Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dealing with a friend's death

     Often it is said that the dying has uncanny ways of teaching the rest of us how to live life.
     I lost a friend recently to complications from brain cancer. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that I assume a comforter role.
    Some times I have been involved deeply – my sister passed after lymphoma – and it was a daily struggle of ups and downs. Other times, I have been there from a distance giving support.  Visits. Cards. Prayers.
     You have loss, too. Cancer doesn’t escape any of us. It shows no regard to age, circumstances or gender.
     Each death hurts. It is draining emotionally hanging in there with a dying loved one during the transitioning period, and there is nothing that can be done other than dealing with the reality of the situation.
     My friend had one personality trait that I greatly admire. She laughed despite her adversities. And the last couple years were tough for her family and her, too. She tried all sorts of treatments, and there would be a glimmer of hope temporarily before it would be snuffed out after another CAT scan.
     I sighed. I would deliver up more encouragement and often, just be silent, giving her the opportunity to share her stories and feelings without interruption or comment from me.

    Listening is the best way to be present with a person lying ill.
    Once my friend said that she would make sure that the doctors and her would laugh together all the way to the end no matter what. She didn’t like morbidity one bit. That was right after she tried an experimental approach to keeping bad cells at bay, which did give her more time on earth. Frankly, she saved that moment from being awkward for me when she chuckled in her lovely way while I sat nearby.
     I can hear that belly laugh right now and the smile that comes over her face. She will be with me – and the rest of her close friends and family- forever.
     My friend’s infectious spirit might just have been the legacy she left behind. I hope that we take her advice and lighten up a bit. She’s winking at us from wherever she is right now, and experimenting with a new recipe.
     It is hard to walk the path with someone facing adversity. When you are not part of the immediate family or inner circle of friends, you feel at a loss over what is the appropriate thing to do. In my opinion, what comes naturally works, as you are only one part of a community of folks lifting the person up. That teamwork is important.
     Looking outward beyond your own needs, and offering compassion is a true gift, which takes a lifetime of practice.  

     I remember the time my friend told me that she just had no energy after a round of chemo treatment. It reminded me of advice someone had given my sister, and I passed it on: Don’t sluff around in your slippers. Put on your shoes.
     I shared it with my friend in hopes that it might help her. It must have done the trick.
     When I would see her after that, she would say, “I put on my shoes all week when I really wanted to throw in the towel and give up.”
     We’d laugh. My sister would be glad, too, that she helped a fellow person through the dark days offering lightness to her step.
     You might say that my friend was an unassuming person with a strong religious nature. She didn’t care for big fusses. She planned a moving celebration of life after her death with special hymns and readings. She wanted a happy occasion honoring a life well lived.
     One morning she said to me that there was so much more that she had planned to do and she was running out of time. She wanted to see her young grandsons grow up. She wished that she had…
     I replied, “Look what you have accomplished, and be glad. Think on those things.”
     That was easy for me to say from my perspective. I wasn’t in her situation.
     She raised her sons well –each one is unique – and she had many rewarding years with her husband, the love of her life. She had an artistic flair about her in her paintings, cooking and her style at home. She was blessed with a clear soprano voice that would captivate you, the listener, as if you were hearing a nightingale sing. You can’t get any better than that.
     The last time I saw my friend in the hospital – I had a feeling it would be the end and she knew that, too – I put both of her hands in mine and told her to be at peace and know that God cared for her.
      I spoke with sincerity, and I won’t apologize. Those words weren’t a feeble cliché, one you put to use when nothing better comes out of your head.
     You weep the tears and are sad for a time, and life goes on. The presence of that special person comes and goes into the front of your mind. You have reminders that show up when you are least expecting them.
     I am glad that my friend entered my life for a brief few years,
    I think that I am hearing her say,  “Kay, get out there and make the most of this day.”
     For all of us, my friend exclaims, “ A little laughter goes a long, long way.” 


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Remembering childhood birthday parties

     It simply wasn’t fair. I threw a fit every year like clockwork. My birthday came the day after my best friend’s and there was no way to change matters.
     Two separate parties. Same set of classmates. My fete was like an encore, or repeat performance. I stomped my feet in protest.
     It’s a wonder my mother didn’t get mad at me – I was an annoying complainer - and give up putting on her one-of-a kind themed party extravaganza.

