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.

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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.

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

A Visit

Thursday would have been my dad’s 77th birthday. The day also marked two other significant events in recent years. It had been two years and a day since Dad had surgery to repair a broken hip, and one year and nine months since the day he passed away.

The first summer after Dad’s passing, I made frequent visits to his grave site. The cemetery where he’s buried is a beautiful and peaceful place, and just happens to be a few short miles from where I work.

I haven’t gone to visit Dad at all this summer. If you asked me, I would probably tell you that road construction near the office keeps me from easily getting there. The reality is, it’s been a hard year, and for a while, I felt a sense of anger with my dad that I couldn’t really explain. I couldn’t bring myself to visit. The anger has finally passed, but believe me, I’ve felt horribly guilty for being angry with a man who is no longer here to defend himself.

Deep down, I know the anger was a normal part of the grieving process. I also realize it stemmed from a sense of helplessness. Dad’s gone, living the high life in a perfect place. I’m still here, in a place that often feels like a cesspool of human misery, having to witness my mom’s daily struggle with her health, loneliness, and sense of isolation. Mom took care of Dad through all of their years, helping keep him alive through issues with his diabetes, heart condition, and kidney failure. She saw to his needs until his dying day, even as her own health was failing significantly. On my worst days, I’ve wanted to know why Dad couldn’t have been stronger, healthier, and why he couldn’t have stuck around to support her through her pain and her fears.

Maybe I’ve been angry with God. But for the good part of this year, it’s been directed at Dad.

Fortunately, I’ve managed to surface from that awful phase. Many mornings lately, before I leave for work, and while my brain is still somewhat quiet, I talk to Dad and apologize for being mad at him. I breathe a sigh of relief that I’ve cleared another hurdle.

I’ve reached the point in life when funerals have become a more common occurrence. I’m getting older. My family’s older generation is aging. I’ve had to learn to face the fact that none of us gets to stay here forever. It helps that so many friends are in the same place in life. We support each other. We’ve learned to see funerals and memorial services as the celebration of life that they’re supposed to be. My faith has matured to the point that I believe the life after this one is where it’s at, and we’ll all be reunited one day.

Dad 2010So I’m grateful this sense of calm came over me before Dad’s birthday on September 7th. That morning, I posted his picture on FaceB00k and sent some birthday love up to him. As I knew would happen, many of my friends and relatives saw the post, liked the post, “hearted” the post, or left some words of love. Throughout the day, I checked on the activity and saw Dad’s picture again and again.

Maybe that’s why I had the dream. I’ve been wanting to have the dream.

Not long ago, I was out with a few girls. We’d gone to a concert at the local casino, and afterwards sat at the bar talking about the thing we all had in common. We’d all lost a parent.

Around the table, they all talked about the signs they’d seen. One dad leaves dimes in strange places where his wife or daughter will find them. One mom frequently comes to see her daughter. She swears she’s even physically hugged her mom during these visits. I’m a bit skeptical, but who am I to judge? Maybe if you want something bad enough, it can feel true.

One of them asked me, “Has your dad come to visit you in a dream?”

He hasn’t, really.  I may have seen him in a few dreams, but it never felt like a visit from him. Apparently, all of the other girls have had obvious visits with their parents. The realization made me sad. My dad probably didn’t want to visit me. I haven’t been very forgiving lately.

But the day of the FaceB00k birthday post, I thought about Dad a lot. I talked to him frequently, and apologized again. I looked at his picture over and over. And that night, there he was in my dream. Normally, if I even remember my dreams, they’re usually a bunch of nonsense. But this one was clear and felt real. I walked into a room, and there stood my dad. He looked just like he did during his better years, when his body was stronger.

I don’t remember that we said anything out loud to each other. I just walked into his arms and hugged him hard, at the same time, feeling completely pulled into his embrace. I wordlessly told him how much I love him and have missed him. He wordlessly told me that everything would be alright.

I woke up in the morning feeling a sense of relief that I haven’t felt in months. I have not been myself for a while, but suddenly, I felt as if I had finally come up for air.

 

It is what it is

I can’t believe it’s autumn already.

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(I just decided to write autumn instead of fall. Does anyone say autumn anymore? Where has that word gone? … Anyway …)

It seems impossible that 2016 is nearly three-quarters of the way gone. The days come and go like a sneeze. This is a sure sign that a) I have WAY too much going on this year, and b) I’m getting old. I’m okay with that. Like always, I still say I’d never go back in time. And I’m much more aware than ever how important it is to make each day count.

