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.

On My Watch

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I was so excited for my eldest to return from his three-month Israel adventure, that I had not anticipated how life would change upon his return. While away, he turned eighteen, so there went the provisional driver’s license with it’s midnight curfew.  I didn’t think about the mild unease with which I would fall asleep the nights that he is out. Who knew that the sweetest sound in the world is the garage door opening, announcing that he has returned home? I don’t even care that the dog barks – it’s as if he too rejoices that the teenager is home safe and sound.

My boy left as a single fellow and returned with a girlfriend. How delightful, yet odd to see him with a significant other and to hear him use the royal “we” when talking about  he and his gal-pal.

Last week I accompanied him, probably for the last time, to the pediatrician for the annual check-up. Before I left the room for their private exam and discussion, the doctor was talking about routine shots and upcoming immunizations. I was aware that he was talking to my son, not me; his gaze had been averted to the other adult – his patient – in the room. I was just a bystander. Appropriate, yes, but I felt a little adrift as I was gently cast aside.

Then there is the other single, yet attached, man in my life – my father. I go to sleep worrying about my young man and wake up thinking about my older man. While he is in the country and nearby, I make sure to call him each morning. Living in a house full of people, I take for granted that people will know whether I have woken up or not. When he is in Israel, I am grateful for his lady friend to watch out for him.

As my father empties his house and prepares to leave his life in the U.S., all of his mail and packages are delivered to my house.

“I feel like I’m Dad’s front desk,” I told my sister.

He regularly calls to tell me which things are going to be delivered, when to expect them, and then calls to see if they came. It’s charming and amusing. He’s on my watch, and I’m happy to keep him happy.

I have to admit that sometimes I feel acutely aware of my sense of responsibility and the loss of even the illusion of control. Piled on top of taking care of the other people and things in my life, I am wound a little tighter. This month my father will return to Israel and my son will go work at a sleep away camp. I will breathe a small sigh of relief and wish them both a wonderful time as I look forward to a good night’s sleep – at least for a little while.

 

 

 

Spring Forward

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Spring makes me think of my late mother more than any other season. Everything is in bloom, the world is lush, full of promise and rebirth. She loved nature and beautiful things – spring is the perfect combination of these elements. The pain of grief subsides with time but spring brings my own grief to the forefront. It doesn’t help that this spring we are going through the remainder of my mother’s possessions as my father prepares to sell the house.

When my mother died in 2013, I clung to anything that belonged to her, thinking that if I had her things close by than she would remain close by too. I wrapped myself in her coats and carried her purses. I had a closet full of her clothes that I thought I would wear, which I quickly learned had her smell when I opened the closet door. It was my own, private mini-shrine in a seldom used closet in my home. On the rare occasion when I got out the iron, I could inhale and feel my mother’s presence.

Mother’s Day happens to fall in spring, but that day isn’t harder for me than every other day I miss my mother. Since we went to the cemetery last year, the first Mother’s Day without my mother, my daughter assumed we were going again this year. So we did. My husband, children and I actually had a nice visit with “Bubbe.” We cleaned off her headstone, pulled some crabgrass and told her what was going on in our lives. I shed a few tears.

Now it’s the small things that make me feel happy and think of my mother. Her key-chain, flower pots from her deck, knickknacks. a recipe in her handwriting, a pair of earrings. In her art studio I found her credit card from Garfinkel’s, a now defunct department store that was the height of elegance in its day. My mom was so sad when the store closed – she wasn’t a big shopper but she appreciated fine quality. The credit card was propped on a little metal stand, her tribute to times gone by. Now it makes me smile to think of her whimsy in keeping it.

I recently made a new recipe – a sushi salad. My husband describes it as a “deconstructed California roll.” I feel like my grief has changed into deconstructing Rita. My mother wasn’t a puzzle that needs taking apart, but as we break up her house I remember and experience her many parts and layers, which only further reveals her beautiful essence.

The clocks spring forward and so do I.

 

A Glimmer of Hope

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Something unexpected happened while we were in Israel recently. We were having a Passover Seder in a banquet hall with several other families from our Jewish day school. There was a lull in the evening as people were eating and going back and forth to the buffet. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my sixteen-year-old son with special needs sitting on a sofa talking to someone. Not just a family member or a family friend, but a girl, and a teenage girl at that. A lovely younger sister of my older son’s classmates, with health challenges and issues of her own. What struck me was that they actually seemed to be engaged in conversation – something that is generally difficult for my son to sustain.

