A passing thought

When I was younger my life was like a bottomless basket of days to spend. Of course I always knew it was a finite amount that would eventually come to an end. But there were so very many days in that basket, that the idea of them running out was of no concern to me.

Here is one of my midlife revelations. I see now that the level of those days in that basket has dropped significantly. I don’t know how many more there are, but I can readily tell that I have already used more, undoubtedly many more, than I have left.

I think the death of both of my parents has sharpened this sense that time is running out, that time is of the essence. Since their passing, I have been somewhat preoccupied with death, and in particular with my own death. It’s not that I fear death or am even particularly sad about the idea of the end to my own life. But the thought of my inevitable death makes me consider more seriously my life.

Recently I feel like I struggle with younger people. I don’t always understand them. I don’t always understand their behavior at times or their priorities in particular. And I came to realize today that perhaps younger people still see their basket of days as an endless supply, as I did. When I was young, I had just arrived at the amusement park. I could go on the first ride that caught my eye, and then the next. But now, at this stage of my life, I’ve spent a good part of the day at that amusement park already. I’m starting to think about what rides  I most want to go on before I have to leave. It’s a different perspective altogether, with different priorities.

I know. If younger people are reading, or were to read, this, I suspect they might protest. I would have too. Of course younger people know their life will come to an end. I did too. We all do.

But that knowledge has transformed somehow inside of me with the passing years. That knowledge now colors and informs decisions I make like never before. Where do I want to live? Because, realistically, how many more moves do I really have in me? The knowledge of my mortality informs daily choices I make. Do I really need another print book? How am I going to get rid of all the books we have already collected?

Most importantly, that knowledge informs the quality of the relationships I have with other people. Do I really have time for hurt feelings or disappointment? Maybe disappointment is a choice I can choose not to make.

Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. Her days ran out sometime during her 78th year. Do I have twenty more years, thirty or more, only 5? I have no way to know.

You might link I am maudlin or morose. But quite the opposite is true. I am on a challenging journey to find the light. I want those days left in my basket, however many there are, to shine. To really shine.



Life is still grand

Our woods the day before we left for St. Louis, October 21, 2012

Midlife is a time for flexibility, I think.

I woke up in my own bed at home this morning and had to re-orient myself, as I did most mornings while in St. Louis waking in the guest room at my son’s house. “I’m still here,” I’d think upon first waking, “we’ll be with the grandchilden today.”

This morning my thoughts turned to the familiar sights and sounds of home, and a running list of the things I wanted to accomplish today: a blog to post, plants to bring in from the dropping temperatures, a sewing project left on our dining room table to be finished, and a writing project to work on.

No more listening in the early hours for a little voice singing the alphabet song through a baby monitor on the kitchen table where I sat sipping my morning tea. No more bowls of cheerios with milk or bagels with “French” cheese, or fruit, lots of fruit, “More fruit, please.” And from the same little voice, optimistic that a voiced agreement will make it so, “Okay, then. Great.”

No more stickers, or crayons.  Eggs and toast made of Playdoh. No more puzzles or cars. No more trains. No more books about dogs, “Up the tree. Up the tree,” my computer gathering dust on the dining room table.

No more holding close a tiny little body, a warm soft head nestled in my hand, baby maybe-blue eyes gazing up at the light.

Love surrounded us in St. Louis; it was palpable, in the air with every breath we took, my senses on full alert soaking up every smile, every hug, every word, to be brought home and savored later.

It’s time to pick up again our life’s work, for in midlife even if we change our vocation from a profession to volunteering, from an hourly-job to a hobby, from child-rearing to writing, we still have our life’s work. It is what makes us want to arise in the morning each day.

I have an adult child facing what could be traumatic oral surgery, another trying to get a job, a father who struggles to eat, and a mother who struggles to feed him.

Love surrounds us here. It is not bright, shiny, and always joyous, but it is true, deep, and abiding love.

I have a little dog who wants nothing more than to just be home with us here.

And Mark. Always Mark.

Life is still grand.

Our woods this morning, October 29, 2012.

Violet Marie Grote has arrived

I woke up early this morning and walked through the open door at the end of the hall into a pink and white room beside the guest room where we’re staying. The motion of the ceiling fan caught my eye. We must have left it on when we were working in here yesterday assembling the crib.  It will be a while before the crib is used; the bassinet in the parents’ room will suffice for some time.

