June 13, 2021

Dry spells

A friend of mine announced in December that she was pregnant. A few of us were at their house to have a sort of a pod-safe gathering ahead of Christmas when they told us the news. After some cheering and rule-breaking hugging, we talked about what life would be like for them in the year ahead.

This being our biking group, we quickly recognized that the due date was right around the time we were signed up to ride Ramrod in July. The soon-to-be father was obviously out, and the rest of us more or less decided that we would train, but if the baby decided to show up on race day, we would skip the ride to be at the hospital. 

As we continued to chat, the mom-to-be mentioned that she had been filling the fridge with new non-alcoholic beverages to replace the wine and beer she was giving up, and she asked for other drink suggestions. I suggested we all give up drinking for January as a small show of support. 

I have participated in "Dry January", no alcohol for the month, a number of times. It is a reset after the holiday indulgence, and a check-in to make sure that setting drinking aside is as easy as it should be. This time around, even though it followed nine months of sheltering in place where drinking was more of a temptation, it was remarkably easy. 

I did have one slip up mid-month. My brothers and I had found a restaurant with an open outdoor patio, and we got together to discuss Mom's current condition, and I suppose to check in on each other as well. We were about an hour in when I shared that I had given up drinking for January. I said this while taking a sip of my second beer. 

I had just completely spaced, falling into a routine, I suppose highlighting that habits run along in the background unless we consciously make the effort to change them. I wasn't giving into a craving, just drinking without thinking. I added on four or five "dry" days at the beginning of February to offset the slip up. 

Unfortunately, three better habits have also gone dry this year. A slight modification of the grade school three Rs they are Reading, Writing and Running. These three habits are a big part of what keeps me healthy in both body and mind. My writing has obviously been neglected for quite some time, but through the 2020 part of the pandemic, I managed to keep up the other two when the world was turned upside down and making less and less sense. I was able to read 26 books last year, and though I had grander plans, I ran semi-regularly and covered a little over 500 miles. 

2021 has been an absolute struggle on all three fronts, and to be honest I am just plain struggling. I'll pick up on the running dry spell in the next post. 


March 16, 2021

A eulogy for Mom, a first of many

 In the Leaving by Jan Richardson

In the leaving,
in the letting go,
let there be this
to hold onto
at the last:

the enduring of love,
the persisting of hope,
the remembering of joy.

the offering of gratitude,
the receiving of grace,
the blessing of peace.

When I first started to think about what I would say here today, it was just overwhelming. How do you sum up a person in a few paragraphs or pages? It is a difficult thing to look for the light in dark times, but there have been some small blessings in the past week or two. As part of this process, we were encouraged to tell stories. One story led to another, and it was just nice to talk about Mom, and what she meant to me, and to our family.

There are a few memories that have stuck with me always, but in getting to talk about Mom over the past week, random stories would pop up that I hadn't thought about in years. And while I was thinking of stories to tell, little coincidences would pop up to provide a little wonder and mystery.

One of the silly memories that Jim mentioned was about the bucket of rocks. Mom and Dad would take us on hikes as kids. We of course grumbled about it most of the time, because we were kids. But more than the aluminum frame backpacks, and the false promise that the lake was just over the next hill, the thing that I remember most is Mom coming back with a pocket full of rocks. It was like she was bringing back a little talisman that carried the memory of the time and the place. Soon there were a couple of gallon-sized, plastic ice cream tubs full of them sitting in the garage. She could no longer match a rock to a memory, but I don't suppose that really mattered. The collection of rocks was just a way of marking days well spent.

Mom was not big on speeches or hitting you over the head with spelled-out lessons. She was more subtle, making you sort of work them out for yourself. I remember her somehow weaving in a lesson on empathy when she was teaching me how to drive. Consider others always, see things that they are seeing. But she mostly taught me things by example, by living in a caring way. She had this calm presence, a grounded way that I have tried to emulate.

I was walking through a park an hour or two before she passed, looking at bare trees, gathering my thoughts, and listening to a podcast. Toward the end of the episode, Sister Helen said, "The only way I know what I really believe, is by keeping watch over what I do."

