Category Archives: generation x

It’s hard to honor a loved one’s wishes when they were gleaned through a medium

I left my students with a sub, once again, in order to attend my uncle’s memorial service last week. My uncle was my mother’s high school classmate, my father’s younger brother. My unreliable memory tells me that she had dated him before she met my father. Small towns in the fifties, you know? I guess I’ll never get the whole story now because there’s no longer any first party to ask. Within a month of each other, two more members of the class of ’59 vanished, leaving the living plagued with distorted memories and random mementos. I say “plagued” because I have very little control over what will trigger my emotions–maybe a sock, maybe a billboard. I cry when I cry, and that could be in the car or before class or when an old friend of my uncle’s or my mother’s cries in front of me.   No matter where I am or who I am with, I am reminded that I no longer have my mother or my uncle. I can’t even begin to imagine how my dad feels about this.  Yesterday was their 57th anniversary.  Today is my uncle’s birthday.

While Mom was dying, I cried over all of her stuff, like pairs of shoes she’d kicked off in the landing a couple of weeks earlier when she could walk. I cried over those shoes because it was just dawning on me at that time that she would never put those shoes on her feet again. I cried over shoes, bathrobes hanging on the bathroom door, half-empty tubes of cleanser, and Walmart receipts.

The week after she died, I hardly cried at all. I had my husband to keep me company and my family all around, and I was busy writing obits and making preparations for her viewing. I felt some kind of temporary high of relief that lasted until I walked through my own front door, after.  When there was no one to nurse, no memorial preparations to make, no family to joke around with, all I had was this feeling of “after.”

I’m in the “after” now. I guess it’s where I’ll always be. There was life when Mom was here, and now there is life after she’s gone—two distinct lives. I’m not really enjoying life “after,” if I may be frank. Something big is missing. I feel it everywhere—that absence. I know Mom anticipated this absence and wanted me to fill it up, and I’m certain she didn’t want me to fill it up with Jim Beam or become the crazy dog lady who has one-sided conversations with her dogs all day (too late). She was too vain for that. She was proud of me and my brothers because we gave her something to feel pride in. None of us are slackers, despite my self-deprecation.

At my fingertips, I hold all the anticipated clichés in response to her last wishes—things I must do to honor her daily, things that ultimately end up honoring me by cleaning up my own bad habits. Honestly, I don’t know what she’d want. When Mom was here, she’d want to take a trip or go shopping for solar-powered lawn decorations or drink some salted-caramel and vanilla something-or-other from Starbucks. She’d want to tell me all the latest news about the family that she’d gleaned from Facebook posts. She’d want recognition and a travel/shopping/gossip buddy. Now, after she’s gone, and all I can do is be sad. I don’t know how to live for her, or me. I’m just lost.

 

 

There’s nothing weirder than this…

Today, I visited my family home and my father for the first time since my mother died. I was about to explain this experience by introducing it with the phrase, “There is nothing weirder than,” but then I checked myself by remembering that nearly every experience I’ve had in the last two months could be introduced by the phrase “there’s nothing weirder than…”

There is nothing weirder than showing up at your dad’s house when it used to be your parents’ house. There is nothing weirder than the look and sound of THAT house, the dad’s house with the mom’s stuff still everywhere in it because Mom’s stuff made it the place that it is… was. Dad’s disorganization and absence of an eye for detail is starting to swallow up the neat, pastel-colored, over-scented house of my mom. There are random objects lying around that were here when I left two weeks ago. For instance, there’s a box lid that Mom had used for a tray before someone with more wherewithal bought her a portable tray. On that box lid is a plastic serving plate, an extension cord, a hanger, and one of those “grabber-nabbers” like my neighbors use to pick up trash without having to touch it. Why is that assortment of objects in the dining room?

Two weeks ago, I thought Dad just needed to get the shock out of his system, and then he would find a home for that cardboard box lid that Mom had used for a tray. He didn’t. The house is filled with things, objects with no home, like the complete Harry Potter series that my aunt bought her for her convalescence. I found the fucking thing on the buffet, still in the box and the bubble wrap, exactly where it had been sitting two weeks ago. Its presence bothered me then, and it bothers me now. There is nothing weirder than arriving “home” and finding your father in a time warp. There are things he can’t part with, and I have to decide what to pitch. Even my dogs are depressed.

But you know what else is weird? My father’s raw adoration for my mother. It’s something that he doesn’t wave around like a Facebook post, but that’s because he isn’t from the generation (ahem, mine and ours and the millennials) that can do that with candor.   He’s a vintage man’s man. This shit is hard to express. I see him struggling with every sentence. He’s a walking eulogy.

