of pain and sorrow. We were homeless in 2004; our house in Manahawkin was sold and the Howells took us in. My husband was in the loony bin and they helped tend the children while I visited him. Susan’s husband, Keith, bought me the sweater along with some other clothes to cheer me up for a fresh start. Eventually, we rescued my husband from the loony bin amidst a snow storm. My husband and I bought a house to settle in Hightstown.

During this time, my father got throat cancer and the pink sweater came with me to Florida where I signed the papers to release him from hospital so he could die at home – he wanted it so and told me. Mother was furious that I, rather than she, had signed the papers. The pink sweater returned with me when my brother, sister and I gathered at my parents’ house to do hospice. My shift was the 3:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. and at the end of it, my sister’s husband made good strong coffee to start the day. The sweater and I appreciated this.

Through the death of my father, around my shoulders, on the chair in hospital, on my back in the hospice living room in Florida, the return to New Jersey to be with my family and then the return to my father’s funeral—which my husband, still ailing from over-medication for depression, did not want me to attend—the sweater and the Howells stood by me. Afterwards, we repaired the house we found in Hightstown, homeschooled and got the piano tuned, ripped out the asphalt driveway to put in soil up to the old crabapple tree, planted a ring of dill and other butterfly larva-feeding plants, shoveled a literal ton of native gravel and laid stepping stones along a serpentine path to a garden in back. And the sweater stood by me, a reminder of the enduring love of God wrapped round me when times got tough and the people unreasonable.

I didn’t get the interview for tenure-track in New Zealand, but I did teach ESL at Rutgers and was poised for a fulltime job there, but Florida called. My mother was alone. My husband, prone to SAD, could use more sunshine. The children loved the ocean we had left in Manahawkin. We loaded up the jeep and moved. It was Christmas. My mother, so glad we were coming in theory, hesitated for us to stay with her at Christmas. No room at the inn. But my sweater embraced me. Ultimately, so did my mother and she calmed and welcomed us, even putting up a fake tree in the living room.

In summer, the frigid Florida air conditioning demanded one dress to not freeze indoors and my pink sweater comforted me. Despite the ocean and my roomy sweater, I felt stifled and claustrophobic in Florida. Missing the deciduous forest, I applied for work in upstate New York. Just as we were moving, my mother’s test results came back. She had colon cancer. She insisted we go, said she’d be fine with her brother in Georgia. After chemo, she drove herself to visit my brother and his family in Arizona. She visited my sister in Alaska. She talked with me on the phone.

The pink sweater embraced me as I taught French and Latin at Woodstock Day school, as the children went to public school. Our eldest hated it and called Saugerties “Soggy Cheese.”  Our younger son won an essay-writing contest, “Why I Love My Library” and came home with a certificate and a bright yellow, square pillow with black letters that read, “CAUTION, Reader at Work.”  The pink sweater embraced me in the cold air conditioning of the dentist’s office as my husband had to get all his front teeth fixed after falling face first on the cement basement floor of a church. He’d been running around with the Cub Scouts. Parkinsonism, they said, kept him from being able to break his fall. He was brave. I was afraid. The pink sweater hugged me as I walked to the town park to watch the sunset over the Catskills or when I walked the Labyrinth at Barrytown.

My husband’s father was ailing. We went back and forth across the Berkshire Mountains in our red jeep. The kids and the dog in the back. We would pause, for me to clear my head, for the dog to run, alongside a woodland stream in a park about midway. The pink sweater gave me confidence that I could keep it up, make the trip, keep the family together, and help take care of Grandpa. We’d been through this round already with Grandma, but that was before the pink sweater.

After battling with chemo for a year, my mother went to hospice. We had moved to Glastonbury to be near Grandpa. Eldest was at boarding school, a homeschool in Berkeley, California, to give him a break from death and disease. He hated it. The pink sweater held me tight and knew I was trying my best for the family. Grandpa died in the middle of the night. I spoke to him in total confidence a long while. Only God heard, so I thought. God and Charles, a hired caregiver upstairs, who probably still had the baby monitor on.

I cried in my pink sweater, feeling I’d lost my very best friend. Grandpa’s wife had had depression. He knew the beast I was battling with my husband. Grandpa’s heart was pure and his mind razor sharp. They had taken Grandma out the front door. I had been the one to find her. I put socks on her feet before they took her off to the crematorium. Her toes were curled up and stuck out from under the sheet. She went feet first out of the music room into the foyer. There, they turned the gurney around to load her into the hearse head first. My sweater told me the funeral parlor men didn’t know Grandma.

Grandpa was dressed. He went out the back door, passing through the kitchen and his beloved workshop, past the garage where we caught the gigantic skunk in a Havehart trap only for it to be shot by animal control, they said, for rabies, not smell. We would keep the family homestead we decided with my husband’s sister – keep it in the family. We got a loan to buy out her share. We would keep renting upstairs to cover taxes. We could live with the imperfections in the floor, the bathroom and gradually make repairs.

