On Birthdays {My New Normal}

ALW-BabyPicI turned fifty-three two weeks ago today, and for the first time I didn’t hear my mother’s voice on August 5. It’s been almost two years since her dementia diagnosis, so her memory is not what it used to be, not like it was when she would call and sing “happy birthday” to me whether I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, or Washington, DC, or Richmond, Indiana, or Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, Nashville.

Sometimes Daddy would chime in, even though harmonizing was not his finest gift. But sang they did to their baby girl, the one who was supposed to be a boy, the one who keeps looking for the next big thing. The one who is now more than half a century old.

Since Daddy died in 2000, Mother has been carrying the tune on her own. Last year a family member was able to help Mother call me, and even though her voice was shaky she managed a verse or two. This year, though, my mother’s hold on the present day is looser than ever.

“You could call her,” said Precious, when he realized, at day’s end, how sad I was not to have heard Mother’s voice.

“I know,” I said. “But I think it would be too hard. She’s sometimes more anxious in the evening, and even if I didn’t tell her why I was calling, I’d be too emotional to sound normal.”

When I was a child, I would tell people my birthday was “August and the fifth,” trying to make sure, I guess, that they wouldn’t separate the day from the month and run the risk of forgetting when they should bring me a gift. Or call me on the phone.

On Monday Morning {Sitting Down to Write }

DSC_0255I’ve promised my friend Sheri that I will write for one hour every day. I think it was my big idea, trying to get us both motivated to do what we say we love to do: write. So now I’m sitting here on a Monday morning, coffee hot, candle lit, jazz on the radio, and I’ve got nothing.

When working with clients, I advise them simply to start, when, of course, there’s nothing simple about this, except maybe the tools you need. Most everyone has pen and paper, and potential. But that motivation part is tricky. “Sometimes,” I say in my kind writing coach voice, “I make lists if nothing is coming to me during my writing session. Just begin.” And so I do.

  • Today I feel a little less sad than yesterday. Maybe it helped that I showered and dressed before 8:30 this morning.
  • I know the writing life requires a lot of solitude but sometimes it is too much for me.
  • A friend emails to tell me a young man in our city has killed himself; his grandparents are friends of hers. Only 28.
  • I should have my email off while writing.
  • I’ll be 53 soon, and if one more person says “it’s only a number” I might clock ‘em.
  • I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, use, or love. There’s more of it than I care to admit. Out it goes into the world to be needed, used, or loved by someone else.
  • Last week, unbidden, two people let me know how much I mean to them. A gift.
  • Fingers crossed that my precious stepdaughter gets the job.
  • The nurse from the retirement home called last night. Mother was sad and wanted to hear the voice of one of her girls. I needed to hear hers, too.
  • I fear I’m becoming one of those people who treats her dog like her child. Wait. I may have been like that since Quay Girl.
  • A volunteer training I just completed did not work out like I had hoped.
  • I called my priest friend to tell her I want to do more in the church. She wants more time to write. Such is life.
  • Maybe I should just “be.”
  • You’d think the meditation and centering prayer would be paying off by now.
  • I need to lose weight.
  • The hour is almost up!
  • Why haven’t those people called me back?
  • I miss Indiana.
  • I’m not sure how much longer I can keep watching the news.
  • What is it about the future that keeps captivating my attention?
  • Self-employment is hard.
  • I may have cut my hair too short.
  • Yay! It’s the Diane Rehm Show, one of my favorites.
  • Finished a great book last night, something I picked up on the road at a used bookstore: The Scent of God, by Beryl Singleton Bissell. Now I want to read everything else she’s written. Maybe I’ll pass it along to my friend Karen. I think she’ll like it.
  • My neighbor is having her windows cleaned. I’ve lived in this house for ten years and it has only now occurred to me that washing your windows from the outside might be something to consider.
  • Now more than an hour has passed since I first sat down to write. I must tell Sheri.
  • If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “You’re so sensitive,” I’d have a bunch of dimes.

