Love, Untethered by Death

grieving-parents-004A man lost his mother to illness and old age. He hated his mother. In childhood she criticized him relentlessly. In adulthood she pestered him mercilessly.

The man wished for his mother to be gone. As she became increasingly dependent, he became intolerant. ‘Why won’t she just die?’ he wondered aloud. Very soon after uttering the words, the man’s mother did die and regret descended upon him. For so long he suffered his mother’s life. Now he would suffer her passing.

Death was not the relief the man expected. It brought forth a jumble of buried emotion that washed over him like flood waters, upending previously conceived notions rooted in anger. Long-standing stories with deeply entrenched beliefs crumbled under the force, like houses and trees that have been knocked flat.

Where once the man saw his mother as a burden, he saw glimpses of blessing.
Where once she was a villain, he saw a martyr.

This confused the man. He wasn’t willing to admit to tenderness and softening toward his mother. Love, untethered in death, floated to the surface. Its appearance was frightening and overwhelming to the unsuspecting mind. The man didn’t want to look love in the eye, but it was there, staring him down, glaring at his ignorance, daring him to ignore it in favor of the need to hate, to be right, to hold onto grievance.

A thorn had been removed from the man’s life and he wanted – expected – relief. But the wound was raw and awash with the sting of struggle. He would disperse his struggle to anyone who would take the time to indulge his need to purge. His loved ones listened with patience and irritation, for they were the ones who had borne the brunt of the man’s conflicted relationship with his mother for years. They tried, as best they could, to follow this new storyline as it unfolded. But it was difficult to string it together. Only the man could do that in time.

The man’s anger, without it’s familiar target, was misdirected toward those who would help. The sadness, which he loathed, was drowned in his work. The wounded archetype of an orphaned child was used to his advantage.

Eventually, the man would spend down his negativity and allow love to work its miracles. Time would open the door for love to slip in and heal his pain, showing him that despite his failure to acknowledge it, love was present all along, in a place where he was certain it could never have existed.

Love, it turned out, was his for the keeping.  It would prove over and over that no matter what we cover it with, nothing can eclipse love’s power.  Especially not death.

hidden-love

 

City Girl In The Country Without Water – H2O…no!

wilted-plantI awoke to this quote:  “May no adversity paralyze you.”

Then my well went dry. The actual well that supplies water to my house. It’s almost biblical in an omen-like way.

Regular readers will recall that this City Girl fairly recently discovered the nuances of a primitive water source. But being seasoned enough now in country-life inconveniences, I felt equipped to handle the immediate concerns of a situation such as this when Husband happened to be in another country on business. (Which coincidentally seems to occur with regularity when disaster strikes the home-front: water main burst, snow blower malfunction, broken furnace….”) But I digress.

Teen son was the one who alerted me that luck had run out when he marched into the kitchen, oddly gleeful, to declare that he had just ‘taken a dump’ and got the last flush of water left in the tank.

It’s not that we didn’t have warning. The water had been coughing through our pipes for some months now, protesting the driest summer on record in the area. We had tried to conserve – as much as a family of 5 with two teenage girls who take endless showers can. But I realize now that we, in our 21st century mindset, hadn’t truly grasped the concept of conservation until we started hauling 5-gallon buckets of water from a neighbor’s house. When one has to work this hard for something that is typically available at the touch of a finger, a shift occurs. And not just in muscle bulk.

popeye-the-sailor-man
Suddenly, every droplet of water is precious liquid gold. If a spill occurs, it is tenderly wiped up with regret and sorrow, it’s loss mourned like an old friend.

Several friends have offered their showers but there’s something about getting naked and wet in someone else’s bathroom that gives me pause. I opt instead for increased attendance at the yoga studio that has a fully functioning shower. Other family members are following suit at their respective health clubs which isn’t a bad thing for any of us.

We have accepted donations of water jugs with spigots which elevates our primitive dishwashing skills to a post-modern level and deludes us into thinking that things aren’t so bad – that maybe we can hold out for rain instead of having to sink tens of thousands of dollars into the ground to drill a deeper well. But the grim reality is that Mother Nature isn’t in the mood to cooperate and won’t promise that she will fix our situation.

I’m trying to dredge up the fortitude of my ancestors while reminding myself that mine is a First World problem. People in other parts of the world operate with far less than a modern source of clean water. But my humor is running dry along with my well and my bank account.

Cue the curse of the appliances which sabotaged our refrigerator this week and requires replacement of the motor. When it rains it pours they say. Except that it’s not raining water.

