Dementia’s Daughters

This past December, I had a wonderful experience of connection that reminded me that only if we are honest about and open with our vulnerabilities will we truly connect.

A woman living on the other side of the world found my blog and my essays about my mom and emailed me to share a little bit of her own story about being in the middle of raising young children and also caring for a parent who is losing their memory. I remember so vividly the loneliness and confusion of those early years that I was touched by the fact that I could offer some brief respite and solace to another daughter of dementia.

The first years leading up to and after my mom’s diagnosis were some of the worst of this Alzheimer’s journey, even though her disease is so much more advanced now. I assume my mom was lonely and confused, too. She knew she was forgetting some things, though she forgot more than she realized. She was aware that things weren’t always adding up, a fact that still takes my breath away imagining how frightening and painful it must be to lose pieces of yourself, to blip in and out of the world making any sense at all. It’s one thing to be lost in your own world, as she is now; it’s quite another to know that something is happening to your mind, your agency and autonomy slipping like water through cupped fingers, unable to hold onto it or to grab it back.

I am a do’er and a fixer by nature, but I didn’t know what to do or even where to start after my mom was diagnosed. She didn’t really want to – and maybe couldn’t really – deal with it. Between her cognitive loss and an instinct to protect herself, projecting toward this difficult future wasn’t going to happen. Those years manifested in a constant, low-grade ache between my diaphragm and stomach, where all my anxiety lives. Alzheimer’s/dementia is a slow-moving crash course in loss.

No Power + Responsibility = Anxiety

Inspired by the solidarity I felt with this stranger from the other side of the world, I looked back at other emails that lovely readers sent to me after my essays about my mom were published. They reminded me that I write both to make sense of my own lived experience and to discover and highlight the myriad facets our common humanity. Personal narrative, as a genre, is inherently personal. The key is for one’s personal story to resonate with others in some universal truth kind of way. The word essay actually derives from the French verb “essayer” which means “to try:” try to create meaning, try to connect through storytelling.

Over the years I have heard others share their opinion that the memory unit is one of the most depressing places in the world. When I am there, though, I feel like I am among family. The caregivers and staff do the hard and sometimes thankless work of caring for the residents 24/7. Their caregiving allows me to reprise my role as a daughter after years overseeing my mom’s daily care. All of the residents are someone’s loved one, their diagnosis another family’s heartbreak, their decline something all of us have or will experience in some way. Those who visit – old friends, children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, siblings, and spouses – all hold stories of who their loved one was, what they loved to do, how deeply they are loved. By sharing the joys as well as the suffering of our similar circumstances we create connection and this connection creates meaning. There is easy companionship in knowing that your suffering is understood implicitly, that your grief is shared, and that you and your loved one are seen and are not alone.

The senselessness of dementia demands a quest for meaning. The connection we share and the ability to hold and share my stories with others of dementia’s daughters gives this decade of my life one answer to the existential question “why?” If I can share my story and offer solace to even just one other person, all that my mom and I have learned and lived will not have been for naught.

The Problem of Alzheimer’s by Jason Karlawish is an excellent recent resource about Alzheimer’s.

Partnering: Forge the Deep Connections that Make Great Things Happen by Jean Oelwang is a wonderful book with resources on how connecting and working in partnership with other people (versus in a hyperindividualistic silo) unlocks manifold rewards.

My podcast interview Every Path Has a Puddle or Two has some pretty decent Alzheimer’s and life advice, too, if I don’t say so myself. My momma would be proud. I learned from the best.

This poem from Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer really resonated with me.

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog V (From the Dog II)

Hi everyone,

It’s Tucker the schnoodle here again, back by special request from my little hoomans. They like what I have to say. They say I am a 300 IQ doggie, whatever that means.

I feel like I covered the basics in my first post but I’ve grown up a lot since then – I am now almost 16 pounds of sheer muscle and love – and have experienced spring for the first time so, yea, I suppose I have a few thoughts to share. Mostly, my ethos can be summed up by these three ideas some smartie put on the internet:

First off, WOW, just wow, about the nature that surrounds us! I have never seen so many chipmunks and squirrels and bunnies and birds! Such delight. Dead or alive, my investigation skills are fully activated. Sometimes I pick up what I find – dead squirrel, bird wing, hopping frog, beetle in the grass – you name it, I have picked it up. That causes much consternation. I would like to say that I learned my lesson, but being a dog I guess I bet I’ll do it again if I am given the chance. Life is short.

Sometimes I get so excited by all the smells during my investigations that I snort like a pig searching for truffles. Boy, that makes the hoomans laugh and laugh. I look at them with disdain – they can be so immature and undignified. Very un-schnoodle-like.

Lately I have added a new member to my pack – my Grammy! Actually, it’s a whole collection of new friends. My main hooman puts me in the car and we Go for a Ride and then we get out at this new place, which, it turns out, is where my Grammy lives! In my whole life I had only met her once and I was so busy trying to eat all the stuff on the ground outside that I barely noticed her. Now, though, we get to go inside and I think pretty much everyone there loves me. All the way down the hall I hear, “Tucker!” or “Tucker’s here!” They want to take pictures with me and give me pets. Sometimes there are dance parties and I participate. One friend likes to walk me and I let him. They all seem to feel really good when I am there. I think there’s some unspoken language of fur that happens between us. I am not sure of exactly what it is, but I feel like this is an important job. I do excel when I have a job. I may have found my people.

