Sunday, October 10, 2010


My new blog address is
My blog of photography is at

I may continue the blog about the garden at this site for my own edification and the enjoyment of others if they desire to partake.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What does God have to do with it?

There doesn't seem to be a denouement to this endless saga. I want to walk a labyrinth to sort my thoughts, or maybe just walk a long beach and dig my toes in the sand and feel the sun on my body, with the knowledge that no one really needs me. The catch-22. My friend, Ted, once told me that what I will miss most when mom is gone is her needing me.

I called my brother yesterday and shared my angst over a trip to the foot doctor for mom that didn't go well. They made her wait an hour, which included two trips to the bathroom. The first time the light was out in the handicapped restroom, so I took her down the hall to a tiny employee restroom that was so small she couldn't close the door with the walker in the room with her. It also smelled terrible.  She wanted to wipe off the toilet seat before she sat down and I was impatient and insensitive, asking her what she was afraid of. I'm always amazed that she says she no longer wants to be here but does everything possible to prevent her going--flu shots, cleaning off the toilet seat, Vitamin C. There are children dying every day and mom stubbornly gets up off the couch and brushes her teeth, uses her eyedrops, and cleanses her face. Truly, this is an amazing woman.

Thirty minutes later, still in the waiting room, she said she had to go to the restroom again. I took her to the handicapped restroom. They had fixed the light. She went in and I waited by the door. When she came out, the nurse took her back while I used the restroom. I looked at the toilet seat. It was covered with a sheen of crap, left not by mom, but the previous patient whose caregiver had made a half-ass attempt to clean the toilet, but to no avail. Then she left it, not considering who would come along and sit in his crap--as mom did. (I crossed paths with the caregiver and her charge in the hallway right after a very old gentleman had left his gift. As we passed each other she said, "I'm so tired." Got that, honey.)  Mom said she tried to clean the seat, but I knew she couldn't see what was left there for her to sit in. I felt disgusted and embarrassed that I had not checked the seat for her.  The rest of the visit wasn't any better. 

Mom can't hear well. No, correction, she can only hear if you talk directly to her in a very loud voice.  While the nurse was asking me medical questions, mom kept interrupting, not realizing that the nurse was talking. I finally told her I was going to answer some questions for her, and she said, "All right, if you tell me what they are." No, I said.  "She just wants to know what medications you are using." Then, a few minutes later, while the nurse is still asking questions, mom began talking about my shoes. "Those aren't orthopedic shoes, are they?" "No, mom, could we wait to talk about that." When the assistant came in mom said she didn't want the foot rest up, except that's how they are able to take a look at her feet. When the assistant left she was anxious about the wait for the doctor. Then she said, "I know you would probably like to be out in the sunshine on this beautiful day." A sweet sensitive comment that sent me through the ceiling. "No, mom, that's not what I'm thinking. Just please stop talking for a minute." That hurt her feelings, but at least we were quiet for a few minutes. I texted her caregiver to tell her what was going on. She reminded me to breathe.

After my brother and I talked, he said he would call more often. We've had the same conversation a couple of times a year for the past ten years. I want him to engage with my experience, even though I know he really can't. He's not here, and even though he can use his imagination based on a week a year he spends with his mother, there is no way he can enter into this daily experience of being pulled to and fro by the forces of my emotions, the forces of a 101 year old woman who won't, will not, stubbornly refuses to die. As if she has anything to do with it. 

Some say we have choice about when we go. One woman was in an assisted living home. She went down to the desk one morning and said, "I'm going to die today," and went back to her apartment and died. I've asked mom if she's told God she wants to go. "No, she replies, it's in God's hands, it's not my choice." And then I wonder what God has to do with our living and dying. It all seems so arbitrary and accidental, except for birth, which can be planned, but many times is not. I have friends who say they leave the conception of their child up to God. They don't use birth control, get pregnant, and attribute that to God. Well, I suppose if you assume that God made our bodies, then God can be held accountable for conception. But what about the unwanted babies that end up being aborted. Is that in God's plan, too?

As for dying, what about all those children who die early, while thousands upon thousands of people languish in nursing homes, sitting in wheelchairs unaware of their surroundings with few visitors.  I remember visiting my grandfather when he was nearly 100, lying in a nursing home bed. The nurses told me he wouldn't be able to hear me, that he was "gone." Bullshit. I went into my grandfather's room and shouted in his ear. He sat up in bed, asked me about everyone in my life, and then began to dictate a letter. No one had been talking to him, including his daughter, my aunt, who was the administrator of the nursing  home. Maybe she was angry. I don't blame her. My grandfather was a womanizer, she told me. He left the family when she was a child and then much later she was expected to be the caregiver. 

