Chapter 2

Last night I lay in bed, and my thoughts bumped into my old blog on a dreamland street.  Barely recognizable, the stories of my past have been sitting there, like forgotten books on a dusty shelf, for years now.  For dozens of months I’ve had nothing to say – no urge from within to spill my guts on an electronic page – but there it was.  That tug, that compulsion to over-share my life to some unknown audience in the vast internet blackness.

And so…

The next chapter begins.

When I left off, I was teetering on the edge of a midlife renewal and irrelevancy.  Thriving in my long-distance running and halfway-decent fitness level, I was happy and decided I had finally settled into this thing called life, which wasn’t nearly as bad as I had once painted it, though far from the perfect story I had imagined for myself.

And then… 

Life does what life does.  It changes.  It swirls.  It smacks you up the side of the head when you least expect it.  And nothing that you thought was real exists at all.  You find it was all a dream and only your thoughts and perceptions made it what it was.  Underneath lies the frightening truth of mortality and the fleetingness of a biological body.  Maybe that’s what this chapter is about – facing the aging process, knowing grief, and accepting that death is a certainty for all of us.   

In 2019, I watched in despair as my mother battled a holiday illness that took her to the hospital and then to a rehab facility where she received therapies and care.  As she recovered, I began to realize that she had left a bit of herself behind and nothing would ever be the same for either of us.

This chapter will be scary.  And challenging.  And honest – always honest – at least from my perspective.

Stop this Train

Today is my oldest child’s 29th birthday. Twenty-nine.

Birthdays aren’t the only days I spend wondering how in the holy hell I got here so fast. I lie awake a few nights a week thinking about the time I’ve spent here and how I’ve spent it, the time I estimate and hope I have left, and worrying that “you never know” when your time is up.

I think about all of the things I want to organize before I go – to leave a tidy gift of memories and tokens for my children.

I think about the quiet Facebook pages of friends who were posting comments and photos one day, and forever silenced the next. It’s so freaking random.

I think about my friends who have suffered the unspeakable loss of a child, and how I could never bring myself to acknowledge it at the time, because I’m incapable of articulating the extraordinary feelings that fill my heart and the part of their pain that I bear.

The past haunts me – poor decisions, good ones, too – time’s up now. I can’t turn back the wrinkles and age spots. I spent the first 40 years of my life getting to know the woman in the mirror, but now I hardly recognize her. I wish I’d known…. I wish I’d listened… I’m grateful nonetheless.

I’m not afraid – not really. It’s not death that scares me. It’s the dying part – or the outliving my loved ones part. It’s the emotional and physical pain I fear and want to avoid. My body betrays me even now as it heads down the other side of midlife.

A few years ago, my mother began to speak out loud about the inevitable day when her body will rest and her soul will rise. Rather than wait until then, she’s been gifting me my memories ever since in assorted boxes and envelopes.

Today I went through one of those boxes, filled with photos, letters, invitations… she had saved my entire adult life in that plastic tote. I found notes I had mailed to my grandmother that she had saved and gifted to my mother once upon a time.

It’s too fast, isn’t it? And yet, if I knew I was only a little more than halfway to drawing my last breath, would I then have an entire lifetime left to learn more lessons and love a little bigger? But you don’t get to know. No one does. Even people diagnosed with death often defy it – at least for a while. The unfinished business weighs heavy on my mind. The undone deeds seem more important, even as they slip down my to-do list. There may not be enough “somedays” left to write the unwritten letters and to say all the things still stuck on my tongue – or to clean out my garage.

John Mayer says it better than I ever could, with a steady, rhythmic percussion that brings it all home:

Stop This Train

No, I’m not colorblind
I know the world is black and white
I try to keep an open mind
But I just can’t sleep on this tonight

Stop this train
I want to get off and go home again
I can’t take the speed it’s moving in
I know I can’t
But honestly, won’t someone stop this train?

Don’t know how else to say it
Don’t want to see my parents go
I’m one generation’s length away
From fighting life out on my own

Oh, come on, stop this train
I want to get off and go home again
I can’t take the speed it’s moving in
I know I can’t
But honestly, won’t someone stop this train?

