Letting go

Saturday night was my worst in weeks.

I woke at 2 a.m. and spent hours in a futile struggle to rewind the clock to New Year’s. As 2015 dawned, I was looking forward to the college football championship game, some ambitious new projects at work and imagining how Joe and I would spend our 40th anniversary in April. I wanted to make the milestone a special one.

The fates had other plans, of course, and now there is a new nightmare: My brother-in-law has stage 3 lung cancer and it is inoperable. What next?

My mind churned on all this ’til 8 a.m., when I emailed the VA chaplain, begged off my Sunday morning volunteer assignment, asked for prayers and fell asleep at last.

Tense and tired when I finally woke, I didn’t expect that this would be the day I would take another big step toward letting go. It happened as I reorganized our impenetrable bedroom closet. I simply needed more storage space.

So drawer by drawer, I emptied Joe’s dresser of his T-shirts and socks and underwear.

I recalled how he handsome he looked in his favorite blue-striped polo shirt. I remembered how he hated squeezing into one I favored that had grown snug with repeated washings. I recalled how I used to stack his clothes on the bed every morning, boxers and T-shirt on top of his slacks and his shirt, so he could dress himself without puzzling over what to put on first and what came next.

I set aside some keepsakes, but as plastic bags filled with his things, I felt a burden ease. One more task crossed off the to-do list. Friends said it must have been hard.

Truth be told, it wasn’t, really. I choked up a little when I realized that this was going to be the day, but I didn’t cry. The work felt more purposeful than painful, like a natural next step in working through my grief. Tomorrow I will take another and deliver the bags to Goodwill.

I think I’ll sleep more soundly tonight.

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Retirement rhythms and regrets

Two weeks in, I’m settling into a retirement rhythm.

— Sleep till 8. (Unless the landscapers crank up the mowers at 7:30, in which case cuss a blue streak!)

— Coffee, newspaper and computer games on the porch till 9-ish. (Essential to brain health!)

— Walk a mile or more. Smell the honeysuckle and new-mown grass. (Free aromatherapy!)

— Do something (anything!) productive. (So far, I’ve arranged a train trip with my granddaughter, paid bills and enrolled in Cobra — all tasks with deadlines of one sort or another. Still procrastinating on closets and dealing with Joe’s things — no deadlines, no urgency.)

— Eat dinner during the afternoon. Walk it off after the “CBS Evening News.”

— Retreat to the porch until dark.

— Write when the muse strikes.

I’m a Type A so this may be as close as I ever get to relaxing.

I do believe that the worry lines etched by years of newspapering and caregiving are softening just a tad. Will I ever achieve that rested, calm countenance that news refugees always seemed to have when they visited the paper? Probably not. Unless Cobra covers Botox. (But wouldn’t it be nice?)

Regrets? Of course. These are a few I’m trying to work through now that I have the time to reflect:

— Joe wanted me to retire. I wanted to squirrel away more money. I wish I hadn’t let my greed trump his wish for more time together. Who knew we had so little left?

— I wish I hadn’t been more attentive to career than to family over the years. So not worth it in the end.

— Most of all, I wish I hadn’t been so impatient and so unkind.

I pray God will help me let go of the regrets I can’t do anything about and that He will help me become a patient and kind old lady.

(PS: A little divine intervention with my worry lines would be welcome, too.)

‘The parts of dying nobody talks about’

A former colleague, Matthew Teague, writes in the May issue of Esquire magazine about his 34-year-old wife’s struggle with cancer and “the parts of dying that nobody talks about.”

Read his eloquent essay here: http://tinyurl.com/kpkke38

Life in the USA, a fascinating website about American culture, says other cultures around the world regard death as a natural part of life, while the American way is denial. Simply put, Americans don’t like to talk about it.

Matthew’s essay is graphic and compelling — and it will help advance the conversation about end-of-life care.

Please read it and recommend it to your family and friends, and if it moves you, please share your thoughts in a comment.

A wandering mind but not a wandering body

A photo of a missing veteran with dementia popped up on my Facebook news feed today, posted in hope that someone might have seen the man and could help him find his way home.

I pray he is safe and has already been reunited with his loved ones. Imagine their horror to find him missing.

I am grateful that this never happened to us. Joe was simply too debilitated from Parkinson’s disease to wander off and get lost. It was also the result of a difficult but deliberate choice.

The regimen of 12 pills a day that had helped keep Joe limber and able to walk for a number of years was turning his mind to mush. After he failed a driving test — twice! — and couldn’t remember how to fasten his seatbelt during a lesson, we demanded a cognitive evaluation. The tests determined he had moderate to severe dementia.

