Empty Nest: Heartache and Opportunity

“For 20 years, we packed lunches, helped with homework, and paid too many bills…”

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

So begins the lament of the empty-nester, in this case, Carl Love, a columnist at my local paper. I can identify. I’ve been providing child care for my two grandbabies for three years now, and each year is a tidal wave of diapers, teething, bottles, binkies, making breakfast and lunch, Play-Doh, stickers, crayons, building blocks, walks w/ and w/o strollers, buckling into carseats and swings, pool, park, naps, monitors, and potty chairs….

And: (take a breath) being greeted with “GRANDMA!!!” when I arrive in the morning, slobbery kisses, sharing a cup and seeing the little one learn to drink from it, reading the same book for the 3rd time in a row and sensing that someone is reluctant to leave the comfort of my lap, pushing on swings, playing in the sandbox, looking for me in a crowd, two babies crowding to get on either side of Grandpa in a recliner so HE can read the same book 3 or 4 times, stealing my Honey Nut Cheerios because they’re sweeter than the ones Mom buys, holding my hand, hugging my legs, stealing my sunglasses, watching Baby Einstein and turning around to grin with delight at the sight of their old buddy, the smiley caterpillar…all of a sudden, it ends. On the last day of Mommy or Daddy’s work year (both are teachers), I kiss the babies goodbye at their door and turn to get into my car, grateful but blinking back tears.

Such a transitional moment conjures reminders of mortality that cast a pall on the otherwise searing brightness of a late-spring afternoon. For all of the challenges, what can I do that is more precious or valuable? Now that I’ll have all that free time, what will be as meaningful? I think this is what Carl was feeling. He’s happy to have done his job well, but after so many days, months, years of a full house and schedule, living within a Short Attention Span movie, dealing with tired muscles/bones/joints and sleep deprivation, it just ends, and then what?

Somehow, it feels like the parade not only passed you by, but the cacophony faded and now you’re standing on the curb, alone in the silence. Questioning your place on the timeline, the existential questions you’ve been too busy to ask. Who are you now, with nobody to raise? And that seems to me the most exciting, frightening, confusing precipice over which to lean. The view could be sublime, if only we dare look.

The Human Experience

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.

The sky really was that blue today

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.

Poppies grow wild in her yard

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.

When Dad and Mom build the house in the ’80s, they preserved the native juniper trees

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.

This picture hints at the mountains they can see out the back AND the front of the house

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.

 

 

A Bittersweet Ending and Blue Skies Ahead

Most of you know that Bill and I spent the last school year babysitting two of our grandchildren. Our “assignment” ended a week ago, and I’ve enjoyed time to reflect. This past year has been as fabulous as it has been draining, and now that it’s over, I feel a bit lost, as if the babies are leaving us behind.

phone Nov 4 295

Each one of the benefits is worth the whole year to us:

  • We know the little ones almost as well as do their parents.
  • They act excited when they see us.
  • We were privileged to spend each morning with our son and DIL, getting the day off to a good start. I’ll never forget arriving before dawn, letting ourselves in, hearing the baby fussing as he awoke. Then a few minutes later, us four adults chattering in the kitchen as everybody rushed about. I’d get the toddler to the table for her breakfast while Bill gave the baby his bottle. Dan and Amy got organized, prepared lunches and did minor chores. We felt like the extended family of yore, when multiple generations worked together for a family’s success.
  • Dan and Amy appreciated our contribution to their family’s welfare.
  • We have a new understanding of and compassion for parents of small children.

Mothers Day 2013 009

The challenges have been significant:

  • The toll on our bodies, most of which is temporary. Not temporary are the surfer’s knots I acquired on my knees from crawling (happily in and out of large boxes turned into forts, for example. Or changing the baby on the floor, because he’s so wriggly and strong we don’t dare change him on an elevated surface.)
  • The time away from marketing Dakota Blues, and from the world of writing in general.
  • Finding time for doctor, dentist, and other appointments – just like working people!
  • Concern that, as parents, we shouldn’t be so intimately involved in the lives of our kids. Our son and DIL benefitted, for sure, but they gave up a ton of privacy for the duration.

