Our relationships with individuals are unique and take on their own, color, flavor, and song. My sister Carol, who is little more than one year older than me, has the unequaled ability to transport me back to a simpler time and place when days were long, responsibilities few, and laughter contagious.
Photograph compliments of my talented niece Kathryn Flowers
at Krystal Beauty in Sarasota, Florida.
I treasure the moments we’ve had, continue to have, and will have in the future. And I’d just like to say, “Thank you sister, for helping me free my joy now.”
Is there someone in your life who makes you feel the joy of childhood again?
Since Mom and Dad died in January I have undergone a lot of confusion and soul-searching about life—from large general philosophical questions like “What’s it all about?” “What’s the point?” to small particular practical questions like “What do I do with my Wednesdays now?”
The event of Mom and Dad’s death, and I call it a singular event because that’s how it feels to me, has been, and continues to be, a transformational one.
I know my life and times are changing, but I can’t always articulate exactly how.
Today one thing became clear.
I’m refocusing this blog and the title of it on Random Thoughts from Midlife. I had switched the main title of my blog to my name from advice I got online while trying to figure out how best to market my book. I’m heading back to my original inspiration and letting my other blog-website (such as it is, a mere stagnant skeleton waiting for me to return) bear the burden of my name.
I first started this blog in January of 2011. On my “About” page I wrote:
“I have a father with Alzheimer’s, and a mother who is trying desperately hard to take care of him. I have two living sisters and one brother. We lost my younger sister Annie to cancer in August of 2009. She was permanently and severely disabled at birth. We loved her dearly.”
That’s what it still says today. It’s just one more thing about my life that needs to be updated now that Mom and Dad are gone.
I started my blog because I wrote Annie’s book. That’s the simple truth. I wrote a book and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. The online research I did continued to talk about how I needed to have a platform—a completely foreign concept to me at the time.
I knew a blog could be an important building block of the elusive “platform” so I thought about what I might possibly blog about. Several years prior to this I had the notion of writing a magazine with stories and photographs called Random Thoughts from Midlife. I went so far as to jot the title down on a scrap of paper and stuff it in a drawer. The fate of many of my ideas.
Forgive me if I’m rambling. I know some of you will stick through this to the end with me and others won’t. It’s something I need to do regardless. Thank you if you’re staying.
Since Mom and Dad died, writing has been one of the larger questions I’ve grappled with. Maybe I don’t need or want to do it anymore, I’d think. What am I doing with my blog? Does it need a more specific direction? Should I give it up altogether?
It really all boiled down to What do I want to do now? Some of my lack of direction came from the empty nest feelings that I directly transferred to the care of my parents. Dad had Alzheimer’s. Annie died in August. My youngest left for college in September. It was an easy shift to let the care of my parents fill the hole left behind by my children.
When I was in college, the second time, earning my English degree, I took every course in Women’s Studies that was available to me. Several of these courses used journal-type writings from women—not famous literature, just simple accounts of their lives. The slave narratives I studied in several courses were a similar inspiration to me. Just simple people, perhaps living complicated lives, who chose to tell or write about what they went through. I saw these stories as a gift to the rest of us who might now be able to see more clearly, understand more deeply.
In my view, and you might not agree, midlife is a time period that is undervalued by society at large. As we head out to pastures no one is interested in what we’re doing anymore. They’re all watching the three-year-old thoroughbred races.
I also think that technology has somehow undermined the perceived value of the experience of our more mature members of society. Who needs to ask Grandma how to make a pie crust when you can Google it and get expert advice from 4 or 5 individuals with their own television shows?
I think midlife is a fascinating time of life with many of life’s largest issues at the forefront. I think all of our lives are important even if our faces are not on Hollywood’s big screens or we aren’t a star athlete or the head of a major corporation. We all count. I believe that some of the greatest wisdom can be found in what society may consider the least of us. I am grateful for the technology, that on the one hand threatens to devalue us, yet gives us the opportunity to speak and have others hear our voice.
Some of the topics I’ve written about on this blog include:
Being a grandparent
Physical problems of aging
Hobbies like photography, gardening, and genealogy
Taking care of aging parents
Losing a parent
Long-term love of a spouse
Many of these are common things that those of us, in the middle of our lives, are concerned about, value, and live with.
