Love’s Slow Decline

Maybe it’s because Daylight Savings ended this weekend. Or maybe the house has just been too quiet, with Craig and Chris gone. Or maybe it’s attending a baby’s first birthday party, and thinking of how much time has passed since that particular milestone in my own kids’ lives. Whatever it is, I’m in a bit of a funk.

Now, don’t let the title of this scare you. This isn’t about “falling out of love” or losing natural, motherly fondness for my teenagers. It’s not even about throwing in the towel with caregiving. I have so much to be thankful for, including work that (most days) I love, and extended family and friends who never miss an opportunity to show they care. Like I said, much to be thankful for.

But here’s a dirty little secret about middle age that I’m only just now realizing: Everything declines. Everything slows down. Everything gets … harder. And that doesn’t even factor in the specific realities of my particular situation.

There was a time when I enjoyed making the “grand gesture” — the epic love poem, the handmade gingerbread villages, the cross-stitched samplers that took months to complete. Now I’d rather pick up a package of Rice Krispy bars from Walmart and call it a day. I’m not proud of this … but I’ve reached a point where I need to own it, I think.

What do you think? Is it seasonal? Organic? (Went in for a stress test this week to find out why my chest keeps fluttering. Stress does that, the doctor says.) Need more exercise and fewer Rice Krispy treats? Maybe.

But if you can relate, feel free to give me your secret. How do you stop the decline?

Chasing Happiness … and Finding Love

There are some things a mother will do for her teenage daughter that she wouldn’t do for anyone (or anything) else in the world. Sitting in the nosebleed section of the United Center in Chicago, waiting two hours for the Jonas Brothers to make an appearance onstage definitely ranks right up there. But while we were waiting (and throughout the concert) I found love. All around me, in different forms, I saw in other concertgoers expressions of love far more profound than I’d heard in any sermon or homily. It made me glad I was there.

It all started about an hour before the concert, when I spotted a gal in her late twenties (I’m guessing) frantically waving at a sixtyish (again, only guessing) woman slowly toiling up the nearly vertical incline of stairs. The older woman was shaking like a leaf, moving painfully from one step to the next as the usher waited patiently at the top to show her to her seat. “Here, Granny!” Ms. Twenty-Something called out. “I’m over here!” Seeing her grandmother’s plight, she got up and went to the older woman, grabbing the plastic bag and coat the woman had been carrying. It took another ten minutes to get her to the actual seat … which is exactly how long it took for the elder woman to have a full-on panic attack. Apparently she was afraid of heights, and this was too much for her. The trouble was, the only way was down. And that was unthinkable. The first aid staff came and tried to calm her down, but no dice. Before the first opening act made it to the stage, Granny and Granddaughter had left the building. VERY S-L-O-W-L-Y.

As Sarah sat, oblivious to what had just happened, I wondered at the love that grandmother must have had for her grown granddaughter, willing to face her greatest fear to spend time in the younger woman’s element. And I marveled at the love of the younger woman, who gave up the concert she most wanted to enjoy, for love of Granny.

The homily wasn’t over, though. A few moments after the two women left, the seats next to them were occupied by another pair, this time a Hispanic duo that must have been of legal drinking age, but looked younger. He wore double man buns on top of his head, with huge hoop earrings. She was a big girl, and had her hair piled in an updo, with earrings like his. Clearly there was no romantic interest between the two, yet just as clearly they were the best of friends: accepting, celebrating, just enjoying the fruit of friendship. As C.S. Lewis described this kind of friendship in The Four Loves, “Two creatures gazing together toward an object of mutual admiration.” At the first note, their excitement hit fevered pitch, as they held hands and jumped up and down, clearly glad to be alive, right there, in that moment.