The past year has shaken me up. I have had too many reminders of my own mortality. Add to that, too much seems to be falling apart as I sit here helplessly. There is a constant worry about a loved one’s child destroying his life with drugs. (You always think it can’t happen in your own circle, until it does. And it’s horrifying.) There’s the exhausting dysfunction that continues to plague the relationships among my extended family. (Why are some so comfortable being hateful to their own blood?) Sometimes, it’s simply the thought of this county’s next leader that leaves me fearful of tomorrow.

Some days it all weighs on my heart to the point that I wonder why we bother with any of it.

The upside of aging is that while it is still and probably always will be in my nature to worry first and give a heavy amount of attention to the negative stuff, I’m learning not to stop there. There’s just so much I can do nothing about. If I’ve learned anything from losing my 47-year young best friend almost two and half months ago now, it’s that life is simply too short to waste the days giving energy to battles that can’t be won.

There’s a lot of anger and hatred between my siblings, and I guess … I’ll admit … me. I don’t want to own any of this, but if I’m honest, I’m not completely without blame here anymore than the others. I’m just as capable of refusing to see past faults as anyone else. In years past, I found myself constantly trying to fix it. Now I realize that maybe we’ll never be able to understand where each other is coming from. I’m tired of harboring resentment though, and I’m tired of feeling that if it’s going to be fixed, it’s going to have to be me who takes the initiative. As many times as that’s happened, I’m just sick of coming back to the same place again. I’m tired of swallowing my pride and opening my heart and home to others who refuse to acknowledge that they have played and continue to play a role in the fraying of our family life. Maybe it’s enough to just concede that we can’t force togetherness and we should just love each other from a distance.

There’s a woman I work with. We’ll call her Dee. Dee is the most bitter and angry person I’ve ever met. She’s constantly using sarcastic humor to express how stupid she thinks other people are. I know there’s probably a lot of history behind it, but even as I try to understand what might be beneath the surface, there’s a limit to how much thinly veiled judgement I’m willing to take. I think everyone wants to have some friends at work. But Dee? She’s alienated all but me and one other person. We are the only ones willing to eat lunch with Dee anymore. All others have gone their separate ways. This week I told that one other person that she shouldn’t take it personally if I opt not to spend my precious lunch break with her and Dee some days. I see how easily in the past, I’ve been where Dee is right now. I don’t want to fall back to that place and I just don’t think it’s good for me to spend time with a person who doesn’t ever seem to want to let go her darkness. I’ve had enough darkness. I need light in my days.

This year has been good though too. It’s shown me I am strong in ways I never thought I was. The experiences of this year have created a bond so strong between my mom and me that I never thought possible. I will never regret this, I know. But sometimes I worry that I’m falling short in my friend relationships, with the in-law side of my family, and that I should be doing more to give of myself in a wider circle.

Then often comes a reminder from somewhere else. My mom needs me right now more than anyone else needs me. She is my calling at this time. It always comes back to this. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realize that there will be other days for those other things that pull on me. My friends who have been here? They understand this and I love them for it. (Shelly! Rose!)

This year has taught me that there really aren’t any solid lines in this life. As much as we try to tell ourselves as much, there just aren’t. There’s no real black and white. As angry and abandoned as I feel sometimes with some of my siblings, I’m willing to admit that we just haven’t found a way to “get” each other. I love them, but right now, I just need to keep my distance. I don’t have enough energy to do all that I must do every day, and understand things they can’t or aren’t willing to share with me. I frequently remind myself that as much as I’d like to think there’s a way things are supposed to be, things just are what they are. I’ve come to believe that what is supposed to be is mostly an illusion anyway. Someday, it might all be made clear to me, but for now, I have to accept that there’s a lot that isn’t going to make sense. We all choose what we choose in life. We can’t do so for others.

None of us knows what it’s truly like inside the hearts of each other. Sometimes people can’t share what drives them, and rather than hang on to the hurt, we have to either accept it, or just walk away from each other. Sadly, because this world is so broken, sometimes it’s just not possible to have the relationships we imagine in a perfect world.

I’ve come to accept that with precious few hours in a day, and precious few days in this life, I have to put my energy where it’s welcomed, where it can make a positive impact. For now, that’s my immediate family, my mom, and anyone else who is willing for us to accept each other as we are. If someday it’s possible for healing with those who have drifted away, I’ll welcome it. In the meantime, I’m not going to force it.