I think my original idea was a good one.
Welcome back Random Thoughts.
If you’re a blogger, I’d love to hear why you started your blog, why you continue, and what you try to do with it.
If you’re not a blogger, thanks for reading my blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this post.
Dear friends, acquaintances, readers, and unconcerned passers-by,
I am sending out this request for guest bloggers who would like to share a memory and write on the topic of mother’s wisdom. Now that Mom is gone, when her little pieces of wisdom come to mind I greet them like a precious jewel. I am planning on sharing those little jewels with you as they drop into my hands. But I realized that we all have pieces of wisdom from our mothers. I invite you to share one here on my blog. I hope to hear from you, whenever, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Things don’t always turn out like you think they’re going to.”
Mom said that to me at some point during our journey through her last six weeks. I don’t remember what comment I made that provoked it, but I’m sure it was one of my attempts at being upbeat and optimistic about her move to the assisted living facility. Or maybe it was a fore-shadowing of her dip in the whirlpool at the new facility that I thought would be heaven after all the years she wasn’t able to get in or out of the bathtub at home. That turned out to be incredibly uncomfortable, a test of fortitude and endurance actually, when Mom had to sit (for a very long time according to her) on a straight-backed metal seat that got lowered into the tub. “I’m not going to do that again,” she said,” unless they can get some kind of a cushion for me.”
Some things just don’t turn out as good as you think they’re going to.
I don’t know what experiences in her life drove that thought home but I imagine the day-to-day care of Annie; Mom’s attempts to improve the quality of life for her mother who had dementia; or Mom’s constant battle to take care of Dad at home as he continued to decline with Alzheimer’s provided many opportunities for failed attempts and things that didn’t turn out as good as Mom had hoped.
It’s not a profound statement really, or likely even one that we haven’t already learned on our own. But sometimes, some of us, need to be reminded, I guess.
Mark was playing golf this morning. He doesn’t get out that often. We used to play occasionally with his parents. I rode in the cart with his mother and he with his father. I enjoyed that well enough. His mom wasn’t considerably better than I was and it wasn’t overly taxing for me. I can’t say the same for later attempts to play in a foursome with our sons or other people who didn’t mind devoting hours to the game week-after-week and year-after-year in order to improve their skills.
I really like the idea of playing golf with Mark and some friends. I imagine it might be a life-style I could enjoy—a weekly outing on the golf course on 70 degree, blue-sky, breezy days. Laughter, camaraderie, the challenge and the feeling that comes when the ball soars off the tee and flies out over the green straight ahead dropping into an excellent chipping or putting position (I really have to stretch my imagination on that one.)
In my weaker moments I sometimes forget the frustration and utter humiliation of some of my later attempts at golfing. My mind conveniently refuses to recall that the last time I played nine holes I quit after only three, picking up my ball, jamming my 5-iron into the bag, and parking myself in the cart while uttering all kinds of best-forgotten comments. I think maybe golfing would be a fun thing that Mark and I could enjoy. Sometimes I think, maybe I’ll try again.
At times like those when my imagination threatens to delude me it is good to remember the wise words of my mother, “Things don’t always turn out like you think they’re going to.”
Undoubtedly so. Thanks, Mom.
The first garden I ever had I made on the hard-packed ground in the corner where the brick chimney met our house. Dad had built planters in the front of our house that he kept blooming with annuals every year. One year, and I think I must have been in high school, as I watched him planting his flowers, I told him I wished I could have a place to plant some flowers myself. And he helped me clear the grass and turn the hard packed dirt over. I bought the flowers and planted them. Then I think I largely ignored them. I have no memory of what happened with that little garden of ageratums.
Memories are funny that way.
The loss of my parents has been huge for me with many ramifications that I never would have imagined in my outlook on life, worldview, and priority list. I think a lot more about my own death now and in particular, what I can do to try to get rid of some of these items I’ve collected over the years so my children won’t be in a quandary about what to keep to honor my work and my memory. It seems like a huge task to me, and likely as the months pass it will fall lower and lower on my priority list. But I think about it now and I never did before.
