Day 7 – The Keeper of Secrets

The word “secret” has so many nuanced meanings. Some secrets are precious – the “secret recipe,” for example. Then there is “The Secret,” the power of intention that some believe can make a strawberry ice cream cone appear without them lifting a finger to help themselves. Other secrets are neutral. I hold a lot of confidential information for my clients. The “secrets” aren’t necessarily dark or ominous – they simply aren’t anyone else’s business.

When Mom died a week and a half ago, her secrets died with her. At 50 years of age, I realize how little I know about my mother’s years before me. I know a few select stories, of course – the ones that she told regularly. Those are committed to memory, some word for word. There are other stories that died with her – good and bad. I now have to make peace with the things that I will never know. There are curious, half-formed memories from childhood that will now never be explained.

When I was a young girl, my questions were met with “we’ll talk about that when you are older.” As I grew into adulthood, the deflection became, “I’d rather talk about you,” or “I need to go to the store.” I didn’t press for answers because I didn’t want to upset Mom. Making Mom cry was something I tried to avoid at all costs. I love(d) my Mom.

Ready or not, I have a new position in life. I am the oldest female. I have become the reluctant matriarch, for want of a better word. Like my mom, there are things I don’t talk about – things that are a part of me and that have shaped me and thus have shaped the lives of my children.

Without living parents to think about, I have the freedom to bring “secrets” into the daylight where they can fade without worrying about hurting feelings. No, I won’t be writing a salacious “tell all.” My life hasn’t been “that” interesting.

I do believe, however, that it is time to write my own “book of secrets.” My secret recipes. My secret thoughts. My private past. Someday when I am gone, one of my children may wonder what experiences shaped me. I can only tell them my side of the story, or at least my memory of it.  My story would never be a bestseller.  Indeed, it would probably be boring to even my own children.  Still, one day they may have questions about what experiences made me into who I am.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet, but I’ve been through enough of her things to know that there probably isn’t a “book of secrets” waiting to be discovered. It’s a shame, but at the same time, it is also a relief. I can live my life authentically. I can choose not to wear the title of the “keeper of secrets.” I control the narrative. I can tell my story without being a victim of anything or anyone in my past. I can choose not to die with my words still in me.

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Day 5 – Be Authentic

I learned many lessons during Day 4, but I didn’t write about them. I was in a dark mood. I didn’t feel like doing anything except knitting and wasting time on social media, so I didn’t.

I spent a few minutes reviewing some of the comments that readers have left on my previous blog posts. One of the comments that I received recently made note of the observation that although there have been very difficult times in the past year or so, my posts have been (mostly) positive. That is by design, but I realize that perhaps that isn’t the for the greatest good.

I write as a way to cope with my emotions. Being sad, depressed or lonely feels bad. Being angry and anxious feels bad. For me, and I believe for many others, emotions each have a physical sensation that feels “good,” “bad,” or “neutral.”

These past months have been extraordinarily difficult. There have been many days during which I have lashed out at people who care the most about me. There have been days that I have cried and days that I have shirked responsibilities. I have made nasty comments under my breath and though unkind thoughts.

I will be the first to admit that I am extraordinarily imperfect. I strive to be positive and to show kindness. Some days I fail. Some days I am a miserable person to be around.

There would be something wrong with me if I only felt happiness while my mother was dying. I experienced sadness, rage, confusion and frustration on a daily basis. I had some really bad days.

I wrote in a journal daily. I let the feelings out. I didn’t keep them inside, and by letting them out in the light, I was able to deal with them. Writing about the negative emotions felt like opening the curtains on a dark room and throwing open the windows to allow the clean air to come in.

Many problems don’t look so big or so scary when you put them on a piece of paper.

I started writing in a new journal 3 days before Mom was hospitalized in August. I chose a book with black paper because I felt like even a grocery list could look elegant written in white ink on black paper. I filled every page of that book. Today I filled the last page. I’ve never been so relieved to finish filling a journal and being able to move on. Instead of a black book with black pages and a black cover, I’m next writing in a beautiful book wit a purple cover embellished with beautiful colors. The pages are ivory and they have lines so that my writing doesn’t end up all crooked.

