A Rainy Day Analogy

Northern CA. has been getting pounded with weather this past month, and if the truth be told, I’m one of those crazy individuals who actually likes the rain. I find it cleansing and sometimes a signal to slow down with the day-to-day busyness of life and curl up with a good book.

Slowing down and napping on a sunshiny day just doesn’t seem right. One time I actually told my Pastor that I couldn’t understand how people could in fact die on a sunlit day – that death seemed more appropriate for rainy, cloudy days – and that life and living seemed more suitable for sunny days. Needless to say, my Pastor was a little flummoxed with our conversation that day. She awkwardly changed positions on our couch many times, while she tried to explain to me just why I may not have a choice in the matter.

I respectfully listened and acknowledged her reasoning, but it’s been 8 years since we had that little chat, and I still think it’s unnatural to die on a cloud-less day. Just seems like an oxymoron of sorts to me, but what do I know? The Princess and I are moving to the state of Washington, soon.

I don’t think I’ll have that problem any more.

That’s what all my well-meaning friends and relatives keep telling us: We’re headed to the land of constant rain slickers and duck boots, and sunglasses are a thing of the past; or so we’ve been warned. Guess it’ll make my impending twilight years and eventual death easier to deal with, eh?

At least my rainy-day analogy says so.

And it’s not death that has me so concerned these days, as much as the concept of growing old while trying to maintain my dignity and independence.

As I write this, I’m struggling with the fact that my mom and loved ones are three thousand miles away from me trying hard to maintain some semblance of independence; some modicum of respect and autonomy. Each of them fighting hard not to be an imposition on their friends or relatives, and each of them realizing that Father Time is playing havoc with their bodies.

In 1983, in response to her 55-year-old mother’s need for extended care after she suffered a devastating stroke, Keren Brown Wilson built her first assisted living house in the state of Oregon. What she and her husband envisioned when they built Park Place was an assisted living center that provided assistance, while at the same time giving the residents a sense of independence and privacy. She wanted the elderly to feel the sense of being home and not imprisoned or institutionalized, and by many accounts she succeeded.

The problem, as I see it, resulted when she wanted to reach more elderly and went to Wall Street for capital to build more places. Her company went public and their original concept of assisted living got watered-down. She went to Congress and spoke across the country trying to enlist the help necessary to sustain her original ideology, but was hit head-on with the medical and legal road-blocks of the ever-elusive concept of the “continuum of care” ideology.

And sadly, the idea of assisted living, as she defined it, all but died.

As I sit here today in the heart of Silicon Valley and think about how advanced we are in so many areas of society, I can’t help but see the paradox: is our technological evolution creating a people bereft of compassion and humanness, and do we need to seriously re-examine what is important to us as a civilization?

I don’t know about you, but when it’s time for me to hang up my saddle before I ride in my last rodeo, I want to know that I’m going to be assisted by people who care about me. I need to know that I’m not just a chore. It’s important that I am seen for who I am: a loving, kind woman who gave to her family and society and now requires a little assistance in return.

Dr. Wilson continues to advocate for hard-to-serve elders both in the United States and in Central America. I pray that her efforts are soon legitimized and honored by those in power. We seriously need to change our view on aging and what it means to “grow old”.

Until next time, be kind to one another, and I’ll catch you the next go-round, looking at life from my shoes.

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Silent Drive Home

I’ve come to the inauspicious conclusion in life that old age doesn’t kill us – loneliness does. On a recent trip home this fall to visit my family members and friends in the heart of the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, I had the unmistakable experience of seeing firsthand what isolation does to people when they’ve been indiscriminately placed in elder care and then unintentionally ignored over a period of time.

I went home to see my mom and help out with some day to day activities of shopping, cleaning and cooking to lighten her workload and visit with her while we did our routine activities every day. What greeted me upon my arrival was something totally and completely unexpected: my uncle (her youngest brother) was hospitalized and subsequently placed in a nursing home, and my mom was depressed and not eating or socializing.

When I travel back to my childhood home, I expect to be emotional about seeing people and places that I haven’t seen in a long time – it’s part of what makes me, me. What I don’t expect, though, is to be so completely and totally inundated with feelings of powerlessness in situations that I have no control over – I don’t expect to be so thoroughly overwhelmed when I looked at faces long lost to any semblance of hope or redemption.

