Going Home

 

 

 

The sun climbs over my roof this morning, and under it my children are home.
Even the cat had been waiting expectantly for their return.

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Home, a place to let down your guard, a place of rest, much needed after a season of change.

Just the other day my youngest, a freshman in college, called.

“Hi sweetie,” I answer, “how are you?”

It is the 14th week of her freshman year. She has been away from home for over three months now.

“Hi.” She has that voice, the one that I have, the one where everything is ok but it is not.

“I’ve been trying to call you.”

“I’m sorry sweetie, we’ve been out.”

We’d been away on an empty nest retreat to Pebble Beach for her dad to play in a golf tournament. His life’s work, golf. And I am grateful his life’s work brings us to this place of crashing waters that shift to cerulean to grey with the winds and the sun. He can play the game he loves and I can walk these shores I love where the rocks jut out of the seas and the sandpipers nip at the shores and dogs run unabashedly into the surf in complete freedom.

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For the first time in months I felt that same freedom as I walk and reflect on the things I love and the ones I love and the salt air fills my lungs and the skies shift from grey to lavender to orange early in the morning and the surf sounds calls me to walk and think and pray along its edges during this season of shift and change of all things familiar.

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This was a gift of a week alone, in this new season of being alone.
A gift of a week before the kids come home.
A gift to reflect and pause and be thankful.

Lauren whispers into the phone,

“I just want to be home.”

“Only two more days,” I tell her.

“I just want to be home now,” she tells me.

Her voice breaks. I ask her to face time so I can see her face to face. She says no mom I don’t want you to see my face right now.

And I hear the sobs in her voice.

I want to fix it. What do you want I ask.
I want you to pick me up and take me to dinner with you and dad.
All of me wants to find a flight right now that will take me to where she is thousands of miles away to pick her up for dinner.

She’s alone tonight. All her friends are gone, a lot of them home already.

My little girl just wants to go home.

Depending on whose voice, that statement means different things at different times.

It used to frustrate me at times when my mom, in her Alzheimer’s state of mind, used to say, “I want to go home.” She had a place under our very roof, and I used to wonder “what else can we do for her?” until my caregiving counselor explained to me that when she asks to go home, she is looking for her place of safety and refuge.

Later she used to say, I want to go home, and playing along with her, I would ask, where is home?

She would smile, and point her finger up to heaven.

Yesterday during our visit at the place that is now her home, we sang songs from the sound of music, her favorite. We both laughed out loud when we sang together “so long, farewell” and in her raspy voice, weakened by a recent stroke, she sang out “Goodbye, Goodbye!” so loud it startled even herself!

 

 

When I kissed her on the forehead to say good bye, she asked me, “Where are you going? Where is your home? I don’t remember.”

Tomorrow I will try to find a good place for her to sit at home comfortably at the table in her wheelchair.

Tomorrow we will gather all together.  At home.

imageAround extended tables will be our children and our friends who have gathered around the Thanksgiving table with us over the past 20+ years, friends who at that time were far away from home and were making a new one.

And for the first time my son will gather around the table with his new wife and her parents, as the circle extends out concentrically of starting a home.

 

The empty nest

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The empty nest.

I discovered it as I was discarding the flower pots by the front door. Pots with shriveled plants that had been ignored too many mornings in the hot Florida sun. I was about to toss the entire brown mess out when I realized it was a nest.

Two black speckled eggs were nestled in the back. I wondered how long it had been abandoned.

I chuckled at this discovery, a metaphor for my life, things disheveled, neglected and passed over these past months as I readied myself for the upcoming changes. A daughter, my youngest child, headed for college in Texas. A son, just graduated from college, to be married in a few days. A mother, with Alzheimer’s, has just had a stroke, leaving her left side paralyzed. A category 3 hurricane was approaching our vicinity. All that was exposed had to be brought in.Then was the empty nest revealed. All I had been dreading was now uncovered in a neglected pot.

Nestled in the little bramble of branches were the promise of life, left alone, never brought to its potential.

My inclination to boo hoo my days through the empty hallways, empty rooms, an empty refrigerator is slowly shifting each day. Raising four children was fun and frenetic, full of loudness, laughter and laundry. On a bad day I may breakdown when I see a young mom pushing her kids in a full cart at Target or when I find Goodnight Moon tucked away on a dusty shelf

But this discovery has me rethinking the meaning of an empty nest.

These abandoned shells reflect life never realized

But my empty rooms should remind me of life realizing possibilities.