I hope that the sadness and anger that sometimes filled those black pages becomes a thing of the past as I move out of this dark chapter in my life.

Death visits us all. My experience is not special or unique. Losing a parent is the “natural order” of things. Although I won’t allow myself to wallow in grief, the words of a dear friend remind me to be kind to myself. “You are never truly prepared to say goodbye to your mother, no matter hard you try.” He was right.

I’m not feeling very happy or positive today. I’m also not feeling very negative today. I’m pretty close to “neutral” on the emotional spectrum, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be at this stage in the grieving game.

Spread kindness, sprinkle joy. Be authentic.

Day 3 in the Life of a Motherless Mother – Being Present

When someone you love has a terminal illness, life necessarily revolves around their needs. When clothing gets lost in the nursing home laundry, new clothing must be purchased. Who’s visiting today? Do we need to change the hearing aid batteries? What little thing can we do to provide comfort or give her a glimpse of joy?

My mother took great pride in her grandchildren. She used to love going to concerts and plays, and when her health declined we began recording parts of performances to share with her. Last night our youngest son’s high school choir put on a performance of Carmina Burana. I took my seat and scanned the program and saw that my son, Matt, had a solo that he had neglected to tell me about.

As Matt made his way from his spot on the risers to his designated spot at the front of the stage, I started to grab for my phone to switch into video cam mode. I thought for a moment and stopped. There was no need for recording. Mom isn’t here now to share this moment later.

I was reminded of a trip to Disney World many years ago. We had purchased a new video camera, and I watched Fantasmic! through a 1.5 inch viewer screen. Instead of witnessing the Disney magic live and in person, I watched it on a tiny screen. I thought then that I would want to watch it again or to share it with my parents who were back home, but I never did. I missed out on the depth of that experience because I was trying to capture it for later – for someone else. It took me another 18 years to learn the lesson that life is for living right here, right now.

Last year my husband and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. As I saw it for the first time, I looked at my husband and said, “I can’t photograph this. You have to see it to understand.” I lived that moment in full color, letting the canyon overwhelm my senses with the sheer magnitude of nature.

Last night at the concert, tears ran down my face as Matt sang the role of a dying swan lamenting that he was being roasted. There were tears of pride at the fine young man that he has become along with tears of sadness that I won’t be playing back his solo on my iPad in a few days and watching to see a smile on Mom’s face. Along with my tears, there was the realization that I was watching my son and his friends sing – not through a lens or on a screen. For the first time in years, my focus was on the performers and not on capturing the moment for someone else.

I didn’t record Matt’s performance last night. It exists only in my memory. What a gift.

Day 2 in the Life of a Motherless Mother – Loss is Universal – Grief is Indivdual

The writer in me outlined an agenda of all of the “lessons” that life and death would teach me, in order, for the next two weeks. Having buried a husband, my father, and many others close to me, I foolishly thought that I had learned the lessons that death had to teach me. I thought that I knew how to handle grief. Confirmation bias goes out the window when you’re learning about grief all over again.

I went back to work for a few hours yesterday. I had a list of work-related goals that I wanted to accomplish but I kept it short. One, two, three. Done.  I began a blog post about bringing dull and lifeless diamonds back to life by giving them a good cleaning.  I paused the blogging to run an errand out of town.  No big deal.  I was accomplishing tasks right an left.  I got a little cocky.

I decided that my hair needed a trim. I pulled into the parking lot of a “no appointment necessary” establishment. I froze. I realized in just that instant that I couldn’t bear the small talk that a 15-minute haircut involves.  If my hairdresser asked how I was doing, I ran the risk of all of the emotion that I was holding back bubbling out through my tear ducts and making a mess of my shirt. I don’t recall if I actually shed tears in the parking lot, but I put the car into drive and headed back home.

My daughter celebrated her birthday yesterday. “How can we celebrate anything when Mom is gone?” I asked myself. Daughter wanted Mexican food. She wanted to go out – I didn’t think I could bear it, so we compromised and I made Taco Tuesday on a Wednesday. We sang the birthday song from Chi-Chi’s restaurants (how I miss them) and we enjoyed a meal together, minus the teenager who is never home these days.  We had a brief celebration and then I went to the living room to hibernate.

