Get a Little Uncomfortable

I started my professional life as a social worker in a hospital and after several fulfilling years I stayed home to raise my kids. Little did I know how much my previous work as a hospital social worker would help me raise children, particularly my son with a Jewish genetic disease who has many medical problems. It gave me a unique insight into both sides of the hospital bed – as the helpful professional and the hands-on caregiver.

As the years passed I had little interest in returning to social work as a career. I had enough problems of my own – I didn’t feel like hearing other peoples’ problems for a living. Sure, I like to think of myself as a good friend and am happy to offer my unprofessional advice when asked. But I am content to quietly deal with my own stuff while grabbing happiness when I can.

After my mother died I started writing, something I had not done before. My sister encouraged me to start a blog so I gave it a shot. A friend who is a professional writer and teacher suggested that maybe it was my mother’s legacy, as my grief over her loss led me to put my thoughts to paper. My mother was an incredibly thoughtful and kind person; I loved the idea of helping others through my writing as a way to honor her memory. The response to my blog was very positive. It turned out to be a great way for me to work through thoughts and issues that I grappled with and it seemed that people liked hearing what I had to say.

I am inspired by people I know who take chances and try new things in middle age, who fully embrace the saying that life happens outside of your comfort zone. People I know and admire have done really interesting things: started a Jewish acapella group, volunteered to be the president of an overnight camp board of directors, took a stand-up comedy class, became a hospice volunteer, and a volunteer advocate for children in the court system, became a health coach/nutrition expert, and a mentor to a teenage mother hoping to complete a college degree. Another friend who has been a lawyer for years is now working towards becoming a high school English teacher. Who knew that a friend and I would become leaders as part of a international women’s’ trip to Israel, helping women to rediscover their Judaism and connection to the land of Israel?

My writing led me to explore storytelling after my husband turned me on to a podcast called “The Moth” on which people tell true stories without notes. I had little public speaking experience but on a whim, I signed up for a storytelling class in the spring. It was in downtown D.C. and I knew no one in the class. The final class was a small performance for friends and family. I loved it so much that I decided to put my name in a hat at a Moth “Story Slam” in DC., which is an open-mic storytelling competition open to anyone with a five-minute story to share on the night’s theme.

I had one of my teachers coach me and I felt well prepared. I arrived that evening, put my name in the hat and then almost had a panic attack as the theater was filling up with hundreds of people. What had I done? I sat in the audience, not knowing if my name would be called. After the first story, my name was announced…show time! I bounded up on stage and told my story. It was terrifying and exhilarating but I was thrilled when it was over and felt so proud of myself. Out of my comfort zone indeed. It was a great place to be.

Here is the story I told that night. I didn’t actually win although I came in a close second. I felt like a winner anyway. The theme of the night was “Karma.” Turns out being uncomfortable isn’t always so bad….I highly recommend it.

(The link expired…working to get the story back up – stay tuned!)

 

 

Our Two Dads

our-2-dads

Smack in the middle of the sandwich generation, I find myself motherless and with not one but two fathers. No, nobody’s come out recently. I am talking about two widowed men who found themselves rudder-less after the loss of their wives. My mother died three years ago and my mother-in-law died last June so my husband and I now each have a father as our primary parent.

Neither father lives near us but fortunately they are both independent and of sound mind for now, at 80 and 83 years old. Their bodies are slowing down but after 40, whose isn’t? My father has a little asthma and peripheral neuropathy so he is occasionally short of breath and his feet feel sluggish, making walking more difficult. My father-in-law has arthritis and very poor hearing.

We are grateful for the people who live near our dads. For my father, it is his new wife of six months. They live in Israel, half a world away from me. Besides him being happy, the added benefit is having a keen observer of my father’s level of wellness who will notice if he wakes up each morning.

My father-in-law being more newly widowed is still somewhat adrift and finding his way after 62 years of marriage. My husband’s siblings live near their dad in Chicago and are very devoted to his well-being.

We admire both of our dads for their ability to engage in life after the loss of their wives. Many people cannot find the energy to navigate life, do the tasks their spouses did for so many years, and even learn new things at a somewhat advanced age. Both of our fathers are affable people. My father is interested in politics and the stock market while my father-in-law is an artist, history buff and sports fan. They both still want to travel and see new places. They each do their best to remember family birthdays and anniversaries, like their wives did.

