Beyond Scylla: Debbie Beaufort

I’m writing a series of novels: the Seeking Scylla series. Some characters dance on the edges of the narratives. Some never make it in. In Beyond Scylla blogs, I share stories and vignettes about these characters.

Debbie Beaufort

You wake next to him. Today’s the day, you tell yourself. Today. Today I’ll leave him.

“But I don’t understand,” he’ll plead.

And you don’t either. You just know.

You know so many things, and this —doing this today or any other day— doesn’t make sense.

“But I love you.”

“I know you do.”

And somewhere in your misaligned heart, you know you love him, too.

“Is it because of your mom?”

This line of questioning will make today easier.

“I think it’s time to institutionalize her,” he told you a few months ago, at the end of a long, difficult day.

You weren’t ready. She wasn’t ready. You’d know when it was time.

You know so many things, but you don’t know why today is the day you come out, the day you betray your heart. She tried, but she’s not in it.

But you know you have to do this for her. You will empty your bed, empty your home of other hearts. You will listen for your own.

Starting today.

Because your heart’s not aligned.

You slip out of bed without waking him. Your heart catches, tender watching his unsuspecting chest rise and fall with each breath above his heart. You avoid the creaky planks as your dainty toes tip through this old house. It’s becoming ramshackle. No one tends to the details that holds it together like your dad did. Does he watch with a broken heart?

Dad was still more than bones when Bates moved in. He wasn’t the handy sort and the bones of the house trembled as the decay set in.

Yet Bates was good for your mom. Their hearts seemed aligned. But were they? Lloyd thinks your heart is aligned.

You peek into your mom’s room. Still asleep. The meds help.

Who will she look for today? Dad? Bates? Her parents?

Your foot accidentally lands on a creaky board. You pause, arms in the air, listening. Not a creature stirs.

You’ll ask Lloyd to leave today. Leave so you can leave him. You’ll stay with mom until you can’t. Maybe on the other side of all the leaving, you’ll know, you’ll make sense of why, what’s missing, what’s in your heart. Or not in it.

Sadness tangles in your chest, constricting your throat, tightening your jaw. He’ll cry. He loves you. He’ll be confused, resigned. But not angry. His love is true.

How long will your heart seek before she finds her true?

Mom won’t know. The knowing is over. When it’s time, the not-knowing will help. She’ll have more attention there. You’ll visit. She won’t know who you are.

You take your coffee on the back porch. The screens are dingy. Dilapidated house. The wood a shabby chic mottle of age and chipped paint without the chic.

The morning is still dark. You sit, wait for the light, and listen for your heart.

Is she my shadow or my light?

One day you’ll know.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

In the Weeds

I don’t think this is elder abuse. Sure, she’s pulling my weeds, but she likes to pull weeds. Give her a weed in the garden over a western from the recliner any day!

Mom is the doing (not the sitting) kind, and this is something she can still do.

We’re in the weeds.

My tribe is stoic. But this year has chipped the veneer from our stoic stones. The last time I cried in the car alone like I did tonight was the night I knew my marriage was over. I was on my way to meet mom at the halfway point to pick up my kids, a 45-minute drive. I was talking to my husband’s uncle. We both knew. We were both heartbroken. I pulled over to collect myself before I met mom at Wendy’s. I didn’t want her to see it. She saw it. I could see it in her face.

Tonight, the tears are for her. Her face is mostly empty now.

Letting go of someone you love is so damn hard.

I knew I was more frazzled than usual this visit to the farm, but I didn’t expect the tears. I don’t cry. That’s a lie, but you know what I mean. It’s rare. There was a sunset before I left. My phone camera didn’t capture all the magnificence, but I snapped the image anyway. I wanted to capture the moment that I knew would hold me during this shift. A shift south.Sunsert

Maybe it was the song playing, maybe the shift I saw, maybe because earlier today she spent thirty minutes trying to explain something on the floor that… fell? she lost? she saw? I’ll never know.

