Saturday, December 22, 2012

13 Years Ago

Thirteen years ago yesterday, I strode the hallways of the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, bursting at the seams of my maternity suit.

I dissolved one brief marriage, argued about post-decree support and custody with a bitter couple and her surly and snide lawyer and filed a few things with the clerk of courts. I passed another very pregnant lawyer in those echoey marble halls and grinned at her. We were like two freighters, motors in the back, prows jutting forward, trying to maintain a professional appearance despite our advanced states.

Finished, finally, I walked the three city blocks back to the office in a bitter wind. I filed loose papers, went over instructions with my assistant, locked my desk and said good-bye to my office mates. I planned to be out for six weeks or so. The baby wasn't due until January 6, but I built a little cushion in, so I could get some things done before delivery day. I hadn't washed a single outfit or bought diapers or figured out how to install a car seat. That's what the next couple of weeks were for: nesting.

Hombre picked me up in front of the Terminal Tower and we headed to a local Spanish restaurant where we met family for dinner. I ordered the Octopus Diablo, which I ate gleefully after having a bowl of deliciously pungent garlic soup. I treated myself to one glass of red wine. It felt good to sit after a busy day. It felt good to be with my Mom and Dad, my brother, sister-in-law and their girls. It felt good to relax and celebrate closing a chapter - my career before baby.

As we drove home, it snowed; big feathery flakes. I have always loved snow. We marveled at the beauty of it, the holiday lights and our excitement about the coming baby. We had hosted my family's annual Christmas party 3 days earlier at our home and talked Mom and Dad into staying for Christmas, rather than heading back to South Carolina as they had originally planned. Mom and I planned to get things ready for the baby the next day. We got home, let the dog out and headed up to bed. It was about 11.

As I brushed my teeth, I felt a strange sensation.

"I think I just peed myself!"

"That's weird! Are you sure?"

"There is something wet running down my leg, so yeah!"

"Maybe your water broke?"

"No way. It's way too early. Nobody in my family has ever had a baby early. If I have this baby by Martin Luther King Day we'll be doing good."

"Maybe we should call the doctor."

"What for?"

"Just to check and see if this is normal."

"Pregnant women pee themselves all the time. Nothing to worry about," I assured him.

And then, "Holy crap! I think I just had a contraction! Look at the clock - what time is it?"


"Okay. I think my water did break; it's still running down my leg. Will you bring me some underwear?"

"Here you go. Are you okay?"

"Shit. I just had another contraction. What time is it?"


"Crap! Call the doctor to see if we should wait this out or head to the hospital."

"Where's the number?"

"In my Palm Pilot; downstairs, in my briefcase."

"Okay; the nurse on call asked how far apart the contractions are, " Hombre asked, phone in hand.

"About two- oooh, there's another one- minutes."

"She said head in. Doctor Klein will meet us there."

"Dammit. I don't have a bag packed."

"Where's the What to Expect book? There is a list in there, right?"

"Yes, but we don't have time to be reading books. Just use common sense. Grab some underwear and some pj's."

"Should I wake your parents?"

"Yes. Tell them we are heading to the hospital while I get some clothes on."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. These contractions kind of take my breath away. I'll be okay. Let's get going."

We left the house at 11:31 by my clock. We drove though silent, snow covered streets with Christmas music on the radio. An enormous full moon lit up the now-clear sky. In between contractions we talked.

"So what are we going to name it if it's a girl?"

"I like Charlotte."

"No. No city names."

"What about Elizabeth? I want something dignified that won't embarrass her when she's older."

"I like Elizabeth. What for a middle name?"


"I like it. What about if it's a boy?"

"I like William a lot."

"Okay, but we can't call him Bill or Billy."

"Good; I like Will. How about David for a middle name, for your Dad?"

"That works."

At the emergency entrance of Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, an attendant appeared with a wheelchair.

"I do not need a wheelchair."

"Honey, let them take you up."

"No. I am perfectly capable of walking."

"Have it your way."

The attendant merely shrugged. "Labor and Delivery is on 4."

No sooner had we entered the elevator, than another contraction hit, hard, and I wished I had taken the attendant up on his offer. I was excited but a bit anxious. I didn't feel ready. I am a planner; I like to prepare; to have things organized, details itemized, rehearsals complete. I had done none of that.

We checked in and a pretty, young nurse directed me to a changing area. As I changed into a gown, she told me that this was her first night on her own, after her training. She was very sweet.