Don’t get me wrong, Mom was no Buddha always floating on a sea of Zen. I remember her chewing out a theater manager when a scene was cut out of the movie The Fiddler on the Roof, and she could write a letter of complaint with the best of them. But she didn’t seem to seek out irritation, and even when she found it, she didn’t hang onto it for very long.

There is one memory that has always stuck with me. It was Christmastime several years ago, when Mom and Dad were living in their house above Eastgate. I was over at the house, Mom was working on something in the kitchen, and "It's A Wonderful Life" was on in the family room. This movie always hits me right in the feels, and I try and watch it every season. I don't remember what scene it was, or exactly what Mom said, but the gist of it was "I don't think when I look back on my life, that I will have had that much of an impact."

I know I said something to the effect that impacts can seem small and hardly noticed at the time, but that all those little moments add up. You can never know what chain of events can be set off with the simplest of actions or moments of kindness. And of course that is the lesson of the movie. George Bailey has no idea what a hole there would be if he had never existed.

While this memory was running through my head, I walked into Mom’s room at hospice. The TV was typically tuned to a station of relaxing music with occasional quotes popping up on the screen, but the TV was off when I walked in. When I turned it on the first quote read, "To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world."

I know Mom had an impact on far more people than she could have imagined, but of course I will always remember what she did for me specifically in all those small moments. Everything she did to make me who I am. All the strength that she gave me. I knew no matter how I faltered in this life, Mom would be there in my corner, believing in me when I simply couldn't.

She will live on in the way that I walk through this life. She will be there in every decision I make, every time I offer a small kindness, every time I try to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

One of the things she taught me in that pile of rocks was that if a rock had a band of different colored minerals encircling it, that it was considered a wish rock. Though I have Mom's tendency to be a sentimental packrat, I have resisted collecting a bucket full myself, but when I am hiking these days I will occasionally pick up a rock, and I have a few wish rocks on a shelf at home.

My wish is that we keep our hearts and minds open, and not shut off in pain. May we continue to see those little reminders and strange coincidences that bring her to mind. May the stories we tell and retell keep her alive in the hearts of those she loved, and those that loved her. May those little reminders and stories bring us joy, even when we don't feel like we are ready for it.

May she have felt love in all her days, and may that love sustain us in all of ours.

There is a saying that goes "Every dog owner thinks that their dog is the best. And they are all correct."

I suppose the same goes for Moms. My Mom was the best.




February 7, 2021

That time I could've died young

There are times in our lives where you dodge the worst, and wonder if there isn't someone out there looking out for you. If you had left your house a moment earlier or later, you would have been in that car crash you narrowly missed. If you hadn't caught your balance at the last minute, you could have pitched off the roof. If someone hadn't grabbed your collar, you would have walked mindlessly into traffic.

One of those moments was when I was a kid, flying a kite. I don't remember why I was flying a kite on that day. I don't have any solid memories of flying one before this day, or any day after it. Anyway, some random afternoon I was in my neighborhood having some stereotypical Leave it to Beaver childhood fun. 

It surprises me to remember that I ever got that kite off the ground. My limited memory of kite flying is that it is a massive pain in the butt to get the thing airborne, and I can't imagine how I did it alone. Somehow I did, and it took me down the street and up into a nearby cul-de-sac. And then into the power lines. 

Rather than walk away from a ten dollar toy, or more likely not wanting to leave trash behind, I tried to figure out how to get it down. Then I remembered that we had a tree pruner in the garage. If you don't know what a tree pruner is, it is a sevenish foot pole with a long cord attached to a set of pruners to cut branches that are far out of reach. If the branches are are too thick for the pruner, there is a large saw blade on the end. 

When I went to the Home Depot website to swipe this picture, I found out the poles are made of fiberglass now. Back then, the pole was metal. People are smarter now (sometimes). 

I first grabbed a ladder and then went back for the tree pruner. I remember trying to manage this heavy and unwieldy tool, ready to cut the kite string away from the power lines. I assumed the power lines were wrapped in some form of insulation. It seemed ridiculous that they wouldn't be, and of course I had seen birds on the lines all my life. I did not understand electricity, or what grounding meant. Truth be told, I still don't totally understand it.

Anyway, there I was, ready to extend this metal pole to touch the live wire. Then someone stopped me. A neighbor not quite ran out of his house, but did a solid power walk to stop me. He didn't yell, didn't make me feel stupid, didn't grab me by the shoulders and shake into me how dangerous and possibly deadly this was. In what seemed a perfect dad-like delivery he said something like, "looks like you got your kite stuck up there."

