Samhain or Halloween is a time of transition from one year to another in the pagan calendar. Spirits rise and snow falls, at least here in Anchorage. I just had a landmark birthday in that I have lived to the age my mother died. My life has been unlike my mother’s. I have not married or had children. I am unlikely to die this year. Yet I am stung by the awareness available to me given both my distance from her experience and my similarity in age and temperament.
I spent most of my life trying not to become as trapped as she felt. Instead of resenting commitments, I have learned to take more time in making the choice to commit and to treasure moments of uncommitted time each day or night when I share her somewhat common inability to rest. Like her, I have a mess of books aside my bed where I can escape to a world where I do not exist but where I have the freedom to love and fear on a grand scale.
My mother and I shared a love for William Shatner. She would watch TJ Hooker and I would watch Star Trek. This week at work I searched YouTube for an old horror movie to show the folks. We wound up watching “Valley of the Spiders” with Shatner in the role of a veterinary doctor up against an army of eight-legged adversaries. The film was dated enough not to scare the pants off sensitive viewers but contained just enough scares that people chose to be late to dinner in order to catch the ending.
I work at a long-term care nursing facility. Most everyone there feels trapped. Some are trapped by life and some by death. My job is not just to distract them from this feeling but to encourage appreciation of their choices. These facilities used to be called “nursing homes” but they were rebranded because no matter how hard we try they are more like hospitals than homes.
There is a revolution coming in this area. The members of my generation will lead it demanding a different kind of care that does not include being trapped in a regimen of vital signs every few hours and thickened liquids. These are small efforts to prolong life that few people appreciate. Life and death are vital concepts in my work. What constitutes a life? Is lying in bed all day okay? Can institutionalization be lessened by surprise and humor? Could singing be one of the best therapeutic interventions ever? Can it be fun to laugh at death? That’s what Halloween is about. This year the residents have chosen to host a Haunted House with a Hospital Room and a Graveyard.
Winter in Alaska arrived just this week. The mountains wear their white hair proudly. The snow has fallen only lightly in the lowlands but it’s cold enough to discourage a sexy Halloween outfit. I’ve connected with friends and family in the last week and remembered how full of life my mother was until she was not. She was a lover of Halloween, The Fourth of July, of Christmas and of Sunday dinners. I continue her tradition by making up as many holidays as I can. I resist the promotional “National Bubble Gum”, “International Chocolate Brownie”, and “Salute your Soldier” Days to make each day a celebration that is not dictated but becomes itself.
The First Day of Snow is a natural one for most people I know and there is much walking around the town. The Day of the Most Mistakes is one that usually falls on Saturday, the end of my work week. The Day of Deliciousness coincides with the cooking group and The Luckiest Day of the Week is the day on which the Bingo game is held. I dress up for all of them, wearing a fancy apron or a silly hat. There may be many logical reasons to fear the darkness of winter, the upcoming election or the result of a medical test but there is also my mother’s way. My fondest memory of her illness is when she explained from her hospital bed that she had made a week’s worth of soup for us and it was in the fridge. I hear this now from other women who are losing what we call “reality orientation” but in truth they have located their most important reality, the ability to show love and hospitality.
Everyday will have a new guest knocking at the door. It may be winter, a giant dinosaur, a new roommate or a death. The treat may be candy or a bowl of soup. My mother is with me now as I write this thinking of chocolate and what it means to be a young at heart elder floating in eternity, grounded only in hospitality and humor.
Here is a funny costume I saw today.