Lessons Learned in 2020

It’s December 23rd and I took the day off from work. I’m looking forward to a nice five-day weekend. In a year that has forced us to be chill, I find myself facing the holidays with an unusually relaxed state of mind. Our normal extended family gatherings aren’t happening this year and we’ll be celebrating in a much more low-key way. Our three kids and their significant others will be with us for Christmas Eve dinner and presents. At least that’s the plan. I just caught the weather forecast and it sounds like our so-far brown December is coming to an end today with anywhere from five to nine inches of snow expected to fall before morning. I just pray the roads are clear enough for the kids to get here safely tomorrow afternoon. If not? Well it won’t be the first holiday we spend apart this year. But I really, really want to be with my kids this Christmas and I’m not sure I’ll handle it so well if things don’t work out. I know I really have nothing to complain about though, and I’ll do my best to handle whatever may transpire without feeling too sorry for myself.

Still, while I wait to put this year in the rearview mirror, I’m reminded – not for the first time – that I have it pretty good. And I keep thinking that this time is meant to be teaching us something, leading us somewhere better. As I face a not-so-normal Christmas, I realize I’m not that upset about it. How many years have I caved to the pressure of pulling off the perfect holiday only to lose sleep and stress out to the point that I end up ruining it for myself? So often the beauty and meaning of the season is totally lost on me. I love our extended family in all of their wonderful, albeit sometimes quirky and maddening ways, and I look forward to when we can celebrate all kinds of occasions together again. But maybe taking a step back this year isn’t such a bad thing.

This year has pulled back the curtain for me on all the ways the people of this world still haven’t grown up (myself included). I realize how naïve I’ve been and recognize that injustice of all kinds is ages old. It’s not somewhere out there in the faraway places of the earth, but right here in my own back yard. I’ve become hyper-aware of how little progress we’ve made in taking better care of each other, or sharing our abundance with those who have less. As I continue to anticipate brighter days ahead, I hope for less selfishness and greed, and a much kinder, gentler, compassionate population of people. It may just be that I’m getting older and typically realizing I don’t actually need everything I’ve always thought I did. But the added benefit to this state of mind is it makes me want to give back more, and more often.

My family has been very fortunate throughout all that has transpired this year and that fact is spotlighted every single day with the constantly dire news of all that is going on in the world. We’re all still working and have stayed relatively healthy. Those we know who have contracted the Coronavirus have managed it and recuperated. We’re lucky, I know. And It makes me want to help in whatever way I can. I’m trying.

Jack and I “adopted” a couple of little girls, ages three and six, through a local childcare center. Their mom has had a hard time this year and their grandmother had charge of the girls for a while. Grandma provided the girls’ Christmas wish lists and nothing on those lists was in the least extravagant. We were able to get everything the girls wanted and needed plus a few extras. We also added gift cards for Mom and Grandma so they could purchase groceries and necessities. The director of the daycare center thanked us profusely when we dropped everything off. And she emailed later to thank us again, telling us how Mom cried when she picked up the girls’ gifts and received the gift cards for herself. One of the girls has Celiac Disease and apparently Mom had been forced lately to go to the food shelf in order to feed her family. She had found it nearly impossible to find gluten free items, but the gift cards would allow her to stock up on those foods for a while. Jack and I were both hit hard by this mom’s reality and we’ve talked about making monthly donations to the center so that maybe we can continue to help ease her burdens and those of other families like hers.

The elderly are always on my heart as well, especially this year. Like my own mother-in-law, so many are confined in senior living facilities with limited or no ability to be with loved ones. My mother-in-law is a trooper and always seems to have a positive attitude. She loves to sit and watch the Game Show Network so she easily passes the hours. The staff at her place takes good care of her and she enjoys their daily stops to administer medications or bring meals. She’s got six kids and many grandchildren and receives multiple phone calls a day. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s something. As much as I miss my own parents, I often feel grateful they aren’t here to suffer through this with the health issues they had. It would have been devastating for them. How many people are alone now with little to no outside contact? It weighs on me, and so I found an opportunity to do a small thing about it. A local senior residence offers remote volunteer opportunities. I signed up, spending the past couple of weeks writing letters in Christmas cards to residents who could use a little holiday cheer. I wrote a bit about my family in each card and inserted photos of Lucy Pie. (I hope my cards find their way to some dog-lovers!) In addition, I went to the dollar store and bought all of the large-print crossword, word search, and sodoku books I could find, as well as some games of checkers that might help my “friends” pass the time. Finally, I topped it all off with bags of Christmas candy for the staff and any residents who are allowed. Like our gift-giving efforts for the little girls, the endeavor for the seniors made me realize that I could be doing something all year long and not just during the holidays.

