An impasse.

A reader writes,

“Martha, maybe it is time to stop thinking about your Mom’s life and start thinking about yours. Write about your life, not hers. Mom had her 102 years and I think she would be saddened to know that you are not opening your life to possibility. Mom is not there to share the music, but your husband, children and friends are. Live in the present.”

My first response was, yes, I agree. But the more I think about it, it’s always been about my life. It’s been my story–my life with mom, my life taking care of mom. What it was like anticipating and tending to her needs and often, sublimating my own needs for hers. I was the rock star manager, living in the star’s shadow. I wrote to make sure I didn’t disappear.

But perhaps I did anyway. It was my story. Or was it?

Now that the lights have gone out and the star is gone, grief is not so interesting. The story was the star. And readership reflects that.

Now that I no longer live in the shadow of the star, I seek definition. What do I write about if I am to continue this blog?

In a previous blog, the precursor to this one, I wrote about my garden. The past two years it was bountiful. This year, it’s war. The earwigs have mowed down the new carrots, kale and broccoli (nothing left). The squash bugs are feasting on the fresh leaves of my squash and cantaloupe and for the first time ever in my life of gardening, the top of the pea vines, with fresh new blossoms, are being devoured, almost before my eyes. I use organic methods, but so far nothing is working.

Yawn. There are at least half a million gardening blogs.

When I wrote a column for a local weekly newspaper my growing relationship with my husband-to-be was rich and amusing fodder. We’ve been married five years and although it’s good and lovely, there’s not really much to write about.

I used to talk about planning travels. We went to Nova Scotia and I wrote about exploring cemeteries in search of ancestral gravesites. We are going sailing in September for a week. I want to go to England and Alaska and to some South Pacific Island. Those plans are not yet defined.

I’ve written about my son before. He has a degree in business, is a musician and works for an ice cream company in Seattle. He has a beautiful girlfriend and next week he’s going to a wedding in Anchorage. No grandchildren.

How about the dog?

Last night we didn’t put her in the kennel. Husband likes to let her be free. This morning when I awoke, said dog was sleeping on the bed in the other bedroom…stretched out on her back, in full relaxed glory.

Hmmmm.

It’s a beautiful day in Washington….

Husband is making breakfast….

The past two Saturdays I photographed a wedding.

So what?

I recently watched “We Live in Public,” a disturbing movie about how public our lives have become. The question: how much do we share and how much of it does anyone really care about?

Who really cares whether or not my peas are being devoured, my dog slept on the bed, my son works for an ice cream company? Mom was more interesting.

July 4 is America’s Independence Day. It will be four months exactly since mom died. Perhaps it will be a good day to declare my independence.  From what? –thinking/writing/obsessing/grieving/ about mom?

I miss her. But the hard edge is becoming softer. I grieve. I am emotional and sometimes people don’t know what to do when I tell a story and begin to weep. But it’s less.

I’m also still processing a lifetime of experience with this one person, with my family, coming to understand things I didn’t before. Life with her was complex, rich, difficult, heartbreaking, frustrating, lovely, and exhausting.

But now it’s my  turn. The definitions are many, but just a few: to pass from one state to another…to become changed, altered, or transformed,…to direct one’s attention away from someone or something,..to reverse one’s course of action.

It really is about creating an interesting life without the drama of taking care of mom.

And, do I write about it?

An impasse? Perhaps. Or, better, simply a turning, an altering of course.

In the process, maybe I’ll become my own star.

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Do the dead care?

I awake many mornings feeling a weight of sorrow and loss, not only about mom, but the loss of family connection, the loss of things I love in my life, like walking and hiking because of persistent and unyielding foot pain. Thankfully, it doesn’t keep me awake, but the minute I step on my foot it begins all over again.

It seems as if my mind flits from one sorrow to the next before I switch into my affirmation and prayer mode, praying for those like my friend who has a husband in the hospital with a serious medical condition, or my other friend whose father has a diagnosis akin to Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Always perspective. But always the reminder that it’s okay to feel what I feel.

My husband is an optimist. He always sees the bright side (except in politics), curious and bewildered by my ongoing depression. I don’t blame him…living with someone who isn’t happy is well, heartbreaking.

But I try. I don’t give up. Each morning I get up and keep going and keep doing what I do to find my direction. Sometimes I don’t do anything to find my direction but play Words with Friends, watch baseball (mom would have loved this season of Mariners) and read Diane Galbadan’s Outlander Series, which is a mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and love story, woven deliciously to keep my mind from wandering.

