Another Year Over

I have never gotten into the habit of writing regularly in my journal, but I do make it a point to take lots of photographs, print them out and label them, and then place them in a photo album.  Those albums come in handy when I’m trying to remember which year we went on a particular vacation, or who was present at one of our family gatherings.  All I have to do is leaf through my photo albums until I find the right photo, and voila!  I have my answer.

And as 2018 draws to a close, I find myself thinking back over the year and all that happened in it, both the good and the bad.  I don’t really need my photo albums to recall the moments that were most significant to me personally, as my mental pictures are still very clear.

IMG_4149I remember the first time I saw my grandson, just moments after his birth, and how perfect he looked and  how I fell in love with him so instantly and completely.  I remember the hot summer night we spent in the swimming pool at my son’s new house, enjoying a pre-4th of July family dinner and swim party.  I remember sharing my 60th birthday dinner with friends I have known for almost every one of those sixty years.  I remember answering the door on Halloween night and being greeted by a tiny little penguin who promptly took my hands and waddled his way into our living room with a huge smile on his face.

I also remember gently stroking our beloved dog, Lucy, as she took her last breath.  I remember hearing the sad news of the deaths of my sister-in-law’s mother and the mother of a good friend on the same weekend, and how bad I felt that the funerals were hundreds of miles away so that I couldn’t attend both services.  I remember how my heart broke when I heard the horrible and tragic news that a dear friend’s beautiful daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly.  2018 was not a year without tragedy and profound sorrow.

Some of my memories are rather bittersweet.  I remember the how scared I felt when my grandson had to be hospitalized for RSV when he was only ten months old.  But I’ll never forget the sight of my son-in-law singing to his sick little son during a particularly unpleasant procedure, because he knew how much the little guy likes music.  Love is expressed in so many ways, and truly is what gets us all through the hard times.

2018 will soon be history, and I know that eventually my memories of most of the year won’t be nearly so vivid.  (Good thing I have those photo albums.) But the changes and the events of the past year have definitely left their mark.  And all I can hope is that I am just a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger, and most of all, a little kinder than I was twelve short months ago.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Greatest Gift

Last weekend was a busy one.  We had a death in the extended family, which meant taking a quick out-of-state trip on Friday to attend the visitation.  On Saturday, we drove back home so we could help our daughter prepare for the family lunch that would follow the baptism of our grandson on Sunday morning.  One of the disadvantages of growing older is that I don’t bounce back from those kinds of weekends as quickly as I used to, so I am only just now actually processing those recent events.

In many ways, the death of a loved one and the baptism of a baby are completely opposite events.  One life is ending and another one is just beginning, and the emotions we feel are so very different.  It doesn’t matter if the death came at the end of a long and well-lived life, or if it was sudden and completely unexpected, we still grieve and wonder if we are ever going to feel quite whole again without that particular person in our life.  And you don’t have to be religious to feel the wonder and joy of an infant baptism, since it represents the beginning of a new life full of promise and hope.  Any way you look at it, funerals and baptisms are very, very, different.

But as I look back over the weekend, I realize that those two seemingly polar opposite events have one very important thing in common.  At both times, family and close friends gathered together to offer community and support.  In the one case, they came to offer comfort and share memories of the loved one who is no longer physically with us.  In the other, they came to show their support of, and love for, a rather new little person who is just beginning his life journey.  But in both cases, the important thing is simply that they came.

Sometimes, life gets in the way and we can’t actually be present when someone needs our support.  Last week, the mother of a dear friend of mine also passed away.  Unfortunately, her funeral was held on the same day as our family’s visitation, five hundred miles away.  As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t physically be there for my friend.  But I could still reach out to her, thanks to modern technology, and make sure she knew she had my love and support.

Life will always be full of ups and downs, of occasions that seem unbearably sad and of other occasions that fill us with joy.  And the people who gather with us at those times to share our grief or our happiness are a powerful reminder that we aren’t in this alone.  They are the community that supports us through the life’s biggest changes.

So my take away from this busy last week and weekend is simple:  be there for those who need us.  Physically when we possibly can; or by calling, sending flowers, a card, or even a quick text when we can’t.  The details don’t really matter.  What’s important is just that we be there for each other, each and every time we are needed.

No Contest

IMG_2401I’m worried about my dog.  Last Friday, she had what appeared to be a stroke and we rushed her to the emergency vet clinic, thinking that the end had come.  It turned out to be Vestibular Syndrome, which looks like a stroke, but the vet said her chances of recovery are actually quite good.  The problem is that Lucy is 15-years old and so far, her recovery has been very slow.

