It’s no secret to those few bloggers and friends who continue to follow my posts, that my energy for this is waning. I would just like to say thank you for sticking with me. I will be back to reading your posts and writing my own, hopefully soon. Whoever thought when I was in the throes of trying to keep up with all your posts that I would ever say, I miss reading what you’re writing. But I do.
I’ve been reading a small Advent book I purchase many years ago called Let it Be: Advent and Christmas Meditations for Women, edited by Therese Johnson Borchard. It clearly has a religious bent, but not overly so. Many of the readings have secular value. I would like to share a small excerpt from today’s reading that I found particularly appropriate.
“Be Patient, Stand Firm
“Commitment and enthusiasm are two concepts that are, unfortunately, often confused. Commitment is that quality of life that depends more on the ability to wait for something to come to fulfillment—through good days and bad—than it does on being able to sustain an emotional extreme for it over a long period of time. Enthusiasm is excitement fed by satisfaction. The tangle of the two ideas, however, is exactly what leads so many people to fall off in the middle of a project.
“When the work ceases to feel good, when praying for peace gets nowhere, when the marriage counseling fails to reinvigorate the marriage, when the projects and the plans and the hopes worse than fail, they fizzle, that’s when the commitment really starts. . .
“When we feel most discouraged, most fatigued, most alone is precisely the time we must not quit.”
—Joan Chittister, Songs of Joy
If you are struggling with a project, I hope you will keep going.
A good friend, teacher and mentor of mine who I’ve mentioned before, Jeffrey S. Hillard, has just published the e-book Story’s Triumph: Mining your creative writing for its deepest riches. I know many of you are writers as well as readers and bloggers.
Get this book.
Beginning tomorrow for two or three days, it will be free from Amazon on Kindle. It’s a short little book on writing that contains several gold nuggets of ideas to spark your creativity, and exercises to prompt you to practice. I read it in less than an hour, but intend to go back to it and use the exercises over and over again. I know Jeff personally. I know how talented he is. If you read this book, you will see for yourself how intuitive, insightful, and supportive he is.
Here is the review I just left on Amazon.com:
Finally—poet, author, and educator Jeffrey Hillard puts his experience, skill, and enthusiasm for writing down on paper for our benefit. In Story’s Triumph, the first in a planned Write-Up series, Hillard encourages us to take our writing, and creativity, to the next step. By sharing a few simple concepts like the use of details and recycling our mistakes, Hillard explores and explains techniques some of our most favored and successful writers have employed to bring the word on the page to life.
This short and entertaining book contains unique and fun exercises after each topic to encourage writers to stretch the boundaries of our imaginations and sharpen the impact of our writing.
One of my favorite lines from the book is “Your imagination can work wonders with things that you can’t yet fully envision.”
Hillard “gets it.” He understands the written word, the writing process, and the writer. His book is informative, encouraging, and will make you see your writing and its possibilities in a new light. His enthusiasm is contagious.
Story’s Triumph is a book to read slowly, practice with, and then keep close-by to re-read again and again.
I’m looking forward to the next book in Hillard’s Write-Up series.
I had to pay a lot of money to tap into Jeff’s writing experience and wisdom through college-level courses I took from him at the College of Mount St. Joseph. I bet you will find at least one idea in Story’s Triumph that will not only cause you to see your work-in-progress in a new light, but that will help you to improve it.
And hey. It’s free.
It always amazes me when I see something, learn something, understand something, only much later after the fact.
It’s like the postcard from Peru I got this week from our new daughter-in-law. “Enjoying everything this beautiful country has to offer,” Cori wrote. “Can’t wait to share our travel stories.” Well, we already knew all that; heard the stories; saw the photos. Matthew and Cori went to Peru over three months ago in August. I don’t know where this little postcard has traveled since then—maybe it’s been riding along in the bottom of a mail carrier’s bag all this time.
This morning I had a revelation about my mother. My mind was catching phrases from the television playing in the background. I was listening for the road conditions as we were in the middle of a predicted winter storm. It must have been some kind of a commercial about health professionals. They were listing things they were there for, or the things that people told them. The phrase that caught my attention was “When someone finds a lump. . .”
