Friday, November 30, 2012

"The Middle Child"

Middle child   
between curly hair with doe brown eyes   
and an only son   
one five years ahead, the other five behind   
imitating the elder while   
lingering in childhood with the younger   
envying her poised elegance and   
longing for his sweet innocence   

Middle child   
between worldliness and naiveté   
flanked by her play for independence   
and his everlasting childhood   
expecting more from myself   
learning by her mistakes   
benefiting when parents learn   
it’s something kids just do   

Middle child   
between reserved solitude   
and gentle attachment   
becoming reliable and resilient   
out of necessity and then habit   
passing white glove inspections   
knitting and purling the blanket of family   
needing its comforting warmth   

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Cottage"

Cottage on Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands, Ireland September 2010   

Whitewashed walls tinged rose by sunrise’s blush   
sashes—a splash of sky   
new thatch mixes with dew’s perfume   
while flowers and ferns embroider the path of home       
Door opens with smiles and cheer       
Peat banked in the hearth       
black pot nestles in amber embers simmering Guinness stew         
Lace daintily drips from the table        
—tatted by Grams’ steady hands       
Oatcakes totter on a platter       
sheep’s cheese, churned butter, honey, cream       
and tea brewed black—a midnight sky swirling with galaxies        
From the loft flows the fiddle’s enchantment        
a boy’s toe tapping, keeping the beat        
drowning out the past’s lament        
tears of yesteryear hidden in another song        
Cottage at Bunratty Castle
Share a pint   
Share a verse   
Share our life     
Welcome home!   
Welcome home.   

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Cottage at Bunratty Castle

During our entire trip through
 Ireland, a place I'd never visited before, I felt as though I was returning home.

Cottage on Inisheer

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"The Last Dance"