Her eyes are no longer twitching, she’s no longer drooling non-stop and she has regained control of her bladder.  But she’s still lurching around with her head twisted sharply to the right, can’t manage stairs, wipes out completely now and then, and is eating only sporadically.  Lucy is usually fiercely independent, and although she has mellowed somewhat with age, she has always been a sassy little hell-raiser.  So it is hard to see her so tired and bewildered, so unsure of her movements, and so completely dependent on our help.  I cling to the hope that the vets are right and she will continue to improve.  But meanwhile, I worry.

At first, I was reluctant to tell anyone what I was feeling, because I was afraid of the responses I would get.  Yes, I know she’s “just a dog,” and there are people who are suffering from much worse,  and there are even more people out there who are watching loved ones suffer from painful and potentially fatal diseases.  I also know that among my fellow dog-lovers there are many who have watched their own dog suffer, and sometimes even die, of much worse things .  But eventually, I came to the conclusion that even though I feel genuinely sorry for what other people are going through, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to worry about my dog’s bout with Vestibular Syndrome.

Worry, like grief, is personal.  There’s no competition for who is dealing with the worst hardship or the greatest tragedy.  Whatever it is that I’m coping with, there will always be someone out there coping with something much worse.  But that doesn’t diminish my feelings.

I remember when I was planning my father’s memorial service, and in the midst of trying to make so many decisions, I blurted out the to minister, “This is just so hard!”  He  reminded me that my father was old and sick when he died, so I didn’t have it nearly so bad as people who were planning a funeral for someone who had died young and suddenly.  And you know what?  That response didn’t help at all.   My father may have been old and sick, but my grief was still real, and so was my frustration at trying to figure out the right way to honor his memory.

I know the minister didn’t mean to dismiss my feelings (aside from that remark, he was quite helpful and supportive), but he made the common mistake of trying to rate the bad stuff that happens in our lives on some sort of world-wide scale.  And that’s not helpful.  If I’m upset about something, I don’t benefit from being told it’s a “First-world problem.”  A mother grieving for her dead baby doesn’t need to have someone point out to her that, unlike some other grieving mothers, she has still has another child to love.  A man standing next to the concrete slab where his house used to be doesn’t want to be told, “you’re one of the lucky ones, because the tornado missed your barn.”  Those may be true statements, but they only serve to tell someone that they shouldn’t be feeling what they actually are feeling.

I believe that each of us is allowed to be upset, to worry, and to grieve exactly the way we want to and need to, without being judged or corrected.  There is no prize for the one suffering from the biggest tragedy, and no one deserves to have their feelings dismissed for being too trivial.  Our emotions are real and need to be dealt with as such, even if they don’t make much sense to others.  Because when it comes to feelings, there really is no contest at all.

What Will They Say?

IMG_4471Yesterday, I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service for the husband of a long-time family friend.  Afterwards, we all gathered at her brother’s house for some food and drinks, as is often the custom after such services, so that family and friends can comfort each other and share stories and memories about the one they have lost.  I’m sure most of us have been to several of these gatherings, but there was something especially touching about this one.  The toasts and tributes were so heartfelt, the memories were so special and the sense of loss so deep, that there was no doubt that my friend’s husband was not only a very special person, but was also dearly loved but all who knew him well.  Clearly, he had left a powerful legacy of goodness, tolerance, and love.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how different our lives might be if we thought just a little bit more often about how people we will remember us after we are gone.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attended a funeral or memorial service, people don’t really talk about the sort of things that seem so very important to us as we live our daily lives.  No one mentions what car the deceased drove, how much money he made, how she always looked ten years younger than her actual age, what advanced degrees he earned or what a prestigious job she held.  Sure, some of that information might make it into an obituary or be a part of the life story shared during the service, but when the time comes for people to share their own memories of their loved one, that’s not what they talk about at all.

In the personal tributes and toasts, people talk about the real gifts that their loved one gave them.  They talk about how he was always ready to listen to their problems, without judgement, and without jumping in to offer quick and easy advice.  They talk about how she always made time for them, no matter how hectic and stressful her life happened to be.  They talk about the good examples he set by the way he lived his life, or how she had the courage to follow her own dreams and encouraged others to do the same.  In short, they talk about the important things, and not the inconsequential stuff that occupies far too much of our attention.

I have always been taught not to worry about what people say about me (easier said than done), and I understand that is meant to be good advice about not letting other people’s opinions dictate how I live my life.  But I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea to consider what people are going to say when I’m gone, and how they are going to remember me.  Am I a positive and encouraging influence on other people?  Am I helping others when they need it, and not just when it’s convenient for me?  Will anyone be able to say, honestly, that I left this world just a little bit better than I found it?