I have gone enough now that I know exactly where my Grammy’s room is and am not even scared of riding the elevator anymore. A little secret, though, just between us? I don’t think my Grammy likes me very much. I get this vibe that she prefers her stuffed dog to me. Never fear, I’ll keep trying, but I get the distinct impression that my kisses are not so welcome. It makes me want to try harder, of course, and some days are better than others. Isn’t that life?

I’ve also noticed that my main hooman is much better on our walks. She doesn’t hold my leash nearly as tight as she did after I got attacked. I mean, I can tell she gets nervous when other dogs are off-leash and come running up to us. I bark extra for those meetings, which she really does not seem to like at all. She tells me, “Read the room, Tucker!”, but just like with my Grammy, I’ll keep trying. Persistence is the name of the game. My main goal is to protect my hoomans. And dispense love. And eat the odd dead thing I find in the road. It’s that simple.

Within the One Hundred Year Flood

I kept a chronicle of what we did over the past year so that I don’t forget what it was like to live through essentially a 100 year flood (please tell me that this won’t happen again for another 100 years).

As soon as normal hits, it’s easy to forget the details of what is now mercifully becoming the past. March, April and May 2020 were some of the longest months known to man. And yet somehow the last year is already a bizarre blur. It doesn’t feel like it should be blurry because we were all focused on the most minute little things to keep from going completely insane, but somehow it all just blurred together. Meanwhile, March, April and May 2021 have rocketed on by. I am left gasping for air as I watch time wink and salute as another year of my life speeds off down the highway.

Remember washing groceries and I don’t mean just the fruit and veg? Being afraid of the mail and packages because we just didn’t know? Cooking ALL THREE meals EVERY. SINGLE. (DAMN). DAY with no merciful end in sight? I tried to embrace it, but I could barely deal.

Here are a few highlights (lowlights?):

Day 20 – March 31, 2020 – So here’s a remarkable thing about this social distancing…it’s ridiculously busy in such a weird way. I missed 16 whole days of writing this journal. How is that even possible? Well, I’ll tell you how it’s possible! Because life right now is this twilight zone of surreality. I have been teleported to the 1950s and spend most of my waking hours cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, working with kids on one thing or another, and curating precious items for our consumption or comfort (groceries and paper towels in particular).

It’s funny already to look back at the first three days. Maybe those were the hardest. No, probably not. I think the first two weeks were just a rollercoaster of emotions and moments. Suddenly everything on our calendars was being canceled. It’s both an eerie feeling and also really freeing to just go through your calendar and cross everything off – hockey games, swim practices, play dates…some of that stuff was just filler, but some things, things we had planned for a long time or were really looking forward to, are harder to let go of.

I am looking at my calendar now to jog my memory and am laughing that I literally whited out or deleted anything that had been on there. It’s like when I lived in Madagascar and they would just change the departure time of a flight by erasing it on the chalkboard! Ha! The plans you didn’t do don’t exist, I guess. Which is true enough.

That first week, March 16-22 (because I fast discovered that weekends when you have no plans or anywhere to go are just like any other day), we adhered pretty closely to the routine I set up. It seemed to help the kids structure their time and energy. When I call it “homeschool” I should be clear that it’s more an insanity prevention routine than any actual attempt to advance academics. The days are sooooo long with nothing to look forward to and “nothing to do.” I find you have to beat that emotion of “there’s nothing to do” to the punch by sticking to some semblance of a routine.

Day 49, April 28, 2020 – A month ago today, mom started showing COVID symptoms. March 28. She has been sick for a whole MONTH. That’s daunting. It’s been a long month. For both of us.

Seems the neighbors across the street already sold their house. Even in a pandemic, I guess real estate around here is HOT.

Day 50, April 29 – DAY 50! WOAH. That gives me pause.

Day 63, May 12 – Some food prep of note – whoopie pies, auntie anne’s pretzels, and ice cream. ALL HOMEMADE. Mom’s birthday. And also TWO FULLS MONTHS since quarantine started. Incredible that she is alive – and WELL (it seems) – to celebrate it. Amazing to see her on Mother’s Day in a drive by car parade. I didn’t think I would likely ever see her alive again when she was so sick. It was amazing to see her, even through a windshield.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 Spring Observations (To keep my spirits up and focus my attention away from the gnawing anxiety and grief within me, last spring I meticulously observed the changes to my front garden. Usually I don’t sit still long enough for more than a passing glance, but last year I tried to take advantage of the quiet (which, incidentally, in some respects, I miss).

It’s been an allergy storm this week! I guess the pollen is out.

At the same time, we have had 3 or 4 nights with freeze warnings. That’s really late in the season. We even had snow on Saturday! What?!?! May 9.

