Sunday, June 29, 2014

"I should have taken the dog for a walk."

"I should have taken the dog for a walk." Those were my mother's words to me a week after my father's death in February 1979, when he was 57.

She'd awakened one morning and found my father, blue and gurgling, in the bed beside her. She called my sister, who lived nearby, and said, "Something is wrong with Daddy. Come right now." My 24-year-old sister arrived in her pajamas, ran down the hall to the bedroom, took one look at our father and called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital, where he died nine weeks later.

"I should have taken the dog for a walk." I can still remember how I caught my breath. How selfish of her, I thought. I'd had a strained relationship with my mother for years, and this was one of those times I felt the strain again.

"I should have taken the dog for a walk." That phrase has remained with me for 35 years. Even after my mother died in 2008, I remembered.

Then, just this week, I had a conversation with my sister about the day she called 9-1-1 for my father. She said she and my mother didn't follow the ambulance to the hospital. An hour later a doctor called to talk to her about putting my father on a ventilator. His lungs had filled with fluid, but a ventilator could be used as a temporary aid. He recommended it be done. My mother argued with the doctor. "He was my buddy. I promised him I wouldn't let anyone perform heroic measures on him." The doctor was persuasive, though, and my mother gave her consent.

As it turned out, the ventilator remained in use for nine weeks. Attempts were made to wean my father from the machine, but his lifelong smoking habit had resulted in emphysema, and his lungs had given out. Late one evening he asked that the ventilator be turned off, and his request was honored. He died six hours later.

Until this week I hadn't known about the phone conversation between the doctor and my mother. I hadn't known -- or hadn't remembered -- about the promise my parents had made to each other not to allow heroic measures. I see now that "I should have taken the dog for a walk" was a statement made out of heartbreak and regret rather than out of selfishness.

I made assumptions about another person, and I didn't know the whole story. And I missed an opportunity, in my mother's later years, to talk to her about promises and regrets. It might have been good for us both.

I'm trying harder not to make assumptions.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

These are the good old days

My neighbor, Jennie, is a homeschooling mom with a husband and three children ages 10, 6 and 6 months. Her life is quite busy and sometimes when we meet to chat I've been known to say, "These are the good old days." It's my reminder to her that the life she and her family are making is good.

My life these days is good, too. This is what I got to experience this week:

On Monday, I took a Washington State Ferry to Whidbey Island to do a workplace mediation. We held it at a meditation center because there was no appropriate room at the workplace. The center was a shoeless house (I hadn't brought any socks) and we ended up mediating in a room with Eastern spiritual posters and a shrine, rather than in a simple unadorned room. I do this mediation work as a volunteer; I'm grateful to be retired to have the time to do it. As I took the ferry home in mid-afternoon, I was, as usual, grateful for my life. 

Monday evening I went to the Board meeting at my church. There's a group thinking about creating a "tiny house" community for the homeless in our community. I want to be part of that effort. It's something I can do for the eight months I'm home and perhaps work remotely from Tucson in the winter. I think back to the work I did with Habitat for Humanity and I'm thinking it kind of led me to this local effort.

On Tuesday I was invited to a staff meeting at the massage clinic my business partner runs. I attend those only once in a while. The morale was good; lots of positive energy and laughter, and most of the meeting was conducted by our employees. It hasn't always been like that, so I was glad to see it happening and to be a part of it. Afterwards I met my friend Vicki for coffee. She and her husband spend the winter on a boat in Mexico, and they've just gotten back for the summer. She and I worked together for five years, but these days we scarcely mention the place. We talk about everything else!

On Thursday I spent the day at a workshop on workplace mediations - after doing several of them already without the specialized training.  And on Friday I spent another day at a workshop on how to help divorcing couples divide up their assets. I remembered, again, that it's not always about the money. It's about the value the people place on what they have. It's our job to help them discern what's important to them as they separate.  I love this stuff! It's especially cool that I can take my mediation skills everywhere with me.

And this weekend! Sunny and warm in the Seattle area. Our strawberries are ripe. The spinach and lettuce are growing faster than we can eat it. The blueberries and the peas will be ripe by next week. The corn will be taller than knee high by the fourth of July. I sit in my Adirondack chair in the garden and I feel fabulous - even though my back complains when I stand up. I heard recently that for people over 60, once they stand up, it takes three steps for them to get their body parts working together. That's true for me, for sure!

The best part of these "good old days" is the experience I'm having with my sister Alyx. She is seven years younger than me, and we were never close until after our mother died in 2008. She and her husband moved here from Alaska to take new jobs; they will be living in our back yard for three to six months in their motorhome. They've been here for five weeks and there has been no drama and no stress. Alyx and I sit on the deck and talk while we watch their four indoor cats experience the outdoors for the first time. We are comfortable with each other. We've been talking on the phone for several years - mostly in times of stress for one or both of us - but this time together is the ordinary kind. Tonight Alyx cooked and the four of us ate outdoors and then sat and talked for nearly an hour after dinner. It's an enriching time. 

