Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I Appreciate You

He looked right at me and with a warm, genuine smile that made his whole face beam with kindness said, "I appreciate you."

I wanted to cry. It felt so good to be appreciated. I said thank you and good-bye, then left and got in the minivan waiting for me outside.

Some people might say he was just a kind, old southern man working at Walgreen's who says that to all the customers and that I'm a little (or a lot) emotionally needy. Those people are probably absolutely right. And I don't care. The kindness of that stranger at that moment meant everything.


One time my uncle told me that there was no prettier place than northern Alabama. As we drove over the state line,
I felt like he might be right.

I was in Alabama for a funeral, my Aunt Nancy's funeral. At the cemetery, we made a semicircle around the casket. The minister asked if people wanted to share any words that described Aunt Nancy. 

"A virtuous woman," an older woman said with a strong southern drawl and confident certainty. That really was a right on description of Aunt Nancy. She had a such a strong faith. She loved unconditionally. She was dedicated, loyal, generous, hard-working. Virtuous? Yes, I nodded in agreement.

"Bossy," said a familiar voice that sounded slurry. It was my mother, Aunt Nancy's younger sister. My older sister, Dana, and I looked at each other with wide eyes. "We have to stop her," I whispered. Dana made her way through the crowd of family and friends. She put her hand on our mother's shoulder.

We were in charge of our mother that day. It was a two-person job. 

Over the years, the mental illness and all the drugs have taken a toll on our mother. One time a doctor told me that her pain receptors didn't work because after taking so very many pain killers over the years, her body was completely out of  whack. She suffers from a lot of confused pain. Not to mention her reaction time and the way she responds to people. My mother can be wildly inappropriate. She overreacts more than the average over-reactor. She doesn't really read a room well or people's feelings. Sometimes she says or does anything to start a fight or get a reaction. Especially if she herself is feeling emotional or sad, like at her sister's funeral.

Earlier that morning, Dana and I drove to her apartment to pick her up. We went through a list of things she could say that would hurt our feelings. Our mother has this weird sixth sense kind of power of knowing exactly what you might be feeling insecure or worried about and brings it up. Over and over mercilessly. I decided she would probably make comments about my weight and finances because those are my two big things right now. 

When we pulled into the parking lot, she was standing at the top of the stairs waiting and waving. She had on two and a half inch heels. Her ankles wobbled back and forth just like her hand waving.  We sort of held our breath when we saw her. I knew we were both thinking of the last time we saw her standing at the top of any stairs, when she fell and broke her neck one Thanksgiving at Dana's house just as we took out the turkey. My mother got through that much like she's gotten through everything in her life, with a shit ton of drugs. But it haunts both Dana and me.

We convinced her to change shoes. She wobbled back into her apartment and led us into her dark den of stuff. Much like her other homes, she has managed to fit 578,992 things into a small space. Wreaths, candles, pictures, furniture, books, dishes, shoes everywhere, silk flowers and so much more. It is incredibly overwhelming. It made me sad and anxious and feels like someone is sitting on my chest. 

It smelled like she was still smoking even though last summer she told me she doesn't anymore. After a doctor said she might have to get an oxygen tank, she told me she'd become "a fan of vaping and Jesus." Not sure how those two things go together, but her apartment now smelled like she maybe had fallen off the vaping wagon, not sure about Jesus.

As soon as we opened the door, her dog Kiki who grunts like an Ewok from Return of the Jedi rather than barking these days, bolted outside. My mother screamed "oh no!" Dana threw off her heels and had to run to catch the little Ewok dog. She brought Kiki back. Mother put on flats. First couple crises avoided, Dana and I were feeling like maybe we could do this.

We got to the church and decided we couldn't leave her by herself. She needed help walking, even in her flats. Together we helped our mother shuffle up the steps of the church full of family history--it's where she married our father in 1968 and all of her children were baptized--and where she would say good-bye to her sister. 

The scene was like something out of the movie Steel Magnolias. Sweet southern men getting teary and emotional honoring my aunt. Beautifully dressed women talking and holding each other up. Hugs were hellos. One older gentleman came up to me and said, "I'm Bucky, I played basketball with your daddy in high school. He was one smooth basketball player. Tell him I said hi." I saw relatives I hadn't seen since I was 13 years old. I felt young even though I'm not. Some people seemed surprised that I turned out okay, I get it. We reminisced. They asked about my mother in hushed, but concerned, tones. Every now and then mother would shuffle away and Dana and I would guide her back to our pew. 

The service was moving and meaningful, it was a wonderful tribute to my aunt. When we left the church to go to the cemetery, we went out the side door that led to the line of cars behind the hearse. My mother was struggling down the stairs. I put my arm around her waist to help her stand up. All of sudden she gasped for air and looked at me like she was terrified. "This is where your dad and I walked out after our wedding Angie, right here, I can't," she said frantically. She said it like my dad just left her. Like it wasn't over 30 years ago that he left. She looked terrified. She looked like her pain was confusing her and it was too much for her to bear. It broke my heart, again, like those moments with her do. I hugged her and told her "it's going to be okay," that "I know, I know." 

The morning before the funeral my uncle told me he how much my aunt loved me. He talked about how much she loved all of us, my mother too. I probably changed the subject and told a story trying to be funny, trying to bring some levity to the moment. I felt guilty about having complicated feelings about my mother and faith and life.  "Sorry for being so silly," I said. I felt bad that I was trying to bring levity. "It's good to be silly," he smiled at me warmly. "We all need more silliness and dancing in our lives." Then he hugged me and told me he was glad we were there. Even in his moment of grief, my uncle was being kind to me and just like the stranger at Walgreen's he made me feel seen and appreciated.

That's what we all need. Understanding even for just a moment. A moment of kindness and appreciation. A moment of saying "I know. I know." A moment to be seen. A moment to make sense of all the complicated-ness of people and life and history and death. It's not just my mom who suffers from confused pain, we all do in one way or another. These moments of compassion and goodness from family, friends or strangers give us peace and hope in this wild, ruthless, wonderful world.
On our way back home, we saw a rainbow
and enjoyed the heck out of it.
A perfect sign of hope, joy and everything will be okay.


  1. I love your ability to find the light in darkness and to bring levity when people need it the most. I know it wasn't an easy time for you, but I hope you felt loved and held in the hearts of all those people surrounding you <3

  2. This is such a moving blog. I love ❤️ it! And by the way, you turned out a ton better than okay��Just look at your amazing children-- you did that!

  3. Love you, Angela. This was an incredible read. ❤

  4. Oh my goodness. This was beautifully written. Such a picture you painted. Love you. AND appreciate you. <3