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Archive for the ‘family’ Category

The new show, “Who Do You Think You Are” is a hit. There’s a reason. We want–and need to know where we come from. (www.ancestory.com is a good place to start) Louis Gates Jr. does a great job on the PBS show, “Faces of America” researches celebrities past and revealed Yo Yo Ma’s family tree dating back to the 11th century. You don’t even have to turn on your television to learn about your own history. Your own elders offer you insights you don’t want to miss. That’s why hanging out with your grandparents, great aunts, and uncles and parents, is a smart idea. It’s one of the perks of caregiving–you get to be around the people you’re related to, and you’ll learn stories, songs, recipes, and family legacies that are only revealed naturally–around the kitchen table, long car rides, and late at night.

Being adopted, I feel equally trenched in four families lives. I’m every bit invested in my adoptive family as I am my birth family. Who they are, the amazing feats of courage, their songs, stories, photographs, and ethical inheritance is truly a part of who I am.

I found my birth family 20 years ago, and since then, I’ve discovered that my great, great, (keep going) grandfather was a chaplain in the American Revolutionary war, which makes me eligible for the DAR. I’ve got lawyers, land owners, ministers, mayors, and statesmen in my family. I’ve found amazing stories of an aunt whose baby died at childbirth and she willed herself to die three days later. My grandmother was married 4 times, and fell out of a coconut tree–at the age of 83!

But what’s even more amazing is not that somebody famous or some war hero is lurking in your DNA, it’s the quiet moments, like when my adoptive mother who had only ever said the “nice’ things about her mother finally opened up that she had been critical and hard. It helped me understand her. I heard the heartbreak in her voice, held her hand and understood something profound about who she was, who influenced her, and why she did the things she did. It brought us closer because it wasn’t a bragging point, it was a revelation–to reveal. It brought understanding and connection.

Now “Who Do You Think You Are” brings this ancestoral fasciation to the mainstream view and will open the doors wide to our familial roots.The Temple at Delphi states “Know Thyself.” Louis Gates Jr. reminds us at the end of his show, “Know Thy Past, Know Thyself.”

These moments and opportunities don’t necessarily come through blood tests and genealogical research, it’s on those quiet caregiving days–it’s the gifts our elders give us.

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In the Movie, “Gran TorinoClint Eastwood plays a grumpy old man who has just lost his wife and his adult children want him to sell his house and move into one of those “nice retirement communities.” This is a classic aging in place dilemma. The adult child thinks he knows best and can’t fathom why his elder parent want to stay put.    Walt doesn’t really need caregiving–not yet–what he needs is to be heard and respected. 

It’s not what the character, Walt Kowalski, (Clint character’s name) wants. Even though he lives in a neighborhood that has changed and is in what most people would call the ‘bad side of town,” it’s where he wants to be.

The surprise of this film is that  Walt really has a soft underbelly and the most unlikely people bring it out–the Hmong Korean family who live next door. He fought in the Korean war and has a derogatory name for everybody. He pushes most people away. He’s rude, spouts politically incorrect comment about everybody, and seems miserable. Only he’s not. He’s created a world he likes. He keeps and lawn, his house, and yes, his car–a 1972 Gran Torino in mint condition. He misses his wife–who happened to be the one person who brought out the best of him–everyday.

In a believable and surprising turn, Walt befriends the Korean teens next door==after the kid tries to steal his beloved car. He becomes a reluctant mentor and eventually, their friend. The Korean family dynamics of closeness and honor is something  Walt admires (even though he doesn’t want to admit it).  Walt sees that this young boy, Thao, who is about 15 and not the thug his cousins are, needs to learn how to be a man. The 17 year old Korean girl, Sue, is like his wife–kind, thoughtful, and patient. She wriggles into his heart and life in tender and poignant ways.

This movie isn’t just about an old guy wanting to stay in his house. That’s just the catalyst. It’s about a quiet and unexpected hero. It’s about a man teaching a boy how to be a man. It shows that sometimes our families don’t get us. They have their own agendas. Sometimes we find family in unlikely places.

An interesting aspect of this film is that it’s a family affair. Clint’s younger son plays his movie son–the busy/upwardly mobile family man who thinks his dad is a fool for staying in that neighborhood and is pushing the move. His other son wrote the musical score for this film. It would be interesting to hear from the three of them what they think of this family’s dynamics and how they plan to handle their own “golden years–or their dad’s.