But the best part of the homily came next, when a tall, lanky blond fellow and his date – a tiny little Latina spitfire – took the seats immediately in front of us. He was at least 6’6”, while she couldn’t have ridden most of the rides at Disneyland. She didn’t even come up to his shoulder. Then the headline finally arrived, and everyone stood up, screaming. (We had earplugs, thank God.) That’s when the real magic started. For as the first song started up, the girl raised her hands above her head and started jumping up and down, as though she was about to fly to the stage. He looked down, a bit mystified and with just a hint of a smile on his face. Clearly he was smitten. Next she started throwing her long, dark head of hair around, jumping like she had a spider in her pants. This time he took a step back, but his eyes never left her (I wondered if he was spotting her to be sure she didn’t tumble down the stairs.). He just stood, clearly entranced. Occasionally he’d look up at the stage when she pointed. But he couldn’t have cared less about the Jonas Brothers. His entertainment was standing right beside him.

This time, even Sarah noticed. “Wow. He really loves her, huh mom?” “Yes, I think he does.” “You think she knows?” “I hope so, honey. He seems like one of the good ones.” “Like Dad, you mean?” From the mouth of babes. “Yes, honey. Just like Dad.” My own husband wasn’t there, gazing down adoringly at me, of course. He was at home, watching my mother so I could take our daughter on this adventure. And he, my friends, is my Love Homily every day. Because “Happiness Begins” when yo u least expect it. And best of all when you’ve been sleeping beside it every night for twenty years.

Dealing with Dementia: Don’t Forget Fun

potatoes fun knife fork

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For Labor Day, we were invited to some friends’ house for a barbecue — they are new friends from church, a young couple and their adorable ten-month-old. If those cherubic cheeks didn’t seal the deal, the fact that she asked me to make my potato salad and favorite frozen dessert gave me warm fuzzies. This kind of casual hospitality is wonderful because it (a) lets me contribute and (b) is so low-pressure: just sit out on the covered deck, sip wine and feast on burgers and sides … and if someone misbehaves, no one cares. They even invited the dogs to come and romp in their spacious back yard.

The best part was watching mom’s eyes light up as I sang silly songs to the baby … the same silly songs, I’m sure, that she once sang to me. “You look just like a grandma,” she said to me. And the thing was, I kind of reveled in it. My own teenagers sat with their faces in their phones, until Chris got bored and started playing with his dog … our eleven-year-old Aussie shepherd who chased a ball, pulled something, shrieked, and fell down.

That was when life set in again. Mom urgently needed a rest room, Craig stood to leave because two hours was the most he could spare away from his desk right now (he’s been working nonstop for the last month), and Sarah launched into a never-ending monologue about her birth family, who she would be spending Christmas with this year.

Reluctantly I got up and started clearing the dishes. It was nice while it lasted.

We all got home and went to our respective quiet places … and the next thing I  knew, three hours had passed. I had NAPPED for THREE HOURS! Probably would have kept on napping, too, if my daughter’s tumbly hadn’t started rumbling. “What’s for dinner, mom?”  I was struck by the heaviness of the quiet. I could feel the stress closing in again, like a suffocating cloud.

Craig was still at his desk. Mom needed her meds and a bath, but she was still passed out on her bed, fully clothed, having been exhausted from our excursion. Chris was perched by the dog crate, plaintively wondering aloud if Maddy needed to go to the vet. (We spent three hours that night at the animal ER.) Sarah was alternately blasting her music and screaming at us to get dinner NOW.

I whipped up a sheet of Super Nachos, heated up some leftovers for mom’s dinner … and then I dug a Buster Bar out of the fridge (half a bar is my go-to indulgence), closed my eyes, and thought about the day. I could still see my mother’s happy smile and hear the infant’s delighted chortle as I blew a loud raspberry on her tummy. My tastebuds still danced from that glass of pino grigio, juicy burgers, and my friend’s delicious green bean almond salad. Tomorrow would come — the caregivers, the workday, the chauffeuring kids hither and yon. Yes, we were likely looking at thousands of dollars if the dog needs surgery.  But today … today we made a memory.

If you are a caregiver for an elderly loved one (or younger ones with special needs, or whatever your particular situation entails), it can be easy to get caught up on the frazzle dazzle. But try not to. Try to find one thing … anything, really, to enjoy. To remember and treasure as a memory. Those bright spots are golden when the rains come, as they inevitably do.