The beautiful tributes and heartfelt toasts I heard yesterday are the kind that can only be earned by living our lives as fully and compassionately as we possibly can.  And I can think of no better way to be remembered, and no better legacy to leave behind.

A Prince Of A Horse

Prince in St. JamesPrince is not a name I would ever have chosen for my horse.  Having grown up watching “Fury” and reading books like “Midnight” and “Black Beauty,” I had always dreamed of having a horse that was spirited and beautiful, and I wanted it to be named accordingly.  But Prince was eight years old when I got him and already knew his name, so I had no choice but to let him keep it.

He was handsome, with a copper-colored coat, a black mane and tail, and a white stripe down the middle of his face.  He was a calm, easy-going horse rather than a spirited one, and since I was fourteen and inexperienced when I got him, that was a good thing.  My first horse, Gypsy, had been very spirited, and after she had bitten, kicked, and bucked me off, I was more than ready to appreciate a horse who actually seemed to like people.

Honestly, Prince liked people more than any horse I have ever known.  I got him a couple years after my family had moved to a small town in Kansas, and kept him at a small stable where he had access to a large pasture.  Everyone else at the stable had to spend some time catching their horses when they wanted to ride them.  I simply called Prince and he came trotting right over, eager to see if I had some food for him, which I always did.  He was easy to ride as long as I made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to stop and graze along the way.  Even when I wasn’t feeding or riding him, Prince always stayed near me when I was at at stable, occasionally  resting his head on my shoulder or nudging me hopefully to see if I would give him a treat.

His only real vice was that he was a pig about food, and the only way he would ever hurt anyone is if they made the mistake of standing between him and something he wanted to eat.  Prince believed that the shortest distance between him and his next meal was a straight line, and if someone was standing in his way, he would not hesitate to plow right into them.  But other than that, he was so calm and friendly that just about anybody could ride him, and I had more than one friend get over their fear of horses just by being around him.

Prince in MarionI admit I spoiled him a little, at least by the standards of some people.  He loved apples, but would only eat one if I “started” it for him.  That meant I had to bite a chunk of it off first, give him the chunk, then hold the apple while he took a bite himself, and then finally he would take what was left of the apple and eat that.  He also expected me to swat away the giant horse flies that sometimes landed on him and bit him when we were riding, even if that meant dismounting to swat one off of his leg.  I would be lying if I said the more experienced horsemen I sometimes rode with were impressed with the way I handled my horse.

Prince came into my life when I was fourteen and he was eight, and he stayed a part of it for seventeen years.  When my family moved to southern Illinois, we took him with us, even though I was heading off to college in  Iowa.  When I married and moved to St. Louis, I moved Prince to a nearby farm in Missouri.  By that time it was sometimes hard to pay all the expenses that come with owning a horse, but I never once considered selling him.

We had been through so much together.  When my teenage years got a bit painful or confusing, I could always find peace by going to the stable and spending time with Prince.  Riding him on my breaks home from college was always something to look forward to, and later, when I moved back to the large city of St. Louis, I treasured my weekend rides on Prince out in the country.  He was a constant in my life during a time when almost everything else was changing so quickly.

I had to say goodbye to Prince when he as twenty five years old and his arthritis made it impossible for him to move around freely anymore.  I knew it was time to let him go when just walking across his stall caused him real pain.  It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, and I still miss him, all these years later.  And even though I didn’t realize it when I first got him, his name fit him perfectly.  He really was a prince of a horse.

No One Told Me

IMG_5462I am not, and have never been, what you would a call an optimistic person.  I tend to not only expect the worst, but to prepare for it as well.  So I’m still trying to figure out how I managed to be be so completely clueless about what exactly was waiting for me when I reached middle age.  Because honestly, I had no idea….

I thought that being middle aged meant I wouldn’t worry about my children any more, because they would be grown up and out of my house.  I also thought I would have much more money and time at my disposal, because, well, my children would be grown up and out of the house.  And while it’s true my grocery bills have gone down significantly since I stopped having to feed my son’s insatiable appetite, I’m still waiting for all that extra time and money to arrive, and my level of worry about my kids hasn’t gone down one little bit.

I knew that I would eventually hit menopause and that some women experienced “unpleasant” symptoms, but I was still shocked when I had my first hot flash. I didn’t realize that having a hot flash meant feeling as if someone had stuck me in a microwave and turned it on high, and that I would have those feelings at least ten times a day and three to four times every night, for years.  And that constant, bitter, complaining didn’t help at all (as my husband regularly and patiently reminded me).

