Fifty-Two

It’s my birthday today. I’ve managed to stay alive for fifty-two years so far!

I’ve been celebrating, sort of, since Friday when I took the day off work at the request of a good friend. A week ago, she sent a text saying, “Since it’s your birthday weekend, you should take the 9th off and we should go to the holiday boutique at U.S. Bank Stadium.”

So I did. And we did. We met in the middle and rode the light-rail into downtown Minneapolis. I’ve never been on the light-rail before and found it to be rather enjoyable. We got to spend the time talking and catching up instead of nervously navigating one-way streets and searching for expensive parking. We got off the train just across the street from the stadium and it was easy-peasy!

The boutique itself was massive and interesting. We saw a lot of fun stuff, but I didn’t buy much in spite of being overly amused by the abundance of novelty socks and dish towels making use of the f-bomb. They were funny. I just don’t feel the need to display curse words in my kitchen or on my feet. Not my style. I did purchase a couple of Bloody Marys for the two of us, and some over-priced eye cream. I would never have considered the eye-cream except for the young, handsome, Italian salesman who worked his sales pitch hard and gave us a trial run. Seeing for myself how my friend’s eye creases disappeared before my very eyes, I couldn’t help but be sold on it. And also because – you know. Fifty-two.

Anyway, we had a good time, the two of us, just hanging out together, solving the world’s problems, checking things out, and laughing. All in all, a good day.

The weekend was filled with more events and activities than most typical weekends. Some were in celebration of my birthday, some not, but it all contributed to my feelings of being very blessed.

We had dinner on Friday night with my brother, two years younger and his family. His birthday is one week before mine and he turned fifty this year!

On Saturday morning, we caught up with good friends over breakfast. It’s been much too long, and as we parted ways afterwards, she reminded me that good friends always come together as if not a day had passed, no matter how many actually have. She’s right. And we are so lucky to have friends like them!

When we returned home after breakfast, there was something sitting on the living room floor that caught my eye. As I wondered what the heck it was, it took a moment to register that there was a silver bow and a “Happy Birthday” message on top of it . And then my brain realized that what I was contemplating was a robotic vacuum! Shark

Now there may be some who would be offended with such a gift, but not me! I was thrilled! I literally jumped up and down with excitement when I realized what it was. (Have I mentioned that there are two dogs living under my roof? Do you have any idea how much time I spend vacuuming, Swiffering, and vacuuming again?)

While we were away at breakfast, Shark was plugged in and charging. I set him loose after a quick review of the instructions and then we proceeded to watch him do his thing, sort of defeating the purpose of having a robotic vacuum as we continued to marvel for much too long. I was skeptical at first. The pattern of movement seemed very random, but as I continued to monitor the progress, I saw that it was covering all of the necessary spaces. The dogs watched with mild curiosity but otherwise were not bothered. Shark is quiet and moves gently, not like that big, loud, scary Kirby that lives in the closet underneath the stairs. And Shark did a spectacular job! I love this thing! I can even download an app on my cell phone so that I can have the house vacuumed while I’m away from home. Best. Gift. Ever. The hubby and kids definitely hit a home-run with this one!

The only draw-back? Shark kept reminding us of a current, ridiculously popular children’s tune and we could not stop randomly bursting into song. I’m sure we’ll get over that soon! Mmm-hmm.

On Saturday night, Jack and I bowled with our league. Son Ryker bowled with us, subbing for an absent team-mate and boosted our standings with his awesome bowling skills. Jaeger and Chesney and some of their friends came too, to cheer us on. It was fun and only added to the celebratory mood!

On Sunday Jack and I attended another memorial service in which my mom was included among those being remembered. My parents were involved in several churches during the years of their lives, and this was the last church where my dad served as a deacon. I think my parents were members there for fifteen years and it’s the church where we held both of their funerals. Father Joe is the priest and he was very good to my parents. He has become very special to our family, especially in the time since my dad passed away. He greeted us when we walked in and said, “Welcome home.” That gave me a warm feeling, and in spite of my lack of attendance in an actual church lately, made me feel like I might want to go visit a bit more often.  And it seemed appropriate to  remember my mom in such a formal way over my birthday weekend. I was surprised to find myself crying. I thought maybe it has been long enough that the random bursts of sadness would have started fading away, but I guess not. It’s okay though. It’s only been nine months. And being there, remembering Mom on my birthday weekend made me feel as if both of my parents were closer to me than usual.

So today is my actual birthday and I’m off work again at the request of Chesney who suggested a mother-daughter day. I have PTO to burn before the year is over, and I love spending time with her, so it wasn’t a tough decision. She’s still sleeping as I write this and our day is loosely planned, but I know it will be a good one.  I have a feeling the entire coming year is going to be a good one, no matter what.

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Eating Greasy Food in Memory of Loved Ones

 

I woke up this morning with the realization that standard time is back in effect and a whole extra hour had been added to my Sunday. That was such a blissful feeling considering that I rarely feel there are enough hours in a day.

