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Between a Rock & a Hard Place

It’s June! In the northern hemisphere, that means it’s finally summer pretty much everywhere, even in the Pacific Northwest. Well, some days at least. June is a big month in my family. I will be 72 this week, on the summer solstice. It’s also the birth anniversary month of my mother, my son, one of my grandsons, and my sister. My birthday is sandwiched between Father’s Day and my father’s death anniversary. It will always be between a rock and a hard place, a celebration accompanied by grief.

I wasn’t present for my father’s death, it came suddenly, with no time for goodbye. I lived far away, and we were emotionally distanced too. My mother’s death was a different story, as you know. There were years of anticipatory grief, of living with a long ending. I was as present as it is possible to be. Back then, I often wished I were less present. Now, I’m glad I was here.

A friend is accompanying both of her parents on the long journey. Recently her mother had a crisis that landed her in the hospital—on a holiday weekend, of course. You want your parent not to suffer; you want them not to die. You’re grateful to be with them; you’re resentful. You want them to live forever; you want your life back. All legitimate emotions; the very definition of between a rock and a hard place.

Aging is the same. I love being seventy: the freedom to do what (and when) I want to do; and the option to simply be, to sit in the chair in the corner window and read and nap all afternoon if I want to. Lately a squirrel, eternally hopeful to be able to jump from the deck rail to the bird feeder hanging from the overhang, has taken to sitting on the window ledge and—from a foot away, through the glass—looking me in the eye, begging for access. I look back into its big brown eyes, and say, “sorry, no.” (I wonder if I should put out a squirrel and chipmunk feeder.) To live and be in these moments is a gift. It’s not only having time to do so, but having the will not to tell yourself you should be doing . . . something, there’s a long list. It takes practice.

I’m grateful for the freedom, and the energy and good health (I know I’m lucky in that) to hike in the mountains and drive to the beach; and I did both a couple weeks ago—ahead of what turned out to be two days of jury duty, my first. And, I’m slower, my body aches sometimes. I wonder if every pain is a forever one. I’ve been treating myself to a monthly therapeutic massage; surely at 72, I have earned that treat, and my body thanks me for it. Sometimes I notice my brain is slower to kick in, and I forget little things more often. My hearing aids need an adjustment. I wonder when the cataracts will show up—not if, when. Is joint replacement in my future? But I’m not borrowing those troubles right now.

Another friend, closing in on seventy, is approaching the milestone with dread. One thing she noted in a recent blog post is that the grandchildren who have been such a blessing, and for whom she moved to a new state, are older now, and have less interest in the “old people.” I get that! Mine are so busy, they never visit. (Fortunately, I can still drive the two hours to visit half of them.) They no longer want to come to Camp Gigi. The younger one has apparently outgrown the “pretend stories” he used to ask me to do with him as soon as I walked in their door. I assured my friend, and myself, it’s not about our age, it’s about theirs. But we thought we had it all figured out, this grandchild immersion, and now we have to pivot again, find new interests, new joys, new ways to spend our time.

Remember that movie, Sliding Doors, how one’s life might be different if an alternate decision had been made at some point in the past? Or maybe it wasn’t even a decision you had control of. Had a particular event in my past happened differently—had I missed, or not missed, the metaphoric subway—my entire present would be radically other. I love my life and wouldn’t want it any other way. And, sometimes, I keenly feel the loss of what might have been.

[*Spoiler alert* If you haven’t seen, or don’t remember, Sliding Doors, in the end Gwyneth Paltrow dies in the alternate universe story, the one that seems like the better life. Things eventually turn out really well in the real scenario; plus, she lives. So, you just never know.]

Maybe we’re always between a rock and a hard place. If we are lucky, we learn to fully occupy the space we are given; maybe stretching it out to its fullest capacity, maybe being content just as it is.

You probably recall the rock climber whose arm got stuck between a rock and a hard place, who saved himself by leaving his arm behind. His name is Aron Ralston, and he offers this:

 

May your boulders be your blessings. May you be able to embrace them.
And may you find what’s extraordinary in yourself.

 

What might you need to leave behind in order to live your life more fully? Or add? Where do you feel stuck? Leave a comment below, and/or journal about it.

🌿  🌿  🌿

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The Third Act Organ Recital

Most Mondays, after my yoga class, I drop in for tea and conversation with my older sister and her husband. We haven’t lived close enough for regular visits since she graduated from high school in 1965. A year ago this month, they moved from Virginia to Washington and live twenty minutes from me. I envy those who have been close to their siblings their entire lives—perhaps in spite of physical distance—but there is no point in dwelling in that particular house, I can only live in this one. Time, now, is growing short. Onward.

