And The Horse You Rode In On

The Wicked Witch. That’s how a Wizard of Oz personality test on Zimbio.com once pegged me.  “Vile, foul, odious and deleterious to all.”  My vocabulary is above average, but I still had to look up the last two adjectives to be sure I understood.  Hateful and toxic.  Hmmm.  OK, I know those online personality quizzes are intended for entertainment and the results are arbitrary, but let me just say this about that …

And the horse you rode in on.

Tank - 2If you’re a regular reader of my weekly essays, you know that my mother and I had a robust repertoire of catch phrases for use on almost any occasion. This one came in handy when one or both of us were annoyed about something or with someone.  To be candid, it’s only part of a rather off-color phrase.  The opening two words are not appropriate for a family column, and Mom and I rarely, if ever, used them.  It was sufficient to refer to the poor, four-hooved bystander.  Besides, contrary to the random result of one Zimbio quiz, I have always been the Pollyanna of my family.  Vulgarity is generally not my style; playing “the glad game” is.Horse Note

Nevertheless, about four months after Mom passed away, “and the horse you rode in on” came to mind pretty much on a daily basis … including those first two uncouth words. I was emerging from denial; the oh-so common stage of grief that allows you to shut out the enormity of what has happened.  Although I had watched her life slowly fade, her breathing stop, and the kindly morticians remove her body, my heart could not believe she was really gone.  I remember breaking down in tears one evening after work and crying on my husband’s shoulder, “I can’t believe I have to live the rest of my life without her!”  It was the truth.  I honestly couldn’t believe it.

Anger moved in just as soon as denial moved out.  It happened when family from the Pacific Northwest gathered at my house in Nevada to distribute her belongings.  It wasn’t enough that I had lost her.  Now I had to part with many of the things she held dear.  Teacups in our shared China cabinet, elephant figurines from her vast collection, quartz crystals, small animals carved from soapstone, Christmas decorations, framed family photos, books, movies, hats, clothes, furniture.  We were scattering her life in much the same manner we would scatter her ashes a few months later.

The only way I could get through that weekend was to convince myself that dispersing her belongings was the best way to honor her.  As a Depression-era child, she attached great value to her possessions.  Parting with anything was painful for her, which is why a broken bird feeder became yard art under the crabapple tree outside her window and several cracked water tumblers remained in the kitchen cabinet.  In a generation or two, I reasoned, very few of her belongings would have meaning to descendants who didn’t know her.  Scads of it would end up in second-hand stores with two-dollar price tags.  Wasn’t it better for her children and grandchildren to receive and enjoy mementoes that they considered priceless?  After all, as the late George Harrison said, “All there is ever is the now.”

This reasoning certainly helped … until I watched everyone drive away with loaded-down cars and trucks. Practically overnight, anger consumed me.  Zimbio was right.  I became the dreaded Wicked Witch.

Everything that anyone did or said was irritating.  At home, I was angry with my husband because our lives had not instantly changed after Mom’s death.  We had freedom but we weren’t using it.  We didn’t spontaneously stop at restaurants for dinner after work, watch movies in bed, go on outings with the family or do any of the carefree things we had imagined.  Our routine was the same; except Mom wasn’t there.  At work, I was angry with the mountains of paperwork, the confounding complexity of some procedures, the disturbing lack of documentation for others, and the perceived futility of it all.  Our department director had three, simple house rules — “No mean.  No loud.  No negative.”  I was in almost constant violation of the last one.

The reason for this irrational resentment toward every person, place or thing on the face of the Earth completely escaped me.  That is, until my brother decided to part with a memento Mom had specifically saved for him.  He had his reasons, and he also had every right to make this decision.  My intellect was aware of that.  Regardless, all of my pent-up anger erupted in his direction through every electronic method available.  Text messages and voicemail recordings that must have made his cell phone hot to the touch came pouring out of me.  A week or so after both my sister and I had sufficiently alienated him, she phoned me and quietly said, “Um, remember Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s explanation of the five stages of grief?  Maybe you should read it again.”  The line went silent for a moment.

A simple “duh” is the best way to describe my reaction. I have worked in social services for more than 25 years; many of those years providing advice and comfort to people in crisis.  How could I have forgotten that anger during bereavement is misplaced rage?  I was not ticked off at my husband, my job or my brother as much as I was just goldarned mad that Mom had left me.  Immediately, I felt the fury dissipate and a sense of calm wash over me.  It was like taking a deep, cleansing breath.  The Wicked Witch went packing and Pollyanna came home.

In the weeks following the disagreement with my brother, apologies were extended and our respective parts in the debacle were acknowledged.  Still, the hurt cast a dark shadow over the June weekend we gathered at the Oregon Coast to scatter Mom’s ashes.  Since then, a few brief text messages, perhaps one phone call, and an occasional comment on a Facebook post have comprised the sum total of our communication.  Last weekend, that finally changed.

On Friday I hitched a ride to Oregon with my son and daughter-in-law. My son, an electrical contractor, needed to finish some work on my sister’s kitchen remodel, and I saw it as a perfect opportunity for a visit.  On Saturday my sister and I went to see our brother and his family at their small farm across the Washington state line.  He had initially responded to her text message with a litany of irrelevant excuses; the kind one dreams up as a diplomatic way to say “no.”  She replied that we were coming anyway.  It was a bold move to melt the glacier that had formed between us, and it worked.

Tank in PastureAs soon as I saw my brother, I began weeping.  To be fair, I wasn’t crying just about our estrangement.  Lack of sleep over another matter had made me particularly vulnerable.  Sometimes, though, destiny has a way of mystically weaving unrelated experiences together, and my tears triggered an immediate thaw.  My brother took me in his arms and told me everything was all right.  Then he said, “I know what will make you feel better.  It always makes me feel better when I’m sad.”  At his behest, I changed into his wife’s work boots and sweatshirt and followed him down a muddy trail along a line of tall fir trees to the old red barn at the bottom corner of the pasture.  The air was clean from recent, heavy rain, and the scent of hay drifted from the stable like heavenly perfume.