A glance out the window revealed wet, sloppy snowflakes falling down from the sky. I wanted to get out there, go for a walk, breathe the cold, fresh air into my lungs. The new job has solidly kicked into gear and I’ve been busy trying to keep up and trying to prove that I’m up to the task. I find myself looking for ways lately to combat the anxiety that comes along with all of this. A walk was just what I needed.

Lucy Pie could sense my intentions this morning and followed me around like a shadow while I gathered up leggings and a sweatshirt, ear muffs, a warm jacket and gloves. She whined quietly a few times until she saw me reach into the garage for her harness and leash. She joyfully bounced around the foyer waiting for me to put them on her.

 

It wasn’t the first time this fall that it has snowed, and there’s not much chance that it will stick today, but those days aren’t far away, I’m sure. Lucy was in seventh heaven as we traveled along the walking path, sniffing all the smells in the blankets of leaves and keeping an eye on squirrels busy gathering their winter rations. She nearly took my arm off a time or two, trying to chase them down!

It’s been a good weekend. Last night we went to mass at St. Casimir’s Church, the church of my dad’s upbringing, where my parents were married, and where Dad eventually served as a deacon for several years. Recently, my sister received an invitation in the mail for a memorial mass in honor of those in the parish community who had passed away in the last year. Mom was among those being remembered.

I’m not a regular in the Catholic church anymore, but there was something about the experience that felt like being home. I remembered times as a child when I spent the night at Grandma’s house and we’d walk from her old house to mass at this very church. It felt so big back then and the pews were filled with people, their voices echoing against the high ceiling as we all sang the hymns and said the responses that have been solidly ingrained in my mind by now. I remembered Grandpa’s funeral there when I was just eleven years old, how hard that was, how big my sadness felt. I thought I’d never be able to be truly happy again. But of course, life eventually taught me that I would.

There were too many empty pews at mass last night. The neighborhood is aging and the size of the parish has dwindled. But I was glad to be there and envisioned Mom and Dad sitting with us in the empty seats next to my sister. At the end of the mass, we sang Let There Be Peace On Earth and it brought tears as I heard Mom playing the song on her old piano.

Some of the rest of the extended family attended as well. Afterwards, we gathered for dinner at a place where my parents often went after their weekly attendance at five o’clock mass. The restaurant is an old place, a neighborhood favorite, and one where you can sit around the bar watching a game, or find a table and order up a Juicy Lucy, or anything else fried, greasy, salty and tasty! I ordered the shrimp basket in honor of Dad. It was one of his favorites.

At the 5-8

We had so much fun remembering, eating, laughing. It was good. So good. My heart was so full and I was simply grateful to be where we are right now in this life.

Never Too Old to Carve Pumpkins

As I grew out of my childhood years and into adulthood, I carried with me a belief that had been solidly ingrained by having witnessed the course of my parents’ lives (whether the lesson was intentional on their part or not.) And that is the fact that as we age, we stop making time for certain frivolous, silly activities. Maybe it’s because our children have grown up. Maybe there’s simply no longer time. Or is it merely that the heart is no longer in it?

But my life … and especially my own offspring are teaching me differently. I am grateful that my parents reinforced the value of hard work and managing finances responsibly. They made big sacrifices so that their children might have an easier go of it. Still, it’s sometimes hard for me to shake the idea that the majority of my time should be invested in serious and important endeavors. Fun and relaxation are luxuries to be enjoyed only when all of the chores are done. (But are they ever done?)

This is exactly why I’m so thankful for the example my own adult children provide. They all possess a good work ethic. (Whew! We did our job!) But all three of them also know the importance of breaking out of the everyday routine. They remind me that making time for play has a larger purpose, that it can strengthen relationships, and even provide the reinforcement sometimes needed to reckon with the challenges that inevitably come our way.

My sons love the outdoors. Spring, summer and fall can find either of them with a buddy, in a boat on a lake, with a line dangling in the water just waiting for the biggest fish. Or in a field, dressed in camouflage, watching for a flock of ducks to soar overhead. All three of my kids enjoy sports, and in the summer, my daughter can still be found on a ball field. After years of youth and traveling softball, she’s now spending time playing in the local adult league. Movies, music, or simply an evening spent ’round a bonfire with friends are all regular aspects of my kids’ lives. I admire them for this and I’m reminded to stop worrying and stressing so much, and make a conscious effort to relax once in a while.

Growing up, I think money was just so tight that after bills and expenses were covered, and monthly donations made to the church, there just wasn’t anything left over for much outside of the ordinary. (Except during the holidays! Christmases were always wonderful. Probably financed with a credit card and paid for during the next twelve months. Our parents were so good to their four children, even if we didn’t always realize it at the time.) I’m beyond appreciative that there was always a roof over my head, food on the table, plenty of love, and a constant effort to ensure that we went off into the world as prepared as we could possibly be. But the lack of extravagance often translated beyond that which cost money, and as a result, I don’t always easily relax. Breathe.  Have some FUN!

