Smile With Your Bottom Teeth

In the early 1960s, our family learned a quirky smile from an equally quirky television comedian.  It especially tickled my mother’s funny bone.  She delighted in repeating his directive and then demonstrating the distinctive grin right up until the last weeks of her life.

If you run a search for the late Soupy Sales on the internet today, most biographies celebrate his trademark pie in the face or allege that some of the puns on his lunchtime kids’ show were not suitable for his viewing audience.  I only vaguely remember the pies.  The racy jokes, if any, must have whooshed completely over my 6-year-old head.  To my frustration, I had a harder time finding something that documented the things I do remember about him.  One was his wacky side-to-side dance that he dubbed the Soupy Shuffle.  A half-century later, I’ve seen hip-hop dancers do something similar called the Slide Side.  I wonder if they know they inherited that move from a once beloved television buffoon who regularly advised us to:

Smile with your bottom teeth!Smile - Card

Who really knows why Soupy wanted anyone to jut out their lower jaw and simultaneously try to turn up the corners of their mouth to show happiness.  As today’s feature photo (taken 13 months ago) illustrates, the result doesn’t even look much like a smile.  I can imagine, though, that he conceived it for the same, simple reason we complied – the pure, unadulterated joy of being silly.  For me, that’s certainly how it started.  I can’t speak for my sister and brother, but I gradually came to view the bottom-teeth smile as a symbol of the conscious choice to be glad in the face of disappointment, defeat and virtually any formidable challenge.  It was fitting that, in one of her posthumously delivered farewell cards, Mom wrote those words down to help me remember a tried and true weapon against melancholy and apprehension.  In the past week or so, I’ve surely needed that reminder.  In the next few weeks, I will need it even more.

This coming Thursday, November 27th, is Thanksgiving.  For the first time in my 60 years, Mom won’t be part of that cherished family holiday.  The sun will rise on her 90th birthday on December 4th, but she won’t be here to mark it.  Five days after that, it will be 12 months since she passed away.

Bereavement counselors commonly caution that the first anniversary of a death is likely to regenerate the grief that you thought was passing.  I’m here to tell Smile - The Girlsyou; that is absolutely true.  My preoccupation with Mom’s final weeks actually began in mid-September.  It was then I started pinpointing days that held certain significance.  The last day Mom left the house – for a podiatry appointment followed by a spontaneous lunch out at our favorite Mexican restaurant.  The day I knew it was time to call my sister and brother to tell them the end was near.  The weekend family from the Pacific Northwest traveled to Nevada for one last reunion.  An early Thanksgiving feast to ensure Mom could enjoy her favorite foods one last time on her mother’s China.  Her last birthday, celebrated with a single, flickering candle in a cup of chocolate-vanilla swirl pudding and three of us singing as she lay comatose.  The icy cold morning when she took her last breath.

The last, the last, the last.  It seems like an eternity ago … and like yesterday.

I sometimes wonder whether those closing images will ever fade.  Will I always be able to hear the doctor say, “Well, she doesn’t have six months,” as he paused Smile - Musicnear our front door after making a house call for a hospice assessment?  Will I always have a vivid memory of Mom’s poignant observation after most of the family musicians gathered in the living room to play all her favorite tunes once more?  “Did you feel like you were at your own wake,” I asked when I helped her into bed that night.  “Yes, I kinda did.”  Will there Smile - GHever come a day when I am able to erase the December 2, 2013, recording of General Hospital, when I talked my barely conscious Mom through the moment she’d long been waiting for – Robin’s surprise return from the dead at husband Patrick’s wedding?  And, finally, will I ever stop second-guessing how my sister, brother and I handled those last few days and nights punctuated with frequent doses of liquid pain and anti-anxiety medications?  Lord, did we do a good job of walking Mom home?

From experience, I know that most of these heart-wrenching memories of our parting days will soften.  After a quarter century, I can still conjure up images of my mother-in-law’s final weeks as she wound down a six-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Likewise, I clearly remember the shocking phone call two months later when my father died unexpectedly during an orthopedic surgery.  And, in the still of the night, I can relive certain meaningful moments when taking care of my father-in-law as he slowly succumbed to congestive heart failure less than four years after that.

About once a year – not always in the right month – I remember their passing and am unfailingly amazed that so much time has passed since we last breathed the same air.  I’ve noticed, though, that the exact days of their departures escape me now, and instead I am more likely to think of them on the joyful days that their mothers first held them in their arms.  March 9, 1926.  October 9, 1916.  September 13, 1923.  Those were good times on Mother Earth.  Perhaps the one saving grace to come from their loss is the knowledge that many beautiful, precious recollections of Mom will eventually dominate the sorrowful ones.  Sealing the deal is that I have more than 20 bonus years of memories with her than with any one of those three dear hearts who, in such rapid succession, beat her to the pearly gates.

