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People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. ~Abraham Lincoln

I find it pretty amazing that this quote is attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

He didn’t exactly have a cushy life.

His mother died when he was nine, and although his family could barely survive, young Lincoln gave up hunting after watching a turkey suffer after he shot the bird(the bird thing is a side note, but I found it interesting).

He didn’t just become president over night–he was a lawyer, then tried for congress (twice) but was defeated by Stephen Douglas–over the issue of abolition.

He married Mary Todd, and three of their four children would die before adulthood. This left Mary, who already suffered with depression, even more mentally unstable. As Abraham Lincoln’s life began to evolve more and more around politics, his marriage suffered.

President Lincoln was under great stress to try to hold our country together in perhaps its most challenging time. He did so, but with great personal sacrifice. He was assasinated when he as only 56 years old.

According to today’s standards of what qualifies as a “good life,” Abraham Lincoln’s journey would not be considered an easy one–then or now.

(Other great quotes by Lincoln )

And yet, we all owe him a great debt. He held America together and changed the course of  history. His words and example still inspire us today.

He doesn’t exactly seem like a person who would focus much on the meaning of happiness–but who better than someone who knew, but did not give into sadness/

Happiness is a lot about choice. It’s a state of mind and way of looking at things. It doesn’t change the facts. If your mom has Alzheimer’s, if your dad fell and broke his hip, that’s a fact–but how you deal with it–that’s up to you.

There were many times in Mr. Lincoln’s  life when I’m sure he had to choose to simply go on, breathe in and out, and keep on doing the task at hand.  Sometimes happy isn’t about being happy, but choosing not to be unhappy (aka miserable).  Caregivers know this well.

According to the Princeton online dictionary, happiness  means:

  • state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy
  • emotions experienced when in a state of well-being

Where did the word  “happy” come from?

It dates back to 1340, from the waord, “hap,” which was connected to chance or fortune.

(From  Etymology.com)
1340, “lucky,” from hap “chance, fortune” (see haphazard), sense of “very glad” first recorded c.1390. Ousted O.E. eadig (from ead “wealth, riches”) and gesælig, which has become silly. O.E. bliðe “happy” survives as blithe. From Gk. to Ir., a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.” An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant “wise.” Used in World War II and after as a suffix (e.g. bomb-happy, flak-happy) expressing “dazed or frazzled from stress.” Happiness is first recorded 1530. Happy hour“early evening period of discount drinks and free hors-d’oeuvres at a bar” is first recorded 1961. Happy-go-lucky is from 1672. Happy as a clam (1636) was originally happy as a clam in the mud at high tide, when it can’t be dug up and eaten.

How does it relate to caregiving?

Much of caregiving doesn’t fall under the category of “happy.” While parts might be necessary, needed, serve a purpose, and at times, appreciated–as a caregiver  I found that I had to fight or choose to be happy. Let me tell you, I know how it feels to push that rock up hill. There were some days when a Volkswagen Bug full of 50 clowns wouldn’t have gotten my mother to crack a smile! Caregiving taught me how little I could control, and writing Mothering Mother helped me to reflect on my journey.

I had to look for the good, the funny, the crazy and ironic. I had to let go, give up, give in, and simply trust. So much was so way beyond anything I could have prepared for that it was in away, left up to luck, to chance–to hope. And maybe that’s where the happy part comes in. When you can’t control it, you might as well choose to see the good, any good that comes your way.

The smallest of good/happy moments could make my day–a cardinal dipping past my window–I love how they fly–dip, dip, dip–their bright wings in defiance of a winter morning.

Bottom line, if Abe Lincoln can choose to be happy, then so can I.

Happy for no reason. Let luck and chance blow in like a surprising summer rain. Trust that it’s all meant for the good.

Right now, with all the economic challenges we face individually and collectively, I feel like I don’t have a choice–either crawl in the bed and pull up the covers (indefinitely), or keep an eye out for bright red birds and all the amazing small wonders that surround us.

Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

Family Advisor at Caring.com

www.caroldodell.com

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I was at a friend’s house last week. She has cancer is awaiting a double mastectomy. Her family and friends have flocked to her side–like birds heading South and all landing at the same lake–cars lined her driveway all hours of the day and night. She is surrounded, and I’m glad for her. I know she has a network–she is respected, appreciated, and dearly loved.

But that doesn’t mean someone won’t make an ass out of themselves.

I don’t mean it in a “I would never say something that stupid” way because trust me,  I’ve been known to say a few blunders in my day/ But I watched and listened as someone said,

“If this were going to happen to anyone, then God sure did pick a strong person because you have so much faith–it’s amazing.”

