Thursday, March 31, 2005

Silver Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago tonight, I sped across the Cascade mountains to see my father one last time before he died. My sister L was driving. In the car with us were L's husband and daughter, then about a year old. It was a Monday night. On Sunday, my mom had called to say Dad was in the hospital. He'd been sick with what we thought was pneumonia for what seems like a long time. Maybe months. The doctors tried different medicaitons, but he just didn't get better. On that Sunday Dad felt especially bad and told Mom to call someone from the church to take him to the hospital. I'm not sure why he didn't just ask Mom to drive him; maybe he needed help in and out of the car by then.

After Dad checked in, the tests began. Later in the day they told my parents that Dad had lung cancer, late stage. They talked about the options available for treatment (bleak) and his prognosis (bleaker). An oncologist met with them and basically told them the end was at best a week away. Then he offered to pray with them. My parents were grateful and they all prayed together there in Dad's hospital room.

Then came that round of phone calls that anyone who's faced a family crisis will remember. Mother called her daughters, we called each other. Travel plans were made. My sister and I lived about a five hour drive from Mom and Dad. We decided to leave on Tuesday.

On Monday, I went to work and tried to get everything caught up, since I didn't know how long I'd be away. I worked for a title insurance company then. I was 21 and it was my first "real" job. I had some good friends among my co-workers. They were great.

In the middle of the afternoon, I got a call from Mom. She told me that Dad was worse than they'd thought and if I wanted to see him I'd better come right away.

I called my sister L, who lived about 20 minutes from me. The earliest she could leave was after her husband got off work, but he'd get off a little early. I went home to pack.

I can't remember now what I packed or if anyone was at my apartment with me. It's possible my ex-boyfriend came over. We were still friends and I seem to remember him being there at some point. I just remember the crazy, frantic energy of getting ready for the trip. The many phone calls to my big sister, making plans and reassuring one another.

My sister wanted to drive because she knew the route better than her husband and besides, she's a crazy fast driver. A trip that usually takes at least five hours took us four. She practiced the speech she planned to give any state trooper who dared to stop her for speeding. I remember we ate junk food -- barbeque flavored Corn Nuts and other nasty stuff -- and laughed a little bit too much. We were close, then. Like sisters. We were together in the crisis. We probably didn't stop talking once during the four-hour drive.

When we got to our hometown, we drove straight to the hospital without stopping at Mom and Dad's house. It was dark and the hospital was quiet. We found Dad's room in the ICU. Mom was there, of course, and so was my sister K, with one of her children. I'm not sure which one (she has six) but whoever it was, he or she was just a baby who slept on the floor of Dad's room on a blanket K brought along. Dad was asleep. We all talked in whispers, so as not to wake the baby or Dad. We each greeted Dad when we got there and he seemed to acknowledge us but he was pretty well drugged by then. I sat on the bed next to him and rubbed his arm. Gave him a kiss. I think he had an oxygen mask over his mouth, but I can't remember for sure.

Then, we waited. And watched his monitor tell us his heart rate was too fast, then slower, then fast again. We all stared at that monitor, willing his heart rate to return to normal. At one point, near morning, his heart rate slowed and he seemed to settle down. Then he died. The heart monitor showed "0" and started making a screeching noise. My memory tells me Dad made some kind of noise at his last breath, but honestly I'm not sure I can trust my memory all these years later.

I waited for the nurses to rush in with the "crash cart." They didn't. One, a woman I'd gone through school with, came in and turned off Dad's monitor. That was it. His life was over.

This being a Catholic hospital, an old nun/nurse was dispatched to assist the grieving family. She was completely unskilled. Before my mother had even two minutes to let the new reality sink in, this old woman was in Mom's face asking her what she wanted to do with Dad's wedding ring and watch, and did she want his dentures?

I was furious. I was furious at Dad for being dead, furious at that old nun for being such a callous ass, furious at myself for not realizing he was about to die and holding onto him to keep him here a little longer. I slammed my fist into the wall. Then I cried.

We all went to the house then. It was too early in the morning to call anyone from Mom's church to begin funeral preparations; we were too keyed up to sleep. We just sat in the living room and talked and cried and then fell silent. L joked that Dad, with his amazing sense of humor, would have probably liked dying on April Fools' Day, if he had to die. Mom went to bed to try to sleep. I can't remember if the rest of us did.

