I did a thing. I wrote five eulogies for living friends.
Why I speak
This eulogy thing started in 1994, the year my son was born and my grandmother died.
In April, my grandmother went down quickly and unexpectedly. For many in our family, the timing was awkward. Awkward for me because my parents were out of the country; my husband out of state; and I was alone with three young children. We were all caught off-guard. Unready.
Just like that, we were all gathered for my grandmother’s funeral. The minister, who had never met her, stumbled through some niceties (good Christian woman), maybe one other speaker read her very traditional obit: survived by all these people sitting here. I felt a strong desire to bolt to the podium : “I have a few things to say . . . ” but I sat, stewing between my daughters on the pew, holding my baby.
How did we let this happen? The service didn’t honor her memory. No one talked about her mad sewing skills. Not a peep about her chicken and dumplings or biscuits and gravy. No reference to her heart-warming smile. Not a single story about her terrifying switch bush. No one who spoke at her service knew her, ate her food, wore an outfit she had made, or lurched in a circle around her as she gripped an arm with one hand and swatted a switch with the other. I was furious, I was sad, and I walked out of that experience determined.
Feeling determined: Part 1
Less than a decade later, my grandfather died. I asked my family who would speak at his service and answered my own question: I will.
At his service, I shared tiny memories: the coins he rattled in his pockets, the rubber bands he kept handy to snap playfully at a grandchild, the VO5 hairstyle, and the long-sleeved shirts.
Nine months later, my cousin died. I spoke again, reading memories and messages from all the cousins. We remembered our youngest cousin well, with sad but warmed hearts.
Giving voice to the memories felt right, necessary, so I continued to speak at services of family, especially if no one else was delivering a personal message.
Almost nine years ago, I eulogized a friend. My friend Dela was dear, complicated, brave. She was a beautiful mess. Her brothers and some friends judged her for the mess: the piles of interests in her home, the messy relationship, the untidy career. But as I watched her battle leukemia for ten years, I grew to appreciate her messes and spoke about it at her service.
. . . there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.
After the service, another friend approached me.
That was beautiful. I want you to write my eulogy when I die.
Feeling determined: Part 2
That request haunted me for several years. Losing friends is hard, sorting through who might go first is unpleasant, but the notion that haunted me most was why do we wait until the person is gone to find those beautiful memory crystals?
After gnawing on the question for a few years, I decided to write pre-eulogies (I call them preulogies) for a handful of friends and give them as birthday presents. These were unannounced and I asked each recipient not to say anything to future recipients until I made the cycle through the birthdays, closing the circle with the friend who initially requested: write my eulogy.
Writing a regular eulogy can be challenging, not only because the moment is packed with emotion and loss, but also, the eulogist struggles to capture a lifetime, a personality, the giant journey of a person in a few well-strung words. I discovered that preulogies are no less challenging.
To find the words, I dragged my mind into the grief of the friend’s absence, across the experiences we shared, and also through the myriad of ways she may have touched others as a parent, friend, child, or co-worker. I struggled to crystalize a friendship in three or four sentences.
Here are a few of the crystals I dug up in this process:
Kathy: I felt a peace wash over me every time I watched her draw in a deep breath after listening to me, lift her hands out and forward as if opening a giant instruction manual, “Here’s what you need to do . . . “
Patti: Sometimes it seemed she was drifting, but she always seemed anchored. [. . .] Wishy washy? An anchored drifter? Hardly. All along, she’s been the anchor. The glue. The strength of the bonds.
Mim: Mim is to blame for many joyful occasions. Girl Scout trips to transplant sea grasses and dance around in medieval attire. Krewe meetings, workdays, and parades. Excursions to hear live music, splash around in shallow streams, explore the flip side, dig our toes in the sand, and paddle across a lake. Latke parties, dinner parties, and girls’ gatherings . . . my house at 6!
Jackie: That act of friendship, that model of taking control of chaos, changed me. It wasn’t about the furniture. She also modeled this for me as an artist, as a scorned lover, and as an explorer. But moving the furniture drove it home for me: take what’s before you, make it yours, make your peace in it, make it work for you.
Betsy: I always felt small next to Betsy. Not in a bad way, in fact, I loved being next to her because I felt complicit, like maybe I could get a little cred when she made the room roar with laughter or when the audience joyfully rattled and shook along as she played her music.
