Spinning orb

There are days I wake up assailed by guilt. Mom told me more than once with eyes ablaze, “Promise me you’ll never ever feel guilty. No daughter could have done more.” But I never promised and I never believed her. I knew I could have been more patient, more kind, more … .  But it wasn’t true. I couldn’t be more than I was. Mom drove me nuts sometimes.

But some days I wake up angry that I feel guilt over the best I could do. I feel guilt even though I recognize the demands of an 18-year caretaking journey that started at a slow pace in the beginning, pneumonia at 87, falling down the stairs at 90, cellulitis at 91, skin cancer surgeries at 92 and 93, more falls, convincing her she needed to stop driving (95), transporting her to the grocery store and to get her hair done every week until she could no longer manage the stairs but bribing my husband to take her down the stairs and him having to say no, lymphedema, lymphoma at 96, two surgeries, chemo and radiation, family dynamics, more falls, broken coccyx, more lymphedema treatments, more convincing that she needed caregivers, her being impatient with caregivers, having to talk to her about being impatient with caregivers and her insisting she’s never been mean to anyone in her life, more falls, caregiver with Munchausen Syndrome calling to tell me mom had MRSA, gout and something else, a stroke that sent her to rehab even though she refused, high blood pressure, aortic aneurysm, more convincing she needed more care, finding right caregivers, family dynamics, her firing the caregivers, me managing caregivers, vascular disease, gout for real, more lymphedema treatments, a broken foot, move to assisted living, moving back from assisted living, onset of dementia that wasn’t dementia, transitory eschemic attacks, throwing her hearing aids at the mirror, hemorrhagic migraine strokes, another TIA, unable to speak, scaring the caregiver, next day being fine, managing every element of her life while I quit my job and turned an ankle, managing her money that was enough but not quite enough and then there was nearly none, paying her bills and washing her sink and making sure her prophy brushes were clean because she couldn’t see they weren’t and making sure the caregivers washed her drinking glasses so that slime didn’t grow, and making sure they documented when she had sores on her feet, instead of ignoring them and letting me find out by accident, and then all the times she had to talk about the past and rework the past and come to resolution about the past, over and over until at the last she was able to accept the past, thinking I was tired of it, but now wishing I could ask her questions I never thought to ask in all those years of talking, congestive heart failure, managing meds, more insisting she needed more care, and more resistance and then more guilt because in all of this I wasn’t the perfect daughter who never lost her patience.

And then I awake with grief because I loved my mother. I miss her hand on my leg and my hands in her hands warming them when they are cold. I miss her sweet smile when I walked in the door, always accepting, always open. I miss her being present in my life, being the crazy glue in the family, sometimes crazy and sometimes the glue and sometimes both. She was generous and funny and through it all she became kinder to her caregivers and more grateful for the care and recognized that she had a team of people around her who loved her. I miss her needing me, which was a prediction my friend Ted made years ago when I was a full-time reporter/photographer at a newspaper and mom had cancer and I had to leave work to help her. I miss being able to say to queries about the holidays, that I thought I’d never ever miss, “What are you doing for the holidays?” and answering, “Oh, mom will be here,” and I wished I hadn’t added the “as usual,” indicating what a pain in the ass she was, but really she added depth and continuity to my life and I didn’t realize how much. I miss the weekly and sometimes nightly conversations with her caregivers, who became my friends, and I miss the community of people who gathered around her, who became my community of people, and who I lost when mom died. I miss being her daughter. I miss her unconditional love. I miss that even to the end of her life, she was still my mother.

And then I awake and I feel relief that she is out of pain, out of suffering, and that the problems that my brother once said were layered one on top of the other, are over, that I don’t have to worry about her bathroom accidents, or worry about her falling in the night, or having a TIA and not being able to speak, or having a stroke, or ending up on hospice again, or wondering if the cancer will return, or if the caregivers will be there on a holiday, or having the constant interminable anticipated grief that drove me nuts. I don’t have to hear the endless reworking of the past, which I now rework on my own.

But it’s a mixed message I tell myself. The guilt is, of course, unwarranted. I can see that intellectually. But it’s still there, wrapped around relief and grief in a spinning orb in my brain.

It’s better each day.

But damn, I wish she was going to be here for Christmas. I would be so patient. I would be so accepting. I would serve her as I always did, but I would never roll my eyes at the endless demands, or grow impatient when she asked for a glass of wine, or whine to husband after she went home.

Of course, that’s a lie. I would still be impatient. I would still feel guilty. I would still feel tired. And, I would still love her.


