By Carol Barrett
Two sounds continually punctuate this house: the cat’s paws at the back door, time to go out, or come in, thank you, and my daughter sneezing. I glance habitually to see if she has a box of Kleenex within reach. She can go through two, even on a good day. She used to get allergy shots, but she is too sick to make the trip, and much too sick to endure the extra boost of allergens, from pillow to pine dust, assaulting her young system. It is one more thing she cannot do, on a list as long as my mother’s Christmas card itinerary. My mother is old school – not sending to a friend means you have died. She can’t take that risk.
I try to focus on what my daughter can do, admire her lovely fingernails, buffed to perfection, the college textbooks she has been reading since middle school, the muted orange and chocolate colors she puts together, assembling an outfit for a rare outing. I stand ready with encouragement like a watchful hiker, a bit of bread in hand for a furtive squirrel, who, like Sarah, prefers to accept my gift when I am not looking. But hikes are off our can-do list. Walks maybe, a few short blocks. Sometimes just climbing the stairs to her room is a major effort. Once, I expected her to carry a load of clean laundry on her way up. Now if company arrives unexpectedly, we are caught with towels and sheets and socks on what ought to be a place to sit. I shift the pile to the stairs, as if I were just going up when the bell chimed.
A few weeks back there was a local news story about an apple orchard laden with fruit, in need of picking. Sarah and I bundled up (she wears her white down coat even on balmy days), and stacked the back seat with shopping bags that would fit over her wrist. We knocked on the farmhouse door, expectant as the cows grazing on the other side of the fence, where a few fallen apples had rolled to a stop. We were fixed up with an aluminum ladder, which to my astonishment, she climbed, to get at the really red ones near the top of our assigned tree. I tried not to watch as she leaned from her perch, glad for the stretch in the canopy of leaves, my angel in white floating on high.
She has been making apple jam, sitting on her stool in the kitchen, one jar at a time. She has passed 88 jars, and counting. Some she douses with brown sugar for a caramelized effect. Others she steeps with clementines instead of lemons. She has dabbled in cinnamon, in nutmeg and cloves. Yesterday she asked for a box of pears to mellow her jam out. She will wait for that just past crisp stage, when the fruit can be tongued in the palate, blending with a dab of cream cheese. For Sarah, a recipe is an excuse to change the rules. God knows we have had to change a few.
I celebrate this fruity outpouring, the house smelling like pies and betties, the dog drooling near Sarah’s spinning stool, waiting for a slice to slip. I buy sparkly labels at Big Lots, hunt the thrift shops for jars. It is a collaboration of sorts, but the main effort is hers, the tinkering with online ingredient lists, the growing plans for holiday gifts. Shopping is hazardous for Sarah; there aren’t benches between counters where she can catch her breath and wait for her pulse to return to its usual hundred and twenty. I look for ornamental baskets that will hold her Rome and Golden Delicious preserves. I begin to imagine thin satin ribbons, some tissue paper to crinkle in the season.
Always, I ride an invisible teeter totter, wondering how much to suggest, how much to let her figure out on her own. Last night she splashed boiling water on her chest, and the floor. She was wearing her usual layers, as she is never warm enough. Even without apron, she is protected. She yelled out that we need a better grabber, the tongs are too slick. Leave the pot, I told her. I’ll take care of it when it cools. She had persisted, burned her wrist as the prize jar slid from her grasp.
Sarah has her dilemmas. I have mine. When to intrude, to insist, when to let her be, and how on earth to suggest, gently as an aspen leaf arriving on the back deck, so it does not appear I have anything to do with the wind. I am buoyant as a sun umbrella when I manage to make the right choice. More often, I err on the wrong side of this slippery equation of independence/dependence. I fear there is some imaginary number I have missed.
She lets me know. I get that elongated “Mo-o-om” sound, the one that starts with exertion, descends a precise musical fifth downward, then comes up a third to match her puffed-up annoyance. I take deep breaths when it comes. I would like to get through one day when I don’t breathe like a yoga instructor, when I don’t have to tamp down the temptation to level with her like a cup of sugar. I understand her frustration. She would rather be anywhere else than stuck at home. But the fact is, she needs me. That contradiction is hard to navigate, for both of us. Still, I would like to ask for just a jarful more of sweet grace.
Note: the author’s daughter has been diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS, which while rare, is most often discovered in teen-agers. An abnormally high pulse is among the symptoms. The cause is not known and there is no cure.
Carol Barrett coordinates the Creative Writing Certificate Program at Union Institute & University, and publishes both poetry and creative nonfiction. Her book Calling in the Bones won the Snyder Prize at Ashland Poetry Press. Her manuscript Alchemy of Breath is looking for a home.