I’ve written about the last good day I had with my mom when I put up her little Christmas tree last year. What I may not have fully explained was that in the preceding days and even weeks, she and I had a somewhat adversarial relationship. She was determined to continue to care for Dad as she always had, but her strength and health were continuing to decline. I was trying to convince her to make some changes —add more home health aide coverage, get Dad an indwelling catheter so she wouldn’t have to do this tiring task three times a day, let Dad stay in his bed more, use the lift—because I was worried about both her and my dad.
The last week of November I changed my approach. I threw in the towel. I told her I wasn’t going to try to solve her problems, but told her that when she was ready to make a change all she had to do was tell me and I would help her make it happen. So when she seemed different, more at peace, calmer, on that last Friday in November, I attributed it to my stepping back. In fact, I have remembered that day fondly—my mom sitting in her chair watching me decorate her house, being agreeable about it all, which frankly surprised me at the time.
Last year when my sister called me a few days later, on the morning of that first Sunday in December, to say Mom was ready to get medical help and she wanted to go to the hospital, and I returned to their house, before we called 911 and started the sequence of events that led to her diagnosis of cancer, Mom told me something that came back to me this morning like a punch in the stomach. She had gotten cold feet about going to the hospital by the time I got there a half hour after the phone call. I was trying to convince her it was the right thing to do. I think she was afraid they would want to do tests and she wouldn’t want to be away from Dad that long. I think she was afraid she might find out something really bad was wrong with her. She was lying on the sofa and I was sitting on the edge beside her. I gave her the phone and was trying to convince her to dial 911. I was trying to reassure her by telling her it was probably nothing critical and that maybe she would finally be able to get some medicine that worked better than her pantry full of over-the-counter remedies she had been ingesting.
Mom responded to my assurances by saying, “But, you don’t know everything.”
“What don’t I know?”
“A couple of days ago, I found some lumps here in my stomach,” she said as she touched her hand to her belly.
That sealed her fate, as far as I was concerned. There was no way I was not going to take her to a doctor somehow with that knowledge. She had wanted to go to the hospital. She had wanted to go in an ambulance because she wanted them to help her get there and get in. I called 911.
What I realized this morning when I heard the words, “When someone finds a lump,” was that Mom had found a lump “a couple of days” before Sunday. She probably had already found those lumps when I was there on Friday playing Christmas music and putting up her Christmas tree. I think she knew. And I think she wanted to have a good day. No, even more, even harder to bear, is that I think she wanted me to have a good day.
So I had a moment this morning. And I’m having another one as I try to relay this to you.
Some days I really miss my mother.
I love you all for the support and kind words you always have to share. Have you ever found something out or understood something long after the fact?
This post is dedicated to two of my ancestors who served in the Union Army during the Civil War:
John W. Lemmon (ancestor on my mother’s side), from Champaign County, Ohio, served three years in the Civil War from August 11, 1862 until August 14, 1865. He participated in battles at Richmond, the Siege of Vicksburg, and Nashville, among others. He received an Honorable discharge in August of 1865 at the age of 23.
Thomas Bryant (ancestor on my father’s side), from Washington County, Kentucky, served as a Union soldier during the Civil War. In May of 1864, his son and my ancestor, Ulysses Grant Bryant was born. Thomas enrolled in Company D of the 54th Regiment of the Kentucky Mounted Infantry Volunteers in September of the same year. He was honorably discharged in September of 1865. The 54th Kentucky was doing provost duty (policing activities) in the country around Lexington, Ky and operating against guerillas in Henry Co., Ky. Thomas received a pension from the government for the loss of sight in his right eye caused by cold and exposure during his service. The pension started at $6.00 per month in 1883 and was incrementally increased with time to $20.00 per month. He received it until his death in 1910.
On a beautiful, and perhaps one of the last temperate, autumn Saturday we traveled to Governor Bebb Metropark in Butler County, Ohio to shoot photos of the living history program celebrating the life of Abraham Lincoln. I’ve never been to one of these, although I have always been fascinated by some of the Civil War reenactments that occur around the country. I found “Lincoln comes to town” to be a fun and engaging day that sparked my imagination.
Governor Bebb Park has a pioneer village that members of the sponsoring organizations moved into and took over for the weekend.
A blacksmith set out his wares.
Ladies took a morning stroll with coffee in a metal cup.
