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.




What I Write When No One Is Looking

“Your blog must be very therapeutic for you.” I hear that often, and it is, but perhaps not for the reason people might think. For me, it has been an exercise in writing for an audience. It forces me to take whatever is on my mind or happening in my life and mold it into something cohesive—a main idea with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Yep, just like we all learned to do in school. My goal with the blog is always to keep it very honest while being mindful of the reader—and so, it’s all true, but it is also filtered. Poorly edited, but always filtered.

Writing in a blog or anything else that will be read by others can be tricky because I am just so used to writing for no one but myself. That personal writing is the truly “therapeutic” stuff. If you want to know what I really feel and think, please, go through the mountain of 70-page, college-rule, spiral-bound notebooks I have accumulated over the past 30 years. Actually, it’s some pretty boring stuff—a lot of time-lines, plans for the day ahead, to-do lists…a lot of fragmented, incomplete thoughts. And yet, this type of writing is so important to me that I am frequently stunned when other people tell me they don’t write. It’s like saying, “I don’t breathe.” Really? How is that possible? I don’t know I could get through a full week without my journal. Actually, have you ever been around a runner who can’t run—maybe due to an injury? Yeah, I get like that when I can’t write.

It's been a long time since I wrote the words "Dear Diary" or dotted an i with a circle--or a heart or a flower or a smiley-face.

It’s been a long time since I wrote the words “Dear Diary” or dotted an i with a circle–or a heart or a flower or a smiley-face.

The following is an actual journal entry that I wrote recently. I’m sharing it because—what the hell? I’ve written over 100 blog entries now and I’ve had over 7000 hits. Why not show you what my real writing looks like?

“Since last night, I’ve been uncomfortably obsessed with H dying. Yes, more than usual and different from what is usual, too.

Normally when I think of her dying, I anticipate how relieved I will feel when it happens. I anticipate a sense of freedom and I mentally make plans to move on. I hope that death will come quickly with no physical pain even though I suspect she is always in some sort of pain now.

Last night and even now as I write, I’m not focused on her pain or my freedom, but really just a sense that it could happen tonight. We could be in her final days. Then, I stop myself and think, “Is that just wishful thinking?” Um, no. I don’t think that it is. I’m really not wishing anything right now.

Over the past few days, H has been out of it. And yes, we have been there before—repeatedly. Somehow, this out-of-it is different, more peaceful. I’d be surprised if she weighs more than 80 lbs. and she has lost all desire to eat. Still, no matter what I write here, I don’t think I can fully explain what I mean. Something has turned here. Something has changed.

Will I be disappointed if H is still alive a week from now? If she made it through the night? I don’t know. I say I experience disappointment daily when I go into her room and discover she is still breathing. What?!?! No visit from the Grim Reaper last night?

And I’ve been trying to remember her in happier times. She came to my graduation ceremony. She threw us an engagement party. She was at the hospital when both of my children were born. She threw us a rehearsal dinner—although I suspect that and the engagement party were really the work of Alex.

I remember her holding E on her first birthday and taking pictures on the front porch. I remember our trip to Williamsburg. We played putt-putt and she made a hole-in-one.

I used to worry that my children’s happy memories of Grandma would be obscured by the memory of how she is now. Now, I realize that my own memories are in the same kind of danger. I keep replaying the memory of when she first moved in with us. There was this one time when she was lucid, but not pissed off and I was helping her in the bathroom. She said, “Thank you.” She told me that I was good to her and she didn’t know how I could be so good and that she was sorry that she couldn’t take care of herself. That had to be September or October of 2012. I don’t know that she has really spoken to me since then. Or at least she hasn’t said much to me since then. We did have that one conversation about not being afraid to die and another one about her wedding china and she laughed at something E said. When was that? Last month? No, around Christmas. I remember telling A that she laughed and I’m not sure he believed me.

I remember holding her hand in the hospital while she was still in ICU and she recognized me. Isn’t that weird? She’s been calling me “Isabelle” so long that I had almost forgotten that she still knew my name right after she fell. The nurses kept saying that she was pulling out her IV at night and trying to get out of bed, and I told them that I would expect no less from her. Who in the hell wants to stay in the hospital, right? She “fired” my father-in-law when he refused to take her home and we all laughed. It was the kind of little inside joke she was always making. We were optimistic back then. We all thought that she and Bob would recover enough to have more happy memories in the making.