     Of course, enthusiasm was dampened on the second party go round. Kids showed up antsy from too much sugary food from the day before, and also, they were lacking in desire to see each other so soon. They’d go through the motions, but were their hearts in it?
     Well, that’s the way my young mind perceived the situation. Those insecure gremlins were holding on to me fiercely. I had one nagging personality trait, too: I was a competitive kid.  
     Fortunately my mother was creative. She had a couple tricks up her sleeve. We had the crowd pleasers – hide and go seek and candy hunts – and kid foods to keep things mixed up culminating with a gala cake befitting royalty.
     You see, our house was a big roomy older home, and perfect for parties with such games. We had the nooks and crannies, and a big upstairs, too. A dozen girls storming up and down the stairs didn’t make that much noise.

     On the other hand, my friend’s house was a ranch home and party antics had to be contained. Funny thing, of the two of us, she was much more boisterous.
     Then again, kids at my friend’s house were well behaved without being told by their mothers before they left the car. Her dad was our elementary school principal, and he knew every single one of us by name. Most of the time our principal stayed out of the way on party day, anyhow, except for scooping out the ice cream.
    I loved our principal a lot, although I had the necessary standoffishness. I didn’t want to take any chances outside of school.
     Kids never realize that parents talk to each other, and often work together to make the best of a situation. My friend’s party might include lunch, and mine would be an ice cream and cake affair. It varied from year to year thanks to our moms on the phone together.
     Pin the Tail on the Donkey was a favorite game and it could be played all the time. I don’t know what was so magical to a young child about having a blindfold put on and encouraged to roam around a room groping for the paper cut out of a donkey to stab with a pin while the party goers screamed in delight.
     There was always a poor soul who never could even remotely get in the right direction, and would attack our best lampshade. We would hoot and holler until finally she gave up.
     I was a born organizer – and teacher, too – getting right into the plans for what should, or should not, happen at the party. I would tell my mother which child that I had coming might be a slight problem – a high- maintenance type is the term I would use today.
     Also, I was a little different from my friend in that I always invited one or two girls on the fringes of our social group. It made me feel better to include everyone in my classroom. Often my mother would have to rush out to pick up a girl that didn’t have a ride, and take her back home after the party was over. No one ever knew.
     What made it worse in my childish mind was that my birthday was seven days before Christmas. A birthday party had to be sandwiched in between school, Girl Scouts and church events. Kids and adults alike were partied to death, and one more birthday became a drudge. At least, that was the feeling I got when I handed out my invitations at school.
     I often thought how much luckier the kids were that had birthdays in the summer time until someone told me how hard it was to round up a few not on family vacations.
    My friend and I decided when was the right day to deliver the invites, and she went first and I waited until after lunch, or the next day. I believe, if I am correct, that we checked that we didn’t use the same invitations, too. How confusing that would be.
     Too often relatives would hang on to my birthday present and give it to me Christmas, although in most cases, it did have the appropriate birthday paper. Thus my birthday stretched out over the holidays.
     December is the month of colds and flu bugs, and I never knew if the kid showing up to my friend’s party perfectly healthy would be down with a stomachache and not appear at mine. Thus the guest list could diminish greatly in twenty-four hours. Moms rolled with the punches.
     There was one and only year that my friend and I did combine birthdays, and it was a last minute endeavor. A snowstorm cancelled her big day, and we all met at my house to share two little girls’ happy days.
     By junior high, birthday parties were no big deal anymore. My elementary school friend and I outgrew each other and traveled in different circles anyhow.
     Looking back, I realize that parties are special when you are young, and our mothers wisely kept our celebrations separate.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Nobody ever told me...

   There are tons of things that my mother never told me. 
     If I had been filled in, a) I wouldn’t have believed her or, b) I would have been in denial and turned a deaf ear. 
     You tend to think that you are infallible as a youth and don’t pay proper attention to the advice you are offered. 
     “Just you wait.” 
     “Oh, I hear you now, mom.”
     Besides, certain feelings you have to experience to understand, and all the words in the world could never explain them.  

