Sarah R. Callender

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page


In General on February 21, 2012 at 7:42 am

I know there are many cruel diseases–the particularly terrible brain tumor that took the life of my beautiful friend’s husband just this weekend; the particularly cruel cancer that took the life of our pastor’s three-year-old son; the particularly aggressive case of Parkinson’s that will eventually take the life of my dear friend’s father.

But I believe that Alzheimer’s, my grandmother’s cross to bear, is right up there with the baddest of the bad.

The disease is a fascinating study of the way our memories work. I find it amazing, for example, that I have trouble remembering what I had for dinner last night, yet somehow, just this past Valentine’s Day, I was able to pull out a memory from Valentine’s Day, 1977: one adorable classmate gave me a heart-shaped box of chocolates (the chocolate drops with tiny white balls sprinkled on top); another adorable fellow gave me a stuffed monkey. Goodness, 1978 was a good year. I think I peaked in 1978.

Why do we remember the smallest slices of our past? How are certain facts and details and smells locked in our brains, while other things, memories that seem equally important (or equally asinine) evaporate?

My family has watched this happen with my grandmother’s memory. For quite some time, my grandmother did not remember she had been divorced for 40 years. That she had four children. That she no longer lived in Pasadena. But, if you asked her to do a cheer she created in 1938 as captain of the cheerleading squad at Beaumont High School, she’d launch into it without hesitation. Go it, Purple! Go it, Purple! 

She could recall the details of some stationery I made her in 1979 and the words to every song Sinatra ever did, but she didn’t remember one of my favorite memories of her: how each Christmas, she donned real deer antlers, strapped to her head with a huge red velvet bow, and drove up from Pasadena to the Bay Area in record time, often having flirted her way out of a speeding ticket. When she pulled into our driveway, we’d see her antlers sticking out through the sunroof of her Acura. It isn’t easy, she would explain, to drive with antlers.

She still, thank goodness, knows how to flirt. When my mother has made almost daily visits to the Memory Care wing of my grandmother’s assisted living home, she has found my grandmother holding hands with the gentleman beside her. This is no surprise. My grandmother has always been a delicious flirt, batting eyelashes at Husbandio, and, in the years after she and my grandfather divorced, saying a polite and gracious “no thank you” to at least three marriage proposals.

She is, still, elegant and beautiful. She still exudes the kind of warmth that draws men to propose, that makes people feel grateful to be her friend, her daughter, her granddaughter.

Until recently, she could also still remember Hollywood, the town that beckoned, cajoled, and finally pulled her from Beaumont, Texas.

I have a photo of my grandmother, age 24, posed in a director’s chair, her elegant dancer’s legs crossed, her pencil skirt and pumps classic and classy, with Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette in the director’s chair beside her. Her lovely mouth is lipsticked and open in a laugh as she flirts, innocently, with this icon. I have another photograph of my grandmother in the cast of a movie with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Alzheimer’s had been kind enough to let her keep those memories. Until recently.

In his New York Times article, “Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s” Robert Leleux makes the case that with Alzheimer’s, that pains and wrongs of the past are softened, even forgotten.

He writes, “[M]y grandmother showed me that we are more than the sum of our memories. She taught me the vital importance of forgetting; and that sometimes it’s only our commitment to remembering that prevents us from accepting the love and peace that surrounds us.”

OK, maybe.

I, like Mr. Leleux, have tried to find the good in Alzheimer’s, as a way of making myself feel better about the life my beautiful grandmother is currently living. It’s hard to find much in the way of silver linings, yet I do agree with Mr. Leluex, that people with Alzheimer’s should not be seen as people who have “lost themselves . . . or even, as members of ‘the living dead.’”

The case can be made that without our memory and our memories, we are just a piece of driftwood, bobbing and aimless on the surface of the ocean. That without our memory, we have no tether. Without a tether, we have no identity.

But one look, even now, at my grandmother, and I know that’s not true. She is no piece of driftwood.

At almost 90 years old, she is still beautiful: rich brown eyes, hardly a gray hair, just plumper around the middle, with soft wrinkles covering her face, throat and hands. She still exudes warmth. It’s her warmth and grace and beauty that explains why a man can be found holding her hand in the common room.

