Bumpy with Chance of Potholes

August 2016

Life is a beach, some say. For me, life is a trail. Change or reorder the vowels, as the situation warrants. The very best thing about my small home town, and being back here as an adult with a car (with 268,000 miles on it), is there are literally hundreds of beautiful places to go—from mountains to sea—and be home for dinner.

When I returned four years ago to care for my mother, I didn’t have to be home for dinner. She heated one of the frozen dinners she insisted on buying or ate leftovers. Now, though, she can’t see what’s in the refrigerator and she can’t read or remember the instructions on a frozen dinner; and she is increasingly particular about food. So now I’m home for dinner unless my sister can be there. I wonder when the day will come that Mama can’t be alone at all. I’m grateful it’s not yet.

Monday I went to Tolmie Peak in Mt. Rainier National Park. As I rattle across the washboard road up the mountain, dodging potholes and sinkholes, I observe their connection with Mama’s life, and mine with her. She is better at avoiding them than I am, as she steers clear of my backtalk. I am apt to challenge her dementia and her woe; but I am getting better at not falling into the holes with her, protecting both her and myself.

Like yesterday when she said she guessed “we” shouldn’t make a pie again because the rhubarb juice burned onto the pie plate and she had scrubbed and scrubbed but it was never coming off. She guessed we could look for another Pyrex pie plate at an antique store. Was she really saying “you ruined a family heirloom”? I apologized and promised to work on cleaning it. “Just leave it,” she sighed. Michelle apparently got it clean, it was back in the drawer last night. I once might have said something about it not being hopeless after all, but now I let it go.

She fell into a sink hole the other day after a session of taping her epic life story. She was almost in tears as she told me at dinner that while she could remember the man she passed in the hall at her job 75 years ago, see his face, and what he said every time they passed, she couldn’t remember that his last name was Burroughs at the moment she was recording the story. “My mind is really going,” she whimpered. “That’s hard,” I said sympathetically, not adding what a minor forgetfulness that was. Not pointing out that she is on her ninth 90-minute tape and is only now at when she met my father, clearly remembering a great deal of detail. Only this one forgetting was important to her right then. She didn’t want to be bothered with facts.

On the other hand, she refused to believe me yesterday that her small cavity was filled in December; that it wasn’t at her February exam that the dentist said she had one; that she doesn’t need to go in before next month’s cleaning appointment, suddenly thinking that it can’t wait another moment. Such a jumble of remembering, not remembering, misremembering. These clear signs of cognitive dysfunction are harder for me to let lie.

As I have gotten moderately better at not challenging her memory when it doesn’t matter, I realize that when I do correct her I feel irritated with her. Don’t you dare lose your mind; I will keep you from it. When I don’t challenge her, even in my head, I feel sad. In the same way that anger is easier than grief, irritation is easier than sadness.

She hasn’t blissfully left the past behind and moved into life in the moment. She knows she is forgetting and she’s frightened. She insists her version of the story is the correct one, and she accuses the forgetting on those who care for her—pushing us into the pothole—because that’s easier than admitting the holes are in her brain. And it surely beats letting us be her memory.

I am doing well stepping between the roots and up and over boulders on my way to Eunice Lake and Tolmie Peak, until I lose my focus and stub my toe hard, going down on one hand on the steep trail. As I navigate the downhill switchbacks that come next, my toe throbbing, I understand the inevitability of imperfection at this job. I will lose focus and double back on myself, relearning what I have forgotten.

As I wind back and forth, down and down, I hear the voices of those above and below me, voices that will quiet on the straight sections, leaving me alone. They might be the voices of those who have gone before, reminding me that this is noble work and that someday I will appreciate having had the experience—a gratitude I’m not feeling right now. Or maybe they are the mentors providing information about why things are the way they are and suggestions for dealing with it. Or maybe it is my own voice, reminding me to let go of my stumble on that last root and keep going.

I grip my trekking poles and propel myself determinedly forward as the trail straightens and climbs back up.

Mama and I are climbing a mountain, and it certainly isn’t an obstruction-free or level trail. But we will get to the top. We will emerge from the trees and into the alpine meadow of wildflowers overlooking the mountains and the heavens. When we reach the summit, I will return alone, re-walking the trail in reverse order. This is grief. This is joy.

I drive home after my hike, sad the day is over, breathing new life for having done it.

