Carolers on Horseback

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Many moments bring on sadness at Christmas time, but carolers on horseback should not be one of them.  Saturday morning twelve or more horses decorated in their Christmas finery—Christmas hats over their ears, garlands wrapped around their reins, ribbons braided into their tails—lined up in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the nursing home.  Behind the windows twenty or more of the residents sat in their wheelchairs to watch and listen.  Some wore Santa hats, some held on to rings of jingle bells, and some just held in their hands songbooks they couldn’t read or understand.  My mother was one of them.  She sat locked into her angry delusions, quiet and unmoving.  One resident cried softly.  Another slept in her chair the entire time.  Others stared out at the horses.  A few sang along with the singer outside the windows who was accompanied by the pianist inside.

The event was the same as the previous year except for more horses participating and the freezing  eight degree weather.  But it was not the same for my mother or for me.  The carols made me cry. The array of wheelchairs made me sad as I imagined the kinds of lives once lived by their occupants.  My loving, generous mother who baked cookies and breads for Christmas, who knitted and crocheted blankets for the needy, who laughed and played the organ, and shopped with me for gifts, was gone, replaced by someone I don’t really know any more, someone capable of unspeakably hurtful accusations that cut to the center of my heart and remain there for days.

As I get older, I find myself reminiscing often about the Christmases of my past—both my childhood and young adulthood when my daughters were small and magic existed.  Gifts were simple, often handmade.  There was cocoa and cookies and carols.  The family gathered at my grandparents’ house where we sat in the living room in a circle and laughed at our crazy gifts.  One year my sister crocheted Rudolph noses for all of us.  We put them on and wore them through gift giving and the light supper of sandwiches and salads my grandmother made.  Another year my sister crocheted Santa hats and wrote funny nicknames on them with glitter glue.  We all wore them, my grandfather dancing around the room while we all laughed.  My grandparents are gone.  My father is gone.  My sister is gone.  The noses and hats are tucked in between tissue paper in a box of ornaments I can’t bear to look at.

This Christmas for the first time in over forty years, my husband and I will be alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  We will go to church Christmas Eve and visit my mother.  On Christmas Day we will take her some gifts and then go out to dinner without her.  I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I know how lucky I really am to have her and my daughters and granddaughters.  So many people have lost loved ones this past year.  There has been so much tragedy and violence that it is more essential than ever to find joy in some way during the holidays.  Otherwise, grief would win out over happiness.

My youngest daughter was sad recently, remembering those Christmases when we were all together doing crazy things.  Her task now is to create her own joyous times with her children so they have those same happy memories.  I was lucky to have her, her husband, and my granddaughters with me on Thanksgiving.  My oldest daughter, now living in Arizona, will visit this coming weekend, but she too will be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone.  Still, I put up the tree and decorated it.  I am baking cookies and Christmas breads using my mother’s recipes.  And I will find a way to feel some sense of peace this year.

During those quiet, dark moments in the night when sleep refuses to come, I try to replace that image of the carolers on horseback singing to nursing home residents with dementia, my mother among them, with those Christmas Eves in my grandparents’ living room when my sister handed out the Rudolph noses or the Santa hats and we laughed together, and Christmas was still magical for both the young and the old.

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What if Thanksgiving makes me grumpy?

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 I know there is much to be thankful for.  We are constantly urged to focus on giving thanks this month (in spite of the stores filled all too early with Christmas decorations and sparkly trees).  But after a few months of mixed blessings, how does a normally negative, depressed person find joy in November?

 Autumn was beautiful this year, as always, with some warm temperatures adding to it all.  Cloud formations against muted blues, brilliant orange and yellow leaves cascading to the ground, sun glinting off the colors—what’s not to be grateful for?

 Well, in spite of it all, negativity can creep its little feet into the joy.

 In September we had to put my beloved Aussie to sleep.  Autumn walks in the park crunching on leaves, checking out the waterfall and the creek with Murphy by my side ended with unbearable grief.  October should be a good month for me, especially this year, my tenth as a breast cancer survivor.  At the five year mark, my family bought me a laptop.  Five years was a milestone for me, but so elusive for my sister.  On October 30 ten years ago, I had my surgery.  On October 31, I came home to spend Halloween with both my daughters, a rare event since they are never together anymore for various reasons.  This year we had only a few trick-or-treaters, leaving us with bags of our favorite candy.  Okay, there is something to be grateful for, to say nothing of a ten-year survival of breast cancer.  I didn’t do any charitable walks this year like I usually do.  October brought other issues for me.  My quiet appreciation for surviving ten years was overshadowed by an attack of shingles, bringing a new meaning to my understanding of pain.   I know.  There is a preventive shot for that.  I planned to get it at my yearly exam.  Oops, too late!