Understanding that the future holds more peace is comforting.  But, alas, this season the best I can really do is let the waves of sadness roll over me and Smile - Octcleanse my aching spirit.  I won’t surrender completely to melancholy, but I’m sure Mom would not mind if I sit in her favorite chair and cry for a bit while that year-old episode of our treasured soap opera plays.  She would love it if I continued to browse through photos and videos from our family’s last weekend together – images that clearly show the euphoria generated by more than a dozen hearts filled with abiding love for her.  Before drifting off to sleep at night, I can wrap myself in the warm, down comforter she gave me and pray for solace.  Every moment of every day, I can work on remembering her life rather than her death, and I can write this online column commemorating what a remarkable, priceless, completely unique mother I had.  Most medicinal of all, I can slide to the left, sidle to the right in a zany rendition of the Soupy Shuffle and …

Smile with my bottom teeth.

I’ll Think About That Tomorrow

Dressed in a stylish black mourning gown, Scarlett O’Hara weeps as she closes the ornate door of her empty mansion.  She has just buried her young daughter, made promises at the bedside of her dying sister-in-law, and watched helplessly as her dashing husband disappeared into the morning mist.  Seemingly everything she holds dear is truly Gone with the Wind.  In the throes of this profound loss, she falls back on the mantra that has carried her through life’s most difficult moments.  “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.”

I’ll think about that tomorrow.

It takes her only seconds to remember what is left in the world that matters, regain her characteristic strength, and end the classic 1939 film on a hopeful note.  “After all,” she says triumphantly, “tomorrow is another day!”

Tomorrow (5)In the 12 years we lived together, Mom and I strived to be like Scarlett.  It was almost second nature for me since Scarlett has long been my favorite fictional heroine.  In one moment, she could be the flirtatious belle of the barbecue and, in the next, the determined head of a family shattered by the death and devastation of the Civil War.  My bookshelf is home to English and non-English versions of this Margaret Mitchell classic and the sequels that followed decades later.  I’ve bravelyTomorrow (3) whittled down my prodigious collection of commemorative plates from 36 to four, but I won’t part with my copy of the typewritten script from the David O. Selznick / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production.  In 1993, when Mom posed for a picture with Dracula at a Universal Studios souvenir store, I had my profile photo-shopped into a provocative still with Rhett Butler.  Even my lively Springer Spaniel, Katie, bears the true first name of this strikingly beautiful, smart protagonist.

Mom and I repeated Scarlett’s “tomorrow” mantra frequently enough that it earned a place in one of Mom’s farewell cards delivered to me posthumously.  Not just any card.  The last one; handed to me by my sister on the day we scattered Mom’s ashes at the Oregon Coast.  Time to move forward, Mom seemed to be saying.

Reading the card again just now, I am pleased to know that Mom saw in me the qualities I try hard to cultivate – optimism, hope, a grateful spirit and the courage to face life-altering challenges.  Serendipitously, I needed to be reminded of that after a rather taxing week, the details of which are better left for exploration in an appropriate column on some future Sunday.  Suffice to say that I am in awe of Mom’s incorporeal ability to support and uplift me from across the great divide.

Tomorrow (2)To be honest (another attribute regular readers of this column know that I value), sometimes I fall from grace and neglect to count my blessings.  Mom did, too.  Indeed, the reason that this weekly discourse is subtitled “Nothing left unsaid” is rooted in worry.  Virtually every time a doctor diagnosed or even suspected a new malady, Mom and I would immediately assume the end was near.  Our indulgence in fear ushered us through an extravagant number of meaningful conversations; hence, there was nothing left unsaid between us.  However, the fear also rendered us the cowards that Julius Caesar spoke of in Shakespeare’s play about the legendary Roman ruler.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.  Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

Mom and I knew that astute passage as well as any royal thespian, but we couldn’t seem to help ourselves.  We sometimes fretted, stewed, fussed and cogitated until we were mired in depression.  I tended to rebound more quickly than Mom, but each time we eventually found our smiles again.

When I felt that familiar, unwelcome anxiety creep into my thoughts this past week, I tried to tamp it down with techniques like deep breathing, prayer, focusing on daily miracles and the many other relaxation tips one finds in the best meditative books money can buy.  That didn’t do the trick, so I stopped worrying about worrying and joked that agonizing over things that may not even happen is in my DNA.

