20 November 2016

Selling and Sailing...Charting a New Course

My 2016 has been a year unlike any I have ever in my life experienced. It's been the most stomach-churning roller coaster ride I've ever been aboard. In January my mother suffered a fall which set off a chain of events that would ultimately culminate in the loss of both of my parents within nine days of each other. I still find myself in shock by the events of January and I'm even more stunned that I survived them.

Needless to say I discovered that no matter how much we're hurting, how broken our hearts may feel and no matter how difficult it is to grapple with the raw reality of pivotal losses in one's life, time absurdly marches on; seasons change, flowers bloom, summer heats things up and fall still proffers all things pumpkin. Two days after my Dad died I walked out of Lower Cape Fear Hospice on that very chilly Monday night of January 11th which, coincidentally or not, happened to mark my 12th year of sobriety, and as I made my way to the car to head home to grab a few hours sleep, I glanced at the sky and saw a crescent moon. In fact, it stopped me in my tracks. I clearly remember staring at it and wondering how in the world the moon could still shine because my Dad was dead and my Mom was in a pretty precarious condition. I'd been so involved in unexpectedly losing my Dad, seeing my Mom transferred to inpatient hospice and reeling from people asked me foreign but essential questions such as, "who would you like to pick up your Dad's body?", "what cremation plan would you like?" that the sight of the moon dangling up there in an inky black winter sky seemed absolutely inchoate. I guess somewhere deeply embedded in my psyche was the notion that planetary orbits should cease until I made sense of the world again. Of course, that's not at all how things work, and it's testament to the continuous evolution of life that it does not happen that way.

One of the last conversations I had with my Mom happened a few minutes before I spotted the moon. She was visibly tired from her "rally day" and she took my hand and pulled me close to her face and asked, "Did we have a death in the family?". Yes, I answered a few seconds before tears began falling from my eyes. "Was it Barbe?". Again, I nodded and whispered yes. My Mom then brushed the tears off my cheeks and asked me why was I crying? I told her in a very broken voice "I miss him". Her beautiful blue eyes met mine and she began rubbing my hand...."Honey, that's part of life. He's in a better place. It's ok.". My Mom spent her last coherent moments offering me comfort and reminding me, even before the moon did, that life DOES go on and that it's OK. So typical of my Mom to be reiterating for me that just as we had celebrated the 2014 late summer and fall births of three beautiful granddaughters, painful, unimaginable "exits" are also a part of our lives as well. We come, we go and with the help, love and compassion of a great many people, we somehow learn to move forward. I've been supremely blessed in that department. 

There has been so much about this year that has shocked me out of my wits, comfort zone and basic reality and a lot of it has tested my mettle in extremis. By the same token, a lot of other things have occurred in my life that have vigorously reaffirmed my Faith, lifted me up and literally demanded that I understand that I am not as alone as I thought I would be. Friends I've known for decades, new friends I've made in the course of this year and folks far away from my home base have rallied around and supported me in ways I couldn't have predicted. I'm still in awe of the many people who have crossed my path, deliberately, so they could lend me a hand and literally keep me going. For as dark as it's felt at times, at other moments it's been blindingly bright. I have a heightened respect and adoration for the human race and particularly the many people who have reached out to me, saw a need, and chose to get involved. What incredible life lessons in a year that began with so much sorrow.

I'm now in the middle of letting something else go. After living in this house for a little over sixteen years, I've come to the inevitable conclusion that it's time for me to move on. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are economical in nature, but also involve some emotional and physical self-preservation. The reality is that working 40 plus hours a week I don't have the time or interest in attempting to take care of a home much larger than I need, a yard that's way too much for one person, even if that person has a dog the size of a small pony, and a large pool that requires more work than I have time to give. For the first time in my entire life, I'm contemplating a new reality outside of the confines of this house that I've loved and enjoyed for many years, the setting for some of my best memories. But, for as much as I have enjoyed this place, I still have flashbacks. The last few years of taking care of my parents was when my mourning really began, as they lost their ability to do the things they'd so enjoyed. Sometimes I walk into the master bedroom and I'm met with a barrage of visions that are painful to relive. There are times I walk out onto the patio and instinctively look to my right expecting to see Mom and Dad sitting in the swing, holding hands and chatting away - that's a lovely memory but seeing the empty swing still forms a lump in my throat. 

I finally realized a change would do me good and hey, go big or go home, right? The house is on the market and it's bittersweet, scary and maybe even a little exciting. I'm at a point in my life where I can actually imagine living in a new place; smaller, more compact and the chance to continue processing and recover from this whale of a year. Yes, it's weird. Yes, I'm nervous. Yes, I'll be OK. Yes, it's time. Yes, I'll probably cry and Yes, that's OK. 

