Monthly Archives: April 2014

My Life as a Cruise Director

When I was a kid, these people made working for a cruise ship look fun. As an adult, I think, "Cruise ship? Aren't people always getting sick on cruises?"

When I was a kid, these people made working for a cruise ship look fun. As an adult, I think, “Cruise ship? Aren’t people always getting sick on cruises?”

“Spring Break is my practice summer,” I told my husband, my friends, and anyone else who would listen. I said this with the giddiness of a college student headed to Daytona Beach with her daddy’s credit card–and with the sincere trepidation of that same college student who upon graduation realizes she needs to find a job.

You see, “Spring Break” was to be the first week in two years in which I had both of my children home with me all day, every day–and no need to even consider granny-care. Two years. I certainly don’t want to come across as insensitive about this, and I’m not saying that I am glad my mother-in-law has finally died, but the truth is, just being a mom is so much easier now that I don’t have to take her care into account. I’m not in a rush to leave in the morning. I’m not in a rush to return in the afternoon. I’m not dealing with two different bathroom-related emergencies at the same time every day. I don’t feel pulled in a gazillion different directions for the first time in two years.

And my children have really grown up in those two years. They were babies the last time I had this kind of freedom to just be a mom–and not a care-giver. Sure, they weren’t newborns two years ago, but my son was still young enough that I had to always pack diapers and be aware of nap times.

I’m excited about how much they have grown. In my pre-child mommy-fantasies, I wasn’t daydreaming about infants and toddlers. I dreamt of kids—the kind who climb on the monkey-bars, ride bicycles, and read really cool books, like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler and I Capture The Castle. I wanted to take them fun places and have deep conversations about life and love and literature.

See? That’s the giddiness! A full week to spend time with two of my favorite people! Every day of Spring Break would be an adventure! I likened myself to being a cruise director with a whistle, a clip board, and a daily itinerary of fun, fun, fun! Just think of me as the Julie McCoy of the M.V. Spring Break.

And now, for the trepidation. I don’t have much experience as a cruise director, and my children are…active. Very active. Super active. It’s like living with two of the three Chipmunks—on caffeine. They get into everything. They are impulsive. They are noisy. They are messy, and their attention span is short. Very short. Super short. Life at our house is Alvin and the Chipmunks meet Love Boat.

Oh, wait, they’ve already made that movie and in it, they ended up marooned on an island. That sounds about right.

So, how was Spring Break? My practice summer? Obviously, I survived it since I’m writing about it today.

On Monday, we had plans! We met friends at the library for a play-date and then, we went to a playground with those friends. That part was good. The grocery shopping after the playground? Well, that was like taking Chipmunks to a grocery store. Clean-up on aisle nine.

The remainder of Monday is a bit of a blur. I’m sure that I have blocked it out of my mind for a reason. I do remember being aware that Tuesday’s weather was going to be icky—rain, colder temperatures, wind.

Here I am with my children and one of their friends. We recorded several albums and had our own show back in the 1960s.

Here I am with my children and one of their friends. We recorded several albums and had our own show back in the 1960s.

Having spent my career working in museums, I cannot tell you how many times I have been involved in this discussion: How does weather impact visitation?—Or as it relates to me now, will I take my kids somewhere in the rain? And here’s the answer: Museums experience slightly increased visitation on days in which the weather is iffy because people want to go somewhere and they’ve ruled out all outdoor venues such as playgrounds. However, if the weather is just plain bad—stormy, for example—they stay home and the museums experience a decrease in visitation.

Tuesday’s weather was bad enough that we stayed home all day watching movies. I made popcorn for lunch and told myself that a movie counts as an activity. It snowed Tuesday night. Enough said. Okay, it wasn’t the kind of snow that accumulates, but still, it snowed—in mid-April. Frankly, I think that is plenty of justification for sitting around in our pajamas eating popcorn and watching movies.

On Wednesday, however, I was determined to go somewhere, anywhere. I chose the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. Why? Because it is free and we hadn’t been there in a couple of years. In fact, when we pulled into the parking lot, both of my children claimed this was all new territory. “We’ve never been here before!” they squealed in their little Chipmunk voices. In fact, whenever I quote my children in this blog, you should just assume they sound like the Chipmunks–and I sound like David Seville. That’s right—I look like Julie McCoy in her little nautical uniform, but I sound like a cartoon song-writer/animal trainer.

The Wildlife Refuge was a hit. I took their picture in front of the taxidermied polar bear and they played a video game that uses bird calls to create rap music. I tried to encourage a little hiking, but alas, they were hungry and so we headed to their favorite restaurant—Ikea.