I came here this week to sort out my mother’s crammed-yet-organized walk-in closet because my dad wants to move back into the master bedroom. It’s a harder task than I had imagined. For one, her travel buddy and friend-for-decades purportedly cleaned it out last week. Before I had a chance to try on those boots I saw on the top shelf, Dad had invited her to come and clean house, and she left with three, thirty-gallon trash bags full of stuff. I arrived here today expecting a closet with one or two things left, dangling sadly among the empty hangers. Instead, I got a whole closet of clothes that I didn’t know what to do with. Mom liked her clothes.

There’s nothing weirder than listening to your dad try to express his admiration for your mom by talking about the fabrics she wore. He sat down on the edge her bed and said, “You know, the clothes she wore, all of them were soft. All her clothes were so soft.” And then he wandered off again. Dad’s in a funky place. I’m in a funky place. Her clothes, her skin products, her trinkets around the room perplex him. I have to sort it all out, separate the spring and summer clothes for the Salvation Army from the winter clothes for the upcoming church bazaar.  I set aside things I don’t really need because they remind me of moments and events, like our trip to Michigan or my nephew’s wedding. I’m taking home her commemorative t-shirts that I’ll probably never wear. I’m parting with outfits that she had discussed with me in detail over the phone. There they are, no longer relevant.

There’s nothing weirder than this: new grief.

There’s nothing weirder than watching your mother die.

There’s nothing weirder than changing your vocabulary from “them” to “he.”

There’s nothing weirder than walking into that second life, the “after” phase, and realizing that that’s all there is.

There’s nothing weirder than this.

And So It Goes…

It’s November 5, 2017. My mother died on October 24, 2017, almost two weeks ago. I had the privilege of seeing her last breath. I used to count them—thirteen per minute, twelve per minute, nine per minute, one… That was the one. I stayed up most nights, as my two most recent entries reveal. I doubted myself. I went limp with fear when she woke up one morning at 2:00 a.m. and vomited her green, cancer-corrupted bile all over herself. I’m not a nurse, but I did my best.

The day she went, I went off on my family for acting casual as her corpse rested in the living room in front of the picture window. I stared at her hands before the funeral home director came to get her and put her in the back of a black, Chrysler minivan. I stared at her hands. My dad thought I wanted her to be there forever, so he waited to call the funeral home director; but I was, in truth, ready for her body to leave that house as soon as it could, as soon as we all had had our time, and BEFORE we started looking at pictures, writing obituaries, and getting tanked.

In short, her death marked a new kind of beginning—a week of family and friends and throwing myself into printing posters and making picture collages of her life. I seemed ok. My ex-boyfriend came the viewing and told me how together I seemed to be. I guess that’s how it works. Grief. It’s a tricky emotion. I’ll write an entry some time about those triggers. But first, I want to do something I never do and share the pieces of blog entries that I had started and couldn’t finish throughout this process. My computer notes the date and time of every one. I’m going to post them here, as is, without any editing and only the working title and time that I had written them. Those times were traumatic, but  worth sharing:

“Stuff around the house that Mom left unfinished last week,” October 21, 7:16 p.m.

 

A copy of Mary Alice Monroe’s Swimming Lessons, bookmarked at page 176.

A box of Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds.

A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a cat on a windowsill.

Three recorded episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful.

A bag of jellybeans.

Half a bottle of Ensure.
“I’m learning a few things on this journey,” October 21, 9:14 p.m.

Everything does and will remind me of Mom.

How to turn a patient in bed. I’m shitty at it.

How to check a patient to make sure he/she is cleanly and has no bed sores. I’m shitty at it.

Nurses and nurses aides are people I live for.

 

“CouldaShouldaWouldas,” October 21, 11:10 p.m.

Coulda, shoulda, wouldas seem to be common themes that travel around with death like barnacles on a rotting ship. They have tried to creep into my already infected consciousness this week, especially after I checked my mother’s Facebook status and noticed that she had reposted quite a few memes on October 17, the day before I decided I needed to tell her what she needed to know via Facebook Messenger. My final thoughts will be forever unopened, as my father and I plan to shut down the account.