Simply acknowledging my intrinsic nature helped relieve some of the stress but, as it turns out, my wisecrack wasn’t really a laughing matter.  The notion that worrying is hereditary actually is more fact than fiction.  Studies have shown that a gene known as COMT predisposes us to be either warriors or worriers.  Warriors are stimulated to action by battle or, more commonly in everyday life, by a great challenge.  On the down side, they don’t do as well as worriers when it comes to routine productivity.  Conversely, while worriers may excel on a day-to-day basis, they are more likely to suffer a meltdown under high stress.  A casual observation made by some of my female co-workers this past week – that women worry and men don’t – may also be true.  The COMT gene controls estrogen, and worriers typically have higher estrogen levels.  Hmmmm.

If you think I’m gas-lighting you (to borrow a colorful phrase from Mom’s vernacular), google “warriors vs. worriers.”  You’ll find some intriguing information posted by the likes of the New York Times, the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and Andrew J. Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium.  Trust me.  As I browsed through the material, my eyebrows arched like Scarlett when she comes upon a fascinating idea.

Fascinating is also an apt description of my experience writing this column.  I didn’t intend it to be therapeutic but, so far, it has been just that.  By writing about the trials and tribulations of caregiving, as well as the joy of living and laughing with my mother, I am steadily working through the indescribable pain of losing her and am also ensuring that our family’s memories of her are forever catalogued.  I hope that, at the same time, I am touching and helping others who are caring for or grieving for a loved one.  This week, though, I sense a subtle shift.  Today’s column is not about the past; it’s about the future.  Tomorrow (1)My future.  It’s about the need to effectively cope with whatever may come, and it’s about letting go of fear.

As I said earlier, I am in awe that Mom is still able to reach out and walk with me through uncertainty.  Her final farewell card reminded me of my own tenacity and strength of spirit, which I will draw upon as life marches forward.  Her final words, scrawled beneath the prose of Dierdra Joi Zollar, reaffirmed that worrying today never solved a single one of tomorrow’s problems.

Mom, I hear you loud and clear.  Instead of fretting when something is weighing too heavy on me, I will summon my inner Scarlett.  I’ll flounce the skirt of my make-believe green velvet portiere dress, defiantly lift my chin, and willfully declare,

On second thought, I’ll think about it tomorrow.

This Hunt Was Dedicated — Wooo-Hooo!

At the end of September, this column irreverently dedicated the 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt to my mother – “irreverently” in tribute to her appreciation for the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful.  This epilogue is to report that she would have considered the outcome of the game howl-arious.

A dog found the treasure.  Yes, you read that right.  A big, lovable, Chocolate Lab sniffed out the worn leather pouch that traditionally holds the blue and silver medallion encased in an acrylic square.  The pouch was safely tucked in the middle of a tight cluster of trees beside a creek bordering a fitness trail.  A thin layer of pine needles ensured that no one simply walking past would spot it.  But that didn’t stop Eli, our canine contestant.  He nudged it out of its nest and, carrying the pouch gently in his mouth, trotted proudly back to his human companion.  She and some friends had been trying to decipher the daily riddles that held the secret of the treasure’s whereabouts, but she quite honestly described Eli’s find that day as “dumb luck.”  Fittingly, the game ended on the 13th clue of the 13th hunt.

Third Creek by Fitness TrailNever in the years that our family has sponsored and organized this event have we been so surprised by the win.  We’ve occasionally been taken off guard by a speedy resolution.  One year, on the third in a line-up of 15 clues, a hunter with a hunch found the medallion behind a historical marker commemorating Nevada’s mining history.  Another year a forest ranger suspected it was hidden on a trail near the California-Nevada border and presented it after Clue 5.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 game continued all the way to Clue 14, and we were beginning to Treasure Hunt Hiding Spot 2014think no one would find the pouch staked among sagebrush alongside a gravel road abutting the site of an Old West fort.  Eli’s role in ending this year’s hunt will become part of its down-home folklore.

For more than a decade in Oregon our family played a similar game associated with the Portland Rose Festival.  Some of our most beloved memories are rooted in researching possible solutions to cryptic rhymes, exploring unfamiliar roads and landmarks, and wandering down Treasure Hunt Medallion in Hidingnature trails certain that we were about to spot the coveted prize.  We came “this close” a few times, but we were never lucky enough to actually find it.  Make no mistake, though.  The memories we made were no less precious just because we came up empty-handed.

