I am dreaming of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the face I see is the one I remember with clarity: she is bright and youthful, her hair pulled back and secured by a head band, her earnest expression we come to know at the beginning of her husband’s first presidential campaign. And in the dream I am wondering what she was like as a college student and I am picturing all the young women of a special school, a special time, an enthusiasm of vitality, of unforged possibilities stretching ahead.
Those are days of dreams for ourselves, dreams before they are marred by realities we are certain will never attain us, by responsibilities we have capacity to bear but no experience at conceiving because we are young. And it is Hillary’s face that beams at me from my hazy place before awakening.
And then she fades and it is her older face I see, and next to it my own, and now other women, some of whom are famous and accomplished and middle-aged, and I am gazing at myself beside her, myself as I am now.
Not famous. Perhaps accomplished. Certainly, middle-aged.
These are odd images to populate a Sunday morning of sleeping in which is an unusual circumstance in and of itself, and in my semi-waking state I notice it is only women who fade in and out, women walking away and then returning, women who smile and dance and speak, though eventually there is also a boy with a needle and a bag and a reassuring manner.
But that is for later, the boy with the needle and the bag.
For now, I am chasing through a contemporary house with an open plan and loft-like areas. I am twenty, and I do not know if the other women can see me in this expanse that somehow resembles a theater. I glance to the right and peer into a cozy kitchen where Shirley MacLaine is sipping a coffee wearing an impeccably fitted and glittering pant suit. She sets down her cup, saunters out into the open, and is joined by another woman whom I believe to be French film star, Fanny Ardant.
They giggle like girls and then there is music; the two plunge into an energetic tap scene, though Shirley must be 75 if she is a day, and Fanny Ardant is still indisputably glowing at what I take to be late fifties or sixty.
Laughing as they finish their routine, Shirley cracks a joke and admits she needs to catch her breath. She settles back in the yellow kitchen that is small but well-lit, where she leans against a dinette table that I recognize as my grandmother’s.
And the boy appears.
He is 10 or 11 and he instructs her to sit; it is time for the IV and she does as she’s told while watching his small hands insert a needle into her soft flesh, and then tape it down. He attaches a tube and he hangs a bag on a cabinet hook. Placid, he waits at her side, throughout the slow drip of clear fluid.
Other women make their way onto the stage and now I am only a spectator here, while they are part of this family – there are two and they are in their twenties or thirties – they chat with each other and wave to the older women, taking up some sort of dance of their own as I look for young Hillary whom I believe to be here somewhere, simply because I’m convinced I feel her presence.
I walk out a door marked Stage Left and into an extraordinary field that is panoramic; I am a sort of urban Dorothy poised on a land of emerald hills and wheat-colored plains and I think of Splendor in the Grass and wonder if Warren Beatty is around as well. He is, after all, Shirley’s brother. Was he the boy with the needle?
And now there is no one though I think I hear singing; there is no one though the rustle of leaves leads me to waltz; there is no one as the soft sounds of stirring grasses coax me farther into the open. I follow the dusty road and an unknown path. I feel surprisingly at peace.
* * *
I think I hear a sort of crying and I look down to make out a minuscule kitten – scrawny and with an inquisitive face – her long whiskers blending with the stalks from which she seems to emerge.
I pick her up. She barely fills one hand and I tuck her under my chin as she stretches her little legs along my shoulder. I stroll back to the house to feed her and I return through the same door, pausing at the threshold to observe the strangeness of the scene: three generations of women engage in various sorts of dance and discussion, recuperation and renewal – each in a stage of their own while sharing the literal stage.
Hillary reappears and she is smiling. But she is sixty-something again and her expression seems studied, while Shirley sparkles in contrast and I focus on her as she directs her attention to me, her eyes offering a contradictory message and so I read it: Sometimes, you give in.
You give in to the aches and antagonism of aging; you give in to the warriors you can no longer fight; you give in to your lesser self so the better self can be refashioned.
Sometimes, you give in to the IV from the boy.
“It all goes quickly,” says a woman’s voice, though I do not know who is speaking.
* * *
She is 83 and her lucid periods are enchanting. She gets things done. She converses easily, but she does not initiate. I am drawn to her laugh that reminds me of Fanny’s voice – lush in its low and honeyed register – hardy, and tender, and genuine.
Her company is unpredictable – it is delightful, sorrowful, entertaining, enervating, reflective, instructive, wistful, frustrating, heart-breaking, charming – she has known a fascinating life, an unusual life, an ordinary life, a woman’s life.
She has seen history though she hasn’t made it. She epitomizes self-sufficiency without need to describe it. She walked away from her country at a time when that was the duty of a good wife; she walked into an adventure she did not seek, but created her days with what she knew and what she learned.
She is a woman who has long since lost parents to age, a brother to a forgotten war, a husband to a tragic accident. Yet she flourishes around her children and grandchildren. She is a woman who is slowly losing herself – aware of her drifting though rarely despondent, aware at moments of the isolation that family is trying to minimize.
She is a woman drifting away and there is no IV with a potion to administer, no medicine to restore her mind to its fully functioning state, no cure for the bad days though gratitude for those that are good remains as she recounts bits of her past with precision and detail, persists with grace and fortitude, walks miles each morning, cooks meals on schedule, chats when engaged and is, we can only imagine, silent when we aren’t watching.
It is rare that we acknowledge the flicker of lost light as she grapples with her endings.
Occasionally when we are alone she whispers to me in her native language, of living and dying, and her tone is accepting. She is strong and well, despite her mind and its periodic absence.
But sometimes, you give in – to the gentleness of a woman who speaks of her homeland, to the sorrow when she speaks of her husband, to the profound sensation of helplessness when she speaks of dying. Sometimes, you give in to grieving, to wearing the masks of your waking – of ages past and future and the crystallizing sensibilities of the present with its heft and delicacy.
I am removed in relationship to this lovely spirit, content in her company when I am with her, and wishing from my own silence when no one is watching that she were my grandmother now gone, my mother as I would remake her and also gone, my sweet and blood-bound sister as fictional twin, whose heart would honor irrevocable ties.
Sometimes, you give in.
* * *
I hold the tiny kitten in my palm as I fill a bowl with milk and set her in front of it. She laps hungrily as I wonder how far she wandered and how long before she shows the signs of maturing. I am aware now that in my semi-sleeping mind I am mixing the accelerated pace of her lifespan with my own, in the convoluted and unruly gears that are the machinery of dreaming. I am aware of my own ambitions and spin, of my diminished routines and evolving daily duties, my summer passing more rapidly than I foresaw; my disbelief that autumn approaches already.
I do not wish to inhabit the part of the elder.
* * *
Shirley rests between dances and takes to the floor over and over again, while college Hillary looks on gaily.
Sometimes, you give in to the inevitability of the changing pace, to the quickening of vigor that is unappreciated, to the determination that is retained and resolute for more years than we realize, to its altered pallor that is no less luminous than its flightier predecessors, to the unknown hours of the days ahead and the necessity to cease gazing backward.
Sometimes, you give in to the power of the vivacious self, to the countenance that steadies you, to the lessons learned from haze resolving, to whatever crazies you but then informs, to whatever crushes you and later releases, to whatever tethers you – in dream or nightmare – as a cord to be severed, but with respect.
Sometimes you give in to spotlights and shadows, to entrance onto the stage and timely exit, to the vistas beyond and unanticipated purpose, to the splendor of elders even in their fading, to the connections of women to women, and to the children we may bear if we are fortunate.
Sometimes you give in to waking more fully to realizations: my sons, no longer boys, and departures, imminent.