Distance Visiting

We haven’t been able to see Jack’s mom in person since early March. She’s been in an assisted living facility since late last fall. Just before Halloween, she’d fallen at home and laid all alone on her laundry room floor for several hours, waiting for someone to realize she needed help.

I hate that this happened. And it wasn’t even the first time. This time it was a broken hip. After surgery and recuperating in a transitional care unit, Mom-in-Law and the family agreed that a senior living situation might be best. She took to her new digs easily, made some friends during her daily visits to the dining room, and all-in-all seemed to be doing much better than she had been at home. She was smiling again. She had a new enthusiasm because she had things to talk about when we visited. We all felt some peace of mind that had been lacking for a long time.

As the Coronavirus crept into the U.S., precautions were put in place at the facility. First, Jack was questioned upon entering the building a few days after our return from Mexico. Upon admitting we had been out of the country within the past fourteen days, he was told we could not come back for two weeks. (Luckily we had squeezed in one visit the day after our return from vacation before things got really serious.) Before our fourteen days were up though, the building was closed off to all visitors. And not long after that, residents were no longer allowed to leave their apartments.

We call Mom frequently, and she insists she’s fine. She says she’s not bored out of her mind and the Game Show Network keeps her entertained. She has a favorite caregiver who she mentions frequently, and that gives me some comfort. But we’ve been missing her.

Seeing the occasional story of others visiting their elderly loved ones at a window, we thought we’d try something similar. Mom’s apartment is on the backside of the building. She’s on the main level if you walk to her place through the front entrance. But the property slopes downward to the back of the building. On that side, her apartment is two floors up since the lower-level memory care apartments sit below at the ground level. However, there’s a little parking lot just beyond the back of the building which offered some promise. We made a plan with Mom, telling her we’d call when we arrived on Saturday and she could come to the window and see us while we talked on the phone. Son Ryker came along, and so did Lucy Pie. Grandma loves Lucy Pie!

The visit went well, even though it didn’t go exactly as planned. When we pulled in to the lot, Jack called and told Mom to go to the window. She said, “Okay. Just a minute.” And then she hung up.

Mom appeared in the window, without her phone, and she waved at us. We waved back. She waved again. Jack held up his phone and put it to his ear, trying to signal to her to get her phone. She waved again. “Just call her again,” I suggested. So he did.

We could tell the moment Mom heard her phone ring. She raised one finger at us as if to say, “Hold on!” And she ambled away from the window, returning shortly after she’d answered the phone. “You were supposed to stay on the line and keep the phone with you, Mom.” Jack said. “Oh,” she replied amiably. Jack put his phone on speaker and we all chatted with her for a while. A few geese were nearby, honking nervously at Lucy. Lucy pulled on the leash that Ryker held tightly and rumbled back at the geese. Mom thought this was quite funny.

Before we’d left home, I’d found an old box of sidewalk chalk in the garage and tossed it into the truck. As we chatted with Mom, I took it out and drew a few simple pictures on the asphalt, hoping she could see them. I guess it wasn’t obvious. She asked Jack what I was doing. He told her I was drawing for her. She laughed but was appreciative.

Watching us from the window required Mom to stand with her walker. She tired out after about fifteen minutes, so we said goodbye. After hanging up, Jack helped me put the finishing touches on the drawings, and before we left, we heard someone shouting from above. We looked way up to the top corner of the building where a window was open and two employees were waving and calling down to us. “Thank you! Thank you!” they said. “You guys are awesome! Can we take your picture for our FaceBook page?”

We proudly posed behind our artwork and allowed our pictures to be taken.

Those two employees made me feel so good! I realized that our efforts for Mom might brighten the day for a few others. Maybe I should get some more chalk and make this a regular thing!

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.

“Assisted Living” is no longer an off-limits conversation topic!

(How my blog topics have changed! I vaguely remember once writing an entire post questioning whether underwear, or what type, should be worn under yoga pants. I kind of miss having nothing more pressing to worry about than whether panty-lines are visible beneath my workout wear!)

Anyway. I spent nine and a half hours in the emergency room with my mom yesterday. Three and a half of those hours were spent in the waiting room before even getting moved to an actual patient room, so we clearly had a less dire emergency than many others. Anyway, that’s a story for another time. Or not. Because it would probably just come off as an enormous rant, and I’m sure none of us are in the mood for that!

