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Transition

Transition

The Monterrey cypress is leafing out for spring. The whole tree is bright, fuzzy green, with leaves sprouting directly out of the branches. In most trees transitions between branches and leaves are more gradual. If you follow the trunk, you find a thick branch, then a thinner one, then one thinner still, until you reach a twig of a size that suggests a leaf is the obvious next step.

Gradual transitions allow us to adjust to the idea that something new is coming down the pike. With advance warning we can prepare ourselves for change, both practically and emotionally. It is easier to meet new circumstances when we are prepared.

When your loved one got a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it was on the one hand a sad and scary day. On the other hand you were relieved to finally have an explanation for memory lapses and other disturbing symptoms that had been around for quite a while. A diagnosis gave you a label for the scary thing that was happening. It was not that your mother was a complete lunatic; she had a disease with a name, a prognosis, a stage, and a trajectory. Her diagnosis gave you some ways to prepare for changes that were likely to take place.

You knew some day she would stop driving, and she drove a little less each month. One day you got a notice from the state that told you it was time for her to come in for a driving test to renew her license, and you realized she had not driven in months. You didn’t renew her license.

Abrupt changes are more startling than gradual ones. Even though your loved one has a prognosis of a decline over time, sometimes change is sudden. Yesterday she lived at your house, and you were anxious about how to help her transition to residential care. Today she lives in an assisted living facility. Yesterday she was alive, and you were wondering how much more of this you could bear. Today she died, and you are planning a funeral.

When big shifts occur, don’t expect yourself to deal with them with the grace of an Olympic figure skater on the ice. You might feel a mix of strong emotions that you didn’t have time to process in advance. You might feel numb. Whatever you are feeling is normal for you. Even if you cope with your circumstances with all the grace and charm of an upside-down beetle, you are doing it just right.

Transitions can be difficult because you are leaving something old and comfortable behind, but they can also be a thing of beauty. There is a small, sacred moment when you leave something behind, pause and a take a breath, and step across a threshold into something new.

Goose

Goose

This, dear reader, is a Canada goose. We don’t get them in our part of Texas, but I was traveling away from the Bossy Spa this week, and this guy swam right up to me in a marina. He hopped on the boat transom, not three feet from where I was standing, and cocked his head inquisitively. I cannot imagine how he got this brave, but I guess people in the marina are supplying him with breakfast.

Wild geese are usually more timid, but this guy had figured out it was worth cruising the marina in hopes of breakfast. Failing that, he could always catch his own breakfast, since the land and sea nearby are plentiful with goose-friendly morsels.

This goose had never seen me before, so he can’t have recognized me as a individual. Instead he was engaging in pattern recognition, a skill common to all intelligent creatures. He identified me as being sufficiently like others who had fed him and not harmed him, that he was willing to risk hopping politely up on the deck beside me.

Pattern recognition is a fantastic shortcut. We don’t have time to figure out every particular circumstance, so we rely on experiences with people or in situations that seem similar. Like this goose we get through lots of life this way. I assume the checkout cashier at the grocery story is safe to approach, rather than making sure she is unarmed, because the grocery cashier fits a familiar pattern that I have previously experienced as safe. We all save a lot of time using pattern recognition, a key factor in intelligence.

This shortcut has its limitations, though. We tune our pattern recognition to our life experiences, and any one person’s experiences are a small and biased sample. If we have been lied to or cheated a lot, we will tend to spot this pattern more often than it actually occurs. We can become cynical and miss opportunities to engage in truthful and nurturing relationships. We develop our expectations based on our past, and our past is necessarily limited.

I point this out because the experience of being a caregiver is an unrelenting pattern. If you are living in the same house with your patient, caregiving thoughts and activities fill your waking moments. The entire world, it seems, is a grind of annoying tasks, repetitive conversations, and stressful interactions.

You might identify a pattern that generalizes to “Life is a terrible, exhausting mess,” and it may often be so right now. Today allow yourself to gently remember that there are other ways of experiencing life other than what is happening right now. One day there will be other joys and sorrows.

Shoot

Shoot

Since the Bossy Spa is in Texas, you might think that a blog post entitled Shoot would be about firearms. Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t know the first thing about firearms and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

This is a plant shoot, a plant shooting up out of the ground. This plant is actually amaryllis and it was a gift from a friend who works at Bulb Mart every year, which I have never attended, but visualize as a giant flea market for bulbs. She gave me a single bulb in a brown paper bag, and said it was from a man who harvests bulbs from old cemeteries around Texas.

The single bulb has propagated many times over the years, even hybridizing with the pink and white amaryllis I got from my parents’ yard to create a deep burgundy one. We will have gorgeous flowers soon, but I cannot resist putting up pictures of the pre-flowers, the inconspicuous bits of nothing that come up from the bare ground in preparation for spring. You can see the dozens of other shoots coming up around this one to form a huge clump.

I like these little shoots because they are loaded with potential, and there is nothing so compelling as the potential for good. Our circumstances too hold the potential for beauty and awfulness. You can’t really know which way things are going to unfold.

What we do know is that once we reach adulthood life unfolds quickly, like it is a race to the end. Before you know it you are married, and it seems not five minutes pass before you are taking care of your wife with Alzheimer’s. Ten minutes after that, she is gone.

There are lots of theories why time seems to speed up as we get older, but whatever the reason the experience is common. Even if you are living a 36-hour day, taking care of a loved one with dementia, as you get older the months and years fly by.

In this moment you are full of potential for something that comes next. Maybe your life is in a holding pattern, but maybe it is emerging from that pattern and it is time to send up a shoot. You might as well risk a little something now. Life if short enough that we will surely be gone before we try out all the things that interest us. As you make your choices today, consider how much time you have left. Use that yardstick to determine what you are willing to risk.