Memories of my parents come into my mind frequently, always during the nights while I am trying to sleep, and usually when I’m driving the car. It’s not like I’m deliberately dwelling on my parents or their deaths. The memories come unbidden.
I had a revelation about memories yesterday when I realized that all my memories of my parents are intact, and likely always will be. Then I realized that while my parents were alive, they were living, walking, and talking memories. The person in the moment was only a slight shadow of the person of my many memories. I’m not saying that the “slight shadow” wasn’t held dear, and if you had witnessed my grief at their loss over these past four months you would know I am quite sincere. But what I am saying is that as long as I have my memories, I’ll still have a large portion of who my mother and my father were here with me. I think this is what many people tried to convey to me with their words of sympathy.
And I finally got it.
“Grieving is a journey that teaches us how to love in a new way now that our loved one is no longer with us. Consciously remembering those who have died is the key that opens the hearts that allows us to love them in new ways.” — Tom Attig, The Heart of Grief
I woke up to a fascinating, no, more than fascinating, soul-stirring, comment on one of my blog posts. Although I had planned to do another post about our recent trip to New Orleans, in keeping with my intention when I started this blog of writing about what was on my mind when I woke up, I am sharing this story with you.
When I arose this morning, I checked my iPhone for email and found this blog comment to moderate by a new reader, Roseanne, who wrote, “. . .I was just lying here looking for sleep, when my Mother came into my thoughts. I got up and put into the computer ‘My Mom had a very hard life ‘ and found your blog. I’m going to put it in my favorites and follow you. I have never done anything like this before. . .”
I retraced her steps and found the post I had written about my Dad and his mother.
But Roseanne’s words struck a cord with me, because even though I had never written about it, my mom had a hard life, as most of my loyal followers might imagine.
When she was young my mother often had to care for her two younger siblings because her mother suffered from heart disease and was quite ill a lot of the time. Then my father was sent to Germany in the army and Mom had their first child, my oldest sister, while he was thousands of miles away. A few years (and children) later, Annie was born with severe brain damage and Mom, along with Dad, took care of her every day for 51 years. Annie died shortly after Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mom went directly from caring for her daughter to caring for her husband. She never got a break. Not one. That’s one of the hardest things I’m dealing with now in the throes of my grief.
So the fact that Roseanne found me by searching for those terms had me take notice. Thank you, Roseanne.
But Roseanne wasn’t the first person who found me recently. A few days ago I got a couple of comments from a person named Kathy and her brother Kenneth on my “Remembering Grandma” post that I had written about my mom’s mother. They recognized the Adams’ name and the house that my grandmother grew up in.
It turns out that they are distant relatives. Their grandfather Adams was my great-grandfather’s brother. They have remained in the same basic location that my, and their, Adams’ family set down roots when they came to Ohio from New York sometime in the 1820s. We are talking about meeting each other in the near future. It is an exciting find for an amateur genealogist like myself, and even more stirring for my heart that has found new family, albeit extended, after experiencing the painful sense of loss of family following the deaths of my parents. I only wish I could tell my mom. She would have been thrilled to know. Thank you, Kathy and Kenny.
My new “cousin” Kathy wrote me and said, “I just have to say that I think my Grandma Adams up in heaven was pushing for us to meet. There were so many events leading up to me finding your blog and things that occurred afterwards that led me to believe it was not ‘just a coincidence.’”
I wrote her back and said that I believed my grandmother, in cahoots with my mother, may have had something to do with it too. Isn’t it a nice idea to think about loved ones plotting and scheming in Heaven, trying to find a way to break through the veil of life that separates us?
Now, I realize some of you will agree with me whole-heartedly, and some of you will think this is a bunch of bunky and I should devote my active imagination to more production purposes like writing a novel, perhaps. And I’ll be honest and say that I have been all over the map in what I believe about after life.
I can say, though, that when you lose someone you love dearly, it can make you want to believe. And belief, after all, is a choice we make. Belief, according to dictionary.com is, by definition, “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.” If there was proof, you wouldn’t need to believe. You would simply know. It is something we can choose to do.
