About Monday Holidays

(My thoughts today are with the wonderful ladies of the American Widow Project, who connect today's generation of military widows with open hearts and shared memories. They inspire me -- but today's post is from experiences that reel in my own heart today, because Memorial Day is right in the middle of my own anniversary season.)

During the two years that I was a single mother, Monday holidays were the worst torture I could imagine. It wasn’t that we had any traditions for those days, and losing Gavin disrupted a beloved custom; with Gavin self-employed, days off were never a particularly festive occasion: he’d go off into the studio on some of them anyway. And with a new baby, we were waiting to create new ways to spend special days off.

Gavin’s diagnosis meant that our first Christmas as parents, our first Thanksgiving, first Easter, Memorial Day and all the miscellaneous Mondays were also spent with a terminal diagnosis. Yes, we enjoyed our state of hopefulness, but in some sense we must have known this wasn’t the first of twenty Christmasses as a family. His advanced age meant that, semi-consciously, I didn’t assume our family traditions would be permanent in any sense.

In my general state of anger at him for being ill, I often wanted to say, “if you’re so sure you’ll live another 20 years, why don’t you fucking floss?”

But Mondays without him. The curve of the weekend as a grieving, lone parent was deadly: It was hard for me to say which was worse, late afternoon on a napless Saturday, just a few hours of daylight left, the depth of the pit, or the same state on Sunday, looking desperately forward to the relief of work and daycare come Monday. Many a working mom finds a haven in work, not just in time with grown ups, but in constructive occupation and adult expectations and words. But for me, desperate, inexperienced, with a TODDLER of all things, coming to work on Mondays looked like a ray of rainbow shining upward from a unicorn eating a dozen donuts. Beautiful, blessed, and sweet.

But Monday holidays were hell. It was hard enough for me to use a calendar and plan playdates – and understand how as a parent you have to break up the day to survive – but with all the people out of town, it seemed we were always alone. What I would have given for a tool like Foursquare. Instead, I sent blanket emails to a half-dozen moms hoping someone was free and could hang out. It usually didn’t happen; everyone else had car trips to see cousins, or grandparents visiting for the long weekend.

We were rarely invited anywhere for those Mondays. On the few occasions we were asked out, we always went, unless we were already in hives from the stress of the weekend and leaking adrenaline so visibly that I knew we couldn’t pass for company.

And there’s no way to feel more left out than to be alone on a Monday, drained from two days already alone with your kid, with no one around or reachable or interested. Those Mondays were when I felt most alone and the solution was so simple, but I just couldn’t get there.

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Why I write an anonymous blog

It was a no-brainer, when I started this blog, to use a pseudonym. I was a single mother with a young child, living alone. I was angry, and expected that I could use the forum to say nasty things about everyone in my life: my dysfunctional family, Gavin's family, my nemeses in the neighborhood association, local politicians, George Bush, my lawyers, and even my friends. It’s not that I hold my punches in person, but I know myself well enough – and as a Mom, I’m prudent – to know I’d have more fun with a mask on. It would be prudent to shield my real life friends and associates from my deepest everythings.

Perhaps it would have been more mature to simply respect about my friends' feelings, or solve problems offline before blogging about them. I am -- demonstrably -- more capable, better with people, than I thought that dark night as I opened my Blogger account. But why take the chance and lose what seemed like the last shreds of the world that cared for me?

At 40, I accept that I have a chronic problem with honesty, I’m direct to the point of bluntness sometimes, with tendencies toward oversharing and occasional exhibitionism. Also, I was volunteering for an advocacy organization while working for a company that prohibited employees from lobbying: it made sense to keep two different worlds separate.

If you want to be really honest online, it helps to lie about who you are. At BlogHer09, I heard a particularly ugly testimony from a woman whose husband encouraged her to write a blog, and then used what she wrote there as evidence against her having custody a few years later, when they ended up in divorce court.

My stage of life dictated staying quiet, too. I was planning to date and talk about reentering the world of single people at 40, with a kid and a loss and my usual attitude. What if someone found my account of a date and changed their mind about how it went? Would it be better to lie to them about having a blog at all?

As it turned out, I have never really been mean here – there’s been more than enough else to talk about. I got remarried, and don’t feel as vulnerable any more. And when I was dating, I didn’t have any excess energy to write about the experience. If I had a bad date, I had to go home, grab a beer, and start window-shopping on Match.com right away; if I had a good date… well, I’d be too busy to write. I wrote those dates up two years later and I doubt most of those guys would even recognize themselves.

Being a widow is about not fitting in any more, and even though I wasn’t probably ever in real harmony, anywhere, it was still convenient to be Dr. Jekyll in public and morph into Mr. Hyde after dark, or online, or in another universe.