The crystals that capture the friend as I know her are only half of the story with preulogies. I also needed to project: where would my friend go from today, how would she die, who would she be.
This might be the trickiest part for me. What if I imagine it wrong, that is, what if she has a totally different outlook for her future? Will this made-up death upset her? What if she hates me for this?
Thankfully, I’m still friends with all of them. Maybe their futures were full of the plausible joys and rewards. Kathy went up in flames in the elbow of the effigy at Burning Man. Patti passed at her beach home, draped across her favorite beach towel, head resting on a thick novel. Mim took her final slumber at a campsite by a lake, Scrappy nearby, a photo of Skip in her hand. Jackie took her last breath drifting through the bayou on her paddle board. And Betsy . . . I didn’t include the details of her death in the preulogy. Maybe because she’ll actually outlive me? Or maybe because we’re so focused on her three long overdue Grammies.
Find the words
Not everyone wants to stand in the absence of a friend to find the words. And not everyone needs to. I certainly couldn’t do this for everyone in my life because the process can be gut-wrenching. But I move forward from this experience mindful of what my family and friends mean to me and open to opportunities to share that with them.
Your friend should know why you’re drawn to her company, why you feel inclined to call and catch up, what memory of her makes you giggle. Maybe stand for a moment in these questions: What will I most miss about her? What well of sorrow will her absence leave?
Remembering Betsy, I wrote:
What I wouldn’t give to hear her tell one more Marie and Boudreaux joke. Right? I’m sure everyone has a favorite. Mine? Marie, the coffee, the oatmeal, and the hot flashes. Ha! You’ve all heard it. Your laughter, that joy that just rose up in you as you remembered her tell that joke, that’s the gift, that’s what we take with us today. That’s the joy in this well of tears.
Friendship is a gift. Take a moment while your friend is living and find that joy, share the words.
©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019
With each new day, the vacancy in her facial expression seems to widen a bit, her gate is less assured, her voice weaker. I feel like the physical “absence” mirrors the mental.
On becoming a bumper car
She’s still pretty good. But she fights hard for that. She continues to understand what’s happening to her, the Alzheimer’s. She remembers basic routines and she knows her people. The names come out like lottery tickets from a barrel, sorted mainly by gender, no longer by age, relation, or even death. Nearly every time she talks to me about her sister, who died in September, she refers to her as Pennie.
You mean your sister Norma, don’t you?
Oh yes! Norma.
I think family and friends expect less of her when they come to visit. She perks up a bit when she has company. It’s part of her fight, solving the puzzles, sorting the names, following the stories, washing dishes. And, without dwelling on it, she’s open about her battle. When she has a load of company that she wasn’t expecting, she does very well, she seems improved even. But the not expecting part is the key. If she’s not expecting something, she’s not in charge.
My dad and I have learned, not gracefully, that when there will be an event, company for the holidays, or a trip, the anticipation undoes mom. An anxious wheel spins out of control in her head and she becomes frantic with worry about getting ready because . . . she’s in charge of getting things ready.
Who’s in charge?
My mom is from stock that takes charge. We weren’t military families but there was something militant about the tasks and projects, practical approaches, no nonsense. You could count on mom, as well as her siblings and parents, to swoop in, make things easier, get things done.
That’s the wicked twist now. The thing she was known for, good at, sought out for—that gift she had—sends her into a nasty, out of control spiral. A bumper car, bouncing off the edges of her world. The bigger the upcoming occasion, the steeper the disorientation, the more severe the loss of sleep.
What are you looking for?
I don’t know.
My dad and I try to include her in as many activities as possible, especially the ones that make her feel useful. She wants to contribute. But it’s hard to know where the edges fray.
How can I help?
Mom has been refinishing a few small pieces of furniture for me. She’s always been an excellent painter, whether furniture, inside walls, exterior trim and walls. Not just good, excellent. I gave her the first small table.
I’ll come up in a bit and help you with this.
But a bit later, she had already sanded it. She didn’t remember I had also given her the paint.
What color do you want me to paint it?
Remember, I gave you the paint.
But she did all the prep work without me coaching her.
More recently, she has needed more help collecting things for the task. The sander. The brushes. It’s hard to know from day to day how much help she’ll need.
Dad invited her to paint a shed he recently built. Her face lit up and she was off to collect her things. But bumper cars and being in charge.
What are you looking for?
I don’t know.
