Premature

That little pat on the back that I was giving myself was premature. Way premature.

I had gone to the gym this morning to work out. I love working out. Love it, love it, love it. I wish I could get there every day.

For me, exercise is such a key part of my well-being. I feel more optimistic after I exercise. Big ideas come to me while I exercise. My body craves healthy food on the days I exercise. It’s an all-around win-win-win.

So this morning I exercised.

In the course of elevating my heart rate, oscillating ropes, swinging the kettlebell, and dripping with sweat, I started thinking about caregiving and how far I’ve come on this journey. I used to get so frustrated with my mother — but she had a bitter sharpness that my father doesn’t have. She would harp at me, insisting on something that wasn’t, or lash out at one of my children for something they didn’t do. She could be a challenge.

My father, on the other hand, laughs at the darnedest things. He’s happy and content. He works on his puzzles, reads his books, and listens to his music. People stop to visit him. He gets a bowl of vanilla ice cream every day. He watches the Red Sox play nearly every night. It’s a good life, I think.

So I was working out and thinking about all this. I was thinking, I’ve got a good handle on this caregiving thing. I think I’m doing all right.

I patted myself on the back and began mentally writing a blog post of encouragement for other caregivers. I wanted to tell them that they’ll have good days, maybe even a bunch of them in a row.

When I got to the house, Dad was coming out the door with the dandelion-stabbing tool (surely, there’s a better name for it) because he wanted to start getting after the dandelions. I asked him to stay on level ground and checked to make sure he was wearing his LifeLine in case he fell.

As I headed inside, almost as an after-thought, he said, “It was the strangest thing, but I found all this money today. I left it on the table for you.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked.

“Here and there,” he said, waving vaguely with hands to indicate that it was in a variety of places like the dandelions in the yard.

Puzzled, I went to investigate.

My wallet was sitting out on the kitchen table. I looked inside and it was mostly empty. My heart sank.

I found all that money he had been talking about, stuffed like a bookmark into a book. It was a twenty and three fives — $35 that had been in my wallet.

I looked in the garbage and found gift cards, receipts, coupons, a note from Mary, and other papers that only an hour before had been in my wallet.

I grabbed the crumpled papers and marched out to my father who was still standing on the deck holding the dandelion-stabber and looking at the dandelions.

“Did you find the money?” he asked innocently.

I exploded. “That was the money in my wallet,” I said. “And these –” I held out the papers I had pulled from the garbage — “these are mine.”

“They aren’t anything important,” he said.

“Not to you, but to me they are,” I said, far more loudly than I should.

And the argument went on far longer than it should have.

I knew in my head that he couldn’t understand, but I was frustrated.

Gone were back-pats. Gone were my words of encouragement. Gone was any goodwill left over from my workout.

I went in the house and fixed my green smoothie. From inside the house, I watched as he sat in the grass and stabbed at dandelions. I stabbed at writing words of encouragement and this is what came out.

Fellow caregivers, some days are like that.

But it’s still all so good.

The sun is shining.

The dandelions are smiling (unaware of their fate).

The smoothie was delicious.

And I have $35 safe in my wallet — upstairs now.

Rabid Chickens

My memory of the wall is tinged with blue-green. A very pale blue-green, mind you.

I honestly don’t know if it’s real, or hopelessly colored and skewed by more than half a century.

I scoured old photographs this morning looking for it. Surely this white-washed cinderblock wall, with a hint of aqua, so prominent in my memories of Kagnew Station would show up in some pictures.

Stewart, Peter, Donabeth, Sally — Kagnew Station Christmas

When I was 2 years old until I was just barely 5, my father was stationed at an army base in Ethiopia. My earliest memories are from there, but have been reduced largely to color.

Kagnew Station was blue-green.

Fort Devens was red-brown, like the color of bricks. Our address there was drilled into me, 84D Walnut Street.

84D Walnut St, Fort Devens Christmas

Similarly, the distance between the earth and the sun was drilled into my youngest brother after we moved to Cooperstown.Why he needed to know that distance was beyond me, but my parents and older siblings made sure he could recite it, asking him often, “How many miles to the sun?” My tow-headed little brother would answer, “93 million miles,” and we would cheer.

That’s a memory draped in the lush green of Cooperstown and farm land and maples in summer.

My youngest brother and me — Cooperstown summer

But the wall around Kagnew Station — I remember my mother warning me about it. “Don’t go beyond it,” she said, “because there are rabid chickens on the other side.”