I don't know how to make sense of any of it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tender love

Annie called this morning. Through static lines that were reminiscent of phone lines in the 40s or 50s when phone lines crossed and two conversations could be heard at once, we tried to talk about my writing and mom, and before we could get to their life and what was going on with them we had other people on the line, operator recordings, crackling lines, and finally we had to end the conversation.
It almost felt like we were being sabotaged.
But she told me that she and Stan had premonitions that mom wouldn't be here that much longer.  He had two premonitions and Annie had one. On the third day after their premonitions, they shared their thoughts with each other. I thought it was interesting...perhaps a forewarning to me, because I have stopped, or blocked, premonitions because I had them before and then nothing happened. Now that she is 101 I don't think about it as much...I just do my job of caregiving knowing it could go on for awhile longer. When I think about her dying, I cry, but I was informed by spirit once many years ago that I was to stop crying, that she wasn't gone yet.
Since then I have cried at the length of this journey. I have been impatient and harsh at times, angry at her for things that I didn't need to be angry about, but simply triggered by voice intonations or demands or needs.
I fear mom's death because I fear that I will not be at peace about it, but feel guilt instead. Because I have wanted her to die and know I will miss her. Because I have lost my patience with her even though she has reassured me that, yes, "you have lost your patience, but you have been very patient." Because I will miss her humor and her patting me on the leg and saying, "It will work out."
Although our journey together has been complicated by a host of life events that shaped our interactions, I love her deeply. A mother/daughter dance that didn't feel as much like dancing as fencing, but nonetheless filled with a tender love.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A quiet agony

I receive a weekly email about how to write a successful blog. The latest post advised bloggers to be “upbeat and optimistic” to increase readership. Ben tells me that I should write the way I used to write my columns for the newspaper, humorous and with a point. I tell him I'm not sure how to make the past humorous. There are writers like Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed who find the humor in the horror of the past. I'm not sure how to do it. My point is not to increase readership. The point is to tell the tale. For those who read, know this. You won't laugh. But it's the truth as I know it, which is the point.

Sept. 27
Today I went to mom’s as usual. When I came in she was animated, her eyes sparkling. When I sat down next to her as I do when I go over, she started talking about a birthday remembrance from the third grade. She had invited her teacher to dinner.
“I really liked her and she really liked me,” mom said. “I was the teacher’s pet and Mom made a cake with caramel icing.”
 Then she said she remembered an incident in the fifth grade. I was amazed that not only was her memory so intact, but that she was, after all this time of recalling the past, telling me new stories, ones I had never heard.  The teacher didn’t like her and she didn’t like the teacher.  When the teacher left the room for a moment, a boy scooted over into mom's seat with her. When the teacher returned she was angry and ordered the two of them to stay after school.
Mom said, “I’m not going to do that,” and started for home. Somehow that sounds familiar, like the time she announced to the doctor and nurses after a stroke that she wasn't going to rehab. She told someone to tell the teacher that she was going home to get her mother. 
“The teacher said I was the most ill-bred child,” mom said. Stubborn is more like it. 
“But Papa Strain [mom described Papa Strain as a neighbor friend] lived across the street and he was a member of the school board. He had the teacher, Mrs. Ransom, apologize to my mother.”
Mom went on to recount an eighth grade experience, but I interrupted her. I was feeling claustrophobic, like if I heard one more of her memories I was going to vomit memories. It isn't as if I don't like to hear mom's memories. I am, as I have said, the designated family historian, along with being the designated family caretaker. But a journal entry from 1996, 14 years ago, says, "I'm so tired of hearing mom's memories, I want to hear my own." 
I said, “I don’t remember any of my childhood,” feeling sorry for myself and angry at my feelings. But, of course I remember my childhood. It is told within these pages. But I don't remember birthdays and have few happy memories. I would like to have optimistic and upbeat stories to tell my grandchildren that will make them laugh and think, "Grandma is cool," as this story of mom's fifth grade experience will for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. That is the gift she offers, and that is the gift I offer by recording the stories. I will not share my memories of my childhood with any grandchildren I may have. Instead, they will have to read my blog.  
I felt like a spoiled child. I reminded myself that I have a right to set boundaries on stories that pierce my heart over and over.  I remind myself that this journey with her isn’t just about her. It is my journey, too, my experience of life with mom. I am part of the story. I am not just the caretaker, the one who is here to make sure Grandma is okay. I ask myself, where is the rest of the family to sit with her and listen? 
As if to mollify my feelings, she said, “I’ve told you how I used to hold you. I held you until I couldn’t hold you any longer. You were still missing your father and I was grieving."
That was supposed to make me feel better? It occurred to me that somehow when my father died a pattern was set up of her holding me, and me holding her, us grieving together and me somehow expected to assuage the pain of his passing just as she was trying to assuage the pain of his passing for me. The word “still” resonated. Did she think I ever got over missing my father, especially since I was repeatedly reminded how sad his death was and how he died, "just when things were getting good?”
“Mom, I always missed my father,” I said.
That segued into her guilt over marrying Sam—again. “I thought I was doing the right thing,” she said for the thousandth time. And I thought, how many times must I hear this? How many times must she repeat this quiet agony of knowing she made the wrong choice and how it hurt her children.
“I didn’t want to leave you with a babysitter.” 
Wouldn’t that have been better?
When I asked her if she didn’t rush it by marrying Sam, she said yes, but that she needed a father for her children, that her mother and Sam’s mother knew each other and that he seemed like a good “candidate.” She said that Sam would hold me in the beginning, but that she didn’t know what happened after that.
"I thought he cared,” she said. “It was the “damned liquor,” referring to the changes in him. Or, did he just trick her into believing that he would make a good father.
Mom said she thought he was jealous. “I can’t wait until the ‘we” means us,” Sam once told her. He had taken on a widow and her two children three months after her husband’s death. What did he expect?

