The Messy of "And"

I think and write a lot about living in the “and” of life. That’s the place where seemingly conflicting or contradictory feelings arise and the idea is to allow them both. Just because a feeling feels icky or maybe not what you “should” be feeling, you still allow it to be there and co-exist with your other feelings. I think we often stuff our feelings so quickly that we might not even notice them. We were told as kids, “It’s not scary” or “Stop crying, there’s nothing to be upset about” or “Everything is fine” and we ingest this for life.

My version of embracing “and” is about acknowledging and allowing the feeling. I think this is one of the paths to personal growth. I need some teachers along the way because this stuff is hard. I love to listen to Megan Hale’s version of this on her Wild & Holy podcast. Episode 12: The Underbelly of Expansion was all about how parts of us contract in the middle of expansion.

You know I always use myself as the guinea pig when I’m trying to figure something out, so I am going to use a recent anecdote to illustrate.

Back to School Night happened recently. The day of, I worked at my genetic counseling job, ran to the parking garage at 3:30pm, had my usual two hour long commute home, picked the kids up at their after care, brought my daughter over to gymnastics and then found myself in my kitchen with my husband and son. It was time to go to school for the event, but all I wanted was to sit down with them and rest. Going to school events can be challenging for me. No matter. I left with 10 minutes before the start of the session I was attending, plenty of time given the school is one mile away. Except I forgot about parking at school events. You would think we lived in Times Square. I parked about five blocks away, got out in my heels and started running. My good girl reflex kicked in and I didn’t want to make a bad impression on the teacher that might reflect poorly on my kid.

By the time I got the classroom I was dripping sweat and panting. Great first introduction. The teacher was lovely and calm, which eased my stress and I was feeling good by the time I pulled into the driveway back at home 90 minutes later.

Then my phone rang. I looked at it and saw the name of one of my mom’s caregivers. My stomach dropped, quick and hard. A very big part of my wanted to throw the phone into my bag and stride into the house to start the bedtime routine with my family, ignoring the call. Having been on the receiving end of these phone calls for the eight years since my mom’s diagnosis of a rare dementia, I have a strong hit of intuition when something is wrong. I just knew that answering the phone would lead to more action that evening. I didn’t want more action.

Let me pull apart here some of what I was feeling right in this moment:

Utterly exhausted from this marathon day and stimulated from a big shot of adrenaline knowing something has occurred with my mom.

Shameful that I wanted to ignore the call and proud that I can handle these moments of extreme stress.

Gratitude for having helpers that lovingly take care of my mom and resentment towards this disease that has taken over our lives.

I could go on. I think it’s so helpful to acknowledge and, as I’ve done here, write these feelings down. I don’t feel any shame now about these feelings. Processing them in this way is so helpful to me.

I did pick up the phone. There was an emergency. We dealt with it. Until the next phone call.

Your turn: Describe a scene where you had conflicting feelings. Then write out the actual feelings.

Dementia Made Me My Mom’s Mom, And It’s Devastating. Here’s Why It’s Also A Gift.

My Title

I posed the question: In the story of your life, what is the title of the chapter on Mom? Here is mine.

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For most of my life, my mom was my best friend, closest confidante and strongest advocate. After dementia entered our lives eight years ago, this relationship began to shift. Slowly at first. Almost imperceptible changes. Strange handwriting began showing up on the kids' birthday cards. She stopped driving at night. Once a phenomenal cook and home entertainer, she stopped taking down her favorite recipe books and spending days in the kitchen. 

You know how you can't remember when your three year old was an infant? And then when she's six you can't remember three? Dementia is like that too. It's hard to remember what my mom was like before something strange and unknown took hold of her brain. 

My therapist gave me a tool that's really helped. She asked me to find mementos of the "before" days to remind me of who she was as a person and a mom. I dug out an old card she sent to me in college. It was full of sweet love and support. Full confidence in me. The familiar and cozy feeling of being taken care of flooded me. That comfort that someone believes in you no matter how many stumbles. 

This was the place I brought myself back to in order to come up with this title of my life story chapter on my mom. Distilled, this is what she taught me. She had no family near the town where we lived. Instead, she built her family with friends. She cooked for them, she took care of their kids, she spent time with them, regularly. And when things got hard, she didn't hesitate. Two of her best friends were diagnosed with cancer and died in their forties, when I was in high school. My mom didn't wonder what to say or how to take care of them. She marched herself into their homes to check on her girlfriends and to see what help their kids needed.

She taught me that showing up as yourself is love. 

He won't even sit with me.

I feel like I need to qualify some things before I hit publish on this piece, but I'm trying to just let this one be. Once on an evaluation form for a graduate class I taught, a student wrote that I spend too much time introducing the subject instead of just getting to it. So, just one quick thing and then I'll get to it: I have my mom's blessing to write more openly about her condition and its effect on our family.

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We were riding in the car together. I was taking her home after my daughter's birthday party. It had been a fun, if chaotic, evening. Lately, Mom has been getting worn out quickly during these family functions. Worn out leads to confused leads to agitated so I was eager to get her home and settled.

She said, I want to talk to you about Griffin. Her brain is so tricky, because it is still able to formulate such complex thoughts in one moment and has complete tunnel vision in the next. She's able to convince renowned experts in neurology into thinking she's much more capable and independent than is actually the case. I've found that conveying the nuance of my mom's condition, a rare form of dementia, is like trying to swim in mud. The little moments are revealing though.