Some mornings I go in the garden first thing and listen to the birds call and pull weeds, or drink tea and sit on my heart rock in the center of the garden and pray for healing.

Some mornings I do yoga while watching Good Morning America, which is a complete oxy-moronic thing to do, when you think about it. Yoga while watching GMA. Hello!

I half-listen, mute often, which is distracting (but isn’t that the point). Sometimes I learn really useful stuff like how Barack Obama is the “baby whisperer,” because he calmed a baby that Michelle couldn’t, or an update on Casey Anthony’s murder trial, which reads like a very very tragic soap opera. Mute.

Today when I went to shower I left it on because DH had left the house. When he’s there I turn the volume so low I can barely hear it so not to bother him. He abhors TV news.

When I returned three Italian heart-throb teens were singing O Solo Mio. There are apparently a new sensation I hadn’t seen. I began to cry, first because it was lovely, and second because I wanted to go to mom and say, “Oh, mom, I want you to listen to these guys. They are the next ‘Three Tenors.’ You’ll love them.” And then more tears because I couldn’t tell her.

I remember that mom could no longer hear music.  But she would have loved my description of them as I sat next to her on her sofa. She would have smiled.

Mom adored fine music and soaring voices like Pavarotti, The Three Tenors, and Andre’ Rieu and his violin. On Fourth of July she would listen to the Boston Pops or other orchestras. And when she could no longer listen to music, she mourned the loss.

Besides fine music, mom had an appreciation for beauty, a fresh snow, a flower bouquet, a summer rain, spring blossoms, and fall colors. The beauty of a child. A sunset.

At 83, she came to a wide valley in Central Washington to live near me and my son, leaving her beloved ocean. But she learned to love the wide-open sky and the mid-summer hills the color of buckskin that skirted the valley.

Does she know she passed those loves to me? Do the dead care? I think she must. I feel her presence, or maybe I just imagine her presence, her smile, her approval, her happiness that I absorbed her loves.

I also trust that she passed to me her ability to travel through loss. She knew what I would experience before I did. She knew that loss is a part of life. She came to know that well. But in loss, she kept finding more to love. May I be so graceful.

Step into the circle

Last night I had a dream. A woman I didn’t know and I were at a seminar. Her father, who had Alzheimers, was there with her and at one point he went up on the stage and sat in a chair near the back of the stage. She went to get him, but as she tried to get him off the stage, she was also carrying a coffee mug, a glass of water, her notebook and papers. I ran up on the stage to help her get him to his seat.

She thanked me profusely and I said, “I’ve been there.”

I helped her out to her car and then this fairly straightforward dream went a little sideways. Her son, who had some mental problem, was also there as we were trying to get her organized to take her father home. Someone came along and handed her son a gun. Then he gave it to grandpa. And then grandpa and son disappeared and I awoke wondering why a search party hadn’t been sent out.

But the first part of the dream was instructive. My compassion for her was clear, based on my experience. It also reminded me of two visits this week from friends.

One friend and I hadn’t seen each other since before mom died, but we have known each other for 15 years. She watched me struggle with taking care of mom. She is younger than I, however, and her parents have been in good health, so sometimes it was hard for her to relate.

But now things have changed. Her father has received a tentative diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because my friend lives nearly four hours from her father and her sister is closer, the sister has taken on a role of authority, sending out emails to the family to keep them informed when he sees the doctor in the sister’s town. Been there, done that.

My friend felt left out of the circle of care that was developing around her father. “It’s so petty, but I’m angry,” she said, crying.

“Step into the circle,” I said. “Call your sister and ask, ‘How are you doing with this?'”

And then ask her, “What can I do to help? And when your father goes to Virginia Mason next month for a more definitive diagnosis, meet them there,” I said.

She wasn’t being pushed out of the circle…she simply didn’t know she had to step in. She left appreciative of my input.

A few days later, another friend came to my door crying. Her husband had a serious operation two years ago which left him unable to swallow. He’s been on a feeding tube ever since, although he has continued to work. He takes narcotic analgesics to help with a cough and has become dependent. My friend feels victimized by his illness and his dependence on the drugs, which have changed his personality.

“I feel like a widow already,” she said.

She wants to go out dancing, have good sex and a normal life. She wants to step out of the circle of the nightmare her husband’s illness has brought her.

A few days ago he began vomiting and cramping. She not only felt powerless to help him, she felt near breakdown from the stress. She didn’t know what to do. She took him to the doctor and they ordered an ultrasound and sent him home.