“Here you go,” my brother said and filled my cupped hands with apples freshly quartered from a stash in a nearby plastic bucket. “You know how to feed a horse, don’t you?”  I nodded.  Tank, a four-hooved giant with kind eyes and a gentle soul, poked his head out of his stall.  Slice by slice, he carefully nibbled the sweet fruit from my open palm.  When the treats were gone, I caressed Tank’s rust and white muzzle and stroked his powerful shoulders.  I kissed the air, he leaned in close for a soft smooch on his nose, and my soul surrendered to the serenity enveloping a green, wet hillside on a misty Washington morning.  In that precious moment, the catch phrase Mom and I had assigned to annoyances took on a sweet, new meaning.

To my brother, if you’re reading this, you were my knight in shining armor on an October day that will forever be a cherished memory. With all my heart, I love you …

… and the horse you rode in on.

Tank - 1

(Photos of horses, pastures, barns and all that is serene -- courtesy of my sister-in-law, Lori. Big smiles courtesy of enduring love.)

(Photos of horses, pastures, barns and all that is serene — courtesy of my sister-in-law, Lori. Big smiles courtesy of enduring love.)

 

Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake

With a partner, hold out your right hands. Overlap your fingertips and wiggle them together for a few seconds.  Stop, make fists, bump your fists together and hold them there.  Thrust your thumbs upward and cross them back and forth like swords four times.  Press the ends of your thumbs together firmly.  Then draw back slightly and give each other a thumbs up.

That was the top secret handshake created by and reserved for Mom and me during our adventure as care receiver and caregiver. It was declassified after her death last December, and is being shared in this column only because you, dear friend, are now a trusted member of our clandestine society.  Your initiation was simple.  Just reading some of the notes she left behind and exploring the explanations with me has drawn you into this exclusive club.  Since my co-conspirator departed with a nagging fear that she would not be remembered, I’m delighted to induct you by ceremoniously quoting a few of her last words.

Don’t forget our secret handshake.Secret Handshake (BW)

Secret societies, including some with secret handshakes, have existed for centuries. Literature and films have memorialized many; some bona fide, others created or dramatized to advance a storyline.  Who can resist the allure and mystery of the Knights of Templar, the Illuminati, the Jedi Order and the Sith, the Dharma Initiative and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?  As someone of the feminine persuasion, though, I am most enchanted by stories about women of all ages who bond over a common problem, a shared belief system or a collective goal.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, young friends Carmen, Tibby, Bridget and Lena find redemption in a magical pair of thrift store jeans passed from one to another over the course of a summer.  In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, lifelong friends Teensy, Necie, and Caro help pal Vivi reconcile with her daughter, Sidda.  No matter what the circumstances, the women in these and other mythical societies unfailingly emerge triumphant; having forged strong friendships that last through the ages.

No one ever wrote a bestseller or filmed a blockbuster about them, but my mother actually was part of such a sisterhood. Find a recording of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo or Kay Kyser’s Jingle Jangle Jingle to set the mood and flash back to 1942.

In March of that year, Mom was a 17-year-old, slender brunette who removed her wire-rimmed glasses for class photos. With high school graduation rapidly approaching, she and several close girlfriends decided to cement their long-time friendship by starting a club.  They knew that the only sure way to hold on to each other after they shed their caps and gowns was to create opportunities to spend time together.  Without dissent, Friday became their sacred meeting night, and a different girl played hostess each week.

Semanons Minutes (BW)In minutes carefully preserved in soft-cover notebooks, they recorded debates about whether to make yellow gingham uniforms, the number of times a member could miss a meeting without a reasonable excuse, and what they should call their group. They bagged the idea of matching dresses, set strict attendance rules, and dissed several foreign-language designations before settling on the Semanons (No Names spelled backward).  The short business meetings of “the Sems” were generally followed by music, dancing, singing and sugary homemade refreshments like Boston cherry cream pie and marshmallow malts.  “A perfectly swell time was had by everyone,” the secretary wrote after a gathering in May 1942.

If the goings-on seem frivolous given the fact that World War II was raging, keep this in mind. In the months before they formed their club, they listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the radio about the December day that would “live in infamy.”  They watched newsreels of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  They looked on with sadness and confusion as their Japanese-American friends were ushered onto trains bound for internment camps.

Nothing and no one was safe, especially not in their hometown of San Pedro, California. Ships coming and going from the Port of Los Angeles, activity at the Fort MacArthur U.S. Army installation and the ominous presence of artillery embattlements for coastal defense created a distinctly military atmosphere.  If that wasn’t enough, they watched their fathers and brothers enlist, obeyed blackouts and curfews, shuddered at the sound of pre-dawn air raid sirens, adjusted to rationing, and sacrificed their senior yearbook for the war effort.

Their Friday night gatherings helped them hold onto a shred of normalcy in an otherwise unstable world. Joy and laughter were always on their agenda.  Along with the notebooks of minutes, the girls saved dozens of pictures, souvenirs, restaurant menus and live theater programs to commemorate adventures that sometimes stretched from Friday night to Monday morning.  Surely, Big Bear Lake was never the same after they descended upon it to share a rustic cabin, shimmy into long johns and teach themselves to ski.

A line in the minutes of their December 7, 1945, meeting finally paid tribute to the dark days of the war. “On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, in our first year of peace since 1941, we celebrated club at Mary’s house.”