     As you get older you fight a harder battle to keep your body weight down. The two- mile walk, or bicycle ride, turns into a four miler for the same results… if you are lucky. 

     Some grown people don’t work on the job, or play well with others in social situations, any differently than when they were little kids demanding their own way. 

      Raising a family and working is exhausting. Your mind is in high gear with little downtime. Weeks blend together and the outside windows don’t get washed. 

      You have to go through pregnancy, and only then, will you see that your physical body changes- that rear end lowers ever so politely.

     Time rushes by faster each year you live life. 

     You will lose close friends at an early age. Death is inevitable and there are many tears to be shed. 

     Something that was a big deal when you were a teenager - like being the shortest girl in your class - is not so important anymore.

     A love relationship ends and shakes you to the core until you are able to move forward.

     Your closest adult friends might include people older than your parents.

     It is one of those most difficult life events when you loose a younger sibling and you grapple to get your feet moving forward. You hurt so much. 

     Your parents will become like children as you take on the role of caregiver. 

     You would live in so many different places before calling one a permanent home.

     Toenails and fingernails become brittle and tough to keep manicured as you age.

     You will quote your mother more and more until one day recognizing that you have become her.  

     A house never stays clean.

     No one can explain to you the euphoric feeling that comes over you when you birth a child. 

     Surviving the loss of a job, and the subsequent searching for a new one, is tough. You feel vulnerable. 

     People will listen for your wisdom and respect your opinions.   

     Your kids’ antics will clue you into how your own parents must have felt dealing with your shenanigans. 

     Genetics plays a bigger role than you think.

     Retirement is so much fun. No further explanation required.

     Hobbies might turn into your career, or a second one.

     Your preschoolers start their love life early.

    Returning back to your hometown is never the same once you’ve gone away. Those childhood memories are best kept tucked away.

     Your heart breaks when one of your adult children is suffering or in difficulty. Giving emotional support and sharing advice is all they need, though.

     Buying a new car, furnace or putting on a roof is expensive and that they don’t last that many years either.

     Living at a distance from your family is lonely at times. Living close, on the other hand, can have its ups and downs, too.

     Hanging out with a preschooler is an education in itself in unconditional love and friendship.

     Nobody ever tells you that a multitude of feelings often occur all at the same time, and everything is fine.

     Talking to older relatives before they pass on gives you insight into your ancestry. 

    As a young parent you spend your week between the pediatrician’s office and the grocery store, and sometimes those are your only outings into the adult world.

     You never get ahead of bills and taxes. 

    Certain things you gracefully phase out with age like leggings and wilderness camping. 

     You can do life at 50 and not be crumbling to pieces.

    Mattresses wear thin as do complicated people.  

     Your in-laws will want you to spend every holiday with them.
     The stock of sympathy cards goes up while your wedding invites go down in relation to your age.  

     Boyfriends, or girlfriends, come and go, but true friends last forever.

     When your children make you handmade cards and gifts for Mother’s Day, those are cherished forever. 

     Car seats are lifesavers.

    Little kids get sick a lot, and in a flash, they recover. In the meantime, you hang on to a cold for days. 

     Eating every morsel on your plate doesn’t have anything to do with starving children in Africa. 

     You repeat yourself the older you get. 

     Finding your first gray hair and wrinkle happens when you are least expecting them. 

     Your mind has brain freezes at the worst possible moments.

    Someone you thought was your second cousin is only a friend of the family. Somehow the person got blended in and you never knew the difference.

    You would be running in a 5k as a senior participant.

     Cherishing family heirlooms is as valuable as decluttering your house of extra stuff.

    Getting your feet wet is not going to give you a cold.

     Picking up the phone to talk with your mom or dad is a habit hard to break after they pass away.  

     Being intelligent, powerful, maternal, and sexual- all these qualities go together- is what you are all about.

I wonder what ever happened to...

