Hello, 2017!

I am ready for a new year! Like so many others, I’m not sorry to see 2016 go. 2016 wrung us out in so many ways, not just here at home, but throughout the country, and around the world. And even though today, the sun has simply risen on another twenty-four hour window, just like it has every day before this one, the fact that today brings a fresh new year gives me a sense of hope and optimism.

I’ve been reshaped in the past year. I’d like to think I’ve been made stronger. But the process of getting here hasn’t been easy.

Jack and I went to a wedding yesterday. At the reception, I was talking with a friend who has suffered more family tragedy in the past couple of years than anyone should have to endure. We talked about things like losing loved ones, watching our parents grow old and frail, and the seemingly high instance of addiction in people these days. We talked about how much pain and hurt exist in this world. And we discussed how easy it is to worry and to hurt when you love others. I said that I always figured the older I got, the easier life should be, and the less we should have to worry about. But with each passing year, I realize it’s just not so. It can be so easy to let fear, hurt and bitterness consume you – if you allow it.

If anyone ever had the right to curl up in a ball and let darkness swallow them up, it would be this friend. But she hasn’t and won’t allow that to happen. She inspires me. As we talked, there were some tears. She’s been through so much, and she endured a period of darkness not long ago that I’m not sure I personally could have survived. We talked about how hard it can be to keep taking another step forward when so often we don’t understand why things sometimes happen the way they do.

I’ve reached a stage in my life when “someday” has arrived. Years ago, I understood that someday, my parents would grow old.  I knew that friends and loved ones would eventually depart from this life, and that there was the possibility that we wouldn’t all grow old. I knew that not everyone I cared about would have an easy life. Not everyone would enjoy good health for all of their days. But when I was younger, and had more control over protecting the ones I love, when time was on my side, it was easy to tuck someday away in the back of my mind.

We get older, and someday inevitably arrives. It can’t be ignored. You can let it swallow you up … or you can face it, and find happiness and good in spite of it.

I told my friend that as I endured the loss of  loved ones over the past couple of years, the only thing that kept me from losing it was the fact that there were clear signs that this here, this now, is not all that there is. A prayer to my grandmother was answered with the sound of her favorite song. A loved one showed up in a dream, assuring us that it’s all okay, that there is happiness in the beyond. I call them God moments. So does my friend. To others, maybe they are simply hope and optimism, or just wishful thinking. Whatever they are … they give me the strength to keep keeping on.

Still, in 2016, I mostly felt as if I was just going through the motions and trying not to let everything get the best of me. I know this is simply life. Most of us will have to pass by this way at some point. It’s a process. Grief and sorrow can’t be overcome in a day. And maybe they are something we just learn to live with. Strength and new wisdom do not come in an instant. Shedding old skin, arising anew … it all takes time. This is what we’re here for. To feel every emotion. To feel alone sometimes as well as to be surrounded. To experience joy as well as pain. To understand that sometimes we have to endure the depths for a while. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. All of this is what helps us to know what it is to truly live.

My friend summed it up well. She told me she never could have survived her losses if it weren’t for the love and support of those around her. “We’re here to love each other,” she said. “We’re just supposed to love each other. That’s all this is about. Nothing else matters.”

I think she’s right. In 2017, I hope I’ll stay more focused on this. I can’t save my mom from the inevitable strains of her health conditions, but I can take care of her as best I can. I can be with her as much as possible and love her as much as possible. I can’t save anyone from the ugliness of this world, but I can remind them they aren’t alone and they are loved. And when the unimaginable happens, maybe that love will be someone’s saving grace.

I spent too much time in 2016 feeling lost, alone and defeated. I don’t want to feel the sting of tears so often anymore. I want to feel less anger and bitterness. I want to remind my brain to focus on the positive, and when negativity finds its way in, acknowledge it and let it pass on by. I want to enjoy what I have, appreciate that which I can control, and stop stressing about what (and who) is beyond my grasp.

As I’ve so often been reminded in recent days,  a new year is like a blank book.

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I hope I write a good one in 2017.

 

My Turn to be the Warrior

“Hey, Chica!”

