Love Out of Love

Today would have been our 32nd wedding anniversary. But we fell out of love.

We’re human. We’re imperfect, and about half-way through those 32 years that might have been, we divorced.

Our status changed, and we tick Divorced on forms now, but that status, the divorce, didn’t define our relationship. Love, even when we were out of love, defined us.

Love out of love

My ex husband and I fell out of love and after almost sixteen years of marriage, we finalized our divorce. We went through rough patches during the transition, but even those rough patches didn’t define where we would land after we spun out.

Love did.

NOTE: I’m not sharing our story prescriptively. Our story can’t be every divorced couple’s story. I’m not suggesting that this is the better path, the good vs. the bad journey. This is not a lesson. I’m sharing this because the dates and numbers bring our story round to my heart. I’m sharing because I’m grateful.

I’ve written about this before, but today the numbers compel me to revisit. Almost 16 years of marriage. Just over 16 years divorced. Today would have been our 32nd anniversary. We lost something, sure. We lost a lot, but I learned to carry love forward and allow it to redefine itself. I’m sharing our story again because I’m still grateful.

Our story

I’m grateful for many things, but the first swell of gratitude to spring from that well is our children. They are the tether, the balance, the bond that helped redefine my feelings for and relationship to my ex. Thanks to them, I can make space to celebrate some of the good things these 32 years allowed, starting with the wedding.

We were married under two ancient oaks on my college roommate’s parents’ property, Deux chênes, where the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag alongside the cedar of the Lebanese flag hung on the gates to welcome guests. I’m grateful to Nora and Gerald for hosting our quirky wedding.

I’m grateful for my friends (former roommates) who stood with me for the ceremony. I’m grateful for all the family who attended and participated: my uncle who married us, my cousin who gifted us with hundreds of photos, my cousin who styled my hair, my cousin’s son who carried the rings. I’m grateful for my parents who supported me as I took that adult leap.

The day wasn’t perfect. August in Louisiana! A deluge just hours before the outdoor nuptials soaked the grounds. My dad had to find a giant swath of green tarp post haste. The pre-ceremony included meltdowns and nerves. Post ceremony found me standing in ants for a photo, then spending some time kicking and writhing as they scurried up my wedding gown. To seal the imperfections, when it came time to sign the certificate, we learned that ministers don’t bring the marriage certificates to the wedding. Oops!

You’re not really married, my uncle sighed.

It wasn’t perfect, but the things I remember most are the beautiful moments. The lush air as the ceremony began. The belly dancer who led us away post vows. The dresses my mom and my mother-in-law wore. The belly dancing during the reception. The food. The laughter and joy of family and friends.

Celebrate the love

I lift up those good memories of our wedding day. I also celebrate the 16 years inside the marriage: the adventures of raising three children; our two homes; the mutual friends we made along the way; the meals we shared as a family (chicken rice again, Baba?!) and with friends; the wine tastings; the vacations on a budget; the church we found together.

The church was one of several sacred spaces we discovered together. When things fell apart, the path through was a memory from that sanctuary. Years before the divorce, I sat in our church when Sharon Williams Andrews delivered a sermon on forgiveness as a guest minister. I can honestly say that her words took purchase in my heart and carried me through many moments of the 16 years after the divorce.

Post divorce, my ex and I moved on. We found new partners, new places, new circles, new journeys separate from each other, yet made space for love on the other side of being in love. We come together for holiday and special occasions. We’ve even squeezed in a beach trip together.

We’re divorced for many reasons. We made mistakes. We weren’t a match made in heaven, but we’re happily divorced for a more important reason. We allowed love. And reflecting on that, I would argue that, despite the divorce, I chose well when I married my ex.

He’s a keeper.

My dad called last week to tell me what a wonderful visit he and mom had with my ex. My ex went to the farm (bearing groceries as usual) two weekends in a row, not for a special occasion, not because the kids were there. Love carried him there. He knows my parents are limping through these months, mom’s Alzheimer’s and dad’s heart intensified by the isolation of COVID. He took time, spent time, cooked and visited. Love.

My grandmother would have said, “He’s a keeper.” Except I didn’t keep him. 

Love still wins.

We had a marriage that didn’t last, but the divorce didn’t define us. The divorce didn’t wreck the relationships that become entangled in a marriage. We still share love for each other’s parents, we still have mutual friends, and we are still a family.