     The nine-month pregnant mother in the head-on car crash I witnessed on the highway near Rochester was rushed off by ambulance to the hospital quickly before the rest of the accident victims were thoroughly examined.
     The whole thing should never have occurred in the first place – thus, the name accident – except an overanxious driver behind me decided to pass three cars, one of which was mine.
     Mistake. A car was coming in our direction.
     I knew the two cars would hit. I had that bad feeling in my gut and the sound at impact was a huge deafening noise, which was frightening.
     Fortunately, I was able to veer to the right on the shoulder and get out of the way. The driver who had darted out suffered minor injuries, and immediately, he was out of his car assessing the damage.
     It was the young woman that emergency personnel were most concerned about.
    Along with everyone else, the police questioned me. When I got home badly shaken, I wrote everything down that I had seen just in case I would have to testify in court. I was positive that my mind would play tricks on me later and the story would blur.
     An appearance never came to be, and I know nothing more.


      The credit card I lost somewhere while shopping is a complete mystery.
      I didn’t realize it until the next day when I was rearranging my purse and the card was missing from its usual spot.
      Retracing my steps, I went back to each store hopeful after cancelling the card with the bank. I should have know better that if the card had been turned in by an employee or customer at one of the smaller stores, I would have been contacted.
     I was convinced it must have dropped on the floor in the supermarket when I rushed to put it away while grabbing my shopping bags. At least, that’s what I visualized in my mind. Not so.
     Nothing had been charged to the card. It could have been far worse. It was only a tiny blip on life’s speed bumps. However, it drove me crazy trying to figure out how I might have been so careless. Lesson learned for the time being - until the next slip up.
     That mistake stays unsolved and the card is long gone crunched into bits in garbage heaven. May it rest in pieces.


     My seat companion on a short flight from Paris to Bilbao, Spain, has a special reason to be excited about the trip. She came all the way from Toronto to reunite with a distant relative she had connected with through  
     While we sipped tea and pastries, the woman shared that her growing up years were in Spain during the Second World War. Her family fled to Canada leaving behind relatives and friends. She wore the clothes on her back and carried a small suitcase of her earthly possessions.
     She told me how this girl and her were close growing up. Apparently, they had lost touch over the years, and she sighed saying that moving to a new world kept her family too busy.
     “People get let go other than in your memory,” she said.
   A lucky break determined her ability to actually meet her relative that lived in the Basque Country. It seems that her grown daughter and son-in-law had moved from Canada to Bilbao for work a couple years prior to her searching her genealogy. Once she had established the connection, the Bilbao daughter met the relative and convinced her mother to travel.
    When we parted at the end of the flight, I wished her good blessings. It was joyful watching someone walk off the plane in such high spirits.  I hope the reunion went well.


     The cab driver and the two other male passengers were stuffed in like sardines with my daughter and me for a four- hour drive from Albany to Islip.
     It was a snowy late afternoon when flights from Albany were grounded and since my plane was heading to Long Island, the airline – those were the days – put us in taxis bound south free of charge.
     I could see that the other cabs were filling up faster than ours. Sure, no one wanted to be cooped up with a frantic mother and a weary child, especially if they were to find out that the little girl was mega prone to carsickness.
     A head would pop in, look at us and pull back out to find another cab. Finally, two latecomers had no choice but us.
     Besides, it would be a slow drive on slick roads.
     None of that happened. The cab driver was cheerful and sang all the way taking turns with the rest of us. We were spontaneous and goofy. There was no stick-in-the mud in our midst.
     By the time we arrived at the Islip airport no worse for the wear, all was forgotten when my parents came to greet us.
     Sometimes when you anticipate a certain outcome, you get surprised. Look at how great things turned out when everyone co-operated and made the most of an unfortunate situation.
     The cab driver had to turn around and go back to Albany. The other two businessmen went out the revolving doors. Thanks everyone. And by the way, my daughter never got carsick on this adventure either.

    We all wonder about people, places and things from time to time that come into our lives for a brief moment.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Peeps still rule the candy aisle

     Peeps are back in, or did they ever leave the candy aisle?
     Other than getting a shaky sugar-high, eating a Peep is munching on emptiness. You get little worthwhile for your investment.
     Compare that statement to political campaign rhetoric. That’s as deep as I will put my toes into the arena. I’d rather nibble on Trail mix.
     Little did I anticipate that my Facebook page would be inundated with comments.