Common ground

A reader asked me recently, How do you feel about sharing such personal things on your blog – about your family, your feelings now and in the past – deep feelings that one would not normally share with a lot of other people.

I was surprised by the question, partly because there’s a lot I don’t share. Generally, though, bloggers tend to be a blabby bunch, sharing intimate details, protected by time and distance from most of their readers.

I tell true stories. What I write is true to who I am and to my experience. It’s hard to argue with it. It just is.

But is it authentic? Authenticity wouldn’t be so predictable and mostly nice, now would it? There are political bloggers who worry not about what anyone might think. But people who find their blogs are generally of the same ilk. We are drawn to that which appeals to our sense of agreement. There are people who drop f-bombs throughout their posts. There are others who share details of their sex lives and make it all okay.

My blog is not political or controversial or very bold. I share thoughts and feelings and experiences and images.

I don’t swear because it would offend certain of my faithful readers. I don’t share my political views because I have friends and readers of divergent persuasions. I don’t share my spiritual beliefs because I have Christian friends and Buddhist friends and hippie friends and besides that, it’s not relevant to this blog.

Even among my Christian friends there is divergence. One Christian friend is a Native American elder who is Catholic and sees little people.

I have friends who talk to dead people and another that communicates with animals. I have friends who believe that’s weird.

I have friends and family who voted for Obama and friends who didn’t.

I have friends who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal and friends who are fiscally liberal and socially conservative. And friends who are simply liberal, and some who are simply conservative.

I  have strong opinions and in certain circumstances will share them. But I also see shades of gray and allow for differences. It’s more interesting that way, but sometimes I feel caught between disparate worlds, walking a tightrope, not wanting to be judged because I disagree.

What I have decided is that authenticity isn’t just about a declaration or a revealing of “the truth,”  but more about how we live our inner lives and how that is reflected outwards. It’s less about stating exactly how I feel about a particular subject and more about respecting others.

Which isn’t to say I’m a chameleon or that I don’t expect respect in return for my values and beliefs. I just don’t push them onto other people.

What is more important to me is the common ground. (Which is what I keep hoping for in Washington.)

Perhaps in an ideal world common ground would be enough to allow for divergent views. In the meantime, I do not trust human nature, which is to reject that which is different.

Seeking authenticity

We can do nothing better for others than model the authentic life. Carol Pearson, The Hero Within

It’s up to five invitations. Another friend sent me a sweet note and said she had been thinking about me and this being the first holiday without mom she thought it would be lovely if we came over and had dinner with them. As much as I appreciated the thought, I told her we were already committed to our friends an hour from here and couldn’t imagine telling them we couldn’t come.

But then our friend an hour from here called to check in and see if we were, in fact, coming.

I said, “What’s the day look like?”

“Well, Fred and Ethel and the kids, and my other brother, Archie, and my mother, Maude, are going to be there around four. [names obviously change to protect the innocent.] We were hoping you could come early and then spend the night so we would have time to spend with you because we haven’t seen you in a while.”

When husband came home I said, “I want to spend time with [our friends], but not on Thanksgiving. I can’t do it. Not this year.”

Bless him, he agreed. “I would love to stay home with you on Thanksgiving and have dinner and watch football and maybe I can teach you how to use the sewing machine,” which I thought a hilarious thought. But he just meant, let’s do those things we haven’t had time to do, together.

He called our friends and told them we wanted to visit on Saturday instead of Thanksgiving. I know there is disappointment…but I also know that everyone is going to be fine.

The irony, of course, is that in all the years I’ve fixed mom Thanksgiving dinner, I always wanted choice. Being somewhere else always sounded just a little bit better. But truth was, she was family and it was Thanksgiving, and getting out her china and silver brought me a certain satisfaction.

Now that I have choice, now that she’s not here to serve, and I have not one, not two, but five choices, plus others I haven’t even considered, like going to a B&B for a couple of days, or renting a cabin in the woods, for now, I’m choosing to stay right where I’ve been the past 18 years. At home. And if I get to the day and I feel like changing my mind again, I will. But for the moment, there’s a peace in the decision.

Next year I’ll have different choices to make. We’ll probably have to beg our friends to let us come!!

It strikes me as a little eccentric, a little flaky, but I know beyond a doubt that there are scores of people facing a similar dilemma these holidays. I saw a fraction of them at the grief workshop I attended.  The woman sitting next to me lost her daughter at age 41 to an aggressive cancer in May. The grandfather sat next to her, grieving the loss of his granddaughter. Another woman lost her eight-year-old to cancer this year. Another lost his grandmother, the matriarch. Another lost her mother in May and cried the entire hour and a half. Two others lost their spouses, one in October.