Art and I have three trips coming up: a family gathering in Idaho over the July 4 weekend, a schooner cruise in Maine in September, and two weeks in Hawaii in November. And then we leave for our winter place in Tucson.  

Today, one day past the summer solstice, the light is long. I went for my two-mile walk this evening and got home at 9:30. It was still light out, with a pink sky, and a newborn foal nursing its mother on a neighbor's acre. 

We've had "good old days" times before, when the eight kids in our blended family were growing up. But this time now, when we're retired and able to choose how to spend each day, is a bonus.

These are the good old days, too.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The trip I didn't take

My son Russell graduated from nursing school on Friday. It's a 400-mile drive from Brier, Washington to Roseburg, Oregon, and I didn't want to drive the distance on my own - my husband Art had another commitment. So I booked a seat on an airplane and a rental car at the airport in Eugene. Russell made arrangements for me to stay with his Aunt Patty, my former-sister-in-law who's always been a fun and interesting person to spend time with. The pinning would take place at 10 a.m., followed by a luncheon at a local pizza place. Later in the day, Russ would "walk" at graduation. I lived in Roseburg for six years in the 80s and have been back there many times to visit family and friends. This would be another quick trip.

That was my plan. What actually happened was I had a gastrointestinal issue and stayed home instead. I experienced the pinning, the luncheon and the graduation ceremony courtesy of the Facebook pictures posted by my son James. I also observed that my two sons played golf on Saturday using a cart driven by their father John, my ex-husband.

I'd rather have gone, of course. But plans change. Like it says on my license plate frame: "Make God laugh. Tell Him your plans."

Some other things I hadn't planned:

  • I've been staying up late, until midnight or later, for a month or so. My husband goes to bed early these days. He has medications that tire him out by early evening and he gets up at 4:30 every morning. I decided 8:30 p.m. was too early a bedtime for me. But now I feel like I'm missing out on the morning! On three days this coming week I have to be up and out of the house by 8:00 a.m., so I'm pacing myself today and preparing for an earlier bedtime tonight. I like the quiet house at night when I can be productive, but I miss the nightly ritual of going to bed at the same time as Art. I love the freedom of being retired, though, so I can choose my sleep schedule.
  • Since I wasn't in Roseburg on Friday night and I was feeling better, I went to a potluck at church, where I've recently become a member. The dinner was for the board and for new members. Good potluck, pretty decorations, nice people. But these events are painful for me. I'm miserable making small talk. I can do one-on-one, or one-on-two or -three. I can even do one-on-a-thousand when I'm speaking. But one-on-fifteen or -twenty is hard. I confessed this to Eric, the minister, and he asked me to sit with him at dinner, which helped. I need to go to these occasions from time to time, even if I'd rather be home reading a book. Maybe in my next life I'll be better at it.
  • When I started my "no sugar" May I planned on a month. Here it is June 15 and I am still doing the no sugar thing. I've been told my skin looks good and I notice my pants riding a little lower than they used to. I was mightily tempted by a piece of cheesecake last month and by a half gallon of strawberry ice cream just last night, but I'm thinking as long as I'm into this I might as well keep on for a while. In a month or so I'll go through my closet and see what fits. Hopefully more than two months ago!
  • I have been hovering over my husband Art since his cardiac arrest in January. He is actually doing fine, living his normal life, but I want him to be more compliant than he is - with things like medical followups, medications and tests, and hydrating. He is resolutely continuing to do as he always has. So last week I put a white pebble in a bowl at church - a ritual where you let go of a thought or a person, or begin something new. My white pebble was letting go of Art's medical stuff. They belong to him. This week I've been actually quite peaceful about the whole thing. I have no idea how he is!
  • My sister has four cats and they have all been living in the RV in our back yard for a month. On Thursday they got their shots for being outdoors, and this morning we let two of them out for a supervised half hour. One of the cats is 14 years old and hasn't been outdoors more than two times in his whole life. I got to watch him explore. Mostly he wanted to chew on a couple of weeds and creep under the deck. Nice to be involved in a first of that kind.
After a week of glorious sun and a burgeoning vegetable garden, we've got cooler weather and rain today. We're watching the World Cup with the volume muted - "All they do is yack," Art says. I turned on the gas fireplace and am grateful for a warm, dry house and a quiet day.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

My doctors are retiring

I've had Alan W as my primary care doc for 25 years. Friday is his last day of work after 33 years working at HMO's clinic. He sent a letter last week thanking his patients for all he's learned from them. There's a gathering on the afternoon of his last day for patients to come in and wish him well. I'll be out of town - watching my older son graduate from nursing school - but my husband Art will go, taking him a baggie of homemade biscotti as he always does at the holidays.

