Finn took the one-inch square, rainbow-striped bag from his shelf, pulled open the drawstring and turned it over. Six matchstick, painted wooden figures fell into his small hand. She watched him delicately picked up one at a time to look at. “What are those?” she asked, as she reached for the little scroll that fell out with them.
“They’re worry dolls, Nonna!” Finn said in a tone suggesting that she should have known exactly what they were. She read out loud from the paper scroll. According to legend, Guatemalan children tell their worries to the dolls and place them under their pillows at night. The worries are gone by morning.
Give me a few dozen, she thought, but said only, “I didn’t know that. Shall we put some under our pillows tonight?
"Of course we should!”
When it was time for bed, Finn picked out three of the tiny figures for himself and gave her three. Grandmother and grandchild each whispered their worries to the dolls and placed them under their pillows. Then Nonna opened the evening story book and read until Finn’s eyes began to close.
She should have been tired enough to sleep too. But, as was her habit before sleep (if sleep came at all) all the things there were to worry about crowded her mind: her husband’s progressing disease; her friend’s terminal illness; her regrets about all the things she might have done, or done differently, or not done at all! Then, she might think, as she lay, warm, safe and comfortable, that all over the world, random violence, pain and suffering happening in war zones, in cities, towns. As if that weren’t enough to keep her awake she might also turn to the way her body felt with the effects aging, or even increasingly aware of the inevitability of her own death, until she might say out loud, Why do I do this?
What were the three worries she had whispered to the dolls? She didn’t remember. She also wondered if more people than she might imagine were also worrying at this moment, or did she alone have such a negative state of mind by nature?
The sensual body and the sharp mind fading and dulling. With more life behind her than in front of her, she tried to come to terms with all the losses: of friends, family, youth and beauty and energy. Motivation for looking ahead and welcoming each challenge with strength was weaker. The progression of her husband’s Parkinson’s was quickly diminishing his health and former self. Then there was her forgetting a word here, a name there—the sad sense of slowing down, taking more time to do things that had once been done without a thought, and with facility and speed. She feared, but hoped that these were not the beginning of the “A” word disease.
She recalled that her father used to go out with his shirt inside out, and how he once got into his car and found himself in the back seat. She remembered noticing how slowly her mother was walking, with an obvious sense of caution and uncertainty, and her admirable attempts to “keep up.” She herself continued to do all the things she had always done, but with an increasing awareness of the effort, not only to accomplish them, but also to appear as though nothing were different. She would, for instance, try now, as her mother once did when walking, to keep up with younger people. Was she more upset if her family noticed and asked if she needed help, or if no one noticed?
In a recurring dream she stood at the top of a long stairway she had to descend. It open on both sides and each individual stair impossibly steep, with no way down or out.
When she got to this point where thoughts wound themselves into self-perpetuating loops, she tried to give herself a prompt to initiate another of her evening rituals: counting her blessings. It was a noble effort to displace the worries with all the things be grateful for, which, in reality, were very many. She and her husband had been together and still loved each other after 45 years. They were in good health and lived comfortably. Both of her sons had both found creative work which they enjoyed and could make a living at. She still had her dear friend whose enthusiasm for life, even as she prepared for death was an inspiration. She had interests and projects which kept her from boredom and despair. Her grandchildren were healthy and happy, and the greatest joy to her.
She so looked forward to and loved being with her family. There she was welcomed, useful and valued for the love and warmth she both gave and received. Worries hovered more on then periphery, as Finn’s joy and interest in everything lifted life above the ordinary into another realm. And he was pleased to have her near him too. “I love you, Nonna,” he would say, sometimes with his eyes closed, ready to drift off into the angelic state of sleep so visible on a child’s face.
At bedtime the next night, Fiinn called to her, “Oh, Nonna, look the worry dolls! He reached under her pillow to gather the others. The, with wide eyes, “Hey, but I still have my worries; they didn’t go away. He told his fear of dreaming the house was on fire. She felt that twinge of compassion one feels for children when they begin to realize that there is no magic. “Well, it did say it was a legend, didn’t it Nonna?”
“Yes, yes it did,” she agreed, with more of a sense that she was the child and he the adult, “but a worry does not mean the thing you are worried about is going to happen,” but she didn’t entirely believe that herself. She knew of people whose worst fears were realized, and how they had to bear a sorrow she could only imagine.
They decided anyway that they would tell the dolls their worries and try again tonight. “Nonna, I am afraid to go to sleep and have bad dreams. Dreams, dreams go away.”
“Well, we know what we will have to do for that?”
“Nonna Go to the other side of day, right Nonna?”
After stories and songs, if Finn still felt uneasy, they would sit up on the bed and begin the incantation. Finn got into the cross-legged position. “Close your eyes and relax, like you're a stick of butter melting in a pan. Now, Let’s go to the other side of day. Take three deep breaths. Slowly, in and out, in and out, in and out. To add an air of mystery and magic to the ritual, she chanted part of a Latin prayer she had to memorized as a child, “Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world). The words were accompanied by hand gestures that Finn would imitate, pushing day away in the all seven directions, ending with two hands over the heart. Then silently she said the rest of the prayer to herself “dona nobis pacem (grant us peace.)
“I feel better, Nonna.”
Nonna looked at the boy with tears in her eyes, “Nonna has to leave tomorrow, and I’m very sad. I won’t see you for a while, and I’ll miss you so terribly.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow, Nonna?”
With his blue eyes wide, he looked straight into hers, “Well, Nonna, it’s not tomorrow now!
She felt her heart would stop.
Then they lay down holding hands and listened to the quiet. After a few minutes, Finn was asleep. It’s not tomorrow now, indeed. Why did she place her worry and sadness on him, as though he were her very own little worry doll?Instead of his taking on her worry, though, he nullified it with the wisdom, clarity and truth of innocence.Yes, she thought: It’s not tomorrow now, and it’s not yesterday; it is here and now. She fell asleep recalling a forgotten-until-now quote from her youth: “For the present is the point at which time touches eternity.”