Marriages, babies, jobs and relocation eventually forced the girls to let go of their weekly ritual.  Christmas parties became Christmas cards.  Periodic visits became telephone chats.  But they never let go of each other.  Their friendship endured through the years until, one by one, they passed away.  When Mom joined the dearly departed last December, I was able to contact only one original Sem to share the sad news.

Oompa Loompa Girls (BW)

No alliance could ever truly replace the Sems for Mom, but life has a way of carrying us forward to different places and relationships. Mom rode the wave with anticipation and was never averse to forming new sisterhoods.  In particular, the Oompa Loompa Girls always brought a smile to her face.

Oompa Loompas are short, fat beings that work in exchange for chocolate in Willie Wonka’s candy factory. No one remembers exactly when, why or how this came about, but some years ago Mom, my sister, Leslie, and my niece, Rachel, became the Oompa Loompa Girls.  Mom’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy (aka Lucerella), was their “plus one.”  It probably happened during some self-deprecating moment when they were simultaneously lamenting their curvy figures and declaring their undying love for chocolate.  I can imagine them all laughing hysterically (or barking as the case may be) and the name stuck.  Every time Mom looked at a picture of their little group, she would declare, “The Oompa Loompa Girls!”  It was the kind of inside joke that tends to make everyone else feel envious of the exclusive camaraderie.

I wasn’t an Oompa Loompa Girl, and I certainly wasn’t a Sem. Deep down I guess I will always be just a little bit jealous of those sisterhoods.  However, as with the vast majority of caregiving relationships, I had my own bond with Mom that ran deeper than we could ever have dreamed.  We didn’t have a name for our partnership, but ours was a “’til death do us part” promise that tested the durability of our connection while also serving to strengthen it.  Phone Upload (1.29.14) 4772Our secret handshake was the symbol of our abiding pledge to one another, which most certainly is the reason she was compelled to commemorate it in one of the cards she left behind for posthumous delivery.

Don’t forget our secret handshake.

As briefly noted at the beginning of this column, Mom had a nagging fear that she would not be remembered. She was concerned that the space she occupied in our home and in the lives of those she loved would become a vacuum quickly swallowed up by new belongings, different priorities, and other liaisons.  All I can say is that, under normal circumstances, a grown daughter could not possibly forget her mother.  Our union, which reached far beyond the scope of a traditional parent/child relationship, will go down in the record books right next to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the bestseller that is destined to be written about the Sems.

If you’re listening, Mom, don’t worry. I won’t forget our secret handshake.  More importantly, you will always and forever be in my heart and … well OK … in the hearts of those pesky Oompa Loompa Girls, too.

(This week’s column is lovingly dedicated to my friend, Connie, and her 92-year-old mother who had to bid their final good-bye this past week.)

Accept Gifts Graciously

Just before my 9th birthday in 1963, my father paused his maritime career and took what he referred to as a “shore job.”  He often recalled, with a wink and a smile, that a comment I made led to this regrettable decision.  I barely remember it, but I did look up at him one day while he was between voyages and innocently asked, “Why don’t you come home at night like other daddies?”

The decision was regrettable because, within a few hours of clocking in on his first day at a dog food plant, he was seriously injured in a freak accident. He and a co-worker were moving a large, heavy meat cutting machine that suddenly tipped over, trapping him underneath and breaking multiple bones.  We were told he would have died instantly had he not thrust out his arm and, with superhuman effort, kept the contraption from crushing his chest.  For weeks he was hospitalized; immobilized with one leg in traction.  My birthday was celebrated at his bedside.

Daddy - Broken Leg - 1963When my father was finally released, he came home in a full body cast and with an arsenal of medical equipment. A hospital bed equipped with a trapeze bar took over one corner of the living room, and a pair of wooden crutches leaned against the wall nearby.  Parked in the covered breezeway between the garage and the house was a long, flat gurney outfitted with over-sized rubber-rimmed wheels for manual propulsion.

Mom was not employed outside the home at the time of the accident but, as soon as the shock subsided, she began applying for bookkeeping jobs in medical offices around the area. She was quickly hired by a team of orthopedic surgeons, and my paternal grandmother began to spend weekdays at our house in the San Fernando Valley so she could look after my father, sister, brother and me.  Most weekends, she returned to her tiny apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

One Friday evening, without any forethought, I asked if I could spend the weekend with my grandmother. She was 75, decidedly puritanical and not inclined to engage in active pastimes that would interest a fourth-grader.  Nevertheless, the two of us got along quite well in those days.  Within minutes Mom was washing my hair over the kitchen sink and telling me to be a good girl.  She handed me a one dollar bill (about $7.50 today) to pay for a treat or a toy in case we went shopping.  At first, I politely declined.  “You don’t have to do that,” I said.  More than 50 years later, I still recall her reply.

 “Learn to accept gifts graciously.”

During that weekend, my grandmother and I rode the original Angels Flight rail cars up and down the steep incline between Olive and Hill streets, listened to evangelist Dr. John McGee preachGrandma Samsel and Kids - Easter 1962 (2) at the colossal Church of the Open Door, and sang hymns in a nearby park with a few of her friends. At one point, we wandered through a cluttered five and dime where I picked out a thick coloring book and proudly paid for it with the gift from my mother.

My memory may be fuzzy on some childhood moments, but the lesson involving the one dollar bill is vivid. It was a singular comment made by an ordinary mother to her young daughter; not taken from a book of etiquette or borrowed from an illustrious poet.  She never said it again.  She never wrote it down.  Yet, it was so powerful a message that it is permanently etched on my heart.  Mom’s words have reminded me to practice being gracious many times over the last five decades.  However, it wasn’t until preparing for this week’s column that I suddenly saw it as a piece of advice that could have helped me through the sometimes grueling years as her caregiver.

