So it might surprise you that every year about 13% of people in hospice recover enough to go off of it. Recently, my 92-year-old mother joined the ranks of that resilient group. Continue reading “A Mother’s Recovery and What Matters Now”
Pausing is something I don’t do well. But how many of us do? Modern life in general is nothing but anti-pause – we feel constant pressure to do-do-do and then broadcast it to the world.
Like by writing a blog. Continue reading “The Power of the Pause”
From August 23rd to the 28th, tens of thousands of people descended on Washington, DC, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The nearly week-long festivities culminated on August 28th when President Barack Obama gave a speech on those same steps in front of the Great Emancipator.
Throughout it all, I kept asking myself, what would Lois say? Continue reading “March on Washington 50th Anniversary – What Would Lois Say?”
You didn’t peg me for a Royalist, did you?
Well, I’m not.
But I’m not above getting my knickers in a twist when it comes to the UK’s favorite royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the birth of their new baby.
The baby’s name is George Alexander Louis, and his official title is “His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.” He’s third in line to the British throne.
Some Americans were all “Whaaa?” about the name “George,” saying it’s stuffy and old fashioned.
I think it’s excellent.
The choice of name wasn’t even a surprise. “George” was the 2-1 favorite according to British bookies, who raked in $2.46 million in baby name bets alone, which averaged about $10 per bet (source).
But I am surprised at how much I like the name. Then again, I shouldn’t be. I’m used to it.
My oldest brother’s name is George, my father’s name was George, and his father’s name was George. They weren’t George Holder III, II, and I, however, because they each had different middle names. Also, I think because my grandfather didn’t like the idea of creating a “Jr.” or a “II” and neither did my dad.
[Side-note: Three Georges is nothing compared to the six Marys in my immediate family! It’s similar to George Foreman naming his five sons “George,” ironically… I’ll save explaining the Mary madness for another post.]
George is a good name. It’s also a fairly common surname. It’s short, easy to pronounce, and strong.
It has fun female derivatives: Georgette; Georgia; Georgina; Georgiana.
It’s multi-national. In Spanish, George is Jorge; in Italian, it’s Giorgio; in German, it’s Georg, Jörg, or Jürgen (“J” pronounced like “y”); in Russian, it’s Yuri.
In French, the name is plural, I don’t know why and Google is no help. I also think it sounds the best: “Georges” is pronounced “Zhorzh.” It rolls off the tongue like a fine French Bourdeaux.
Georges Pompidou is one of the great French names. Pompidou was Prime Minister and later President of France in the 1960s and early 70s. Today he’s probably best known for the eponymous and ugly Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which is a library and modern art museum whose exterior looks inside-out.
“George” is distinguished – some of my favorite famous people – both real and fake – are named George.
George Washington, George Eliot, George Carlin, George Harrison, George Clooney, George of the Jungle, Curious George, George Oscar “GOB” Bluth and his father, George Bluth, Sr.
Then there’s the Seinfeld character, George Louis Costanza, famously played by Jason Alexander. Take away “Jason” and “Costanza” and rearrange the other names, and we’re back to the royal baby’s name!
I say not. I say the Cambridges are huge Seinfeld fans… Who isn’t?
But nooo, royalists would argue. “George,” “Alexander,” and “Louis” are names that hold personal and historical significance for the British royal family.
So far, there have been six King George’s atop the British crown, starting with George I who ruled from 1714 to 1727. Thus the name became popular and habitual among the royals. And let’s not forget that St. George is the patron saint of England.
“Alexander,” it’s been speculated, was perhaps chosen as a nod to the three kings of Scotland who bore the name, as well as the strong association between “Alexander” and “The Great,” as in the ancient Greek ruler.
“Louis” may well have been chosen in honor of Louis Mountbatten, who was the uncle of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Phillip. Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in 1979 – royal names evoke triumphs as well as personal tragedies.
But I say poppy-cock to all that talk of historical significance! I still think the royal baby was named after George Costanza.
