I’m Still Here

I haven’t found the time or inspiration to write much lately. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but let’s just blame it on the weird world we’re living in right now, shall we? My brain and my spirit have apparently been stuck in a strange place, one that’s not necessarily depressed or unhappy, but that has stifled any desire to express myself in writing. Still, there appears to be at least one person who still comes around here looking for some news from me. And maybe that’s all the encouragement I need. And right now, at this moment, I have the day off work and I’ve got some time.  So here I am.

All things considered, things are good in my world. About a month ago, things were tense and scary. George Floyd had just been killed in Minneapolis, resulting in shock and anger, protests, and riots. Minneapolis is not all that far from where I live and we watched all of that chaos unfold on television. And as it turns out, the officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck? He lived here, just about a mile away from our house. There were protests in the following days, and thankfully the ones near us, the ones in front of his house were very peaceful compared to what occurred in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I was thinking recently how much weight is on our collective shoulders right now. Almost daily, I think to myself that the world has gone crazy.  Absolutely bat-shit crazy! I think about racial issues and it feels unbelievable that we aren’t doing better than this by now. I mean, really! Why can’t we reach a place where we’re able to look at any other human being, regardless of skin color, and recognize that person as someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend? … As someone who is loved and important to another person and deserves to be treated as such?

And then there are political tensions.

And we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

And I think, this world is just going to break apart! But it’s not. We’ve been here before, I’ve realized. I think this is just the first time in my life I’ve been old enough or mature enough to see it, to contemplate my role in it all. To really worry for my children’s futures.

I sometimes wish we could get back to normal, and I often have to remind myself that my good normal was someone else’s miserable normal. I shouldn’t want to go back there. I wish the answers were obvious and the solutions quick and easy, and that we could just get to the business of fixing all of the world’s problems.

I went to my local bulk-shopping store this morning. It was surprisingly busy, although maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised considering that Independence Day is just around the corner. My visit was all pretty uneventful until I got to the check-out lanes. People were stacked up like cordwood waiting for their turns to pay. I stood in a self-checkout line and when it was finally my turn I pulled each item from my cart, scanned it, and then transferred it to the waiting empty cart at the end of the checkout. I had some heavy items on the bottom of my cart – bottled water, and a case of sparkling water. When I pulled the sparkling water out from under, the plastic wrapping holding all of the cans together ripped apart in my hands. Cans went rolling everywhere! And with so many others waiting for me to finish, I simply picked them up and piled them in my cart for the time being.

As I was moving my cart out of the way to make room for the next person and be on my way, an employee called out, “Ma’am! Ma’am!” When I realized who was calling out, and that she was calling to me, I looked at her questioningly. With one hand on her hip, she pointed to the floor near me. I looked down to see a piece of the plastic wrapping that had torn off my package of sparkling water. I reached down to pick it up and tucked it into my cart of groceries.

“Thank you!” she said. It felt like she had said it with a sneer, but I wrote it off. Maybe she was just having a trying day. Maybe I was just having a trying day! But since she had my attention and I had hers, I rolled my cart towards her and pointing to the now-destroyed package of sparkling water, asked if it would be okay for me to go grab an intact package and swap it out. She looked me directly in the eye, grabbed a nearby cardboard box for no apparent reason, and simply turned away from me.

I was confused and stood in my place for a moment wondering what was happening. But then she turned back towards me and just looked at me again, her lips stretched in a tight line across her face.

“Um… is that okay …. if I swap this broken package for a different one?” I asked. I was feeling really uncomfortable at this point, but I had two dozen loose cans rolling around in my cart and was hoping not to have to move them one-by-one from the cart to my car. I mean, things like this happen at grocery stores now and then. Right? Was I out of line to ask for an undamaged case?

The employee asked me, “Are any of those cans open?”

“Uh, no.” I said. “None of the cans broke open, but I was hoping I could swap this pack for another because … it will be easier to transport them to and from my car?”

I was feeling like an idiot at this point. She rolled her eyes, and waved her hand away,  saying in an exasperated tone, “Just go get me another one.” I now felt like a spoiled child who had just badgered her mother into getting what she wants, but I was in too deep at this point. I left my cart and started to walk back to the aisle where I could get a new case of sparkling water and suddenly just felt myself give up. “No!” I thought. “Just no.” I had no desire to interact with that woman again, and if I continued, I would have to speak to her again and subject myself to her scorn. I stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, grabbed my cart, and pushed it toward the exit.