With age and the experiences of late, my mind and heart seem to be breaking free of the limits I’ve spent a lifetime enforcing on them, in both profound and simple ways. I don’t have to hate. I don’t have to be sad. But I also don’t have to keep exposing myself to people and circumstances that make me hurt. There’s a degree of freedom in finally accepting that I can’t force life to be what I expect it to be. And when I finally begin to see it as it is, it might actually be easier to be happy.

Just Be Happy

My alarm clock pulled me from the most amazing dream yesterday. The dream was so incredible that I just laid in bed for a while thinking it over. I was trying to hold on to every detail and the beautiful feelings it gave before it all dissolved from memory as my dreams typically do. I don’t often remember dreaming at all, and when I do dream, I barely remember the specifics or make sense of the nonsense I do recall.

Even a day later, I’m still in awe of the whole experience, partially because waking up hasn’t been my favorite thing to do for quite some time now. I think even before my dad died last December, as my parents’ health began to deteriorate rather significantly, I’d begun to recognize I’d always enjoyed a certain sense of security in my life. I hadn’t even realized I was taking it for granted until it was suddenly gone. Since Dad’s been gone, it feels like so much has fallen apart. I worry constantly. My siblings feel so far away. I spend more time than ever with Mom, taking care of things for her or just providing a meal and some company. Every day, in the back of my mind, I wonder if she’ll go soon too. And I I’m not sure I’ll be able to deal with it.

Losing my best friend last month has only compounded my daily feelings of weariness.

Lately, I wake up frequently at night and have trouble falling back to sleep. Mornings have become a time when I wake up feeling heart-heavy and tired.  I almost always pull myself out of it pretty quickly, but typically have to spend some time talking myself into the idea that I can handle what awaits me in the next twenty-four hours.

But yesterday was different. The experience was more than just a good dream that helped me greet the day with an unexpected positive energy. I know it was. There was something incredibly significant about this dream.

In the dream, I was sitting in a room. It wasn’t a familiar room, but I didn’t seem concerned. I was sitting on a couch and suddenly noticed a picture hanging on the wall directly across from me. It was a photo of my best friend, Gina. I remembered all of the photos Gina’s family and I had sorted through as we prepared some photo displays for her memorial service, and I didn’t recall having seen this particular photo before. It was beautiful and I really liked it. It wasn’t a formal photo, but a snapshot. Gina’s eyes were turned toward the camera, but the posture of her body showed that she was facing someone else. Her lips were parted in such a way that I knew at the moment the photo was snapped, she was engaged in conversation. Her eyes were sparkling, and her whole face was smiling, almost laughing. Wherever the photo was taken, whatever event was happening at that time, she was clearly happy and enjoying herself. I even imagined there was a beer in her hand, just outside the frame of the picture.

As I sat contemplating the picture, Gina was suddenly in the room with me. Even in the dream, I knew she wasn’t physically there with me, and maybe I was even imagining it, but I didn’t care. She was sort of spinning around, almost dancing to some melody I couldn’t hear. Her head was tipped slightly back, her hair swirling over her shoulders as she moved around. She was simply joyful. In my dream, any thought of the cancer that had plagued her so relentlessly over the past years was nonexistent. Gina didn’t speak to me, but somehow I heard her telling me, “Just be happy.”

I remember thinking, “I have to tell Jenny about this.” (Jenny is Gina’s niece and her other best friend. We got to know each other well in the days following Gina’s passing as we helped the family with funeral arrangements.) Just as I began to text Jenny in my dream, my alarm clock went off and I was back in reality. And instead of my usual desire to sink back into a deep sleep, I laid in bed marveling over what I’d just experienced. I couldn’t help but feel that Gina had paid me a visit from Heaven, and she’d used my dream to tell me something very important.

Just be happy.

It seems almost too simple, but it dawned on me that Gina has a point. Sadness and worry have their place in this world, but it’s dangerous to let them take over at the expense of all else. While none of life’s problems are going to just disappear because I change my mindset, nothing can be improved by wallowing in self-pity. In fact, I’m certainly only making things feel worse by maintaining so much negative energy. This is not a new concept, and certainly something I think I’ve always tried to remember. Maybe I’ve just forgotten to keep fighting for it lately.

Gina’s visit has reminded me that I need to really strive to appreciate every little good thing. And she’s left me with a sense of peace that I haven’t felt in such a long time. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have received such a gift from her. I know I’ll never stop missing her, but now I really understand that she never truly left me and she will always be such an important part of my life.

Just be happy. Okay, Chica. I’ll do my best!