I wanted to smack that person on the side of the head like they do in those V-8 commercials.

 

I know what this person meant, but faith or lack of faith has little to do with the situation. You don’t get cancer because you’re strong enough to handle it. If that’s the case, then sign me up with the punies, wusses, and scaredy-cats while I duck all the terrible life bombs that get hurled at those “strong people.” Still, my heart went out to this well-meaning person. We’ve all said less than helpful/cheerful things at just the wrong time.

 

So, I’ve compiled a “What Not to Say” List:

  • God knew you could handle it. (God ((and I don’t mean it, really)) was wrong)
  • You’re so strong. (If I’m weak does that mean I don’t have to go through this?)
  • Your baby/husband/child was so special that God took him (God gets blamed for a lot, apparently–no wonder we have issues with “Him.”
  • I could never do what you do. (I had no choice)
  • You’ll find love again. (Back off–I’m not ready to go there)
  • It’s better this way. (Is it?)
  • At least they’re out of pain. (But I’m not)
  • He/She had a good long life–it was time. (Who gets to be the judge of that?)
  • If there’s anything I can do for you, just call. (Figure out what needs doing and do it.

So What Do You Say?

  • Sometimes nothing. Just a hello, maybe a gentle smile or hug–play it by ear and see if they’ve been bombarded all day.
  • If it’s appropriate, say, ‘I’m sorry that Bill died.” Don’t be afraid of the word, “died.” Or go with a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
  • Let the bring up their loved one. Some people just can’t talk about it for awhile and others find it cathartic.
  • Send a card–tell them you’re thinking of them, love them, holding them in your thoughts–something about them. If you’re close and want to be more personal, then share a good memory–something in writing they’ll be able to keep.
  • Be sensitive. If there’s something you seeor they need, or find difficult doing, then volunteer to help them out–clean gutters, help them take items to the Goodwill, ride with them on errands–every one has something that’s hard for them to do alone.
  • Be there in the weeks and months to follow–grieving is a long process–and even though they have to go on with their lives, return to work and activities doesn’t mean they’re “over  it.”

Finally, be patient. Your friend/loved one/co-worker who has experienced a death may act erratic at times. They may be testy, nervous, anxious one minute–only to be followed by teary, hot-headed or depressed the next. I heard one person describe grief as if they’re wearing their nerve endings on the inside-out. Don’t take their mood swings personal. Listen well and be their steady companion through this difficult journey.

 

And if you screw up and say something dumb, just apologize. A quick, “Hey, that didn’t come out right” will be quickly forgiven. And forgive yourself. It’s more important to try and flub, than to avoid.

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Below is an excerpt from my book, Mothering Mother. I wrote it during my caregiving years, observing that as my mother contined to age, she lost her ability to filter her thoughts or hide her fears.

It got me thinking about where I am now…and who I will become.

What concerns will linger and play and replay like a needle stuck on a record?

What judgements will slip out when I am too tired or too sick to guard them?

I’m determined to do a little “soul keeping” every day.

From Part I of Mothering Mother.

I have this theory; I’ve decided Mother is like concentrated orange juice. We all are, really. We start out potent, tart and pure—right off the tree. When we’re babies we don’t care if you like us or if we’re pleasing you. We are uncontaminated, unfiltered, and unadorned, with no knowledge of what we should or should not do. In this concentrated version, we are a wild DNA cocktail of mama and daddy, ancestors and humanity, naked and wordless.

Instincts—eating, drinking and bodily functions—drive us. We search for satisfactory ways to please ourselves. We propel toward our uncertain futures with blind self-adoration, and for those first few months, maybe a year or two, we are our life in its most concentrated form.

During the next seven or eight decades we become diluted, filled up with waterous thoughts, language, expectations, and experiences. We gain the ability to somewhat satisfy ourselves in every arena from sex to career. Our other goal is to avoid pain as much as possible. We wail at the slightest bit of emotional, spiritual or physical discomfort. We become bloated, self-aggrandized, and then, when we finally figure out how to make things go our way—most of the time—life takes its final turn, and we begin to deflate.

As our mates leave us, and our friends and family trickle into nursing homes or relatives’ homes, we realize that all we’ve built up is beginning to dissolve. We lose our water and distill, leaving concentrated versions of ourselves, only now we have memories, fears, hates and hurts thrown into the concoction.

Mother is at this final stage during which we all reduce to our own cosmic juice and revert back to some pretty potent pulp. She is no longer interested in betterment, learning or growing. She is tart, almost bitter, and that makes it hard to want to spend time with her. She doesn’t seem to have the ability or inclination to be nice. It’s all about her now, and it doesn’t matter whether I have a hangnail or a tumor; it wouldn’t register.

