Finn took the one-inch square, rainbow-striped bag from his shelf, pulled open the drawstring and turned it over. Six painted, wooden matchstick figures fell into his small hand. I watched him delicately pick up one at a time to look at. “What are those?” I asked, reaching for the little scroll that fell out with them.
“They’re worry dolls, Nonna!” Finn said in a tone suggesting that I should have known exactly what they were. I read out loud from the paper scroll. According to legend, Guatemalan children tell their worries to the dolls, place them under their pillows at night, and all worries are gone by morning.
Give me a few dozen, I 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 me the other three. Grandmother and grandchild each whispered our worries to the dolls and placed them under our pillows. Then I opened the evening story book and read until Finn’s eyes began to close.
I should have been tired enough to sleep too. But, as was my habit before sleep (if sleep comes at all) all the things there were to worry about crowded my mind: my husband’s progressing disease; my dear friend’s terminal illness; my regrets about all the things I might have done, or done differently, or not done at all! I started to think about the random violence, pain and suffering that was happening right then all over the world--in war zones, in cities and towns-- while I lay in a warm, safe and comfortable bed. As if that weren’t enough to keep me awake I began to focus on the effects of aging and inevitability of my own death. Why do I do this? What were the three worries I had whispered to the dolls? I didn’t remember, but I wondered if more people than I might imagine were also worrying at that moment, or did I alone have such a negative state of mind by nature?
The senses of body and sharpness of mind fading and dulling, and with more life behind me than in front, I tried to come to terms with the losses: of friends, family, youth, beauty and energy. Where was the motivation for looking ahead and welcoming each challenge with strength and enthusiasm as I once had. With all that, and the progression of my husband’s Parkinson’s quickly diminishing his health and former self, there was the sad sense of slowing down. I now took more time to do things that had once been done without a thought, and with facility and speed. Also, my forgetting a word here, a name there, left me hoping those were not the first symptoms of the dreaded “A” word disease.
I recalled how my father used to go out with his shirt inside out (I did that the other day), and how he once got into his car to drive to the donut shop and found himself in the back seat. About that same time I noticed how slowly my mother was walking, with an obvious sense of caution and uncertainty, and her admirable attempts to “keep up.” Now they both are gone, and oh! the many regrets and things left unsaid and undone. Although I myself continue to do all the things I have always done, it is with increasing effort, not only to accomplish them, but also to appear as though nothing is different. I, for instance, try now, as my mother once did when walking, to keep up with younger people. Is it better if my family notices and asks if I need help with things, or if no one notices?
In a recurring dream I am standing at the top of a long stairway I must descend. It is open on both sides, no rails and each individual stair impossibly steep, like an Alice in Wonderland scene--no way down or back.
When I get to the point where my thoughts twist themselves into self-perpetuating loops, I prompt myself to initiate another evening ritual: counting my blessings. It is a noble effort to displace the worries with all the things to be grateful for, which are very many. After 45 years of marriage, (or shear madness, as we sometimes call it), my husband and I remain together, support, respect and love one other. We laugh a lot (about eating and drinking ourselves to death in retirement), and live comfortably within our modest means. Both of our sons have found creative work (without our having had to pay for college educations--their choice). They love their work, and make a living at it. I still have my dear friend whose enthusiasm for life, even as she prepares for death, is a shining inspiration. I am grateful that I have interests, plans and projects which keep me from from boredom and despair. And there are our joy-filled grandchildren, Finn and Sula, beautiful, bright, happy, healthy--the most cherished blessings.
I look forward to and love being with my family. When I visit, I am welcomed, feel useful and valued for the love and warmth, both given and received. Worries are pushed, at those times, to the periphery. Finn’s joy and interest in everything lifts life above the ordinary into another realm, and he is pleased to have me near him. “I love you, Nonna,” he says, sometimes with his eyes closed, ready to drift off into that angelic state of sleep so visible on a child’s face.
At bedtime the night after we placed our worry dolls under our pillows, Fiinn called to me, “Oh, Nonna, look! The worry dolls--we forgot. He reached under the pillows to gather them. Then, with wide eyes, “Hey, but I still have my worries; they didn’t go away. He told me of his fears of having bad dreams that the house burning down. I felt that twinge of compassion one feels for children when they begin to realize that there is no magic. Then, remarkably, he observed, “Well, the scroll did say it was a legend, didn’t it Nonna?”
“Yes, yes it did,” I agreed, with the sense that I was more the child and he the adult, “and a worry does not mean the thing we worry about is going to happen." The thing was, I didn’t entirely believe that myself. I have known people whose worst fears had been realized, and they bore a sorrow I can only (and do) imagine.
Finn and I, nevertheless, decided that we would again tell the dolls our worries and try again. “Nonna, I am afraid to go to sleep and have bad dreams. "Dreams, dreams go away.” Finn said earnestly with his eyes tightly closed.
“Well, we know what we to do for that?”
“Go to the other side of day, right Nonna?”
After stories and songs, if Finn still felt uneasy, we would sit up on the bed and I start the incantation. Finn and I get into the cross-legged position, our hands on knees. “Close your eyes and let your body melt, like a stick of butter 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. Then I chant a Latin prayer learned in childhood, * “Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,” to lend an air of mystery and magic. The words are accompanied by hand gestures that Finn imitates, pushing day away in the seven directions, ending with our hands crossed over our hearts.
“I feel better, Nonna.”
I looked at him, and felt tears welling, “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 innocent, wide and wise blue eyes, he looked straight into mine, “Well, Nonna, it’s not tomorrow now!
I felt my heart would stop.
Then we lay down holding hands and listened to the quiet. After a few minutes, Finn was asleep. It’s not tomorrow now, indeed. Why did I place my worry and sadness on him, as though he were my own little worry doll? Yet, instead of his taking on my worry, he nullified it with the wisdom, clarity and truth of innocence.
No, it’s not tomorrow now, and it's not yesterday. There is only "the present where time touches eternity," and that is heaven on earth. I fell asleep whispering the rest of the Latin prayer: ** dona nobis pacem.
* Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world
Dreaming light and waking in the dark - We Perpetually relive the Fall Eternally recreate Creation Receive revelation both asleep and awake - all
Lost in the belly of a whale Riding a bull over ocean swells Lying in rushes under the weight and white of a swan Traveling the arduous path to the underworld Emerging into starlight. Amid polarities hope and despair, shame and pride We have trod the earth--an armed race
With fire to illuminate or incinerate.
It’s all true for you and me (and everyone we know)
Look, and see if is not so. Forever, deep within We carry images and experience of paradise, of exile and a longing to return
Isn’t this why we became human in the first place?