Category Archives: compassion

Six Blankets

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Six Blankets

I’m fighting a quiet battle within myself. Some might call it depression, I hesitate to use a label. A sad awareness is wrapping itself around me like a blanket which I keep shrugging off. It’s the state of the world and the sad stories that swirl around me like a thin fog that clings low toward the ground. I’m able to go about my day and do what needs to be done with the added presence of my unwelcome shadow.

Yesterday I went to a luncheon for hospice volunteers. I’ve been a hospice volunteer for a decade. I provide respite for caregivers of terminally ill people. I know that sounds depressing in itself….honestly, it’s rewarding work. After the lunch volunteers are asked to take blankets to patients on hospice. The blankets are crocheted by generous, kind souls that enjoy their craft. I volunteered to deliver six blankets to patients that share my zip code.

Each blanket is paired with an index card with pertinent information about the intended recipient. Name, address, phone number and helpful hints like the neighborhood name or the patients age. It’s recommended that you call the families first to see if they want to accept the blanket.

I made 6 calls and I got mixed results. Mindful with each call that this family is suffering on some level. It is impossibly hard to watch someone you love die before your eyes. It’s also an incredible gift to have some notice about the situation. Words can be spoken that otherwise might be left unsaid. I try to approach each communication with a blend of compassion and lightheartedness. I don’t want to add to the melancholy nor do I want to be overly cheerful, it’s a balancing act.

First Blanket – I left a message explaining that I had a crocheted blanket as a gift from hospice and left my phone number. I haven’t heard back which isn’t unexpected, they have a lot going on.

Second Blanket – I spoke with someone on the phone and they said sure drop it off.  I headed over after I picked my kids up from school. After ringing the doorbell, I  was told to come in. This is common. People are so busy caring for a terminal person they often leave the door unlocked for scheduled deliveries, home health aids or visitors. I handed the blanket to the caregiver and smiled and waved to the patient as I let myself out.

Third Blanket – My kids are still in the car, these are local deliveries. This was a house I was familiar with having just sat with the patient last week. They had a screened in porch so I left the blanket nestled on a chair and let myself out. I spoke with the caregiver later that evening and he thanked me for the blanket.

Fourth Blanket – Someone answered the phone when I called and gave a reluctant OK to the blanket. I don’t know if I spoke to the patient or a family member. The property was stunning with an Old World European curb appeal. This was a house with multiple doors which happens quite often. I chose a door which had a wreath on it, it was not answered. I channeled my inner MacGyver and fastened the blanket to the wreath with little more than stubborn determination. I took the kids home after this, our third, delivery.

Fifth Blanket – I spoke with the patient’s daughter on the phone. She sounded tense on the phone and promised to call me later. She left me a long voicemail this morning. She apologized for being curt on the phone (she wasn’t) and went on to say how hard it was to speak at work and what it’s like having a father on hospice. She was unsure if the blanket would be a welcome addition and I felt bad for adding to her burdens. She was a jumble of emotions and I’m still thinking of the best way to follow up.

Sixth Blanket – This was actually the first call I made and it gutted me. A composed gentleman answered the call and very graciously declined the blanket. He stated that the patient (perhaps his wife?) got one at chemo and there is just so much stuff around the house. I can vouch for the stuff – every hospice patient has a table full of items to keep them as comfortable as possible. Pain medications, body lotion, mouth wash, adult diapers, towels, wipes and an assortment of personal items. Things that would normally be kept in a bathroom or bedroom migrate to the kitchen or dinning room table. Most patients reside in a hospital bed in the living room of their home for convenience and to avoid isolation.

Prior to making the call, I put the address in my GPS. Then it dawned on me that this patient is half a mile from my home. The proximity was unsettling, more disturbing was the age, 58. That is young. I can count the difference in our age on my fingers. My mind takes this information and then I wonder if we have crossed paths. Does she have children? Do we shop at the same stores? Have I encountered this person at some point in our day-to-day lives? This patient, the one whom I will likely never meet…..she’ll stay with me. I’ll think of her when I drive past her house and I will say a silent prayer for her and her loved ones.

This is the shroud I wear from time to time. The memories of visits that I’ve had with patients that have passed. Thoughts of neighbors that I don’t know personally and yet I have some intimate knowledge of their situation. It’s profound and sad and somehow complete. This is the circle of life, a common path we are all on despite our attempts to deny it.

Death is the one universal truth. We will all die, each one of us. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, who you voted for, what country you’re from or what you believe in. Death doesn’t discriminate it comes for everyone. Everyone. So don’t be petty, hateful, hold grudges or act out of spite. It’s just a short ride on this spinning globe and then, who knows what’s next. I plan to use my time wisely with compassion, humor and then more compassion because that’s what we need. And somehow, by sharing these thoughts, my foggy companion has faded away.