Yep, I know. Ikea is known for its inexpensive, easy-to-assemble furniture, but my children think of it as their favorite place to eat, and with good reason—kids’ meals are free on Tuesdays! Hooray! But it was Wednesday. We ate there anyway.

My children had wanted to go to the free in-house childcare center at Ikea, too, but it was closed for remodeling?!?! During Spring Break!?!? Oh, Ikea, you disappoint.

We made the most of our Ikea adventure, however. It really is a kid-friendly store and so I didn’t mind shopping with the Chipmunks there. Besides, they really like the Ikea free-bees– the paper tape measures, golf pencils, and brochures that feature the store floor plan. “Look, free treasure maps!” Alvin squealed as she handed Theodore a brochure!

On Thursday, I was once again determined to go somewhere and I had considered quite a few options—including a two-hour ride to St. Mary’s City, an outdoor history museum that had daily Spring Break activities scheduled. Excellent choice. Fun and educational and since I love archaeology, this seemed a logical pick.

The phone rang. I answered. Blah, blah, blah. We got a late start.

I decided we would try to make it to St. Mary’s City anyway, even if we would obviously miss the 11 a.m. Spring Break program on colonial rope-making. Oh, rats. As for lunch, I had no time to make sandwiches. I threw pretzels, bananas, and juice boxes in a bag, and I figured we would stop somewhere along the way for a burger.

No one was hungry when we passed what would be our last fast food option for many miles, but on that long stretch of highway and little else, my children began whining, “We are hungry. We are hungry. We have to go to the bathroom.” I tried to give them pretzels and bananas, but no, they were hungry for lunch. “We are starving for real food,” they squeaked.

Real food? Yeah, me, too. Here’s a mistake I periodically make: I let myself get hungry and once that happens, my ability to make wise decisions is just gone—along with my patience and desire for road-trips.

We pulled into the one lone shopping center we found. Our lunch choices? Chinese or Mexican—so, basically, we were choosing between high sodium and high sodium. I picked the Mexican restaurant because I figured they would bring us chips and salsa as soon as we sat down.

My daughter ordered off the kids’ menu—a quesadilla with rice and a lemonade—for $8. That was waaaaay more than I had planned to spend on a child’s meal. I decided my son and I would split an entrée. Shrimp tacos? He likes shrimp and tomatoes and lettuce and everything else that goes on a taco, so that seemed like a good choice.

Our lunch arrived. He refused to eat it. “I don’t like shrimp,” he squealed. Then, he, the child who was starving for real food, not just snacks, filled up on chips and salsa.

I paid the bill–$25 when I included the tip. Wow. I had planned to spend only half as much on lunch and now, I didn’t have enough cash to get into St. Mary’s City. Sure, I could have used a credit card or even hunted for an ATM, but at the start of Spring Break, one of the things I promised myself was that I would use only the cash I had on hand. I had started the week with $75, and now, I was down to less than $20. And okay, I will admit I bought a bottle of wine with some of that cash on Monday night and so, yeah, that along with the Mexican lunch…St. Mary’s City would just have to wait until summer.

“What do you know about Flags Pond?” I asked our waiter. I had seen signs for it a couple of miles back, and I had heard that it was a good place to hunt for fossils. Fossil hunting? That could be fun.

“I know nothing, senora.”

“Okay, so we will just take our chances. We will go to Flags Pond because it is a state park, and therefore, probably within my depleted budget,” I thought as I loaded my children back into the car.

We drove north and followed the signs to Flags Pond. It was closed.

And so, we continued to drive north towards home. “Well, today has been a bit of a failure,” I told myself, and then, I saw the sign for the Cypress Swamp Nature Center. Like the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, it met those qualifications of free admission and we had not been there for a really long time. Jack pot.

So, we hiked the cypress swamp trail—twice—and visited with an albino snapping turtle that lives at the interpretative center. My daughter declared it, “the best day ever,” and I realized that I may have driven too far and spent more money on lunch than I had planned, but the day was not a failure.

On Friday, we went to the annual PMAH Spring Fling where the kids hunted for eggs, rode a pony, and played with all their little Chipmunk friends—is it just me or do all children sound a little bit like the Chipmunks? It, too, was praised as being “the best day ever.” I love that about my daughter—for her, most days are “the best day ever.”

So, was Spring Break my “practice summer?” And if so, how did I do? What did I learn?