Last weekend, my husband and boys went on a hunting trip. Chesney and her boyfriend spent the weekend with me. She worked on Saturday, and it was generally a low-key couple of days, but I loved having them around. I tackled chores around the house after being away most of the previous week for work. Then I took the “kids” out for dinner on Saturday evening to a local bar and restaurant. They wanted Juicy Lucy burgers, and we found a spot with a good view of a television airing a football game. Some old friends from Chesney’s younger softball days ended up at the table next to us and we had a great time catching up!

Afterwards, I settled in at home to read a book with the t.v. on in the background when I soon realized there was something going on in another room. From my comfy spot on the sectional, I peered around to the kitchen to see these two twenty-five year-old “kids” with a big hearty pumpkin. The table was being prepped with a spread of old newspaper, knives, and spoons big enough to carve out oodles of pumpkin guts.

Pumpkins

She hates how her hair looks, but she’s always beautiful to me.

It made me smile to hear them contemplate their design, and the way they joked and laughed together as they worked on creating a Halloween masterpiece. Most of all, I was proud of them for refusing to ever be “too old” to revel in the spirit of this “children’s” holiday.

I love these two! They remind me that life is short enough as it is. Make time for a bit of fun and play.

I’ll be carving my pumpkin this weekend.

 

 

 

Transitioning

It’s a beautiful time of year here in Minnesota. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, I ask myself why I’ve chosen to live in a place where it gets so cold and feels overwhelmingly dark for weeks and months on end. But when spring and summer, and especially fall come around again, I remember.

As I was running an errand a few days ago, driving a nearby road bordered by a stretch of trees and open space, the late afternoon sun provided a deep golden backdrop for the red, orange and yellow canopies atop the trees. No matter how often I witness this particular transition of nature, it never fails to strike me with a sense of awe. Momentarily, I felt bad about rejoicing in something that essentially equates to the beginning of an end.

Almost as quickly, I realized that this season is not about endings at all. There’s no reason to feel sad about the dimming of this period of life. It’s simply part of a recurring cycle. Fall plays its part in a bigger picture. Nature quiets this time of year, tucks in for a few months, before reinventing itself and bursting back to life the next spring.

I walked a lot this past summer. In the very early part of the day, bird songs created a morning symphony and the sunrises were spectacular. Walking has been a regular part of my days for years, but this summer was different, and I felt myself coming back to life each morning in many ways. I felt a sense of peace drifting over me that I’d been missing for far too long. The lingering sadness that seemed to permeate my heart for the past few years was finally starting to dissipate.

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The days have grown shorter over the past several weeks, and I miss those brilliant summer morning walks. But those days will come around again.  In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to appreciate what’s in front of me right now.

 

This is a reminder to myself to never stop embracing change

This blog site has been calling to me lately. I once couldn’t imagine  a time when I didn’t stop to write something at least a few times a week. Now months go by.  I guess once I really fell out of the habit, it just kept getting easier to let it be the thing for which I simply couldn’t find the time.

I’ve had a nagging thought lately that there are a very few things that I do just for myself, just because I really enjoy them, and just because they fuel me. Writing is one of those things. And it hasn’t escaped me how ridiculous it is that I have let go of it the way I have.

So … this is me, attempting to hold myself more accountable by putting in writing that I want to do more writing.

Moving on.

I just finished my fourth week in a new position at work. It was a fantastic opportunity and I have no doubt it was absolutely the right move for me. This job is an extension of what I was already doing, and opens a lot of new doors. The people in my new department actively recruited me and have completely rolled out the red carpet, constantly reminding me how happy they are that I have joined their team. “Thrilled” is the word they keep using, and I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am, and how fortunate I feel to have been given this chance. I’ve realized over the past few years that I simply like to work. I recognize that for most of my earlier years, I didn’t believe in my own potential, but once I got a taste of it, I began to truly appreciate having the chance to contribute to something meaningful, grow my skills, and keep feeding my mind. It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’ve been extremely fortunate to work in a place and with people who continue to help make this a daily reality.

I was very content with, not to mention confident in the work I was doing in my previous position, although I worked for a manager who created an atmosphere that felt much like being in kindergarten. To be fair, she allowed me a lot more breathing room than most – probably because she had little expertise in the work I was doing. So leaving me be was surely preferable to admitting her lack of knowledge. But I existed in her world every day, witnessing her micromanagement of the rest of the team, her inflated ego, and her utter lack of respect for the other very capable, intelligent adults under her direction. I have had good managers over the years, ones who know that empowering their employees is the secret to success. This one didn’t grasp that concept. Every day, I felt my coworkers’ discontent, listened to their frustrations, and was powerless to help. It was a toxic environment. And while I recognize that my old manager’s ways are likely rooted in her own insecurities, I, like many others before me, leapt at the chance to escape.

I’m still getting my feet wet in the new job. The department I’ve joined isn’t new, but recently reorganized, so I’m relieved to be coming in at a time when things are new and different for the whole team, not just me. One of my main responsibilities will be working in and helping steer the direction of a new system. Plus I’ll get to continue doing some of the work I most enjoyed in my previous position. I can work from home anytime I want, during any set of hours that suits me best. If I need to take time away for family or personal needs, I have all the freedom in the world. Because this is the polar opposite of my prior work environment, it almost seems too good to be true. But it is most certainly true.

