Monday, December 31, 2012

Hearts and flannel pajamas

It's New Year's Eve, and I'm lying on my right side on an black exercise mat in a dark room, wide awake, my eyes fixed on the empty space under a small cot about a foot off the floor, my left hand gently resting over a beating heart belonging to a 2-1/2-year-old in red footie Santa print flannel pajamas,  As I lie silently in the quiet night, I'm filled with both overwhelming happiness and deep grief, pondering the meaning of life and birth and death and luck and injustice and awe, with never-ending questions and a troubled, conflicted mind.

Our grandson Joshua is spending the night with us - his very first time for an overnight visit.  After he played with the dog, ate some supper, took a bath, cuddled with his grandpa ("Papa"), and read a book,  I took him to his little cot.  His parents told us to put a blanket off to one side on the floor, just in case he rolled off.  I had just the thing - my cushioned exercise mat, and I rolled it out on the floor right next to the cot.  Josh crawled into the cot, I covered him up, gave him his stuffed animal and blanket, turned to leave, and that is when he glanced over at the mat, asking me what it was.  I told him that was something nice and comfy in case he rolled off the cot.  He pointed at it, looked me straight in the eyes, and said firmly, "You sleep there."  I told him I would stay there for awhile, not all night, but just to help him get to sleep.  That satisfied him, and I lay down with my left hand over his chest to let him know I was nearby.

I had no fear that I would accidentally fall asleep there.  In the first place, the mat is not that comfortable to sleep on, and in the second place, I was in emotional turmoil.  Ed and I had just received a message this afternoon on our answering machine, a message which we listened to only when we arrived home later after having picked up Joshua.  A neighbor, 59 years old, had been out shoveling snow the other day and had a heart attack and died.   Bob had been president of the neighborhood road association, of which I am secretary, and we had enjoyed knowing him along with his wife.  Bob was a year older than I am.  Although I am not privy to his medical details, he seemed in perfect health.  He was a kind gentleman.  The fact that he was suddenly gone was shocking.

As a medical transcriptionist, I transcribe all kinds of medical reports on a daily basis - people trying to kill themselves, old people who want to live and sometimes who want to die, cancer survivors and others who have just been told they have cancer with little time left, teenagers who need appendectomies, women who give birth in planned, happy pregnancies and others who give birth in anxious, unwelcome pregnancies, kids with out-of-control asthma, folks with dementia, patients with strokes, fever or vomiting, people who are withdrawing from alcohol or drugs, and patients who are just normal people living their normal lives getting their mammograms and Pap smears and blood tests and physicals and just going about their earthly existence.  Any MT will tell you that it is not an easy job to be a part of these patients' stories.  We type, we laugh, we cry, we worry, we celebrate, we grieve with every report we transcribe.  But the fact that all day long I hear these medical stories does not mean I get inured to them.  A good MT, just like a good nurse or doctor or other provider, always keeps in mind that these are real people and their lives - not reports, numbers, codes, or folders.

Why is life good to me right now - blessedly, incredibly good to me - and others are so unfortunate?  How does a man my age - a good man, decent man - suddenly die and I'm still here?  I'm not only here; I'm holding onto my dear grandson who is calmly sleeping by my side - and next week, I will welcome my next and final grandchild, Emily, when she is delivered into the world.

It's not fair that I am cuddling my grandson while Bob's family is in mourning.  I grieve with them, curse this unfair, unjust world of death and sorrow, even as my heart overflows with happiness in the presence of my sleeping toddler.

So this is how I find myself pondering life, looking into the darkness, weeping tears of gratitude and sorrow, anger and joy - all at the same time.  I finally quietly get up, take one last glance at my sleeping Joshua, and with a heavy heart, tiptoe out of the room.  My happiness tonight is tempered with grief.  Life is never easy and it's never simple to understand.  Loss is hard to bear, and sometimes the tears of happiness intermix with the tears of sorrow so much that there is no separating them.   And life - for me, for Bob's family, for the patients whose records I transcribe, for those who are celebrating and those who are grieving, those about to give birth and those burying their loved one - goes on.   I understand the circle of life - I just don't like part of it sometimes.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Last Words

I have deliberately postponed writing a blog post about the Sandy Hook school tragedy for a number of reasons, the first being that there are no words to appropriately react to it, and second, that most everything that can be written has been.  Of course, the fallout includes national conversations on gun control, school safety, and mental illness - thousands of articles online and otherwise go into great detail  concerning those subjects, and they are important ones.  But there is one reaction of which I have heard little.  It all reminded me of a letter to Dear Abby or Ann Landers that I read years ago.

A woman wrote to the advice columnist that her husband and she had had an argument one morning and didn't resolve it before he left for work.  Later in the day, she was called by the emergency room and was told that her husband had had a heart attack and died.  She was not only grief-stricken but her guilt was unbearable; if only she had had a chance to make up, she said.  If only their last moments together on this earth had been loving ones.  Now she had to live the rest of her life with "if only."

Mornings are especially difficult for most families with kids, even those without kids.  Maybe someone didn't get a good night's sleep, maybe another had nightmares, maybe someone else was dreading a test at school or overslept or was still carrying a grudge from an argument the night before.  Maybe a kid is dragging her heels about getting ready, maybe mom at the last minute realized there are no clean clothes, maybe someone can't find his keys or cell phone.  There are countless reasons we tend to argue in the morning at the very time our loved ones are leaving, when our family separates for the day ahead until they are gathered back together in the evening.  But sometimes they don't gather back together in the evening.  Then comes the anguish of what had been last moments together - sometimes outright yelling, sometimes just stubborn silence, sometimes just irritated snapping, sometimes just in too much of a hurry to give a goodbye hug.

The letter mentioned above reminds me that there were adults involved in this school massacre, too - wives and girlfriends and parents.  Each adult and each child had no reason to believe that, no matter if their mornings had in fact been hurried or tense or argumentative,  there would be plenty of time to set things right when the family reconvened.  We always assume there is plenty of time.

It doesn't have to be mornings.  Any time our loved one departs and temporary separation exists, there is always the possibility the temporary situation might become permanent.  It's rare that it would happen in this tragic way, but there are heart attacks, car wrecks, and numerous physical ailments and accidents that can snatch us in an instant.  Nothing in life is guaranteed.  Not next year, not tomorrow, not the rest of the present hour.

It is my hope that we all, in the midst of our overwhelming grief and sadness, make a promise to ourselves to take care in our daily separations, to part with love and forgiveness in every instance, realizing it is one more chance we have been given to bring peace to relationships and to leave our loved one with the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved.  What better gift?

We as Americans make it a point to prepare for the just-in-case scenario:  We buy all kinds of insurance we hope we will never have to use, we try to maintain our furnaces and cars and appliances in working order, we may even be successful at saving some money for emergencies.  Yet, we live our lives day in and day out under the false assumption that nothing unusual will ever happen when it comes to relationships, that our loved ones will always be there after a temporary separation - even it's just our significant other running to the store for something - and we treat each other accordingly.  We always assume we can make up another time, or ask forgiveness tomorrow, or give that hug when they get home from school or work, or even when they wake up in the morning.  Sometimes they don't come home from school or work, and sometimes they don't wake up in the morning.

One of the most poignant parts of some church services is when the leader says,  "The Lord be with you."  And the response:  "And also with you."  What a kind greeting or parting!  Or "I love you."  Or a hug and kiss.

For years, Ed used to say, "Be careful!" as the last thing when one of the kids left the house to go somewhere.  One year Rachel had a car accident, and she swears he forgot to say "Be careful" when she had departed.  Whether he had done so or not, it was very important to her.  It meant he loved her very much and was wishing she be spared any harm.  It was the last thing she heard him say every time she went out and it comforted her.