Falling out of love didn’t define us. Love did. Love wins, and I’m grateful for this twisted road we took to know love.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved 2020

 

Happy Father’s Day

Gifts

He gave me my first typewriter.

He bought me my first car, a red Toyota Celica stick shift because everyone should know how to shift a stick.

Sure he left me sleeping sideways in a swing for a few minutes when I was barely one, but he came back with the camera and took the photo. Twenty years later, he gave me his Nikon.

He infected me with the lure of dark rooms, trays of chemicals, and glossy black and whites, so I signed up for a photography class my last semester of undergrad.

He gifted me with curiosity. I languished way too long in college, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about that innate curiosity that today sends me down Google rabbit holes and through mazes of YouTube tutorials. Always yearning for new skills.

Space

Happy Father's Day!

My first typewriter circa 1968

Did I mention he gave me typewriters? My first one. And then some.

I took a very crooked path, sometimes I felt I had lost my way, but after years of art-numbing theory courses, distractions, and living life, I’m back. Sure, it’s a PC, not a typewriter. It’s a Canon, not a Nikon. But I’m showing up. And that’s also something he gave me. The stick-to-it-ness. The courage to come back, to try. That steady hand, that stubborn determination.

Mostly, he gave me space. When I was two, to feed the hens he’d already fed. When I was ten, to explore the castle on the hill. When I was fifteen, to hole up in my room for days with cassette tapes and a typewriter. Through the years, to sign up for the all the lessons, horseback, judo, painting, pottery, piano, topped off with thirteen years of college! He gave me space to learn and explore.

He had seen my scores, which, like his, highlighted sciences and numbers, yet he allowed me to explore literature, art, speech, creative writing, liberal arts. He gave me the freedom to nurture that chaotic part of me, that inner artist child. The crooked path.

Covid19 chronicles

Emotions are high these days. Mine may have spiked in one of those twenty-some hours I spent sitting with dad in the hospital. Heart work. Even though the procedure is now routine, you can’t avoid entertaining mortality when the lessons involve aortic valves, Cath labs, and beating hearts.

I watched him, I saw myself. Those fears behind a curtain. The stoic, I got this. I know him. Left brain strong, right brain leanings. I watched and learned a couple of things.

First lesson: He’s not the greatest patient (I warned my kids that they’re in trouble if I inherited his hospital patient gene). In his defense, he carries a heavy load and no matter where he is, sitting still and waiting is a struggle.

Second lesson: he talks in his sleep… with some profundity!

When I saw him doze off, I wiggled on the hospital couch to resume my mini reading vacation. My plans were quickly thwarted when he began speaking very clearly, as if sitting at a table with a dozen colleagues.

“I wonder what happens when you get to the last page?”

The last page

Right away, I knew I had to take notes.

I could chew on the first line for years, but he continued, “You take a picture of the next-to-the-last page.”

What!?

He kept going. I couldn’t keep up, mostly because of the first two lines. What is this last page?

“It looks very thorough if what I see is correct.”

Most of his life, dad followed the science, gave his energy to his left brain, but his right brain has always been strong. Maybe part of me is the version of him that managed to wriggle lose from the confines of left brain. Whether left or right, science and art, we share this —facing the last page—, we share our mortality, imagining it, facing it, wrangling with it.

“Where is the next-to-the-last page?” he asked.

A question I wanted to ask, but he voiced it and quickly offered a response.

“I wouldn’t want to answer that.  [pause] We just passed through.”

My eyes focused on his chest for the rise and fall of life. Thank god!

Happy Father’s Day!

Happy Father's Day

We all have a father, a sperm donor at least. We don’t all have a dad.

I have a dad. I am still learning how much this has blessed my life. After this week and as we move through Covid19, I’m grateful that my dad is still here with me. Even on the days he confuses me and scares me with his sleep talking. I’ll think about that last page for many days, years even. What do we do when we get there? I’m immensely grateful that this week wasn’t a last page for us.

Thanks, Dad. I’m grateful for all you’ve taught me, all the space and love you’ve given me.  I’m sorry we can’t be with you today to celebrate, but know I love and appreciate you. I promise, after we get a couple more Q-tips up our noses, we’ll be right over with shrimp and coconut cake to make our own Happy Father’s Day time.