In a past column, I described how Mom earned the nickname “The Only One” by periodically lamenting about shouldering more than her share of the responsibilities in our family. The rather unflattering moniker grew into a term of endearment over the years but, speaking as a recent graduate of the caregiver corps, I think it should have been an accolade from the beginning.  Imagine a 39-year-old with three children ranging in age from 4 to 11, a seriously injured husband facing a lengthy rehabilitation, and a household budget blown to smithereens.  Pulling the family through that dark period probably ticked off three of the four requirements for sainthood … and we weren’t even Catholic.

To be fair, though, Mom could not have brought us through it alone. Gracious acceptance of her mother-in-law’s generous gift of weekday homemaking was critically important.

Grandma Samsel and Jesse - 1963In a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, the partnership prevailed despite the fact that Mom and my grandmother were never particularly fond of one another. Their relationship was guarded at best.  As the story goes, my grandmother never thought any woman could live up to the high standards she set for her only son.  My mother, in turn, viewed her as a Class-A critic and meddler.  Regardless, they managed to set aside their differences to achieve a common goal.  The two of them orchestrated a relatively uncomplicated tag team to ensure that the four people they both loved most – my father, sister, brother and I – had everything we needed … and more.

Clean clothes drying on an outdoor line, the aroma of freshly-baked apple pie, southern truisms repeated with a lingering Texas drawl, and black-and-white episodes of the inaugural season of General Hospital became staples of weekdays with our grandmother.  When Mom returned home from work in the evening, she was greeted with a warm dinner and a mostly contented family.  Weekends were spent swimming in our backyard pool, enacting Wagon Train on the wheeled gurney that was supposed to be parked in the breezeway, and playing with the puppies that came along after our Collie had an unchaperoned visit with the neighbor’s German Shepherd.  My sister, brother and I were not necessarily oblivious to the hardship that had befallen our family, but the blow was softened significantly because of the commitment Mom and our grandmother made to each other.

Mom and Jesse - 1963 (2)If this story was a made-for-television movie, it would conclude with Mom and my grandmother becoming best of friends through shared adversity. Real-life isn’t always punctuated by Hallmark moments, though.  The two of them remained wary of one another for the rest of their days.  That in no way devalues their temporary alliance.

Photos of Mom from this difficult chapter of our lives provide a hint of the exhaustion she could not entirely escape. I can only imagine what would have become of her, and those of us who were depending on her, had she not joined forces with a rather unlikely partner and followed the same, simple rule she passed on to me.

Learn to accept gifts graciously.

It’s All About Me – Part Two

Last week, bushy-haired 1980s comedian Al Franken paved the way for a brutally honest depiction of life for an over-extended caregiver. This week, white-haired 60-ish Dorothy Zbornak makes an appearance to put her Midas touch on the “It’s All About Me” story.

Rewind to 1989 when television’s Golden Girl Dorothy (played by the late Bea Arthur) desperately tries to find a medical reason that she is persistently tired and suffers from recurring flu-like symptoms. In the second part of the episode “Sick and Tired,” she finally connects with progressive Dr. Chang (portrayed by Keone Young) who diagnoses Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Dorothy is comforted that her months-long struggle with the elusive symptoms is the result of a genuine illness, even though there is no treatment.  Dr. Chang calmly advises:

“Try to adapt to it. Rest when you need to. Eat well.  Eliminate stress if you can.  Right now there is no cure and no one thing that relieves the symptoms in everyone.”

Dr. Chang is a fictional character, but art often imitates life and his lines in the script ring true for me. It’s not just because I have had periodic run-ins with Chronic Fatigue (and Immune Deficiency) Syndrome since 1994. I’m also sure that, had I visited his television-studio office while taking care of my mother, he would have offered similar counsel to try to curb the burnout I experienced during her final years.

If you are a caregiver … or anyone who is hanging on for dear life to the knotted end of a frayed rope … go back and read Dr. Chang’s guidance again. Write it on your heart. I certainly wish I had stumbled upon a rerun of that episode on some late-night cable channel a few years back. My life as a caregiver was practically the antithesis of his vision.

Since late 20th Century pop culture is today’s story-telling vehicle, let’s assume for a minute that I could take a Quantum Leap á la Sam Beckett and put right what once went wrong. What would I do differently?  What would I do more often?

Sitting on top of the “do differently” list is my stubborn refusal of offers from friends to sit with Mom or run errands. “Thanks but we’re doing OK” was my standard answer to the sweetest suggestions from the sweetest people.  I never doubted their ability to help.  I just didn’t want to impose on them, show weakness, relinquish control or somehow displease Mom by altering her routine.  I couldn’t see that saying “yes” would not have produced any of those results and that “yes” actually would have been the strong answer.  People who offer to help mean it; they want the opportunity to do a good deed for someone they hold dear.  People who accept help are buying time; the most precious and sought-after commodity on earth.

It's All About Me - Part 2On the “do more often” list, I would take the principle of accepting help a step further and ask friends or family to lend a hand periodically. The only two people who managed to effectively shoulder past my resistance to their good intentions were my sister, Leslie, and my daughter, Jennifer.  They each have stubborn streaks at least as wide and deep as mine.  It was not unusual to find the roses trimmed, the furniture dusted or the floors cleaned anytime one or both of them were around.  It took several years, but I finally accepted the fact that they were always going to turn a deaf ear to my refusals of help.  Eventually, on occasion, I took the initiative and sought out their assistance.  Asking for help.  What a concept.  It’s not a cardinal sin or a punishable crime.  It’s smart.

