“I used to be cool.”

Today, I was following an SUV on I-65 when my eyes were drawn to a bumper sticker that read “I used to be cool.” The message was one of many on the tail end of the vehicle, others referring to kids’ sports teams and school allegiances, political slogans, tourist destinations.

The coolness claim made me laugh. I frequently joke with my girls, now 19 and 16 years of age, that I used to be pretty cool–and maybe still am. Their typical response? “Oh, Mommy. No.”

When I first began teaching college courses, I was just a few years older than my students. Now, I am several decades older than they, sometimes older than their parents. It’s a weird feeling when common points of reference that I once shared with my students can no longer be assumed or when language choices present a divide in how we think about and talk about issues of the day.

As the traffic slowed and I continued staring at the bumper sticker, I started thinking that maybe moms like the one in front of me actually become cooler as they/we age.  After all, with age comes experience and a more complicated perspective on the world.

That’s pretty cool.

 

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Torn

I’m sitting in the Birmingham International Airport waiting for my flight to Chicago. The past ten days have offered a break from caregiving in Illinois, tending to my dad’s needs since he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and handling the logistics of Mom’s stay at the nursing home. Bruce and the girls and I had a great time in B’ham, going to our favorite restaurants, traveling to the river with Helena and my friend Suzanne (whose brother kindly lets us stay at his river house when it’s not otherwise occupied), and cuddling on the couch.

This time was different than my last visit home roughly four weeks ago. I’m no longer sure that I’m making the right choice, being away from my husband and kids for such long periods of time. On the surface, everything seems nicely orchestrated. I’ve taken Family Medical Leave from my job, and I’ll be back to my “real life” come January when the Spring semester gets underway. But that time is looking (and feeling) further and further away. I miss Bruce, Celia and Helena desperately, and seeing them for a week to ten days once a month no longer seems enough.

It’s funny how we’re led to believe that we can make the right choices in life, one at a time. Going with your heart–or gut–doesn’t really work when you’re feeling two conflicting ways at once. I am terribly torn. Dad is very, very sick and his prognosis is uncertain. I’ve become his go-to person for vetting medical advice, ensuring that he isn’t retaining too much fluid or exhibiting signs of trouble that might necessitate a trip to the emergency room.

Simply put, there is no one else who can do what I’m doing. My brother, Joe, is living in a homeless shelter in Colorado Springs, where he is slated to stay until a space opens up at yet another rehab facility in the state. I know this because five voicemail messages awaited me when I went into my office this past week.

“Hi Sis,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that I’m in Colorado to make a fresh start.”

Maybe that’s Joe’s intention at the moment, but I’ve seen his plans fall through again and again since trying drugs for the first time at age 13. I wanted to shout into the phone: “Good luck! Thanks to you, I’m the sole caregiver for Mom and Dad! I don’t give a damn about your ‘fresh start’!”

I know this time will pass. I will, God-willing, have many years to spend with my husband and daughters–to travel, take long walks, share our dreams. But right now, that future seems much too far away. At least 600 miles–the distance that separates Birmingham from my hometown.

 

 

Father’s Day(s)

Today is Father’s Day, and my dad is back in the hospital. I brought him to the ER yesterday morning when his ankles began swelling beyond recognition and his mind became more confused. At the moment, he’s sitting in a hospital bed on the sixth floor, Cardiology, undergoing an infusion that will be repeated every 4-5 days for as long as there’s some benefit, however minute.

I’m crazy about Dad, always have been. He’s got grit. As I’ve written before, Dad knows what he believes in and stands by it. He is a good man, a hardworking farmer, a devout Catholic. He has always acted on his convictions and refused to “go along with the crowd” if their mindset doesn’t gel with those convictions. I have nothing but respect for Dad.

During the past eight weeks, Dad has faced a new challenge: Congestive Heart Failure. His time on earth, and in my life, is coming to a close. I have spent every day with Dad these 55 days, sharing meals, watching Westerns on television, enjoying long chats about his past and the future without him here to counsel me on caring for Mom and managing the farm.

On this Father’s Day, I am reminded that I am extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to call this man my dad. I wish we had many, many more Father’s Days ahead of us.