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In memory of my Chica

Gina and I met back in ’88 or ’89. I’m not exactly sure. I just remember that the definitive start to our friendship began while we were both in the midst of our first pregnancies. So I guess late 1988 would have been where it all began.

I was newly married and 21 years old. She was my brother’s friend’s girlfriend, 19 years old, and a total spit-fire. I, having always been somewhat shy and insecure, was instantly attracted to her confidence and zest for life.  She was young, unmarried and pregnant. At that time in my life, I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes. But she was unapologetic and marched forward in life doing all she could to make a good life for the baby girl who soon arrived … and the four other babies who followed in the years to come. And she did a great job of it.

We fumbled our way through parenting in those early days. In addition to figuring out how to be good moms, we both had our share of struggles with financial issues, home-ownership, marriage, and all of the stuff that life throws at us. What stands out most about my friendship with Gina is that she helped me view life through a lens of humor. She seemed to know instinctively that if we couldn’t laugh at ourselves, we’d run the risk of letting life swallow us up, and she was having none of that.

As we grew older and began to find our footing, we settled into our own life routines. We shared it all with one another, often over the lines of a telephone. For so many years, not a day would go by without one of us calling the other. And even though we were in touch daily, hours could pass easily as the constant flow of conversation passed between us.

Our lives shared similarities, and yet had enough differences to help us appreciate one another. We both made livings as home daycare providers for many years, and so supported one another with ideas for keeping kids productively busy, and provided therapy for the inevitable frustrations of dealing with a house full of children all day, every day. We shared parenting successes and failures, relationship issues, family frustrations, and all the day-to-day stuff that kept life interesting.

I honestly still can’t say what it was that attracted her to me. But I was initially drawn to her wicked sense of humor. Once when we were discussing how neither of us thought we could stand one more game of Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, she began proposing names for potential similar adult versions of all these early childhood games. Soon we were tossing inappropriate game names back and forth, things that I dare not put in writing. And all I can say is that we were laughing until we couldn’t breathe. That’s what I loved about her.

I loved that she could do anything. Her parents divorced when she was young. She lived with her mom, and had all of the “stuff” a kid could want. But it doesn’t sound like her parents were involved with her very much. So I don’t know how or where she gained some of her domestic talents, but she had them! The girl could sew like nobody’s business. During her early years of marriage, money was tight. She sewed clothes for her kids, window curtains and valances, bedding, and made pageant dresses for her girls that looked like a million bucks. She was Italian and loved to cook, and she did it well. There was no home project she couldn’t figure out how to do on her own, whether it was construction, painting, tiling or landscaping.

She coached her kids’ sports teams and was always involved, if not as a coach, then on the athletic association’s board, or with the booster club.

She was a talented photographer. She loved photography and taught herself all the ins-and-outs and tried to share some of her knowledge with me, though I could never quite remember all of the right settings for different levels of light. But oh, the fun we had going out on what we called our photo excursions. We loved to go downtown, or to sprawling parks and capture everything we saw with our cameras. She eventually earned her living as a photographer, and the proof of her talents fills the homes of so many, including mine. She was always on the “taking” end of the camera, and I only regret that this meant there are far too few pictures of the two of us together.

As our kids grew older, leaving us time to explore hobbies of our own, she discovered bowling. She called me one day and asked if I would fill in as a sub on her team. I remember saying, “Oh, I don’t bowl. I’ve probably done it five times ever in my life.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll help you. You don’t even need your own ball. You can use a house ball and rent shoes. You don’t have to be good. We just need a body.”

Well, the pressure was off and the rest is history. It wasn’t long before bowling became one of my pursuits and we shared many fun nights in the women’s league, laughing, improving our games, and drinking beers.

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The years passed by … some good times, some bad … but we hung on to each other and at some point along the way, we decided we were best friends. Our kids grew up. We spent time together along the way, usually helping each other with life stuff, like painting rooms or making food for high school graduation parties. We made time to have fun together with our husbands on the weekends, and even celebrated some holidays together. Our kids came to think of each of us as family, and I was given the honor of being godmother to Gina’s son. Not so many years ago, I helped her family pack for a move that took them out-of-state and hours away from me. It was such a sad and difficult day when they drove away from here, but the miles couldn’t keep us from remaining the best of friends. Our phone calls were filled with affection, calling each other Chica, as had become our habit, and ending our conversations with “I love ya, man!”