I didn’t know that that one morning I would wake up, decide to make pancakes for breakfast, but be completely unable to read the directions on the box of Bisquick.  I mean, how could that be?  Literally, one day I could read small print, and the next day I could not.  That mystery is right up there with why the hair from my eyebrows (where I wanted it) suddenly decided to migrate to my upper lip (where I most certainly did not want it).

Logically, I knew that as I aged, my parents and other relatives would also be aging, but sometimes I am still surprised when my mother walks into the room and I realize that she has turned into a bonafide, cute, little-old-lady.  Because when I’m not with her, I tend to picture her as she was twenty-five years ago, which, of course, is pretty much the age I am now.  I try not to think about that too much.

I now realize that middle age has its own set of problems and its own gifts, just like every other stage of our lives.  And I don’t want to sound as if I don’t appreciate the positive aspects, because I do.  I know I have a stronger sense of self now, and I appreciate the good people in my life so much more, and I don’t waste nearly so much time “sweating the small stuff” or worrying what other people think of me.

Still, I wish that I hadn’t been caught quite so off guard by my middle years, and that I had more of a chance to prepare, if only mentally, for all the changes I was going to be facing.  And then I realize that I also don’t have any real idea of what is waiting for me when, in the not too distant future, I become an actual senior citizen.  Maybe it’s time I had a long talk with my mother…..IMG_4369

Hidden Gifts

Personally, I have always found it hard to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” and that our lives are pre-ordained.  There’s a randomness to the universe that I just can’t ignore, and more loss, violence and cruelty than I could ever attribute to a loving God.  But what I do believe is that even the darkest of times can bring gifts if we just allow ourselves to look for them.

I was sick last week, which meant I had to miss a fun social event and was also not able to do my usual shifts down at the Humane Society.  I was very disappointed to miss the special luncheon, and also worried that, without my help, not all the shelter dogs would get walked.  But several of the other volunteers went out of their way to tell me that I should stay home until I was well, and assured me that they would stay at the shelter until all the dogs were taken care of, no matter what.  I was surprised and touched by this show of support, and my illness was the reason I got to see just how wonderful these friends really are.

My mother-in-law suffered a series of strokes and spent the last couple years of her life wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, which I thought was a horrible thing for a woman who had always been so vibrant and active.  But every day that she was there, my father-in-law made the fifteen mile trip over country roads to visit her, missing only if he was sick or the roads were not safe.  He spent hours by her side, talking to her (even though she couldn’t always answer him), chatting to the staff, and generally making sure she was well cared for.  My father-in-law had not been a man who showed his emotions easily, so seeing his obvious devotion to his wife was a gift that I will always treasure.  And I wouldn’t have seen it so clearly if she hadn’t spent her last years in a care home.

Coleman Application_page 3 8Our dog Sandy’s fatal heart episodes started the night before my husband and I were scheduled to go on a long weekend trip to Charleston.  We were all packed, airline tickets bought, hotel reservations paid for in advance, and we scrambled to cancel it all last minute. At first it seemed like bad timing, but we soon realized how much worse it would have been if Sandy’s heart had started failing after we were already in Charleston.  There’s no way we would have made it home in time, and I am so glad that we were there to take her on that sad, final trip to the vet.  She needed us, not our dog sitter, to be with her at the end.

In the same way, any disappointment and pain I’ve endured in life have made me much more compassionate towards other people when they are suffering.  Because I know what it’s like to worry about paying the bills, I’m more generous to others who are struggling financially.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, to feel rejected by a good friend, to have career hopes dashed.  And while I wouldn’t have chosen to experience any of that, the fact that I have makes me a more sympathetic person than I would otherwise be, and that’s a good thing.

I may not like it when bad stuff happens to me, or anyone else for that matter, but I have learned to realize that that I can use the bad times to learn and grow.  I have come to believe there is always some good in almost every situation; I just have to remember to look for it.

Lucy

IMG_0143I didn’t really want another dog, as I was perfectly happy with the one we already had.  Sandy was a sweet-natured and happy dog who fit in beautifully with our family, and I felt that one dog, a long-haired rabbit who required daily brushing and a gerbil were more than enough for me to take care of.  But the kids really wanted another dog, so I foolishly told them that once the gerbil and rabbit were gone, we could get a second dog.  Unfortunately, within six months after I said that, the gerbil and rabbit both died.  Which is how Lucy came into our lives.