Our guest room feels like a designated “Dad’s Room” lately as they are our most frequent visitors. My father recently came home by himself to take care of some business and visit with his family. Flying from Israel is a tough flight if you are at the top of your physical game. When you’re 80 with physical maladies, it can be even tougher. My father seems to feel betrayed by his body as his mind still feels young and engaged. He talks about his ailments a lot, trying to figure out the cause of things and what he can do to make them better. He is diligent about going to doctors in search of an answer.

I loved spending time with my dad, even when he ruminated about his health. Since I am sliding into middle age at 53, I have some aches and pains of my own. When I mentioned the tendonitis in my foot that was giving me trouble the conversation shifted right back to my dad’s ailments.

“You think you have foot problems? Let me tell you about my foot problems….” he joked, as if it were a competition.

Obviously it’s not and I am sorry that he “wins,” as he is older and his issues are more debilitating than mine. I have come to accept that the period of my life where I get active attention and parenting from my surviving parent is over. It only seems fair that the tables have turned, as my dad (and my late mother) spent much of their life doting on me and my siblings. Every bit of minutiae felt important to me and therefore they listened and offered help. I remember during the years when I was having babies thinking that nobody but my mother cared about how the nights were with my crying infants. Who else would listen to my minute-to-minute reports? Now my husband, sister and friends are the lucky recipients of my kvetching.

It seems unrealistic to expect a surviving parent to carry the load of two full-time parents who had a division of duties carefully honed over a lifetime. Relationships that were so clearly defined while raising children and young adults become fluid, changing with time, age, and necessity. The one constant is love and affection, if you’re lucky. My father can hear, but active listening is not his greatest strength. His love, humor, wisdom and generosity more than make up for what he lacks in listening ability. My father-in-law, on the other hand, can’t hear well but listens as best he can. His kindness, good nature, and love of his family compensate for what he lacks in hearing.

It is illuminating to see our dads cast in a new light. Never strangers to our fathers while our mothers were alive, the loss of our mothers brought with it the opportunity to know our fathers in a different way. They can no longer just chat with us briefly before handing the phone to our mothers when we call. The buffer is gone so we delve into new conversations and become acquainted in a different way.

After the death of our mothers, life felt off-kilter, but eventually we have found a new equilibrium as our relationships with our fathers re-calibrate. While we miss our mothers we our thankful to still have our two dads.

 

 

 

Navigating with Grace

If you’re tired of reading my essays, take a listen to this interview I did with Jana Panarites on her podcast, Agewyz, where she gives voice to the struggles of caregivers. After all, we all are, have been or will be caregivers at some point in our lives. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and share with others. Maybe you would like to share your story with Jana too? Click HERE to listen.

Home Base

Baseball diamond

It was so gradual, I wasn’t even aware it was happening.

My sister’s lived out of state for years. My mom died two years ago. My dad moved to Israel. His house just sold, so he came back to close the deal and empty out the final contents of the house. For the first time, he stayed with me instead of his house, which was basically empty. I realized that I had become my family’s home away from home.

I first became aware of the shift over the summer. My kids were away and my sister wanted to come home. Really, I thought? I’ve got no kids home and wasn’t looking for company. She hadn’t been home for awhile and wanted to visit the cemetery where our mother is buried. I couldn’t tell her not to come. Alas, in the new reality, I am “home” for her so I wrapped my mind around this idea, bought her beloved Diet Coke,  and told her to come. We had a great time as usual.

Now it’s my dad’s turn to stay at our house. It’s nice to have him with us – three generations living together for a month. He enjoys my children and we all enjoy having him around. He and I have lunch together most days. My husband and Dad chat over the occasional scotch. Such domestic bliss, you can’t imagine. My father looks the other way when I yell at my kids. We smile sweetly when he repeats himself. We’re practically a scene straight out of the tv show “Modern Family” – my dad being the cantankerous patriarch. I dare say he has even developed a moderate affinity for our dog.

All good things can benefit from a break though, so my Dad went to visit my sister and her family in Indianapolis, taking an early morning flight. My sister called me a few hours after he arrived. Our dad was sacked out on her couch – after all, he had been awake since four a.m.

“From my couch to yours,” I chuckled.

“How long does he usually sleep?” she asked with concern.

I felt like we were discussing a toddler instead of our paterfamilias. Fortunately he’s an active and healthy 79-year-old. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting cleaning out a house you’ve lived in for almost 40 years. He was tired.