My sister J didn't make it in time to see Dad before he died. She was on a plane from Florida or maybe she left the next day. I can't remember. I know it still bothers her that she didn't get to say good-bye. I remind her that really, none of us did. We thought he was doing better. That he'd sleep through the night and then, in the morning, we'd have our chance to visit and tell him how much we loved him and say our good-byes. Still, it makes her sad that she wasn't there with us in the middle of the night, watching his monitor.

I miss him still, but 25 years takes the edge off the grief. I tend to have a little anniversary effect around this time of year, but it usually takes me a few days to remember why I'm in such a lousy mood. This year it's hit me harder than usual. I think that's because I realize everything has changed in 25 years. Mom no longer lives in that same house, or that same town. Nobody visits Dad's grave any more, because no one lives close enough. We've lost touch with cousins and other relatives on my dad's side of the family; he was the glue, apparently.

My sisters and I have never been farther apart. My sister J and me, well, I don't really know what happened there. We used to talk or e-mail or IM every day, several times a day. Then her partner retired and wanted her to spend time with him, then we had some disagreements and now we just don't communicate any more. Maybe once a week we'll exchange some superficial "news" in an e-mail. I miss her. L and I haven't spoken since a heated e-mail exchange last year after we put Mom's house up for sale. I sent an apology at Christmas time, but I never heard back. We'd drifted apart over the past ten or so years. I'm not sure why. She always seemed pissed off about something when we got together, but could never bring herself to tell me. The fight last year just made the break complete. I miss her, too. It hurts to remember how close we were that night when we sped through the night to be with Dad. This grief is fresher and sharper than the grief over Dad's death, which by now is an old companion.

It's hard to realize Mom has now been a widow for 25 years. She and Dad were married only 36 years when he died. She was 55 then. She adjusted to widowhood better than anyone expected her to. She went to grief support groups. She learned to take care of herself. She became active at the YMCA where she took swimming classes with other older women, many of them widows. She let her church friends and her daughters take care of her. She started walking for health, eventually logging four miles every day. She got a dog. She took a trip to Hawaii with my aunt, also a widow. Mom bounced back in a way none of us would have imagined. We all did. Funny thing about a huge loss like that -- you can never, ever know what will come from it. Until much later.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Dr. J

My oldest sister (J) lives near my mom and looks after her. Well, Mom is actually in an assisted living facility, so there are paid professionals available to look after her. But my sister fills in the gaps and honestly takes on far more than she needs to, given the other available resources. She cooks meals for her even though very good meals are provided. She drives Mom to church even though other rides are available. She gives Mom her weekly shower even though the staff is able and willing to do it. She does Mom's laundry, whereas most residents have the staff do theirs or do it themselves in the coin-operated laundry. But I'm glad she's there for Mom and Mom appreciates her a lot.

J does a fair amount of reading online and in lay reference books about Mom's (and her own, and everyone else's) medical conditions. She doesn't have a medical degree. Never took biology, as far as I know. Didn't finish college. But it is her unwavering belief that she knows more about medicine than any of the doctors looking after Mother.

At first, this was charming. Now it's starting to bug me.

For example, here are selections from an e-mail she sent my sisters and me this morning:

Took mom to the dr on Tuesday -- [my daughter] suggested that the blisters on her leg were from shingles, and I convinced myself that it was -- he said that it looked infected (I didn't because that leg is always a little red) but he gave her both an antibiotic and the med for shingles.

Then yesterday I took her to the foot doctor and he basically said as long as it's not bothering her, he's through with her. I looked at the x-rays and they don't look much different. He made the statement that "sometimes these don't heal", but basically if it doesn't bother her, not to worry about it. I think all these doctors try to protect her from knowing too much and talk in riddles -- to me.

J is a worrier. Okay, obsessive-compulsive. Like my dad was. Like I am, to a much milder degree. She gets off on tangents. She can spin out of control with a single worrisome thought for days at a time. She equates worry with love. She fears Mom's doctors will miss something important and can't let herself trust them, even a little bit. She is vigilant. Which might be a good thing in moderation but is problematic when it colors every interaction she has with one of Mom's medical professionals, when the hidden subtext of every conversation is, "I know you are incompetent and I have my eye on you, buster."