While I pined for Mom, I flipped mindlessly through Facebook and saw again that a high school classmate and her mother were grieving the loss of a brother and son. Another friend was mourning the loss of a beloved pet. Others were passing the anniversary of the death of a parent. I talked to my cousin who lost his father last week. Death will touch us all. Loss is Universal.

My sister-in-law reached out yesterday. We had a brief text exchange. We agreed that losing a mother is different than other losses. It stings.

I didn’t just lose my mother. I lost the person I called upon for advice. I lost the person I called to share my happiness. I’ve lost track of just how many times I have though “I should tell Mom” in just the past five days. Dad wasn’t my “go to” person for the kinds of things that Mom was.

I can honor Mom’s memory by allowing grief to wash over me as it comes. I will further honor her by not allowing myself to be swept away. I have many “lifeguards” who have offered assistance if I should find myself floundering in an ocean of tears.

As Day 2 came to a close, I realized that while my grieving process for Mom is different than any I have gone through before, I am not alone. Nearly all of us will have the experience of grieving a parent. Loss is universal. Grief is individual. No two people will grieve their mother the same way. The loss of a mother will be grieved differently than the loss of a father.  Life marches on.

Day 1 in the life of a motherless mother. Seek Beauty.

We buried my mother yesterday. She died on a Friday and we buried her on the following Monday. There was no real time for grief between death and burial. As the oldest child – the only child living in the U.S. – the responsibility to make arrangements fell squarely on my shoulders.

There was shopping for suitable clothing for burial to be done, clergy to be found, scriptures to be selected. Although Mom had “pre-planned” the service, there was still a 2 hour appointment at the funeral home.

there were phone calls to be made and announcements to be written. Worst of all were the fires that needed to be put out and the ruffled feathers that needed to be soothed.

Death brings out the worst in some of us.

I spent Sunday night doing difficult work – consciously working through anger and resentments and letting them go. I learned that forgiveness TRULY is for the forgiver and not for the perceived transgressor. I entered the funeral home on Monday with only love and sadness in my heart.

I didn’t arrange a meal, but my cousin surprised us all with a trip to Denny’s, where we enjoyed fellowship and more than a laugh or two.

Today, though, it is my first day back to “normal” without my mom. Tuesday is always my “day off.” That doesn’t stop me from fielding a handful of phone calls and responding to emails, and today is no exception.

As with most days, I had a to-do-list. Mine was pretty simple: run, cry and get a massage. I managed two out of three. I decided that calling to make a massage appointment would take too many spoons, so I let myself off the hook on that one.

Grief is a funny thing. I can be laughing one moment and then something that Mom would say or do hits me in the gut. Something will happen and I think, “I should call Mom.” I think of all of the days when I forgot to call her, or when I was tired and thought to myself, “I’ll call in the morning.”

I remind myself that forgiving myself is possibly more important than forgiving others.

I ticked “cry” off of my list early and often. “Run” was harder. I donned my cold-weather running gear quite early in the day, but I found other tasks to put off the run. I revised my monthly Amazon subscriptions (twice), I rearranged some flowers that I brought home from the funeral. I made tea, ate a snack and played with the dogs.

finally, I kicked myself out the door. I wore a heavy fleece jacket over my long-sleeved technical shirt and a baby-alpaca cap on my head. I drove to the park where my favorite trail “lives” and I checked Facebook and Instagram for “likes” while willing myself to get out of the car and run.

I took a deep breath and opened the car door. I shed the cap and the sweater, knowing I would be too warm after a mile or so. I queued up my playlist and started my GPS watch. I think I made it 200 or 300 yards before the cold wind cut through and chilled me to the bone. Teeth chattering, I turned tail to call it quits. On the (short) trip back to the car a small voice spoke. “You have a jacket and a cap. Use them.” I did just that.