©Pennie Nichols. 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Two Grandmothers, One Disease, Three Stories

Two Grandmothers

I’ve begun to ask myself why I feel more inclined to tell the story of one grandmother versus the other. Where emotion and humor are concerned, I probably have more in common with the one I’m less inclined to story about.

So why does one story draw me more than the other?

They competed for our affections. Not openly, but every now and then it would slip out.

You like her chicken-n-dumplings better than mine.
Y’all spend more time at her house.
You always go there first.

Both were Mama grandmas, but pronounced differently: Mama Nick (MAH-mah Nick) and Mama Wilson (MAW-Maw Wilson). Mama Wilson was average height —maybe a little tall for her generation— and stout; Mama Nick was short and, by her 60s, hunched.

Both were excellent cooks. One favored gardening. The other sewing and crafts.

Mom learned her domestic skills (cooking and gardening) from her mother-in-law. Arguably, this is because mom was the red-headed middle child and neither parents’ favorite, and she married fresh out of high school, living the first few months of marriage in a trailer next to her in-laws’ house. Whatever the reasons, mom’s chicken-n-dumplings are more like her mother-in-law’s than her own mom’s, and, while mom can sew if she puts her mind to it, she prefers the dirt, like her mother-in-law.

Why her?

I prefer the dirt, too. So, why do I feel more inclined to write about my maternal grandmother?

Mama Wilson wasn’t the “sweet” grandmother. She was wonderful, we loved her; but she was strung between sweet and stern, between doting and “don’t-do-that!” She had a bush just outside her back door that we, the grandchildren, called the stick bush. If she became cross with one of us, in an instant, she had reached through the back door without looking, snap!, and was swishing the switch that would blister our bottoms.

I remember hiding under one of the cupboards she used for storing cloth, needles, patterns, and thread. From there she might just scold us, the switch becoming more of an exclamation point on the reprimands.

Thankfully, those switch moments didn’t define our relationships with her. Even as children, we joked about the switch bush.

Skills

August 20, 1956, my four grandparents and my parents, at their nuptials. Mom is wearing the wedding gown Mama Wilson made for her.

What I remember more about mawmaw are her amazing skills. For fun, she made wall-hangings and things like mantel clocks, using molds, plaster, and paint. To supplement their income, she sewed dresses, vests, pants, pajamas, and wedding gowns for friends and neighbors. Of course, on-the-house garments for family.

She probably didn’t realize she had extraordinary skills and creativity. I remember the year we were in town, and she found out we would be shopping for clothing. I was at the grow-an-inch-each-month age. She looked at me, head to toe, toe to head, pulled out a bolt of cloth and a pattern from the cupboard. After spreading the cloth on the floor, she opened the pattern.

In my mind, she tossed the light tissue pattern in the air and let it fall perfectly on the cloth, but that would be an exaggeration. She smoothed the used pattern on the material, then went to the kitchen and came out with a fist full of butter knives and threw them (not exaggerating here) along the edges of the pattern before cutting the material. That afternoon, I had a McCall’s skirt, knickers, and vest that would fit me for more than a mere month.

My mom and I can sew okay, but we didn’t inherit those skills. Maybe that’s one reason I’m drawn to her story.

The oak tree roots

I think mostly, though, it’s the tree incident. I wasn’t witness but heard more than one first-hand account about her fall on the roots of the oak tree. That year, I began writing about her: a short story “Divinity” and a novel. The oak-tree story inspired the opening scene of the novel, and later, of my first screenplay. The oak tree probably marks when I first really started paying attention to what was happening to my grandmothers.

One disease

Did I mention that both of my grandmothers had Alzheimer’s?

The first signs of it began in their mid to late 60s. By 80, the disease had ravaged their minds. I would come to Louisiana for disheartening holidays, stories about the meek, sweet grandmother, now in a nursing home because she was too difficult to care for, swearing like a sailor, starting two kitchen fires, and running off two caretakers; the stern grandmother, now meek, fumbling with safety pins on her sweater where she’d lost buttons she could no longer sew back on, clinging to my grandfather’s every move, and painfully pleasant to everyone around her.

The stern-to-meek grandmother had developed a tendency to wander at night. On one of her wee-hour excursions, the roots of the old oak tree tripped her up, an incident that prompted the installation of door alarms.