Bill and Andrew June 2012 3

In spite of it all, the babies came through okay. They are now 14 months and two-and-a-half years, bright, happy and healthy. Dan and Amy completed another year as elementary school teachers. Bill and I are already feeling like our old selves again, although we feel guilty for being so free, and we wonder almost every minute how the little ones are doing. We miss them! But fulltime parenting is for younger bodies than ours.

Professionally, I’ve managed to keep up with our Friday visits here at Any Shiny Thing; sales of Dakota Blues have been fantastic, thanks largely to good reviews and an award for women’s fiction from Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  I also found time for five public speaking gigs and three book signings during that period. I’ve drafted some short stories and put together a compendium of my best blog posts for an ebook, Sometimes You Feel Like a Sandwich: Reflections on Caregiving, that I hope to release by Thanksgiving.

I wrote this post today to celebrate a milestone – that Bill and I are returning to our normal life after taking a one-year detour for the good of our family. We feel so blessed, but we’re also sobered by having lived the life of young adults trying to balance career and child-rearing. As a result, our lives are fuller and we have much more appreciation for the younger generations. We are back to being retired and the skies are a brilliant blue.

How Terribly Strange to be Seventy

V. Putin by Sculptor Sherry Cavan

After a career as a social science professor, Sherri Cavan became a sculptor post-retirement. Her Vladimir Putin trio above was meant to illustrate three kinds of power – the Fool, who gains power through his antics; the Predator, obvious; and the Beauty Queen, who seduces.

Sherri and I met last March on a cruise ship. She was doing Tai Chi, alone on the darkened dance floor on Deck 14. Unbeknownst to her, I was lurking in a corner of the bar, tapping away on my laptop. When she finished, I introduced myself and asked about Tai Chi. She said she’d started for the health benefits. Same with sculpting, to exercise her right brain. We talked for almost an hour. I was entranced by her energy.

Smiling an impish grin, she leaned toward me. “Do you want to know how old I am?”

I said, “Yes, but I’m too shy to ask.”

She was seventy-five, and I could tell she was proud of it, a model of confidence and joie de vivre in older age. I wanted what she was having.

As we began our goodbyes, she said she’d recently learned to play the ukulele. For a woman cruising alone this was a cool way to socialize, as uke players tend to bring their instruments on trips. She’d jammed with a group on the beach in Waikiki a few days earlier. After I got home I saw an article about how ukulele is hot right now.

I loved Sherri’s wit, humor and curiosity. If she wanted to know something, she went out and learned it. I felt drawn to her aliveness. Sherri is exceptional, but she represents a wave of change in regard to aging. My husband has made lots of friends on the tennis courts, men in their mid-seventies who are gourmet cooks, singers, world travelers, speakers, writers, and government activists. Remember how we used to see old people when we were young? Here’s a reminder: the lyrics to Old Friends by Simon and Garfunkel. They wrote it as young men in 1968.

Old friends, old friends sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blowin’ through the grass

Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends

 

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

 

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy…

I wonder if we’re aging more slowly these days. Not just older people; on the other end of the age scale, young people seem to take longer to mature. Maybe it’s all the preservatives in our food. Better living through chemistry.

Are You Downsizing?

At our age, some of us are beginning to feel material possessions are a burden. Maybe we’re returning to our sixties roots, or maybe we’re tired of the family-sized house, the multiple sets of dishes, the appliances. We’ve had it with closets full of clothes, linens, and seasonal decorations that now feel like a job to take out, set up, pack up and put away. With our kids grown and careers not so much of a consideration, it’s easier to lighten your footprint.

When the local storage unit raised our rates, Bill and I shipped the footlocker full of baseball cards back to our 30-something son, donated the extra set of golf clubs, recycled what we could and merged the rest into our garage.

My personal challenge was the fake Christmas tree. It looked good for many years and we enjoyed it. Now it’s getting raggedy and I’d been playing around with the idea of replacing it with a table-top model. I’d still have the wreath to hang on the fireplace, and the seasonal tablecloths and candle holders. I told Bill about it, and we realized that day was recycling day. So we broke it down and stuck it in the bin with giving ourselves any more time to think about it. If in a couple years we start feeling deprived, we’ll buy a new one.

