Category Archives: Family

‘Motherhood: All love begins and ends there’

I just saw a friend at the dog park whose mother died about two weeks ago. I had seen the news on Facebook. Instinctively I greeted her with a warm, wordless hug, the one that says, “I’ve been there. I understand.” The greeting that has become all too common among women in later middle age.

Like my mother — who died on September 24, 2015 — this woman’s mom had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. We commiserated over the reality that our mothers had not been themselves for years. “I have to go back to 2011 or even 2010 to remember when Mom was really Mom,” I told her.

And for a moment it was back, the wistful sadness I have held at bay for 13 months. As I looked at Jill’s tight smile and moist eyes, as I listened to her describe crawling into bed with her dying mother — allowing her mother one last chance to be a mom — I felt my stomach drop and my throat catch. I wanted to see my mother one last time.

Is this grief? I can’t tell you. I don’t know how to grieve. All I have done since she died is to keep busy, keep moving forward.

“Grief can be exhausting or a relief,” says a handout from the hospice whose nurses cared for my mother in her final days. A bereavement coordinator sent a large refrigerator magnet that I stuck in a pile of papers. It reminds me, now 13 months later, to:

  • Take some walks: Check. I walk to work.
  • Stick to a routine: Check. I’m a creature of habit.
  • Create soothing bedtime rituals: Check. I go to sleep at night listening to music or a podcast.
  • Do some activities you enjoy: Check. I’ve been practicing yoga more often since Mom died, and my husband and I rescued a wildly affectionate puppy at the Animal Humane Society 10 days after her funeral.
  • Expect a wide range of emotions. OK, but what if I can’t find them?

I have dreamed once about my mother in the year-plus since she died; she was old and gaunt, and she had cancer. Maybe my guilt was speaking to me. I was relieved — and shocked, and sad, and scared — when she was diagnosed with blood cancer a mere four weeks before she died. For her, it was a release from the indignity of her decline. For me, it was the end of having to watch it.

My younger son, Nate, recently asked for the code to my iPhone. I told him it was the date of Mom’s death. He paused and turned to look at me. Nate is a truth teller, and I cherish our feisty and fearless conversations. “Do you think you would cope with this better if the code was her birthday instead?” he asked.

Good question, though I never did respond. First, I have to think about what mourning means.

mom-scattering

One year after our mother died on a windy autumn night, my brother posted a photo on Facebook of himself and Mom. They look young, happy and vigorously alive. “We need happy memories today,” I responded. But in truth, I cannot access them.

My memories of Mom are either grim or morbidly amusing, like this anecdote I jotted down in August 2012, six months after we learned she had Alzheimer’s: My brother consulted a colleague whose mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s. The woman told my brother that obsessions are common at this early stage. We should be grateful that our mother is obsessing about her checkbook, she said — even though it drives us crazy. Her relative became obsessed with constipation, and talked people into giving her laxatives and prunes daily. “I laughed, too,” my brother said as I tried to choke back my guffaws. “But my colleague’s father-in-law had to clean up the bathroom every day.”

My friend Janey, who was like a daughter to my mom, recounted the details of caring for a frail, 91-year-old parent only weeks before her own mother died. I was reminded of the daily schedule, the frequent phone calls, the sense of helplessness, the constant worry.

Now, all I have left of my mother is photos and the purposeful distribution of her possessions. “It’s so unreal,” I wrote a former colleague whose mother died recently. “The person who has loved you unconditionally, who’s known you literally all your life, who was your greatest cheerleader and supporter — suddenly she’s gone!”

I sift through notes, the abstract musings that I can’t seem to stitch into a cohesive whole. None of them are dated, which accurately reflects the confusion and unreality of the three and a half years when Mom gradually slipped away and then suddenly, traumatically left us, gasping for air, bone thin and incoherent in a morphine haze.