When we moved away from Portland in 1997, my son suggested that we start a treasure hunt in our new home of Northern Nevada.  We could use our experience to design a truly engaging game that would encourage people to learn Treasure Hunt Medallionabout the state, visit new places, and enjoy each other in the process.

Wouldn’t it be fun, he mused, to be the creators instead of the hunters?

To give credit where it’s due, he was largely responsible for the first couple of hunts.  When the rest of the family climbed on the bandwagon, the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt became our personal, cherished tradition.

Some might argue that, when you stage a community event, it can’t be personal.  On the contrary, it is very much so.  For years we have guarded our family outings with the secrecy of an FBI undercover operation.  The grandchildren were indoctrinated from birth and no longer need reminders to “zip it” when anyone asks what they did over a long, summer weekend.  We kick each other under restaurant tables when one of us absent-mindedly starts a conversation about the hunt in public.  If the topic comes up while visiting on our patio, we go inside the house.  A few local businesses have supported the event over the years, mostly with in-kind services, but our family is solely responsible for the game from start to finish.  We have purposely fronted the $1,000 prize because major cash sponsorships too often come with strings attached.  The smaller the inner circle, the easier it is to preserve the simplicity and integrity of the hunt.

Yes, the game is personal for us.  It was even more so this year because it was the first since my mother — the kids’ beloved Grandma Joy — passed away.  As described in my September column, “This Hunt Is Dedicated,” she was the custodian of the opening clue, and her enthusiasm when we unearthed quirky details about Nevada’s past (or present) was contagious.  She never really could walk trails with us, but she delighted in coming along for the ride to scope out the general area around potential hiding places.  In truth, this year’s hunt was not the first we had to organize without her.  Her contribution in 2013 was limited to modest cheerleading; she was enrolled in a home hospice program the week after the medallion was found.

LucyOn a recent Saturday night, the family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy buttery squares of freshly baked cornbread and steaming bowls of homemade beef stew, which I learned to make under Mom’s tutelage.  The conversation turned to the recently ended treasure hunt and what she may have thought of Eli’s triumph.  She loved animals of all sizes, shapes and species … more than she loved most people.  She was rarely, if ever, without a dog by her side, on her lap or snuggled up beside her in bed.  She considered her Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 to be her true soulmate, and animal rescue organizations were her charity of choice.  To me, even her cheers sounded like the yelp of a happy dog or the spirited howl of a wolf.  We have no doubt Mom would have taken great pleasure in this particular shaggy-dog story.

After dinner, my son read aloud a selection of comments from the social media page we established for the hunt.  Some were intriguing posts from hunters comparing notes with each other or sharing suggestions with us.  Some were petulant but harmless comments added by unsuccessful hunters expressing their frustration with the outcome.  To our dismay, there were also over-the-top tirades published by angry competitors whose online road rage was startling.  They cruelly cursed everyone and everything for their loss except the plain fact that they did not correctly decipher the clues.  We pondered whether these attacks are evidence that the hunt has grown beyond our capacity as a family to continue in the same simple manner of the past 13 years.  Attracting a grim, hardcore fringe is a sign of the times, it seems.

Our story hour ended on a decidedly positive note when my son read a long, humorous, inspiring tale submitted privately to him by a family that drove, hiked, explored and otherwise scoured nearly all of the seven counties that comprise the broad search area.  Their description of midnight research sessions, determined excursions to places near and far, and toting a tired daughter piggy-back reminded us of well us.  Though they didn’t find the medallion, they said the things they learned about Nevada and the memories they made are worth far more than the cash prize.  Aaaah.  Such a sweet amen.

Wouldn’t it be fun, my son mused, to be hunters again?

As mentioned in some previous columns, Mom harbored a long-standing fear that she would not be remembered.  Unique hits on the Treasure Hunt’s main webpage and our social media page indicate that upwards of 20,000 people participated in or at least followed the hunt this year.  With those statistics, being forgotten is not an issue.  Mom would be both humbled and pleased, I’m sure.  But, trust me, I knew my weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful mother.  The smile spreading across her face and the gleam in her eye would be more for the goofy Chocolate Lab named Eli than for anyone or anything else.  I can imagine her raising a fist in the air, as she so often did when rooting for her favorite football team, and howling, “Wooo-Hooo!  Go, you little devil, go!”

There once was a doggy named Eli

Who could follow a trail with an eagle eye

But it was his nose

That outsmarted the pros

All hail to that four-legged furry guy

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.)

 

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