 There have been times in the past when I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10.  How silly was I not to know what a 10 really is!  I do now.  Weeks of excruciating pain, rash, itch, blisters on my right arm and total loss of feeling in my right hand made me aware of what real pain is.  Unfortunately, four doctors missed the diagnosis, even though I was sure it was shingles.  When my doctor finally acknowledged it, it was a little late for the anti-viral to really work.  So I may be left with months or more of arm pain and hand numbness.

 So now I really do feel a little ungrateful about life.   I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year.  I will have my youngest daughter and her husband and my two granddaughters here from Los Angeles, along with my daughter’s in-laws and possibly my niece and her family.  My oldest daughter will be alone in Phoenix, working that day.  I will spend part of the day with my mother in the nursing home, a mother coping with increasing problems with dementia and delusions.  I am thankful I still have her, but her quality of life is diminishing every week.

 So now November is here with its chill and occasional flurries and an early onslaught of holiday stress.  I am sometimes annoyed by the chirpiness of happy people.  I never know if they are real or not.  Are they just pretending to be happy?  What is the point of that?  Do they make those little trees out of branches for the dining room table on Thanksgiving?  Do they cut out little construction paper leaves for everyone to write down what they are thankful for and then do they attach them to the tree so while eating turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes everyone can look up now and then and feel so grateful for it all?

 I could be one of those, I guess.  I could make that tree and those leaves and revel in gratitude because I do know somewhere deep in my heart I have a lot to be grateful for.  But whiner and complainer that I am, I am annoyed by the arm pain and the inability to use a pair of scissors to continue to make my cards for cancer patients.  I am left-handed, but wouldn’t you know, when you are little and learning to do things, teachers think you can use scissors like a right-handed person.  It wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered there are actually left-handed scissors!  I could have learned to use them when I was a child and I could now be cutting paper and shapes for my cards.

 There are some perks to my numb hand.  My husband does a little more for me.  A little.  I worry that I won’t be able to create that mythical Thanksgiving meal where the food tastes good and the gravy isn’t lumpy and the cranberry sauce doesn’t jiggle on the plate and the pumpkin pie isn’t too brown or too runny.  In some other world, my Thanksgiving could be great if someone other than a true pessimist and grump wasn’t in charge of it.

 As I look out my window this morning, the sun is shining on the golden leaves of the tree across the street, and leaves are gracefully fluttering to the ground.  My sister will not be here with me this Thanksgiving, as she has not been for the last eight years.  She would be loving the colorful trees, happy to experience another Thanksgiving, able to overlook anything burned or curdled or tasteless, and just love being with family.  Okay, I say to myself.  Stop the wallowing in pity.  Hug your grandchildren. Enjoy the smells filling the house.  Embrace the chaos.  And even though my ten-year-survival date passed everyone else by, reach into my heart and be grateful for life, even if there is pain, even if there is loneliness, even if there is fatigue and stress and anxiety over the coming holidays, and take a moment to let all the good stuff in because there will always be good stuff and it will always be stronger than anything negative in life.

Image by Philip Martin

In Memory of Murphy

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I  spent the summer of l998 looking for a puppy.  As a teacher, I had weeks to find one before school started.  I wanted to have some time to train him before I had to leave him alone part of the day.

 A few years before this, my small, adorable, black Llasa-Poo named Mandy had died of a heart condition.  She wasn’t very old, but we were somewhat prepared having treated her for problems with a heart murmur and then seizures.  After she died, I missed many things about her.  She always greeted me with barking and ecstatic jumping.  She curled up on my lap and slept on my feet.  She was cuddly and sweet and well-behaved and I loved her.