Back on the “do differently” list, you would find me making better choices about multi-tasking. Some of the worst experiences I had while taking care of Mom involved outings that required divided attention.  One holiday season when she was still capable of staying home alone for a few hours, I decided to take my two young grandsons out to buy gifts for their parents.  Mom loved shopping and wanted to go along.  Instead of promising to take her another day, I acquiesced and soon found myself trying to navigate a wheelchair across a busy parking lot while holding tightly onto two little boys.  Inside the first … and last … department store we visited, everyone wanted to go in different directions.  It’s often said that it’s much better to do one thing at a time and do it well, than to do two or more things poorly.  I’m here to tell you; that adage is hackneyed but true.

To wrap up this imaginary leap through the quantum accelerator, I would add three simple things to the “do more often” list – time alone, choosing what’s important, and sleep.

One summer afternoon, when I felt as though I was about to fly out of my skin from pent-up stress, I asked my department director to approve a last-minute leave request. He did and, when I left the house the following morning, I didn’t do one errand for anyone else.  I strolled lazily through my favorite garden nursery, shopped leisurely for clothes and looked at shiny cars for sale.  Whether I actually bought anything, I don’t recall.  What I do remember is that, by the time I returned home, I was as refreshed as if I’d been floating on a mountain lake somewhere far away.  I should have taken the hint and scheduled more “it’s all about me” days.

As a manager, I encourage my staff to continuously organize and reorganize their work in accordance with what is most important. It’s a puzzlement that I had trouble remembering to do that very thing during the years I cared for Mom.  Most days it wasn’t too difficult to ignore recurring clouds of pet hair in the corners of the hallway or a pesky cobweb hanging out of reach from the vaulted living room ceiling.  However, I couldn’t let go of the idea that the house needed to be spick and span when out-of-town family came to visit.  My furious, late-night cleaning jags were legendary. I’ll never understand why I thought it was a higher priority to exhaust myself with white-glove minutiae than just relax and enjoy the visits.

9091164-R1-045-21Last but not least, to put the most important thing right that once went wrong, I would take every opportunity … no, I would make opportunities … to get more sleep.  Increasingly as the years passed, I would find myself nodding off while watching television with Mom.  Sometimes, but not often enough, I gave in to it and actually napped. To no one’s surprise, my inattention never triggered the untimely demise of a beloved sitcom character or allowed a pathetic dance team to take home the Mirror Ball Trophy.  Looking back, I can also see that a short slumber when Mom was napping wouldry=400[1] have had a greater return on investment than catching up on chores.  I tried to get by on too little sleep all those years and it exacted a toll both physically and mentally.  It’s taken more than 10 months to finally feel rested and, with apologies to Reader’s Digest, sleep is really the best medicine.  Laughter comes in second.

So this is the list I brought back from my quantum leap. While it’s not technically a “note from my mother,” it’s a very important lesson learned from caring for her.  And it’s a “note to self” that I intend to practice even though my caregiving days are behind me.

Accept help. Ask for help.  Do one thing at a time and do it well.  Schedule “me” days.  Prioritize.  Sleep.

As Dr. Chang told Dorothy some 25 years ago, there is no one thing that works for everyone. My list may help you hang on to the knotted end of your frayed rope, but you may think of other strategies that will help you scramble back up that ragged rope to the safety of a solid platform.  Whatever your approach may be, remember this.

Care receivers are expected and allowed to be Al Franken every day. Their needs are paramount, and rightfully so.  This will never change.  What can and should change is the misguided notion that the caregiver must wait for some distant, bittersweet day when it will be their turn to rest, to sleep, to dream.  It’s a perspective that, perhaps not surprisingly, is mostly held by those dedicated, exhausted individuals who are assisting a loved one day in and day out.  If you are one of these weary souls, give yourself the opportunity to slow down and carve out some time to call your own.  Look in the mirror and tell yourself that at least for this hour or this day:

“It’s all about me, Al Franken.”

Christmas 2012

It’s All About Me, Al Franken

Remember the bushy-haired, bespectacled comedian from Saturday Night Live who was certain the world revolved around him? He sat at the sardonic news desk; ever interested in how current events would affect him (dramatic pause), Al Franken.  He declared the 1980s the Al Franken Decade and drolly imparted tips on what viewers could do for him.

Being a care recipient is a little … no a lot … like being Al Franken. Your needs come before anyone else in the family.  Your routine dictates everyone’s schedule.  Your crises, medical or otherwise, each become a crisis for the entire household.  As appealing as it may sound to be the focus of attention, I’m fairly certain most care recipients don’t revel in driving the “Frankenbus.”  The route is fraught with tricky twists and turns that could tip that big, unwieldy thing on its side at any time.  There are no seatbelts, no power steering and, worst of all, no power brakes to bring the crazy ride to a screeching halt.

On dozens of occasions during the years my mother drove that bus, she voiced the concern that she was a burden. One day she would worry that she was tiring me out and ruining my health.  Another day she fretted about keeping me from participating in activities with friends and family outside the four walls of our home.  She apologized repeatedly because we couldn’t go out to eat without sitting in the restaurant parking lot for 15 minutes while she carefully tested her blood sugar and injected insulin to counteract the meal she was about to order.  She was troubled that I was whittling away at my sick leave to take her to medical appointments and missing work to tend to her when she was ailing.  As many times as she verbalized her worries, I’m sure she silently turned the same thoughts over in her head hundreds more.

It's All About Me

Farewell Christmas Card 2013

Our modus operandi was generally to find humor in otherwise dismal situations, so eventually her concerns turned into one of the coded messages I’ve often referenced in these columns. If one of us was fussing about something and began to lose sight of the big picture, the other would interrupt and say,

“It’s all about me, Al Franken.”

 It was always good for a chuckle and a quick reality check. Once in a while, we would add Al’s simple reasoning to this narcissistic phrase.  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”

Mom commemorated this coded message in the Christmas card my family was entrusted to deliver after she passed away last year. She died just a couple of weeks before the holiday, so there was little decorating or celebrating in our household.  The best gift I received was that card, the first in a secret series of posthumous missives.  Some I’ve already shared with you; others will make appearances as this continuing saga unfolds.