Yesterday, the first full day after my house was listed on the market, I accepted an invitation to go sailing on a beautiful boat with a good friend of mine. My mind immediately protested with a list of things I should be doing, but I just ignored it. The waves, the wind and the vastness of the ocean worked their inimitable magic. For a few hours my view was an endless horizon dotted by a few other sailboats. The sounds of waves slapping the hull and wind filling the sails was the perfect accompaniment for a stellar sunny fall day. 

On the way out, off Wrightsville Beach, with the confluence of currents and wind I suddenly began to feel a little dizzy. For me, it was the most wind I'd sailed in since 2007 and the sensation was a little disorienting. I asked my friend to take the wheel and sat in the middle of the cockpit for a few minutes. He kindly offered to turn the boat around and head back to shore but I thought about it and was surprised to hear myself say no, let's keep going. The momentary uneasiness passed and I was happy to take the wheel again so he could work the sheets. What a profound and durable lesson from this past year; don't retreat - press on. I was glad to discover there was some untapped steel in my spine. 

Months ago, my daughter Katie suggested that I sell this house. I wasn't ready to even think in those terms at that time...a few weeks ago another friend messaged me and asked if she could offer me some "unsolicited advice"? She didn't hold back and I'm so glad she didn't - "why don't you sell that house? You can't make a fresh start unless you do.". Thanks Katie for planting the seed and thank you Celia for not holding back. And thank you to everyone who has held me up these past ten months - I wouldn't be standing without the support, love, kindness and compassion. Even after such a tumultuous year, I am extremely blessed. 

I am grateful to all of you.

10 July 2016

The Road Less Traveled Delivers Me To Charlotte...

I'm interrupting the timeline for a non-commercial break, and a huge personal break-through.

On Monday Evening of January 11th, 2016, after kissing my Mom goodnight for the evening at Lower Cape Fear Hospice & Life Care Center. I walked out of the building on that chilly January night at about 8:00 PM and I remember looking up in the sky and seeing a shiny crescent moon. I  recall my shock at seeing it dangling up in the sky. My sweet Daddy had died two days earlier in the same building I was exiting, and I had spent all day with Mom on what would be, unbeknownst to me at the time, her last lucid day. I had no idea I'd just had my last interactive conversation with my sweet mother. I'm grateful I didn't know.

I was exhausted, my head was foggy and my heart was broken. I honestly hadn't had time to process my Dad's death. It still seemed completely surreal to me that he could possibly be gone from this earth. When I looked up at the moon as I made my way to the car, I clearly remember wondering how in the world the moon could be shining? I'd lost the most amazing man I ever knew in my life and, frankly, it seemed inconceivable that the moon could rise and I know that sounds strange, but I literally stopped and stared at it for a moment or two wondering how the world could continue to spin without my Dad.

This would turn out to be one of my first lessons in grief. That night I realized that life was crazily determined to keep going on, even if everything in my life was completely turned upside down and my heart was aching from a place so deep I'd never felt anything like it before. Maybe it wasn't an ache as much as it was a heaviness, a deep, drawn out silent scream. But it was also a sign - a moonlit sign that no matter what deep shit we have to trudge through in this life, the world keeps turning and the moon still shines. The sun rises. We breathe. We learn to live again.

I've always had a bit of a panic problem. Driving in particular can sometimes make me a wreck (pun intended). I was diagnosed with panic disorder before there even was a "formal" diagnosis of panic disorder and scored my first panic attack when I was 13 years old, about a month before my sister died. As luck would have it, my first attack occurred on a spring break vacation with my parents and grandmother to Chicago to visit my aunt and uncle. Hyperventilating, palpitations, feeling of impending doom - I ran the full gamut and it scared my Mom to death. She didn't know what in the world was wrong with me but fortunately we had a very astute family doctor who listened and had, himself, a history of dealing with panic disorder and he assured her I wouldn't die from it. In 1994 Zoloft was approved for the treatment of panic disorder and a physician in El Paso, Texas prescribed it for me and it literally changed my life. I was able to do so many things that I'd never been able to do before. That's not to say that the symptoms completely disappeared, but they certainly became much more manageable and I've been on a small dose ever since. It's made things like driving, navigating crowds, flying and just living life much easier and most of the time enjoyable.