That’s sad, sure, but that’s not nearly as sad as, well, everything else—loss, grief, a sense of tragedy, unfinished jigsaw puzzles and a her jacket still hanging off of the back of a chair. I imperfectly folded my parents’ laundry recently and haphazardly shoved it into drawers like I always do when someone puts me in charge of laundry, and I thought, “Man, Mom is gonna have a fit when she opens up these drawers and sees this.” Then I realized that Mom’s would never have the chance to scold me for not intuiting correctly which drawers certain fabrics belonged in and such. She spent a good deal of time during her comparatively lucid state on Wednesday fretting about how well my niece had cleaned the tile floors, “Had she steamed them or just swiffered them?” I told her the floors glistened. She’s never gonna see those floors again, so what’s a little lie?

 

“Every profession has its heroes,” October 23, 12:17 a.m.

Every profession has its heroes, people who were born to do the job. In fields of wellness and education, these heroes can make a significant difference. If I could gauge my performance by student feedback, I might determine that I have hero potential in my branch of education. Where there’s potential, there’s fulfillment. I will stick with teaching. Had I chosen to become a home health aide or a nurse, however, I would not have had hero potential. Nope.

All the love in the world can’t seem to guide me in my awkward attempts to turn my mother from her side to her back, and again to her side. The nurses and the aides tell me this is crucial. My pained mother who will spend her last moments in a hospital bed also indicates to me that this is crucial. Bedsores are the enemy. Discomfort and itchiness are major enemies as well. But I can’t do it. I’m a health care flunky when it comes to rolling that pad thing and shimmying it under the body and crossing the legs and then rolling it out and again, and I don’t what else. I feel like a failure. Tonight, I smoked a butt from the ashtray (ran out of smokes), woke my mom to give her some morphine oil, which she hates, and cried up a storm while I waited for the morphine to kick in. All so I could get up the courage to turn her on her side.

I wasn’t successful. I lowered the bed like her aide had showed me. I flattened her out and crossed her arms and rolled that stupid pad thing.   Then I wondered if I was rolling it from the correct side. Then I determined I wouldn’t roll, but I would just shift her body sideways with the pad thing. I don’t need to go any further. I caused my mom unnecessary discomfort in the last hours of her life on earth.

 

 

 

Does Anyone Else Feel Old?

I‘m having one of those, “Can this really be happening?” weeks. Yes, it can, and yes, it is.   This week was the double whammy of a sudden death in the family and the potential for much worse endings, pending a few tests. I feel old.   Mom and Dad have been careful about when to call me with news. They expect me to break down while I’m driving or whatnot, so they wait until I’m sitting on a couch with my husband nearby to tell me whatever it is they have to say. Then they marvel at my ability to just hear it.   I guess I grew up.

I’ve noticed lately that I keep thinking that I’m forty-six, even though I’m forty-five. In fact, for the past year, I’ve considered myself closer to fifty than I really am. Why is that? Why am I making myself old, rushing through the remainder of my forties?   Maybe it’s because the forties kinda suck. I just have this feeling that the forties are gonna go down in my history as the decade I lost everyone.

I’ll explain: My favorite uncle had a stroke on the operating table and died exactly a week later. We all thought it was gonna be a quick and easy operation. We all expected this summer to be the worst of his trials. Not even close. I don’t think anyone was prepared for an end. My father sure wasn’t. He lost his little brother, his closest sibling, and his greatest ally. This uncle and I spent weeks together while my mother and father were in the hospital or recuperating from one illness or the next. He was always there to help. I thought my mom was being morbid when she alluded to his last visit, while he was still on chemo, as a potential final hurrah. Damn, these people in their seventies who are so starkly aware of death.

And that’s one bit of bad news that has colored my week. There’s more, but the test results aren’t in, and I’m still allowed hope. Hope feels very different lately. It’s not a positive or a negative, it’s just an unknown. Sometimes, the unknown is better. For a little while anyway, while we process what we do know.

Embracing Rock-Bottom

Although the forties are the new forties in many more ways than one, sometimes we get snagged on one feature that plagues us throughout the decade, like alcoholism has me now. And while these snags are not just a forties thing, I suspect they’re a distinct characteristic of the forties in the Western world. The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock-bottom, happiness-wise,” in its “Wonkblog” section (soooo millennial… the blog AND the title). The writer contends that our general sense of happiness reaches its nadir in our forties, supporting the claim with evidence from a survey designed to determine the life-satisfaction of over a million subjects. In one more line, I can summarize his point: people in their forties are the most unhappy people in the Western world.