Of course, by the time she came home, it was all pretty clear that the level of care she would require…that’s hard, isn’t it? Knowing how quickly it all changed? And how nothing has been the same since then. Nothing. You see a picture of a person all smiles, dressed up and happy and think, “She will stay this way” and then something happens and everything changes.

And so last night I tossed and turned and I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about her and wondering if we have done her a disservice by bringing her into our home—as if we had a choice. Have we kept her alive artificially? I mean, I keep making soup. It’s all she eats—except watery oatmeal, fruit puree and yogurt and sometimes ice cream. If I hadn’t made the decision to make soup while she was in the hospital in May, if I had just put regular food in front of her and expected her to feed herself—like the hospital did—would she still be alive? Or would she have starved? And isn’t that a horrible thought? So little of what she was eating up until then was making it down. And of course, I will continue to make soup right up until she loses the ability to swallow. It would be cruel not to.

And when I thought of her dying in our home, I thought about the logistics, too. Who do you call when something like that happens? A funeral home? I think that’s right. I think that is what Greta told me. I know enough not to dial 9-1-1. And then what? I know she wants to be cremated. I guess we would just hold onto the ashes until Rich, Silje and Emil are here this summer.

I used to have a hard time understanding how or why a family would choose to have a private service at a later date, but now, I get it. Man, oh, man, I get it. I do. I’m pretty sure that is what we would do. Of course, ultimately, A and his sibs are going to be the ones making that decision and I will go along with whatever they want. I really can just remove myself from that whole decision making process.

But yes, I was up at night thinking about all this, and whether it happens today, next week or a year from now, there is a damn good chance H is going to die in my house. She won’t be the first. This is an old house and it’s seen a lot of life and death, and from time to time, I feel the house telling me that. Floor boards were creaking last night. I didn’t hear actual foot-steps this time, just the creaking of boards. I go back and forth as to whether I believe the house is haunted in the traditional sense. I thought about H being one more soul passing through. As morbid as it sounds, I have every intention of dying in this house, too, and so does A. Of course, if one of our children were to die here…well, I don’t know how anyone stays or leaves after something like that happens even if you know that death—everyone’s death—is just a part of life. Born to die, right?

Even when I went to sleep, I dreamt of H dying. Yes, this is what I mean by obsessed. Crazy, huh? And again, it wasn’t a big celebration of “Hooray, I get my life back!” It was more of a “what does it all really mean? Did we do our best?” Contemplative. Sad, but also happy or at least peaceful. Sad, but peaceful, but with an uneasy acceptance of our world falling into a new order.

I think I will always wonder if we handled this all the right way. What could we have done differently? And I suppose we all do the best we can with what we are given. I’m a very forgiving person when I believe that of myself and of others. We are all doing the best we can.

Really, I’ve got to move on. I’ve got to think of something else. For all I know, nothing extraordinary will happen this week. Deborah will be here Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I’ll be home with H on Tuesday and Thursday while both kids are in school.

T and I have a PMAH thing today. That’s if it is still on. I think we are looking at another really cold week. Where is spring? Snow is in the forecast for tomorrow. God, I do not want another day trapped in-doors with H and the kids. No, no, no.

And see? That’s the optimism. I don’t think I will be trapped in-doors with H and the children because I AM expecting something big to happen. I just don’t know what. I can’t shake that weird feeling of anticipation. I know. It’s crazy.”

Pippi Hair & The Six Million Dollar Chair

See? She looks just like she's attending a National Book Day event as Pippi Longstocking ...or she is auditioning for a Wendy's Hamburger commercial.

See? She looks just like she’s attending a National Book Day event as Pippi Longstocking …or she is auditioning for a Wendy’s Hamburger commercial.

My daughter dressed as Pippi Longstocking for the National Book Day celebration at her school. When she selected that character, I felt a certain amount of pride because Pippi is a genuine literary icon, unlike Barbie or the Disney Princesses. No, I don’t think that playing with Barbie leads to anorexia or that Disney Princesses encourage domestic violence. It’s just that I find them dull and uninteresting because they have all but commandeered the collective imaginations of little girls. Besides, Pippi is from a real book—not a comic book or some other piece of mass marketing copy-righted image that is packaged and sold as literature.

Best of all, my daughter already had a Pippi costume left over from Halloween. Basically, it’s just a jumper with other mismatched clothes, a toy monkey pinned into her pocket, boots, and a bright red wig with wiry braids that can be positioned to sticks straight out at 90 degree angles. Without the wig, my daughter just looked like someone who got dressed in the dark. The wig is what pulls it all together and transforms my rather delicate-looking blonde girl into the rough-and-tumble Pippi Longstocking, the daughter of a pirate king!