This is how my best friend and I have greeted each other for years, whether in person, or on the phone.

So many phone calls we have shared throughout the years of our friendship. In the early days, we thought of those calls as our daily dose of sanity. We started our families in the same year. It was 1989 and her oldest child arrived just three months after my firstborn. In the following years, I had two more babies. She had four more. We both spent those early years as home daycare providers. At the end of the day, it was nice to swap notes with someone who was in the same trenches.

I remember our phone calls being filled with her bubbly laugh. There’s always been a spark to her personality, and so much energy in her spirit. She’s known for her sharp and unapologetic sense of humor. I’ve always seen her as the friend who leads the charge. There’s never been something she couldn’t do. If she didn’t know how, she’d learn. She’s an amazing cook, a talented seamstress, a gifted photographer. There’s never been a home or yard improvement she’s envisioned that she couldn’t make happen. There are few people from whom she couldn’t elicit laughter. She’s always been the life of the party.

When her kids started playing baseball, softball and hockey, she became an expert on each game. She was the parent, sitting on the bench, keeping the book. When I had high school graduation parties to throw, she was the one with me in the kitchen in the days ahead, cooking and preparing homemade stuffed pasta and sauce for a crowd. Countless times, we worked together in her house or mine, painting kids’ bedrooms with the latest and greatest technique. She was my favorite shopping partner, the one who knew how to find the best stuff for the lowest prices. She was the one to yank me out of every one of my comfort zones and show me what an adventure life could be.

Always, there’s been an endless flow of words and laughter between us. If ever I’ve been down, she’s lifted me up, though not usually with a warm, fuzzy kind of support. Nope, not from my Chica. She’s always been more likely to offer a swift kick-in-the-pants kind of help. There’s no feeling sorry for yourself around this chick. She’s not having any of that. She lets you know in no uncertain terms that the only way to conquer a challenge is to stand up and face it, to fight it until you’re back on your feet again. No looking back, only forward.

Over the past few months, our conversations have slowed. There’s been a noticeable quiet, though her husband’s efforts these past few weeks have helped to connect us once again. These days, it’s her voice that’s quieter. It’s her spirit that’s weaker. And it’s me trying to learn how to be the uplifting drill sergeant in this relationship.

We always used to end our phone calls with a silly “I love ya, Man.” Now, it’s a more sincere “I love you” that we offer to one another.

She called me during my work day yesterday, which is unusual. I saw her name come up on my cell phone and I chose to answer. She needs me now more than ever. Work could wait. As I answered, I walked away from my desk to find a quieter place to talk. She said she wasn’t sure how she’d called me. She’d been waking up from a nap and didn’t mean to call, but must have pressed something on her phone and next thing she knew, she was ringing me up. I said that was okay. I said I don’t get to talk to her enough, so I’ll take her call, any time, anywhere.

Her  voice contained the weakness I’ve noticed lately, the intermittent coughing and struggle for a good breath of air. Instead of laughter on her end of the line, there were the tears which have become so frequent of late. I struggled to find the right words and did my best to stay positive.

I asked how the last couple of days have been.

“Not horrible,” she said. I found this encouraging, all things considered.

“And your cough?”

“I’ve still got it, but… I don’t know … it might be getting a little better,” she admitted. She made a dark joke about her lessening cough being either a tiny sign of improvement or an indication that she’s going down.

“You’re improving,” I said.

“Heh,” she muttered, the smallest glimpse of humor hiding behind that utterance.

“You are,” I insisted. “I believe it. I’m praying for you every day, every time you cross my mind.”

“Okay,” she agreed quietly.

I couldn’t blame her for her lack of enthusiasm. Her body and mind have been pummeled by this cancer over the past four years. At every sign of hope, a reason to despair has followed. Who could blame her for feeling so defeated, this warrior chick who has never let any situation get the best of her?  And with a physical distance separating us for nearly as long as this cancer’s been around, I haven’t been there for her like I wish I could be.

So now it’s my job to help lift her up, just as she’s done for me and others so many times. It’s my turn to be the warrior.