She asked me when I last ate. I told her I finished dinner about 9. She asked me what I had to eat. I burst out laughing and told her.

"I wasn't planning on having a baby tonight or I would have had something, well, "milder.""

She made a face and said, "This is gonna be fun!" She walked me to my room and left.

Hombre and I looked at each other in disbelief. It was really happening.

Nurse McSweetie reappeared with a needle.

"Let's get an IV in you, so you'll be ready for anesthesia."

"I'm not planning on anesthesia. I think I can handle this okay. I really don't think we need an IV."

"Let's call your doctor's office to confirm that it's okay with them if you don't have an IV."

"Why is it up to them?"

"It's a matter of courtesy."

She returned a few minutes later.

"The nurse on-call said a hep-lock is okay."

She poked; I winced; she clipped and taped. I was slightly annoyed.

A few minutes later,  a young female resident appeared.

"I'm Doctor So and So. I am going to see how far you are dilated, " she announced.

"8 centimeters. Fully effaced."

She wasn't done yet:

"Oh my god! I think I touched a nose! Nurse! Go get the attending!"

I looked at Hombre.

"What the fuck?"

A young man appeared, in a white coat like all the others. A couple of even younger looking white coats trailed slightly behind him. I began to worry a bit. Why were all these people here? Where was Doctor Klein?

"I am going to check the baby's position," he said.

"Posterior. Face presentation."

"I thought so," said Dr. So and So, smugly. I didn't like her.

"What does that mean?" I asked, very worried.

"It means that instead of the baby's spine being towards your front, it is against your spine, which is not that unusual, but the baby is also face-first. Usually, the baby's chin would be kind of tucked, so the narrowest part of the head comes through the birth canal first. In your case, the head is tipped back, so the baby's face is pressed right against your cervix."

"Is the baby okay?"

"Fetal heartbeat is fine, no signs of distress. We'll just keep an eye on everything. This is your first, right? "


"Then it will probably take a while for things to progress. Don't worry.Your doctor will be here soon."

The crowd dispersed. Nurse McSweetie reappeared with ice chips.

"How are you doing? That resident isn't the nicest, is she?"

I smiled.

"I'm doing great."

She dimmed the lights, checked the baby's heartbeat and my blood pressure.

"You're sure you don't want an epidural? If you wait any longer, it will be too late."

"No. I'm doing fine."

Oddly enough, I was.

I had begun yoga when I was about 4 months pregnant and had gone to my last class just a week before. I had never taken yoga before, but I loved it. I loved the flexibility of my enormous body and the sense of peace I left each class with. We had learned focused yogic breathing: breathing out with contractions; isolating the area of pain and relaxing the remainder of the body. To my amazement, it seemed to be working!

Soon Dr. Klein strolled in, dapper in his navy blazer and tie. It was about 1:00 a.m. He greeted us and said he'd be back shortly, after he changed. He seemed jovial, almost ready for a party.

When he returned and examined me, he was blunt:

"The resident told you about the way the baby is positioned?"

He gestured with his hands, demonstrating the way the baby would have to navigate through my pelvis.

"I know you want to do this naturally, but I am only going to let you push a few times and if we don't see that the baby is progressing right away, we are going to have to do a caesarian. The most important thing is getting that baby out healthy, alright? That is what we are going to do."

Usually he was so solicitous, so mild. I had not seen this side of him before, but it was clear that he was in charge.

He had travelled a long road with me toward this night. Six years of trying to have a baby. Six years of hormone pills, invasive and painful tests, one emergency surgery and many, many disappointments. He was right; the most important thing was not what I wanted, but what was necessary. Tears spilled from my eyes and down my cheeks. He patted my shoulder.

"The baby is doing fine and we are going to make sure it stays that way."

Hombre held my hand. "You are amazing," he said.

"You should see her, Dr. Klein, the contractions come and she goes into this zone and breathes and then when it's over she goes right back to the conversation like nothing happened!"

Dr. Klein grinned at me. "I'm not surprised."

The night wore on; the contractions came closer and closer; they became rougher and stronger.

Finally, the time came to push.

"Give it everything you've got!"


"How's the baby?"

"Fine. Push again! HARDER!"


"You are doing great! One more time - HARD!"

Three times.

"The head is out. One more big push and you're done!"

Four times.

6:42 a.m.

"You've got a baby girl! Come over here and cut the cord, Dad."

