Ring Reminders

About three weeks ago, I went to visit my mother in law for what would turn out to be one of the last times.  She was slightly delirious, I think, and was twisiting her wedding ring around on her finger.  Sometime during the last year, her engagement ring had disappeared, which isn’t an unusal occurrence in nursing homes I’m sure, but it saddened me nevertheless.   I didn’t want her wedding ring to get  lost as well, so I took it off her finger and placed it on my own.

I’ve been wearing it ever since.

Somehow, when I placed that small gold band on the middle finger of my right hand, it immediatly felt comfortable, settled, not the least bit foreign.  As a matter of fact, it felt odd that night when I took it off before bed, and I was anxious to put it back on the next day.  Every morning since then, I’ve put it on right after I put my own wedding ring on…it’s already a practiced, habitual part of my morning routine.

When she died two weeks ago, I considered placing it back on her finger before she was cremated.  As we drove to the nursing home that morning, and then again to the funeral home that afternoon, I kept twisting it round and round on my own hand, trying to decide what to do.  But somehow, the thought of this little ring being destroyed pierced my heart- I felt as if I needed to keep wearing it, needed to keep it safe for at least the remainder of my lifetime. 

Today, I was cleaning out my kitchen sink, scrubbing some stains and then rinsing it with hot water.  The ring clattered a little bit on the stainless steel- the same sound I heard it make many times when she herself was rinsing out this very same sink, in this house which she built and where she spent most of her married life.  She always cooked Thanksgiving dinner here at our house…it was about the only meal she ever cooked for us, but it became a tradition and probably the one my son remembers most fondly.  After an absence of many years, today her ring was back cleaning that kitchen-a task she undertook with great pleasure. 

I don’t know how long I’ll wear this ring.  Sometimes I look at it and set arbitrary timetables in my mind – first I thought “until her ashes are buried,” but that was done on Tuesday.  Perhaps until their wedding anniversary (November 21), or until her headstone is carved.  Maybe until her birthday (September 11) or her death day (September 13).

Maybe forever.

I realize that at this moment, I’m wearing three true “keepsake” diamonds…my own wedding ring, my mother’s diamond engagement ring which (I’ve made into a pendant I wear around my neck) and my mother in law’s tiny diamond encrusted wedding band.

They are all good reminders of the lives of women.

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Even Keeled

As you might imagine, I’ve recovered from my “horrible, no good, very bad day.”  (Remember that wonderful children’s book by Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day…and that marvelous tag line…”I think I’ll move to Australia.”  Love that 🙂

At any rate, the past two very normal days have done wonders to restore my equilibrium.  And the weather here…well, no one could paint a more perfect picture of early autumn.  I must say, I have loved being a Michigander for the past four months.  If only the economy here were as glowing as the climate.

But no talk about depressing things like the economy (or teeth or gynelogical disorders). Instead, here are a few of the things that have improved my mood and my outlook on life:

  • A stellar concert last night at the Detroit Symphony, featuring the orchestra’s own principal french horn playing Gliere’s Concerto, as well as a rousing Leonard Bernstein transcription, and a Sibelius symphony.  The DSO is such an exciting orchestra these days, with lots of new, young faces and good energy surrounding the appointment of Leonard Slatkin as music director.  It’s extra fun for us, because we happen to be friends with another of the horn players, so we occasionally get to “hob nob” with the musicians and hang out around the back door.  In addition, Jim and I have both been involved with musical groups that performed as guests with the DSO at Orchestra Hall, and when you do that you get to sign your name on the wall backstage – yep, there’s our signatures in black Sharpie, along with everyone from Vladimir Horowitz to Billy Joel.  Cool.
  • Getting an email totally out of the blue from a high school friend whom I haven’t heard from or seen in 27 years…she found me on Facebook. 
  • Facebook is making me smile because I’m connecting with so many of my former high school students.  It’s such fun to see where they are in their lives these days.
  • And best of all, Brian and Nantana are coming on Wednesday night to spend a few days with us.  The prospect of seeing them always makes me feel better.

