All of a Sudden
My arena is changing, as is all life. I just noticed that mine changed enough to seem like it changed-- all of a sudden.
Do you know that place where “all of a sudden” just happens?
All of a sudden you will need a haircut, your jeans are too tight, or you notice wrinkles on your face. All of a sudden your bank account is empty, and you are getting old. You know it is coming, but you don’t notice until the effect has accumulated enough to get your attention.
This just happened to me. I went home to visit my family and some close friends. After fourteen months of island living, I reluctantly boarded a plane for LAX. I was about to enter a world familiar and yet alien, both at once. I wasn’t on the plane for more than an hour, when I started sneezing. I landed sneezing, red nose and stony eyes. Exhausted from getting ready to make the journey (it was now 10 pm), I boarded a shared van and braved the freeways to my Mom’s house in Costa Mesa, CA.
My Mom greeted me from her apartment, her pink door wide open in an elder-housing unit, within a very short walk of a large park, a library, fire station, The Coffee Bean, Sav-On Drugs, FedEx Kinko's, a stellar yoga studio, 24 Hour Fitness, AT&T phone store, UPS Mail Store, Mothers Market, Trader Joe’s, Edwards Cinema Complex, the bus stop, Bev Mo Liquors, plus: shoe stores, used clothing stores, baby furniture and so much more.
I make a bed on her couch, with a box of Kleenex close beside me. The fan is on to help drown out the TV, playing in the small room next to me. The patio door has a stick in it to keep us safe from potential intruders, and the night-light is on in the kitchen, three feet from my head. The bathroom is twelve feet away with a night-light, too. There is something cute and quaint on every single counter, table and wall. There are family photos everywhere, along with large posters: photos of Clark Cable and Marilyn Monroe. Mom’s makeup mirror and makeup are on the edge of the bar that divides the living room and kitchen. There are rugs everywhere, and tiger striped pillows, along with a guitar and piano. It is funky, colorful, with a sense of organized mess. The person who put this house together knows exactly what she wants. She is messy, but most the time she is (at least) consciously messy.
The bottom line is that her house feels inviting, cozy and loving, even though dusty and crowded. Despite loud trucks unloading their cargo at 5am, when it is still dark, the hum of the 24-hour television, the earplugs hurting my ears, and the small too soft sofa, I sleep well. I guess it is because I am at home. This is Mom’s home and she is the one with whom I have spent most of my life. She is home to the deepest part of me – the good, the bad, and the ugly – all wrapped up together, to recall my origin.
Mom is 89. She runs the show in her apartment. I try desperately to make some space for my things, thus moving some of hers. I don’t think she will notice. She does. She drives, and lives on Insure and zucchini cakes. She is still very cute and how she looks is still as important as it was in her days as a young teen, when she worked in Hollywood theatres as an usher. She won’t step out the door without her lipstick on. And, I better have mine on too, or I will hear about it.
What I was not prepared for in any way was her memory or lack thereof. Yes, she was forgetful last year and repeated stories to me over and over, but the stage at which her dementia has progressed is surprisingly alarming. It takes me several days to catch on. I would forget that she forgets. Simple messages about where I am going and when I am coming home are thrown to the wind. When I ask what she would like to eat, I always get the same answer, “Nothing sounds good, but if you make it, I might have some”. After a while, I quit asking.
Doctors call me and ask that I monitor her medications. While there I catch on that she was taking more than seven! I begin to wonder if her four doctors ever conversed. Then, I find prescription bottles tucked in her bed – some empty and some half full. When I try to create order, she gets furious and hurt by my efforts. She feels helpless when reminded of her age, all the while using every bit of her spirit to keep motivated and alive. She is sick, has Crohn’s Disease, and takes four Vicodan a day plus sleeping pills, blood thinners, steroids, antiviral meds, and more. She is in pain 24-7. I am terrified to drive with her, yet she drives just fine, as long as she is within her one-mile radius.
All of a sudden, my Mother is an old person, with dementia, and she needs more care than ever before. All of a sudden, I am the oldest of four, who is caring for her. Last year, she could still get dressed up to go out and sing (which she loves to do and is good at). This year, she declines. She even declines a cocktail, which I make myself every night, to cope with my confused feelings. She once commented while I was there, “Oh God, I don’t want to grow old and not drink”. All of a sudden, what used to be fun is no longer.