I’ll repeat it because I need to remember: letting go of someone you love is so damn hard. It’s OK to suddenly ugly cry.

I considered arriving home after three weeks away with swollen eyes or pulling over before reaching home to regroup, but Rosie, my cat, was periodically hurling in her crate next to me, Venus and Bernice were panting (ew, dog breath) in the back.

I’d have to regroup, calm down as I drove. In that very thought, my friend texted me. I had Chiara (my Subaru) “read” me the message.

“Hey. I’ve been thinking about you. Missed you today.”

I’m with my friends in the weeds.

I hit the call button on the screen.

Five minutes in, she asked about mom.

“It’s bad… I don’t break down…”

But I did. Again on the phone.

I hated it at first, but, you know what? It was exactly the moment I needed.

I was about an hour away from home when I called her. We didn’t fix anything over the phone. My mom’s still broken. But I was able to arrive, dry faced, no swollen eyes, and present. Sure, we talked about the difficult week. I was a little stoic and a little vulnerable. But the chat helped.

I also arrived home to two packages. Gifts from friends! One high school friend. One work friend. The best part: absolutely no occasion.

Leading up to falling apart as I drove, I spent a week with friends on the beach in a friend’s home. They were in the weeds with me. I don’t always know it in the moment, but I know… my friends save me.

Don’t underestimate the impact your friendship has on your friends. My friends buoyed me during a difficult spell.

When I take mom to my weed-ridden beds, I know that’s what I do: she bobs up for a moment. She has something to do. Even if she doesn’t understand why, I know, we know, she feels better pulling the weeds.

I asked her yesterday if she ever swore at the weeds when she pulled them.

She looked at me with clear eyes (that’s a thing when an Alzheimer’s patient buoys, you can see it in their face):

“Yes.”

There was a “Doh!” lilt to her answer.

I think the words I use to swear at the weeds are more colorful than hers, but I feel a little better about myself knowing she at least says, “Dadblameit!” as she yanks at the stubborn ones.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.

Navigating the Dark

You wake. It’s dark, but you know you’re in an unfamiliar room.

Was I asleep?

You pat your hands on the bed covers. They’re hard, heavy. Like your grandmother’s old quilts, not the down comforter cloud you favor.

It’s so dark.

Your eyes don’t adjust and no shapes or forms emerge.

Is there a lamp?

You lean to one side, but the bed goes on and on, beyond your reach.

You lean to the other. Quilt and mattress for miles.

You crawl towards the foot and reach. Bed. More bed.

Then back to the pillows.

Weren’t there pillows?

Your motions become frantic as you search the darkness for your pillow. When you pause, panting now, you’re not sure which way you’re facing. Where is the header? The footer? The sides?

You always preferred the left side of the bed, but you gave it up because he did too.

Where is he?

You sit up, call his name in the dark. Your voice falls like a thud, muffled in the darkness of quilt and endless bed. No echo. No resonance. No one else.

You fumble for something to throw, to test the space. Your fingers find nothing, nothing but the heavy cover you can’t collect because it stretches endlessly. Heavy.

You’re not made for this darkness. Yet you know you must adapt, even if only to find the light.

You collapse against the dark firm mattress and pull the quilt to your quivering chin. Tears won’t help. You wipe the moisture from your face with the edge of the quilt.

The edge!

Head, foot, sides! This is one edge!

You sit up and tug on the edge, heavy, resistant. You tug from the left, then the right. Equally stubborn. But you’re holding the edge, an edge that might lead to a corner, another edge.

You stand, wobbling on the mattress, but the heaviness of the quilt brings you to your knees.

I’ll crawl along the edge.

Which way? You panic a moment.

I prefer the left side.

Then you begin. A crawling journey, your right hand sliding along the edge of the quilt, in search for another edge. Maybe you’ll bump into a lamp, fall off the dark bed. Into the light. You push your knees through the dark toward something more. Meaning? Answers that are neither promised or predictable?