Ok, I reply, let's talk about it now. I'm not sure what it is about my seven year old that's bothering her. He won't talk to me or play with me anymore, she says. Her tears come immediately. We used to play games together all the time and now he won't even sit near me. If I sit near him he gets up and moves. 

I want to say oh, that's not the case at all. But she's right. I'm surprised that she's noticed because her condition makes it hard for her to judge social interactions. I take a breath and say, I've noticed too. It's confusing for them, Mom. It's confusing for me, so imagine how hard it must be for the kids. He doesn't know how to act.

But I'm still the same person, she says. I'm still me.

No, you're not. The thought is quickly formed in my head, but I catch it before it comes out of my mouth. This is the person that I considered my closest friend in life, the person who knew me best in the world. For a decade bits and pieces of her have been slowly falling away. I try to be present and be grateful that the decline has been so slow. When I do allow myself to reflect, it feels like I'm grieving. She seems unable to understand that I am deeply sad about her decline. Maybe she's incapable of this type of empathy now because of what's happened to her brain. Or it might simply be that it's hard to acknowledge that this disease is affecting her daughters and grandkids on a deep level. A particular cruelty of this form of dementia is that she herself is fully aware of the abilities she's lost.

I've noticed this happening more often. She says something with which I disagree, where the whole situation is not being represented, and I don't know how to respond. I feel so stuck. Every response is the wrong one. Reminding her that she can't play any games with the kids because she is essentially blind and can't see the faces of the Guess Who game much less have the coordination to tap the figure down is not constructive. Going along with her head in the sand view that, Everything is just fine, doesn't keep me in integrity with myself. I think I know what she means when she says this - that at her core, the truest essence of herself, she is still the same, even as all the former capabilities slowly get stripped away.  I've started to stay silent in these moments, all these thoughts whirling in my head


Lots of us are dealing with dementia in a loved one. I became a member of the sandwich generation earlier than many. I was 30 and pregnant when my mom was diagnosed. I have a wonderful support system and a terrific therapist. Still, I feel an internal drive to write about it to bring it out into the light. If you are experiencing something similar know that I see you. I see your shoulders hunched forward and the rise of anxiety in your chest when your phone pings. I see your struggle.

Do you know someone who would benefit from reading this? Please share. 

The Last Christmas

If holidays are about traditions, one thing's clear; Christmas will be celebrated at my parents' house. I have spent only two (of 37!) Christmases elsewhere. I was raised in small town Western NY where trees lining Center Street twinkled with lights and the empty lot down the road was frozen over for ice skating during winter months. As in, someone filled it with a garden hose and the neighborhood kids walked over, lacing up their hockey skates. So far north that you can see Canada at the end of the street and snow was almost a given on Halloween. Idyllic? Not always, but generally speaking, yes. 

This house is my childhood. Where my dad played Neil Diamond on the record player and my mom ate a cookie for breakfast every morning. Where my little sister slept with me in my bed for years because I didn't like to sleep alone. Then later where I kicked an actual hole through her bedroom door during a fight (about She-Ra? Barbies?). 

The house we gathered in the morning of my wedding. Where all four of my parents' grandkids will have spent their first Christmases. Where my dad was when he suffered the stroke that killed him. Where I slept with my mom the day he died. They weren't all good times, for sure. But they are all ours. Our history is this house. 

How do you say goodbye to your history? This will be our last Christmas in our childhood home. The For Sale sign goes up March 1. Sure, those memories live inside of me and don't simply disappear. But there is something about walking into this house that evokes such strong images, scents, sounds. Despite all the times of struggle, I feel such love emanating from those walls. I feel a deep sadness that I will no longer walk in through the front hall and picture my dad sitting the family room, getting up to give me one of his bear hugs.

A new stocking will be hung this year, before the boxes are packed, for the newest addition to our family, my beautiful 6 month old niece. I'm a person who tends to experience losses more significantly than joys, but I'm hell bent on soaking up this last Christmas for all the imperfection that it will be.

So this is my love letter/goodbye to, as Miranda Lambert calls it, The House that Built Me.

The Taste of Memories

"What's for dinner?" I asked my mom this question every night as a kid. I was obsessed with her cooking. As I got older I would get home from school, make myself a quick dinner of english muffin pizza before I headed off to my four hour gymnastics practice. Afterwards, when I got home at 9:30pm, exhausted and sore, I would eat a second dinner of whatever Mom had made that night. It filled me up like nothing else could.

These are the things I think of now, as a working mom of two, just like she was. When I feel burdened by all of it I try to conjure up the image of her in the kitchen of my childhood home, buzzing about with the delicious aroma of homemade stuffed peppers filling the house.

I have an old, falling apart folder filled with many of her recipes, some of which have my dad's fax number on top - which means he brought these recipes to work and snuck in a quick personal fax so that I could get my hands on the Tropical Spinach Salad with Grilled Shrimp recipe. Always an intense rule follower, this little act of insubordination on my dad's part makes me smile.

I look at the date on that particular fax: 2006. Only ten years, but it seems so, so long ago. A dream almost. There are no more recipes faxed from Dad, as he died almost five years ago. And Mom's health has changed so significantly that she would not be physically able to write "Bridal Shower Dish!" today as she did on the page of that salad recipe ten years ago. Mom isn't able to cook anymore, either, which is heartbreaking for her and me both. Mom's cooking was a true and pure expression of her love. Lucky for me, I inherited this gift, the joy found in cooking and sharing, from her.