  1. Not every day on the M.V. Summertime will be an adventure. If bad weather or illness or other unforeseen events put us in dry-dock for a day, it’s okay to watch movies. And as much as I loathe crafts, it’s not a bad idea to go through our craft supplies and have them ready and available for those days when we are stuck in-doors and at home.
  2. Lunchtime is important. Buy good lunch food—not just peanut butter and jelly—and pack good lunches. Eating out as the result of desperation is a lot like desperation shopping. You will pay too much and you probably won’t get what you want.
  3. Include time for friends. What made Monday and Friday special? Friends. One of the things I have neglected in recent years is friendships because I didn’t feel as though I could follow through with anything planned. I couldn’t guarantee we would make it to playdates and so I stopped going to them all together. Things are different now. We’ve re-entered the land of the living.
  4. Be flexible. I’m glad I was open to hiking the cypress swamp trail even though it was not what I had planned. According to my daughter, this was “the best day ever” and I owe that to being open to an ever-changing plan.

Of course, the real difference between Spring Break and summer is that summer is longer and the M.V. Summertime will have more ports-of-call. Well, that and it’s not likely to snow in July. God, it better not snow in July. I won’t be able to handle that.

Still, I am aware that summer always goes quicker than we expect. I assume I will have more time in the summer—I suspect most people fall into that trap—and then, we all blink and it is over.








The Future of This Blog

Sometimes, I wish the Highway of Life were more clearly marked, but most of the time, I'm okay navigating without much signage.

Sometimes, I wish the Highway of Life were more clearly marked, but most of the time, I’m okay navigating without much signage.

I’m always happily surprised when people tell me that they read my blog. Even if you are just staring at a computer or a smart-phone because you are procrastinating, the choices of where you might spend your screen time are endless, and yet, you are here. I’m flattered. I’m humbled.

In the days that followed my mother-in-law’s death, I had several people tell that they have been following my blog and ask, “Will you keep writing?”

To be fair, not too many people know that I have been keeping a journal since my early twenties; I’ve started, but never finished several novels; I was published in my college literary magazine; my undergrad degree is in writing; and I made it all the way through graduate school with making at least an A- on every writing assignment. Please don’t ask me about my grades in Calculus.

I did most of the writing at most of the jobs I’ve held or that I had my own newspaper column for a year and a half. It’s just that my blog is the first thing I’ve ever written that anyone has ever read—besides Facebook statuses. And I will continue writing because I don’t know how not to write.

Perhaps the real question behind the inquiries has more to do with the fate of this specific blog. Will I continue writing in it? Yes.

I started this blog after my mother-in-law had been living with us for eight months. Our housekeeper had quit after months of transportation, communication, and child-care problems, and my mother-in-law had been hospitalized twice in the course of just two weeks. I was stuck at home, canceling plans, and feeling resentful—not towards my mother-in-law or anyone else. I was resenting the circumstances in which I had to tell my very young children that no, we weren’t going to a birthday party after all because we didn’t have anyone to watch Grandma. It’s a hard conversation to have.

During that same period of my life, I had a number of people tell me that being a part of the sandwich generation was a common thing. “People are living longer and having children later in life. So, there must be millions of families just like yours,” I was told. Yet, ours was the only household I knew of that had an age range of 85 years. Besides, I knew that most people in my mother-in-law’s condition were in nursing homes, and every time her health took a turn for the worse, I was wondering, “Is this it?” I’m sure it wasn’t a new experience for all of human-kind, but it was completely unfamiliar to me.

I went to monthly elder-care support group meetings where I was the youngest person participant. Everyone else was in their 60s or older and they were all caring for a parent who was in better shape than my mother-in-law. They had questions about how to convince dad to give up driving or when they should take over mom’s checkbook. Yeah, we skipped right over all that.

The next day, I might go to a playground and overhear two moms talking, and one would say, “My in-laws are watching the kids for the weekend, so we are going away for our anniversary.” Wow! Grandparents who can babysit? For an entire weekend? That, too, is so outside of my experiences.

So, sure, 1 in 8 Americans between 40 and 60 may be caring for an older relative, but still, I was—and remain—convinced that our situation was pretty extreme. It was extreme enough to give me something unique to write about. And so, a blog was born.

And, now?

I’m going to keep blogging and I’m keeping Peanut Butter on Rye, instead of starting over with a new blog. Obviously, I need to update the home page—new text and new picture—just so it will be more in keeping with who I am and where I am right now. I’m not in a hurry to make those changes, but I know they are coming. My only plan for this blog is to take my time and just be open to wherever inspiration takes me.



The Longest Day of My Life. So Far.

My house. It's really a lovely place to live--or die.