Within a year after her move away from me, Gina was diagnosed with cancer, one of the most aggressive, horrible forms of the disease.  Within days of her discovery of a lump in her breast, she had undergone a double mastectomy. She fought it and bounced back, but within a couple of years, the cancer had returned. She continued to fight and I prayed. I prayed, and prayed and prayed. Lately, I wasn’t reluctant in my prayers. I outright begged for a miracle.

On Memorial Day weekend, Gina’s husband, Jeff reached out to me and we talked. He explained that the cancer was winning. I had been wanting to go out and visit, but had not been able to fully work it out with Gina. Jeff told me she was never going to agree to have me come see her at this point because she would want to make the house perfect and ready for my visit. And she couldn’t do that herself because she was getting too weak and sick to do it. He told me if I wanted to come, I should come now. He said to pick the dates, any dates. He would make it easy for me. So we planned it and in mid-July I spent four wonderful days with her. Over the past few years when she would come “home” for a visit, my time with her usually had to be shared with others. She had so many friends and so much family that when she was here, everyone wanted some of her time. So one-on-one time wasn’t much of an option. Going there gave me that time with just her that we had been lacking for too long.

She had been having some really good days just before I visited. I was encouraged and told my mom so. Mom mentioned that when a terminally ill person has some really good days, it usually means the end is near. I was appalled that she would say such a thing to me, but I realize now she was right.

Gina and I had some beautiful days together. She was never able to leave the house, but she sat on the loveseat in the living room where she was basically spending all of her waking and sleeping hours by then. We talked a lot. She slept a lot. We watched movies. Actually, we watched “a” movie – Miracles from Heaven – multiple times. She had requested it and I picked it up at a nearby Red Box. I watched it again and again. Because she couldn’t stay awake for many hours at a time, she never quite made it all the way through the movie. I contemplated the real-life miracle of which the movie told, and asked God if a real-life miracle might be possible for Gina. But it wasn’t to be.

I passed the time while she was resting or sleeping by cooking meals for her family and for us, or taking short walks or reading while I waited for her to awaken. We cried when we hugged and had to say goodbye. I told her I loved her and she told me the same.

Last week, her family flew here to spend a week and to celebrate her son’s high school graduation with family and friends. They stayed with her oldest daughter who still lives here in Minnesota. I visited on Friday evening, the day before the party, and spent a couple of hours with her. I held her two grandbabies and talked with her family while I watched her sit quietly in a wheelchair, clearly struggling. She wasn’t feeling so great, and her husband told me she’d been having some difficult days. He worried that he’d waited too long to bring her here, but she had insisted on the timing and he hadn’t wanted to panic her by pushing to do this sooner than she wanted.

Saturday morning, the day of the party, Jeff called me very early. He said they were in the hospital. She had gone into distress during the night and he could not adjust her oxygen to the point where he could calm her again, so he’d called for an ambulance. I hurried to the downtown hospital just as quickly as I could get there, and spent the next eleven hours by her side as she struggled to breathe and find relief from her pain. I was honored to spend this time with them as she traveled this difficult road, and was allowed to be included in all of the conversations with doctors and specialists. It soon was made clear that there was no fixing this. All that could be done was to try to make her as comfortable as possible until the end came. Gina would not be going back to her home in Ohio with her family.

Jeff and I passed the hours by her side while the graduation party went on without us. We tried to make her as comfortable as possible, and he checked in frequently with the staff to see what more could be done. Gina maintained her sense of humor through it all. Even as we could see that her mind was partly in this world and partly in another, her true self came shining through at times. As one nurse asked if it was okay to do something for her, she raised her eyes and weakly responded, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”

At one point, she looked wearily at me and teased, “You need to quit crying already.” Somehow I agreed and managed, if only from the sheer weariness of having been doing so much crying.

As night fell, Jeff kept asking me if I was sure I was okay. And didn’t I want to go home? I did and I didn’t.

Eventually, Jeff called his kids to come see their mom. I needed to check on my own mom and also knew that in the ICU, the hospital staff would probably appreciate if visitors were kept to a minimum. Part of me wanted to see my friend through to the very end, and part of me felt I should step aside and let her family have that time alone with her. Around 9 pm, I kissed her goodbye and hugged Jeff. I told him to call me at any time.

I went home and fell into an exhausting sleep. I woke up before the sun and began to dread his call, which came not long afterwards. He told me that the doses of morphine had begun to be administered hourly, while she struggled to make it through each hour before needing more. She had been able to spend some time talking with her dad, sisters and children before things grew to their worst. He said eventually, she settled down after yet another dose of morphine. Her breathing grew shallow and at some point in the predawn hours, she simply stopped taking another breath. My Chica left this world peacefully.