Whatever Mother has accumulated along the way is now strong and unpleasant to those of us who live in a watered-down world. I see the things that remain. She can recall a moment of jealousy or disappointment from forty years ago and gnaw on it for days. Most of the actual events, people, and moments she once held so tightly are now forgotten.

I now understand something: we are what we are; the only way we can add to ourselves is by experiencing something powerful enough to alter our belief system. If Mother were naturally trusting, she would continue to trust. But since fear has become so entwined, it’s now a part of her concentrated self and must play itself out to the end.

I’m Carol O’Dell.

Got a caregiving question? Email me at Caring.com/family advisor and I’ll do my best to shed some insight on your situation–and your question might help others.

 

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Caregiving has circled back around my life again.

I leave tomorrow to help a friend through a difficult time in her life–a double mastectomy. She’s as close and as loved as a sister and I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. We raised our kids together. Our kitchens were at eachother’s disposal. She could use her key, come in, borrow milk or an egg, leave a note, and it was fine. Her kids were (and are) like my own. It didn’t matter how dirty eachother’s houses were, it was never met with judgement. She’s one of the most phenomenal, giving, most ethical women I’ve ever had the privilege to know.

And now I find myself back at square one. I want to scream, “I don’t know how to do this!” Sure, I’ve got experience with caregiving, but each time, it’s different. My friend isn’t elderly. This isn’t supposed to happen, yet we know it does.
How do I give care to my friend? Real care, real love, what she needs.

Is caregiving someone with breast cancer different than Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?

What do I do to comfort her?

What do I say?

I know caregiving isn’t just a checklist.

I’m in the unique role of being part of her support system. I line up somewhere in the line after husband, mother, daughter, sons, church friends, work friends…but it will take all  of us to get through this.

How do I meld and mesh and offer tenderness and encouragement to not only her, but those who love her so dearly?

I think of the logistics–sponge baths, meds, helping a person in and out of bed after surgery, those first few sips of ice chips or juice–I know this routine of bad hospital coffee and orange vinyl chairs.

But there’s so much more. She’s got all the spiritual, emotional, marriage/relationship, mom/relationship, who am I, how did this happen, what’s happening next to deal with–and that’s the stuff I hope I can at least be her sounding board for.  

I’m going up a few days early to help her prepare. We’ll run errands, go for a walk, sit and have hot tea, perhaps to go church to pray–whatever she needs.

I know she needs silence. A long hug. To smile.

Maybe a few easy laughs between friends.

She needs to talk when she feels like it and say those scary things you can’t say to your spouse or your kids because you want and need to shield them from as much ugliness as possible. If she needs to scream we’ll scream. If she can’t sleep, we’ll watch old movies or just sit.

I never wanted to be here again. Not like this. But I’m also not naive enough to think it (caregiving) won’t circle around again and again. And I don’t know if I want it to get “easy.” Each time, we have to muddle our way through. Love big. Love hard.

What I  do know is just to be there. Caregiving, family, friend…it starts with that.

Carol O’Dell

Mothering Mother 

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If you are fortunate, you’ve had many conversations with your loved one.

If they’re your parent, your conversations probably started before you could speak. You heard their voice, their lyrical baby talk, their lullabyes sung in the dark of night as you were held tight.

Your conversations changed over the years–from childhood discipline, “Don’t ride your bike without your helmut,” to the pre-teen birds and bees mubo-jumbo they could barely get out, and your talks became more about schools, jobs, marriage, and kids of your own.

You’ve banked a lot of hours. Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Eighth Habit calls this making deposits into your emotional bank account. Every time we say an encouraging word, offer much needed advice, pass on a family story about crazy Aunt Jo adds to our collective memories.

Our family conversations are woven into who we are and the choices we make. This investment of time, talk, listening, encouraging, and even admonishing cement our love and commitment. And when we need something from this person–to speak wisdom into their life, to ask for care, attention, or respect–we can draw from that account. We’ve earned the “interest” so to speak.

And now you find yourself in the caregiving years. Whether this is with your spouse, your mother, father, or sister, all of those gathered conversations become even more precious when you come to the end of life. Even the medical profession is now recognizing the need to talk candidly to their patients about end of life and quality of life decisions.

At some point, you will have a final conversation.

You might not know it, and perhaps you shouldn’t. It’s not about saying just the right thing. It’s not about saying good bye even, it is and isn’t a culmination of all your talks–the baby talk, lullabies, warnings, corrections, arguments, growing pains, and reconciliations you’ve had over the years.