We had sold the house in Soggy Cheese. I flew to Florida to share the hospice rounds with my siblings. The gigantic sculpted paper flower I’d sent to hospital from an art shop in Glastonbury arrived after I did. Because of chemo, Mom couldn’t have real flowers around her. Under dim fluorescent lights, I unpacked the flower with my brother’s help. Perky Styrofoam peanuts leapt like agitated lemmings onto the puke brown carpet of the waiting room. We scraped them up and corralled them in a trash bag.

I was in my pink sweater to protect me from the hospital smells. Mom was able to talk, but she was dying. Everything that was supposed to be on the inside was on the outside of her. Machines blinking and dripping. Bags slowly filled with various fluids. My pink sweater held me as I held my mom. Husband on his own. I returned to Glastonbury. Things moving along on the loan. Set to close on Glastonbury. Sister would be happy to get her money. Husband happy to be in his old home. Kids loved the memories of the place. It was home. It was the anchor for the family, for the extended family.

Mom dying. I must fly back to Florida. Husband’s sister comes to stay with the family while I go. Plane delayed in Baltimore. For some reason, I am pushing around a couple of elderly African American women in wheelchairs who are on my flight; we share conversation during our delay. We eat together. We are making our way back to the gate. A downhill slope and I give one of the ladies a bit of a quick ride; we laugh. I get a phone call. My mother has died. I tell my ladies. They hug me and their great bosoms surround me. They pray with me and I feel relieved to be with them as God had planned.

When my father died, my sister had not wanted me to pray saying “can’t we just grieve in our own way?”  I had gone to the neighbors and prayed with them holding hands in a circle under the crepe myrtle tree in their front yard. I felt my dad’s spirit with us there. This time, there was no hesitancy about prayer. It was allowed there in the BWI terminal somewhere in the middle of the D concourse, with giantess pillars of faith holding me like my pink sweater. I go to Florida and visit with my mother’s corpse at the funeral parlor before they start decorating her for burial. She looks natural. It is good. My siblings saw to it that I could get in to see her like this and I was grateful in my pink sweater.

We prepare the funeral that will be in conjunction with the Catholic Church. We meet the priest and the Sister who had befriended my mom. We are told what we are to do during the ritual. Sister gives me the cross that was on the coffin at the end. Mom had given a big donation to the church. The priest who officiated saw her off with gratitude.

Within days, we are preparing to go to the cemetery in south central Florida, a military cemetery. Dad wanted burial to be cheap so he cashed in on his service in the air force in Korea. He cooked. He instituted a 2:00 a.m. serving of pancakes for all the guys going on or off duty in the middle of the night. The Korean civilians loved him. Once, a superior officer was mean to my dad. The Korean civilians, who did much of the work around camp, put starch in that captain’s underwear. Dad loved the Koreans, but hated camping. Said he’d spent too many days living in a tent in Korea. We went up into the Rockies once for a woodland picnic. He insisted on bringing the hibachi and steaks to cook. He had this penchant for refuting the wilderness experience. He was heavy then, and sweat poured down his round, reddening cheeks as we climbed up the mountain with the iron hibachi. But that was all before the pink sweater.

I did not have my pink sweater on the day of my mother’s funeral. The night before, my sister-in-law confirmed three times by phone that I would be unavailable during the day due to the funeral. After the funeral, we did some miner sorting out of my mother’s affairs. My brother wanted the sketches of our dad from Korea. I, the eldest, was the only one of the three of us who remembered him thin like that. But brother got both pictures. I said I would be happy with a photocopy of them. But that was not to be either. Brother also got the round kitchen table. Again, I was the only one old enough to remember Mom stripping it with Red Devil in the basement in Westfield, sanding, staining and varnishing it and finding the pedestal to match.

But things were not the issue, my sweater advised me; love was the issue. I had the memories. Siblings took most of the things. Later I received in the mail a box of mom’s gloves like little corpses in a coffin—too creepy to keep. I was glad not to have brought back a lot of “stuff” from what was no longer my life. Later my sister would regret having brought back quite so much to Alaska.

I flew back to Hartford and took the taxi to Glastonbury to rescue my sister-in-law from caring for my husband. I returned to find she had manipulated him to sign papers to put the house back on the market and sell it even though we were already under contract. Already suffering from dementia, my husband did not know what papers he had signed. Sister-in-law had made sure I would be at my mother’s funeral and thus unable to talk with my husband that day. The realtor pleaded her innocence, said that she was just doing as she was told, although she had my power of attorney in her papers.

It had been years since my husband could handle his affairs or drive due to his dementia from Parkinsonism and his medication. I thought to be returning home, to stability, to family tradition and love. Instead, I found that we were to be homeless again. That I would face thousands of dollars in penalty fees for being under contract for a house that was now, once again, on the market. My sister-in-law was afraid for her money. We eventually sold the house to someone else, but she did not make more money than she would have had we bought the house.