So why have I felt so anxious lately? I haven’t been sleeping. I haven’t been able to shut my mind off at night. A constant set of worries seems to be streaming through my mind and every little thing annoys me. I’ve seriously begun to wonder if I’m not capable of being happy unless I’m experiencing some sort of discontent!

I should mention that I am now a “remote” employee. I have always worked in my company’s Minnesota office, but the rest of my new team is based in the home office in Wisconsin. This past week, I traveled to the home office to do some training and spend time with my new peers. It was my first solitary work-travel experience, my first time ever in the home office, and it all played out so much better than I could have hoped. I was able to make in-person connections, and work side-by-side with my new team mates for a few days. I can only describe the whole experience as one of being utterly and completely welcomed into the fold. I guess I have a certain set of expectations for what my work life should be, and am always pleasantly surprised when relationships there go deeper than work. And that’s exactly what happened. I found my new coworkers to be so genuine and warm. They are truly a caring group of people and I was amazed at how quickly we bonded and found things in common with one another. A million times this week I have marveled at how fortunate I am to have been awarded this position.

Now that I’m home from my first work trip, it’s become clear why I’ve felt so uncertain and worried lately. I’ve been with this company and/or its affiliates for thirteen years. I’ve survived several reorganizations and much change. But in the past, whenever I’ve moved into a new role, I’ve always continued doing what I know and do best, with a few new responsibilities and expectations. This time, I’ve taken a small bit of the familiar with me, while facing a vast amount of new and uncertain experiences and expectations.

No wonder I’ve been such a wreck! An old habit of not believing in myself has reared its ugly head. Oh how I wish I could be one of those people who charges into every new life experience with confidence and certainty! That’s just never been me. I’ve always required my experiences to prove to that they’re not so scary before I embrace them.

Thankfully, I’m now able to see that the past month has been a journey … one that I’ve had to travel in order to see that no matter how old I get, there’s always room to continue growing and learning. The past week has allowed me to prove that I can go to an unfamiliar city, find my way around, present myself as an intelligent and capable person, and start to succeed in a new role. More importantly, I’ve learned how important it is to actually believe that I can succeed rather than feed my self-doubts. I’m glad to be reminded that change can be a good thing, and that turning new corners is vital to keeping life from growing stagnant. And the past two nights, I’ve slept like a baby!

Never too old

My time away provided several team-building opportunities with my new department. Most revolved around lunches and dinners, but the best one was a yoga/mindfulness/meditation class. I was a bit skeptical and self-conscious at first, but tried not to let it show. I didn’t want to be the newbie who resisted anything different. And not surprisingly, the class proved to be an amazing experience … and much to my benefit, focused on dealing with stress and anxiety.

One thing I learned specifically from this class is the importance of self-care – those things we do for ourselves to keep us operating at our best so that we can be our best selves for those around us. Hence why I’m writing today, and hence (hopefully) more often from now on. Here’s to never standing still in one place for too long!

Blanket Forts

Blanket forts. The other day, I was remembering how much as kids, my siblings, our friends and I loved blanket forts. My mom had some old blankets she kept just for this purpose, and in the summertime especially, we’d take them outside along with a handful of Mom’s one-piece wooden clothespins. We’d secure one edge of the blanket against the top of the chain link fence, and hammer a few more clothespins through the bottom edge into the grass. Some days, between us and the neighborhood kids, we’d have a row of tents fastened against that fence.

We could spend hours running in and out of those forts, make-believing. Simple times.

It was my coworker, Jason who made me think about those forts. His work space is next to mine, and we both have stand-up work stations. He’s a highly intelligent, tech-minded, yet very creative person. Because we’re both often standing up near each other, we can’t help chatting. It usually begins with something work-related, but because he’s easy to talk to,  before we know it, the conversation topic has meandered along to something like blanket forts. It was the millionth time since February 1st, when my mom died, that I’d remembered how much simpler life used to be.

My fifth decade on this earth came along almost two years ago now and most of what I knew to expect is proving to be true. It’s harder to get a good night’s sleep. My body doesn’t want to retain the look it used to have, no matter how hard I work at it. But most often these days, I recognize that I’ve always had things a lot better than I thought I did at the time.

This has been a hard year, following a few challenging years. But that chapter is over now. Both of my parents are gone now, and I don’t care how old I am, it just doesn’t feel right that they’re gone. But day by day, I’m getting used to the new way of things. And with every passing year, I thank God more for giving me the life I’ve been lucky enough to live.

I feel the impact of Mom’s last days more severely than Dad’s, though. He had Mom to watch over him, and to reach out to one of us when needed. Because Dad left before she did, I had to hope that Mom was capable of reaching out to me herself when I wasn’t there for her. All of those days that I worried about Mom … that I wasn’t doing enough even though I was doing all that I could, they’re over now. I still so often expect the grip of anxiety to wrap itself around me before I remember that I can relax now.