Despite the cold, everything continues to grow. My peonies are practically growing visibly every day. Same with the bleeding heart. The cherry blossoms have held on during all the cold and wind. They are probably about peak now and the blossoms will start to fall off. The front garden bed is still just green but much more full and lush. I added some phlox and lantana a week (or two?) ago and have a “small shade garden” to plant today. Spring is here!

Day 72, May 21 – I was thinking today how this is supposed to be such a busy time of year and usually we are crawling to the finish with millions of things to do and end of year recitals and celebrations, just wanting it all to be done finally. It starts to get warm and we all get spring fever. And then the buildings start to get overwhelmingly hot and the walk to school gets hot and seeing all the same people over and over gets old and then it’s finally summer break.

This year of course none of that is happening. And it’s sad. Well, part of me is sad about it anyway. This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the kick off to summer, but it’s no different from any other day or weekend this year…well, that’s not quite true. The warm weather definitely helps and changes the pace of the day and the frame of mind. The kids are most recently keeping busy with remote control cars. We are getting some water guns and have a stockpile of water balloons for backyard summer fun. We continue to wipe down anything that comes into the house with masks and gloves on and rubbing alcohol. Slowly people are starting to get out more with masks on and keeping their distance. Those are the new guidelines as of May 18 when the state started to loosen restrictions a little bit. I immediately was flooded with emails and phone calls to reschedule dentist and doctors appointments. Not there yet. We shall see!

Day 79, May 28 – First “play date” in months walking and rollerblading with friends. Amazing!

I have about 80 miles left to drive on my current tank of gas, which I last filled on March 9!!!!

Day 80, May 29 – Made chocolate ice cream today – YUM!

$1.93 per gallon of gas right now at the gas station nearest to us.

May 9, 2021 – Mother’s Day 2021 – I got to actually be with my mom, not over facetime, not from 6 feet away, not through a car window. So many times over this past year I thought this would never happen, that I would not be able to be with her while she was still alive again. Yet here we are.

Gas is about $2.89 per gallon for the regular stuff. Always fun to track commodity prices over time. And, yes, my garden is growing again and I am delighting in all the things I (apparently) planted last year that I forgot about in the intervening months! Life springs forth anew!

May 25, 2021 – George Floyd. RIP. Has it really only been one year?

A friend read this poem to me when my mom was hospitalized for her second stint with COVID complications:

The Promised Garden

There is a garden where our hearts converse,
At ease beside clear water, dreaming
A whole and perfect future for yourself,
Myself, our children and our friends.

And if we must rise and leave,
Put on identity and fight,
Each day more desperate than the last
And further from our future, that
Is no more than love and respect shown
To all blocked from the garden that we own.

There is a garden at the heart of things,
Our oldest memory guards it with her strong will.
Those who by love and work attain there
Bathe in her living waters, lift up their hearts and
Turn again to share the steep privations of the hill;
They walk in the market but their feet are still.

There is a garden where our hearts converse,
At ease beside clear water, dreaming
A whole and perfect future for yourself,
Myself, our children and our friends.

~Theo Dorgan

To be continued…

It’s a Wonderful Thing, A Mother

A print of James McNeil Whistler’s Mother hung on the wall of my childhood home for as long as I can remember. I always found her kind of creepy, to be honest, and the poem by Baroness Von Hutton affixed below it within the frame always felt so dark.

It's a wonderful thing, a mother;
other folks can love you, 
but only your mother understands.
She works for you,
looks after you,
loves you,
forgives you anything you may do,
understands you, and then the
only thing bad she ever does to you
is to die and leave you.

- Baroness Von Hutton

Of course since those days as a little girl staring up at this portrait and trying to understand it (and still trying to understand why it hung in the bathroom of all places), I have become an adult, and a mother, and my mother’s caregiver.

It’s been one helluva year for me and my mom. We have walked the line so many times between life and death. And she just keeps coming back dancing and laughing. Just this week she was hospitalized again. I found myself racing to her side, grateful to be freshly vaccinated but afraid I had missed my chance to be with her while she was still alive after over a year of distanced visits and screens between us. And, you know what? Even though there is only one way for this story to end, even though I have already lost so much of her to Alzheimer’s, the grief that overcomes me at intervals when I face the prospect of losing her remains immense. The words of Baroness Von Hutton resonate more clearly by the day.

My mom (and her sisters) are my guiding lights. I have noticed especially over the past year of isolation and quiet that my most profound and impassioned writing tends to be reflections on my relationship with these women. A Tribute to My Biggest Fan, Nancy Waddell, Practically Perfect in Every Way, Clips

I think about my mom and her two sisters (“Sisters, sisters, there were never more devoted sisters” is the Irving Berlin song that accompanies my memory of the three sisters together, they dancing to the beat and laughing) as I make my way through this world. And I try to channel Nancy and Ellen’s wisdom as I care for my mom.

I have begun to recognize more fully how these women were my champions throughout my entire life; how they showed me by their example what it is to be a strong, courageous, compassionate and caring person; how they showed up over and over again at ballet performances and soccer games, at Thanksgiving dinners and music recitals, at the hospital the day my kids were born. As I wrestle with the phone calls and texts and times together that I miss, though they are gone (or gone in most ways, in my mom’s case), they are always with me. They are a part of me.

