Sweet Passage: Part One

“…So their work is mostly us, their families. They stay close, pay close attention, watch over us, and are always available to us.”

Book author Jon Katz wrote those words in a post last week about smaller dogs.

I smiled as I read it, and I also cried some as well.

My 14 year old corgi Maddie had just passed away last Monday.

It seemed I’d become Maddie’s purpose over the years after a brief stint as a breeder dog.

And she handled her role with grace, love and compassion always.

I often felt she’d become my own unique caregiver over the last decade as I dealt with the loss of both my parents and husband from Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

She’d calm my constant rage with the cruel disease by simply offering her belly for scratching or even a soft ear that would just listen.

Sometimes it was a just a big, wet button nose to kiss.

Maddie’s whole face wore joy so well, even in her final months.

She radiated happiness in her pet stroller as we’d navigate around the lake in the sunshine.

And Maddie looked even happier as we’d stop at the nearby bakery for free sugary smells and fresh samples.

Yet she was also very content just keeping an eye on me from her cozy dog bed in the kitchen in her final days.

After all, she still saw it as her job till the end.

Those big round eyes were so full of soul, yet often they were mixed with just a little mischief.

No wonder everyone loved Maddie, both man and beast.

The morning after Maddie passed, my Chi pup Rex was blue and refused to eat for the first time.

And my Yorkie Tucker, hid under the bed.

He’s never done that before either.

Yet this week we all seem to be moving on.

I know Maddie’s in a good place. And as I told the rest of the canine clan this morning, “Don’t worry, she’s still watching over us.”

I like to think they agreed as we looked up at the sky while walking out the door into the beautiful day before us.

Burying those ‘Bah Humbugs’

I was having one of those ‘Bah Humbug’ moments.

I’d just lost a mitten while shopping for my kitten.

I had been busily stocking up on emergency supplies at the store up the hill as a winter storm was coming.

Buying replacement mittens definitely was not on my shopping list.

But kitty litter, bread, milk, and lots of chocolate were. And all were fortunately within easy reach of the Santa cookie tins and one available smiling clerk humming “Let It Snow.”

I’m thinking their placement was geared towards keeping my spirits bright.

However, it didn’t.

I soon caught myself uttering another “Bah Humbug.”

Christmas fell off the top of my favorite holiday list way back when I was six.

That was the year the new doll smell and curly blonde hair of a baby doll delivered by Santa attracted the attention of our young beagle. Our dog thought she made the perfect chew toy.

The doll and my Norman Rockwell holiday were never quite the same.

It seems the annual arrival of frigid sub-zero weather with the holidays hasn’t helped my attitude either or all that crazy commercialism and greed.

Even family celebrations have grown a bit more bittersweet year by year.

It’s hard to forget the Christmas Eve when my late dementia stricken mother stared at her grandchildren across the dinner table and blurted out, “So who are you?”

Or the memories of sharing hospital meals of wilted salads and frosted Christmas cookies with my husband while he was in hospice three years ago.

But things really are beginning to look up.

Even in a year when peace and joy seem a bit hard to find.

Luckily, I just found that favorite mitten.

And I’m playing Santa for a few seniors, an animal rescue group, and the young children I work with.

I’m also hoping to share many more last minute smiles before the big day.

You see I once saw a flying Santa in the skies do the same.

It happened a few years ago.

I’d awakened at 6:00 a.m. to hysterical laughter on a holiday flight returning from Amsterdam.

The plane was packed full of travelers of all colors and nationalities. Many didn’t speak English.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone was looking up at the same movie screen smiling, sharing just a few brief moments of comfort and joy.

As well as those chuckles.

This time of year, no matter your beliefs, perhaps that’s what matters most.

Dignity, with a dose of joy

Grief is a funny thing.

Or maybe not.

You think you’ve got proper protection then something bites you in the backyard.

Just like a big old mosquito.

I was outside playing with the dogs tonight when I got stung.

There laying on the freshly cut grass before me was my loving corgi Maddie. My girl’s close to 14 now and she was looking lethargic with her head down on the ground.