“Just forget it,” I thought. Anyway, as I walked back past where I had spoken with her, the employee had disappeared, so clearly she was going to make it a challenge for me to find her again and make the exchange. Luckily, I had several reusable grocery bags in my car and after fuming my way through the parking lot, I simply loaded all of the cans into a canvas bag.

I was so mad! So humiliated. How dare that woman treat me that way?

Then again, was I being selfish? The package had ripped due to my handling of it. Technically, it was my own fault.  Still, I wished I’d had the guts to stand up to her in some way. Even if I was asking too much, did she have to be so mean to me? I wished I hadn’t let her treat me in such a condescending way. But that’s always been me. I don’t understand how people can be rude and disrespectful to another’s face, and even when I’m on the receiving end, I’ve never been good at giving it back. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

As I got the last of my groceries into the car, I noticed tucked in among them the ripped piece of plastic that the employee had directed me to pick up off the floor back in the store. I pulled it back out of my car and put it in the cart. I hoped she was back in the stood wondering where I’d gone. And I hoped she’d see the piece of plastic in the cart when it was pulled from the cart corral and returned to the store.

Petty. I know. And highly unlikely. But it made me feel just a smidge better to think she might see that piece of plastic …. even recognize that piece of plastic … and think of me. It would serve her right!

I stewed about that woman all the way home and for a long time afterward. I wanted someone to know how wrong she was and how offended I felt. But finally, after cooling down a bit, I realized that I probably wasn’t really her problem. I was probably just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe she’d been treated rudely prior to the time I’d interacted with her. I realized that this experience was one minor and rare experience for me. And there are people in this world who are made to feel small all the time for much less than what I’d experienced today. I decided that instead of sulking, I would remember this situation and instead go out of my way to be kind to someone else today. I just have to try not to think about her too much because I’ll just get mad all over again.

Anyway, the whole thing made me realize that people are struggling. People have lost jobs. They are isolated. They are tired. They are scared. And here’s me, enjoying a day off work because I have so much PTO accrued that I need to use it or lose it. Here’s me, shopping and cooking and packing for a long weekend at the family cabin. Here’s me looking forward to floating around the lake in the summer sun, drinking cocktails, sleeping in, reading books, playing games, and celebrating a holiday with family.

So somebody was rude to me today. In the grand scheme of things, so what? I will definitely get over it. I’m already well on my way. Maybe it was just a minuscule taste of what others experience every day, all of their lives. And if so, then I need to remember this and do whatever I can to help ensure that every day, this world becomes more and more a place where all people get to live with dignity, courtesy, kindness, and respect.

Strange, Quiet Days

Lately, I have to focus on keeping fear from being the biggest thing I feel, thanks to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Some days I’m good. Others, I feel like I’m fighting off a heavy fog of anxiety. This is bad, this virus and its rapid progression across the world. I know. We should all be worried. But I also know that I have to find a balance between responsible worry and sheer panic.

I could never have imagined living in such strange times, and how quickly things escalate. Just a month ago, Jack and I, along with four friends, left for a week’s vacation in Mexico. We’d been hearing news of the virus in China for several weeks, but it still seemed so far away and somewhat irrelevant to us. Looking back now, I realize how easily my mind can brush off such grim warnings. Media hype has become so common that my first reaction to most news is skepticism. I remember while packing my suitcase, questioning whether we should cancel and stay home. The vacation was fully insured and we could have received almost a full refund had we chosen not to go. But just as quickly as the question came, it was swept away. I knew plenty of others who weren’t canceling vacation plans, and no one else in our group appeared to be worried. And so we went. The airports were busy as ever. The resort was full, and while there were daily reminders of the spreading virus, our tropical and relaxing surroundings kept it from weighing heavy on my mind. Our vacation was lovely and life seemed to march forward unperturbed.

One week later, by the time we were back home, the virus suddenly had the country’s and my full attention. Had our trip been scheduled one week later, I don’t think we would have gone.

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She likes to hold “hands.”