Not only for my children, but for myself.

It’s strange not to have my extension of myself be my children, or even my mother, who have been and continue to care for these past years.

Being sandwiched in the middle I lost myself, not because of their demands but because I thought that was the right thing to do.
But now as I crack the shell of self created isolation these past years I am rediscovering the joy of who I am. Separate, but whole. And that is OK.

So I will paint because it makes me happy. I will take walks with friends because it feels good to chat. I will take long walks alone along the beach  because it feels good to breathe salt air. I will sip coffee on the back porch and chat with my husband, my high school sweetheart, because he does know me better than I know myself. I will do laundry once a week instead of once a day.

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I will visit my mother, and enjoy being the child instead of mothering her.

I will cheer on my daughter instead of missing her.  For she is the one telling me, “Mom, I love it here.  I love finding out who I am.”

I will root for my son who is tackling biochem and physics and the MCAT and the other  one tackling a media career in New York.

And I will forever remember the joy of watching my son taken aback with tears as he watched his bride walk toward him, ready to begin his life with her as husband and wife.

For the empty nest should be a reminder of new lives, not the old one, and the joy that comes from watching new lives take off and soar.

Love that is not Lost

There is a love that bears all things, the kind of love that looks you straight in the eye, into your soul, and sees everything….and still loves. The kind that allows you to be so transparent that nothing is hidden yet everything is loved. When we experience that kind of love our soul is blessed beyond all measure. The joy of holding that kind of love transcends any pain that may follow. For the greatest gift of this kind of love….from a mother, a spouse, a child, a friend, a dog….is knowing that just being in their presence is enough

I repost this blog today, Valentine’s Day, in honor of those whose love completely and unconditionally

 

Her eyes are glazed, yet a light in them still shines.

Her hearing is diminished, yet she still senses me.

She sits at my feet, as I rub her back between the shoulders.

She groans in acknowledgment, as if this happiness is too much to bear.

For a moment the panting stops.

A smile rests under her droopy eyes.

Her head turns, through those dimmed eyes she tells me of her love.
In days past, sixteen years of them, I would rush past her.

a quick pat on the head and I would be off

doing the things moms do, carpool, grocery shopping, logging miles on the minivan within my five mile radius

but when I returned she would be waiting

always with a wagging tail and a smile.

At times when things were not so rushed–

the groceries put away, the laundry folded–

I would put my tennis shoes on.

She would wag her, her eyes pleading expectantly.

“You wanna take a walk?” I would ask

and with that last word she would trot to the door.
We had our routine path, around the corner, past the pond, down to the left where old oak trees shaded us from the sweltering Florida sun, around the corner again along the sidewalk where bunnies scampered and butterflies flittered into the bramble when we passed.

  

When we turned back into the neighborhood her pace picked up a bit as she scampered up the driveway.

She knew she was home.

Years later, mom came to live with us. She was 83 years old. She partnered with us on these walks. Together the three of us would take that familiar path. Around the corner, past the pond, down to the left where old oak trees shaded us from the sweltering Florida sun, around the corner again along the sidewalk where bunnies scampered and butterflies flittered into the bramble when we passed. They were times to share tidbits of conversation or times of quiet reflection. Times of companionship.


When we turned back into the neighborhood, mom would exclaim every time, “Thank you, Lord, that we are home.”

Home.

A place of safety.

A place of familiarity

A place of refuge.
These walls of safety have kept out the elements. They have braved three hurricanes, a few tornado warnings, and multiple thunderstorms, even a lightning strike that hit the house and burned out our alarm system.

But these walls cannot shield us from the elements of aging, ones that grapple arthritic bones,

cataracts that dim the eyes, hearing loss that deafens a whisper

or amyloid plaques that tangle the brain.

These are elements that walls cannot keep out

so within these walls we must adapt and acclimate.

For many years I rushed in and out, hurrying on to the next thing.

Now

these elements bear down:

arthritis, aging, alzheimer’s,

causing me to slow.

Stop fighting

Stop rushing past.

Try to hold up.

Try to listen.

Try to see.

So we keep the routine.

Take the walks until the day the feet can only shuffle

Rub the back.

Hold the hand.

 

The smile still lingers, the one that rests under droopy eyes

and the sigh that says this happiness is too much to bear.

The head turns, the light in the eyes still shines

and through those dimmed eyes she tells me of her love.

A few months ago, the time came to put Cindy down. She was 16 years old. In her way, she let me know it was time.

