Don’t Forget to Check Your Dipstick!
After crouching on a lime-green foam kneeling pad, he pushed with all of his might against the 6’x6’ thick concrete cover. A long wooded pole that was going to be used as a dipstick lay on the grass next to him.
“Wait Dad, let me help you,” I interrupted as I joined him by squatting down near the well cover, planting my feet firmly in the bordering sedum.
“Oh, I can do it. Just hold it up when I lift it,” my father instructed me in a firm voice.
Dad pried open the lid with a long metal gardening tool, which was designed for digging up weeds, but now he was using it like a giant bottle opener. I leaned forward to grab the tilting mass in hopes that I could stabilize it, while my 86 year-old engineering partner unraveled the thick canvas surveyor’s measuring tape from its metal spool. Attached to the end of the fabric strip was a curious, rusty metal piece that looked like a horizontal letter “B” which he dangled into the hole like a fishing line.
While at his home in upstate New York, my father religiously followed this daily ritual of checking the water level in the shallow well. When you live in the country, water is a gift from God—not from the municipal water authority.
No rain, less water in the well.
Less water, fewer flushes and showers.
Daily life in the country is at the mercy of Mother Nature and keeps you mindful of the source of all gifts. I learned early on not to underestimate her power.
“12 feet, that’s up from last week,” he declared and nodded with approval rewinding the soaked material.
Next we trudged to the holding tank in the back yard. A rudimentary rainwater collection system from the barn’s hanging roof gutters provided a critical backup supply. Another, larger cement pad had to be manually shifted to expose the tank. Together we were successful in creating an opening and this time, while Dad was on all fours peering into the darkness, I lowered a 14 foot wooden pole into the abyss. Much like a giant dip stick, this weathered instrument was formerly used in his construction business to check the in ground fuel tanks and it had measured notches with numbers to document the depths. Now, the upper third was slightly warped and curved like a menacing arthritic finger pointing up to the sky and I struggled to stabilize it.
“4 ½ feet,” I loudly interpreted the data from the damp section when I removed the over-sized dipstick.
“Good, plenty of water now,” Dad said smiling.
Great I thought! Now I can take a shower.
Unfortunately, this particular trip to my childhood home was clouded by my latent grief and I was not feeling my usual strength. My personal dip stick indicated that my energy was lower than usual. Three months prior, I was unexpectedly summoned home for the funeral of my dearest, elderly childhood neighbor. Intellectually I knew that she could not always be there and that perhaps time was running out, but I just assumed I would see her again this year. She was the anchor to my youth and I still had not fully processed her loss. This summer as I drove into our single street town in upstate New York, my eyes fixated on Hilda’s empty front porch and I could feel my body grow weary. It was as if someone was throwing grit in my gears and slowing me down and it was an effort to look at her now vacant house. I calculated that this would be the first time since I left home after high school in 1970 that I would not be able to walk down for a treasured visit during my annual August trip.
The internal struggle continued when I drove into my driveway. I was greeted by a large red tanker truck with a thick black hose coming out of the back of it like a monster’s tail. Within a few feet a yellow backhoe grunted as it lifted up another section of our lawn and recklessly tossed it, grass side down. Nearby three men appeared perplexed and were looking for access to our septic tank in order to pump it out. Dad was not home yet and I was weary from the six hour drive and not sure how to redirect them, so I entered the house alone and left the workers to their scavenger hunt.
A month after Hilda’s service had been my mother’s memorial service. She died in December in Florida but we waited to formally say goodbye until everyone could gather at home in the spring. Now I was entering sacred ground for the first time since that recent family gathering, acknowledging that I would never see her again.
Stoically I pushed past the kitchen and charged up the stairs while trying to ignore the smells and sights which were bombarding my subconscious like mini cannon balls and prompting waves of anxiety in a feeble defense. I entered my bedroom and went right to the closet where I had been directed by one of my younger sisters to continue cleaning out Mom’s clothes. My eyes drifted to the nearby twin bed where my frail mother spoke to me last summer as I was performing a similar ritual.
“Try them on; perhaps there is something that you could use.” Her words echoed in my head from the mattress where I last saw her at home.
The same clothes were in the closet, but this time, only my memory was instructing me.
Damn it! I thought I was stronger than that! My eyes started to fill up with tears and I was disappointed in my weakness as I shut the closet door. My chest walls felt like they were encased in lead as I labored to breathe.
Dad eventually came home and I suppressed my latent grief. But throughout dinner my battery was not recharging and I struggled to find a source of positive energy to lift my spirits.
The next day we motored to Cooperstown for lunch. As I drove out of town towards the lake I was uncharacteristically relieved to exit. The village got smaller in my rear view mirror but its massive memories still loomed in my mind. We had a lovely lunch at one of our favorite spots on the shore of Lake Otsego and reminisced about the time when we rented a summer house there and how much I hated going to Girl Scout Camp which was located directly across the lake. I ordered the lobster roll. My selection made Dad smile since this was Mom’s favorite.