I feel slightly guilty for the amount of communication between her husband and me. Though it’s all for her benefit, he says she feels like everyone’s talking about her all the time. She doesn’t want to be the subject of so much pity and discussion. She just wants to feel normal. And yet here we are, talking about her “behind her back.” But he’s trying to protect her feelings and I get that, so I go with it. So far she hasn’t questioned how I manage to find her awake every time I call lately. I’m glad for it.

Anyway, she’s going to have an idea soon that her hubby and I have been in touch, and then I’ll feel better. Last night, I texted him to confirm some dates and times. One last check to make sure everything is right and it all works for them. My flight is booked and next month, I’ll be spending some in-person time with her. He’s going to text me this weekend to let me know when she seems to be doing well. And then I’m going to call and tell her to get ready. I’m coming out there to kick her butt!

St. Peregrine and Mother Teresa have become my newest friends. I’m asking God and them daily to relieve my friend of this horrible disease. If anyone reading this is the praying kind, please offer up some prayers on behalf of my friend. She needs a miracle.

Pulling Oneself Up by One’s Bootstraps (and Getting By with a Little Help from One’s Friends)

There’s been a distinct shift in my perspective this past week. Looking back over the past few months, I recognize that  I’ve sometimes been so deep inside my own head that I can’t get out.

I know I’ve been wallowing in self-pity lately. It doesn’t make me proud, but I’ve somehow felt helpless to really rise above it. When I think about this time in my life, I try to remember that this is just a season. When I contemplate the time I spend with my mom, and how it contributes to her ability to continue living somewhat independently, I realize that years from now I will not be sorry. But I’m also guilty of worrying too much about her hours alone. Is she okay? Is she staying safe? Is she feeling lonely? I know it’s not bad to consider these things. But there has to be some balance … a healthy amount of worry coupled with productively contributing to her well-being.

I’ve been overly focused on the fact that my free time feels nearly non-existent. I can barely manage a text or email to a friend these days, much less actually spend time with anyone. And I’ve been bitter because those whom I always thought would be here to help either truly can’t or  simply … won’t.

When I’ve stepped outside of myself lately, I’m disappointed in what I see. I am stronger than this! And I know better. Lucky for me, I’ve been shaken out of my stupor. It’s funny how just the right person can come along at just the right time. Or in my case, the right people. I guess I needed reinforcements.

A call with my best friend’s husband last week, meant to bring me up to speed on the state of her cancer battle, has turned into almost daily communication. He opened my eyes to how truly difficult my friend’s days have been. I’d been a bit clueless due my inability to connect with her recently. But he’s also sharing hopes about bringing his family back to Minnesota in the coming weeks, to celebrate their son’s (and my godson’s) graduation with family and friends. We’re talking about how I can help with the party and anything else they might need. We’re discussing the potential for me to make a trip there to spend a few days of one on one time with my friend. Becoming so aware of the depth of her fight and how much ground she’s been losing has been cause for many tears this past week. It was easy to believe things were okay when I didn’t really know. But knowing allows me to really focus my prayers for her and for them. And being in touch with him, discussing how I can support them, makes me feel better somehow. At least I have a sense of direction. And he seems grateful to be able to talk about it with someone.

Kim  also contacted me this past week, to ask if she’d ever sent me a hard copy of her latest book. Kim is someone I would never have met if it weren’t for the internet and blogging. I’ve met her in person just a couple of times, and in spite of long stretches of time without communication, our friendship is a close one. She is a living example of the faith I’m always trying so hard to build within myself.

Kim is an author, and I’ve had the honor of previewing all of her books over the past several years. I’d read and reviewed some months ago an electronic version of her fifth and latest book. During our online conversation that day, I admitted that she’d never sent the promised hard copy (and I’m thinking she shouldn’t, that I should support her by actually purchasing it instead.) And then we moved on to the “How’s life?” kind of stuff.

Kim shared some of her struggles of the past few months, including the fact that her best friend is fighting a rare and aggressive form of cancer. This news itself lifted the fog of loneliness I’d been feeling. In spite of her trials, she exudes positivity and continues to rely on her faith to keep forging ahead. The simple fact that she could closely relate to the helplessness I’ve felt in regards to my friend’s situation, and could offer tips on small gestures I could offer … well, it simply gave me a renewed sense of strength and resolve.

