Grateful

It is Christmas Eve: my favorite day of the year. Christmas is always something of a let down. As a child nothing received on Christmas could meet my wild expectations on Christmas Eve. So Christmas Eve is for me a day full of boundless expectation, wonder and hope. It doesn’t hurt that the whole Christmas season reaches its wild crescendo today. The days are very short, the nights are very long and the houses spend their long nights ablaze with colorful electric lights. The Christmas tree (artificial in our case) is up and perfectly decorated. Presents are heaped up beneath and around the tree. Except for my daughter’s room the house is clean.

All this ritual and ceremony and yet I can’t actually claim to be a Christian. It seems there is little of Christ left in Christmas in 2004. After all it doesn’t take much research to discover that Yule celebrations are about as old as mankind itself. Christmas was set up by the Christians to counter the Feast of Saturn, or Saternalia by the Romans. Before the Romans got around to inventing their gods it had many other names. Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and many others celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christianity is but one of the latest traditions to latch on to this special time of year, Kwanzaa being the latest.

There is no present I can receive anymore that is likely to delight me. I have everything I want and amazingly I am satisfied with life. It helps I suppose that my dreams are rather modest. I do not feel the need for a midlife sports car, nor an estate, nor do I secretly crave for to be an executive. I have so much to be grateful for that it is hard for me to think up anything that I truly want. Those things I want are things I cannot really have and which seem corny. For me terrific Christmas presents would include world peace, the end of hunger and respect for our environment. No, I am not kidding. Alas money can’t buy these sorts of presents. Money could not even put John Kerry in the White House. I suppose I could wish for immortality. If not immortality then I could perhaps wish for eternal youth. But I’m not sure I’d want these either. I’m not sure I’d want to inhabit this same body 1000 years from now. The earth as it will be then will be so changed from the one I know now that I suspect living in it would be unbearably sad. Nor do I want to necessarily look like I did at 20 when I am pushing 50, because I don’t want to be thought of as someone quite as naive, headstrong and impoverished as I was then. Nor does the idea of attracting women that young appeal to me because for the most part they shared my naivety and immaturity too. Been there, done that.

Instead I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am. In many households the loss of one income would be devastating. My wife lost her job at the end of October and it’s nice to know we don’t absolutely need her income. We can survive nicely on my income. I have perhaps the most precious gift of all: good health. Yesterday as a huge rainstorm moved through the area I counted my blessings that we have a roof. As the storm passed and cold wind followed in behind it I counted my blessing that I had indoor heat. Many in this world are not so fortunate. In Iraq families wait in line overnight to fill up their automobiles or for gas to heat their home. Our major “crisis” yesterday was having our Internet service go down for a couple hours. Poor us: we watched a DVD instead.

2004 was still full of personal struggles. Perhaps the most challenging was my parent’s relocation from Michigan to a retirement community in Maryland, all this while my mother’s health declined precipitously. Numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent in nursing homes eventually resulted in something resembling a real recovery. My Mom has been home in her apartment for a couple months now with no subsequent hospitalizations. Her mobility has improved, and with the aid of antidepressants, physical and mental therapy she is a much improved 84 year old lady. When she arrived from Michigan she exclaimed, “I made it! I actually made it!” She expected to die before she left Michigan. Now she gets around slowly, her congestive heart failure is being well treated and she can occasionally make visits. She will be at our house eating Christmas Eve dinner with us tonight. Most importantly some of her old spirit is back. No money can buy such a wonderful present. I had grieved it was gone for good.

I am grateful for my friends. While not large in number they are all dear to me. And I am grateful for my siblings. Though we are geographically separated we are all still very much one family. And I have had opportunities to see all of them over the last year, along with many of my nieces and nephews. I am grateful to have a wife who loves me, and a daughter who is very creative. I am especially grateful for my 18-year-old boy cat Sprite, my best companion in every sense of the word who wants nothing more than the pleasure of my lap and to look into my eyes while I stroke under his chin.

