Déjà Vu All Over Again

by Christine

My parents raised three children. I am the oldest while my brother is the middle child and my sister is the youngest. We have many common traits but from a very young age we responded quite differently to situation where emotions are running high or are uncomfortable. My response is to take control, while my brother disengages. My sister's response is to act as a peacemaker. During those times when we can't move to our default position our discomfort starts to go through the roof.

When my father died, my siblings and I were surprised to learn that my parents had not made any burial arrangements. No, we were shocked because my father was a "planner" and we, as his children, thought he was perfect. We were dealing with the shock of his death and then having to face-up to the fact that maybe, just maybe he didn't do everything perfectly.  We were each struggling with the loss of our father and this was making working as a team difficult. At this point, my mother decides that we should ALL go as a family to make the final arrangements for my father. Whenever I remember that day I think of the robot from Lost in Space waving his retractable tube arms and yelling, "Danger Will Robinson"

None of us wanted to make funeral arrangements. My brother desperately wanted to disengage and be any place else besides the funeral home but he loved my mother and wanted to support her. To be fully transparent, I wanted to make the funeral arrangements but only if I could have complete and absolute control over all decisions. I was not in a good place to negotiate with anyone, not even my mother. As for my sister, she felt the tension in the room and knew she couldn't calm the situation so she wanted to be any place but there. I think she even spent some time hiding out in the bathroom. My mother's expectation for this outing went against every one of our personalities and was an exhausting process. Let's just say it took several years for us to talk about what happened that day and a couple more years before we could laugh about it. 

What I learned from that painful day is that whatever your role is in your family growing up, it is intensified as your parent walks their end of life journey. Hundreds of people have shared with me the challenges they have had with their sibling as their parents' age. One complaint is that a brother or sister will disappear and not "help" with their parents. A second complaint is that a brother or sister takes control and unilaterally makes decisions and refuses to let anyone else help. A third complaint is that a sibling will promise to do something but fails to live up to his or her word. When I ask them if this is new behavior, the answer is always the same. "No, my sister or brother has always been that way! She has just gotten worse since my parents are ill."

The expectation that somehow in this most critical and stress filled period of your siblings life that they are going to change is unreasonable. Think about it. Are you going to change a lifetime of behavior when you are struggling to say goodbye to your mother or father? No, so why do you think your siblings will? The best you can do is to concentrate on your brother or sister's positive traits. When my mother was in the hospital, my sister took on the task of checking my mother's telephone voicemail and responding to well wishers who wanted updated information...daily. I didn't have it in me to spend all day at the hospital and then come home and talk to my mother's friends on the phone. My sister did and my brother and I are grateful for my sister's willingness to be the point person and for her kindness towards my mother's friends. 

Take a moment to reflect on your siblings with a kind but realistic eye and then forgive them their weaknesses and lean on their strengths. You would want them to do the same for you. Remember they too are losing a parent. 


Week 4: Regrets and Acceptance



The Desire For Perfection

by Christine

The first half of my life was spent striving for perfection in all that I did. And let me tell you, chasing that goal is exhausting and deflating because I found perfection to be illusive and unattainable. To paraphrase Voltaire, perfect is the enemy of good. And is also the enemy of done. The second half of my life has been spent taming that urge and ignoring the little voice that says I should refuse to accept any standard short of perfection. Sometimes good is enough and done feels wonderful!

The desire for perfection started to over take me again as my mother began to fail physically and mentally. Undaunted by circumstances I slogged away at pursuing a well-ordered life and an organized calendar an aspiration that was divorced from the reality of my existence. What did I think a perfect life looked like? Well, I would be in control emotionally, my home and business would be running super smoothly and I would quickly and with perfect logic make all decisions pertaining to my mother with love and wisdom. And oh, my hair and fingernails would be nicely done at all times.  