I encouraged her to take him to ER where they have diagnostic equipment on hand. No waiting. She did, but they sent him home. Saturday she took him back and they finally admitted him. She was looking forward to a good night’s sleep at home alone, but lonely without her husband who she loved, but was learning to hate.

I told her in so many words that she had to step into the circle. Don’t resist. This is what you signed up for when you married him. We all did. I’ve come to the conclusion that’s what life is about–taking care of other people all along the way.

Later she emailed me and told me what was going on and asked me if she had missed anything.

I told her what I thought she had missed. As a former caregiver, midwife, and with a minor degree in community health, it’s natural for me to offer advice when I’m asked.

Someone on a feeding tube is going to have intestinal and nutritional issues, I said. Maybe he needs a probiotic. Maybe he needs a different formula. Maybe he needs to see a doctor at the Mayo Clinic or Virginia Mason. But maybe he needs acupuncture. Time to think outside the box, I said.

But it’s hard to think outside the box when ER doctors are ordering an MRI and CT scan of his head.

I encouraged her again to step into the circle. Be his advocate. He can no longer be his own advocate. You’re it, I said. You signed on to this possibility when you married,” I said. “We all did.”

We don’t get to walk away, but we also have to take care of ourselves. Get help, I encouraged her. Ask to see a social worker at the hospital, or call a counselor, or find a caregiver support group.

I’m not sure how much she wanted to hear. But step into the circle, I said, which are words we all need to hear, either when we feel pushed out of the circle, or are resisting the circle.

“Can I still be my mother’s daughter,” Barbara Lynn Terry

Most days I arise, do yoga, write, eat breakfast, format photos, wash dishes, work in the garden, run errands, and act like everything is normal. I smile at people and say hello and laugh at jokes and do what is expected. It’s the new normal.

In other words, I hold my breath.

And then something will happen that cracks me open. Today it was a Send-Out card I received in the mail from a friend. I innocently pulled the mail from the box, went through the notice that said, as requested, that our home owner’s insurance is cancelled (to save money on new insurance), the notice that our mortgage payment is going up (temporarily we hope), and then I saw the greeting card.

“Oh, a card from Lorna,” I thought, as I opened the envelope.

A photo of me and mom, taken when I was about four years old when our relationship was mostly pure and straight, was on the front. It’s the photo from the Mother’s Day post. Before even reading inside, I stopped holding my breath–and cracked open.

Printed inside was this poem:

Can I still be my mother’s daughter? 

Can we still bond together?

Is there still a chance we may succeed,

In being the friends each of us need?

I am in my mid life now;

But can I still show 

How much of a daughter I can be,

Even though this girl she cannot see?

Can she still from Heaven’s view,

See my aura’s female hue?

by Barbara Lynn Terry

Opposite from the poem, Lorna wrote, “I ran across this poem and I thought you might like it. Just wanted you to know I was thinking of you.”

A sweet gift, a card, catching us off guard, releasing us to feel what we hide, assuring us we are loved and thought of when we feel alone. Thanks, Lorna.

Syncronicity

One of mom’s caregivers has a 19-year-old daughter who graduated from high school this past weekend. I was invited to her party because not only had R and I forged an unlikely friendship over the two years of her caregiving mom four nights a week, but I took her daughter’s senior photos last year.

When mom died, R was the one who saw the white owl the night before and thought it was an omen of her own death, until a cousin corrected her and said, “No, it’s just a message. Not to worry.” The next day she got the message that mom had died. She was with her the night before. “She was fine,” she said.

She was one of many people who saw mom in the two days after I saw her.

R was 14 when her daughter was born. Her husband was 15. Her dad helped them make a home. They were poor, uneducated, Hispanic. Down and out. But got married and raised their daughter. She had a son when she was 20. Her husband worked. Dad helped. But then dad got sick and when she was 24 she took him into her home and cared for him in his last weeks.

She then became a caregiver and worked for hospice. She went back to school and got her GED and is now entering nursing school next fall. I edited her application letter and essay.

She also wears spike heels and tight jeans, thick makeup and rats her long black hair. Without the connection of mom, however, our friendship would not have happened. There’s something about the caregiving relationship: the reliance the family feels on them, the bond that develops, that transcends education, clothing, lifestyle. If they are there for you in the most vulnerable of times, they could wear a purple mohawk and nose rings and it would hardly matter.