Mom recounted the story of getting me dressed one time and hearing my father’s voice when she said, “Oh, I wish you could see her.”
“I see her, honey,” he answered.
“He talked to me twice after that, and I’m not making it up,” she said. She tells the story of how she went to the attorney’s office and she saw him there a couple of times and each time he was a little farther away from her.
“His dying was the saddest thing that could have happened,” she said.
My father had set up his children’s dental practice and was ready to open. Mom had decorated the office in light reds and grays and bought little chairs. He had bought new slacks because he wasn’t going to wear white. He never got to wear them, she said. “Dollard (my aunt’s husband) took them back to the store.”
I never like to cry in front of my mother, but I cried as she told me this new twist in the story. I don’t know what else to say, how else to come to terms with these stories and remembrances. What I need to say that I can’t say is, “It’s all right.” I have said, “Mom, you did the best you could.” I can’t say, “It’s okay, it wasn’t so bad.” I don’t know what else mom needs. Or, what else I have to offer except my daily care and as she calls it, “my ministrations.” 
The sadness of losing my father has permeated our lives. If a good man had come along to replace him, we might have made our peace with his passing, moved on. But a good man did not come along until after we were grown, after Sam was dad, after the damage was done. Instead, a sick man came along, but also a man who provided well for my mother in her old age. How do you slice that one? She is provided for so that the burden of her care is lessened, while I carry the burden of memory of his abuse.
As I prepared to leave that day she said, “Just remember that I always loved you and Stanley more than anything.”
It feels like an agony to hear those words, rather than a joy. It feels like a burden, an unrequited grief, that her love for us never was able to protect us even when she thought she was “doing the right thing.”
Sorry, blog readers, this isn't a funny story. 

Garden update

Yesterday I worked quietly in the garden, weeding, turning compost, feeling the sun on my back, the fresh Indian Summer breeze, hearing the birds singing, Taz keeping me company stealing potatoes I had discovered while weeding. I cut the elms attempting a comeback along the fence. I looked around at all that has to be done for the fall cleanup. Squash bugs burned, straw shredded, irrigation lines taken up, piles of compost contained, trash removed.
As I pondered the amount of work to be done, I ironically decided that next year I will garden by myself, that my experiment with community gardening will be postponed a year at least. The garden is a place of peace for me, a place of quiet and contemplation, a place for me to unwind from everything else occurring in my life.  Gardening with another person has its delights, but it is a different experience.
When I set about writing the blog it was meant to be about the garden and about care taking mom and about planning travels. The blog has been weighted with the stories about mom in recent months, partially because I'm writing in earnest about my life with her. Writing about the garden has been more difficult because it's "our" garden. I can't write of my experience without her needing to be part of the experience. And she and I have had very different experiences.
It's not as if sharing the workload hasn't been fun and practical. Nor does this decision take away from the delight my friend and I experienced in the garden together. My gardening friend and I did well, for the most part. She took great joy in this first experience with vegetable gardening, after many years experience as a flower gardener, and I would not want to diminish that in any way.
But I've never felt a complete peace about it. My time in the garden outweighed her time and I would find myself feeling resentful, then selfish, then petty. I would ruminate, telling myself how much I appreciated her help.  Then she would come out and say, "Gosh, this is so much fun. This has been so much easier than I thought it would be." She would take delight, while I would struggle with my feelings, not sharing them with her because I didn't want to rain on her parade.
I want to share freely the bounty of the garden without having to check in with someone else. I want to be able to freeze everything I want to freeze, or dry everything I want to dry, without feeling that I am shortchanging someone else. I don't want to have to call someone and say, "The zucchini are ready, the tomatoes are ready," so that if I harvest them and give them away I'm doing something wrong.
So, I will garden next year on my own, trusting that the little people and the garden fairies will be my companions, that when I need help Ben will be there and that together we will continue to create the peace of gardening.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Connections and perspectives