Yet, I was hesitant to let her wear the wig to school. Seven hours is a long time for a Kindergartener to wear a wig. What if something happened to it? What if she left it on the back of the toilet in the girls’ restroom? What if she agreed to let the other kids use it as second base at recess? What if it proved to be too distracting and the teacher confiscated it? Honestly, you can’t guarantee anything that you send to school with a child is going to come home with them. Just think of all the gloves they lose in the course of one winter. There is a reason frugal and cautious parents pin the gloves to the ends of their jacket sleeves. I can’t very well pin a wig to the top of my child’s head.

I almost said, “You can be Pippi, but I don’t think wearing the wig to school is a good idea. You might ruin it or lose it.” But I stopped myself.

“A wig is a thing,” I reminded myself. “And it is meant to be worn as a part of a costume. If something happens to it, what have I really lost? A thing. If I don’t let her wear it, she loses a potential memory or worse, it reinforces this silly idea that I can’t trust her with a thing. I bought it for her. I’ll let her have her fun.”

So, I helped her dress in striped tights, scuffy boots, and a corduroy jumper over a long-sleeved t-shirt. Then, I helped her tuck her very fine hair under the scratchy wig, and I drew freckles on her face with eye-liner. She was mistakenly Pippi Longstocking!

“Mom, I have to bring a Pippi book, too!” she said as she ran into her bedroom to retrieve one of three books featuring her favorite character.

Now, I spoke up. “I don’t know that I want you taking MY Pippi books to school,” I said. “They are very old.”

Old, indeed. The inscription in the cover of each book reads, “Happy Birthday! Love, Grandmama. 1975.” So, you see, they were a gift and I’ve had them for nearly 40 years and so that makes them special. They aren’t something that should be taken to school by a 6-year-old.

“But mom, the flyer said to dress as a character AND bring a book!” Yes, the flyer announcing this event DID say that students were encouraged to bring the book that features their character, and my daughter has no Pippi books of her own.

“I swear it’s like a six-million dollar chair,” I said under my breath referencing a story from my own distant past.

Years ago, I had a friend who worked at a large art museum. He was the Curator of Decorative Arts and therefore, his museum’s resident expert on furniture. One day, one of the museum’s board members invited him to his house to see his latest acquisition—a six million dollar chair.

“What does one do with a six million dollar chair?” I asked.

“Sit in it,” he answered with a hint of sarcasm.

“Did you?” I asked as I imagined the gazillionaire board member just inviting random people to his home and saying, “Please, make yourself comfortable in my six million dollar chair.” Perhaps over cocktails, there would be a joke comparing the chair to Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.

“No,” my friend answered. “I flipped it over. I looked at it from every angle, but I didn’t sit in it.”


“It’s a fine piece of furniture.”

“But does anyone sit in it?”

“I doubt it. He keeps it roped off with the rest of his collection.”

Having worked in museums for most of my adult life, I have no desire to live in one. I see no reason to hold onto the things that aren’t serving their purpose, that aren’t in some way functional. So, when I find that I become overly concerned about the fate of a thing, I remind myself of the six million dollar chair and it snaps me back into the reality of knowing that what I have is for my family and me to use, not to merely admire from the other side of a velvet rope stanchion.

I don’t, however, criticize the board member for spending six million dollars on a chair. I know there are people who get outraged about that sort of thing and like to go on and on about how many malaria vaccines six million dollars can buy, but really, whether we are rich or poor, I believe we have the right to do with our own money as we choose. I went to Target last week and spent $50 on a tablecloth, white patent-leather mary janes, and two chocolate Easter bunnies—hardly necessities. That $50 could have been used to better the world in some way, but I spent it at Target. I am as guilty of being wasteful as a guy who spends millions on one piece of furniture. That’s just it—regardless of the size of one’s bank account, we all get to decide what is special to us.

And what makes my Pippi books special to me? Is it the age? Um, no, I have quite a few things that are more than forty years old. Is it because my grandmother gave them to me? Not really. She and I weren’t terribly close and I don’t remember even reading them as a child. What I mostly remember about Pippi Longstocking is the short-lived, Swedish TV series with the dubbed-in English.

What is special about my Pippi books is that I read them to my children and that my daughter loves Pippi so much that she wants to dress like her and show her friends a Pippi book on National Book Day.

“Okay,” I said. “You can take the book to school, but you must promise me to take very good care of it. Do you understand?”