In my head, now, I know that’s ridiculous. I’m sure she never said a word about rabid chickens.

For one thing, rabies only affects mammals. I learned that as an adult when a veterinarian friend gave a presentation on rabies to our homeschool group. When he made that statement – rabies only affects mammals — I blurted out, “But what about chickens?” He looked at me long and hard, waiting to see if I was serious. Unfortunately, I was. The seed had been planted decades before.

For another, I don’t think the wall around the base was very high. A chicken could have flown over it.

My working theory is this: my mother warned me to stay away from the wall. I had heard my father talking about the dangers of rabies.  At some point I saw a chicken fly over the wall. It all mashed together, like when bits and pieces of life swirl together into the implausible reality of a bizarre dream.

I probably inserted the chicken into my mother’s words. I’ve always liked chickens.

A rabid chicken sounds so dramatic, too. Picture an innocuous chicken. Add some drool and a deadly virus. Like Chanticleer meets Old Yeller. Maybe that was the scariest image 4-year-old me could conjure up.

The memory is covered in a pale blue-green haze.

In the meantime, I have an assignment to write about a place (#sorryLaura) and this is what came out.

Strange.

Almost scary.

Like a rabid chicken.

Not My Favorite Place

“What happened to your hand?” my friend Kate asked.

I was reclining in a chair at one of my not-favorite places

Kate’s office

At the dentist

Tools of torture

What she asked about had happened at a new not-favorite place — the GI Lab.

It was a week of taking care of myself.

On Tuesday I had my first colonoscopy. After talking my way out of it for eight years, I finally lost my bargaining power and had to go.

Waiting at the GI Lab

The nurse chided me. “You should have come years ago,” she said.

I shrugged. I mean, really, what did she want me to say? I was there.

But, when she tried to put the IV in the back of my hand, she blew my vein.

Helen picked me up after the procedure (she was my designated driver) and I showed her my bruised hand.

“Just imagine that your daughter could have done that,” she said, and I understood her to say that every nurse has those moments when IVs don’t go perfectly. A little grace was in order. Thinking about that didn’t make my hand hurt less, but it made me complain a little less about it.

The bad part of a colonoscopy isn’t the IV, though. It’s the prep. It’s the low fiber diet followed by the clear liquid diet followed by the nothing diet. It’s the Miralax and the Dulcolax and the everything-else-lax. I found myself thinking about the scripture that talked about the less honorable parts of the body. (from 1 Corinthians 12)

On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.

I can tell you, from my colonoscopy prep, that when one part of the body suffers, the whole body really does suffer.

On Wednesday morning, when I drank my first cup of coffee in days, I rejoiced. It’s also true — when one part of the body rejoices, the whole body rejoices.

On Thursday, I went to the dentist. I do this every 6-8 years, whether I need it or not. I love my dentist. I just hate sitting in a chair feeling and hearing the scraping of metal against my teeth.

My not-favorite places. And two of them in one week!

Of course, I go to one of my favorite places every morning.

The pool at 5:15 AM

It’s beautiful to watch the sun reflect off the water.

Sun dance

Soon, when spring arrives, I’ll be able to visit another favorite place —

The stone bridge

Going over the stone bridge

And if winter drags on, I have this favorite place –

Sitting by the fire in the family room

Plus the really, really good news is that I don’t have to go for another colonoscopy for 10 years.

And I don’t have to return to the dentist immediately because I had no cavities.  Of course, she’d like to see me every year, but I think I can stretch it out a little longer.

 

If I Just Keep Moving

“If I can just keep the car moving,” I said to Laurel, “I think we’ll be okay.”

Earlier last Friday, I had marveled at the way the snow surrounded the house, blowing, swirling, sticking to windows on every side.

North

West

South

East

Schools had announced their closures the night before. The hospital had called twice to reschedule appointments that family members had for Friday. The pool — actually the whole sports facility where I work — had decided to close pre-snowstorm.

But the swim meet was still on.

Swim meets are never canceled.

Ever.

Bud shook his head in disbelief, but handed me the keys to the car that has better snow tires.

And off Laurel and I went, driving the 80+ miles to Half Moon, NY.

The roads were bad.

“Take a picture,” I told Laurel, handing her my phone and quickly returning my hands to the steering wheel. 

It was white-knuckle driving time.