We were a group of kindred souls in that room. By their presence they gave me permission to do nothing more than to seek authenticity and to model it for others.

“Griever’s Holiday Bill of Rights”

Simply saying “I’ve made peace with grief,” sounds so good. But I realized it offers the connotation that everything is under control…that I’m calm, centered, and clear, especially about how to gracefully navigate the holidays.  But Thanksgiving isn’t even here and so far I’ve been anything but graceful.

I decided to go to a grief workshop today offered by a local hospice on “coping with the holidays.” I didn’t know I was going to need to cope…but given the events of the past week, it became clear I need sign posts to point the way. It’s all new territory. Although when I think about it, holidays are never quite predictable. Everyone I know, whether they are grieving or not, find the holidays problematic in some way.

Two of my close friends are single parents. I traveled that path for many years and the holidays were always tinged with grief as a result. Every other Christmas my son was gone and we would celebrate a week later. Another friend is dealing with addiction in the home. Been there done that…at least as a child. The holiday would start out okay, but then the drinking would begin.

But the last 18 years were more manageable. There wasn’t much drinking, I was the cook, and mom was the helper until she couldn’t help any longer. Then husband was helper.

Another yearly tradition has been to take mom home and then spend the evening hours on Thanksgiving and the morning hours on Christmas, with the neighbors, who are friends of 20 plus years. Husband and I are honorary aunt and uncle.

This year is different, though. Family configurations have changed on both sides of the neighborhood fence. We still planned to spend time with them on Thanksgiving, but we hadn’t figure it out.

But then another friend invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them. I said yes, before reminding myself to say, “That’s a great offer. But I’d like to think about it for a little while. This is the first year without mom, and I’m not sure how I want to handle it.”

She also suggested a progressive dinner with us and my neighbors.

Perhaps predictably, the lovely Thanksgiving idea went into a death spiral.

I wasn’t sure who to please first. In the end, I decided on me. I told my friends we were leaving town to visit some other friends because I was feeling torn (there was also friend three who extended an invitation) and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I hurt some feelings, but I believe my  friends understood. I just wasn’t sure that I did. I felt confused by the idea that I can simply ask for what I want…until this afternoon at the workshop when I was given the “Griever’s Holiday Bill of Rights.”

1. I have the right to say, time out.

2. I have the right to, tell it like it is.

3. I have the right to some Bah Humbug days.

4. I have the right to do things differently.

5. I have a right to be where I want to be [if I can figure out where that is.]

6. I have a right to some fun!

7. I have a right to change direction in midstream. It’s okay to change my mind. [I’ve been good at that, but hadn’t given myself permission.]

8. I have the right to do things at different times.

9. I have a right to rest, peace and solitude.

10. I have a right to do it all different next time.

An hour and a half talk gave me permission I had been denying myself. I called our friends whose invitation we had accepted and told them I was still indecisive, but I had been given permission to be so. Our friend said, “you always have permission from us, but thank you for the heads up.”

I may wait until the day of and see how I feel before making up my mind where I’m able to be. I may suggest plan A, B, C, or none  of the above. Something else may occur to me.

Of course, there is my husband to consider. He’s never been given choice in the seven holiday seasons we’ve spent together. It was always about taking care of mom. Sorry honey, this year it’s about taking care of me.

Time Warp

Sunday Ben and I drove to the mountains about 40 minutes from our home to have breakfast at our favorite restaurant. The rustic diner sits in a narrow canyon alongside Highway 12, a blue highway from the east side to the west side of the Cascade Mountains.

Floor to ceiling windows stretch the length of the main dining room and frame a view of the Tieton River and a garden, now golden and dry. A wood stove keeps the restaurant cozy and oldies but goodies play quietly on the sound system.

Ben lived up the road from the restaurant for a spell and got to know the owners, a couple. He moved into the canyon after losing his farm 60 miles east. Even though he had a lengthy commute to work in Yakima, it was worth it. On off days he hiked up the sides of the mountains with his dog, Shy. It was a hunker-down healing season for Ben.

Before I knew Ben, I used to take mom to see the fall colors and we would stop at the restaurant for lunch. I got to know the owners because at the time, between 1996 and 2000, I had a small secretarial business. They gave me occasional typing jobs, like redoing their menus. Mom and I stopped going after a while, especially when I returned to college in 2000.