“Thank you, Mama! I promise!”

And we headed to the bus stop. It’s a Pippi book, not a Gutenberg Bible or a six million dollar chair.

Note: Should you decide to read Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books to your own children, keep in mind they were written a long time ago and aren’t what we now consider PC. Pippi and her friends buy candy cigarettes and cap guns when they go into town. Barbie and the Disney Princesses would never engage in such behavior.



The Gravity & The Levity

A minivan. I have nothing against them. I just doubt that having one would really make my life that much easier.

A minivan. I have nothing against them. I just doubt that having one would really make my life that much easier.

I spent days in a really bad mood, but it didn’t surprise me. I’ve noticed that my feelings towards my mother-in-law and her condition cycle. I go through periods in which I really resent having her live with us and that every day I have to take her care into consideration. Even on those days in which her care-giver is here, I have to race home by 2 pm, and someone—either my husband or me—will have to feed her, change her and put her to bed. It’s exhausting.

I resent that her care is the reason that we can’t get a teenage girl to babysit kids at only $10 an hour so that he and I can have time together.

I resent saying “no” to my kids when they want to go somewhere and we have no granny-care.

I resent that my house smells like a nursing home.

I resent that the biggest and best bathroom in this house is hers while I have to fish the bath-toys out of the tub that the rest of the family uses.

I resent that every morning when I walk into her bedroom and see her breathing, I think, “Oh, crap. Grim Reaper didn’t come last night either.” Yeah, I hate that, but on a daily basis, I am disappointed that she is still alive—and I feel that disappointment for her as much as for myself.

And when I am like this, I get terribly jealous of people who aren’t faced with my particular set of challenges. It’s all a part of self-pity—comparing oneself to others. It’s the quickest route to unhappiness. I know this and yet…

The other day, I saw a minivan commercial in which some cute, young mommy-person was talking about how her minivan makes “the job of being a mom” so much easier. “Oh, vomit!” I thought. “I bet she uses that van to drop her kids off at her mother-in-law’s house so that she can get a manicure before date-night. Women who whine about ‘how hard it is to be a mommy’ have no eff-ing idea!”

Yeah, I’m yelling at the TV in my head. Sane people do that all the time.

But you see the theme here, right? Resent, resent, resent…and it’s only made worse by the fact that no matter how kind I am to my mother-in-law, she is nasty to me. She glares at me. She waves the back of her hand at me. She refuses to speak to me.  I hear her converse with my husband and her care-giver writes “very verbal” in her notes, but for me—someone who is not a blood relative and not being paid to put up with her—she says nothing.

Remember how I wrote about treating others as if they were Christ? This is the challenging part. Other people don’t behave like Christ. Other people treat me like Christ. So, why haven’t I wheeled her to the top of the Bay Bridge and sent her sailing over the edge? Because it’s not about what others do, it’s about how I choose to respond. I know that. So, there you go, I’m not as crazy as one might think.

Besides, I also go through very sweet, serene periods in which I do not resent her, her care, or her behavior. I’m able to accept it all as just is and even see being with her as a gift—an opportunity to learn and grow. She has given me so much more to write about. My children have experienced life in a multi-generational home and I think they are kinder people for having had this experience. So, yeah, there’s an up-side, and I have weeks in which that little bit of up makes all the down worth it.

What’s interesting to me—and really very amusing—is that events that transition me from resentment to acceptance tend to be the more problematic moments of everyday life. It’s not the happy, good stuff you might think:

Friday, I woke in a vicious mood. I had spent Thursday trapped at home doing granny-care for the world’s most ungrateful old bat, and thinking how incredibly unfair it is that I’m the one whose life has changed the most as the result of her head-injury and just general dementia because she is old. Me—not someone who is paid to take care of her. Me—not some blood relative. Me! Me! Me!

And of course, I know this whole line of thinking—the expectation that anything in life be fair—is unrealistic. If you expect life to be fair, you are going to be disappointed a lot. I seem to say that daily to my children.

So, there I was in my witchy-bitchy mood when I got caught in traffic—the kind that doesn’t move at all unless the driver in front of you gives up and turns around. I was already running late and knew that my mother-in-law’s care-giver needed to leave by 2:30. I reached for my cell-phone. Oh, wait, I had taken it out of my purse and placed it on the nightstand the night before. Our power had gone out, and I had wanted my only link to the outside world in a place where I could easily find it. I guess I just forgot about it and left it there. And so, I turned my car around and re-routed my journey home.