I shook and shook. I was cold. I was sweating. I heard tiny cries.

"Where is she? I want to hold her. Where is she?"

"They are cleaning her up. She'll be right here."

Finally, finally, they gave her to me. My tiny baby, 6 pounds 4 ounces. Her face was red, except for a perfect circle of purple from the bridge of her nose to her chin.

"She's a little prize fighter," Dr. Klein said.

I cradled my Elizabeth Grace in my arms and she held her head up and looked straight into my eyes, studying me, memorizing my face. She looked like a little owl to me. So wise and solemn. I felt like I had known her forever.

(I'd post a picture, but we forgot to bring the camera to the hospital.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mama Got her Sparkle Back

I have never been a play-it-safe kind of a gal.

When I was young I liked bad boys, loud music and driving fast. I pushed the envelope. I debated with teachers. I orchestrated complex pranks. I was a feminist at 10. I took Billie Jean King's victory over Bobby Riggs as a personal achievement, even though I didn't play tennis.

I wanted to protest, to march, to rebel, but during the '80's at my college, few others were into that. We railed against investments in apartheid South Africa (and won - the university divested) but then asked ourselves, "What next?"

I routinely threw caution to the wind. I drank too much, danced until my legs ached, snuck into the stables at night and rode horses bareback. I was a passionate smoker and a brazen flirt. I went to bars in bad neighborhoods and went home with the new friends I met there.

Right out of college, I went to work for Procter & Gamble as a sales rep. In Oklahoma. Selling Crisco and peanut butter and cake mixes and Pringles. What was I thinking?

My first apartment was a studio just a few blocks from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. I didn't know about Oral Roberts; had never heard of it. It was September and hot. I strolled out to the pool in my bikini with my Bartles & James and Benson & Hedges, sat down next to group of young women and said hello. En masse, they stood up and walked away. That's how I found out about Oral Roberts University.

"C'est la vie" was my motto; I didn't let it get me down. I found clubs that blared Talking Heads until 2 in the morning, even in Tulsa.

I was a natural at sales, but I chafed at P&G's dress code and form-over-substance policies and in short order headed off to law school.

Nobody really enjoys law school, but I loved it. I loved the heated debates and political discussions. I loved talking about big issues and, well, partying with like-minded new friends. I loved using my brain and being free to speak my mind. I graduated with a load of student loans and no job, but a heart full of possibilities.

We all have to grow up some time and I did, too. I settled down, got married and had kids. I practiced law in firms and on my own. I loved my husband and adored my girls. There were times when the routine, though I loved my life, seemed a little stifling. I couldn't complain; I chose my life and I am so very privileged to have been able to do so. And yet I began to feel like a smaller, rather pastel version of myself. I thought that was just what happens. My inspirational well was drying up. Not much seemed exciting any more. I wondered what to do next.

And then my posse called: "Let's get out of town!" "Let's meet in Chicago!" "I'll drive!"

We road-tripped like the old days. Met in a hotel and gabbed, sipped wine and went out to eat. We walked everywhere. We window-shopped, acted crazy and sang karaoke. We danced and giggled. I remembered who I am inside and felt loved by women who "get" me. I don't have to settle for pastel. I can be my bold, brazen self.  I was positively effervescent.

And so, for my birthday, I did something I have wanted to do for the longest time. I went to a tattoo shop. I was a little nervous. The guys who ran the joint, covered in body art and multiple piercings, were incredibly kind. They didn't make me feel like a middle-aged suburban mom, slightly out of her comfort zone.

I got my nose pierced, but even better than that: I got my sparkle back.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Things We Do For Love

More than 10 years ago, I was in a hearing in Domestic Relations Court. It had been rescheduled because the magistrate had a death in her family. She thanked us for our flexibility in changing the date and then explained that her mother had passed away.

She is Muslim and she told us that it is their tradition that the close female relatives of a deceased woman (not the undertaker) wash and dress the body for the funeral, which generally occurs within 24 hours of death. She and her aunts and sisters joined together to do that on the day we were to have been in court. Of course I and the other attorney were gracious about the rescheduling. These things happen; we never know what life has in store for us. We went on with our business before the court.

As we left the courthouse, the other attorney turned to me, and said, "I could never do that. How disgusting! Wash a dead body!"