Technically, that last conversation may in a car, over the phone, or in a hospital bed, holding hands. It will, in years to come, be precious.

There are no guarantees. Our loved ones can walk out the door this minute, and we won’t have the privilege of knowing that death is on its way. Sometimes it’s quick, too soon, and all together unexpected.

For others, it may be the slow road of Alzheimer’s, or the painful road of cancer. We may find ourselves calling hospice, and making memorial plans as our loved one lingers.

So how do you say good bye? And should you?

Yes. If you know your loved one is dying, it’s important to have that last conversation. Those who work in hospice will tell you that this quiet moment is important to both of you.

What do I say?

Of course, it’s different for everyone, but many times our loved ones need us to to them:

It’s okay for them to go…that we love them and always will, but we’ll be fine.

We are the ones holding them to this life, and sadly, we may unintentionally be tying them to a life of pain and emptiness. Tell them it’s okay for them to go now Tell them not to worry. Assure them you will be okay.

It’s important to say I’m sorry–and I forgive you.

You may have said it a thousand times, or never have said it in your life. Do it. No one can have a relationship without some hurts and misunderstandings building up over time. This isn’t something you want to regret later, so say it, feel it, and let it go.

I’ve heard so many stories about how after saying these simple things–you can go now, I’m sorry, and forgive me–that their loved one passes away in peace. It’s also a interesting phenomenon that is observed in hospitals and hospice situations–a loved one hangs on, excruciatingly long, and then when their family leaves–for a meeting, or out of exhaustion and need for sleep–the loved passes away when they’re finally alone.

I can’t tell you how your last conversation should go.

Everyone has their own style, their own family’s culture and personality–some are wordy, others are witty, a few are formal and stoic…it doesn’t matter.

Be yourself, but be there.

Talk, or don’t talk (who says a conversation has to consist of words?)

Hold hands, hum a hymn, read from the Bible, or recite a poem or sing a lullaby, or sit silently.  If you feel like they still can’t let go, then consider stepping out. You’re not abandoning them. We can’t go with them, and for some, it has to be done alone.

Whatever winds up being your last conversation isn’t a mistake.

Nothing is a mistake.

Trust that the simple banter about feeding the cat or pick up the dry cleaning is just the talk you needed to have. You may look back and recognize that the words or look or touch you’re seeking occurred weeks or months before.

Be at peace and know that in many ways, your last conversation hasn’t happened yet.

You can continue to talk, journal, whisper and pray. Your story, your conversation, and your loved one goes on.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available in hardback or on Kindle

www.caroldodell.com

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This is part two of a three part blog about the art of conversation.

If you haven’t read my first post, you might want to–click here.

The art of conversation starts with what you bring to the table.

The best conversationalists have a great sense of emotional intelligence, are easy, approachable, mix humor and poignancy, and can slide from subject to subject at a blink. It’s got a lot to do with a deep sense of confidence. There’s nothing sexier, more alluring, more satisfying than to be with someone who “sits deep in their own saddle.”

What the heck does that mean, you ask?

My middle daughter used to ride horses–and studied the art of dressage.

They call it horse ballet. It’s formal, in many ways, and when people compete at dressage, it’s very fancy–they dress in coat and tails–and a top hat. My daughter’s instructor used to tell my daughter to sit deep in the saddle (this is typically true for all types of horseback riding)–which meant literally to tilt her hips back and down, sink her heels as far down as possible, and plant herself in the saddle. I adopted this metaphor for my own life.

For me, it means to recenter myself, be present, own my own worth and where I am in life so I won’t get “bounced off” at every little bump in the road. 

Side note: Personal confidence has nothing to do with cockiness. Cockiness is a cheap knock-off. Confidence is elegant, generous, patient, and aware. A confident person can’t be easily threatened so they’re not coming from a fear based position. So giving a compliment is genuine, and letting someone else shine is a pleasure and doesn’t take away from their own worth. If you are privileged to be in a conversation with someone like that, then you leave feeling better about yourself–and you don’t even know why.

What’s this got to do with caregiving?

Everything.

When any of us feel our own worth, we attract goodness, and people treat us better because we exude grace and respect–for ourselves and others. My mother had this–she felt her own sense of worth that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s couldn’t take from her.

How do you become a good conversationalist?