On a narrow, hilly country road, I found myself in a second traffic jam. A truck had gone off road and was stuck on an embankment. A tow truck was pulling it to safety. The tow driver approached my vehicle and I rolled down the window. “If you are in a hurry, you might want to find another way to go. We are going to be a while. He’s stuck good.”

Okay. I couldn’t turn around on this narrow, hilly road and so I backed up to the nearest driveway and turned around there and I was on my way again…until I hit a third traffic jam? Yes. This time some drainage pipes had fallen off the back of a truck and two guys were scrambling to pick it up. Deep sigh.

I arrived home at almost 3:30. “I’ve been calling you and calling you, but you didn’t answer,” the care-giver said as she reached for her coat.

“I know. I left my phone here. Sorry about that.”

“I called my other job and told them I would be late.”

“Thank you.”

And because it was now 3:30, I had to head up to the bus stop to pick up my daughter. Because my son was still in the car and napping, I drove the half mile to the stop, instead of walking. And there, we waited and waited and waited and I began to wonder if I had missed her, but no, I knew I was at the stop earlier than usual. What was going on?

At around 4 pm, a bus—not my daughter’s—sped past me, and I realized that it was the first school bus I had seen. Usually, I get passed by four before my daughter’s bus arrives. Hmmm…odd.

A car flew past me, but then, stopped and backed up. The driver told me that traffic problems had caused a school bus shortage and that it would be at least on hour before all the kids were home, but we could go to the school to pick them up.

Okay, so I drove to the school—from the bus stop, I was half-way there anyway, but they wouldn’t release my daughter to me  because I didn’t have ID–I had left my wallet at home when I went to the corner to wait for her bus. So, I drove home. I got my wallet and headed back to the school.

When I got there, I was told she had just left on the bus. Because I wasn’t at the bus stop, the driver kept her on the bus and returned her to the school, but not until I raced back to the bus stop thinking I could catch her.

We finally arrived home at 5 pm. Upon getting out of the car, my son wet his pants–his first accident since announcing he would no longer wear diapers—that was back in January. But this is the sort of thing that happens when you expect for be gone 5 minutes, but you end up in a car for an hour and a half.

And this, of course, meant that my mother-in-law napped an hour and a half longer and needed to have her diaper changed. I didn’t realize that she was actively going when I stood her up and pulled down her pants–and so, I had to clean her, change her, shower, clean the floor–all before starting dinner. My son kept coming into the bathroom and telling me that he was hungry–while holding his nose. “Not now, Sweetheart. Mama’s got poop up to her elbows.”

My husband didn’t get home until around 8 pm, and he said, “The school called to say the buses were delayed. I guess you got that message.” Um, no, no, I did not. But then I checked–messages were left on my home phone, my email, and my cell phone…only I didn’t get them.

And at some point in the middle of this, I burnt supper. A neighbor had knocked on my door as I was setting the timer to ask about a trashcan that had blown into his yard. I guess I forgot to press “start” on the timer.

Had I been in a good mood when this comedy of errors began, I would have described this as a rough day, a day in which nothing went my way, but because I was already feeling the gravity of life when this series of mishaps began, I found it all amusing. Instead of plunging me deeper into a funk, the events of the day pulled me away from the abyss. I had to laugh. None of what happened was anyone’s fault. It was just a whole lot of life happening at once. It was definitely the kind of day that could happen to the chick in the minivan commercial—at least the burnt supper and the botched school bus run–and she might have laughed it off, too or maybe it would have sent her sobbing about “the worst day ever!”

As for me, I’m back in that serene place of compassion and understanding. Nice.


A Prayer for the Boy with Black Hair and One for Me

I'm not a fan of tattoos. I'm anti-voluntary pain, but you are considering one, go with the praying hands. It's a good look and you don't have to be a biker to pull it off.

I’m not a fan of tattoos. I’m anti-voluntary pain, but you are considering one, go with the praying hands. It’s a good look and you don’t have to be a biker to pull it off.

I had both kids in the car and I was dropping off my daughter at school. As we inched our way forward in the “kiss and go” line, we said our usual school drop-off prayer in which we ask that all the students, teachers, aides, secretaries, the vice principal, the assistant principal, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and all who enter the school will be blessed with a safe and happy day.

My son, who was on his way to his second day of pre-school, said, “What about me? Let’s pray for everyone at my school.” And so we did. “God bless all the students and teachers at the pre-school with a wonderful, safe, happy day of learning. Amen.”

