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July is a poignant month for my family. My dad died in July, 2008. He and mom had just celebrated their 59th anniversary, on July 17. Three years after he died, Mom broke her leg and, in July, had to move from their beloved home in the high desert of Hesperia, California. That was in 2011. She just celebrated her 89th birthday last month. In spite of leg pain and other challenges, she’s doing great (I know many of you will remember my posts about her resisting the move.)
Just before she moved, three years ago, I wrote a post that reflects our aging experience: us, and caring for our elders, and the drive to be independent. I’m reposting it here in honor of my family. I hope you enjoy it.
I spent several hours at Mom’s house today. I alternate weekends with my SoCal sister. We get Mom’s mail, water her plants, check her phone messages, and just generally make sure all is well while she’s in the rehab hospital.
Yes, it’s inconvenient (it’s a 90-minute drive), but it’s short-term because she has agreed to sell her house, and this time I believe she will follow through. I’m glad, but also heartbroken. To think of them – them! but it isn’t “them” anymore, is it? It’s just her – not living up there ever again. Well, I’ve held off the tears all day but I guess I can’t forever. Time moves on, and we all get old and die.
I feel conflicted. I want her to move down by me (“up” and “down” relate to land elevation) for all the logical reasons, and then all of a sudden, like right now, I don’t want her to move at all. I want her to risk it, to inconvenience and vex and terrify us with her dogged determination to stay as long as she can in the house that she and Dad built. For me to yank her away from that – and then add in the heartbreaking, elegiac, mind-numbing beauty of the high desert – I can hardly bear the thought.
It’s an end. I’d like to think it’s a beginning, too, but who can say? Mom is healthy and vibrant for almost-86, there’s no reason she can’t have a great ten more years. But will she have the courage to start over, to walk away from that place?
It hurts to think of losing it, because for ten years, Hesperia was my home, too. It was a difficult time, when I worked harder than any human should have to, and delayed my dreams, and saved everybody.
The memories are good and bad.
As a young single mother, I took my son Danny (now 33) on his paper route some weekend mornings when the snow made it impossible for him to ride his bike. One morning I ran over his foot, but the deep sand saved him and after we got over the shock, we laughed. And then newspapers stopped hiring kids and kids stopped getting up early and riding bikes and getting their first paychecks.
On the negative end, my previous marriage ended there. And Dad died up there! I wouldn’t live there now. Couldn’t. But I miss it.
But I digress. Today I worked my butt off, getting Mom’s house all spiffed-up for Amber to look at next Saturday. Amber might buy it. That would be nice, to know it’s still in the family. Amber is a dear friend of my step-daughter. So we would know the house that Dad and Mom built in the ’80s would be well cared for.
It was so beautiful up there today! I swear, when you live in such a place as the high desert, and especially on a spring day like today, you feel a sense of hope and optimism about rearing kids, growing your own food, having quiet and privacy and clean air and astounding skyscapes. You can pretend that you’re living life on your own terms. I imagine this is what people seek when they move to Idaho or Montana or the Dakotas.
Mom’s coming home to my house tomorrow. I started out being excited, and I still am, but we’ve had a couple of conversations since the hospital said they’d cut her loose, and I realize I’m a bloomin’ amateur. I see that Mom’s looking for ways (already) to cut corners and speed things up; and now I understand it’s not about reveling in the relative luxury of my house as compared to a rehab hospital. It’s about my house as stepping stone to – you guessed it – her house. I think she’s just biding her time until she can go home, and once she’s there, who knows? And my other sister, the one who hasn’t yet adapted to her new home near Canada, would do almost anything, including promising to take care of Mom, to be able to come south and thaw out for a couple of months.
So I rearrange furniture at my house to make Mom comfortable, to encourage her to stay, but like an inadequately compelling acquaintance, I know I don’t have much pull. Because I suspect she’s going home for good, even if she doesn’t yet say it. And the tears and frustration and anger of her children and grandchildren are nothing compared to the incense of creosote and sage calling to her from the high desert.
Turn up the volume and you’ll hear the wind chimes in her back yard.
Forgiveness is confusing.
When my dad died a few years back, a family member and her husband flipped out and attacked the rest of the family. I figure they misunderstood something, panicked and overreacted, and then they couldn’t back down for years, probably out of embarrassment or just not knowing how to stop without feeling stupid.