  • Take some slow, deep breaths before you enter a room or situation
  • Envision who you will be talking to
  • See the two of you at ease–engaged in a natural conversation
  • If it’s an important conversation, plan out 2-3 points–no more
  • Really listen. Pay attention to what they repeat, to their body language, to the way their face changes at certain thoughts
  • Don’t play psychologist–no one likes to be analyzed
  • If it’s a casual conversation–a dinner, get together with friends, then relax and be yourself. Don’t worry about every little word. Let others talk, but a little over-talking-interrupting is normal when things really get rolling. Forget how you look or trying to sound deep or witty and just trust your natural instincts.
  • Don’t play the “one up” game–that’s when they tell  story about being st or hurt–and then you “one up” them by telling a story about something worse that happened to you
  • Ask open ended questions–ones that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”

But what about those difficult conversations–the one you need to have with your loved one?

Caregivers and family members have to eventually ask their loved ones some tough questions:

  • I think it’s time for us to plan for the time when you’ll no longer drive. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t still live at home or enjoy your same activities, but can we talk about some alternative transportation?
  • How do you feel about a living will? Do you know what that is? If not, I can explain it to you.
  • Have you thought about what you’ll do if you can’t continue to live in your own home? Have you made plans?
  • You remember we went to the doctor’s last week, and the doctor said you have Alzheimer’s. Have you thought about that? Do you have questions? I’d like to talk about how best to help care for you…
  • How do you feel about hospice? When the time comes, would you rather stay at home and have hospice here–or at a hospital?
  • Have you thought about your memorial service? I know it’s uncomfortable, but I’d like your thoughts–how you’d like to be remembered.

These are difficult conversations, and perhaps the most difficult part is just getting started. Think about what scares you the most. Are you afraid they’ll get mad? Shut down? Refuse to ever talk about it again? That you’ll hurt their feelings?

All that might be true, but some conversations need to take place regardless of how someone will take it.

You have to risk the fight, the pouting, the temper tantrum, the silent treatment that may come. If they get mad, let them. A few days later, ask again. Keep asking. Just act oblivious to the fact that they get upset. Contrary to popular belief, you will not die from being uncomfortable.

In the end, it’s better to deal with the few minutes, hours, days of hurt than to have to make decisions for someone else–and then feel guilt and resentment and forever wonder if you did the right thing.

This might help kick-start a difficult conversation:

I’ve actually done this–if you know you have an uncomfortable/difficult conversation coming up–do a dry run. The next time you get in your car, talk out loud and practice your conversation.

Say it all verbatim–exactly as you would if they were in the car with you. You can even add in their part–play out different scenarios–one where they argue with you, whine, cry, pitch a fit…and one where they listen to you, hesitate, but don’t completely discount what you’re trying to say.

Do this dry run several times until you get used to your own words. You need to hear yourself say it. You need the practice–and it really helps!

Get used to talking–about everything. It’s okay to have differing views. It doesn’t mean you can’t love each other–even democrats and republicans have been known to get along–under the same roof.

The art of conversation can benefit your life in so many ways.

Nothing feels better than to leave someone’s house or restaurant after having a good talk–laughter, tears, banter, stories, memories…this is what binds us to those we love.

My next blog post will focus on the hardest of all conversations–communicating with our loved ones when they have Alzheimer’s or dementia or Lewy Body, or a brain injury, or having that last conversation with those we love in their final hours.

I’m Carol O’Dell, author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, available on Amazon. I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

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I’m not much for regrets. I don’t think we as individuals, family members, or caregivers should even strive to perfect. Our faults and foibles define us and teach us. Besides, have you ever been around someone who was trying too hard? It’s exhausting and annoying. I love the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi–the beauty found in imperfection.

I found this definition at Nobel Harbor, written by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect. This essay on Wabi Sabi so touched me that I thought I’d share it–it’s how I strive to live my life.

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

But I do wish I had known back then what I know now.

In regard to caring for my mother, I tell myself I was busy. There was never enough of “me” to go around. I had to eek out my time and love in tiny drops just to give everybody a piece. That was true, and asking a caregiver to stop spinning in a maddening circle is asking them to do the impossible.

The  busy-ness (observation–busy-nessand business is not necessarily the same), franticness, never stop breakneck speed is a protective stance.

I had a the privilege of being a real part of my mother’s life the last 15 years she was on earth. Daddy had died, and I was her closest relative. Although I’m adopted, that doesn’t change anything in terms of family dynamics–they were my parents, and I was their daughter. If anything, adoption added a little extra cement to our bond. 

I spent hours and hours with my mother–driving her to doctor appointments, to the grocery store, and to the million errands she could concoct just to get out of the house. And in the end, my mother lived with my family and me–she became a part of the O’Dell household complete with two dogs, two cats, three teenagers, my husband and myself. Most of the time she didn’t think about being a part of anything–by then, life, she believed, evolved around her. It was my job to incorporate her, create balance to my home, and not let anyone yell “fire” and hog all the time and attention away from the delicate harmony of our home.