We lost a good deal of money investing in repairs at the house we thought we were buying. I felt betrayed. Betrayed at a time when I was vulnerable just as my mother was dying. Betrayed by someone I had trusted, entrusted, with my precious family. Sister-in-law had been happy to keep the family house in the family, it seemed. We could still have reunions there, Thanksgiving or Christmas if people wanted. My husband would be content and safe to live as his father had for some fifty years, all of it but the last few shared with Grandma. The children loved the place. We all did. I didn’t feel that it would be “my” house so much as a gathering place, a public house. But sister-in-law did not see it that way. She had deliberately manipulated my feeble-minded husband while I was gone. I put on my pink sweater and got to work to find us a home to live in.

I checked rentals, but they were expensive. We settled on a cottage for sale not far from the homestead. We prepared to move making the best of it. But one morning our beloved Irish Water Spaniel couldn’t raise her head off the homestead floor. My husband, struggling with Parkinsonism, in a shot of adrenalin, managed to pick her up. With my back, I couldn’t lift her, even in my pink sweater.

I drove the jeep to the front door and opened the back, like the hearse for my husband’s mother. My husband, lurching, as his father had lurched putting Grandma on the potty chair, put Sadie into the jeep. I drove us to the vet. The vet said she was riddled with cancer and in pain. He could operate, but it would be thousands of dollars and at best would give her another six months. I couldn’t bear for her to be in pain. We held her head and said good-bye. The pink sweater was with me, but the grief engulfed me in waves of sorrow for years as I'd regularly miss Sadie’s boundless joy in simple daily routines, secret pleasures we two had shared even when the family was all amuck.

Even the dog didn’t want to lose Grandpa’s house and move to the cottage. Emptying the family homestead was a sorry business my pink sweater helped me endure. We sold the bed that Grandpa had made and hand carved from wood– a lovely double bed with graceful canopy frame. Grandma had insisted my husband and I sleep there when she and Grandpa were away. I felt safe and cozy there. I watched as the winged-back chair that Grandma had last sat upon was carried out after one more sit in it myself. Tears flowed as thickset men with heavy feet carried things out the door.

The new owners of the house, the church next door, would pave the backyard after taking out chestnut and oak trees hundreds of years old. They said they needed more parking for the church because people wanted to be “seen” going to church. They didn’t want to use the parking in the back. They were a Christian church without a picture of Jesus anywhere. But they had a very large oil painting of their minister in the main room. He towered over you like a black-robed Frankenstein. The church tore down the red barn out back that my husband had built with his own hands. The kids used to play in the hayloft. But now it was gone.

Eventually spring arrived. I had kept our dog’s ashes, but couldn’t bear looking at the plaster paw print Christmas ornament the vet had made. It seemed too morbid to my pink sweater and me. I took Sadie’s ashes and mixed them with good topsoil and planted flowers at the grave site of Grandpa, Grandma and Grandma’s parents. The flowers eventually bloomed and I placed a reading angel amongst them. Grandpa was always reading. My sweater said it was good. Before, the garden was only for Grandma.

Husband was getting about. Things were smooth. But I felt like the grave was calling to my husband next. I couldn’t bear to keep tending the graves and waiting to plant yet another family member. We’d already witnessed, my pink sweater and me, the deaths of Grandpa’s two remaining sisters, Grandpa, and Grandma in Glastonbury, and my mom and dad in Florida. For me, GlastonBURY felt shrouded with death and loosing Sadie drove the final nail into the coffin of happiness there.

We went to France and saw double rainbows over the Dordogne River in Mauzac—known for its prison, but the tiny village was home to a TEFL certification course, as well. We returned and went to Family Camp in the Poconos where I received a call that hired me to teach ESL in Hillsborough, North Carolina. We returned a couple of days early from camp to pack and left within a week having cleared out the entire household to Good Will or to storage with the movers. My pink sweater helped with all this, bringing luck, I felt.

Picking up Polly-dog en route, we moved to North Carolina. First move was into an apartment the realtor had assured us was impossible to find. Next, we moved into a house in Carrboro, where I was able to build a labyrinth, with the help of my pink sweater. But France called to me. If not now, when?  We put our Carrboro house on the market and moved to Nice where I didn’t need my pink sweater.

The history, the town, the culture—all embraced me. I felt the rainbows in Mauzac were just the start of a new beginning. We returned earlier than I would have liked from Nice; the Carrboro house finally sold on the fifth or sixth contract after we returned. We camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. I found another place to call home while our youngest finishes high school. In this place, my husband has support in the community and access to transportation.

But now when I put on my pink sweater, it tells me its mission is done. For me to move on, it is time for the sweater to bring others through their grief with love. Our adventures as a family are not yet over. But the era of the pink sweater is past. And so it will go to Goodwill today to belong to another. May it bring the embrace of God’s love and the taste of hope its steadfast courage has given me.
February 18, 2012
Postscript: It has been a year since I donated the sweater. Since then, my husband died. The pink sweater was not with me. But he was. Maybe that’s why I didn’t need it. There are no earthly bonds upon my heart now that Michael is in spirit world. We are free to go anywhere, do anything.