It's next to impossible to stop her. Any suggestion that she should just let the doctors do their jobs will be met with hurt feelings, defensiveness and anger. She's the one who stepped up to the plate to take on the lion's share of the burden, after all. This seems to entitle her to full control over all Mom's medical issues, with no questions from anyone.

She's bossy and she loves to be in control. In my family, who doesn't? Mom is passive and very happy to have J in control. Even if she's wrong.

At the same time, I realize that medical professionals, especially in these times, can be over-worked and do make mistakes. I used to work in a hospital. I have seen the results of malpractice up close. I would never recommend timid compliance for any patient.

It feels impossible and scary.

With the Schiavo case in the news (all day, all night, every day, every night) I have to wonder what will happen as Mother moves closer to the end of her life. As far as I know she has not signed an advance directive. I know she does not want heroic measures because we've discussed it. I will be talking to her about Living Wills when I call this weekend. I could do further damage to the tenuous relationships between my sisters and me by having this conversation. But it's a conversation that needs to be had.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Televiewing Alert!

The movie I blogged about a while back, Sunset Story, will be shown (I believe in a slightly shorter, edited version) tonight on PBS. As they say, check your local listings. Watch it, tape it, Tivo it. But don't miss it.

In a related story, the LA Times reports that Sunset Hall, setting of the movie, is facing hard times. Turns out they don't have enough new residents signing up. So if you're a freethinking senior, I beg you to check out this fabulous resource. If you're a rich benefactor, send them money. Because when I'm older I might want to live there. (Yes, it is all about me.)

Theology at Mother's Knee

A friend recently asked me if Mormons are Christians. Because she knows I'm an ex-Mormon, she (and others) sometimes asks me doctrinal or practical questions about the church. She's Jewish. I'm not sure if that matters for this story, but I think it might.

I explained that yes, Mormons consider themselves Christian, but some Christians disagree. Then she asked me about the death and resurrection of Jesus (this being Easter season, after all). I said that Mormons believe Jesus died to atone for our sins, but that Mormons don't buy the concept of Original Sin. That's one reason other Christians think Mormonism is not a fully Christian faith. Then I did my best to explain Original Sin to my friend. After we hung up I started wondering if I'd been right. It's been a long, long time since I was a Mormon and I've forgotten a lot.

This weekend when I called Mother I took the opportunity to ask her: "Do Mormons believe in Original Sin?"


"You know, the sin of Adam and Eve, passed on to all humans since that time, that the crucifixion of Jesus washed clean?"

"Well, YES! I'm pretty sure we do!"

Mom's religious beliefs have always been unemcumbered by a lot of troubling details. I don't remember ever seeing her read scriptures, although Mormons are encouraged to do so regularly. Now that she can't see, she can't read them anyway. My sister gave her a set of recordings of the Book of Mormon (which she hasn't, as far as I know, broken out of their package once in the two-plus years since she got them). She sometimes takes naps during church services (but don't tell her I told you). M0ther's parents were Mormon; their parents were Mormon. We go way, way back. It's partly a matter of simple faith with Mom. Faith and strong tradition.

I checked a few cherished religious sources. Turns out, Mom's wrong. It bothers me a little that I know more about Mormon doctrine than my Mother, to be honest.

Oh. And if you have questions about the Magic Underwear, and now that you know I'm an ex-Mormon you probably will, go here. You'll never think about Marriott hotels in quite the same way.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Now Wait Just a Minute

The thing that's been bugging me since I posted the "What Age Do You Act?" quiz yesterday is this: It lumps everyone over 40 into one group. We're apparently sitting around with our feet up, relaxing. All of us. Most importantly, it lumps my mother and me into one cohort. My mother? And me? Our lives are similar in what way again? Clearly this quiz was written by a Young Person. Whippersnapper.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Young at Heart

You Are 36 Years Old

Under 12: You are a kid at heart. You still have an optimistic life view - and you look at the world with awe.
13-19: You are a teenager at heart. You question authority and are still trying to find your place in this world.
20-29: You are a twentysomething at heart. You feel excited about what's to come... love, work, and new experiences.
30-39: You are a thirtysomething at heart. You've had a taste of success and true love, but you want more!
40+: You are a mature adult. You've been through most of the ups and downs of life already. Now you get to sit back and relax.