The reality, though, was much different. My life was mess. My mother's strokes, falls and mental lapses ruled my calendar. I was torn between being in Jacksonville with Mom and being at home in New York. Doctors were unable to give black and white answers to my questions so I was forced to make decisions in the world of grey. Home Health Aides helped with Mom's care but I continued to stress about "outsourcing" that part of Mom's life to strangers. My company was on autopilot and I was unable to dedicate the time necessary to grow the business. Stress was causing me to forget things so I lived in fear that something would fall through the cracks at home or in my business. Perfection was nowhere on my radar, only fatigue and the fear of failure. 

As I said in the beginning the goal of this series is to share the lessons I learned during my parent's end of life journey so that others might not feel so alone. One lesson might be difficult to do and the second one might be difficult to read. First, give yourself a break. You are watching your parent's exit this world. These are the people who gave you life, raised you and loved you no matter how imperfectly. It is not easy to say goodbye. If you anguish over making the correct medical or financial decisions on their behalf, so be it. If you forget a birthday, a doctor's appointment or to pick-up the dry cleaning as you move from being the child of your parent to caregiver of your parent then forgive yourself. Perfectionism steals the joy from life in the good times and the hard times. 

Second, hard times don't last forever. I learned early in life that the good times don't last forever but neither do the hard times. Life is much like the coming in and going out of the tides; there are high tides and low tides to life. While you are in the middle of this journey, you may feel it is going to last forever but it won't. One day this part of your life will come to a close and the fatigue will subside and your memory will improve. If you embrace it then joy will be part of your life again. 


Week 3: Déjà Vu All Over Again






The Long And Winding Road

by Christine

The other day I was talking with a friend who is struggling with making decision about care for his aging mother. His mom is no longer capable of living alone nor is she able to make financial decision for herself. I causally mentioned how difficult it is to walk the end of life journey with an aging parent. Later as I thought about our conversation, I wondered if my friend realized this was the path he was on and if I had been too forward in using that phrase. 

I use the phrase "end of life journey" differently than hospice and the medical profession. For the medical world, the end of life journey is a period of active dying and is tied to a specific physical process. I define the end of life journey as the period of time after a life altering physical or mental event that changes the trajectory of life in the elderly. I will give you two examples. My father suffered a sudden death episode that only 15% of people survive. He lived three years after this event. My mother fell and broke her right ankle and left wrist. She lived four years after this fall. In both cases, no matter how hard they tried; they never resumed life as it was lived before their health crisis. My father spent the remaining years of his life in and out of the hospital and doctor's offices believing that it was only a matter of time before he would be on the golf course again. 

Frankly, our entire family believed it was going to be just a "matter of time" before my father was back to "normal". We could not imagine him any other way. Because of my mother's personality, the family wasn't quite as convinced that she would return to her "previous life" but we never saw it as the beginning of her end of life journey.

It was only after they died that it became clear when their end of life journey began and that was also when the pangs of guilt began in me. I started with the "if, only" thoughts. If only I had been more patient, available or educated about the aging process, I could have been more supportive during this time. In retrospect three or four years didn't seem to be a long time to defer my life to my aging parent. But here's the fallacy to that kind of thinking. You don't know this is the end nor would you want to know. My parent's needed their dignity and independence for as long as they could maintain it. I supplied the amount of help and support they needed at the time, no more, no less. Mom and Dad didn't need me hovering around the periphery of their life on deathwatch.  

I have come to think of ones end of life journey as the same as playing jazz music. Playing jazz with a group of musician requires each musician to be willing to improvise and at times spontaneously create a new riff. At other times you may repeat cycles of cord changes or maybe end up in a whole new direction you didn't anticipate. Sometimes the music is brilliant and at others not so brilliant. To me ones end of life journey is the same. The people who walk that journey with his or her parents must be willing to improvise, spontaneously create new riffs and even repeat cycles of behaviors. But in the end, leave the guilt at the door. A musician doesn't feel guilt if he or she didn't think of a particular riff at the time of a jazz sesson and neither should we. 


