Posts Tagged ‘aging parents’

Cody, Wyoming, iPhone Shots, May 13th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

View from Marylin’s, Cody, Wyoming, iPhone Shots, May 13th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

It was a month ago to the hour when my mother-in-law died. Liz was on her way back from a business trip in Tulsa, Oklahoma when her sister called. I was sitting by Lake Como in St. Paul, Minnesota about to eat my lunch when the phone rang. The Dallas airport echoed in the background; Liz’s voice was brisk but heavy. “Mom just passed away,” she said. “She went peacefully.”

Marylin had requested a bath the night before. Tracy, Liz’s sister and her mother’s caregiver, had gotten up, given her mother a bath, and was combing her hair when she stopped breathing. I could picture this because when Liz and I were in Cody, Wyoming in May, Liz brushed Marylin’s hair as she sat in her favorite chair by the window with a clear view of the bird feeders. When Liz was finished, Marylin gently closed her eyes, smiled, and seemed in total peace after a night of tumultuous dreams.

I miss my my mother-in-law; grief takes many forms. Marylin was like a second mother to me. She championed my writing like my own mother, Amelia, who supported my creative life even when it twisted, turned, and spiraled up and down. Marylin and Amelia never met, but felt a love and kinship to each other. They were there for Liz and I through courtship, dating, and marriage. They saw only our love for each other and the compatibility of our lives together; there was never any doubt. I will always be grateful for that.

A few weeks ago, Liz and I watched the documentary on writer Joan Didion, “The Center Will Not Hold” by her nephew Griffin Dunne. When the film ended we sat in silence and wept. Dunne uses intimate archival footage, photographs and on-camera interviews to document the span of Joan Didion’s life. Having lost her husband and daughter within the span of two years, Joan knows grief; it gnaws at her bones.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

-Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

After Liz called on September 5th, 2019, I could not finish my lunch. I sat in a Chevrolet Silverado staring at the lake, wondering at the breadth of Marylin’s spirit as it lifted skyward. The day was cloudy, the wind erratic and scattered. Summer was letting go.

Summer’s End, September 5th, 2019, iPhone Video, Rain Garden, Lake Como, St. Paul, Minnesota, video © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Rest In Peace, Marylin. I miss the way you smiled and called me your daughter-in-love. I miss the depth of our conversations around writing, haiku, and politics. I miss the way you held Liz and me in your heart in a bubble of love. I miss your love of theater, your writing and your contributions to redRavine. I miss your optimism and the way you gave back to your community and the world around you. I know you are with your father, maybe running by the Pacific Ocean with Queenie, wild and free. I am a better person for having known and loved you. We will meet again.

-written October 5th, 2019 between 10:45 and 11:30 a.m. CST. Everything is in Divine and perfect order right now.

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Dad in Le Mans, France, two months after the Normandy
invasion, 1944. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.

Usually it’s Mom I call but this time I ask for Dad. When I ask him what he’s doing he says he is playing Sudoku even though he should be ironing shirts for the trip to Denver.

My parents haven’t been to Denver for a couple of years. Janet is coming to pick them up. They’ll be gone almost a week.

“Will you stop in Costilla?” I ask.

He says they will, and this time they’ll also stop in Ft. Garland. There is a World War II memorial there, and my dad’s Uncle John’s name is on the wall. His brother Onofre’s was supposed to be on there, too, but for some reason it didn’t make it.

“We’re also going to see Nena,” he says. Uncle Onofre’s kids, they all have nicknames. It drives me crazy because they use their first and middle names, plus the nicknames. Nena is Magdalena. She only has two names.

“Did you go to the funeral?” Dad asks. He’s talking about Onofre now.

“Da-ad,” I say, “yes, remember?!?”

“Oh, that’s right, you drove. And who else came with us?”

“Patty,” I tell him.

“Oh, right, and Janet came down from Denver.”

“Dad, don’t go losing your memory on me now.”

God, please don’t let him slip away like that. He’s already a little viejo. Don’t let him lose his memory. Onofre died in spring. The wisteria froze, big grape clusters whithered brown overnight. Don’t let Dad become the wisteria, frozen after a too-warm February.

“Why isn’t your name on the memorial?” I ask.

“We already moved to Taos,” he says, “and the memorial’s only for people in Costilla County, Colorado.”

In a box in my writing room, I keep a picture of my father. I have many pictures of him and Uncle Nemey, from the war. Nemey was in the Navy, Dad the Army.

The Normandy invasion happened June 6, 1944. My father knows all those dates. About two months later, after camping out for weeks in an orchard, his unit finally got to go into town and take showers. They dressed in uniform and walked all around Le Mans.

There’s Dad, standing with legs a broad shoulder’s width apart. He looks happy.

“I was happy,” he tells me.