If we take away anything from this horrible time, let it be that we try to treat each other better at all times, and to appreciate our invaluable relationships, but importantly to take special care and acknowledge our bond when we know we will be separated from our loved ones.  There are no guarantees, and, in the event of the unspeakable, we would want each other to have the last words be ones of love and peace.

May the Lord be with you.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Used to it

When I first started typing in high school, I used an IBM Selectric and correction fluid which I smeared over mistakes.  It was a mess.  But I was used to it.  Then they invented the correction strips, where I just retyped the wayward letter over the strip and it magically disappeared.  This was such an improvement!  I got used to it.

Then I moved up to a word processor.  I remember the very first day I used one.  I was working in the pathology lab at Methodist Hospital in Memphis, and we had just gotten these newfangled machines delivered.  I volunteered to learn the system first.  They set me up in a little room with a trainer from the company to learn this new way of typing.  I typed my first sentence.  By the second one, I somehow got the cursor in the middle of the sentence, expecting to type over what was on the page.  Immediately I sensed something was wrong.  I turned to the trainer.  "The new letters aren't typing over and replacing the old letters," I said.  "They're adding themselves into the middle and moving the others forward."  He laughed and said, "That's what they're supposed to do!"  What kind of weird system was that?  But I got used to it and learned to enjoy it.  Fast forward to 16 years ago when I started my medical transcription career.  We had a transcription system with a word expander program, where we could actually make shortcuts and type a few letters and the words expanded!  Wow!  It was a clunker, though, and had many drawbacks.  All the transcriptionists shared a database and if one made a change for what typing "cr" would expand to, then all the MTs would be affected.  (That would be a shock if you always used "cr" to expand to "creatinine" and unbeknownst to you, an MT changed it to expand to "cardiopulmonary resuscitation.")  We were also limited to how many of these shortcuts we could enter into the database.  We reached the limit quickly, so every time we wanted to add a new one, we had to come to an agreement on which one to delete.  But the whole system was an improvement on what I used to have, so I gladly got used to it.

Then a few years ago when, after years of this outmoded system, we got a new Windows-based platform and I discovered Instant Text, the creme de la creme of word expander software.  I was in heaven.  The features were extraordinary.  It couldn't get any better.  I got used to it.  Then they improved it, and immediately I wondered how I was ever satisfied with the older version.  This new version is unbelievable!  I am so used to it - used to its perfect design, its comfort on my hands, its intuitiveness, and its production capabilities.  Now I take it for granted that I can transcribe a great volume of work every day.  It's a pleasure to go to work.  I'm used to it.

I guess that's what the purpose of Thanksgiving is - taking the time to look at all the components of our lives that we have become "used to" and breathe a sigh of gratitude.   I'm used to getting all the food I need (and more!).  I'm used to a good job, I'm used to loving family members and faithful friends, I'm used to having enough to wear, a warm house, and a comfy bed at night.    All these things I expect, just like a good production with my MT tools, and because I have had them for long enough I take them for granted.

But do you know what else I'm used to?  Security.  Freedom.  Peace.  I leave the house every day and I'm not searching in the sky for the next drone attack.  I'm not running to the bomb shelter every half hour when a siren blasts.  I'm not kissing my husband goodbye in the morning, wondering if the next time I see him will be in a coffin.  I'm not coming home to a shattered house.  I'm not getting on a bus wondering if there is an explosive hidden on it.  I don't worry that my grandkids' schools will be bombed.  I don't get up in the morning, wondering if this is the day I will lose my life because I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I'm used to a life of peace.

That's what's so hard about watching the news this week.  Because for some folks in the world, fear is a daily occurrence.  The sad part is - they're used to it.  It breaks my heart.  It should break all our hearts, no matter what "side" you take, no matter what country you think is the aggressor and what is the defender (for both sides in this conflict have blood on their hands), humanity is showing its ugly, violent side, the air has the smell of death, and tears are being shed in buckets.  We have enough destruction in this world from weather catastrophes and accidents.  We don't need to add to it by doing things that are preventable.   Does anyone remember the movie War Games?  If hateful revenge is the answer, it will be the final answer because there is no end in the game of retaliation until there is nobody left to retaliate on either side.  Then who wins?

In our own country, there are people still being discriminated against, but they're "used to it" by now. There are families in abusive situations that are just "used to it."  There are people who know nothing but depression, or pain, or addiction, or illness.  It's gone on so long they're just "used to it" and can find no clear way out.

This Thanksgiving, there are some things we are used to, for which we lift up our hands in thanks.  There are other things we are used to that we shouldn't have to be used to, and for these things we pray for strength, patience, enlightenment, wisdom, and a path to peace.  Yeah, peace.  Some folks could really get used to that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pirate or Policeman?

My remarkable dad, Ensley Tiffin, a man of many talents, had a grand time when he was younger in musical theater in Memphis as a part of Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT).  He especially held in his heart fondness for the Gilbert and Sullivan shows.  My sister and I grew up with Dad singing from Pirates of Penzance, "A policeman's lot is not a happy one...." - then, as the song dictates at the end, Dad in a deep bass voice would sing the last 3 slow syllables "...happy one."  (My niece Amelia is currently carrying on the family tradition of musical theater in her high school and college acting career.)

How I wish now that I could have paid more attention and appreciated all Dad's stories, but since he died when I was 26 years old, I guess I wasn't old enough and wise enough to appreciate the time I had to listen to this amazing man.  I do remember this, though:  He said in Pirates of Penzance, he had to play double duty.  They didn't have enough people to have a separate cast for policemen and pirates, so the men in the chorus played both roles.  They would do a scene, then have to go quickly change costumes and come out as the other characters, switching back and forth as the show continued.

I think about that story when I think of all the various characters Dad played in his own life - Son, husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, father, uncle, father-in-law, grandfather, friend, Methodist Sunday School teacher, choir director, chairman of church committees, lay speaker, bank teller, conscientious objector who nevertheless served in the US Army, passionate Democrat, stamp collector, letter writer, reel-to-reel tape operator, home movie cameraman...not to mention the usual roles of a parent as chauffeur, teacher, homework helper, groundskeeper, grocery buyer, vacation planner, bill payer, etc.  Some of these were simultaneous, and others were of a chronological nature as his life stages progressed.

Then I think of all the characters I have played in my life.  I tend to focus on my failings but I try to concentrate on the successes - from my relationships with family and friends to my jobs and concerts and hobbies.   And so do we all play our roles on this earth.  Sometimes we might wish that the cast could be bigger so we could have more down time, but then when life demands it, we rush offstage and change from our policeman costume into our pirate costume for the next scene.   As they say, life is not a dress rehearsal and sometimes we just have to make up the script as we go along.  I guess that's what makes life adventurous - these tragedies and comedies in which we participate. We're on stage completely unprepared, sharing scenes with others who are likewise winging it, knowing that somehow it all comes together and miraculous things can happen.  One minute we're doing one role and the next minute we assume a totally different one, and the change can happen at any moment.

At this Thanksgiving, besides the usual extraordinary people and circumstances I always have to be thankful for, I am realizing that my role is changing once again - as of January 8, I will be grandmother to 4 instead of 3 grandchildren when little Emily Jean is born.   I will have to say out of all my roles on the stage of life, Grammy has to be one of my favorites!  Am I ready for the next act?  Bring it on!

Have a blessed Thanksgiving, everyone.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Clown Backup

I always listen to the radio on my way home from work, and a couple of weeks ago an ad came on for  Apparently Carbonite is some kind of internet computer backup company, but at the time I was listening, tired from a hard day's work, brain off kilter, I misheard their ad, which stated something like "Everyone needs automatic cloud backup."  I, though, heard this:  "Everyone needs automatic CLOWN backup."  I thought, How true!!  Wouldn't it be wonderful that if every time you were frustrated or stressed, something would happen to make you laugh?