Jay and Ben, Mary, Sydney, Lindsay and Chris

One of the remarkable events of the past year, a year of connections and new perceptions, was the wedding of Chris, Ben's nephew, to Lindsay Barnes, last week in Colorado. Ben's brother Jay had initially discouraged us from coming to the wedding because it was so far and we wouldn't have time to visit with everyone. Ben hadn't seen Chris in 15 years, nor had he seen his niece, Sydney. I had met neither, except for a conversation with Sydney when she encouraged us to come to the wedding. Jay's perception that coming to celebrate a wedding 30 miles into the mountains of Colorado for a few hours was not a good idea. He was right, but that was before he realized that it was going to be a three-day soirĂ©e. We drove four days there and back and spent three wonderful days eating and talking and hanging out and reconnecting and getting to know one another. It was a blast, a remarkable wedding event, punctuated by a Francis family reunion. Ben got to see Chris and Sydney for the first time in 15 years and reconnect with others. I met all of them for the first time, including Jay's ex-wife, Mary, and her sister, Jenny. 
Wedding guests were mingling in the living room a few nights before the wedding in the mountain cabin where Chris and Lindsay and some of the other guests were staying. Food had been served and Mary and I were getting to know each other over a meal at an oak table that was a barn door in a previous life.  Mary and I began to talk about Ben and Jay's parents, Jim and Alice, or Jefe and Chula, as they were affectionately called, who had died 30 years before. Up until that moment I had only heard Ben's understanding of his parents' decision to sink their boat in Monterey Bay, marking their 42nd anniversary and their life-long agreement to "sail off into the sunset," and end their lives before ending up in a nursing home. "Since Jim suffered his stroke...he is just not able to be happy," Alice writes in a farewell letter mailed to Ben, but addressed to Jay, Mary and Chris. 
When I first heard the story early in my relationship with Ben I was angry. His father may have had a stroke, but I didn't understand how they could leave. My own mother is 101 and since she turned 90 she has seen me marry Ben, my brother marry Annie, me and Jared graduate from college, and the birth of two great grandchildren. Even though her third husband was defined as soulmate she has outlived him by 23 years. As I have written about caregiving mom, I have considered Jefe and Chula's choices, a choice that many would like to make but would not have the courage to make.
But if Alice was healthy, as is speculated, how could she leave her family, I questioned Ben. He rationally and patiently explained that he and Jay always knew and understood that their parents were together in life...and in death. They made a choice to die together because they could not face life without the other and they also could not face life in care facilities, dependent on other people. Alice briefly explains that she had been able to ignore "lumps, aches and pains," because of their decision. 
It was still an unsolvable mystery. I admired Ben and Jay's lack of anger and bitterness and their ability to extend grace to their parents. But Ben's rendition was one-dimensional. The story the fisherman told who saw the boat go down was one-dimensional.  Just like the different perceptions of those who show up at the scene of an accident, I had not yet met those with a different story to tell, a different perception than Ben or Jay. 
Mary said she had been close to Alice, and then, there it was, a new perception, a new angle, another dimension to the mystery. "I was pregnant with Sydney when they died." I had not realized how surprised I would be by this new revelation or how it would impact me. 
Once again I had to rewrap...or rewarp, as the case may mind around their choice, especially Alice's. In her letter, she refers to her one wonderful grandchild. But what about the other one, Alice?  I stared at Mary, tears in my eyes. I was speechless. "How could she?" reverberated in my mind. Another day, Mary said she had been devastated but had to be strong for Jay and Chris. Sydney had vomiting problems when she was a small baby, creating more stress in the family.
Sydney and I had already connected on the phone and continued getting to know each other over the weekend. On the day before the wedding she and I drove alone to Steamboat Springs for a wedding shower for Lindsay. Before we left for the shower we sat on the back porch and talked about our mothers. Another night we drank beer in our trailer by candlelight with her Uncle Ben and I and talked about her grandmother and her choices. She listened as Ben explained that he hadn't been angry as Mary had remembered. Grieving yes, but not angry. 
Sydney said she felt an affinity for her grandmother and wants to write a book about her and the family, that she wants to understand the un-understandable.  I had observed Sydney and her mother having a good time together, but also a hard time, a karmic journey they began a long time ago with more to come. 
I wondered once again, but now with more poignancy, if Alice had seen the future and how her decision would impact those she loved if she would have still made the choice she did. If she could feel regret, would she? I think Jefe would still have made the choice. But I'm not so sure about Alice.  But then perhaps that's just my wishful thinking, my mother's heart, my desire for grandchildren, and not being in her shoes. 
I choose to believe that Alice would have been looking forward to her grandchild, the beautiful woman with the blue eyes that remind people of Jefe and others of Alice. But something even more powerful than a grandmother's love drew Alice in another direction.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Poisoned Chalice