The anxiety escalated quickly, and dad wasn’t sure she would be able to handle the task at all. As he collected the brushes and trays, and removed the stress of being in charge, she was able to move comfortably into the task. Her work was excellent.
She fights for it. She wants to be in charge, but she also she doesn’t want to be a burden. Who knew the two impulses would collide? Bumper car.
Knowing her limits
Dad and I want mom to feel at ease, to find purpose in her day, and we’re learning what her shifting limits are. We’re learning how to be present for her.
Mom comes down to my house three or four times a week to see what she can do for me. She likes to wash my dishes, take out the compost. When she arrives, I’ll look out and see her bent over a walkway pulling up weeds. That’s useful. Then, as she walks to the door, I watch her move. Sometimes I know by her steps or her gaze: bumper car.
I should know where this goes but . . .
Here, let me help. I’ll put the clean dishes away for you so you can wash the dirty ones.
©Pennie Nichols 2019 All Rights Reserved
I should leave her alone.
I run out,
all go and gullible,
excited to capture that perfect shot.
I never do.
I should stop wasting her time,
requiring the poses.
The peak through the clouds.
The burst of light through haze.
She rises bright and full.
Snap snap snap.
I didn’t take the lessons.
I didn’t read the manual.
Snap snap snap.
Why can’t I . . . ?
If only I could capture that mist over the water.
Snap snap snap.
And the bursts of firefly in the dark field.
Moon shadows ripple on the water.
Snap snap snap.
I can’t do her justice.
I trudge back through the field,
turning to see her
again and again.
Through the dark fields
where the mist captures her light
and fireflies dance in the darkness.
Snap snap snap.
Dark sparkless frames.
I should stop wasting her time.
I shouldn’t come out here snap snap snap.
I should leave her be.
Bright. Full. Rising.
Graceful journey that eludes my lens.
I should stop wasting her time,
I mumble, as I rest my lens,
and drift into slumber,
my heart —bright, full, rising—
dreaming of chasing the perfect shot
of her next full journey.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019
There’s a song I’m not crazy about but I can’t get it out of my head.
I had mostly succeeded. Then Spotify played it again and now the ear bug.
Since I haven’t been writing about anything, I decided I’d write about this song and a lesson I learned from my mom.
The song starts:
Like the moon in the sky in the afternoon in July
From the get-go, anyone who knows me might ask: “What’s your problem? The moon? You love it more than ice cream. July? Your birthday month!”
But if you know me, you’re also asking: “Why haven’t you been writing?”
So many answers:
- Something personal I can’t get my head around.
- Don’t want to hurt people I love.
- Life’s complicated.
- I’m busy.
- I’m thinking.
- I’m a coward.
The song goes on:
A little darkness hangs there above me.
We all have a little darkness. I’m not unique. But sometimes that darkness falls heavy, tangles up around our ankles making it hard to move forward.
Although my current circumstances are dreamy (hopping from island to farm), my ankles kick at the dark blanket, looking for release. Was it this song?
I don’t like it but I don’t hate it. It goes:
I know you hate to see me cry
Don’t wanna look you in the eye
There it is. Don’t wanna look you in the eye.
Writers often (if not always) feel undressed when we put our words out there, stumbling graceless through our darkness. Don’t wanna look you in the eye.
I set out to write vigorously about the journey my parents are on, the Alzheimer’s bullfight they’re in. From a distance that seemed easy. Just write about the changes and challenges.
I wasn’t prepared. That’s a legit excuse.
Closer to the truth? I’m a coward.
As you watch someone you love diminish, unexpected things go on inside yourself. Regrets. Lost chances. Helplessness.
It’s natural to want to do the big thing. If we can’t save the person, we want to do that thing that makes an emotional, qualitative, quantitative difference.
Failure? Not the most tasty writing topic for me. But who are we talking about?
- Mom? The ideal ALZ patient, facing her bull knowingly and hopefully, compliant to treatments, aware even as she’s losing, some days more than others.
- Me? Supposedly here to help, but what do I do? Feels like little. Am I cowering in the corner?
That was a trick question. This is about a lesson from mom and a song.
I’m not crazy about this song but I love it. Maybe it struck a chord because I first heard it one day when I took mom to visit her baby sister, who has lung cancer.
Mom and her two siblings (this is where I smother my coward and say some things) are independent, DO for themselves, workaholics. They are the best but sometimes the most challenging. Don’t expect to kick back and just relax on vacation with them! Gotta DO something! And they have hard edges. This quirk may be one reason mom has faced her bull with open eyes, because she is determined to DO things. Take medications and supplements, work puzzles, stay active, move.