But that’s just me. My friend down the street has twenty boxes of Christmas decorations in her garage. It would kill her to get rid of one bulb.

I have a cousin who dreams of renting a quiet two-bedroom apartment in a community with a pool, clubhouse, ready-made friends and no yard. Some of us are tired of  home maintenance. Much easier to call the landlord with your problems. Some Boomers sold their homes and went to live fulltime in RVs or even on boats. I Googled “tiny houses” and you wouldn’t believe how many websites came up.

I’ve often thought it would be cool to live in a city apartment where I could take the elevator downstairs and walk everywhere; to get coffee, groceries, whatever.

And if it were just me, I wouldn’t mind living in this. I’d want patios and porches all around, a few trees, and a community to keep me from turning into a hermit.

Z-glass house

Tumbleweed Z-Glass House

What about you? Are you downsizing and if so, how and why?

Do You Lack Purpose?

After you retire, you sometimes lose your way. People who are working fulltime, and especially those who are also caring for dependent family members, don’t have this luxurious problem. But if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of free time, you sometimes feel guilty, as if you’re wasting your days. Lethargy swamps you. You can’t seem to move forward. You need a jolt, something to wake you back up.

At one time in my life, I felt that way. I was between careers and drifting. I thought of signing up for some kind of mindfulness retreat, a weeklong camp for indolent introspective old farts. And then my mom asked if I would help her get back to Indiana to see her dying brother-in-law. It was early December and she was too frail to go alone. We were gone a week, during which time I lived with, and like, my sick and elderly relatives. This experience snapped my head around. By the time I got back, I felt reborn, newly grateful for the world of possibility in which I lived.

But if you don’t have a week, you might attend a funeral. Preferably of someone you don’t know.

I used to be a professional funeral-attender. Like a US Vice Prez, I dutifully attended numerous services, representing my employer during my thirty-year career. Although I didn’t suffer as much as those who’d lost a loved one, it was still hard to see them grieving. After a couple hours, I could leave, and I would feel a guilty appreciation for my own more fortunate circumstances. I was alive. My child was well. I had a job, and a roof over my head. Life seemed blessed.

Or, lacking available funerals (or too classy to attend as a voyeur), you might help out at your local elder care facility. Mom spent three weeks in one while recovering from a broken leg, and I visited her  twice daily just to straighten up, make sure her water jug was refilled and her necessary supplies within reach. These places are always understaffed and an inmate can go hours without a drink of water. Walk out of there, my friends, and you’ll feel like turning cartwheels for the great gift of independence.

You don’t know how free you are until you survive cancer, a car accident, terrorist attack or heartbreak you thought would flat kill you. At your age, you’ve already gone through some of that. If you’re feeling brave, you might close your eyes and let your mind drift back to those harsh times. Visualize those days when you were suffering. Remember how it felt to be paralyzed by illness or grief? Now open your eyes, grab a hanky, and blow. Good God – you’re still here! You’re okay. For the moment, you’re safe, and you have the world at your feet. What are you going to do with it?

Who took these pictures?! Dude

Nanci celebrates her retirement as an elementary school principal by leaping out of a perfectly good plane.

Wok This Way

Anthony Bourdain, Celebrity Chef and World Traveler

Tony Bourdain was recently in Penang, Malaysia enjoying street fare with a guide. The guide, a woman, looked to be around late 40s, early 50s. She seemed very wise, with a fun sense of humor. They watched a street vendor cooking a blazing stirfry in a time-seasoned wok. The guide said these woks are heirlooms, very prized and highly valued. They can be over a century old and are handed down from family member to family member.

Street scene in Penang

They’re prized because they’re old. The new ones don’t cook the same. They can’t take the heat. You have to cook more carefully with a new one because if left unsupervised it will burn the meal. On the other hand, the old ones cook evenly and they tend to caramelize the food, adding their own extra layer of flavor.