Living in the Now

HTT_YouThinkYouHaveTimeI said something to Allan almost a year before he was ever diagnosed that haunts me not because I wished I wouldn’t have said it but because I wished I would have acted on it more.  I repeated it to my mother in her last month’s visit with me.  I’m sharing it today because I want you and me and the rest of the world to wake up and know that it behooves us to be present in the now.

I said, “We don’t have as much time as you think we do.”

I don’t really know why I said it, maybe to ward off another “No” from him about a trip I’d wanted us to take together.  I’d already booked the business trip and wouldn’t he like to come with me?  A part of me knew, perhaps it was a premonition, a tug of the conscious world that our time together was limited.

I discovered during my mother’s four-month visit that she likes hot dogs – the woman enjoys a good Vienna sausage – who knew?  I learned that she had a thing for a young John Wayne and she wouldn’t have said ‘No’ to an older version of The Duke either.  Who was this woman?   But as I came to know a different side of my mother, I interpreted my new knowledge to be an invitation to plan whole days around eating and watching those times from the past.  I must have dragged my mother to at least three hipster hot dog places in Austin.

“Oh no,” she’d say every time, “let’s go later.” Or tomorrow or not today, “Another time.”

John Wayne_SIP Cover copy.indd

I had no idea that John Wayne was such a hottie.

My mother’s deep seated arthritis is real.  It’s not something in her head.  When she’d wake me up in the middle of the night for a pain pill, it was sometimes the only way I knew it was going to rain, because her bones were always at least one day ahead of humidity predictions than weather.com.  But she (and I) paid for that knowledge, her with knife-sharp stings in her arms and her legs, and me with sleepless nights. When I would coax her into dragging her walker from the house to the Jeep to whatever venue I had picked out for us, just the wienie-eating alone was our day long adventure.  For someone healthy like you or me, we cannot really understand what it means to constantly feel cold even in 70 degree weather, or the mental preparation she had to have to go along in these outings.

I used to coach her two or even three days in advance, gearing her up with, “Were going to have a GREAT DAY!” My manic smile plastered on my face hoping to radiate some energy into her 79-year old body.  When she pushed back, and she did daily, I would remind her.

“Mom, there is no other time.  Seriously.”

“Why not?” she’d ask and I could only ever tell the truth:  “Because, you know, I’m not the boss of time.”

And I’d have to say out loud the obvious and ask of myself:  Is what I want in her best interests or mine or both?  Obligation is a heavy thing.  I could have put my mother on a plane anytime, back to Michigan and their sub-zero temps.  My younger sister said, “No one expects you to do this.”  But I expected it and once I got over myself, I could look at the situation and willingly choose every single day to poke and prod my mother to live just a little bit more.   I made sure that the now we shared together was worthy of us and us of it.  Could her life be improved by trying even small things?  Is it a disservice to care-taking if I allowed her to sit for hours at a time watching t.v. instead of pressing her to improve one afternoon with something as mundane as driving 30 miles to eat a Chicago-style hot dog on the lake?  I chose the juicy wiener adventure and she bragged about it the next day to her during-the-week caretaker, Peter.  So I’ll say yes that it was worth the effort to both of us.

With Allan, it was more the premonition of we’re not 30 years old.  Our bodies will start to ache just like our parents or God forbid, one of us will get sick.  One of us did get sick, and one of us died, and now one of us is wondering why didn’t we live more of our days together when we had the chance.

I’m not saying never rest, always go go go.  I spent this past weekend writing and reading and talking to the cat and listening to music and occasional crying (okay, maybe more crying than usual because I’d kept a lot of it in for four months while Mom was here so that by the time she went to bed at night, I was too exhausted to cry and when she finally returned to Michigan, I had a lot of pent up grief!).  I love weekends like that, but it’s not exactly a recommended way to live forever.  I can’t wonder, What’s Next?, indefinitely.

