Brian, my fiance, comes from a family that can be best descriped as massive. He is one of 6 kids of Roland and Sue. The Morins, Sue’s family, are also a great big conglomeration of people, so when he learned that his sister Laura was going to stay with a cousin in Nashua we were at least narrowed down to only perhaps one hundred possible places to find her.
Sue’s sister Jackie and I had hit it right off last year at her daughter Julie’s wedding, just as much as I did with Memere, thier mother. So, I was very much looking forward to getting a chance to visit with her again. Brian, of course, wanted nothing more than to have the entire Nashua contingent come up to our cabin, feast on bbq in our big backyard, and play in our lake.
“Can we get Matt a one day fishing permit?” He asked, as he looked over to my as yet unused fishing rod. I have no idea if Laura’s husband, an english teacher, has any interest in fishing, but I had secretly hoped that if he didn’t he might pretend he did because it is a very big deal when my man decides to invite you to share one of his favorite hobbies. I had said “Of course, honey.” before I even had time to mentally add up the possible male relatives in the Nashua group. Once I did, I was terrified that the dock would collapse from the weight.
“Can we do those burgers you made when Mike was here?” Mike is his brother, the one who several years ago found that most agreeable religion: healthy eating to lose weight. He is now an eloquent preacher on the topic that any weight problem can be solved by restraint and good nutrition. I frequently tell his story to members I work with who are battling extra pounds. For Brian, it was a point of pride that when he visited he could have a hamburger made from hand ground fresh beef that we had bought in a meat shop and butchered ourselves. The fact that I also hand form them stuffed with high quality aged cheddar and taste divine is also a big plus. I wasn’t surprised at all that out of all the carnivore-friendly dishes I make, he would want to wow his sister with cheddar stuffed sirloin burgers. “Do you want bulkie rolls or those ones I get with the hard crust?” I asked.
“Do you think this will be Hudson’s first swim in a lake?” He mused in between bites of dessert. Not knowing much of anything about the new home that Laura and Matt had moved into, I had no idea, but even though it was not their first time at a lake, the day Pepere Brian took his granddaughters to HIS lake was definately one of the high points of his life. I knew that given the chance he would love to be the Uncle that was in the baby book dipping tiny toes into the water.
And so it went, through the building of shelving, the planning our trip, the day to day shuffle to and from doctors, therapists, and government agency offices. Occaisionally I would remind him that since leaving New Hampshire as a young teenager, it was almost certain that she would want to visit with friends, other family, and probably see some places that were mostly memories.
But, I had to admit, it was just as exciting as each time my own family was anticipating a visit from Grandmom and PopPop Cook, my Dad’s parents, or one of the assorted relatives there in Michigan. It is a universal thing I suppose, to dream and think up possible plans when you discover that kin is coming to visit. I wonder; Is this how Sarah and her family felt when one of the shepherds first hustled up and said he had seen Abraham’s caravan? Is it this excitement that first caused John the Baptist to stir inside Elizabeth’s womb?
Our families, in this day and age, are so much more connected. Even though my children are all scattered to different places in the country, everyday my facebook and twitter feeds bring me a play by play of what is going on in their lives. It takes mere seconds to shoot an instant message off and get one back, and my daughter Janel and I have been known to completly loee track of time while talking online. And yet, even with video Skype there is something special about being able to wrap your arms around someone you love that no digital encounter can compare to.
The first tremblor that announced there was an earthquake coming was when I tried to get some idea what Laura and Matt’s schedule might be the week they were here. It was such a small thing…that Hudson, their one year old, had difficulty getting adjusted to sleeping in new places. At the time all I could think about was how much trouble I used to have getting a one year old Trina to sleep – period. I shrugged with the sympathy that us old mothers have for young mothers, and mentally noted that I would need to start grind beef early enough in the morning so that burgers could be served at noon. “If we have the grill on at 11, everyone can eat at noon,” I told a nervous Brian, “and there will still be plenty of time to swim or fish before they have to head back to Nashua at 4 or 5.” In my mind, the problem was solved once I told my daughter Nicole (who is also my aide) that I would need to be taking meds and applying hot packs to my contracted muscles at 6 instead of 8am.