I pulled on the chain to turn off the fan, continued across the room to the second-story window above the leaf-strewn deck, and looked up at the sky. A constellation decorated the night. The name always seems to elude me, but it is the one with the three stars in a line, like a belt. Orion perhaps? I’ll have to look it up.

The house is quiet save for the nature sounds that play from an ipod speaker in Luke’s room through a monitor in ours.

Parents and baby will be coming home today.

Violet Marie Grote was born on Monday morning at 9:50 eastern standard time. She is 19-1/2 inches long and weighed 8 lbs. 14 oz. at birth. Her skin is soft, and her cry is insistent. When she opens her eyes, she is absolutely captivating. She’s attentive to the voice of her big brother, 2-year-old Luke, and looks for him when he speaks or sings her a song.

Isn’t life grand?

Needed school supplies — midlife nostalgia

I’ve been seeing abundant back-to-school ads lately, the only herald to the new school year now that folded supply lists are not arriving here, one way or another, in duplicate, triplicate and at times quadruplicate.

I had a love-hate relationship with school supplies. Office supply stores with their stacks of colored notebooks, racks of hanging pen packs, and an endless variety of sticky notes, erasers, rulers, scissors, and well, office supplies in general, have always enthralled me. Like a good hardware, craft, or fabric store, I love the possibilities of an office supply store.

Over the years I developed a system that worked fairly well. First we dug out the school backpacks from the corner of the closets where they were carelessly tossed on that last day of school, still filled with the broken pencils, doodled-on spiral notebooks, dried out markers, and lots of dust, paper scraps, broken lead, and pencil shavings.

Then we sorted out the salvagable from the trash.

That’s where the negotiations usually began.

“My list says I need five one-subject spiral notebooks.”

“You have two in here that you only used a couple of pages in.”

Problem number 1. No one wants to use old notebooks that may have curled corners on the covers, scribbles inside, and a few missing pages.

I have a box full of partially used notebooks that will provide all my notebook needs for decidedly the rest of my life.

It would go on from there.

“Do you really need a new eraser? What’s wrong with this one?”

“It’s got ink marks all over it.”

“It looks to me like someone wrote in ink all over it. Who could have done that?

“And the corners have crumbled off.”

“It still works, doesn’t it?”

Granted, we’re only talking about a few cents here or there at times, but the bill when we left the office supply store never failed to shock me.

How I miss those days of juggling 2, 3, or 4 supply lists and keeping track of who had what, crowding the five of us into the store aisles while the cart filled up with necessary items, denying the unending stream of appeals for the frivolous, until my willpower ran out from fatigue and confusion, and I found colored gel ink pens and mini-staplers in my cart at the check out.

We’d arrive home with our heavy bags and set up in the dining room where we sorted, labeled, and filled backpacks.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is a lot about those days of school-supply shopping that I frankly don’t miss at all. But some parts of it were rather nice and I remember those days of excitement for a new beginning in a new grade at occasionally a new school.

And I love office supply stores.

I think I’ll go there today. There are a few things that I need.

Mark Joseph’s (our youngest’s) first day of school, 1996.

The strength we require

I was driving home from my writer’s group meeting just before dark last night. When I started down the private drive that runs in front of our house, I noticed a quick movement in the neighbor’s grass to my right. Two fawns were lying, curled up, in the grass near the drive and a buck stood above them. I immediately slowed the car to a crawl and crept to the far side of the drive so as not to threaten them. I made my way into the driveway that leads to our house at a snail’s pace while keeping my eyes on the buck and the  fawns, who had stood up. The three did not leave their spots. Even as I got into the house and peered out the window as the night darkened, I could still see them standing there. Then the other neighbor on our drive drove down a few minutes behind me and the deer fled into the woods.

It seemed like such a sad scene to me. The buck trying to bed the fawns down for a rest, and the three of them being threatened and running away. Where is the doe?

If there is anything I am learning from watching nature, as I have been privileged to do while living here in our house bordered by woods, it’s this: Ultimately we have to fend for ourselves. Others may try to help us, and give us a lending hand. But in this great design of life on this planet, mostly we are on our own. And conversely, although we may desire to, or even attempt to, help others, largely there is little we can do. Like us, mostly they are on their own with their trials, tribulations, pain, and suffering.

I would love to reunite the doe with her fawns, and maybe one day soon I’ll see them together again . . . or maybe she’s lying dead in a ditch somewhere. In any case there is absolutely nothing I can do.