I had automatic clown backup when our son Matt was young.  Most kids know what will push their parents' buttons.  Matt knew how to push my funny bone.  He understood that if he could make me laugh, I couldn't be angry with him.  Born with comedic talents anyway, Matt honed his skills so that he would be able to manage any maternal irritation.

He could assume one of his "characters" in an instant - Paw, the old, old man who spoke as if he had no teeth, who was married to The Old Hag and had a girlfriend named Trixie, was his standby.  However, Matt didn't even need to assume one of his personas to make me laugh.  It was always the horse that did it.

The horse involved total body/voice coordination.  His foot would paw the ground while he whinnied and snorted.  It was hilarious and just immediately made me crack up.  It never got dated; it never got monotonous.  It didn't matter how mad I was or where we were - the horse would make me laugh until tears came pouring out of my eyes.   Sister Rachel was never pleased, as she had no similar strategy to fall back on in order to get out of trouble.

Of course, my life ambition now is to teach his son Joshua to find his own special way of making his parents laugh. He has to find out what funny bone stimulant will work on his own parents.  The horse did it for me, but it might take a whole 'nuther approach for Joshua to use when he senses parental doom.

I know what you are thinking.  After all these years, does Matt still do the horse for me?  Aye, if I plead with him!  Do I ever get tired of it?  Neigh, my friends. Neigh.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Prejudging the Duke

I have been sewing a lot recently, and when I decided I wanted to learn how to work with concealed zippers, I searched You Tube for instruction videos. They were helpful, but I wished for someone, a sewing friend, who could teach me this skill in person.  Alas, I have no local sewing friends.  I actually have few local friends at all.  My time is taken up with work, family, home life, and hobbies, and there has never been anyone in Maine with whom I had a lot in common.

So I started to wonder if there is a compatible friend in this area for me.  For this potential friend,  I had a wish list and it was growing day by day.  I want her to share my hobbies, of course - sewing, quilting, cross stitch.  It would be great if she were musically inclined - piano? organ? Celtic harp? Singing?  We could play and sing duets!  How fun!  I could also really could relate to someone with my social background - married for many years, a couple of adult kids, a few grandchildren - maybe even a caretaker of an elderly relative.  That would certainly give us lots to talk about.    Wow - I wonder if she could actually be a medical transcriptionist like me?  We could share the laughs and frustrations of being in this wacky career!  Would it be took much to ask for a friend with an affinity for history, especially Abraham Lincoln?  Also, someone with my religious views, social views, political views?  And someone who shares my eating preferences - that would make it way easy to get together...

A new coder started in our office a month ago.  I thought, maybe I have lots of things in common with this lady!  We are near the same age; she may become a "perfect fit" friend for me!  I nonchalantly queried her one morning, as she seemed a little reserved and I didn't want to freak her out.  "Do you have any hobbies?" I asked.   Hobbies? She paused.  "Yeah," I said.  "Like sewing?  quilting?"  No, she said.  But she does like to garden and go kayaking.   (I don't spend time in nature, the idea of gardening makes my skin itch, and my one kayaking experience with dear friend Audrey was enough in my life, thank you very much!).  Hmm...  "Do you have children or grandchildren?" I asked.   She shook her head no.  Oh well.  Strike out.  She is such a nice lady, but we just aren't that compatible, apparently.

Then about a week ago, it hit me.  I wasn't looking for a friend - I was looking for a CLONE of myself!  How embarrassing!  How ridiculous!  How utterly boring that would be!

Sometimes we get so comfortable with ourselves and our lifestyles that we stay put in our regimented lives and instead of opening ourselves to possibilities, we make a prerequisite demand to the world that it matches our wants and interests.  This was brought home to me recently when, as we were planning what movies to record on Turner Classic Movies, Ed and I came across Rio Bravo with John Wayne.  "Ugh, no," I sniffed.  "I hate John Wayne.  I never watched a John Wayne movie in my life.  I hate Westerns."  Ed countered, "But you'd love this one.  It's funny!"  I balked, but he forced me to record it and forced me to watch it, and guess what - I loved it!  He suggested another John Wayne movie,  McLintock, and we acquired that and watched it and I loved it too!  We watched The Shootist - a great movie!  Why had this funny, talented John Wayne been missing from my life?  Because I just "knew" I didn't like him and never bothered to really find out.

After that surprising revelation, I began to think of the friends I have had for years.  They are not my clones.  There are some things I share in common with each, but there are big differences there also.  The diversity they bring to my life makes my life rich and meaningful.  From one's political dialogue to another's unique interests and skills - from one's sense of humor to another's sexual orientation - from one's religious affiliation to another's life adventures.....each friend makes me more open, more aware, less judgmental and more accepting of all the variety life has to offer.   I am so thankful they have been a part of my existence - whether local to me, or back in Tennessee, or as far away as California.

If all my friends were my clones, who would teach me something new?  Who would challenge me?  Who would talk me out of things I fear and nudge me here and there?  Who would be strong when I am weak, and encouraging when I am down?  The dichotomy, the give and take, would simply not be there, and life would be dull and certainly depressing.

Oh, yes - and that new coder?  I love her hair and clothes - I want my hair to look exactly like hers and she wears all my favorite colors!  She will be my inspiration!

The moral of this is - please - don't shut yourself out by only associating with people who are exactly like you, watching the same movies you've always watched, eating the same food you've always eaten.  Believe me, it's hard to branch out - but can be so rewarding!  Always be willing to try something new, learn something different, discover what makes that acquaintance tick, and then sit back and watch your life blossom with serendipity and surprises.  This is especially true of the people we meet (or who have been sent to us?).  Each unique person we encounter and form a relationship with is like a new flower to our gardens - new color, different style, different growing regimen, different scent - that together make life beautiful.  Did I say garden?  Maybe one day...and if I ever agree to get in another kayak on the ocean, I'll let you know...

Monday, September 03, 2012


TMI.  It's a frequent response from our adult kids.  You should have heard their conversation with their dad when he tried to explain details of his laser prostate surgery and aftermath.  Those kids sure know how to cut a conversation short!

TMI, as we all know, stands for Too Much Information, usually spoken as a warning when unwanted awkward personal information is about to be shared.  This week, however, it evidenced itself in my life with another nuance concerning health advice.  This time I take it literally - Too Much Information!!

As a medical transcriptionist, I'm always interested in health news.  I constantly read nutrition information and research (not that I always eat right, but at least I know when I'm eating wrong!).  I keep up to date on current exercise information (high intensity interval training is the latest recommendation, by the way).  I follow lots of blogs having to do with low carb and Primal eating, cholesterol testing, and I am generally fascinated with the advances in medical science.  Maybe too fascinated.

I think I've reached my breaking point.  The doctor's advice column in our newspaper this week mentioned the fact that HDL cholesterol has just been proven to NOT have the beneficial protection from heart disease that the medical community has been telling us all along it had... OK.  First it was eat eggs, then don't eat eggs, then eat them again.  First it was eat butter, then eat margarine, then for heaven's sake, margarine is transfat and don't go near it and please go back to butter!  First it was fat, then low-fat, then it was good fat versus bad fat, and hey, doncha know that low-fat products have sugar added to improve the taste?  And sugar is worse for us than fat!   It's the LDL, you know.  No, wait, it's the triglycerides and the LDL particles.  Eat lots of bread, the staff of, make that only whole grain, make that gluten-free, skip the bread entirely.  High fructose corn syrup is made from a vegetable, right?   Eat local, eat organic.  But what if you have to choose between local non-organic and trucked-in organic? They say eating local non-organic is more important than eating organic shipped from far away.  Is your head spinning yet?

