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Angels In My Tires

Angels in My Tires

By Nancy Deming-May

August 2019

I recently read the book, Angels in My Hair, by Lorne Byrne.  It was handed to me by my sister, Diane, when we were together for my youngest son’s wedding.  We were staying with my daughter and Diane noticed a book on the shelf she had given her several years earlier.  She said as she handed it to me, “I gave this to Lauren, but I don’t think she’s read it.  You might like it.”  I read the back cover and the positive reviews.  It was written by an Irish woman who has had the ability to see and converse with angels as long as she can remember.

 

I’m kind of a mix-mash spiritually.  I teach yoga.  I embrace Zen, Rumi, Buddha, meditation and positive and uplifting spiritual things from many sources.  I have a real problem with the patriarchy of the Christianity I was exposed to growing up – that God is a man and is sitting and waiting to judge each of us when we die; and I’ve felt for many years that Jesus was too good of a guy to ever condemn all those Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc., to eternal death because they had not accepted him as their “personal Savoir.” And I cannot recite the Nicene Creed anymore – there is very little in there that I believe – though it is comforting to recite things from your childhood.

 

I do love singing in a choir, and churches are great for beautiful music.  I love connecting with people and doing positive things in the community and helping others.  I love meaningful conversations, (my favorite game to play is Big Talk), questioning beliefs, being open to new ways of thinking, and being around other seekers.

 

I have trouble with the whole “God” thing but have found if I substitute the word “love” for “God,” I can usually go along with it.  For my more religious friends, their response when I share this “big talk” of mine is often, “Well, God is Love,” and we’re both satisfied.

 

So, even though I have deeply questioned the “God thing”, I’m good with angels and I willingly took the Angels in My Hair book offered to me and started reading it that night.  I thoroughly enjoyed Lorne’s memoir of her life with angels – how they were around her and others almost all the time, would talk with her, sometimes share the future, and often comforted her when necessary, and I especially appreciated the end of the book when she shared pointers on how to get in touch with our own angels.  The tips that stood out for me were to talk to your angels, be open to them, listen to that little niggling voice in the back of your mind – it’s often your angels – ask for their help, and always thank them when they do help you.

 

So, I was in this state of mind when we were on a recent trip to Japan to visit with one of our sons and his three children.  A great visit and first trip to Japan, so that’s always exciting.  One concern, however, was when we saw the nice family vehicle our son had for transportation, and the tires were in bad shape.  They were all pretty much bald and even had threads exposed around the sides indicating a critical need for replacement.  The good news was that new tires had already been ordered and paid for; the bad news was that they weren’t in yet.  Driving around in the suburbs of Tokyo really wasn’t as much a concern as you never seem to get going too fast, but early one morning, four of us found ourselves in the bald-tired vehicle at about 4 am and headed for Mount Fuji for a day of climbing.  I remembered the tires and began right away to talk to my/our angels and ask for their help and protection throughout our two hour drive to Mt Fuji, much of which was on the highway and at much higher speeds as we headed southwest from Tokyo into beautiful rolling and then mountainous green countryside.

 

There were four of us hiking the mountain: me, my husband, our son, and 13-year-old grandson.  It seemed an ambitious goal given my overall arthritis, torn left-knee meniscus and recent right-foot surgery, and just general foot or knee pain with any long walks, but I had to try.  We made it to the parking lot and took a bus up to the 5th station, where most day hikers began and end their adventure.  It took us six hours to climb to the top – about 12,290 ft – and after several seizing sartorius muscles in my husband’s quadriceps, many stops to catch our breath in the thinning air, and a nice American couple with an electrolyte drink they were willing to share, we made it. We had the obligatory wooden walking sticks that we would pay to have stamps burned into at each station on the way to the top.  Once we summited, we replenished with amazing ramen noodles, lots of juices and electrolytes, and were then ready to head down.  The descent was when it really got tough for me.  That left knee became almost insufferable. Every step was excruciating, and I tried everything to distract myself.  Talking to angels, mantras, prayers, counting switchbacks and timing them helped.  The path we took up was pretty solid and then larger boulders above the tree line, but the way down was just dusty scrabble and I slipped several times, cutting my arms on the rough volcanic rocks. Finally, we made it to the starting point at Station 5 after four hours of pretty much torture – ten hours total.  We had done it.

 

The ride home was full of discomfort – we all hurt – and I continued my silent prayers to the angels.  “Please watch out for us.”  “Please help keep these tires safe and together.”  I pictured the angels, the tires, and us all surrounded in a white light – which is my “go to” vision for things that need safety, help, love, or healing.  Eventually, we got to the neighborhood where we were picking up the younger granddaughters, and then after more twists and turns and angel prayers in the Tokyo suburbs, finally, we made it to the home parking lot.  The girls tumbled out of the car and we hikers slowly unfurled our stiff joints and blistered feet as we tried to gather up all of our belongings from the day.  I was standing on the right side of the vehicle with the youngest granddaughter when suddenly there was a loud bang as the front right tire blew.  Lila immediately started crying at this frightening and shocking sound, and after a moment’s disbelieving breath, I started thanking the angels out loud for keeping us safe all the way up and back on the highway to Mount Fuji.  I still shake my head at the memory.  I, of course, then had to share all about the angel book I was reading and how they had kept us safe all through the day on those ridiculous tires.  The kids and grandkids may think I’m nuts, but I think we all have some pretty awesome angels who did their best to keep us safe throughout that long day in mainland Japan.  And my husband and I agreed that given a similar situation, next time we will rent a car with operational tires.  No sense in over-stressing our angels.

 

Have you ever had a similar experience? Please share if you are comfortable.

My Right Foot (Surgery)

by

Nancy Deming-May

June 2018

I recently had two bones in my right foot surgically fused together and I am in the long process of recovery and have often wanted to know if what I’m going through is normal, but I can’t find much about it, so I shall share my experience…

 

The surgery I had is called a Talonavicular Fusion.  They are joining the talus bone and the navicular bone in the foot.  This is usually required due to arthritis (bone on bone pain) and fallen arches, or in my case, life-long flat feet.  They go in on the inside of the foot, just above the arch, and smooth off any bone spurs and issues you have with the two bones, and then join them together with titanium screws and staples (that do not set off metal detectors at the airport).  There is absolutely no weight bearing for six weeks (to allow these bones to fuse together), and then it is a 4-6-month recovery process.  My surgeon said it’s never sooner, but it is almost always successful.  The only incidences of non-success that he alluded to had to do with patients who smoked, so they didn’t get adequate oxygen to their foot for healing.  Fortunately, he didn’t seem worried about my prospects of recovery.