Picture me, smiling sweetly through tears, while brushing my unwashed hair from my face, declaring (Scarlett O’Hara style) that “Tomorrow is another day.”

scarlet-ohara

Then erase that malarkey and picture what Scarlett would really be thinking in that ending scene of Gone With The Wind. Something along the lines of, ‘Get me out of this forsaken land and take me to a hotel where I will get the pampering I desperately need.’

As that is unlikely to happen for me, I am doing my best to accept this fate and return to gratitude for what’s left, like electricity and shelter and health!  These privileges are now esteemed and cared for with higher reverence.  There is a sense of stewardship that emerges when one realizes that nothing is guaranteed.

I can’t claim dominion over my attitude surrounding this dilemma, but I know that I am evolving into something more than I was prior to the experience. These inconvenient challenges have a way of elevating one’s game if you don’t allow them to sink you. And the lessons can spill over to others, like my neighbor who, in solidarity, is conserving water and evaluating her consumption in life. So I guess you could say that we’re ‘taking one for the team.’ Team human. Yay team.

Another neighbor, an engineer, sent us a flyer for an upcoming seminar at his place of employment called “Imagine a Day Without Water.” We were facetiously invited to be guest speakers.

They say that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I’d love to. Can I borrow some water to make it?

lemonade

The Storm Before the Calm

torn piece of paper with divorce text and paper couple figures

A Dear One is divorcing and her teen daughter hates her.

“Don’t try to fix it.” I advise.  “Let her be angry.” The truth is, this girl wants to be angry and divorce is a well-suited excuse to unleash her rage.

You want your daughter to see from adult eyes – to feel even a tidbit of hope that divorce will make life better instead of worse.  But this girl’s heart is not ready to mend, for it has just begun its breaking open.  In youthful naivete, this tender thing was blind-sided.  In time, she may forgive.  Or not.  Some carry torches of pain for a lifetime.  This will be her choice.  Your job is to love through it as best you can.  Love her.  Love yourself.  Love the circumstances that challenge you to rise above.

You asked my advice and hoped for a remedy to a situation that is unsolvable in a sentence or a phone call or a pocket-guide.  Finding neutral for yourself and your revised family unit will take time that you don’t want to spare and patience you don’t think you possess.

You speak to me of plots and plans and you admit that you’re not thinking straight.  How can you? You are being tossed against obstacles like a tiny boat in a raging sea and you fear you may drown.

My job is not to dive in after you at risk of getting swept up by the current.  I will not agree or disagree with your manic declarations.  It won’t serve anyone if I immerse myself in the drama.  I need to stay on solid ground like the lighthouse keeper, shining a light so you know which direction to move in.

I would remind you that you are stronger than you realize.  You are a survivor.  But remember, strength doesn’t always look pretty.  It cries sometimes.  It reveals things that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed. Vulnerability is a place of healing.  Trust the process. Let it transform you.  Permit yourself to be human.  Forgive yourself twenty times a day.  Then do it again.

These are ugly times.  Hard times.  But not impossible times.  You have come so far.  It took courage to say the ‘D’ word and mean it.  You must continue to be brave to survive the fallout.

Those who love you will endure with you.  Please keep your faith.  Even the most terrifying storms pass.  This darkness will lift and reveal a new calm.  Your sweet, conflicted daughter will surface.  You will learn that you can stand alone in your own shoes.  And one day, you will smile without trying because joy has returned.

Deb

Letter to My Future Daughter-In-Law

daughter-in-law-Dear Future Daughter-In-Law,

I don’t know you yet, or even if you exist.  But I think about you a lot.  You’ve influenced so many of my parenting choices while raising a son.

I was thinking of you when I taught my son how to do laundry at the age of 6, and to make his own meals and clean the house.  He will not assume that these jobs belong to someone else – especially not a female companion.

My son was raised to be self-sufficient for his benefit and for yours.  He is capable of a great many things because his father and I allowed him to try and to fail.   But he is not perfect.  Please don’t berate him for the things he doesn’t do for you or your house or your children.  No man can be everything. And every man needs appreciation.

I’m sure he’ll complain to you about the fact that he never got an allowance and always paid for the privilege of using a cell phone.  Perhaps you had a similar upbringing, or not.  Together, you will have to decide if this is a good idea for your own children.  Will you think of it as an undue burden or as a worthwhile discipline?  Will you be the saver and he, the spender?  Just remember that money has only the meaning and power you assign to it.  Don’t let it come between you.