Then there's exercise., weights.  Heavy weights with few reps.  No, light weights with lots of reps.  Primal exercise - do things as you would have done as a cave person (climb, sprint, pull up, etc.).  Running is, it's bad for the joints.  Low impact is the way to go.  Exercise intensely for 20 minutes x 3 days.  No, exercise a half hour a day minimum.  Some folks advise that we don't need to exercise at all!

It reminds me of my favorite movies, Christmas in Connecticut.  The heroine is pretending (to keep her magazine job) that she has a husband, a baby, and lives on a farm, because that is what she has been writing about in her home articles that supposedly reflect her life, and if her publisher discovered she had been making it all up, she would have been given the boot.  So she gets a guy who has a farm anyway to pretend to be her husband, and his housekeeper babysits for two neighbors who work at the war plant, so she had her necessary baby to complete the setup.  The problem is that one baby comes one day, and the next day it may be the other baby.  The publisher, staying with them for the holidays, sees these two babies at different times but thinks they are one, of course.   When one mother comes by to pick up her baby, the publisher sees her carrying it out of the house and he assumes the baby is being kidnapped and immediately calls the police. When asked to describe the baby, he gets flustered.  Dark, light hair., make that no teeth.  His trying to assimilate the two babies into one is one funny scene.  That's the way the current health advice sounds to me, one contradiction after another and what you end up with you feel you can't really trust.

Well, it's finally too much overload for me.  Just like political pundits, I have already chosen my side.  I have taken into consideration everything I have read, everything I have learned, and combined that with common sense and finally, how my body responds.  It's sad, really.  Health-information-wise,  I don't trust the government, I don't trust doctors, and I don't trust dietitians and "nutritionists" to have the whole story.   The limited story they do provide changes week to week.  New research always contradicts old research, and most of the time, that research is funded by the pharmaceutical companies.  It's just TMI.

I certainly won't retire from learning.  I am still intrigued by the latest research, but I will take it with a smile and a grain of salt.  Uh...I can still eat salt, can't I?

Monday, August 27, 2012

The legacy for me

July 20, 1969.  Were were leaving on vacation late at night (to get a head start on driving) with a family friend, and we sat around Mrs. Grogan's black and white TV watching Neil Armstrong step down on the moon before we left.  Now tributes are pouring in on what an extraordinary man he was, how he could have had anything after his milestone journey, but he chose to stay out of the spotlight and shun publicity.  I even read where he didn't make a habit of signing autographs "to be sold to the highest bidder."

So don't offer me any money for this little gem above.  Maybe he took pity on me since I was in high school, maybe my letter was irresistibly eloquent (unfortunately, I didn't keep a copy), but for whatever reason, after I wrote him an admiring letter, Neil Armstrong mailed me this photograph which I have treasured ever since.

All the tributes in the media really made me think.  Society has the custom of heaping praise on people once they're dead.   Everywhere there are eulogies, documentaries, dignitaries weighing in on the important influence this or that deceased person has had on society.  All well and good.  Do we ever think to tell them while they're alive?  Sometimes not, at least not to this degree.

I remember on my mom's 70th birthday, we held a surprise party for her in the hall of her church.  Old friends came, relatives from near and far as well, and all the guests signed their names in the guest book.  I recall as I looked through the guest book, I had the vision for a moment that it was a memorial book - you know, the kind they have in funeral homes.   But it wasn't in memory of - it was in honor of - and I can tell you with a smile how much fun we all had that day.  My sister and her husband had made a video of Mom's life up to that point, with interviews from family and friends, which Mom just about cried through - and all were extolling Mom's generosity, her caring nature, her compassion, her faithfulness - in other words, everything one would say at a funeral except the honoree was very much alive and getting to hear all the wonderful comments.

I'm glad Neil Armstrong is being hailed as a humble hero, for he truly was.  I just hope he realized how much he meant to this country and to us as individuals before he left us.  I wish that for everyone.  This week, call someone up, write a letter, or go visit the people you care about, the people who have made your life better, the friends, role models or teachers who have influenced you in unforgettable ways, whether famous or not, and let them know how much they mean to you, while they are still around to hear it.

Farewell, Neil Armstrong.  Thanks for making a high schooler's day brighter.

Friday, August 10, 2012


What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “invest”?  Money?  For a long time, that too was my first reaction to this word.  Investment, investment accounts, investing in retirement - things like that.  In the last few years, though, my experience has led me to broaden my interpretation.
I am a medical transcriptionist by trade and I get paid by production, by how many lines I transcribe.  The more I transcribe, the more money I make.  So I pretty much type fast and furious for 8 hours a day.  As you can imagine, my hands would probably fall off if I didn’t have some powerful software (mine is Instant Text 7) to give me word-expanding capabilities.  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with word expansion software, I would type, for instance, the letters “caps” and that would expand to the word “capabilities” with the touch of a key.)  As I posted last year, I was fortunate to be a beta tester for the update of Instant Text and knew that I needed to spend a lot of my own personal time learning, working, creating, experimenting, and otherwise using this powerful software as a tool to enhance my production.  I was ready and anxious to invest my time to claim the rewards I would receive from my investment (more lines, more accuracy, less wear on my hands).  Besides, I always get excited learning something new.
It amazes me that not everybody feels this way when it comes to tools.  It seems simple, really.  You invest in the time to learn something that will later pay you back with interest.  Sure, it involves work, maybe time you’d rather spend doing something else with more immediate pleasure, but the time and energy invested will give a great return.  I’ve had interaction with transcriptionists who don’t feel it’s worth the effort to learn such time-saving techniques, for one reason or another.  Some consider it a waste of time, when I consider it an investment.
The Instant Text scenario led me to reexamine other areas of my life, and society’s life as a whole, with regard to investment.  So many of these investments aren’t quick payoffs, but we know the payoff will eventually come.  We make decisions to invest in our health, foregoing instant gratification for long-term goals.  We make investments in the upbringing of our children, in education, in job training, in relationships, in elections, in gardens, in the health prognosis of our planet, in the future of our community and our country and our world.  
Ask any of the Olympic athletes if their investment was worth it.  From what I heard, even without a medal, the opportunity to take part in the games was worth their years of training.  The key, some said, was not to think about the pain of training, but to keep in the front of their mind the glory of the goal.  They knew the payoff could be grand indeed.
Investment takes time, effort, energy, commitment, and sometimes (but not always) money.  Basically, an investment says, “I’m betting on this idea.  I’m betting that what will come out of this will be multiple times the amount I’m putting in it.”  We are betting that we (and its sometimes long-reaching effects) are worth it. 
I used to tell a story in one of my children’s sermons of an old man who was planting an apple tree.  A kid came by and said, “You old fool!  Don’t you know you’re so old you won’t live to eat a single one of those apples?”  The old man said, “Yes, I know.  But someone will.”
Some investments, like my beloved Instant Text, seem to be at first glance only for my personal achievement.  However, its effect of making me more accurate and productive benefits all the patients whose medical records are in my care.   My investment in my health will hopefully pay off in a higher quality of life, one that won’t involve so much dependence on my children or others to see me through.  I invest time in what books I read, what I watch on TV, the friends keep in touch with.  I invest in my marriage.  My years of investment in my kids - their ethical training, their education, their responsibilities as humans and children of God - have already paid off in abundance and will be multiplied as they pass on their own investment to their children and beyond.  
A lot of the time, investment involves risk, of course.  Some people spend their parenting years trying to invest as best as they can in their kids who in turn ruin their own lives by making bad choices.  Just like high-risk, high-yield funds and safer ones, in other part of life every bet is not a sure bet.   Then again, the payoff may be a long time coming.  We are all familiar with the great social reformers in our history who invested their whole being in trying to bring a sense of justice and grace to the world.  Some of them lived to see the payoff, some died before they had any idea how much of a difference their investment made.  
So my question continues to be:  Am I investing in what is worth investing in this life, are my priorities straight, are my “bets” ones worth making?  Am I cognizant of the fact that the payoff of my investment may not be realized in my lifetime?  Is it then still worth it? It’s ironic that we so often consider the financial definition as the primary meaning of investment - yet money comes and goes, houses are worth a lot one day and not much the next, gas prices and crop prices and stocks go up and down, and the value of everything is relative.  What do we all have, though, that is for sure and is worth the same always?  The limited (yet for most people, abundant) time and energy that we are allotted on this glorious earth.  They are ours to invest.  Let us invest wisely - with purpose, passion, wisdom, and integrity.  It’s not always about the money.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Not feelin' the goat, mon"