I thought I was over the emotional part of saying goodbye to his house but apparently I wasn’t completely. The family homestead was the headquarters for our family for close to forty years. It’s a sad feeling to close that chapter of my life and a weird feeling to have the tables turned and for me to be home base. It’s a subtle shift, but a change none-the-less.

My father will leave the U.S. to return to his life in Israel next week. It’s strange for him to have given up his U.S. residence, but it’s worth it for him to be unburdened by the contents of a large home. He can visit his favorite possessions and my mother’s artwork in any of his children’s homes when he’s feeling nostalgic.

Yup, it’s a new rhythm for our family but one we are all adjusting to. There’s no place like home, wherever it may be.

 

 

Being Prepared

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My husband came home from a meeting the other night and with a smirk told me one of the attendees had been the executive director of a local cemetery. The smirk was for my benefit because I’ve been gently nagging him for quite a while to buy us cemetery plots. He thinks I am morbid and resists. He’s hoping someone will come up with a cure for death before he has to cope with it’s consequences. Maybe this meeting was divine intervention.

I, on the other hand, wish to live to a ripe old age but am not expecting a death cure, or the Messiah’s arrival for that matter, before I die. When I was growing up, my parents had cemetery plots that they had purchased with my grandparents. I always knew where they would end up. Sure, it’s weird to go visit my late mother in Virginia as we always lived across the Potomac River in Maryland but there was a comfort that when one of them died there was one less decision to be made during a very sad and emotional time.

It’s odd, because I’m not necessarily a planner and don’t worry too much about the future. I do know however, that like all living things, my life will end. It just seems like the responsible, adult thing to do. My parents did it – shouldn’t I?

Truth be told, I’m also a little cuckoo about where I’d like my plot to be so I want to have a say in the matter. I have a thing about traffic noise – I don’t really like it. For instance, when we shopped for houses I would always stand outside and listen carefully for highway noises. This would be the kiss of death for a house. My husband thought I was a little crazy but, hey, we all have our quirks.

So my final resting place must be in a serene environment where traffic noise is negligible. I’ve been at a few funerals where the noise is a distraction to my thoughts. I know, I know – I won’t actually hear the noise since I’ll be dead but my survivors would, and that would bug me (although I’m sure it would make them chuckle.) It’s all about location, right? I have no control over when my life will end but I do have control over where I will rest eternally.

“How about buying me plots for my next birthday?” I joked with my husband.

I’m not joking. One could say I’m dead serious.

 

 

My Mother’s Hands

dr-sears-mother-hands-and-child-handsSitting in synagogue recently for the High Holidays, I thought of my mother, as I often do. This was the first round of High Holidays that I wasn’t reeling with fresh grief. Jewish holiday services are long – often lasting several hours. As my children sat briefly with me, I was reminded of all the times I sat with my own mother when I was young. Like most children, I found the services to be excruciatingly boring, so I passed the time counting the pages until the service was over or the minutes until I could be excused to roam the building with the other children. I also spent a lot of time looking through my mother’s small purse with its sparse contents for synagogue: kleenex, lipstick, a hard candy or two.

This year as I was sitting in the sanctuary, listening to the service, feeling introspective, I was struck by the memory of my mother’s hands, as I looked down at my own. I remember examining her jewelry and playing with her rings, trying them on to see what it felt like to  wear grown-up jewelry. Her hands and fingers were toys to keep me entertained and quiet. I admired her nail polish. I remember the feel of her skin as well as her sidelong glances, smiles, a warm embrace or her fingers entwined with mine.

I watched my mother’s hands change from those of a young woman into those of an older one with age spots and pronounced veins. They remained well-manicured but suffered from the cold and arthritis. As a grown woman, I continued to sit with my mother whenever possible. I still tried on her rings and was the happy recipient of a squeeze of the hand or a pat on the knee. These memories evoke feelings of security and being loved.

My daughter just discovered the game, Cat’s Cradle. She earnestly studied the book to see how to make various patterns and shapes with the colorful band of string and then asked me to play with her. My hands miraculously remembered just what to do. I was astounded by their memory, as was my daughter.

Now I’m the Mom, with middle-age hands. My daughter looks through my purse, plays with my jewelry and pleads to be released from the service. I hold her hand and try to placate her boredom.

I’m paying it forward, with my hands.