Anyway, having a little secret and then not keeping it very secret was a terrific way to act out my passive-aggression. I loved being able to tell people in social settings, “Oh yeah – I have an anonymous blog.” (Poor suckers didn’t know whether or not to ask how to find it.) If I was feeling punchy, I’d let them walk away wondering which big deal on the Internet was me. If I was feeling polite, I’d follow up with, “Sure, I could give you the URL – but I’d have to kill your partner first. Ha, ha. No, seriously, I only write about death and dying so you probably wouldn’t like it.”

Being anonymous is more provocative on Facebook, where I often friend my readers, who mostly use the channel for their real-life friends.

But this fake identity was growing to become the one that was making an impact on the world. The Fresh Widow was helping people, generating her own ideas, and building up a little community. To do anything in the real world, I needed the credibility and connections I’d built up online. As this avocation turned into a hobby and then something like a professional pursuit – as I was accepted to speak at a national conference – I am at the stage now where, slowly, I am “coming out” and connecting this persona to my real name.

There’s still one reason I’m holding out, a little: I have this awesome story about my boss’s vagina. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to be Googleable until after that story gets told and fades.

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One widow’s mother-in-law story, part 3


Caring for my mother-in-law for two years really was the straw that nearly broke my back. For one thing, my brain wasn’t working very well. You’ve heard of “Mommy brain?” There’s a particular kind of mental disorganization that intrinsically affects those tending to the needs of toddlers, not even counting postpartum hormonal changes, not counting the depletion as you nurse out your last drop to a dependent. The fog – the limitation of one’s mental upside -- is similar to the abilities of someone in the darkest time of grief.

Which means that I was operating at a triple handicap. When Gavin was alive I used to joke that “fighting cancer is hard enough, but just try it with the g*damn Barney song stuck in your head all day!” Now that my daughter was older, it was the music from the Backyardigans, each composition just different enough that they all blended together (Damn you, Evan Lurie! You’re too good! Why couldn’t the Lounge Lizards soldier on for 30 years and let the damn Rolling Stones write UNcatchy songs for cartoons?).

All I needed to turn into a complete dud was to be around someone with dementia, who not only never knew the day of the week, but forgot what calendars are for. Audrey had ceased to understand clocks and the natural changes during the day and between seasons.

Mommy brain + widow brain + Backyardigans music + grandma’s dementia = a brilliant woman who can barely read the Garnet Hill catalog and burns the frozen pizza.

I said the same thing over and over again: perhaps it’s an unhealthy focus for me at this point, with so much else on my plate. But it was my duty not to drop Audrey. My DOODY. And Gavin would want me to take care of her. He’d die – again – if he knew how poorly she was doing.

And again I’m saying the same thing, over and over, because grief is like that. Falling. Broken. Dropped. Words that described everything about us at that time in what we still knew was the bright treasure known as life. I spent every ounce trying to not fall too deep, knowing I was broken, but eating and sleeping and waking and doing laundry every day.

See? It almost sounds like a good situation for someone with dementia: a continual present with a Mommy nearby. Not hers, but still.

The most distressing part, for me, of being anywhere near Audrey was her lack of connection with her body. She called several times a day complaining of stomach pain, and headaches, and a “sicky” feeling. She sounded like some kind of oracle, always foreboding, avoiding responsibility because she forgot there was aspirin in the world and neglected to eat and drink. I’d bring her toast and tea but roll my eyes in the kitchen. I wanted to hit her.

Yes, I blamed Gavin for falling (that word again) down on his responsibility to her. On the other hand, what could he have done? With her son dying and cognitive impairment, would she have said, "you're right! I DO have to give up driving and move into a home!"?

One of my turning points was reading a discussion online about Alzheimer’s caregivers that stated, “Lack of insight into one’s own health is a hallmark of dementia.” Lack of insight into one’s own health is a hallmark of dementia – I loved it! I pinned the phrase up on my board at work, alongside the embarrassing typos of other editors, and laughed every day. And I was able to start really accepting that her problems were biological in nature, nothing to do with me or us and nothing that I could help.

(to be continued)

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One widow’s mother-in-law story, part 2

(... continued)

All, every, only: this is the extreme language of my mother-in-law story. It was a period of absolutes everywhere and most of the time, we were alone. Why does everyone abandon grieving people? Why are you afraid? Don’t answer that, I know why, it just hurts like hell to be abandoned by people who you know are perfectly healthy, across town, and have a choice. That's alone.

Compared to my mother-in-law, at least I had a job to get out to. On the other hand, I knew what was going on. There were days that Audrey was obviously disoriented, even before I intervened in her care, straightened out her medications and hired a care manager for her on the sly, on my own dime. Before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the first of two long-term living arrangements, two hospital stays and a rehab facility.