He also didn't tell me to just go home and call the kite a loss. He had me put down the tree pruner and we walked to his garage. He grabbed a fishing pole, some duct tape, and a steak knife. He duct taped the steak knife to the end of the fishing pole, and then taped the bamboo fishing pole to the tree pruner. Back to the ladder, he rather deftly cut away the kite string from the power line with this now fifteen foot contraption, and sent me away. If it was Leave it to Beaver, he would have tousled my hair. 

I didn't understand the bullet I had dodged until many years later when I found out that power lines are unprotected, and birds can die if they ground themselves by touching something other than the power line. I didn't recall ever meeting this neighbor before this day, and I don't know that I ever saw him again, but he may have saved my life that afternoon. Since I didn't understand the significance of what had just happened, I doubt I even told my parents about it.

I don't know what the odds were that this mystery neighbor would have been looking out the window at just the right time. I don't believe in guardian angels, destiny or fate, but I also don't want to look too hard behind the veil. Happy to have a little mystery, and be thankful when story ends happily.

January 24, 2021

Mom

 This is a post I have been avoiding writing. In a similar way, when my marriage was crumbling I didn't write about it publicly, maybe hoping to put off the inevitable outcome, and keeping it to myself in the meantime. But like so many things I have written about here, avoidance and trying to go it alone only leads to deeper troubles. Unable to see most of you in person these days, I will start the process here, beginning to work through it by getting it out of my head and down on paper.

Mom has cancer.

My brothers and I have been meeting once a month off and on over the last couple of years to grab a beer and catch up on life. This has obviously been paused during the pandemic, but in late October a gathering was called, and we were told about the diagnosis. 

She has been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that forms in white blood/plasma cells. It accumulates in, and attacks your bone marrow. It was discovered when my mom was having back pain. After a couple of appointments, they discovered she had some broken ribs. This made them look a little closer, and they found the cancer, which had been basically dissolving the bones. As a strange coincidence, though multiple myeloma is a relatively uncommon cancer, this is the same type of cancer that my former father in law had. 

The cancer is in the later stages, and the outlook did not look good on initial diagnosis. Mom was put on a chemo regimen, taking a pill once a day in three week cycles. In the beginning, Mom was in a lot of pain due to the broken ribs. Every movement seemed to hurt, and she was very frustrated. Unfortunately, a few days before Thanksgiving Mom went downhill rapidly. She was lethargic, somewhat unresponsive and been sleeping most of the day. 

She was taken to the hospital the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and was there for a week. We brought her back home, hired in-home healthcare to help during the daytime, and I moved in to help out in the evenings. She briefly improved, but a couple of weeks later she was back in the hospital for another two weeks, coming home the evening of Christmas Day. 

Of course, since this is all happening in a pandemic, she couldn't have any visitors while she was in the hospital. We weren't even allowed in the building, so she was going through this all alone. I can't fully understand what that was like for her. They released her on Christmas, not because she had improved much, but because they weren't getting anywhere in improving her physical health. She was too weak to be moved to skilled nursing care, so home was the only real option.

She has been home again for almost a month now. On one hand, being at home is better for her mental state, and her ribs seem to be mostly healed. However, she is still weak, unable to do much more than lie on the couch during the day, and often has difficulty following trains of thought. Strangely, her decline does not seem to be directly related to the cancer, as those numbers seem to be responding to the chemo. It has basically been diagnosed as "failure to thrive", a phrase that seems to put it all on her (and us). She definitely isn't eating or drinking enough, and that is contributing to the inability to get better. I don't know if it is a confluence of the multiple drugs she is on that is making her not want to eat, or if it is something else.

We are trying our best. There is still a healthcare worker there during the day, and one of the brothers is over there every evening to see Mom, and help Dad out with her evening care. But we are at a loss right now. We aren't seeing any real progress, have fewer answers, and we just generally feel helpless. 

There is much more to process and work through, more detailed stories to tell, but this is a starting point of where we are right now. Thanks for reading, for being a part of my circle, and for being part of the conversation.

As always, hug your humans (when it is safe to do so).