     I was anticipating a chuckle here and there, and maybe a smattering of likes. In its place, I struck a nerve - a very, deep- seated coveting for sucrose.
     Boy, was I wrong about those little treats neatly lined up in rows like a marching band displayed in a plain carton covered with clear plastic wrap.
     Soon Peeps became a trending topic on my Facebook page, and I got miles of free publicity. Peeps are the victor in the popularity contest.
     From, “I love Peeps,” to poems and saber-sharp comments such as, “Peep shows rule,” I learned that Peeps are alive and well just like their devoted fan club.
     One mom wrote, “__’s antibiotic is so nasty she has been downing it and eating a Peep, followed by drinking water. A peep =  a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way!”
     “Sweet,” I replied. (That wasn’t very original.)

     A writer friend who regularly posts in verse on Facebook cleverly said,
“Poor little bo
fell fast asleep
only to find her basket with peeps
all spilt and dry beside
when she woke to a poke
and ran over hillocks to sing
as loud as she could nearby
but to no avail
for the first day or rain
they floated downstream
and left their coatings behind them.”

     Those pastel marshmallow Peeps are having a renaissance like Star Wars and hula-hoops. No longer just an Easter candy when the business was established in the 50s, Peeps are found year round.
     What a smart company to capitalize on success and tackle every American holiday. Super Bowl Sunday with Peeps and beer.
    At least with the new Star Wars mania you can count on the force with you while shoveling down empty calories, getting a sick stomach and a mega headache from too many Peeps.

     As for hula-hoops, you whittle the waistline down if you can handle hours of wiggling your hips. Certainly it is not an activity for compromised body parts in any way.
     One Facebook friend told me that his body has been holding together with rubber bands for years, and he would no more attempt doing a hula-hoop routine than jumping into Conesus Lake in mid April for the Vincent House Polar Plunge.
     Someone else suggested that they leave hula-hoops to the grandkids, and instead, show them pictures when they were in their prime. And eating Peeps, too. You know you did.
     A friend texted me – she didn’t want this out to the public - that Peeps s’mores, home-made chocolate covered Peeps, Peeps marshmallow chocolate chip cookies were a few of her regular recipes.

     Peeps are made from sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, and various food dyes.  - in other words, every ingredient that is bad for you, but oh, so delicious to the taste, or so you say.
     An annual "Peep Off" competition is held in Maryland on the first Saturday after Easter, when Peeps are greatly discounted, to see who can eat the most in 30 minutes.
     A contest –not verified by Guinness, though - was recently held and if you ate so many Peeps this Easter that you felt like you can't eat any more, then you're just an amateur compared to Matt Stonie. 
     Stonie is a competitive eater who celebrated the Easter holiday by downing 200 of the marshmallow treats in about 14 minutes. If you're counting, that's 5,600 calories and 1,360 grams of sugar in one sitting.
     If you want to watch this “meaningful and informative” video, here’s the link.
     Another Peeps contest states, “Do you have an excessive amount of Peeps sitting around your house after Easter? You should send them to a guy who devours them by the dozens. 100 Peeps in two minutes.”
      Really? That’s a handful of trivia I could live without.

     I was shoved out of the way near the sale display of candy the day after Easter, when large and small hands were grabbing Peeps as if they might vanish from the earth.  
     I will own up right here. As a kid, whenever I went into a store and no one was looking, I’d squeeze the living daylights out of one those little Peeps.
     Peeps do get stale. Trust me. I know since I pushed them aside in my Easter basket as a kid. I’d open the package, take in whiffs of its disgusting smell and hide those critters in my closet. My cat would not take on Peeps even in his most desperate hour.
     As marshmallow ages exposed to air, it dehydrates becoming "stale" and slightly crunchy. According to Just Born, the Peeps parent company, 25%-30% of their customers prefer eating Peeps stale.
     Are you in, or out on that one?
     The Racine Art Museum sponsors the International Peeps Competition from April 1–28. Anyone can enter the contest around the theme, "peep-powered work of art." I suppose those hardy folks in Wisconsin know how to spend their days when spring weather has barely peeped.
     I give up. I’m moving on and investigating why the gram weight of Snickers candy bars has reduced while the price remains the same.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Walking in step with Alzehemier's