She was lying down on a pink blanket.  I put my face next to hers.  She lifted her head slightly and looked straight into my eyes. With those eyes she said to me:

It’s OK. I love you. And I know that you love me and have loved me well. It’s OK to say good-bye. Let me go.

I love you.

 
 http://jenniferdukeslee.com/tell-his-story/

A Hallelujah Chorus

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The conductor stately walks down the corridor towards us. 

The tails of his tuxedo are perfectly pressed, the pleats of his starched white shirt under the lapels perfectly parallel, and his endless toothy smile reaches from cheek to cheek when he sees me and my mama.  Once he was the kind of unruly boy my mom used to teach.  Now he has harnessed his boundless energy into bringing out the power of music into young people.

He bends over to kiss mom on the head. “Hello, Mama,” he says as she looks up to him from her wheelchair.  A smile of recognition lights up her face even though it has been eight years since she has last seen him, when he was her conductor in a Christmas choir.

“Hello,” she smiles endlessly back, squeezing his hand.

“I am so glad to see you, I was meant to see you today,” he said as he pats her shoulder.

After a hug he turns and marches toward the stage entrance.

I have watched my friend Dr. Jeffery Redding conduct award winning high school choirs beneath the lights of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, in the ancient colosseum of Verona, in the courtyard of San Marco Plaza in Venice, but tonight I watch his elegant tails march toward the stage of the American Gardens Theatre at EPCOT in Disney World to lead the time honored tradition of the Candlelight Processional, a Christmas Tradition that Walt Disney himself began at Disneyland more than 50 years ago.

Tonight my friend takes the honored position behind the podium to conduct the 50 piece orchestra and 300 voices of the Disney Voices of Liberty, Cast Member Choir, and auditioned high school choirs. Though I have watched him conduct many times, there was something special about this assembly of voices from all walks, all age groups, all levels on this stage to share a Christmas message.

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The tradition of story and song together this holiday season seems to bring comfort and joy to a world full of randomness. Guests have lined up for hours waiting outside the theatre to enter, and when capacity was reached, watched from the courtyard across the stage. Many are drawn to the comfort of this familiar message, this familiar music, these familiar words we have heard over and over in our heads for years.

These words spoken and sung tonight bring tears to my eyes as I watch my 91-year-old mama, sitting next to me in her wheelchair, her Alzheimer’s riddled mind brought clear this night through the power of music, song and story. I see her face radiate with joy. I watch her hands moving gracefully to the music, mimicking the elegant movements of Jeff’s on stage. She turns to me and smiles.

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“He is such a good conductor,” she states. This mama of mine, who one month ago was in ICU, suffered a mild stroke and infection and rounds of tests and antibiotics, is now a completely different person next to me, her whole body swaying and clapping and singing to the familiar songs of Joy to the World, Silent Night, and her favorite:

“Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices.

Oh night Divine, Oh night, when Christ was born.

Oh night, O Holy Night,

Oh night Divine.”

And tonight is a divine night, as I see my mama transform through the power of music, transform as she watches my friend bring to life and draw out from these voices and these instruments the power and glory of the words and the notes so often heard but not truly experienced.

I am one of the first to stand as I hear the strings start up the familiar introduction to Handel’s Messiah.

“Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

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Mama also tries to stand, but her legs are so weak. I grab her hand and together we wave our clasped fingers to the powerful chorus and the strings and brass and percussion of the orchestra.

Mama’s words are very few lately.  But these words tonight are crisp and clear and proclaimed with all her heart.

“King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever. Forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Words crisp and clear and brief.

Words that need no explanation.

Words that are made more powerful in the repetition that accompanies Alzheimer’s are glorious tonight.

Timeless words and timeless melody that my mama revels in, heart and soul.

In this present moment, when all for her is crystallized in time, in place, in right now, this beauty is all that matters.

I may not have many moments with her like this.  But this one Hallelujah Chorus will be eternal in my heart.

Even the guest narrator, Emmy award winning Joe Morton, acknowledges the power of song this night.  He says, “Tonight, even for one night, this tradition, no matter what you believe, reminds us that Love wins out, that Love is the reality in this magical place, to bring Peace and Unity in this world.”

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The performance is over. I don’t want this time to end, but I turn up the walkway to push Mama’s wheelchair up the aisle.

I hear his familiar voice near the stage bellow out…..”Don’t leave!”

Mama and I wheel back towards the stage. In the midst of all those around him, clamoring for his attention, Jeff hustles over for a quick moment.