Father Knows Best {Remembering Earl}

ERWBefore my father died in 2000, he bestowed a lot of advice on me. Much of it helpful: “Just get enough education so you can support yourself,” after I dropped out of law school following a dismal semester that I don’t mind sacrificing on the altar of fading memory. “You need to read as widely as you can,” when I looked at him with exasperation as he handed the teenage me copies of Scientific American, The Wilson Quarterly (no relation!), and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some of it practical: “Be sure to keep at least a quarter of a tank of gas in your car at all times,” upon meeting me by the side of the road, my car on empty. “Preferably half a tank.” And, “If you marry a jerk and I’m not around to help you, don’t stay in a bad situation,” as he bemoaned my singlehood. I married at age 41, two years after Daddy’s death. My husband, Precious, and I celebrate our twelfth anniversary today.

A bit of it subjective: “It’s not appropriate to put ketchup on steak.” I promise I don’t anymore, but I think I was about ten at the time and not yet schooled in the fine art of dining out anywhere other than Morrison’s Cafeteria. And, “Don’t ever wear that tie-dye shirt with that skirt again. It upsets your mother.” I must have been in my hippie period. Oh wait. I still have that shirt…

In the end, some of the best advice my father gave me, through example and instruction, can be summed up in two takeaways: keep your own counsel, and “to those whom much is given, much will be expected.”

One of my sisters said to me just this week, “I wish Daddy were here, so I could get his take on something.” I’ve thought the same thing over the years, wondering what he might say to me when presented with this situation or that problem. I can’t know, of course, but I think it would go something like this: “Trust yourself.” And so I do.

{On Minding My Mother: “Give Me Just a Minute”}

IMG_1631Last month, while visiting with my mother, 92, we danced the dance we’ve adopted since her dementia diagnosis about two years ago. We change it up as appropriate, depending on how she’s feeling and how I’m handling how she’s feeling. Some days it’s jazz like, where we make it up as we go along with a lot of zigging and zagging and very little rhythm. On other days it resembles a waltz, with smooth and deliberate steps. Always, one of us leads and the other follows. For the most part it starts out like this:

She looks at me intently for several seconds before breaking into a smile that cracks my heart a little more each time: part surprise, part gratitude, and still, thankfully, part recognition. All the while I’m smiling back at her, trying not to panic, resisting the temptation to burst forth with, “Surely you remember me, your favorite daughter!”

“Oh sweetheart,” she says, coming close to hug me. “I didn’t know you were coming.” Which is often true, as I’ve been advised by counselors to say “I’ll get back as soon as I can,” instead of “I’ll see you tomorrow,” in case my plans change and Mother is left hanging, waiting for me to drop by. (I live in Tennessee and she’s in Mississippi in a residential facility.) Just as sure as I told Mother I’d be there on a certain day, at a specific time, she’d be lucid enough to hold me accountable. And trust me when I say you don’t want that kind of guilt weighing on you, getting a call that says, “Your mother is waiting for you. She’s anxious that you’re not here when you said you’d be. And she’s all dressed up. With her purse in her lap.”

On this particular visit I could not recall the name of another resident while Mother and I were talking. I’ve known the woman forever, grew up with her children, and yet I couldn’t bring her name to my mouth.

“You know, Mother,” I said, pleading and pointing toward the hall. “The woman who lives just up the way from you. The one with the—“

“Give me just a minute,” said Mother, interrupting me and holding out her right hand in a “stop” position. “Let me think.”

She came up with the name shortly thereafter and presented it to me without fanfare. Just another mother helping her child.

{A Middle-Aged Goober’s Week in Review}

Last Monday night, it was a homeowners’ association meeting, in which people who supposedly live in community talked over one another and complained about the color of the flowers in the bed at the entrance to the subdivision. They’re blooming, so they look fine to me, but apparently a handful of people are horrified—horrified, I tell you!—that the colors aren’t different from last year. The fact that anyone remembers what the flowers looked like last year gives me pause, but I was so busy trying not to jump out of my skin that I didn’t have the energy to whisper a snarky remark to my neighbor sitting next to me. Martha would be proud.

from istockphoto.com

from istockphoto.com

On Tuesday night, it was twenty people who were strangers to one another a month ago in my pastoral care training class at a local hospital, in which we listened to one another and came together on issues much bigger than a pansy palette.

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Wednesday was meditation group, led by a husband-wife team, in which the wife is dying of cancer and living out her last days with us in such a state of grace, acceptance, and peace that I can scarcely speak of it. Being in that sacred space gives me hope and lessens my fear. {Insight Nashville}

Thursday brought time with one of those friends you don’t have to see often to love much. {Hey Louise!}

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On Friday I was thanked for doing nothing more than listening with intention, and Saturday found me writing with eight wise and tender souls. We call it the “magic table,” in reference to all the great stuff that’s created around it, but it’s not the table, of course. It’s the risks these women take with me, month after month.