     I couldn’t help but notice. One of the members of our tour group in Spain, a man in his mid-seventies, was shuffling and staring a head blankly while holding his wife’s hand. Ah, I recognized the signs all too well.
    Oddly though, his wife looked like I remembered my mother in her active and vigorous earlier years – a blond thin woman with a nervous demeanor who would chat incessantly to anyone and everyone. I had the sense that the wife had a great ability to handle any situation. My mother in her prime did, too, before her mind got murky.
     Our group did a lot of discoveries on foot, and it was while walking on the streets of Valencia that I saw the man being pushed along and talked to like a child. It irked me.
     I wondered why he would be on a three-week international trip, until an occupational therapist in our midst said that maybe the couple was having their last vacation and we should honor it.
     Most of the other group members didn’t take a lot of interest in discussing the pros and cons of traveling with someone with Alzheimer’s, and they let it go.
     Not me.

     I saw my mother’s image over and over. The sparkle had faded out of her blue eyes, too, and she had an unenthused attitude about her when dementia set in.
     Each situation and person is different depending upon how long they have been dealing with this most difficult group of diseases. In my mom’s case, it was hard enough to take her out of the safety of her house and its predictable routine for a visit to the doctor.
     I would try getting mom interested in something – “Look, there’s the neighbor boy riding his bike in the circular driveway. He’s waving.” - or, “I saw your good friend from church at the supermarket –you know, the lady that sits in front of you every Sunday.” - and it would not receive as little as a nod of her head.
     The empty look in her eyes. The wringing of her hands. It could unnerve me to no end when a tiny thought would come out of her that had no relevance whatsoever to the conversation at hand.
     In Spain  the wife would let go of her husband’s hand on and off and not be the protective one. He would walk along somewhere in our group of thirty-five people.
     He kept at our pace and never lagged behind, although it became quite common to hear one voice or another rise through the crowd, “Where’s Mel?”
     Someone would send an assuring comment back that they had him in sight, or often their arm would be linked with his, and we were all somewhat relieved. The more we all bonded as a group, the more we took turns with Mel.
     My chance came one evening quite unexpectedly. When I was strolling with the man back from dinner, he started talking animatedly with a different inflection to his speech. There was vibrancy to his overall appearance.
     He lived in the Bronx as a graduate student while his wife worked to help him through. They would try and see as many Broadway plays as possible on their limited budget, and he loved the excitement of the Great White Way. Was I imagining it, or was I detecting a click of his heels?

     That’s how my mother would be when we would walk into her room in the nursing home. You never knew which time period she would be in, and most often like other folks robbed of their thinking and social skills that interfere with daily functioning, she retreated back into a pleasant era. The thirties and forties were grand ones for her and she would talk to her husband  - long deceased- like I wasn’t even present. Well, I wasn’t born yet, so I could see that.
     I went along with the man’s exuberant conversation assuming it was probably in the 1960s when he was young and vigorous. He broke into strains of “Lullaby of Broadway” and sang it to me softly all the way back to the hotel.
     At the front door, he looked at me and asked if he could kiss me on the cheek before we parted. “Of course.” It was sweet and endearing.
     I broke down and sobbed that night in my bed. My mother lost all the affection she had when dementia invaded, and she had no desire to have any physical contact. I was brushed away numerous times. Even though she was on medication, she would be quite negative with her caregivers, too, and crawl into her own world.
     Our tour group was careful not to talk between ourselves as if Mel wasn’t present. “I hear you,he said softly on and off in a monotonous tone, and it reminded us to preserve his dignity and not be rude.
    I only hope Mel’s road trip will go through as many green lights as possible, and when he gets to his final destination, he will be singing, “New York, New York.” Perhaps, my mom will be playing the piano for him, her nail polish glowing on her fingertips.
     Life throws in cautionary yellow lights and full stop red ones on our journeys, reminding us how to harmonize and blend with grace what is set out for us.
     Let us honor those struggling with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as the important role of caregivers in their quality of life.