I’ve been working solely from home for the past two weeks and expect to continue to do so for at least another month. Maybe longer. Who knows? If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to expect the unexpected. I’m grateful that working from home was already an option. It means that I already had a comfy workspace set up at home, and I’ve long been familiar with logging in to the company network through the VPN and managing my workload away from the office. Lucy Pie keeps me company and seems to appreciate having me around all day long, though I worry how all of our pets will handle our transition back to normal workdays when the worst of this has passed. Fortunately for Lucy, I have the benefit of working from home whenever I like and have typically done so one day per week. I have space in the company’s office here in Minnesota, but since the rest of my team is in Wisconsin, it makes no difference to them where I work. I’m contemplating staying at home more regularly in the long run. I’ve begun to really appreciate the extra time and sense of calm I gain simply by not having to leave the house for nine or more hours a day.

Since the rest of my team is usually together in the same space, they are battling feelings of disconnectedness and loneliness. Our boss set up a daily team meeting to allow us some virtual time together. We can talk about work, or things completely unrelated. I struggled a bit to relate to her during my early days on the team, but it’s become very apparent to me now how hard our boss works to make sure we are all in good places. She’s hyper-focused on her team’s mental well-being. Even before all of this, she always made it a point to begin meetings by asking how everyone is doing. When something is off, she wants to help fix it. She’s interested in our personal lives and likes to hear about our families and pets. She’s big on mindfulness and even went so far as to buy a meditation app for each of us, which has been a godsend for me during these past few weeks. Having worked in the past for a supervisor who lacked any sense of compassion, I feel fortunate to have landed where I am. This pandemic has allowed me to be much more in tune with my team than ever before. Feeling disconnected is my norm. The daily opportunity to bond with the team has been a significant blessing for me.

I’m also grateful that a year ago, I quit my gym and joined an online fitness community instead. I’ve had all of this time to gradually build a supply of weights and other equipment. I’m already part of an amazing online community that encourages and uplifts one another on a daily basis. My daily morning workout has been a lifesaver in helping to manage stress and anxiety.

Being somewhat of an introvert, as well as a homebody at heart, I know that social-distancing has been easier for me to manage than most. One of my coworkers is an extreme extrovert, and this is really taking a toll on her. I try to call her often, rather than email or send an instant message. She’s made it clear that actually talking with others is a necessity for her.

I worry about my kids and my hubby. Somehow, all of their jobs have been deemed essential and none have the option to work from home.  While I’m grateful that all are fortunate to continue earning a paycheck, there’s a part of me that would rather just pull them in under my roof and keep them safe with me. The world is going to be a very different place very soon. I worry about their financial well-being and alternately remind myself that nothing else matters except that they stay healthy. Jack has autoimmunity with the potential to develop into an auto-immune disease. His doctor is closely watching it but I worry about his increased risk. Our kids have youth on their side, though we’re quickly learning that’s no guarantee either.

We’ve supplied ourselves with groceries over the past couple of weeks, but are by no means hoarding. Thankfully, I always buy a Sam’s Club package of toilet paper and had just purchased one before the craze ensured that TP would become such a hot commodity.

I’m trying hard to focus on gratitude during these days of isolation. My house has never been cleaner and the laundry is always caught up. And quite honestly, over the past few years, I’ve had a constant sense of unexplained pressure. My kids are all grown and I expected to feel more relaxed, and yet I always seemed to feel as if I was falling short somehow. If I was keeping up around the house, I felt bad that I wasn’t putting enough energy towards relationships with relatives and friends. The pace at work has been almost frantic at all times. And the more I heard about others’ experiences eating at new restaurants, seeing movies, visiting fun places, the more I felt as if I was falling short if I was living a quieter existence.

If there’s one thing that’s become apparent to me, it’s that maybe I needed to slow down and lower my expectations. I’d become so embroiled in trying to keep up with everything and everyone else that I’d abandoned almost all of the things that fueled my own soul. During these quieter days, I’m reading again, listening to audiobooks, online sermons, worship music, and podcasts that nurture my mind. Jack and I have found a series to watch together (rather than him spending time in front of the downstairs television while I sit in front of the upstairs t.v.) I’m so grateful that we had a relatively mild winter. The snow is gone and the temperatures have been warm enough to get outside and go for a walk, something I haven’t done in a long time. My neighbor and I have been meeting up during our lunch breaks to walk together (a healthy distance apart) and breathe in some fresh air while enjoying a change of scenery.