All in all, a much better day today.  

How about you? What’s raising your spirits these days?

Uneasy

Yesterday was one of those insidiously awful days when everything that could go against me certainly did.  You’ve had days like that, I’m sure – when it seems the world is conspiring to defeat you and fate turns an angry eye upon you.

The details of my undoing yesterday are less important than their cumulative effect, yet I feel compelled to share them with you as would any good soldier describing the forces of battle.  And sometimes, the relating of events helps diminish their importance, and I’m in hopes of shaking off yesterday’s miasma so I can move forward into today with fresh focus.

Thursday began with both dogs being sick in the house, certainly not a good omen, and putting them into the yard created new problems since the grass was incredibly wet (as well as freshly cut) so they returned soaking wet and covered in grass clippings.

The clean up efforts put me behind schedule, and so I skip breakfast because I’m running late for my dentist appointment, a routine visit which I’ve had to postpone several times.  My hygenist barely says hello before she begins poking around my gums, calling out numbers in rapid fire to an assistant sitting out of my view.  “Two, two, three, four, four, five, SIX (I perceive her shaking her head in a “tsk tsk” sort of way), four, four, three, five, five, SIX…”

Apparently, the borderline gingivitis we discussed at my last visit has now become full blown periodontal disease, and she recommends doing a “deep cleaning with scaling and root planing,” followed by injections of antibiotic.  Before I can say anything, off she goes, saying breezily “just let me get a print out of the treatment plan so we can see what your insurance will cover.”

Three sheets of paper and a bottom line of $610 out of my pocket.  Well, so much for my idea about going away for the weekend next month.  And, since they could only do the top half of my mouth yesterday, now I have to go back next week, which disrupts my carefully planned schedule for “getting things done.”

“Oh, and no eating or drinking for an hour,” she tells me as I leave the office, the $300 credit card charge buring a hole in my pocket.  I look at my watch – 12:00.  My stomach rumbles angrily.

In my foolish efforts to be efficient and “get things done,” I’ve made another appointment for today – my annual gynecology check up which is scheduled for 2:00.  I decide to go into my office, since it’s about halfway between the two destinations, and I end up spending the next hour there, being productive enough that I feel some vindication for the morning which went so badly out of control.

Leaving the office with time to spare (although not quite enough time for lunch) I drive to the physician’s office.   I have a new gynecologist, a young woman in a new practice whom I met for the first time a couple of months ago when I had some worrisome symptoms arise.  Luckily there was no waiting, and I was greeted warmly by staff and physician alike.  We reviewed the results of some tests I had done on that previous visit, and I was able to report there had been no reoccurrence of the previous problems.

“It’s good you’re here,” she said.  “Since you’ve not had any more symptoms, we can do an endometrial biopsy today, and that way we can make sure there’s nothing going on that the ultrasounds didn’t pick up. “

“What does that involve?” I ask, sensing danger.

“We just go right through the cervix with a brush about this long,” (holding her hands about a mile twelve inches apart).

Great.

By the time I leave the office, it’s 3:00, I’ve been rudely invaded on both ends of my body, and have had no food all day.  People who know me will tell you that things get very ugly when I’m hungry.

I stopped for lunch, after which I felt better, well enough in fact to meander through the garden department of Home Depot and pick up some more plants for my burgeoning garden.  After stops at the veterinarian’s to pick up some medication for the dogs and the library to drop off an audio book, I finally arrived at home (my safe haven!).  I was quite stern with myself, too.  I purposefully avoided the computer, the mail, and the telephone, poured myself a tall glass of water with lemon, and collapsed into my back porch chair, soaking in the restorative glow of afternoon sun.

There is a general unease about life lately.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve experienced a death in the family, so I feel poised on a precipice of change.  Certainly the situation in the world contributes to it, the news awash with economic calamity.  I feel threatened, a bit paranoid even.  I found myself thinking the events at the dentist’s office were (1) purely an attempt to gouge me for money; and/or (2) a way of punishing me for rescheduling my appointment three times and then being late.  I’ve never been one to see the world as “out to get me,” and I don’t at all like the feeling of impending doom which seems to invade my thoughts more and more each day.