Nothing is certain. But moving through stills your quivering chin and quiets the air that pumps through your lungs.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

They Come at Sundown

SundownSundown syndrome: increased memory loss, confusion, agitation, and even anger, experienced at sunset.

“I’m scared!” She raises both hands and shakes them at her reflection in the mirror.

“It’s OK. I’m here. You’re just tired. Let’s go to bed.”

She’s said this at other times, but reflecting on it, mostly at sunset. This is her her sundown experience.

I’m not sure what scares her.

What did I forget to do? as she brushes her teeth a third time.

Where should I go next? as she applies something to her skin, not always the right thing.

I reassure her she’s ready for bed, and she leaves the bathroom reluctantly.

This morning, I wake up, and it hits me: she’s afraid she won’t wake up.

A couple of years ago, I took mom to the hospital to visit her sister, who was battling her own Bull: the cancer bull. Most visits, my aunt tread in the positive, splashed around pools of hope. That day, she broke down.

“I’m so scared.”

I sat next to her. I didn’t know what to say. It’s all right, would be stupid. It wasn’t all right. I took her hand and said “I know,” even though I didn’t. How can we know the chambers of another person’s mind, the dark corners that terrify them, the dance of shadows that confuse them?

It’s OK.

What dribble from my lips! It’s not OK. Sure, I’m here, but dark rooms in her mind are not OK. Of course she’s scared! Who wouldn’t be?

Tucking yourself into bed befuddled. Sleeping in fits and starts, startled by ghosts of thoughts, fuzzy fears. Are you fighting the ghosts and fears in your dreams, grabbing what broken tools you can find and beating at the phantoms?

Sundown and bed time are scary.

When she goes to bed, she doesn’t roll to her side or curl into a fetal cuddle. She lies on her back, slightly propped, face to the ceiling, chin firm, hands at her sides, sometimes on her abdomen, poised to jump up and fight. What’s that in her clenched fists? Weapons to battle the shadows in her head? What is she thinking as she surrenders her body to bed?

The last night mom was at the beach with me, I reached out and took her hand, one of the hands that a few minutes prior was shaking at her reflection in the mirror to illustrate “I’m scared.” She stayed in her ready-to-fight position, tense, poised. She squeezed my hand and held on until we both fell asleep.

I wish I could sweep into those dark chambers, flood them with light and remembering, clear them of cobwebs and shadows, flush the fears that taunt her. But I can’t. I can’t stop the bull, fix her broken, mend her mind. I can only hope that holding her hand, reminding her I’m here, and finding things to do will quiet the demons, pacify the scary bull that comes at sundown.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

Alive for the moments

It’s moments like these…

I’m kicking up a cloud, scrambling to ready for a trip to the beach, close up my house —but not too much because my pets will be here—, water plants, pack clothes, food, my bike…

My phone rings. The farm is calling.

“Hello.”

“Is this Pennie?”

“Yes.”

“Is this Pennie?”

A little louder so she can hear, “Yes, this is Pennie.”

“This is Martha. Remember me?”

Sometimes it’s hard to know if she’s joking —she still does sometimes— or confused.

“Of course I remember you, Mom,” still loud so she can hear.

I “hear” as her mouth and tongue scramble for the words. She’s not joking. “I don’t think I can… I don’t know…”

She’s always unsure before a trip.

“I’m still packing. I’ll be up to get you as soon as I shower.”

“OK.”

I double up my packing pace. Somewhere I have a list, but I wing most of it. In high school, I took home the Hustle and Desire award twice. When you’re the couch’s daughter, you have to show up double.

I’m still the coach’s daughter.

At her house, I help mom with the last minute things. She might be anxious, but sometimes in these moments, she’s spot on.

“I’m worried about my…. ” she lifts her pant legs and points at her feet.

“You’re right, Mom. I didn’t pack your shoes yet.”

We pull her small suitcase through the house.

Two questions on repeat.

“How long will we be gone?”

“Three nights.”