Something that occurred to me this week is that while the outlook seems so dire, many people are coming together, working to keep spirits up and support one another in whatever ways are possible. While there will always be many divides in this country … and the world, I appreciate the way people are virtually locking arms and creating a sense of community. I know the worst is yet to come, but we have to do the best we can to focus on the positives while we ride out this storm.

Ready to turn a page?

I was doing some deep thinking this week, stepping off the hamster wheel for a rare few moments. And I arrived at a conclusion. Not that this actually comes as a surprise to me, but this stage of mid-life? It ain’t easy.

Within the last several years, I’ve felt a dramatic downward shift inside, probably for reasons that I’ve written about in nearly every post on this site during this time. But it wasn’t until this past summer that I really realized I wasn’t just passing through some typical stage of life, but that I have probably been at least a bit depressed. And I realized this because summer came along and instead of invigorating me as it usually does, I still often felt as if I was trudging through the winter doldrums.

My job, after some honest conversations with my boss, has improved somewhat. But it is still a huge source of stress and something for which I am always fighting to get in control. Outside of work, my days are filled not only with actual to-do lists composed of various chores and unfinished projects, but also with mental lists of areas where I’m lacking, like connecting with extended family or friends that I haven’t seen in too long. Typical of what others tend to feel as the years march on, time seems to pass more quickly with each passing day. And I seem to have developed a habit of always telling myself that whatever I’ve accomplished, whatever I’ve experienced, it’s not enough.

I was wondering why I’ve continued to feel a mild sense of depression for such a long time. This summer, we finally had time to make a few weekend trips to the family cabin. I love it there, surrounded by nature and simplicity, but always felt like I had to catch up in some way upon our return home. Why this constant sense of never being on top of anything and never just being content? Have I allowed myself to get stuck in some stage of grief?  Do I just miss my life with young kids when the future seemed to stretch on endlessly? Am I now so focused on the idea that everything in this world is on a timeline to the degree that I can’t just enjoy any particular moment? Or is it just that I’m getting older and realizing that we don’t have infinite opportunities? That particular idea really hit home when my boss encouraged me to go back to school because the company would subsidize my tuition. I though about it for a split second before I wondered how I would fit this in when I already feel I never accomplish enough in a day and almost always feel mentally exhausted by the end of the workday. How would I even manage homework? Ultimately, I decided that I’m closer to retirement than I am to an entirely new career path. I want to have a life that I can live separately from my job. Besides, I’m satisfied enough doing what I’m doing, and don’t feel a strong desire to climb the ladder any higher than where I am now. But if I were a bit younger, maybe I’d feel differently.

All of these kinds of thoughts have been swirling around in my head for some time to varying degrees of consciousness, and without leading to anything definitive. I’ve just been making my way through each day as best as I can. But in the past few weeks, there have come a few specific ideas about what needs to change. I don’t want to keep riding along in this same rut. Maybe there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.

Blanket Forts

Blanket forts. The other day, I was remembering how much as kids, my siblings, our friends and I loved blanket forts. My mom had some old blankets she kept just for this purpose, and in the summertime especially, we’d take them outside along with a handful of Mom’s one-piece wooden clothespins. We’d secure one edge of the blanket against the top of the chain link fence, and hammer a few more clothespins through the bottom edge into the grass. Some days, between us and the neighborhood kids, we’d have a row of tents fastened against that fence.

We could spend hours running in and out of those forts, make-believing. Simple times.

It was my coworker, Jason who made me think about those forts. His work space is next to mine, and we both have stand-up work stations. He’s a highly intelligent, tech-minded, yet very creative person. Because we’re both often standing up near each other, we can’t help chatting. It usually begins with something work-related, but because he’s easy to talk to,  before we know it, the conversation topic has meandered along to something like blanket forts. It was the millionth time since February 1st, when my mom died, that I’d remembered how much simpler life used to be.

My fifth decade on this earth came along almost two years ago now and most of what I knew to expect is proving to be true. It’s harder to get a good night’s sleep. My body doesn’t want to retain the look it used to have, no matter how hard I work at it. But most often these days, I recognize that I’ve always had things a lot better than I thought I did at the time.