I’m so scared of getting older
I’m only good at being young
So I play the numbers game
To find a way to say my life has just begun

Had a talk with my old man
Said, “Help me understand”
He said “Turn 68, oh, you’ll re-negotiate”
“Don’t stop this train
Don’t for a minute change the place you’re in
And don’t think I couldn’t ever understand
I tried my hand
John, honestly we’ll never stop this train”

Oh, now, once in a while, when it’s good
It’ll feel like it should
And they’re all still around
And you’re still safe and sound
And you don’t miss a thing
‘Til you cry
When you’re driving away in the dark, yeah

Singing
Stop this train
I want to get off and go back home again
I can’t take the speed this thing moving in
I know I can’t
‘Cause now I see, I’m never gonna stop this train

Never gonna stop this train
Oh, I’m never gonna stop this train
Oh, I’m never gonna stop this train
Oh, I’m never gonna stop this train

Hole in my Head

I don’t know how many years I begged my father to let me get my ears pierced. His response was always the same, “You don’t need another hole in your head.” After much whining and negotiating, I finally got my wish for my 16th birthday, when I went to the local mall pagoda with my grandmother to do the deed. If I recall, I think she made me go first, because she was terrified.

(Unfortunately, the girl with the gun positioned my piercing a little too low on my tiny lobes, which didn’t serve me well during the 80’s, when earrings were large, dramatic, and very, very heavy.)

My ears were always a source of angst for me. I was plagued by childhood ear infections, and once, while I was at church choir practice around 5th grade, I think, my eardrum burst. Ear cleanings, heating pads on my pillow, and thick pink oral antibiotics were the norm.

But I digress…

A few years ago, I returned from a trip to Indiana and my right ear was feeling stuffy, so I began my at-home un-stuffing routine. I would do anything to avoid a trip to the doctor for a formal ear-cleaning. In case you’ve never had the pleasure, they basically take an enormous, cartoon-sized syringe full of water and force it into your ear canal until it loosens whatever is inside. It feels like your head is being invaded by an angry Atlantic Ocean.

My attempts to clear my ear didn’t work.

I’ll spare you the details of my long journey to find a fix, but I was finally diagnosed with Superior Semi-Circular Canal Dehiscence Syndrome.

In short, I have another hole in my head.

Go figure.

Play Time

I opened the door and let my heart out to play this morning at the gym. If it had a tail, it would have been wagging. Gleeful and with reckless abandon, it bounded around until it was beating at a perfect rate and grabbed the hands of my mind and soul. Together, they twirled and giggled and delighted in the games.

I closed my eyes and imagined myself running through the countryside on a crisp day warmed by the sun. One day, when my Achilles is healed…

The waves of adrenaline and euphoria washed over me and cleansed me of any remaining yuckiness from the holiday drag. It will take a lot more soaking and scrubbing to get rid of the clinging pandemic parts that tried to mold me into someone very different from my Self. I haven’t even had COVID-19, yet I suffered, mentally, physically, spiritually.

For 10 years, I identified mostly as a Runner and a Writer. Recently, I’ve been more of a Waiter. What have I been waiting for? The end of the pandemic? A return to “normal” life? To lose these extra pounds? To heal my ankle? For an urge to write or exercise?

I don’t know what I will become, but it’s clear that I can’t simply pick up where I left off and continue as though my life didn’t skip a beat. It’s a new chapter – a blank page – ready to be written.

Like a child on a new playground, I see so many opportunities and things to do. I have no plan. I just want to follow my heart, run around, and have a good time.

Plan on It

I don’t know how many I have – lots. And lots. I like them so much I began to make my own. Electronic ones, leather-bound ones, small ones, skinny ones, hole-punched, disk-systems, traveler’s notebooks, monthly, weekly, daily, annual trackers… you name it, I’ve planned in it.

I love seeing a picture of my life on paper.

A planner is a thought-wrangler. All of the bits of information and worries in my head spin and fight for my attention regularly. I lie awake at night and helplessly watch the lists and ideas collide with each other in a raging storm. With my therapy of choice open on the desk and my pen in hand, one by one, I pluck the thinkings from my mind and place them gently in their assigned boxes and rows. Gradually, the swirling grows less congested, like an air-popper with those last few stubborn popcorn kernels.

I like color-coding, too. Red is for medical. Lime green marks my running miles. Yellow is for connections with friends and family.