“You were my inspiration tonight,” he leans over and whispers to Mama. “I was nervous when I first saw your earlier, but seeing you reminded me why I do this, to touch lives and inspire others. Thank you for reminding me.”

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Her eyes twinkle, her smile stretches across her entire face as he turns under the lights and walks away, grasping hands, touching lives, touching others, even after the baton is laid down.

#tellhisstory

A gift



My hands fumble on the keys of the piano, stumbling out a few notes in attempts to learn a new song, one I have not played before.  My right hand picks out the notes of the melody, trying to play out the irregular beats of the notes.  She is sitting on the couch beside me, looking out the window, listening.  As a few notes tumble onto the keyboard, mom looks up at me and asks,  “Is that La Paloma?”


I stare at her in disbelief.  I had only played a few notes of the song, and not played them very well, and she knew exactly which song it was!  She began to sing the melody, so I tried to follow along, playing out the melody to accompany her soft singing.  As she sang, the melody became more familiar, and I was able to recall the old Spanish folk song that I had heard somewhere, in a movie perhaps, and together, in her crackly rich voice and my broken chords that she coaches with, “Come on, come on!”, we perform a lovely rendition of the old classic, newly discovered, La Paloma……


After a week of many forgotten things, her own 91st birthday, my sister’s birthday, my daughter’s birthday, this recollection of an entire song is astounding. Days before, we had multiple celebrations of her birthday, and each time, she would say, “Oh, is it my birthday?”  Even minutes before, she was asking my son if she could return to the Philippines to take care of her mother, that she was concerned about who was there for her, and that she wanted to be the one to go home and care for her.   My son didn’t have the heart to tell her she was already gone, and has been for the past 45 years.  He just left it alone, let her be in her reality.


More and more these days, that is what we have to do, just let her be in her world.  Her world is present, in the moment.  And some days I think, she has much to teach me.  For in her world of Alzheimer’s there are no worries, only present moments of love and gratefulness.  She is always seeking a hug, and always thanking God that she is still alive at 91 years old.  Sometimes the tension between her world and mine is too much, as I worry and fret about what’s next, or the next problem in front of me or the kids or the…………..the list goes on and on.


But here, in this moment, we carry out together the tune of the old folk song, La Paloma, “the dove”.  A song that in the 1800’s became a classic folk song in Spain, Mexico, the Philippines, mom’s home country.   As I read over the background of this song, I see this: “Over time the soul of the song is able to express the tension between separation with loneliness, even death, and love.”


This separation, the one that slowly grieves me over time as mom gradually fades farther and farther away,  is bridged for a glorious moment in a song played out for the first time to the gentle urgings of her voice.  The tension is released for a moment, the tension that builds over time from the burden of caregiving.


And I remember the other meaning of “La Paloma, the Dove”


Peace.


Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.    John 14:27


After a week of searching of what I could give to her, she gives this back to me.  A message through a song etched deep in the recesses of her memory.  A gift of love.  A gift of peace.

   
 

Bloom

It was a season of irritation,
the kind where everything gets under your skin:

the way your husband leaves his dirty socks wadded up by the side of the bed
or your daughter leaves her shoes exactly where she took them off under the kitchen counter
or you hear the dog’s paws padding in exactly at 430 am every morning to be let out.

I don’t know if it was triggered by a new year
or menopause
or a let down after the holidays where it took two weeks into January to unload the Christmas tree and the nutcrackers and village houses and all the other stuff that goes with it.

Even though all the decorations are down they are still piled up in plastic bins in a three car garage where there is only room for one car at the moment.

And the slow resolution to declutter that is always procrastinated initiated that day and finished on the back porch.
My favorite spot in the house.
My alone place to think and write and drink my coffee and look out on the still waters of the small lake behind my house.

But that day on the back porch I only saw the mildew (I live in Florida) and the dirt on the pillows and the brick pavers and all the stuff and the flower pots with half alive plants that I resolved to just give up on and toss into the dark green garbage bags which my uncluttered friends tell me is the only receptacle to throw things into if you are truly serious about decluttering your home. Throw it in. Tie it up. Take it to the curb or to Goodwill. (Unfortunately, I get stuck at this step, hence the full 3 car garage)

It’s a good thing I got distracted on this last purging binge.

For this morning

unfurling out of the flower pots that were almost relegated to the dark green garbage bags

is a beautiful branch of orchids.

A lovely shade of purple.