This has been a hard year, following a few challenging years. But that chapter is over now. Both of my parents are gone now, and I don’t care how old I am, it just doesn’t feel right that they’re gone. But day by day, I’m getting used to the new way of things. And with every passing year, I thank God more for giving me the life I’ve been lucky enough to live.

I feel the impact of Mom’s last days more severely than Dad’s, though. He had Mom to watch over him, and to reach out to one of us when needed. Because Dad left before she did, I had to hope that Mom was capable of reaching out to me herself when I wasn’t there for her. All of those days that I worried about Mom … that I wasn’t doing enough even though I was doing all that I could, they’re over now. I still so often expect the grip of anxiety to wrap itself around me before I remember that I can relax now.

The biggest thing? The most phenomenal, unexpected, unbelievable thing? Our family is healing. In those last most difficult days of Mom’s life, I was sure I was losing the last threads of our family bond along with losing my mom. I was certain we siblings would go our separate ways for the rest of our lives. But death has a way of changing so much. It opened my eyes. When I realized during that last week of her life that our mom was leaving us, all I wanted was to pull my siblings close. I thought they owed me an apology, but I found myself asking their forgiveness for contributing to the wedge that had formed between us.

I’m sure that if I were still in the midst of it all, I wouldn’t be able to see what I see now. But I now realize (cliché and lame as it might sound to anyone not standing where I am today,) that everyone has their own way of dealing with things. And no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know what other people’s lives are like. Anyway, now that it’s over, I just don’t care why it was the way it was anymore. I don’t need to think anymore about how alone and scared I felt back then. It’s over. Those pages have been turned.

Most of this year since Mom’s passing, I’ve been dealing with settling her estate. Mom made it easy for us. She had no debt, and most of her affairs were in order. The one hiccup was that there wasn’t a transfer-on-death deed for the townhouse. So most of the summer was spent working with an attorney and getting the appropriate forms filled out, but we got it done pretty easily. It just took time.

The house is now sold – to a dear friend’s mom, and I couldn’t be happier. My parents did what they’d always wanted to do. They left each of their kids with a little something to make life a bit easier. But more importantly, they left us with a life model we now strive to mirror in many ways.

Life moves on. I’ve spent the summer feeling phenomenally grateful to have been where I was, and to have arrived where I am. I walked a lot. Almost every morning, I left the house at 5 am, and many of those days, I walked a few miles, alone, along the trail that runs behind our house. I walked before the noise of daily traffic began to fill the air. I listened to the birds sing their beautiful songs and watched as the sun rose in the sky. The sun is incredible, by the way, when it rises on a warm summer morning. I took enough pictures of the sky the past few months to fill a book. It’s late in the season now and it’s too dark to feel safe going out alone, but those were beautiful days that gave me the chance to find some peace with everything that has happened.

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I feel a little bit older now, a little bit wiser. Would I want to do it all again? No. But would I do it all again? Yes. The thing about having come this far in life is that it allows me to look back and see the purpose in so many things, to realize how I’ve grown as a result, to see that we all have to suffer some unknowns in order to keep growing up. Fifty-some years and losing loved-ones has helped me learn how to be grateful.

My life is my own again, and yet I still miss my parents so much. But most of the time I can now see that it had become too difficult for them to face another day, take another breath, fight their failing bodies. My parents brought God into our lives every single day. There were times I resisted, but I’m now so thankful that they did. I’ve had time to learn to understand some of the ways of this life. I take comfort in knowing they are with Him now, living in peace without the chains of age and disease. I can’t be unhappy about that.

Like I said, life has moved on. Good things are happening in my little world, and I feel myself changing in positive ways. When I sat down this morning to write, I thought I’d write about that. But I think for now, I’ll leave it here … with memories of blanket forts.

I remember when I used to write

Lord, I miss writing. And to think that for years, I used to come to the internet and do so multiple times a week. Now weeks go by with not a word. I miss it.

My life is just not in a place that allows for writing anything much that’s creative or takes more than a few moments. I’ve thought about this so much lately, how there was a time when it would give me anxiety to go too many days without writing. Writing was the thing that gave me release and I gave it priority. Not to mention, it gave me a community that I loved being a part of. I know there will come a time again when I’ll have the time and freedom to sit down and craft my life stories again, as well as spend time with writing friends. It just isn’t that time. For now, I’ll have to be content to find a rare moment like this here and there.