Why? For one thing, the royals can afford to follow Costanza’s ethos of laziness:
Instead of doing a wash, I just keep buying underwear. My goal is to have over 360 pair. That way I only have to do wash once a year. – George Costanza, Season 2 of Seinfeld
And – let’s face it – there’s this:
My father was a quitter, my grandfather was a quitter, I was raised to give up. It’s one of the few things I do well. – George Costanza, Season 4 of Seinfeld
Yup, the royal baby’s name is perfect!
That Friday afternoon, I’d arrived at her home in Pennsylvania looking forward to her birthday celebration with almost the entire family. So the news of hospice jarred and surprised. At first.
Then it wasn’t a surprise at all.
My mom had been declining noticeably in recent months. Her weak legs and broken knees stopped carrying her for good in late April; ramps were installed in her house and her transport chair was used every time to move her from her bed to her chair and wherever else she was willing to go. She’d been slowing down and losing strength.
But that Sunday, we celebrated Mom’s 92nd birthday in style. She rose to the occasion – she got dressed up, sat in her chair and then in her transport chair for a long time in different parts of the house. She ate dinner with us in the dining room and had cake and ice cream. She was lucid and wisecracking and she enjoyed herself.
There comes a point, in witnessing a parent’s descent into extreme old age, when you dread every illness whether major or minor: is this the one that will lead to death? I’d buried my father in my mind a couple of times when he struggled with illnesses, long before he actually died four years ago at age 93.
I’ve done the same with my mom. She fell a few years ago and broke her shoulder. I thought it could lead to the end. But she recovered. Last fall, she battled bronchitis for months – she thought it was pneumonia and so did I. But she recovered.
Now, however, it appears my mom is battling some kind of infection, and losing. After several tests, we still don’t know what it is.
But it doesn’t matter. Her body is shutting down. According to her long-time internist, her bone marrow and white blood cell count is so low that, if she has an infection, she can’t fight it off. Putting her in the hospital could lead to a diagnosis, but then what? She is a poor candidate for surgery, plus hospitals can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems.
Instead her doctor talked about keeping her home and “keeping her comfortable,” that euphemism for a looming death knell. Soon after, he recommended hospice. I’m extremely grateful to this wise physician for charting a peaceful demise for my mom.
I plan to visit Mom when I can, including this weekend; I’m only a two-hour drive away.
And I face this – the challenge of the most stressful of times, the saddest of times, when losing a parent is hard no matter what, and all of the other stresses in your life are at once magnified and trivialized.
Throughout, it’s important to remember what matters most:
- Being present – As long as my mom is still with us, in spirit with thoughts and prayers, and in body when I can — sitting with her, holding her hand, looking into her hazel eyes with love.
- Mourning the loss – It’s not a choice, I know. But my father’s death taught me that the process of recognition and remembrance are important and therapeutic and not to be done passively. It’s hard, and may be even harder with my mom.
- Celebrating the life – My family is too traditional to call a funeral a “celebration of life” like some families do. But celebrate we will, in the grand Irish Catholic tradition – by getting sloppy drunk and telling stories of our mom’s great wit while laughing and crying through it all. Irish-style wakes are the best.
- Accepting the love and support of others – This can be surprisingly hard. But it’s important to embrace the outpouring from others. I look forward to seeing relatives and friends of my mom, and of all of us, at her services. Death brings people together.
- Taking care of yourself – Grief takes a toll, so you need your rest. You go ahead and have that cry in the middle of the grocery store. Then throw a treat in the shopping cart. You schedule a spa treatment. You take a trip. You remind yourself: Your dead parents will want you to go on and live well and be happy.
- Feeling the love that stays with you forever – This is the greatest gift of life, the greatest gift of all.
It’s one hell of a to-do list, but I’ll give it my best.
He and I were in the middle of a fight one night, the one and only serious fight we’d ever had, when he paid me the highest compliment he ever gave me:
“There are many things I admire about you, Kate, but your politics is not one of them.”