I responded, "I don't know, I have never been asked to do it, but it seems like such a loving thing. A final way to take care of a person you loved and make sure that they are treated with care and dignity, not yanked around by a stranger." I thought it sounded like a beautiful tradition.

"I guess you're right, but I could never do it."

"I don't know, but I think I could."

We went our separate ways, back to the busyness.

On my walk back to the office, I mulled it over. I hadn't known about this Muslim tradition; hadn't known that this magistrate was Muslim; hadn't thought about the prospect of washing and dressing a body before that day. My parents were both in reasonably good health at that point, so the reality of it seemed pretty distant.

I wondered when and why our western culture had become so squeamish about death and dying. It used to be that bodies were "laid out" at home and visitors came there to pay respects and offer condolences. After a couple of days, the body was buried in a wooden coffin in a family plot or churchyard. The family was apparently not spooked by having a body in the house. Maybe they even took comfort in the nearness of the loved one who would soon be buried. Maybe it felt normal because that is what other families did. Maybe there were no other options. But at some point that all changed. Why?

My research indicates that burial customs started changing during the Civil War. Arterial embalming - the injection of a preservative solution into the arteries of the deceased - had been developed around 1830, primarily to preserve cadavers for scientific use. During the Civil War, some northern families had the bodies of slain kin quickly and crudely embalmed so that they could be shipped home from southern battlefields for viewing and burial.

American opinion was very unfavorable about the private use of this process, but that changed significantly with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the funeral procession of his body around the country. It was the first opportunity for most Americans to see an embalmed body. Interest increased, although the custom of the undertaker coming to the home of the deceased, preparing the body and measuring for the casket still prevailed, perhaps due to the relative scarcity of embalmers. Undertakers up to this time were typically cabinetmakers who built coffins and took care of the dead as a side business, although often midwives also prepared bodies for burial.

At the onset of the twentieth century, germ theory was beginning to be widely accepted and the notion that a dead body may be unsanitary gained favor. Mortuary Science became a course of study that included licensure and certification. Embalming required equipment and a space away from the distraught family in which it could be performed.  As more people died in hospitals they had to be moved immediately after death anyway. Once it became necessary to have the body moved to the funeral home for embalming, there was reluctance to have it brought back to the home following that process. Enter the family funeral home or "parlor".

The early and mid-twentieth century saw the rise of the funeral industry, with the mass production of ever more elaborate metal caskets and the increase in goods and services offered. Unethical practices which involved preying upon grieving families for the sake of profits became widespread and were then exposed in the media. As the public became fearful of being taken advantage of, cremation rates climbed. During the 1970's through the 1990's there was a tremendous consolidation of family funeral homes. Where there had once been funeral homes dedicated to particular ethnic groups, located in their neighborhoods, there became fewer, larger facilities, often retaining the names of the entities they had "swallowed".

Anecdotally, it seems that the increasing use of hospice services may result in more deaths at home once again and more cremations may result in less embalming. It will take time for these trends to play out, but it seems our funeral customs are continually evolving. I wonder if we will, as a culture, take back some of the care of our beloveds that we have relinquished to outsiders?

Even though practices may evolve with technology and social mores, the desire to "do right" by a deceased loved one will never change. We still want to respect their wishes. We still want them treated with dignity and even love, whether by us or by someone else.

My family was lucky because we did not have to guess at our parents' wishes. They were courageous enough to accept the inevitable and to provide their children with guidance - possibly their final acts of parenting us. We were brave enough to listen, accept and remember.

They wanted to be cremated and then interred at the church they helped found in South Carolina and they wanted a party - a "celebration of life"- to include family and their dear friends.

At the time of their funerals, immediately after each of them died, the funeral director offered us the use of a "loaner" receptacle for their remains during the calling hours and Masses, until we could decide what we would use long-term.  My brothers, both skilled woodworkers (learned at Dad's side), examined the box.

"I could make that," James said.

"I think I will. I'd like to make one for them, for their ashes, if that's okay with everybody."

"Okay"? It wasn't okay, it was perfect.

No member of my family is particularly emotional; it's just not our style, but my brother James is the most laid-back of all of us. And yet I can't imagine what it must have been like for him, cutting the wood, piecing it together, sanding it, finishing it, and then placing Mom's and Dad's ashes inside.

He carried it into the church for the memorial service, then outside afterward and out to the "peace garden" where the columbarium sits. As Hurricane Sandy blew and spit rain, he gently slid it into their niche.