I paused the GPS and I pulled on the warmer clothing. Returning to the trail, I set off at a slow, steady pace. I paid attention to my breath and to the path. Fallen leaves covered hidden roots and rocks. Running safely became an exercise in being present. I did look around me and saw the brilliant hues of autumn. As I emerged from the first loop to the second (of three), I saw bluest skies in the clearing. As I ran through the meadow I skipped over puddles from the previous days’ downpours.

I stopped time and again to take photos to attempt to capture the moments of sheer awe at the world I have the privilege to run through on my two feet. I exited the second loop to make my way to the third loop and found what is normally a trail to be a six-inch deep pond / stream. I decided “let’s not get crazy now,” and decided that multiple loops around the “middle” loop would do.

I looped the “middle” loop three times, all in the same direction. Each trip round the loop I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. On the first trip it was the view of the fields and trees across the clearing. On the second trip it was the low-hanging branch that I could reach up and touch. On the third trip, it was the prints of an unknown creature in the mud beside my own footprint.

Although I did, indeed, become quite warm in my cap and jacket, I made it 3.5 miles. I got to check “run” off of my mental list. As I guided my car through the twists and the turns of the parking lot to return home, I saw a brilliant crimson tree with the sunlight shining through its leaves. It was so beautiful that it took my breath away. I stopped the car to snap a photo which, of course, didn’t do it justice.

I returned home and inhaled the heady fragrance of a yellow rose the size of a peach. I sought out color and fragrance and sound that gave me glimpses of joy, and that joy brought me comfort. #Comfortandjoy was the hashtag I adopted for an abandoned attempt at building a MLM empire. It’s become my new theme for living through grief.

Today’s lesson was evident – seek beauty. It is everywhere. Enjoy it with every breath. Seek out beauty and find joy. In them, find comfort.

They call it the present because today is a gift.

I love it already!

There is a story about an old woman, recently widowed, who is moved to a nursing home.  The woman is blind and cannot live independently.  She waits, without family, in the lobby as her paperwork is completed and her room made ready.  A staff member describes the room in great detail to her as she waits.  “I love it already!” the old woman exclaims.

The nursing home staff member asks her, “How do you know you love it?  You haven’t been inside it yet.”

The old woman, blind but wise, says, “The actual room and its furnishings has nothing to do with it.  I’ve already decided that I love it.  Happiness is a decision you make on purpose.”

I’m paraphrasing the story.  I saw it originally on Facebook, and a google search showed that a similar story, but not quite the one that I remember was written by Joyce Meyer in “The Mind Connection:  How the Thoughts You Choose Affect your Mood, Behavior and Decision.

It’s been some time since I wrote a blog post.  To be honest, I’ve been feeling very sorry for myself.  We discovered at the beginning of August that my 88 year old mother’s cancer had caused pathological fractures in her spine and right hip.  She elected to have 10 radiation treatments to “beat it back” to alleviate the pain. Although I begged her to come stay with me for the duration of the treatments, she steadfastly refused to leave her home.

The treatments were harder than she expected.  Due to the area that was being treated, there was a lot of irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract.  She was frequently nauseated and vomiting, and there was nothing that I could do about it.  Once the treatment started at the cancer center near her home, it couldn’t be transferred to the sister center near mine because of differences in equipment and dosages.

The day after her last treatment we received a call that she was gravely ill, and that management at her independent living community had determined that she was no longer independent enough to stay in her home.  She was a danger to herself and potentially others.   She had to leave, and I needed to be there when they broke the news to her.

I finished up some urgent matters at my office and drove south to Mom’s home.  I packed up a handful of things in case I needed to stay overnight.  When I arrived, Mom was sitting in her chair.  Although we hadn’t spoken, she acted like she was expecting me.  “I’ve decided to take you up on your offer to come stay with you. It will be a little vacation at your house – let’s see how it goes.  I need some help.”

I was delighted that she had made the decision on her own.  I knew that once she arrived at my home, she was unlikely to return to hr own, but we didn’t talk about that.  I tried to get her to just get into the car so that I could help her (and so that my family could help me…)  She refused.  She needed to “clean the house,” and she couldn’t miss her doctor appointment in two days.  I decided to stay with her for those two days.