 

 

 

 

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Life Hacks for Surviving the Holidays

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Life Hacks for Surviving the Holidays

Geezus it’s barely December and I’m already feeling the anxiety swell. So many events, gifts, decorating, cooking, cleaning and our family calendar is exploding. Trying to take a deep cleansing breath to prepare myself for the madness. Here are some things I may or may not do to get through the next month.

Refuse to get offended. That’s right, I won’t get offended over much of anything. Parties I don’t get invited to (phew I needed a night off), gifts I don’t get and people that say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. I think you need to tuck your privilege in if you get insulted by a salutation that doesn’t start with “Hey @sshole”, just my opinion.

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I will not force traditions. Traditions are great, until they aren’t. I make seven fishes for Christmas Eve. It’s a nod to my Mother in law who passed away in 2007. I am not Italian by birth so I was excited to embrace this as something my kids will reflect on later in life (thankfully they like fish). That one is a keeper. Seeing some variation of “A Christmas Carole” or the “Nutcracker” every year is repetitive and expensive so we gave it up.

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Speaking of traditions….maybe you are one of the millions who has that Elf on the Shelf creature living rent free in your home. Sick of moving it? We watched this in mid November, oddly enough the kids have lost interest in Dash.

Just say “No.” No is indeed a complete sentence which does not require further explanation. You really don’t have to go to every event that crosses your path. Or scale back if you are so inclined. I go to a cookie throw down each December. It’s a great time and people that bake need to bring 10 dozen cookies. It’s a fun competition and I still attend the party I just don’t bake 10 dozen cookies to cross the threshold. The hostess has cleverly turned this into a charitable event by encouraging non-bakers to donate to a local Ronald McDonald House. Everyone wins and there are still cookies.

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Back up gifts. This one has saved me a thousand times. Have some back up gifts on hand, already wrapped and ready to go. I keep extra gift cards, bottles of wine and a few generic toys and books on the ready in case it’s needed. It doesn’t have to be expensive just something to ease that awkward moment when someone  hands you an unexpected gift.

 

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Meditate. This always invokes an image of the Dalai Lama sitting crossed legged, breathing in exaggerated “Aaaaaaaaaaaaahs”. Sure that works but it isn’t the only way to meditate.

According to Psychology Today – Meditation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. In other words, meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment.

Yesterday, I worked on a 1,000 piece puzzle. It calms me and clears my head. Your meditation can be anything – walking, knitting, exercise – as long as it takes your full concentration and shushes your brain.

Whatever and however you celebrate, I hope it’s great!

B-I-N-G-O

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B-I-N-G-O

BINGO is basically Lord of the Flies for octogenarians. I took a client tonight, she lives in an Assisted Living Facility. They had door prizes, gift baskets and a 50/50 raffle. It was a sold out event at $20. a person plus the extra fees – dabbers, raffle tickets and additional boards. Ladies had their hair done, the nice cardigans were worn and I detected a bit of Old Spice in the air. This was a night out, it was festive.

I planned to get there half an hour before it started but afternoon traffic set me 10 minutes behind schedule. My friend was ready to go when I got to her apartment. She uses a walker so it’s never a fast hustle, more like a slow shuffle. We got to the registration table 5 minutes after it opened and we were in the first half of the crowd. It’s really important to get to these events early so my friend can sit within close proximity of her walker. She needs an end seat and 75% of the population at BINGO needed an end seat. I still move quicker than most of them so preferred seating was secured. I may have gotten some side eye from some of the residents, I pretended not to notice.

I got Helen settled and then went to the BINGO buffet to get some snacks. It always surprises me how they offer up all these high fat, sodium and carb filled options to a population which is most likely supposed to be on low-sodium or low fat diets. Whatevs, my blood pressure is fine. I loaded the plate with mini quiches, taco innards, pizza pitas, soft pretzels and mystery juice (it remains undefined with subtle notes of cranberry and institutional seltzer). Helen was happy for the pretzel and juice, I kept the rest (regret is setting in).

Back at the table I noticed the BINGO cards and instructions which included a coupon for a McDonald’s breakfast. This was a score since Helen loves their pancakes and sausage. I typically treat her to it once a week, saved myself $4.02 with that gem. That’s not all though there was also a notepad listing the contact info for the local politician that supplied the freebie. I kept flashing back to BINGO scenes from Better Call Saul.

