Being back on this hill living in my childhood home, is simultaneously exuberant happiness at such great fortune and the reeling, stomach-churning terror of being in a boat on a stormy sea. After three years, though, the seas are mostly calmer and exuberance more prevalent.
Last Friday morning—five days before the anniversary of the day I drove down the driveway on my permanent return to “home,” not knowing then it would be quite so literal a return for this long—I sat at the barn door with my faux latte as the sun slid up through the trees across the meadow and beyond the little green apples in the neighbor’s orchard. I first heard then found the red-headed woodpecker on the utility pole drumming a loud accompaniment to the Cooing Dove Duo in the woods behind me. Two deer mothers and three spotted fawns shopped for apples in the orchard across the driveway, then split up, one with her baby over the fence into my meadow, the other family trotting down the driveway in hopes of a floral dessert at the house.
As I drank my coffee, I contemplated my next adventure: Lake Ozette in the far north corner of the state, of which I have three childhood memories: getting carsick on the long gravel road—a ticket to the spot between my parents on the front bench seat of our ’58 Chevy station wagon—the three-mile boardwalk from the lake to the beach, and the UW archeological dig at Cape Alava; or Mowich Lake, on a forest service road into Mt. Rainier National Park, a northern access my sister remembered going to some time ago and told me about the other day. Exploring this amazing state is one of the ways I take care of myself.
Coffee mug empty, I picked baby peas and chard from the garden I created—which is largely responsible for my happiness, and anchors me here—then returned to the house, walking past the cloying honeysuckle my mother has nurtured for many years, training it to grow on the fence and trying to keep the deer from eating it. Mama, just up and dressed, was in the kitchen and Elliot and his moms were still in bed after a late night in traffic getting to us. Elliot was so happy to find his Nana-great when he got up. There is an unspoken, but clearly understood, kindred spirit between them. His moms left him in our care to return to Canada for the Women’s World Cup Soccer final. After they drove out, I took Elliot and his broken and weeping heart to the garden where he ate two sun-warmed strawberries and picked peas out of a pod and popped them one at a time into his mouth. “Mmmmm,” he said, reaching for more. The next three days were largely tear-free.
While Elliot napped, I sat on the sun-dappled deck to start this post. Mama and the Blessed Michelle, her re-hired caregiver, returned from a shopping trip. I watched their sweet interaction through the open kitchen window and nearly wept with gratitude that we have her back. I wished for the thousandth time I could be as calm and understanding; and I accept that as a daughter, there are too many hot buttons for both of us. We are something different to each other, and it is good, too. It takes a village to raise a child…and to care for the elderly.
“Happiness has its risks—all joy does—and when you really know what the risk is in your bones, and weigh the loss with the gain, and prepare yourself as best as you are able—and then take it anyway, the reward is that much sweeter” (blog post by Heather Lende).
I realize now I was in recovery for the first two years after leaving my friends, my home, my life. But over this past year, like the stages of grief, I’ve found the memory of that life fading; and as the reality of this happiness grows stronger, it’s easier to live in the present. I took a big risk coming back here to do this work, hoping the gain would outweigh the loss. It was just one of many risks I have taken in my adult life, and I hope it’s not the last.
My mother took a risk when she stayed on the hill following my father’s death twenty years ago. She suffered, and continues to suffer, loss as a result of that decision. Would she have been happier in a less isolated retirement village with progressive care? Would her children have been happier if she had sold this property and done that, relieving us of some of the more challenging aspects of her care—and the care and feeding of this aging home? We’ll never know. But this we do know: being on the hill has brought her joy and given her purpose. And now it’s doing the same for me. After this past weekend with Elliot in the garden, in the woods with its old trails and the new ones I have built, and in the spacious house, there is no doubt it is already bringing joy to a child who, because of Mama’s decision and mine—as well as Rebecca’s risky choice to come home thirteen years ago—will not only be a city boy. Mama may never believe us when we tell her she has left us a beautiful legacy, because she tends to dwell in loss; but I know, and I will keep telling her.
The Buddhists point out that hanging on to one’s sense of self—a self that no longer exists because it is always changing—is a sure recipe for unhappiness. Living elbow to elbow with my mother, I can see that her reluctance to let go of her younger more capable self, is at the root of her unhappiness. As I learn to empty out the files and boxes of loss in my life, letting go of the many selves I used to be, I am finding ways to fill myself up with joy. My own happiness is the gift I can give to my mother.