I know what is next for me or at least I know what I want to be next, and the only question still to be answered is if I am willing to throw my heart over the bar so my body can follow.  (Dr. Vincent Normal Peale)

After Hook died I ceased to have heart, to have passion for anything.  There was nothing to throw anywhere.  I threw my body over the bar and trusted that eventually my heart would re-open and maybe even follow.  It did and it didn’t.  It’s open again but not for what I’d expected – not for love; I don’t expect that to happen.  Hook was enough for a lifetime.  My heart opened to exploration, to wonderment, to change … lots and lots of change.

I’m no longer willing to wait for tomorrow or maybe next week or another time.   I don’t ever want to wish I had more time because time ran out.  When I shed tears, they are bitter drops that reflect a regret for not enough time.  Hook and I, we didn’t live our married life to the max.   We pushed a lot of things aside saying they were next – after I was finished with school, and after he did one more summer in Trinidad, and after and after, and next and next.   But what came after and what was next was decided for us.

Ordinary Time

A year ago, I attended a spiritual retreat and a young priest talked about Ordinary Time which is the time that comes after Lent and Easter which many will celebrate this weekend.  The priest said that for God there was no such thing as time – that hours and minutes were relevant only to man.  I’d heard this from wise professors years before when I was completing my graduate work. Women were the moon; Men were the sun. All of us were timeless.  According to this priest, God operated only in the now. There was no past, no future, no present – everything was happening now.  At the first retreat break, I cornered the priest in a 1:1.

“You said that everythingHDU_LivngInTheNow is in the now.”

“Yes.”

“That it’s all happening now,” I pressed.

“Yes,” he said and his eyes shone with excitement.

“So what I’m hearing you say is that Hook is alive now, and Hook is sick now, and Hook is dying now, and Hook is healthy now?” I stopped because I could feel hysteria rising in my voice.

“Yes,” the priest said. “It blows your mind, doesn’t it?”

It blew my mind so much, I left the retreat so I could cry in the Jeep on the drive back to Austin from Belton.  I believed and still believe that yes, everything is happening now – our past, our future, our present – all of it, right now.

I don’t even think Hook is completely gone anymore at least not in the sense that I spread his ashes and that’s that.  That was him as far as earth was concerned, but he’s somewhere, somewhere I can’t see nor can I visit.  Every time I get pissed about some dirt bag I think who doesn’t deserve to live when my fine husband is dead, I remind myself that he exists in the now, on some other plane, some God time that I cannot reach in my now.  He’s there because he was ready to be there.  Me and dirt bag aren’t there because we’re not ready to be.

Hook had lived in the now as a scientist, maybe not as a husband. That was indeed his one fault, and I will not let him off the hook (pun absolutely intended) just because he is dead. But maybe in his now he doesn’t keep those who love him at bay. Maybe he’s learned how to let the love of science and the love of people to co-exist, where they don’t have to be separate but complimentary to one another. Maybe he’s learning what I’m learning every day — we are our imperfections and it’s from this beauty that we learn.  And, I know he’s learning that although man needs science, science benefits from man, too, when we promote its wisdom and care for its future.

I wasn’t always clear where Mom existed when she was in Austin with me, and I don’t think it was for me to figure that out for her.  I thought perhaps she missed my father so much that sharing stories of him would feed her heart.  But after peppering her with questions about how she grieved through some things in the hopes of learning how to advance my own mourning, she shushed me with a quick, “No more questions about your father.”

On Facebook, I posted photos of places I took my mother to during her Texas visit.  I do not mind admitting that I tricked her into every one of those outings to stave off the onslaught of “No” I knew was inevitable. She is back home now in Michigan, and I’m sure she’s been sharing with everyone about all the places we went, and the things she saw, and the ceramic cup she painted, and the new people she met.

This all makes me remember the one and only Hook Wine & Cheese party that Allan and I hosted a year after we were married.  He did not know it was a wine and cheese party until the day before the event when he saw me sneak in two crates of rented wine glasses from the utility garage door into the kitchen.