 

There were 10 games to be played along with an intermission. The event was supposed to run from 4 – 6pm. We weren’t hearing any numbers being called until 4:45, the crowd was getting antsy. I find it interesting that these people that I see slowly, sometimes painfully shuffle through the halls, suddenly develop cat-like reflexes and hawk vision when BINGO starts. In the first 5 games, Edna, a “known gambler”, won twice. People started to talk in hushed whispers that don’t sound hushed when the hushers are hearing impaired. I could hear the chatter on the other side of the room. The host joked that Edna should be careful at intermission. Oddly enough, after intermission, it was announced that Edna donated one of her prizes to be auctioned off as another door prize. True story. I don’t know the full story on Edna and I still can’t figure out how she rigged the game.

Good news is Helen won a round in the second half. Well we both did as I made sure she was staying current. Unfortunately there was another winner for the same game. They resolve that by having each winner pull a card from a deck and the highest card wins. Helen pulled a 5, I knew we were screwed. She got a consolation prize, a certificate to the in-house beauty salon. She won’t go, she’s had the same lady do her hair for at least 30 years. She should trade it for a meal voucher. She just needs to find a neighbor in need of having her hair set and she’ll have some leverage.

The last game was a full card which is like a marathon in the BINGO world. Someone needs to complete an entire card before the game is over. I takes a solid 15 minutes. Doesn’t sound like much, but 15 minutes at the end of BINGO in a retirement home feels a bit like infinity. We powered through with minimal moaning. There was the sound of popping knees, various crackling noises and some whispered curses as people hoisted themselves up when the game ended. Helen and I managed to get a good jump on the elevator traffic and I got her back upstairs to her apartment. I’ll be bringing her some McDonald’s hot cakes and sausage when I visit again on Friday.

 

 

My Boring Life….

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My Boring Life….

I’m bringing boring back. Too much crazy sh*t happening in the world, makes me want to cover my ears and scream “I can’t hear you!” Since people get twitchy when you cover your ears and scream in public, I’ll settle for a blog post. Here is a glimpse into my glamorous life folks, hope you have popcorn.

6am wake up so I can be a human alarm clock for my 12 year old daughter. Why do I do this well she wouldn’t get up otherwise so there’s that. Also, we don’t allow our kids to have their phones, the modern alarm of choice, in their room overnight and I’m too cheap and lazy to buy a stand alone alarm clock. I greet my grumpy tween and go back to bed for another blissful 30 minutes.

I manage to get the kids to the bus stop on time go back home. I don’t have to leave until 10:30ish for a client visit so I spend a few hours preparing for a fund-raising event scheduled for this weekend. I’m tracking down the people who haven’t paid yet to make sure they haven’t decided to ditch at the last minute. We have a wait list so it would be nice to get those people in if we can. I do a few promos on FB, some modifications to the donor sheet and a delivery of an auction item. Now it’s time to go to the job I get paid to do.

My visit today is to a 79 year old woman and her 88 year old husband. The woman, Helen, has mild dementia and her husband, Ralph, stays in bed most of the time. I am the entertainment. I am the social call for a lonely woman who struggles with depression. My goal each visit is to get her to eat and to stimulate her mind through some social activity or puzzles of some sort. I make her laugh through the inconvenient hardships of old age. She has a hate-hate relationship with her Depends which is something we talk about at length. She sometimes uses Vaseline or Desitin to relieve the chaffing the elastic causes at the leg openings. A couple of weeks ago she tried to put toothpaste on her nether regions. She’s in pain from a lifetime accumulation of injuries, aches and pains. The body wears out and it’s tough to witness. It’s worse when the brain goes along for the descent.

Most days it takes a solid hour to get my friend fed and dressed. Once we do that my goal is to propel her out the door and into the lobby. The community they live in has a front lobby that includes table shuffleboard. We like to play while eavesdropping on whatever is happening while we are there.

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Last Friday things got interesting when one of the residents went rogue and wandered off. Lorna is about 93 and walks fairly slowly with the help of a walker. Somehow she managed to slip by the front desk and get an impressive distance from the place. We were witnesses to the “chase” and subsequent capture. Then when I left, Helen and Lorna chatted about it.

After my visit I made a beeline for home, I like to be there when my kids get off the bus. Today it was just my son as my daughter had an activity. At about this time I got a text from the hubs….no words just this –

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That’s his subtle way of asking me to buy something for him. I replied with detailed instructions on how to open the canister and proper gum chewing etiquette. No reply, sigh.

Soon after that request I get a call from my mother. She was supposed to have cataract surgery today but it got cancelled because some family member of the surgeon had the nerve to die. That’s pretty much how she spun it. In 13 minutes she covered a lot of ground mostly how overwhelmed she is and how she wants to move. I bought the house she is currently living in because for 8 years she bitched non-stop about the last place…..and so it goes.