I’ve got all of this on my mind, swirling in these emotional crescendos and troughs, when the MAIA Impact School (which, if you don’t remember, is what inspired me to find my voice and share it by starting this blog) announced it’s Nim Mama (“Great Mother” in the Katchiquel language of Guatemala) scholarship. The concept is centered on honoring our mothers and the collective strength, beauty, and transformative power of mothers the world over by investing in the education of an indigenous Guatemalan girl. The images of these pioneering, brave girls with their mothers at their side brought me to bellyaching tears. In these images I could see my mom and my aunts standing beside me, or pushing from behind me, saying, “Go. Be brave. Do great things.”

This campaign renewed the call of these female pillars of my life to channel their strength and rise up to be the courageous, bold, passionate, brave woman they showed me how to be. I am living their values and honoring their legacy by returning the devotion my mom showed to me in my caregiving for her and passing the gift of their strength and love onto my children, both my daughter and my son.

This Mother’s Day, I will ACT for change in their names. I am investing $3,000 in MAIA’s Nim Mama Scholarship Fund, $1,000 each in honor of Ellen, Nancy, and Beth, the fiery, loving, devoted, caring, amazing women who paved the way for me. I can’t think of a better way to honor them than to live their values by working to create a more equitable and just world and launching the next generation of Girl Pioneers to pursue their dreams.

Join me April 29 for the launch event to learn more. Find your voice! Empower another to find hers!

Life is short. We don’t know when our time will come. Make – and be – the change you want to see in the world. Now.

Go out there and get after it!

This Year We Loved – Fiercely

For Valentine’s Day, the two Girl Scout troops at my daughter’s school made cards for the residents at my mom’s assisted living home. In addition, a friend’s daughters, who taught themselves how to make hot chocolate bombs over the past month, contributed 48 of their combustible confections as well as gift bags and cards for the staff. The bounty of goodness and love was breathtaking.

Valentine’s Day, typically, is one of my least favorite “holidays.” I don’t generally take kindly to prescribed displays of affection or gift-giving.

But, this year, my Hallmark-holiday hardened heart was cracked. This year, the idea of showing love vastly, abundantly, and against all odds felt genuine and truly necessary.

This past year, love was all we had much of the time, and it both carried us through and broke our hearts.

This time last year we were just hearing reports about some virus in China that was killing lots of people. Maybe it had already moved to Europe by now, I can’t really remember. I could look it up, but everyone already knows the story anyway. What I know for certain is that from my vantage point on the East Coast of the United States we could see something brewing on the horizon, but it still seemed pretty far off, at least to those of us who are not epidemiologists.

This time last year masks were not a thing and PPE was not a term bandied about by non-medical people. This time last year you would have been hard pressed to get a bulk order of PPE. Or at least that moment was coming soon.

This time last year I can hardly remember Valentine’s Day. Strike that, I can’t remember Valentine’s Day at all. Why would I? Remember, Hallmark-hardened heart and eye-rolling are my game. But I know that within a month we will cross the year mark of when the world here turned upside down.

The last day I visited my mom in person and hugged her with reckless abandon was March 9, 2020. I thought I wouldn’t be able to visit for a couple weeks and then it would be over. I could never have imagined all that has happened this past year coming to fruition. It all seemed so unlikely and hyperbolic. The energy felt like the hysteria before a big snowstorm when grocery stores sell out of eggs, milk, and bread as though we have never seen snow before and plan to survive the end of days on French toast.

In the end I wouldn’t visit my mom for months after March 9. In late March, COVID-19 swooped in. She and many staff and other residents were caught up in the storm. When visits were no longer allowed, staff facilitated facetime calls. When she was alone in the hospital battling COVID and it looked as though she might not make it, an angel nurse risked her own well-being to visit her and tell her explicitly that my brothers and I loved her and hadn’t abandoned her. When she eventually returned to her care home on hospice, with a pulmonary embolism and not eating or drinking, the staff not only continued to show up, but showed up with heart, compassion, and love. Not only did they nurse her back to health with Boost protein shakes and cookies for breakfast – whatever it took to get calories into her – but they sang with her, danced with her, honored her, and helped her reclaim her sparkle.

When the storm came, and every day of the year since, the caregivers at my mom’s care home dug deep, dug in, and showed up in myriad courageous and unexpected ways. I know this has happened in other assisted living homes and other places as well: parents who are juggling kids at home as well as work, and are struggling with both; teachers who show up to teach, despite being scared; doctors and nurses who work shift after grueling shift in the ER and on the COVID floors; orderlies who clean what we can’t even imagine; grocery store employees; delivery drivers; pharmacists. So many people have shown up, again and again and again, because they knew that people were counting on them, depending on them, and that we would more be vulnerable without them. I look at the faces of my mom and her neighbors and I say thank GOD for those who take care of the vulnerable among us. Thank God they step up every day, but especially every day of this past year of horrors and extraordinary challenge.

Fierce love. That’s what this year has been. A year of loving fiercely and courageously and doing the best we can.

This year, love needed to be celebrated in a BIG way. This year, love has been the focal point of our very survival. This year, love not only wins, it is a triumph.