The next one hit on a day Brian was already frustrated by the memory problems that come with having a TBI. “Well now I don’t know what to do. She’s staying at Mandy’s, but it is Mandy’s birthday so they can’t come on Saturday. I don’t want to have the bbq Sunday and then have to take Jamie back Sunday night and deal with her.” He sputtered. “Why is it everytime I want to do something there is such a big problem!” It took a while for the two of us to get to the point that we both knew that Mandy (one of Jackie’s numberous kids) was almost the same age as Laura, and was married with kids. Slowly, it dawned on us that the plans for the week were entirely outside our control, and we had best just do our best to roll along with the tide.
Wednesday, of course, was the earthquake. Brian was nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs waiting to see what could be arranged to get us down to Nashua in between appintments, watering the garden, packing and freezing a large amount of food, being home for meals on wheels, and of course, the usual fishing and kareoke nights. It was the end of the month, that twilight zone when us retired folk are basicly out of money and waiting on the next check in our fixed income lives. It was like one moment we were just living our usual lives, and the next there was the summons: Aunt Jackie is having dinner at her house, be there for 4:30. An absolutely laughable ideal that would be impossible to accomplish. Meals on Wheels had come a bit late, and he had just barely finished eating. I, meanwhile, was already aching from standihg at the kitchen counter dividing and packaging the various desserts and snacks for the next two weeks that Nicole and I had made with the leftovers from the previous weekend’s bbq. There was still our nap, a medically dictated item, one more meal and med time, one more catheter time, and I was in grubby clothing with food stains all over and a hairdo that only can be achieved by alternating being over a hot stove and then dousing ones head under the cool shower water every 30 minutes. Brian was stumbling he was so tired, and I noticed that he had put on a t shirt that was for painting.
There is a story that has circulated the globe via the internet since way back when I used to look for dinner ideas on alt.recipes. net in the very early days of usenet. It is about taking a trip to India ..or, fill in the blank exotic country. The story talks about all the planning, the learning of Hindi, of how to wrap a sari, of how the money exchange is, and so forth. Then the big day arrives, and you get on the plane, and a few short hours later the attendent says “Welcome to Holland!” Most often, the parable is told to explain what it is like to be expecting a baby, only to discover on the day of birth that your child has down’s syndrome, a missing limb, or some equally unexpected challenge. The moral, of course, is that after you have made a spectacle of yourself yelling and stamping your foot about the fact you really wanted to go to India, you finally calm down enough to discover that windmills, tulip, and funny wooden shoes have thier own unique charm and value.
So, we had our “Welcome to Holland” moment. I sacrificed my nap, gave myself a quick pep talk, took some tylenol and bent into the work at double speed. Pull, tear, wrap. Pull, tear, wrap. Over and over, until the counter was covered with packages ready to freeze. Switch, place, switch, place, switch, place. The freezer becomes an intricate three dimensional puzzle with real meat sorted by type on top, desserts in the lower left, and every other cubic inch carefully alloted so that there is just enough space to reach into the ice cube bucket. It is so full that I apply duct tape to the door as insurance, and then hustle out to the hoses. More pulling ensues as I hook the feeder hose to the shower, stopping long enough to once again spray my head with the cool water. I turn on the drip hoses, and once again curse the fact I still haven’t gotten to the line on the two page “house to do” list that says “fix the leaking connector on hose 2”. So, over and over, I remove the 5 gallon bucket whenit is almost full, place the 2 gallon bucket in it’s place. Over and over I take the empty peanut butter jar and dip it into the bucket and fill the watering can. Water is too precious to waste. The water that leaks out of the broken connector is needed anyway for the second crop of vegetables I have laid in after heavy rains killed the lettuce. We need those peas and beans this winter. This is not gardening as a hobby. This is micro farming to keep us from the increasing fate of the poor – malnutrition. The water pours out onto the soil, and back I go to fill the watering can again. Hurry, says the voice of my intellect. Hurry, the 2 gallon bucket will overflow soon. It is exhausting, and by the time all 35 gallons of water have been delivered via hose and grunt labor my back is slick with sweat and my arms and shoulder muscles are screaming. I stopped only twice, when the first and second alarms went off, to try and wake Brian up. I was unsuccessful both times, as he was too exhausted to do more than murmur “not now…” in that soft sleepy voice.