My aunt too. She’s done all the things they’ve told her to fight her disease.
But it’s not working. That magic thing that they did all of their lives is not working. It’s not working for mom. It’s not working for her sister. There is nothing they can DO.
Earlier this summer, when my mom and I arrived to visit, my aunt wasn’t in a good way. She fussed about her frustrations. I could see mom becoming more and more agitated, wanting to DO something to soothe her. Thinking that wouldn’t be possible, I announced: “We should go so you can rest.” But mom ignored me. Instead, she asked her sister:
Do you want me to rub some lotion on your legs?
I don’t care!
I didn’t want to include the exclamation mark, but it’s more accurate than not including it. And she said it more than once.
I don’t care!
This was both true and untrue. As mom and I looked for the lotion, my aunt continued to protest:
Don’t worry about it. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.
Mom didn’t relent. She found the lotion, sent me to fetch a towel, and began rubbing my aunt’s feet and legs. Mom, hardly able to remember what we discussed two minutes ago, was attentive, asking “is this good?”, arranging the towel under her sister’s legs.
I teared up as my aunt relaxed, sank deeper into the recliner, and sighed: “That feels so good.”
On that same day, I heard this verse:
I don’t need you to solve any problem at all.
I just need you to sit here and love me.
My mom is diminishing. My aunt is diminishing. Nothing I can DO will change the enormity of their diminishing. I can’t fix it. I can’t solve that problem.
But I’ll sit.
And I’ll love.
I also have the DO gene, so this is challenging.
I’ll honor the lesson I learned from my mom and a song.
I’ll be brave. I’ll just sit here and love them.
©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019
The song is “Sit here and love me” by Caroline Spence. I say “I don’t like it” but, really, I love it. Thanks, Caroline.
Tonight is the longest night of the year and the moon is just about full, almost super.
Professional photographers have been known to share and exchange stories of the extreme efforts they went through in order to get the shot. Awkward positions, uncomfortable weather or surroundings, painstakingly long waits. I’m not a professional photographer. In fact, I’m still a kindergartener photographer and will probably only graduate to 1st grade before I die. Still, I have some images to share, not because they’re great and not even because of the “extreme” measures I went through to take the shot(s). But to breathe out a little.
What’s my story on the longest night?
Barbed wire, ant beds, eye-high grasses, briar patches, highways, and muddy ditches. There was daylight when I climbed over the barbed wire fence, but I circled back and crossed the ditch towards home in darkness. I could have fallen face-first navigating those briar patches. Or slipped on the steep ditch into the mud. Or worse, tripped into the highway just as a giant diesel truck came barreling down the hill. I won’t take any photos of my ankles that bravely stripped through the briars, but suffice it to say, I survived my obstacles and came out on the other side with a couple of photos of the cold moon of the longest night.
I haven’t shared any thoughts on my blog lately, hence the need to exhale a bit. I process what I’m thinking and feeling through writing, but the emotional barometer has been high, so I’ve let the pen rest and allowed my thoughts to steep.
I will endure whatever awkward position, discomfort, or stay I must to wrap my head and words around the thoughts and emotions that have tied me up. But tonight, there are moon shadows and meteor showers. It’s cold out and hard to dance in the moonlight for long or sit and stare at the stars more than ten or fifteen minutes, but the chill on my cheeks feels fine.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018
If she brings it, eat the ice cream.
This morning mom comes over with ice cream and a chocolate.
Ice cream on a stick. She smiles.
I can think of so many reasons why not, but I don’t speak them.
I put the ice cream in my little beverage refrigerator. I don’t have a proper refrigerator/freezer at the moment, but that’s another post.
It will melt in there.
I know, but I need to finish my coffee first, I say, sorting out in my head whether I’ll really eat the ice cream or simply toss it after she leaves.
And, here’s a chocolate.
I rarely eat ice cream or chocolate, especially not for breakfast, but that’s what she brings me. This isn’t a remembering thing. She knows these aren’t proper breakfast choices. But she loves them. Especially the ice cream. Ice cream on a stick. If you tarry at her house long enough, she’ll offer you one.
Mom leaves. I can see the ice cream on a stick through the glass door of my little fridge. I sip my coffee.
I don’t want ice cream for breakfast.
