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My Sweet Grandma Alice

My most treasured memories of my childhood involve running errands with my Grandma Alice.  It didn’t matter where we went as long as we were together.  She was my safe place and when I was with her, I felt loved, carefree, and happy.  Being seen and heard at Grandma’s was joyful.  I could totally be myself around her and she loved me for it.  Maybe I was her safe place, too.

Grandma and I would run errands for hours.  There was always a stop at a garage sale.  We’d go to the bank so she could secretly squirrel away money in her wallet and purse.  We spent a good hour at Pic-N-Save or Woolworth’s searching through treasures we didn’t need.  We would drive hours to Long Beach to drop off a check she could have easily mailed.  On the way home, we stopped by Alpha Beta for groceries and after, I watched her fry fish in her old cast iron skillet while she held a warm Pepsi in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  I didn’t even like fish but hers was amazing.

Grandma had such a gentle spirit.  All the stray cats in the neighborhood loved her almost as much as I did.  She wasn’t perfect, but we were perfect together.  I’d like to think the good parts of me are because of her.  She never showed me the part of herself that was broken.

After my sweet Alice passed away, a poem poured out of me.

Kiss Me Goodnight

Grandma, I’m tired

And ready for bed

I’ll snuggle beside you and

You’ll scratch my head

Sweet dreams, I love you

Tuck me in tight

Give me my teddy

And kiss me goodnight

Grandma, I’m tired

And have to head home

Waiting for me are

Girls of my own

I don’t want to leave you

I’d visit all night

Hand me my coat

And kiss me goodnight

Grandma, you’re tired

And ready for bed

Grandpa is waiting

To Heaven, you’re led

Grant me one wish and

I’d hold you so tight

I’d lie down beside you

And kiss you goodnight

With all my heart, I want to jump in Grandma’s car again and disappear for hours.  Now, I cherish every time my daughters run errands with me.  I get to share something special with them.  It probably means more to me than it does to them, but they go anyway and I love every moment.

I miss you every day, my sweet Alice.  Thanks for letting me ride shotgun.

compassion · older adults · personal growth · Uncategorized

Tales from the Nursing Home: Margaret

When Margaret was younger, she wasn’t a striking woman.  She had deep-set eyes trapped behind think-lens glasses, a long, off-centered face, and a bit of an overbite.  She couldn’t stop a man dead in his tracks or even earn a second glance when she walked into the room.  She was a quiet woman with a gentle demeanor who faded into the background.  She had a serious stride that hid any trace of playfulness or grace.  She wore a dab of rouge and a touch of lipstick, never red. 

I did not know Margaret when she was a young girl or even during her mid-life.  She was an 89-year-old woman whose thick chestnut hair turned to white wisps and deep grooves encircled her mouth and spread across her face.  Her legs could no longer support her slender body and she spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair she could slowly propel when she wasn’t overcome with fatigue. 

When I met Margaret, she lived in a world of confusion highlighted by brief moments of clarity that added frustration and loneliness to her life.  Her husband of fifty years suffered a heart attack several years back and they were never blessed with children, although they tried.  Margaret’s friends were long gone, not that she could remember their names.  She would ask me why the Lord hadn’t taken her yet.  She felt she had lived a good, Christian life.  She prayed every night she wouldn’t wake up.  She didn’t view death as something to fear.  She was ready, but had to wait.  It wasn’t her decision.

Margaret would often come to me in tears.  She felt ashamed and embarrassed that she showed such emotion.  As a minister’s wife, Margaret had always been the shelter that protected others from the harsh realities of life.  She had no time to cry for herself when she had to wipe away the tears of others.  She had to push away her own feelings of insecurity and doubt while she smiled sweetly and offered encouraging words of advice.  As a girl, she was told to be strong and never show her weakness with tears.  It wasn’t until dementia began to tighten its grip that she was forced to acknowledge her loss and loneliness.  I sat with her, held her hand, wiped her tears, and spoke softly.  That’s when I realized Margaret and I were alike.

One of my most vivid and touching memories of Margaret was seeing her sitting in the dining room after all the other nursing home residents had left.  In front of her, the memories of her life were scattered across the table revealing the Margaret I had never known.  With every picture she touched, she came alive as memories flooded her mind. 