So there I was, always on the go. Always avoiding. Always, even when sitting perfectly still on the outside, whizzing around in my soul like a gyro-top. It was fueled by panic, fear, sorrow, loss, and the underlying thought, “I can’t do this–be responsible for my mother’s life, for my children–I can’t do all this.”

But now I know.

What’s more important than making every doctor’s appointment, than reading about Alzheimer’s, then cutting pill after pill, then the calls to Medicare and home health aides was this:

What my mother (and my husband, children, and friends) needed from me more than anything–was a good conversation.

There isn’t anything in the world as loving and respectful as someone who will sit with you, look you in the eye, listen to what you have to say–and contribute to the conversation. The easy banter of thoughts, hopes, fears, and chit-chat of life is deeply satisfying.

My mother didn’t move into my home just to have a list of needs met every day. Anyone could do that. On some level she was hoping we’d have a few minutes–to simply be. Not to agree with one another, not to be little clones spouting off the same agendas, but to sit as bookends, side-by-side observing life.

That’s what my mother needed. What I needed. I couldn’t do much to speed up or postpone death. We can’t change much about life in the big scheme of things–but what is within our capabilities is how we interact with one another. We can choose to create a time and space for real connection to happen. It can’t be forced or cajoled.

Having one genuine moment of understanding–a said or unsaid conversation is rare and most precious.

I remember a conversation my mother and I had when I was about eleven years old. We were in the car outside of church waiting for Daddy to get out of an elder meeting. Something big was going down–there were rumors that our pastor had had an affair. Even the kids knew about it. I was just old enough to know what that meant–and young enough to think that life was black–or white–nothing in between.

I was in the back seat, mother was in the front, filing her nails, as usual. We both stopped what we were doing and looked at the church.

“Why doesn’t his wife just leave him and the church just fire him.” I said, angry that this pastor I had looked up to had betrayed me as well.

“It’s not that easy, honey.”

That’s all Mother said. I laid my head on the ledge of the front seat, and she continued to look at the building in front of us, at the steeple that strained into a blue sky.

I learned a lot that day–by all that she didn’t say.

We’d have many conversations over the next almost 40 years. Many times we’d talk at each other, alienate each other, blast each other–but every once in a while, there would be that cord that stretched from her to me and back to her again.

I’ll spend the next few posts exploring what makes a good conversation, how to talk to someone we love–someone who is ill or aged, or someone we have issues with–thorns that make us wince at the thought of a meaningful conversation. I’ll write about how to talk–or be with someone you love who no longer can speak, or comprehend who you are.

There are lots of great sites on the Internet about families, caregiving, Alzheimer’s, elder-careparentsand children–but nothing is more important than quieting your thoughts, unwinding the pent-up soul, and taking a few moments to sit quietly–and talk.

~Carol O’Dell

I hope you’ll check out my book, Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir–on sale at Amazon, other online e-tailers, and in most bookstores.

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Yes, caregiving disrupts your life.

Yes, caregiving dumps stress on your life by the bucket load.

Yes, caregiving will test every physical, emotional and moral fiber you have–and it hunts for frays and weak spots.

But I’d still do it again. (I wince to even think about it!)

And I know what I’m talking about–I cared for my mother who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s–and she lived with my family and me for the last almost two years of her life. I cared for her for about 15 years before that–everything from going to see her once or twice a week, to a combination of hired care, community care, overnight stays, and her coming to my house. We tried to keep her in her own home, her own church and neighborhood for as long as possible.

So, my point is, I’m no wuss, and when I say I’d care give again, it’s not because I have so romanticized version of family life stuck in my head.

Caregiving changed me–in good ways.

I’m more patient. When I’m with someone now, and I know they need me, I just let go of all the other crap of life.

I’ve learned to be present. I don’t know if I did this so well when my mom was alive, and maybe this happened because at times, I wasn’t present at all with my mom. I wanted to be anywhere but there. Some days, I would have gnawed my own foot off to get free. And here I am, tell you, I’m glad I did it.

I’ve learned to take every, every, every opportunity that comes my way. I’m like that old TV show, My Favorite Martin–my antennas go up whenever a great thing comes my way. I can’t NOT try something new, dance when music plays, make a fool of myself if the occasion calls for it.

I’ve learned that the only regrets at the end of life are not all the things you screwed up. it’s all the chances you didn’t take. Since this caregiving revelation, I’ve eaten squirrel, kissed a snake, held a giant stingray in my arms, skinny dipped on more than one occasion, taken two a.m. bike rides and made out on a pier under the moonlight (with hubby, FYI). I simply can’t let life pass me  by. Death did that to me. It singed me and I have to live and love big and hard. I refuse to mewl about my unlivedlife when I can do something about it…now.