I knew her thyroid was off. There was a day in April, two months before the end, when she was acting really crazy, talking to a stuffed animal about some red dress of mine. Short Stack knew something was up and wouldn’t play with her alone. I asked Gavin to speak to her and ended up accompanying her to her doctor. She wasn’t taking her thyroid medication correctly. We tried to straighten it out.

I don’t know if Gavin ever spoke to her about needing more help or brought up any topics that threatened her independence. She’d been so realistic about it in the past few years, but plans had dissolved as he became ill. She did have an episode, shortly after moving near us, of near-kidney failure due to some error with her prescriptions. After the thyroid incident, of course, that fit together: she was doubling up on some and omitting others randomly, accidentally playing pillbox Russian roulette.

And the visible signs of her decline started to accelerate as his condition worsened. She crashed her car the day before he died; we tried to pretend none of us noticed the cut on her nose but he was too out of it to ask about it anyway. The day after he died I went to her apartment briefly to help her open a stubborn bedroom window and ended up checking her fridge. A pot of special diet cabbage soup on the bottom shelf was full of gray-yellow mass, brimming over with spores. At least we found out that her garbage disposal, newfangled and misunderstood as it was, did work.

Without Gavin around, her cover-ups were removed: she had very little mental capacity left. She didn’t seem to understand how to take her dozen or so medications and insisted to me that if she was someone who needed medicine, she wouldn’t be out walking around.

You can say that I pounced on her in my grief, but she had been losing weight over the past two years. I’d left her largely alone until the thyroid incident because I was overwhelmed, but I knew her history better than she did.

But of course she was hostile to my suggestions that she fill and take her prescriptions.

So Gavin was dead, I was a wreck, and she had no car. To my credit (with her) and my detriment (in terms of good judgment and responsibility to the world) I loaned her my Corolla, the same make and model as hers. It was clear to me she couldn’t have handled any vehicle with differently laid-out controls. It was not clear to me that she should have just been off the road altogether.

Finally some friends talked me into taking my car back from her. She was, after all, most likely to run over my child in my driveway. I had a friend who’d lost a child the same age this way.

Audrey continued to walk over to our house every night for dinner in our grey silence, to enjoy the blessed child, but she was getting weaker and weaker. She’d complain her stomach hurt and then not remember if she’d eaten anything. A block was a long way for her to walk, and her bones were showing through her skin where she’d been round and saggy just a few years before. Conspiring with her doctor, I hired a private care nurse to check in on her once in a while, under the guise of weighing her. She’d refill the prescriptions and check the pillboxes each visit and provide her good ears.

I don’t know why I didn’t understand how dire her situation was during this period. There was nearly a year when the nurse would stop by and update me, but the word “Alzheimer’s” was never mentioned. And every cognitive test, Audrey could fool: she’d do fine and even joke with medical providers, familiar or new. Maybe the nurse was protecting me, maybe she thought the decline would be slower, maybe I just couldn’t hear, again. Maybe I was burned out on caregiving and medical situations overall.

It was clear to me that caregiving an elder, even with no acute medical threats, was different from caring for a young cancer patient (even a “December” spouse) who might, even with a miracle, be cured: Gavin wanted so badly to live. Audrey didn’t even understand that she was old.

Once as I tried to convince her (O rationality! How futile thou art!) that she would benefit from a little help she told me that she was perfectly healthy. She had no idea what all those medicines in her pillboxes were for but she was sure she didn’t need them. In astonishment I tried to echo to her: “So, are you asserting that generally, as someone gets older, they tend to get stronger and healthier?” “Yes!” she asserted with a confident nod.

It was a different world and I just wanted OUT of it, but I felt, absent my husband, that I was responsible for her. I didn’t know how I could do it, but I did know that if I failed, I’d feel a hit I couldn’t manage along with everything else.

(to be continued)

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One widow's mother-in-law story, part 1



Our stories are intertwined, hers and mine, in life, in love and in grief. We even share an old-lady name: her first name, Audrey, is my middle name. An only child, an Irish son, Gavin lived with her into his forties, and then I stole him, made his home mine, ate his cooking, bore his child. He was all she ever had, more than she wanted or expected, I think, until Short Stack came along, and you know what they say about grandkids.

She is a big part of my story of loss, my mother-in-law, because when Gavin died, we were all she had left. She had no family, he had no siblings, the only cousins a good ten-hour drive away and preoccupied with their own rapid changes.

When he died, this old woman and I were pointed straight at each other: two of the three most important people in his life, three females, two of us fighting in some sense over the third, the little one, the joy in our dark days.