At any rate, I feel exposed and in a dangerous situation, a feeling that has invaded my emotional world with the same shocking vengenace my body was treated to yesterday. 

I’d like to feel safe again, but I’m not sure how or when that will happen.

How about you?  How have your days been going lately?  How do you help yourself feel safe in a world gone mad?

Write On Wednesday -It’s All in the Details

After serious upheaval in ones life, it’s rather to surprising to realize that the course of daily living has returned to normal, the small things one does automatically each day have continued to be done, and in the doing have kept you steady and balanced.  

This morning I awoke before the clock, and (with no small effort, I might add) extricated myself from between the two small furry bodies that had snuggled close to me sometime during the night.  I pulled on the thermal t-shirt I had been wearing last night when I walked the dogs, the nearest thing I could find to keep the chill from my shoulders since I haven’t yet pulled my winter robe from the storage box in the basement closet.

Nine steps into the kitchen – the same nine steps I’ve trod every morning now for practically all of my adult life – and a flick of the light switch suddenly illuminates the room.  I take note of the fact that the kitchen is now dark when I wake, when just a few weeks ago the sun had risen before me and was already lighting my way into the morning.

I open the dishwasher, a movement which is slightly foreign to my repertoire because we had a new dishwasher installed a few weeks ago and my fingers are still primed to release the lever on the old one, rather than simply press into the center as is required by this new model.  Opening the door, I remove the coffee carafe from the bottom shelf, then the filter basket from the top.  I insert the basket into it’s nest within the coffeemaker, and pinch a filter from the package within the cupboard, settling the thin brown paper firmly into place.

The sound of cold water pouring from the faucet jars me slightly, this first sound of the day today slightly angry it seems. It rattles into the glass carafe, and I transfer it with an even louder splash into the reservoir of the coffee maker.  In one deft movement, my left hand inserts the carafe into it’s berth, while the right hand raises to the shelf above me and grasps the coffee container, a brightly painted ceramic Italian canister, with a miniature coffee cup perched on top of the lid.

Slipping the rubber band from the gold foil package tucked inside, I unroll the careful seal (Jim made coffee yesterday, and he always seals the package with an engineer’s precision).  And then the best part, the smooth, invigorating aroma of the coffee, a scent heady enough that I feel my eyes open a little wider already even before one iota of the precious caffeine has slipped into my bloodstream.

I carefully measure out six (level, not heaping) scoopfuls, tipping each one into the filter basket.  With one finger touch, the lid drops down over the filter basket, and my right had inches the machine out of the way toward the back of the counter, while the left hand presses the “on” button.

And now I wait. 

I unload the dishwasher to pass those agonizing minutes until the coffee has brewed, or sometimes lean against the counter standing guard with my book in hand, listening to the steady stream of water now turned miraculously to coffee by the divine powers of Mr. Coffee himself.

As the cascade becomes a slow trickle and then the last precious drips, I reach for a cup, an important choice, for there are only three which will do for morning coffee.  Today I choose a small, white china mug, purchased from a dollar store in Orlando in 1999 when Jim and I rented a furnished apartment for a month and I discovered I couldn’t drink from the heavy stoneware mugs that came with the place.

I pour. 

Taking up the cup, I first hold it to my face, inhaling the warmth and the richness of smell, almost able to taste this comforting cup before I’ve even put it to my lips.  And with the first sip, the culmination of the coffee making ritual, I feel all of my senses stir to life.

So begins the day.

A routine almost sacred in it’s persistence which provides the transition from sleep to waking, allows me to cross the bridge from nightime to day and returns me to the world of the living from that mysterious, somnolent world of sleep.  All told it takes less than five minutes -but aren’t the days filled with segments of routine and ritual exactly like this?  Things we do thoughtlessly that profoundly effect our mood.

It’s all in the details.