He did all these things in his typical, non-dramatic, matter-of-fact way. I suspect it was rewarding to him to have done it and probably therapeutic, too, but it cannot have been easy.

Such a generous, heartfelt gift to them and to all of us: that they should rest, together, in a beautiful casket made for them with love. I will always be grateful to him for his willingness to take it on and to do it so beautifully and with such grace.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Homage to Rumi

My minister is a poet himself and a fan of Jelaluddin Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi mystic. Because of him, my interest was piqued and I have purchased a translation of Rumi's works for my own study.

A verse I have heard Reverend Budd recite more than once, and to which I return often, is this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
The Essential Rumi, Translation by Coleman Barks with John Moyne (Harper Collins, 2004)

There is something so enticing about the notion of a place where we can leave our separateness behind; where we can stop our quarreling and just be. Where we can realize the unity of all beings and share in that sacred energy. Where our commonality trumps our differences into silence.

And yet there is something frightening about it, too. Something so frightening about letting go of our well-rehearsed scripts and predictable dialogues. To leave what we know, imperfect as it is, and go into that field. Going into that field requires trust. Going into that field means taking a leap of faith that the other will show up and meet you there. It means dropping the armor that is your "ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing." Being naked. Defenseless.  For what are we without our ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing?

What would happen if we left our arguments at the door and went into that field with just our souls? If we saw only other souls, without the identification of their ideas?  Would we recognize them without their labels?  Would we be able to discard our memory of what those labels were? Would we see that we are all the same, really; all part of the same whole? All just trying to do our best, to make a life that means something?

This is what I thought about as I watched the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama last night. And I wondered what would happen if they went into that field.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

(Big sigh)

I finally did it. I edited my "About Me" mini-bio to remove the reference to "and caring for my elderly parents." That phase of my life is over. I'm not done with it, though. There are many aspects of it that I am still chewing on, digesting and processing. I am not done writing about it. There is much more to be said.

There's another little change in the "About Me." I made myself a writer first and a non-practicing lawyer second. That's big for me. Really big. I have spent nearly my whole adult life defining myself as a lawyer. I worked hard to obtain the right to use that title. It feels dishonest somehow to not use it at all. But it is no longer how I define myself. I've had an epiphany.

In all the years I practiced law, I always liked parts of it and hated others. I loved the helping people part, and the research and analysis part and the gabbing with other lawyers part, but did you know that there are a lot of not very nice lawyers out there? Lots and lots of them. Being a divorce lawyer, I dealt with an unusually large contingent of the nastiest ones. It wore me down, dealing with them. It eroded the crisp edges of my optimism and soured my humor.

Some nice lawyers find a way to remain themselves in the midst of all the unpleasantness. They surround themselves with colleagues who buoy them or they compartmentalize or, very often, they drink. None of those routes really solved the problem for me, and I tried them all.

If it were only the other lawyers that were the problem, I could have looked at my lawyer-glass as half-full, but it wasn't only that. I was a litigator. I was in court in some fashion nearly every day and usually in more than one courtroom on any given day. Courts do not operate efficiently. Even when the judges and staff try to operate effectively, and not all do, there are unavoidable bottlenecks and detours.

I do not blame my clients for being annoyed at our rather medieval court system. I tried my best to educate them and prepare them for the inevitable, but seen through eyes fresh to the system, the process seemed worse even than I had described it. Clients tend to hold their lawyers responsible for each and every delay as though said lawyer had control of the docket, the judge and the other side's lawyer. The plot, then, thickens: we now have nasty lawyers, a cumbersome system, and irritated clients.

There is an old saying that criminal defense lawyers represent bad people at their best, and divorce lawyers represent good people at their worst. As with all cliches, there is a measure of truth in it. There were few of my clients that I truly disliked. Most were decent, hard-working people who were going through what is among the most painful happenings in life. I do not share the widely held belief that people rush to divorce instead of trying to work out the problems in their marriages. Some do, but most do not. In my experience, divorce is a decision rarely taken lightly.

My clients came to me at a low point in their lives, full of worry, guilt, anger and sadness. I did my best to shepherd them through the process with their dignity intact, concerns addressed and with the least financial impact possible in the circumstances. I knew all the intimate details of their lives: how and where they spent their money, who cheated, who lied, who screamed and who hit. I knew it all about each of them and it was a heavy burden to carry. Most appreciated me. Some did not. Most paid me. Some did not.