After my parents passed away, I was invited by my sweet friends, Jayne and Keith Cannon, to come visit them in Charlotte for a few days. Initially, I honestly couldn't imagine I would ever be at a point where I could see myself driving alone to any point more than an hour away, and the idea of driving to a huge city like Charlotte seemed completely impossible. They say that time heals all wounds and I take exception with that because I don't think time heals the void of losing loved ones. I don't think it's possible to completely "heal" from losing folks we love so much. I think what time does do, is afford us the chance to put one foot in front of the other, allow the searing ache of our losses to eventually recede and makes room for the flow of happy, comforting memories to move toward the front. Time gives us the opportunity to think about rejoining the human race and learn how to live again. After enough time, we can even find ourselves smiling and laughing again. 

When Jayne initially made the invitation, I had to decline because I was at a point where I truly didn't want to leave home. I felt shell-shocked, as if the very foundation of my life had been shaken because, well, it had. Life as I'd known it for the past three and half years was no more, and I had to find my bearings and figure out where and, to some extent, who I was. I'm still working on that part. 

Being a full-time caregiver for several years is a very cloistering experience. The world shrinks, particularly if you can't be away from your home for more than twenty minutes at a time. Even though I was busy taking care of a lot of things and multi-tasking, it was in a very confined space. The world outside of my home became much more distant and there were a few times when I'd go several days without starting my car; I'd find myself in the grocery store and feel as if I must be in another country.

However, time ticked on and when Jayne again invited me to visit, I found myself saying "yes". It wasn't like me to make such a quick decision, but I had spent several weeks searching for jobs, going on interviews, completely cleaning out my garage (huge!!) and my confidence was slowly beginning to resurface. I'd also started dipping into my Dad's diaries, reading entries about how he and my Mom had felt when my Mom's Dad died which was, coincidentally, on January 9th, 1962, fifty-four years to the day before I lost my own Dad. I had no idea until I read that entry. My Dad wrote so poignantly of the pain of that loss, the memories it evoked for him and gave a glowing account of the man my Grandpa Sturgill was, but he also noted that as hard as it is to lose loved ones, the best thing we can do to honor them is to pick up our lives and move forward. Reading those entries, I could hear my Dad's distinctive voice, the cadence of his writing was almost the same as if he was speaking to me. In fact, I know he was.

Another huge sign that this trip was a "go" came courtesy of my amazing neighbors AKA as Cleo and Sailors Godmothers, who were available to sit with my furkids. In fact, they enthusiastically encouraged me to go for it. Cleo and Sailor LOVE Pat and Ginger so that was a huge relief. I've loved my dogs since the day I adopted them from the shelter, but I must confess that I would not have been able to get through the silence of these past six months without these two irascible creatures. Just as they kept me sane during my 3 1/2 years of care-giving, they've been with me every step of the way as I've grappled with the grief. I am devoted to both of them and I know they're devoted to me. Their unconditional brand of love have made these past few months bearable, silly and sometimes funny. They demand I go outside, throw the slobbery tennis ball and take in the air and sunshine. What gifts they are. 

When I set out for Charlotte, after the steering-wheel-gripping fear of crossing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge which, in my twisted mind, was three times the length of the Golden Gate Bridge and ten times as high, my grip began to relax a little. I had my iTunes cranked up and I began looking around. It had been years since I'd been on any kind of road trip and I began to notice vaguely familiar sights and, along with it, lots of sweet memories. I wore the necklace I have with my parents wedding bands, and I grasped it several times. I had them with me.

When I got to Whiteville, I stopped at a produce stand. My mom would have LOVED that. I stopped and looked around and wound up with peaches, blue
berries, a watermelon and fresh corn to take to Jayne and Keith. I got back on the road and realized I was actually feeling a little more relaxed and comfortable behind the wheel. It wasn't one startling moment, it was gradual. But it happened. Each mile became a little easier. I realized I was heading toward friends who understood very well what this little trip represented for me. I was breaking the ice and through a combination of iced tea, James Taylor songs filling up the silence, every single mile registered on the car odometer was a silent but strong affirmation that life DOES go on. That's a wonderful gift of a realization.

I thought back to that January night and the moon...crazy as it seemed, the moon did rise and I could drive to visit friends. Initially both of those things seemed impossible, but they weren't. It just takes time. Precious, not-to-be-rushed, time.

19 May 2016

Learning to fly...

This is me, opening the door just a smidgen. It's been a heck of a strange, bewildering, surreal five months. Here it is May 2016 and there are still so many moments when I feel as if I've been wrongly cast for a supporting role in a play I didn't audition for and how I got here is still, after all this time, a profound mystery to me. 