The neurologist warned us never to leave him unattended. He also told us to wean Joe off his pills ASAP. The medicine that had helped him get around was no good for someone with dementia, he said. After a difficult withdrawal, we tried several replacements and even brain surgery, but nothing did as much to improve Joe’s mobility as the verboten medication.

Finally, the neurologist said we could treat Joe’s movement at the expense of his cognition — or we could keep his mind sharper at the expense of his mobility. We couldn’t do both. It was our choice.

We chose mind over mobility.

Joe would never be able to wander away. And for a while longer, he would be able to share his worries, his joys and his offbeat sense of humor. He would also be able to understand when we told him we were only trying to keep him safe because we loved him very much.

And that was the best prescription of all.

I’m Carole and I’m a recovering workaholic…

Today is the second Monday of my retirement, and I’ve got to say, so far it is not what I expected.

Before my last day on the job, I made ambitious plans, signing up for five classes at the community college, packing my calendar with a bunch of long-postponed appointments and vowing to give every closet at Casa Carole a thorough going over.

I would walk a mile in the morning, a mile at midday and a mile in the evening. The 7 pounds that have taken up residence on my hips and thighs would melt away, and I would return triumphant to the “skinny” side of my clean, reorganized closet.

That was the plan anyway.

So far, I’ve taken one walk. The closets remain untouched and impenetrable.

Appointments are being kept, but the night classes have now been spread out over a few months instead of a few weeks and will be much closer to home. The first one required an hour-long commute during evening rush and an even longer trip home in the dark of night. By day four, I was so wiped out from hurrying around that I napped twice — and then slept all night too.

I feel like a hyperactive hamster hurled, suddenly, off its ever-spinning treadwheel — off kilter and a little confused. The abrupt absence of daily deadlines and demands is dazzling.

No stories to edit. No husband waiting at the nursing home, eager but impatient for my visit. No rush to wash, dry, fold, dust, scrub or even cook. No need to bookend a day or week at the office with more work at home.

Today, it dawned on me that I’m not shackled to anybody’s schedule now. For the first time in my adult life, I can do pretty much what I want, when I want. And what I want right now is a taco salad, a glass of wine and a good book.

Oh, and a clear calendar.

I’ll worry about filling it one of these days, when I get a mind to.

I’m NOT your mother!

This is my first Mother’s Day without Joe — another milestone in the first year after his death.

I made it through Valentine’s Day, his birthday and our wedding anniversary,  but Mother’s Day is different. I’m not going to go on and on about how happy Joe and I were when we became new parents and how proud our son made us all these years — though it’s all true.

Actually, Mother’s Day calls to mind something I hadn’t thought about in quite a while. Like many husbands, Joe called me “Mom” or, in speaking with our son, “Our Mom.” No matter how many times I reminded him that I was not his mother, it persisted throughout our lives together.

Was his gentle needling Joe’s way of feeling more youthful? Or perhaps making a bride nine years his junior feel “old, old, old,” as I teased in response?

Maybe a little of both, I think.

Either way, the banter was sweet and familiar. I miss it today.

Meaningful messages, not coincidences

My friend Cindy cheered me up the other day with an invitation to lunch, a cherished Scripture and a greeting card with a message that was “just right” on a difficult day.

“You may not know exactly where the road is leading,” the card said, “… or what the days may bring, or how you’ll manage them … but there is one thing you can know for sure … you’ll always have the help and support of people who care — people like me.”

Cindy is one of many supportive friends who have come into my life since a change of jobs brought me to North Carolina 15 years ago. Somehow, each has managed to say or do just the right thing at the very time when it was most needed. I refuse to believe that their appearance in my life is sheer coincidence.

It was surely no coincidence to be assigned to a team at my new job with Burgetta, Gene and Teresa.

Burgetta’s strong Christian example and repeated invitations to join her at church led to my Baptism on Easter Sunday 2004. She also introduced me to Cindy, whose patience, determination and grace in raising a son with a debilitating muscle disease have been an inspiration.

That same team included Gene, whose wife, a retired school principal, would develop Alzheimer’s. I am sure it was no coincidence when Gene dropped her off at an adult day care center at the very hour I arrived, reluctantly, to enroll Joe, who by then could not be left alone while I was at work. A familiar smile and a hug assured me I was not alone.

That team also included Teresa, the friend I trusted first with my suspicion that Joe was developing cognitive problems.

And it was surely not coincidence that of all the hairdressers around, I found Eric, who along with my monthly color and cut encourages my walk with the Lord. For better or worse, his suggestion that I share my journey led to this blog.

I can’t imagine what I would do without them.

If  someone you know is hurting, please follow my friends’ example and be there. Trust that your smile, hug or words spoken from the heart will be just right — just as it was with Cindy’s card. In it, she shared one of her favorite Bible verses. May it encourage you as much as it does me.

For know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11