Mom and Me 2003

Vacation – 2003

“It’s all about me, Al Franken,” was not a signal reserved exclusively for Mom’s low moments. She was known in our family as “the only one,” but she was not the only one to periodically feel trapped by our circumstances.  I was never tired of her; just tired and, as the years passed, it began to show.  As Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote in her 1995 daybook, “Simple Abundance,” it is not the temporary pressure of work (or caregiving) that causes burnout.  That, she says, “comes from living unbalanced for years; when what was supposed to be a temporary situation becomes a lifestyle.”

It wasn’t until the last few years of Mom’s life that the feeling of being constantly tired erupted into full-blown caregiver burnout; the kind that Ms. Ban Breathnach calls the “soul snuffer.” Thankfully, I remained fairly skillful at exposing only surface frustrations in Mom’s presence and censoring my deepest feelings of anguish.  As far as I know, she was unaware that occasionally the weight of our arrangement overpowered me, and I would pour my heart out to anyone who would listen in person, on the telephone or in an email.

When I worried, aloud or silently, it was about many of the same things Mom did. The culture at my workplace was genuinely “family first,” but I still felt anxious about my dwindling sick leave and postponed projects.  Sometimes I imagined what it would be like to go on an outing and not have to heft a wheelchair in and out of the trunk and patiently help Mom slowly transfer back and forth.  I wondered how long God expected me to go on, especially since I was approaching my 60s and couldn’t help noticing that the time to pursue my own lingering dreams was slipping away.  Worse yet, I watched my two grandsons’ childhood racing past, and I couldn’t be present for milestones like holiday pageants or Cub Scout ceremonies.

Every time I lapsed into self-pity about our circumstances, I would inevitably feel guilty for my selfishness. My paternal grandmother’s admonishment, “Don’t be ugly,” would drift through my head and I would, indeed, feel ugly all the way through.  My sister, my daughter and my closest friends would reassure me that it was natural to feel frustrated when holding down a full-time job, caring for someone who was completely dependent on others, and trying to capture a moment now and then with the rest of my family.  At the time, their kind words didn’t make me feel any less ugly, but as with so many things in life, the image in the rearview mirror is crystal clear.  Just looking at the photos posted with this column — from 2003, 2008 and 2012 — I can see the physical changes in both Mom and me, and I can truly understand the multiplying pressures of our years-long journey.

New House - 2008

New House – 2008

Indeed, caregiving and care receiving is a journey … and it’s not for the fainthearted. It is the most advanced course of study anyone will ever take on earth, regardless of whether you are the one providing care or the one receiving it.  The highest level of trust, commitment, patience, compassion, love and forgiveness are prerequisites for both parties.  How else could one get through the ugly moments and gladly return to the arduous path?

Somewhere in Mom’s last year of life, I realized that our time together was growing short. My periodic pity parties came to a halt.  I knew what I had always known — that the only way I was ever going to be released from my caregiving obligations was to lose Mom.  The finality of that solution was no longer an abstract idea in some distant, foggy future.  Suddenly I felt like Diana Prince spinning into Wonder Woman or Popeye consuming a can of fortifying spinach in one gulp.  I heard myself saying repeatedly, “I would take care of Mom forever if she would just stay.”  And I meant it.  The price of freedom was far too high.

In the end, there was no way to pause the journey or avoid the divergence of our paths. Mom was headed to an ethereal destination, and my name was not on the guest list.  Instead, I was advancing toward a new beginning here on mortal ground.  Our separation was inevitable and heart-wrenching.

So many months later, I am no longer constantly tired, my accrued sick leave is growing, and I have the freedom to go just about anywhere I please, anytime I please. Yes, it’s nice, but I would give it all up if I could have Mom back here with me.  As I write this, I can hear her whispering the double-edged truth … that today and every day … whether I like it or not, it is now …

“… all about me, Al Franken.”

Al Franken left Saturday Night Live and went on to become a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. I probably will not pursue politics (the thought makes me shudder) but I am confident that I can do anything I want.  I can become the person I was always meant to be because, just like Al Franken, I am “good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”  More than that, I’ve got my invincible gold bracelets, my can of body-building spinach and Mom’s enduring love in my heart.  Nothing is more powerful than that.

This Hunt Is Dedicated

Last week when you read “the only one,” you were no doubt left with the impression that my mother’s principal attribute was a deep sense of responsibility tempered with a splash of endearing vulnerability.

Perhaps some of you, though, caught the passing reference to her ability to poke fun at herself (and others) with a “woe is me” gesture reminiscent of French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt or her finger-to-thumb symbol of tiny violins playing a tragic song. Happily, my mother’s great appreciation for the weird and wonderful perfectly balanced her more serious qualities.

The note Mom left behind that inspired this column is not actually one she left for me. Every year for 13 years, our family has sponsored and organized the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt, a popular event held in honor of statehood day, October 31st.  We choose a spot to hide a commemorative medallion and write 15 clues that are published online and in the capital city newspaper until someone solves the riddles and retrieves the prize.  Mom was president of our organization’s board of directors and traditionally wrote the first clue.  While preparing for this year’s hunt, my son found a slip of paper that was Mom’s unfinished working draft in 2012.

To the heroism of the military men and women — past present and future – this treasure hunt is respectfully dedicated. Don’t be the last —- —-, the shadowy past, unknown future and present.