One of Maddie’s backlegs is lame, and now the second seems to be slowing down as well.

I joined her on my stomach anyway right next to her, and started snapping pictures.

But that usual magical spark was missing in Maddie’s eyes which was bringing me down even lower.

My girl’s expression reminded me of the words my paternal grandmother shared with me in her eighties.  “It’s hell getting old,” Grandma would often say before she passed from Alzheimer’s a few years later.

I stopped and thought for a moment about about those I’ve lost in in my life, particularly in the last 3 or 4 years.

There once was a mother, one husband, and three sweet senior dogs.

Mom, my spouse Richard, and even one of the dogs had dementia. And yet they all managed to keep happy in spite of their illnesses.

Perhaps even happier than my late corgi Mariah and chi-doxie Greta who held on to their cognitive skills till the day each of them passed on.

I began to scratch Maddie’s soft belly for a while to calm her and to calm me.

Suddenly a mourning dove began to croon on the weathered fence post behind us, but it wasn’t a sad song at all.

Then a monarch darted and danced right past Maddie’s black nose demanding her attention before taking off for the barbecue next door.

Soon I saw joy and dignity return to Maddie’s face.

And I felt a growing smile on mine as my camera hooked just the shot I was looking for.

It’s definitely a keeper.

Reinvention and resilence

“Get your ducks in a row,” the polished silver haired woman seated before me advised.

A few months after my husband Richard passed away from dementia, and a year after my Mom did the same, I thought I better see a grief counselor.

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” I’d asked myself one night in the mirror.

Previously I’d attended a group session for family members of those who’d passed while in hospice, but I left feeling worse then when I went in.

I no longer needed to share my tears and grief over Mom and Richard, but instead wanted to move on with my life. After a decade of caregiving responsibilities related to memory loss for both of my parents and my spouse, I was ready.

Yet I was still mourning what I saw as the loss of ten years of my life.

I felt I’d gone from middle aged to old with the snap of an arthritic finger.

So as I sat with this wise woman before me for my two sessions, I took her advice to heart.

I knew I wasn’t getting any younger, but getting my affairs in order so I could fully enjoy the rest of my days made good sense.

As I sat down by the lake this morning watching sailboats and the family of happy ducks before me, I reflected on the changes I’ve made in the last eight months.

I’ve swapped both houses and communities.

I retired early from my corporate career, and I’m now working in the non profit sector with children.

And I believe I am at peace.

Sharing a muffin with the ducks, I thought too of a former co-worker from my corporate days who experienced rough patches in her own life. She is now an accomplished and very talented poet.

I believe she’s very content and proud of a new book she just published that I finished earlier this morning.

She should be.

And I thought again of contentment as I greeted another former co-employee later at the farmers’ market, a few blocks up from the the lake.

This bright fellow’s become a farmer.

It was an unplanned lifestyle change, starkly different from his corporate life in the city, but it seems to agree with him.

Buying a bunch of red radishes from my friend, my eye caught a basket of colorful notecards with photos he’d taken on his beautiful farm.

An expression of pride immediately spread across his face as I selected the shot of a cheerful and smiling pig to send to an ailing friend.

“You know, these aren’t at all easy to capture on a pig’s face,” he told me, smiling wide as well.

After I left I was thinking how different ships come in during the course of our lives as we venture to different ports of call.

And we always encounter storms along the way.

But in the end, perhaps what provides us peaceful passage may just be those very smiles we give and receive.

A Three Soda Salute

Today I celebrate warm memories of a mom.

And the life of a daughter.

It was on Mother’s Day 15 years ago that my late husband and I returned to the United States from Russia with our new 12 year old daughter, Nicole.

My mom couldn’t have dreamed of a better gift.

A language barrier didn’t slow at all the love and bonds that grew between the two.

Such soul mates they were, sharing passions for strong coffee, pickled herring, and the spiciest of shrimp gumbos.

They even shared the same May birthday.