That oak tree and the timing draw me to Mama Wilson’s story. Mama Nick died before I moved back to Louisiana. My visits with her were brief and heart-breaking, often spent trying to figure out where her dentures were and what happened to that new slip mom had brought her last time. I knew less about the day-to-day of her relationship with the disease. She had fallen while I was away.

The falls

I was around enough to watch some of Mama Wilson’s fall. Her fall wasn’t any less heart-breaking, but I was able to catch glimpses of the grandmother I remembered. We helped her with her safety pins, she fussed with my daughters’ hair, and we answered when she asked “Where’s Norman?” Before she slipped away, she held all three of my babies. She didn’t always realize they were her great-grandchildren, but that she held them was a blessing.

As Mama Wilson declined, mom wasn’t always patient. She watched her with dismay and started to say things like, “I hope you can be more patient than me . . . ” and “If I get like that . . . ” Then, mom got like that.

This time, I’m here for the whole fall. We’re blessed that mom’s fall started much later, in her late 70s, and that mom is an exemplary and compliant patient.

I started this essay years ago, before mom stumbled across the rough roots of Alzheimer’s. Some of the beginning of the essay is no longer accurate in the present tense. Mom cooked her last pot of chicken-n-dumplings on her own two or three years ago, she’s no longer able to put her mind to complex tasks like sewing, and her gardening is limited to weed-pulling now. She can’t hoe a row or organize the planting of it. This year, she wasn’t able to make any of the Christmas cookies on her own.

Three stories

I never finished writing about Mama Wilson’s fall before mom tripped on her own diseased roots. I haven’t even begun the forensic work to write about Mama Nick’s fall into the disease. I’m drawn to Mama Wilson’s story first because it was the first time I witnessed alertness spilling from the eyes, awareness and stories slowly draining until finally the gaze is vacant.

All three stories —Mama Wilson’s, Mama Nicks, and mom’s— inform my own as I stare down the triple-barreled Alzheimer’s rifle. All three stories challenge me. Like stubborn weeds, they break above the root and require more than the casual tug to be released.

My intention this year is to dig a bit deeper, to finish Mama Wilson’s story, explore Mama Nick’s, and continue to be part of mom’s. Turning over their stories with my words, my heart will break a little more, but I’ll learn more about these women I cherish, the disease I dread, and myself.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Living In Between

2019 forced me to face living in between.

In between places, in between people, in between homes, in between climates.

I read a bit about the in between from a variety of perspectives: a Jewish journal, a family dealing with cancer and chemo, a parent of a fugitive son, and more. I discovered many different in betweens and ideas to chew on: the loss of clarity in that liminal space; living in the middle versus focusing on the goal; living between knowing and not-knowing.

Here are some of the lessons I am digesting as I emerge from 2019 and living in between. They aren’t unique to living in between, but these lessons became more pronounced in that threshold.

Transitions are hard.

I spent the last five to seven days before my first trips between Baton Rouge, Puerto Rico, and the farm grieving about leaving. This was particularly disturbing for those eight-day stints because I was wasting most of my stay sad about leaving and/or anxious about going.

Lesson: Be present.

Be present has become cliché because we’re reminded to do this from many corners. If it feels watered down, it’s not any less important or vital. After I recognized what I was doing, I made a mindful effort to be present up to the very last minute, wherever I was. The transition is still hard, but I learned to spend less time transitioning and more time living where I stood.

I don’t miss.

During my first trip to Puerto Rico, I experienced an aha! moment. For all the angsting I did before leaving for San Juan,

I don’t want to leave.
Will my dogs be ok?
How much more will mom decline while I’m gone?

the aha! came one evening when Steven was watching a show in which a character was expressing I miss you so much! I realized I hadn’t thought about my dogs in days. I hadn’t missed anything or anybody back home in days. My first thought was: I’m broken! How could I not miss anyone?

I started mulling over past absences and found a disturbing truth: I never miss anyone or any place. I look forward to reunions and visits to places, but I couldn’t find that yearning in me that we associate with absence.

Lesson: Be grateful.

The discussion was tricky, but I talked about this with Steven. I had to admit to him that I never miss him. I’m grateful that he didn’t fall apart and equate love with missing/yearning in absence, thankful that he helped me come round to a deeper understanding of myself. I’m grateful for Steven.

Burdens are often self-inflicted.

I’m especially grateful for Steven for taking this deployment to Puerto Rico. We’ve had a year of adventures.