When he finally does awaken, any thought of being in Nashua for 4:30 has vanished. That too is just part of our life, the random attacks of fatigue or illness that just happen. We have both learned that our health needs to come first, and to hell with the schedule, but Brian is much better at following doctor’s orders than I am. He feels the spasms running up and down my back, and gives me a hot shower. We pack the vegetarian food, the depends, the catheters, the gloves, and of course the medications the two of us will need to take that night. Eventually, the motorcycle is uncovered, the helmets go on, and we start out to explore this place called Holland, and leave behind the thoughts of fishing, tiny toes in water, and sirloin burgers.
Holland does not disappoint. While Nashua is, as it has always been, a nightmare of a traffic tangle of one way streets, unmarked dead ends, and near ghettos abuting right up against middle class homes, the tijy apartment that Jackie and John have smells like home the mokent you walk in. As we pull in to the driveway on Black Cherry, our 800lb Harley Roadking, the open mouthed wonder on the face of one of the young boys says it all. Brian has made an entrance that will not be forgotten.
Jackie and her crew, of course, already know that the real Brian is coming, not that crew cut Old Navy preppy Ken doll that his ex displayed for 15 years. They also already know about his health issues, about the big round belly that is the side effect of the treatments that saved his sanity and his life. The biggest change they see is that his hair is now a glorious long 1970’s mane just like the classic rock stars he idolized as a teen. In the bustle of squeezing the bike into an already overcrowded driveway and unpacking our gear, I forget that except for the occaisional vacation or wedding, his sister has never seen anything other than the Ken doll version. I had taken out and started the camcorder, and in the small window see the look on her face as she searches for something familiar. I remember the first time my relatives in Michigan saw me after I got away from the monster and was free todress as I wanted, to say what I wanted, and to do whatever I damn well pleased with my hair. I rember that look.
Soon, however, they are set together at the dinner table, and I hear Brian’s voice as he calmly and gently starts to talk with Laura about his life, his challenges, and his dreams. A year would not be enough time, and they will onlyhave a few days, but I say a prayer to God that this is at least a start for a clean and sober retired disabled Kareoke singing Harley dude to get to know a 30-something white suburban Californian Mom. I hope that she will learn that there is much of the Hudson, NH teenager and college student that she remembers still inside Brian, even though he himself has so little memories. I pray again that she doesn’t bring up too many memories of his time trapped in being the Ken doll, because I know how much the nightmares disturb his sleep. I sit for a bit and just watch them as the same sparks of color show in both sets of eyes, as the smiles at the antics of the children around them occur.
Talking with Jackie feels like we do this everyday. We share our latest reports of the doctors and the aches and pains that are just part of the aging process. She asks about the our kids and grands, I get informed that young Jamie is now a nurse. We talk about food, Jamie, divorce law, family medical histories, our recent trip to North Carolina, our estate planning, and at least 29 other topics beforethe night is out, and still we end with “tomorrow I will tell you’s”. The kitchen is stuffed with people celebrating one of the birthdays…a 30th, which for the Morin women is somewhat like winning the lottery with an entire weekend of special things planned. Since he is now awake, Hunter also gets to have Happy Birthday sung to him, and soon becomes enraptured by the musical toy Aunt Jackie and Uncle John got for him.