Then I remember that a week ago, my son had stayed over after bringing me from the airport. Mom came by in the morning hoping to visit with him a bit. She had ice cream.
What’s that for?
It’s for Sam.
He’s still sleeping.
Oh, she looked disappointed.
But you can wake him up. I’m not sure he’ll want ice cream this early though.
She knocked on his door. I sat back down at my desk, sipping coffee. I could hear them talking.
Thanks, Mama Nick! Hug from pillow.
After she left, Samir sauntered into the room where I was working.
So, how was ice cream for breakfast? I asked, expecting at least a partially snide answer.
It was great!
This journey is unbalanced. I’m sure I’m learning more from my mom than she’s getting from me.
I make little spaces in my day for mom, but I don’t really know how to help. I take her to visit her sister. We stop for lunch. We shop for groceries. I look for activities she loves to do. We’ve lined up some furniture to refinish, and at least once a week, when I’m here, I invite her over to make jelly with me.
I don’t have to remind her to come over to make jelly. She remembers. Most times, she shows up with dinner. While I eat, she washes all the dishes that have collected in my sink to make room for jelly making.
Tonight we made jelly. She scrubbed the ginger I brought in from the garden, stirred the blueberry juice and sugar, poured the jelly into the jars. Like I said, it’s unbalanced. I’m the lucky one.
I don’t know how to help mom, so I make space in my head. My first notion this morning is to tell her, Thanks, but I don’t want ice cream. Just take it with you and put it back in the freezer when you go home. I stifle that notion and put the ice cream in the little refrigerator.
For after I finish my coffee, I explain.
After she leaves, I have the toss-the-ice-cream-on-a-stick option. Then I remember Samir.
It was great.
I eat the ice cream. Samir was right. It is great. I eat the chocolate too.
I’m not boasting about my choice to eat the ice cream nor about the small spaces I make in my days for my mom. I’m only giving these things voice because I mostly fail when faced with these choices.
Can I call you later?
I have a meeting.
I’m giving the breakfast ice cream voice because my mom didn’t teach me a lesson exclusively for Alzheimer’s caregiviers. The lesson is universal.
Be kind at encounters.
Be grateful for gifts.
Be thoughtful in response.
Mostly, make space on your calendar and in your head for your people.
Sit down with the child and make the marble maze together. Fix some coffee and put your good-listening ears on for your friend. Show up with lunch to visit with your aunt. Take a day off to help your dad or your daughter.
Eat the ice cream your mom brings for breakfast.
It will be great!
©Copyright Pennie Nichols 2018. All Rights Reserved.
How would you celebrate a milestone birthday?
My dad will celebrate a milestone birthday this week.
“Celebrate” applied loosely here.
- he’s not nuts about birthdays
- his idea of a fun vacation might be going to his niece’s house to help her with post-hurricane repairs (a recent discussion), which means his idea of “celebrate” is a little skewed.
I knew I couldn’t pull off a second surprise 80th birthday party in a single year, so our idea of celebrating his 80th was a family gathering at my cousin’s new home in Charleston, close to the coast. A few days of fishing, beaches, kayaks, and paddle boards, evenings on her porch sharing the catch of the day and the joy and melancholy of new and old stories.
Hurricanes and celebrations
Florence stirred up the fishing and kayaking waters but didn’t damage my cousin’s house (see previous note about his idea of fun vacations). So we postponed the trip. How to celebrate now?
It’s no big deal. Really, just the thought that counts.
But darn it. I want to do something special!
My Chicago daughter reroutes her flight from South Carolina to Louisiana. All three children under a single roof along with my folks: that’s special.
The celebration isn’t an inshore fishing excursion on the east coast, but we nom and yum over steelhead trout and baked vegetables, laugh and sing over the flattened white-chocolate strawberry cake, and celebrate one of the most intimate, joyful family gatherings in years.
As delicious and heartwarming as our meal is, that isn’t the only highlight of the day, maybe not even the brightest for dad.
As my Baton Rouge daughter and I arrive earlier that day, Wayne, mom and dad’s farmhand, is coming up the hill on the tractor. He flags us down.
You don’t have any water!!
Water, Wells, and Lessons
For my house on the farm just down the hill from mom and dad, no water also means no AC. A water crisis wasn’t how I had hoped to celebrate dad’s birthday.
A water crisis with any other folks might indeed be a crisis, but today, there is zero panic and 100% can-do.