It's been almost a month since I blogged, and I feel quite guilty.  But you see, I just haven't been "feelin' the goat, mon."  (Link to delightful story below on that wonderful quote.)

Everyone who blogs (and isn't this truly just about everyone these days?) approaches his/her blog with an individualized approach.  Some blogs are specific - sewing, carpentry, knitting, etc. - sort of hobby related.  Fans tune in to read what other people are accomplishing in that chosen hobby and to perhaps get inspired.  Then there are blogs that are all about the kids or grandkids, or blogs that feature lovely photographs, or blogs that revolve around theology or philosophy discussions.  There are as many different blogs on the Internet as there are people in the world.

When I created this blog in 2005, I had one purpose:  To outdo my sister, of course.  She had been asked to learn about the art of blogging at her work, and so as a "guinea pig" endeavor, she started a blog of her own, detailing her woodworking project of building a big desk/shelves complex to fill a wall in her house.  The idea of a blog intrigued me, and so I thought, "OK, I can do that, too."   She has long since dropped out of the blogosphere (although the carpentry project turned out to be stunning), and here I am still plodding along.  I originally kept with a theme of simplifying, since at the time, we were trying to downsize and sell our Victorian grand dame of a house - the adventure of which provided much blog fodder (as well as trepidation, angst, anxiety).  As I was writing, I realized that I was taking my life experiences and trying to learn from them, putting my fears and doubts and serendipities on the screen as a way to clear my head and deal with circumstances.  The simplicity idea grew to include my response to aging, becoming a grandmother, frustration with my procrastination and perfectionist tendencies, fond memories of long ago, and a desire to appreciate my blessings.  It began to represent the whole of my life, encompassing the last year in my 89-year-old mom's stay with us in Maine.

I can't blog every day because I would have nothing to say.  I can't even seem to blog every week on a regular basis unless I feel there are words in my head that need to get put down somewhere.  Maybe a recent experience in my life or a comment from a friend or family member will plant a seed in my mind and I think, "There is something for me to learn from this" and a blog post will follow, because, I figured, maybe someone else could benefit from this insight too.   My blog involves a great deal of introspection.

Therefore, I refuse to blog when I have nothing to say.  The wonderful thing about a blog is that, unlike a newspaper or other media, there are no deadlines.  Sometimes if I'm inspired I could blog 7 posts in 7 days; other times, like now, it can be a month or more before I feel ready.

Thus I just say that "I'm just not feelin' the goat, mon."  This quote is from a wonderful story here that Ed and I read several years ago.  The story explains a lot about why food tastes better when it's cooked with love - and how when one attempts to do something simply because it's "expected" when the inspiration is just not there, the end result is lacking in some way.  There are times to push yourself and times to stay put.  The key is knowing when to do what.

By the way, if you click the link and read the story, you'll understand why homemade food cooked by someone who loves you is better for you than fast food from a burger joint.  For one thing, who do you think prepares and cooks the food at most burger joints?  Teenagers who would rather be anywhere but at work.   I can't imagine much love goes into any of those things on the menu - no matter how many hugs Ronald gives to the world.   

I assure you, my readers (who number less than the fingers on one hand), that I will never blog unless I feel I have something worth saying.  It may take a long time between posts, but when you're not feelin' the goat, you're just not feelin' the goat.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Now that that politics rules the airwaves, I have a question.  If you had a genie grant you the wish to be President of the United States or some other version of "sort of ruler of the world," would you accept it?  Would you want it?  Or would you flee from it as fast as you could and throw the magic lamp in the ocean?

I personally never understand why people actually seek positions of power.  Ed once read a science fiction novel that portrayed American presidential elections in the distant future.  The country decided that the best president was the one who didn't want the job.  So the leaders drew up a list of the best and the brightest - wise, intelligent people from all over the country, and interviewed them all.  The ones who were eager for the job were crossed off the list.  The one who truly disliked the idea the most was the one they put in office.  (I assume they had lie detector tests or something similar to assure the reactions were legitimate.)  The premise was that no one in their right mind would want to hold a position of that power, and anyone who wanted it had to be...well, crazy.  The person who didn't want the job would be the best in the job.

I tend to laugh at politicians who are asked but decide not to run for high office.  Their reasons are so in keeping with their sense of what they should say.  "I'm satisfied as a senator, thanks."  "It's not the right time."  "My family is not in favor."  "I have health problems."  "I want more time to gather support."  OK.  I'm looking for the guy or gal who can be honest and say, "I'm honored you want me to run for President, but that job scares the crap out of me!!!"

I served on a local jury several years ago.  It was intriguing, but frustrating.  I hardly had the ability to choose my outfit for the day, never mind deciding the guilt or innocence of another human being.  The power was too great, the risks for error too high.

With power comes responsibility, and therein lies the conundrum.  I will freely admit I don't want the responsibility of running the country and making decisions about the economy, jobs, environment, and warfare, while simultaneously trying to work with people under me who are just as power-hungry and looking out for their parties, their friends, their companies, their positions, their prospects, and their salaries.  I just don't get it.  Why would anyone actually want this job?  It's not a perk - it's a burden.  Actions you take can affect the world.  Who thinks they are up to that monumental task?  If you think about it, anyone who runs for President of the United States thinks she/he is the best person in the whole country to tackle that job.  That's either a healthy ego of a truly remarkable person with vision - or a deluded individual whose quest for power has blinded reality.

Much has been written about how power corrupts.  Even politicians who enter the field for "duty and public service" eventually find the temptations of power too hard to resist, and the survival of their careers so important that ethics can be set aside.  What chance does integrity have against riches, power and privilege?  Sometimes, not much.  Temptation on a small scale is bad enough, but on a grand scale can ruin lives quickly and infamously.  Someone who thinks that eating sugar is bad but knows it is his weakness should never be in charge of a bakery.  In the same way, an environment that harbors betrayal, bribery, peer pressure, fame-seeking, and shameful secrets may not necessarily be a good choice for certain individuals who are not prepared for the pitfalls of living in such an environment.  Occasionally you will see Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith in Washington rise above the fray, but more often I fear others are pulled into the riptide and drown in the unforgiving waters.

It's Washington that is the seat of power in this country, but I'm not just talking about Washington.  From principals to mayors to office managers on up - with power comes responsibility.  Power demands integrity and power requires wisdom.  We each have to examine our own souls to decide if we have what it takes, and are not just trying to take what it has.

Of course, the kicker in all this is that we have the power all the time for a variety of things.  Every day we have the power to hurt or soothe someone's feelings, the power to lend or refuse to give help, the power to serve or demand service.   Every minute of my time is led by my personal decisions on how to use my personal power.  That, quite frankly, is enough for me.