I usually take back roads, zipping up and down hills, past farms, through hamlets, to save time. Not Friday, though. I chose my route based on which roads I thought would be clearest.

Route 20

Route 20 wasn’t bad when I finally got on it.

Not bad, but not great either.

The viewable area in my windshield grew smaller and smaller as the wipers got caked with ice.

“I have to stop and clean the wipers,” I told Laurel — but there was nowhere to stop. The plowed lane was narrow and the shoulder non-existent.

We passed a huge Walmart truck leaning at an odd angle in the median and covered with snow. I wondered how long it had been there.

We passed an SUV down an embankment. “Do you think anyone is in that car?” Laurel asked.

“I don’t know, but I can’t stop,” I told her. “It wouldn’t be safe.”

I watch a state trooper in my rearview mirror pull over beside it. He put his flashers on for safety, and I assume he went to check.

Grimly we drove on.

“I’m going to stop at that gas station,” I said to Laurel, “so I can clean the wipers.”

But I couldn’t see the entrance and the brakes didn’t want to cooperate, so I continued driving.

30 mph seemed optimum. If I slowed, the car skidded. If I went faster, I felt like I was flirting with out-of-control.

“If I keep the car moving,” I said to Laurel, “I think we’ll be okay.”

We pressed on.

Past the tree tipped into our lane.

Past more vehicles off to the side.

Past snowmobilers.

Past 4-wheelers with plows attached.

Past bundled-up people with shovels who made me think of people bailing out sinking ships with tea cups.

Once we got to Albany, the roads were fine. The last little jaunt up to Half Moon was easy.

I sighed with relief when we checked into our hotel.

As I lay in bed that night listening to the thumps, hall noises, and plumbing sounds that go with staying in a hotel, I thought about how much of life is like that drive.

Sometimes it’s white-knuckled and demanding of every ounce of my attention.

Sometimes questions of whether I made the right decision overwhelm me.

Sometimes obstacles fall in my path.

Sometimes I can’t enjoy the scenery.

Sometimes I just have to keep moving.

Sometimes that’s all I can do.

Amen

Yesterday we had a guest preacher, a woman from a nearby city. When she called the children forward for the children’s sermon, two school-age boys and one toddler girl came forward.

The little girl was delightfully in her own world, jabbering and clapping her hands. At first the pastor tried to quiet her and distract her, but her efforts were fruitless.  The girl had obviously just figured out that she could string words together and adults would stop to listen.

The pastor moved on. With a steady little drone of chattering in the background, much like a cheerfully babbling brook, she launched into her mini-sermon on gratitude.

Then she made the mistake of asking the boys about the best Christmas present they got this year. I knew the answer before they said anything.

Lego.

Both boys are Lego maniacs and love to talk about it. They began describing the giant Lego sets that they had received.

“I think mine had ten bags of pieces in the box,” one boy said.

“No,” said the other, his brother, “it had twelve!”

They debated the full number of pieces and how long it took to assemble. Meanwhile, the little girl kept up her jabbering. I didn’t think the pastor was going to be able to reel in her children’s sermon, but she did.

“Let’s finish by saying thank-you to God,” the pastor said.

One boy threw his hands in the air and yelled, “Thank you!”

But the pastor said, “No, let’s bow our heads and close our eyes to talk to God.”

The boys complied. The girl twirled around.

“Thank you, God, for all the good things You give us,” preacher prayed. “Amen,” she concluded, emphasizing the “A”.

One boy’s head shot up, then his hand followed. “I have a question,” he said.

I’m sure she was anticipating more Lego talk. I was surprised she didn’t look exasperated.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Why can’t we say ‘A-women’?” he asked. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

I had to stifle my laughter.

Kids.

You never know.

 

Change

Some of my swimmers dabbing at practice. I love these kids.

When I walked into the pool area yesterday, one of my swimmers was waiting for me. She looked up at me with doleful eyes. The corners of her mouth were turned down. Way down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, crouching down to talk with her.

She pressed her lips together and I could see her lower lip quivering.

“Is this because you moved up?” I asked. Technically, she wasn’t my swimmer anymore. She had moved up to the next group.

Almost imperceptibly, she nodded yes.

“Aw, Genna*,” I said, “we talked about this the other day. You are so ready to be part of the Orange group. Plus Coach Katy is super-fun, so much more fun than I am.”

She looked up at me doubtfully.