I’m not sure what dad had planned to do that day before his birthday meal but he never moans or groans about this disruption. On the contrary, I think he enjoys the opportunity to share and teach us a few rural-life lessons.
- The water comes from the well.
- The well feeds from the aquafer below the property.
- The well is about 150 feet deep.
150 feet!! Wow!
Yeah. That line goes all the way down.
- When the pump dies, we pull 150-feet of hose and electrical wire up through the well to repair or replace it.
And this . . .
That’s the holding tank.
We don’t have a water tower. We have a blue tank in the gazebo, camouflaged under a “table.” But not today.
Down that hole.
That was a lot of digging! How did you do it?
Wayne, getting good giggles from our city questions, chimes in with dad to explain derricks, augers, aquafers, and sand as we snap photos with our phones. We have so much to learn.
Pipe clamps secure the heavy pump on the end of the hose.
Can’t let the pump slip off the hose and into the well. Then you’d have to call the well guy to fish it out, and that’s the last thing you’d want to do.
So they don’t snag on the way down or on the way back up next time.
Next time? Next time we celebrate another birthday or have a family gathering?
Everything wears out eventually.
But today, we fix it.
“We” applied loosely here.
- Most of the “we” watch dad and Wayne work in synchrony to fix it.
- Most of the “we” would have panicked, would need to call the well guy, but would need to make a lot of phone calls and google searches to even know that there is a well guy.
All of the “we” gather in the rain (did I mention the series of small thunderstorms?), the less informed of us helping in tiny ways, learning lots, and warming dad’s heart as we give him audience.
He’s 80 today. We have so much to learn from him still. I’m glad we gathered, I’m glad we listened, I’m glad we celebrate another year with him.
Happy Birthday, Papa Nick!! Thanks for letting us celebrate with you! Thanks for the lessons.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.
I’m writing this at the end of what would have been your 62nd birthday.
You would have passed a good time today.
You probably would have gravitated to the music. Found that band that was playing at that place. “Won’t you join us?” Then dance and smile, never letting on it was your birthday.
Your sweetheart sprinkled a little of you on the stones of peace tonight.
I couldn’t be there, but I was.
Walking up the hill from the water hollow to celebrate dad’s birthday a couple days early, I stopped cold. I felt you in the September sky.
You were on the farm with us some five or six years ago for the September birthdays. Seafood, cake, and toy helicopters to fly towards the sky.
We miss you, Skip. You were one of the easiest humans to be around.
We remember you. Yet, more than memories of what was, I’m amazed at the love and care you’ve left in your wake, lifting the loves of your life even today.
Thanks for showing us how to pluck the strawberry as we fall, for dancing even on dark days, and for squeezing the sweet out of the most bitter fruit.
Thanks for lingering in our hearts and reminding us of music, smiles, and fun. Oh! And costumes. You still burn bright in our lives.
PS: I let my daughter wax my hair blue tonight. Thought of your blue beard.
© Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018
I won’t miss you.
I don’t and I won’t.
My I won’t miss you secret
For years I struggled with this little secret, and concluded I was a little broken because I could never honestly say I miss you! to a friend or family member or partner when I was away. I just didn’t.
Did you really miss me?
I’m probably splitting hairs (I tend to do that), but overused, abused, misaligned words annoy me. I have similar misgivings about that four-letter word love.
I miss you! Little white lie. I wish you were here might be more accurate, but maybe not even.
I miss you! Or do I just need you here to help me with something? I can’t reach that shelf! or My computer won’t reboot!
Even if I die?
But what if I die?, you ask.
Really? It’s actually different, isn’t it? I didn’t go away, you did, and I’ll grieve. I’ll wish you were here when I do those things I once did with you. I’ll wish you were here to laugh about this or fuss about that. Maybe technically I’ll miss you, but it’s different.
I’m splitting a different hair. I’ve never gone away or been left behind and felt all sorts of something summed up in a sorrowful I miss you! I don’t. Never did.
I’m not writing this to judge those who do feel that “miss” that I’m missing. I’m writing to affirm that I’m not broken. I’m present.
Change and flow
My life events are in flux at the moment. Mom is battling Alzheimer’s and I try to be available, my partner has been in Puerto Rico for a month and I’m transitioning there. Our home, our pets, my children, my parents, my partner are all caught up in revolution, upheaval, shakeout. Mostly, uncertainty.
A friend asked me, How are you feeling about all the changes, this move . . .?