 

My surgery was on February 1st, 2018, a Thursday. I had to be at the hospital about 7 am with no food or liquid in me since midnight – missing coffee is the worst! My husband took me, and we were on our way home before noon.  All went well, and my foot was wrapped in gauze and ace bandages and I was told to absolutely NOT put any weight on it and handed a script for Oxycontin pain meds. I made it through the weekend – took pain meds for a few days but got off of them as quick as I could; they made me overly emotional.  I found myself getting quite upset about a large tax donation we had made that went to a group I didn’t really support (long story) – suddenly I was in tears and completely distraught.  Glad to get off THAT stuff!  I was able to get around by using the knee cart the insurance had delivered.  Joe would carry the cart up the stairs for me and I would use crutches when I absolutely had to, but they were much tougher! The knee cart seemed safer, though I did get better, stronger, and more comfortable on the crutches over time.

 

I went back for my post-op appointment on Tuesday and they put me in a cast (I selected dark purple) and told me to come back in two weeks.  I continued to figure out the logistics of no weight bearing: I ordered my groceries online at Harris Teeter and picked them up at their drive-through service the next day, though getting them from the car to the house was a challenge. I got comfortable with crawling on my hands and knees up the stairs and sliding with my bum back down.  I ordered a second knee cart for upstairs as you can’t do much while on crutches other than walk.  At least with a knee cart I could chop up vegetables and roll around the kitchen island balancing things on the handle bars of my knee cart – though it was a total core workout to stretch back and grab something I needed/forgot on the other counter (backing up was a pain).  I ordered a back-pack style purse (shoulder purses and crutches don’t mix) and several pairs of palazzo pants with the wide legs so I could get them on over my cast.  I used a plastic garbage bag and a rubber band to cover the purple plaster and gauze appendage during showers and sat on a wash cloth and a step stool while using the hand-held shower head (thankfully we had that!)  I figured out how to drive those electric grocery carts at the store and heard lots of stories about other people’s foot surgeries.  Of course, I had several challenges – forgetting to drape my towel over the shower wall (it’s not good to be one-legged and wet on tile), the grocery cart dying in the dairy section, people staring and then quickly looking away, re-learning to drive with my left foot; but nothing was insurmountable.

 

After two and a half weeks the doctor took me out of the cast and let me just use the boot – as long as I promised not to do any weight-bearing.  This was SUCH a welcome early gift.  The cast would snag on my bedspread and it marked up the dashboard of the car from me trying to keep my foot elevated.  I could shower without worrying about it getting wet and I don’t recall feeling anything so sweet as the feel of a soft sheet slipping across my bare foot that first night I went to bed cast-less.  The doc also said I could sleep without the boot which truly helped my soundness of sleep.  I also think that the early release from the cast helped with my quicker recovery as I could get mobility back sooner – even though I wasn’t doing any weight-bearing.  I found that I used the boot less as time went on – not around the house – just when I went out and wanted to make sure I didn’t bump into anything with my healing foot.

 

So, I have been basically walking on this foot since about six weeks post-op.  (I’m at the four-month point now.)  It still gets swollen and achey and sometimes I have to take acetaminophen or naproxen, or when it’s really bad, diclofenac (a 24-hour arthritis med), to deal with the pain.  But I have been teaching TRX and yoga (both with gradually lessening modifications) since I started walking on it.  I get discouraged by the continual yet evolving pain.  Some days I feel pretty good and then I probably overdo it, and it hurts like hell that night and for the next day or so.  What’s also strange is that the pain moves around in my foot.  Sometimes it seems to be about where the bones were fused together, and other times it’s on the outside edge of my foot, or the top of my foot where its starts out from the leg.  Perhaps this is due to the brain’s ability to only focus on one pain point at a time – so it just picks out the most acute one.  I learned about that strange aspect of our brains on a House episode, where Dr. House is so sick and fed-up with his chronic leg pain that he stabs himself with a fork in the other leg – just to get a break from the pain in the one leg. Wow. My doctor says this is all normal and that I have a pretty much re-constructed foot, so it will just take time.

 

This gimpiness has had other effects on me besides researching pain theories.  I have gained a great appreciation for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This is the federal law that has led to all these ramps around the country.  As I would approach a new building, I would find myself quickly searching for the access that would accommodate my knee cart and shouting, “Thank goodness for the ADA!” with great enthusiasm.  (Actually, it’s thanks to some committed, hard-working people and lawyers that pushed these requirements through our court system.)  I would also find myself comparing my disability to others, like when I’m NOT parking in a handicap spot, and I see someone who can move around a lot better than me getting out of that closer wheelchair space while I hobbled in on my crutches looking for the electric cart the stores are generous enough to provide.  I didn’t dwell on it though.  I would remind myself that I’m getting better.  Some of these people aren’t and never will.  And when I really might be feeling sorry for myself, I would think of the folks who are completely missing legs and or feet, and think, “Get a grip!”

 

I recently had a unique experience of doing a walking meditation one afternoon during my yoga training.  This is the practice of walking very slowly and concentrating on/being mindful of every aspect you can find about your walk.  What is happening with all of your senses – how the weight rolls from the heel to the front of your toes, the coolness of the grass, the smoothness of the floor, the sounds of the birds, the soft touch of the breeze, the different sensations throughout your body with each movement, etc.  (You try to ignore the little thoughts that creep in about what strangers might be thinking of these people walking in extremely slow motion and looking down very seriously at the ground in front of them.)  I found myself truly marveling at the complicated process of walking – how we tall, awkward things are able to stay upright; the AMAZING qualities of our incredible feet; how important the WHOLE foot is when it comes to walking and balance.  I even found myself getting emotional about the entire experience of walking and what an incredible gift it is to be able to do it.

 

So, the next time you bound up the stairs, or even just take them slowly, or you remember something you forgot on the other countertop and you step backward, reach around and grab it without a second thought, or you get up in the dark to head for the bathroom, think about the gift of walking; of feet that balance without extra concentration; of simplicity of effort; and please feel grateful for the beautiful gift of stepping out on our own two pain-free feet.

 

And when you get a chance, hold the door open for or smile at someone in a wheelchair.

Nancy Deming-May

January 2014

The last I saw him, he was in the back of our master adopter, Dawn’s, Rav4, crowded next to his latest favorite obsession – Jojo, the goofy eight month old female black lab.  They were both wedged into the back next to a crate with an ill-tempered boxer, who was thankfully well covered with a thick quilt.  Duke’s classic black and white coat was silky soft and he smelled of coconut-oatmeal from his bath the day before, and a little bit of dog, of course.  He was headed to a local Petco, for a day of being assessed and maybe made over, on account of his striking contrasting brown and blue eyes.  Fortunately though, Dawn is a quick assessor of people, AND she specializes in border collies – the Aspergians of the dog world – wicked smart, compulsive obsessive, and a little detached.  He would NOT go to some young impulsive non-adult looking for a “cool” dog.  She would make sure the people who took him into their homes were ready for the challenge – daily rigorous exercise, firm, consistent discipline, a lifetime commitment, and an appreciation for the breed’s quirky behaviors.  Have you ever seen a dog herd a fire?  Did you know every run is better if you add circles and spins?