It was so adorable – it almost made me weep.

“What’d you talk about?” his siblings and I grilled him afterwards.

“We actually had a lot in common,” he said matter of factly. “We talked about tv and movies.” Ah, that made sense as these are some of his favorite things to discuss.

Still, I was touched at the sweetness of the interaction which allowed me to see my son in a different light – as a young man with the possibility of courtship. I felt as if I was channeling my mother and grandmother when I described what, to me, was a momentous event to my friends…”It was just darling,” I gushed.

The evening passed and the moment faded into a warm memory. Until I received an email from the young lady’s mother saying that her daughter wanted to go see a movie with my son. Be still my heart! I was elated. His life is rich with family, family friends, friendly professionals, and lovely volunteers. But it is rare that he gets invited to do something socially with a good old-fashioned friend.

“I want to go,” he eagerly stated.

“Do you know how to behave like a gentleman?” I joked with him.

He assured me that yes, he did. I was giddy with anticipation of the big “date,” although my son did not like to be teased about it and of course viewed it for what it was – going to the movies with a friend, who happens to be a girl. I showed restraint around him, spilling over with excitement to my sister, father and girlfriends.

It turned out to be a lovely, uneventful outing. After their dads helped buy the tickets, the two friends sat and watched a movie while happily munching on popcorn. Truth be told, my son hogged the popcorn, his companion reported when we picked them up.

“It was just so delicious,” he sheepishly admitted.

So much for his gentlemanly behavior. He acted like a typical teenager – rather than being thoroughly annoyed by this fact, I was overjoyed. Next time we’ll spring for the jumbo tub of popcorn. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

Cookies

 

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My parents were married for fifty-four years until my mother’s death in 2013. It was a strong partnership and a loving marriage. I’m told that people who have good marriages are more likely to marry again as they’ve had such a positive experience with the institution.

So it’s not surprising that my father has a lady friend, and a very nice one at that. We recently had the pleasure of making her acquaintance. She too was married for a long time and was widowed around the same time as my father. I am pleased that my father has a companion, is not lonely, and continues to have an active, full life.

Intellectually, I am all in. Emotionally, however, it took me a little longer to get there.

A couple of months ago I was with friends who inquired after my father. They wondered if I had seen a picture of his lady friend and were surprised when I said I hadn’t, nor did I particularly want to. “Why not?” they wondered.

“If I see a picture, that means three things,” I answered.

a) this person actually exists

b) my mother is dead, and

c) my father has a girlfriend

“So, no, I don’t really need to see a picture. I’m good.”  My logic was sound and my denial fully intact. What was the harm in believing my parents were away on vacation?

Lo and behold, what happened a few days later? My father sent my siblings and I a picture of his friend. Funny how the universe works. God must have been gently nudging my emotions to catch up with my intellect, which of course they did. I’m fifty-one years old, not ten. While it’s weird to see my father with someone other than my mother, it’s good-weird. My sister called me after receiving the picture via email too.

“Did you see the picture?” she asked.

“Yeah, I saw it,” I said.

We agreed that this woman looked like a normal, nice person. My sister told me she got up from the computer, walked into her kitchen, and made a beeline to the counter where a plate of cookies sat that she had specifically not been eating all day. You know where this is going…she proceeded to eat the whole plate.

Emotional Eating 101 – your mom dies and your dad moves on with his life. How could cookies not make you feel a little better?

I have been hearing many stories from other people who have lost a parent and had similar experiences with a parent in a new relationship. One woman told me, “I’ll make you feel better – my father married my mother-in-law.” Wow, she wins the gold medal in the unusual second marriage category. Most everyone tells me how glad they are that their surviving parent has someone to share their life with. Those whose parents were never in another relationship lament that fact. I am thankful for my dad’s run of the mill widow-meets-widower story.

I am no longer in denial. I realize my father isn’t trying to find me another mom; he has simply found a companion for himself. Hard to believe, but it’s actually not about me. It’s a good life lesson – one that goes down easier with a big plate of cookies.

 

“It’s Appropriate”

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Has this ever happened to you? One of your children is watching something on a screen that seems questionable to you. You ask if it is appropriate for them. They assure you that, yes, it is appropriate.

“Oh. Okay,” you say.