A line graph attached to the article makes it easier to digest this generalization—our lives seem to follow a U pattern—first, life’s one big party—all the wavy lines are at the top of the graph; then we hit rock-bottom; finally, we turn fifty, and all the wavy lines rise again to the top of the graph, like a middle-aged phoenix soaring from its ashes—life becomes one big party again. How nifty.

Ordinarily, I would ignore or vehemently argue against such conjectures, i.e., the whole point of this blog; however, we experience some pretty heavy stuff during our forties, enough for us to question our own life satisfaction and possibly admit doubts on a survey designed to assess our “happiness levels.” Here’s what I know: the forties are humbling. It’s the decade when we finally start to see life for what it really is—a finite series of choices that we make, choices with results that could affect us for the remainder of our lives. I was unhappy with my job in my thirties, but I was too busy being a born-again single lady to notice. I ignored the really big choice—staying at my job—for the simple choices like where to go for Sunday brunch. I dreaded going to work five days a week, but I lived it up on the weekends, and I thought that was happiness. That’s not being happy. That’s just being delusional. If a representative from the “General Social Survey” had asked me about my happiness levels when I was, say, 33, I might have responded, “Yeah, all good here,” even though I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

The other side of this spectrum takes a different, yet no less delusional, approach to its life satisfaction. Have you ever asked an elderly person how it’s going? How often do we hear something like of “Oh, can’t complain!” That’s right. Once you’ve already faced your life’s choices, once you’ve recognized your own mortality, and your friends and family start dying off, you might feel fortunate to still be breathing. At that age, it’s probably easier to frame the definition of happiness in an “I’m still standing, so what?” kind of attitude. Life isn’t one big party on the young or old sides of the line graph, life is just one big fantasy to get us through our days.

Our forties tend to be the years when we face those life snags, when we start ruminating over questions like, “How much longer do I have with my parents?” or “Is this really the only career I’m ever going to have?” or “Did I really sign up to spend the rest of my days with this asshole?” The term “mid-life crisis” had to come from somewhere. I’ve ruminated over those questions, except for maybe the last one because I chose wisely the second time around the marriage-go-round. These thoughts become big, existential dilemmas in our forties. Rather than considering the forties our time of greatest unhappiness, I would rather consider it our time of greatest introspection.

It takes a lot of strength to confront reality. I think that if you can come to grips with your choices, attempt to solve your problems without ignoring them, and find peace with whatever you can’t change (like crepe-neck or aging parents), then you have a right to label yourself “satisfied” or “happy” or whatever it is that the young and old are saying on this survey. To paraphrase Dickens, it’s quite possible that our forties could be the worst of times and also the best of times.

Just the times

Oh, my goodness gracious–what are these HGTV house hunters thinking when they turn down a perfectly good property because the kitchen isn’t white or the bathroom doesn’t feature a bidet?  You know what they are thinking?  Nothing.  Nothing of any substance, that is.

I’ll admit that I couldn’t criticize your average HGTV house hunter if I weren’t watching the show.  And I watch the show religiously, like my Catholic friend never misses a mass. It’s a guilty pleasure that also provides for my edification.   For instance, I know that someday none of this will matter.

But for now there’s something very compelling about watching your fellow Americans search for their dream house.  They have their little wishes–a fish pond or a white kitchen or a Japanese toilet.  Whether they know it or not, they have been made the fools in this network drama.

Times are changing, and owning the sizable walk-in closet to house your shoes isn’t gonna fly if this country puts itself on the chopping block.  We gotta think about our place in the world.

A Week in the Life

This has been a heck of a 40something week.  A friend sent me a thank-you letter for driving six hours to attend her mother’s funeral a year ago this Monday; one of my mom’s closest frenemies passed away the day my mother got back to town from her month-long visit to relatives’ houses.  Mom had her knock-off Michael Kors on her arm and the car keys in her hand when she checked her email for the hospice address and found a follow-up:  “Don’t bother.”

What else happened this week?  Well, I realized that my self-prescribed 40mg. dose of Flouxetine is a bit much in sobriety.  On 40mg. of Flu, I don’t sleep the very rewarding-because-I-gotta-get-something-out-of-this deep sleep of the non-drinker.   Instead, I wake up 100 times and stare at the ceiling fan or rearrange my arms and legs around my blankets and pillows, just like I used to do when I’d wake up at 4 in the morning with a sugar high after a long night of designer beer with high alcohol content.

(And not to be tangential, but remember when designer beer first started appearing on the shelves?  Prior to those years, I had thought that Molsen Golden was a beer as fine as a seven-and-a-half dollar glass of some local microbrew.  Now the shelves are glutted with choices, and consumers are bored, so they’re making it themselves.)