I am grateful for my job. While I could ask for a larger team, I could not ask for a better team, even if half of us are geographically separated. How unusual is it for any manager to have just one employee who gives 150% or more? I have a whole team of people who continuously go the extra mile and dig into the thorniest problems, during and after hours, with nary a complaint. And I am grateful for Susan, my wonderful boss, the best boss I ever had, who somehow manages to make her stressful position fun. But I am also grateful that my job, though often stressful, still gives me sufficient time off to do the things that are meaningful to me. I am grateful that it gives me time to take up my new hobby of bicycling. I am grateful for my many travels up and down the W&OD trail this year. I am grateful to have a job three miles away instead of thirty. I am thus grateful I have at least 90 minutes more on a workday to do with what I want, instead of commute to and from work.

I am grateful that for whatever reason I have left my midlife crisis behind at last. I am grateful that while there are major stresses in my life and there will doubtless be more that I can usually ride above them. I know that every year will have its ups and downs. But I am especially grateful that here, today, I am in a place of peace and contentment.

I hope your Yule time celebrations, in whatever forms they take, bring happiness and comfort to you and to all you love.

Sandwiched

I have officially joined the Sandwich Generation. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means middle-aged people like me who have children, aging parents (not to mention a full time job) and have some responsibilities to care for both. It became official when I arrived in Michigan eight days ago to help care for my mother, age 83, who was in the hospital recovering from a bad fall.

Prior to this trip I had only gone to visit them for vacation. It is true about a year ago I went to visit them alone for most of a week, both to touch base but also to assess how they were doing. That was a worrying trip because it was clear that my mother was on the margin of not being able to fend for herself. Now, while she made it back home from the hospital after a 15-day stay, she needs constant care and attention. Since I returned home, the burden is now on my Dad, who is reasonably healthy, but is still 77 years old (my Mom is 83). My mother now has to walk with a walker and needs assistance getting up and down stairs. She needs assistance for most things, including intimate things like going to the bathroom and taking a shower. In general she should not be left alone when she is up or mobile. It’s going to be tough on my father, who has never had to do this level of intense care before, and I worry that caretaker fatigue may get too much for him. As one example of his new duties, my mother must be escorted to and from the bathroom. This would not be so onerous if it was just during the day, but she also goes a couple times a night. So my Dad bought a baby monitor and rises with her 2-3 times a night to assist in that too.

My mother is a feisty woman and used to being independent so this is a difficult transition for her. If balance control were not enough she also has other conditions including Parkinsoniasm, i.e. symptoms consistent with Parkinson’s disease. Her mother died of Parkinson’s disease. In my mother these symptoms are manifested in a shakiness of her hands. She cannot type any more. She really shouldn’t be anywhere near a knife either. She can do some things for herself but these are shrinking rapidly.

Most of my week in Michigan was spent with my mother in the rehabilitation section of Mid-Michigan Medical Center in Midland. She was kept busy with morning and afternoon physical therapy sessions where she painfully and tediously relearned elementary things like ascending stairs (with a walker), sitting down, getting up safely and even opening a can of soup. Perhaps what was most remarkable was that even though my Mom struck me as fairly impaired she was in the top ten percent of the people undergoing rehabilitation therapy. She was in a good hospital, but spending so much time around people in such bad situations was awkward and difficult for me. If one were to judge the end of life from seeing the aged and infirmed in the hospital, it would be something to dread. I would prefer to die suddenly. I would not fault my daughter if she did what the Eskimos did for their parents: put me on an ice flow, and kick me adrift in the Arctic Ocean. It seems more humane than the extraordinary steps I witnessed to keep people who are barely functional alive. Some images, like the woman who spent most of her time staring ahead in a blank gaze, will haunt me for some time.

My mother gave so much of herself to us when we were young it seemed more than appropriate for me, even though I was six hundred miles away, to free my schedule and spend time helping her out. It was an awkward change of roles. I escorted her back and forth to the bathroom numerous times, wheeled her places in her wheelchair, and tended to a thousand little tasks that were beyond the time and patience of her busy nurses. It’s important for her when she sleeps to have a pillow between her legs, and to have the lights adjusted just so, and to have a blanket laid in a certain way so she can easily put it on or throw it off. In addition we spent a lot of time talking about things. She was sometimes in a fog but the conversations were generally good and meaningful. She hasn’t lost her marbles quite yet.