This year will soon come to a close, and while I know 2021 isn’t going to magically erase all the darkness that has hovered during 2020, I hope the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter every day. I will strive to rise above the weight this year’s events while remembering just enough to maintain a softer heart and a spirit of generosity to others. May we all!

Finally a Normal Saturday (I guess I’ve missed these.)

I think every year around this time I speak (about 600 times) some really (not so) original words of wisdom along the lines of, “The holidays are always wonderful, but there’s something to be said about getting back to normal.”

There is. I’m one of those people who loves Christmas time … really loves it! I relish the joyful and generous spirit that permeates the air, the planning and giving of meaningful and simple gifts, the idea that our Christmas gatherings will be absolutely, totally, completely perfect in every way … even though the beauty of it is that they never will be. I love Christmas time so much that I usually experience a bit of blues in the days immediately following. This year was no exception. I woke up on December 26th, on break from work. I worked out. I showered. I drove the neighbors to the airport. While driving back home, I listened to Little Women on audiobook and contemplated grand plans for immense productivity during the remaining hours of my day.

Upon arriving home at approximately 10 am  … I promptly plopped onto the couch, reached for the remote, … aaand spent the next several hours watching movies and napping.

I can’t say I felt good about that. I tried to. I told myself, You’ve earned this. You entertained on Christmas Eve. You shopped. You wrapped. You cooked. You baked. You gave up precious hours of sleep. I told myself that my lounging was well-deserved self-care. But I’m not a person who feels refreshed after such a day. Unless I’m doing it due to illness, I just feel guilty. It’s one of those things I want to work on in this new year. Sitting and being still once in a while. Though maybe a bit more purposefully, and probably not while zoning out in front of a screen.

This brings me to my point which is that I woke up this morning feeling grateful for the relatively normal weekend that looms ahead. Sure, the Christmas tree still needs to come down in addition to the usual household chores and errands that I typically tackle during my weekends. But if I don’t get it all done? Who cares? Because no one is coming over to see my messy house! And if they do? Well, that’s another one of those things I’ll continue working on in the new year. NOT thinking that no one may come over until I have a Pinterest-perfect house. Besides, if I wait for that day, no one will be allowed over. Ever.

IMG_8999It was nice over the holidays. There were moments between the chaos when I glanced into the living room where all of my adult kids (and Lucy Pie) were lounging together, the Christmas tree lights glowing in the corner, and the kids’ teasing and laughter like music to my ears. Those moments filled my soul with such warmth and happiness. I adore those moments and will gladly take as many more as I can get. But the rest of it? It was wonderful but a bit exhausting as always. So today, the pressure is off. I’ll get to the shower when I get there. If my vacuuming doesn’t make it to the lower level this weekend? Oh, well. Today I raise my coffee cup in a toast to routine and normalcy.

Day One

This household is rolling quietly into the new year and it’s honestly not a bad way to start things off. I’m well rested and full of energy. We initially had plans to celebrate with another couple last night, but one of our friends fell ill, and Jack was showing signs of coming down with the cold virus that I’ve had for the past week. So we all decided it was best to keep our distance from each other. We stayed home and I went to bed well before midnight.

IMG_7402[726]Once our plans were cancelled, we made a last-minute trip to the grocery store to pick up a couple of lobster tails for our New Year’s Eve dinner. We made some baked potatoes too, and snacked on the veggies and dip I had planned to bring to our friends’ house. That was the extent of our New Year’s celebration.

Lucy was more than happy that her people stayed with her rather than going out. As snow flurries gusted outside, I was stretched out and cozy on the couch under a fleece blanket, reading a book while Jack periodically flipped t.v. channels. Lucy decided to climb up and over me, stretching out between the length of my body and the back of the couch, nestling her face in my armpit. She quietly snored the evening away. I was content to be cuddled up with my fur baby.

So this first day of the new year is shaping up to be an uneventful day. I’m happy to be well-rested and minus any ill-effects of too much “celebrating.” It’s a chance to get my mindset back to a more typical routine and ready to return to work tomorrow.

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Another trip around the sun comes to a close

And so here we are again, at the end of another year, contemplating all that has transpired in the past 365 days, and imagining all that lies ahead in the next.