 

Tips from a cancer survivor and mom

I came across an amazing article in Working Mother from a mom with terminal cancer: http://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/whats-hot/a-note-to-my-fellow-working-moms-as-i-near-the-end-of-my-life/ar-BBzLxej?li=BBnb4R7

Rachel Huff shares the choices she’s made now that her doctors tell her that she is nearing the end of her life. Rather than embarking on a trip across the ocean or retiring early to take it easy, Huff says that she is relishing in the everyday joys of her life. The people she sees and tasks she completes at work. Opportunities to drive her kids to school and activities. Time to sit and sip a cup of tea. A day without debilitating pain.

Huff’s words made me pause and think about all that I have to be thankful for: a beautiful family, a job I love, a place to lay my head at night, and all the little extras that fill my days that I too often take for granted.

 

A special lunch

This morning, my 15-year-old daughter, Helena, and I headed to Grace Episcopal Church in the neighborhood of Woodlawn to serve lunch to people from the area. Woodlawn is one of the poorer parts of Birmingham, and the majority of people who walked through the door were either homeless or living in substandard conditions. Surrounding the church are dilapidated buildings, many like the houses in Edwina’s previous neighborhood. They are the kinds of homes and abandoned buildings that likely provide a bit of shelter at the same time they threaten the lives of those dwelling within. Many are standing in mid-crumble.

My cousin Tim, who grew up just a few miles from me and also lives in Birmingham, had invited Helena and me to join him and others for cooking and serving. His church had committed to help out and he wanted to make sure there were enough hands on deck to feed the 100+ people who showed up.

While I’ve volunteered many times with people in Birmingham who are homeless, the experience was a new one for Helena. During the past several years, Helena and Celia have gotten to know Edwina and have visited Church of the Reconciler where homeless folks from across the city come to worship, get warm (or cool, during the summer months), and fill their empty stomachs. But they’ve not interacted with people in quite the way we did today–greeting people, mostly men, when they walked into the church hall; seating them at tables and serving them restaurant-style; and most importantly, engaging in conversation.

Before the doors opened, Tim reminded all of us volunteering that our job was “not to make ourselves feel good about helping out the less fortunate,” but rather to “make our guests feel welcome and cared about.”

So often, those who live on the streets are made to feel invisible. Unseen. Uncared for. Unimportant. All of the “un’s” imaginable. Today was about making people know that they do matter. They are seen.

Helena benefited from the experience and thought that some of the people she talked with enjoyed themselves. She knows they liked the food. I hope she’ll want to go back again one of these days.

One hope I have for both of my girls is that they will seek out opportunities to see all people as they deserve to be seen.

 

 

 

Charlene

A few weeks ago, my daughter Helena brought home a tiny goldfish from her school’s Relay for Life celebration. The event is a big one at our kids’ school, and everybody turns out to fundraise by selling food, running games, and peddling small items–including, it seems, fish.

Helena walked in the door with her new pet in a plastic bag filled with water, and soon Charlene was swimming around in a tiny bowl. Darting side to side, exploring her surroundings, rising to the surface for a flake of food.

In just a short time, we’d gotten used to seeing Charlene. We’d even begun singing to her–“Charlene, Charlene, Charlene,” to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

A couple of days ago, though, Charlene started to look a tad droopy, and yesterday she passed on to the big pond in the sky. Helena and Bruce laid her to rest in the back garden, and Helena said she was going to miss her friend.

“Hey, can I get another fish?” she asked a few minutes later.

Maybe we can actually name this one Jolene.

Siblings

My oldest daughter, Celia, is a smart kid.

Yesterday, she and I were talking about some upcoming celebrations in our extended family. In April, my cousin Tim’s daughter, Meredith, is getting married, and the girls are very excited about attending.

I told Celia that I’m looking forward to Meredith’s special day, but admitted that I sometimes feel a little bit sad when I’m around families with siblings who share a kind of bond that I don’t have with my only sibling. My cousin Tim, for example, has four siblings. Wherever they are, they remain connected. My relationship with my brother is measured by phone calls with directors of mental institutions, shelters, and correctional facilities.

Celia had a truly amazing response to my comment.

“I don’t think your brothers and sisters have to be related to you by blood,” she told me. “You have sisters like Tanya and Teresa who have always been there for you.”

Celia is absolutely right. Smart kid.