Moms are the heart of the home, the keeper of secrets and memories. If we find a reason for joy, the rest of the family tends to follow suit. And when we give in to the dark side, home becomes a dark place indeed. So … hold on to those wine-sipping, baby giggling memories. Find something to laugh about. It matters more than you know.

 

Life Behind the Wheel

night driveCall me crazy. Just don’t call me for carpool.

I’ve got two non-driving teenagers (well, one has driven long enough to wreck two cars), a frequent-flying husband, and a mother who believes with all certainty that a black-robed judge is going to show up at the door one day and “do away with me.” (Though what my good Christian mother could possibly have done to deserve this staggers the imagination.) In any event, until our Chiweenie successfully passes her driving test, it’s pretty much me driving everyone in the house where they need to go: work, therapy, doctor’s appointments, choir practices, grocery shopping … you name it, I’m driving there.

Now, some extremely devout and well-organized women I know use this time for prayer or some other high-minded pursuit. And yes, I occasionally flip on Catholic radio or plug in a little Matt Maher when I need a little faith-lift. The trouble is, no sooner do I get behind the wheel than my brain kicks into high gear and starts spitting out two dozen items for my to-do list that I am quite certain will be lost if I cannot write them down. Items for the shopping list. Phone calls that need to be made. Stops I need to make. These things whirl around and around my brain like it was Midnight in Menopauseville. You know what I mean.

And then there is the never-ending, nails-on-chalkboard prattle coming from my wide-eyed daughter, who seems to live for the moments she can make steam escape through my ears or yell at a pitch high and loud enough to unnerve livestock. “I can’t wait until I’m eighteen so I can get a tattoo … no, a piercing. No, both. And dye my hair black, like a Goth. And did you know that my boyfriend D____ (her current love interest) kissed me in the hallway? Well… he almost kissed me. Like, he looked like he was going to …”

Yes, I know she’s just looking for attention. Yes, I know this is what teenagers do. Yes, I’m sure I drove my mother crazy, too, and this is just God’s particular brand of cosmic justice. And so, I pay it forward the same way my mother did, with a benevolent mother’s curse: “One day may you be blessed with a child just like you.”

The thing is, she’s really not. And I know this because in her more lucid moments I see my mother look at my daughter when she’s raging against The Mom, and clearly she thinks she wandered into Comedy Land. Her eyes light up with barely suppressed humor as she watches her granddaughter spout off at me, and me trying to keep from blowing my ever-loving gourd. She doesn’t say anything. Certainly doesn’t try to take my side about ANYTHING. She just sits there and chuckles. Dammit.

Suddenly I feel like that old battleax Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So I tell myself it’s time for a Mommy Time Out, pour myself an Arnold Palmer, thank my children for “volunteering” to do dish duty, and turn on Jeopardy. Because I have yet to figure out how to deliver two children at opposite ends of town to start work precisely at 9:00 and still make it to the office dressed in something other than pajamas to meet my new boss. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to extricate the Judge from my mother’s cognitive processes. But by Jove, I’ll take “Weird Stuff Nobody Knows but an Editor” for $1000, Alex.

And how’s your week going?

Dancing with a Porcupine: Essential Reading for Foster and Adoptive Parents

dancing with a porcupineIf you are even thinking of becoming a foster parent, you need to read this book.

Like many people who decide to become foster parents, Jennie Owens and her husband, Lynn, were confident that love would conquer all. The trauma. The anger. The pain and loss experienced by every member of the family.

And like many such couples, they never knew what hit them. The isolation. The bone-chilling fatigue. The mental strain. Most of all, the unrelenting inner refraing that keeps on and on: Am-I-going-crazy?

I wish I had had this book fifteen years ago, when I needed to have someone explain to me why self-care is good for the whole family. Why “bonding” can be a subtle trap that prevents kids from becoming as strong and self-reliant as they need to be. Why getting a dog might be the one thing you really do need most. Most of all, why the hardest stuff really is the best.

But better late then never. Thank you, Jennie, for sharing your beautiful heart.

