It had been a month, so I went to see my mother. Instead of hello, she said, “You know what I really want? Ice cream. I dreamed I was eating ice cream.”
So we went to get her an ice cream cone, the swirly vanilla custard kind, and she sat there savoring it, taking her time, just licking in silence, paper napkins tucked into her shirt and on her lap in case of dripping. I don’t think I ever saw anyone enjoy an ice cream cone that much.
“Oh, that was perfect,” she said afterwards, “you made my dream come true.”
It was a small moment, a small dream, a small giving.
The place where she lives is under new management now and residents are being moved about so rooms can be painted and carpets cleaned. This would be disruptive for anyone, but it’s especially so for an elderly person like my mother who has created an elaborate nest of books and knick-knacks and all manner of stuff in her side of the room, cramming every conceivable interior and exterior space. I help her remove the pictures from the wall above her bed: magazine photos of kittens and smiling people, greeting cards with flowers and pretty children, a sketch of a man who remotely resembles my father and above whose face she has written his name –- Bill -- in careful cursive. It strikes me that this cheerful crowd of pictures has been company to her, and the wall looks bare and cold without them. I tuck them carefully into a box, reassure her over and over that she can decorate her new room soon, but everything is left in limbo.
And I understand her anxiety, but now it’s time to go. I grab my keys and depart, feeling, as always after these visits, exhausted, depleted, and sad.
175 miles away, back home and in my own life, things are so much more pleasant. My inner clock has finally recalibrated after our travels, and I manage to get out on my bike and I’m surprised by the profusion of wildflowers everywhere. It seems like an especially good year for lupine, and the hills are tinged with yellow mustard, and the air smells like spring.
As I pedal along I listen to an NPR podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Richard Dawkins about evolution and the existence (or not, as in Dawkins' opinion) of God, and she asks him if, when he considers all the terrible things people still do to each other, he ever wonders why our species is not more evolved. He responds, no, on the contrary, the wonder is that we are as altruistic and decent as we are... because unselfish behaviors are in fact contrary to our genetic programming for survival.
Questions about selfishness and sacrifice have been big ones in my life. There were great martyrs in my family history, and I retain the vestige of a belief that I was supposed to embrace suffering more willingly than I did, that the ease and comfort of my life today is perhaps the guilty fruit of my selfish pursuit of personal happiness and my facile ability to elude the morass of expectations and demands that was my legacy. I have saved no one but myself.
But I try to be nice. I really do. And I wonder if that counts.
Counts for what?
Towards acceptance and forgiveness of myself, I suppose.
I guess that’s why I was so happy to buy my mother ice cream. It was tangible and easy and finite -- a tiny transaction that yielded a few minutes of genuine pleasure and pure happiness.
I just don’t want to have to solve anyone else’s life for them, because as stable as I may appear to others, I’m not really so sure of my own footing, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from stumbling in the cracks and teetering at the edges above the steep below.
Last night we invited Jeanne to our house for dinner. She’s a good friend and neighbor, and she understands the Ranch and makes it feel like a community. And speaking of ice cream, she makes her own, creating the most imaginative and innovative flavors, and she brought over a batch of her new Cajun Pecan, and it was beyond fabulous. The secret ingredient: a certain Italian red pepper spice I’d given to her some time ago, never dreaming it would find its way into ice cream.
And we shared a meal and got caught up with each other, and the cool night air wafted in from the hills and I thought about how we use what ingredients we are given, even the unexpected and the dissonant, and we make some sort of life for ourselves, and within the sphere that we can handle, whether large or small, we try to be kind, and if we are lucky we craft something lovely and ephemeral that brings pleasure in its moment, and if luckier still, we touch a life and render the passage a little easier.