To make a very long story very short, the doctor appointment never happened.  Instead, my very sick mother slipped into a rapid decline and ended up spending the next two weeks in a series of moves that included two emergency rooms, three hospital rooms, two nursing home rooms and a bunch of procedure rooms.

I was with her night and day for more than a week that seemed like an eternity.  Somewhere around day 4, my mom started to disappear.  She changed from my loving mother to a scared, angry woman who told me that I was evil.  She went from praising the staff to believing that they were possessed by Satan.

She was treated for electrolyte imbalances and a urinary tract infection. Each time they discovered a deficiency, I grasped onto hope that correcting it would bring my mother back.  It didn’t.

She finally settled into a nursing home for rehabilitation.  She was unable to do even the most basic self-care chores for herself.

I really, really wish that I could tell you that she is like the old woman in the beginning of this post and that she was determined to like her room before she even saw it.  Instead, each time I would visit her in the nursing home, she would berate me.  She would accuse me of tricking her into agreeing to stay with her so that I could put her into a nursing home where they torture her, make her fly on trapezes, tie her to the bed, punch her in the stomach, and leave her alone in the dining room for hours and hours without help.  Gradually, I came to accept that the person that I love as my mother has rather suddenly disappeared.

One trip she told me that I am not her daughter anymore.  Another time she told me that there are two of me.  One is evil and one is her daughter, and she is not sure which one I am.  She tells me that she wants to go home – but now she thinks that home is in Kidron, where we lived for many years, but she hasn’t lived there in a decade.  Every visit, she asks me how her mom is – my grandma – who died when I was a little girl.  Every visit, she tells me that she wishes that she had just died.

For two weeks at least, it seemed that everything made me cry.  I stopped doing the things that I love to do.  I stopped doing the things that help me to function – to stave off anxiety and depression.  Instead, I cried.  Sometimes I raged – I would scream in the car driving down the road when nobody could hear me.  I have often told other caregivers “You cannot pour from an empty cup,” but when faced with the same sort of scenario in my own life, I poured and poured and poured until there was nothing left to give, and it still was not enough.

I would start projects  – writing projects, crochet projects, cleaning projects -and then I would abandon them.  My living room became filled with half-done afghans, dish cloths and hats.

One day a few weeks ago when I didn’t have court or client scheduled, I didn’t get out of bed until past 10:00 a.m.  I’m an early riser.  I get up, make coffee and then journal, meditate, and study.  My husband knew then that something was very wrong.

We were blessed with a beautiful weekend in late September.  My husband suggested a boat trip to an island.  Reluctantly I agreed to leave – immediately.  Instead of packing a large cooler full of food to prepare, we left with just our clothing and toiletries, a couple of packs of lunch meat, a loaf of bread, a bag of trail mix and another of potato chips, and elected to treat ourselves to a whole weekend of restaurants.

Although I used to run many miles each month, I had stopped doing that, too, over the course of the summer.  There was a charity run scheduled for Saturday that weekend on the island, and I decided to register and do my best.  I joined several hundred runners at the start line.   There were several times that I had a hard time seeing the road because the tears were flowing so hard.  I wasn’t in physical pain -it was a mental and spiritual battle. I crossed the finish line with tears streaming down my face.  I started something, and I finished it.  The 5k run didn’t become another unfinished project.

I wish that I could say that I snapped out of my funk and began living life again immediately after that 5k, but the truth is that it took another week of slowly beginning again to use the tools that helped me to function after the last crisis in our family.

Anyone who has followed me on Facebook or in my blogs for any period of time knows that I tend to post the happy things.  My life is spent cultivating joy whenever possible.  It’s easy to find joy in a flower when life is smooth sailing.  Applying the tools is much more difficult when the waves are crashing and it seems that the world is burning down around you.

I’m learning that people can’t hurt our feelings.  It’s our own thoughts about events that hurt us.  It’s our own thoughts about life that bring us joy.