You loyal readers know that I often struggle with my dad’s situation as he gradually loses his abilities to do almost everything because of his Alzheimer’s. I visit. I try to cheer him up. I try to give him something “fun” or interesting to do. But ultimately the hell he is living is his own battle to fight and endure. I can’t do it for him. I can’t even help him carry the load for any significant amount of time.

Like the people in the stories we see on the news who lost their homes to wildfires or tsunamis, who’ve lost their kids to abductors, who’ve lost their children or spouses or other friends and loved ones to an irrational act of violence in a movie theater, there’s very little I can do.

I can send money, prayers, good wishes. I can ladle soup in soup kitchens. I can do a little here and there. But I can’t take away someone else’s suffering. At best, I can only apply band-aids.

When it comes down to it, we are all on our own.

The strength we require ultimately has to be found within.

Universal motherhood—a mother and a doe

I think I figured out this morning why the lame doe that frequents our yard bothers me so much. No one likes to see an animal suffer, and in particular, no one likes to see a juvenile animal suffer. If the lame doe has a life-threatening disease, her fawn will be orphaned.

But that’s not the whole reason it bothers me so much.

No one likes to see a person suffer, and in particular, no one likes to see a juvenile person suffer. But most, if not all, of us have and do all the time. I have permanently imprinted on my mind the women, young mothers, I knew who either were disabled or died leaving behind small children:

Michelle, mother of a one-year-old daughter, who had a severe stroke and was in a coma for weeks with a long road of rehabilitation ahead of her

Joann, mother of three children in grades K – 3, who was diagnosed with liver cancer and died about a year later

Candy, mother of 4 or 5 children and grandmother of a one-year-old, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and died after several years of treatment.

Irene, mother of kids in high school, who got ALS and slowly lost all of her abilities to function and then died.

I suspect you could make a list of your own. It’s a very tragic thing when a child’s mother dies.

We understand at some level because there is a bond of motherhood that connects women of all sizes, shapes, colors and ages. Some things are universal, and motherhood is one of those things.

I realized this morning that the bond of motherhood, for me, extends beyond human beings, to all creatures, from the tireless bird who makes continued flights to and from the nest to feed her babies, to the deer who teaches her fawn how to find food and stay safe.

This morning as I was walking Arthur at the VOA, I saw a young mother with a little daughter who looked to be about three years old. The girl had shoulder length dark brown wavy hair and was wearing capri-length jeans with a pink jacket. The mother was using a walker. The little girl was skipping and hopping ahead of her mother and then back. The mother trudged on. I don’t know her story, and I have no idea what her prognosis is. I could only tell that she struggled to walk.

I hope the mother is okay.

Whether she’s got a temporary setback, or a permanent disability, or a progressive fatal disease, the mother is living her life and taking her daughter to the park.

Just like the doe.

Angels and birds in my garden

When my sister Annie died, angels took on new meaning for me. If there are really angels, and I truly hope there are, then I know I have a little sister angel somewhere, everywhere.

I always had angels in my gardens. Now I have more angels in my gardens.

When my sister Annie died, setting suns, snowfalls, and singing birds took on new meaning.

I always had birds singing in my gardens, but now I hear their songs more clearly.

I don’t know why.

I look and I listen and I seek and I hope. For what, I really don’t know.

Maybe just an angel in my garden.

When Dad has a bad day

“I can tell when your dad is having a bad day the moment I first see his face,” Dad’s home health aide Paula says. “On those days I don’t even try to get him into the shower.”

One of the insidious things about Alzheimer’s is how unpredictable it can be. Just as soon as Mom and Dad have become comfortable with a routine Mom has established in Dad’s care, whether it is how to prepare, cut, and serve his food to him, to how to transfer him into and out of his bed from his wheelchair or walker, something will shift and the practiced method either no longer works or needs adjustment.

When Dad has a bad day he is not as attentive, or responsive, and doesn’t seem as able to follow any kind of request or command, like “take a small step forward with your left leg.” Or “move this leg” as you pat on the left leg. Or “keep going” when he comes to a complete stop in the hallway from the bedroom to the bathroom, his left leg shaking,  as he clenches the walker out in front and Mom holds onto him from behind.

When Dad has a bad day I wonder how much longer he will be able to walk even the very short distances he does now. I wonder if it is wise even to let him try. I wonder if he is going to fall in the hallway and we will have to call 911 to get him back in his wheelchair or his bed.

When Dad has a bad day, everyone else is more attentive and responsive. The tension in the house mounts as the uncertainty level rises. How long is he going to be able to walk? What if we can’t get him back in his bed? How long is Mom going to be able to handle this during those times she is here alone with him?