I rush out to get kid number two from her afternoon activity and I have about 50 minutes to make dinner and catch up on email. Badda Bing Badda Boom I make dinner. Freakin’ magic I tell you. I never know what I’m going to make until it dawns on me that it is my job…..someone has to make dinner, oh that’s right, I’m that someone. I usually don’t have a plan and somehow it works out. Tonight was pan sauteed lemon chicken in a white wine reduction (yes I made it sound fancy – I basically threw sh*t in a pan) with green beans. It was pretty good, a solid 6. They can’t all be 10s.

Then I started to load the dishwasher from the sink backlog. As I was doing this task my phone rang so I asked my daughter to answer it. She she went into a complete panic….like the phone was made of Plutonium (Pu, how appropriate)….she did a total half ass job with the conversation. So for half an hour, my husband and I took turns calling her pretending to be looking for ourselves so she could practice. She hates me a little and said “maaaahum” the way that 12 year old girls do.

Time to take the oldest to soccer practice. Drop him off at the field and go home to feed 3/4’s of the family the meal that I dreamed up 20 minutes ago. I set a plate aside for my son so no one eats his portion. In the blink of an eye I’m back in the car to fetch the boy. I go to the practice field where I dropped him off at 5:30 and he isn’t there, neither is his team. I scan the field, recalling the shirt he wore to practice. I just bought it this weekend so it’s fresh in my mind. It’s a heathered blue, with gray tints, it has a pocket left side of the chest and a thin line of white around the sleeves and the waist, gray shorts. I keep scanning, there are 5 boys on the field, none of them familiar.

I call a friend, her son practices at the same park during the same time for a different team. She picks up her phone and warns me that I’m on speaker phone (because I am the friend you must warn) her son didn’t go to practice. I tell her I’ll update her later, I have to go and manage one “sh*t” and an apology as I end the call. I drive to another field at the park, wrong kids, not our coach. I call my husband, he instantly starts screaming about our son not taking his phone. I remained calm said he left his phone behind because he needed to charge it. I decide to circle the park another time and get off the phone with my husband because his panic won’t help me now.

I drive slow, wondering if practice ended early. Would someone offer him a ride? He wouldn’t take it. I know my kid unless it is my close friend whose kid skipped practice, he won’t get in a car. He knows I’m coming to get him at 7pm he will wait. I consider the pavilion and the play ground. Without a phone he could have lost track of time and decided to wait it out there. I glance in that direction, bunch of littles and their parents.

I decide that I will circle the park one more time, slowly and deliberately because I can not bear the thought of my kid gone. I can’t. I can’t imagine how parents of missing children get through 10 minutes let alone hours, days, months and years. It would consume me. I have to place these thoughts on the back burner as I look for my son with heightened concentration.

I see that new H & M shirt that I just bought on Saturday. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him and I park the car and exhale. I call my husband and text my friend and the world begins to spin once again. A few minutes later he comes to the car. He knows I was worried. He apologizes and tells me it wasn’t his idea to switch fields. Because that’s the kind of kid he is and I am so grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing Room

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Breathing Room

I watched his breathing. At times it was barely perceptible other times it was labored, loud and had some shakiness to it. I hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t die during the three hours while I sat with him. It was my first time visiting, it got scheduled the way they usually do.

Initially the hospice coordinator sends out an email to see if any of the volunteers are available for a given case. She provides basic information; the day/time preferred, the town and a general synopsis of the situation. She’ll tell us if anyone else will be in the home or if there are pets and give an brief sentence about the condition of the patient. It’s almost always some form of cancer, the second runner up is COPD.

Usually the caregiver just needs to get out a few hours for work, doctor appointments or some other urgent matter. There have been several occasions where I relieved the caregiver so they could make funeral arrangements. That is such a sad and necessary outing. Once at a support meeting for hospice volunteers, a peer complained that the caregiver she relieved went out to play poker with friends. I don’t judge what the caregiver does with their time away. Providing care to someone who is terminally ill is difficult, if you want to take time off to play poker or have a beer, I am totally cool with that.

After the first email goes out, volunteers will alert the coordinator if they can take on the case. Once that is done a secure, private message is sent to the volunteer best suited for the task. This confidential message provides more in-depth information about the patient including the name and number of the main contact. Then the volunteer calls that person to schedule the visit.