ClueSome words are crossed out on the note. Other lines are incomplete because she was still searching for just the right combination to pay tribute to the over-arching Nevada Day theme that year.  What the note called to mind was that Mom had a definite affinity for the unconventional.  Every year one of us would gently offer her a hand in adjusting her clue so that it met the accepted idea of meter, form and rhyme.  My daughter’s handwriting is also on the little slip of paper because, apparently, she was the one trying to coach Mom that year.  In the end, Mom agreed to cut down the number of lines, but she wouldn’t compromise on anything else.  No matter how many times I’ve read the final version, I can identify no real rhythm or meter and certainly no rhyme.  It is simple, to the point, and free form at its best.

To the heroism of

The military men and women

Past, present, and future

This hunt is respectfully dedicated

Free form was Mom’s personal rebellion against life’s sometimes rigid structure. Every spring and summer, I thank the good Lord for the example she set when I stroll slowly in my rose garden and take in the unique beauty that surrounds me.  I had originally decided to emulate my favorite bouquet de jour and alternate a light yellow variety with ivory, but Mom was horrified.  She yelped something akin to:

 “Why in the world would you want to do anything as boring as that? Plant lots of different colors!”

Because I took her advice, the garden is a rainbow of red, pink, purple, orange, pumpkin, gold, yellow, and white. Some blooms are multi-colored and may start out a cool shade of lemonRose but, as they open, transform into a warm ruby sunset.  My garden is a bold splash of vibrant color in the middle of the dull shades of tan and brown that dominate the high desert.  And so, my friends, was my mother.

Long before I was born, she was wild, free and unconventional. She rode motorcycles when it was still an oddity to see a woman on a bike because, in the 1940s, nice girls didn’t ride.  She ferried her friends around in jalopies with rumble seats and, in a jam, could repair them herself.  After she passed away, an old friend wrote a letter of condolence and reminisced about breaking down in traffic in downtown Los Angeles and holding up the Red Car trolley.  Mom hopped out of her stalled coupe, popped the hood, jimmied something with the long end of a rat-tail comb, hopped back in and fired up the engine.  Everyone on the Red Car cheered.

No matter what life threw at her, she never lost her sense of humor or her zest for life. In the 1960s, I remember her striking a Hollywood glamour pose with a long, shiny, gold cigarette holder perched in her hand.  I can imagine her, at that very moment, altering her voice to imitate film star Gloria Swanson and murmuring, “All right, Mr. De Mille. I’m ready for my close-up.”  In the early 1970s, when seatbelts and vehicle safety were still emerging concepts, my younger brother and I squeezed into the narrow passenger seat of Mom’s 1952 MG so she could happily ferry us 250 miles across Oregon for a summer swimming meet.  No radio; just the songs we sang at the top of our lungs.  No air conditioning; just the wind whistling through the non-existent windows.  It was magical.

TheoFast forward to the 1980s and Mom still knew how to have a good time. She bought a second-hand stuffed gorilla the size of a large child, named him Theo, dressed him in a shirt and pants, and let him routinely ride shotgun as she ran errands around town.  For a local pioneer parade, she decked him out in a fringed vest and cowboy hat and propped him up on the float entered by the nursing home where she worked.  It amazes me that she ever parted with that scruffy old beast.

Around the same time that Mom was audaciously carrying on her friendship with Theo, she also was enjoying her growing brood of grandchildren. With them, she could be as silly as she wanted without raising any eyebrows … not that she cared about such nonsense.  One of my favorite memories from 1984 is my 60-year-old mother leading a giggling band of giddy grandchildren around and around the coffee table in her living room while wearing a multi-colored fright wig.

Mom Wearing Fright WigNine years later, during a group trip to Universal Studios, she was the first in line to have her photo snapped against a green screen, later to be merged with a still from an old film. Others opted for romantic shots with their favorite leading man or asked to be dropped in beside fantasy film characters.  Nothing so demure for Mom; she chose an action scene from Dracula that allowed her to show off her talent for melodrama.

Even after her body gave up on her, she didn’t give up on humor. She was always game for a moment of spontaneous gaiety.

Picture an 80-something woman riding in a wheelchair in a home improvement warehouse picking out accessories for our newly redecorated living room. Boxes of this and that completely cover her lap and the footrests of her chair, and plastic bags hang from the handles in back.  There is absolutely no more room for one more thing, but she still wants the blood-red lampshade over there on that shelf.  Moments later, she’s wearing it on her head, smiling from ear to ear as we make a spectacle of ourselves on the way to the checkout counter.

I hope I never lose the appreciation for the weird and wonderful, and for the bright and beautiful, that Mom instilled in me. Shortly after she died, my slightly serious brother asked my slightly silly sister and me, “Do you think you got your wild and crazy side from Mom, or do you think she got it from you?”  My sister and I answered practically in unison, “No.  We definitely got it from her.”

The 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt begins on Monday, October 6th.  To say the least, it has been bittersweet working on this year’s clues without her unconventional contributions.  As our family prepares to hide the medallion and kick off the search, we wonder how it will all turn out in her absence.

The 2014 hunt is respectfully irreverently dedicated to her colorful memory.

To the bizarre this is dedicated

To humor and glee it is predicated

Here’s to Mom, our inspiration

And this last line doesn’t rhyme or fit the meter … because she would hate that

Mom and Dracula 1995

The Only One

Last week I was proud to use a fragment of the signature line from my mother’s farewell letter to share my heartfelt appreciation and love for my older sister, Leslie.  I may be “the pretty one” Mom was referring to in her parting line, but I will forever think of Leslie when I read it.

All my love always to “the pretty one” from “the only one.”

To the pretty one from the only oneOf course, “the only one” in that line is Mom and, like “the pretty one,” it comes with a story.

Once upon a lifetime ago, Mom was … well … kind of a “woe as me” person.  At least, that’s how she appeared to me.  As I write this, I can hear a mournful, protracted rendition of an old gospel song running through my head.  You know the one.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.”