I’m tempted to say we have little in common, which would not be untrue (though I wonder, if we all recognized we have humanity in common with every other person and went from there, could this be a better world?). Here’s what we undeniably do share, other than DNA: A childhood (the first act of life) and the fact of elderhood (the third act). It’s interesting that in this last act, recalling the first act and exploring our differing recall and experience is ongoing fascination. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle to piece it all together into something resembling a whole. (Someday, I suppose, it will be all we can remember.)

Last week, over tea, we had our bit of the requisite “organ recital.” I was telling her about the excruciating back pain I’d had the week before, what with hiking—and the seven hours in the car, which the three hour hike bisected—and rebuilding my meadow garden, with heavy lifting (e.g. bags of sand, bark, and soil), along with digging out hardened mole hills and laying down cardboard and landscape cloth between the raised beds. I worked through the pain, determined to finish the job before the rain returned for the next many days. In other words, I did not listen to my body and what it should not do that particular day. For twenty-four hours, I could barely walk, get up from the chair, or turn over in bed.

The interesting thing was my thoughts—as I am drawing my foot back to kick down the gate into my seventy-third year next month—went like this: “Well, this it it. I’m going to have chronic back pain from here out. Hard work is done, hiking is done, this is my forever now.” The next day, when it was much better after rest and an ibuprofen/acetaminophen regimen, I wondered had I known I would get quickly back to normal, might I have been more tolerant of the pain and inconvenience the previous day? Along the same lines, the tendinitis in my hand, which began more than a year ago, took much longer to get better. I was making my peace with it being something I would have to live with. I won’t say it’s 100% pain free, but I’m back to using two trekking poles and everything else I need hands for.

As we talked, I recalled having sciatica in 1980. It never occurred to me at 28 that it was my forever. It was just a “shit happens” thing. Now, everything feels like a potential crisis. That is what I least like about this time of life.

What I am most loving about the third act—so unlike the second act when we are often just trying to get through the days and sometimes looking forward to the far off future—is learning to enjoy this moment, this day, this sunrise, this rainstorm, this hike, this flower, this conversation. As I write this, I’m watching a dark-eyed junco on the deck rail. Is it questioning the empty feeder, or just enjoying a moment in a spot of sun on a dark day?

What I am wondering: what if I approach the set backs with the same kind of observation and interest? Oh, my back hurts today. How can I change my plan for the day to accommodate what is happening in this moment? Maybe I need not clean out the flower bed or power wash the patio, and instead just sit in the sun or take a nap—or both.

I am sensitive to the fact that many do have chronic pain and illness. My father did, both polymyositis and heart disease, along with the complicating effects of the treatments. It was brutal. If you are living with a chronic condition, I hope you have found what brings you joy in whatever your body is able to do.

How are you caring for your beautiful self on the good days and on the challenging ones? Let me know in the comment section. I would love to hear from you. [A note about commenting on a post: Click the subscribe drop down arrow at the top of the comment section and provide your information (it is private) to receive an email when someone replies to your comment. I, at least, will always reply!]

Climb Every Mountain

Sunday had all the appearances of being a socked-in miserable rainy day; the kind I longed for all the years I lived in the southeast but rarely got. Oh, it might start out looking hopeful, but then the sun would break through and ruin it. I would feel like I had to go for a walk or work in the garden or something, and there would go the day of self-indulgence.

On Sunday, I decided early on—before the day began—I was going to stay upstairs in Mama’s space all day. After I cooked us brunch, I would light candles in the fireplace and pretend it was a fire; and dress lightly enough that I could sit under an afghan in the too-warm house and read until time for figure skating. Then I would pop corn, knit, watch TV.  When that was over, I would resume reading and probably nap. I haven’t had this favorite kind of day in the 18 months since I moved here. I was about to find out why.

I made biscuits for brunch. Mama was excited. She couldn’t remember the last time she ate a biscuit. “There was a country store that your daddy and I used to stop at on our way to hike in the Smokies and get sausage biscuits for our lunch.” “Did you like them?” I asked. I can’t quite picture my mother eating sausage biscuits for some reason. “They made a delicious cold lunch,” she said.

While Mama cleaned up the kitchen, I lit the candles and sat on the sofa under the afghan with my book. From there my perfect day went south.

I love to watch figure skating. Always have. In high school, I switched out the poster on my bedroom wall of Julie Andrews spinning in an alpine meadow in favor of Peggy Fleming spinning on Olympic ice. In the winter, I was glued to Wide World of Sports. On Saturday, Mama had enjoyed watching the competition with me until I had to go out. On Sunday, she came in and sat down in the recliner next to the sofa, asking if couples would be skating. No. Within seconds her body slumped and her mouth fell open; she snored three feet from my head through the first group of the men’s event. She woke as the second group was warming up and moved to the swivel chair in front of the television. Between each skater she swiveled to face me, blocking the TV so I couldn’t see the scores, and asking me questions during the commentary: “Did you think he was as good as the last one?” “Did he make any mistakes?” “What was the matter with that jump?” “Are the couples going to skate?” “Do they just skate in one corner of the rink?” “Was his music different?” “He looked embarrassed, was he?” (That last regarding the gold medalist overcome with emotion after his performance.) I tried to answer. She couldn’t hear me. I repeated it louder. Then a follow-up question.