Week 2: The Desire for Perfection



The Third Anniversary

by Christine

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my mother's death. I listen as friends and acquaintances declare that it seems like "just yesterday" their mom or dad died even though years have passed and that they wake everyday missing their parents. Truthfully, that has not been my experience. Three years ago I sat next to my mom's bed at Hospice as she took her last breath and while I remember the silence of that room after her breathing ceased, the memories of hospitals and the bone weary fatigue of that time has faded. There are times that I think of my mother and father with love, affection and laughter but I don't pine for them or for the past.

At first I felt a bit guilty that I didn't feel the same way as my friends and contemporaries about my departed parents. Candidly, I thought maybe there was something wrong with my relationship with my parents or with me. But if the truth be told, it's my parent's fault. They raised me this way. I remember clearly, when Matthew was little and in bed with an earache at my parent's home, my dad admonishing me for fretting over him. I can still hear him say, "Christine, he's okay. He will be alright." His message was clear. Don't waste your energy on worry or sadness; as my mother would say, "Don't borrow trouble". They were people who lived in a world where you managed those things in life you could and then let everything else go. 

On this anniversary of Mom's death, I am starting a new series. I'm sharing the lessons I learned while walking my mother's end of life journey with her. An intimacy exists between the two people that are on this journey that makes it unique to them alone. My journey with my mother was not identical to the one my sister and brother walked with her but because we are human we also shared a common experience. Over the next 10 weeks, I will share with you what I learned and may it help you feel less alone. 



Week 1: You won't know it is the end until it's over.



60 Is The New 20

by Christine

In my twenties, I experienced a period of great experimentation and wonder. Woodstock and dancing the night away at Studio 54 in an altered state of reality wasn't my world of 20. My life, my art was having fun through learning and observing. My days were spent figuring out how to love and nurture my children. I read books about child rearing and prepared meals that fed the small bodies of the two people I found most precious in the world. I consciously limited television viewing of my young ones to Mister Rogers and Sesame Street. We sat on the floor together and built Legos, had tea parties with dolls and played outside in the rain.

As a family we visited museums, parks and shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the beach while watching the sun dip below the horizon. I took classes at the local University in Political Science and Literature and studied after the kids went to sleep at night. I worked outside the home off and on during this period in a couple of difference fields deciding what I did and didn't like about the world of business. I even found time to do yoga late at night with a PBS program called Lilias, Yoga and You.

But sometime in my early 30's a shift occurred. I cared deeply about my children and living a creative life but my actions became less about teaching, learning and nurturing and more about keeping the balls in the air. Life became SERIOUS. My children's education, my career and the act of putting a roof over our heads stopped feeling like an adventure.

Reviewing report cards became an earnest exercise in college planning. Job action plans and annual reviews were my focus instead of whether I liked the work or the people with whom I worked.  Discussions of my generations ever shifting financial world of savings accounts (or lack thereof), 401Ks and retirement replaced discussion of political thought or who was funnier Animal or Statler and Waldorf of the Muppets. This evolution continued well into my 50s. 

Don't get me wrong, there was laughter and fun but being energized about basic life experiences evaporated. Marveling about the chemistry behind baking a batch of Toll House Cookies gave way to the pressure of just getting it done. Amazingly another shift occurred when I turned 60. I find that I am once again energized by learning and watching life unfold. Joy at living life, being with friends and observing the world around me makes the world feel special. How?  Take winter for example.

Snow blankets our region and biting cold temperatures force thoughtful preparation before heading outside. The tendency is to walk fast with your head down is re-enforce by temperature in the single digits.  As I walked to the car, I stopped in wonderment. The sun was shining and yet, snow as light as the seeds from a dandelion blowball was falling. The new snow was lightly covering the old mounds of snow and sparkled like diamonds. As the wind caught the snow and swirled it through the air, the ice crystals reflected the light to create silver glitter. I was standing in a wind tunnel of glitter surrounded by sparkling diamonds. At that moment, I was astounded by the beauty around me and wanted to share the feeling and moment with everyone. 60 is the new 20 and I am grateful. 



