Tag Archives: Aging Parents

Upside Down

Last night I dreamed that the whole world was—literally—turned upside down.  I was stumbling along the ceiling, with books and coffee mugs falling past me, when someone pulled me into a building where everything had been glued or attached to the ceilings by Velcro. This meant we could hang out on the ceilings, which were the new floors, and everything would feel normal.

But the person who’d brought me along cautioned, “Don’t look out the window.  It’ll remind you that everything is really upside down.”

Like a toddler, I think I am going through a phase.  I left full-time employment three and a half months ago.  Up until now, I’ve been busy with contract proposal writing, working part-time at the Y, and boosting my exercise levels—as long as I’m at the Y twice a week.  I was constantly shoveling and moving my car and scraping my windshield and batting icicles off the roof.  I did about 30 hours of CPR and other training as part of my Y orientation.

Everything was new and different and I didn’t have time to think about whether this was permanent or what.

I stand in the child care center at the Y, watching a group of four-year-old boys play with toy dinosaurs. Their names are Milton, Kash, Zacques and Denzel—Denzel Zhou.  A mom enters and checks in a new boy.  I look at his name on the monitor: βӕrәӦn.

“Umm…” I stammer.  “Baron?”

The mother gives me a withering look as though I am a moron.

“No,” she says very slowly and mock-patiently, “It’s ber-on, the ancient Slovenian god of moss-covered river rocks.”

“Ah, I see!” I reply, trying not to sound too much like Basil Fawlty, and immediately forget how to pronounce it.  I will have to avoid using his name for two hours.

I do love the kids.  I like pivoting from proposals about torture to observing children at play.

My days are also punctuated with emergency room trips for my mother, her husband, and my aunt.

One day I spent three hours at the Y playing with an adorable Hmong baby named Howard, then rushed to the ER because my mom’s husband had fallen and they discovered he had a giant boil on his abdomen he’d been keeping quiet about, hoping it would just go away.

It didn’t.  They had to lance and drain it, and the smell almost caused me to pass out.

So I get to see humanity on both ends of the age and health spectrums every day.

Now the contract work has slowed.  The Y is routine.  The battle with snow and cold is over, for now.

As I sit and watch Howard drool and gnaw on a block, or wait endlessly in windowless ER rooms, I have hours to ask myself, “Is this it from here on out?  Taking care of babies and old people?  Am I taking a break from full-time work, or am I an early retiree?  My sister is moving to Oregon next month.  Why aren’t I planning a move to Belize to escape next winter?  Will I ever have any more adventures?  Shouldn’t I use this time to learn Chinese or write a novel or apply for one writing workshop per day?  Shouldn’t I be setting some goals, instead of reading and doing crossword puzzles and walking in the woods in my spare time?  Damn, I’m so lazy!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I know I’m super lucky to be able to take this time out.  Or whatever it turns out to be.

And so I have procrastinated on blogging because I just haven’t known what to write about.  Normally I’d be posting up a storm about my trip to Japan in June, but I have also been procrastinating on that.

Here are two last photos from winter.

Can you spot my car?

And here’s a big ol’ nasty possum I encountered on my walk in a city park.  It appeared to be eating a wiener, or maybe a baby rabbit.

Ugh.  Thanks for reading; it feels good to get some thoughts out of my head.

Next post, the Japan plan.

Bally Cotton

In the dark, the car headlights flashed onto a sign: Bally Cotton.  I went back and took a photo of it the next day.

“It was the name of the farm in Ireland Dad’s family came from,” Heidi explained.  Her dad’s family had been in Australia for several generations, while as I wrote before her mother had come as a refugee from Austria after World War II.

Her dad, Des, and her mum, Hedy, had met at work, at Commonwealth Bank.  Hedy had had to quit her job when she got married.  They had lived in a suburb of Sydney while Heidi and her sister Danielle were young, then bought this property and built their dream house. They had had cattle, but then health problems came and most of the land was now leased to a neighboring farmer.

One of the things that binds me with Heidi is that she and I are both supporting aged parents.  After visiting the farm, I will never again complain about having to drive 20 minutes to get to my mother’s assisted living facility, where there are no stairs, she gets three meals a day, someone does her laundry and gives her her medications, and she’s got loads of activities to choose from to keep her occupied.

Heidi makes this drive almost every weekend—it takes her four hours with no stops.  Danielle lives at the farm full time; it’s hard to imagine Des and Hedy being able to stay there otherwise because services just aren’t available—there aren’t enough home care providers and they would spend all day in their cars if there were.

Everything is a long-distance proposition, like getting groceries, going to the doctor, or getting an oil change.  “Blayney’s a dead town,” Heidi said.  “It had a movie theatre and a Chinese restaurant when we were kids, but then everything moved to Orange, another half hour away.”

Heidi pulled the car up into the driveway and we began carrying in our gear.  It was so dark we had to grope along the brick wall to the back door, which led to a gazebo.  Des was eating his supper and Hedy was doing what she had probably always done—cooking, cleaning, washing dishes.  They don’t use a dishwasher because it requires too much water.