“Oof,” as if something socked her belly.

“How many?”

She’s asking about the people.

“Four or five of us.”

She loves gatherings, but too many is too many. Four or five is comfortable.

A birthday moment

Today is dad’s birthday. I wanted both mom and dad to come with us to the beach, just spend a couple of nights. I wanted to charter a fishing trip for dad’s birthday. But dad’s not going. Too many things going on.

“Well, if you can’t go, at least let me take mom for a couple of days. That will be your birthday present. A few days to yourself.” I know dad needs a break. Keeping up with mom is hard work.

“That’s the perfect present.” And he means it.

I explain for the fifth or fifteenth time as I pull onto the highway, “Don’t worry. We packed last night. I have your clothes, your toothbrush, your shoes…”

She grabs my hand and shakes it in the air, like a victory shake.

She relaxes for a few moments, but I know the anxious questions will return. I will answer patiently. Every single time. I’m the coach’s daughter.

It doesn’t require many moments before the payoff for patience kicks in. These are the moments I can give her.

Crossing the bridge over the Pearl River basin, she points and declares, “This is beautiful.”

It absolutely is, and this is a beautiful day for a drive.

A moving cluster of west-bound cars and trucks, “Look. All the cars!” She marvels at crowds of any kind, a little horrified if she’s too close to them.

“Yes, lots of people out on this lovely day.”

Here for the moments

The sun, the blue sky, the bright green of the trees, the bridges, these are moments that quicken mom’s mind. Not enough to cure, not enough to last. But for a few moments, she’s sitting above the Alzheimer‘s monster, she’s enjoying life.

The first three days of my semi-vacation will be a lot of hustle, patience, and desire. Mom will get up five or six times each night, turn on lights, brush her teeth three more times. She’ll apologize when I bring her back to bed.

“It’s OK, Mom.” And I mean it, because we’re going to capture a few more moments when the sun comes up.

And dad… Dad can have a few moments to himself as I try on this 24-7 experience with mom’s ALZ river.

We don’t get to hold the good moments in our hands, place them on a mantle for display. Mom won’t remember most of them, unless, in another moment, something wakes it, like on I-10, when she remembered, “We were here not long ago.”

“Yes, a month ago, when we went to Alabama.”

I’m the coach’s daughter. I can’t fix this mess we’re in, but I can give mom and dad moments. like these.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

What are these days?

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…

Is it already Wednesday?

What are these days?

Anchors?

Stepping stones?

Rushing past you.

You past them?

It’s already… Thursday?

You’re dizzy.

Jumping from anchored boat to anchored boat.

You can’t stop. They won’t stop.

Tripping from stone to stone through the week. The months. The seasons…

I can’t believe it’s already September!

… as you open windows to the pre-October breezes.

Just yesterday you were collecting the logs…

I’ll build a fire against the cold winds of February.

January, February, March, April, …

They won’t stop.

September? I can’t believe it’s almost October!

Anchors that ground you or burdens that mire you in the quag?

I still didn’t… Where did the months go? 

Stepping stones that guide you or obstacles that tangle your legs?

You can’t stop. They won’t stop.

I can’t jump high enough to clear the bramble of August! I still didn’t…

You curse the Monday.

Where did the weekend go?

You scowl at Wednesday.

I’m so far behind.

You clench your teeth through the Friday, lists, plans…

Dizzy you jump through the hours until you collapse at the feet of Sunday.

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

They won’t stop.

I want to stop! 

You cling to each day, power poles rising from the rushing river,

You flounder, grab the next, then flail to the next…

They won’t stop. You gasp for oxygen.

Limp, you collapse in the rush of the waters, colliding against the days.

Boom, that was Monday.

Bump your head against Tuesday.

Wednesday knocks the wind from your lungs.

What are these days?

They won’t stop. From stone to the next stepping stone. Day to day, and over again.

The days and weeks are swallowed by the rush of September. And it’s December and the months are swallowed by the year. And over again.