  On November 4th, I found myself sitting outside the door of my mother's hospital door, weeping. The nurse huddled next to me, looping her arm around me in sympathy as I cried. I couldn't get my mother to eat, or drink, or take medication. Whenever anyone placed something in her mouth, she pushed it out with her tongue, or let it sit with a slack jaw until it spilled from her lips in a nasty pool of drool. My mother's sudden inability to swallow anything caught me unprepared. The week before, she ate her pancakes swimming in syrup, drank her hot chocolate Boost laced with Carnation Instant Breakfast. She devoured a bowl of homemade split pea soup loaded with onion and bacon, and asked for her favorite, spaghetti. Within a period of a few days, Mom's tongue insisted on doing the opposite of what she needed in order to survive. Anything placed in her mouth got uncontrollably shoved right back out.  
When I called to have the home health care nurse check Mom because her fluid intake dropped so much within a twelve hour period, the nurse suggested that Mom may have had a urinary track infection. She'd had other patients exhibit confusion and passivity along with the swallowing problem. We began enticing Mom with cranberry juice, made certain she drank more water, and watched her carefully. By the next day, Mom only drank twelve ounces instead of her usual thirty-two. She barely ate any food and asked often to go "home." When she needed to use the restroom around 11 o'clock that evening, I noticed her hands felt cold, her legs looked shrunken. We immediately tried to get her to sip some water, but she pushed her tongue against the straw instead of drawing the tube into her mouth. Finally, we tried using a syringe to place fluid into her mouth. She let it pool loosely until it trickled from the corner of her lips. Alarms rang. We decided not to wait for nurse's visit scheduled for first thing the next morning. Instead, we warmed Mom in her favorite blue robe and rushed her to the ER once again.
  Hospital time matches nothing in the outside world. Every minute passes with excruciating slowness. In the four hours that it took for the nurses and doctor to run tests and process everything for Mom, she'd shrunk into a withered prune. The skin on her hands creased into ridges. The pads of her fingertips changed from smooth to wrinkled surfaces. Her hands lost all heat, and when I held one I thought, "She's turning to ice." Mom's legs kicked about in anxiety as her chorea surfaced with the stress of the situation. I watched the skin on her shins pull tight over her bones while her calves puckered. Whatever fluid her body contained pooled toward her center, leaving her extremities cold as death. Eventually, an IV relieved Mom's dehydration. By 2 PM, her hands and feet thawed to room temperature. Her sunken cheeks still looked skeletal, but some color splashed across her face. By the second IV and round of antibiotics, Mom could eat a few spoons of the pureed pork chops and mashed potatoes the dietitian provided for Mom's lunch. Medication still resulted in a battle, though. The nurses left it up to me to administer the pills because Mom wouldn't or couldn't cooperate with them. This troubled all of us, and so the nurses contacted the on duty doctor and requested Mom have a swallowing evaluation performed as soon as possible. Within the hour, the specialist wheeled Mom down to XRAY for the test. The specialist explained to me that one of two possibilities appeared to be happening with Mom. In the first scenario, Mom's slightly elevated white blood cell count could indicate a urinary track infection in it's early stages. She proposed that Mom's HD made her susceptible to more confusion and physical symptoms like the swallowing problem. If that was the case, once Mom rehydrated and responded to the antibiotic treatment, she should return to her baseline swallowing--pills with foods like pudding, pureed meats and veggies, pasta cut in small pieces. I clung to her hopeful suggestion because I knew all too well the second option the specialist would offer to me. Mom's HD had shifted into a new level. Her frequent tendency to do the opposite from what she wanted (like pulling back when she wanted to move foreword, or not being able to move at all when she's trying to shift out of her wheelchair) could now be affecting her ability to take something into her mouth, maneuver her tongue to pushing the food back into the throat and then swallowing. She said Mom either couldn't or wouldn't move her food in any direction but forward and out of her mouth. The woman asked if we'd discussed tube feeding as an option with Mom. I assured her that we had, and that Mom had made it clear to everyone that intubation was not an option for her.
  We have lived with the dance of Huntington's Disease for ten years, the slow and inevitable death that carved away aspects of my mother's physical abilities along with her personality. Most days, her spirit stayed strong, but clouds of vacant thoughts sometimes blurred her eyes, and for short periods of time, Mom vanished. During the end of October, she disappeared for longer and longer periods. In her place were empty green eyes that disengaged by looking into the corners of the family room. When the hospital suggested we set up hospice, I knew that our lives would change once again. 
  In the weeks that followed, Mom rallied several times. A couple of mornings, early on, she ate an entire pancake or scrambled eggs. When she couldn't manage to suck through a straw, we spirited water, colas and Boost into her mouth using a syringe. A week after Mom's hospitalization, she began spending her entire day in her bed. We moved a television into the room and a comfortable rocking chair for me to use. Days strung together with hours viewing Mom's favorite television shows. I'd search Netflix every evening to line up possible movies for the following day. The little amounts of food Mom ate during those first days dropped off rapidly. Each day she ate half of what she'd eaten the previous meal. She never regained her ability to draw from a straw, and so one of us tempted her with fluids a syringe-full at a time. The hospice nurses explained that we fed Mom more for our own emotional needs, and that eventually her body would let us know that she wouldn't take any more food. The last thing I fed my mother was a bowl of ice cream--the food of her nightly ritual for most of her adult life. One afternoon she ate about half a bowl, but by that evening she refused to swallow any. Nothing enticed her to eat after that point, and I feared she would aspirate something if I pushed too hard. Eventually, Mom followed the same pattern with fluids. Weakness swathed her, and I became uncertain that she'd make it to my brother's promised Thanksgiving visit, but Mom rallied the moment he walked into her room. She smiled and held his hand, pushing her energy forward as he sat and talked to her. When he left the next day, she slept for hours, waking up only for minute amounts of water.
          The nurses assured us repeatedly that Mom felt no pain. They explained that the brain shuts down pain receptors as the body starves. I know, without a doubt, that this was true as Mom slowly melted away. I reached out to close friends and family members during those last days, I relied heavily upon the hospice nurses, social worker, and aid who energized me with their genuine compassion for our family. I found myself longing to sit down to write and somehow find control over everything.
  Yesterday, I put Sleepless in Seattle on the television, pulled my red fleece blanket up to my chin, and stroked Mom's brow as she slept for a second day in the row. Her breathing, slow and steady in slumber all day long, changed into a rapid pant. I called David into the room when it didn't stop and had him sit with Mom while I called the nurse. She suggested I start the morphine and said she'd be right over. An hour later, Mom's rapid breathing took on a little gurgle. When the nurse arrived, she administered a second drug and another dose of morphine. She examined Mom, told me to call family to get them here, and went over instructions for the rest of the evening. By the time she left, Mom's breathing rate had nearly returned to normal, but that only lasted a matter of minutes.
  And so we began the last dance with my mother.

