ON PRESIDENTS DAY

Aussie on ice

Lori and Henry were gone this weekend, leaving just Aussie and me in the house. I went out to dinner Saturday evening. Putting my coat and boots on by the door, I noticed how she looked at me, instantly grasping that I was dressed differently, intent on going out without her (Aussie stays!). Suddenly it hit me how vulnerable she was, how dependent on me. What if I wasn’t coming back? How would she get food? Who would be there for her?

And with that, my own vulnerability hit as well. I’m in good health, but if the car skidded, we could be dead in a minute flat. Or ill, or disabled.

Feeling strong and independent is so foundational to this American culture. And why not? There are no missiles hitting our cities as they do in Ukraine or Israel, no bombings to endure like people in Gaza or, more sporadically, in Pakistan or Iran, no lack of food or drinking water. We celebrate Presidents Day and make this a long weekend, focusing not on courage or principle—who is our counterpart to Alexei Navalny of Russia?—but on store sales and sleeping late.

Several days ago I worried about whether I’d be able to read books again. That fear was gone by morning, but when I walked in the woods the following day after snow in a gorgeous forest with only Aussie for company, I made my way with both confidence and simultaneous reminders  to be careful on the ice, not to slip and break a leg, not to sit or lie on the ground with pain and cold with no one around to help and no cellphone signal.

What would happen to Aussie if I didn’t come back from dinner? She has a dog door to get out to the yard, and if she’s hungry enough she’ll go through the fence and wander in search of food, someone will find her and bring her to the shelter, where they’ll feed her.

Aussie will be okay, but let’s face it, ultimately, we all take our chances. Maybe not the chances Alexei Navalny took, returning to Putin’s Russia after attempts on his life, but the very nature of our life is powerlessness in the face of life’s contingencies.

This doesn’t bring up fear, but rather the incredible sweetnesses of day-to-day. There’s a pivot I can make, not focusing on what’s beyond my agency but on the undeserved joy I get from calling my sister on WhatsApp and laughing with her—all for no money down, from a few tablespoons of a lemony rice pudding, from the smile I got from a woman who helped me move a 50-pound bag of birdseed earlier today.

When I face my own powerlessness in the face of complex conditions, I turn away from the losing proposition called control, which means fewer shoulds, fewer deadlines, fewer finish lines. Instead, the present moment becomes so alive! And why not, given that it’s the only thing I really have?

Vulnerability brings me self-liberation, but only if I make that pivot.

Over lunch today I described to someone the joy Bernie had from our Italian coffee machine. He had loved his cappuccino for many years, and when he had his stroke, he wanted to still be able to make it for himself. We bought a machine that ground the coffee and steamed the milk, but still needed handling (the ones that do it all cost $3,500). I wrapped a book in a plastic envelope and put it under the steam wand, and he was able to rest his cup on it while using his one good hand to manipulate the buttons and dials.

He loved showing off how he could make his own cappuccino. That coffeemaker is still around, and there isn’t a morning when I don’t relish not just making my cup but also remembering the joy it gave him. He had to give up doing baths (couldn’t get safely into the tub), but he could make his own beloved cappuccino.

Just like he could slice his own bagel. How? Because we had a guillotine on the counter which he could operate with one hand.

Aussie comment: “A one-handed Marie Antoinette, only she was the bagel.”

I can’t tell you that he loved life once he was paralyzed in half his body, but he loved those moments.

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