Awesome Hats by Kitr Knits

Daily motivational quote by Sailors Sweet Life

Oodles of Valentine’s cards by the Girl Scouts!

Combustible Confections by the Gauldie Girls!

Photos by the Falls!

Smiles and good vibes by me!

So Much Still to Teach

She would laugh that we were so worried. I can hear her voice in my mind saying, if she understood, “What? About moi? Ridiculous.” She would probably be upset that we even sent her to the hospital in the first place. She is more of a stick-it-out-on-your-own, “I’m not sick, I just don’t feel well,” kind of person.

March 28 to June 5, 2020. That was the duration of my mom’s journey with COVID-19. She went to the hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms. We expected her to get fluids, be monitored for a little while in the emergency room, and then be sent home. Instead they tested her for the then recently arrived COVID-19, which I shrugged off as ER hypervigilance (leave no test un-run!). If only I could be there, I thought, I could explain to them what she can’t, that she always has a little cough and the sniffles. It’s nothing to worry about.

Her positive test result stunned us and resulted in her prompt admission to the hospital, where she tumbled into the black hole of a blossoming public health crisis and a rapidly filling hospital. She used to tell me not to set my expectations too high because then you just invite disappointment. When I heard “COVID positive,” my expectations were grounded pretty firmly in reality. 

She endured 2 separate hospitalizations (I wrote about the first one in a HuffPost essay – ironically, it was published the day she was sent back with secondary complications). She ended up spending 3 weeks total in the hospital. She didn’t eat or walk for weeks; had pneumonia (mild, mercifully) and then a pulmonary embolism and thrush. She was poked and prodded every which way and was generally miserable and confused. We eventually made the decision to discharge her from the hospital on hospice with the goal of getting her to a situation where she was comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her (even if I couldn’t be one of them because, COVID, which is pretty much the answer to any question of this dystopian existence anymore). We hoped that with one-on-one attention in a familiar setting someone could get her to eat. And we were prepared, if not, for her to leave this world in peace and comfort.

It was a long, long road full of Boost protein shakes and brownies for breakfast (for her, and, some days, to be honest, for me, too, because, well, I had to find comfort where I could). It was days of phone calls with doctors and nurses and hospice workers and chaplains and family and funeral homes. It was a nurse praying with her as she lay quietly in her bed, telling her we loved her even though we couldn’t be there. It was short Facetimes with my mom and the aides working with her, the Sound of Music or My Fair Lady playing on her CD player in the background. It was texted images of her sitting in a wheelchair getting her nails done or painting during a group activity. It was videos of her shuffle-dancing around the dining room, supported by an aide, honoring the woman she was and infusing joy where they could into her life. It was reports about her learning how to walk again, first with people supporting her on both sides, then, slowly, a few steps on her own. It took about 6 weeks for the odds of her making it through this illness to shift in her favor. She doesn’t remember any of it, which may have been her saving grace. Because she has Alzheimer’s, she lives in this exact moment, and then this one, and then the next, with no reference to the past or the future.

Through, and despite, it all, she exuded her characteristic grit and indefatigable spirit. She gave my brothers and I fatigued smiles through the Facetime screen, her inner spark sometimes igniting in her eyes through the otherwise wan expression on her face. More recently we have received videos of her humming a tune and dancing down the hall to the beat of her literal own drummer. Her laughter echoes like the first birds of spring after a long winter, issuing robustly and sweetly through the air, quickening the rhythm of my heart and flooding my soul with warmth. I only just realized as I listened more intentionally to her laugh, absorbing more fully this sound that so recently I thought I would never hear again, that her laugh echoes the sound of my own.

I guess it wasn’t her time. I guess she still has more to do here on this Earth, more to teach. I don’t know what else to say about how close we walked to the line, and then how she suddenly walked it back. She would say, “What did you expect? Of course I lived. Maybe don’t take life so seriously. Maybe don’t count me out just because the prognosis looks bad (really bad). Now tell me about you. How are you?”

I find myself speechless at times in her presence, my mind bending as I try to reconcile what happened to her and to our family during those months and the vast loss of life during this COVID outbreak, with her physically sitting there still with me, smiling, laughing, and full of LIFE. We sit outside on the patio at her care home admiring the trees and sky, listening to the river, singing or just sitting quietly. She still appreciates beauty in the world: a clear blue sky, a gentle warm breeze. She will close her eyes and tilt her chin upward, breath deeply, and smile broadly, completely at peace, 100% her authentic, younger self, the mom I remember. Post-COVID, she is back to walking unassisted, dance parties, eating, singing, giving back rubs, smiling, and laughing – lots of laughing. She doesn’t have much to say, and doesn’t understand much of what I tell her, but she knows I am someone special to her. She lights up like it’s a surprise party every time an aide walks her outside and she sees me standing there. On some biological level we are still connected, even if she can’t remember my name. She would like to give me a hug, reaches for me, but we sit and tap our toes together instead, a small physical connection that doesn’t potentially jeopardize either of us. COVID kisses. It’s the best we can do for now.