I went to the party thinking that because I didn’t know anyone I would take the graduation card, stay 45 minutes and leave. Three hours later R’s mother was hugging me, and R’s 81-year-old grandmother was waving goodbye  across the kitchen island (five generations at the party).

R introduced me to nearly all the 40 or so people who were there. Aunts and uncles and cousins and friends sitting around watching basketball or out on the deck having a great time.

“This is Sybil’s daughter,” she would say, proud to introduce me. Most lit with recognition, but if they didn’t she would say, “The woman I used to care for.” Everyone knew.

She walked with me to get a plate of food and sat with me while I ate. We talked about mom. We visited with her family and I watched as other young women with the highest heels, the shortest dresses, the most makeup and the most outrageous hair, walk in and make themselves at home. As was I.

She also introduced me to W. A few months before mom died R told me that her cousin and his girlfriend, W, were moving up from California and that W was a trained caregiver and needed a job. There had been drama around weekend caregivers after another long-time caregiver had to change her schedule. I hired her on the phone and was relieved when W arrived. The best part was that mom loved her. But I never met her in person.

And there she was at the party. We hugged. Later, instead of leaving when I thought I would, I sat down and talked to her. I asked her to tell me about her experience with mom. Over the next 30 minutes, she shared stories as if she had been with mom for many months, not just weeks. When she didn’t understand the routine, mom said, “Honey, I’m not mad at you, you’ll learn.” That was surprising. Mom used to get impatient with new caregivers, but she and W obviously had a connection.

I was a little shocked that mom called her honey, but it reassured me how much mom liked her. I had another family member, someone who knew and loved mom, who could share stories, see my tears and share her own.

She said she was in her apartment the morning mom died. “I went to get my paycheck about 9 a.m. [on the table where I left it] and I could hear her in the bathroom but I didn’t want to startle her, so I left.” Mom died about two hours later.

As I prepared to leave the party W said that when she read mom’s obituary she learned that they share the same birthday, April 26. Mom would have gotten a kick out of that, I thought.

I left the party feeling as if I had just left a family party. I’m not really sure I’ll return, but for that one night, they were family with a common bond, sharing stories about the woman we mutually loved. It felt good.

And on April 26, I’ll have someone to whom I can send a card. Synchronicity at work.

Everything in moderation

Mom used to keep her jewelry in separate small boxes: some square (for earrings), some rectangle (for necklaces) and were arranged neatly in her top right dresser drawer. A few other boxes, and a pewter, heart-shaped jewelry “box” my sister-in-law and I gave her for one of her later birthdays, sat on top of the dresser, in which she kept earrings she wore most often.

In the top left dresser drawer was a larger jewelry box, the kind with velvet innards, probably from the 40s or 50s, in which she kept costume jewelry she never wore and other obscure treasures. She kept silk scarves there, too.

Her dresser was her dressing table, in the tradition of fine ladies, I suppose. The bathroom was where she creamed her face, brushed her teeth and did her other absolutions. They were separate.

Every day, to the very last of her 101 years and ten months, she wore earrings that matched her outfit, and often a silver necklace. If she didn’t wear a necklace, she always had on the chain and wooden cross she so loved.

Each week she had her hair and nails done. Once a month the “foot lady” came to work on her feet and toenails, keeping them healthy. She religiously cleansed her face morning and evening with Pond’s Cold Cream, never using soap on her face a day in her life.

She attributed her wrinkle-free face mostly to cold cream and Oil of Olay, but for more than 60 years she did facial exercises. She used to tell me to do the facial exercises, remarking once that I did “look a little older than my years.” Thanks, mom.

She brushed her teeth after every meal and snack, using a cavity-fighting paste and tiny “prophy” brushes between meals. She put in her eyedrops by herself, risking falling flat on her back, until I insisted a few months before she died that she have the the caregiver help her. And each time she put in the eyedrops she posted it on the calendar.

She took only a few prescriptions up until the last few months, when they increased. But mostly she and her doctor, to his credit, avoided prescription drugs unless absolutely necessary. She took a blood thinner for several years after a series of strokes and high blood pressure, some tylenol for arthritis pain, and vitamin C.

She used to say she watched too many people become “zombies,” after becoming over-medicated. She did take a sleeping pill for 60 years. My brother once said, “Mom, those are addictive.” And she said, “And your point?”

For most of her life she faithfully did her morning calisthenics and later, after a cruise around the world in her 60s, she did abbreviated Tai Chi taught to her by an onboard Tai Chi instructor from Taiwan.