For those weeks in September, I spent all of my energy trying to find a solution for Mom’s mental decline.  I spent hours combing my memory trying to find signs that the dementia was there all along and I just missed it.  I spent hours trying to convince her that she’s in a place for help and that she still has a life to live if she just tries.  that “project” took all of the time and attention from all of the other “projects” in my life.  I finally realized that making myself miserable and allowing depression and anxiety creep back into my life – forgoing joy and happiness won’t bring my mother joy.  It won’t bring her peace.  It won’t make her want to live.

I choose life.  Mom will be 89 in a few weeks.  Whether or not she emerges from this event, her life is nearing its natural end.   My visits always upset her.  I no longer see her every day.  It’s not good for her, and it’s really horrible for me.  If she tells my kids that she wants something, I send it.  I’ve stopped worrying so much about what other people think about the matter.

I’ve finished crocheting two cowls and I’m almost done with a poncho that I started at the beginning of summer.  I ran again this week.  I am back into my morning routine.  I go to sleep giving thanks and I wake up anticipating a great day.

I am here to love my life, no matter what may come.  It’s the only life I have, and I’m not about to waste it.  This weekend I am setting up my office in a different room in the same building.  I don’t know exactly what furnishing will fit or how they will look, but I love it already.  I’m going to learn to knit on Thursday.  I don’t know what I will make, but I love it already.

I don’t know what may come, but I’m certain that I can find beauty and comfort in it.  I love it already!

This one’s for you 

There was a time not so many years ago when I would write for the joy of writing. I would write stories and poems.  I wrote term papers and articles.  I enjoyed writing.  I enjoyed sharing my writing.  One day it came back to me through the grapevine that someone felt that my writing was “passive aggressive.”  They felt that it was directed at I them.  Maybe it was. I can’t tell you what was in my head at the time.  

Writing was an outlet for my feelings.  Feelings are not always right or wrong.  Brooke Castillo (check out her podcast) says that the thoughts that we have about a circumstance cause our feelings.  If that is correct, then we can change our feelings by changing our thoughts. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. 

I get anxiety. I won’t say that I suffer from it (although I sometimes do), but the fact is that I experience anxiety is truth.  I am feeling anxiety right now. I am anxious that this blog post isn’t eloquent or polished.  I get anxious that people will think there’s something inferior about me because I admit that I have anxiety. 

Anxiety has a physical quality. My tummy feels a little funny and it feels like someone is squeezing my voice box. Sometimes it feels like my heart is beating in my throat. Sometimes anxiety has an identifiable source. Other times, it’s just there. 

My anxiety has a host of symptoms that accompany it. Sometimes I worry. I play a scenario out in my head and invent a dozen potential outcomes – some of them catastrophic. It’s rather like the movie “Groundhog Day.”  Sometimes there aren’t conscious thoughts – just a feeling of impending doom. 

I used to love to add to this blog. I allowed anxiety to take it away from me. I worried about what other people might think of me as a person or as a professional. I stopped writing. 

Like other things in life, anxiety ebbs and flows. When anxiety reaches its high tide mark, I stop creating. It takes too much energy. There is nothing left for music or writing. I can get through the things that I have to do, but there isn’t energy left to create.  

When my anxiety is high, I hope for an invitation to spend time with someone then make myself sick being anxious about it. If I can push through the anxiety, I nearly always have a great time. It’s getting there that is the problem. 

I know some remarkable people who have anxiety.  Over time, we learn ways of coping with it, or even harnessing it. I’m no expert on treating anxiety- or even coping with anxiety, but I have survived anxiety for at least 35 years, which qualifies me to say it can be done. 

I’m constantly seeking and evaluating new approaches to dealing with anxiety. Some work better than others. My anxiety toolbox includes exercise, meditation and essential oils.  Sometimes it has included medication and therapy. 

May is mental health awareness month. Perhaps this post would have been more appropriate last month, but the truth is that admitting you have anxiety causes…(you guessed it…) more anxiety!

My hope is that there is someone out there who reads this who will say, “I am not alone.”  I’m putting this blog out in the world unedited, flaws and all, to prove to myself that it’s okay to do C+ work once in a while.  If you think this is for you, it probably is. Tell me what you think.  We can talk about it. It would make me anxious…but I think I’d like it.