But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions,
 which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.  William Shakespeare, MacBeth.

I sat next to my mother in the pew as the priest intoned the Eucharist. Light filtered through stained glass, Jesus on the Cross, illuminating the altar and the flowers set there by my mother or some other devout altar guild member. I’m not sure why I agreed to go to church with my mother. But my stepfather was dead and I had not attended his funeral or bothered to visit him while he lay sick in a hospital bed. My mother was a widow a second time. It was the least I could do. And I was sure that going to church with her was a small piece of making things okay for her. She would have been hurt if I had refused.
After my divorce I had driven around in my blue volkswagon bus for two years, working for four to six weeks at a time and then moving on, in circles, from Utah to Idaho to Washington and then down the coast to San Diego, visiting my mother and brother and sister-in-law and nephews until I felt crazy and confused and then I would hop in my bus and leave. Eventually I spun off the circle and sold the bus and went to Iowa to work at the Maharishi International University where I went a little crazier before landing back in San Diego.  
I felt edgy, as if I might get up and walk out. Instead, I sat while she directed me to turn this page or that page, or hold the hymnal while we sang hymns, her beloved hymns she said she remembered and later sang in her head, just as she remembered passages of Longfellow’s Evangeline she learned in high school and would later recite to me when she was a centenarian. I would turn and see her mouth moving and hear the notes and words and watch her face and feel vaguely irritated.
We were to take communion. I wanted to stay in the pew, but if I had my mother would have been embarrassed.  “What would people think?” Instead, I went forward and knelt at the railing with my mother. The priest walked toward me, his hands holding the bread, the body of Christ, my hand outstretched to receive it. When I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church at age 10, I never was sure whether or not it was really His body. Some churches believe in the transmutation of the bread to body, the wine to blood. I just knew it was supposed to be cool, and I was proud to be participating in an adult ritual. Sitting beside my mother at the age of 27, irritated and distracted, there was still something about the ritual that reached me.
The priest walked the line of supplicants, offering up the body of Christ to tongues extended like birds in a nest waiting for nourishment. Stepping away, the priest went to the altar to prepare the wine, the blood of Christ, the infusion of life, the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of all that had gone before. I so wanted that. I wanted my life back, my innocence restored, my mother and brother returned to me from alcohol that isolated me from them, my family whole. Could the blood of Christ do that for me? I could only hope.
The priest walked to the head of the line at the altar, slowly offering upturned lips the hope that this would be the day they would feel the newness, the refreshment from the blood of Christ. The priest approached my mother who took the cup. Then, he stood in front of me, lifting the cup. Before me, a specter. Engraved on the side of the chalice, was the name of my stepfather, “In memory of Samuel Solleder.”
The way the dream plays out, I refuse the cup, stand up, and walk silently from the church, never to return, either to my family or to the church. I walk out into the sunlight, free. I’m alive, not because of the blood of Christ having washed me free, because I don’t take the cup. I walk away from the memory of the man who abused me, away from the mother I love who would sit next to me as I drink the bitter cup, the blood of Christ, in memory of the man who had shamed me and criticized me and used me and then acts as if everything is all right. I could not reconcile the two.
If this was even-handed justice, then I had received it all. The blood, the hand, the words, the touch of evil.
There’s a second dream. I take the cup from the priest, I bring my arm back, the wine spilling on the floor behind me, staining the carpet, the supplicants gasping. My arm comes forward in slow motion, the poisoned chalice leaves my hand and arcs, twisting in the air, the priest’s eyes are wide, aghast at this unseemly turn of events. The chalice falls through the air, slamming into the lovely stained glass window, the glass shattering, Jesus falling silently to the floor in shards, one eye staring up at me from a broken piece of stained glass. I turn and walk out.
Instead, ... my own blood rushing in my ears, anger and hurt and confusion tumbling my thoughts, I take the cup, the blood of Christ. Through my tears I have begun the journey of forgiveness. I just didn't know how long it would take.