During my last visit, a year and a half ago, she did not know who I was. Her signature red lipstick was smeared across her face and blouse. She could simply chit-chat about the birds outside her window, how nice sunshine felt on her shoulders, how she wished she could remember where she parked her car. Apparently, she needed to do some grocery shopping.

Even so, I realized that, as Mr. Leleux says, “what is gone in her is not missing.”

Yes, that’s 100% True.

In my grandmother’s presence, I can feel all that she still holds inside her: there is a young single woman who flirts with Humphrey Bogart. There is a mother who joyfully claims that having her four children was the single best thing she ever did. There is a grandmother who, at Christmastime, wears antlers strapped to her head with a velvet ribbon as she drives north on I-5. And there is a young girl, seventeen years old, smiling under the warmth of an East Texas sun, calling Go it Purple! Go it Purple!, her fist pumping the air.

It’s all still there, locked up maybe, but still undeniably present.



In General, Parenting on February 5, 2012 at 8:00 am

I never thought I’d have a crybaby for a son. I thought I might have a redheaded son. A son who loved to read. A son who adored musicals and the Mariners. A son who laughed when I used my Julia Child voice to narrate my dinner-making. But crying? Why would I have a crybaby, especially a crybaby son?

As a new mom, I figured it was just the colic. And the acid reflux. As a wee, flop-headed newborn, Buddy was the hard-bodied king of crying, his belly a taut six-pack from hours of core-tightening hysteria. He’d cry throughout the day, then cry throughout the night. To the point where, in the early months, I almost stopped hearing it. Maybe like how people living in Carmel or Santa Barbara eventually stop hearing the ocean.

Except for those times when I did still hear it, those middle-night times, when the sheer sound of Buddy’s inconsolability shredded my already-feeble sanity. And I would lay my red-faced, swaddled raison d’être on the couch, whisper-yelling, “Please shut up! Just please shut up!” as I hovered over him, my face inches from his.

OK. So maybe Buddy’s crying wasn’t exactly like living in Santa Barbara.

But that was just the colic, I reassured myself. And the acid reflux.

So I waited, reminding myself of the single consolation prize I had read somewhere: colicky babies often turn into bright kids. Whoop-de-doo!

But when Buddy finally seemed to outgrow the colic, the acid reflux, all the physical explanations for his sadness, he was still a crybaby. And I didn’t care if he was the next Einstein. I didn’t care if he grew up to speak six languages and win Nobel prizes for Theories of Irrelativity. I just wanted a kid who didn’t cry all the time.

Yet as Buddy got older, his crying just grew wetter. And louder. As a pre-schooler, the proverbial spilt sippy-cup of milk sent him into a puddle of his own sadness. The smallest, most inane-looking playground knee scrape created a hysteria that suggested he had just severed his own limb with a chainsaw. When I cut his burrito wrongly? The neighbors likely thought I had sprayed acid in his eyes. And ¡ay carmaba!, when Buddy dropped a Lego piece into that rail on the minivan’s floor, the rail that allows the seats to slide together and apart, the rail that serves as the final resting place for Goldfish crackers, Starbucks straws and yes, Lego pieces, Buddy was reduced to a yammering, milk-livered moldwarp on the floor of the minivan.

OK, I told myself, maybe there’s a reason he cries so much. So I experimented. For a few weeks, I showered his wails with the devotion of, I don’t know, a really devoted mother who wins mothering awards. And when that did exactly nothing to change the volume or the frequency of his crying, I spent two weeks virtually ignoring the poor kid, giving him barely a “Be a man, kid! Shake it off!” in response to his tears.

Of course, ignoring my crying child also proved problematic, largely because of Other Moms. One day at the park, Buddy bumped his shin on the merry-go-round and crumpled into a shrieking mess that led Other Moms to believe he had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees. I downplayed it, giving him only a “You’ll be fine!” thumbs-up from across the way while Other Moms rushed to his aid.

“I just don’t get it!” I remember telling my husband during one of those romantic nights out where we find ourselves chatting about sexy topics: our children, our children’s teachers, our children’s college savings plan. I dipped a sweet potato fry into a ramekin of mayo, shrugging. “Seriously. He cries over everything. It’s ridiculous. And it’s embarrassing. You should see the looks I get from Other Moms when he does that severed-limb thing. Buddy’s ridiculous, all that crying over nothing.”

“Ridiculous,” my husband agreed.