When Dad has a bad day we talk again about getting that hospital bed. One day we remove the computer desk from the bedroom. Then later that day Dad is able to get up and walk with his walker to the bathroom. So we wait. Another day we rearrange the furniture making space for a hospital bed. Then we wait again.

One of the most challenging aspects of Dad’s particular case is that almost from the very beginning, he has been cautious about, even perhaps afraid of, turning around. I first started noticing it when we were still driving him to doctors’ appointments. First we had to get him to turn around to get into the car. Then he had to turn around to sit in a chair in the doctor’s waiting room. Sometimes I would walk right up to him and hold him. “Dance with me,” I’d say. And I would shuffle him back and forth and around until his back was towards the chair and he could sit down.

I don’t understand why he has such a fear of moving that way, but I think it probably has something to do with a loss of spacial orientation. It makes transferring him anywhere very difficult.

Because of this, the method Mom and the home health aides use to get Dad back into bed is have him face the bed (no turning around required) and crawl up onto the bed onto his stomach. This has worked fairly well for quite a while. But if we get a hospital bed, they will have to find a new way to get him into the bed. The advantages of a hospital bed (he can sit in a reclined position and watch T.V., Mom can raise the bed if she needs to care for him in some way or change his clothes) go away if he is lying in the bed on his stomach.

I like the idea of a hospital bed. I think it will help Mom in caring for Dad. I think it will give her options if Dad is having a bad day. But I also understand there will be a hurdle to overcome in making it work.

Nothing is easy with Alzheimer’s.

Especially when Dad is having a bad day.

The bench Dad used to enjoy sitting on outside every day under the Magnolia tree stands unused, covered with petals.

The time in our lives

Einstein originally came up with the relationship between space and time known as the space-time continuum. How Stuff Works .com explains this in an article about how warp speed works in relationship to Captain Kirk and his Enterprise team. It all has to do with traveling at or above the speed of light. According to How Stuff Works:

Einstein realized that space and time are relative — an object in motion actually experiences time at a slower rate than one at rest. Although this may seem absurd to us, we travel incredibly slow when compared to the speed of light, so we don’t notice the hands on our watches ticking slower when we’re running or traveling on an airplane. Scientists have actually proved this phenomenon by sending atomic clocks up with high-speed rocket ships. They returned to Earth slightly behind the clocks on the ground.

My mind was never able to fully grasp this concept before and it still remains a mystery to me.

I have experienced time running slow or fast, however. Sitting in a boring 50-minute history class in high school the minutes dragged by. I know this because I saw every one of them pass as I watched the clock on the wall above the door that led to freedom. Now, in these middle years of my life, the days fly past me like a leaf on the wind.

Time is a mystery. Maybe that’s because we think of time as a container for other things. I think of the time spent with our children and grandchildren that flashes past with moments of love and pride and laughter. I think of the finite number of days we’ll spend together in this lifetime and how we spend each one down never knowing how close we are to the end.

I started thinking about the concept of time because I was thinking about the book that I self-published. This has been a tough month with very low sales and it makes me feel, in some ways, like a failure. When I recognized that, I became able to deal with it. I’m not looking for reassurance that I was a flaming success because I wrote the book, edited it, and published it. I understand this to be a big accomplishment for me. The point I think I’m trying to make is that I feel bad about it because I feel like I am running out of time to make a success of myself.

I don’t know if I would have felt that way if I would have had a career with promotions, or a savings account from the money I’d made while working the last 30 years at a job. I stayed at home to raise our children, and although in my finer moments I realize this to be an accomplishment, a success, a fine use of the time in my life, at other times the doubt or inner drive and aspiration unsettles me.

On just a practical level, here in this house I have projects I’ve started that I’d like to finish. For example, I want to finish scanning photos from old magnetic non-archival photo albums to put them in better albums and create digital files to share with our children. I’m about half way done. I have the photos. I have the scanner. I have the new albums with plenty of spare empty pages. What I don’t seem to be able to find is the time.

My writing, reading, photography, needlework, gardening, genealogy—all of these are pursuits I want to follow. But there never seems to be enough time.

And that is the truth of the matter. I realized that in midlife. There will never be enough time to do all the things I’d like to do. Somehow I never really thought in those terms when I was younger and time seemed more of  a friend to me.

Now time chases ahead of me and I am forced to make careful and conscious decisions of how I will spend this valuable, priceless commodity.

I hope Einstein is right. I hope as I slow down with age, time will slow down with me. Only time will tell.