When I first saw her sitting at the table, I was overcome with sadness.  This wonderful woman had nothing left but a table full of distant memories—her childhood home; her brother carrying her on his shoulders; her wedding day.  The pictures freed her from confusion, if only for a little while.  It was my youth that did not allow me to see that these pictures were Margaret’s shelter. Her smile lit up the room and my heart.

The moments I spent with Margaret validated my life’s purpose.  Like Margaret, I became a shelter to those in need of love and comfort, often pushing away my own need for compassion and understanding.  When I held her hand, we were both comforted.  The soul of a woman in her early twenties was intertwined with that of a woman in her late eighties.  She showed me the treasures hidden behind white hair, wheelchairs, and bewilderment.  To me, Margaret was a beautiful woman.  Her beauty was revealed in her comforting touch and soft voice, her caring spirit and sincerity, her generosity and goodwill.  I can honestly say she was the most beautiful woman I have ever known. 

I was on maternity leave with my first child when Margaret passed away. I didn’t get to hold her hand and say goodbye to her.  I’ve carried her picture with me for twenty-five years.  I look at it every day and it reminds me to be compassionate and comforting to others.  Everyone needs a hand to hold and an encouraging word once in a while.  Margaret knew that better than most—my beautiful, sweet Margaret.

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Empty Nester

 My nest is about to be empty.  One little birdie left little by little—I’ll be home by eleven” turned into midnight that turned into tomorrow that turned into “Can I come home to do my laundry?”  The other little birdie is jumping in one fell swoop—no time to hop when she can soar.  What’s a momma bird to do when her little birdies no longer need her help to fly?  I have to have faith that I did what I could to help my girls fly, or at least how to survive a crash landing. 

My life is changing, ready or not.  For someone who thinks she isn’t a control freak, I am, and I am freaking out.  Empty Nester. My life has passed by so quickly—I couldn’t wait to leave my parent’s nest, build my own, and fill it with birdies.  What’s next?  Mid-life crisis?  One would have to admit they are middle-aged.  Why would I do that when I have a good friend named denial?  Denial and I are very, very close.  She tells me I look as good as I did in my twenties, that my clothing size is still in the single digits, and it’s OK to lie about your weight on your driver’s license.  I love her.  For some reason though, she’s not sugar-coating this.  It’s going to be heartbreaking and painful, but also exciting to see my youngest daughter set out on her own adventure and fulfil one of her life long dreams.

I believe I’ve taught my daughters to be brave, strong, and willing to take a risk for something they truly believe in.  Now it’s time for me to do the same.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.  My mom bought me my first typewriter.  It was old and clunky and I wish still had it.  I don’t think she will ever know how much that act of love meant to me.  It gave me freedom.  It’s time to write, write, write. And if you ask me if I’m writing, and I say no, please firmly, but lovingly ask me to get my shit together.  This empty nester has work to do!

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Tales From the Nursing Home: Ellen

It was always dark in Ellen’s room.  She insisted the curtains remained drawn at all times.  She was one of the few nursing home residents who could afford a private room.  No one knew much about her.  Her room offered no clues about who she was before she moved into the facility—no pictures on the walls, no visitors, no small talk.  The only thing that belonged to her was an over sized, faded blue chair that sat in the corner of her room.  That chair swallowed her tiny, crooked body whole.  A healed tracheotomy left her with a grating whisper of a voice that spoke of people trying to kill her and hide her away.  Her vigilant gray eyes followed every noise and shadow. I tried to pass her room as quickly as possible, but she summoned me with her abrasive voice and long, bony finger each time.

The staff elected me to sit with her the day she lay dying in her dark and uninviting room. I saw death sitting in her blue chair waiting while she labored to breath.  Ellen’s mouth was wide open, her eyes shut.  Her hands had already turned a bluish-gray.  I wrapped my hands around hers—I was her last connection to her lonely, frightening world.  The life in my youthful hands could not save her, only comfort her.  The moment she died, I could feel it.  I was happy for her because she was finally free.

After twenty-five years, I still think about Ellen.  At times, the thought is almost overwhelming.  During a miraculous moment in time, my hands touched both life and death as she passed between worlds.  The soft sound of my voice was the last sound she would ever hear.  The last thing she would ever feel were my hands as I held her.  Ellen was my first.  Since then, I’ve held many hands because no one deserves to die alone. Thank you for that gift, Ellen.

