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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A Pilgrimage of Milestones

Australia_kangarooIn two weeks, I’ll be on a plane to Australia.

Someone said that I was taking a pilgrimage but I’ve realized that this entire year has been nothing but a pilgrimage of milestones.  The first birthdays, the first holidays, the first trip back to the Texas coast, our anniversary in June which by the way is not an actual anniversary if only one of you is still alive, are all the beginning of the end to a new beginning.

Confusing, yes.

After the anniversary was the ritual of going through Hook’s clothes, his closets, everything he ever owned, made easier by the presence of my family.  They helped me to pick through what I was willing to part with then adopted some of his things which was more reassuring because it felt like he wouldn’t be far away. Then finally, there was the move back into the Hook House, a house I have to admit that I did not want to return to. Living here again was never part of the plan, but nothing of the last two years was part of any plan ever.

Yes, it’s a great house. Yes, I am grateful. Yes, everyone who walks into this house has said what I said the first time I ever saw it: “It’s so cute and such a perfect location!”

He should have died in this house but if he had, I wouldn’t be living here today. That’s one thing I know for certain and it goes with the only other certainty that I have:  I need to finish what we started which is why I re-booked my flight to Australia with little to no time to plan.

Early in 2014, I doubted that I would ever step foot in the land down under.  That country no longer held any interest for me.  Instead it was a reminder of unfulfilled dreams and not just of a sabbatical but of an entire future.  Occasionally I would say without conviction that someday I’d go and take his ashes, but I lacked any enthusiasm to make that happen until I moved back into the Hook House.

[I refer to my home as the “Hook House” because in the future it will become the Hook Scholar House where I sponsor students from outside of central Texas who travel to Austin from all over the world to conduct creative research at the Wild Basin Preserve.]

The first week back home, I had to give myself permission to feel relief, yes relief, that I could start anew, relief that it was okay to feel happy again, relief that no matter what I did to improve my future did not mean I would forget about Hook.   How could I?  This house was the only home I’d ever known with Allan.  It was his home then our home.  Now it is my home.  His Jeep is parked in the driveway while my Nissan is tucked away in the garage. Do I keep both cars? I don’t know but I no longer feel the need to figure everything out all at once. Somehow being back in this house has released me from feeling like I’d never find my way back to the land of the living.  And even as I walk through the house with the constant sense of he should be here, I know I can’t change the past.  I cannot make my husband be undead.  The only way forward is forward.

He would want you to be happy.

Sort of.  I mean, Allan would not have wanted me to be unhappy. He would have wanted more than anything for me to be productive, for me to get going.  I could cry all I wanted so long as I kept making progress.  Hook was from the generation that if you were too happy, you probably weren’t working hard enough.  So yes, he would want me to be happy but not too happy.

What is Allan saying to you now?

Multiple people have asked me this, but I couldn’t answer because I’d started listening more to what I needed than what I believed Allan would have wanted for me. That’s how I decided to make this trip to Australia which is neither a vacation nor a holiday. The same knotted ball that was in the pit of my stomach when I took my first trip back to Port Aransas without Allan has resurfaced. I struggle to feel excitement for a trip I once couldn’t wait to take.  But that was when I thought my husband would be sitting next to me on the plane not resting in an urn.  Everything is different now even my reason for going.

I go because there is a circle to be closed. I go to complete a two-year journey I never wanted to be on. I go to spread the last of my husband’s remains on the anniversary of his death.  I’ll do finally what we’re both now ready for me to do:  I’ll let him go.

The widow books that used to decorate my nightstand have been replaced by books about Australia.  Each time I open one of the Oz books, Australia_booksI barely skim through the pages, not really reading at all.  Instead, I stare at the maps of this continent, mentally planning a counterclockwise, southwest trek from Perth to Melbourne to Sydney to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef then over to Darwin and down to Alice Springs then back down to Perth for one last peek at Hope Street.

Australia’s vastness used to intrigue me and my hope is that once I get there, it will again.  I’m giving myself exactly one month.  And all that traveling inside the country that I mentioned?  I’ve no way of knowing if I’ll actually do it.  I’m as likely to hunker down in Perth and do absolutely nothing as I am to figure out that anamoly of an island and make a solo trek around the circumference.

As I live through the next three weeks which this time last year were Hook’s last three weeks, I find it impossible not to return to that time in my head. We had lived a year for every day in that last month.  The intensity of feeling doesn’t go away just because 347 days have passed. I can actually see it more clearly now, see that no matter what happens in my life, nothing will ever touch me as deeply as those last days helping my husband to die.

We didn’t know, I didn’t know — our last conversations, our last everything. Some might think that that time was tragic or horrible or possibly even disgusting to have to live through.  When you can’t stop what is happening, when you can’t save them, when all you can do is wipe phlegm from their mouth or carry them to the bathroom, then those actions become ultra significant.  So you push back any thoughts of he’s dying and instead you think, He would have done this for me, or, I can still do these small things for him.  And you make that be enough for both of you and you never break until he’s gone, because he’s no strength left so you must be that for him, too.

If Hook were saying anything it would probably be:  Just keep going orYou’re right babe,” a common phrase in our home.

My husband did not want me to take his ashes to Australia.  But I have always known what was best for us and now I know what is best for me.  I need to release him.  I need to begin a new journey that starts with finishing this one.  I’ll make this pilgrimage to Australia and I’ll face this milestone like I have faced all the others: With my heart and my mind wide open.

And I’ll cry and I’ll cry and I’ll cry and when I’m done, I’ll remind myself that it’s okay to be happy again.

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