Rivalry Revival

Something has happened in the past year to inflame old hurts between my sister L and I. Something about moving Mother to Arizona. Something about spending a week in our old house, getting it ready to sell. Something about me being in charge and her not doing anything to help. I don't know exactly what this something is. I just know it's eating up more of my energy than I want it to.

In an effort to generate compassion for L, I spent some time imagining what it must have been like for her all these years, having a younger sister like me. Things that were hard for her just came easy for me. I got better grades. I was musical. I had a steady boyfriend all through high school. I graduated from college. Had interesting jobs. Got to travel. It's not hard to see what this could mean to a big sister. If I had a kid sister like me? Honestly, I'd hate her guts. If I were L. Which of course I'm not.

I always tried to keep my accomplishments quiet. I didn't want to hurt L's feelings. And I didn't want the bitterness and criticism that would come my way if I came across like a show-off. This tendency of mine to keep my talents quiet, to try a little less hard so as not to show anybody up -- it's still with me. Maybe if I can leave the rivalry behind, I can leave that behind, too.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Former Baker

When I talked to Mom over the weekend we got to talking about baking. Mom has always been an excellent baker. Her cooking? Not always creative or delicious. But she could bake. Dad, my sisters and I always got a special from-scratch cake for our birthdays. At Christmas, she made Yule Bread (some call it Yulekake). Every year, without fail. There might have been years she didn't feel like making it -- it's a huge project -- but every year, there it was, warm and fragrant on Christmas morning.

I asked Mom if she ever misses baking. She answered, emphatically, "Yes!" So in remembrance of Mom's great baking, here's one of her recipes. Be warned: It makes a LOT so invite some friends over to share.

Floating Island

3 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
4-1/2 teaspons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
Scant 1/2 cup shortening
1-1/3 cups milk (more or less -- enough for moist dough)

4-5 medium apples peeled, cored and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
Cinnamon to taste

1 cup sugar

Mix flour, salt, baking powder, 3 tbl. sugar, shortening and milk. Roll out onto floured board (I don't know how big -- probably about 12" x 15" -- until it looks right). Top with the sliced apples. Dot with butter. Sprinkle with the 3/4 cup sugar and cinnamon. Roll up and place in dutch oven, arranging to form a circle. In the center, put 1 cup sugar. Pour boiling water in until it's about halfway up the dough.

Bake about an hour at 375 degrees.

Serve warm with cream or ice cream.

Monday, March 07, 2005

"Sunset Story"

If you haven't yet, see "Sunset Story" if you can. It's a lovely documentary about two friends who live in Sunset Hall, a retirement community for "freethinkers" in Los Angeles. The home is about 80 years old (the same age as one of the women featured in the film). I first heard about it when I was talking to a friend a while back about our need to plan for our own later years. We both talked about our fear of being surrounded by political conservatives at the end of our lives. "OH!" she said. "You need to find out about Sunset Hall in L.A.! It's great! We need something like that!"

The film is about a friendship between two women residents of Sunset Hall, Lucille and Irja. Smart, strong and dear, they will steal your heart. Their long careers as political activists didn't end when they moved to Sunset Hall. There are wonderful scenes of them at demonstrations.

I saw "Sunset Story" with a friend who is 75. She is staunchly anti-residential-care (for herself; she worked in hospice settings for many years) and said after we left the theater, "I'm going home to crochet myself a noose. If I found myself in that place I'd throw myself over the balcony into the coi pond." She really liked the film, though.

Here's the NYT review of the film. According to the article a shorter version of Sunset Story will air on PBS next month. Watch it if you can. You'll be glad you did.

The Rivalry That Wouldn't Die

When I called Mom on Saturday, she said, "L doesn't call very often."


"No. She said they were having car trouble. They got rear-ended. Maybe that's why."