Every day I taxied my mom to and from the nursing home to see her baby brother. Every day my uncle’s strength improved, my mom’s resilience did, too. Where I once saw helplessness and desperation in mom’s eyes, eventually I noticed a life-force slowly coloring her cheeks and soon after an appetite for food and activity.

In November 2015, I read an article in the New York magazine that described a study on relationships called, “The Widowhood Effect,” and how when one spouse dies, the likelihood of their partner dying increased significantly. My mother and uncle aren’t “partners,” as such, but have had a close relationship since their youth, and I seriously began to wonder if my mom’s passing would mirror this study. She certainly was not doing well when I first landed, and I began to wonder if instead of a visit with friends and loved ones, I’d be attending a funeral for a favorite uncle and soon after a wake for my mom.

Allowing myself a brief time to deal with the emotions of the situation, one day a flicker of life suddenly appeared in my mom’s sweet eyes; and I decided that this little, gray-haired Italian passerotta (term of endearment for sparrow) still had some hell-raising left to do, and so I set out to make changes as needed.

Operation passerotta started and soon after success came as gradual and beautiful as the leaves changing colors on the hills of the surrounding Adirondack mountains.

She sat in silence. I sat quietly nearby.

I cooked and ate. She eventually started cooking and eating.

And very soon after, I became my funny, wise-cracking self, and she became her feisty rompicoglioni (pain in the butt) self.

Her brother’s physical therapy started working, and soon we started doing other things besides trips to the nursing home. Shopping at the dollar store, picking up a few things at the local grocery store – all things she routinely did before her brother’s ill health – slowly began to be part of her daily agenda; slowly began to blossom.

What amazed me each day, though; what never seemed to be missing with mom was her unconditional kindness and unwavering love for others.

Every day she dressed and put-on a little makeup. Then she walked down her apartment’s long hallway, deliberately grasping the handrails to guide herself toward the apartment steps that she took one at a time; careful not to fall or trip on her way out to her rusted, but reliable Flintstone car. And off we’d slowly drive over familiar roadways, past familiar homes.

“Take a left here,” she reminded me. “Go straight over the Meco Flats,” she continued.

“Make sure you watch for that pot hole on Easterly. I think it’s right there. Stop at the stop light and drive slowly. We don’t want to miss the turn-off,” she gently guided me as if carefully reminding herself.

“Why are you smiling?” she’d ask and continued before I responded. “Wait ‘till you get old. You’ll soon be doing the same.”

I sighed and kept smiling and went on with the drive until we reached the nursing home. Every day she walked into the place, she left a little love: a little kindness.

“I see you.” She said to the wheel-chair-bound woman sitting in the entrance hallway. “I see you,” she continued as she bent closer to her face and gently cupped her cheeks between her hands. “And I love you,” she whispered into her ear, as she smiled and kissed her cheek.

“And God bless you, too. Have a nice day.”

And down the hall she’d shuffle, taking a moment or two to acknowledge most everyone she’d pass.

Every day, we’d do the same thing. And every day she’d acknowledge the living and honor their spirit, and on the last trip to the nursing home – the last trip to my uncle’s temporary abode – we rounded the hallway’s corner to walk down one last time to sign him out and escort him home, and life hit us head-on.

I know my mother saw it. There was no mistaking it. What once was a life force, a life fully lived; was a being no more, was a soul for the heavens. A person of substance, now an inanimate lump. What once was a human, was vaguely hidden from view, by a flimsy, gray sheet on a one-way-wheeled stretcher; a stretcher of eternal rest.

We continued our walk until we reached my uncle’s room. It was time to go home and he was eagerly waiting. It was time to live life and continue what God planned.

Papers were signed, brief wishes exchanged and out the door we headed; out the door he was wheeled. Conversations were limited and emotions were raw; one last look at the stretcher-one last look at life stilled.

I looked for the wheel-chair lady. I know my mom did, too, but nowhere could I see her; nowhere was she found.

We drove home in silence – overwhelmed by the day. I remember the bright sun and blue sky and the rolling lush hills, speckled with the hint of color from a few frosted evenings, touched by the Adirondack cool air, and I silently thanked God for my car-mates and said a quiet prayer of gratefulness.

Life is precious.

Be kind to each other, People, and I’ll catch ya next time, looking at life from my shoes.

 

 

Last Look

Four years ago, I drove across the Bay and met a couple of friends out for lunch. We had a grand day chatting with each other and doting on the one friend’s new grand baby that her daughter dropped by to show us. From all outward appearances, we were just three good friends talking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company. No one would have suspected that one of us had stage 4 cancer and was weeks away from dying; weeks away from leaving her friends and loved ones and succumbing to a disease that she had so gallantly and courageously battled.