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Grow Old with Me, Even When the Best to Be Isn’t That Great

Image result for pictures of old couples holding hands

I was hired right out of college as a nursing home social worker.  I was 21 and pretty clueless about most things.  I had never worked with older adults—no one close to me had been seriously ill or died, I had never seen what it looked like to survive a stroke, and I had never seen the devastation of someone being consumed by dementia.  My first day on the job, I met sweet Ida.  The next day she died.  It was like that for the next four years.

Working in the nursing home was a crash course in life—I learned more than I ever expected. I learned that no matter how much you want to save people, you can’t, but you can hold their hand, listen, and be kind. I also learned that you can’t change dysfunctional families—things don’t get better when someone moves into a nursing home, it magnifies all the cracks in a relationship. Loveless marriages continue, siblings blame each other, the daughter with poor boundaries who can’t say no continues to say yes even though her heart aches each time.  I also learned that people do the best they can until they can’t do it anymore, and that’s when they need grace and to hear everything is going to be ok, even when you know what’s ahead.

The greatest thing I learned about was the incredible love partners share when one can only visit and the other has to stay.  I was newly married when I started working in the nursing home.  I didn’t know then what I know now after 25 years of marriage—we change, but as long as we embrace and accept those changes together, love never leaves.  I witnessed it day after day—the wife who visited her husband who no longer recognized her face, but recognized her touch; the husband who brushed his wife’s hair while he sang to her; the spouse who came at dawn and left after dusk every day. Till death did them part.  It’s the kind of love I want in my marriage.

I learned more working in the nursing home than I did in college or since.  I earned a master’s degree in compassion and caring about people.  It helped me be a better person.  I will also remember sweet Ida, Joe, Margaret, Elsie, and Agnes.

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Thank You For Being a Friend

goldengirls

When you have cancer, you can’t do it alone.  It’s a long road, so it’s nice to have a few traveling companions.  They help you in ways you never thought you needed.  Sometimes you need to borrow a little of their strength, hope, and time.  Other times, you just need a warm embrace and the promise it will all be OK.  I am fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful family and friends.  They traveled down the road and back again.  I now count Kaiser Permanente as my family.  Below is an essay I wrote for Kaiser Permanente about my experience and the incredible difference they made in my life.

Jenny’s Story

I’ll have a grande caramel macchiato and an appointment with an oncologist, please.  I was in the Starbucks drive-through when I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma – breast cancer, my invitation to a life of pink ribbons and Tamoxifen.  I never once asked why me? I asked why this?  I was so arrogant to think that I would never have breast cancer.  Sure, some sort of chronic illness to add to the others on my list, but not this.
My husband has worked for Kaiser Permanente for 27 years, 19 years in the radiology department.  We never thought that his work life and our personal lives would collide in such a spectacular way.  This wasn’t an afterhours get together with the gang. This was the most vulnerable, frightening moment in our lives and his co-workers did what they do best.  Their jobs.

People say that I inspire them with my story.  I did the easy part.  I followed my treatment plan.  These are the people who inspire me, who literally saved my life:

  • The imaging assistant who repeatedly called to remind me to schedule my mammogram. I did a pretty good job of dodging her calls for quite some time – three years to be exact.  Who really needs a mammogram every year? I feel fine.  Plus, no one in my family has a history of breast cancer.  Turns out, I needed one and so does every woman because it can happen to anyone.  Screening mammograms save lives.
  • The mammography technician who took her time and a few extra shots, knowing that even though it meant one more awkward repositioning, it would be worth it.
  • The ultrasound technician who patiently described every detail of the procedure so I wouldn’t be scared.
  • The radiologist who had to face his co-worker and his wife and say, “I’m very sorry. I’m worried about this.” He and the ultrasound technician worked together seamlessly to remove a part of me for the biopsy.
  • The surgeon who explained all my options. He let me know if I decided to have a mastectomy or a lumpectomy, it was the right decision for me. So, I stood in front of my mirror at home and tried to imagine what it would look like.  No matter what I chose, nothing would ever be the same.
  • The surgical nurse who offered me warm blankets to make me comfortable because she knew what was ahead.
  • The surgeon who expertly removed my lump and a couple of lymph nodes, with an assist from the radiologist.
  • The oncologists who walked me through radiation treatments and Tamoxifen.
  • My husband who waded through uncertainty with me and never left my side.  There will always be a sliver of fear that hides in the back of his mind that his wife will die of breast cancer one day.
  • My daughters who will always have to answer yes when asked if anyone in their family has had breast cancer. “Yes, my mom.  What does that mean for me?”  They will begin having mammograms five years early.
  • My friends who didn’t know what to say or do, but were there anyway with a basket of gifts like it was my birthday. And, perhaps it was because I was reborn stronger and more grateful having survived breast cancer.