Actually, I shouldn’t even be sitting here now. I’m supposed to be tackling things around the house in preparation for a house full of company this coming Thursday. I volunteered to have the hubby’s family here for Thanksgiving. When I mentioned to him that I was contemplating this, Jack asked, “Are you insane?” They’re a BIG group. They won’t all be able to join us, thank god! But we’re still looking at a good 25 to 30 guests. I’m not too worried. I have a new room on the back of my house with no furniture in it. It’s going to be our Thanksgiving dining room! And this gives me something different and fun to look forward to for a change.

But as I was saying, there’s work to do around this house. The combination of a months-long construction project, and my caregiver responsibilities to my mom means that we have not kept up on a lot of our usual “stuff.” I should be tackling all that stuff right now. But while glancing at my phone this morning, I noticed a WordPress notification that it’s my one year anniversary on this blog. (They should also give me a reward – or penalty – for being the person who has abandoned blogs and started fresh in a new place so many times. I think this one is my fifth blog site since 2006. And I was hoping to make this my permanent home. I probably will. I just might not be “home” quite often for a while here until something gives a bit in my life.)

I had a milestone birthday last week. People kept asking me how it felt to be “the big five oh!” I told everyone, simply, that I was happy to be here. The unspoken words in my head were, “I lost my best friend a few months ago at forty-seven years old. I am grateful to reach fifty.”

Life has been busy. The hours in the days fly by. The days and the weeks and the months fly by. And I find myself wondering how the end of this year is already approaching when it seems we just turned the corner on 2016. How is it that my dad has been gone for almost a year already? My father-in-law for two?

The busyness and the speed of time lately means I appreciate like never before, the little things. Things like having an evening free to run errands or get a little grocery shopping done. Or bowling. Bowling used to just be … well, bowling. Now it’s my guarantee of having some sort of social life. Without it, I would not.

Still, we’ve managed to squeeze in some good stuff. The kids were all here last weekend to celebrate my big birthday. They and Jack had tried to plan a surprise party for me, but I got wind of it. (Jack’s terrible with secrets.) I told them, in all sincerity, I really did not want a big to-do. I just wanted time with them. They graciously honored my request and it was WONDERFUL! I loved waking up and having the usually quiet house soon fill up with their presence. We had big breakfasts together – eating things like Belgian waffles and bacon. And we sat together in the living room and just talked and laughed. I just love the adults my kids have become. They’re good people.

As part of my birthday gift, Chesney arranged for us to have a family photo taken, rather spontaneously. There was no time to coordinate clothing, and I realized I just didn’t care if we looked picture-perfect. We had a grand time doing it and the photos turned out GREAT! I’m going to treasure these for a long time to come.

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… This felt good … I may not be back again soon. But I will be back.

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.

Bowling

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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Paint Therapy

I took the day off to extend my long holiday weekend to four days. I just need a change of pace, some breathing room…

… and to paint.

I need to paint walls. I’ve been saying this for much too long without doing something about it. Every time I look around our main living space, the walls look outdated and tired. I have this constant urge to give them a facelift. They’ve looked the same for too many years. These old walls have really been driving me crazy for about three years, but something always seems to stand in the way of doing anything about it. I decided a couple of months ago that this year would not pass by without fresh paint.

I’ve been picking out colors for months. I want at least two that will complement each other. I’m planning to make over the dining area,  living room, hallway, and the foyer as well. I want something different and yet I kept veering back to the same family of colors that already fill our spaces.

Maybe a fresh pair of eyes would help. I asked my friend. She’s familiar enough with my house in order to express an informed opinion. She recommended bringing some green into the mix. I typically tend to gravitate away from greens. I like fall colors … golds, reds and browns. I like the warmth they offer. But my friend mentioned that green offers serenity. I gave that some consideration. I looked around at my furniture, floors and woodwork. I realized that green could definitely provide some balance in our color schemes.

And I could use some serenity. I have not felt serene lately. My mom seems to be going downhill, especially this past week, and I worry about her constantly. I’ve been in a downward spiral of self-pity because I feel very alone in managing her care. She’s still living on her own, but I wish she wasn’t. It’s just beyond my control.