Besides, the most important thing about those nine and a half hours is that it gave Mom and me lots of opportunity to talk. She felt bad that I’d had to forsake any other plans I’d had for the day (which was mainly work … a rush project that I really needed to get back to and didn’t.) I spent much time trying to assure her that no matter how important I thought it was to get back to work, she trumps everything else.

As we sat and watched the minutes and hours tick by, waiting for the hospital staff to decide whether they’d admit her, we contemplated how we’d manage if they sent her home. She’s had a bad week and is in no shape to be alone over the weekend when she has no home care services. When she’s feeling normal, she manages on her own on the weekends until noon or so when my sister or I come to make sure she eats and has some company for the rest of the day. When she’s sick, it’s always a challenge to make sure someone is with her at all times. We’re walking a tight-rope much of the time.

Mom was the one who brought it up yesterday – the idea of moving to an assisted living facility. I was cautious at first. Didn’t want her to realize how much and how often I think about getting her into such a place. But when she stated that she’d really been giving it some thought, I pounced like a tiger and started touting all of the positives of making such a change, not the least of which is that she would have companionship. I assured her that my sister and I would still come spend time with her just as often as we do now, but without the burden of all the driving back and forth, cooking, clean-up, etc.

We already looked at a really great place a couple of years ago when both she and Dad were supposed to move. When he died the day before they were supposed to move in, she couldn’t bring herself to go alone and has stayed in her town house ever since. How often I’ve anguished over the fact that Mom would have been so much better off if we’d have accomplished that move before Dad was gone. It has been a long and difficult couple of years, but maybe there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel!

 

A different light

IMG_5905 (2)For a few years now, I’ve received a daily email meant to encourage and inspire me. At various times since my subscription began, I’ve not started my day before checking to see what “The Universe” has to tell me. Other times, weeks, or months go by and I don’t even bother to check.

The messages are kind of new-agey, but sometimes I’ll read one and think “God is really speaking to me,” even though I know there’s a rather quirky guy behind them, sitting at a keyboard, pulling words out of hat and raking in the dough because he’s found a way to capitalize on a great idea. Sometimes the messages make me smile. Or laugh. Or cry. Sometimes they elicit a huge eye roll. They can be really “out there” at times. But considering how much junk I’ve allowed to land in my inbox, and how often I delete emails without even opening them, these continue to keep my attention. The one pictured here is a perfect example why. They make me look deeper inside my own head.

I didn’t even realize the significance of this one at first. I opened it when I’d first arrived at work one day recently, while waiting for my computer to boot up. I read it quickly, and probably was immediately distracted by work before I could give it much thought. Later in the day, I felt compelled to go back to read it again. I saved a screen shot.

I’ve gone back to read the words a few more times since then. And it was only today that I stopped to really contemplate why I’ve been so drawn to this particular note.

The words hit home. Probably because I’ve often been “down” in the past few years, and I’ve sometimes been able to admit that it’s been my own doing.

Quite honestly, I can look all the way back to my childhood and see that this is somewhat a tendency of mine. It’s just a part of me that I’ve had to learn to deal with. Over the years of my life, I’ve recognized it, and  done a lot of work to combat it. I think I’ve made pretty good strides in understanding that happiness is an emotion, not necessarily a state of being. I’ve learned to appreciate how difficulties can build strength and resilience. I’ve come to realize how good joy can feel – whether simple or profound – when there are sorrowful memories to which it can be compared.

But sometimes I forget to – or how to – employ the coping mechanisms. Every year of my life brings new realizations, and the past few have hammered home the fragility of this world and our existence. If there’s one thing aging has helped me understand, it’s that we really need to appreciate what we have when we have it.

I think lately, I’ve let the complexities of the past few years steam-roll me. My dad experienced a years-long decline. And when he left, it wasn’t necessarily quietly or peacefully. Mom’s decline overlapped Dad’s. She needed her kids to help care for Dad in his last few years. I was the kid who lived a block away for twenty-six years. I was the one most often at their beck and call. I’m not gonna pretend it didn’t get old. When Dad died, it was us kids who managed the funeral arrangements because Mom was too weak and sick to tackle any of it on her own. And for a long time since Dad’s been gone, I’ve felt like I was holding my breath with Mom, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But I had a recent revelation, that she just might hold on for a long time … in her own very fragile and often depressed state. I spend time with and care for her every other day and often more. Our once-intact family has frayed at the edges and that weighs on both of us. It’s hard to maintain a sense of optimism while trying to hold both of us up.