And Abe Lincoln visited the soldier’s camp, sometimes speaking with others,
I had chicken pot pie in the tavern for lunch.
I have no idea what a couple of these tools are for.
Governor Bebb Pioneer village was the perfect venue for the event,
The ladies made use of the stage to have a fashion show where they explained the specifics of their dress.
Sponsoring organizations include:
Metroparks of Butler County
6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Company A
Ladies Living History Society of Greater Cincinnati
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Sister Anthony O’Connell Auxilliary Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
I broke one of my cardinal rules today and played Christmas music before Thanksgiving. But I needed the music because I was going to decorate a Christmas tree. My mom’s little Christmas tree to be exact. The little tree traveled with us to Mom’s assisted living apartment, and then later I packed it up and moved it home with me where it has remained boxed up in the basement until today. I look forward to the year I can put it up without tears again. This post is copied from my one last year about Mom’s Christmas tree.
I spent most of the day at my parents’ yesterday. Holidays are so hard for people who are suffering in some way. I woke up thinking that I needed to hang the strand of blinking red bell lights along Mom’s living room mantle. My sister Annie loved watching the red blinking lights, and because of that my mother loved them too. Or because Mom loved them, Annie did. We never were quite sure which way that actually went. We hung the bells up the first two Christmases after Annie was gone, but I think it was too much trouble for Mom to do last year.
Armed with blank Christmas cards and a package of peppermints, I left for my parents house mid-morning. Life has been so hard for Mom over the past months, years really, that she is worn out and doesn’t want to do one thing extra. I suspected if I asked her if she wanted me to get out her Christmas decorations she would say “No.” So I didn’t ask. I went for the bells.
I went down the hall and into Annie’s room where Mom keeps the Christmas decorations in the large closet.
While I was looking for the bells, I found a wreath. I took it out and hung it on the front door.
“I usually put the wreath my sister gave me on the front door,” Mom said from her chair near the far corner of the living room where she sat and ate her toast and drank her tea. “It’s on the glass porch.” I moved the wreath I’d hung to the back door and went out on the porch for the wreath my aunt had made.
I decided we needed Christmas music so I sorted through their collection of vinyl albums for the Christmas ones and selected one I remembered from my youth, the album cover completely torn through on one side.
“I don’t want to get the tree out today,” Mom said as I worked.
In one box I found a Santa and Mrs. Claus that a good friend of hers had made years ago. I set them together on top of the china cabinet.
Back and forth to Annie’s room I went bringing out decorations one or two at a time.
I put the snowman and woman on the window sill beside the card table, Dad’s “office,” where he sits and “works” or plays ball with a family member or a home health aide.
I found a centerpiece for Mom’s coffee table, four miniature nutcrackers for the kitchen window sill, and a snow globe that I think Dad might enjoy.
At the bottom of a big box, in a bag, I found the red bells that Annie loved.
I hung them along the mantle, securing them with tape. Then I cleared the nick nacks off the mantle and set out the manger scene that used to be my grandmother’s.
Christmas carols playing in the background, I stood still for a minute and looked around the room. Mom used to put a small tree on a table in front of the picture window in the living room, but Dad sits there now and the table is full of pencils, blocks of wood, books, cups of coins, and other things we use to try to entertain or occupy him.
“You know, you could put the little tree on that table beside you, Mom,” I said. “It wouldn’t have to be in front of the window.”
“I could put it on that table,” Mom said and pointed across the room to the end table beside the lift recliner that we got for Dad, but that he rarely sits in anymore. It is simply too hard to get him in it, and he slides out of position if he sits there too long.
I shifted the recliner away from the sofa and moved the small table between the two so that it would be closer to the electrical outlet. Then I got the little white tree from a box on the shelf in Annie’s closet, and I set it up on the table.
“I don’t want to do the ornaments today,” Mom said.
I went back into Annie’s old bedroom and found a crocheted tree skirt.
“My sister made that for me, too” Mom said.
I arranged the skirt around the bottom and plugged the tree in. It’s tiny colored lights added a warm glow to the room.
Annie’s blinking bells strung along the mantle lent a cheerful twinkle to the room.
I left the ornaments in the three small boxes on the bed in Annie’s room.
Mom can decorate the tree later.