I discovered erasable pens and markers last year, which eases my angst about “messing up” a beautiful, pure, white space. Tabs, stickers (I prefer an elegant style), and dot-grid paper are a few more of my favorite things, along with brown leather notebooks tied up with strings.

January brings an opportunity and a wonderful excuse to stock up on planners. Really, it brings me so much joy. I love a quiet new year, with time for reflection, fireplaces, and, if I’m lucky, a softly falling snow. Peace. Clarity.

I use my planner for so much more than planning. It’s a scrapbook of my past, a schedule for my present, and holds my goals and dreams for my future.

If I spent as much time working on my tasks and goals as I do documenting them, I just might get something done someday.

Leave It

I left something behind in Indiana.

Not my toothbrush. Or a pair of dirty socks.

Twelve hours in a car one way is exhausting. Another 12 on the way home leaves me swearing I’ll never make the trip again unless it’s on a plane.

But it’s not all steering-wheel clenching stress and agitated bladders. Along the way, there is magic in the mountains – peace in the pastures. And lots and lots of time to think. And be. Feelings are felt. Decisions are made. And somewhere along all of those miles, the Letting Go happens.

I felt the love of both of my parents this visit, and at my father’s, delighted in a recent addition who was cooing in my arms the last time I saw her. Now an official toddler, this precious, angelic, dimpled-cheek child whisked me away from all of my bothers and pulled me into a place of pure, present Love. And when my father said she reminded him of me at that age, I felt his love for me wrap around my soul and hold me tight.

I looked around at my family, patched and rebuilt, and my heart smiled. Black and white cows lazed on the hillside in the back of the house while chickens pecked the ground in the front yard. The tree was lit up with bright-colored bulbs and electric bubbler candles that sparkled in strands of silver tinsel, some of which ended up in the dog’s hair. He was in seventh heaven with so many human playmates.

My visit with my mother was full of love and some sadness as I considered the inevitable future. She came to life when we removed her from the toxic environment, and her Alzheimer’s took a backseat while she played with the pup and asked my favorite son questions about school. It was calm and beautiful, and reminded me of our time spent together when she was recovering from her illness a few years ago.

As we put mile after mile behind us on the way home, I let go of Chaos. I let go of Fear. I let go of toxic people. In exchange, the Universe gifted me with Love and clarity, for which I am most grateful.

What a great way to start 2022.

Christmas Chaos

I marched straight to the shower after waking to let the warm water wash away the awful bits of my trip that were still clinging to me.

We drove over 700 miles with gifts in tow. Somewhere in Ohio, my mother called, confused about the time of our arrival. I reminded her of our agreed-upon plans, but Ms. Chaos had other ideas. We were not to drop by that evening with dinner. We were not to visit in the morning, followed by a short trip to the other side of town to see my mother’s long-time friend. She was in charge, as she loudly proclaimed, and I had no authority.

We were not to take my mother to the hotel suite to visit.

I was not to be trusted.

She doesn’t know the meaning of the word “conversation.” She only knows how to yell, demand, and demean in a steady stream of verbal vomit that doesn’t stop coming until I hit the disconnect button.

Then she accuses me of abusing her by giving her the silent treatment.

It’s clear that something is off, but she thinks it’s everyone but her. Her ex has a diagnosed personality disorder (not sure about that), I’ve committed felony crimes against her (absolutely not true), Wells Fargo is a monster who takes advantage of people who don’t pay their mortgage for 3 years (how dare they).

She bullied my mother into taking her in after she had to sell her house for a pittance to pay off the bank just before the sheriff’s sale, and she was lucky that the plaintiff waived the exorbitant court fees she racked up with her nonsensical written ranting.

She makes the rules. I can’t call my mother on the Echo Show during the weekdays before 3:00 pm because the Innocent One takes her online high-school classes in the middle of the living room. I don’t like calling anyway, because motor-mouth sits on the couch and comments on the conversation, usually starting a fight that ends with me hanging up because I don’t want to cause my mother or me any more stress. Ms. Chaos doesn’t hasn’t worked in 16 years, because she’s her daughter’s “Learning Coach.”

She’s made the ultimate sacrifice to lie on my mom’s couch watching MSNBC all day, living on food stamps and getting free rent.

I ended up having to call the police for assistance in order to take my mother for a visit without the lunatic background noise.

I think Ms. Chaos takes Adderall, which I understand can cause schizophrenic-like side effects, but the mess began long before her prescription.