I’ve been off work since last Thursday, and it’s been absolutely wonderful to have a stretch of unplanned, and unstructured days. I have slept long and hard and rolled lazily into each morning.

To be honest, had I not scheduled time off from work, (which I only did because I recently realized that I had more PTO in my account than I was allowed to carry over,) the first couple of days would have been sick days anyway. My entire upper body was slammed by a cold virus the day after Christmas. I spent most of Thursday and Friday laying on the couch, coughing, sniffling, aching and drifting in and out of sleep. By Saturday, it wasn’t so hard to resist the daily urge to make and tackle a to-do list. And as miserable as the cold has been, I’m not even all that upset about it. It has given me a much-needed chance to unwind and to free my brain from the tangles of worry and stress that so easily take up residence there lately.

For at least the past year, I seem to be on some sort of self-inflicted race with no chance of ever gaining ground. And particularly for the past three months, since I started my new position at work, my thoughts are frequently held hostage by my job. I don’t know what it is all of a sudden, this belief that I’m falling short and sure to fail, but it’s not like me. True, I’ve always had a lack of self-confidence in varying degrees but in recent years and until just a few months ago, its been only what I’d call a healthy level of insecurity. Just enough to keep me from getting an inflated ego. 🙂

I’m sure this all-encompassing frantic feeling is due to a combination of the events of this past year. There have been some big changes and big struggles, and I’ve let it all take me hostage. There have been times I’ve stepped back, looked at myself on the whole, and wondered where the real me has gone. I’ve felt like a tightly wound spring, hopelessly fighting the inevitable snap. And too often, the only thing I’ve felt is a sense of sheer weariness. Too many days and too many events have only been boxes to be checked so that I can move on to the next required thing. I realize that I’ve often not been living in the moment, but going through the motions of each thing while my brain focuses on what lies ahead, never fully existing in or appreciating any single thing. And that’s just not who or what I want to be.

The past few days have been a reprieve, a chance to untie all the knots inside me, and appropriately, an opportunity to contemplate where I’ve been and how I want to move forward in the coming year. I realize, not for the first time in my life, that falling into the trap I’ve been in is so easy if I’m not paying attention. I tell myself I’m making the right sacrifices, being the best wife, family member, friend, or coworker only if I take care of everyone else first. And only when I’m ready to break do I remember that I can’t be the best anything for anyone if I don’t carve out some time to take care of myself as well.

IMG_7401[724]Too often lately, I do all the things that I think just have to be done, and then collapse, exhausted on the couch for maybe an hour of t.v. before bed, during which I most often fall asleep anyway. The past few days, I’ve remembered how much I love to read, how much I love to write, to do something … anything creative. And I’ve realized how much I have let those things go this past year. I do like to work. I thrive on routine. I’m happy when I manage to keep a clean house, cook a good meal, and take care of those around me. And I love the sense of accomplishment I feel as a result. But I’ve done those things lately at the expense of myself. I need to remember to recharge, refuel, and rejuvenate now and then.

My goals for the coming year include reading more books, writing more words here, more singing along to the music, more silliness and laughter, more dancing in the kitchen … and maybe a belief that the dust cloth doesn’t have to be used every single week. 🙂

I’m grateful for the lessons learned in 2018. May they make me stronger, wiser and more compassionate in the coming year.

Aunt Shirley and the Thankfulness Lesson

It’s Thanksgiving day, a day set aside to reflect on all for which we have to be grateful. All week long, my mind has returned to the idea that thankfulness, as a practice, fosters an attitude of gratitude. It’s something I’m constantly striving for, always working on with varying measures of success, depending on the day.

My Aunt Shirley has inspired me this week. Ninety years young, she has spent her life giving of herself. She was a June Cleaver type of wife and mother, spending her days raising four children, keeping a beautiful house, and volunteering in her small-town community. Her days haven’t all been rosy. She lost her oldest son to a nasty cancer long before his time, and she’s been without my uncle, her husband for twenty-three years now. And this past May, she moved from her home of sixty-five years to a senior apartment, adjoining to an assisted living facility and nursing home. She made the move reluctantly. Her kids were worried about her safety, navigating the old two-story house and its steep, narrow stairways with bad knees and other health issues. Aunt Shirley wasn’t thrilled, didn’t want to go through a lifetime worth of belongings and decide what to part with and what to keep. She didn’t want to leave the place that created so many beautiful memories, didn’t want to leave her neighborhood, neighbors and friends.  Up until the time of her move to senior housing, one of her volunteer activities included visiting “the old people” at the nursing home. Still, she made the best of this change in her life.