If you would have told me on January 6th, 2016 everything that was about to unfold in the next twelve days, I would never have believed a word of it and then, just on the slim chance you knew what you were talking about, I would have run like hell. Fast. I would have sprinted, in fact. Which of course isn't true at all because this was always going to be part of our story. It just wasn't the part that I was looking forward to, but as painful as it was, I honestly wouldn't have traded places with anyone. 

One of my favorite episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" is one called "Opie the Birdman". While playing with his new slingshot, Opie accidentally slings a stone at a mother bird who has three babies in her nest. The mother bird is struck dead and Opie is devastated. Later that evening at the dinner table, Andy mentions to Aunt Bee that as he was picking up the newspaper from the walk he noticed the dead bird and assumed that a neighbors cat was the culprit. Opie abruptly asks to be excused from the table and Andy puts two and two together. He goes up for one of "those talks" with Opie and confirms his suspicions that Opie killed the bird and reminds him that those three baby birds are waiting for their mother who's never going to come back and take care of them due to his carelessness. (insert tears). The next morning Opie regroups and rescues the baby birds and, after accepting responsibility for his huge mistake, sets about feeding and raising the birds. A few days later, with the birds thriving and fluttering around their now very small cage, he is finding it very hard to imagine not having the birds as pets and doesn't want to relinquish his caregiving role. Once again ole Andy steps in and, while respecting Opie's attachment to his adopted flock, he reminds his son that there's one important lesson left that the mother bird would have taught her fledglings. When the time was ready, she would teach them to fly, even though it meant leaving the nest. (cue more tears and maybe grow a lump in your throat). Opie struggles but realizes his dad is right and screws up his courage and does the hardest part of all - helping the young birds transition from the cage to the wild. I love the last lines of this episode...

Opie: "Cage sure looks awful empty don't it, Paw?"
Andy: Yes, son, it sure does. But don't the trees seem nice and full?"

After my parents died and I walked into this house for the first time, knowing both of them were gone, those last lines from "Opie the Birdman" came to me...slightly edited.

Me: "Wow the house sure is quiet and empty.
Me: "Yes, but heaven must be brighter today and I imagine everyone is gathered around, listening to my Dad tell the masses how he proposed to my Mom on the third date and how it took her until the fifth date to accept".
Side note: I hope heaven has a pipe smoking section and rocking chairs. 

Of course being around for the "end game" wasn't something I thought about often and when I did, I dreaded  the notion more than a mouthful of root canals, but it turns out that a gentle transition is also an important part of care-giving, no matter how much it tears your heart out. And it does tear your heart out. 

It's painfully hard and somehow profoundly beautiful, Such a paradox. Such is life.

Down deep inside, I knew that someday I would be present and engaged for this part, too. But until January 6th, I chose not to think about it and really it wasn't until January 7th, after my dad collapsed in the bathroom in the middle of the night, that I began to understand Mom and Dad were beginning their own transition. There was no "pause" button - God I swear I searched for it - but just like the transition part of labor that signals the birth of a baby is imminent, my Mom and Dad's transition suggested delivery into a new realm was closing in fast. Inside I was silently screaming, "Whoa...no, wait, slow down please. What's happening here? I'm REALLY not ready for this." but the reality is that when everything is set in motion, there's absolutely nothing left to do but hold on and simply do the best you can. 

No matter how hard and exhausting the days of taking care of my parents were becoming, both for me and for them, I just couldn't begin to imagine what life might look like without them in it. They were tired and had very limited mobility. My dad could no longer navigate much on his computer and his world was shrinking exponentially from not being able to hear or walk outside unassisted and there had even been a few days when he had completely forgotten to smoke his pipe. My mom was becoming listless and even with substantial pain medication on board she still suffered every time she tried to move from the chair to the bed or the bathroom. They began sleeping more and more, waking up later and going to sleep before dark. While they maintained a sunny disposition right up until the end, they're conversations with each other and with me were becoming shorter. Looking back on it, I believe they were preparing for their next adventure and, as it turned out, they intended to begin it as they had done everything in the past 69 plus years of marriage - they were going to set off together...well, nine days apart, but that's basically together. It always took Mom a little longer than Dad to get ready for a trip. 