My desire for peace in my life battles regularly with my love for her and my terminal hopefulness that one day she will be healed from whatever has taken control of her mind and mouth. This year, I severed most communication methods with her, and yes, I had a much happier life. The only outstanding obstacle is visiting with my mother, who loses a bit more of her independence each day to that monster called Alzheimer’s Disease, which I believe is exacerbated by the Chaos.

To be continued…

The Light of Day

The tree is barren and droopy. The presents are gone, and it looks like an over-decorated drag queen who just got mugged. With a crooked wig and bright red lips, it stands there, broken stiletto in hand, just wanting to slink home and get into some comfy clothes.

Christmas Day, in all its glory.

Morning light dims the magic of Christmas Eve. The used table cloth from the evening meal needs to be washed, the candles have burned down, and cooking prime rib just seems like overkill, when chocolate-covered Oreos would do just fine.

As we know from the Hallmark channel movies, Christmas is an event that takes place largely in one’s soul, if celebrated properly.

In order to facilitate such a spiritual annual awakening, I like to surround myself with unmistakably Christmas-Time things, like hundreds, no, thousands of warm white lights – not the bluish-white ones – that look like miniature candles as evening draws near, fresh greenery that smells like balsam, and glistening, glittering, sparkling baubles of silver and gold. Chocolates, cookies whipped up from worn books that belonged to my mother and her mother are extra heart-warming, and jingling bells and moonlit snows can make me weep with joy.

But by Christmas morning, the beauty is tarnished – like the sludge on the side of the street after a few dirty trucks drive through the new-fallen snow. The house is full of pine needles, the poinsettias need water, the narcissus stalks start to bend, and the batteries in my electronic candles are waning, much like my Christmas spirit.

The infatuation of the season wears off and reality sets in sometime before New Year’s Eve, when I take a long, honest look at my life and make some decisions about the year ahead.

That may be my favorite part of the year-end holidays – the time for reflection and the anticipation of a fresh page.

Yeah… I’m looking forward to that.

Afternoon Delight

I sat in the back of the shop in a large chair with a rolling massager that pressed hard into my back and shoulder blades. I tucked my phone away and slipped my feet into the warm, bubbly spa, closed my eyes, and escaped the Christmas crazies for a little while.

Any day in December that starts with twenty-something is deserving of such a treat.

The young woman’s hands were surprisingly strong; she worked exfoliants and lotions deep into my calves, ankles, and tired feet. The rhythm soothed me, as she moved back and forth from one side to the other in a well-rehearsed operation.

I forgot about the shopping, the meal planning, the tree trimming, the gift buying, the porch decorating, the wrapping, the lighting, the shipping, the baking, the giving, the card writing, the visiting, the traveling, and that sinking feeling that somehow it still isn’t enough…

I forgot about my sister, who thrives in chaos and likes to share it with others, especially at Christmas. I forgot about COVID and all of its variants. I forgot about politics and Alzheimers and family dysfunction.

For 45 minutes, the rest of the world melted into nothingness, and I relaxed into this simple nail-salon pleasure.

Then… back to the tasks at hand.

Wiggling my tidy toes dressed up in glittery red sparkles completely appropriate for the season, I smiled to myself, slipped into my shoes, and stepped back out into the bustling expectations of the week before Christmas.

Walk this Way

I’m in physical therapy for the second time around to address an issue with my left achilles, which popped up after a few years of long-distance running. I’m not blaming it on the running – I just note the timing.

The last time it became unbearable was when I went to stay with my mother after her hospitalization in 2019. I limped past the aged patients in rehab daily, grateful for the support of my mother’s wheelchair as I pushed her around. I mourned my youth and felt angry that life had zoomed by while I was stuck in the muck of a bad marriage and an even worse divorce. It never occurred to me that my ankle could be fixed; I just felt broken.

But physical therapy was the magic medicine, and I went on to run another marathon later that year.

And then COVID came.

Some people thrived during the lockdowns and finally found time for self-care that they could only dream about during the days of long commutes and office hours. They baked yeast breads and served up gourmet meals for dinner. Not I. I plumped up on take-out food and my muscles grew weak, stressing my ankle once again and sending me into depression and despair. More on that later.

Growing old is not for the faint of heart, as they say.