Front

Front

When you look at a weather map, meteorologists draw lines they call “fronts” that are boundaries between two masses of air at different temperatures. Fronts look like distinct lines on a weather map, and sometimes in the big Texas sky we can actually see them pass through.

The colder air usually collects under clear skies, while warmer air gathers under cloudy skies. When a cold front moves through, the front appears to push the clouds out of the way bringing cold air behind the front. I believe this sky picture shows a warm front (though I would welcome a correction from a meteorologist), coming over our front pasture. A warm front in winter works like nature pulling a blanket of clouds over you to tuck you into bed.

Boundaries like fronts are so curious. You might think two air masses would just mix together and settle in at the weighted average temperature of the two original masses. I have a lot of other ideas about what air should be doing, but air is not paying attention to my ideas. It has its own behaviors, and those include forming boundaries between one air mass and another.

In our relationships we might merge together as just one thing. The word “couple” captures that idea, two people who are now one entity. But even in couples a boundary remains between us. Some things only one person experiences. The other person can be having a different experience of the same set of events.

In your caregiving situation you may be a couple, but you are having quite different experiences. Your partner must come to terms with having a condition that erodes his capacity, renders him dependent, and eventually causes his death. That is pretty tough stuff. You must cope with his neediness, his confusion, your exhaustion, and your sorrow in losing him. That is no picnic either.

You might think the compassionate carer would do what she can to remove the boundary and to experience all she can with her partner, but there is no dissolving the boundary. He is the patient and you are the caregiver.

Despite your love for one another the boundary between you is now a protection for you both. Maintaining your separateness helps you not dissolve with sorrow every moment, so you can cope with all the demands of giving care. Your separateness helps you come to terms with the loss you experience daily, and will know more fully when he is gone.

The boundary between you isn’t better or worse than not having one. It is just how it is. If you were the best person in the world, it would still be that way.

This winter day, I wish I could tuck you into bed, and pull a warm blanket up over you. Since we are not together, make sure you tuck yourself lovingly into bed tonight.

Stopped

Stopped

Trade Days, the local flea market, can be a treasure trove. The market is held one weekend a month in a few old turkey barns. Vendors rent booths and sell wares, usually things they make or acquire secondhand. On our most recent visit we found a man selling items he made out of discarded wine barrels. We left with a charming bench and this lovely fountain.

The fountain holds a large volume of water that spills from the top half barrel into another half barrel at the bottom and then pumps back to the top. Recent cold temperatures stopped the fountain mid-spill, forming an icicle from the old pump handle.

Does this ever happen to you? You are flowing along and then you are abruptly stopped in your tracks?

Sometimes your really productive day gets stopped. Sometimes your relaxing day comes to a halt. Some days your patient digs in and causes your world to stop. Before he gets in the car he goes back for a sweater, then knee pads, then a box, then a string to tie the box. He finally decides he doesn’ t need a sweater and brings it back to the house. Only when he takes care of an hour of these rituals are you free to move again.

When things freeze up on you it is tempting to get out an ice pick and chip away the ice, then use a blow dryer to melt the last icy bits. It’s fine to do that if you have the energy. If you don’t, just rest a while. Temperatures will warm up on their own. Things will start flowing again even if you do nothing now.

Today if you are trying to move something forward and it freezes up, let it be. You can take care of it when things start flowing again on their own.

Truck

Truck

Part of the charm of the Texas hill country is what we think makes for an attractive decoration. Our neighbors have this rusting old truck parked by their front gate. At the holidays they string it with twinkling lights, which you can see draped along the truck bed, up over the window, and down the front hood. Every time we pass, it makes me smile.

The truck is old and rusting, and likely not working, or the rancher would put it to work instead of using it for decoration. Still, something about it is worthy of display. It has attractive, graceful lines. The faded paint reflects the soft gold of the sunlight. The blue and rust colors weave across the surface giving the truck the patina of times past, rather than the disgrace of decrepitude.

The dignity of this old truck is boosted by its position of prominence by the front gate. If the rancher were dubious about whether featuring this vehicle was in good taste, he might have parked it behind the barn, where the family could enjoy it, but strangers wouldn’t look askance. Instead he put it right out front, and you can see for yourself how charming it is.

I wonder about the story of this truck, whether it delivered hay bales to sheep 70+ years ago or took children to school who are now senior citizens. Maybe it was the truck of a farrier, who went from ranch to ranch shoeing horses. Maybe its owner paid extra to get fancy whitewall tires or the cover for the truck bed.

One thing is for certain, the story of the truck is written in its body, in the dents and pings and rust. I think one reason I enjoy seeing this vehicle is it gives off the relaxed confidence of someone who embraces their story, rust and all.

A lot of socially impolite things happen when you are giving care to someone, things that you would not share if you were having tea with the Queen. You would not want to say that your wife is waking you up all night long because her dementia has scrambled night and day, and the reason you are so exhausted and incoherent is that you haven’t slept well in months. And furthermore the lack of sleep is probably a factor in your having a nasty cold that you can’t seem to shake, which is why Her Majesty must once again please pardon your use of a handkerchief.

There are a lot of places you can’t say these things, but it is vital that you find a way to say at least some of what is happening. The more of your whole story that you can convey, the less anxiety you have about others finding out that your dad leaves the house and rides the bus without his pants. Telling what is going on is a way of holding shame at bay, and that makes your life easier.

When you embrace your whole story, others will see the dents and pings and rust, but remember we all have dents. This week when you have the urge to put a false smiley face over something that is happening, remember this lovely truck and just tell how it is.