My house. It’s really a lovely place to live–or die.

Yes. She finally passed.

Last Tuesday, I was home alone with my mother-in-law. Deborah had the day off. My husband was at work and both children were in school. My mother-in-law was difficult to wake and once awake, she was difficult to feed. She fell asleep between swallows of soup at lunch. Nothing about any of this was terribly unusual. In the past eighteen months, she has had several bouts in which she slept a lot and ate very little, and yet, I had that feeling that something was different.

That night, I gave her tomato-carrot-sausage soup for supper—it was one of her favorites– and followed it with a bowl of ice cream. Chocolate. I spoon-fed her, and she continued to nod off between swallows. Once she was done with the ice cream, I wheeled her back into her bathroom where I washed her hands and face, brushed her teeth and changed her into her best pajamas.

Pajamas hardly seem worth mentioning, but these pajamas! Oh, these pajamas were the softest, most luxurious pajamas ever made and they were relatively new—a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, her daughter.

Looking back, I’m happy I gave her ice cream and dressed her in her best pajamas—I take a certain comfort in these details–even though pudding is good desserts, too, and all of her pajamas are really pretty nice.

I believe the choices made on Tuesday reflect that change that I wrote about in my last blog entry. “Something has changed, something has turned,” I wrote. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but now, I know—it was peace. Her soul was peaceful. There was an absence of anger and fear, and I believe I was responding to that.

So, I put her in bed, said a quick prayer, and turned out the light.

On Wednesday morning, Deborah arrived and got her meds and breakfast ready and then went into her bedroom to wake her. A moment later, Deborah called out to me. I came downstairs and she discreetly and calmly said, “She’s passed.” We hugged and I went into my mother-in-law’s room. It looked like she was sleeping in the same position I had left her in the night before.

I called my husband. He had already left for work. I said, “You need to come home now.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Um, your mom has gone to join your dad.” I couldn’t say, “She died” over the phone.

Then, I had to decide what to tell my children. I figured I had to say something to them right away because I didn’t want to send my daughter to school and then have her come home to discover that Grandma was just gone. Although they are only six and four, my children are two of the most grounded, caring individuals I know. They can handle this, I told myself and then, I took them both into my son’s bedroom and said, “Grandma died last night. She went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Her body is still in her bed, but her soul is in Heaven.”

“Just like Hutch,” my son said referencing a very old rabbit that went to sleep and didn’t wake up.

“Yes,” I said. “Like Hutch.”

I also asked them if they remembered attending their grandfather’s viewing. It was less than two years ago, and they had seen his body in the casket. They had knelt next to it and said a prayer of thanksgiving. “Thank you, God, for all the happy times we had with Grandpa and all the happy memories that will live in our hearts.”

“I don’t think we will have the same kind of opportunity to say good-bye to Grandma,” I told them knowing that my mother-in-law didn’t want an open-casket viewing. “Would you like to go into her room now? It just looks like she is sleeping, and you could see her one last time.”

They nodded. The three of us went into her bedroom and stood by her bed holding hands.

“Good-bye, Grandma. I love you,” my daughter said.

“Good-bye, Grandma. I love you,” my son echoed.

“Dear God,” I prayed, “We thank you for Grandma and all of our happy memories of her. She will live in our hearts forever. Amen.”

Then, I asked my daughter if she wanted to go to school. Yes, she did. “Please understand that if you want to talk about this while at school, you are to go to your teacher or another adult. You are not to discuss Grandma dying with your classmates.” Cuz’ there’s no sense in upsetting kids whose grandmothers may only be a year or two older than Mama.

“The second rule,” I continued, “is that if you want to come home at any point during the day, you are to tell your teacher and I will come get you right away. Do you understand?”


And then, I took her to school. I called the school, too—just to give them a heads-up.

This is the part where I brag about how awesome my children are–again. Honestly, even if they weren’t related to me, I would still want to know them. They are caring, smart, and grounded. Not much rattles them. I love these qualities. I can’t say that I’ve done anything to make them this way. It’s not due to my influence or my parenting skills. I’m just lucky. I won the kid-lottery. I suspect most parents feel that way.

My husband came home. We hugged. We exchanged those meaningful glances—the kind that takes the place of words when there are no words to accurately describe the thoughts and feelings. He went into her room, stayed there a few minutes, and once he came out, I said, “We need to call someone to come get her. Do you want to use the same funeral home we used for your dad?”

He nodded.

I called the funeral home because I thought I remembered being told that you call a funeral home directly when someone dies in your home. As it turns out, however, you must first call the police so that they can issue a case number giving the funeral home permission to move the body. “Use the non-emergency number,” the funeral home employee advised me.