Again, I sort of forgot that it was something that could be fixed. It didn’t hurt when I ran, which wasn’t often, but afterward, I could hardly walk. So I limped back into the doctor’s office and started my physical therapy with the same magician I worked with before. I’d say we’re about halfway there.

Today I took him homemade cookies, and he tortured me appropriately before he rolled my calf out, massaged my ankle, and handed me my homework assignment for the next couple of weeks.

I can’t wait to walk without pain again.

Lovin’ from the Oven

I spent the day in the kitchen with my first-born, measuring, sifting, mixing, and circulating the sheet pans in and out of the hot oven for about 6 hours. It felt like a dream, seeing her perched on the counter stool, sharing her life with me as we munched ourselves into a sugar coma.

Happy is an understatement.

I remember when I was in her shoes – separated from my parents by state-wide miles of asphalt, making decisions, feeling the burden of juggling life and full-time work, and trying to find my place in the world. The simple pleasure of baking cookies with my mother was limited to the precious vacation time I could carve out for family visits.

I did it, though, pretty much every year, with kids in tow as the years passed. We drove 10-12 hours each way for a week-long visit, which always changed me in some way. Returning to my childhood was complicated, but it afforded me multiple opportunities to heal and grow and learn.

And I wondered how she felt when she pulled up to this childhood home. We had so many over the years, but this one was the last one for her, and by some miracle, I’m still here and her room is relatively unchanged. Did she have regrets or unfinished business? Or did she feel comforted and cared for?

Sometimes it feels weird to be the mom.

As a young mother, I lived most of my life in survival mode (Unwritten, Chapter 1), and as I’ve learned through the years, Fear is not my friend. Surviving isn’t living, it’s managing to keep your nose above the water while you gulp for air and flail your arms and legs until you’re exhausted. It’s hard to think about anything but yourself and that moment.

And so… I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be. I wanted to always say the right thing, to be loving and kind no matter what kind of day I was having, and to support my children with unwavering, unmistakable, story-book love.

Does any mother really want anything different than that?

We don’t set out to create moments that our kids carry with them for years and that land them in therapy. And yet, I can’t think of a family (except the perfect ones on Facebook) who doesn’t have some sort of dysfunction or unresolved hurts, my own included, of course.

As an adult daughter and a mom of adults at the same time, I’m starting to understand that parents are imperfect. (Gasp!) I see my own parents through a different lens, with more compassion and forgiveness. And as I let go of my “shoulds” and wishes regarding my own childhood, I can begin to forgive myself, too, for not rising to the status of Super Mom.

But I have to tell you, seeing that kid of mine all grown up and doing her own thing, my heart swelled, and I thought to myself that surely I must have done something right along the way. She is truly a beautiful soul, and an incredible person, despite her far-from-perfect mother.

Our visit was too short, but it was full of Love, which I bundled up in festive containers and sent back home with her for later.

Christmas Closets

I dragged everything out of the garage that I painstakingly packed away last year for easy retrieval this year. I don’t think I’ll ever get it all back in those boxes when it’s over.

I’m preparing the motherly holiday homecoming experience, to the best of my ability. The bedrooms have miniature Christmas trees, fresh linens, and all the comforts I could find. What do they eat for breakfast now? Do I even know? I’ll don my apron, and we’ll bake cookies while we chat about life and catch up, with the fire flickering in the next room where the stockings are hung with care.

Maybe it will snow!

The billions of tiny white lights spread out everywhere in the house will come on magically around 5pm, and we’ll all be filled with childlike wonder and Christmas magic. We’ll laugh and recall Christmases past just like a Hallmark movie…

But a nagging, painful melancholy will force its way into my soul, with a secret loneliness that always comes this time of year. I dare not acknowledge it. I swallow hard and push it down; it’s not part of the script. Family photos don’t show holes in hearts.

Christmas reaches deep into those dark closets where I store all of the difficult things I cannot bear throughout the year, pulls everything out, and makes a great big mess in the middle of the floor. Every ornament holds a memory. New traditions mix with old ones and the ghosts of Christmases past haunt my Decembers.

Families are fragile. At Christmas, the broken ones patch themselves together just long enough to hold on for a portrait, a meal, or for Santa’s arrival. Sometimes. Others are shattered so badly that the pieces are unrecoverable.

What do you do with a fractured family at Christmas?