You probably thought I was talking about Arthur. And when I renewed my interest in riding my bicycle a year or two ago, I did think about taking Arthur with me. I even bought a Pet-a-Roo pet front carrier that remains in its box on a shelf in my laundry room closet.
No, it’s not about Arthur. This post is about Penny the biker.
We were finishing our walk at the VOA when Mark directed my attention to a man and his dog. And his motorcycle. He was attaching a harness strap to the passenger seat of his Harley. (Truthfully, I have no idea if it was a Harley, but it makes for better copy.)
This I gotta see, I thought.
And not being particularly shy, in fact being a bit on the forward side some might say, I asked him if I could take a picture of his dog on the bike. The man’s name was Chris and he couldn’t have been nicer. He spent several minutes talking to me about his hobby of taking travel and family photographs, and about his boxer Penny.
Nice man. Adorable dog.
Chris put on his helmet and got on in front of Penny. He started the engine. Penny stayed calm and as cool as she looked.
The sun was low in the sky behind them, throwing their faces into shadow, so Chris accommodated my request and circled around before leaving.
When I sent the photos to him, Chris comment on the one below. “That pose makes me think of the George Thorogood song, B-b-b-b bad, bad to the bone! She looks so serious.”
I think she looks adorable. And inspiring. I may have to pump air into my tires and unpack that Pet-a-Roo carrier after all. But first I need to find Arthur some goggles.
Bad to the Bone:
I’m still sliding down the slope. Some days I don’t even try to get a handhold of something, anything, with which to pull myself back up and into my life.
I started this blog with the intention of writing more, and regularly. My last post was over a week ago. That’s not very regular. Part of the problem is that I wanted this blog to chronicle mid-life—what’s important to me at this stage in life, what I enjoy doing, what challenges I face. And I pledged to write whatever was on my mind in the morning when I awoke. Many days now, and still, my thoughts are filled with my deceased parents in the morning, and I just don’t want to keep burdening you with that.
But the loss of parents is a part of many individuals’ mid-life, so I am going to write about where I stand today.
We visited our grandchildren in St. Louis twice this month. The first week from the 12th to the 20th, we went to celebrate their birthdays. The second week from the 29th to November 3, to help out with the children while our daughter-in-laws’ mother had emergency surgery and was in ICU with an initial uncertain diagnosis. She is doing fine now.
But what I’ve noticed with out of town trips this year is that I am fine, and even happy, while I am away, but when I return the grief hits me like a lead blanket. It pulls me down.
One day, in the week between the two trips, I felt like I had burst through the gray cloud of grief that hovers above me, never too far away. I took that as a good sign.
I am afraid of heading into the next three months, with the holidays and the anniversaries of events. The last dinner we had with my parents was last year at Thanksgiving. Mom was diagnosed with cancer on December 2. Dad went to the ER on December 4. We moved Dad to the nursing home and later, Mom to the assisted living apartment. Mom went to the hospital on Christmas day. Mom died on January 12th. We buried Mom and celebrated Dad’s 80th birthday on January 18th. Dad died on the 26th. So many significant dates in the next few months.
Does the day of the year carry a marker in our brains that makes anniversaries happy or difficult? Or is it that our planet is spinning back through a place in the universe where events occurred and energies still linger? That’s a little cosmic for me, I know. But the fact that we have circled the sun and returned to this space has not escaped me.
I’ll leave you with nine things I’ve learned about grief so far:
1. Initially, grief is violent, painful, and inescapable, hitting you like a tsunami. All you can do is cling to a rooted support hoping to surface when the waters pass.
2. Grief leaves a silence and emptiness behind after the initial wave passes through, giving you time to look around at the destruction but not the energy to deal with it.
3. Grief fills up your senses and leaves a taste in your mouth.
4. Grief is demanding of your attention, coming in waves.
5. Grief surprises you when you least expect it and causes spontaneous tears at a restaurant or an anxiety attack while visiting a hospital.
6. Grief has far-reaching effects making you view your mortality, question your purpose, and fear the next time it strikes in perhaps a bigger way.