My initial call for today’s visit happened two days ago. The wife needed about 3 hours to run some errands and I told her my available hours. Ginny sounded tense on the phone, I could hear the strain in her voice. You might think that’s the norm but oddly enough, it isn’t. Most of the families I have dealt with have a poise and calm that I can only attribute to denial, exhaustion or some zen like state that I have not yet obtained. Ginny was how I think I would sound if our roles were reversed. We agreed to the schedule and I told her that I would confirm the morning of my visit just to make sure we were still on. This is a sad and necessary precaution as you do not want to ring someone’s doorbell and find out that their beloved passed away the day before. It happens.

I called again this morning to make sure we were still on. Ginny sounded the same as the first call and I gently repeated the agreed upon times. When I got to the house, I greeted their neighbor in the driveway. She informed me that she would relieve me if Ginny ran late. Then I let myself in through the back kitchen door. I announced my arrival and Ginny welcomed me from a distant room. This is not uncommon as the tasks of terminal care can make it hard to leave the bedside. I made my way to the correct room and introduced myself.

The next 20 minutes was a series of harried movements and Ginny’s out loud mental check lists and a final dose of pain medication before she could leave. In these moments I witnessed a love that was so sweet it broke my heart. Ginny crawled into bed with Bill and explained where she was going, who I was, and that she would be back soon. It pained her to leave his side though I could tell she needed to leave for her own sake. Just a couple of hours to not be surrounded by the inevitable death of a man she has given the past 47 years to, the love of her life.

In a private moment in the kitchen, Ginny told me that she didn’t understand why he was holding on. I asked if he was waiting for a visitor to say good bye, a final conversation? She said she asked him but he didn’t confide in any such need. Sometimes the body lasts longer than you can possibly imagine, other times it expires in such a rapid decline even the most experienced hospice nurse doesn’t see it coming. Death is fickle and unpredictable even to the stewards who’ve witnessed it hundreds of times.

Ginny was finally able to pry herself away and I sat in the room with her love. Saying silent prayers, reading a book and keeping one eye on my bedridden friend. He was quiet until he needed to go to the bathroom. This was indicated with hand gestures and a reach for the portable urinal. A bit of panic always goes through me in these instances. My first concern is safety followed closely by privacy.

I’m not a nurse, nor do I play one on TV. I’ve been in the trenches and I can handle a mess. What I don’t want to do is accidentally cause someone with brittle bones to get a fracture by moving them the wrong way.  My Aunt had bone cancer and she broke both her legs trying to bathe herself, it was horrible. I think of her when I’m in these situations so I air on the cautious side.

We got through it without breaking anything and he fell back into a restless sleep. His agitation level at times made me wonder if he had just hours or days left. In the nearly 10 years I have been doing this I’ve seen many patients get into a state of agitation; flailing limbs, mumbling and a burst of energy followed by calm. This has happened in the last few days of life for many of the people I have visited as a hospice volunteer.

I’m not sure if Ginny will call me again to sit with her husband. If she does, I will make room for her and Bill. I will take the experience with me and think of them when I drive by their house. It’s something I do often when I drive past the houses where I have visited my hospice friends. Sometimes it’s a single encounter, other times I spend months visiting on a set schedule. Every experience is sacred and is something that becomes a part of me. The sad truth is, we are all going to die. The hospice patient just has a little advance notice.

 

 

That’s my business…

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That’s my business…

Today I met a client who used the word “fuck” as a noun, a verb and an adjective. She switched tenses with the finesse of a linguistic ninja, it was spectacular. The fact that this person is an ordained minister is the icing on the cake. I love my job.

I started a small business in 2014. I basically fill in the gaps for people when life gets complicated. My usual clients are elderly and they need a little TLC. I check in on them while their adult children work – share a meal, do some light housekeeping and socialize. I am the eyes and ears for loved ones when they can’t be there.

I’ve visited clients in their own home and I’ve been the jail break conspirator for nursing home residents. I used to visit a 97 year old man who was in a nursing home. Twice a week I would take him out for lunch at Chick-fil-A and each time he acted like it was the best meal of his life. It’s incredibly rewarding to be the best part of someone’s day….even if they don’t always remember the details. My lunch date never could get my name straight but he always leapt out of the day room chair when he saw me. He walked across the room with a happy purpose in his stride and a wide smile planted on his face. One time around the holidays, I told my nonagenarian (great Scrabble word) friend that he looked “festive”. He replied – “Did you say I look sexy?” to which I said “I sure did, John” with a wink. These are golden moments.

It isn’t always so fun and carefree. There are always medical concerns lurking in the background, potential embarrassing moments and the sad realization that this friendship likely won’t last that long. I used to visit Eleanore, she was 88 and had severe dementia. One day I came in for my usual lunch visit and she wasn’t wearing pants….how do you handle that you ask? I said “Eleanore, you didn’t tell me it was no pants Monday” and I promptly got her dressed. I always look for ways to add humor and preserve a person’s dignity. If someone doesn’t want to be checked on I’ll tell them I’m there to walk the dog or do laundry, we a find a way to make it work.