I am really going to miss this doc. Here's some of what he did for me in 25 years:
  • Suggested, in 1990, that I might have an issue with alcohol (I did) and congratulates me each year for the decision I made to stop drinking.
  • Talked current events with me, or travel, or healthy food, or climate change, during each appointment. (We're both slightly left of center politically, and he's more reluctant to fly than I am.) He's from Iowa, and teased me about each of the two trips I've taken there in the last couple of  years. He told me about Ashfall State Park in Nebraska, which I'd never heard of, and which turned out to be a fascinating place.
  • Conducted long email threads over several months to help me adjust my blood pressure medication. 
  • Respected my choices to try nonprescription supplements, chiropractic, and acupuncture. "If they work for you, that's fine."
  • Respected my choice to remain anxious for years about "in-my-mind" illnesses (I'm very healthy but worry anyway), until I finally said, "Help, help!" and then prescribed an effective medication, coaching me as I found the right dose to tame the anxiety.
  • Called me the night my husband had a cardiac arrest. I'd emailed Alan via Art's online account about the event. Alan and I talked for 45 minutes about the circumstances and the prognosis. At the end he said, "Anything else I can do?" "Yes, you should probably call Art." Which he did. Alan and Art had a five-minute conversation. Alan knew who needed the consultation that night.
  • Laughed at me from time to time. Laughed with me a lot.
It felt like we were friends. He was safe to talk to. Sometimes I had to wait in the lobby for a while, but I always got all the time I needed. I didn't mind waiting because I knew all his other patients got the same quality of care.

I'm sad for me but very happy for Alan, as he pursues his interest in hiking and photography and puts to use, in his own life, all he has learned from his patients. (That's what he said in his retirement letter!) I sent him an email thanking him for all his help through the years. He replied - thanking me!

My only other doctor at present is an ophthalmologist. Dr. S did an office surgery on my eyelids a few years ago (if saggy eyelids interfere with vision, their tightening is a medical expense covered by insurance). She reassured me when I had one vitreous detachment five years ago and another one three years ago. She recommended me for cataract surgery on my right eye two years ago but said my left-eye cataract wasn't ready yet. Dr. S was professional and competent, but she was the doctor and I was the patient, and that was it.

Dr. S retired two weeks ago. Last week I went in to have the left-eye cataract evaluated. My new doc, Dr. G, took a look, explained the benefits and the risks of cataract surgery, told me that, on a 1-to-10 scale, my cataract is a 4, and that it's up to me when I choose to have the surgery. "When it starts to affect your quality of life, call and make an appointment." He didn't say no. He left it up to me. So I decided to wait! I love the choice rather than being told not yet.

Doctors retire, and new doctors take their place. I guess I'm good with that.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Behaving ourselves

This has been a week full of conflict, both actual and potential. I had three mediations - usually I take on only one, but this week the weather was so good my spirits were high as well as my energy level.

In mediations, each party is pretty sure they're right and the other is wrong. Usually it's also a matter of "the principle of the thing". So, in small claims, one person may owe money to another, but for some reason there's been perceived unfairness or poor treatment, so one party files a claim against the other. A mediator's job is to help the parties hear each other and work out an agreement they both can live with, rather than going to trial. We tell them the judge won't be interested in what's fair or who did the most wrong thing to the other; the judge will simply apply the law. In this week's small claims court, one man said he had been treated rudely by a customer service department, so not only did he want his money back but also a written apology from the customer service person, who did not attend the session. Somehow we worked out an agreement. Small claims mediations last only an hour or so; I think of them as "Mediation Light".

In the other two mediations both parties were convinced the other had done them wrong. That's always the case - whether it's a divorcing couple, angry neighbors or a disgruntled tenant. Again, the job of mediators is to listen and reflect, to encourage the parties to hear each other and to reach an agreement they can live with. These mediations are scheduled for three hours but can go longer than that.

By Thursday evening, when I finished the final mediation for the week, I was tired!

On the home front, it's not always easy to be neutral and to seek common ground that's positive. I try to keep an open mind myself but I am not always successful. I felt wronged this weekend by two other residents of the household and I was quite annoyed. One of the other residents didn't think they had wronged me. They said it was a misunderstanding. I think it was a deliberate attempt to do an end run around my strongly-held brief.  I wish I could have cloned myself and mediated between us. The issue is still unresolved. The cynical part of me thinks the other parties are going to ignore the issue and hope it goes away, which will leave me with the choice of pursuing it or letting it go. Behave myself or assert my rights. What should it be?

There are times when I think people with short fuses have too much control of things, and people with longer fuses have to put up with bad behavior. In the long run, I usually feel better when I am behaving myself.

Right now, though, I'm waiting to feel better.

Last week I didn't get to my water aerobics class, not even once, and I didn't walk. Tomorrow I start back to my regular exercise routine. That will help.