You know they say this because they want you to go away and leave them in peace. You want the same thing, so you choose to believe them because sometimes you don’t feel like taking the time to investigate if it’s truly appropriate. Sure – I can count on my child to know what’s appropriate and what’s not, can’t I? The kids and I would agree on certain things that are clearly not appropriate, such as highly sexual content or gory violence – they wouldn’t want to watch these things anyway (not yet, at least.) It’s all the other things (like bad language, mature themes, silly reality shows) where the line is not always so clear.

Sometimes things are inappropriate but in the opposite direction – not mature enough. Take for instance my 16-year-old son with special needs. He has a penchant for watching shows that some might say are too young for him. I used to tell him he is too old to watch these shows.

“But I like them,” he told me.

Sigh. He likes them. Who am I to force him to watch shows that he doesn’t really get or enjoy, just because they are more age appropriate? For me, there’s a fine line between expecting him to act his age and allowing him to be how God made him. Where is the perfect balance? I’m always looking for it.

My daughter recently reported that this brother was watching “Family Guy.” Oh good, my husband and I thought – that’s semi-appropriate for a teenage boy. Then she told us that it was really a cover for him to watch a children’s show on the computer – he too clearly understands the whole “It’s Appropriate” game. Too bad this cognitive ability doesn’t actually transfer to age-appropriate television for him, but oh well. He did participate in a recent “Simpsons”-fest with his cousins, keeping him somewhat in the adolescent TV loop.

My daughter chastised me for allowing her brother to watch “baby” shows.

“Really? Do I need a critique of my parenting from you?” I asked.

Let me just say that she loves “Dance Moms” and God-knows what other shows that some may say are inappropriate for an 11-year-old girl. It’s amusing to me that my youngest thinks she is the maven of appropriate material. When she was nine she picked the song “Mean” by Taylor Swift to sing in a recital. It’s a great song. We both thought the tune was catchy but neither of us paid much attention to the words. I just thought she was so adorable. As I sat there watching her, I realized the song is about an abusive relationship and my stomach dropped to my toes.

Maybe not my best call in this grey area we call parenting, but the world didn’t come to an end. The video of her singing still makes me smile to this day. Is that really so inappropriate?

 

 

 

Checking In

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My graduated senior has been gone for just over a month on his grand “Capstone” trip to Israel and Eastern Europe. He is with 80 of his classmates and by all accounts seems to be having an amazing time. I rarely call him and only occasionally text him. I am comfortable letting him explore life and experience it separate from me. Sure, I miss him but feel glad he is out doing wonderful things and not sitting in my basement.

Something interesting seems to be happening, however – the teenager who wanted to be with his friends 99% of the time and only spent occasional moments with me now actually reaches out to check in with home base occasionally. And not just to tell me he is fine or to ask for money. He wants to share his experiences with me – imagine that. I’m pleasantly surprised and happy to hear from him.

As you would imagine, learning about and seeing the sites where the atrocities of the Holocaust occurred is emotional for anyone. An almost-18-year-old, on the cusp of adulthood is no exception. He is in the throes of forming his identity as a Jewish young man and finding his place in the world, while looking at the past and thinking about the future. Heavy stuff, for sure.

He face-timed me from Poland so he could tell me everything he had done and seen. He told me that one of his teachers was awesome, and that he found him so “compelling.” Compelling? Really? When did he start using that word? We had a great conversation as he tried to capture his experience for me. I hung up after twenty minutes and felt a moment of complete bliss. I knew it wouldn’t last, but in that moment I felt joyful about the man my son is becoming. He didn’t sound like a spoiled, entitled teenager but rather an adult who feels deeply and is interested in learning about his history, culture, and religion.

A few days later he texted me pictures from Prague with the caption “absolutely stunning.” I have never heard my son use the word “stunning” or known him to be aware of, much less be so moved by landscape in his life. It’s quite a kick to see your offspring become someone who you can picture yourself hanging out with and it’s a welcome relief to have a reciprocal conversation full of adult topics and not just housekeeping issues.

I have no delusions that the road ahead will be perfect and rosy. My son is a typical young man and we are typical parents. I at least feel optimistic about the future. Hopeful, I guess. It beats feeling gloomy. So much of parenting is full of angst and agitation – I’ll take the good moments when they come my way and savor them. I  hope he keeps moving forward and checking back in.