 After she was gone, I couldn’t stand coming home to silence.  I waited a few years and then began my hunt for a puppy.  I wanted a “dog dog” this time, a bigger dog, female.  Weeks went by and no dog was right.  I didn’t feel a connection.  I looked for a rescue dog, but there weren’t as many options then as there are now.  In August, I was getting a little panicky when one day I found an ad in the paper for Australian Shepherd puppies.  They were on a farm about an hour away.  I did some research and talked to my vet about getting one.  She discouraged me, saying Aussies are working dogs and unless we had some sheep in our backyard, we would be asking for trouble.  The dog would try to round up children and boss us around all day.  I decided to go have a look anyway.

 From the first moment I saw them, I was hooked.  Six puppies running around the barn, fluffy, soft, energetic, adorable.  I chose a female and the owner told me to come back in two weeks to get her.  I couldn’t wait.  The day arrived and I headed north to the farm.  Just as I was about to reach for the little female I had chosen, the woman who ran the farm accidentally stepped on the foot of one of the puppies.  A loud yelp filled the barn, and the puppy ran back into the corner, whimpering and shaking.  The owner laughed.

 “Well, she said, “these puppies need to grow up to be herding dogs.  We have horses and cows and sheep so they need to work.  I know you don’t have a farm, and I think that little one I just stepped on might be perfect for you.  He will not be a good working dog because he’s too shy.”

 He?  Oh, no, I thought.  What about my little girl?  Then I looked into the eyes of the one in the corner.  They melted my heart.  I went over and picked him up.  He snuggled against me and that did it.  The owner gave me a discount on him because she didn’t think anyone needing a herding dog would take him.  I didn’t need a discount.  I carried him to the car and he became my loyal friend for fifteen years.

 We signed him up for puppy training classes.  The first few times he cowered under a chair, but he soon moved out into the room with the other puppies.  He was super smart and picked up all the signals right away.  Soon he could sit, stay, come, and heel with no problem at all. Then we enrolled him in agility training classes and he made even more progress.  He was a little leery of climbing up the ramp and across the board, but soon he was one of the fastest dogs there.  He loved the hurdles most of all.

 At home he became a whiz with a Frisbee and a tennis ball, spending hours with us in the back yard running and playing.  When he was tired, he quit and ran to the door to be let in the house.  He followed me everywhere, herded me to bed at night, and made sure as a family we were always together in the same room.  He seldom barked unless the doorbell rang.  He was gentle and friendly and loving and loyal and occupied a large piece of my heart every day.

 He began to fail a few years ago.  His walks in the park got shorter.  He tired easily.  He played only a little with the Frisbee before he quit.  He had his favorite toys, especially a huge stuffed bone, his “big boney” that he carried around to greet us when we arrived home and then struggled with to climb the stairs at night.  At first he slept on the bed, but as the years passed, he couldn’t climb as well and settled for the floor next to me.  He was afraid of storms and used to hide under the bed.  When he began to have trouble getting under it, we put the bed on blocks for him.  Recently, he climbed partially under every night, seeming to need the security of it.  His eating became less.  While he had been on a special allergy diet for years, now we had to make him food.  We cooked turkey and added in rice and vegetables.  Sometimes he ate it.  Sometimes he didn’t.  His favorite snack used to be cheese, but it began to make him sick.  He vomited more often.  The vet said he was in good shape for his age.  She ran tests periodically, but nothing seemed wrong.

 A few days ago he stopped eating, although he still seemed to want a little of what we ate or some cheese.  He often threw it up, but we were desperate to get him to eat.  He no longer wanted long walks, and the Sunday walks in the park ended.  His breathing changed a little, more labored, but still the vet couldn’t find anything wrong except his age.  Yesterday afternoon he followed me as usual to my computer, lying down on the entry way rug like he always did.  Suddenly, he got up, seemed disoriented, staggered, couldn’t stand up anymore and flopped onto the floor.  He was hardly breathing.  We rushed him to the animal hospital where the vet told us he had fluid around his heart, blood, most likely from a tumor.  He probably had cancer somewhere else that had metastasized to his heart.  There was nothing they could do to help him survive.  He could not lift himself up off the gurney.  The vet said he would not be able to stand up again.  His blood pressure was very low and his heartbeat was slow.  We made the difficult decision we always feared we might have to make someday.

 What haunts me is the way he looked at me at the end.  His eyes were still clear and loving.  He needed me and trusted me.  But I knew his life was over.  His breathing became more labored.  I kissed him good-by and left the room, leaving my husband to be with him at the end.