Aunt Shirley is slowing down a bit. Last year she began having some problems and doctoring for what was eventually diagnosed as Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that forms in a plasma cell. Due to her age, she has purposely limited the amount and type of treatment, and so far, she’s done pretty well. But the weekend before last, there was a scare. Her grandsons came by to have lunch with her, and found her in bed, unable to get herself up. The boys called 911 and Aunt Shirley’s family thought they’d be planning a funeral in the next few days.

My sister and I try to visit Aunt Shirley somewhat regularly, but even with the best of intentions, I don’t get there often enough. With work, my own household and responsibilities, plus an aging mother-in-law who needs help, it just doesn’t happen as much as it should. Those are all just excuses anyway, and after her recent episode, we were antsy to go see Aunt Shirley again as soon as we could get there. You know the feeling … “What if we don’t get another chance?” So last weekend as she was recuperating after her hospital stay in the transitional care facility adjoining her apartment complex, my sister and I set aside all other plans in favor of paying a visit.

A dark cloud seemed to hang over my head. My mom was the youngest of four girls. Last November, we lost the third of the four sisters, Aunt Elaine. Then came February and Mom left us. Aunt Shirley is the oldest and it seemed that she wasn’t long for this world either. It felt to me like too much loss in too little time.

My sister and I arrived at the senior housing complex after lunch time on Sunday, as requested by Aunt Shirley’s family. As we navigated our way through the hallways of the transitional care wing, searching for our aunt’s room, we saw a group come around the corner. There was Aunt Shirley, wheeling her walker across the floor, a beaming smile on her face and talking animatedly. She was surrounded by her youngest daughter, son-in-law and three of her grandsons and she looked absolutely amazing! I could not get over how good she looked and sounded after days of envisioning her as weak and frail, and fading away from us. The sight of her looking so much like her old self simply filled my heart with joy!

Aunt Shirley greeted us as she typically does … as if we were her favorite people in the world, she hadn’t seen us in years, and our visit was cause for celebration. I kept marveling at this healthy-looking person before me, as opposed to the withering woman I had pictured in my mind. And other than being embarrassed about the fact that her hair was a bit wild, she was absolutely radiant. Rather than all crowd into her little room, we decided to take our gathering to a table in a community area, then spent the next hour or so talking, reminiscing, and laughing. It was beautiful.

Aunt Shirley

Way back when – Aunt Shirley and my cousin on the left, Mom and me on the right

Aunt Shirley’s youngest daughter, who is just a month older than me, has always been one of my favorite cousins. We spent a lot of time together growing up. She was talking at one point about her younger days and what life was like, and maybe something about what a challenge she may have been as the youngest and spoiled child who came along as somewhat of a surprise after her three siblings had been around for a few years. Whatever it was that she said, it prompted Aunt Shirley to express “You are my joy. All of my children have been such a joy in my life. And my grandchildren too.”

She went on to say that she just feels so grateful to have lived the life she has. Then she looked at my sister and me and added, “And you both too! I just love you to death. I’m just so happy you came to see me today.”

It’s not often that someone gushes over me in such an unabashed way and I found myself blushing while my heart just filled with a feeling that’s hard to fully describe. It was love, of course, and happiness too. But there was something else – a reminder that not much else really matters in comparison to being a part of a family this way, staying connected, taking care of each other, and loving one other. I am so fortunate! Most importantly, Aunt Shirley reminded me of the importance of not assuming others know how we feel, and making it a point to show – and tell each other. After weeks of fretting about problems others might be happy to have, my aunt reminded me how blessed I really am.

She went on talking, effortlessly expressing her gratitude about so many things. Whereas the move from her home of many years was not made easily, she elaborated about what a nice place it is she now lives. The spaces are bright, the care is compassionate, the food is delicious, the view out of her window is beautiful. And having lived most of her life in a small town, she noted how happy she is that many of the residents are people whose paths have crossed hers through the years and how lucky they are now to reconnect on a day-to-day basis.

So many times, she repeated, “I’m just so happy you’re all here! I just love you all so much!” She went on to tell us that with her recent health scare, she thought her time here on earth might be over. But she said she didn’t feel ready yet, and that God must have more for her to do. I told her I was so glad she wasn’t ready. I’m not ready to let her go. None of us are.

