When my eldest son, Matt, was about three years old, my wife was working evening and night shifts as a nurse on the dementia and palliative care wards in a nursing home.
Many mornings Matt and I had hit the road — him for daycare and me to work — before she got home from an all-nighter. And there were afternoons she’d have already left for evening shift (and left us dinner if we were lucky) by the time we returned.
Sometimes we baked cookies together after supper and took them with us to see her at the long-term care home and share our gummable chocolate-chipped goodies with the residents in their lounge.
Witnessing previously brilliant individuals struggling for words, balance, memories and connection is a heart-wrenching, humbling experience that I don’t think you ever get used to. But what I saw as a room full of devastating loss and debilitating sadness, presented itself plainly and presently as a gaggle of groping, grey-haired chocolate addicts to a three-year-old with a rapidly diminishing inventory thereof.
Aside from exhibiting early symptoms of Empty Tupperware Container Syndrome, Matt mostly marvelled at how his mother got all her charges to keep their slippers on, and why one of the residents religiously squirrelled his cookie away in his pyjama pants pocket for “later.”
After decades of caring for chronic, end-of-life conditions, the job became almost impossible to leave at work for my wife, so we booked her some career counselling that cost us the budget-busting equivalent of about two months’ rent.
After the last of her tests and tête-à-têtes, she came home with the counsellor’s summary.
High on the list of alternate professions, right above florist, was the word clown.
Think about that for a second.
We did, and then we laughed until we cried.
Matt and I got up the next morning and went back to daycare, work and baking cookies for his mom’s old people.
As the years went by, Matt was joined by Stuart and then Hannah, and the four of us continued to make cookie pilgrimages, new friends and fond memories. They grew to become three incredibly creative and caring adults and I can see a kind of gentleness and compassion in all of them that could only have been forged from witnessing what happens when age and crushing illness carves the person out of people.
I left a management job to take a crack at writing advertising and product copy in 1998 (more on that in the post, A Timbits Epiphany), when the kids were still in elementary and high school, and I still had a wife who was thankfully still nursing.
More than twenty years, hundreds of product pitches and web copy projects later, as I despair for the words to start each story and the presence it takes to trace each thread to its end (more on the art of thread-following by William Stafford below) I often feel like I was the one who chose the clown option — impostor syndrome it’s called — and then I find cookie crumbs in my pyjama bottoms and realize the universe is unfolding more or less as it should.
If I’d been vegan back in 1988 these chocolate chip, raisin and Macadamia nut cookies would have been the ones my man Matt and I would have baked, boxed and delivered.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
— William Stafford, 1998
Thanks to Sebastian Pena Lambarri at Unsplash for the Clownfish hero photo for this page. Go Nemo!