I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. My mom returned to me from the brink, and she returned bubbling with happiness and love to share. She still has so much to teach, not only to me, but to all of us: about enjoying the simple things in life, like a warm breeze and a blue sky; about what it means to be fueled by love, to be guided by an inner joie de vivre; about dancing and laughing through life, no  matter what; about resilience and grit and never, ever counting someone out or giving up, no matter the odds; about how deeply the love between a mother and her child runs, and how it’s still recognizable when all else is lost.

When it comes time to say goodbye, whenever that may be, I hope I will be able to be there and to hold her hand. In the meantime, I am counting my blessings and following her lead: taking a deep breath; embracing unbridled joy; seeking daily, small moments of happiness; loving my family and friends hard; smiling and laughing often; feeling grateful for every day I still have mom on this Earth; and living as close as I can to this very moment, and then the next one and then the next, moment to moment to moment. Even now. Especially now.

My mom survived COVID-19 and has lived gracefully with Alzheimer’s for over 7 years. She still exudes love and compassion for others. She still smiles and laughs. She is still the life of the party. She continues to be an example to us all about a life well-lived, no matter what. She would say, “This too shall pass.” And it will. 

Mask up. We got this.

#Youwillbealright

#Wearethesolution

#Wearamask

Strong Core

Swimming is one of my favorite things. I used to swim 2 to 3 times per week with a Masters swim program (don’t be impressed, it just means I am old). I was in super swim shape this year right up until, oh, March 10. And then it all stopped.

Let’s face it. During a global health crisis, many things we might love – and even things we didn’t know we loved but suddenly now miss (I am thinking of my kids and how they unexpectedly longed to go to school) – just aren’t a priority. So we shift gears and adapt. Personally, I did more crossfit, and I tried kickboxing and yoga (all on zoom). I made stuff up on my own, rode my bike, went running (sorry, joints, desperate times call for desperate measures). I just kept moving. The school thing is still a conundrum I have not yet solved so I am not going to dive into that one.

Anyhow, it’s summer now, our case count is low, and the ponds are no longer freezing or frozen, so I can swim again. And it feels SO good because I missed it (a lot) and my hamstrings were really, really sore (too many squats? I have no idea, but, as usual, swimming fixed it.)

As I paddle along, I have these moments of philosophical inspiration (oxygen deprivation can do that, apparently). Not only is swimming great exercise, but it has a lot of important life lessons to teach.

When I first got in the water, it felt familiar but my body was like, wait, what the what? Oh, we are doing this again suddenly four months later? And my mind was like, oh my gosh, was that a turtle? It was chaotic and ugly and, at times, terrifying (I prefer my swims wildlife-free). Yet it was also divine to bask in the soothing weightlessness of water again.

Life lesson #1 – It doesn’t have to be pretty; if you love it just get out there and do it (turtles welcome, ideally from a distance).

And then my lower back started to hurt. And I thought, huh, that’s odd. It’s a low-impact sport, after all, which is the whole point in my case. What the heck? So I mentioned it to the friend who I swim with and he said, “Are you tightening your core?”

BOOM! Right then I had this huge a-ha moment. I’ve been told to tighten my core many times before, but then I forget and need a reminder again. Sure enough, as soon as I tightened my core, my stroke became more efficient and less chaotic. I felt stronger, more whole, less floppy. And I realized that having a strong core matters more broadly as well. Sometimes I forget to engage my core in life – too often, really. When that happens I feel blown about by the shifting sands of time and public opinion. I am so non-confrontational that I will adapt like a chameleon so I don’t attract attention or get attacked. It’s a survival strategy (classic, in fact, if you’ve been bullied), just like it is for a chameleon. But in those situations, deep in my unengaged core, I am filled with misgiving, chaos, and confusion. When I remember to engage my core, I immediately feel stronger and more empowered.

Life lesson #2 – Engage your core! Live your values. Find your voice and speak it!

Once my core is engaged, I remember that I am supposed to stretch my body long with each stroke (or as a good friend told me when I got back into swimming several years ago – “You are not tall enough for this sport. You need every inch you can get” 🙂 – which means that the Olympic dreams of my childhood were pure fantasy, it turns out. Glad no one told me that then!). When I consciously stretch my body long, I suddenly realize that I tend to spend much of my life sort of shrunk. There’s a cool inch or two gained if I just stand up straight, or stretch all the way through all of my muscles, especially in my hips and spine. It feels so good to open those joints that mostly spend their time being compressed by my slouch, or by my lack of awareness that I am not reaching, stretching, extending, growing, lengthening. Like in life, a reach doesn’t necessarily feel good at first. And it requires conscious thought to make it happen. But once you start doing it, once you find that groove and stretch yourself, your stroke becomes much more efficient and so much more beautiful. You begin to glide across the water instead of battling against it.

Life lesson #3 – Stretch. Reach. Grow. Stand tall. Glide with the water, don’t fight it.