My mom believed in the power of prayer. And in the thinning of the veil from this life to the next. As she was near the end of her days in a bed at Hospice I told her, “I’m going to miss talking to you, Mom. I’m going to have to find another way to talk to you.” And she replied, “Yes. You will.”
So I’ll repeat the question I asked in my very first blog post, that I read again today while I was looking for what I actually said about the purpose of my blog:
“Mom are you out there?”
She’s been so strong through all of this: fifty-one years of caring for my severely disabled sister followed by her death, three and a half years of caring for my father through moderate and then late stage Alzheimer’s, a sudden revelation that she has advanced, considered incurable, metastasized cancer, and my father’s hospitalization followed by his move to a nursing home.
Sometimes my mother’s strength is my undoing.
Yesterday, the day the world was to end, the first day of winter with a snow storm blowing through the area, we moved Mom out of her home of 32-plus years of family memories and into a small assisted-living apartment under the same roof as my father.
As soon as we got Dad settled in his new home earlier this month, my siblings and I turned our efforts to packing Mom up and readying her to move as well. It wasn’t until the day before the move when my husband, sister, and her family, were on their way to Mom’s new home, in their cars filled with packed boxes of fragile items and original artwork from talented family members, that Mom put up any complaint. She sat on the sofa across the room from me, her shoulders hunched, the wall behind her bare in spots from removed artwork, and said, “I don’t want to go.”
“Transitions are hard,” I reminded her. “I know this must be so hard on you. And I feel very bad that you have to go through all of this change and confusion now when you are feeling so bad.”
“I don’t like anything about this,” she said.
“Do you think we’ve made bad decisions?” I asked her, knowing that after my mother’s virtual collapse at the beginning of the month she has done little more than move from the sofa to the bed and has not been able to participate very much in the the planning of this monumental transition. ”Should we have done something different?” I asked her.
“Well, I would have waited until I had my doctor’s appointment and knew my test results,” she said, referring to the ultra-sound and biopsy that were done last week as an outpatient since she refused to stay at the hospital for the testing when we first took her to the ER and the cat scan revealed her cancer.
Through this whole nightmare I’ve been living, there have been a few funny moments, and there have been some all-time low moments. This was a bad moment for me.
“We thought you wanted to be where Dad was,” I said, remembering that was her only criteria for what nursing home we selected for Dad. She wanted to be in the same building and not have to travel there by car or golf cart. “Dad had to go somewhere. Dr. R. recommended this place. We were lucky they had appropriate rooms for both of you. They weren’t going to hold an empty apartment for you forever. We were afraid of losing it.”
Yesterday morning I woke up at 5:00 a.m., early again as I had done the previous two consecutive nights that I spent at my parents’ house. I slipped into Annie’s room down the hall where my mom was sleeping in her queen-sized bed we moved there when Dad started sleeping in his hospital bed and Mom in a twin bed beside him in their own room. I could see she was awake, even in the dim light that shone under the door from the bathroom. I sat down on the glider beside the bed and we talked for a while.
The five hours before we were scheduled to leave at 10:00 passed by relatively uneventfully, helping her dress, sewing patches on her blanket and afghan to label them for her, taping and labeling last-minute boxes.
Just before 10:00, I helped Mom put her coat on, walked her out through the garage and into my waiting and, courtesy of my husband, warmed up car. As I backed out of the driveway I saw her looking at the house and I struggled not to think about the fact that this might be the last time she saw her home. Little snow flakes were drifting around although the ground had only gotten a dusting and the streets were relatively clear. My bare hands were cold on the steering wheel. I looked at Mom’s face. She was calm and without tears.
“This reminds me of the story Dad told me about the day his family moved to Miami Street,” I said as I turned out of the drive, onto the road and away from the house. “He said it snowed the day they moved.”
“Oh yes,” Mom said as she laughed, “I remember that well. I got stuck at work downtown at Murphey’s Department Store.”
“Did you have to spend the night there?”
“No. Your dad came and got me,” she said as I stopped at a red light.
“It had snowed so hard my dad couldn’t get his car away from the curb to come and get me, so your father walked there from Miami Street to get me. I spent the night at his new house on a mattress with his two sisters. The three of us slept sideways across the mattress.”