On top of it all, it still hurts that my closest friend left this world too, much too soon. I sometimes wonder if a day will go by when I don’t think about and miss her. I know I have been blessed with really great friends in this life, but her passing has made me realize how lucky I was to have someone who wanted to be so close to me, who wanted to hear from me nearly daily, who knew all the ins and outs of my life, was so easy to laugh with and who didn’t make me worry much about what I looked like, or which words might spill out of my mouth. Maybe I don’t want the day to come when she doesn’t come to mind so often. I’d just like to hope that someday the ache will be replaced with a lighter feeling in my heart.

Anyway, I seem to be rehashing the very same things that have taken my writing hostage for such a long time … but this time in reference to the note … this particular note from “the universe.” I think it kept pulling me back to gently remind me that how I’m feeling is often a matter of which direction my eyes are looking. Up or down? Inside or out? Too often, I let myself surrender to the weight of my world. Self-pity has become my annoying little friend. I’ve allowed myself to become withdrawn, too often spending the days I don’t have charge of Mom simply collapsing on the couch and crawling into bed as soon as I can get away with it.

It’s fine to be tired and try to catch up on sleep. It’s probably okay to let myself disconnect a little bit too. But I think I need to shift some priorities around, remember all of the wonderful people in my life and carve out some time to recharge my batteries with them, leave the weight of my responsibilities in the background when I have the chance.

Was I super lucky to have a loyal friend who loved me deeply and reminded me often (reminds me still) how important I was to her? YES! Does that mean I can’t let other people step into her shoes now that she’s no longer physically here? No.

Is it really hard to have to take care of an aging parent and feel all of the sad realities that accompany such a role reversal? Yes. Do I want to allow it to continuously darken my mind and heart? NO!

I think that’s why this particular note resonates so deeply with me. It makes me admit that I’ve given up too often, for too long. It reminds me that it’s completely my choice to curl up in a ball and be angry at the world. But has it done me any good? Does it even make other people want to be close to me? Um… probably not. Sometimes I remind myself to just shut up about certain things, and then I hear myself talking about them again and I wonder how people even put up with me anymore. I mean seriously, dude. Look around the world. You don’t have it so bad!

I get so tired of myself sometimes. And I don’t want to do it anymore. Maybe I should take this note from the universe and blow it up to poster size, hang it on the bathroom mirror, tape it to the dashboard, until I’ve seen it so often I have it committed to memory and remember that life has always been … will always be … whatever I make it. Dark or light. I want more light. And apparently, I already have it. I just need to see it.

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

– Henri Bergson

Dinner with my Brother

So the dinner with my brother and his family happened yesterday. After months of not speaking to one another, I have to say that I think it went very well.

I spent the majority of the day doing the necessary tidying around the house, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming (futilely) the eternal abundance of dog fur. I wasn’t TOO worried about whether the house was spotless. My brother and his family have two very sheddy dogs themselves. They wouldn’t judge.

I also made a big, BIG (too big) pot of chicken chili. There was shredded cheese, and tortilla chips and Chili Cheese Fritos to sprinkle on top, plus a couple dozen cornbread muffins. Three extra people and Mom came for dinner. I made enough food for two dozen. Better too much than not enough, I always say.

So they came. They gave the dogs much attention and pampering. The guys watched some football and contemplated the possibility of the Vikings making it to the Super Bowl in their hometown. And then warned each other not to jinx it by getting their hopes up. I gabbed with my sister-in-law, Mom and my nephew. We ate the chili and the cornbread muffins and sang the praises of Chili Cheese Fritos. We were almost too full – but not quite – to enjoy my sister-in-law’s mini Bailey’s Irish Cream – chocolate cheesecakes. They were aMAYzing!

