memorial

Today is my sister’s birthday, Christine Robbins Ottaway. She died of breast cancer in 2012 at age 49. She had gotten stage IIIB breast cancer at age 41. She went through mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation and was clear for two years. Then it recurred and she returned to treatment, rounds of chemotherapy, a gamma knife radiation, another gamma knife and whole brain radiation. She was very very strong and tough and fought the cancer right up until the end.

This photograph was taken at my father’s 70th birthday party, in 2008. My friend Maline took the photograph. She and other old friends gathered and we sang the family folk songs.

Here is a drawing that my mother Helen Burling Ottaway did in 1978 of Chris. My mother always had a sketchbook. This is one she sent to me, because I was an exchange student in Denmark that year. At Christmas I received the wonderful sketchbook with my mother’s comments. My sister was 14 when I went to Denmark and I was 17.

Chris Ottaway by Helen Ottaway, 1978

wearing sunglasses in the rain

Trigger warning: this is about dementia. I wrote this over ten years ago.

wearing sunglasses in the rain

I am weeping for you both

you have cared for her
for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health

and she has lost her memory

you told me on the phone
that it’s not that bad

you say it again in the room

I knew before I saw her
that it was bad, very bad, much worse
she is only 60

she becomes agitated when we try to weigh her
old style doctor’s scale
frightens her to try to step up.
gentle caregiver that you have hired
pushes her, until I say stop, stop, stop
her weight does not matter

shuffling gait
she is frightened to be in a new place
I ask her questions gently
she does not want to sit in the chair in the exam room
“No!” she says “No!”
I leave the room until she’s calmer

when I return
I give her choices
“Shall I examine you first with my stethoscope
or shall I talk to your husband?”
I choose for her, the latter
she relaxes, a little
later, I tell her each step before I do it
she is slightly tense when I lay the stethoscope
on her thin shoulders, but she doesn’t fight

she tenses as I ask her husband questions
about the memory loss
ten years now, a steady course
I ask him what he understands about the prognosis
he shifts uncomfortably
and I ask her if she would like to wait in the waiting room
while I talk to him
Firm and clear: “Yes, I would.”

She is not in the room now
he says that she is not too bad
the picture comes slowly in to focus
mild memory loss, is what he thinks

there are three stages of memory loss, I say
mild, the short fibers, where short term memory is affected
we forget what someone just said
moderate, the medium axons
we forget the recipe that we’ve know for 50 years
we forget how to do math
we forget names and how to get to the store
we forget how to operate the car
severe, the long axons
executive function
we do not initiate things
we forget to get dressed
we forget how to speak
we forget our potty training

his eyes grow sadder and sadder

at last, we return to being a baby
we forget everything
at last, we remember the womb
we no longer want to eat

is she forgetting to eat?

he is not ready to answer

as we leave the room
he says that she is not sleeping well
she seems to be awake at night
eyes closed
but her fingers are moving, as in play
he doesn’t speak to her
he needs to sleep and thinks she should too

should he give her a sleeping pill?

maybe she is happy, I say
maybe in bed in the dark
you are there and it is safe
no one is making her get dressed
no one is making her bathe
maybe that is where she wants to be awake
I would not give her a sleeping pill

the dogs are in the room
he says
and the tv is on just a little
maybe she is happy

he is wearing sun glasses
as they cajole and help her in to the van

he is wearing sun glasses
though it is overcast, low clouds and raining

sometimes it is so hard
to say what I see
to try to say the truth

sometimes the truth is not gentle
but sometimes the truth is love

I am weeping for you both

written 2010

Playlist: Bands I have danced to

I have done two grief playlists. I will do more, but it got me thinking about other playlists. And we need distraction from grief too.

I am a swing dancer and jitterbug dancer. I lived in the Washington, DC area from 1985 to 1989 and then left for medical school. I spent a year being depressed about a breakup. The only time the depression lifted was when I went dancing. I started with contra dancing and then took a swing dance class. In the 1980s, we would have 400-600 people show up at the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo Park in Cabin John, MD, for a live band and a lesson, in a no alcohol venue. We would dance our socks off for three hours. We barely clapped for the bands, but they didn’t seem to care, because they liked watching us throw each other up in the air!

Marcia Ball

Daryl Davis

(You could watch his ted talk, too.)

Maria Muldaur

Uppity Blues Women

Little Red and the Renagades

Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra – at the Kennedy Warren Ballroom in Washington, DC.

I took the photograph of the poster this morning. It is from the 1980s.

Time marching

This is a tintype. “Tintype photography was invented in France in the 1850s by a man named Adolphe-Alexandre Martin. Tintypes saw the rise and fall of the American Civil War, and have persisted through the 20th century and into modern times.” — from here.

I do not know who this young man is, nor the year. I asked my maternal uncle before he died and he denied any knowledge of the person. He was the family historian and archivisit.