ReStorying a Life: I Can See Clearly Now

(This story first appeared in “Sage-ing with Creative Spirit, Grace & Gratitude: The Journal of Creative Aging”
Number 45, Summer 2023

My north star as I became an adult was conflicted. I grew up in the fifties and sixties with my mother’s gender-typical role model, along with those I saw in Father Knows Best, Donna Reed, and Leave It to Beaver. But as I came of age I also witnessed Marlo Thomas’s “working girl” Ann Marie in That Girl, along with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and bra burning.

I went to college—an expectation of me and my two sisters—but I had been left on my own to uncover passion and develop gifts, and I hadn’t done it. With no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, I chose a major by process of elimination. Post-graduation, I got married and became a full-time wife and mother, if not choosing my mother’s path, falling into it.

At Mt. Rainier, c. 1959

Everything changed when, at forty, my marriage ended. I went to graduate school, but, degree in hand, I still didn’t know how to be a career woman. I floundered as I looked for my niche. I wish I could say I began watching my mother more closely, but the looking glass I kept her in remained clouded by my obstinate refusal to see her beyond my childhood years, or across the 2500 miles that physically separated us in my adulthood.

In my growing up years, my mother had been the action behind the face, hiding behind her introversion and in her understanding of women’s and men’s roles. She was the elected PTA president and did the work, but my father led the meetings. She did the work at our church, but declined to be on a leadership board. She was a Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher, mingling with children where she felt more confident and competent.

When my father retired from his illustrious career, she seemingly decided it was her time. She threw herself into activism, changing the persona of the person I thought I knew. She jumped into peace initiatives and gun control, speaking passionately to church and civic groups. She led a charge to save the second growth forest adjacent to our home, defying her “trees are a natural resource” husband before bringing him along with her. Slowly I began to see her in new light as she discovered creative ways to express her long-buried (or undiscovered) passions and overcome her fears.

At the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. 2000

As I struggled to put together a life and a living, I took my first writing class and started a blog about restoring the garden at the house I bought on my own, honing in on my love of writing. I found a job I could shine in. I re-storied my life. I was thriving. I was busy when my father died, and still not watching my mother courageously continue living on her own. (Later she would say her eighties were her favorite decade.She was seventy-nine when she became a widow.)

And then, at the apex of my own newly discovered confidence and creative living, I moved.

Leaving the garden I had created and returning to my childhood home—and my mother’s garden—on the other side of the country was an act of courage. My mother’s grit as she re-storied her own life after my father died had begun to seep into my consciousness. At ninety-six, though, she was in need of a companion traveler—not that she would admit it. It was a move I had longed for since I left the Pacific Northwest nearly four decades earlier, but I hadn’t envisioned it like this.

Watching her up close for the next six years was an education I could not have gotten in a classroom. As I read letters she and my father wrote to one another from opposite sides of the ocean during World War II, her intrepidness and creativity in putting together an unexpected life as a young woman moved her out from behind the mirror. All these years I had been seeing only my own image in the glass, and yet she was there all along. Through the years we had together until her death, we battled to hold onto the independence we had each come to in the fullness of maturity, unwilling to cede it to the other. They were hard years.

Writing down the story in a new blog was my life-saving outlet. It was where I intersected with the world beyond a stifling existence. As in the garden blog, it was a sharing of my hands-in-the-dirt education with readers.

At home, 2014

Following my mother’s death, I finished transforming my blog posts and journal into a memoir. It was published as autumn morphed toward winter in 2022. Now, for the first time, I am engaging in volunteerism and social activism as I support family caregivers and educate others about the unsung world of family caregiving. Readers of my memoir are finding the courage to take control of their own self-care, even as they care for another. They are giving themselves permission not to do “all the things” alone, to ask for help. They are talking more openly about the struggle that is family caregiving. Perhaps they are writing down their own stories.

In celebration of my 70th birthday in 2022, I turned my passion for hiking—and my newest blog about my outdoor adventures—into a volunteer position at Mt. Rainier National Park, helping others discover and protect the beauty of the natural world. And who modeled that re-storying for me? My mother. She has become my clear and shining north star.

When I returned to my mother’s garden at age sixty, I thought maybe in whatever time we were to have together, I could find the mother I had always wished for: one who would cheer me on with praise, admiration, celebration—pompoms even. Instead, she just kept being who she always had been: the unflinching woman I hadn’t seen clearly any more than I felt seen by her. I began shaking those pompoms for myself, cheering myself on, just as she had quietly championed herself. I look in the mirror now and I see her smiling back. Maybe even a hint of pompom cheering me on.

My mother thought I returned to my childhood home so she could take care of me, rather than vice-versa. And maybe she did. Even now, five years after her death, as I continue living in the home she created, I am still learning from her.