To where? Round and round… in circles?

Enough!

Begin again.

Energy of your arms. Push yourself up. Monday. January.

This time…

Throw out anchors of your own!

This is my Monday. I call it D-Day. Tuesday is Q-day. Hello, Wednesday, it’s B-day. Today we Blog.

Stand steady on your stepping stones.

Listen up, September, this is my year. River be damned. 

Plant your own power poles above the crashing waters, the waters that won’t stop.

Steady your boat in the current. Dig the oars in the stream to make the days your own. Claim the power of the waters as you navigate through the stones, the seasons, the year.

What are these days?

Embrace the quiet peace of a moment you make your own, find your flow in the days.

These are my days.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved

Used Books

I arrived excited. I found all the books! Laforet, Cela, Delibes, Martín Gaite, Goytisolo…

This is going to be a great semester!

I love novels and these novelists would take me back to a place in time, my Spain.

Our professor stopped to admire my stack of novels at the end of class.

“I was able to find all but one used!”

That’s exciting for a grad student squeezing all her pennies.

“And in these all the important passages are already highlighted!” I bubbled as I opened one of the books to show her the streaks of florescent yellow.

“Careful with that,” she said. “We don’t all read for the same reasons.”

“Oh? But the important parts… ”

“Are not the same for everyone.”

She took my novel and flipped through it.

“She might highlight the cleverly camouflaged references to the Civil War. He underscored the metaphors about gay communities. Maybe what’s significant to you are the alliterations… the ones that make the passages roll off the tongue like poetry.”

I do enjoy well-placed poetry in prose.

Life is a used book. We’re not the first to fall in love, we’re not the first to shatter on the rocks of heartbreak. We’re not the first to raise a child, to find a friend, to lose a loved one.

We live used stories. But we make our used books our own, stopping to mark and chew on the words that resonate within us.

After class, I stopped at the coop again to buy an orange highlighter.

I wish I could let that professor know, find her and tell her how much she taught me about life that sunny afternoon in Prescott Hall.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

 

 

 

Caregiver’s Note to Self: You’re Enough

I began documenting this uncertain journey four years ago next month. My words are often reminders, a big fat note to self, because I mostly write for myself. I also write to honor my parents, to lift them on the journey. My hope is to connect with other caregivers and empathetic readers through my words. To lift them.

Note to self: This is damn difficult.

A few days ago, a friend who was also an Alzheimer’s caregiver for her mom, wrote to me:

Been reading your blogs —tough times. Brings back memories, it can be so damn difficult & exhausting. Your mom is so lucky to have you, makes me wish I would have done more for my mom. Can’t dwell on that.

The makes me wish… sentence made me sad. I never want my journey notes to inspire regrets. It’s the opposite of why I write about anything. Down the road, I may have a similar struggle with regrets, so this is me writing to my friend and a note to myself: We do our best.

Another friend who is a facilitator for the Caregivers of Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients Support Group offered this to one of the group members who was struggling with the I-wish-I-could’ve/would’ve thought pattern:

You did the best you could with the tools you had at the moment.

Note to self: Do your best with what you have.

My friend’s words have stayed with me as I move through this journey with my parents. I offer them back to my dad when he struggles with mom, to myself when I’m not happy with my choices. I offer them here, now, to any other caregiver, past or present.

This journey plays out differently for every family because the range in behavior and condition of Alzheimer’s patients is dramatic. I have two friends whose moms became violent. Of course their families needed memory care. One of my grandmothers ran all of the sitters off and nearly burned her house down more than once. Of course my uncle thought she’d be safer in a nursing home. My other grandmother, the one with a switch bush just outside her back door for spanking her grandchildren, became docile, a lost puppy following and calling after the only shred of her life that hadn’t faded: Norman, my grandfather.

My grandfather patiently cared for her until “she passed out.” He kept her home because he could. Patience may have been his nature, but I imagine he never thought of it as a choice. He was just doing the best he could.