Duke came to us via a local dog lover, who was in her childhood neighborhood in the western part of the state over Thanksgiving.  It’s a region known for its beautiful mountains as well as its high unemployment and array of mobile homes.  Debra noticed the dog on the end of a chain, outside of a simple home.  Every time she passed by the house, she would look for him.  He was always there.  Finally, she stopped and knocked on the door.  She offered to help in whatever way she could with the dog.  Many people would take offense at this slight hint of improper care, but Debra has a caring, non-judgmental, disarming way about her that has led to much success in dog rescues over the years.  After the initial contact, Debra left her number and went on her way.  Several days later the woman called.  She had thought about it and agreed that this was no life for a dog.  Their current landlord wouldn’t let the dog inside unless it was really cold, and then only in the basement.  Her two younger girls were afraid of him and she was willing to let him find a better home.  The rescue began.

Between multiple animal rescue specialists, we got him picked up, vetted, neutered (he was four and a half), got his shots up to date, bathed and boarded.  I had a good friend who lived near him who rescues dogs, but she wasn’t willing to take him into her house as he “marked” EVERYwhere.  What else do you do for fun at the end of a chain day in and day out?  Two days after Christmas, Debra picked him up from the vet clinic and headed east where we met in a local Target parking lot.  I felt like I was going to pick up my newly adopted foreign child at the airport, I was so excited.  Debra and her husband pulled up in their large SUV and I greeted them all at the driver’s side door.  Duke was trying to crawl into Steve’s lap.  We made sure we had the leash secured and let him out of the car where he pulled like a sled dog from one hedge to the other in order to smell and leave his scent.  He seemed okay with us petting him, but didn’t seem too interested in us in his quest to case the area and espy anything that moved.  We caught up on his latest news and commented on his beauty, upset stomach, “stinky smell”, and great potential, while he nonchalantly patrolled the area.  Eventually, he walked over to me and gently reared back on his hind legs and wrapped his front arms around my waist – normally a dog-discipline-no-no for me, but this pseudo-hug melted my heart and was allowed as we made our initial connection.  I was ready to take him home.

Every foster dog experience goes differently.  Some come in so timid and near feral, that they have to be carried outside and placed down on the ground to do their business.  Others have been so nervous or afraid, they have growled and snapped at anyone who came close.  We usually tether them to the kitchen table which forces them to be around us, get used to our movements and noise, and eventually settle in.  The tethering approach though, was not optimum for a 43 pound dog that had been at the end of a chain for the past three years – and a border collie at that – the breed known for their boundless energy and focus.  Further, Duke had developed this amazing habit of switching back and forth at the end of his tether – ducking under the leash, twirling in the signature BC circles, until his leash looked like a celebratory ribbon capping a child’s birthday party.  We settled on the crate approach.

Duke went into a large crate we had placed in the middle of kitchen/dining room area.  His smell was so bad that another bath was essential.  It was late though, and trust still needed to be built before we got that intimate with each other.  We fed him, walked him (as much as a pacing, twirling, nervous border collie can be walked), and discovered another habit he had picked up at the end of his chain – playing with his food bowl.  As we were trying to get to sleep, we were jarred out of our relaxation mode by the sound of a metal bowl being flipped into the air and clanging loudly against the metal bars of his crate.  We removed the bowl, carried the stinky crate with a puzzled dog into the garage, and all settled down for our first night together.

The next morning, after another nervous walk and breakfast and then another get-down-to-business walk, I opted for our walk-in shower with the removable shower head.  Convenient, though not ideal, as I usually get about as wet as the dog – especially if I lose hold of the shower head and it splays around annoyingly.  I figured out quickly that Duke was okay with the gentle warm water spray but not when I tried to put it on a harder setting – his fear-factor rose considerably.  I suspect he’d had a hose turned on him more than a few times while trying to survive at the end of his chain.  He eventually settled down and I got him suds up and rinsed, dried and smelling much better.

I took him, along with my husband, and my long-time foster-training Jack Russell terrier, Smitty, to the local single-track mountain bike trail and we enjoyed a good, long, smell-full walk.  He wasn’t too used to walking on a leash, so we had the usual challenges – made a little tougher by his size, speed, and determination.  He had an almost dangerous knack for banging into the side of my knee – perhaps a remnant of his herding mentality.  He would walk out ahead of us for a bit, but always seemed to want to stop and come around behind us – as if to make sure we were all staying together.

Duke gradually settled into our routine.  We usually find it takes about three days before they seem to feel comfortable.  We all like to know what is expected of us and what comes next.  Once our fosters understand that, they seem to relax a bit.  I am very fortunate to have a local doggie daycare business (Dogwood Run) nearby that agrees to take my fosters in for free.  This keeps the dog from getting too bored in a crate all day, and has the added benefit of helping the dog get better dog-socialized, in addition to exercised.  There is nothing like a roomful of our peers to teach us how to behave.  The employees there are also, by nature, very patient and empathetic dog-lovers who are always glad to help teach a dog that humans are in charge, but we are also kind and can be trusted.

They had some problems with him “marking” inside the daycare facility at first, but a squirting water bottle and firm words corrected that within the first week.  I sometimes will carry my smaller fosters downstairs so I can get them right outside and praise them for taking care of business in the grass, but Duke was a little too big to be carried and I had my share of accidents.  The one at the top of the stairs against the railing, such that it sprayed out on the carpeted stairs below and ran down the wall, was especially memorable.  He really learned quickly though, and within a week, I was no longer cleaning or correcting “accidents.”  The only other significant carpet episode involved an attempted change in food that led to an all-night vigil of carpet cleaning and re-cleaning.

Other adventures for Duke included outings to the dog park where at first he obsessed with the stainless steel water bowl, picking it up with his teeth and carrying it around, tossing it in the air, and doing endless circles in between carries.  No wonder his teeth were all chipped and his canines short for his age.  Dawn, my BC expert, thought this was a good sign however – he had found a relatively harmless way to amuse himself at the end of his relentless chain.  Many chain-rescues she sees have really tough OCD habits to break – maybe they’ve become obsessed with killing small critters or anything that moves, or very aggressive with anything that gets near it.  And border collies with their OCD tendencies anyway can be especially difficult to rehabilitate.

Duke quickly figured out that there were much more exciting things happening at the dog park than water bowls, and he quickly turned his attention to all the dogs that needed herding – especially Jojo – a greyhound-fast, rambunctious eight month old black lab foster of Dawn’s.  Poor Jojo became Duke’s new obsession – a status which she both simultaneously reveled in and reviled.

So eventually things settled down for all of us, Duke figured out our routine and we figured out his.  We settled on an acceptable food for carpet preservation and we learned he was very suspicious of young men, and thus warned my son’s friends to stay clear of him.  We figured he must have been taunted by teenage boys or young men at some point to develop that much of a prejudice.  We eventually let him around our grandchildren with great caution and supervision on our part, but he seemed oblivious to their presence and energy – even when the eight year old crawled around the living room baa-ing like a sheep in the hopes of getting herded.  The grandchildren especially enjoyed being locked in his crate (temporarily only of course) while the dogs looked on in wonder.  Skate-boarders and joggers seemed to trigger nothing feral in him, and our hopes for his eventual forever home grew stronger.  After about a month, both he a Jojo hit the jackpot.