Though Nicole’s teenage years were far from simple for any of us, I know how proud my mom would be of her granddaughter today.

Nicole’s a strong willed and loving woman, making her a remarkable mother.

She’s been an advocate for ensuring the best education and health possible for her three children in spite of some challenges.

I believe her grandma is looking down from above smiling wide at that.

And so is this mother as she sits across from her now.

So Nicole, your kids and I would like to offer up a three soda salute for all that you do and who you’ve become.

This one’s for you, kiddo!

Nicole arriving in the U.S. at age 12.

New perspectives

It was something I hadn’t seen before.

A two year old, four year old, and seven year old, sitting still at the same time.

And my three grandkids kept on with this peaceful focus, watching the animals grazing before them.

Maybe I just hadn’t noticed before.

But then I was also slow to pick up that my once wild and wooly caterpillar of a teenager suddenly grew wings.

And then blossomed beautifully into her role as a mom.

I told her so in a Mother’s Day card I tucked into her May birthday present yesterday.

“Thanks for being such a great and loving mother to my grandchildren,” I wrote.

I like to think I’m transforming as well, growing new wings and new perspectives.

This Mother’s Day’s day I drove to my mom’s old care facility after buying a bouquet of daises and box of chocolates. I was there to attend their weekly church service.

I haven’t been back since Mom left.

I do have tough memories of my mom in the care facility with her tearful pleas to go back to her old house. And I’ll never forget the painful care conference with my husband at my side when I realized his dementia had actually surpassed that of my mom’s.

But I also have plenty memories of laughter, with Mom entertaining caregivers and fellow residents while I’d dispense her beloved Dove bars to the crowd.

As I entered the facility today I asked the receptionist to pass out chocolates to any mothers who were working.

And I asked her to share the daises with a resident who might be struggling, or having a particularly rough day.

Once I walked into the tiny chapel, I recognized a few ladies who used to sit at Mom’s dining room table.

I suddenly felt at home.

And I felt Mom right in the room with me.

The small group sang classic old hymns and listened to a sermon directed to the elderly women in the group.

“Remember to always ask for help if you need it,” the minister reminded them.

A gentle, smiling usher from the local church asked me if I would help out some Sunday with the service.

The woman said she is getting older and many of her friends are now residents themselves.

Sounds like she was listening to the sermon.

Though it isn’t something I would have done a few years ago, I’m thinking of helping out.

I can’t think of a better Mother’s Day gift for Mom.

And I know a peaceful new perspective can be mighty good for the soul.

State of Confusion

I live in a state of confusion.

But a much wiser woman gave me some solid advice earlier this year after my husband passed away.

And her message was simple.

Life would be easier once my financial affairs were in order, and to have fun as life is short.

In hindsight, I’m not sure those 2 conflicting priorities should ever sit in the same sentence.

For months now I’ve been trying to clean up three small small estates. Beside’s my husband’s, there’s one for Mom and another for Dad.

I’ve been wondering if there’s even a dining room table sitting below all those forms and documents anymore.

I do know I haven’t eaten on it since Christmas.

But tonight, I decided to opt for the “hey, life is short” part of the equation.

In Minnesota that means taking advantage of gorgeous days whenever one breezes through. And this afternoon our fall temps rose all the way to 70 degrees.

That is big stuff out here in the snow belt.

We’ve already dipped deep into our annual season of confusion with young gals wearing shorts with their UGG boots and fur trimmed mittens.

And the guys are still going shirtless some days, flexing their tattoos down at the town beach with their thick wool caps pulled tight over their ears.

And their eyes.

Now I had no plans myself for any shorts or shirtless activity but I still drove down to join them after work, parking my own purple parka in the Subaru.

Though I admit I did strip off my morning wool socks so I could wear the flip flops I’d filed in the car trunk, right next to the snow brush and the estate form I’d misplaced.

After our group admired the fall colors and plentiful sunshine, we all bought chocolate ice cream cones to cool off.

And then some steaming hot cocoa to warm ourselves up.

I guess we really are confused out here.

Or maybe it’s just me.