Hibernation As Covert Preparation

by Christine

Do you remember the Hannah and Barbera cartoon character, Yogi Bear? Yogi was a meddlesome bear who was always into something that required Ranger Smith's attention. In a moment of exasperation Ranger Smith said to Yogi:

"Come on, Yogi. Would it really be so hard to be a regular bear?
You know, to forage for food, to walk around on all fours...
to hibernate a little, or a lot."

To which Yogi replied:

"If nature had meant for me to be a regular bear...
it wouldn't have given me such a good thought-cooker, sir."


Yogi hibernate, NEVER! I get it. He's a bear that makes things happen and why waste a minute of time resting or being inactive? Carpe Diem baby! 

All my life I've been like Yogi but as much as I want to siege the day, this winter I've felt the need to hibernate. I don't think it's so much that winter calls for me to embrace a period of rest and reflection as it's a response to the series of losses and changes in my life. My mother's death and my son's accident are just two life altering events that I refused to let slow me down. This past Christmas though, I said enough. I tossed out my to-do list, put aside the blog, dusted off my reading list and started chopping winter vegetables for soup. I now have lunch with friends. I started a book club. My neighbors come over for good conversation and food and drink on these cold, dark evenings.

The result? I am laughing more and have spent time with some really good people. I tell stories about my Mom and Dad without sadness gripping my heart. But most of all, I feel the stirrings of "what next?". There is an excitement when I think of the months ahead. There's happiness in being a "regular" human. 

Growing up, summer in Florida was similar to a period of hibernation. During the brutally hot months of July and August, my parents would take us to Lake Brooklyn for a water vacation. We would swim and water ski until our arms and legs were wobbly. Mom called for rest time after lunch so I would float in the water watching the clouds morph from kittens to trucks to witches with long, hooked noses. In the shade of the porch, I would read biographies of famous Americans one after another until my mother suggested I give another genre a try. This was a period of rest that gave way to action when school started in the fall. As Ralph Ellison wrote, hibernation is a covert preparation of a more overt action.

I'm giving my "thought-cooker" and body a rest. The knowledge that this period of time is brief and will give way to spring soon is ever present. The benefit of slowing down during this leg of the journey is renewed energy.




Overcoming Resistance

by Christine

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That's why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there'd be no Resistance. -Steven Pressfield


Seriously, Lighten Your Load

by Christine

In 1979 Joan Didion published her packing list in her book The White Album. Didion included her must haves for young professional women who traveled extensively. Since I am forever trying to compile the perfect packing list, I immediately sought out her list. The list reads:

To Pack and Wear:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe slippers
bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor,
deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, 
baby oil

To Carry:
mohair throw
2 legal pads and pens
house key

Didion's list is compact with only what would be considered bare necessities by today's standards. I do love the idea of a skirt over a leotard but candidly isn't that what Chico's is all about...stretchy fabric for the 50 plus crowd.

I consider myself a minimalist when it comes to packing and yet, I always travel with more than Didion's allotted two pair of shoes Didion. I pack a pair of running shoes, flip-flops (Are they really even shoes?), a pair of casual shoes and a pair of dress shoes though I don't travel with a pair of robe slippers.

I was amused to see that she traveled with her own bottle of bourbon and that she had to remind herself to take cigarettes. Today, the TSA won't let you carry any receptacle containing more than 3 ounces of liquid through security and smoking on all domestic flights has been banned since 2000.  I did smugly chuckle to myself when I read she lugged around a typewriter when traveling until it dawned on me that I travel with an iPhone, an iPad, a camera and my computer for writing. 