Duke’s new family took the form of a middle-aged couple who had lost their dog about a year earlier.  They had been on low alert, but were in no rush to find a replacement.  They were both drawn to him that Sunday at Petco, and quizzed Dawn a long time about the breed and their quirky habits and challenges.  She was somewhat disappointed when they left, as they seemed genuinely interested in the dog and the breed.  It was several hours before she was surprised to look up and see them again with relieved smiles on their faces.  They had gone home and researched the breed and discussed it and were now very excited about working with Duke and giving him the discipline, exercise and love he needed.  They had a farm they went to on the weekends and were ready to take another dog into their lives.  Dawn completed the interview and paperwork, and handed over his records before walking them to the door to wish them good luck.  Dawn texted me a jubilant message that both Duke and Jojo had found their forever homes that day.  Later she emailed a longer explanation in which she shared what encouraged her the most about the couple: They never said anything about how “cool” his eyes were – though obvious, it’s really not what’s most important about any dog or relationship (looks); they were most excited about working with and training him and getting to know the breed.

We ALL feel good about Duke’s long and happy life ahead.  If only every dog could be so lucky.

February 2014 Outing Photos from Duke’s New Family

Nancy Deming-May

December 2015

I’ve truly wondered over these past years about the “whys” of dementia as my mother has descended down this seemingly endless staircase.  Why did she have to get this? Why does it make her more thoughtless?  Why does she say those hurtful things?  Why can’t she at least remember THAT? Why does she hoard stuff?  Why didn’t she take better care of herself?  Why didn’t she plan better – especially after seeing her parents?

There are also the “whens”.  When did this really begin?  When were her first mini-strokes?  When did she last have her wallet?  When should I take her back to this or that doctor?  When should I start or stop this or that medicine? When is it okay to decide to stop dragging her from doctor to doctor, and just do enough to keep her comfortable?

Then there are the “whats”.  What should, or could, I do differently, so this doesn’t happen to me or my children?  What is the best level of care and supervision to keep her safe, yet preserve her independence as much and as long as possible?

As we have maneuvered these endless questions, I’ve had to work hard to find the good in her illness.  I’ve read books and articles on dying and/or dementia with intense interest.  I was especially fascinated by the article in The Atlantic by Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, “Why I Want to Die at 75.”  A quote of his that I find particularly on target is, “But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

I’ve vowed I won’t let myself get to this same level (as my mom) with my kids.  I’ll stop ANY antibiotic – even for the simple UTIs – so I don’t have to drag my kids through this quagmire of frustration, obligation, and guilt.  I’ve wondered about the meaning of it all – the articles that say how much the author grew or learned from their torturous experience of caring for an elderly parent.

With each step down the staircase, I’ve tried to be honest and accepting of myself and my feelings.  I’ve bristled at her “joking” comments that hurt – because she doesn’t have the frontal lobe to sense their inappropriateness.  I’ve done my best to hold my tongue when she demanded certain things – minute in their instance – huge in their history.  I’ve tried to look at the bright side – how things could always be worse.  I’ve been grateful for my sister, and cousins, and friends that I can be honest with – especially those who have shared the same experience and understand when I admit that though I am really good at caring for her (getting her to the right doctors, monitoring her meds, keeping track of her finances, protecting her from predators), I no longer enjoy spending time with her.  This too, brings me guilt.

Recently, my mother has taken a turn for the worse.  After a fall where she suffered an eventual compression fracture in her back, she was wracked with pain and wanted nothing more than to lie on her bed undisturbed.  After multiple, tortuous outings to various doctors’ appointments, we finally determined the source of her pain (it took five weeks).  We eventually brought in Hospice to help.  I found their greatest contribution was giving me permission to stop trying to “fix” everything and to just keep her comfortable.  In the meantime, she has lost over 30 pounds, and though her back has healed, her mind has further suffered from the prolonged period of inactivity.  So now she is “back” and semi-mobile again – though more frail and with just a shred of memory.  I now tell her stories for her, though sadly, she no longer recalls them, even with my prompting.

I wonder how much longer this will continue.  It seems to me that we are “lingerers” in my family.  We don’t go quickly – we hang on and suffer, or at least endure.  This is not how I want to go.

We are back to that Why question again.  When I discuss my thoughts about not lingering with my husband, his perspective is that simple things will be enough for us – one more milestone of the kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids will make it worthwhile.  We joke about what we will need to keep us content – how we love watching and listening to birds, gardening, straightening things up (OCD people understand).  I joke about giving me a flower bush to deadhead or taking me into woods for walks even if I’m in a wheelchair.  I get that, but I wonder about the effect of my likely disability and dependence on my children or primary caregivers.  His family history has not been one of lingering.  They have long independent lives and then slip away quietly and quickly.

As I ponder the “What is enough?” question, my mother continues her decline.  Where is the bottom of this dementia descent?  Over the past several weeks, her memory has been so vacant that she doesn’t even interrupt our dinner conversations to demand an explanation that she can’t understand.  And then, I’ll be walking her back to her room after our meal, and she’ll turn to me and say, “I just love you,” followed by, “I’m so glad you’re my daughter.”  To which I am taken aback, and reply, “Aw Mom, you’re going to make me cry, and I love you too.”

I take her back to her room and get her settled, and as I walk back out to my car, I shake my head and feel the gratitude wash over me.

And I vow to tell my children how much I love them.

Maybe this is enough.

Faith’s Gift

Faith’s Gift

By Nancy Deming-May

June 2015

John is a handsome man.  He has smooth olive skin, expressive brown eyes and a slight thinning of his dark hair, belying his middle age.  He exudes warmth and a comfortableness with himself that comes with the years.  I met him at an office gathering with my husband’s company.  He had just come aboard and did not know many people in the group yet and I found myself engaged in conversation with him.  He spoke of his time in the military easily and was grateful for the experiences it gave him – both in terms of professional and personal growth.  He moved easily from work to home life discussion, with an openness that made it easy to talk – even though you just met him.

After we got past what he does for a living, I asked what he did in his spare time – as this is often where you get the most interesting insight into what people enjoy – especially when they are older and have had time to explore a number of different interests and usually have figured out which ones really bring them joy.  I was surprised when John answered, “I take care of my family,” as this is not the usual response you get from a man his age – maybe “I enjoy spending time with my grandkids”, but not “take care” of them.  John went on to explain how he had a four year old daughter in addition to his 25 and 27 year old children from a first marriage.  He further elaborated that he was on his third marriage – and that this one was “working” he said with a humble grin.  I smiled encouragingly, and he began to tell me about his youngest daughter, Faith.