The saddest situation I have encountered was Ted, a man in his mid fifties with Early-onset Alzheimer’s. His wife worked full time and needed someone to check on him during the day, feed him lunch and tidy up. This man used to be an Engineer. He was well educated, had a brilliant career and then it all came crashing down way too soon. They had one kid in high school and another in college. His wife amazed me. She also had a puppy because you need that chaos as a distraction from the hard stuff. On the good days, I took Ted and the dog for a walk around the neighborhood. We had to be careful of Ted wandering out of the house when no one was there. I suggested cameras and safety locks but he still managed to escape a few times. Eventually it was no longer safe for Ted to be home and he had to go into a memory care center. That one still haunts me.

One of my earliest and favorite clients recently passed away. Pam reached out to me because she was recovering from an injury and needed some help. She was young somewhere around 60 and had a little dog that needed to be walked twice a day along with other odds and ends like shopping, opening jars, rides to the doctor and anything else she needed. We became friends and the lines for work and friendship blurred. Trips to the doctor turned into social outings of movies, lunch and Marshall’s. We remained friends after my services were no longer needed and I was heartbroken when she died suddenly last June.

I meet most of my clients through a friend or family member. My business is based exclusively on referrals as I do not do any advertising. I tend to have one or two clients at a time because I can serve them better that way. The family dynamics vary with each client but they all love their family member and are so grateful to find reliable help. They each hold a special place in my heart and I am honored to be entrusted with their care.

 

 

 

Mourning the Living

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Mourning the Living

Grief isn’t just for the recently deceased. Sometimes it’s for those we must purposely leave behind. We’ve all experienced it at some point….a bad break up, a friendship that can’t weather a bad storm, or a relative that is doing more harm than good. Grief paints with a broad brush.

Anger is my emotion of choice when dealing with the hard stuff. Some would call it a crutch, a better description is a shield. It protects me from the deeper, darker emotions that come from grieving the still living. My shield is past it’s expiration and the wear and tear is breaking it down, leaving me with profound sorrow.

Perhaps you have been there. Maybe you’ve experienced a relationship so broken or toxic that it is beyond repair. That’s the spot I’m in right now. The fact that it involves a parent, makes it especially harsh. So many missed opportunities for myself and my children, displaced by someone who is either incapable or unwilling to care. It’s sad and I need to allow myself a moment to acknowledge that.

Grieving the living is tricky business because it is ultimately a choice. It may be the most healthy, sane choice you can make for yourself. Self preservation doesn’t come cheap. I have spent years trying to fight the undertow of my mother’s mental illness. The constant tug to take me under while I continue to tread water is causing my head to bob up and down. It’s at my chin now and I refuse to go under any further. That leaves me with one option, to pluck myself out of the water and walk away.

Trying to balance compassion and self preservation…..

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Trying to balance compassion and self preservation…..

I’m trying to balance compassion and self-preservation and it’s a bitch. My mother has certifiable mental illness. She has a long history of mental illness issues including hospital stays for suicide attempts and alcoholism. She is generally miserable and unable to maintain long-term relationships. She has seen doctors and specialists by the dozens, she’s had inpatient stays in psych wards, has more than 3 decades into 12 step recovery and has tried every pill known to big pharma to treat depression. She has been on disability for at least 25 years for her depression so it’s well documented. Sometimes though, the lines blur between her mental illness and her just being a shitty human. Other times she is amazingly thoughtful and generous, mostly to strangers or acquaintances. She saves the gnarly stuff for my brother and me, we are the only relatives that have stuck it out.

I’m not sure when her mental health issues began. She has told me a lot about her life (too much if I’m honest) and I know she always had a terrible relationship with her brother. In fact she had a rough go of it with both of her parents as well. Was that due to their treatment of her, her mental illness or some other sad combination….I don’t know. I do know this, misery is her most frequent companion. If there isn’t something to lament about, her razor-sharp mind will find something obscure and mold it into a formidable monster.

She’s smart, so very smart that it makes pitying her as a sick person near impossible at times. Master manipulator and rationalizer extraordinaire, check and check. She can twist the most innocuous situation and turn it into filth and wretchedness. She has left a wake of destruction behind her. When she goes, she goes big, in a huff…..a cloud of confusion, hurt and anger swirling around her like her own personal tornado. It’s sad, infuriating and exhausting.