When she went into rehab a couple of times she came out stronger than before because she was willing to do the prescribed exercises.

Mom’s life was about discipline, but you never had the sense it was rigid. She ate chocolate cream pie and ice cream–but “everything in moderation,” was her motto. Ironically, or not, she never had a mammogram, a colonoscopy, or a bone scan.

I admired her discipline, and although I have disciplines of my own, they don’t match mom’s. Not yet, anyway.

And while I admired her jewelry-box organization and color coordinated outfits and regular manicures, it never occurred to me that I might emulate her routines. My jewelry is neutral, and doesn’t clash with my jeans and t-shirts, but when I very occasionally dress up (a nicer blouse or sweater with my jeans) I am color coorindinated. I get my hair cut every six to eight weeks. I take one medication, but a number of vitamins–every day.

When I used to look at her jewelry, sometimes helping her pick out earrings, or sorting ones that got disorganized, I didn’t dwell on what I might wear, or not wear, when she was gone. I didn’t even consider whether or not I’d keep her dresser.

After she died, we moved her dresser to our bedroom. My dresser used to have a TV and DVD player on its top. Now, her pewter jewelry box is there alongside her wooden cross. I wear her earrings and the silver necklace, which I keep in a rectangular box in the top left drawer. There are other boxes there as well, along with the jewelry box with the velvet innards, still containing her costume jewelry I’ll never wear.

Every few days, inexplicably, I get the urge to paint my fingernails, something I rarely ever did. I take it off the next day, but there’s some ritual to it that connects me to mom. Sometimes I wear red.

I will never have a wrinkle-free face that people will remark about as they did mom. I abhor Ponds Cold Cream and use my favorite Avalon Organics, but occasionally I do facial exercises, staving off what appears to be quite inevitable.

I do yoga almost every morning these days, a habit that had lapsed.  I work in the garden and when my foot heals, I will get back to my beloved walking, a life-long discipline of my own until a year or two ago.

As I take stock of my life these days, there are ways it has changed that I never suspected it would. I was always disciplined, but it has changed, and mostly in ways that honor mom’s memory. As a result, I honor myself.

There’s a pair of blue earrings she always wore that I especially love. I’m going to find a blouse that matches.

“I garden, therefore I am.” Anonymous

Yesterday we spent the morning in the garden, I planting and weeding, and mowing the grass around the native plant habitat we planted on a bare stretch along the driveway. Lavender, yarrow, and Russian sage house the friendly bugs and bring butterflies and bees.

In a bare spot between one of two peach trees and a lavender plant, I dug up sod to plant acorn and spaghetti squash plants. There was something about shaking the dirt from the sod and removing the worms wound around the roots that I found satisfying, like a meditation with no thought.

Husband laid irrigation, and except for one argument that the neighbor heard a half-acre away, I love having him in the garden. But I tell him that arguing in the garden is bad juju and that the little people and fairies won’t show up to help out.  A friend said, “No, they are just laughing. ‘Silly humans,’ they say.”

DH and I have a running argument about the best way to irrigate: with drip or soaker, in the row or between the row. Continuous moisture, or not.

His logic is based on 20 years of growing apple and cherry trees on a 55-acre orchard. Big roots. My logic is based on 20 years of vegetable gardening. Little roots. But I’m going to mulch and go with his plan–until tomorrow. And then we’ll reevaluate.

Except for when we are arguing about the best way to irrigate, my mind turns off. It’s like any art. The artist absorbed in the work. And except for worrying the dirt and worms from the grass roots, I don’t worry or think about much of anything (well, except if the plants are thirsty).

The sun warms my back, I sweat some, the dog comes by for a brief hello before returning to her job of herding the birds. Peace.

Mom never gardened. She loved flowers and when I would bring her bouquets, she would thank me for the “posies.” When I was growing up she used to float pink camellias that grew next to the house in bowls of water.

Later, she became an altar guild directress for the Episcopal churches she attended, arranging flowers and making the altars beautiful. The only thing she asked me to put in her obituary was acknowledging her years of service on the altar guild. I didn’t fully appreciate her love for altars until just a few days ago, although I found a black and white photo I had taken of an altar of “hers” among her keepsakes.

In the garden, in my boots and straw hat, digging worms and dirt from sod, planting beets and carrots and potatos and tomatos and peppers, spreading straw for mulch, I am creating a different kind of altar. In the process of meditating before that altar, I am doing much as mom did before her church altars–worshipping.

In the garden I don’t miss her as much.