As I have been stressing lately over the new job, feeling overwhelmed with a host of new challenges and responsibilities while trying to balance it all with my home life, I thought how I could take a serious lesson from my aunt. I have been complaining a lot lately. Even if not out loud, there’s been a litany of frustrations running a loop inside my head. And it occurred to me … when am I not worrying or feeling anxious about one thing or another? Now that is a skill that I’ve honed. And as much and as long as I’ve been working toward making a habit of gratefulness, I saw that I have a long way to go. I just need to keep working at it. I suppose I should cut myself a little slack. Gratitude seems to come easier with age. My younger days were too preoccupied with a sense of entitlement to make room for it. But I’m learning. Every day that I have the privilege of living, I’ll keep trying.

So here it is, Thanksgiving Day, and I get to step off the hamster wheel for a few days. My aunt has showed me that every day is a chance to remember how in the grand scheme of things, I really have nothing to complain about, and conversely, I have so much for which to be thankful. I have a roof over my head. I’m surrounded by loving family – both immediate and extended (quirky though they may be!) I have a job and one that I enjoy, and it helps sustain our lives. I have a comfy bed, plenty to eat, good friends, an adorable dog (who could also give lessons in gratefulness,) and a million other blessings in my life. It’s really just a matter of focusing on them.

My aunt gets it. And every day, I hope to get better at getting it too. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. I love you, and I am grateful for you.

(Also, check this out. You’ll get a kick out of it!)

Easter. Happy.

This Easter brought another reminder of yet another new normal. Easter was my dad’s favorite holiday, and this was our first without him. I was doing okay until, while sitting at the Easter Vigil mass with Mom and some of the extended family on Saturday night, the priest acknowledged us and expressed his sympathies at the absence of my dad.  I guess it might be a while before we can get through holidays without a few tears.

Otherwise, this holiday weekend brought about the usual full house and chaos. It also brought with it some new realizations.

I’ve always enjoyed the holidays with my family. I love them particularly now that the kids are grown because our usual daily lives keep us mostly spread out in different directions. I no longer have the luxury of seeing my kids every day or spending endless amounts of time with them. It is these special occasions that bring us all back together again for a little while. It’s weekends like this one that bring me the most joy these days.

All of those years when I thought I couldn’t wait to have a little time to myself again, I never imagined what would make me happiest is to share every bit of my time and space with these people whom I love so very much.

Just a few years ago, I was quite certain what the future would look like for our family by now. This weekend, I realized how different our lives look now from the pictures I’d imagined back then. I’ve learned some things in the past few years about being too certain of tomorrow, and about holding on too tightly. I’ve been reminded that life is full of highs and lows, and that people come and go from our lives, whether by choice or because their time has come. Some days might be fantastically phenomenal. Others could bring heartbreak.

But as the saying goes, life goes on, and with it comes new possibilities, new people to love, and so many new reasons to have hope.

Our Easter photos this year don’t include some people who just a few years ago I’d thought would be in all of our future pictures. It hurt for a long while after they’d gone. I often wondered what went wrong, and how things might have been different. I sometimes wished I’d had some magic power to make things go the way we’d have wished, to avoid all the hurt.

But time heals, and as new people join us on the path of our lives, I realize this is how it goes sometimes, and all we can do is love and support each other through all the ins and outs of life.

Chesney’s had someone new in her life for a few months now. I got to meet him a few weeks ago and liked him right away. I liked how respectful he was of my daughter, the quiet affection he showed her, and they way they made each other laugh. My mom got to meet him too. As soon as he told her he was from a farming family, Mom instantly loved him. How could she not? She grew up on a farm herself.

After that first meeting, Mom asked me what I thought of Chesney’s boyfriend, and I told her I liked him, but I wasn’t going to let myself get attached so quickly this time around. I learned the hard way how much it hurts to love the people your kids love, and then watch them slip away.

The new boyfriend came to spend this weekend with Chesney and celebrate Easter with us. I was nervous beforehand. Would an entire weekend be too much too soon? Would he feel crowded in our small house with all of these people and two rambunctious dogs? Would our weird-and-craziness make him uncomfortable? Would our dysfunctional extended families scare him off?

All that worry was for nothing. The kid showed up on Friday evening and settled right in as if he’d known all of us for ages. He seemed happy to meet Jaeger and Ryker, and in fact, made fast friends with Jaeger. They’re already making plans to go fishing together. And Jack’s intimidating father act melted away almost instantly. The boyfriend survived introductions to all of the extended family and handled like a champ all of the teasing Chesney’s uncles dished out.