Faith was a miracle child from the beginning.  As her mother was older at the start of her pregnancy, she received the full battery of gestational genetic testing and they determined early that their young daughter in utero had Edwards’ disease.  This is a chromosomal abnormality similar to Down’s syndrome where there is an extra 18th chromosome.  It’s also called Trisomy 18.  John explained that less than 1% of Trisomy 18 pregnancies make it to full term and survive the first 24 hours after childbirth.  This condition is marked by heart problems, cleft palates, and kidney malformations, along with other serious issues.  Eighty percent of the babies born with this condition are female.

John went on to explain how his wife Christina was so incredible in caring for this special needs child, how she couldn’t give up on her throughout all the surgeries; how he would have to insist she go to sleep while he would take a shift of watching over Faith after an especially challenging procedure.  He also shared his gratitude for the hospital staff at the Children’s Hospital (CHKD) – how they doted over her and treated her like a rock star because of her determination to survive.

His special bond with and respect for his wife reminded him of a story about their dog Belle – a rescued pit bull and lab mix that he said was the most loving, loyal and appreciative dog he had ever been around.  He explained how the dog had possibly been abused – or at least injured – and its right front paw had been smashed before she came to their family.  They had paid for surgery for her and she was able to walk on it okay, but it was still deformed such that the toes on either side of it stuck out – a “paw-claw” – much like the letter Y in American sign language – where the thumb and pinky jut out while the middle fingers are folded down.  This hand sign imitating Belle’s deformed paw became John’s and Christina’s special sign between each other.  They would use it for farewells and reassuring signals of connection – “I got your back” or “I love you”.

I shared a story or two about our rescue dogs and then steered back to ask about Faith.  Was she still alive?  John shook his head and looked away wistfully.  “She would have been two the end of this month.”  He went on to describe how she had suffered more medical issues after a recent surgery and her lungs had filled with fluid and her heart was failing and they had to make the incredibly difficult decision to let her slip away in peace – away from the artificial and endless whir of machines.  He shared how the whole ordeal had brought him and his wife and four year old daughter closer and he was so grateful for all of them – especially Faith – even though she had blessed them for such a short time.

John then pulled out his phone and showed me a photograph taken of Faith shortly before she transitioned from this realm.  She was adorned in a billowy white gown, looking small and angelic with large dark eyes and an ever so slight hint of a smile on her lips.  She was lying on her back and you could just feel the love around her – from John and his dedicated wife Christina – and you knew she had been a gift to all who knew and loved her.  Then John pointed to the upper left hand corner of the photograph – there was her little right hand, her middle fingers curled down toward her palm and her thumb and pinky splayed out wide – in true Belle “paw-claw” fashion – a beautiful, simple gift from Faith.

Sycamore Spirituality

Sycamore Spirituality

April 2016

Nancy Deming-May

Have you ever come across something in your life that has been there the whole time but you just became aware of it? I’ve had this experience recently with sycamore trees – America Sycamores – platanus occidentalis – also know as the American planetree, the occidental plane, and buttonwood.

We frequently drive back and forth to upstate New York – we have rental property and relatives up there and we also love the area. Part of this route takes us through Amish country, up Pennsylvania State Route 15 alongside the Susquehanna River. It’s one of my favorite parts of the route and my husband and I both enjoy seeing the river, in its various stages – low, high, fast, icy – faithfully running along beside us as we make our way north or south. I’ve been making this trip for over ten years now, but for some reason, something jumped out at me last winter. I kept noticing the striking mottled white and green-barked trees along the river. They stood out starkly – in beautiful contrast to the other bare deciduous trees hugging the bank. I was mesmerized. I immediately started Googling on my phone “white barked trees in Pennsylvania” and determined they were American Sycamores. Soon I was seeing them EVERYWHERE – almost always near a body of water, and often with one or two others nearby. Closer inspection showed they had a “normal” looking grey trunk closer to the ground, but the white with the light green mottled effect started higher up. So probably when the leaves were on the tree, you wouldn’t notice the gorgeous white bark as much. It was such a welcome relief and contrast to the winter browns and greys – providing a splash of personality to an otherwise drab landscape.

Further research revealed this about the American Sycamore: Though these trees tend to be near water, they have proven to be somewhat tolerant of drought. There is a related London Planetree that is quite popular in cities. The American version is often on the “banned trees” list due to its potential for high pollen (not good for many city residents), it can have quite an extensive root system (not good for underground sewers and such), and it is also vulnerable to epidemics such as insects, viruses, bacteri, or fungi.

Once I spied and identified this showstopper, I began to see them EVERYWHERE! On our property in New York, in the parking lot of my office park, right in the middle of a cluster of trees where I had walked the dogs everyday for nine years. They were ALL around me! How had I missed this beauty for so long? Why?

The sycamores made me think of people in our lives that are like these amazing trees. You may not notice them in the good times – there are no beautiful flowers or aroma in spring, the leaves are large – almost bulky; their greenery covers up that gorgeous bark higher up on the tree; and their fall foliage is a drab yellow – with those large rather bothersome, though striking, leaves.

It is in the doldrums of winter, when all the other trees are stripped bare – their adornment gone – that these oft-overlooked trees stand out in the crowd. Some of us have had the opportunity to witness this phenomenon in humans – at not always pleasant times – as the cold, dormant periods of our lives are not always our favorites, but we’ve had that friend or acquaintance who showed her true colors in this difficult period. They were the welcome help when no one else would or could pitch in, the faithful helper when you felt the most alone, the card or call of support when it was most needed – the sycamores of our lives.

Another irony of the sycamore bark is that its striking appearance is due to the tree bark’s inability to stretch like most barks do – so it peels off and exposes this bare trunk that is so exquisite and unusual. Isn’t this like many of us? Most of us would rather stretch and bend and go with the flow and turns of life, but sometimes we just CAN’T stretch and bend anymore and we split wide open – exposing our innermost selves. It may be embarrassing, but there is a beauty and purity to it – being our most authentic, vulnerable selves – the bare bark of our true being.

So the next time you are driving down a familiar road, try to notice the trees. Are there any that stand out for you? Some you never really noticed before? When you are walking near trees, pick out one or two that intrigue you. Notice their color, the texture of their bark, the shape of their limbs, and, of course, their leaves. Get to know it a little better. Figure out what kind of tree it is, whether it is indigenous, deciduous, invasive, or blight-prone. If it speaks to you, make it YOUR tree. The one that shows up when you need it most. Perhaps you are having a bad day, and you turn your head while sitting impatiently at a stoplight, and you see YOUR tree – reminding you of its diligence, its perseverance, its evolving beauty – and you feel reassured. Share the exercise with your friends and family – What kinds of trees are THEY? Showy fun trees that wow us for a short period, or beautiful ornamentals we adore year round, or perhaps a solid performer that doesn’t shine until the darkest days of winter? Learn to appreciate the variety in our world and in our lives. And yes, acknowledge that some may need to be thinned from (or added to) your forest.

How many other things of beauty and comfort are right there in front of us that we haven’t yet noticed?