We were fighting about the Iraq War; it was 2004, I think, and I was visiting my parents on the east coast while I was living in Arizona. My dad was always a staunch Republican, and I was the lone Democrat at that time in our large family. The post-9/11 world had pushed our politics farther apart – he had grown more conservative, and I, more liberal. He was also in his upper 80s by then.
So you might wonder: what was I doing picking a political fight with someone as old as my dad?
But maybe you didn’t know my dad. He was a highly intelligent, charismatic, alpha male right up to the final weeks of his life when he died at age 93. A successful businessman, he was disciplined and tough although he had a sweet and silly side, too.
He was used to winning, and you didn’t debate him lightly even in his old age.
Until that fight, though, we had always been able to discuss politics in a civil, even light-hearted and teasing way, agreeing to disagree. We did so regularly for as long as I could remember. It was a big part of our relationship.
But no more, after that night. The fight had turned dark and accusatory, with recriminations like “you’re wrong” and “no, you’re wrong!” being traded. The kind of hopeless, bitter face-off we’d never stooped to before. But it reflected the times, when our country was in turmoil.
Luckily, no one else had witnessed it. My father and I were off by ourselves, out of earshot of other family members. To my dad’s credit, he was the one who defused it and backed down, refusing to discuss the war further.
I was shaken by our fight, but I also remember being surprised to hear him say he admired me, for “many” things.
He’d never told me that before.
Maybe you’re wondering what those things were. I still do. I never asked and he never said. I was too upset to ever bring it up, after knowing our relationship had changed in a fundamental way.
We never discussed politics again. My dad died five years later.
Sadly, I know too many stories of strained family relationships and friendships – including broken friendships – as a result of our country’s increasingly polarizing politics.
You may have similar stories of your own.
As a society, we remain bitterly divided, and I don’t know how or when it will end. I’ve learned to avoid political debates with people I care about whose opinions differ from mine. I still look back on that fight with my dad with sadness.
But mostly now, I choose to focus on the two positive things that came out of our fight.
1) My father’s compliment. There are many things I admire about you, Kate…
It doesn’t matter what they were. It was mainly a reminder of how supportive my dad was of me throughout my life, despite our differences. Whatever I wanted to do, he said I could do it. He never tried to discourage me, or make me feel like I couldn’t be the best at what I wanted to pursue. He always had faith in me.
2) My father’s decision to defuse the fight. This was unusual, and it took me a long time to appreciate its significance. When things got hot between us, he suddenly calmed and said: “We can’t talk about this anymore.”
He chose to make peace instead of to “win” the fight.
Because even in conflict, my dad never lost sight of what was the most important thing between us.
First of all, my 91-year-old mother would be very unhappy to know that I wrote a blog post about her (if she knew what a blog post was). She is a private, proud woman of an era when news of one’s personal business didn’t extend much beyond chatter at church and the general store.
Second, my mother would be equally unhappy to know that I’m associating her with the theory of evolution. At one time maybe, in her youth, she may have accepted Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection without feeling that it threatened her Catholic faith and spiritual outlook on life. But not in her old age. Only God and His mysterious ways matter to her now, and that’s fine.
My mother is more than entitled, at this stage of her life, to do/think/say just about anything she wants. I say “just” because Mom can still be imperious and peppery and she still scares me. As a mother of eight, grandmother of eleven and great grandmother of six (soon, seven), she’s had to lay down the law many times, and rightfully so. But she’s slowing down more and deserves a free pass.
Since May is the 50th anniversary of Older Americans Month, and Mother’s Day is approaching, there’s something I need to tell my mother next time I see her – that she is still teaching me important lessons about life.
That would please and surprise my mom, and I’m a dope for not telling her by now. I just visited her this past weekend in Pennsylvania. She still lives in the house where I grew up, and has excellent 24/7 care from a core group of caregivers with whom she’s formed a trusted and loving bond.
