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.