I’m not from the meh generation, but I literally said, Meh. Not in the meh, I’m so bored I don’t care way, but meh, I’m fine. I’m happy wherever I am.
My friend’s question reminded me: I don’t miss anyone.
During my first visit to Puerto Rico, I found myself revealing my little secret to my partner, the one who just a few days earlier told me on the phone how much he missed me.
I don’t miss our dogs or the birds. I don’t even miss my children! What’s wrong with me?
You’re not broken. This is about independence and dependence. You don’t have an unhealthy dependence on other people. By the way, I didn’t say “I miss you” because . . .
I wasn’t judging you! I get it that people miss their people. I just don’t.
I was going to say that I missed you because I wanted to share this new experience with you.
I know, and I’m here now.
I’m here now.
Maybe that’s the gear that grinds in my heart when I’m away from my friends and family. I’m here now.
I don’t miss you but I look forward to seeing you.
That’s better, isn’t it? And we can both take comfort in this: I may never miss you, but I’ll always be present when we’re together.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018
Last Sunday, a friend asked me if I was going blog about that morning’s service. The service, billed as “the service with too many river metaphors,” was rich with takeaway possibilities, so why not? I’m sure I can find an Alzheimer’s River in there somewhere.
Two thoughts from the sermon pushed themselves up for me, demanding attention like islands in the middle of a river. Both were spatial: beginning versus end and opposing banks.
Beginning versus end (north versus south)
At the beginning of a river (north for us), the water is fresh, mostly unpolluted. Standing in it, swimming in it, immersing yourself in its currents might be delightful. You would feel the strength of its current even though the river is still simple, young, and unmuddied.
During the southward journey, the river swells with complexities at each bend and through each community along its path, taking on more life, more volume, more pollution, and more mud.
Opposing banks (east versus west)
The waters on one side of a river can be very different from the waters on the opposing side. One side might be turbulent and fast-flowing, the other calm and easy. Your experience in a river depends greatly on where you are in it, not only the clean, calm north versus the muddied, fierce south, but also the turbulent east bank of the river (in our example) versus the calm west.
The sermon was written around social justice analogies and anecdotes, and they were perfectly delivered. I took in all of it, but that wasn’t what I took away.
I chewed on these two ideas a bit this week: the experience at the beginning versus the end of the river, and how you position yourself along the banks of the river as your journey down it.
Lately, most of my takeaways and metaphoric exploration relate to my mom’s journey, or at least the part of her journey that she shares with me. This sermon was no different.
I can’t take mom back to Minnesota, back to the beginning. We’re deep in the south, entering the mouth of the delta now, where we’re slowly splaying, losing bits and pieces in the dead zone as we work our way to the ocean.
I can’t stop the flow of the river, but I can help her find the less turbulent bank of it.
Last week, mom started cooking and left her pots on the stove unattended three times. At least three because we know of three burned or scorched food incidences. Mom is an energetic, multi-tasker. Even when she was in her thirties, she would get distracted and walk away from a pot on the burner. I reminded dad of the time when I was in high school, and the burned cabinets around the stove had to be repaired. It’s not all about the Alzheimer’s, but the Alzheimer’s makes the situation muddier, mightier, and not in a good way.
I can’t take mom to the beginning of the river, but I can help her drift towards the calmer bank. She loves to cook and we love her cooking. I believe working through tasks, like cooking a meal, helps her do vital brainwork and stay engaged in the present. I want her to keep doing as many things as she comfortably can. Although I can’t be here every day to help her cook, I can help her cook while I’m here. We can cook double and triple meals so that she can label and freeze them for later. When she wants to pull a meal together, she’ll pull out the labeled freezer packs and will feel good about serving food she cooked.
It’s not perfect, and she may pull together mismatched bags, but who cares? Mom and dad can float calmly on the west bank, enjoy a meal she prepared, and chew a little longer on the gifts that she has always given our family.
Into the ocean
I’m not ready for the ocean.
Not much was said about the very last part of the river’s journey, after it passes its most profound point in New Orleans and splays into the delta, spilling all its complex richness and all of its mighty might into the slow, vast, heaving of the ocean. I can’t control the speed of the journey of the Alzheimer’s River towards that ocean, but maybe I can help mom get a purchase in the overgrowth of the banks, pull into the calm waters, slow the journey a bit, share more memories, make more memories, and find more of the joy that this river allows.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.