Note to self: I see you.

My dad once told me that he told mom, “I’m no Norman.” I’m not sure the exact context, but it involved Alzheimer’s. Mom’s been watching this bull snort at her for at least six years. Dad knew my grandfather’s model wouldn’t work for him.

You don’t have to be a Norman, Dad!

Dad isn’t Norman and he’s doing his best. I know because I see him.

And my friend who wrote to me last week? I know she did her best. She kept a sense of humor I envy, and she did some beautiful things for her mom and dad that I wish I could do.

I see you! 

The things I do for my mom won’t work for other caregivers. The choices other caregivers make won’t work for my family. Our journeys are different and caregivers can’t all respond in the same way. We don’t need to be the same. What we need is to be seen. This is a damn difficult journey.

Note to self: Pity parties and guilting don’t work.

I mostly write about the best moments, that moment we managed to crawl out of a hole that swallowed us or that moment we found a joyful activity. The simple moments that offer a little hope and light.

I don’t always walk in the light.

Restless my mom kept asking where dad was. I had sent him to Sunday evening church without her so I could spend a little time with mom before I left for two weeks.

“He was supposed to take me!”

“I asked dad to let you stay with me because I’m leaving tonight. You said you wanted to stay with me. Don’t you?”

She was agitated. “If people would just do what they say!”

I’m not sure if I was truly sad or if I thought I could guilt her into relaxing. “I’m sad. I thought you’d want to spend the evening with me.”

When I didn’t get far the first time, I used the same tactic a second. Maybe a third. Devolving the conversation.

“I guess I’m the bad one now,” she said, staring hard into the other room, away from me.

Note to self: The ALZ bubble is always on the verge of bursting.

The words that follow might sound like in-my-defense statements (and it’s not untrue), but I write them as notes to self for caregivers.

Outside of the ALZ bubble it can be easy to ideate the perfect things you’ll do and the exemplary demeanor you’ll exhibit (or would have done and would have exhibited) through the difficult moments.

I have the luxury of removing myself two weeks at a time when I go home. Dad doesn’t. Many caregivers don’t. They’re in the ALZ bubble 24-7.

The ALZ bubble is pressurized, about to pop with hard moments. Sure you have tools —an excellent box of tools— but under pressure you struggle to locate them. Not to mention that you’re stuck in that pressurized bubble with your own baggage and, let’s face it, your own garbage.

It makes me sad that you don’t want to be with me.

What a load of garbage! What was I thinking? I clearly wasn’t.

Note to self: There is no pause button.

Life doesn’t pause for the miracle of patience. You have to find patience in spite of the life tasks that pull and weigh on you, and some days the patience is not there.

I needed to pack, take out the garbage, the compost, close the blinds, pack the computer, prepare the house for a 2-week absence. Patience wasn’t in my tool box.

Your scramble for tools is exacerbated by the prickly gasses of emotions that fill the ALZ bubble: sadness, disappointment, fear, impatience, anger —oh the anger!—, frustration, and grief. Pressurized, tangled, hot, urgent. It’s a miracle you can breathe in there, let alone rise to a task.

Dad recently reported a new development. He didn’t say so, but I’m sure the new development injected the gas of embarrassment into his ALZ bubble. Sitting in their pew at church, he saw something on mom’s neck.

“Oh my, is that toothpaste on your neck? Here, let me wipe it off. Why did you put… ? Never mind.”

We can’t side-step or mitigate all the developments. We can’t shake off the emotional toll and we have precious little recovery time because it’s all we can do to manage this wagon, barreling down the mountain with no brakes. There is no pause button, so we strategize, make promises to ourselves, face the next day.

To help mom with where to put what, we’ll simplify and organize toiletries, outfits in the closet, and underwear in the drawers. That’s the best we can do.

Note to self: Make the best of the journey, it ends in disaster.

This journey is hard. You care for someone you love knowing all the while you’ll both lose. Embrace the grace you’re given in any moment.