Happy Birthday to an Extraordinary Friend

celebration colorful colourful cupcakes

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Today is the birthday of someone extraordinary. She is the Martha to my Mary, a farm girl turned IT pro from a small town in northern Michigan. My children call her “Aunt Katy” and her husband “Uncle Todd,” though we share no biological connection with either of them.

We met while both of us were single career gals — at the time she was also nursing her mom through the final leg of her earthly journey. We lost touch for a few months, then reconnected as part of a young adult group at church. We started getting together regularly with a handful of women from the group, praying with and for each other, asking God to reveal to each of us the next step.  Within a year, we were both engaged, and stood up at each other’s weddings.

Craig and I knew going into our marriage that we would likely not have children of our own. Katy and Todd soon found the same was true for them. And so, when we became foster parents, Katy was the first to show up and lend a hand. She became our son’s godmother when we were finally able to adopt them three years later. And about seven years after that, when we had to separate the children for a time while we navigated the court system, she and Todd stepped up as guardians for our son for nearly a year. In between that, they welcomed a half dozen exchange students into their home — something that I think takes a special kind of detached affection. This year Katy ran her first triathalon, having taught herself to swim. “I’m just glad I finished!” she laughed. (She did more than that, of course … but she’s not one to brag.)

Even when we moved several states away, she and Todd continued to stay involved in our lives, helping Chris to become the best version of himself — and to this day, my son lights up when his Uncle Todd walks into the room. He doesn’t say much, but what he does say goes straight to my son’s heart.

As the years have passed, we have both faced challenges with our families of origin, and Katy’s ability to face life square-on, without flinching, has given me courage when I needed it. When my mom was hospitalized in Georgia, Katy came and stayed with my dad after I had to return home. As her own family members have faced their own mortality, Katy was always there to help them weather the hard details — up to an including moving her aunt into the house that she and her husband built with their own two hands. Now that my mother is living with us, we see Katy a bit more often. It makes Mom happy, as she regards Katy as an honorary daughter. She never seems to have bad spells when Katy is around. She’s just happy to see my friend.

She would probably be embarrassed to read this, but Katy is my model of what a Catholic woman should be. She doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but lets it ground her to do what she must. She works hard, loves deep, and makes tough choices and difficult sacrifices without seeming to give a whole lot of thought to herself. When you need her, she is there … without fanfare, without complaint, without conditions. She will paint walls, chase chickens, and share a bottle of wine or pot of tea with equal enthusiam. And when she faces her own challenges, she doesn’t demand anything remotely resembling payback. God help me, I forgot her birthday yesterday when we went shopping for a dress for our vow renewal in Rome. (Well, I shopped and she watched me try on dresses with mom.) When it finally clicked as I was driving back home, and I called her up to apologize for our lapse, she said, “Well, I thought about suggesting we get dessert at lunch, but we were all so full …”

This fall she and Todd are schedule to go with Craig and me to Rome to renew our vows, then get on the cruise ship and set sail for Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel. The trip of a lifetime. And now that we have paid for our fares and made our plans, there is a chance Katy may not be able to go. So … if you are still reading this, please do me a favor:  Ask God to give her a very special birthday present, as a reward for a life so well lived … and because we still need her particular brand of sunshine in our lives.

They say it takes a village … But sometimes, all you really need is one good friend. Thank you, Lord, for taking good care of my sister-friend.

Voices in the Night

Craig is gone this week on business, and Chris and I have been spending some quality time in the evenings. Around midnight last night we were watching Medium (the Hulu reruns are his new favorite program) when we heard a slow thump … thump … thump coming up the stairs.

(Now, this is exactly NOT the program you want to be watching at midnight when there is a thump, thump, thumping going on).

“I think it’s Mammy,” said Chris, peering over his blanket and not moving a muscle to investigate. (Man of the house, indeed.)

So I got up to check and, sure enough, my dear mother had crawled halfway up the staircase, pushing her box fan ahead of her. “Mom! What are you doing?” I chided.

fan“You told me to bring the fan up here,” she insisted. “I heard you.”

Now, of course I had done no such thing. But I have learned over the past two years not to argue with the voices. Gently I extracted the fan from her grip and put my arms around her, helping her up the last few steps. “Mom, let’s get you back in bed. It’s not safe for you to be climbing these stairs without your chair. Let me get it for you.”  And that is what we did.