“Was it a queen-sized mattress?” I asked as I turned onto the main road that led to the nursing and assisted-living facility.
“I think it was probably a double. When they saw how bad the weather was going to be they decided to get the mattresses moved over there first. All they had been able to move were the mattresses and an ironing board. Your grandmother had brought the ironing board over because they were putting up wallpaper. My parents were sick with worry about me spending the night at your father’s house.
“In the morning, your grandmother cooked eggs for breakfast. They must have either moved the stove as well, or maybe it was there when they bought the house. This was the first house they ever owned. They always rented before. Anyway, she served the breakfast on the ironing board. There weren’t any chairs to sit on.
“Then your dad walked me home from Miami to Manier. It was so cold, my eye-lashes froze. The snow was deep and I think I borrowed a pair of boots from one of his sisters. We walked down the middle of the street. No cars were out.
“Your dad and I used to talk about that from time to time,” she said, as we turned into the parking lot of her new home, accompanied by Angels We Have Heard on High playing on the car stereo.
My grandmother died 28 years ago on November 1st, All Saints Day, which we thought was kind of appropriate as she was a faithful soul who helped to clean and take care of the church a half a block away from her home.
Below is a short excerpt from the story I am working on about my father. This selection is told from my father’s perspective, in his voice.
A Hard Life
(1930s – 1940s)
My mother had a pretty hard life. It’s very sad when I think about it and how little appreciation I had for that.
She got home from work probably about 4:00 or 4:30 in the afternoon. She made dinner out of whatever she could scrounge up. I was a bad boy. I raised Cain about what we had for meals and I have regretted that many, many, many times over the years. I’m a mashed potatoes and gravy kind of a guy. I wanted a full meal with meat, potatoes, and vegetables. If we didn’t have that, it wasn’t a meal in my way of thinking. My parents had two limitations: one, their financial ability to provide it and two, before the end of the war, whether they had rationing capabilities to provide it.
My mother had a number of family events that she always enjoyed, but my dad was a wet blanket on every one. He never missed one that he didn’t make at least somebody miserable, in particular my mother. He didn’t want to go.
When my mother wanted to go somewhere she’d get us all ready to go and then he would refuse to go. Most of the time we went anyway. Because we didn’t have any transportation, the Wirrigs would come and pick us up, generally Paul. Paul always represented to me the person I would like to be.
My dad never watched the kids. Mom would always be mad at him. With just cause. I can’t ever remember my father ever doing something that was really a help to her.
My mom didn’t like the fact that my dad was an alcoholic. And she couldn’t do much about that. She’d do what women generally try to do—threaten—but that don’t stop them.
[. . .]
My mother never had time to play.
She told me she was going to teach me how to cook enough that I could be self-sufficient when I got older. She taught me how to bake a cake from scratch. It was almost a sin to think about making a cake out of a box.
I also watched her fry chicken and saw what she did, but there was nothing formal about learning that.
I was supposed to keep the weeds out of her garden. I never did.
After the war, the factory where she worked went back to making underwear. Those ladies really worked hard sewing their stuff. I worked there my junior and part of my senior year cleaning the place at night. Those women leaned on those sewing machines just flinging the fabric through there. They got paid by how many they did. So they worked hard. They had to. That’s why I say my mother had a pretty hard life.
I was going to post today about waiting for our granddaughter. I was going to talk about how I imagine her all cozy and warm inside her mother’s womb, no scratchy or confining clothes to irritate her skin, no hunger pangs or distress from digesting food, her nutrition pumping directly into her tiny body from her mother.
Even though we are anxious to meet her, yesterday I thought, Let her stay in her comfy cozy place for a while yet. Let her stay until she is ready to leave, for she’ll never know the likes of that again and she will be here soon enough. The journey out into this world will likely be uncomfortable and frightening for her. Let her stay a little while longer.
Last night when I went to bed, I thought this is what I would post about today.
Instead, an hour and a half after a 5:16 a.m. phone call, Mark and I are moving through the night rushing along the highway in the dark, a line of red tail lights lighting our way from the cars of those who are trying to get to work on the front edge of rush hour. But we’re not rushing to work. Our bags are packed and stowed in the trunk, my computer, camera, and video camera in the back seat. We are at the beginning of a 6-hour drive to St. Louis to meet our granddaughter when she arrives.