If you said something that made her smile, congratulate yourself. If you were able to sit still with him in the afternoon even though the house needed tending, give yourself credit. By the same token, give yourself a break for those moments when you left his side impatiently and for that thing you said that made her agitation escalate.

The balance is hard, the journey unkind.

For me, the journey is all I have left with mom. She’s going to lose this battle. I’m losing her bit by bit. Dad’s losing his love. I know where we’re headed and I don’t like it. The best I can do is make the best I can of the journey.

Note to self: This is so damn difficult. I’ll do the best I can today. And that’s enough.

If you’re on an Alzheimer’s journey, remember to take care of yourself along the way, give yourself a break, accept the help of others. If you’re not but you know someone who is, see them and let them know you see them.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.

What are we going to do about this mess?

The call

“What are we going to do about this mess?”

I know it’s her when I see the caller ID. She used to know all the numbers by heart, but her mind is a mess now. She keeps my number by the kitchen phone.

“What mess?” I ask.

Honest question.

  • Did you drop a plate?
  • Lose your purse?
  • Are you trying to find dad?
  • Is the sitter annoying you, sticking too close to your every move?
  • Or is it the big mess? The mess in your head?

We’re in a mess.

Words come with great effort, and she’s tired, she can’t always explain. But sometimes, “I just sit in the chair all dad-blamed day!”

What are we going to do? She won’t like any of the answers.

I’m sad. But I don’t want the sadness or the mess to define me, so I keep looking for the answer of the moment.

The storm before the storm

Some days her frustration defines her, a hovering Pig-Pen cloud that, like the sitter, sticks too close.

A couple of weeks ago, I could tell she was undone by the pre-hurricane commotion. Unfamiliar faces of evacuees, organizing groceries, preparing food ahead of the expected outage.

“What are we doing?”

“We’re getting ready for a hurricane.”

It was time for me to leave, but I couldn’t leave her alone like this, in a cloud of confusion and frustration, her jaw set hard, muscles stiff. She was angry.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just this, this old woman!”

She had washed my dishes, helped me in the flower beds, with some laundry, but in all the commotion, she didn’t remember doing things. She felt idle in a sea of busy people.

“Yeah, we’re both old, Mom,” I tried to inject some light into the moment.

“No!” She pounded her fist on the counter. Angry. “They don’t care about me! I’m just an old woman!”

The hurricane evacuees greeted her, gave her hugs, had small conversations, but the commotion was too much. Everyone was busy. Chit chat and hug, then scurry along to prepare hurricane food, settle pets, organize the fridge. She was just an old woman.

“They care,” I protested.

It’s never a good idea to protest.

I pulled her in for a long hug. She stayed stiff as a board. It was too much.

We have to do something.

Dad would call me a few days later.

“We have to do something about this mess!”

“What mess?” Again, honest question.

“Well, if you don’t know, there’s no point in me telling you.”

Oh, the big mess.

It’s a big mess. Most days it defines us. I don’t know what to say, what to do.

What are we going to do about it? All of the answers are unsatisfactory. We have to do something, but what?

Grilled cheese

I take me arms away from mom. Her fist is still clenched on the counter.

Lunch! I forgot about lunch. In all the commotion, I didn’t think to make lunch.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

She stared dismissively into the back fields. A sandwich might not lure her off the ledge, but it couldn’t hurt.

“What are you doing?” She heard me pull a pan from the cabinet.

“Making you a grilled cheese. It’s already three and you haven’t had lunch. Will you forgive me?”

Still stiff, she walked around and picked up the spatula to move the butter. Something to do…

I let go of my urge to get on the highway. The storm wouldn’t be here for at least 24 hours.

“Rectangles or triangles?”

“Triangle,” she motioned with her hand. Sometimes she knows what she wants.

We sat.

“Where’s your dad?”

“He’s getting the generator ready for the storm.”

“Storm?”

“Yes, there’s going to be a hurricane.”