Someone wise pointed this out to me early on in that first year and I didn’t believe it: Audrey wished it had been me who died, and I wished it had been her. To both of us, that would have been natural and just. She was, in secret, dreaming of stealing away with my little girl and making a new life together. That is crazy, I thought. No way. She loves me and I love her! She’s always been so good to me! And surely, she doesn’t think she can take care of a kid in diapers.

As the year wore on, I saw that this interpretation of our lives was not only true but inevitable. We each had the arrow of our entire life pointed at Gavin. When he fell from the picture those missiles hung tense in the air, wobbled for a moment, then found their straight aim. Of course, he had eyes only for our little girl, and responsibility for Audrey, aging rapidly. Despite my sacrifices, my sharing of everything I was and all I loved, I had to be a distant third to him as his light faded. Some stories, some favorites, write themselves.

But Audrey was not simple, though she wished to be, and Gavin, loyal and honest, was not the diligent one in our household.

My mother-in law-had dementia and when Gavin died, I was the only one she could turn to, had she wanted to turn. I was the knob on which her independence fell and bumped its head. I helped her more than she wanted, less than she needed, and I said it more than once -- heck, I probably said it more than once a week -- during the two years she outlived him: my mother-in-law was killing me.

Caregiving Gavin shattered my soul, into a thousand pieces it went down, and then caregiving his mother stomped the bits and left them in mush. Nonetheless I fulfilled the obligations I felt so heavy on me, full of rage at his refusal to deal with her, at their mutual stubborn independence and their calm ignorance, parenting another, one with no hope of progress or cure. There were two people in diapers in my life: one age 3 and on the way up, and one age 90 on the way down, and I’d already lost the one closest to my age, the one I leaned on. I felt acutely the irony of being the most competent in a household of a toddler and a senile elder, as I was grieving and trying to hold down a job and heaven forbid, find the light ahead. But hell, I was the one who could drive.

Alone, desperate, broke, shakily in charge, I would have been happy to kill my husband then, if it would have saved my daughter and I, but, as is the case in every story of dementia, it was too fucking late.


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An abundant stump

I’ve been thinking a lot about the new-ish age-ish interpretation of “abundance.” I see and hear "scarcity mentality" in every nook and person of my church while we work to raise our annual half-mil, and it repels me. But I'm not qualified or secure enough in my own "abundance" to get everyone all at once, POOF!, to adopt this major shift of mindset. Yes, changing minds is hard... but despite my desire to move forward, some segment of my brain rebels because anything so easy has got to be bullshit, right?

But a way to understand that "enough is a feast," and "I already have everything I need" popped up as clear and true when we had some work to do in the garden, and my 6-year-old got it right away.

I could have explained taking down an old tree my old way, by poor-mouthing: "We had to remove this tree. Yeah, kill it. It was like 50 years old. It had been dying for at least five years and no one wanted to take care of it because did you know it costs like more than a thousand dollars to take down a big tree like that? Hard decision. But the insurance claims would be a way lot more if it dropped on our neighbor's roof!" We can talk about costs, death, risks, and it's all negative, even as you watch the skilled man dangling a chainsaw 30 feet up, better than any circus act.

My daughter, though, loved the abundance as soon as she saw the result of his work: "Look! We got a new stump! We can have tea parties on it, jump off it, and plant things on it AND around it!" She even knew her fish would want to watch the man climbing the tree with his stirrups and harness. We moved the fishbowl onto the windowsill so he could see.

My girl apprehends a whole, beautiful world with a new toy around every corner or at the base of every lost garden asset.

And it clicked just a bit for me then. One click.

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It was an ordinary Sunday at church. (Not really, but let’s pretend it was.) Sunny and emotional. We had just sung “Morning Has Broken,” a favorite of mine from the summer camp I hated.

“Now is the time in our service when we share joys and sorrows, the significant events which have touched our lives.”

Up comes a young woman I know a little, with her mother. They have a joy to share, and a sorrow. The young woman has had several operations for a brain tumor, but has been stable a long time. She’s in college. The pair look down, then up, then seek each other’s hand. I brace myself.

“We have a wonderful cat who we love, I grew up with her, and she has had a good life. She’s nearly 16. Earlier this week she didn’t seem to be eating so we took her to the vet.

He said she has terminal cancer. We don’t know how long she has.

She’s been losing weight. She still purrs, and she still wants to go outside, but we can tell that she’s leaving us. It’s just very hard to watch her suffer.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, this was exactly what it was like during the last months of Gavin’s life. I know the humanity of someone who is losing everything, cat or human, and I remember my husband still could purr, still would have chased birds if it had been his birthright. I’m grateful that even though the cat might understand what’s ahead, she isn’t asking them to say otherwise. I can see how this family is living with and sharing the dignity of not pretending there’s hope. I’m a little envious, I’m flashed back, and then I am just plain sad.

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