As I age my priorities have changed. I don't carry a big suitcase any more even if it has wheels. Once on a trip to Portugal, I took my largest suitcase. The thing was so big that it wouldn't fit in the trunk of my small foreign rental car. The case rode upright in the backseat like an uninvited chaperone, mocking me the whole trip. Aging bellman struggled to carry this dresser size case up multiple flights of stairs since none of the quaint places I booked had elevators. I was mortified in my belief that the Portuguese were laughing at me behind my back. 

Unlike in the past, I am not opposed to wearing the same thing twice if I have access to a washing machine. Additionally, when I was younger I would travel with my own shampoo and conditioner because well, because my hair was special and I needed special hair care products. Today, I use what's available and if necessary, make a quick run to the store to get what I need. As you can see my specialness wore off with the creation of the TSA and the increased cost of checked luggage. 

In addition to losing the items already mentioned, I would leave behind the mohair throw, the legal pads and files. My flies are on Drop Box, my legal pads are electronic and a mohair throw is a romantic notion that would end up being "just one more thing" to keep up with in the airport. I would add to her list a bathing suit. I take one no matter where I am going because you just never know. 

My biggest tip...keep it light and fly on Tuesday or Wednesday. Oh, also ship your gifts to loved ones early and avoid carrying anything other than a good book on the plane. Don't let struggling with luggage, gifts or mohair throws make the journey stressful. Take a page from Baloo, the bear, from The Jungle Book Look for the bare necessities/The simple bare necessities/Forget about your worries and your strife. Lighten your load both in life and when traveling and you will enjoy your journey more. 




by Christine

As I was leaving the theatre Friday night, an attractive woman behind me began an effusive apology. She said over and over again, “I am so, so sorry.” In an uncharacteristic move, I turned away from her without blurting out the traditional, “that’s okay”. I was not being rude, honestly, I was just confused as to why she was apologizing and needed time to think through my response.

This morning I am still in need of clarification as to why she apologized. If I could speak to her today, this is what I would ask.

Did you apologize because your child kicked the back of my seat for an hour and 15 minutes of a 2 hour performance and the only time you required him to stop was when I or one of the other audience members on either side of me turned to look at him.

Or because you clearly brought your child to an event that was not age appropriate for him and expected him to sit quietly for 2 hours during a show that held no interest for him.

Or because your husband and you interrupted Renée Fleming’s prayerful musical performance as you threatened your child with never being taken any place on the planet again as he giggled maniacally and twisted in his seat doubling the force with, which he kicked the back of my seat. (On a side note:  he would be fine with never going any place again in the future.)

Or were you apologizing because you failed to remove your child from the theatre as a show of respect to the performers or other audience members because a) you paid good money for these tickets and weren’t going to miss the show or b) your child has to learn how to behave and a live broadcast event was just the place to start.

Least you think I am not sympatric to parents trying to raise healthy, happy individuals, who are a positive addition to society, let me share this with you. On Friday, Marty and I were in Home Depot purchasing one more string of holiday lights when a young boy about 4 darted between us in his excitement to get to the next isle. I laughed as his mortified mother apologized as she chased after him. I said, “that’s okay” as I stated I have 7 grandchildren. That was all that needed to be said between a mother and a grandmother.

But here is the difference for those who think I am being too subtle. We were in a well-lit Home Depot, in the Christmas department with sparkly things displayed all around while cheesy holiday music played in the background. This place is designed for kids to giggle, twist and jump up and down. The Town Hall in New York City is not. 

New York City theatre is abundant in its entertainment choices of age appropriate shows for children where children can learn to behave in a theatre and enjoy a show.  I took my granddaughters to see Cinderella and my #1 granddaughter could hardly contain herself during the show. Of course every other 5 year-old girl could hardly sit still with singing and dancing princesses, fairy godmothers and pumpkins that became chariots on stage.  Seat kicking, talking and giggling was expected and dealt with in a good-natured manner.

So parents in the future when you make the decision to blurt out an impromptu apology, I encourage you to be specific. In my case dear one, I didn't know if you were apologizing because your child behaved badly or because you behaved badly?