If you’re needing to talk to your family or adult children about your choices of where you’d like to live and how you’d like to live, start by asking them to watch this film. It can open their hearts and hopefully kickstart and honest–and respected–conversation.

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It’s so easy to make dozens of resolutions you know you won’t keep. It’s even easier to beat yourself up about not losing those ten (okay fifteen) pounds, not staying on budget, not cleaning your closet, and if you’re a caregiver, mom or daughter–not losing your patience every ten minutes. But all that guilt and regret doesn’t get you closer to your goals. So why not try a little reverse psychology? Why not try an anti-New Year’s resolution list?

 My grandmother used to say that the best way to get me to do something was to tell me that I had to do the opposite. She was my birth grandmother–before I was adopted–which means I was under the age of four and probably my purest self. That means that I need to tap into that inner rebel and get that little imp on my side.

I’m tired to trying to “good.” Trying and good don’t really go together. To  be truly good comes from a natural place–from deeply held beliefs about yourself and the world.  Trying is exhausting and tedious–and it always falls apart.

So I’ve created an anti-New Year’s list.

 My Anti-New Year’s Resolution List:

I will not diet.

Instead, I’ll be sure to start each day with a protein and a good carb–peanut butter, boiled egg, or if I’m rushed–a handful of nuts. I can combine that with a piece of fruit or whole grain bread. Eating a hearty breakfast is the best way to not gorge the rest of the day.  

I will not exercise.

Instead, I’ll play. I’ll ride my bike, play kickball in the street, dance in the kitchen to my iPod, and bounce on my giant ball during the commercials. I’ll race my husband to the mailbox, clean out the gutters and plant a garden. I’ll move because it feels good, not because I think I should. My goal is to play–every day.

I will not keep a perfect house.

I don’t even want to. I used to admire those with shiny kitchen floors and feel inferior to those “other women” who woke up perky and had the toilet swished and the dishwasher unloaded before 7am. Now I consider a “too clean” house a serious waste of the precious time I’m allotted on earth.

Instead, I’m going for the basket method. I allow the magazines to pile up, and I won’t even think about getting rid of them until they reach the top of the basket–at that point, I’ll start ditching. I’ll do the same basket method with toys, shoes, and bathroom toiletries. If it’s in a basket, it’s good enough. I find that I do better when I don’t worry about it. If you show up at my house, I’ll offer you a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea–and I’ll sit with you on the couch or in the backyard, and that for me, is what a home is for–a place where people feel welcome.  

I will not force myself to do anything I really don’t want to do.

I will trust my gut. I have pretty good instincts about most folks. I need to honor that. If I don’t want to go to lunch with that person, I won’t. If I don’t want to get my teeth cleaned that day, I won’t. Life is tough right now, and I need to give myself a break. By allowing little breaks, I won’t have a major meltdown and do something really stupid. By realizing I can say “no,” if I want to, I find that I’m usally glad to say “yes” simply because I have a choice.

I will not beat myself up about not being  or doing “enough.”  

 Everyone has different expectations of me. It’s my job to look at the bigger picture–and prioritize. As a wife, mom, daughter, caregiver, friend, and professional–I’ve found that each person has a myopic view of me. All of us see ourselves as the center of our own universe. They don’t always consider all that I have to do, or what someone else might need me more at that moment.  I don’t need to get upset with them. It’s my job to find the right balance for me–not theirs. I don’t even have to explain or defend myself. What I do have to do is to care for those I love–including myself–the best I can and trust that will be enough even when others don’t think it is.

The more I believe in myself, the more peace I project onto this rag-tag world.

Yeah, I know it sounds like I’m just tricking myself, but it works for me. I’m able to back into self-care and wholeness and it doesn’t feel like a big ordeal. By being defiant and saying “I will not,” I can actually fool myself for a split second and then I’m free to choose something I really believe in.

Are there times when I really have to ante up and do things I don’t want to do but need to do for myself or for someone I love? Sure, lots of times. But if I’ve allowed myself enough lee-way at other times I find that I have the strength and fortitude to follow through when I need to. 

My list of “I will not’s” allows my three-year old self to come out and play.  She’s much more agreeable after she’s had some time to romp free.

 Who knew that embracing your inner rebel could be such a good thing!