I’ve started speaking  my mind. I’m tired of being a coward and taking S**T. I don’t have to blast people, but if you bully me, corner me, or shame me…get ready cause I am too old and I’ve gone through too much to not stand up for myself.

I’ve learned to be easier on myself. I’ve given up worrying about housekeeping–a nap is infinitely more important. A swim on a perfect day is by far, a better use of my time.

I’ve learned not to sweat so much about money and jobs. In the end, these things matter so, so little. I’m still learning this one, but I’m grasping onto this bigger thing: if I do what I love, what I’m gifted at, what I’m passionate about…people value me and pay me pretty darn good for it. And I can’t seem to stomach the idea of paying my dues and feeling like I have to suffer.

I’ve learned that I really do like to do good work. I want to do something, some small thing that matters. i want to write and speak and encourage others. I want to somehow contribute to the good of the world.

And finally, I’m learning to let go of grudges, hurts, and resentments. They really do fade in time. Things I was so heated about 20 years ago don’t faze me now. People I despised and feared are now toothless old lions, and we’re all in the Savannah together just trying to find a little shade and water. it’s not so big, scary and important as I once thought it was.

Now it’s your turn. How has caregiving already changed you?

I’m Carol O’Dell, and I hope you’ll check out my book, Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, available at Amazon

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It’s Halloween, and we all need to loosen up, eat some chocolate and laugh a little.

 Especially caregivers and their loved ones–holidays can really liven things up and connect us with others.

I thought this would be the perfect time to share a silly YouTube video I made of two of “pet stars” from my book, Mothering Mother. (You’ll have to cut and paste this link into your browser, it’s the only way I can get it to work). vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=18141857 – 57k -

I also have a video book trailer on Mothering Mother that has real photographs of my mother and my family–for those of you who have (or will) read the book and want to get a visual. 

You can view it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM38ih13j4Q

Fat Boy is my cat, and he is well, pudgy. He likes to eat and thinks that the dog’s self-feeder is a gift from the gods. Still, he likes the clink, clink in his bowl when I drop his food in so he meows so loud in the morning that it sounds like a bugler’s call to battle.

He used to be named, “Dunkin” after Dunkin’ Doughnuts (his sister was named Doughnut), but after she died (that terrible flea collar poisoning thing a few years back), and he kept eating for two, his name morphed. Fat Boy is mentioned in my book as the cat my mother loved to kick. She was jealous of any pet and any person I gave my affections to, and although it was aggravating, we all somehow learned to tolerate one another.

Rupert is the other pet star in my little video. He’s the son of Kismet, my Alaskan Malamute. She decided to have a trist int he front yard with the neighborhood bad-boy lab, and voila, we got Rupert.

Rupert was born exactly one year after my mom died. He was born in our living room (we bought a kiddie pool to birth the puppies in–ingenious idea, I think). We were expecting 8 or 10 pups–and knew we could only keep one. After Rupert was born, we waited. And waited. After about two hours, I called the vet. We made an emergency visit, took x-rays, and…there was only one puppy.

I told my husband it was a sign from God and we had to keep our one roly-poly puppy. He rolled his eyes (my husband) and we all fell in love with this rambunctious mut who is joy personified.

All of us experience ups and downs, birth and death. It felt so good to have a puppy born in my home. To see a new life come into the world after witnessing one leaving felt as if some sort of balance had been restored.

Now, here’s what happens in the video…Fat Boy loves to get petted, but when he does, he gets so excited he has to lick something. Rupert volunteered himself for the job. He holds perfectly still and almost has an organism (you get my drift) at being licked by the cat. Fat Boy will lick the dog’s entire face, ears, eyes, and inside his lips!

It’s so hilarious that I decided to set it to music. The song speaks for itself.

I think my mother would actually get a kick out of this. She had a great sense of humor and laughed alot. What a good thing to remember about a parent. I hope my kids say that about me. 

Happy Trick or Treatin’~

Carol O’Dell

Mothering Mother (and pet stars)

avaiable on Amazon.

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Halloween is just for kids? Who says?

Our elders really get a kick out of Halloween. They love to see the kids dress up and enjoy handing out candy, or at least watching the parade of adorable angels, fairies, pirates, and ghosts walk by.