Honestly, the most difficult part of having breast cancer was the wait – waiting for the biopsy results, genetic testing, my Oncotype DX score, and whether I would need to endure chemotherapy.  I was lucky.  No chemo, just surgery, radiation, and years of Tamoxifen.  The tests showed a low risk of reoccurrence.  I feel like I won the lottery, but I will always worry.

I’ve been squished, poked, sliced, tattooed, drawn on, photographed, radiated, and burned.  And I am thankful because it was all done to save my life.  I don’t say I’m a breast cancer survivor.  I’m a survivor, period.  It started the moment I was born almost three months early and had to fight for my life.  I survived childhood trauma and crippling depression and anxiety.  And I will survive this, too, with a little help from my Kaiser family.

 

 

 

 

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All Women are Super Heroes in My Book

Image result for wonder woman

I don’t know a lot about super heroes.  I’m a lazy reader, so I watch the movies.  What I do know is that Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and She-Hulk are, in fact, women.  Amazing women saving the universe and our humanity.  Being a woman is hard work, with or without super powers or awesome kick-assery skills.  Do they deal with the same shit all women do?  Before Cat Woman pours herself into her skin-tight outfit, does she stand in front of her full-length mirror, poke at her fat rolls, and wedge herself into Spanx?  I’ve never once seen a female super hero with panty lines.  Going commando would definitely lead to chaffing and that not-so-fresh feeling.  I hope they have a good underwire or sports bra.  Running loosie goosey without good support is painful.  Do they have to deal with boob sweat and chaffing?  When they are done fighting crime for the day, do they take off their bra after walking through the front door and put on yoga pants?

Do they take time out of their busy schedule to have a yearly mammogram and pap smear?  I can only imagine Wonder Woman with her feet in stirrups, staring at the cat poster on the ceiling, and avoiding small talk with her doctor during the exam.  I’m sure she must hear the doctor say, “Just relax. Scoot down further.  Further.  A little further.”  And as she scoots down, the exam table paper sticks to her ass because she’s a little nervous.

Is Gamora told to undress from the top up and have her gown open in the front to get ready for her boob smoosh?  Does she have to deal with the awkward, “I’m just going to position your breast,” as the tech woman-handles her boob just so?  Did she make sure to pluck her rogue nipple hair beforehand?

I can’t imagine that these amazing women don’t have to deal with Aunt Flo each month.  During that time of the month, do they take their purses to battle and slip away to take care of business?  I’m sure they worry about blow-outs and bring a sweater to tie around their waists, just in case.  Do they get pre-menstrual break-outs and chocolate cravings?  Goodness forbid, Superman ask Wonder Woman if she started her period because she’s just a little bitchy.

I can see Batgirl in line at Planned Parenthood picking up her birth control pills.  While she’s there, she gets tested for an STD, has a breast exam and pap smear.  Planned Parenthood is a life saver for a lot of women!

After Wonder Woman leaves the house, does she realize she forgot to shave her legs and is convinced everyone will notice?  She definitely made sure to shave her legs before her pap smear.  I know Wonder Woman has been around a long time.  She must have to deal with plucking chin hairs every single day.

I wonder if Supergirl and Batgirl get pissed off for being called girls?  I’m pissed off for them.  Just ask my husband.  He has to hear my rant every week when we watch Supergirl.  They are WOMEN!

All women are super heroes in my book.  We are just as amazing as Spider-Man, as strong as steel (emotionally, for sure) like Superman, and just as incredible as the Hulk.