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I can’t keep saying I’m not getting attached. What I’ve seen so far is a wonderful young man who I’m thrilled is a part of my daughter’s life right now. He makes her happy and that makes me happy. I’ve decided to let myself get attached. I’m not afraid anymore. If there’s one tough lesson I’ve learned over the past couple of years, it’s that tomorrow isn’t promised. We have to throw caution to the wind and embrace what’s in front of us today. Anyway, I’d rather feel happy at the risk of getting hurt, than sit numb on the sidelines for fear of it.

Besides, there was no question about getting attached when the boyfriend got in line behind my daughter to hug me goodbye as they were leaving after a very full and fun weekend.

That sealed it. As long as he’s around, he’ll be treated as one of my own. 🙂

Writer’s Cramp

The appeal of my self-proclaimed quiet New Year’s weekend is starting to wear off. I could use some fun! Hopefully that will happen before Monday comes around again and life goes back to the usual routine.

I went into this weekend with plans to catch up and catch my breath at home after a whirlwind past few weeks. Having Dad’s funeral on December 14th, and then Christmas less than two weeks later made life feel even more crazed than it usually already is during the holiday season. Add to that, frequently checking in on Mom’s well-being, and helping finalize all the little details and paperwork that follow a person’s death, and I needed some down time.

Besides, Jack had to work right through the holiday, so our lack of celebratory plans was less of a choice than a necessity in accommodating his work schedule. And anyway, I asked around and it seems most everyone we know was planning a quiet night at home. We weren’t missing out on anything. We must be reaching that age.

There were a lot of things I planned to accomplish this quiet weekend, including putting Christmas decorations away. I wasn’t really feeling Christmas-y when they were brought out. Mostly, the decorating was done out of a sense of obligation, since it was my turn to host the family Christmas Eve celebration. Maybe next December we’ll be able to decorate with a bit more enthusiasm.

Another weekend goal is yet to bake THE cookies. My fifteen year-old nephew has been asking since Thanksgiving if I would be baking the cookies. It took a bit to figure out he’d decided the sugar cookie cut-outs that I make at Christmas time were the cookies. These are made from Jack’s grandmother’s recipe. They have a lot of butter, and I have to admit, they are good! I add the extra touch of frosting them. Actually, Chesney usually does that part. And hence was born the cookie.

Unfortunately for my nephew, cookie baking fell off the priority list at Christmas time. But I thought I might still make some and surprise him with a batch this weekend. If I manage to accomplish any baking, I’ll skip the Santa and stocking cookie cutters and just use the snowflake one. We’ll call them New Year’s cookies!

The number-one priority though, was thank-you notes. With Christmas happening so soon after Dad’s funeral, the thank you notes for all of the donations and flowers given were still waiting to be written. There was an evening last week when I might have gotten started, and dang it if I didn’t fall asleep in a living room chair that night! (I’ll blame this sinus cold I’m currently fighting.)

I took responsibility for writing about forty notes to all of those connected to me who gave something in honor of Dad’s passing. This included Jack’s and my neighbors, friends, coworkers and my in-laws. The notes we ordered have a pre-printed message in them, but I thought it was appropriate to add a personal note as well. I spent all late-morning and afternoon yesterday writing those, and when I ran out of notes, I took myself over to Mom’s to get some more and finish up my list. Then I started in on the portion of notes that were Mom’s responsibility. There were a lot more. Dad, having been a deacon for twenty-one years, participating in marriage, baptismal and funeral celebrations, touched a lot of lives.

One of Mom’s many afflictions caused by her health conditions is circulatory problems in her digits. Mom’s fingers are often inflamed, infected and usually painful. She managed to write three notes before she had to call it quits. I took the rest. And can I just say that it’s been a long time since I’ve done so much writing the old-fashioned way? The callous has returned to the side of my right middle finger, the one that was always there during my school days. I have a bad habit of squeezing the pen really hard when I write.

I finished up about eleven o’clock last night, and except for a few stragglers which need addresses researched, the job is pretty much done!

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If Christmas gets put away, if cookies get baked, if the spare bedroom gets cleaned … that will be a bonus! At least those thank you notes are done, and just barely inside the timeframe that funeral etiquette says is appropriate.

It feels like life is taking a turn back towards normal again, and I’m grateful.

Welcoming 2016

I encountered a FaceB0ok post a few days ago in which the author figuratively flipped the bird at the year 2015. All of the comments were in support of this flipping. 2015 was assigned blame for illness, job loss, and a plethora of other struggles. All were looking for better stories in the coming 365 days. The collective sentiment was goodbye and good riddance to 2015.