“What are those for?” he asked.

“They’re wine glasses.”

He sighed, “But we have wine glasses.  You said it was only going to be seven people.”

I peered into his eyes and debated how much information he could handle. This incredibly intelligent, selectively social man that I married had his limits, and I was still learning what they were. I’d forgotten what fib I’d originally given him.  Apparently I’d said something about seven people coming over for wine or dinner or both or who knows what I said.

“It’s going to be more than seven,” I said.

“How many more?” he asked with a slight whine to his voice.

I narrowed my eyes looking into both of his, back and forth.  No, he could not be trusted with this data.  His head would explode for sure.

“It’s going to be more like fourteen,” I lied.

“Fourteen people?” Hook cried.  “You said seven and now it’s fourteen!”

Silence.

“Do you promise it’s not more than fourteen?” he asked.

That was all the confirmation I needed as I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “You’re on a need to know basis.”  And with that, I ended his interrogation of the 47+ people that would eventually show up the next night for our gathering.

But let me tell you how it all turned out:  Hook had the best time and it was a great evening for both of us.  Although my husband resisted most Homo sapiens, he was an ideal host because he wanted people to be comfortable so he was keen to fill a glass or offer an hors d’oeuvre if a person appeared starved.  In the same way he knew a little bit about everything in nature, his knowledge of world events and culture and sports made him an ideal listener and conversationalist at any gathering. I knew all of this after our third date and saw it play out in action during our intimate wedding.

After the last of our wine and cheese guests left at 1:30 in the morning, Hook hugged me and said, “We’re a great team, baby” then he followed with, “and I’m on a need to know basis from now on.”

Allan and I were a great team.  I didn’t know it then.  I’d stopped living in our now and had jumped to a future that would never happen.  My Mom for all her unwillingness to live in the now is still a good mother.  I cannot live her life for her, though, any more than I could prevent my husband from dying.  The only way I know to honor them both is to live the life I have been granted, in the now, with no regrets of the past or the present or fear of time that is not infinite on earth.

There are things I want to accomplish before I move onto that other plane, and I want to do these while my body is still healthy and my mind still alert.  I’m sure you do, too, so let’s live in our now and say Yes instead of No, and when necessary, put yourself on a need-to-know basis.

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Thrive or Survive

HDU_surviveRains falls down in Austin today, allowing me to continue my dedicated procrastination towards the obvious weed pulling and mulch spreading needed in the front lawn.  Every day I am reminded of all the outside work my husband did when he was still alive; and, every day that it rains is a chance for me to stay inside and write to you.

Earlier this month, I wrote a summary of thoughts on my Facebook company page that began:

After my husband passed away in late 2013, people with good intentions said, “You’ll survive this,” except I wasn’t interested in surviving. I wanted to live; I wanted to thrive; I wanted to know hope again.

I wrote that after I was reminded of the final conversation I had with my husband’s oncologist.  The doctor thought he was talking about living except he kept saying things like, “survive longer,” and my husband’s head kept nodding along.  After the third survive platitude, I stood up in the examination room with arms stiff by my sides, fingers balled into tight little fists.  My voice was elevated while my eyes filled with water. I lifted my chin, refusing to allow the liquid to fall down my face in front of those two scientists.

“I’m not interested in my husband surviving longer,” was the most I could say.

But the oncologist failed to understand what I meant. I wanted my husband to come and go as he pleased, to eat what he desired, to swim daily laps in a pool, to walk for miles with a bug net collecting his girls.  What the doctor was offering was some grotesque version of living dependent upon bottles of pills, liquid food, and every day seeing my husband less and less capable of even the simplest of tasks.

Apparently, the oncologist thought that was living.