And so I did. I looked up the non-emergency police number and called. I explained the situation to the person who answered that phone, and she put me through to the dispatcher—the emergency services dispatcher. Yes, this is the same person you get when you dial 9-1-1, but I didn’t know that.

“Fire, police, EMS?”

“Excuse me?” I said because this really caught me off-guard. This was not an emergency as far as I was concerned.

“What emergency service do you require? Fire, police, EMS?” he repeated.

“Um, medical examiner?” I answered. “My mother-in-law died in her sleep last night.”

“Have you tried to revive her with CPR?”

“No. I suspect she has been dead for several hours. She died in her sleep.”

“Okay, I am dispatching.”

Within minutes, three police cruisers AND a fire-truck AND an EMS arrived at my house. I had already told my son that some people would be coming to get Grandma, and he had excused himself up-stairs to play quietly in his room. Again, this is how I know I won the kid-lottery. Now, however, there was a fire-truck in front of our house. What 4-year-old boy isn’t going to be excited about this? And what adult isn’t going to think, “Really?!?! Is this the best use of our tax money?”

The fire-fighters and the EMTs carried their equipment into the house, took one look at my mother-in-law, and carried equipment back out. They were very nice about it. Very respectful. They left because there really wasn’t anything for them to do here. It wasn’t an emergency.

The police, however, took a report. Who was the last person to see her alive? What time did she go to sleep? Was she on any medication? How old is she? What did she eat the day before? How long has she lived with us? How was her overall health? Who found her this morning?

The officers taking the report were young. One might have been 30, and the other was maybe 23 or 24. One had just become a father, and the other was engaged to be married. One had been born in Anne Arundel County and had rarely left the state of Maryland, and the other was trying to convince him to travel “before it’s too late.” They were pleasant and patient with us as we answered their questions with more information than they needed. I told them that my mother-in-law was from Ecuador and had visited Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. I told them that she had worked for the Ecuadorian Embassy and the Organization of the American States and had volunteered at the White House. It was like having a small wake in my kitchen over coffee.

Then, they called the medical examiner who, to my knowledge, listened to the details of the police report and decided to “sign off” on the phone versus launching an investigation. Phone calls, emails, faxes, whatever were exchanged between the medical examiner and my mother-in-law’s doctor, and eventually, the younger, un-travelled police officer handed my husband a card with a case number on it. At last, we could call the funeral home.

This time a different person answered the phone at the funeral home and for the sixth time, I had to tell someone that my mother-in-law had died in her sleep. The funeral home person asked me questions about the arrangements and for the first time, I began to feel the stress of the day, the magnitude of what had happened.

“We aren’t ready to make arrangements. You handled my father-in-law’s funeral a year and a half ago and so I am asking you to handle hers. Other than that, I’m not in a position to make decisions. Just come get her body. Now.” I was a bit curt, but damn it, I had a dead body in my house and I desperately wanted this day to be over.

The funeral home sent two middle-aged men in suits. They, like everyone else who had been in and out of my house that day, were very nice, very sensitive to the fact that the situation is rare and awkward. They counseled us briefly and advised my husband to have her embalmed because we didn’t know how long it would take us to get in touch with other family members who may want to see her before she was cremated.

Then, they lifted her onto the gurney and zipped the body bag before rolling her out the door to their van.

From the moment Deborah discovered her lifeless body to the time when the van pulled out of our drive way was only five hours, and yet, to me, it felt like fifty. “This has been the longest day of my life,” I said to my husband.

He disagreed. “Really? It’s like a blur to me. It’s all happened so fast.” We had had a similar discussion in the hospital after his heart attack.

Now, I would describe that afternoon, evening and the next few days as a blur. I can’t tell you what we ate that night, but I’m sure I served the children something for dinner. I don’t remember meeting my daughter at the bus stop after school, but I’m sure I did. A mind-numbing blur. I can’t say that I felt sad or even relieved for the first few days.

I think I was just in a state of shock, and yet, there is nothing shocking about an old person in ill health dying in her sleep. The words “So, this is it,” kept coming into my mind just as they had at every other big moment of my life. My first kiss, my high school graduation, going into labor with my first child…yes, at every big moment in my life, my thoughts have been the same. “So, this is it,” and “It happened. I knew it would happen, and yet, I am surprised it happened. I can’t believe it happened.” No doubt, this is what I will be thinking as I am dying.

Now, some time has passed and it’s been a flood of emotions. I’m over the shock. Yes. It finally happened.