I could sympathize with their bitterness. 2015 was no picnic for me either. When I look back over the past twelve months, the most prominent memories revolve around the care of my parents as their aging process began to take a really serious toll. I can’t say I wouldn’t change a thing. It was one of the hardest days of my life when my dad passed away three weeks ago.

2016-01-01But there is a feeling … something along the lines of gratefulness for the experiences in 2015, even the really difficult ones, that helped me grow as a person.  Just about a year and a half ago, I began to feel a personal shift. The path of my life had felt pretty stagnant for a long time, and this shift was so welcome. It involved a spiritual awakening, a feeling of strength to handle whatever life would throw our way. It brought an understanding that problems don’t exist to beat us down, but to make us stronger. I began to see that all of us here in this world are more alike than we are different. It brought acceptance and a sense of relief for the inner struggle I’d been battling for so long. Over the past year, this shift has continued to open my eyes exponentially to the reason we are all here, bumping into each other and doing this thing we call living. I have rarely, if ever, wished that I could go back to a certain time in my life and if this is what growing older is all about, I’ll continue to believe that forward is the only way to go.

My younger years always seemed to find me looking ahead in search of the day when there would finally be enough time, money, stuff and happiness. I was constantly on the lookout for the point when all problems would be resolved and life would be free and easy. But lately I have the sense that this is where “it” is at; right here, right now. And with that, I more quickly appreciate every experience for the opportunity it brings to grow as a person, to accept differences in others, to love more deeply, to be thankful for all that is good in my life.

2015 was a tough one. But it was also sprinkled with joy and fun and love. I guess I wouldn’t give it back if offered the chance. And I won’t lie. I hope 2016 goes a little easier on us. I won’t be making any of the typical kind of New Year’s resolutions. I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. It seems to be working. Whatever lies ahead in the next year, I feel ready and capable of facing it. Bring it on!

Christmas 2015

I just sort of wanted to get through Christmas this year. Not that I was dreading it, or anything. I’m typically a serious Christmas enthusiast. I was just feeling a bit sad, last-minute and worn out this time around.

Still, Christmas came, as it always does. And somehow it was good. Seems my dad’s passing has allowed me to really put things in perspective and let go of expectations. Kind of sad how it took such a significant loss to make me see what was really important.

We took my mom to an early Christmas Eve mass at her church. My brothers and their families joined us. It was a poignant service. As I watched the priest and deacons, I kept remembering the many times I’d seen my dad perform those same rituals. I was feeling overwhelmingly sad for a while, until I imagined my dad sitting next to me, holding my hand. I felt a calm come over me and all was well.

Afterwards, my extended family all came to our house to eat and celebrate. There’s not nearly enough room here for all of us, but it’s never stopped us before, and no one really seemed to care.

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I have a mess of pictures, but this one seems appropriately representative of the evening. My mom, surrounded by her family, all of us just enjoying the simple and silly things.

The days have been frantic and fast-paced this past week, and I was tired going into Christmas Day.  We went to a brother-in-law’s house and celebrated with Jack’s very large extended family. There was a sense of camaraderie there. Jack and his siblings lost their own father this time last year. A sister-in-law lost her step-dad just weeks later. A nephew-in-law lost his dad recently, just days after my dad passed. We’re all getting used to a new, and not altogether welcome sense of normalcy. It helps to know I’m not doing this alone.

The Christmas Day festivities were loud, but there was much laughter and cheer. We ate ourselves silly. Big “kids” played new games with little kids. Conversations were animated. There were no cross words. I got to spend time holding my favorite baby, our great-nephew, who is just mellow and adorable.

A friend and I were exchanging comments in reference to my Christmas albums which I posted on FaceB00k this morning. She said she was thinking of me and I replied I was thinking of her as well. She lost her mother earlier this year, and it seems her dad is not long for this world either. I said that it had been a challenging year for many of us, and she responded, “But I can’t call it bad. It’s just life.”

I realized that I had to agree with her. We’ve reached that age, some of us, where having to part ways with a parent or loved one is an inevitably more common occurrence. There is sadness to bear, but if we’re lucky, as I have been, much grace as well. As I told my friend, I am grateful. It was a beautiful Christmas.

Thankful in all circumstances

It’s Saturday morning of the long Thanksgiving weekend. I have a lot for which to be thankful, even if I sometimes have to stop and remind myself of that fact.