 Anyone who gets a pet knows the risks of that final moment, the way our hearts will break when we lose a loyal and loving companion.  Murphy was a part of me, always with me in the house wherever I went.  He herded me up to bed earlier and earlier lately but I didn’t mind.  We settled in together to go to sleep.

 This morning the remnants of his life linger in the house.  We are gradually removing them.  I threw away the old pair of slippers I kept around just for him.  Every morning before we went downstairs, he would get one, throw it up in air, and chase it, even this past week when the end was near.  I took down the sign on the front of the house, the one that said “A spoiled Australian Shepherd lives here.”  We threw out his bedding and his toys, everything except his “big boney.”  We kept his collar and leash.  I don’t really know why.

 I wish I could hold him once more, feel the softness of his fur, and look into those loving eyes.  I don’t know where he is. I have the same questions I had when my father and my sister died.  Where are they all?  How can I go on without them?  I’ve heard that broken hearts are supposed to mend.  I don’t think that is true.  Right now my heart is full of loss and a grief too great to bear.

To my sweet Murphy wherever you are:  I hope you are chasing a Frisbee in a backyard somewhere, running free and strong and loving your new home.  I miss you and will love you forever.

August Birthdays in the Nursing Home

The air has changed, and the light.  A  softness has settled around the edges of the trees, the striking colors of summer gardens now muted, and a thin veil covers the brilliance of the summer heat.  I’ve driven this road nearly daily for two years now but always with sadness.  Today as summer draws to an end, the sadness is heavier.

It’s the day the nursing home is celebrating the birthdays of the residents born in August, three this time.  DJ Sal will play his music, there will be cake and singing, and a kind of simple joy in the room.

My mother has turned 91.  I hardly know who she is any more.  When we first enter the dining room for the party, I sit at the table across from her, but then the activity director brings her birthday balloon from her room and ties it to the back of her chair.  Then she moves her to the center of the room where she sits next to a woman who is fairly new to the nursing home and “the doc”, a well-known area surgeon who has Alzheimer’s and is nearly always happy.  His wife sits next to him and holds his hand at times, and his son and his wife come later.  The doc’s wife has brought in cake for everyone.  All three celebrating a birthday are lined up together in their wheelchairs, the balloons bobbing from the backs of their chairs.

Now I am sitting at the table alone.  After every few songs, my mother looks over at me to see if I’m still there.  I can’t leave, even if I want to.  It’s the way she looks at me, the innocence, the face that seems the same to me but hides a mind I cannot understand.  The activity assistant loves to dance, and so she goes around holding on to the hands of the birthday celebrants, singing to them as they laugh and move with her.

Then Sal puts on the birthday song and everyone begins to sing.  I don’t know why, but I am suddenly sobbing.  Not just tearing up.  Not just feeling a little sad amid the happiness.  My chest hurts.  I turn away from everyone in the dining room and end up facing the window in the hall where the nurses and aides are watching the entertainment.  My sadness is not something I can hide.

Why can’t I be happy?  Why can’t I just be grateful that I have had my mother for one more year?  Maybe it’s because for me there is always a sadness that lingers beneath the surface of happy.  Maybe it’s because the mother who was so active and giving, who baked and cooked and sewed and knit for others, who made gifts every year for us, who made chicken soup for my sister and for me when we were fighting cancer, who took care of the residents in the senior apartments where she lived alone after my father died, this mother whose heart was huge and love was strong, is slowly slipping away from me.   Her life has narrowed.  Her knowledge is less.   Sometimes she knows who she used to be and is sad, realizing that person is gone, and I know that soon her loss will be unremembered.

Seeing all the residents together in the dining room depresses me.  The configuration of wheel chairs hits me in the gut, the losses so great they permeate the air and settle down around me.  Sometimes I feel a little panicky, wondering when the day will come when I will be like them, hair thin and kinky, dressed in sweat pants and knit shirt, slumped over and half asleep, listening to someone try to lighten my mood with love songs from the fifties and sixties.  What kind of lives did these men and women once have, I wonder.  Each one’s life is now a secret that can’t be shared, their dignity a frail filament barely holding them together, today’s events not even tomorrow’s memory.