Although Mom is very fortunate to have the resources and support structure to stay at home, her big old brick colonial-style house grows larger and more obstructive as her frail body shrinks and loses mobility. Just days before my visit, my older siblings, who still live in the area, had ramps installed in her house. The ramps were placed over three sets of small steps that my mother can no longer negotiate on her feet.
So the past week has been stressful for her. Mom is rapidly transitioning from a walker to a wheelchair, and is doing so with a level of dignity and grace that I don’t possess. Darwin might nod knowingly when I say I have some of my mother’s traits but I lack others of hers I wish I had, including her emotional strength.
Darwin didn’t know anything about genetics or DNA, but his genius was in understanding the function of inheritance and its role in natural selection as the modification of inherited traits over long periods of time. As Darwin put it, natural selection preserves or creates “favoured races in the struggle for life.”
What my elderly mother is teaching me about evolution, in particular, is how it affects memory as we age: As Mom’s short-term memory falters, more of her long-term memory emerges. And its vast store of wisdom and family stories is something I’ve neglected for too long.
Mom frequently frets about the loss of her short-term memory – she’ll pause in the middle of a sentence and sigh as she searches her mind for a forgotten name or date. “Damn, what’s the word…” she’ll say. Then she’ll apologize and look distressed, which makes my heart ache.
I always try to assure her that it’s no big deal to forget names and other short-term stuff. She knows how lucky she is to have as sound a mind as she does, with no signs of senility or Alzheimer’s disease unlike several of her friends both alive and dead. Still, it’s hard for her, knowing how much we have to repeat things to her lately.
Evolutionary biologists see short-term memory and its limited capacity as a survival mechanism that allows us to pay attention to a relatively small number of immediate concerns (predators approaching, where to seek refuge) so that we can make rapid decisions effectively.
It makes sense to me, therefore, that short-term memory generally fades in the elderly, especially in those who are less active or retired. They are no longer looked to as often to make quick and important decisions, and that’s as it should be, because – hopefully – their welfare is ensured by loved ones and/or the community. They’ve earned their rest and our enduring respect.
So as my mother’s short-term memory weakens, I find her plumbing her long-term memory more which, by contrast, is very good. The farther back she goes, it seems – 50 to 60 or more years ago – the more vivid the memories.
Ask my mom about her first date with my late father – in 1948 – and she can tell you what day of the week it was (a Monday), what my dad wore (a bulky green tweed suit that his mother had bought him in New York), what kind of car he drove (a red Ford convertible) and how long it took him to call my mom after the date (a week and a half, because Dad drove to Virginia to break up with another girl before continuing to date my mom). My parents were married less than a year later.
Ask my mother where she went to dinner with my siblings a day or two prior, and she may not remember.
I enjoy Mom’s old stories even when they jar, when she drops the long-gone into conversations of the here and now. In a phone call a couple of weeks ago, I told her how my one sister gave me a good idea for a baby gift for my niece Beth’s new baby. And Mom said, “oh yes, that’s the same kind of gift I gave to Bill and Nelly when they had their baby.”
“Who?” I ask.
My mom’s older cousin, Bill, and his wife, Nelly, when they had had a baby over 60 years ago. I said I don’t remember them.
“Oh heavens, Dear, that’s right,” Mom said, “they both died long before you were born.”
(Mom still talks like the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood screen actresses she watches in movies on TCM, her favorite cable TV channel.)
Later on, Mom told me more about her cousin, Bill, what a hard life he’d lived and how his parents – my mom’s Aunt Ann – had lost everything during the Depression. They split up the children to go live with different relatives who could take them in (Bill and his sister went to live with my mom and her parents). I knew none of that. My mother has seen so much in her life, and I’m ashamed of how little of her past I know.
What Mom is teaching me about evolution is that long-term memory endures in our elders, and for a reason – to pass on wisdom and lessons learned, to tell of calamities survived and endured. And, to recall milestone moments of a life well-lived, of what that individual valued and cherished.
In other words, Mom’s long-term memory is a treasure trove that I need to honor — and mine – more often. It’s about time.