Written for this week’s Extra Credit Write On Wednesday

Defining Moments

Human behavior fascinates me.  I love to observe people and wonder about what makes them tick, why they behave as they do, how their relationships developed.  Not surprisingly, I once thought about becoming a psychologist, but soon realized I was more suited to the role of observer than interactor.  And so I read (and write) about the intricacies of human nature, rather than attempt to help people solve their dilemmas with it.

When I first met my in-laws, I was a bit dumbstruck by the dynamics of their relationship.  He, almost 20 years her senior, was paternalistic, gruff, and very conservative.  She had perfected the role of disappointed woman, nothing or no one ever being quite equal to her expectations.  Their interaction was almost entirely negative.  They never called one another by name, and were always quick to point out the flaws in the other partner.  At the time of our first aquaintance, they were nearing the third decade of their marriage, and so I wondered whether it had always been that way between them, or if it had evolved from nearly 30 years of disappointments. 

My mother in law worked full time, which was a bit unusual in the 50’s and 60’s.  She was an executive secretary (to use the vernacular of the times) at Ford Motor Company.  As I watch the tv show Mad Men, I realize how much the atmosphere of that office mirrors her stories of working life.  She always referred to herself and the other secretaries as “girls,” as in ” I was filling in for Mr. Smith’s girl while she went to lunch.” She had worked prior to her marriage, and throughout the ten years before my husband was born.  When he was 2, she returned to work, leaving him with a neighbor across the street. “I guess I didn’t have to work,” she would say, “but we sure couldn’t have had the things we did if I hadn’t.” 

Money was a major issue in that family, and it defined and symbolized a great deal about that most interesting relationship. It seemed strange to me, coming from a family where money was comfortably plentiful and shared with ease and grace, to see a married couple with such distinct distrust of one another in regard to finances.  All monies and expenses were quite strictly divided between them, each one maintained their own private checking and savings accounts, each one kept track of their own expenses for long distance phone calls, household goods, etc.  I assume the costs associated with child rearing were equally shared, but all other costs seemed to be split down the middle, in the manner of roommates.

When I recall them, there is one moment that seems to define this odd dynamic.  In 1993, in the midst of my father in law’s last illness (he had been diagnosed with leukemia, and was not expected to live more than a few weeks), I was driving my mother in law home from the hospital one day. 

“Do you need to stop anywhere along the way?” I asked, wondering whether she might need groceries. 

“Well, I could use some stamps,” she answered.  “I think he (meaning my father in law, because they always referred to one another by pronoun and not by name) has some in his desk, but he’ll have a fit if I use them.”

Wow. Even now, writing those words, I’m dumbfounded by them – that a couple could live together in marriage for almost 50 years and have the kind of relationship where they begrudge one another postage stamps.

Incidents like that remain in our memories and say so much about our lives and our selves, don’t they?  They stand out to our children, our friends, defining stages in our relationships and strengths or weaknesses in our character.

 In my own marriage, there are  many defining moments, and I’m happy to say, with much more positive results.  I’ve often wondered how Jim came to be the thoughtful, considerate spouse he is, having never had the opportunity to observe that kind of behavior in his own family. 

“I determined from a very young age that I would be nothing like them,” he has told me.  And he has been quite successful, in terms of treating his family with generosity, caring, and concern.  In the early years of our marriage, he traveled often for his work.  I hated that – hated being left alone, being unable to contact him easily (this was long before cell phones!).  In 1985, he was sent to China for three weeks, and I was just devastated by the thought of him being so far away (it was actually Outer Mongolia, and phone service was spotty at best).  Before he left, he arranged to have flowers delivered to me once each week, complete with cards he had written himself.  I still get teary eyed when I think of that. 

A lovely defining moment.  

Small things in relationships speak volumes, don’t they?  And the big things are even more telling.

Over the past couple of years, Jim has been unable to visit his mother…he just stopped going one day.  And so I would dutifully go every week or two, even though she really didn’t know who I was.  When I was tempted to be angry with him, I recalled the time 20 years ago when my parents were in the midst of their divorce – that awful time, I still think of it – and how absolutely wrecked I was by the whole thing.  Jim took control, taking my mother to countless appointments with her attorney, going to court with her, when I simply could not bear it.  He stepped in without a word from me, and simply handled it.