What I found most difficult to endure was simply watching her in bed. My mother has always been so vigorous and here she was reduced to near immobility. Even worse we knew that things would not get appreciably better. Her days doing things she enjoys, like cooking and gardening, are pretty much over. There were also hosts of medical issues to sort through. She wasn’t sleeping more than an hour or two a night, and hadn’t for months. I had to help work through medication issues, and sort through the problems by talking to lots of doctors and nurses. I became her primary patient advocate.

If all this wasn’t enough there were also major lifestyle issues that had to be addressed. Until now the roles in her marriage had been very clear-cut. She did cooking and laundry, for example. Now the tables were turned. My father had fortunately got some training from my mother in doing laundry, but I had to reinforce some basic and simplified cooking techniques since this was something my father really never had to do in 77 years! Anything beyond making a sandwich was complex for him. Since their marriage was based on roles that had been reinforced for over fifty years, they had to radically change things. In addition to caretaker fatigue in my Dad, I was very concerned that the emotional aspects of their marriage would get all out of kilter. Between my sister Mary and I we were able to get them to agree to get some joint counseling.

I have always suspected that it was difficult for my father to see life through my mother’s eyes. The same is also true in reverse. Both are really such quite different people it’s hard for us children to understand how they came together and married in the first place. I doubt they are unique in having long-term communication problems, although it is clear they both love each other very much. As the roles change in their relationship I now realize it may be possible for my father to develop true empathy for my mother. For the first time he will have to walk in a nurse’s and mother’s shoes. We children can only hope that they do so in a way that will eventually strengthen their bond of love, rather than causes more disharmony and friction. These patterns are long set and it’s hard to imagine how they could both turn more pliable at their ages.

What goes around comes around in time. It almost seems like God was saying, “I’m going to put these two together and give them numerous opportunities to work on their differences. But just in case they don’t do it, when Lee is old she will develop problems that will force a change in perspective for both of them.” In short I sometimes wonder if their relationship was stuck in concrete for fifty years because both found the patterns generally comfortable, if occasionally irritating. Now they have no choice: these fundamental problems in their relationship must be fixed. Either each gets the perspective of the other, or some sort of disaster looms. I can see my father breaking down emotionally from the strain of taking care of her. But hopefully he will find the resources and the therapy he needs to make this transition. I did my best to point him in the right direction.

In case you are wondering, we, their offspring, are beside ourselves and deeply worried about this new arrangement. While my mother is doing well under the circumstances the likelihood of another fall, from my perspective, is quite high. Her physical therapists recommend that they live in a one story house, condominium or apartment. We, their children, don’t want them hundreds of miles away. We feel the obligation to be there for them, but so far neither seems inclined to relocate and it would be impractical for us to relocate to Midland. I am hoping that after a few months of struggling through their current situation the logic of relocation will become clear. And when that decision arrives, assuming my mother hasn’t further injured herself and ended up in a nursing home (the logical next step), we are aware of the huge logistical issues involved in finding them a new home and relocating them.

We are sandwiched. But I don’t mind, for my siblings and I must also grow further too. We have to take responsibility for their care and ensure for their safety. And we all want to do this now. For the moment though we can only pause, hold our breath and hope our parents choose to make the choice to relocate and simplify their lives.

I feel like I have put on another coat of responsibility. Before I left for Michigan I could think of my parents’ problems in rather abstract terms. Now that I have been there, have seen my mother through some intense times, and dealt with the situation on the ground I feel vested in the solution. The emotional heartstrings I’ve always had for those who gave me life have proven to resilient, and their pull is still strong.

I am not a praying man, but I am inclined to pray for them now in what is likely the most difficult time of their lives.

Aging Parents

As much as I dislike thinking about my own aging I like thinking about my parents’ aging even less. I know mortality is the price we pay for life but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, particularly when it happens to people you love so intimately.

Some say that God gives life, but it is the parents of a child who fill the child with the structure, aspirations and some suggest the phobias that will form the core of the adult to be. I am truly a product of my parents, in both the biological and the spiritual sense, and I constantly find aspects of each running around inside me. Since to some extent they are an extension of me, and I of them, naturally the thought of their deaths fills me with anxiety and apprehension.