Easy Ways to Enjoy the Fall and Halloween Season:

  • Pick up a pumpkin at the grocery store. Even if you don’t cut it, it’s still pretty sitting on the front porch.
  • Decorate your house with a few spooky bats. Use some black construction paper or even use some purple, red, or green wrapping paper–who says bats have to be black?
  • Hang a ghost from a tree–all you need is a sheet and two black eyes and some string.
  • Buy a witch’s hat at a discount store and walk around with a broom and cackle. Your mom or dad will perk up, I promise, if you greet them with their afternoon meds as a witch!
  • Splurge on a little Halloween candy. Get something your mom or dad can eat. A couple of marshmallow pumpkins won’t hurt anything. We all have a sweet tooth–at any age. My mom had a thing for Little Debbie snacks–and I couldn’t help but let her enjoy herself with a couple of swiss cake rolls every once in a while.
  • Plan ahead, bundle up your senior, and either sit outside or near the front door and pass out candy.
  • Light some candles or even string a few Christmas lights around your door–you can leave them up for the next two months and they give off a nice glow.
  • Make it a point to meet a few of your neighbors. If you don’t know your neighbors, you need to–and what better way to strike up a conversation than over a cup of hot cider or commenting on how cute their kids are.
  • Do you know that young couples miss their grandparents and would love a surrogate grandpa or grandmother for their kids to look up to?
  • Let your mom or dad be the candy passer-outer. That will allow them to see the children’s costumes and they’ll enjoy the festivities.
  • Consider renting a oldie–but goodie. How about the Bride of Frankenstein–or the old Dracula? If you mom or dad don’t seem to be up for being frightened, then try a little Planet Earth–the one about all the bats in the caves of Mexico scared me more than any scary movie ever could! For a G-rated film, try Charlie Brown’s Halloween Special.
  • Make a pot of veggie soup–or chili. Mix up some cornbread and enjoy the fall chill in the air.
  • If you’re near your grandkids, then consider going to their house and enjoying the fun. This is how you make family memories–and it’s worth the trouble.

I read this great short story once about a daughter who took her mom, who had Alzheimer’s, to a Halloween party. Her mom loved it–and totally got into the masks and charades and felt free–not to have to be one person or another–to be concerned with knowing someone, recognizing someone. For Halloween night, she could be anybody she wanted.

I have a favorite Halloween memory of my mom and me. It’s a bit unusual since I grew up in a strict religious household–my mom was a minister–so you don’t exactly think they’d buy into the whole Halloween thing, but she did. I’m glad she didn’t take it too serious because to this day, and I still love to dress up.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, SAID CHILD, which is the prequel to Mothering Mother. (SAID CHILD is about being adopted at age four, and my search for my birth family–and how I learned to love both my adoptive and birth family). 

 

               Daddy had been in the hospital for back surgery on Halloween when I was about eight or nine years old. It was an especially cold Georgia Halloween night and I fidgeted beside his hospital bed, tired of coloring and wanting to go home and get on my fairy costume and go trick-or-treating. By the time Mama and I kissed Daddy goodbye and we made it out of the hospital and hit the cold night air of the parking lot, I realized it was long since dark. The cold bit into my chest.

“Don’t worry, I have an idea,” she said as she walked a little faster.

We hurried home and I moped around, standing on the heater grate, curling my sock feet over the metal edges for warmth. Mama burst out of her bedroom,

“Count to one hundred, and then come knock on my bedroom door.”

What was she up to? I did as I was told.

“Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred.” Knock, knock.

Mama cracked open the bedroom door. She peeked out with a sheet over her head,

“Ohhh!” She moaned like a ghost. I squealed and giggled.

“I am a Halloween ghost!” she said in a low voice spooky voice. “Would you like some candy, little girl?”

I ran and got my orange plastic pumpkin bucket and thrust it toward the door. Mama dumped in a handful of Bit-O-Honey candies. She leaned down and whispered for me to count to one hundred again with my eyes closed, and then go to the bathroom door and knock. She motioned for me to turn away as she ran to the next room.

Mama opened the bathroom door wearing Daddy’s trench coat and hat and a mustache she must have drawn on with her eyebrow pencil. I laughed until I fell down and then held out my plastic pumpkin as she emptied Bazooka bubble gum into it.

We ran from room to room and each time Mama appeared as a new character—a maid with apron and spoon in the kitchen, a lady in a evening gown and fancy hat in the closet, a little girl with curlers in her hair and a teddy bear when she emerged from my room.

 

Mama wasn’t so boring after all. As regular as a clock, she kept my childhood in order. She made sure I scrubbed under my fingernails and practiced my times tables. But she was also a mother capable of a surprise or two–especially on Halloween. 

***

Have a Happy, Safe, and Fun Halloween!

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother

Family Advisor at Caring.com  

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