Ben moved from the mountains to a house just up the road from me in December 2004. He had received the message I had been sending. If I was meant to be married again, he would have to come find me. Shortly after graduating college in June 2004, I walked up the road near my house with my Casey dog, like I had been doing for 13 years. There he was working in the yard where another family used to live. It took him a few more months to recognize me and ask me out, but the rest is history.

That fall, after we had been dating a few months, we decided to go to our mountain restaurant. We walked in and the wife greeted us, first looking at Ben, then at me, and then back to Ben. “Awww,” she said, and smiled. She would never have put us together, but there we were. It was as if she gave us a blessing.

Since then, each time we go, they break away from helping the waitresses, busing tables, and cooking, to sit down and talk with us, usually about the restaurant, politics, hunting, my aging mother until she was gone, and her aging parents and the dramas surrounding their lives.

Sunday was no different. We talked off and on for nearly two hours. Ben and I went for a walk and when he went for a longer hike with Taz, I drank tea in a streak of sunlight and visited with the wife. I reflected on our friendship. We never hang out together unless we come to the restaurant. We rarely call each other on the phone, although I called to tell them mom died. We don’t send emails, nor are we Facebook friends. But there’s a friendship we treasure nonetheless.

But what really surprised me Sunday was their reaction when we walked in. Like always we were greeted with a hug, but they seemed worried, wondering aloud if they had chased us away the last time we were there. They were concerned that they said too much about some rough times they were having with their staff.

“No, no, of course not,” we reassured them. “Nothing like that. We’ve just been busy. And, besides, it hasn’t been that long, has it?”

“Since May!” they said.

“No. It hasn’t been six months. Has it?” I said, turning to Ben.

I felt disoriented, like being in a time warp. Even though there had been much to mark the passing of time since mom died–the changes in the garden, the seasons, the holidays looming, I was stunned.

But just like our first visit with them as a couple marked a place in Ben’s and my relationship, this visit marked another place. A transition. I feel different than I did six months ago when I saw them last. The hard edge of grief is gone, replaced with a simple recognition. I miss my mother. I use her things, I see her photos, I remember. But I seldom cry and when I do, it’s transient, like yesterday when I started to buy chocolates she liked…and had to stop and walk away.

It’s not as if I’ve finished grieving, which is an oxymoron. I’ve made peace with grief. It’s woven into the fabric of my life; not something to be ignored or resisted, but a life companion, always there, sometimes raging, knocking me sideways, but mostly a quiet reminder, like when I turned away from the chocolate.

Thanksgiving is around the corner. We will eat with friends and enjoy the day. Christmas will come and go and predictably I will shed tears as I remember the previous 18 Christmases with mom. But I’m no longer afraid.

And we will go to our favorite restaurant and share a meal with our friends sometime during the holidays and I will thank them for their friendship and for helping me mark transitions in my life.

Grounding restless dreams

When husband read my Restless Dream post he said, “It makes me feel like we’re supposed to sell everything and take off.”

“No, honey,” I said. “You’re supposed to stay here and work so I can go off on a vision quest.”

He laughed, but he also understands that I have always longed to take off on a writing/photography quest, not necessarily to San Diego, but across the country. It is my intention that it will happen, not alone, but with my husband.

But San Diego? At any moment, it might occur to me to pack the car.

In the meantime, the best thing to ground restless dreams is to first read a dream book.

“Orange surfaces and staircases in dreams may represent positive journeys,” it said. See.

I had another dream a few nights ago about orange jewelry.

Pools, indicated in my last series of dreams, may be a “symbol of the unconscious and being out of my depth.” Uh oh.

“To hear singing in a dream is a symbol of self-expression or of the desire to be more creative and feeling.” See.

The dream book didn’t exactly ground me, but gave me more juice for the journey.

So, another way to ground oneself when I have the wander-lust is to work in the garden. And so, just a few days after my dreams of San Diego, the garden, like San Diego, beckoned.

And it was so much closer. I tore out the frozen tomato plants, pulled up the squash vines, and dug leeks and a bulging carrot for my lunchtime stir fry.

Our dog, Taz, and her BFF, Sis, who was over for a play date, hung out with me. I perched on my sitting rock and watched the sun sparkle off the peach leaves blowing from the trees. The grass, brown in the summer, was a brilliant green, glistening against the gold leaves.

It was one of those perfect fall days that lulls you into the illusion that winter really isn’t coming, that you don’t really need to pack the car and head south.

In another month, I’ll post new photos and you’ll see why I have restless dreams.