However, I have four tintypes in the box of china doll furniture clothes and accessories. My sister and I received a box of jewelry and the tintypes from my Great Aunt Esther Parr. She was my maternal grandmother’s sister and married Russel Parr. Her maiden name was White, a daughter of George White, the Congregationalist Minister who ran Anatolia College in Turkey and then moved to Greece. My sister and I divided the box of jewelry and the tintypes. There were eight so we took turns picking. We used them for dollhouse portraits, not realizing that they were real photographs. I wonder if the tintypes are from the Parr side of the family.

Last month I was missing my father on February 12. I was a month off. His birthday was today, Malcolm Kenyon Ottaway, born in 1938. I miss him now, too.

I will label more photographs, since I appear to have inherited the maternal family paper archive. There are people that I don’t know, though, and my parents are gone. My mother’s siblings have died as well. I am so glad I still have my father’s sisters.

Ask your parents about the pictures and the objects they keep, before they are gone and you lose the story. Time marches on.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: March.

Lullaby of Birdland

Today’s Ragtag Daily Prompt is flute.

I have played flute since fourth grade. This pastel was done by my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway, in 1980. We lived in Alexandria, Virginia. I am playing flute and Johnny Johnson is on trumpet. My father played trumpet too. Johnny was trying to teach me to improvise. I had not listened to much jazz and was not very good at it. I was well trained in classical flute and could read music. Johnny said, “No, just LISTEN.” I did learn it and can still play it.

One night the three of us were playing. We had a knock on the door. It was an Alexandria policeman. “We have had a complaint about the loud party.”

We looked at him blankly. My father says, “Well, you are looking at it.”

“Three of you?” says the policeman.

“Two trumpets and a flute.” says my father. “We can make a lot of noise.”

“Hmm.” says the policeman. “Well, um, could you keep it down a little?”

“Yes,” says my father, “It is after 10, so we will play more quietly.”

The policeman left and we did.

My mother’s pastel is titled “Lullaby of Birdland”.

saved

when your parents die
you will find what they saved

you will find things in the house
that you do not know why they saved

you may find linens carefully folded
and papers from the past

the linens embroidered by ancestors
but you cannot ask which ones

photographs of people you don’t know
and which are not labeled

a reference to a ring that your great aunt had
but she has been dead since 1986

when you go to your parents’ house
ask them what they have saved

ask them why it has been saved

ask them now
because when they are gone
it is too late

to ask about what they saved

________________________

There are also families estranged, where they have cut ties or emigrated or escaped abuse, and have reason not to save anything or speak about it.

We want freedom but we want love too. For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: freedom.

Recipe: Corned Beef

My mother gave my sister and I small notebooks decorated with our names when I was starting high school. She said that we were each going to cook once a week. We were to tell her what we wanted to make. She would give us the recipe and we would put it in our notebook. She would buy the ingredients and we would each cook.

It ended up being every other week so that we alternated, but I still have the notebook. My mother died in 2000 of ovarian cancer. I miss her. The first recipe I chose was corned beef and cabbage.

new friends

I have new friends.

Nothing is lost without something else being gained. When you put a bucket in the water and pull it up, no hole is left. The water equilibrates. The water rushes in to the new hole and there is swirling and chaos for a bit and then you can’t tell.

I took coffee in to my yard yesterday morning. I didn’t feel like eating much for the two days before that. I felt more like drinking alcohol but I pay a lot of attention to that urge. I drank some but stopped. There is way too much of that history in my family.

Caffeine, now. Also addictive. I’ve quit caffeine a couple of times. I quit back in medical school because my stomach hurt. Second year I kept falling asleep in the lectures. I tried standing up through them and woke up sliding sideways down the wall. I wonder if people laughed. Everyone was sick of sitting in that room, one floor up from the first year, and trying to learn an impossible amount of information. I don’t think people did laugh. We were all in the same boat after all. If they laughed, it was the laugh of recognition.

So I gave up and sat back down and took notes and fell asleep. My notes would trail off down the page at 40 minutes in to the lecture. Over and over and over. But there might be some advantages to hearing medicine in a dream state. Who knows?

My friends came while I was drinking coffee. Four pine siskins. I have named the first three Winken, Blinken and Nod. The fourth one showed up a little late. That one is Bill. Blinken is very fat and I suspect will appear abruptly thin after the eggs are laid.

A pair of juncos joined them. The feeder got a little bit chaotic when a house sparrow showed up. I thought there was a fifth pine siskin but I realized that this one had a pale pink hood: the lady of the house sparrow pair was present. Then my song sparrow, who sings every morning from across the street, came in. He and I have sung back and forth for years.

I have not seen a lady song sparrow yet. Or maybe she slipped in and out, she will be a little difficult to distinguish from the lady house sparrow and the pine siskins.

What joy to have new friends. I think I will have to fill the feeder every two or three days. It is spring and there will soon be new mouths to feed and everyone is hungry.

The photograph is not from my yard. It is from a wilder place, that is very beautiful.

Blessings.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

There is a song, the laugh of recognition, on this album: https://stores.portmerch.com/overtherhine/music/the-long-surrender-cd.html

The whole album helps me to grieve.