My parents have another picture, of Dad and another soldier with a young woman who happened to be walking by that day in Le Mans. We joke that she was Dad’s girlfriend. Nah, nah, he always has to tell us, we didn’t even know her!

“Little did she know she’d become part of our family photos,” he laughs.

I’m crying now. I’m getting a crying headache.

Dad was walking the morning of September 11, 2001. Seven years ago he still walked five miles every morning, even more on the weekends. I’m trying to remember when it was he fell while taking his daily walk. Was it the following year?

I know he saw the cranes from the work they were doing to widen the Montaño bridge. I know he got dizzy and out of breath, that one of the workers saw him and came running. I know he got sick to his stomach, and that the ambulance was only able to reach him because of the construction project.

After they put in the pacemaker, that’s when he went from good old age to not-so-good old age.

“I don’t like to dwell on those things.” He is talking about 9/11. He goes on to describe how he was walking and someone told him that a big airplane had hit one of the towers. He says he couldn’t understand how the pilot could have made such a mistake in daylight. He got home to the TV just before the buildings fell.

“A day of infamy,” he says. Then, after a moment he adds, “like Pearl Harbor.”

My father has seen so much. So much life and death. I am an ant compared to him.

“I’ll come by before you leave,” I tell him.

I want to see his gray watery eyes. They used to be so dark they looked black.

***NOTE***  When I went to scan the photo of my father, I found a poem that one of my daughters printed out on my old scented stationery. I’m not sure if one of them wrote it or if they found it somewhere Dee wrote it; I loved it and wanted to share it now.

Rose thorn


by Dee


Remember the flowers?

Oh so red

So smooth the petals but beware the thorns

Ending sadness

Tomorrow the wound shall be gone

Happy with your new rose

Out with the thorn

Roses are red

No longer my finger.

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By Bo

Growing old? I can handle my getting older. I barely notice the days sneaking past. But then I barely noticed the days creeping past my mother, either — she lives 300 miles away and has always maintained her independence. Then there was a death in the family — a dear aunt who was the same age as my mom — and I made plans to return home for the funeral.

And as I spoke with my mother and made plans, I faced a fact I tried long to ignore. My mother is not growing old. She is old.

This last weekend she admitted as much to me. It’s the first time we’ve ever tiptoed around the BIG question. “What are we going to do, Mom, when you can’t take care of yourself?”

Ouch. My heart started clanging in a rush to get the question out in the open so I could put out the expected fire. Instead, there was no fire.

She looked at me –- hard — then looked at the carpet, then looked out the window, then finally she looked at me again. This time she looked at me without any emotion at all.

I prefer a hard look to an empty look.

She carefully picked her words. “I looked after your grandmother for 13-and-a-half years when she got sick.” That’s a simple statement, too simple, and I wanted a clear understanding of her message. I asked her to finish her thoughts, but she shook her head and refused. Instead she walked over to the sink and washed her hands. And I tried to align my words into a response, and failed.

My mom did look after her own mother. She cared for her 13 long years. She was the only caregiver. My mother allowed no one else to assist her after her sister refused an initial request to help. She tied herself to my grandmother and to their home with a short tether, and fumed and fussed, but she refused to untie the cord.

She missed the births of her three grandchildren. She missed their birthdays. We weren’t able to celebrate many Christmases or Easters or share summer vacations together. Those times together were always denied with tears and pain and her statement, “I can’t leave your grandmother and she’s too ill to travel. And the disturbance would be too much for her, so please don’t bring the children.”

My mom grew weary with the responsibility of caring for her mother 24/7. She knows I know this, but she was afraid of reminding me of it. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted from me. She didn’t want me to take care of her; she didn’t want me not to take care of her.


Well, not quite. I have a chronic illness. We don’t discuss this issue as she prefers “not to know about stuff I don’t understand,” but she does know enough. She knows I do not have the physical ability to care for her. That scares her. And that scares me.

Last weekend we finally began the discussion we should have had ten, maybe twenty years ago. We waited too long and her age has started making its mark in scary ways. And now we have to make decisions quickly. Too quickly.

The attorney has been called and we are awaiting his return call. We’ve taken a trip to my mother’s bank and a trip to her safety deposit box. I’m returning next week and we’re going to the funeral home for information on pre-planning her funeral. She insisted on this part. (“I don’t trust you to do it the way I want it done.”) Once my mother, always my mother, I think in exasperation.

And so I write, searching for answers in my journal. Putting my scattered thoughts into written words settles things in my mind, and I see where the two of us have to go. And I see the need to make difficult choices soon.

But I also see this. Getting old, even though we all know its progression, seems to catch people by surprise. Maybe it’s the ostrich game in a different guise, but I’ve made one decision that I will see through to fruition.

My husband and I don’t feel old at 50 – I certainly hope not – and we probably won’t feel old at 60 or 70 unless we are faced with circumstances of severe disability or illness. But it is likely we will need assistance with living at some time in our lives – those are simply the percentages speaking. I’m thinking (and hoping) maybe 30 or 40 years from now, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not waiting until the last moment. And I’m not putting my children in the position I face now.