And then I did the same things I always do to nurture the unhealthy habit of competition between L and me. I didn't say anything to Mother, but I was contemplating my superiority, my excellent record of calling Mother and L's many failures as a daughter. Again. Then I let it go, just a tiny bit. I let out a sigh and let a little piece of it go. It's not that L is without serious problems in the reliability department. It's not that I understand her neglect of Mother or support it. It's not even that I want us to be friends again. It's that I feel burdened by the 46-year struggle to claim my place in the family by knocking her down. I'm too tired for it. Too damned tired.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Meet the Family

Before I blog any more about my sisters, let me introduce them to you. I keep referring to "my sister" or "my oldest sister" or whatever, and I suspect it's confusing.

I have three older sisters. They were named alphabetically: J, K and L. I was nearly M but my favorite aunt swooped in and saved me just days before my birth.

J was born ten months after my parents married. She was the first grandchild on either side of the family. She was adored (and adorable). Eighteen years later, she got kicked out of BYU. She had a baby about a year before she married the baby's father. In 1964. She married the guy, twice. He was a drummer in a band and an ass. They had two kids together. She divorced him (twice). She now lives with her partner of over 20 years, near my mom. She takes very good care of Mom. She's a worrier.

K was born a year and a half after J. They were very close growing up. K is very tall and spent her adolescence learning to compact her torso without slouching so she'd be shorter than the boys. She can also wiggle her ears. She graduated from BYU and is still a very active Mormon. She is an elementary school teacher and has six children and about a gazillion grandchildren. She is the favorite. Don't tell Mom we know.

L is six years younger than K and seven years older than me. Mom only planned to have two children. L was a big surprise. L has battled weight problems almost all her life. She went to BYU one year, then transferred to a state college. She left there after a year and got married. Like K, the Mormon church is at the center of her life. She has four daughters and two grandchildren (one was adopted by another family earlier this year). She and I used to be close. Now we don't speak.

Me? I'm the baby. By the time I was 11, all my sisters were out of the house. By then my parents had more disposable income, so I got "spoiled" with things like piano lessons and a "store-bought" dress for the prom. I left the Mormon church at about 17 and had my name taken off their records officially when I was about 25. I went to a state university, where I got a couple of degrees. I'm married to my second husband and have no kids.

We're an odd bunch. We're not close, we have little in common and we're all pretty sure the other three are in cahoots against us. We're far apart in terms of age and philosophies, and all the competition for Mom's short supply of love in our early years made it impossible to trust each other later. I still sometimes imagine we're a happy, close family that gets together for holidays and big family events. I would like that to be true, and to some extent it was when Dad was still alive. Now, we just don't connect. We're like polite strangers, really.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Social Insecurity

My mother's able to afford her nice assisted living facility because my father had life insurance which my mother invested wisely, she's as tight-fisted as anyone living or dead, and she worked a series of fairly crappy jobs starting when she was a young mother and contributed to Social Security for over 30 years. Mom has also collected Social Security Disability since she was diagnosed with M.S. in about 1979.

I have also worked a series of crappy (and not so crappy) jobs, starting when I was 16. I get my form from the government every year, telling me what I can expect to collect when I retire.

Now our president is trying to take that net out from under us all. Here's what it could mean (thanks to the fabulous Mighty Ponygirl for the link). My husband does not have life insurance. I am not thrifty like my mother. I've worked over 20 years for nonprofits (translation: I've made only slightly more per year than the average McDonald's assistant manager). I am screwed.

Just Ask

If you have trouble asking for what you want, please take an assertiveness training class. RIGHT NOW. You do not want to end up like my mother.

I recently asked Mom how her blood pressure is doing. She's had high readings in the past and takes medication for it. She answered: "Great!"

When Mom lived in her own home, alone, she ate a lot of processed food, which is usually very high in sodium. I asked her if she thought the change in diet might have something to do with the improvement in her blood pressure. I asked her if she eats much salt now that she's in assisted living.

"Well, not much, no. The salt shaker is on the other side of the table and I hate to ask them to pass it to me."

While I'm happy her salt intake and blood pressure are down, I'd like it better if she could ask for what she wants. She's 80; she should be able to put a little salt on her food.

None of us should be timid about asking for what we want when we're 80. Ask! If you can't ask, learn to ask! Hurry! You might want some salt when you're 80!

You can start by reading this.