 As Sal plays and sings, I wonder what my mother is thinking.  I wonder if she is remembering hearing these songs before.  I wonder if she is thinking about my father.  I wonder if she is remembering any moments from the past.  Or is she just living in this moment, listening to the music, eating her cake, and checking to see if I am still with her?

I wish I could feel joy in this day.  I miss my father and my sister, who lost their lives to cancer.  I miss my youngest daughter in LA, and my granddaughters whom I see all too seldom.  And I miss my oldest daughter, who we just helped move to Arizona, a place she has dreamed of going back to ever since her college and graduate school days in Prescott.  It’s easy to understand why I miss them all, but I don’t know how I can miss my mother when I am sitting in the same room with her watching her laugh and eat cake and enjoy the music.

When DJ Sal packs up to leave, I cross the room to my mother.  She asks me if I am leaving and I say yes.  She tells me to drive carefully.  I reach down and kiss her gently on the top of her head, lingering just a little longer than usual as I feel the tears begin again.  Then I give her a little wave and walk out into the warmth of the late August day, a day that seems to know already about the days that will soon follow.

Renascence

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The sky is heavy with dark clouds this morning,
silently moving toward the east.
Beneath the darkest one, brilliant rays of light splay downward,
illuminating the earth,
illuminating the sad ones, the lonely, the grieving
who can’t find their way through the darkness.

Something spiritual stirs within,
and like a cooling rain on a sweltering summer day,
comfort washes over the earth.

I have searched for you everywhere,
endless, painful grieving moving through each day,
and then this morning
through the darkened clouds,
light comes,
and you are there.

© Barbara Flass 2013

Photo credit:  http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=31125&picture=sunshine-and-sun-rays

Away is a Place

“”Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you…while cares will drop off like autumn leaves….” —John Muir

Away is a Place

Away is a place I am longing to go.
It does not matter where.
Maybe the sun will shine all day
or rain might cloud the air.

There might be ocean waves to soundocean-sunrise_19-135786
a roar upon the shore,
or red rocks rising up to blue
creating memories to store.

Within a restless, rampant mind
that traps such fear inside,
along with loneliness and doubt,
there’d be nothing to decide.

No illness to watch, no end that’s near,grand-canyon-sedona-courtesy
no loss or grief or pain,
just blazing sun and spirit rocks
and the rhythm of the rain.

Away is where I need to go,
away from all I see,
and maybe there I’d find at last
the one who could be me.

Barbara Flass
January 6, 2013

Photo credits:  Sedona Chamber of Commerce,  stockvault

“I don’t want to see you ever again.”

“I don’t want to see you ever again.”

This week my mother, who is suffering from dementia and now living in a nursing home, accused me of lying and told me she did not ever want to see me again.  Every day I do research and scan the internet for help and advice and comfort from others facing this same sadness in their lives.  I have learned a lot, but I haven’t escaped the pain of watching a woman who once was so creative, sewing and knitting and cooking and baking, deteriorate into someone who cannot use a phone or turn on the television or find the call button to call for help when she needs it.

She is someone who now suffers from delusions, thinking her very lovely roommate is conspiring against her.  She thinks the staff is against her, laughing at her, and scheming to get her into trouble.  She is sick to her stomach and can’t eat or sleep.  She is afraid one of the male residents will come into her room and rape her and she tries to find a way to lock her door.  When darkness falls, the fears take over and she cries for hours.  I am consumed by my own fear and sadness and panic at what to do to hold on to the mother I love with all my heart, the mother who took care of my sister and me as we struggled with breast cancer, never for a moment indicating to us the extent of her own fatigue and sadness.

I hate this disease. It’s taken a place alongside the cancer that took my father’s life and the breast cancer that took my sister’s life.  It will soon take away my mother’s also.  I try to hold on to hope and search for comfort during the holiday season.  This is the first Thanksgiving I won’t share dinner with either of my daughters or host a family dinner at my house.  I will go to the nursing home and sit beside my mother (who has since apologized and told me she didn’t mean what she said) while she eats a Thanksgiving dinner she doesn’t really want.  I will tell her I love her, kiss the top of her head like I always do, and return home wondering how to reconfigure the holiday season to this new normal.  I have a lot to be grateful for because I do still have family, my husband, mother, daughters and granddaughters, and I have a house with everything I need.  I won’t go hungry or be cold during the holiday season.  I will just be sad.