Here is where I can start to pinpoint my version of the stages of grief:

  • Reflection: “As my mother goes blank behind the eyes — as the light of her intellect dims — I am thinking about my role as a caregiver and about how it didn’t end when my children were grown. I never dreamed that I would have to care for her.”
  • Resentment: “My aunt died in her sleep in June, with no apparent warning. Hard as I know that was for my three cousins, I envy the simplicity, the lack of ambiguity. When will this be over?”
  • Resignation: “In all the years of dealing with my mother’s weaknesses and neediness, I’ve never thought about how much I needed her.”
  • Regret: “I’d like to do it all over again, without the whirlwind and the fear. I’d like to be more present for her dying.”

I didn’t want to lose my mother, but it was time for her to die. I still wrestle with that potent mixture of regret and sheer relief.

“It’s a complicated grief,” says the minister who performed Mom’s funeral service last October, “because dementia is an incremental death. She was both here and gone. You experienced her physical presence but her psychological absence. There’s no possibility of closure or resolution.”

My companion and my confidante, my caregiver and then my charge, my mother was present for every significant moment in my life. I have to live with the reality that I was often at my worst with her.

Maybe, in the end, that is where grief leads us, toward perspective and acceptance, seeing our loved ones and ourselves as perfectly human, imperfect people. “Yes, Mother,” wrote Alice Walker. “I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”

Flipping the bird at Thanksgiving

It’s not that I’m an ingrate or fail to recognize the many unearned blessings in my life.

I simply want no part of Thanksgiving.

I don’t need the 4,500 calories that the Average American consumes in the carbohydrate- and gravy-laden meal served on the fourth Thursday of each November.

I don’t want to expend the time or money shopping for food, and I’m even less interested in spending days preparing it.

Instead, after having to cancel a visit to see my sister in Colorado because of work, I am spending Thanksgiving the way I wish I spent more weekends — with no plans at all.Flipped Bird

Turkey rebellion

Here are five reasons why sitting out this most overrated of holidays feels like the right thing to do this year.

No. 1: The food is predictable. Dry turkey, drier stuffing. The only color on the traditional Thanksgiving table comes from whatever centerpiece the hostess has assembled. Everything else is shades of brown and tan, like those suburban subdivisions I used to pass on my commute to work.

And what guru decreed that the traditions can never change? Put fresh green beans instead of canned in the infamous Midwestern casserole? Heresy. Bake the sweet potatoes with soy milk and ginger instead of butter and brown sugar? I made that mistake only once with my German-Catholic in-laws.

No. 2: I hate football. It’s boring. It’s slow. Its players have inflated pocketbooks and egos. I’ve wasted way too many Thanksgiving “holidays” pretending to be interested because the noise of the television drowned out any conversation in the room.

If women spent Thanksgiving watching Norma Rae, Tootsie or name-your-favorite-Meryl-Streep-movie at full volume while men overworked themselves in overheated kitchens, Thanksgiving would have been cancelled years ago.

No. 3: Thanksgiving is a sexist holiday. (See above.) Dad’s job — the role of any father from a bygone era — was to sharpen the knife, carve the bird and later ask from the easy chair when pie would be served. Mom’s job was everything else.

Even in my own nuclear family, with sons raised to be progressive, the men turn to me (the one who works full time and is in graduate school) with the wide-eyed question: “So, what are we doing this year?”

No. 4: I feel too somber to host or attend a meal. My mother died in September, and I think the best way to honor the woman who introduced me to feminism and the necessity of breaking social codes is to avoid repeating the obligation she dreaded every year.

In fact, Thanksgiving hasn’t been the same since my husband’s sister and children’s godmother, Peggy Studer, died in January 2011. Peggy was the family’s center. She held us together. Sure, she cooked too many potatoes and preferred pumpkin pie to pecan, but her humor and bold bitching about the timeless traditions never failed to make them fun.

No. 5: I don’t need Thanksgiving to remind me to be grateful. A Buddhist friend introduced me to the practice of gratitude in 2010. We spent a year exchanging a gratitude list by e-mail every night.

On the inevitably difficult days — those low times that later help us recognize real joy — I can always lift my spirits by reciting or writing down a list of why I’m thankful.