This hurts more than I could have imagined. I have guilt that I didn’t find a way to spend more time with her in these past couple of years, but am encouraged by those who found their way into her heart in her new home in Ohio. There were a few who took such good care of her and did the things for her that I wish I could have. I am so grateful to Jeff for making sure she and I were connected during her last days. He and I talked about how maybe this was all meant to play out as it did. So many decisions remained undecided about where to hold services and where to bury her if it all came to that. He said that maybe she was only waiting to be here, amongst the majority of her friends and family before she departed from this world.

Even in the midst of the pain I feel in losing her, I am grateful. Grateful that she is free from the pain and struggle. Grateful to have had a friend who loved me so much, who looked past my many flaws and insisted only on seeing the good in me. Grateful to have someone who stood by my side and lifted me up during times when I felt utterly alone. Grateful to have had someone who helped me see the world as bright, beautiful, fun and adventurous.

As Faceb00k was filled yesterday with tributes to her, I realized the significant impact she had on so many. Her friendships spread far and wide, and her influence on everyone was so similar and postive. She will forever be remembered for her humor, her adventure, and her many and varied creative talents. She was a friend, a willing listener and a source of encouragement to everyone. Her talents as a photographer beautifully captured the most emotional and important times in the lives of others. I only hope that in the void left in the wake of her passing, I can take on a part of her and share all the good that she was with the world around me.

Gina, I will love you always and look forward to the day that we meet again in Heaven. You will be deeply missed, my dearest and best friend. Thank you for being a part of my life.

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Calmed

This long weekend has been good for me. It’s provided me some breathing room, and the realization that I have been neglecting to keep a positive focus. That is something I’ve been purposefully striving for over the past few years. I remember when I first realized that it’s possible to remain hopeful even in the midst of storms.

How easy it is to slip back to old habits. I hadn’t even realized how fretting and worrying had overtaken me lately.

But like I said, maybe a break in routine is all I needed.

Jack and I were able to go to the ball game with our friends Friday night. It had been raining all day, and the rain continued as we drove to the field. If the weather didn’t break, we were just going to find a restaurant downtown and have dinner. But the clouds parted and it ended up being a perfect night for baseball.

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St. Paul Saints games are SO much fun! We had great seats, behind home plate with a clear view of the game. We enjoyed silly fan events held on-field between innings. And the “cheerleaders” in the form of a nerd couple who danced on top of the dugouts kept us laughing and cheering the whole time.  The post-game fireworks, choreographed to commercial jingles were the perfect ending to such an enjoyable night.

Saturday morning arrived with more rain, the perfect day to be stuck in the house painting walls. I called Mom before we dove into our project and was relieved to hear she was finally feeling much better.

Jack and I got started and we made a great team. I did all the taping, while he edged along the ceilings and then the baseboard that I had protected with blue masking tape. While he continued with the detail work, I followed behind with the roller. When those first patches of sage and caramel hues hit the walls, I wondered if we’d made the right choice, but by Saturday evening when we were almost done, we were really pleased with the results.

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It’s hard to take pictures of walls, so this photo doesn’t do it justice, but there is definitely a new vibe of serenity in the living room.

Yesterday, I had plans to go with my Mom and my siblings to visit my Dad’s grave. While waiting for my brothers to arrive, I received a message from my best friend’s husband that I should call him. My heart sunk. My friend has been battling cancer and it’s not been going in her favor. When I called, her husband told me that he was aware she has not been communicating much with her friends, and basically, while he did not feel anything was immediately imminent, I might want to plan a trip to see her sooner rather than later. My mind reeled. How phenomenally difficult it must be for that poor man to have to make that call and to have that conversation with his wife’s friends. Yet he was calm and detailed. Clearly, he has reached some level of acceptance.

IMG_4229aAs I stood quietly with my family around  my dad’s grave yesterday, I tried to process all of the pain and struggle I see happening all around me, not just in the world in general, but too close to home these days, in the lives of family and friends. So often lately, I think of the world as a dirty, ugly, dark place. It’s so easy to feel lost, and it’s hard to keep moving forward with a hopeful spirit. But at the same time, I realize that I have to, that the whole point is to find the joy in spite of all the chaos that surrounds us. Otherwise, what is the point?

Difficult as it may be at times, even if it feels like I’m just sometimes just going through the motions, I’m moving forward … with prayer, hope and optimism.