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Holidays, birthdays, other celebrations when you’re having your grandparents, in-laws, teens, college kids, dates, toddlers, spouses and sometimes ex-spouses all under one roof–it can make you feel like you”re a lion tamer and you never know when one’s going to take a swipe at you.  You may be the primary caregiver, or the out-of-town sister, the peacemaker, the black sheep, or even feel like you’re the one who gets lost in the crowd. Families often bring out the worst in us, even when we’re really trying to be on our best behavior. So how do we come together–multigenerational famileis –and  really be together in meaningful ways?

How to Really Be with Your Family:

  • Be yourself. You don’t have to be rude and crude, but also try not to put on a front. Let them love you for who you are–warts and all. If they rib you a bit too much, say, “Hey guys, that hurts. Please don’t kid about that.” But go ahead and be who you are. It’s our quirks, our vulnerabilities, our oddness that makes us unique. So what if you’re divorced–again, if you’re gay, if you have a reputation for drinking a bit too much eggnog or if your housekeeping skills (or lack thereof are legendary) Let them talk. In the end, it’s better just to be yourself. When you like you–everybody else falls in line.
  • Embrace your wild and crazy relatives! While you’re with your family, decide to be with you family. No iPhones, Blackberries, Facebooks. Be present. Give smelly Aunt Gladys and great big hug and make her day. Don’t fuss about the 1,000 calorie casserole–eat a spoonful and enjoy it–or eat the whole thing and don’t worry about it. Sit among your aunts, uncles, ex’s, kids, grandparents and feel the connection you have–the DNA cocktail that connects you–for better or worse–and accept them as part of you.
  • Decide right now not to let anyone push your buttons. If you know someone really like to zero in and dig at you–then don’t hang out with that person. Get up and move. Ask someone to take stroll around the block, play chess with your dad. If you get cornered and they start in on you, open your arms and give them a big hug and say Merry Christmas and then walk away–even if they’re still going at it! And remember, if a good ole’ family fight breaks out, it’s par for the course and will give you something to talk about in years to come!
  • Do something together–play a game, charades, start singing some Carols, play Scene It or Wii. Pitch in and wash dishes so mom doesn’t have to. Or find someone who’s all alone–and sit with them–you may be surprised that they really do have a lot to say.  We tend to fight and nit-pick a lot less when we’re engaged, when our hands are occupied.
  • Find someone to give to. Look for opportunities to give–maybe your grandmother has Alzheimer’s. Get out an old album and look at each picture with her. Many times their memories go deep and you’ll find a connection, something  or someone from long ago. If your dad’s caregiving your mom, then hire respite care and take him off for the afternoon–to a car show or an indoor shooting range, or to do a little shopping.  The gift of your time and ability to touch someone’s life is the best gift you have to offer.
  • Put a time limit on your visit. If you have one of those families that things get ugly as the night wears on, then set a timer on your phone and leave before the werewolves come out to play. It’s better to be with your family for three hours–and then leave with good memories–rather than stay for eight hours and see the ugly side emerge. You’re also sending an important message–that you don’t have to subject yourself to verbal abuse and people acting in ways that are hurtful to themselves and others.
  • If your family gathering is at your house, then take a few “smoke” breaks. You know how smokers sneak out about every two hours and sit outside for ten minutes in the quiet? Who says we need to smoke to take a smoke break! About every two hours, slip outside. Bundle up and take a short walk. Go to your room and take a ten minute nap. Being together doesn’t mean you can’t get away and decompress. Trust me, if you step out for just a few minutes, you’ll come back refreshed.
  • Look for a “God moment.” That’s what I call that one special moment during the season when I feel the true essence of the holiday spirit. I’ve come to expect that holy sacred time to emerge when I least expect it. Sometimes it’s a random act of kindness from a stranger, other times it’s a red cardinal that lands on a frozen bird bath, or a child’s hug that simply takes my breath. We get what we ask for–and if you come to expect life to delight and surprise you, it will.

Yeah, our families can drive us crazy–but we love them, too. Love them for who they are. Be yourself and come together with all your edges, your oddness, your hurts–and spend just a few hours really being with your family. Then leave- with those new memories safely tucked away-before things go amuck!

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I opened my front door Thanksgiving morning and called “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”

My 14-year-old cat, FatBoy had been missing 18 hours. I was up late in the night looking for him. He never went far, hanging around our shady front porch, but most eating (thus his name) and sleeping in various windows, beds, and closet corners throughout the house. No answer. No meow. I was in full worry mode. I’m no stranger to death. I know that losing  a pet isn’t like losing a parent or spouse, or child but nothing in me wanted to go through this again. Not today. Not Thanksgiving.