This tree also made me think of one of my favorite children’s books – Frederick. When I first read it to my kids, I didn’t quite get it, but the more I have reflected on it as I’ve made this journey of life, the more I appreciate it. Frederick was a different kind of mouse – he was a day dreamer – and while all the other mice were busy preparing for winter – gathering nuts and grains and staples to help them survive the long season, Frederick would be laying around with his eyes closed or staring at the sky. When his fellow mice complained, he explained that he was thinking of stories. They would just sigh an aggravated sigh and go on with their work. So as the cold weather settled in and the mice hunkered down for the winter and began to live off of their hard earned stores, Frederick was still “thinking” – to everyone’s annoyance. The long winter waged war on their dwindling supplies; it was dark and cold, and the mice became hungry and afraid, and wondered if they would make it to spring. It was then that Frederick stepped forward. The stories he had spent all summer and fall thinking of and “gathering” began to spill out, and he began to share these tales. The stories made the mice laugh, and they made the mice cry, and they made the mice forget about how difficult it was this time of year when everything was in short supply, and life was tenuous and hard. He helped them forget, and before they knew it, it was spring again. They ventured back out into the sunshine and the warmth and were revived after their long, harrowing winter – that Frederick helped them endure. I have felt like this story was a beautiful ode to artists, but also a tribute to those in ours lives that may not take center stage, that blend in with the crowd – until they are needed most. And maybe a nod to the misfits too.

Going further with the people–tree analogy – that friend to whom you are a little allergic (in high doses – analogous to a high-pollen producer), who is maybe a little too invasive (like that banned root system), or perhaps is a little TOO needy (vulnerable to life and takes a lot of maintenance). BUT, when push comes to shove and you are really in a winter down-and-out time – illness, death of a family member, needing help with a pet, etc., this is the friend who is there – with their oft-overlooked beautiful traits of dependability, willingness to help, hard-working-ness, or just a sense of humor or listening ear. They display their beautiful bark when we need it most.

 

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A Short Term Memory

A Short Term Memory

Nancy Deming-May

October 2012

The other day I told my husband a story.  I’d had lunch with a friend that day and we ended up talking a lot about our mothers.  Hers had died earlier in the year and I shared with him her family saga surrounding the event.  She was one of seven children from New Jersey – six surviving – a twelve year old brother had died of leukemia in 1965.  There was another, estranged, brother, who would speak to no one in the family – she and I had laughed at how every family seems to have one of those.  (Funny how laughter is such a wonderful substitute for tears as we age.)  There were several nurse-sisters in the family, one of whom had the medical power of attorney.

The mother was ninety three and in relatively good health.  She lived in her own home still, with a full-time nurse’s aide.  We compared dementia levels – her mom’s was pretty low – she still sounded pretty sharp – could tell a good story and kept up with things.  Though, of course, the nearby siblings were much more bothered by mom’s forgetfulness and repetition than the daughter who lived out of town.

Last winter my friend received a late night phone call from her sister telling her she needed to get home right away.  Mom was quite disoriented and seemed to be going downhill fast.  They’d found her collapsed on the floor.  As my friend made the distraught seven hour drive, she tried to find out what had happened and what was wrong with mom.  No one was quite sure; they just knew it wasn’t good.  The POA nurse-sister was refusing to take her to the hospital or call an ambulance because of mom’s DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order.  One of my friend’s nurse-friends asked during the seven-hour drive on a cell call, whether it might be a UTI (Urinary Tract Infection).

Once my friend arrived to find her mother incoherent, the other siblings equally distraught, and the POA sister adamantly refusing any kind of medical care, she used her best lawyerly skills to rationalize at least getting her mother looked at.  She figured if there was a chance they could have her back the way she was, she wanted to try.  So, a subset of siblings took her to the hospital while the POA sister refused to accompany them.  Once at the ER, and blood and urine tested, it proved to indeed be a UTI.  POA sister still refused to come to her bedside, nor would she sign for the necessary antibiotic treatment.  After much familial thrashing and cajoling, the majority siblings prevailed, antibiotics were administered, POA sis rejoined the clan, and their mother recovered – at least for a while.

She lasted six more days before her body shut down for good – long enough for the family to rally and bond around her and share their tender farewells.  Her transition, however, brought on new challenges.  This time it was about her burial plot.  When her 12 year old son had died in 65, she and her husband, both military veterans, had bought a family burial plot with four plots at a nearby veteran’s memorial cemetery.  Her husband and son were there, so there were two empty plots left.  All so simple and appropriate until the funeral director called about the burial arrangements and was told that the cemetery was full and no longer accepting any admissions.  Multiple calls and questions, then pleading, then begging did not change the response.  Disbelief led to shock, which quickly rippled through the family causing a grief-laced uproar and emotional meltdown.  This was finally my friend’s chance.  Through the years she’d traveled around the world serving as a military lawyer, missing many family events and carrying her own guilt for not being able to carry the “mom-load” more equally with her siblings.  This was something she could help with.  Her first phone call was to a good friend, a Congressman she had met in law school, who gave her the number of another Congressman who could help.  He was from her mother’s district and just happened to chair the Congressional sub-committee on VA Cemeteries.  She talked with his staffer and then the Congressman himself called her back later in the day.  They talked for twenty minutes.  Both had been in Afghanistan when the Afghani soldier opened fire in a meeting, killing eight US soldiers and one US contractor – a tragedy that served to seal their bond.  This Congressman had already made some phone calls and found some answers.  It was very simple; the VA representative had made a mistake – their burial plots were indeed still their burial plots and the involved parties were very sorry for the error.

So the beloved mother was buried properly, next to her cherished son, the family was able to spend precious time her in that last week, the children worked through their disagreements (though the estranged brother stayed at the back of the room during the viewing) and they now feel a sacred sense of satisfaction that they honored their mother well.

A good, fairly complex story with a satisfying ending.

I paused at the end and reflected to my husband, “You know, my mom couldn’t tell that story.  She can’t tell any current story anymore about what happened today, or what happened last week – unless it was really dramatic (like when her neighbor fell in the hall and broke her hip recently and they wouldn’t let her stand out there and stare at the commotion).  She can only tell stories from long ago and I feel like we’ve heard them all.  She speaks with trite phrases because her brain doesn’t allow her to make new connections and come up with fresh ones.”

We don’t realize how important our short term memory is to us until we’re faced with the lack of it.  A recent study led by Susanne Jaeggi at the University of Michigan, provided evidence about fluid intelligence or the ability to reason and solve new problems independently of previously required knowledge.  It can indeed be improved based on training with a demanding working memory task (think “short term memory” here).    In other words, working to improve your short term memory can improve your fluid intelligence.  So does that mean that a loss of short term memory lowers intelligence?  At least fluid intelligence?  It sounds like it.

So what if your short term memory is shot?  It’s not just a matter of not getting that Mensa invite, it makes it very difficult to be fresh and witty, and tell good stories that not only have folks not heard before, they find interesting; to remember the logical order of things so the plot holds together.  The lack of a short term memory forces us to fall back on sayings we’ve heard or said so many times, we can still remember them – and probably feel GOOD when we do.