Then Mom fell and broke her leg and things began to change. The family member (FM), moved in with Mom. She helped with Mom’s convalescence and also organized and packed almost the entire house, which Mom had agreed to sell. Mom was scared and angry. She grieved Dad’s loss, that of her network of friends and of her beloved high desert. FM had to deal with that, as well as her own physical pain. She wasn’t in the best of health herself, but she remained stoic and kept working.
As time went by, FM began hinting at remorse and a desire for a better relationship. Which is what happened.
After all that went down, I can’t believe I came around to a place where forgiveness is possible. I don’t mean the kind of forgiveness where you accept that the offender is a total asshole and walk away, just to keep yourself healthy. No, this is the old-fashioned kind of forgiveness, where I actually feel compassion for FM, and derive no joy from her remorse.
Which is confusing. I had clung to my anger out of self-respect. Having been physically and verbally abused all through my childhood and first marriage, I swore I would never allow anyone to do that to me again. Forgiving an abuser feels like I’m still a doormat, like I’m once again capitulating to the dark forces.
Given the above, will I ever be able to maintain a self-protective wall of anger? Isn’t it necessary? How can I preserve my self respect if I go around forgiving all the time?
After a lot of thought, I’ve found my answer. I share it with you because it’s beautiful. It’s my gold watch, my gift of a long lifespan, the reward of having lived through family vitriol and come out the other side with my sanity:
Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter.
That’s the answer, and it’s shocking to me. Sometimes, it’s just not important to hang onto the anger. To quote one of my friend’s favorite sayings, “The tide comes in. The tide goes out.” Everything changes.
Recently, there was another dustup in my family (I know; we must be a bunch of brawlers, right?) But based on all the above experience, I’ve decided this too will pass. Or not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone on with my days, and I don’t think about it anymore. It’ll resolve itself or it won’t, but everything changes. You just have to go on, and have a good life. No sense spending all that precious energy hanging on to the anger.
This is yet another gift of older age. After a while, you earn resilience. Quite the silver lining, wouldn’t you say?
I turned fifty-eight yesterday, so if you’ll permit me, I’d like to do a retrospective in pictures.
My love affair with bread started early.
Kindergarten was magical. At naptime the teacher played a recording of Claire de Lune. I still remember the image I saw in my 5-year-old head: Cinderella (me) and the Prince dancing under a rose arbor.
Here I am in sixth grade. Mom made this dress. Slaved over that scalloped collar, I’m sure.
In my senior pic, you can see I was in love with big hair.
Happily married to Husband #1. This was Danny’s first birthday. I made that pantsuit. And underneath all that hair, my ex looked a lot like Clint Eastwood. We’re still friends.
This was when I was in my thirties, in 1987. I was an up-and-coming
personnel manager, before they started calling it Human Resources.
My husband, Bill Spreen, whom I was lucky enough to marry in 1997. You’ve read about him in this space before, enough to know he’s a real doll. And speaking of dolls, our granddaughter, Miranda, was born a few years later.
In 2010 with Amy (who married Danny), and my new granddaughter Ella.
Though much is lost, much abides,And thoughWe are not now that strength that in old daysmoved earth and heaven,That which we are, we are.One equal temper of heroic hearts,made weak by time and fatebut strong in will,to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
At first your life is full. You repot those straggly houseplants and organize your closets. Take a bag full of business outfits to Goodwill. Cook from your dusty recipe book. Watch the morning news shows. Meditate. Go to the gym right in the middle of the day. Woo hoo, livin’ la vida loca, girl!
But pretty soon you get caught up. Your calendar says your week is filled, but it’s all mundane: take dog to groomer, get nails done, don’t forget mammogram. Maybe you start a business from the guest bedroom, and that keeps you so busy that you don’t mind the absence of those coffee-fueled morning conversations you used to have with your buddies at work. If you’re lucky enough to have somebody at home whose company you enjoy, that helps. But after a while, you notice you don’t have any women friends. There’s something missing in your life, and it’s uncomfortable.
That’s how it went for me, anyway. At middle-age, I realized I had few friends. Worse, I didn’t know how to find new ones.
I’m an introvert so it was even more daunting.