From my father I have learned many valuable life lessons. I have learned the values of hard work, of patience, of quiet love and of sticking to my decisions. Foremost I have learned to how to be an excellent father. Because, for example, he read to me as a child, I could do nothing less than do the same for my daughter. Although there were eight of us he managed to make me feel special and unique. This was no small accomplishment because in many ways my father is also acerbic and very much the linear-thinking engineer. For better or worse, because I am his son I cannot not be safe about anything. I cannot drive to the store without a safety belt. I cannot cross the street without making a risk based assessment of the probability of reaching the other side unhurt. I have always felt more bonded to my father than my mother for reasons I don’t wholly understand.

My mother is a far different creature than my father. But in many ways she is far more interesting. It is only in the last ten years or so, as my mother wrote her biography, that I began to understand her. She grew up in a large Catholic family in about the most impoverished circumstances imaginable in the midst of the Great Depression. It is clear this experience in poverty shaped who she is. It didn’t help that her mother was a mental case and would frequently walk out on her own children when the stress level got too high. I am convinced she did not get the quality of attention she needed from her mother and to some extent this shaped a self esteem problem she has always had. Somewhere along the way she developed a shyness that has kept her from having most of the close relationships, outside of family, one would expect for a woman. And yet in many ways she triumphed over adversity. Somehow she not only graduated high school, something pretty unusual in the 1930s for a woman, but completed a degree in Nursing at Catholic University where she met my father. She managed a mentally ill mother while pregnant and morning sick with my first sister, Lee Ann. Her mother died around the time her first child was born.

From my mother I learned to appreciate good cooking, a clean house, and the value of having an ex-nurse when we got sick. I could do nothing but marvel at the endless energy with which she attacked motherhood and raising a large family. She never stopped. There was no vacation for her, even on vacation. She was busy from before we got up until after we bent to bed. Evenings were quieter when we were in bed but she was still there, working on the sewing machine or darning socks. But it was also clear that it exacted a heavy price. I strongly feel that as much as she loved all of us, eight of us was at least four more than she could comfortably handle. Perhaps because she grew up in a loud and emotional household, she was a loud, emotional and controlling mother. From our perspective she was the general and we were the privates. It took me much longer to understand that she was also emotionally vulnerable, and that while my Dad is a terrific person she glorified aspects of him and denigrated aspects of herself. On some level she has never felt worthy of being married to him, and that she should be subservient to him and give him the final say on all matters. My Mom seems to equate high intelligence with being able to make the right choice, an opinion at odds with my life experiences.

The dynamics of each marriage are unique and as they aged they have evolved patterns that seem to be comfortable for both of them. The raising children pattern worked for much of their marriage, until we had all left the house. In 1989 my father retired from engineering and they moved to Midland, Michigan. It is clear then that a new relationship pattern emerged. This is not too surprising because my Dad was now a 24/7 inhabitor of the house, rather than someone who spent nights and weekends. The resulting retrofitting relationship seems to have been hard to reengineer but eventually they developed patterns that seemed to work for them, although it was clear that it was often grating to both of them to have each other around so much.

Now that pattern is coming to an end. Neither is in the best of health but my mother, perhaps from being 6 years older, has the more chronic health problems. She is currently in the hospital, having fallen repeatedly. It looks like when she comes home she will be using a walker, and it’s not clear whether she can move from level to level anymore. Her health is “in decline” and is unlikely to improve.

It’s clear to my siblings and I that the retirement phase of their lives is over and all of us are struggling to figure out where to go from here. Three of my sisters have been to Midland recently to help out. It is likely that I will leave this weekend to do my part to provide logistical and mental support, staying about a week.

I know the situation is scary and frustrating to both my parents. How could it be otherwise? As if death weren’t scary enough, the business of dying seems perhaps scarier. My Dad seems overwhelmed with his caretaker responsibilities and is probably holding a lot of feelings about my Mom’s decline. My Mom, of course, wants the independence she cannot have. The old relationship patterns are not working so well in the context of the new situation. We all hope of course that they will find a new pattern that works for them. But it seems likely that something will have to change soon. We don’t know if this means my mother will have to go into some sort of assisted living, or whether a nurse’s aide will be needed, or perhaps they could be persuaded both move in with one of us. Clearly my Mom will need a lot of attention, as will my Dad who has to cope with the decline of a woman he has been married to for 53 years.