“Don’t worry about the warm-up. Coach Katy will tell you what to do,” I told Genna. “It’s different from ours, but you can do it.”

I was running out of encouraging/reassuring things to say to this sad little girl who obviously didn’t like change.

“Coach Sally,” she finally said in a tiny voice. I leaned in to hear what she had to say. “Coach Katy doesn’t have lollipops like you do.”

I laughed. At the beginning of the season, Genna had hung back, hesitant to try anything.

“What can I do to motivate her?” I asked her sister one day.

“Candy,” she replied.

I bought a bag of dum-dums. They were magical.

Yesterday I whispered to Genna, “I’ll give some lollipops to Coach Katy. Would that be good?”

Immediately her face brightened and off she went with her new coach. I sighed and headed to my lanes where my swimmers were already warming-up.

I studied the swimmers who were in the water. “Where’s Bern*?” I asked.

Bern had just moved into my group. Katy spotted him and brought him over to me. He stood shivering beside me, chewing on his goggle strap.

“They’re finishing their warm-up,” I told him. “You can get in and do 100 freestyle. We’ll be moving on to something else soon.”

He didn’t respond. His expression was inscrutable as he stared at the water and chewed his goggles.

“Do you know any of the other kids in this group?” I asked.

He took his goggle strap out of his mouth. “I don’t want to warm up,” he said.

“Warm-ups are important,” I said, and was about to launch into a mini-treatise on warming up when his mother came into the pool area and called him over.

Bern went over, stood in front of her, and immediately burst into tears.

I backed away. I had a dozen or so kids in the water who needed attention. Mom could talk to Bern.

I handed out kickboards and explained what we would be doing.  The kids started their kick set. Every so often I looked back at Bern. He and his mother were having quite a têteà-tête. Finally I saw Bern drying his tears.

Soon his newly-dried face wouldn’t matter because he jumped in the water and started swimming. He did fine.

At the end of practice his mother told me, “Bern doesn’t like change.”

“Neither do I,” I told her.

She said, “He told me, ‘I don’t care about swimming fast. I just want to swim with my brothers.'” His two younger brothers were still in the group he had graduated from.

With that, I appreciated Bern so much more.

We all hold onto things that are sweet and dear.

For Genna, it’s candy.

For Bern, it’s his brothers.

For me, it’s a thousand little things I want to freeze in time instead of watching my father age.

But time marches on, and change comes with it.

It will be okay.

 

*not their real name

 

 

Pearls

Let me be candid. I was shouting in the officials’ room at the swim meet on Saturday.

Not my finest moment, for sure. That ugliness left me bone-weary at the end of the day.

The next morning when I got up early to read, I still felt the stone in my gut, the last vestiges of that conflict.

Several years ago, my friend and fellow-blogger Anna Brown made a reference to pearl-formation. I liked it so much I tried to incorporate it into my daily prayers, specifically in my creed where I state those things I believe. After many iterations, I settled on these words:

I believe that the trials in my life are ultimately God’s good for me; they are like grains of sand in an oyster that God uses to produce pearls.

When I arrived at that part the other morning, I thought of the man who had shouted at me and at whom I had shouted in turn.

“Lord,” I prayed, “I believe that ______ is a like a grain of sand, and that You can use him to produce a pearl in me.”

I sat there picturing the process that happens in an oyster. The presence of the irritant is sometimes a grain of sand, but often in nature is a parasite. The  oyster excretes a fluid that coats the irritant, and then coats it again and again and again. The fluid, called nacre, is otherwise known as mother-of-pearl. Shiny, luminous, iridescent. Beautiful.

The longer the irritant stays in the clam, the more coatings it receives. It’s a slow process that can take up to three years for the pearl to reach its size. “Lower-quality pearls have often been ‘rushed’ out of the oyster too quickly (sometimes a year or less) and have a too-thin coat of nacre.” (from Pearls.com)

As I prayed, I could feel the edges of my irritation softening.

I prayed it again, this time inserting a different name. I’ve been walking the edge of irritability for a while now, more and more often losing balance and falling into frustration with this person or that situation.

As I named specific people or issues and prayed the prayer over and over, I began to picture a string of pearls.

And tears began to roll down my cheeks.

The more irritations, the more pearls. I found myself feeling thankful for each one.

The funny thing is, I know I have three more years of interactions with the shouting man.

Three years. Just the right amount of time to form a good pearl.