I can’t talk about swimming without talking about gratitude. Swimming is what brought me back to life after several years mired in emotional and physical pain with my RA diagnosis and my mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When it was taken away, as with so much else during the height of our state’s efforts to curb the pandemic, I could have been angry or sad. And maybe I was those things a little bit. But mostly I accepted that that’s what needed to be done for the greater good, adjusted my stroke, and found some other way to channel my energy. Now that I am back in the water, I am filled with gratitude – for an accessible pond nearby, for a break in coronavirus infections, for summer, for my health, for the ability to swim. I know this time in the water is fleeting because summer is fleeting and indoor isn’t an option for me until the coronavirus takes its leave of us. So I am conscious of this gift and I cherish this time while it lasts. Which leads me to:

Life lesson #4 – Gratitude is powerful. Live and love consciously.

So many of us spend so much of our lives on auto-pilot, unconsciously moving through the world. We miss so much of the nuance, so much of the good in the simple things this way. The coronavirus has created a unique moment in history (and I am definitely looking forward to it being history!). If we take the time to be conscious and reflective about what’s going on in our world, in our communities, in our lives, it can be an opportunity. This period has pulled back the veil of what we have accepted as normal and revealed so clearly how abnormal, unjust and inequitable “normal” was. I think a lot about the notion that “if you win the rat race you’re still a rat.” Where are we racing to? Is it somewhere we actually want to be? A life we actually want to have lived? And at what cost?

finding-dory-movie

WE ARE THE SOLUTION.

Wear a mask.

BREATHE.

Stay well.

You will be alright.

“Every Sunset has the Promise of a New Day” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Where to start? My mom is in hospice care, which is a daunting word but may not mean it’s the end. What were the words the doctors used to describe her during her first hospital stay? Oh, yes, “resilient” and “feisty.” No, I definitely wouldn’t count her out.

That said, she started with COVID symptoms a month ago today. An entire month spent sick and in and out of the hospital. I’ve got a few thoughts about this, but they aren’t what you’d think. The emotional side of our situation seems to have shut down for the time being. What’s on my mind right now?:

1. If she passes from this, would she be considered a COVID statistic? I’m guessing not. And I am guessing she is not alone in this protracted COVID-related battle. So basically the mortality rate is already wrong.

2. Hospice care. Angels on Earth. I wish I had these resources and compassion at my fingertips when my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Honestly, I battled the hard stuff alone years ago, not knowing where to start or how to handle it and navigating this totally unfamiliar and uncomfortable (and unwelcome) landscape. No case manager or social worker to listen or guide. Hospice would have obviously been dramatic for back then, but I could have used a crutch. Something. Now I realize what it feels like to have professionals who see this stuff all the time reach out to me and ask if I have questions and how I am doing. I can say with 100% certainty that I could have used that seven years ago. Just putting that out there for what it’s worth. Which actually leads me to a third point that I wasn’t planning to make.

3. Assisted living. What the bloody hell Massachusetts? Get your shit together and help these people out. They have been put in a position of having to function like hospitals because of the state’s lack of preparation. I get it, it’s a crisis, but damnit we saw it coming. It’s one fire drill after another at care homes across the state and the country. Manning the helm are some of the finest people you’d ever want to meet. And I mean the real kind of “very fine people.” They did not sign up to be on the frontlines of anything remotely like this, and surely they are not paid nearly enough for what they do, but they show up day after day with compassion and courage in spades. Meanwhile, front line assistance, offers of free life insurance, etc., focus only on hospitals and medical staff. Massachusetts doesn’t even count assisted living with its nursing home numbers, meaning that state data are undercounting this public health crisis’ impact on seniors. Does this also mean that assisted living residences are excluded from the state’s COVID assistance measures? I cannot fathom how these places continue to function, financially or emotionally, right now. The people who work in these homes deserve recognition, thank you’s, and more. WAY MORE.

Civil War icon Joshua Chamberlain said, “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

We are being tested. Eventually history will look back on this period, reflect and probably judge, hindsight always bringing clarity of vision that the present doesn’t offer. I think about Chamberlain’s quote, about the courage and valor of battle, the honor of walking a field like Gettysburg or the beaches of Normandy today and thinking about those who have passed before us, who fought so courageously and with a united front for something bigger than themselves.

The enemy is invisible in our current battle, and the battle rages in our hospitals, our care homes, and our public spaces. But the concept endures. The honor in battle (and life) comes from sacrificing for something bigger than yourself, and from protecting the vulnerable. I was taught to respect my elders. They are not expendable collateral damage. We have already failed many of them by not acting fast enough. We can’t give up now. Looking back on this moment in time, we want history to extoll our courage and our compassion, our sacrifice and unity. We do not want to be haunted by spirits admonishing our soul-less self-interest and determined individualism at all costs. Is going “back to normal” really what we want? Normal failed our most vulnerable. We need to do better.

Wew. I woke up in a tizzy today. Tomorrow is a new day. Take a deep breath. We got this.
Stay well, stay home.
You will be alright.
Brene Brown back to normal quote

COVID Gets Real and Hits Home

Taking a break from gallivanting around the world to bring it to you straight here. This is HARD. Today is day 41 by my count. My mom was hospitalized three weeks ago and diagnosed COVID positive. It got REAL around here fast. I wrote an essay about it that HuffPost published this morning. Check it out in my Clips. Also, the featured photo today is a painting my brother did. Just sayin’. So damn talented.