What is clear is that we are all at a role reversal stage. It’s always been my parents who have catered to us. That paradigm will no longer work. Rather my siblings and I must struggle into a caretaker role for them. We will have to step in and help them make choices. My sisters report a new willingness to listen to us and to allow us to help out.

It’s a tough phase in life. But I am struck by an observation that in every phase of life, including the ending phase, there is a chance for personal growth. The role reversal is an entirely natural phase for this time in their lives and needs to be accepted with as much grace and dignity as possible. It is now our duty, our obligation but also in some ways our great privilege to be there for our parents, even in such a limited way, when they were there for us for so very long.

I likely leave for Michigan more than a little upset about the situation, but also determined to do my part to help out and to provide my parents with the physical and emotional support they need to navigate through this stage of life. In a way it is a privilege that they have made it to this stage. My siblings and I are feeling our way gingerly through this process, but somehow we are determined to make it work and to be there for our parents despite our families and our hectic lives.

A Neighbor in Hell

Does life have you down? Do you feel overwhelmed by circumstance and wish you could start over? I often feel that way, not because I really don’t like my life that much nor not love my family. But sometimes even when I think my own personal problems are overwhelming, I can take some comfort in knowing that for other people things can, and indeed often are, much worse. This is a perverse sort of comfort, but it does help me realize that in the grand scheme of things my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Latest case in point has to do with a 14-year-old friend of my daughter who must, of course, remain nameless. Our daughter (thankfully) has been confiding in us that this girl, who I shall call “B”, has been cutting herself. These are not the sort of cuts from someone trying to take her life. She’s not bleeding from an open wound in the bathtub. But she is doing this and Rosie caught her at it at school, where B was using tissues to catch the blood. Thankfully Rosie is not stupid and immediately brought it to the teacher’s attention. The teacher immediately sent B to see a student counselor. Things escalated from there. B is now in the children’s psychiatric wing of a local hospital and will likely be in there for some time.

Because, you see, B’s family is dysfunctional. Her mother C is trying to hold the family together but it seems to be a lost cause. Because C is married to D who lost his job some months back and who also a world-class alcoholic in complete denial. C and D spent lots of time having arguments. D doesn’t think he has a problem even though he is staggeringly drunk most of the time. C is embarrassed to be seen with him. Naturally all the yelling, not to mention having a drunk father 24/7 is freaking B out. Fortunately her younger brother E seems to be largely immune from all this.

C has been trying to keep the family together on the belief that it is best for the children. But it is becoming apparent that some marriages can be so toxic that it is not best for the kids. B’s latest cutting tendency is no doubt a response to the rage and pain that she feels in her life but can’t control. B is in many ways an exceptionally bright and pleasant girl.

C needs to escape from all this once in a while … who can blame her? So she took off for a retreat with some friends. B immediately stopped taking her medications and D was too drunk to notice or to care. C gets called home prematurely from her retreat when the school calls. B is still in the hospital. C comes to visit, but B spurns C. B probably blames C for her whole family situation, not realizing that it is C who is doing her best in impossible situations.

All this, of course, while the family income is cut in half. Painful financial decisions will have to be made, like downsizing their life and perhaps selling their house. But the most painful of all, but perhaps most necessary of all, is for C to separate and divorce D. D may well end up on the street, homeless. He doesn’t seem to have a true friend in the world. Maybe D will hit rock bottom and go into recovery. It doesn’t look likely though.

Man, I want to pour a stiff one from just hearing about this! I can’t imagine living this scenario 24/7! My heart really though goes out to all of them. C is doing her best under impossible conditions. B is a 14-year-old kid who shouldn’t have had all this nasty stuff thrown at her at such a young age. And as much as I don’t like D being a drunk and wish he’d sober up, alcoholism is a disease, so I have sympathy for the guy and an addiction that is clouding his brain so much that rational thought is pretty much impossible.

We’ll see how this soap opera plays out. The good part is that C has now fully confided in my wife and my wife, bless her, wants to help out where she can. We might even host B in our house for a while. B might get better being in a normal family setting for a while.

As awful as this family’s situation is, there are other stories I know of personally that would make this one look like nothing. This is just the one I know about at the moment.

My life: I think I’ll keep it!

Read the last chapter | Read the next chapter