I wonder about your parents too.  What values did they instill?  Will we all get along when we sit across the table from each other at a family gathering?  Or will it be stressful work to endure each other?  As a daughter-in-law myself, I know that it is a lifelong practice to find balance with extended family.  But it can be done.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear the time when I have to surrender my boy to you.  I know you won’t be ‘taking’ him from me because he has already begun his process of separating.  But I also know that he will defer to you, as he should, and that you will have a greater influence on him than I.  I won’t be that stereotypical interfering mother-in-law. I will respect you and commit to seeing what my son sees in you.  All I ask is that you afford me the same generosity in return.

I hope that we will love each other and be equally pleased in gaining our unique relationship.  But even if this is not the reality, we still have something very important in common- we love the same spectacular boy who deserves the best we can give him.  Let’s, at the very least, agree to unite where he is concerned.

My dear girl, I am praying for you.  May you honor and learn from every experience that leads you to my son so that when the time comes, you will recognize and appreciate the gift that was groomed especially for you.

On Grown & Flown

I’m delighted to contribute an essay to Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting teens and young adults. My current piece about birth order and the emptying nest was just published. As parents we try to give our kids what we think they need, but they may have different ideas about what they want. And it may relate to their birth order.

If you’re interested, please find the piece here.

Thanks! Deb

The Evolving College Student and the Reluctant Mother

EDThe honeymoon period is over for my college freshman. Roommates are no longer vested in showing only their best selves. Their patience for each other and for their cramped living quarters is wearing thin. Par for the course, I inform my daughter, but my advice is unsatisfying. She is the one who has to live with the stress.

During our rare visit with her, I notice a new nervous habit and reach out to steady her shaking leg. My people-pleasing first-born feels the weight of her own expectations for academics, sports, and social pressure. And she hasn’t yet discovered the impossibility of satisfying every demand.

Observing her in her college atmosphere feels like observing an animal in the wild. She is familiar enough, yet so very different from the girl who nervously parted from me with a crushing hug and tremulous voice just six months ago.

One senses a maturity-in-residence, not quite adult-like or permanent, but more of a stepping-up-to-the-plate persona. Having had to ‘rise to the occasion’ and exert independence in a variety of new, and sometimes terrifying situations, she radiates elevated self-esteem.

My observations of this transformation mystify me. I notice myself withdrawing into my own thoughts, stepping back a pace or two for fear of disturbing the natural order of things. Here, on my daughter’s turf, I am not in charge – not by a long shot. I know that I am welcome, but what is my role?

I dissect the situation like a wildlife researcher and get the strange feeling that I am actually part of the study – as if I am part of a documentary film narrated by Jane Goodall.

Look at how the baby monkey has adapted to its new environment, slipping into place in an unfamiliar social structure. Now watch how the mother monkey, when allowed to visit the baby, displays uncharacteristic behaviors. She offers ritualized mothering gestures but carefully takes cues from her baby about how much is acceptable. She appears to be out of sorts, almost neurotic, in this habitat. Notice how she follows the baby, never leading the way. She seems unable to take her eyes off the baby.

True, this. My every thought and attention is directed toward my daughter. I snap endless photos of her as I did when she was first born, trying to capture her essence. I anticipate pulling out my photo library for friends when I return home, boring them to tears with elementary stories of my daughter’s every expression. ‘In this photo, she was telling a joke. In this one, she was waving goodbye….’

My mind can hardly process the evolution of my college student, which is happening at warp speed.

We sit down to dinner at a restaurant of my daughter’s choosing and she remarks about her favorite items on the menu. She orders first then leads the conversation with questions for her father about his job. (What?!)

He takes the bait and they launch into a mutual exchange of questions and answers. This unusual conversation is followed by a debate on current politics. (I begin to feel dizzy.)

After a lively exchange, daughter turns her attention to me and asks, “Mom, how are you? Tell me about your life.”

By now I am close to fainting from shock.

“That’s it,” I think. “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”

Where are the dramatic teen stories? The complaints about teachers? I’m loaded with advice about these topics. Perhaps you’d like to know how to get a stain out of your favorite shirt? Oh, you figured it out? Good on you.

Adjusting to this new, poised version of my 18 year old is a challenge I hadn’t prepared for. Where my husband easily jumped aboard the speeding train that is our daughter, I had barely arrived at the station. In our absence, our little girl blossomed.