Steven’s gig in Puerto Rico meant, however, being apart anywhere from a week to six weeks, together eight to fourteen days. My I don’t miss you was pretty damn handy for this. As a couple we experienced odd moments of relearning each other and settling territory (the Puerto Rico condo was his, not mine; the farm house was mine, not his; the house in Baton Rouge was no longer either of ours). The absences were hard on Steven, my pets, and my mom.

The hard part for me? I felt pulled in opposite directions, overwhelmed at times because wherever I showed up, someone needed something from me. Some days, I felt crushed by responsibilities. I held a couple of pity parties for myself, sharing them mainly with Steven and my daughter who was keeping the fort down at our main home.

I don’t want to [insert domestic tasks] everywhere I go!
Why can’t you [insert domestic tasks]?

Fussing never feels great and it certainly wasn’t how I wanted to spend the time I had with my people. One day I was sulking about this pattern, and then, the aha! No one was demanding anything from me. I was choosing to take on tasks.

Lesson: Be mindful.

Being mindful helped me set comfortable boundaries around the domestic tedium and tasks. Once I stopped blaming people I was doing things for and owning the responsibility of my choices, I was able to navigate to a more comfortable balance. In some instances, I didn’t change what I did. Understanding that it was my choice made the task less burdensome. In other instances, I chose differently and no one was less for it.

Relationships are a gift.

For each moment I spent with/between my parents, Steven, my friends, and my children, I spent much more time alone.

In solitude, I explored the wall around my heart. It’s not unrelated to why I don’t miss people. I’ve written about this wall before. I’m clearer now on what that wall is, why it’s there, even why I may have needed it at some point in my life. With mom’s health declining and my dad’s scary heart episodes, I’m motivated to keep the wall fortified. Who wants to be vulnerable at times like these?

The wall protects me from things I fear but that protection comes at a cost. I know it’s time to bring the wall down, but awareness doesn’t make that any easier or any less frightening.

Lesson: Let love.

I know that I love, but I have never loved with abandon. Years ago, when I first began exploring this and admitted that I thought I’d never have a soul mate, Steven begged to differ. (So grateful for him.)

I’m grateful for the love I have allowed in —my family, my friends, Steven— and I’m grateful for Steven’s patience and trust as I’ve discovered my wall, fortified it from time to time, defended it. I’m taking baby a-brick-at-a-time steps, but that wall is coming down. In this liminal space, I feel anxious and afraid, but even in the uncertainty of this threshold, I sense opportunity and new beginnings. It’s a beautiful thing to peek over my wall and discover a sea of love.

Emerging from living in between (or into a new one?)

In 2019, I lived in between the suburbs, the island, and the farm, an experience that was a gift of travel adventures, self-awareness, healing, and mindfulness. The experience was also a microcosm of life because don’t we all always live in the in between?

On the largest scale, in between birth and death.
On smaller scales: in between milestones and celebrations, in between semesters and jobs, in between Mondays and Fridays, Fridays and Sundays, in between appointments and dates, in between waking and sleeping.

We are all living in between something.

As we enter a new year, my wish is that we find peace in that in between. Be present, be grateful, be mindful, and be love. Best of everything to you in 2020.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019

Eulogies for living

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.

Crystals remembered

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.

Crystals imagined

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

Alzheimer’s and Bumper Cars

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.
No.

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

Life Lessons: Mom and a Song

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.
  • Travel.
  • Life’s complicated.
  • I’m busy.
  • I’m thinking.

But mostly,

  • 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?

My aunt:

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.”

I learned.

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.

[deep breath]

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.

Eat the Ice Cream

If she brings it, eat the ice cream.

This morning mom comes over with ice cream and a chocolate.

What’s this?
Ice cream on a stick. She smiles.
For breakfast?
Why not?

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.
Thanks.

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!

I don’t know how to help.

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.

Be present.

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?
Not today.
I’m swamped.
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.

Make space.

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.

Celebrate the Lessons

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.Celebrate the 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.

Wow!

  • When the pump dies, we pull 150-feet of hose and electrical wire up through the well to repair or replace it.

Celebrate the LessonsAnd that’s the pump?

Yes.

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.

But where’s the well.Celebrate the Lessons

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.

Celebrate the LessonsBlack tape to secure the wires snugly around the pump and pipes.

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 won’t miss you

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.

Confession 

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