I don't need or seek to have control over other people.  I wouldn't be comfortable managing a small office, let alone a country.   I don't consider that a sign of weakness.  I consider that a confirmation that I know enough to run away.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Taking stock

So Mom, like Elvis, has left the building.  Unlike Elvis, she is still enjoying life, returning to her familiar routines at my sister's house outside of Memphis.  As I am inclined toward introspection, I felt the need to take some time to take stock.  What things have I learned in the past year my mother has been with us?  What life lessons am I taking from the experience?

1.  Caretaking both difficult and rewarding.  It requires energy, commitment, planning, flexibility, and most of all, patience.  Ed bore the brunt of most of this, as he was home during the day, but I had my share.  My sister, bless her heart, has assumed the reins again for the duration.  Included in this is knowing when to take charge, as I discussed a few weeks ago, when I "became" the parent and Mom the child.  Someone has to be the bad guy once in a while.   It's not a role I relish.

2.  I must, must, MUST take care of my health if I want to have the life I envision.  I saw with my own eyes the devastation that health neglect can take on the body and spirit, and as I want to live out my days with independence and without pain, I have to put this on the front burner of my life.  It is too important to procrastinate about.  I have to eat right and keep moving.  Which brings me to...

3.  I have been taking so much for granted.   We had an extra bedroom, small though it was, which housed the elliptical machine and where I exercised to DVDs.  Once that was turned into Mom's bedroom for a year, I suddenly became aware that I had not used it as much as I should have, and now would be without it for a long time.  We get so used to things being there that we don't think about them until they're not available.  I consider that a wake-up call.

4.  Sometimes you just have to take a chance.  That was what my sister Joy and I did when we brought Mom to Maine.  I called it "pushing the envelope" in a way....making a bet that she would not worsen and pass away, and that her best friend or elderly sibling wouldn't pass away.  Making a bet that she would survive the arduous trip to and from Maine (and that we wouldn't have a wreck), that we would be able to easily pick up her prescriptions in Maine, that she wouldn't get depressed being away from home, that we would have the ability and wisdom to take care of her as she deserved.   During the instances when Mom seemed to deteriorate for a few weeks, Joy and I voiced aloud the heretofore unspoken concern of "are we doing the right thing?" by moving Mom for an extended period of time.  But in my heart, I knew it was necessary, and indeed, it seems to have been a success.

5.  Take time to be with family.  There is nothing more important than to spend time with those you love.  If you could have seen the expression on Mom's face when she interacted with her grandkids and great grandkids - priceless.  It was so gratifying to have been able to give her that experience and to watch it unfold.

6.  Take care of the caretaker.  My sister needed a break to allow her to focus on her family life and concentrate on things she had put on hold while taking care of Mom.  After just a year, I now understand how important that break is.  The caretaker must take care of herself, or the whole thing falls apart quickly.  This is not selfishness; this is survival for everyone involved.

7.  Take a minute to count your blessings.   As it was a blessing for Mom to be here for her, it was a blessing for her to be here for me.   The phone is a wonderful invention, but it's not like talking in person.  You can't hug through it, you can't wipe tears through it, and you can't apply Aspercreme on an arthritic knee through it.  Sometimes you just need the real thing.

8.  Finally, as I posted earlier, it takes a village to celebrate a birthday.  I learned that there are some kind people in this world who will send a complete stranger a greeting card.  Anything that revives or confirms a belief in human goodness is much needed in our society.

So what do I take away from this past year of wonder?  Wisdom, gratitude, and a heart overflowing.  These are life lessons I am happy to receive.

At least, that's my take on it.  Now, where did I put my exercise shoes?

Friday, June 01, 2012

It Takes a Village - To Celebrate a Birthday

Some things you can do on your own.  Sometimes it takes a comrade-in-arms.  And sometimes, well, it takes a whole village that extends throughout the world.

I've documented how our lives were changed when my handicapped mom came to visit us in Maine for the last year.  I've recorded and ups and downs, the surprises, the setbacks - everything that she brought to us by her presence.  When her 89th birthday was approaching, I was stumped.   As I've noted before, the usual gifts one buys for Mom are neglected because "it's too pretty to wear" or some such attitude.  There's very little she needs except food, medicine, assistance, attention......ah, attention.  Hmmm.....  And there begins the saga of Operation Birthday Card.

If you consider it, a great many endeavors in life start with "what if?"  So this is where I started.  What if, I thought, Mom could get a lot of cards in the mail for her birthday?  She never gets mail except for medical bills and her church newsletter.  She craves mail so much that she thinks she hits the jackpot when I bring her the Vermont Country Store catalog from the mailbox.  I can buy her a cake, the family will come by for a visit - yes, all that is going to happen easily.  But how do I get a bunch of birthday cards mailed to her?  And even more fantastic, how do I get cards from all over the country, and dare I think it, even a foreign country or two?

And therein lies the village.  I was intrigued to see if complete strangers would send my mom birthday cards on her 89th birthday.   Were people that gracious anymore?  Did folks really care about a lonely elderly stranger living away from home on her birthday?  I was going to find out.   Once my little plot was hatched, I contacted my sister and my kids.  "Please ask your friends to send Granny birthday cards!"  Then I went online, starting with my medical transcriptionist chat room, my dear "friends," most of whom I have never met in person but whose lives I have been a part of for years now, and asked for their help.  They said they would be delighted!  Theirs were some of the early cards.  I had designated the whole month of May, even though Mom's birthday was toward the end of the month, so she could get cards in the mail in a steady stream.  I instructed everyone to be sure to write down the state where they lived so we could see how far away the cards were coming.

Next I went to Facebook and posted an appeal.  My cousin's wife even reposted my post, so her friends got the message.  I called the offices of both our Maine US Senators and asked if they could pitch in (thanks, Susan Collins!).   I sent a letter to Mom's home church in Memphis, asking for their help.  I sent an e-mail to my contacts who I thought might be willing to participate (again, one leader in the transcription field reposted my appeal on her blog, and again, more folks agreed to send cards).  Then I went to a Prince Edward Island blogger who is known for her stunning island photography (I love her pictures!), and posted a comment, asking if she or any of her friends could drop a card in the mail from Canada.   Finally, I e-mailed Mom's favorite disc jockey, Rick Foster of WDEA AM of Ellsworth, Maine, asking him to send a card (which would have thrilled her just by itself)....and lo and behold, he kindly offered to wish her happy birthday on the air!

So, the cards started arriving.  The first one we got was from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from a name I didn't recognize.  Mom was a little confused.  "Who is this?" she asked.   I said, "It's a stranger to you!"  She said, "Well, who is it, though?  Do you know her?" and I replied, "It's a stranger to me too!"  Well, that really confused her, LOL, but I basically said that some people heard it was her birthday month and they wanted to send her a card.  She thought that sounded so sweet.  As I did with every subsequent card, I carefully cut the return address/postmark from the envelope, taped it to the back of the card, and hung the card on the wall in her room.

That solitary card was not lonely for very long.  Before long, she got two cards in one day, then three, and one day even got 28 cards in the mail in one day!   After a while, the wall was too crowded, so I took the cards down and put them all in a box.   Every day I added to a list of where the cards were coming from (I'll publish this list below).   With the exception of one beautiful card from Beverly where the state of origin fell off the back of the card, I believe I got every one recorded accurately.   Mom was really surprised to get a few cards from outside the United States!

Every evening when my sister called, Mom gave her an update on how many cards she got, smiling all the way through the conversation.   There were sweet cards, gorgeous cards, funny cards, religious cards, and cards made by kids.  There were personalized cards (one lady sent a card that said "Hey, 9-year-old!" and drew an 8 in front of the 9 so it said, "Hey, 89-year-old!"), a card with the Memphis skyline, cards with wonderful descriptions of where the senders lived, and some people even sent more than one card a week or two apart!  One of the cards that made us laugh out loud was from a boy named Zack.  He is a student in my daughter-in-law's class, and was one of the many handmade card creators from that class.  His card was made on green construction paper, had a red heart, had on the front "Happy birthday!  Love: Zack," and the inside said this in big letters:  "89!  That very cool!"  In another heart were the words "Wow! 89!" and then under that, "I hope you stay alive forever."  (We could tell those elementary school kids were awed by somebody being 89 - it probably sounded like she was 150 in their eyes - one girl even wrote "89!!  OMG!")

My Canadian blogger really came through, as not only did we get cards from Canada, but she knew some folks who lived in other countries, too.   And Rick Foster, the DJ extraordinaire, bless his heart, not only wished Mom a happy birthday on his radio show - he played her favorite song, and then after her birthday, drove out to our house and delivered a CD he had burned with the recording of that tribute and that song for her to listen to over and over.

Every card was a gem, every card was a surprise, every card was so much appreciated - I wish I could mention every name of every person in the global "village" who made my little idea a reality.  You blew me away with your kindness - the kindness of family? Of course! The kindness of friends? Very gracious and much appreciated!   The kindness of strangers?  Unbelievable.

Mom is going back home to my sister's next week.  The box full of birthday wishes will accompany her; it is a most treasured possession.  Thanks to you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and especially YOU......

Here is the final tally as of June 26 (will be updated if need be!):

Alabama (Mobile, Huntsville)
Arkansas (Sherwood, Little Rock, Jacksonville)
Arizona (Scottsdale, Cave Creek)
California (Redding, El Dorado Hills, Corona, one unspecified)
Colorado (Ft. Collins)
Florida (Coconut Creek, Hernando, Pensacola, South Daytona, Panama City)
Illinois (Lockport)
Indiana (Mishawaka)

Kansas (Overland Park)
Kentucky (Bardwell, Versaille, Paducah x2)
Louisiana (New Orleans, Lafayette)
Maine (Fairfield, Old Town x2, Madison, Winterport x2, Glenburn, 19 from Lewis Libby school)
Massachusetts (Oxford)
Michigan (Troy)
Mississippi (Olive Branch x3, Tupelo)
Montana (Billings)
Nebraska (York, Omaha)
New York (Scotia)
North Carolina (Knightdale, Thomasville, Monroe)
Oregon (Eugene x2, Gresham)
Pennsylvania (Sugar Grove, Bethlehem, Freeland, Grove City)
South Carolina (Cheraw)

South Dakota 
Tennessee.....(Memphis x36, Eads, Cordova, Franklin, Arlington, Nashville, Murfreesboro)
Texas (McKinney, Corpus Christi)
Utah (West Point)
Virginia (Chincoteague)
Washington, DC (US Senate, the White House)
West Virginia (Chester)
                              Out of country:
England (Warkwickshire/ Droitwich/Blackpool)
South Africa
Wales  (Llandovery Carms)
Canada:  Montague, Prince Edward Island (PEI) / Williams Lake, British Columbia / Vernon Bridge, PEI / PEI nonspecified x2 / Belfast, PEI /

Manila, Philippines

28 states plus Washington DC, 6 countries
136 cards

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Now the Sweet - An open letter to Mama

What a wild ride of a year it has been for us!  I know the last thing you wanted to do was  pack up and come to Maine for an indeterminate length of time, but you did it.  I know how hard it must be to live with your daughters - but you have done it.  In fact, you are a survivor - and we are so proud of you!
You never cease to amaze me with your endurance and determination.  Sure, you have days when you’re tired and the pain seems to get the best of you, but most of the time you are willing to do whatever I ask with just minimal fussing.  You’ve said, “Let me try to do it myself,” and then you try.  If you don’t succeed, then you try again some other day.
Through it all, you still have your sense of humor intact.  Remember the first shower I helped you with here?  You stepped onto the mat, and said, “I feel like there’s something kind of hard under my feet.”  Busy, I replied, “Nah, that’s just the mat.”  You persisted, and when I finally took a look, I was mortified. I had put the mat in upside down and your sensitive feet were stepping on all the suction cups!   You just laughed, and then I laughed (after I profusely apologized!).  I’ve put your arms in the wrong holes in T-shirts, I’ve gotten tops caught over your head, I’ve put your pants on backwards, I’ve even put your shoes on the wrong feet and hit you in the head accidentally!   In spite of everything, you have laughed along with everything.
We’ve had a lot of fun while you’ve been here, haven’t we?  Many times I will say several sentences to you from a distance away, and when I wait for an answer, you look up and say, “You talkin’ to me?” - so much that Ed nicknamed you Robert De Niro.  We’ve laughed at Reader’s Digest jokes, chuckled at the comics in the newspaper, and cracked up watching Chris blowing music through dandelion stems.  You let Ed and me tease you about how we hate Lawrence Welk, yet we sit through it every Saturday night with you.  We’ve had a lot of giggling about how you never throw anything away - whether it’s chewed gum or used Kleenex or empty Aspercreme tubes.   Remember when you were enamored with the pretty scene pictured on the shoebox top, so I got a tack and nailed it to the wall like a fancy painting?
You always remember to show gratitude.  Every night when I help you in bed or help you rub pain medicine on your knee, you always thank me for everything.  You thank the kids for coming to see you, you thank your  friends and relatives when they telephone, you always thank Ed for cooking, and you even thanked your Maine doctor at your last appointment for overseeing your health care while you were here.  You never take things or people for granted, and everyone around you appreciates it.
Your financial generosity is overwhelming.  You are always trying to pawn off $20 bills to us or the kids for this and that.  I remember when my kids were little, we would bring them over for you to babysit and you would pay us $20 for the privilege!  Some things never change.
You’ve been brought into the technological world and see Facebook pictures as soon as they are posted, and have video chatted with all the grandchildren.  I always love to see Joshua’s face light up when you appear on the iPad screen and he says, “GG!”  (For those not in the know, that stands for Great Grandmother.)
I’ve been able to relive a lot of childhood memories these last few months.  When your radio falls off your lap (as it does about 4 times a day), I think of how Joy and I used to lie down in your lap during Sunday night church services.  How that lap has held grandchildren and great grandchildren and nephews for years and years!   Your body has a lifetime of stories.   You gave me life, and your eyes looked on me adoringly when I was a baby, your hands cared for me as a toddler, your lips gave me kisses and your arms gave me hugs, and your smile never let me forget that I was always loved unconditionally.   Now I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to take care of you for a little while.
We share common memories.  As I get older, there are fewer and fewer people left who remember Daddy, but I can always talk about him with you.  I have started many conversations with, “Remember when...?”  Sometimes you remember, sometimes you don’t, but we have fun reminiscing just the same.   
Well, we will always have those old memories, but we have made some new ones, haven’t we?  You have gotten to spend time with two of your grandchildren and all three great grandchildren.  You attended Joshua's first birthday party last summer, and  with your own eyes have watched him go from crawling to walking and running.  You have enjoyed personal violin “concerts” from Caroline and Charlotte (and even Rachel!).  You were here when Matthew began selling his own software in the Apple store.  You’ve eaten homemade applesauce cooked by Sarah, and vegan food cooked by Rachel.  Your favorite DJ, Rick, came by to see you last summer and this week even wished you happy birthday on the radio, then played your Old Bones song!
And now as I write this, you have received over 70 cards in the mail from people all over the world in honor of your 89th birthday.   You are indeed a special person to many, many people who send best wishes, and especially to us, your family. We will soon start that journey back to Memphis, which I know is stressful for you to think about, but you are one tough lady and can get through anything.  Be proud of yourself - you have survived a Maine winter.  Not everyone can lay claim to that.
We have been honored to have you with us for almost a year.  You have graced us with your presence, your humor, your generosity, and your kind spirit.  We love you so much.  We will miss you beyond words.
You favorite song these days is the poignant “Old Bones” sung by George Burns.  I’ll end this post with the lyrics:
Old bones inside an old raincoat
Old bones inside of old shoes
Old friends at the hotel
Come by to wish me well
And keep me up to date on all the old news
Sometimes I have an old whiskey
And I fall asleep in my chair
And I dream that I'm a man
Much younger than I am
I bet you'd think by now that I wouldn't care
But I love life, I'd like to do it again
Though I might not be much more than I've ever been
Just to have the chance to turn back the hands
And let my life begin
Oh yeah, I'd like to do it again
It's time for takin' it easy
It's time for takin' it slow
Old bones don't move so fast
As they did once in the past
Now if I have to run, I simply don't go
But I love life, I'd like to live it again
Though I might not be much more than I've ever been
Just to have the chance to turn back the hands
And let my life begin
Oh yeah, I'd like to do it again

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

First The Bitter

Well, my experience having my almost-89-year-old mother living with us has almost drawn to a close. For various reasons - her declining health and long distance from other elderly relatives are two major ones - my sister and I have decided to have Mama move back to the Memphis area, and in less than two weeks, one week after her 89th birthday, my husband Ed and I will be driving the long journey to take Mom back home.

So it is understandable that I take these last two weeks for reflection.  When I am frequently asked for my thoughts on Mom leaving, I have consistently replied, “It’s bittersweet.”  Like life itself, the experience/experiment was full of surprises, but the best description is still bittersweet.  I thought I would take a couple of posts to blog about each half of that poignant word.  So for today, I’ll focus on the bitter.
Anyone who says care-taking is a piece of cake...well, they’re eating a different dessert than I am.  It is hard work.  For the last year, in fact, our life has been turned upside down in ways I couldn’t imagine earlier.  Ed, bless his soul, has been the care-taker during the day when I’m at the hospital.  His day starts at 6 a.m. when he makes her breakfast and ends at 8:30 p.m. when he puts her to bed (I have to go to bed at 7 p.m.).  I cannot praise him enough for his lovingkindness to Mom.  He has put up with a lot, but he loves her like his own mother.
OK, so care-taking is hard.  What has been the bitter for me?  It’s run the emotional gamut....
Fear.  As I’ve said before, looking at Mom is like looking into my possible future.  How much of her medical problems are inheritable?  Will I be engaged in nervous humming when I am her age?  Will my bones be so deformed from arthritis?  Will I get so disabled that I will depend on a walker or wheelchair to do the most basic ambulation?  Will I end up living with one of my kids (Lord help them!)?  Like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I recoil in horror at my intended fate, and wonder if the actions I take to preserve my health today can help me avoid all this or am I just doomed...
Regret.  I guess we could have taken the car keys from Mom 4 years ago and she would never have been in that wreck, but how difficult that attempt would have been will always be unknown.  In fact, every decision my sister and I make is fraught with anxiety and second-guessing.  Should we have given away Mom’s dog?  Should we have moved Mom up to Maine for a year?  Is she prepared for the long car ride back?  Is she functional enough for assisted living somewhere?  Are we missing something important that should be checked out?  There’s always anxiety in decision-making and all we can do is try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.
Disappointment.  I used to tease Mom on the phone: “You’ve got to come visit us in Maine, Mama!  Ed and I already live like old people, ha ha!  After supper we watch those old movies from the 1930s - those movies you love - and we have some nice places to go out to eat, and we can take you to see the grandkids, and we’d have a marvelous time!”  Reality was quite different.  Oh, Ed and I still watch our old movies, but the first time we excitedly sat down with Mom to do so, she was asleep in ten minutes.  The only successful movie-watching we have done was around Christmas - we watched them during the day, and even then, I had to keep poking her to wake up.  She won’t go out to eat anymore because she can’t eat most restaurant food and “it’s just too much trouble.”   She certainly won’t ride to visit the kids; she has trouble getting in and out of the car.  Her vision is getting worse and she can’t read much anymore.  Every day I am reminded that there is unfortunately little I can do to bring pleasure into her life.
Anger.  You knew it was coming, didn’t you?  Of course anger is a part of it all.  It stems from frustration.  Why does she do the very thing we ask her not to do, and yet the simple things we know she can do, she balks?  When did some important tasks become arbitrary? Why do I have to force her to do things that are good for her?  Why do I end up making her cry?  Why doesn’t she understand how hard she is making this?  
Sadness.  I have been plagued with an overwhelming sense of sadness.  I have to watch Mama struggle physically and emotionally and it just devastates me.  I wish I could take away her pain.  I wish I could make her whole again.  I wish I could bring back her function.  She told me once that she agreed with what a friend had said - “It’s hell getting old.”   I’m watching it firsthand and can do little about it.  Some of the things I try to do to help her seem to end up making her suffer more.
Loss.  This is the biggie.  There has been a major relationship change, and though my Mom is alive and interactive, I have come to the realization that something important has made a dramatic shift.  I suppose it’s been a long time coming, but it is only this year here in Maine that it finally dawned on me that I am now the Parent and she is the Child.  For most of us, all our lives, our parents are our Solid Rocks.  We depend on them.  We count on them.  We know that whatever life throws at us, they will be there for us, strong, sturdy, and will always take care of us.  Then there comes a point where the shift insidiously begins, almost imperceptibly, especially if we live a distance away.  
We had to buy a transport wheelchair for the trip back to Tennessee.  For one thing, we might have to hurry her out of the heat, and for another, some parking spaces at rest stops are too far away from the door to have her use the walker and try to reach in her half-inch-at-a-time faltering gait.  When we brought the wheelchair home, she cried.  Her reaction, I have learned, is always according to her interpretation of the event.  I remember when Rachel and I flew down to see her in the hospital after her accident, Mama cried.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, “All of you coming down here - you think I’m not going to make it.”  And thus it was with the wheelchair.  Some part of her felt as if we were giving up on her, as if she were doomed to forever be nonambulatory.   I explained why we wanted it for the trip, and she understood, but kept crying because she was so anxious about traveling, about moving back, about changing routines, about everything.  I held her in my arms.  I wiped away her tears and consoled her.  I told her we would never let anything happen to her, there was no need to worry, we were there to take care of her, we will always be there for her.  We were her Solid Rocks.  She could depend on us.  And then, all of a sudden, I started crying too.  Because it was then I realized I had lost my Mama in a way that didn’t involve death or even dementia - because I had become the Parent and she the Child.  I had had inklings of this when I tried to encourage her to do something she was afraid of doing, or when I forced her to take a shower or change her clothes or brush her teeth, or cut up her food into tiny chunks, or watched to make sure she didn’t fall, or helped her get dressed...I was just too afraid to admit that our roles had become totally and irrevocably reversed.
One of the poems I had to memorize in school was “My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember it, and this week I am especially pondering one specific line - a line I didn’t understand in junior high but a line that resonates in my whole being today: “The child is father of the man.”  Only it has become “The daughter is mother of the woman.”  Life has become full circle.   My sister and I are parents again - with all the anxiety, stress, and heavy responsibility that entails.  God help us to be up to the task.
But, glory be, that is not the end of the story.  The bitter is always followed by the sweet....