According to another recent study cited in the Yale Daily Press, short term memory is also considered essential to impulse control.  Associate Professor and co-author of the study, Colin de Young said, “[The results] showed that the brain activity that predicted how well someone does on working memory tests is explained by the association between intelligence and self-control.”  De Young also said that those who were more capable of delaying gratification consistently showed higher activity in brain areas that are known to control working memory. (Gellman, 2008)

So not only can we not remember enough things to put together a decent story, we lose our self-control such that we make impulsive decisions regardless of the long-term consequences.  Hmmm.  Not a lot to look forward to.  As the daughter of a mother in the throes short term memory loss, it’s pretty much torture – I hear the same things over and over again and I’m expected to laugh as if they were still funny.  Then I have to clean up after the impulse behaviors – soothing the hurt feelings due to the insensitive remarks, cancelling the three-language learning programs ordered, (Why learn just one language, when you can learn three?), explaining over and over again why match.com might not be a good idea at this stage in life.

Understanding the brain function relationships helps with understanding the behaviors.  The incessant repetition is a result of the lack of short term memory impacting fluid intelligence.  The callous remarks are attributable to the dementia-driven lack of impulse control.  Hopefully, this knowledge will help me and others to be better prepared if and when my brain gets “there”.  Prepared in the sense of understanding my family’s frustration when I just told what I thought was a witty story, and they tell me they’ve heard it a hundred times.  Prepared in the sense that maybe I can apologize for myself ahead of time – that I don’t mean to, but sometimes I just blurt out whatever comes into my mind and I’m sorry if it seems insensitive and callous – I can’t help it – it’s just my deteriorating brain.  And just maybe I will have learned this long enough “ago” to remember it when my short term memory degrades, and perhaps still be able to apply it to my every day life.

Breakwater

Breakwater

Nancy Deming-May

April 2014

This morning I was coming across the James River Bridge on my daily commute to work and admiring the whitecaps on the cloudy, muddied water.  A recent weather front was blowing in from the west and whipping the waves into a frothing frenzy.  I marveled at how different the water is every day – whether in color or motion, light or attitude.  The day’s winds were expected to get especially strong, so I spent a moment appreciating the solidity of the bridge pilings and how they can withstand even hurricane force winds and water.  And then my monkey mind went off on a tangent – imagining what it would be like to be driving along and suddenly have the bridge collapse underneath me; how all my critical items – cell phone, wallet, ID, favorite boots, etc., would suddenly not matter much anymore. Maybe I could use my scarf and fill it with air and try to hang onto it as a floatation device because my wool jacket would surely not be very reliable in the chaotic chilly water.  How would I get those favorite boots off while they were full of water and trying to suck me down into the nether regions?  How long could I last in the chilly, brown angry waves?  I felt quick glimpses of empathy for those people in the San Francisco earthquake and that recent Minnesota bridge collapse before I got a hold of my monkey mind and refocused on the dramatic waves and white sea foam blowing in the wind.

I was nearing the end of the bridge when I observed the rocky breakwater on the right in front of the high rise condo building marina.  I admired the contrast between the brown frothy waves and the relatively calm harbor near the sail boat slips.  I thought of how important that breakwater is – to keep the occasionally violent water from damaging the boats, the dock, the shoreline; to keep the sandy beach nearby from being washed away when the current decides to act out. 

It made me think of our own breakwaters – the ones that protect us from life’s inevitable rough waters.  What are those for us?  Are they as simple as deep, calming breaths, or more complex – “little white lies” about why we can’t go on that dreaded family vacation because work is just TOO busy?  Are they  numbing substances that end up damaging our OWN shores or slips in the long term – stepping outside (and away from a conflict) for a cigarette, pouring another glass of wine after our mother’s (or someone else’s) latest insult (when we’ve had too much already – wine AND insults)?  Are they reinforcing mantras that we repeat to ourselves over and over again in the face of interpersonal strife; “I love and approve of myself, for I am worthy of both love and approval”?  Or are they negative stories we build about others in an attempt to protect ourselves by demeaning THEM and their motives?  Our breakwaters could even be simple avoidance tactics we employ to avoid situations or interactions that bore us.  Candy Crush anyone?

While we’re pondering our breakwaters, let’s also think about our “rough waters”.  What sets us off or makes us want to retreat to the calm, safe, inner harbor in the first place?  Rude people?  Family members or maybe co-workers that know our buttons and push them all too gleefully, or maybe even unwittingly?  Automated messages when we need to talk to a person?  Pressure at work?  Excessive consumption of food or alcohol or the behaviors spun off because of it?  Inconsiderate drivers?  Alternative political parties?  Selfish teenagers?  Inconsiderate spouses?  Rude exes?  Boredom?  How do we shore up our own inner harbor and keep it safe and ready for when we need it?

And is it always okay to go to our safe harbor when we want to?  Breakwaters sound like a good thing, but ARE they always good for us?  Can these “protective barriers” sometimes cause more harm than good in the long run?  If we are ALWAYS shutting someone out or pushing them away, refusing to revisit a past wrong, going way out of our way to avoid certain people or circumstances, in lieu of our safe place, is this always a good thing?  I think most of us know the downside of smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, but maybe we justify it because of our pain.  

Should we sometimes force ourselves to go out into the rough water and face the storm for a little while?  Have that painful, earnest, long-overdue conversation; tolerate that rude and hateful person for the sake of harmony; turn off that phone and be present; force ourselves to find something good in an intolerable situation. 

Could we focus on and create stronger, more durable, more reliable and healthier breakwaters?  What if we accepted the rough waters we know are going to come, and focused on building the most durable yet personally-environmentally-friendly breakwaters to help us deal with them?  A breakwater that isn’t going to surreptitiously secrete toxic materials (tar & nicotine, excessive levels of anything, hateful illusions, or mind-numbing video games) that end up damaging us more than protecting us in the long run. 

Maybe we can focus more on those powerful, healthy breakwaters that bring us the long-term peace we desire: those calming breaths, those walks outside to breathe the fresh air and look at the stars, a gentle pour of chilled, filtered water into our stemmed glass – and maybe we forego the cigarette and extra glass of wine.  Perhaps we can find something positive in those who vex us and feel some empathy for their circumstances – especially when we are forced to navigate near their toxic realm.  And when the next unsavory gathering beckons, what if we acknowledge how important it is to have our own protected safe-havens, and we plan a way to navigate our boat – while in the rough water – should we choose to venture out?  Or maybe we allow ourselves to feel comfortable staying in the sheltered area because we need to shield ourselves from the violent weather?  Maybe our boat is feeling a bit fragile or unseaworthy at the time. 

What are your breakwaters?  Are they effective?  Do they help you or harm you in the long run?  Can you try and look at them a little closer to see if you can make them better for your long term health and happiness? 

Let’s all try and make our own breakwaters as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible for our own long-term good.  And let’s also try and brave the rough waters sometimes and build on our life-faring skills. 