Just as it ended, and I was praying she would eat some lunch then take a nap, the sweet neighbor who often comes to visit on Sunday afternoons called. When Audrey presumably asked how she was, Mama told her she was lazy. This is her response when she hasn’t accomplished whatever she thinks she should be accomplishing, which is never. I’m so glad I didn’t absorb her belief that self-care is the equivalent of laziness. What a burden. Jo Ann tells the childhood memory of our mother calling from the kitchen to ask what she was doing. “I’m in the bathroom,” Jo Ann would call back; because if she said she was reading she would be told to come and do some chore. I  remember Mama saying rather snappishly that she didn’t have time to read the newspaper, or a magazine. I never saw her reading a book.

Audrey is coming at 4:00, the time I figured Mama would be napping and I could inhale the solitude. Maybe she will take an early nap if I help her get something to eat. She says she’s not hungry. She moves into activity mode; striving, I guess, to make up for two hours of laziness. She brings the calendar to me. “Is February first really a Saturday? I can’t work out how that is.” She wants me to prove it mathematically; that is, on my fingers. Then she wants me to go with her to the basement freezer to tell her what soup is there; apparently the list on the refrigerator is insufficient. She doesn’t believe me that there is soup in the upstairs freezer. I let it go and take a spinach and a pea up to add to the collection falling out when the freezer door is opened. I also take up the five containers of celery soup that she had me take downstairs Friday after telling me it wasn’t good. She is going to throw them away. Yes! Later I find them crammed into the upstairs freezer. She waters the house plants and makes two phone calls. I give up and go downstairs to my cave, my stomach clenched, feeling like I’ve been skating up a moving glacier into thin air.

Finally I hear the microwave ding. I guess she has warmed some soup. Audrey comes. No nap; no silence. I start dinner and Mama lies down at 5:45, just as Rebecca arrives for supper. While pizza dough rises, I write the first draft of this post. As I finish, I hit some key and the whole thing goes poof. No recovery options.

That was my mountain today. Meanwhile, my writer friend Taline just scaled Mt. Kilamanjaro.

Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 3: Choosing a Title

The title of my blog was “Daughter on Duty,” and I laid bare on the screen how difficult both caring for my mother and living in her home were. I wasn’t shining a very good light on myself, but that was not my point. I was on duty, I was trying to stick with it, and I was tired of an adult lifetime of stuffing my feelings. I didn’t care who thought I was a terrible daughter.

When I dreamed that my story could be a book (read that story here), Christina Baldwin, creator and facilitator of the writing retreat I signed up for my first winter, gave me the title: Mother Lode. I loved the double meaning, the play on words. The load of caregiving brought me to tears on a daily basis, and turning the experience into a vein of gold was the carrot dangling in front of me, compelling me to see it through.

As I worked on the book over the next ten years, including at four alumni writing retreats with Christina and the new and old friends I met there, along with a magical week at Hedgebrook, another women’s writing retreat center on Washington’s Whidbey Island, I kept the title in the header of every page, reminding me of my goal, both the experiential one and the writing one.

As the manuscript took form, moving beyond strung together blog posts, the narrative arc revealed itself. I added the subtitle: Finding Myself in My Mother’s House, and a second subtitle so potential readers would know what the story was: A memoir of caregiving. It was a little unwieldy, and I knew I was getting way ahead of myself, but I needed to envision that this really could happen, that it wasn’t just another of my pipe dreams let go of mid-development. I began writing toward the idea of finding my Self.

She Writes Press accepted the book for publication (read that story here), and I learned they had just started changing titles of their authors’ books. Another case of “killing your darlings,” I supposed, a well-known editing trope, “If you love it too much, it probably needs to go.” I held my breath, waiting to hear from them.

“We like the title,” the publisher wrote, “but we don’t think the subtitle says enough.” The team sent several possibilities.

I really hadn’t wanted to let go of Mother Lode; I was relieved. I supposed it could use a catchier subtitle, but none of the suggestions they sent felt right. I made a list of the themes in the story. I talked to my writing group who threw out ideas. She Writes sent another idea or two, which I rejected. I finally came up with “memoir of a reluctant caregiver” and they accepted it, maybe to get rid of me. I didn’t love it, but it would do.

A day later, “confessions” popped into my head. The publisher liked it a lot, and so did I. We had a title. Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver.

 

Next up: Choosing a Cover