The biggest thing? The most phenomenal, unexpected, unbelievable thing? Our family is healing. In those last most difficult days of Mom’s life, I was sure I was losing the last threads of our family bond along with losing my mom. I was certain we siblings would go our separate ways for the rest of our lives. But death has a way of changing so much. It opened my eyes. When I realized during that last week of her life that our mom was leaving us, all I wanted was to pull my siblings close. I thought they owed me an apology, but I found myself asking their forgiveness for contributing to the wedge that had formed between us.

I’m sure that if I were still in the midst of it all, I wouldn’t be able to see what I see now. But I now realize (cliché and lame as it might sound to anyone not standing where I am today,) that everyone has their own way of dealing with things. And no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know what other people’s lives are like. Anyway, now that it’s over, I just don’t care why it was the way it was anymore. I don’t need to think anymore about how alone and scared I felt back then. It’s over. Those pages have been turned.

Most of this year since Mom’s passing, I’ve been dealing with settling her estate. Mom made it easy for us. She had no debt, and most of her affairs were in order. The one hiccup was that there wasn’t a transfer-on-death deed for the townhouse. So most of the summer was spent working with an attorney and getting the appropriate forms filled out, but we got it done pretty easily. It just took time.

The house is now sold – to a dear friend’s mom, and I couldn’t be happier. My parents did what they’d always wanted to do. They left each of their kids with a little something to make life a bit easier. But more importantly, they left us with a life model we now strive to mirror in many ways.

Life moves on. I’ve spent the summer feeling phenomenally grateful to have been where I was, and to have arrived where I am. I walked a lot. Almost every morning, I left the house at 5 am, and many of those days, I walked a few miles, alone, along the trail that runs behind our house. I walked before the noise of daily traffic began to fill the air. I listened to the birds sing their beautiful songs and watched as the sun rose in the sky. The sun is incredible, by the way, when it rises on a warm summer morning. I took enough pictures of the sky the past few months to fill a book. It’s late in the season now and it’s too dark to feel safe going out alone, but those were beautiful days that gave me the chance to find some peace with everything that has happened.

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I feel a little bit older now, a little bit wiser. Would I want to do it all again? No. But would I do it all again? Yes. The thing about having come this far in life is that it allows me to look back and see the purpose in so many things, to realize how I’ve grown as a result, to see that we all have to suffer some unknowns in order to keep growing up. Fifty-some years and losing loved-ones has helped me learn how to be grateful.

My life is my own again, and yet I still miss my parents so much. But most of the time I can now see that it had become too difficult for them to face another day, take another breath, fight their failing bodies. My parents brought God into our lives every single day. There were times I resisted, but I’m now so thankful that they did. I’ve had time to learn to understand some of the ways of this life. I take comfort in knowing they are with Him now, living in peace without the chains of age and disease. I can’t be unhappy about that.

Like I said, life has moved on. Good things are happening in my little world, and I feel myself changing in positive ways. When I sat down this morning to write, I thought I’d write about that. But I think for now, I’ll leave it here … with memories of blanket forts.

Gloria

I still stop by Mom’s town house every few days just to pick up the mail. There are fewer days now when there’s anything of importance, and except for the remaining utility bills, whatever I pick up usually goes straight from the mailbox to the recycle bin.

After picking up the mail, I walk through the house and make sure everything is still okay. The first couple of weeks after she passed away, being in the house always brought tears. Mom’s pill-box still sat at the kitchen table next to the napkin holder, as if she’d be back to take her daily doses of medications. So did her stack of recent mail, and the letter opener she always used because her fingers couldn’t open envelopes anymore. The living room, her bedroom, the sun room all looked as if they were just waiting for her to return to them and her daily routine. It made me so sad to be in her space and know she would never come back. So many days I’d just plop into her place on the comfy living room couch and cry for a few minutes before moving on.

My siblings and I have been working to clear out Mom’s belongings though, and we’re close to being ready to sell. It’s easier to be there now because almost everything that made it unique to Mom has been removed. The important stuff has been divided among the four of us, and the rest is being relegated to charity or the trash.

On Wednesday after work, when I pulled into the driveway the garage door wouldn’t open. I pushed the button on the remote multiple times to no avail. Thinking the battery had died, I tried the keypad. Still no luck. I finally walked up the sidewalk to let myself in the front door with my key, and quickly realized the power was out. I momentarily wondered if I’d forgotten to pay the electric bill, but then remembered sending it not long ago. And fortunately, the refrigerator had been cleaned out weeks ago so I didn’t have to worry about spoiled food.

I did my usual walk-through, and seeing that the boxes of stuff we’d sorted were all where we’d left them last, decided I could head home. As I locked up behind me and headed back to the driveway I still had a nagging feeling that I’d dropped the ball somehow and wondered if I should be more worried. It was then that I noticed all of the neighbors’ driveways. Almost every one of them had a car sitting in it, and all of the garage doors were closed. I realized then that this small community of seniors almost never leaves their cars outside. Evidence that the garage doors couldn’t be opened and it was a neighborhood outage.