I made an appointment with our attorney to do some estate planning. And my husband and I have set aside some time this weekend to talk about all those “what if” questions. Neither of us wants to spend our precious free hours dealing with these issues. But we will.

Then my daughters and son won’t spend silent years of their lives wondering what the answers will be to those “what ifs.” Those questions that always need an answer — someday.

Tree Trunk
Tree Trunk, photo © 2008 by Bo. All rights reserved.

Bo is a poet and writer, and a self-described “wannabe photographer who can make enough money selling photos to buy better photo equipment.” She lives in Wisconsin and loves to travel the state in search of photo ops and inspiration.

About writing and her writing process, Bo says: I have a very tiny trailer that I park in a campground several times a year — it becomes an instant writer’s retreat, solo and cheap. Often I’ll search ’til I find a tree trunk in the middle of the forest and sit and write there.

I’ve also adapted a home writing routine that works for me. First tea and meditation — the easy kind where I just shut up and try to feel quiet. Then an hour of reading and research to bring in new ideas, and 2 to 4 hours of writing, editing, and attending to the business parts of writing. Plus there are the spontaneous strikes. The writing time adds up quickly.

I also work with a life/creativity coach and mentor, and I find this immensely helpful. She provides just the right amount of nudging to keep me engaged with my work. But it also helps that there is really nothing I would rather do than write and take photos.

Bo keeps a blog called Seeded Earth.

-This piece is based on a writing practice for red Ravine’s WRITING TOPIC – GROWING OLDER.

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Your mother turned 69 yesterday, my father 83 on November 5. I’d like to believe he, Elias, will live to be 100. That I can mine the DNA from his frail bones for years to come.

But each time I see him, I see him slip away, slow and almost imperceptible. His cataract eyes have that watery, faraway look, a silver film over intense black. On his birthday I meant to peer into those crystal ball eyes. How are you today? Are your legs strong? Will they carry you further?

But it was a festive party, enchiladas with red or green, flour tortillas Mom made, a big pot of pinto beans. Between forkfuls, I admire Mom’s choker, a spiky thing made with narrow triangles of oyster shell, bones from the sea. She takes it off, tells me it’s mine.

“I wore it so I could give it to one of you,” she tells my sisters when they chime to me, “Hey, wasn’t that Mom’s necklace??” I shrug. I didn’t mean to covet it before anyone else had a chance to.

Mom is generous. What is Dad?

I still remember, and now bones on my mind, sitting in Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, staring down at my knobby knees while Dad listens to Father Cassidy’s homily. (And now, my mind catches the word “homily,” jumps to “hominy,” which in my family we make into “posole,” white kernals like big teeth. Everything goes back to food. Plain, hearty food. Not much meat in my lineage, is that why my bones are fine and my teeth achy when I drink anything cold?)

But back to the church. Dad and I go alone. Mom gave up faith after I was born and a priest slammed the confessional window in her face for telling him she was going on birth control. Dad picks a middle pew. Not too eager to please. Not a laggard, either. That’s Dad. Middle way. He sits rapt. He’s a pious man, comes from penitente stock. I stick my feet out in front of me, notice my shins have downy, light brown hair. I’m eleven. I still wear hand-me-down dresses. Brunswick patterns sewn by Mom. Old-fashioned dresses with big white bibs front and back, rickrack along the bottom. I like how my kneecaps move to and fro when I lift my legs up and down.

Then I see it. My right knee is bigger than my left. Something round is in there, like a marble or a golf ball under my brown skin. For the rest of Father Cassidy’s meandering sermon I am engrossed in this discovery, a moveable part in my leg. I’m like the Barbies I sneak out of my sister’s Barbie Doll case. Discrete joints, elbows-knees-and-shoulders. I can move me this way and that, pose me how I wish.

Up to now Dad is in his dreamy place above my small world. He can see over parishioners’ heads to Christ hanging on his crucifix, to the chalices and gold and white cloth. Now Dad looks down to where I am. He notices me popping my knee. I place his big, warm hand over the lump, show him how it rolls around under my skin. Suddenly he, too, gets engrossed in my bones. “What’s is it?” he asks in an urgent whisper, and I am alarmed by fear I hear in his voice.

Bones. It turns out to be a benign tumor. The kind of bone tumor common in horses’ knees, according to the orthopedic surgeon who eventually removes it. Bones. Who we are deep inside? Strong yet permeable. Small and obtrusive. Innocent, tainted, scared.

What was Dad thinking that day in the church? If I ask him today, will he remember? I am a writer, frantically seeking to capture memories from my 45 years. Who will help me see his gentle strength when Dad is gone?

It’s good to get cracking. There are deposits to unearth.

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