I’ve realized that it’s true what they say. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. When I look back on my life to this point, I can see that my perspective has always been one of thinking there was always more time. Mistakes could be made right in time. Relationships might be mended in the coming year. Things will be better when … I’ll be happy as soon as … We’ll do this after …

I suppose it’s a realization that comes with age, but I’m quickly learning that now is the only time we have. If I want to be happy, content and at peace, now is the time. I can’t wait for a point when I might have more money. None of it depends on whether I have the right car, or the perfect house. It can’t hinge on everyone being everything I expect them to be to me. This world is messy. We have to figure out how to be happy in spite of it.

Life took a turn over the past few months. It began when my dad broke his hip in early September. Since then, there’s been a growing realization that my parents’ time here with us grows more limited by the day. For the past few years, there’s been a gradual role reversal during which my siblings and I have begun to take care of our parents’ needs more than they take care of ours. In the time since my dad’s fall, I’ve worried and cried more than any other time in my life. Our family has struggled more than ever before.  Some relationships have pulled closer together. Some have broken apart irreparably. Every day I wonder how many, or how few, more days either of my parents will stay with us.

This Thanksgiving, I reminded myself to be grateful even for those things that didn’t quite meet my expectations. Jaeger came home from Fargo, and Chesney came home from school in Mankato to join the rest of us at home. I had all three of my kids with me at one time, if only for a little while. Chesney arrived home Wednesday afternoon, but had to go back right away on Thursday night. Her job in retail required her to work on Black Friday. I really wished she could stay home for the long weekend. She makes me laugh and lightens the mood no matter what’s going on. But having her for an overnight was better than not having her home at all. It was wonderful to feel the sunshine of her presence in the household, even if it was just for a short time. I’m just happy she goes to school within reasonable driving distance.

Jack had to work on Thanksgiving Day. I can’t even count the number of holidays his job has kept him away from the kids and me and the rest of the family on special days. I used to feel a lot of bitterness about it. It was a lot of years before I thought to be grateful that he was willing to make that sacrifice for us, because it meant he was taking care of his family. How much would we have gone without if it weren’t for all of the years he dedicated himself to a job that kept us fed and clothed? I was grateful that he could join us a little late, and get himself a plate of food while it was still relatively fresh and hot.

The kids and I picked up my parents and brought them with us to my sister’s home on Thanksgiving day. It had been snowing all morning, and there was a small accumulation of snow and ice outside. Jaeger and Ryker walked beside my dad as he went to my car, each holding him by an arm, ready to catch him should he slip and begin to fall. They then did the same for my mom. Dad’s walker was tossed in the back of Jaeger’s truck so Dad would have it  at my sister’s if he needed it.

Thanksgiving was different than in years past. One brother and his family were noticeably absent. And Mom and Dad appeared worn out before we’d even left their house. As we all gathered at my sister’s home, we did our best to keep the mood celebratory. But the awareness that Mom and Dad are gradually slipping away from us was never far from my thoughts. I kept an eye on them throughout the day and they seemed tired, sad … We’re moving them out of their town house into an assisted living apartment in the next two weeks, and they’ve reluctantly accepted those circumstances. But they are saddened at the loss of their independence. Every day is a trial for them, a struggle to just get through simple routines like dressing and eating. My dad fights the reality of his circumstances until his body proves to him once again that he can’t win.

Not long after dinner and dessert were over, I asked Mom how they were feeling and she said they were ready to go home as soon as I was willing to take them. Dad was sound asleep in another chair, oblivious to the chaos of holiday laughter and conversation. It used to be that he’d spend holidays wrapped up in conversations with his sons about fishing, vacations, or the best tasting beers. Or he’d sit and lovingly tease his grandkids. Now the grandkids have grown too big for that kind of teasing, and he’s too tired to play along.

There’s a bible verse I stumbled upon a while ago that I think about often.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances …

It seemed like good advice before such serious issues began to permeate our lives. But I’m trying to remember this verse, every day. It’s not easy. Still, I’m striving to find joy in all that I can. If I don’t, I think sometimes I might just lay down and cry.

So this weekend, I’m grateful … that my parents are surviving another day, that I had some time with all of my kids. Jaeger is here through Sunday with his dog, Dacotah. And Ryker has even stayed home more than he usually does. The Christmas tree is lit and decorated, and the sun is shining today. Also? The dogs didn’t burn down the house while we were gone on Thanksgiving Day, despite their best efforts. But that’s a story for another time.

Thanksgiving 2015