Don’t get me wrong. My Mom is not someone who is going to go down without a fight. She dyes her hair flame red, wears big hoop earrings and always looks stylish and adorable. Her big blue eyes are still full of wonder and her sense of humor is vibrant. She is creative and once wrote a dozen clever children’s songs, which she longs to see published in the world. She is a character that everyone loves. She is a family treasure, for sure.
There is more though, to my story of a family in transition. My sister, one year younger than I, is undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. It is stage one, and she is doing well, but even so, there is a shift in how we spend our time together, what we talk about and how we relate.
Last year, and all the years previous, when my siblings and I gathered, we would get dressed up to go out. With lipstick on and in our sexiest clothes, we would head to a friend’s house or to a local bar for Happy Hour. This year, Mom and I got dressed up to visit my sister at the hospital while she received chemo. Mom drove, after I found myself putting vodka and tonic in my water bottle. If my friends and students could see me now! I needed to medicate myself while visiting the medicated… Oh, my!
I am terrified to see my sister get chemo. Seriously, I do not think I can handle sitting in this large sterile room with IV’s attached to her. So, I tip my water bottle, containing my secret potion, and ease into it. She is not the only one there. What is happening to our people? I am overwhelmed and pray for help. I begin to see that this is my opportunity to love unconditionally, to be in grace with every moment. I am shocked at my inability, at times. Vodka helps.
Looking back, I wish I could have laughed at all the insanity, the chaos and looniness of it all. While I was there I just keep acting like the eldest of four children; taking care and fixing as much as I can.
I finally came to experience (and to be) just loving and accepting – sort of. No matter what any of us are doing, we always have the choice of how we will “be.” This is what matters most. Not that “doing” is not important. But, if doing comes with crankiness, anger or resentment, it is better left undone. No matter if my Mom argues with me about what she said, or screams at me for intruding with her doctors, or my sister has decided to go a route I could never imagine, how I “AM” is what matters.
In retrospect, I wish I could have been more fun. I wish I would have listened to my Mom’s stories over and over, instead of reminding her that she already told me. I wish I had spent more time watching stupid TV shows with her, and participated more with her movie star gossip. I wish I could have listened to her favorite radio show, when she asked me over and over again to join her. I was just too busy, it seemed, and honestly, too uninterested. I was scared, too. Is this where I am going? Oh, God!
When I come home, my nerves were fractured, and yet I had to show up for a previously committed full schedule for a couple of days. I am so emotionally exhausted and ill equipped to respond when asked, “How was your trip? Did you have fun?” I want to scream, “NO!” It was not fun. There were high moments, but I have not had time to process the profound “all of a sudden” changes to my life, at home, yet. I feel confused and so far from the “peace of being” I know so well. Where did I go?
Two days after arriving home, I finally have the space to go for a walk on one of my favorite beaches. I go early. There are few other souls there. I heave a big sigh when absorbing the look and feel of the trees and the vast ocean that lies before me. I approach the water’s edge of soft lapping waves in a day-dreamy state. The moment the water touches my feet, a stream of energy erupts from my being and I begin to cry. The cry turns into a sob, a loud sob as I progress down the beach. Good thing there’s no one around, except the unseen ones who carry me and hold me through my mourning.
Clarity came with that cleansing of my nervous system. I was grieving that life, as I knew it with my family was “over.” A huge sense of sadness had come over me for the loss of what was. I was in deep mourning. I cried and cried with sadness and then all at once, gratitude washed over me. We had come so far, my family and I. We are fortunate in so many ways. Now, the place I have always journeyed to, called “home,” is different, all of a sudden. Perhaps that is what breaks my heart wide open. We have had such longevity together, and much of it is over. It went so fast!
The cleansing flow of grief made room for the fear that was buried deep within me. All of a sudden, I face the fact that more loss is just around the corner.
All of a sudden I am an elder who is facing a loss of my own.
My new challenge, which is really a very old one, is to stay in Grace with radically changing times. The only way I know to do that now is to stay very close to my center and “be” in the bosom of the vastness I call God. Then, when “all of a sudden” comes again, perhaps I won’t need vodka.