At my lowest point this week, I took out my frustrations on Jack, angry at him because he could not see inside of me and realize how scared and helpless I’ve begun to feel. I hope that I’m off-base, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that Mom’s body is simply wearing out. I’m not ready for that. I’m having trouble keeping my mind in the present, constantly battling against the tendency to imagine how much worse things might get if she keeps losing ground like she’s been. I disaster-fantasize that while I’m still working through the grief of my dad’s passing, I’ll be adding to it a fresh blanket of grief.

I keep reminding myself to think positive thoughts, but I’m having trouble remembering how.

Of my three siblings, one has typically been there to tag-team with me in taking care of Mom. But that sibling has had some struggles of her own building lately, actually for much longer than I’ve been aware. We talked yesterday and I learned that her burdens are way beyond anything I could have imagined. She needs to focus on her immediate family right now. She apologized for not being more involved with Mom. I told her not to worry. I said I could handle Mom. And I will stop being so reluctant and afraid to ask for help from the other two siblings. I have a new perspective and a huge reminder that when I think my struggles are more than I can handle, in comparison to others, I’ve got it good.

Last night after getting Mom settled for the evening, I went back to the home improvement store for yet more paint samples. I think I’m closing in on a combination that combines my love for fall colors with some serenity.

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The four samples on the lower right are in the lead for winning colors.

My mom has had a bad week. She’s been extremely fatigued and uncomfortable. I took her to the doctor on Wednesday and he made a best guess as to the reason for her symptoms, of course, all the result of her debilitating chronic conditions. He put her on a broad spectrum antibiotic and advised that she would probably go downhill for another day, but if he had the issues pegged, the medicine should kick in by today. If not, I’ll be taking her back to the doctor and worst-case-scenario, to the hospital. But I’m hopeful that the magic meds do their job and she’ll feel stronger today.

Jack and I were invited to go with friends to a St. Paul Saints baseball game tonight. It sounded like such a welcome opportunity since my days have become so routine. (Gym, work, time with Mom, bed. Lather, rinse, repeat.) I was reluctant to commit to the game before I knew if someone else could prepare dinner for Mom and even better, share the meal and spend some time visiting with her. She spends way too many hours alone as it is, and I don’t want a day to go by without someone stopping in to at least check on her well-being in person. I reached out to my youngest brother and was pleasantly surprised when he readily agreed.

Hopefully Mom will report that she’s feeling better this morning. If so, I’m going to a ball game and diving into a long weekend of paint therapy.

Best Things

img_4159I was just thinking that the best thing about today was the sunshine. Blazing, almost blinding at times sunshine.

And the brilliant blue sky.

And the sound of chirping birds filling the air as I stepped out of my car upon arriving at work today…

…Taking a break from a challenging day to enjoy a walk around the pond with a coworker/friend. Sun on our skin. A slight breeze and fresh air. Catching up on one another’s weekend doings and forgetting, for fifteen minutes, about the things going wrong back inside the office.

An email from my oldest with a picture attached. Sharing his past weekend’s adventure.

“I think I want to spend more time at the North Shore,” his message said.

I opened the picture and replied, “Wow. Can I come with next time?”

And, “Is that you in the photo?”

“Yup, that’s me,” he replied. “Fighting a fish. Or a rock.”

Spontaneous cooking at home once I’d left work and picked up Mom. I hadn’t thought tonight was going to be one of my nights. Jack is at work for the evening, so … nothing planned for dinner.

“I’ve been thinking about making your goulash,” I said to Mom as she settled in the living room chair waiting for Wheel of Fortune to begin.

“Oh, that sounds good,” she agreed.

“You’ll have to remind me what all goes in there. It’s been forever since I’ve made it.”

Ground beef, onions and garlic cooking in frying pan. Salt and Pepper. And after the meat had browned and was sizzling, stewed tomatoes and some pasta.

“Put a few tablespoons of ketchup in too,” she reminded me.

Mom wanted a slice of buttered bread to accompany her meal. I said that reminded me of dinners at Grandma’s house, where there was always a plate of sliced white bread and plenty of butter with every meal. I pulled some cantaloupe out of the refrigerator and put that on the table too. Not exactly the healthiest of meals, but it was hot, and it tasted good. Then again, food always tastes better when you’ve got someone to enjoy it with.

Just a really good day…