When I got home, I decided to call Mom’s next door neighbor, just to completely ease my mind. Gloria had been such a good friend to Mom during the two-and-a-half years they were neighbors. As she came to understand the severity of Mom’s disease and the limitations it placed on her, Gloria often stopped by to drop off a serving of some desert she’d made, or just to sit and talk for a while. Eventually, their friendship grew to the point that if Mom was spending the weekend at my house, or if she was hospitalized and knew she’d be away for a few days, she’d have me call Gloria to let her know what was happening so that Gloria wouldn’t worry if she didn’t see Mom’s kitchen blinds opened up for the day.

Gloria is a few years older than Mom was, but she lives a pretty active life. She volunteers at a local church, and she maintains an expansive garden behind the block of town homes on her side of the street. In the summertime, the garden grows lush, full and colorful. Because Mom couldn’t go anywhere without assistance, the garden was a source of great joy to her. She could at least step out onto her back patio and sit in a chair enjoying the sun, the flowers and all the birds that were drawn to the garden. Sometimes Gloria would wander over and the two women would sit together and chat. Gloria had become a true friend to Mom, and as a result, I’ve grown to love her.

So when I got home on Wednesday a few minutes after stopping at the town house, I dialed Gloria’s number. There was no answer, and so I left a message letting her know I just wanted to see what she knew about the power outage. After I hung up, I realized Gloria probably had a cordless phone, which meant if the power was out in the whole neighborhood, she wouldn’t be able to get my call.

On Thursday evening, my phone rang and it was Gloria’s name that appeared on the Caller ID display. We started chatting and I quickly had the sense how little we’d connected since she came to hug me and offer her condolences at Mom’s funeral. Our conversation flowed easily and after she’d confirmed the power outage was neighborhood-wide, we went on to catch up on the happenings of each other’s lives. I realized how interwoven our lives had become through Mom and found myself smiling at how easily we shared stories with each other. It occurred to me that I don’t want to let her slip out of my life now that Mom is gone and made a mental note to make an effort to stay in touch.

I mentioned before that the grieving process has brought me to the point where I’m able to look back on the past couple of years and see more clearly the many ways my life has been blessed. Gloria is definitely one of those blessings.

Alive again

I’ve turned a corner. I feel it this week – immensely.

I hadn’t even realized over the past few years, the degree to which I was lacking any real joy, or hope, or even a simple sense of peace. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t recognize then how low I was. But I see it now, and it feels so good to be on the other side of it.

The past few years were a journey, one that began in 2014 with a significant decline in my parents’ collective health, and ending in February of this year by which time both of them were gone from this world. It was a difficult road at times, but I see now that I navigated it with some semblance of success, and it seems I’ve reached a sort of check point.

This week has brought clarity. When I look back at myself over the past two years especially, I see the darkness that permeated my mind, the lingering sense of loneliness, and the pangs of sadness that always hovered just below the surface and often spilled over. It’s only now I realize I was probably walking a fine line between true depression and basic self-pity. No one wants to watch their parents die. I often felt sorry for myself because it felt as if I had a front row seat for the slow end of my parents’ lives and I watched it in brilliant Technicolor.

I can’t count the number of times I wished things could have been vastly different, that my parents didn’t have to suffer the debilitating effects of disease and aging, or at least, that I could have had blinders on. But now, there’s a sense of gratefulness that God put me where He did. Today, I have few regrets and those include wishing that I’d had less fear, and that I might have supported my parents with a glad heart at all times. I didn’t always. BUT … I did it. I was there for them. I held their hands as they stumbled through to the end. Even if inside I sometimes felt scared, or bitter that my life was put on hold to some degree, I see now that I wrapped my arms around my role. My parents never had to go to a nursing home, which was a huge fear for both of them. And my relationship with Mom blossomed into something beautiful – which in my younger years, I never could have imagined. Countless times during the past two years, she expressed her immense gratefulness to me. Affectionate pet-names rolled off her tongue when she spoke to me, and that felt SO good! The words, “I love you,” were exchanged daily between us … words that years ago were always assumed, but rarely verbalized. I will never be sorry that I was thrown into this role of part-time caregiver and faithful daughter. Difficult as it was at times, it could also be rewarding and deeply fulfilling. I had to dig deep, but it allowed me to find a strength I might otherwise never have known.

For years, I have felt a desire to deepen my faith, to figure out where I’m at with God, and how to get where I want to be with him. I know that’s a lifelong pursuit, but this week it’s become so clear that doors were opened because of the experiences of the past several years. I have grown in my faith as a result, and it seems that I’ve finally found the sense of direction I’ve often lacked.

A couple of weeks ago I had dinner after work with a friend, one who inspires me with the way she lives her faith. I told her at the time how I still felt so weighed down – with memories of Mom’s last difficult days, with the burden of settling her affairs, with my own family stuff, and with ever-increasing work stress. I told her how stuck I felt, and that I knew I needed some time during the day to pray, reflect or recharge, but I didn’t know how to find it. Even though my parents are now gone and a sense of freedom had begun to return, I still felt as if there were never enough hours in the day. Turmoil was still so prominent in my heart.

