Saturday was cold and gray and at times rainy and sleety. I spent much of the morning standing outside at the fire station watching firefighter candidates undergo agility testing. (I sit on our city's civil service commission and we are encouraged to watch the testing procedures.) I meant to stop only briefly. I stayed for over two hours, mesmerized by the intensity of the morning. The candidates are put through a variety of tests, from climbing an extended aerial ladder to finding their way by rope through a blackout room.
The most compelling segment for me was the timed shuttle run, where the candidate had to run 50 yards (each way) from the starting point to the relay point, pick up a different object each time (five total), and carry it back to the start. The last object was a small water hose (with the water pressure on) and nozzle, to be pulled from the relay point to the starting line.
As I learned, it is not the weight of the hose that is the killer, but the frictional drag on the line across that distance of pavement. I watched candidates who had sailed through earlier parts of the test (including the timed run three times up and down two flights of stairs loaded with gear in under two minutes) all but grind to a stop on the last leg of the shuttle run. They would be down to the last ten yards, the last five yards, and have to gut it out inch by inch to make it to the finish line.
One candidate fell to his knees, then rolled onto his side just a few feet short as the clock ticked down. Firefighters and candidates alike were shouting encouragement: "Get up! You're almost there! Dig it out! Dig it out!" He couldn't. When the tester called time, the candidate struggled to his feet, made it to the grass, and then fell to the ground again. He pounded the earth in frustration, planting his face in the grass and looking for all the world like a ballplayer on the losing team just after the last buzzer in the final NCAA basketball tournament.
His anguish at falling short was acute.
When a candidate washes out at the agility test, there are no "do overs." The candidate is done. Before one leaves, however, the Chief meets with that candidate for an exit interview. John Donahue, our Fire Chief, is superb and I suspect he does no small amount of counseling to help the candidate come to grips with the failure. Certainly this one, by the time he left, had a calmer look on his face and gave the Chief earnest thanks. The anguish may have still been there, but for now it was tempered.
Cold finally drove me away. After picking up Warren at the office, we came home to spend the rest of the day doing home-based things: instruments (Warren), laundry (me).
The anguish of the young candidate stuck with me all day. The situation with my mother, who is showing increasing signs of significant cognitive impairment, is moving to what I am calling "the next stage." Other people outside the smallest family circle are starting to notice things are amiss. Dad is starting to look haggard. Over the last several days, I've had lengthy phone and email conversations with two of my brothers regarding where we are now at. Dad has finally acknowledged that he is wearing down. We are looking into support groups. These conversations are necessary but draining, and I hang up or log off from them worn down myself. They are fraught with the possibility of misunderstandings even when we are all on the same page, because we are all filtering the story through our own relationship with our parents.
And then there is the mourning that I am doing and suspect my brothers and dad are too. It is hard to watch mom disappear. Add to that the complicated relationship I have had with my mother--a relationship I will not be able to go back to and finish smoothing out--and I worry that I am not up to the challenge of being a good enough daughter.
It is enough to make me fall to my knees and pound my frustration into the earth.
By Saturday night, I was tired and anxious and my chest was tight. So I turned to food--not to eat, although I did that too--but to make, to cook, to bake. Supper was a container of ropa vieja I found in the freezer (wisely set aside weeks ago by the Suzy Homemaker I sometimes internally harbor) that was just the right size for supper for the two of us. The house was scented with the pickling spices from the candied dills I made that afternoon, laced through with the cinnamon of the sauteed apples I'd prepared for homemade apple dumplings. Warren brought in a bucket of wood scraps for the fireplace and late into the evening we ate warm apple dumplings and watched the flames churn.
By happenstance, I am reading right now Making Piece, by Beth M. Howard. It is a memoir of "love, loss, and pie." (You know why I am reading it: pie.) I will not review it here, other than to say it is a keeper. But as I read it last night by the light of the fire, I realized that what I had been tasting all day was loss.
While the last of the apple dumpling dissolved on my tongue, I thought back to the candidate who had washed out that morning at the agility tests. His anguish was real and immediate. His grief was right there on display for everyone to see. But by the time he left, the Chief accompanying him out and sending him off with a hearty "Good luck," the candidate had regained his equilibrium. He waved at the firefighters and candidates who wished him well, and headed for home.
When I think about what we are facing as a family with mom, I feel not unlike that candidate. The clock has run. We don't get a "do over." It is time to come up off my knees, it is time to head further down the road.