May you appreciate your entire journey and always manifest your healthy and resilient breakwaters when you need them.

The Kindle Effect

The Kindle Effect

July 2014

Nancy Deming-May

 

Recently I found myself ordering a book on my Kindle, not because of a friend’s recommendation, or a bestseller list, or yet another wonderful interview on NPR.  No, this was because of a political controversy.  This book had somehow become notorious thanks to it being placed on the required freshman reading list by my college alma mater as well as the subsequent firestorm due to some aspiring politician who didn’t like its contents.  I think I stumbled on the controversy thanks to the notorious “People who ordered this book also ordered …,” a marketing prompting that frankly, I quite enjoy. 

This prompting led me to click on the reviews of the book where one reviewer mentioned the controversy which occurred about eight years ago.  It was in another state and happened at the state level, so I had missed the headlines.  The friction was familiar – a middle aged, white male running for office and complaining about too much sex, and drugs, and maybe even a lesbian relationship.  HOW could we EVER require our entering college freshmen to read such filth?!?!   There’s nothing like some prudish politician trying to censor stuff to arouse my fierce defense of the first amendment and dislike of prudish judgmental people.   The politician had lost, but the controversy did pique my interest enough to skim through some more favorable reviews and decide to do the one-click download to my e-reader.  

I LOVE the compactness of my e-reader – especially when taking a long trip.  You don’t have to worry about lugging a heavy, thick book onto an airplane – especially if you know you will finish it along the way and have to have another for backup.  You just take your slim little reader out and touch whichever book you please.  It’s also very handy for toting other books that you aren’t sure WHEN you’ll feel like reading or returning to them – those impulsive downloads that are sometimes just the right prose for your mood.  Or even the occasional “spicy” novel you don’t feel like letting those strangers (or family members) around you know you are even reading!

This book was well written, a compelling story, and an easy read.  It was about two female friends who met in college and were aspiring writers.  It was written in the first person – mostly about the other friend (of course) who had a life-long struggle with facial reconstruction after losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer.  I found myself wondering during the repeated bouts of the jaw-cancer friend’s surgeries, where was this woman’s family?  It was like a Gray’s Anatomy episode where even though the most momentous events are happening to these people, it’s only their friends in the hospital who share the journey with them.  No parents, siblings, cousins, or past friends coming to support and wage bedside duty.  The first-person author was bedside after almost every surgery, holding vigil as well as sick bags; changing sheets, filling prescriptions, and even carrying the waif-like jaw-cancer character up to her apartment in New York City after yet another surgery.  It was becoming surreal.

As these surgeries and the neediness of this poor friend were starting to drone on in the last third of the novel, I was beginning to form the impression that the author had submitted the first draft and the editor had said, “Add another 20,000 words and we’ll publish,” and the author had dutifully added a surgery here and there and dragged out some of the recovery and intermittent self destruction scenes ad nauseum.   Though determined to read to the end to see what would become of her friend, I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and had to know if others felt the same way, so I looked for some other reviews to see if any others shared my sentiment.

I was stunned to discover that this “novel” was a actually work of non-fiction – a memoir about a real person, Lucy Grealy, who actually wrote a successful book (documented in the book I was reading), Autobiography of a Face.  I was further amazed to see photos of Lucy – missing/deformed jaw and all.  The title of the book, Truth and Beauty, came from one of Lucy’s own chapters, which was derived from both of their love of Yeats – Beauty is truth and truth is beauty. 

Wow.  How could I be so clueless as to what I was reading?  I felt like I had been reading page by page in a dark cave – enjoying the book – but knowing very little about it.  After devouring the internet articles and interviews of the author, Ann Patchett, and getting her version of the speaker series experience at Clemson, the row with the politician, as well as the UK Guardian article by Lucy’s distraught sister – citing family issues, mental illness, geographic separation, despair over the “unfair” perspective by Ann, I had a chance to reflect on how I came to read a novel with so little knowledge of it. 

Before my e-reader, I would have had a paperback, with the reviews on the back, the short author biography on the last page, the other reviews up front – that would have mentioned the fact is was a memoir, and probably a few photos of Lucy.  All things I would have reviewed periodically when I closed the book after a cherished reading session.   I would have realized some of the “meta-data” about the book.  I would have known this lovable but extremely needy and tragic best friend did, in fact, exist.  That Ann wasn’t dragging it out to make another 20,000 words, but was actually telling her truth, about her friend – with all her gifts and tragedies.  Also, I would perhaps have been a little more empathetic (like I am now), instead of rolling my eyes at the drama I thought Ann had created.  Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

So next time, maybe I will research a little more ahead of time about the book I’m reading on my Kindle, so I won’t have not-a-clue whether it’s true or not.  (Though I did enjoy Memoirs of Geisha a lot more thinking it was non-fiction – I still can’t believe a man wrote that book!)  Or maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll just continue to read in my little Kindle cave and think what I like.  And maybe I’ll, or maybe I won’t, eventually do more research to find out the real truth behind the writing.  Or maybe I’ll just enjoy the simple beauty of it and leave it at that.

What I Learned Lately From My Father
Nancy Deming-May
September 2012

I guess life is all about learning and some lessons are easier than others. I think we all appreciate what we have gained though we may never want to repeat some of the classes.

I just got back from visiting my father and this is what I’ve learned:

No matter how much you dread seeing them again because of the depressing decline in physical and mental acuity, you get used to it. And the only thing that helps you get used to it is time. The quick ins and outs don’t work – it takes presence – for at least several hours at a time.

After a while, you start to see the humor in them and not just the decline. You also recognize the foundational parts of their being – that are STILL there. You share eye contact and you know it’s still him and you know he knows it’s you. You recognize more of his words and you even have a conversation of sorts.

You don’t have to talk or entertain the whole time. Sometimes it’s fine, even better, to just BE there – holding a hand, patting a leg, rubbing a shoulder. Once you let go of the need for conversation, you start having meaningful presence. He can’t see very well, so those photos you want to show him aren’t so great and that’s okay.

After enough exposure, the smell that brings about such a shuddering dread, is just a smell – without judgment. The drool that was so upsetting at first is just a chin that needs to be wiped – nothing more. The bouts of anger and verbal outbursts are simply exercises in creative problem solving.

The longer you hang, the more you come to know and appreciate the staff and “get” how they can do this day after day. You come to appreciate the handiness of the male nurses that can lift him without assistance. You are amazed at their “toolbox” of ideas to keep him occupied – from putting his wheelchair against the wall and handrail so he can keep attempting to stand up all the while staying close by to keep him safe, the moving from chair to chair, to try and find one that “works,” the vanilla pudding they keep handy in case that will help, and lastly the crushed psychotropic meds to help calm his agitation and anxiety.

You come to appreciate the dedicated spouses that show up day after day and sit with their long-time partners – feeding, pushing, talking or just being with them. They thank you for coming and tell you the good memories they have of your dad.

You feel blessed to share this experience.

Thank you Dad.