When we found her at the Humane Society, she seemed to be a calm, friendly dog who got along well with Sandy, so we signed the adoption papers, handed over a check and took her home.  The next day, we were surprised to discover that our new dog had suddenly seemed to acquire a very high level of energy indeed.  Closer inspection of her adoption papers revealed that we had adopted her less than twenty-four hours after she’d been spayed, which was a mistake none of us caught at the time.  That explained the “sudden change” in her personality.  She hadn’t been calm when we’d met her at the shelter; it was just that the sedation hadn’t completely worn off.  But by that time, she was already of member of our family and returning her was out of the question.

We quickly learned that Lucy was easy to love, but not so easy to live with.  We discovered that she not only had extraordinary energy, but was also very independent and unbelievably smart.  Sadly, her intellect has never been matched by a desire to please, or to abide by the household rules.  Lucy lives by her own rules.  She raided trashcans, even the ones with lids, which meant that she was constantly supplementing her diet with used kleenex and other disgusting things she couldn’t digest properly.  I’ll spare you the gross details.  She left muddy footprints in our bathtubs, strolled casually across the living room window sill, and waited patiently for the exact moment when no one was looking to jump on the table and polish off the cheese ball during a party.  She prided herself on keeping our backyard squirrel-free, and would also leave us little tokens of her love on our back porch:  a piece of charcoal, a chunk of our landscaping border, a dead vole.  Staying one step a head of Lucy required constant vigilance, and even then, I wasn’t always successful.

IMG_4966I guess I thought I’d be glad when Lucy grew older and slowed down a little.  But I’m not.  She’s thirteen now, and has been an only dog since last September, when our beloved Sandy died at the age of sixteen. Lucy seems a bit lost without her, and after Sandy’s death, she has aged much more quickly.   These days, the dog who was so independent and afraid of nothing trembles when I drive her to the vet, and sticks close by me when I’m home.  The dog who always launched herself enthusiastically at our household visitors doesn’t even hear the doorbell any more, and  the dog who once had boundless energy is happy to spend most of her time sleeping in a patch of sunlight, especially if I am nearby.

I may be middle aged, but Lucy is old, and there’s no escaping the fact that she is beginning to fade away.  Her hearing is almost completely gone, she’s getting cataracts and sometimes she seems bewildered and confused. I know she’s “just a dog” to many people, but those who truly love their pets will understand that I am just not ready for this particular loss.  Maybe its because we’re still adjusting to life without Sandy, maybe I’m still feeling the effects of the empty-nest syndrome, or maybe I’ve just known too many people who have died in the past few years. But for whatever reason, I sometimes sit with Lucy and quietly whisper to her, “Stay.”  She’s smart enough to know what I mean.

The Sandwich Generation

It’s not as if I had never heard the term.  People have been talking about the “sandwich generation” for years.  And is not as if I didn’t know friends who were still talking care of their kids while dealing with a parent who couldn’t live independently anymore.  It’s just that I was naive enough to think that it would never happen to me.

I had the vague idea that my kids would graduate from college, then immediately find a terrific job and a great place to live.  I’d get to see them all the time, but I wouldn’t worry about them anymore.  As for my parents, I pictured them living happily on their own until they were at least in their mid-nineties, at which point they would depart from this world quickly and peacefully, knowing they had lived a full and satisfying life.  Looking back on it, I’m amazed I didn’t still believe in Santa Claus as well.

But then reality came knocking, and I learned that life doesn’t get less stressful or complicated when our kids become adults.  A father who slid slowly into the early stages of dementia before passing away; a mother-in-law who spent three years in a nursing home (in another state) before we lost her; and a father-in-law who died unexpectedly five weeks after we lost my mother-in-law and were still in deep grief over her death, all taught me that real life is challenging and messy in ways I had never even dreamed of.  And I’m still waiting for that magic moment when I stop worrying about my son and daughter.   My mother told me that would never happen, and now I know she was right.

Maybe it was just denial that kept me believing that my parents and in-laws would never require any real care from my husband and me, and that parenting was something that you did only for twenty years or so per child.  If so, I think that’s a defense mechanism that is shared by a lot of us.  Whenever I talk about some of these issues with friends whose kids are younger and whose parents are still alive, independent and healthy, they react just the way I used to:  with sincere, but distant, sympathy.  They can’t quite make themselves believe that this will ever happen to them.  I remember being that innocent.

I’m not going to lie.  This “sandwich generation” stuff can be hard.  Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m much more sympathetic to my friends who are going through the same thing, and often much worse.   Supportive friends help, and so does a sense of humor and the occasional glass of wine.  But mostly, I just remember that the alternative is worse.  I worry about my kids because I love them, and that isn’t going to change.   And I am very grateful for the time I have with my mother while she is still here, because I know once she is gone I will miss her just the way I miss my father and my in-laws.  Being in the sandwich generation may be challenging at times, but honestly, I want to stay in it for as long as I can.