“Oh no,” she washes the cheese and bread with her water. “This is a mess.”

“It is. But we’ll be okay. You won’t be alone.”

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.

 

 

Pattern Interrupts: Oh, Ida

What are pattern interrupts?

Pattern interrupts come in many shapes and sizes.

  • Vacation / War
  • Newborn / Newly deceased
  • House in flames / House under construction
  • Debilitating / Empowering
  • Fresh spring breeze / Fierce hurricane winds

Pattern interrupts heal or batter our emotional, physical, and financial well-being. They can be the cure or the hard stop. Or both. They can feel good, bad, or in between, but they’re almost always uncomfortable.

An intentional well-timed pattern interrupt is great for untethering from a habit or dull pattern. I’ve used them for overcoming writer’s block, developing healthier routines, and exploring new things.

Hurricane Ida

My current pattern interrupt is Ida. I never love a hurricane, but I don’t always hate them because a pattern interrupt can be interesting, if uncomfortable.

This time I wasn’t in the mood.

Collectively, we have not yet emerged from the giant pattern interrupt of 2020, the pandemic. My family is in a pattern interrupt as my mom is slowly swallowed by Alzheimer’s. I’m in a personal pattern interrupt as I seek balance in the author vs. editor routines.

I wasn’t in the mood because I’m tired from all the interruptions, imposed and intentional.

Lucky

I’m tired but I’m one of the lucky ones.

The big limbs fell next to my house, not on it. The rains bathed my home, they didn’t fill it. We have a generator and gas for it and we have a gas stove and water heater.

We are the lucky ones.

What is interrupted then? Some of same things we experienced in 2020. Empty shelves or closed groceries. Lines for gas and food. Inconvenience. The hurricane brings extra. Extra inconvenience, extra discomfort. Hot uncomfortable homes with damp surfaces and thick air. Spotty or broken phone and internet services. The morning breeze offers a little peace, but that peace is tempered by the 100dB hum of the 100 generators in earshot.

We’re lucky, but we’re tired.

Things we carry

For hurricane interruptions, most of the things we cling to require a generator.

Here, one cord leads from the generator to the kitchen, where I power the refrigerator and coffeemaker. I have coffee in the morning, salads for lunch, and a cool glass of wine when the sun goes down.

Another cord leads to our office, where I power the computers, a lamp, and my phone charger. I write and work, look up synonyms and post to social media. I wanted to stay connected and I am, because the generator powers our devices, and my phone sits full time on the charger to keep up with hot spot duties.

Things we create

Sometimes we develop a new routine to blast the interruption. During Covid, I devised my own pattern interrupt against the pattern interrupt, a new daily routine to prioritize my writer. This routine was my 2020 takeaway: morning pages, morning readings, and soul before soup, that is, creative writing before clocking in for work.

One week before Ida hit, I embarked on a new weekly routine designed to interrupt some blasé patterns and a daily exercise routine to interrupt… well, the spread of thighs. I worried Ida would smash it, but here I am today, blogging because its B-day. Yesterday I queried. It was Q-day. And I’ve biked or walked every day.

Pattern interrupts —intentional or imposed— can teach us a lot about ourselves. Harnessed they can be empowering. When I look back on some of my interruptions —new house, marriage, graduations, children, divorce, moves, vacations, illness, deaths—, I didn’t always go through them with my mind wide open. I wasn’t mindful about what I carried through them and mostly I didn’t create a intentional pattern interrupts of my own in answer to the situation.

I’d like to believe we come out on the other side with something we carried through, something we created, whether we are aware or not.

I’m better at mindful choices now.

  • What do I pack in that little bag to carry through the pattern interrupt?
  • What will I take away, learn or change about myself?

I wasn’t in the mood for Ida, but I paid attention.

  • What did I carry through Ida? Coffee, empowering routines, and connections.
  • What did I take away? I’m not sure yet, but as I pull on my biking shorts, I think the takeaway might be “I can do anything I set my mind to.”
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021