7. Grief may be permanent. It changes your heart and leaves a hole in your life that you learn to live around.
8. I think, with time, grief can help you focus on what’s important here and now.
9. Grief is your friend. It never allows you to forget those you’ve loved and lost.
Today I bring you a guest post from Cindy Cunningham. I met Cindy through my memoir, Dancing in Heaven, as she explains below. From time to time readers of Annie’s story have contacted me to share their own story. I’ve decided to share with you any stories I receive for which I have permission to do so. My plan is to create a permanent page on my blog with links to these stories. Thanks in advance for reading Cindy’s story about Vera.
I live in southern California, but home is just north of New Orleans, LA. Most people who don’t live in Louisiana hear New Orleans and instantly think big city. I actually grew up in a very small rural area called Covington, which is north of New Orleans, just a stone’s throw away from the north end of the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, which separates New Orleans from country living.
My children, identical twins, Aimee and Jaime (now 32 years old) and my son, Scott (now 34 years old) along with their children and my parents who are now 75 and 78 still live in Covington. Our grandchildren either fly out yearly to visit us or I fly there and visit them. While my 15-year-old granddaughter was here on a visit she told me she had to read a memoir for her upcoming honors English class. I searched around and read several introductions and found yours. We both began reading and memories of my own childhood came flooding back.
My grandmother became a wife at the age of 15 and was eventually the mother of six children. Each child was born at home, a house with a beautiful high ceiling my grandfather had made from the logs he had harvested over the years. Back in the 1930’s in rural Louisiana there just weren’t hospitals and doctors to care for you. My grandmother did manage to get a midwife to attend the births. Each and every one went smoothly until my Aunt Vera was born. May 29, 1938 changed my grandmother’s life forever. The birth wasn’t going smoothly. The baby just wasn’t entering the birth canal correctly and in desperation the midwife took an ironing board and pressed on my grandmother’s stomach in an effort to make the baby move. Eventually the baby was born, but severely damaged. My Aunt Vera had cerebral palsy. She was a beautiful baby, just a baby trapped inside her body. Nobody knew enough back then to help her. She never got to attend school and was carried by my grandparents everywhere they went. She couldn’t lift her head or straighten her legs or control her arms. She sat in a rocker with a cushion in my grandmother’s kitchen as long as I can remember. Her bed was a twin bed placed along the wall in my grandparent’s bedroom. She slept in that bed until the day my grandmother went to awake her as she had done for 55 years. I remember clearly getting the call that Vera had passed away. My initial thought was “How will my grandmother live without her?”
Growing up, Vera was always there. I saw her disabilities, but they were who she was. I watched my grandmother carry her from her bed every day and put her in her special rocker in the kitchen so she could be with everyone all day. Around noon it was routine for her to be moved to another rocker in her bedroom (also my grandmothers bedroom) so they could watch their favorite soap operas. I would visit when I got older and mention a soap star to Vera knowing she was all into it and would be excited about my opinion. She would light up and rock back and forth and try so hard to make words come out. Words always eluded her. Only grunts and noises would surface. Sometimes she would get so angry because she couldn’t express her feelings and she would get flushed in her face and finally her body would go limp and she would fall back into her rocker with the look of defeat. I wanted so badly to give her the gift of speech.
My grandmother told me stories of when I was little and would play around Vera’s chair and poke her and laugh and hide. She said Vera loved it and laughed along with me. Growing up seeing her so disabled was a natural thing for me, but it didn’t stop me from wishing it had been different for her.
One of my fondest memories is of going to church with my grandparents and Vera. They attended a Baptist church in the country and Vera had a special rocker to the right in the front row. My grandparents would sit next to her during services. Everyone would come by and speak to Vera and she loved it. The church family was a big part of her life.
It seems my entire adult life while I was raising three children of my own, I kept Vera in my thoughts. Every time I was out and about and saw a raffle or something that I thought might make her days brighter I would enter her name. I remember once my grandmother called me and asked if I had entered Vera in a drawing. I had so many times that I just said yes. She said that K-Mart had called and asked to speak to Vera and she told them that she couldn’t speak because she was handicapped. They told her that Vera’s name had been drawn for a huge 4-ft pink energizer stuffed bunny. I had to laugh. My grandmother had someone pick it up and when activated it clapped it cymbals together and marched. I was right. It did brighten her day. No matter how trivial it was to most, it made her laugh.