  In Mom's dreams, she always walked. I like to think she's walking now, hiking up one of the crooked paths behind the cabin. I imagine her twirling in circles, a graceful dance unmarred by Huntington's.

Edna Abrams, November 2011

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Monday, November 26, 2012

"is it real?"

is it real?   
the glowing smile in every photograph   
the arms thrown casually around your husband   
frame after frame   
the friendliness you casually offer to everyone   
the show of happiness you radiate in public   

is it real?   
the vanilla personality that never offends   
the perfect hair, make-up, and outfit   
the gym toned body that defies gravity   
the soccer Mom carpool     

is it real?   
the eyes that don’t shed tears of grief   
the temper that won’t explode   
the heart that can’t break   
the cool reflective surface that never ripples in a breeze   

is it real?   
the excuses for his infidelities   
the acceptance of abuse   
the tolerance for his cruel and belittling words   
the immaculate life with no imperfections   
is it real? 

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Sunday, November 25, 2012


         When my father died so unexpectedly from a massive heart attack, my world titled. Everything I did and said seemed unbalanced and skewed. A few weeks after his death, the school district wanted me to go to training in Sedona, Arizona with a group of wonderful women, and I cried nightly because I couldn’t make any decisions. A phone call from one friend who was also going on the trip convinced me to come along.
         Sedona began my healing. Notice, I use the word “began” because recovering from grief takes years. I took the first steps to life without my father by boarding the flight from San Antonio to Phoenix. The trip there remains a blur in my memory, but I distinctly recall standing at the car rental kiosk with five other women, and none of them wanted to drive the minivan from Phoenix to Sedona. Being fall, darkness would accompany us on the drive for more than half the trek. Now, I’ve never minded driving, even to places I’ve never visited, but my mind felt cotton swaddled and addled half of the time. Perhaps that’s why I ended up driving? At any rate, I soon positioned myself behind the wheel with one friend as navigator.
         Our exit from Phoenix went without obstacles, slowed only by the five o’clock traffic common to most cities. Having driven many times in Houston, Phoenix’s highways seemed fairly easy to navigate. Before long, we zipped onto a wide open stretch of highway. I remember conversation flowing around me filled with chuckles and “remember when” scenarios. A sunset exploded across the western sky, and darkness swathed our car as we sped along. For endless miles, our isolated van passed no other vehicle. The highway had few lights, with exits creeping up unexpectedly. My navigator, listening to the chat from the back seat, missed the exit we needed to take, and the next one didn’t appear for another five or six miles. We looped around, took a left turn instead of a right, and briefly pondered the possibility of driving aimlessly up and down desert highways like some Twilight Zone characters. Eventually, we rolled into Sedona’s warm lights and found our motel.

         Snow and ice descended during the night. Not much by Arizona standards, but as a Texan, I felt uneasy as I moved behind the wheel of the rental. Taking things slow and easy, we made our way from our motel to the hotel hosting the workshop. The presenters crammed activities and information into us at warp speed, and by the end of the first day we each longed for the escape that shopping in this wonderful little town offered. We hit the specialty shops with enthusiasm. I longed to do a little hiking on some of the trails, but as the designated driver, I didn’t get go that first day. By the end of the second day of training, I felt as though I’d explode if I didn’t get to walk to at least one of the famous vortexes of Sedona.
         When everyone else wanted to go see a movie, I opted to grab my camera case and head out on a trail that zigzagged beyond our motel. My spirit (numbed by so much grief and loss) found peace as I strolled along. I don’t know when I started crying. I don’t know when I stopped. I stayed out on the trail for over two hours, pausing when I needed to feel grounded. I took photographs of many of the views, yet I knew I couldn’t capture the healing energy that flooded through me.

         Grieving has taken on a new meaning over the last couple of years, for I’ve learned we can mourn for the living as they struggle through their final sorrows. Within the next few years, I will return to Sedona to walk, once again, the trails that eased my wounded soul.

 Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman