Mother’s Love

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When this shelter-in-place began, my oldest son volunteered to do my shopping. I’d text him a list of what I needed and he’d pick it up along with his own groceries, and leave my supplies outside my door. And that worked well for the first week or so. But, recently, news would suggest that people his age, and especially smokers which he is, may be just as vulnerable to this virus as me – a healthy sixty-nine year old. So, I’ve decided to do my own shopping from now on. Once a month, if I can get my list organized that well. Early morning senior hours. Straight home to put my clothes directly into the washer on the hot water cycle, and get in the shower and wash my hair and every inch of my skin.

On one of my morning calls to my mom who, at ninety-one, lives alone about two and half hours up the coast from me, I told her of my new plan.

“Wear gloves and your mask,” she instructed.

“Well,” I said, “I would if I could, but since I have neither, I will just not touch my face and hurry home to wash everything when I’m done.”

Mom called two hours later.

“I sent you a package.”

“What?”

“It’s just an old mask and a package of disposable gloves I’ve had for years.”

“Well, thank you.” I said. “Wait. How did you get that mailed without leaving your house?”

A long pause.

“I have to go now.” Her voice was firm. “The cat wants out.”

And I was holding a dead phone with tears in my eyes.

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What Dreams May Come

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I have not been sleeping well. My bedtime routine is now an hour long relaxation routine. A hot, steamy shower. Lotion. Clean panties and soft t-shirt. Stretch out on the bed and relax into a thirty minute body scan. And, last and as my nightly dessert – a chapter in Clarissa Pinkola Estes The Dangerous Old Woman on Audible read by the ultimate grandmother, the author herself.

And still, I wake every hour, heart pounding, a dream slipping below the surface. Last night the dream came close enough for me to scoop up into a net of consciousness. All night, every night since news of the pandemic began weeks ago, in this reoccurring dream, I have been scrolling through computer data, searching each highlighted red or blue link, searching for magic to save me from the slow, painful, horrifying death threatened by this virus. Every click leads to more and more branches of information, like a great tree whose limbs stretch ever upward into the night sky, or perhaps like the buried roots of the grandmother tree reaching deep underground into the muck and dirt, gathering rich nutrients and life-giving rain filtered through layers of rich humus.

In the dream I am not seated in my comfortable chair in front of my computer screen. No. None of that. I am physically caught up in this information tree, moving along each tiny hair root and living, stretching path. In the dream, I know the magic to save me is here. I know, just as clearly, that the wrong turn will lead to me to the virus itself and to death. If I stand still, do not move into any of the highlighted links, I have no hope of finding the magic. But if I follow the wrong link, I will die.

No wonder I wake each hour, chest tight, breath caught in my throat.

I think I know part of what the dream is telling me. Like all humans, I search for answers to make sense of my world. I seek control. And right now, this is an overwhelming, perhaps an impossible, task.

The quarantine itself is not a particular hardship to me. I enjoy my own company, I have a giant dog who is a better listener than either of my husbands generally were, and I have a good many precious and valued friends and family members with whom I touch bases each week. I am not alone. On-line courses, books, television, and puttering in the garden keep me from being bored. I live in an area where getting out and walking while following social distancing restrictions is entirely possible. If all else fails, and this is a last resort, I put on music and clean my tiny house. It’s just big enough that cleaning gives me something to do without ruining my back.

It’s not the quarantine that bothers me. It’s the fear of dying. And not just dying, but dying alone and painfully. This fear is good in that it makes me careful. But the dream tells me my imagination has embraced far too tightly this image of this horrible death.

So, tonight, instead of my nightly body scan, I will spend a half hour envisioning myself and my friends enjoying each other’s company over a meal, or walking at the beach or in the woods. I will imagine myself and those I love, well and whole and safe from this virus which will have been defeated by science and by love and by the goodness, the god, in my human family.

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sad woman

A week ago, I felt young. Well, not young exactly. The earth’s curve exposed my last sunset, but it was a good long way off. Today, that approaching sunset is brilliantly lit. A huge red sphere sinking into the sea, my feet already wet and salty at its edge. A week ago, I adhered to the recommendations to shelter in place so as not to endanger our vulnerable population — the old, the infirm, those whose immune systems are compromised.

Today, hunkered down in my one room house with Nickie, my giant, rowdy, loving dog, my son doing my shopping and running essential errands, I face a hard truth.  I may not get that last wisdom-filled twenty years on earth I counted on. A cold knot grows in my belly. The chances are good that I will survive this pandemic, but the virus has shown me my vulnerability and that will have longer-reaching repercussions than not going to lunch with friends or canceling that much anticipated vacation, or missing a performance at HSU Theater Arts.

Sheltering in place is not a big hardship for someone like me who can sit quietly most of a rainy afternoon and enjoy the antics of a common sparrow, someone who disappears between the covers of a book or into words flying onto a blank computer screen, someone whose favorite secret pleasure is an afternoon nap. For me, staying home is a logistics problem, not a psychological hardship. What is difficult is the realization that I am, in fact, part of the vulnerable population must susceptible to this virus, that I am not the strong, invincible old crone I believed myself to be a week ago.

Luckily I have lots of time right now to meditate on my new self-image, accept my limitations, if such a thing is possible.

What about you? How are you using this gift of time?

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Cake

 

birthday cakeFifty-four years ago, after a movie at the Eureka Theater, I became, for the first time in my life, somebody’s special someone. Since this was March in the Pacific Northwest, it’s likely we were obscured in thick fog, but in my memory there was a night sky brilliant with stars as we held each other and he asked me to wear his ring. The ring was borrowed and cheap tin, but that was then, and is now, of no importance whatsoever. As a symbol it worked just fine. I don’t remember the movie we had just seen. I know we were making our way back to his parent’s house and from there I would have either walked another twenty blocks to my parent’s home, or I may have called my dad for a ride. Neither of us had a car. None of that matters. I was fifteen. That seems unbelievable. But that has to be correct because seven months later, on my sixteenth birthday, we became engaged.

This rush to commitment wasn’t about sex.

Well, of course, it was about sex. We were teenagers.  And we were good kids, both of us fulfilling an emotional need in the other, and both of us well indoctrinated. He was Catholic. It’s-a-sin-to-sleep-with-your-hands-under-the-covers Catholic. My mom explained sex to me by revealing that it was the most extraordinarily wonderful experience in the world. And if I did it before I was married, it would kill my father.

The first time this boyfriend slipped his hand under my bra, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  Afterward, when I had caught my breath, I rushed home to make sure Dad was still breathing. I was relieved to find that my going to first base hadn’t killed either of my parents.

But I digress.

Back to the importance of today’s date.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of important anniversary dates, but this one, March 5th, is the one that is the most real to me. The first time another human being declared that I was the most special person in their life.

In just over seven months, I’ll be seventy years old, and once again, I find myself single. Widowed – a status which carries its own expectations. I miss having someone to nurture and spoil, and I miss being the one person who makes someone else light up when I walk in a room. Though one should never say never, I have no desire to be married again, but I could really go for a cake and a honeymoon. And a smile when I walk in the room.

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Ordinary Thoughts on Apps, and Beatles, and the Moon Walk

This week I turned off my cable TV. At $123 a month, it was simply too expensive for me. I purchased a Fire Stick and paid a computer tech to come to my house and set my TV up with Netflix, and Hulu. He told me I also have access to Amazon Prime, so I have that available on my TV, too. Most of you could install this system on your own and skip the hourly fee for the computer tech. At the best of times, my brain is not great with technical tasks. Right now, the installation of a couple of Apps was beyond my ability.

Now, I am adjusting to the change from programed Network television, to the ability to choose from hundreds of shows to watch at any time of the day or night. That’s a good trade off, right? Especially since my monthly fee for the necessary apps is right around $20. But I find myself missing my morning news shows, my inane sitcoms which I generally had on as background and almost always ended up seriously disappointed in myself for watching at all.

I miss that.

And it took me a while to figure out why.

Last night, binge watching the third season of The Crown, (the episode where the royal family gathers around the TV, along with millions of others around the world, to watch the moon landing) I realized what I miss about my former expensive, archaic, and limited television access.

I grew up with three channels. Weekdays, 4pm, while our mothers cooked dinner, every kid in the neighborhood watched a local show called The Mr. Bill show – cartoons and puppets, mostly.  In the evening, we all sat inches from the screen and stared at Life with Elizabeth (which my sister insisted was called Life with a Lizard Butt), Father Knows Best, or Leave it to Beaver. In junior high we pressed our books to our hips and hurried home to catch American Bandstand. For the most part, we sat in our individual homes, often alone, and watched these shows, but we watched them together. We were all in love with Little Joe on Bonanza. The morning after the Beatles sang I Want to Hold Your Hand on the Ed Sullivan show, every kid at George C Jacobs Junior High talked of nothing else.

The TV connected us.

This new way of watching television is less expensive, allows more freedom, and offers vastly better choices. But, I miss my morning tea with Gail King. I miss smiling as she throws shade at one person or another. I miss wondering how that’s playing in the living rooms of Arkansas or Texas or Idaho or my next door neighbor. I miss knowing that a whole lot of other people are shaking their heads at the same lame joke on some sitcom, or smiling as Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah hit the nail on the head.

I miss the sense of community the limited choices of programed television provided for most of my life.

I feel better having traced my sense of nostalgia, but I’m keeping my apps. I may be leaning backward, but my feet, and television, are now firmly planted in the twenty-first century.

 

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Elegy

My creative spark, long dormant, is reaching toward the light. I am not sick, but rather I offer this to you as a celebration of life, of my life in particular, and in the joy and surprise each day gifts to us.

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Do not seek for me among the dead,

But, rather, among the living.

Do not trace your trembling finger along cold stone

And mourn for my warmth.

Rather,

Look for me where redwoods weave roots and reach into the heavens,

Where homeless curl inside burnt stumps left by long-dead loggers,

And children pump their feet to the sky and lean back hard

Against their own joy.

Look for me in the blush of a Cecil Brunner,

the shine of a raven’s wing,

And the soft green of a spring fiddle head.

Look for me in the cow elk who lifts her head beside a fog-shrouded lagoon,

And in the glorious smells of wild fennel, and marijuana,

and the black stink of the bay at low tide.

And look for me always

in the salmon who batter themselves against all odds

to reach the clear waters of home.

 

 

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In Time of Loss

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Winter wind shakes the gnarled fingers of barren trees at a gray sky.  In a few months, those same trees will bud and then burst into bloom, send forth new growth. In the depth of personal loss, we are often reminded by those who seek to provide comfort that joy does, in truth, cometh in the morning. Happiness, these good folks tell us, will return just as spring follows winter. But, this comparison, as it pertains to the losses that come with aging, is a false equivalency.

A more apt image of this particular loss is that of a wildfire that burns everything in its path. Of course, life does indeed return to the burned over forest. But that new life, that change, looks very little like the trees and underbrush, the layers of life that built upon itself for hundreds of years to reach the exquisite complexity which was reduced by flames to wet ash and destruction.

If we live long enough to feel the slowing down of our bodies, to watch friends leave us through death, or insanity, or addiction, or illness, we may come, then, to the understanding that our lives are rich in the ash of loss. Wildflowers flourish after a fire precisely because ash is such fertile soil for new, delicate growth. Our lives, like the burned over forest, looses complexity as we age. But when we have sufficiently mourned for our favorite shade tree, grieved for the den where the rabbits nested each year, cried for the loss of the sword ferns our grandmother always loved, then we may find pleasure in the feathery leaves of the poppy, the soft lavender of crocus, or the pale green of a fiddle head amongst the gray of loss.

 

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Stud Finder blues

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I have become weighted down in my chosen role as the victim. Yes, I am in a somewhat difficult position. My husband is three hundred miles south of me slowly dying of a horrid, progressive disease which has messed up his cognition as well as devastated his body. Dementia is not easy. My job search, at 68 and with a quirky back due to childhood scoliosis and full-spinal fusion, has not led to a single offer of employment. Hell, I haven’t even made it to a second interview and there have been very few first interviews. My attempts to transform my old en suite into a rentable AirB&B room have resulted in disarray. Lately, when met with a challenge, mentally curling up in a fetal position has become part of moving forward at my own pace.

Allow me to give you an example.

My wanna-be AirB&B room needs window treatments. I found the drapes I wanted. I’ve become expert at browsing on-line for hours for every single item needed to renovate the room, until, usually sometime in the wee hours of the morning, indecision becomes impatience and I obsessively check the specifications of the item one last time and order whatever the damn thing is I’ve been waffling about purchasing for weeks. So, the drapes came the day after Christmas and they were perfect, even better than I dared imagine.  The soft material is still laid gently across the bed so as to prevent wrinkles.

I cannot get the curtain rod up.

I’ve drilled two tiny holes in my elegant gray, just-painted wall, made a trip to the hardware store to purchase a stud finder, endured the inevitable jokes that purchase entailed, charged my drill, collected the hardware, perched on a step ladder and failed miserable to locate a stud (no jokes. Seriously. I can’t take another stud joke), and ended up with a rather large hole in my pristine wall, and the rod and hardware now laid atop the curtains on the bed.

In addition, I cannot attach the shelf to the armoire which, hopefully, will hold the TV, and I broke off one of the glass knobs while trying to accomplish this task. (crazy glue to the rescue, but still!) The reading lamp, an arch floor lamp, came yesterday. I haven’t even opened the box to attempt to put it together. The bathroom mirror will be here soon and unless I can hang that with nothing more than a hammer and nails, I’m going to need help with that also.

I have dealt with these challenges by mentally going from the specific to the general. This is rarely a good journey. Three days ago, after failing, once again, to successfully attach the curtain rod to the now pincushion-like wall, I backed out of the room and, in approximately three seconds, mentally journeyed from,

“I failed once again to get the curtain rod hung,”

to,

“I’m going to die alone in an unfinished room.”

This mental leap would be hilarious if it was not an absolutely accurate reflection of my mental state at that moment, AND I still have not ventured back into that room. In the interim, I have been having odd chest pains, and these have recently been joined by pain between my shoulder blades. In my younger days I read philosophy, minored in it in college, actually. Now I acquire all my inspiration from Facebook memes. You may have seen the one that says, Do you ever feel like your body’s check engine light has been on and you’re still driving, like, ‘nah, it’ll be fine?’

Deciding to take that meme as an omen, I got myself to the doctor who diagnosed me with costochondritis. A large Latin word which means, no worries, it’s a common condition in old people. As for the pain between my shoulder blades, which was just beginning its daily visit when I arrived for the exam, my upper back was in spasm. This is due to the scoliosis and, once again, there is nothing much to be done for it and I won’t die of it. So, all is good, though the doctor ordered a stress test just to be on the safe side.

I came home tired after a morning spent taking an exam with twenty-one significantly younger people for one open county job, and then racing to the doctor to find out that I am not dying. I spent the evening petting the dog and feeling sorry for myself, leaped, once again, from, ‘I’m tired and frustrated,’ directly and without passing go or collecting $200 fake dollars, to, ‘I’m going to die alone and crippled.’

This morning while sipping my Earle Gray, I came across this interview with my friend Alison Taylor-Brown on my Facebook feed. I really needed the inspiration this morning. Please, read it and do a comparison of her attitude and mine. I dare you. I did. Not in judgement, we all come to our goals at our own pace and with our own detours, but as an incentive to remember that we are strong women, who deserve to be happy, and who will be, if we just keep moving toward our goals.

In my case, I’m also working on asking for help when I need it without seeing that as failure. My son is coming over in an hour or two. Two friends offered to help with getting the rental room prepared and I turned them both down last week. This evening I will ask them to help with whatever my son doesn’t get done today. Life is good and there is much for which to be thankful, for instance, a son who will climb up on the ladder and attach a curtain rod securely to the wall, and friends who will volunteer their time and talents and tools to help me finish that damn AirB&B room. No more fetal position for me. At least not right this moment.

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Parallel Universe

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A few days ago I stumbled upon a theory that the Hadron Collider has flung the universe into a parallel dimension. Which would explain so much.

Those little blackouts in my memory.

Driving, I cannot remember where I’m going. Jotting down a list of three necessities I forget the last two by the time I’ve written the first on the notepad. Asking a friend to meet me at the Banana Hut for a burger, and then waiting at the Surfside Burger Stand until the friend figures it out and joins me. Waking in the night and not knowing where I am, that particular sensation morphing into an old reoccurring dream of someone standing beside my bed.

These are a few of my least favorite things.

So, what is happening to me? Are these the first, terrifying symptoms of dementia. Which would really piss me off because at sixty-eight I couldn’t even call it early-onset dementia anymore, right? Just straight-up, run-of-the-mill dementia that comes with the natural aging process.

Fuck that!

Nobody in my family has ever had dementia. Don’t get me wrong, most of us are bat-shit crazy, and complete pains in the ass to deal with for more than an hour at a time. But we’re not prone to losing our memories.

This paradigm shift in my personal reality is the work of, well, life and of life’s eternal sidekick – stress. Or, even if it’s not, I can combat stress. Dementia? Not so much. So roll with me on this one.

When Jack went into skilled nursing, I thought my life would be less demanding. These expectations of mine as he and I travel the path of his illness so often leave me rubbing my forehead and asking myself, “Who’s delusional now, Pam?”

Most of you know we worked for months to get Jack into a skilled nursing facility in our area. This was not possible given the level and complexity of the care he needs, coupled with the fact that the VA is his health insurance provider. Eight months into the search, after a particularly bad fall, I refused to bring him home from the hospital. This put the VA on the hot-seat and he was admitted into the Community Living Center attached to the San Francisco VA hospital.

The CLC is a top-notch facility with an entire hospital of specialists literally right next door. It is also just under three hundred miles south of me, on a long and winding road which is occasionally impassable in the winter. I anticipated driving down to see Jack once a month or so, of being his partner on this final leg of his journey.

He’s been at the facility for eight months now. I’ve been down to see him twice.

I can give you the reason for this In a nutshell, pun absolutely intended. Jack’s delusion is that he is going back to Vietnam to be cared for 24/7 by lovely young women who will grant his every wish. This delusion, is, no doubt, partially fueled by his desire for redemption. He spent a few months of his youth, as Jack himself told the young women we encountered when we visited Vietnam in 2000, “Killing their grandfathers and grandmothers and burning their villages.”

Now, I’ve been married to a combat Marine for thirty years, I’m fully aware that this particular delusion is also fueled by the desire for healing, in the belief that the special talents of these young, nubile young women will restore him to his former potency and return to him the control he desperately craves. See there, how clever I am with prose? I explained the reasoning behind Jack’s entire delusion and never once used a term that rhymes with DJ.

It’s a bit more than that, of course. It’s also about an eighteen year old Marine who, fifty-three years ago, died on the jungle floor and has been pissed ever since at the medic who brought him back.

In the end, the reasons for the delusion, while compelling, are beside the point. It takes two people to help Jack move from wheelchair to bed. He cannot feed or dress himself. His vision is very nearly gone. His speech fluctuates between difficult to understand and incomprehensible. His tremors are becoming increasingly violent. He’s still Jack. Under all those challenges, his courage is as extraordinary as ever. He gets up every day, interacts with the staff and the other veterans, attends activities from bocce ball to volley ball to yoga. He does what he can to participate in life. But he cannot return to Asia.

Currently, he calls me a half-dozen or so times a day. At least one of these calls is to demand that I sell the house, send him enough money for a first class plane ticket,and  get him to Asia. I do my best to distract him, but he’s as determined – as stubborn– as ever. If I do not do these things he will divorce me, force the sale of the house, change his power-of-attorney so that I am no longer his executor. He’s met with an attorney who comes to the facility to assist veterans with legal matters and he has already removed me as his first point of contact with the VA.

He has made it clear that he will not see me until I have met his demands and can show him proof of such. My presence and my inability to participate in this particular delusion are a trigger for his anger. I’ve been down to see him only twice since April. Both visits were heavily punctuated with these demands and plenty of anger when I could not comply. Both times I returned home with a weird sort of stress flu, spent a few days in bed with my belly in an uproar. Worse, each time I left Jack refusing to speak with me and more determined than ever to get to Asia. Right now he takes my calls. This was not the case a couple of weeks ago and it may not be the case tomorrow. But I spoke with him this morning and he did not yell, “She’s dead,” when the nurse told him his wife was on the line. He did demand that I sell the house.

So, you’re all caught up. More or less. Subject to change on an hourly basis.

I am grieving for my husband at the same time that I am attempting to continue to do my best for him. I am also trying to keep my own head above water, searching for employment.  It turns out that employers are not lining up to hire a sixty-eight year old who’s spend the past decade as a care provider. But more than looking for work, I am remaking my life. Building new friendships, making new plans that do not include Jack. That cannot include him. I struggle daily to convince myself that my happiness does not harm Jack.

So, in an effort to combat a slide into my very own parallel universe, I embarked on a mission of self-care. I downloaded an app and am meditating twenty minutes morning and night. Which, two weeks into the program, might actually be helping. I walked all the way across the kitchen this morning and managed to write down all three items I need to pick up later today at Costco.

So, you know. Progress.

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