Later that night, I got to thinking of the story of Samuel (1 Sam 3:1-11), who heard God’s voice and thought it was that of his guardian, Eli. The elderly priest was blind and had failed as a father with his own two godless sons, but he saw in this young, impressionable boy a chance at redemption. After Samuel awakened Eli twice, insisting that he had heard the priest call him twice in the night, the old man wisely advised the boy, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'” (vs. 9).

And the boy did. And God spoke again. And when young Samuel heard what the Lord had to say, he was afraid to give his mentor the message: that the Lord had turned against the house of Eli, and was utterly condemning them. And yet, Eli’s unexpected response must have reassured him: “It is the Lord. What is pleasing in the Lord’s sight, the Lord will do” (vs. 18). And Samuel became a great prophet.

Now, I’m not sure exactly what it is God is trying to say to me through this incident with the fan. Maybe it’s something as simple as, “Make better media choices, both for yourself and as an example to your kids.” Maybe it’s a warning that Mom is going to need closer supervision at night (the progression of dementia can cause nighttime hazards). Or maybe it’s just a simple invitation to spend less time watching television and more time listening for that still, small voice in the night.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

Thanks, Steubenville! We’ll be back!

Dorms like an Amazonian rainforest. Bad-boy priests. Horrible food. “Second-class citizens” with mobility issues forced to sit alone while their friends enjoyed the party. Worst of all, No Diet Coke.

I heard all these things ahead of time, and signed up as a chaperone with more than a little anxiety. Oh, and a fan, a cooler full of DC and enough Little Debbies to satisfy the juvenile cravings of a whole army of ravenous teens.

I’m returning with most of it, and the fan stayed in the van. Turns out St Thomas More Hall had both AC and a Coke machine. (And apparently most teens now eat Rice Kristy Treats. Who knew?)

To be sure, there are those whose FSU experience was memorable for the wrong reasons. You can’t have a light on a hill without evil trying to encroach, both from within and without, and social media gives that minority a powerful voice.

But there is often more to the story, and I found it here. Children with sensory issues offered earplugs and a quiet space outside to recover from sensory overload (and cots at first aid to lie down if needed). And about two dozen manly, fired-up priests and just as many beautiful women religious visibly present to the youth throughout the weekend.

Yes, the food was mass produced and … filling. Loads of carbs. But you could grab a sandwich or a latte at the food court. And interminable food lines were sweetened with snow cones.

Dorm rooms? Bathrooms clean, with separate rooms for chaperones and students. And next year leave the fan and cooler and bring a floor lamp, an extra battery pack, and a quilt.

Here is the most important thing. Anyone who doubts the future of the Church in America needs to sign up to chaperone next year. Yes, they were silly and loud. But they were also open to what the Spirit wanted to give them. Some of them must have been puzzled (or even unsettled) to see and hear the exuberant worship, and to witness the spectacle that is a FSU youth conference.

Was it a bit regimented? Absolutely…. you can’t host 2000+ teens plus chaperones for a weekend without some rules to keep kids where the action is, and to make sure everyone eats, sleeps, and gets the good seats at least once during the weekend. FSU has been hosting these things for 30+ years, I’m told. So when the rules pinched a bit, I rolled with it. Or tried.

And these kids surprised me. Offered a choice between a session on heaven, hell, and purgatory … outside in the heat; or Dating 101 in air conditioned comfort, all but 1 of our kids chose… purgatory. Wow!

Thanks, Steubenville. We will be back.

Notes for next year.

Bring a sweatshirt and hoodie for bed. Just in case.

Leave the snack bag.

Bring headphones. And a sense of humor.

Bring extra chargers. The kids never have one.

Don’t forget the bug spray.

Unhand the Cheerios…

cereals in basket

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Both kids were scheduled to work this morning, so we went as a family to the five o’clock Mass at St. Pius. It was the first time we’d gone there together — gorgeous church, lovely organ music, and the homily was short, sweet, and … a little crunchy.