And then there was an email from Rose, my longtime friend. We’ve known each other since we were six or seven years old. She’s one of the few offline friends with whom I’ve shared this blog. She’d read my latest post, and emailed to offer her time and support. Rose took care of her own mom during a time of declining health. She did it on her own, until her mom left this world. She’s been where I am. It truly helped to converse with someone who gets it.

I’m out of the grip of my funk now. It’s funny how nothing’s changed, and yet everything’s changed. The sadness of watching the decline of loved ones is still there. There’s still the sense that sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But I’m managing to write here at least once a week, which is always such a release for me. And somehow there is just enough time to connect with a friend now and then, even if it is a simple text or email. I’ve remembered to stop feeling so sorry for myself. My life is good. It’s not me who’s truly suffering. The struggles that weigh on me are not truly mine.

Abby posted about how she writes a “Question of the Day” on a white board at home, meant to keep her son’s mind sharp over the summer months. I commented that I write things around the house too. My writings are meant to keep my  mind in a good place too, to center my focus in positivity.

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Periodically, an idea comes to mind that at various times in our lives, we’re called to something specific. I realize that my calling right now is that of caregiver. I’ve been mistaking this as a sort of burden. I’ve been wrong.

It is a privilege.

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.

New Life

Springtime is in full force. The past week brought rain nearly every day, sometimes for endless hours. The grass in the backyard feels like a wet sponge. Lucy comes inside with muddy paws and is learning again that at this time of year, she needs to stop and sit on the rug by the patio door before continuing through the house. She’s not fond of it, but waits patiently enough as someone towels off all four of her soppy, grimy feet. It’s so good to see the sun again today.

The lilies and irises that I split and transplanted a couple of weeks ago are thriving, and the flowering crabapple tree in the front yard is bursting with buds. It won’t be long before it explodes into full pink bloom. It’ll be gorgeous for a few days before all of those tiny flower petals fall off and litter the black asphalt driveway.

Spring is having a positive effect on me too. It always does, but the impact feels more significant this year than ever before. The events of the past winter weighed so heavily on all of us. Lately, I feel as if a sludge is finally draining from my spirit. I’m beginning to find more balance and enthusiasm. Instead of every other day,  or even less as had become my habit during the darkest days of the past few months, I’ve been to the gym daily the last two weeks, and add mid-day walks whenever I can fit them in. It’s good for the body, but maybe more importantly right now, puts my head in a much brighter place.

It’s always amazing to me to realize that no matter how old I get, I can always change and improve, not just my habits, but  the way I view the world, my circumstances, and whether I’ll rise to meet them, or let them drag me down.

Although, I’m apparently a slow learner. I hate to think how many years I spent maintaining feelings of bitterness and unforgiveness in the face of difficulties. How often I was willing to believe that some things would never change. Too many. And honestly, those feelings are probably still my first reaction. Every time I hear my mom’s shortness of breath because she had to walk from another room to answer my phone call, or when I see her drooping with exhaustion after a walk from the handicap parking spot into her church, I think how unfair it is that a woman who never touched a cigarette in her life has been saddled with such a debilitating lung condition. She makes remarks now and then about how she probably won’t be around all that much longer. Just typing those words makes me want to cry. I think about all of the years we didn’t “get” each other, all of the time wasted not appreciating one another. And only now, since my dad is gone, have I realized just how very precious my parents are and should have always been to me. I’m not proud to say that I spent too much time feeling put-upon to take care of their needs when I didn’t feel I even had enough time to keep my own life together.

Still, this is usually the way it goes with parents and their children. We go through phases, the joy of the early years, the frustrations of the middle years, and finally reaching appreciation later on. We can only forgive ourselves for the past and move forward as best we can. I’m beginning to realize this more every day.

I think my dad would be proud today.