At any given moment I am shades of overwhelmed, fine, depressed, grateful and everything in between. I miss the grocery store. I mean, that’s low. What used to be a chore has become a dreamed-of escape. That’s where we are.

I spend my days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, procuring food items, entertaining my children (I have stopped calling it homeschooling because that would imply they are learning something when, frankly, I have no idea if they are. I am just happy when we get through another day mostly intact), and trying to keep up with my quarantine journal (which is remarkably challenging to find time for, an odd situation to find myself in since I never leave my home). My mom being unwell has added a layer of intensity to this isolation existence as I have worried for her well-being and tried to navigate emotionally once again how quickly life can be upended. There were days during the past three weeks when I needed to call the hospital to check on my mom but also really, really needed to grab that grocery delivery time one week out (the first available) to ensure my family had the provisions we need. So bizarre. The brave neighbors and friends who are still going to the grocery store jumped in and saved us as my juggling act came crashing down, even sometimes adding a bouquet of flowers to the items they dropped for us on the front porch.

Rest assured, when I am not virtually traveling the world with you, I am keeping it really real here. Our virtual travels and hope-filled stories bring me tremendous joy and give me meaning and perspective (and, boy, have I needed that lately). It’s helpful to focus my busy brain on positive things, to spend time learning about places I’ve never been and remembering places I have.

It all feels so futile sometimes. Life. This version of life in particular. My mom alone in a hospital, sick and unable to communicate. All of us at home. Futile and frustrating and fraught.

And then I remember: One day at a time. Tomorrow is a new day. Breathe.

We need to continue to have hope and to find the fun where we can. My mom, and my beloved aunt Nancy, and their mom would say – this too shall pass. And so it shall.

Today is Marathon Monday in the Boston area. It’s literally a state holiday and a true rite of passage to spring. Obviously the marathon isn’t happening. My family is participating in the #BackyardBostonMarathon instead. I am running around my house 26.2 times; my kids are doing the same around the backyard. My husband is doing an insane number of push ups and sit-ups (to get to 262) plus a 2.62 mile run.

It’s not the marathon, not by a long shot. But if we all do it together (I mean, apart together, of course – stay home! do NOT go on the marathon course), that’ll channel the spirit of the event and that’s meaningful. My mom’s care home and hospital are along the marathon route. Give her a virtual wave and hug as you “run” by. We can use all the spirit of the marathon more than ever because, folks, we are in one right now. I am personally seized up on Heartbreak Hill. So cheer me through and I’ll cheer for you, too. I’d love to see your photos!

Stay well, stay home.

You will be alright.

Hope is like a drop of honey quote

Lifted Up By Letting Go

This essay was published in the March 2020 edition of Wellesley Living Well Magazine.

Life consumed me in the early years of motherhood: work deadlines were shoved into limited daycare hours; the frequent illnesses of childhood regularly upended any non-parenting endeavor; time for grocery shopping was elusive; exercise mostly consisted of bouncing with a baby and “lifting” out of the crib. During those demanding and isolating pre-school years I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and my mother with Alzheimer’s. I found myself wrestling with Pico Iyer’s question, “How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”

At the time, I struggled to find hope. The intensity of these divergent and demanding caregiving needs galvanized me to pay attention and not miss this time – any of it – while also laying heavily in my lap a palpable burden. Without exercise, I had no outlet.

Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself joining Crossfit Launchpad. CrossFit, it turns out, is more than lifting weights and intense cardio. The surprise – and what keeps me going back – is the community. Trust me, I never thought I’d say that – a gym that’s a community? But that’s what it is, and it is part of the formula of endorphins, nutrition, and a support system that helped restore my balance, clarity, and health.

Not only is my RA in remission now, but my Crossfit community has also helped me bear the heavy weight of caring for my mom. Outside the gym we gather monthly to make baby blankets for Boston’s Family Nurturing Center. I mentioned that a large version of these blankets, with their taggie ends and soft texture, would be ideal for Alzheimer’s patients. Without missing a beat, the group decided to make blankets for my mom. It would never have occurred to me to ask. My go-it-alone, never-be-vulnerable internal driver flared. I couldn’t have people spend their time doing that for me. I declined. They insisted. Eventually I let go.

And, what happened? I now have two soft, beautiful blankets for my mom. By allowing help, I was able to focus on other things my mom needed. By letting go, I allowed the number of hands who created those blankets – the number of people who touched my life – to grow exponentially. This turned everything I know about asking for help on its head – helping me can help you, too?

Life is an incredible teacher. Hope is restored in the most unexpected ways. This is universally true, if you are open to seeing it. My truth, this journey, has tested me with its bleak mercilessness. As in the depths of winter, I have at times been lonely and cold, wondering if it would ever end. And yet, I wrap my mom in her blankets and this act of support and community warms my soul. The light in my truth is all the people who have held my mom and me along the way. The smallest gift, the heartfelt gesture, the simple acknowledgement that the journey isn’t mine to walk alone, matter. Helping other people – and letting other people help you sometimes – are powerful antidotes to lost hope. Even on the darkest days there is light. Also, exercise helps.

art artistic black and white blank
Photo by Lynnelle Richardson on Pexels.com