The priest observed that every parish in America sweeps up at least a pound of Cheerios each weekend — a kind of divine detritus (my words) left behind by parents of small children who just want to be able to pray for five minutes. Then one day as he was watching his two-year-old nephew grow frustrated over trying to play with a truck with two fistfuls of Cheerios, he said, it made him realize that Cheerios are the perfect metaphor for human desire. “God holds out the truck, and we won’t let go of the Cheerios long enough to take it. But that’s what God is asking … he wants you to let go of the Cheerios,” he explained.

I looked at my mother, sitting so intently next to me. It has been only about three weeks since our priest gave her the anointing of the sick while she was in the hospital with pneumonia — for her, it was a sacramental windfall that included first confession, first Eucharist, confirmation, and last rights. Thank God, she recovered … and has been eager to go forward to receive Jesus each week. Her eyes just light up with so much joy, you never would have guessed what a miracle it is that she was standing there at all.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I was brought up believing Catholics aren’t “really” Christians. So to see God work it out so that my mother goes forward to receive Jesus each week is a little … strange. I’d had two aunts (one on either side of the family) who had married Catholic boys, and it didn’t end well.  (Interestingly enough, one of them — my namesake — wound up tending to my grandmother in her later years. I so admire her.)

All I know is that, for the past two years, mom has been going to church with us each week … and remaining in the pew as the rest of us went up. She would say all the prayers, and sing along to all the hymns, and listen intently as our Nigerian priest would break open the Gospel. At night I would tuck mom in and read to her from some of the books I’m currently working on, and one day she pulled out one called Catholic and Christian by Dr. Alan Schreck … and we started reading THAT.

Next thing I know, she’s telling Fr. John that she wants to be a Catholic. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because her Catholic daughter rescued her from memory care prison. Maybe it’s because I refused to give up praying with her for her marriage. Maybe it’s because … well, maybe it’s because we were both ready to let go of the Cheerios, and hold out our hands for whatever God wanted to give us.

And so we did. And you know what? It was even better than we thought.

If You Give a Mom a Cookie …

amazon-if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie(With a thankful nod to Laura Numeroff.)

If you give a mom a cookie, she will sit in a chair and try to eat it in peace.

As soon as she sits, she will look in the kitchen and see Ravenous Teen left the milk on the counter. Again. So she sets her cookie on the table and goes to the kitchen … Where for the next ten minutes she wipes counters, empties dishwasher, and puts dinner in the crock pot. And, yes, gets herself a glass of milk. With a shot of Bailey’s.

The scent of Bailey’s inexplicably reminds her that she left of load of laundry in the washer downstairs … yesterday. Hoping against hope that it has not turned, she goes downstairs to the laundry room and trips over eight piles of clothes that Messy Teen has transferred from the floor of his room to the floor of this one. Muttering darkly under her breath and rubbing her stubbed toe, she rotates the wash and calls Messy Teen to fold his own danged clothes and take them upstairs. Now it is his turn to mutter darkly under his breath. Mission accomplished.

Exiting the laundry room, her eye falls on her desk, the laptop hopefully poised for action. Sorry she left her cookie (and the Bailey’s milk) upstairs, she sits down and proceeds to grind out 27 email responses, 4 tip sheets, and a proposal review before her tummy rumbles so loudly it scares her. And she remembers she hasn’t had anything to eat today but a few cookie crumbs. And her granola bar stash was discovered by Ravenous Teen 2 last week, and she hasn’t had time to restock. So back upstairs she goes … in time to see her elderly mother’s daycare bus pull up to the drive. Rats. Rats. Rats.

Helping her mom inside, then to the bathroom and back to her chair for snack time, she narrowly escapes slugging her husband when he comes down and asks with great feeling, “What’s for lunch?” Desperately she looks around for a teen to take over sandwich making responsibilities, and sees that Sneaky Teens heard the sound of work and barricaded themselves in their rooms, playing music loud enough to shake the house and wake the dead. “Just a minute, dear.” And she spots a bit of reprieve on the table, which the dog appears to have nibbled around the edges. “Here … have a cookie.”

Thankfully, he did not get the Baileys.