My husband and I took our bikes and began to ride around the neighborhood calling him.

And then I saw him.

My husband threw down his bike and got to FatBoy before I did. His hands went to his heart. He ran half way to me, turned and back to FatBoy, then back to me–not knowing what to do.

And then he held his arms open and I folded into his chest and cried.

We’ve been through so much together. He held me when my adoptive Daddy died, the big teddy-bear hero who gave me a home and made the world right again. I held him when his brother-in-law died in a head-on car crash. Bill swerved the car and spared the life of his wife and daughter. My husband identified the body. I held him at four in the morning when he returned from the morgue and collapsed in my arms. He held me when my mother died after years of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, when exhaustion gave way to release gave way to void. He sat beside me on a sailboat as we helped to scatter a dear friend’s ashes into the sea, feeling our own mortality. We’ve stood side-by-side as we witnessed the death of friends, family, and yes, our beloved pets and remembered their lives in that bitter-sweet time of letting go. I can barely grasp what it would be like to lose him. I can’t even let myself glimpse into that sorrow.

Who would hold me?  Who would I hold?

I’ve learned a thing or two about death. I’ve learned to not stop the pain, the tears. I’ve learned to accept the love, the support.

I stayed with FatBoy while Phillip went back and got a blanket. He was in a garden behind a small white picket fence. I call this particular neighbor’s house the Thomas Kincaid house. His paintings are warm cottages with trees and shade, and dappled sunlight. It was quiet, a little cool. I could sit with him. Be with him. I wasn’t afraid or nervous. It was just him and me.

My husband dug a hole in the backyard and we decided to bury FatBoy under my Buddha statue. I bought the laughing buddha for my birthday last May–did I somehow know? I laid my sweet, chubby, always there for me kitty into the earth and sprinkled the first handful of cool, moist dirt on top. I wanted to do this.I was fully alert and present. It wasn’t like Daddy’s funeral. I was 23, so young, so scared. I turned away when they lowered him into the ground. Today, I don’t need to turn away.

It felt right–for him to die in a garden and be buried in a garden. In the spring he’ll be surrounded by cannas and irises and calla lillies. There’s a windchime in a Live Oak nearby.

Our youngest daughter joined us. She hugged me–full body. We held  on to each other, neither of us in a hurry to let go. Our middle daughter arrived for the day’s festivities. She’s the director of a massage therapy school and could charge for her hugs, they’re so good.  I felt my muscles give way, and then her husband–a former wrestler with a wide chest and strong biceps curl around the two of us. My friend, Laura arrived and ran to me. She has four cats, and we cried and cried.

I’m tired of holding it all in. Tired of trying to be strong. Tired of keeping it all together. Each person, their arms, shoulders, necks and kisses comforted me. I allowed each of them to minister to me, feed me, be my strength.

We all pulled the meal together, sat down at the table and took hands. And I realized that it was good day for a death–I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me.

The love that surrounds a death is healing. It’s comes in time. You’re ready when you’re ready, when life has brought you here. It will come.

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Patience is something that’s really tested in your caregiving years.

My mother used to take 15 minutes just to cross the parking lot–and that was from the closest handicapped spot! At times, I was so impatient that I can remember feeling as if I would pull all my hair out by the roots. She had Parkinson’s, and changes in flooring (car to asphalt, brick to carpet) would completely stall out her brain. She’d stand shaking, sweating, and sometimes crying. She refused a wheelchair, and although at times it limited where she could go and what she could do, I understood. Perhaps she had too much pride, but at 90, who wants to start working on your pride issues?

Later, my mother developed Alzheimer’s. You talk about one GIANT test in patience, Being a sandwich geneartion mom did and didn’t help matters. I had to be a decent example in front of my girls. The old saying, “What goes ’round, comes ’round,” reminded me that how I treat my mom is how I will be treated. But in my defense, I had three, count ’em three teenage daughters–now that’s not funny! Ever been around a snarly 14 year old girl? I felt pushed to the edge of the cliff. How much frustration could I take without snapping?

I had to learn how to let go and forget about getting somewhere on time, forget about getting dinner on the table. I had to learn how to not let the ten-thousand question game get to me.

 “Just let go,” I used to repeat like a mantra.