Actually, the orchid color you see on a crayon or a paint chip.

The branch hovers beautifully over the mildewed pillows on my porch sofa.
Beside it another pot holds out another curl of blooms full of promise.

To think I would have missed out on this something beautiful on my back porch
if I had trashed them

as I am so inclined to do these days when clutter overwhelms me,
the little things, the endless things you think will change but they do not…
the doctors appointments, mom’s Alzheimer medications, the dog to the vet, the kids’ needs to prepare for or be in college, the garage still full of plastic bins……..

They say the trick to tending to orchids is to leave them alone, care for them gently with
only a little bit of watering and a lot of patience to wait for it to blossom.

I hope these blooms last for a spell, a symbol of grace and simplicity and hope
when everything that piles up seems destined to disorder.

For nestled underneath the cracked pot and dirt and rubble of my life is a part of me just waiting, anticipating a bloom.

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Old Faithful

 

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She sleeps at my feet, her paws splayed in front of her greying nose. Her breathing is labored, yet comforting and familiar as she always has been. She came into our lives over fourteen years ago, a friendly one year old puppy on her way to the pound. Her owners couldn’t keep her any more. The look on her sweet face captured my son’s heart, leading to the look on his then ten year old face that pleaded, “Mom, we have to keep her!”

So we did. She joined our already topsy turvy household of four children including a toddler that chased poor Cindy Lou around the family room couch. Dear Cindy spent many hours being chased. I remember one birthday party where she took humor in the chase. We had hidden a clue to the scavenger hunt in her signature red collar. She knew she had something important and played along in the game, not letting anyone get her. She smiled and teased that sunny afternoon, taunting, “You can’t catch me!” In the end, she gave up the clue with a roll over on her back and a rub on the tummy.

Unlike the rest of us in the house, Cindy is very scheduled. She knows when it’s time for our walk. We logged many miles together on our walks, comfortable in each other’s silent presence and an occasional chase after a squirrel. I miss those walks with her now. It is all she can do to get up on her paws and waddle down the driveway, doing her thing along the way, then turning around to waddle back. She still remains scheduled, as I hear her pad into my room at 4 am every morning to let me know its time to go out. I see it now as my nightly star gazing ritual. I take her out at look into the sky to find the few constellations I know I or look at the moon. When its time to go in I clap my hands loudly. She can’t hear me call her name anymore. She turns her head and wags her tail and waddles back in, waits for her scratch on the head, and we both settle in for a few hours before another day begins.

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“Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Why is there so much clarity in those silent places with our most loyal friend. Freedom in the quiet. Calm in mere presence. And an exchange of mutual love even in the wee hours of the night.

Yesterday I rub her back as we sit in the veterinarians’ office when suddenly all those years of her faithful companionship overwhelm me. I break into tears out of nowhere. Maybe it’s menopause. Maybe it’s the truth that all around me everyone is aging. My dog. My mom. My children. My friends.

That same morning my friend and I simultaneously laughed about and anguished over wrinkles and age spots. What do we do about it? Do we give in and fix them or age gracefully, wrinkles and all.

Why is it so hard to accept the wrinkles of aging, those folds in life that reflect the pain and the worries of our journey. We want to smooth them out, but it is those wrinkles that define us and reflect the strength we have carried and the grace we have sustained to endure the bumps along the way.

This week those bumps loom even larger as I face daily the effects of time. Time that ticks away for my mom as she progresses slowly in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, yet robs my dear friend’s father so quickly. Time that ticks away for my children that now, one by one leave the nest, leaving me alone, with more time to discover or uncover nuggets of truths that have been nestled under all the busyness of caring for others.

And today in the vet’s office this truth hits hard: in all these moments Old Faithful has been there beside me. One who knows me better than I know myself. One who senses my moods, who knows when I need comfort. Who looks at me and through me with loyal eyes and complete acceptance. One who is with me when I walk under sun kissed skies and in the middle of the darkest night.

She is tired. She has age spots. She has trouble breathing. But her tail still wags when she sees me. She still smiles through clouded eyes.

I am grateful for what this companion has taught me about unconditional love. And she continues to teach me, as all of us age, there is much power in a good back rub, in being present in silences, that wrinkles and grey hair are outshone by loving eyes, and that an occasional groan is okay. And at times it’s hard to get up, but sometimes you just do, move forward, and get a treat. And companionship, the kind that has worn a hole in the pavement beside you, rain or shine, is the best treat of all.

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