Vera had about twenty baby dolls and my grandmother would dress them for the day and lay them out for Vera to see. She would pick one and insist my grandmother place it in her crooked arms. She would then rock it for hours. Once I got her an anatomically correct baby boy doll and she loved it. She laughed so much when she saw it. The other thing she loved was punch balls. My grandmother would tie the band to her finger and she would use her dominant right arm and swing it around. As with your sister, Diane, Vera’s right arm was always the stronger one. She could swing it back and forth, but it always ended up curled up like the left one. Her back was always hunched over and her legs crunched up too. She was almost in a fetal position. I use to wonder how her back didn’t kill her.
One Christmas I decided to buy small trinkets for the twenty-four days leading up to Christmas. Vera loved Christmas and no matter how old my grandmother got she always went all out decorating for Christmas. I also bought a hanging shadow box that on the 25th day would be given to Vera to put all of her trinkets in. I made up poems about the trinket of the day and mailed it anonymously to Vera. When I visited she was so excited about the trinket of the day. Neither she nor my grandmother could figure out who was sending them. The buildup was grand and it did my heart good to see their excitement. On Christmas day I brought the shadowbox over, and revealed myself to them. Vera was so excited she was beside herself.
Looking back I think of all of the things I did to try and make Vera’s life happier. I think maybe on top of her being happier, it healed my heart in a way. Imagining a life being trapped inside yourself with no voice or control over your limbs was so heartbreaking for me. She deserved better and I couldn’t give it to her.
Vera died June 8, 1993. My grandmother was 79. I thought about how my grandmother would, for the first time since she was 15, have freedom. But how much freedom can you have at age 79? Her health wasn’t good and she had always put Vera first.
Reading your book about your sister made me cry, made me laugh, and made me realize that there are so many Vera’s in this world and you and I were lucky enough to have them. My life is so much richer because of Vera. Her life was not a waste. She touched so many lives in so many ways and her legacy will live on. So will Diane’s. I miss Vera every single day, but I know the day she flew away that she was whole for the first time in her life. She could walk and sing and God was rewarding her for what she didn’t have here on earth.
At my writing group last night one of the women wrote about care-giving for her father who had Alzheimer’s. She wrote of herself as a reluctant caregiver. She found a lot of reasons why she didn’t want to make the 2-hour drive to Columbus and stay overnight at her parents’ house.
I applauded her for her honesty.
And then I started to wonder about myself. Did I resent feeling a responsibility to take care of Mom and Dad over the past years? I don’t remember not wanting to go visit them. I don’t remember it being a burden. What I remember most was being driven to try to fix the problem, to help ease their pain, to scramble to make things better somehow, someway. It was a vocation for me.
I’m sure there were days when I might have preferred to stay home, but I really can’t recall feeling that way.
And it makes me wonder whether I am now in denial, or whether my personal history has made me approach or feel differently about care-giving than some others might. I learned care-giving from a very early age as I stooped to pick Annie’s toys up off the ground where she dropped them, or straightened her up in her chair, or fed her a meal. When I moved away from home it wasn’t very many years before I was giving care to what would eventually be four children in our family.
I know there were times when I grew tired, or frustrated, but I don’t think I would ever refer to myself as reluctant. I wanted to help my parents. I was desperate to make things better.
When things fell apart last December, I spent nights on a sofa in the lobby of a hospital, on a sofa at my Mom’s house, on a Hospice chair that converted to a very hard bed, on an air mattress on the floor, in a recliner beside my father’s bed. I wanted to be there. I went home and slept in my own bed only because I knew that if I didn’t take breaks I would not be able to sustain the level of support I wanted to give.
But in this place of grief where I now dwell, I wonder if I will ever know the truth of any of it anymore. Can we ever really know the truth?
Grasshoppers dot the sun-warmed paved path every couple of yards or so where I walk Arthur beside the rippling lake on a cool autumn day. Arthur gets close and pokes his nose at one. It hops away.
Arthur scampers along beside me in the grass, his nose to the ground. Following a trail. His little white paws startle grasshoppers hiding there. Arthur ignores them.
I remember a long ago fall day on the river levy of my dad’s youth where we scampered along the hillside, our little Ked’s-clad feet startling the grasshoppers who hid there. Grasshoppers popping up all around us.
We set chase, catching them with bare hands then letting them go again. The thrill of the catch enough.
We had time for grasshoppers then.