Afterwards, we stopped by the Fenimore Art Museum to check out an exhibit of paintings by Winslow Homer which was recently on loan from the Arkell Museum in Canajoaharie, New York where I attended high school. Just as I was admiring one of Homer’s familiar seascapes my cell phone rang. I had conveniently forgotten that my daughter scheduled a doctor’s visit to get some answers about some troubling, unexplained symptoms so I was caught off guard by the call. I could hear the concern in her voice as I crouched like a wounded animal in a corner to speak to her. Trying to offer motherly advice and assure her that a subsequent cerebral MRI would be fine, I dipped further to my knees.
I am familiar with that dark place of fear and panic and I could feel myself being drawn there once again. I did not want my voice to give away my trepidation but my already weakened state could not support my quivering vocal chords. She told me that she was scheduling the test in two days, her 10th wedding anniversary and that I did not need to come home. She said that she would be fine, but I did not know if I would.
Like a momma bear protecting her cub, my animal instincts took over and all reasonable thoughts exited. It was as if warm tapioca had replaced my brain cells and the mush was taking over. I mentally fast forwarded to all possible worst case scenarios and panic was the only emotion that I could access.
That night back alone in my bedroom with the closed closet door guarding my mother’s clothes, I tried to fall asleep with the drone of the wall unit air conditioner. But the rpm’s of its loud motor only encouraged my head to recklessly spin in concert with it and tears just kept falling on the pillow.
Morning came as I knew it would, but I was still emotionally free falling so I texted my daughter to tell her that I was coming home that day. Originally, I planned to continue on to Lake George to stay with my sister for a few days, but I did not think I had the energy to go.
Surprised that I was texting, let alone at 6:30 am, she responded that she would be fine and that I should go and enjoy myself as I intended.
“Are you sure?” I texted her back in a last ditch effort since I desperately wanted an excuse to raise the white flag and retreat back home.
“Yes, I will be fine. Go and get in the kayak. Have fun!” she encouraged me.
Since my husband’s death 21 years ago, my son and daughter and I have been a very tight unit. We protect one another, sense when one may need help, and come to the rescue in our own special way. We have learned to respect and listen to one another and now it was my turn to listen.
I drove the three hours to the lake with clouded vision from my intermittent tears. I was not interested in listening to any type of noise from the radio. I only wanted to hear the quiet breeze from my open sunroof and focus on the beautiful Adirondack scenery. The cycles of nature are soothing to me and the mountains were alive and vibrant.
When I arrived, my big sister Chris greeted me with chocolate, a cool drink, and some books from my new favorite author Anne Lamott. We talked about Mom and about Hilda and I filled her in on my daughter’s upcoming test. I cried a little more and she hugged me. Sisters tell the truth. She did not superficially assure me that everything would be fine. We just had to wait for the results and not pretend that we knew everything.
For two day I was drawn to beautiful Lake George for long, peaceful kayak trips. I needed to dip the paddle into the clear water and glide effortlessly on its surface. Nonsense was starting to drift out of my mind with each stroke. And then suddenly I got a text and a call from my daughter. Not expecting results for two more days, I was shaking as I squinted to read the text in the sunlight on the dock. I rejoiced out loud and ran up to share the good news with my sister. All was fine, no abnormalities! Hallelujah! I immediately called my daughter and joy filled my heart when I heard the lightness in her voice. And along with it came a surge of energy like a fully powered nuclear reactor charging its turbines. My lungs easily inflated and the tightness in my throat disappeared.
As an author, I write about learning how to listen to our “whispers”, our inner voice. As an inspirational speaker I instruct others to find a quiet place and to begin to trust their feelings. But here I was like a fragile member in one of my audiences, falling apart on the doorstep of potential bad news. How could I have let my energy level dip so dangerously low? How could I have let panic and despair pull me down?
A powerful force on the upswing of the pendulum, it can take us to the moon, but on the down swing, it can introduce us to the very bottom of our souls. Grief, one of its by-products, is the annoying presence in the backseat of life and once it climbs in, it never gets out. We just figure out how to live with it and keep driving.
For a moment I felt embarrassed for letting myself spiral out of control. Fortunately I never made a deal with God and offered anything during my ordeal. I only asked for strength for the two of us so I did not need to carry through on any silly promise. While in the kayak paddling on the serene lake I also spoke with my late husband and asked him to watch over his daughter. David always has been our guardian angel. I also apologized to both for not being more trustful and said that I would try harder.
Once again gratitude was my fuel and my dip stick began to register at the highest level.
Our grief journey is bumpy and here I was tripping on my own path once more. Yet I recognized that picking myself up was the best part, because subsequently, I became a little bit stronger.
I would like to say that the next time I will be smarter. I would like to feel that I will not get sucked down the rabbit hole again and allow precious days to go by in darkness before I can find the light. But I am human just like you, and let’s face it, none of us does perfection.
However, I promised myself that I will make sure to check my dip stick more often from now on and I hope you do too!