A defining moment indeed.

Because I’m interested in human behavior,  tell me, what are some defining moments in your closest relationships?  What are some of the defining moments you’ve observed in the relationships of your family or friends?

Three Cardboard Boxes

That’s all that was left of my mother in law’s life today.  Three cardboard boxes.

She slipped into a coma on Thursday night, and died peacefully Saturday morning. Today Jim and I went over to pack up her personal belongings.  It was the third time in six years that we’d packed for her, downsizing a bit more each time…the move from apartment to assisted living in 2002, from assisted living to memory care in 2005. 

In the cardboard boxes today we brought home mostly pictures – snapshots of Jim at various ages and stages, and of Brian at similar ages and stages, and photos of Magic and Molly, whom she adored.  Until recently, one of her favorite pastimes was re-arranging the photographs on her entertainment center.  Each time I went to visit her, they would be arrayed differently, and often she would take them all down whie I was there, tapping on the glass and laughing…”Isn’t he the cutest thing?” she often said about one photo of Brian (age 6 or 7, seated at his desk and typing away).  “Awwww…” she’d sigh over the close up of Magic and Molly. 

Lastly, she would take up the framed photo of her mother and kiss it.  “That’s my mother,” she’d tell me each time.

But in the last six months, her facility for speech was all but gone.  Probably the toxins from her failing kidneys had destroyed the last bits of her communication center.  Words came out occasionally, but they made no sense.  And the pictures have remained in their final resting places for months now.

One of her favorite caregivers is taking all her furniture.  Lucy is about 40 years old, one of the dearest women I’ve ever met, who took great care of my mother in law despite the fact that she was often cursed, kicked, and once even thrown against the wall.  Lucy’s husband left her for a 25 year old he met on the internet.  She “lost everything she owned,” as she put it, and is starting all over.  Lucy also happens to be raising her five grandchildren and undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer.  (As my mother put it  – “that man should be lined up against the wall and shot.”)  Anyway, Lucy was ecstatic to have a sofa, chair, bed, dresser, entertainment center, television, lamps, and even some paintings to hang on her walls. 

“And I’ll especially love having some things to remember Chris by,” she said, hugging me with tears in her eyes.  “She was such a sweetheart.”

I glance over at Jim who is sitting on the couch while Lucy and I discuss all this.  A sweetheart?  he’s thinking.  His mother?  He wasn’t at all surprised to hear about the scratching and kicking parts.  The sweetheart parts…well, he’s probably not buying that.

It’s interesting isn’t it, how people’s perceptions of others are so different, and so dependent on their personal relationships.  Lucy (and Chris’s other caregivers, who all echo her sentiments) were able to look past her angry outbursts and violent moments, and find some affection for her. 

But her very sensitive son, who was subjected to that side of her personality throughout his life,  was unable to see past it.  It left a lasting impression on him, and he could never love her because of it.

So I’m glad she had Lucy (and Eva, and Deb, and Denise) in these last years of her life. 

I’m glad I was able to be with her on that last night of her life, to sit on the side of her bed and talk quietly to her about moving on into the next world. 

And I’m glad I have the three cardboard boxes.

Out of the Darkness (sticky post)

            

In working with high school students for the past 15 years, I’ve had the privelege of meeting some incredibly special young people, and have remained friends with many of them, watching them grow into productive and talented adults.   Sadly, one of the best and brightest of these was lost to suicide on January 31, 2006.  I’ve written about Jeff before  –  his intelligence, warmth, humor and caring for others made such a deep impression on me.  His death was an immeasurable loss to his family, his friends, and the world. 

On October 5, 2008, I’ll be honoring Jeff’s memory by joining with thousands of others in a community walk sponsored by the American Society for Suicide Prevention.  AFSP is a non-profit organization exclusively dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research and education, and to reaching out to people with mood disorders and those impacted by suicide.  Please consider making a tax deductible donation in any amount to support this worthy endeavor. 

For more information, click here.