I am ecstatic, truly. But the expression on my face betrays melancholy, if not utter confusion. Disappointment in myself sets in, for I am unable to pull myself together to be the beacon of light I wish to be.

My daughter doesn’t seem to notice my struggle, or is too polite to mention it.
I absentmindedly wonder what else she isn’t saying. Is this a performance of sorts to reassure the nervous parent? My mind simply cannot settle on acceptance of what is unfolding before me.

The long ride home is silent, punctuated by tentative queries from Husband about my emotional well-being. ‘I’m fine,” I reply without conviction, then take to letter-writing by way of explanation to my daughter who may also be bewildered about my strange behavior.

Upon unpacking at home, I am surprised to find a letter stuffed into my bag by my daughter. In it, she details her own mixed feelings, offering an awareness of the major changes taking place within her.

‘I find it thrilling and scary to be taking control of my life, yet am pleased to feel confident in making decisions.’ she reveals.

The letter closes with a dose of gratitude and an affirmation of devotion to a family who is ‘never far from my mind and whose advice I still seek and appreciate.’

Cue the waterworks and the narrator:

“See how, despite the baby monkey’s independence, it checks in with the mother’s response for feedback and reassurance. The mother is placated and begins to assimilate her level of involvement accordingly. This mother-baby pair is learning how to individuate whilst honoring the bond between them.”

One day, this experience of separation, full of confusion and transformation, will all come together in a fond memory of how it felt to be a family in flux, emerging as it must into a new phase of life.

When Life Takes an Unexpected Turn

emergencyOne almost hopes that when you arrive at the Emergency Department of a hospital, the triage nurse will be as incredulous as you are about your current medical crisis. The reality is that she’ll look, listen, and feel to determine if you’re dying at the rate you think you are and inevitably give you the same instruction as the other ten people who have settled in misery in the waiting area – Take A Seat.

These healthcare professionals aren’t heartless, just desensitized, and thus, not easily alarmed unless you have stopped, or will soon stop breathing. Clearly, Husband’s situation is not impressive enough so we queue up in line like customers at a deli counter, waiting for our number to be called. Husband and I joke that he should have led with reports of chest pain in order to bump him up on the list of priorities.

An absurd Monty Python scene comes to mind as I speculate that one could saunter into the ED holding one’s severed limb and still fail to elicit more than a raised eyebrow from the stoic nurse. “Merely a flesh wound” she’d say.

Into the wee hours of the morning, Husband and I played the waiting game, only occasionally being interrupted by this test, that doctor…A diagnosis revealed itself and necessitated further workup, guaranteeing an all-nighter. We were hostages to the system and ever so glad for the privilege.

Despite the uncomfortable circumstances, it was easy to be grateful. At times like these, when one brushes up against mortality, priorities have a way of lining themselves up. Most days I’m apt to complain about traffic or the dishes that have been left unwashed. On an average day, the minutia take on importance and carry me off to a place where no triviality is too small to annoy me. But at the hospital, amidst an endless stream of medical crises, I am contrite.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think there’s room for improvement in the health care system. Whilst seated in a flimsy plastic hospital chair that makes my buttocks numb, it crosses my mind that an upgrade in the comfort of this waiting space in which people spend many stressful hours is not out of the question. But the thought trails off like a feather in a light breeze and is easily replaced with more pressing concerns like, ‘Will my loved one survive the night?’

I listen through drawn privacy curtains at an argument between a delusional drunk patient and a doctor over the patient’s perceived rights and the hospital’s responsibilities. I watch the police officers, active players in this drama, as they attempt to contain the inflammatory situation. I notice the worn expression on the nurse who started her shift at 3 a.m. And I think, no one here gets paid enough.

At sunrise, Husband was released from the suspended animation of the ED and sent home to recover without the comfort of medical supervision. He is freshly wounded by an acute awareness of his brush with death and is faced with the task of establishing a new modus operandi. He cannot go on pretending that he is the same invincible athletic man that he thought he was one week ago.

This is unfamiliar territory for Husband who is used to more glorious challenges like triathlons and ultra-marathons. But I anticipate that his history of achieving BHAGs will serve him well as he climbs his way back to health. He will draw from a well-established arsenal of resources, both external and internal. He will utilize patience, emotional fortitude, an elevated level of self-care, and a sense of humor. These skills belong to him from years of training and will be applied to his current condition.

There will be no medal ceremony at the end. And the ‘end’ may be obscure. But there will be a prize – the same prize we get every day without much of a mention. LIFE.

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