My husband is very agreeable. Just ask anyone.

But then, the smallest shadow of a smile passed over his lips.

“It’s not funny!” I said. “It’s light years from funny. You’ll see precisely how unfunny it is when his classmates start beating him up. Because they will. Kids beat up crybabies.”

Agreeable husband nodded, this time keeping any flicker of a smile from his face.

“It’s just that he should have grown out of it by now, his disproportionate reaction to even the dumbest things!”

“Hmmm,” my husband said. “As disproportionate as someone crying when Katie Couric’s husband died? Someone who doesn’t even know Katie Couric?”

My eyes narrowed. I set down my margarita. “Katie Couric’s an Everywoman. Women cry when sad things happen to an Everywoman.”

“Yes,” my husband said, his voice patient.

My husband is so patient. Just ask anyone.

“But who cries in the first scene of The Sound of Music?” he said. “Who cries at church whenever she hears kids singing?”

I picked up my margarita an inch off the table, only to thunk it right back down. “Who doesn’t cry when she hears little kids singing church songs? And anyway, this is about him, not me. This is about how extreme he is, zero to sixty in 2.2 seconds. He freaks out over nothing, then it’s over, passing like an eight-second hurricane. And,” I lowered my voice, “Other Parents think there’s something wrong with him. Wrong with us, like we’re raising a crybaby.”

Agreeable Patient Husband nodded. Then took a slow sip of margarita. Set down his glass and leaned back in his chair.

“You know why I married you? I knew you wouldn’t let me get boring, that you wouldn’t let me turn into someone I didn’t want to be. It’s great that Buddy has it too . . . your passion.”

I crossed my arms. Did my raised-eyebrow, thin-lips expression. “You’re saying I gave this to him? I made him this way?”

And then, when my sweet, highly-astute husband nodded, I burst into tears.

So here’s the whole truth and nothin’ but: I did cry way back when Katie Couric’s husband died. And I do cry during the intro scene of The Sound of Music, when Maria is spinning, wide-armed over the mountains, her apron and her hair so clean and shiny. I cried three summers ago, many times a day, when I believed my husband and I had fallen irretrievably out of love. And then I cried during marriage counseling when I realized that our love wasn’t, in fact, the least bit irretrievable. That really, we just needed to take a few steps closer to one another, to close the chasm created by our kids’ presence. Oh, and I should probably come clean and say that the other morning, I cried when I saw glassy-full raindrops dangling from the bare branches of the cherry tree in our front yard. And just this week, I cried when I realized another great agent was offering to represent my book. Sometimes beauty is so beautiful and relief and joy are so great that only tears will do them justice.

So how could I have missed it? How could I have spent the last eight years telling Buddy to buck up, to Man Up, to stop crying, to be strong and brave? How could I have tried so many times to squash my son’s passion, the emotional swings that are so much a part of my own emotional make-up?

And isn’t that the rub! As parents, we’re supposed to know and understand our children better than anyone, yet I find that such close proximity to my children renders them blurry and dizzifying. Like watching some hi-def action movie from the front row of the theater. Like when Sweetie shows me a paper-cut, holding her finger three millimeters from my left eyeball. “I can’t see it, Sweetie,” I tell her. “I can’t see something when it’s that close.”

And she gives me a look that suggests I’m simply not trying hard enough.

I’ve said it before: parenting is akin to standing too close to a Seurat painting, staring so hard at one dot, a single brushstroke that alone, gives us no indication of the beauty of the larger work, the whole creation.

I never thought, as a parent, I’d need to make a bit of distance, to take a few small steps back to appreciate the wholeness of Buddy, a messy piece of art who, yes, cries over puddled milk and lost Legos and missed shots on goal. A boy who weeps when he takes a tumble or when he’s playing with kids who aren’t playing football-basketball-soccer-flyers up-tag by the rules. Just as I once wept for a celebrity widow I’ve never met. Just as I often get weepy in church when people ask God for His help with husband’s brain tumors and sick children and mental health and the safety of children fighting wars in the middle east.

Knowing one’s child requires truly knowing ourselves. Buddy has taught me this, a far more useful theory than the ones Einstein ever taught me.

Kids, even those lovely, easy-going kids who did not start life as squalling bundles of woe, really are so smart that way.

It’s true. Just ask anyone.