It’s going to be a great day.
I woke up this morning with troubling thoughts swirling around in my mind, and remembered that I started this blog with the intent to write about what was on my mind each morning.
I’ve strayed from that intent.
I think I may look back on this year as the epitome of “midlife.”
I started the year nursing my husband through bilateral knee surgery.
I continue to make every effort to support my mother as she cares for my father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The needs always changing and shifting. A continuum of problem-solving.
I struggle with denial as I try to make every moment count with my father who slips further and further away.
I’m working to fill my life with meaningful purpose now that my days of child-rearing have come to a close.
I’m trying to nurture and even invigorate a relationship with the man I’ve loved for more than 30 years, well past the days of infatuation. For relationships do require attention to thrive and I want to do more than settle into comfortable routine.
Instead of handling our children’s problems, I discuss them over telephone calls, e-mails, and text messages: a suspended license that defies resolution, teeth implants that will be required, job dissatisfaction.
I look forward with sweet anticipation to the new grandbaby expected to arrive next month.
All the while I try to minimize the strain I put on my arthritic knees and visit the orthopedic doctor at regular intervals for injections.
On a daily basis I deal with ongoing physical issues that result from crashing hormone levels and simply aging, wondering if its time to get a stronger prescription for my bifocals yet again.
Thirty years ago today I first became a mother and was nearly swallowed up by the love and joy.
When I was younger life seemed clearer and perhaps less varied. I was bringing children into the world and caring for them. My concerns were primarily focused on little people whose ages spanned less than a 10-year gap. It seemed busy and complicated at the time.
Now I visit my 2-year-old grandson on a weekend, savoring the joy and laughter.
And I visit my nearly 80-years-old parents on a Monday, holding back and denying the sadness and tears, wondering what changes need to be made so that Mom can still manage taking care of Dad at home. Wondering if we can make those changes. Wondering if she’s going to hold up under the strain. Wondering how long this can last.
Here at midlife, I am smack in the middle of the huge spectrum of life, still trying to understand what it’s all about.
Songs really have a way of transporting me to a different time and place.
Pandora is one of my best discoveries on the web. I love defining my own radio stations. If you’ve not done it, you should give it a try. I just heard “Don’t sleep in the subway Darling,” on my Petula Clark station.
Now it’s playing one of my old favorites – Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry and the Pacemakers. I just love this station.
In the time it took me to look up the links, Ferry Cross the Mersey ended and now they’re playing another goldie, God Alone Knows by the Beach Boys.
Earlier today I heard Build me up Buttercup by the Foundations and was instantly transported back to the talent show my 7th grade year of grade school. I wasn’t performing in the show, but my sister Carol was. She and a friend had worked out a baton routine to this song. My sister had never really done baton before other than to just play around, but her friend knew what she was doing, and she taught Carol.
Carol practiced and practiced and practiced, forever engraving the song into my mind. I knew every step of the routine by heart from watching her practice.
They had little costumes made up and everything. And I think it could have been a knock-out performance.
But Carol didn’t have as much confidence as perhaps she required. She told me before the show, “I hope I catch the first toss. If I catch the first toss, I’ll be fine.”
I sat in the front row of the balcony as Carol and her friend came on stage with their batons and the music started. I held my breath when Carol tossed the baton into the air. Then my shoulders slumped when her spinning baton fell with a thud and a bounce to the floor. Oh no.
I don’t think Carol caught even one of the subsequent gazillion tosses during that song that never ended. And I cringed from the cheap seats every time. The rest of the audience responded as you might expect teenagers of the junior high variety to respond. It was mortifying for me as a mere spectator to my sister’s disastrous performance. My heart bled for her.
But she stayed out there on the stage and kept doing the routine, tossing the baton into the air and dropping it. I suppose she had options. She could have left the stage in the middle of the routine in tears. But she saved the tears for later and saw it through.
Here’s to you, Sis, for an amazing performance of perseverance.
And thank goodness we’re not in junior high anymore.