Brother and I didn’t talk about what’s been bothering us all these past months. We didn’t hash out the hurts or discuss forgiveness, or hug, or cry. We just hung out like we always used to do. Anyway, Mom was here, and since she’s at the center of what’s gone wrong between my brothers and me, that might have been weird and unfair. Besides, texting seems to be the medium for he and I to say what’s in our hearts. Works for me. I think I’ll text him this morning and tell him how glad I am that he came.

 

Cliché

A new year has begun and I can’t help myself. My thoughts keep turning to how I might make this next trip around the sun better than the last. 2017 left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I’ve come to realize this is largely no one’s fault but my own.

The few words I wrote last year (and the many that I did not,) focused heavily on the stuff that has weighed on me for some time now – my aging mother, the silent war that wages on between her children, and the stifling sense of defeat, depression and sadness that has draped over my soul as a result.

The last quarter of the year really did me in. I had latched on to my anger and bitterness so tightly that I could hardly stand myself. I hadn’t spoken to either of my brothers in months, and every day, my stomach churned with resentment over their continued absence and lack of any sort of support in the daily care of my mom.

I used to be so close to one of my brothers, the one who is two years younger than me. He and his family used to be such a big part of our life. He and his wife used to spend so much time with us years ago. They came over to decorate Easter eggs with us, or carve pumpkins for Halloween, or just to hang out on a long, dreary winter day. He was my kids’ favorite uncle, hands down. And I realized one day in recent weeks, that in spite of all the reasons I’ve had to be mad at him … I missed him. I just missed him.

Why I’ve continued to remain connected to him on Facebook, I don’t know. I suppose it was just some twisted need to know what was going on in his life, and allow myself to feed my resentment every time I saw evidence that he had any opportunity to enjoy life without having to stop and worry about our mom. I could remind myself once again how unfair it was that my brothers seemed to have abandoned her, and left me and my sister to do all of the worrying and care-giving. But I realized maybe it was a good thing after all when I saw that he posted a Facebook status after Christmas, saying how he used to look forward to the holidays, but now he’s just glad they are over. It sunk in that for months, I have failed to think for a moment what it might be like to be in his shoes, and that maybe there was more to his absence than sheer selfishness.

Before I could talk myself out of it, before I could make a list of reasons that I might regret it, I sent him a text, telling him I felt the same way. I said I hated how divided our family had become, that Christmas just wasn’t the same joyful holiday I used to see it as, and that I knew I bore some of the responsibility for the huge mess that is now our family.

My mind was riddled with thoughts about how hurt I was going to be if he fired back at me in anger, or worse, didn’t respond at all. I tried to hang on to the hope that even if nothing changed as far as his involvement with Mom, I could work together with him to repair our relationship. And to my surprise, he responded immediately. My phone dinged over and over as he sent buckets of words back to me, expressing his sorrow over being at odds with me and my family. Words of regret and explanation poured back and forth between us, and tears were shed on both sides of the conversation. We finally made plans for his family to come spend an evening at my house in the near future.

I cannot begin to describe, or even really understand the relief I’m feeling. We are a long ways from repairing all of the damage that has been done, and it’s quite likely that some of the family divisions may never be healed. But I’m trying not to focus on the what-ifs. I just know that I’m only beginning to understand the real meaning of forgiveness, and hoping that I can keep myself from falling back into old habits. I don’t know what it all means, especially because I still feel a lot of resentment toward my youngest brother and can’t see taking any first steps with him at this point. Not to mention, I’m pretty sure my sister is going to be hurt and angry with me, since it has been “us against them” for such a long time.

I guess I’m just allowing myself to be okay with baby steps at this point, and trying not to feel pressured to figure it all out right away. I only know that I haven’t liked myself very much lately. I’m reminded again that “they” are right when they say that withholding forgiveness hurts no one but myself. I’m tired of opening my eyes every morning and my first thoughts being dark. I just think there’s a lot that needs to change inside of me before I can find the sense of peace that I seem to forever be chasing.

So here I am, at the beginning of another year, setting goals and hoping hopes that I can get something right in whatever number of days I have ahead of me. I wish my resolutions could be as simple as improving my diet, exercising more, or getting more organized. I still need to work on those things, but I have to dig a little deeper than that this year. And maybe one of these days I’ll find that the world has become just a little bit better place.