My friend reminded me of something she does that I’d forgotten. The challenges of her life have been infinitely more difficult than anything I’ve ever known, and yet she maintains a sense of peace. Each day on her drive to work, she turns off the car radio and spends her commute praying. I decided the next day I was going to give it a try myself.  I’ve never felt that I really knew how to pray beyond the routine prayers I’d committed to memory during my Catholic upbringing. I’ve rarely felt that I’ve actually communicated with God, or heard His will with any true certainty. The first few days were sketchy. My mind was chaotic and rambling, and I wasn’t sure if I was really praying, or just letting my brain run wild. But something good was happening. My daily commute is typically thirty minutes or so, longer if there’s any kind of weather or traffic issues. And with that small fraction of each day, I had begun to carve out a much-needed period of quiet and reflection during my otherwise noisy existence. Each morning, I began to develop a bigger craving for that time alone in the car. And each day, a sense of peace and contentment began to gradually grow inside of me.

I’ve begun to sleep again on my own. My nerves feel less frayed. Minor annoyances are beginning to roll off my back. I’m smiling more readily and I’m able to see again how blessed my life has really been. Most importantly, there’s a recognition that life will always be a series of hills and valleys. I’m on the mountain top for the time being, but I see now it’s the periodic lows that will help me continue to appreciate when I’m on a high. The last few years brought some serious lows, but I would never give them back. I am grateful I was given the opportunity.

Coming up to breathe

It’s hard to believe that over a month has gone by since Mom’s passing. It’s been a busy, as well as highly emotional time. Losing Mom has been such a different experience in so many ways than it was to lose Dad. I’ve at times felt that my sadness is much heavier, and so much more frequent. And maybe that’s because Mom and I were so close. Or maybe it’s the finality of knowing both of my parents are now gone.

My siblings and I continue to move forward together, recognizing that forgiving each other is sometimes a daily effort. We’re all doing our best to maintain a sense of humor.

I have a sense of peace this time that I didn’t feel after Dad passed away. My parents are together now, no longer having to deal with the sufferings of this world. They are surrounded by the many loved ones gone before them, not to mention … Mom’s beloved dogs!

The worries I’m left with this time are about things, not about a person left behind and how I might care for her. The to-do list, and the stresses this time … I can deal with them. There’s a handbook for the kinds of things I have to face this time, and when I don’t know what to do, I can easily find the answer.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult. It often feels wrong to be dismantling my parents’ home, sorting the surroundings of their lives into keep-, donate- and sell-piles.

The first few weeks after the funeral were the hardest, especially as I walked out the doors after work. My mind so routinely took me straight to Mom’s house to pick her up, that there was always a split-second in which I’d forget that she’s not there anymore. And then the tears would roll. I still stop by her town house almost daily to pick up mail. Leaving her neighborhood without her in the passenger seat feels so strange, but I sometimes take that time alone in the car to talk to her as if she’s still there by my side.

There’s been a bit of guilt for the sense that I have my life back. I shouldn’t say it like that. It’s not that I had to give up my life in order to help care for my parents. But I often recognize now just how very limited I was, how many evenings and weekends I had to forgo other opportunities, either because I needed to take care of Mom, or just in case she needed me. It was like returning to the years of having young kids. Their needs came first, and my freedom was secondary.

And really? I wouldn’t change a thing. The entire process of first recognizing my parents needed help, how hard it must have been for them to ask, and then having to embrace the role of caregiver was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced. It was often frustrating, scary, overwhelming and depressing. It was also very rewarding. Mom and I forged a close bond the likes of which I’d once thought we’d never have. I can only see now how much stronger I am because of it. If not for this experience, I’m not sure I’d have gained such an awareness of how challenging it is to grow sick and old, how sad and lonely it can be. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this awareness, but I certainly don’t want to simply put it out of my mind and do nothing.

Maybe after the dust has settled, I’ll figure it out.

Mom is gone

MomBut she’s not gone. She’s just no longer here. No longer in this world. No longer with me.

I spent last Friday with Mom in the emergency room. She had lost most of her ability to swallow any food or liquids. She was admitted to the hospital and after an endoscopy was performed the next day, we learned that the disease which has plagued her for years, Scleroderma was attacking yet another part of her body. Her lungs had been compromised years earlier. More recently, her stomach and bowels were affected. Now it was her esophagus. It had been damaged and there was no known way to fix it.

Days. Tests. Questions. Guilt for not realizing how dire things had become. Finally a decision. A feeding tube. The procedure took place on Tuesday.

I naively thought the feeding tube was the miracle answer that would give Mom a better quality of life. In my defense, that’s pretty much how it was presented to us. Even as the hospital staff began to use it, and I felt a little panic about learning to help Mom with it, I still thought we were going to turn the corner somehow.

Mom had a lot of pain after the procedure was done. All day and well into the night, I sat with Mom, unable to do anything to ease her pain. The best I could do  was to be there when she opened her eyes looking for some comfort. Wednesday was no better.