“Except for the bad kid. Don’t ‘God bless’ him,” my son added with his hands still folded and his head still bowed.

Before I could even open my mouth to address this, his sister intervened. “No, we should pray for the bad kid especially, Tom. Maybe if he has a good day, he won’t be so bad.”

“Okay, God bless the bad kid.”

“God bless with boy with the black hair,” I correctly him. I’m sure that either way, God knew who we were talking about.

Oh, yes, “the bad kid”—AKA “the boy with the black hair.” I have been hearing about him since I picked my son up from his first day of pre-school. I asked, “How did it go?” and he responded by relying the misadventures of one of the other students. Apparently, this child spit on the floor and was put in time-out where he spit on the floor again. He kicked a teacher’s assistant and was sent to time-out. He called my son a ‘baby’ and ended up in time-out—again.

The first time my son listed all the charges brought against the bad kid, I listened because I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t interested in hearing all about his first day of school, and apparently, this other child’s behavior was the dominate event of the day. When he was finished, I told him that I wanted to hear about what he did at school, not some other child. He talked about puzzles and worksheets and games and stories, but he kept coming around to the bad kid because it was at story-time that the spitting incident happened and while doing a puzzle, the names were called. At pick-up, I did hear the teacher tell a parent that she needed to speak with him privately. I’m presuming this was the bad kid’s father or grandfather.

“Let’s not call him ‘the bad kid,’” I said. “Maybe he was just having a bad day and bad feelings that cause him to behave badly. It doesn’t mean he is a bad kid. What’s his name?”

“I don’t know. He’s got black hair.” And thus, the bad kid became known as the boy with the black hair.

Honestly, I don’t know if the boy with the black hair was just having a bad day or if he has been spitting on the carpet, kicking aides, and calling the other students names since September. I do know that I felt especially proud of my daughter when she reminded her brother not to exclude anyone—even a person who had hurt him. Pray for your enemies.  For me, it was a moment in which the Heavens opened, a beam of light shown upon me, and a voice said, “Well, you must be doing something right.” No, it wasn’t “Well-done, good and faithful servant,” or “This is My Son with whom I am pleased,” but since I’m not yet dead and I’m certainly not Jesus, I will settle for “Well, you must be doing something right.”

For all the bully-awareness they do in school, I’m pretty sure the guidance counselor isn’t the one who taught my daughter to pray for her enemies. My husband and I taught her that. It’s an actual example of us sharing our faith and our beliefs with our children and it sticking. Woo-hoo! Score one for Team Parent!

Of course, I have a hard time with the word “enemy.” I mean, really, the boy with the black hair is hardly Kim Jong-un. He’s a child. He may have a behavior problem, but labeling him an enemy is pretty harsh.

On a personal level, I doubt many of us have true enemies. It would be a little paranoid of me to believe that anyone is out to get me. I’m not an underworld drug lord. No one has a reason to want to snuff me out. I’m sure I could be a victim of a random crime just as anyone could be—but random is the key word there, isn’t it? And then, there are the political and religious radicals around the world who may see me as an enemy just because I am an American, but I choose not to hate them back. Yeah, I’m praying for them instead.

No, in our comfortable, western world of convenience and a fairly high standard of living, most of us encounter unpleasant circumstances and attitudes. Those are our enemies. Sure, people sometimes embody those attitudes and contribute to those circumstances. On a regular basis, I encounter people whose comments or actions make me want to beat them with my shoe—or at the very least, my words. I’ll even confess that lately, I’ve been walking around with a can of whoop-ass that I’m ready to open. I have a chip on my shoulder and a hair trigger and slew of other clichés meant to tell you to stay out of my way.  In that respect, I am my own enemy.

And it makes me wonder—have to taught my children to pray for themselves? Have I taught them that in that moment when you think, “I just might lose it!” to say, “God bless me and comfort me so that I won’t say or do something I will regret?” I don’t know. Oops.

I’m reminded of my favorite prayer, the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

See? I read these words and I think, “Yeah, that’s how I want to be. That’s who I want to be” and it’s all about changing the petitioner, not other people—our perceived enemies. It’s all about how if we change ourselves, we can change the world and how we can be used to change the hearts of others by being that living, breathing extension of God’s love.

The next time my son mentions the boy with the black hair, we going to pray with him—more than just “God bless the boy with black hair.” We will ask God to show us a way in which we might help him have good behavior and we can ask that he be receptive to our help.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that it is exactly what we are called to do. Amen.