For my health, my home, my husband and grown sons, my job, my friends and family, my silly dogs, my sense of purpose: I am truly grateful. And that’s enough for me to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

 

No Easy Out: Here’s How We’ve Stayed Married

My husband and I married in 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, Intel introduced a 32-bit microcomputer chip that year, and Amadeus won the Oscar for “Best Picture.”

Thirty years later, “we are still married,” to borrow the title of one of Garrison Keillor’s books. Our lives are intertwined physically and financially. We are parents and partners and, on the good days, good friends.Marriage 1

We are family, and — like a growing proportion of college-educated couples in which women are financial and decision-making equals — we have chosen, despite the odds, to remain married.

I don’t believe in divorce once children are part of the equation. And so, as a belated anniversary gift to David, and a reminder to those bored and frustrated marrieds who see uncoupling as inevitable or an easy out, I’ve articulated three reasons why.

Cherish your history

We met in a Shakespeare class at the University of Minnesota taught by the gifted Toni McNaron, then a newly sober and recently “out” tenured professor who challenged us to see the Bard through a contemporary lens.

David loves to tell the story of eyeing me from across the room but thinking I was too young to date. I remember being drawn to him in a way that was inexplicable till our first son, Sam, was born in July 1990.

Together, we have invested in property, made homes, made friends, made joint decisions on causes and organizations to support. We both come from small-town, middle-class families with professionally employed, well-known fathers. Born into privilege, we take pride in living frugally.

David and I sometimes muse that we were brought together for the divine purpose of creating our sons. Every mother may believe that. I know it to be true. Sam and Nate are strong, intellectually curious and kind-hearted young men — and our greatest achievement has been raising them well.

Yes, we’ve stayed together for the kids. That is the legacy and lesson of my parents’ divorce, which they announced the day I turned 14.

“Parenting has been a tough haul, but we’ve worked hard at being a team and have started to reconnect on date nights,” says a neighbor, 52, who has been married 20 years. “We both come from divorced families, and that has left a lasting impression on both of us, so we are cognizant of the reason we are together — not just for each other, but for our whole family unit.”

Work through anger

I remember the door-slamming, plate-throwing fights of our younger, more passionate years with detached amusement. Who has time for that now?Wedding_2

In our 30 years together David and I have buried (or scattered) one parent, three siblings, two dogs and even some friends. Time speeds up with each passing decade. Experience has shown me how little we control what twists and turns our lives will take, or how our sense of security may be uprooted.

A boss once told me she feared losing her “edge” as she got into her 50s. Not so for me. I like the softness and compassion that have come with age.

Invariably, when either David or I gets moody or short-tempered, we shift gears, forgive quickly and move on. We don’t have time for sharp words or prolonged resentments, the drama that once fueled what we took for romance.

Laughter and companionship are key in long-term marriage. “We talk, always,” says a friend who has been married 15 years. “We’re honest. We laugh a lot. We take care of each other, not because we have to — but because we want to.”

Love the one you’re with

Stephen Stills’ paean to infidelity has a different meaning to me after three decades of marriage.

David and I are under no illusions that we were “made for each other.” In fact, our temperaments and interests often diverge. His relaxed approach to agendas and timelines drives me crazy. My quick-paced brainstorming and tendency to think aloud set him on edge. He smokes and loves sugar. I eat consciously and exercise daily.

Each of us has friends of the opposite sex and could be happy with someone else — or contented on our own. We’re both readers and contemplative types at heart. But we found each other, and that’s the clay we shape and mold.

Our differences coalesced into a surprisingly congruous approach to raising our sons. Aside from religion — I don’t think we exposed them to enough of it; David went on too many forced marches to Mass ever to inflict mandatory church-going on his kids — we have few disagreements about values in our household.

Growing up together helps. “John and I have a long history together,” says a friend and former coworker who has been married for 23 years. “We met at age 18 and got married at 24. Our life histories are intertwined.”

When I told my husband I was writing a blog post on how long-term marriages endure, he objected. “You didn’t ask me!” he cried.

So, what’s kept us together? His response touched and surprised me, even after 30 years: “Love.”