Early Thursday morning, a nurse from the hospital called me. Mom was struggling. Pneumonia may have been starting to take hold of her. I got there as soon as I could. It was 4:30 am. I asked the nurse if I needed to call my siblings and she said, “No. We’re not at that point.”

A couple of hours later, I decided to trust my own gut and I called them. Mom wasn’t entirely lucid and she was having a lot of conversations … but not with me. Her eyes kept looking upward to a corner of the ceiling as she spoke. Sometimes I could understand her words, sometimes not. At one point, she said something and then turned her eyes to me. She looked almost surprised to see me there. I asked, “What, Mom?”

“What suit am I in?” she said.

“What suit?” I asked.

“What suit am I in?” she repeated. This was a clear sign to me that Mom thought her time here on earth was coming to an end. She has periodically expressed concern that we dress her in a nice suit for her funeral. I told her, “No suit today, Mom.”

She said, “Oh. Okay.”

My sister and two brothers arrived quickly. The day was very long. Instead of improving as a result of the feeding tube, Mom was declining quickly. We called friends and relatives. We discussed hospice care. Mom continued speaking out loud to people we could not see. She had one foot in this world and one in the next. Her priest came to give her last rites.

Plans were made to move Mom to a beautiful hospice home where my father-in-law spent his last days a few years ago. But as it turns out, we didn’t need the hospice home. Mom was gone before the day was done.

She went quietly and peacefully, surrounded by her family. We were able to take some comfort in the fact that her long struggle was over.

As I now think back over the past few years, my parents’ decline, the loss of my dad, and the care Mom required over the past two years, I have so much regret. I exhibited such an enormous amount of angst and bitterness. I see how it nearly consumed me. And I realize now that it was such an enormous waste! It only served to hurt me, my mom and my family.

I regret that I threw away so much valuable time; gave it up to my hurt and helplessness.

I know that even if I could go back and relive these days, I probably could not change it, and that thought alone gives me some comfort. This world is exponentially more difficult to navigate than most of us will ever stop to think. As I struggled to get a handle on myself during the past couple of years, I looked in many directions for some answers about how to deal with this stage of life. I looked to God, church, books, friends, the internet … and yet, I could not shed the turmoil that wrapped itself around my mind and heart. I heard loud and clear many times that life is short, and so much that we make important is not. I heard that I would have regrets if I pushed away the people who should be most important to me. But I could not be helped. I think that the darkness that often permeated my existence during those days was an inevitable consequence of our circumstances. As did I, the members of my family each dealt with things in the only ways they knew how. It was not for me to understand then. But I think I do now.

My husband has been struggling with his health for about four months now. It’s been nothing life-threatening, but concerning, none the less. My responsibilities at work have increased. It has often felt lately that I’ve been losing my grip. It has seemed as if I was crumbling, inside and out. I cried out to God in anger recently. I said he should not have let me be born. I was doing such a miserable job of managing the life he’d given me and I wasn’t really sure I cared to have it anymore. I prayed for something to break, because I couldn’t take it anymore.

I was not asking for my Mom to be taken from this world. This is not what I was asking Him to do.

My mom’s last days opened my eyes. I hope that she had enough awareness to witness the forgiveness that occurred among her children. I hope she could see the way our divisions dissolved.

I myself cannot fully explain how, or why I have been able to forgive my brothers for what I perceived as their willing and deliberate absence from my mom’s life. I was certain that at whatever point Mom left us, I would sever all ties with my brothers. I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever. Now all I want to do is pull them close. I guess it’s just that now Mom is gone, I’m willing to shut the door on that phase of our lives. I was only able to survive these last days in large part due to my siblings’ presence. I forgive them.

Yesterday as we met at my parents’ church to plan Mom’s funeral mass, I forced myself to say some words to my two brothers and sister before we met with the priest. I told them that I regretted the way I’d let our parents’ needs defeat me over the past several years. I said I regretted the way I’d contributed to the divisions in our family. I said I was sorry, and that I wanted us to be a family. We four came together at that moment. I only wish that we could have made this happen sooner.

Going forward, I believe it will be easier to let each other just be who we are. I know that with Mom now gone from this world, and without such daunting responsibilities, it will be easier for me to lower my expectations of others.

I would like to think that Mom saw us finally pulling together, and this is what made her able to let go of this world and move on to the next. I often had the presence of mind to realize that my role in Mom’s life would serve some valuable purpose. And though I wanted to understand then, it was not until now that I could see it.

Growing up, Mom and I were like oil and water. I was her challenging child. She frustrated me and I never felt understood. My high school years were hell for both of us. It has only been through the growth we both experienced since my childhood years that we’ve learned to understand and accept one another. As I’ve often believed would be true at this point, I have no regrets about our relationship now that Mom is gone. Being able to play a role in her care allowed us to grow together. My love for her exploded during these last years, and she never failed to tell me how important I was to her and how much she loved and appreciated me.

I always thought it would be somewhat of a relief when I no longer had to wake up each day and worry about Mom. So many times, I wished for the freedom to live my life, and my life alone, to be free of the responsibilities that often felt like chains. Now? What I wouldn’t give to have one more day to take care of my beautiful mother.