Last week ended with pink peonies and a puppy named Hiram. Who knows what this week might bring?

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Stealing My Neighbor’s Daffodils

IMG_3425When I was about five, my family moved from one subdivision to another in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after we arrived, a woman came from next door to welcome us to the neighborhood. Mother told me to go out back and play while they visited. So I did. After roaming around for a bit with my Labrador sidekick, Sloopy, I found the longest row of daffodils, all yellow and good smelling, lining one side of the yard. I picked a bunch of them, delighting in my discovery, and took them in to Mother, my chubby fingers wrapped around the stems.

“Here,” I said, offering up my bounty. “These are for you.”

“Oh no,” said my mother. “Those don’t belong to us. You shouldn’t have done that.”

Somehow she knew what I didn’t, that the flowers bloomed on the property next to ours, owned by the nice woman sitting on the couch. She was lovely about it, this new friend, but my mother was not amused.

The neighbor, Mrs. Wise, and I laughed about it when I was older, with her telling me I could pick those flowers anytime, that she just wanted people to enjoy them.

The last time I saw her she brought a card to my father in the hospital after he collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch. Once again Mrs. Wise and I spoke of the daffodils, although she was well into her eighties then and said she had no memory of my indiscretion. Why would she?

Why do I? Because of the shame of it, perhaps, one of those early scoldings we think we didn’t deserve. An early embarrassment. Or maybe it was my first meaningful encounter with a daffodil.

“But I wouldn’t have minded if you picked those flowers whenever you wanted,” she said as we visited in the lobby of Baptist Hospital on North State Street.

“This is for Earl,” she continued, handing me the card. “Get well soon,” it read.

Daddy died the next day, Mrs. Wise several years later.

Every spring when I pick daffodils in my own yard in Tennessee, I think of them both, a neighbor and a father who made lasting impressions on me.

Searching, Searching, Searching

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I’m like the child who can’t stop asking questions, although I try with all my might not to fidget.

“Why is the sky blue?” becomes, for me, “What shall I do with the rest of my life?”

“I want to be a fireman when I grow up,” sounds like “Should I have been a social worker? A priest?”

“Can dogs fly?” makes me wonder, “Can I get everything I want out of this life?”

“Give me more candy” translates as “Give me more: Time. Energy. Dreams.”

And, like the voracious child, I will have to learn to accept that sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes the answer is “maybe later,” and sometimes the answer is, “settle down.”

And every once in a while there is no response that will satisfy.

On Being 52: Trust Me, It’s More Than a Number

DSC_0326Please, I beg of you, don’t tell me that my age is “just a number” or “all a matter of attitude.” I get it, really I do, that you mean well, and that you think I’ve got a youthful spirit and that 52 is not 92. But I am here to tell you that being fiftysomething is more than a number. Regardless of one’s perky outlook, it is the startling—although it shouldn’t be a surprise seeing that I’ve had five decades to get used to the idea—realization that more than half my life is over. With that comes, if you’re paying attention at all, some kind of evaluation about where you are and where you want to go from here. 

Here’s what being 52 is: weakening eyesight, creaking knees, a need for naps, an ever-present countdown toward the rest of my life’s goals, missing my dead father, learning the language of Mother’s dementia, dreaming of going back to school yet again, wanting to make a difference, a longer list of books I haven’t read, grieving misplaced relationships and lost opportunities, wondering what will become of me. Thankfully, being middle-aged (humor me, please; I know I’m stretching the math here) also brings sharpened awareness of even the smallest joy, an appreciation for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve avoided, a heightened curiosity, increased energy for what simply must get done and a gentle release of what won’t, discarding what no longer fits me—from old clothes to worn out grievances—without guilt, overflowing gratitude for steadfast friends and supportive relations, and trusting it will be okay in the end.

On this icy winter morning, as I consider my next steps, I raise my decaf latte to the fabulous Elaine Stritch, who bears witness to the “courage of age” with such blazing fortitude that I am made bolder simply by listening to her on National Public Radio.