I had met Hedy in London years ago and it was nice to now meet Des.  He’s had some serious health challenges uses a walker but his smile lights up the room.  Des and Hedy couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming.

Heidi showed me up to “my” room, which had been hers as a youth.  It was full of photos and mementos from high school and college days.

“But where will you sleep?”

“In with Danielle,” she replied.

“Oh you’re kidding!  Are you sure?  I could happily sleep on the couch. I could never share a bed with my sister—we both have the Restless Legs and we’d be kicking each other over the side all night.”

“Aw, no worries, Annie!  We both sleep like the dead.”

The next day was Heidi’s birthday.  We all went out for breakfast at a café.  When you have a parent who uses a wheelchair, a walker, or just moves slowly, you can’t be impatient or in a hurry.  I know this from transporting my own mother, and in my finer moments I think of the slow-motion process as mindfulness practice.

It was a cold, blustery spring day, but pleasant, sitting near a sunny window and reminiscing about Heidi as a child.

Next up for the birthday girl was wine tasting at Phillip Shaw, just outside of Orange.  We sat near the fireplace and there wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch.  They had a needlessly complicated system of characters and numbers which none of us could make any sense of.  I bought a bottle of champers for Heidi for her birthday, a bottle of red for Des and Hedy, and a bottle for the friends we would stay with in Melbourne.

We topped off the day with homemade stroganoff and a birthday cake, then turned in early.

Tomorrow we would hit the road again for the eight-hour drive to Melbourne.

Fallen Leaves

Another report from real time.  I apologize in advance that this post is longer than most.

A friend invited me to an five-hour writing and meditation retreat.  My first reaction was, Who’s got time for that!?  My second reaction was, If that was my first reaction, it must mean I need it.  So I signed up.

On Sunday I got up early and schlepped over to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, which is slightly smaller than New York’s Central Park.  I didn’t get lost because last winter I got “pre-lost” on a walk there.  I had to call this same friend to come and rescue me in the dark snowy woods.

The retreat was in the pavilion, which I would guess was built in the 20s based on its deco-era light fixtures.  It has a high vaulted ceiling, screen porches that run the length of it on both sides, and a gigantic hearth. The pavilion is set on a hill with oaks whose leaves were in their autumn finest colors of russet, pumpkin, and gold.

The retreat was led by a woman named Jeannine who runs something called Elephant Rock.  Their retreats “harness the transformative power of writing in breathtaking natural settings.” The first thing I noticed was the vocal fry.  I was going to be here for five hours, so I “set an intention,” as they say, to not let this get on my nerves.

Jeannine was paired with a guy named Tyler who is a Buddhist monk and the director of a temple in Chicago.  There were a dozen or so participants, all women.  White women with scarves, we call them where I work.  Upper middle class, white, professional women.  Oh well.  That was me, too, so for the second time that day I pledged not to be distracted by my observations.

The pattern of the day was that Tyler led a short meditation, then Jeannine gave us a writing prompt to inspire us in 10 minutes of scribbling, followed by a brief discussion.  The first prompt was an excerpt from The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

I wrote:

In my new backyard, I sit on the bench we threw out here because we didn’t know where else to put it and the U-Haul had to be returned by 7:00.

I smoke a Swisher Sweet and drink a Blue Moon and look up at the leaves of an enormous oak tree.  It’s the end of September and the leaves are just turning.

Once a week or so I repeat this ritual and if I’m able to actually notice the leaves—if I don’t pass the entire time in my head—I notice they are now gold, now brown, now gone, fallen in heaps in the driveway, now slimy after a rain.

I moved, my mother had a stroke, then we moved her, all in a month.  My minimalist pride was blown because I had taken home piles of her shit that I just couldn’t throw away, like the giant, heavy-duty cookie sheet she used to bake chocolate chip cookies for the four of us.

My mother is recovering in her new $6,000-a-month “continuum of care” digs.  The same apartment can be independent living, assisted living, or memory care (they put a lock on the outside of your door when you get to that stage).  There’s a cemetery next door.

Just kidding.

But no one moves out of there alive unless they’ve run out of money.

We’re all moving along a conveyor belt.  My mom will never spend the winter in Phoenix again.  Never ride a bike again.  Now she’ll never drive a car again.  No more baths now.  She’ll never go for a walk in the woods alone again.  Now, no more showers without an aide nearby.  Her daily glass of wine is forbidden.

My mother is blessed with a mind that never worries, never obsesses, never ruminates.  Yesterday I found her in the party room at a Bloody Mary party.  When she saw me she put down her plastic cup and said with a foxy grin, “I forgot I’m not supposed to drink!”

I do worry, obsess, and ruminate, which is why I need to write and meditate and sometimes, have a beer and a cigar out in the backyard.  But not now, not until spring, because it’s too cold and dark outside.