Surviving is not Living

Since the end of November, my mother has been living with me.  What started out as a short vacation has turned into an indefinite stay.  She originally came for a holiday visit at the suggestion and encouragement of my younger sister, Susan, and me. Susan has been our mother’s primary caregiver since she had a stroke last February, but in reality, my sister took over the management of both our parents in 2010. She has had to transition Mom into widowhood then into assisted living then to the hospital and a rehabilitation facility and now into permanent living in her home.  If you aren’t exhausted from reading that then perhaps you shuddered at the thought of being the caregiving child or worse, the elderly parent.

My mother’s visit to Texas ceased to be a holiday for either of us towards the end of the second week.  But because sub-zero temperatures continue to barrage the state of Michigan, we all agreed that Mom should remain where the sun makes a daily appearance and warm air sometimes nudges over the 70-degree mark in the winter.  Even on a dreary, wet Saturday like today, Austin temperatures are still twenty to thirty degrees higher than those living in the hand state.

More good people with well-meaning intentions have said that this time with my mother is a blessing. Many times these are people who lost their parents too soon or usually have not had to care for a parent in their home for an indefinite period of time or perhaps they have no interests or friends so being stuck at home 24×7 appeals to them.  I see it as my job to dispel the misconceptions about caring for an elderly parent and to announce that blessings come after the occasion not during. This time with my mother is work, it is difficult, it requires an unbelievable amount of patience and compassion, and it allows for a limited social life outside of the home.  I recommend to others in the same predicament what I recommend to myself:  Margaritas in moderation – and offer your parent some, too.

It is indeed important that I have these months with Mom if only to grasp the enormity of responsibility my sister has shouldered for this unspecified amount of time.  Although I cared for my husband through his dying, the differences in the dynamics of a relationship to a spouse versus a parent are too wide for comparison.  Unlike my husband, Allan, who fought to contribute to his own life even after he said, “This is no way to live,” my mother is docile in her approach to her last years.  Allan could barely walk down the street, his appetite erratic, his forever playful attitude diminished, but even so he still woke up every day and sent emails out or dictated messages to me as I typed.  He struggled to get scientific research mailed off so that articles of his work were published posthumously.  I won’t say Allan lived because I don’t think being strapped to a wheelchair unable to hold your own head up is living, but he squeaked out what he could in his last days.

I try to remember how my parents used to go out dancing, how they’d have friends over to play poker or how my mother would bend over four hot burners to cook for eight children. Nowadays she leads a sedentary life.  She was never a runner like Susan and me or an ultra-organizer of people and events like her daughters, but she also wasn’t as motionless as she is today. Sometimes I’m able to coax her out of the house to visit a museum or to decorate pottery or to eat at a restaurant. Daily, though, an extended effort is needed to pull her away from staring mindlessly at the television screen or watching out the front windows for passersby.

The pottery we decorated. Mother's cup is on the right.

The pottery we decorated. Mother’s cup is on the right.

I invite friends over to break up the monotony of her days but also as an incentive for her to do more than just survive.  I don’t know if I am helping or hurting.  What I do know is that this fastidious woman who would never have left her home without a shower, make-up on the face, and hair coiffed sometimes has to be cajoled into basic, everyday tasks.  If the in-house caregiver I hired is not due to come on a particular day or if guests are not expected, my mother may decide to sleep until the early afternoon. No amount of meowing from the cat or sleep interruptions from me can pull her out of bed. Do I encourage her to live for what could very well be many more years?  Or, do I let her wither away in survival mode, her brain going to mush, her inability to communicate a frustrating barrier for her and for others?  I don’t know.  I really do not know.

There was a tenderness I had with my husband in the last weeks of his life, a way of being that I wished I had had with him the entire time he was sick.  I see my time with my mother as a second chance to do things differently, as a way to be for her what I wished I had been for him.  Each day I attend to her needs, I repeat in my head:  Patience Compassion Forgiveness, Patience Compassion Forgiveness. Patience and compassion I learned from Hook; forgiveness I am learning from caring for her. When she asks if she’ll get any better or why this is happening to her, I tell the truth but not the God-awful truth.