Which brings me back to my week—friends, death, sleeping, friends.  These are the worries of this 40something woman.  Oh, and then there’s the kids’ growing up and roaming aimlessly after school and not calling you to tell you where they are and then, after you finally track them down right before calling the police, having to have “that talk” about trust and responsibility.   Fuuuuuuuuck.

I didn’t sign up for that part (well, I actually did.), but it’s a hoot compared to my Mom’s stage in her life.  I sent her a sympathy card for her friend, too, because why should only the family mourn the loss of someone they care about?  Even if those friends were co-dependently bonded and sometimes hung up on the other and bitched about the other and then turned around and stepped up for each other, they were still friends.  Some of my earliest living memories include this woman’s children, who are all forty-somethings like me now.  My mother’s and this woman’s friendship has existed as long as we have.

So, friends… I’m still not done with the week.  My dog had a seizure for the first time ever, on a hiking trail.  That’s the first time I realized that if something happened to an 87 pound dog on my watch then I would have to be the one to carry him to the car.  I’m gonna start lifting weights for real.  Luckily, the dog recovered, and I got him to the vet.  His declining health is not the subject of the story, though, but the fact that I used his declining health as an excuse to cancel plans with a friend.

My husband and I are the lord and lady of canceling plans.  We’re building up quite a rep these days.  I know why we do it, though.  We’re NOT in our thirties anymore, and I don’t mean for that to sound like we’ve become geriatric.   We just understand the benefit-cost ratio of honoring certain plans and canceling others.  We want to be active participants in all of them, but when it comes time to accept what participating means—driving forever to someone’s place, not being able to find a parking spot, wandering the Saturday streets full of loud drunks, and then driving home—we recognize the moments ahead of us are finite and decide it isn’t worth the aggravation.  Plus, I’m not drinking, so why go to a bar?  The benefit-cost-ratio is very high in favor of staying home.

And that’s my week, my unedited, written version of my heavily-edited week.  Somehow, I suspect I’m not the only one of my peers to have weeks like this from time-to-time.

Smells like My Karma

So, I opened up my one of my news apps this morning to find a caricature of GOP dreamboat Paul Ryan in a flannel shirt with a classic Misfits skull button over the pocket. The headline: “Smells Like Middle-Aged Spirit: We thought Gen X were slackers. New they are the suits.” Um, ok, ew? What does that mean? It means that my generation means something, and writers like Lavanya Ramanathan, author of the piece, are going to figure out what.

Ramanathan (I immediately Googled her to find out how old she was—and… she’s an Xer.), describes the stereotypical member of the Gen X tribe in the early nineties—ambivalent, underemployed, individualistic, nihilistic, anti-government, and (my favorite term of all) “slacker.”   Not only does that about sum up my state of mind circa 1994, but that about sums up my state of mind as of November of last year, all but the anti-government part, and that’s a really big chunk of the writer’s claim—that the middle-aged corps of the GOP is a reflection of my formative adult years, anti-big-government and all. Also that my politician crush, the vague and ambivalent, but very nice-to-look-at Paul Ryan, has the Beastie Boys in his Spotify playlist.

Other than our both being devastatingly good-looking, I didn’t think I had that much in common with Paul Ryan. Apparently, I do. Apparently, I have A LOT in common with the Gen X crowd in the Republican Party—note every adjective I used above to describe us in our twenties, but also note how those adjectives can shape and mold a person as she ages. Nihilism becomes natural skepticism; ambivalence becomes a purer form of individualism, or (perish the thought) self-righteousness; and anti-government sentiment can become a mistrust of anything government, which is where I derail from the Republican, the Libertarian, and the Tea Parties. I want to keep a lot of (most of, actually) federal programs that our present administration deems unnecessary. I dread the thought of another Cold-War-style arms race. I’m no hippie, and I’m no hawk. Is that a Gen X, trait? Maybe I should ask the experts.

Maybe, no. Maybe I shouldn’t. After reading this article, I wonder how many of my former Nirvana-listening, flannel-shirt-wearing, slacker peers are right now grappling with their conservative sides. I’m not. Over the years I’ve sided with a few planks in the GOP platform, and some in the other parties I mentioned above; but on the whole, they don’t reflect my way of thinking. Ramanathan contends that we will be the wild card in this country’s next election, all 66 million of us, so I guess it’s time to start planting the seeds. I’d say, “Don’t believe everything you read,” but isn’t that a given these days?