Even though I knew deep inside we were on our last legs, I still couldn't fathom or begin to imagine "the end" was looming right before us. I refused to consider how it might happen and determinedly focused my thoughts on micromanaging our dwindling savings and wondering how I could pinch more pennies and just praying over and over that I could keep them at home before our funds ran out. Or, for a change of pace, I would consider what their fate would be if something happened to me, if I got injured or seriously ill and was no longer able to care for them? What would we do? What would happen to them? To consider their deaths...well, I had plenty to distract me from truly focusing on the the end. My days were regimented and packed with meals, meds, hospice nurse/cna/social work visits to juggle, groceries to grab while they were being showered, light distractions to implement and for gosh sakes, I had to DVR "The Lawrence Welk Show" so I could play it for them several times a week!! If something were to happen to me, who would make their ice cream sundaes and play a loop of Lawrence Welk???? To imagine them actually dying? No, I had plenty of other concerns. 

I became the Queen of Denial. I also read a LOT of books and focused on my favorite genre - survival at sea. I've always loved reading about people who beat the odds in the most daunting and challenging of situations, particularly after their sailboat has been knocked down in a storm or rammed by a pod of whales or any other horrible disaster that could put you in survival mode offshore and in the middle of a really powerful, mercurial ocean. Aside from the adventure, books like this are rich with great advice on how to confront dire and horrifying situations; they are chalk full of coping mechanisms and believe it or not, they're life-affirming. They're terrifying but inspiring. 

I have reviewed my Facebook postings in the weeks leading up to January 6th and it's crystal clear I was aware of a gathering storm. If our house had been equipped with an "event" barometer, I think ours would have registered in the "batten down the hatches" range. I knew something was about to happen, but I had no remote clue that the "gathering storm" was going to be a dual Category 5 hurricane. Come to think of it, I'm grateful I didn't know. If I'd known what was about to happen, I couldn't have handled it. As it turned out, I actually did handle it and frankly no one was more surprised than me that during the following twelve days I didn't fall completely apart. Rather than a testament to my strength and fortitude the simple truth is that so many things were happening at such warp speed, there was absolutely no time during those days to squeeze in time to fall to pieces. I mean, there just wasn't an opening. It was a luxury I couldn't afford...thank God. 

I know the facts; on the morning of January 6th my mother fell getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. This wasn't new - she'd fallen several times in the past few months and I practically had the paramedics on speed dial - but she always seemed to land well...i.e. no broken bones, maybe a few minor bruises and sore muscles for a day or two but she'd never fractured anything. Yes, she was becoming more feeble and wobbly and watching her walk often made my stomach tense up but I just didn't see this mishap coming. Again with the denial - massive helpings please.

I was sitting at the kitchen table chatting with my Lower Cape Fear Hospice Social Worker, Kim, and my son had dropped in and was sitting on the sofa in the living room. He heard the "thud" and quickly alerted us that Mom had fallen. Kim and I ran to their bedroom and there was Mom on the floor and on the surface it looked just like every other fall except this time...she winced a little. I quickly called our hospice nurse Olga as Justin, Kim and I helped Mom up to the seat on her rollator. Mom denied any sharp pain and simply said her leg "hurt a little" but that she was OK. Olga arrived in short order, along with our CNA Patty who was on a routine visit because Wednesday was "shower day". Olga carefully examined Mom and concluded that although she didn't think anything was broken, she couldn't be sure and felt it would be prudent this time to call the EMT's and take her to the ER at New Hanover Regional Medical Center for x-rays. 

Now I was in a quandary. I couldn't leave Dad alone while I went with Mom to the hospital so Patty told me to call our caregiver sitter and see if she could make a quick run to the house. Fortunately she was free and made it to the house in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, I made the 911 call and the paramedics arrived for the 2nd time that week. My dad was actually asleep through all this. He hadn't woken up for the "morning" yet, even though by now it was noon. 

Shortly before the paramedics arrived, he sat up in bed to find the bedroom filled with people and groggily he realized something was wrong with Mom. I quickly brought him a cup of coffee and explained (loudly because he was almost completely deaf) that Mom had fallen and I needed to go with her to the hospital but that Kathy was going to stay with him and we would be back home soon. He was still sleepy but when the paramedics came in with the stretcher and loaded Mom on it, he snapped to attention. He was scared and confused but everything was happening so fast. Kathy took her position right beside him, held his hand and told him they would get to spend some good time together and she brilliantly diverted his attention to old photos, navy stories and did her best to keep him distracted. Kathy Pope is an angel and was my parents' favorite sitter, hands down. 

Justin was using my car that day so CNA Patty gave me a ride to the hospital. We followed the ambulance and she dropped me off at the entrance to the ER. It was a chilly, gray day, typical early January weather, and I imagined we would spend three or four uneventful hours in the ER, the x-ray would possibly show a deep bruise and we would be on our way back home by dinner time. 

I couldn't have been more wrong on all counts.

More to come...