I have to mentally remind myself that she is sick. Like cancer, diabetes, MS, lupus, fill in the blank…..except it isn’t like that at all. If your mom has cancer she doesn’t typically say “I wish you were never born” repeatedly to you as a young child. Diabetes doesn’t abandon you in the state of Florida to go to New Jersey when you are 9. MS doesn’t call you a “whore” because you over did the eye shadow and lip stick at 14. Cancer won’t leave you and your brother homeless at 15  because mom doesn’t have it together. Lupus doesn’t tell you that you’re a bad person because your husband bought his dream house, the one he worked his ass off for, but it’s too big so you’re all horrible people. Mental illness and alcoholism does that, not the other diseases. So I’m a bit tired of the mental illness is just like any other disease line, no it fucking isn’t.

So now I have a 72-year-old broken down mentally ill mother who has basically treated me like shit most of my life. And as much as I want to let go of past bad experiences, they keep reinserting themselves into present day. Every time she makes an unreasonable demand or is inconsiderate I am haunted by the ghost of reason that says – “seriously, why are you doing this for her?”

Why indeed. I’m a good person and I don’t want her to haunt me when she dies and she would. I have had my share of obstacles that I have overcome and I basically cheer for the underdog. At this point I’m not sure which one of us is the underdog. I think it’s me today. Yesterday I told my mother to “fucking move then”.  What got me to this point beyond the cumulative effect of 49 years of insanity?

I bought a house at the beach in New Jersey in 1999. It was a struggle to purchase it and I did it on my own before I got married. That house was a testament to my financial and emotional independence. It was one of the most empowering things I ever did as a young woman. Fast forward 14 years and I no longer needed the house. We hadn’t lived there in years. My brother and his family lived there for 5 years and they moved away. My husband and I have a beautiful home in a neighboring state. After Hurricane Sandy, we began to worry that at some point it would get destroyed in a storm and we would lose the financial appreciation. I sold the house a few years ago and tripled my investment. As someone who had been a reluctant, accidental SAHM for a decade it felt great to make a financial contribution to my family. I also used a portion of that money to buy a small house in a nearby adult community. I bought a place for my mother because she was so unhappy where she lived. For nearly 10 years she complained about her living situation.I also thought it would be more practical to have her closer to me as she aged. My brother moved to Maine so he can’t help with medical or other issues that require hands on assistance.

Fast forward another 3 years and there isn’t a week that goes by that she doesn’t complain to me about something. Some of it is normal life stuff, a few ants, a nosy neighbor, the air filters. The air filters get to me. My mom smokes about a pack a day but INSISTS that the air filters in her house get changed on a monthly basis. She complains a lot about her financial situation which has always been awful. I bought the house so there is no mortgage but there is an association fee that she pays. She also has utilities and other bills. It is a stretch for her and I help with some of it.

The other day she called to tell me that I “had to pay” her Comcast bill so she could pay out-of-pocket to see an eye doctor that isn’t in her plan. If she said “can you help me” or “I want to go to….” that isn’t how it was presented at all. It was a command given with a bitchy tone and she went on and on about how horrible Pennsylvania Medicaid is compared to New Jersey and……..I just snapped and said “fucking move then”. Granted I could have delivered the message in a calm tone minus the expletive but she wouldn’t have heard me then. I’ve tried that approach for two years, no luck. She heard me this time.

Later I got an email from her telling me how she doesn’t expect me to pay ALL her bills. She then went on to describe how she is the victim of a corrupt government of evil ne’er-do-wells. Blah blah blah I’ve been reading and hearing this crap for years. I’m worn out I tell you, worn out. She has never taken financial responsibility for herself and she is seemingly incapable of any consistent emotional stability. This life long inability or disregard (not sure which some days) has left her facing her “golden years” pretty much broke and alone.

The biggest barrier for me though is her complete lack of interest in me or my family. She has two kind, funny, smart, beautiful grandchildren 10 minutes from her home and she could not care less. Soccer games, shows, Sunday dinners she is frequently invited and rarely shows. When she does attend a dinner she is consistently late. She shows absolutely no regard for how her actions or lack there of could have an impact on others. Again, I don’t know if this is part of the mental illness or just someone so self-absorbed that they are incapable of basic consideration. Either way the end result is the same.

So here I am again trying to balance compassion for her with my own self preservation. This isn’t new territory I know what I need to do. Take a break, don’t call her for a few days or minimize interaction until I can fortify myself enough for the next round. Once again I remind myself that this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. I just hope I can make it to the finish line.

 

 

 

My Mother Made Me…

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My Mother Made Me…

Why do we demonize mothers? OK you may be thinking I have gotten off at the wrong bus stop, she’s come off the rails, PMS…? All valid things to ponder but stay with me a bit…it’s a thought that has occurred to me on more than one occasion, maybe you have noticed it too?