Back in the day, I was the kid who fought him on all things church-related. Church was boring. And I hated having to dress up for mass. Besides, my friends’ parents didn’t make them go to church every single weekend, every holy day, and every holiday. Why couldn’t I skip it now and then? Our family’s weekly attendance at mass made for the longest hours of my life.

When I began to have children of my own, we decided it was important to make religion a part of their lives. But our reasons were more about family tradition than anything. I was mostly just going through the motions, hoping for something bigger, but rarely finding it long enough to hold on to it. As our kids grew older and busier with activities, and as I became the bad guy, making everyone stop what they were doing to go to weekend mass, I wondered why I bothered. And I stopped. We all just stopped.

For a while I felt guilty, then eventually, relieved. It was pretty easy to give up religion. When we were regulars at church, I always felt like I was falling short on all the rules about attendance, tithing, attitude, and forgiveness, to name just a few. There was a kind of peace that came with not having anyone breathing down my neck about all the ways I was falling short.

Still, I’m grateful for a nagging feeling that remained in the back of my mind all of the years I was drifting. It’s the thing that eventually taught me that I’d missed the memo at some point, that I’d never really understood who God was and what He could be and do in my life.

These days, it is that very faith that keeps me going. It feels all new to me. Like I’m finally starting to get it, and every day my eyes are opened more and more. I have found healing in a relationship I didn’t think could ever be salvaged. I have experienced calm when I might otherwise have gone off the deep end. I have understood joy amidst the deepest feelings of grief. I have found acceptance at times when I might have railed at the world in anger and frustration. Not always, but often enough to know I can face with confidence whatever life throws at me, instead of living in fear. I guess you could say I’ve learned to believe in miracles.

I still experience bouts of anxiety over any number of things. My kids’ happiness, safety and well-being. My mom’s health and how long she’ll be here with us. The cancer that plagues my best friend. A host of other worries about the people I know and love. The difference now is knowing that no difficulty has to leave a permanent black mark on my soul. I’m learning to say thank you for challenges – not because I believe there’s some magic trick that turns every act of thankfulness into a happy ending, but because I choose to believe these experiences can take me in positive directions. And choosing to believe anything is half the battle toward making it reality.

I’ve broken outside of that shell that would have me believe you must participate and believe in only one specific segment of Christianity. Or even Christianity. It is my choice, but if someone else finds peace in a different way, more power to ’em.

While I’m back in regular attendance at the Catholic church, and while that would please Dad, it’s mostly because that’s where my mom wants to be. And since I am usually the one who takes her to church, that’s where we’ll go. Realistically, I find the teachings of other denominations to be mind-blowing at times. And thank God for the internet because I can hear from other churches at home while doing other things. And some of these people are so COOL! And “cool” is not something I ever thought I’d believe church could be. Listening to the word in unfamiliar settings, outside of the years of routine and repetition have helped me to really hear. I have to laugh at myself sometimes because I’m just hungry to know so much more. And it wasn’t that long ago that I could easily have just throw it all away.

I’m finally getting comfortable with prayer. It’s no longer just the reciting of age-old verses known by heart, but conversations in my head and heart, picturing God on the receiving end, acknowledging all of my fears, asking favor for my specific needs and those of others, and most importantly, expressing thankfulness for all things that make my life as good as it is. It all helps me recognize that my life is remarkably more blessed than I’ve often acknowledged.

I’m reading the Bible, willingly, for the first time ever. (Hey, Dad! Did you catch that? I’m reading the Bible!) My dad wanted all of this for me while he was here. I didn’t even begin to grasp it until he was on the downhill slide of his life. And the big boom of it came with and after his passing. Better late than never, I guess.

I understand now why so many people need and have faith in God, or any other belief system or practice that helps them get through each day. Life is hard sometimes. So many of us go through the days all knotted up, worried, fearful, or angry. I’m guilty. Every happy thought used to be dampened by another worrisome thought. I think we’re all just looking for peace. And now that I’ve discovered how I might find it, it gets easier each day. And when you find something that works, you just want to share it. I’m really grateful to have so many people in my life who never gave up on sharing their stories. I guess it’s my job now to share mine whenever the opportunity arises.