Sing it, sister, I say. Shout it, growl it, live it.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

IMG_3362While I understand people pushing back against the over commercialization of Valentine’s Day—and certainly I don’t think today is the only day we should express appreciation to our loved ones—I’m not a hater. I’m going to revel in the heart shaped mug Precious used for my coffee this morning, the roses that were just delivered to my front door, and the candlelight dinner he and I will share tonight because I waited a long time to be loved like this.

I’m lucky that my parents didn’t raise me to think a prince was coming on a white horse. Frankly, they didn’t tell me anybody was coming and instead made sure I got enough education and sufficient professional chops to be able to support myself. By the time Precious presented me with his mother’s diamond when I was 40 years old, I had decided I would never marry and that, yes, that would be okay. I had a good life and I trusted I would continue to do so, even without a ring on it.

I was used to being alone by then, intimately familiar with being passed over for dates to proms, formals, and college fraternity parties. When I lived in DC in my late twenties, I think I went two years (it was probably longer but I don’t want you to pity me) without so much as a flirtatious glance from a man. Occasionally I’d get a little sad about my apparent lack of womanly skills, but I tried to make sure I had enough inner resources to be content, and enough outside interests to stay connected with the world.

I had single friends who made noise about being happy: “I’ve got a good job,” or “I love my apartment,” they’d say. But they didn’t seem happy to me, disengaging from society and rarely leaving their homes. How they planned to meet anyone that way I have no idea. Although I realize not everyone will—or even wants to—partner long term, I dare say your chances of meeting someone special increase exponentially if you get off the couch. I did the hard work, because I wanted to live the fullest life I could regardless of my love life. I went to a workshop for singles led by an Episcopal priest, based on imago therapy. I saw a psychiatrist, who helped me realize I was not the only woman in Davidson County questioning my self worth simply because I wasn’t married. I did online dating, mainly to make sure I didn’t forget how to powder my nose and engage in polite conversation with men.

“Weren’t you scared?” asked a friend when I told her I’d joined an online dating service. “No,” I responded. “I was never scared, although I was very nearly bored to death on more than one occasion.”

It all helped. It helped by reminding me I was not alone in my search for wholeness, and that such completion was my responsibility, not someone else’s, not even a handsome, smart man. It showed me how to reach out when I got so lonely I worried I might expire on a Friday night and have no one notice until the next Tuesday. It reassured me I was still connected to others, at least in the cosmic sense. Although at the time I was probably more interested in having a companion to go the movies with than I was in any spiritual union with humankind, I remain grateful that I confronted the depths of my loneliness in order to befriend myself.

So on this day so many have come to hate, I’m going with love.

Keeping My Balance at the Gym–And in My Life

IMG_2469An older man stops my trainer at the gym to ask if she is trying to teach me balance. I am struggling to stay upright atop what feels like to me is a mound of Jello. (It is, in reality, something called a Bosu ball.) It is so challenging for me that I must reach out for my trainer’s arms more than once to steady myself as I raise one leg, then the other, to her count.

“Yes,” she tells him. “This exercise strengthens your core and helps your balance.”

“That is good,” he says before walking away.

I talk to my trainer a lot about such issues that matter more and more as I age. I hear stories from my elderly friends about falling at the least provocation. These exercises are no guarantee, of course, that I will remain upright. But I want to do everything I can to be ready. And so it is with the rest of my life.

At 52, I find myself a bit unsteady about what to do next. Another degree? Open an arts studio? Take a part-time job? Finally see if I’ve got a novel in me? But instead of relying on my old habits of signing up for yet another workshop or scheduling an appointment with one sort of therapist or another or, my personal favorite, ordering books about living the creative/mindful/spiritual/healthy (insert your personal predilection here) life, I am trying, simply, to be. I’m resisting with all my might the desire to make sudden moves.

For most of my life I’ve felt that as long as I was moving, I must be living. (Can you say avoidance?) Now, though, I sense there is something to be gleaned from spending time with myself without an agenda, or a goal, or a to-do list. It’s harder than it sounds.

One of the best career breaks I ever got happened years ago when, although I was not happy with my employer, something told me to stay put instead of packing up my red pencils and my thesaurus and moving to another job, trying a different city. By sticking around, I enjoyed one of my most fulfilling creative assignments to date.

The voice that said “stay” was not loud or threatening. It did not belong to a friend, or, dare I say, even a divine entity. It was my own, and I’m just hoping I can recognize it now.