So I read The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore by Marla Paul. Marla says finding new friends at our age is harder because our peers aren’t looking. By now, they generally have all the friends they need, so you have to sort of sneak up on them. You go where the prospects are, engage in an activity that makes you happy on its own merits, and then you and the targets just naturally fall into conversation (keeping it light at first). If there’s a spark, you’ll know. Bonus points for meeting multiple times at the activity (pottery class, golf, book club) without the pressure of a first date (“Hey, want to get a cup of coffee sometime?” is awkward, IMHO).
I know you want me to end this with “…and then after a while I had tons of friends!!” but that didn’t happen. At the time I was living in Palm Desert, California, where half my neighbors were snowbirds who left town six months out of the year. The rest of the population was at work. Tumbleweeds blew down the street. So Bill and I moved to what Dr. Phil would call a target-rich environment: a 55+ community an hour away where the residents live year-round and are eager to make friends. I joined activities that made me happy, like book club and golf, and friendships began to form.
I now know that the best way to make friends later in life is to find the activity and let the friendship follow. That’s my advice, but maybe you have some ideas, too. Have you had this experience, and if so, how did you handle it?
Yesterday a difficult acquaintance caught me at the grocery store and cried on my shoulder about a big problem she was having. I was surprised because her problem was really personal and we don’t know each other well, but she was distressed so I listened and made sympathetic noises. When I saw a decent opening, I bolted.
Later, I told Mom that I hadn’t wanted to hear about the woman’s problems because it made me feel obligated, but more than that, I wondered why she’d dumped that load on me.
“She probably feels comfortable with you,” said Mom. “Maybe she doesn’t have anybody else. It’s a compliment.”
A light went off in my brain as I recognized the sound of old, familiar propaganda.
Like many of you, I was taught to sacrifice my own interests in service to others. If a person who everybody else avoids reaches out to us, we feel honored to be singled out. Because we’re special – stronger, more patient, more broad-minded than those wimpy others who would simply give up.
I was taught to think, “I must really have something, that this person needs me.” What I didn’t see was that normal people avoided the abusers. Normal people valued themselves enough to protect their time and energy, whereas I labored to help the crackpots change and do better. When I first got hired in human resources, I was practically codependent.
I had the look of a victim.
I understand that my parents thought they were teaching me compassion, but they went too far toward love and not enough in the direction of self-defense. It would have been good if they’d taught me to squint, Clint Eastwood-style, when I encountered potential users.
I once read a book called The Sociopath Next Door (yep, that’s what floats my boat) by Martha Stout. Toward the end she said, now that you know everything about a sociopath, you’ll want me to tell you how to protect yourself. How to see them coming. And the answer is, you can’t, not really, because they look for people who are nice, because those people are more easily manipulated.
Well, isn’t that great.
Even if you never meet a sociopath, you still have to have some filters, because even good people can tend to take, take, and take some more. Here’s an article by Dr. Judith Orloff about maintaining balance in a vampire relationship.
Now that I’m older I consciously resist looking like an easy mark or sending out signals that say, “Use me! Use me!” After many years in HR, two failed marriages, and countless one-sided relationships, I have developed a strategy. I offer it to you.
At first you take a little chance on a person, without making an irrevocable commitment. Then you look for reciprocity – does the person give you something ethical in return? Time, effort, repayment, career help, etc.?
Or instead of looking for reciprocity, observe and track the person’s behaviors. Discount any talk of big dreams or undeserved heartache; watch the patterns. If you see a track record of selfish behavior, lack of follow-through, or narcissism, arm yourself. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Act accordingly.
I understand that there’s a risk in taking this hard-line approach. You can’t shut down or become a recluse. Compassion is good! We need more of it. Also, this rule gets a little wobbly when you’re dealing with children or young people because they’re not fully formed. I cut them more slack than mature adults.
Here’s a weird outcome of my new thinking: I don’t feel quite so special. I’m average, not heroic. I no longer have bragging rights. (More about that in a previous post, The Courage to Be Average.)
Although it’s good to be heroic, I’d reserve that for pulling kitties out of trees. In the meantime, I implore you to teach your kids or grandkids the squinty-eye. It just might save them from being drained and manipulated by the weirdos, narcissists and slackers who depend on a friendly face and big heart for all their energy needs.
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