We expect so much from mothers. Thank you Captain Obvious for stating that…..I know (insert eye roll) but think about it in your own life. OK, I’ll start since I’m the first one reading this…and perhaps the only one.

I had a fairly crappy childhood with divorced parents. As kids we lived with our mother (for the most part) and our father paid child support (except when he didn’t,  which was often). He pretty much abandoned us except for the bi-annual court ordered payments when he would be forced to write a check. My mother kept a roof over our heads (with some lapses) until my twin brother and I turned 15 and the shit storm went nuclear. Fast forward 30+ years later and which parent aggravates me the most…..mom.

I see myself in her and her in me. Usually the parts I don’t like, have her fingerprints all over them. The negativity, the feeling of being easily overwhelmed, the victim mentality, the flakiness. Sometimes I see these flaws in discreet slivers….sometimes they are wrapped in neon signs holding a bullhorn announcing themselves to the world at high volume. I don’t ever think of my father when a character defect pops up and I am just itching to identify the source so I can destroy it so it never comes back again. PS – they always come back again, like garden weeds and stray cats that you accidentally fed on purpose.

So why do I do this? Why blame my mother when my father was not even around. Maybe that’s it….perhaps his absence gives him a free pass? Well damn that seems woefully unfair. But I have to be honest at this age, I’m too tired to build a relationship with the guy just so I can hate him. Meh, I don’t have the energy and he’s kind of a jerk.

Or is that society has brain washed me and you and all the woodland creatures into thinking that moms must be perfect and if they are not they must be hated? What the hell – why would anyone want that job asked the mom of two?

So here’s my suggestion…let’s be nicer to our moms. Let’s try to remember that they are mere mortals that make mistakes. Some mistakes may have been bigger and more catastrophic but would you let your dad off the hook for a similar issue? Would you forgive a friend if they stumbled along a similar broken path sometimes grabbing at the wrong branch for balance? And let’s be real honest, I don’t want my kids to hate me so maybe I’m just hoping for some good karma. Good luck to all the moms out there.

 

 

My Other Mother

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My Other Mother

I recently had an experience where I caught a glimpse of my mother from an outsider’s perspective. It happens sometimes and it reminds me that my mother is a multi-dimensional person. Just like the rest of us…she isn’t all bad or all good, she’s a complicated mix. I have written quite a bit about the bad stuff – the drunk, raging, dysfunctional mother and now I want to share another side.

A few days ago, I had lunch with my “other mother” at a student dinning hall at the University of Pennsylvania. When she 40 she decided that she wanted to go to college and prove to everyone that she wasn’t stupid. She started local at a community college where she aced her way through two years and graduated with induction into Phi Theta Kappa.

Her grades and her personal narrative were so compelling that she got a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Her initial thought was that she would complete her B.A. with a law degree as the ultimate goal and somewhere she switched to history and psychology. She did graduate from University of Pennsylvania and attended one year of graduate school at Bryn Mawr College.

We found ourselves in Philadelphia for one of her doctor appointments. I insisted on driving her because she is not a great driver and I thought public transportation would overwhelm her. So we were walking from the medical facility toward campus and she mentioned that she wished she could give “them” more money. I turned toward her and said “what” rather forcibly……WTF was strongly implied. In my mind the coffers of the ivies is always so damn full and my mother is broke. She lives in a house I bought but she still has utility bills. She is on Medicaid and has no discretionary income, zero. Then she went on to say how she learned so much about women and other cultures around the world during her education. How her time there was a bit Dickens….”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Clearly she just wanted to pay it forward to another woman that she will never meet and my tone softened.

I admit it, I am a hard ass around my mother. Impatient, suspicious, not trusting on any level, my armor is always up around her and I can be an obstinate jerk. I know this and I willed myself to be patient and oblige her wish for lunch on campus despite the growing list of sh*t I had to do that day. After all, I don’t know if she will get another chance to stroll down this particular neighborhood of memory lane and I didn’t want to begrudge her that request.

I could feel the pride of her accomplishment that hour. She went on about how this changed and that was the same. She wanted to eat in the hall of flags and peeked in on an event taking place in that room. That lunch she was reflecting on happy times and people that sadly have passed that helped her with that part of her journey.

During lunch I noticed that she was wearing her university ring. I got that ring for her as a graduation gift. I was in my early twenties, going to college and working two jobs to support myself. The money I used to pay for that ring was based on serious sweat equity and sacrifice. She told me that day it was the nicest gift anyone had every given her. I guess we both had something to be proud of that day.