I didn’t want my mother to “suffer” because she had a disease. She was suffering enough–in her body, and how she perceived herself. I didn’t need to shame her. I felt like I was right back with my two-year old and we were staring at an earthworm on the sidewalk. You can’t rush a toddler, and there’s something amazing about that. They teach you to slow down, appreciate things, look around.

I used to lean my head on the door jamb and just wait for my mom’s brain to click in gear. Yeah, sometimes I wanted to ram my head against the wood, but what good would that do? After a while, I learned to simply enjoy my thoughts as we waited.

In the movie Evan Almighty when God (played by Morgan Freeman) tells Evan (a modern day Noah) that people ask for virtues such as patience all the time. They think that poof! they’re going to get doused with patience as if were fairy dust. It doesn’t work that way. God tells him that if when a person prays for patience, He is obliged to give them a situation in which to learn patience.

Wow~ I get it. (and I’m going to be careful about my prayers and wishes!)

Here are a few tips I learned about being patient:

  • If I really need to get something done, do it first thing in the day.
  • Get mad and impatient at the disease, not the person.
  • Most things you fret about–being late, not getting something in on time–they don’t matter that much anyway. If they did, would you really have waited til the last minute?
  • Start to enjoy the slower pace. Yes, elders usually eat slow, walk slow, rest more. Is this such a bad thing?
  • Laugh–or cry–whatever will get you though. Our emotions are like a water hose. When they start to flow, knotting up the hose is only going to cause a serious blow out.

Patience is a muscle that gets stronger every time you exercise it, even for just a few minutes at a time. The main person to be patient with–is yourself.

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“You want to see my new girlfriend?” My friend’s husband teased his wife one day as I was visiting her in the hospital. He is her caregiver, her husband, her lover, her muse and mentor  of 40 years, and her illness had put a real strain on their relationship. 

He pulls out his wallet, takes out a picture and shows it to her. I can tell it’s a joke because he’s grinning from ear-to-ear. She breaks out in laughter despite her pain. They show me the picture.

It was a picture he had taken of his hand!

My friend was in the hospital–that time for close to three weeks. She has a chronic disease that has attacked her intestines. Her husband had sold his business and they had rearranged their life to accommodate this hostile addition to their family–illness.

Both of them had visions of their golden years–traveling in their RV, grandchildren, financial security, and lots and lots of leisure and fun. Hospitals, drugs, and pain was not what either had in mind.

To say that their sex life diminished is an understatement.

To say that sex doesn’t matter in the face of disease and pain is to not look at the whole situation. Sex does matter. It’s the one thing couples do together that they don’t “do” with anyone else. It’s a glue, a bond, a secret language, a healer of life’s wounds…to simply and biologically state it, sex is a needed release.

More magazine has an interesting article in September 09’s issue on this very subject. They state that 75% of all marriages that are dealing with chronic illness long-term end in divorce.

These aren’t shallow people. This isn’t Jon and Kate splashing their news on the headlines (not that they’re shallow, marriage is tough and I hurt for them and their children). These are quiet, hard working, family oriented people who  face surmounting, mind-boggling stress, heartbreak, financial ruin, unbelievable and unrelenting pain. And the one thing that can combat all this–their marriage and the healing powers of sex and intimacy–are taken from them.

How do couples get through caregiving and the strains it places on their marriage?

I observed my couple friends and this is what I’ve gathered.

You readjust.

You let go of what you thought life would be.

You dig deep to find your integrity.

 You find joy in the smallest of things. You find purpose as a caregiver.

You use your anger not at each other like weapons of mass destruction, but together, to get things done, to let off steam, to keep from going crazy…and you turn that anger into humor–maybe a little sick and twisted–but it keeps it from turning toxic inside you.

You do what you have to do to get by–and it’s nobody’s business. How you define sex may be different than other couples, and how and when you’re intimate may not fit the national average.

You get strong and tough and tender and real all at the same time.

I have no big answers here. It’s too complex and too gritty to give you bullet points–as if you could fire them on target and make it all instantly go away. What I have gathered from my friends and others I’ve seen going through years of what illness can do to a relationship is that the ones that make it create this circle of energy around themselves. They are one.

Couples who face caregiving challenges together have come through the fire, and on the surface, no, life didn’t turn out like they thought it would–but in many ways, it’s better. I witnessed it in my parent’s marriage.  The unity, the simplicity, the bond they have, they earned. You can see it in their eyes, they familiar gestures of thoughtfulness, the resolve in their voice. They have something profound.

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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