I do a bit more videotaping, and then end up in a conversation with one of the guys. He is a construction worker, and soon we are talking about the depression, the housing market, the need to have one or two winter jobs, and what exact type of woodworks best for a deck. As usual, talking with the kids is easy, and I particularly enjoy the young cousin who, at 12, is the same age as my ex-stepdaughter Mary. Uncle John, I discover, has as many irons in the fire, home improvement wise, as I do. The only difference is that his his a list of things at homes of the kids, ended by an evergrowing pile of things at home he just can’t get time for. I sigh in agreement, and with a promise I will not ask him to do the work, he gives me some valuable ideas of how to refloor our bathroom.
The next day, ofcourse, both Brian and I are sore and exhausted, and there is no chance of us going back or getting the rest of the things done sowe can return to Nashua and stay a fewdays. We ask Laura and Mandy to call around and check: Does anyone have a spare room or a backyard we could set up the tent in?
However, just like the Holy Family, we find arriving in the city during a holiday means there is not a single square of lawn in the entire Morin clan. I look at the budget, sigh, and at 2am on Friday morning finally find a hotel that is under $75 a night. I will solve the question of which bills get pushed off another day. This is the only visit Laura and Matt will make until the wedding, and I am determined to get us all as much time as possible together.
Friday is full of nurse and doctor visits, so busy in fact that we have to pick Jamie up by noon or he would have to wait until 8pm. Again, I burn all of my reserves, and with a list of things still to do and my gas tank on empty, the boys watch me dissolve into a tired weepy mess from exhaustion. Brian puts me to bed with sweet whispered promises that he will schedule his aide to pack for us when his parents go to Nashua in the fall. Again I am reminded of why I fell in love with this man.
Saturday, amazingly, we are able to leave before 4pm. The car is packed, the dog dressed in his Harley gear, and the dishes done. We leave just after 1pm – a sure sign God is with us, as taking two disabled people, a ten year old, and a chihuahua anywhere for three days takes a ridiculously large amount of stuff. We arrive just in time at Mandy’s house to see Taryn, one of the young Morins, blow out her candles and dive wrestler-style into cake, games, and pinyata bashing. Mandy’s husband and another one of the guys talk with me about the new Smirnoff Cake flavored vodka, and listen laughing as I describe the first time I went out at the ekderly disabled complex to burn the alcohol of my gin for my martinis. Soon Paula’s husband joins the discussion which has by then turned to sports, and I get to watch the good natured ribbing he gets for being a Pittsburg fan. I keep silent about the relative in Scranton and so on. This is New England in August, for goodness sake. To top it off, the Sox are in first place, so now is not the time to be disclosing that you have cousins with season tickets to see the Steelers.
About the only thing that doesn’t happen is any conversation of length between Laura and me, and by the end of several hours it is clearly bothering Brian. I reassure him that there is plenty of time, and even though I have a kid almost her age, there is bound to be something we shall find we have in common. Matt, on the other hand, is charming to talk with, and of course two teachers are always likely to be able to soon find things to talk about. In the end, welfare parents and 7th graders both have the same need to know how to put pen to paper and what is so important about knowing at least a little about Shakespere. I find myself glad that Sunday after we visit with Pepere, it will be just the guys. The women are all set to go off of the the 30-cup day at the beach, sans kids. Mandy’s husband is hoping to finish the new deck he is building, and I mention to him that I will probably bring the boys by for company, and even though Mandy assures me he doesn’t neec any help, I will wear shorts that can get sawdust on them.
Now, at 11pm, curled up at the foot of the budget hotel bed, I listen to the steady woosh woosh of Brian’s c-pap regulated breathing as it alternates with the quiet noises of the dog curled up with Jamie. My MS riddled brain has already forgotten the names of over half the family that was there today, but in the end it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Holland has turned out to be pretty wonderful, and we made plenty of new memories in place of what we planned to do. Each glance, touch, shared game, and hug made the trip worth it, and leave me excited for whatever surprises God puts in our lives tomorrow. Good night My new sister-in-law. Goodnight Matt and Hudson. Goodnight future wrestling star Taryn. Goodnight to all our loved family!