I don’t remember the topics of conversation or laughter and it really doesn’t matter. What I do remember, though, is the way Janet looked at me when we started leaving that afternoon. I remember those piercing, loving blue eyes of hers and the killer smile that always made you feel loved and cared for; and how she stood in the parking lot as the three of us were saying goodbye and how time suddenly stood still as she appeared to take a mental picture of us and everything around her.

And the longer she looked, the tighter the knot twisted in the pit of my stomach. I knew my friend, and I remember feeling that something was terribly wrong. So, taking the bull by the horns, I asked her if there was something else she needed to tell us – if the cancer had worsened?

She gave me that reassuring smile of hers and told me to get on the freeway – that she’d give me an update on everything as soon as she knew – as soon as the Doctors told her.

“Stop worrying,” she lovingly scolded. “I promise I’ll call.”

I knew that she wouldn’t. She knew it, as well. But what could I do? What could I say? We all got into our cars and home we wistfully drove.

And shortly after our lunch date, regular communication with Janet stopped.

Phone calls went unanswered. Emails and Facebook messages were far and few between. And those messages that were answered were cryptically short. The panic set in. The realization that my dear friend was dying hit home. She was leaving without saying good-bye. She was leaving and protecting me – protecting me one last time – not because she was selfish; not because she didn’t care…. She was so dedicated to me, so faithful and so caring. She knew I was unwell. She knew I was fatigued. She knew the drive over to her would be taxing and compromising, so she kept me at bay; kept me safely ensconced in a protective cocoon.

Like a butterfly escaping and transforming anew, I broke thru my cocoon and eventually her denial; and insisted I drive over – insisted I come – because I selfishly needed to; selfishly cared.

She knew that I loved her. She knew how I felt. She knew that I needed one last time for “good-byes”.

My dedicated, loyal friend; my Lancelot from the start. School was our Camelot and I was her Arthur. From the moment I met her, she was my aide, my confident. She graciously followed and did more than assist; she inspired and cheered and laughed when I blundered – and always the protector – she lifted me gently and helped me transform. She taught me, she cared for me; and when I was too ill to teach, she selflessly took over and never complained.

“How could my Lancelot die?” I needed to know why.

So ride-over I did and our visit was great. We ate and we laughed and we said our farewells.

And when I arose from her bedside to leave her frail, beautiful, blue-eyed-self, wearily lying in her bed that day; I remember walking toward the bedroom door, eyes misting, looking at the floor; not wanting to look back, not wanting to break down. But me being me, and her being her – I glanced back one last time, took-in her loving eyes one more moment, and then broke down sobbing, as she bravely smiled on, and out the door I went – out the door I staggered.

Crawling into my car, I began to compose myself, when I suddenly saw Janet’s husband gallantly standing on the sidewalk next to my door.

“Hey,” he began. “You doin’ ok?”

“Janet’s worried that you’re too upset to drive all that way,” he continued.

“She sent me out to make sure you’re alright. So, that’s what I’m doing, ‘cuz you know Janet, and if I don’t she’ll be upset. So, are you ok?” he dutiful asked.

I answered that I was and he nodded ok.

I drove on and got home and have no idea how; but of this I am grateful, of this I am certain – Janet’s life was a precious, flawless gift to me, and I will always be thankful for her dedicated, unconditional love that she showered on me and so many others.

Last year, as I celebrated my 60th with a whale watching trip out of Monterey Bay, I thought of Janet (as I often do on especially beautiful days) as we headed-out on the open seas of the Bay, and began to tear-up for a brief time, when I suddenly sensed this light presence next to my glasses and noticed a monarch butterfly fluttering to the right of me. I never saw a butterfly so far away from shore before and it brought a smile to my face and lightened my heart. As I watched it disappear into the horizon, I couldn’t help but think that somehow this beautiful butterfly was Janet’s attempt (from beyond) to let me know that she was ok and that it was time to let go; that she lost her battle with cancer, but that our friendship was still intact and that she was an integral part of my life and who I was – that as long as I was alive, SHE was alive – and for that I am eternally grateful.

May you all be blessed with the unconditional love of a friend or dear one, and may you know the joy of bestowing that same love on another.

I’ll catch you the next time, looking at life from my shoes!

I