To understand where that kind of anguish could have originated, you need a glimpse of Mom’s world as a young mother.  The seed, to be fair, was probably planted even deeper than that, but this is what occurred in my own lifetime and what I know to be true.

When my sister, brother and I were young, our father would spend months away from home working as an engineer on mammoth ships that transported oil and other commodities to foreign ports.  The ocean called often, and he obediently answered.  He would periodically drop into our lives, bearing hugs and toting presents, and drop out again, leaving tears and loneliness in his wake.

During our father’s absences, Mom was the quintessential single parent, far ahead of her time.  She worked as a bookkeeper in medical offices, kept the cars and household operating relatively smoothly, and raised us with support from our two grandmothers.  It was a heavy load to manage in the era of television role models like Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed who kept the home fires burning while their husbands navigated the halls of business.  When the weight became overwhelming, Mom often would lament,

 “I’m the only one who ever …”

You can fill in the blank with a broad range of grievances from “feeds the dogs” to “cleans the house” and everything in between.  She repeated it so frequently that eventually, and with youthful disdain, we sometimes did fill in the blanks.

As an adult, I get it.  Her marriage was hardly the stuff of romance novels.  She had no consistent partner to depend on and no real balance in her life.  The latter was true even when our father was home.  He didn’t know how he fit in to the family between voyages, and she didn’t know how to temporarily create a place for him.  The stress mounted when our father tried to transition from a sailor’s life to a shore job.  He was seriously injured on his first day and spent months in a body cast.  His lengthy recuperation and loss of income threw even more responsibility onto Mom’s plate.

As I said, as an adult I get it.  As a child I did not.  I loved my mother with all my heart but, while growing up, the opinion I formed of her was tainted by the burden she carried.  I came to view her as something of a martyr.  By the time my sister and I reached our teens, we were bold enough to threaten carving “I’m the only one” on her tombstone whenever she dared recite it.

Thank goodness that our irreverence gradually changed the flavor of that tiresome phrase.  It evolved from a symbol of self-pity, to a vehicle to tease her, and finally to a term of endearment.  Even Mom eventually began poking fun at herself.  Sometimes she would throw the back of her hand up to her forehead in dramatic fashion to mimic an exaggerated stage gesture of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Later, her favorite way to lighten up pity parties (her own or someone else’s) was to rub her thumb and index finger together and say in a high voice, “I can hear the tiny violins playing.”

When I began to take on my own adult responsibilities, the periodic crying jags and bouts of depression I had witnessed as a child started to make sense to me.   However, because I had a front row seat to some of her most vulnerable moments when I was at an impressionable age, the perception that she was fragile and perhaps a bit unstable was difficult to erase.  It wasn’t until we moved in together, and then began our long partnership as caregiver and care recipient, that I finally saw her in a completely different light.  She was far from fainthearted.  On the contrary, she was remarkably strong to have served as the head of household in a generation of June Cleavers.

It took nine years for Mom’s heart to fail after her health began to seriously decline.  Her list of diagnoses included kidney, heart, thyroid and acid reflux disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and osteoarthritis.  Her list of medications was so long that I had to create one of my legendary spreadsheets to keep track of prescribing doctors, doses and special instructions.  In addition, Mom was dependent on a rather rigid meal regimen and four daily insulin shots to control her diabetes, was constantly tethered to an oxygen machine, and frequently suffered from diarrhea, bladder infections and external yeast infections.

The osteoarthritis probably affected her quality of life more than anything else.  It ravaged virtually all of her major joints and eventually robbed her of the ability to walk more than a few steps.  She graduated from a small aluminum walker, to a snazzy Cadillac model with a basket and seat, to a wheelchair.  Since anti-inflammatory medications are processed through the kidneys, she was limited to less effective narcotics to manage the debilitating pain.

I lived through all of that with her.  Yet, seeing it in print is incredibly powerful and only serves to reinforce the point of today’s installment.  Mom was a soldier with amazing courage and strength.  Dutifully, she pricked her tender fingertips four times a day to test her blood sugar, dialed up insulin shots, repeatedly drove tiny needles into her bruised tummy, and ate the mostly well-balanced but sometimes monotonous meals I served her.  She shook dozens of drugs out of her pill case twice a day and counted them to make sure none were missing.  Her life was entirely organized around her medical needs and, quite frankly, she hated it.  Yet, she paid the price day after day because it bought her more time to enjoy her family, her dogs and the birds that visited the garden outside her window.  With each sunrise, she could read another chapter in the book by her bedside, check one more movie off her must-see list, cheer on her favorite football team or identify an obscure answer for a crossword puzzle.  She rarely had time to complain; every moment was precious.

After wasting so much of my own time being unfairly critical of my mother, it was a blessing to have the opportunity for a wake-up call of epic proportions.  I firmly believe that things happen for a reason.  Mom coming to live with me was serendipitous and undoubtedly opened the door to lessons we both needed to learn. For me, none was more profound than the gift of seeing my mother as the remarkable person she truly was.

“The only one” is a nickname that my mother most certainly earned through the hardships I’ve recounted here.  However, in closing, I must add that she was also MY only one.  She was my Momma — the only one who knew and loved me from before the day I was born.  Other kindhearted adults drifted in and out of my life as circumstances changed, but she was the only one whoMom at Reunion 2007 was always there for me.  She was the only one who could calm my fears with a gentle hug, heal my wounds with a magic kiss, listen assiduously to my changing hopes and dreams, and inspire me to be strong even as she was slipping away from me.

It’s been 10 months since Mom left the shackles of earthly life behind, and I am slowly transforming her bedroom into my own peaceful sanctuary.  One of the things I will never remove from the wall is an award that the family presented to her at a reunion in 2007.  We all laughed when we handed her the “I’m the Only One” award.  It was not a joke that we added,

“The only mother and grandmother the Samsel clan would ever want to have.”