“Today is a good day,” I’ll say if it is or, “Tomorrow will be better.”

“You promise?” she asks every time.

“It can be but we have to put some effort into it.”

How to Thrive

On Wednesday mornings, I post an If Not Now Then When question to my Facebook followers. The questions are meant to spur creative thoughts of change or why a person may want change or how someone might change.  Usually, they are also questions I’m answering for myself, my hand holding fast to a pen paused in mid-sentence inside a writing book.

Last January I began reading Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way, to help me unblock creatively.  One of Cameron’s recommended techniques for unblocking is to hand write three pages first thing every morning  As I look back into my mind and watch myself crying over those handwritten pages, a kaleidoscope of awareness spins through my head.  It was too soon after my husband’s death to expect so much of myself, too frightening to imagine anything new.  I had scoffed at the word survival during that last visit with the oncologist then grieved myself into my own survival mode:  Wake up!  Remember to shower. Feed the cat. Stop turning down clients. How many days in a row have I worn these clothes?  I was existing but I was not living.

The rest of the Facebook post:

Survive nothing. Live everything. Thrive. It is not easy to move through the darkness. It is not easy to humble yourself when you’re in need. But we do what we must to get to the other side. 

And what does the other side look like? I’m still learning, but I can tell you it is full of hope and frustration, joy and disappointment, laughter and anxiety. It is not perfect because life is not perfect, and I am not perfect and you are not perfect. The other side looks like what you look like, what you feel like inside, what you create and re-create or don’t bother to try at all. It is everything and nothing. You are everything and nothing and everything.

I asked my readers not to stay in a situation that they no longer enjoyed.  I begged them to begin today to plan and to think and to begin discussing with themselves what a whole new future could feel like and be like if they were willing to live rather than just survive; if they were ready to thrive instead of just exist.

~       ~       ~

When I originally started this blog post a week ago, I was sitting in a restaurant that my husband and I used to frequent.  I was doing that because sometimes during the day, to escape my home office, I work there.  Rock and roll from the 80s played overhead and I could hear Phil Collins singing:

All that time I was searching with nowhere to run to, it started me thinking

Wondering what I could make of my life and who’d be waiting

Asking all kinds of questions to myself but never finding the answers

Crying at the top of my voice

For all the times my husband and I sat in that dingy booth with its cracked plastic seats and an endless supply of tortilla chips, we never once discussed the possibility that life might turn towards an unplanned course.  I mention this not to say there’s no point in planning a new life.  I speak of this because it’s all the more reason to live the life you’ve dreamed for yourself but haven’t yet carved a path towards.

~       ~       ~

More and more I can feel the strength inside myself to change my life however I want.  Other times I struggle with the vision of a whole new life sans Allan.  That second thought happens only when I come upon an impasse in my mind and when I succumb to insecurities.  But I cannot honor myself or the memory of my husband by clinging to the past that has passed.  And I most definitely cannot live that way.

Two years ago, I could barely stop falling down when I ran so I stopped running altogether. One year ago I could barely get out of bed.  For awhile, I gave up. Today and most days, I wake up joyful again.  Before the sun and my mother rise, I run a four-mile course around Town Lake.  On the days that I don’t run, I dip my body into an outdoor, heated pool known as Big Stacy.  Steam floats up from the water when our winter temps in Texas dip below 40 degrees. Unlike other swimmers, I wet my toes first allowing the warm water to reassure me that this swim will be as fabulous as the last.  Rolling one arm over the other in my laps, I let go of any anxieties in my head.  Back and forth, back and forth, my heart pumps blood and oxygen throughout my body.  And each time my head rolls to the side so that my mouth can lift out of the water for air, it is usually memories of my husband that come to me. Surviving was not enough for him.  It is not enough for me.  For now, it is enough for my mother. Please don’t let it be enough for you.

Live. Thrive.

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