It was my job, but they were not just projects to me. They were human beings, complicated and unique. Although I was careful to maintain a professional distance, every one of them left a mark on me in some way. All that emotion pouring out of them like melting glaciers, and I was the rock. In more than one way, I was the rock.

I came home from the office every day, exhausted; physically and emotionally. I rarely wanted to talk about my day; I didn't want to relive it. There were good days, when I "won" and when I got to strut my stuff in trial. There were funny days, when ridiculous things happened or were said. Mostly, though, there were exhausting days.

When my girls were 2 and 4 and when Hombre and I thought we could live on one income, I sold my law practice. I didn't make a lot of money from it, but it was something; something for what I had built. There were still a few loose ends hanging out there, but I was free to move on. I enjoyed my little ones as I hadn't ever before.

A couple of years and one downsizing later, I went back to work, this time in the corporate world. The intellectual aspect was exhilarating, the social aspect was rewarding, but having been self-employed for so long, I found the lack of control frustrating and corporate policies inane. I hung in there, making the best of it for just over four years. And that's when Mom and Dad got sick and life changed for all of us.

I always told my clients that a divorce is a death: the marriage has died. I gave them a list of books that dealt with grieving and I suggested that they seek counseling. I told them they might go through similar "stages" of emotion as one might when diagnosed with a terminal illness, or upon the death of a loved one. In some strange way, dealing with one type of death prepared me to deal with another.

I had been a sporadic journaler since second grade, when I got my first locking, 5-year model, but my journals tended toward archive rather than analysis. As I embarked with my parents on their journey to the end of life, and as I drove the 98 miles between their home and mine, I thought and thought and thought about all they were going through; all we were going through. I was gripped with a need to write it all down, to parse it out. I found that blogging worked best for me because the possibility that someone else might read what I wrote forced me to think it through and to resolve what ever issue I was grappling with - dementia, cancer, being "sandwiched." It took me from merely noting events and thoughts to exploring them and maybe resolving them. And it helped me immensely.

I discovered something about myself this past year. I discovered that I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I will be a writer. I feel self-conscious labeling myself this way. I didn't earn this title through a degree or take a three-day exam. I gave myself this title and I am nervous about that. Am I qualified? Am I kidding myself here? Do I really have a talent for this or am I being humored by my friends and family? Should I finally get rid of all of those suits in the closet? It is risky to rename yourself and then to announce it to the world, but here I go.

I was invited to join a writers group, and I did. For the first time ever, I read my work out loud to near strangers and it felt good. I am working on a blog about poetry with a poet friend. I went to a poetry reading and the next time I go (there will be a next time!) I am going to read something I have written. I am excited about the possibilities and energized every time I finish a piece - an essay, a haiku, a journal entry.

I am a writer.

So why did this chicken cross the road? To be with her peeps.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Life in Sandwiches

We were a Miracle Whip-Town House home. We never, ever, veered toward Ritz or Hellmans, even when there was a sale on them at Kinney's Market. Even with a coupon. Miracle Whip flavored nearly every sandwich I ate growing up and I ate a lot of them.

Lunch always centered on the sandwich. I brown-bagged it every single day until high school, when occasionally we escaped from the gloom of our church basement lunchroom to the bright lights of Burger King. There were kids who went home for lunch, but I lived too far away. Instead, I'd unpack my folded-over baggies and see what the day held. There was always a fruit tucked in there. If I could talk Mom into it, there might be a Hunt's snack pack pudding. If there happened to be cookies in the house, there would be 2; only 2. No chips. I'd pull out the sandwich last. Would it be tuna salad? Peanut butter and mystery jam? Did she give me Jenny's peanut butter and mustard (gag) by mistake? No pickle loaf for us. Sometimes it might be baloney; sometimes egg salad. Ham salad made at home with the manual grinder that attached to the countertop? Braunschweiger? Mmmmm. Braunschweiger and Miracle Whip on white bread! A personal favorite of mine.

What is Braunschweiger, you ask? (Note: please pronounce it as I do, in the same German accent used by the  Gestapo-loving Austrian officials in The Sound of Music: "Braun-ShVIE-Gah"; it tastes better that way.) Braunschweiger is a soft liver sausage, with a dense and earthy taste. It is usually sold in chunks, in yellow casing, approximately the diameter of a soda can. I don't think I have eaten it since I graduated from high school. Out of curiosity, I looked for it at the grocery store last week, just to see if it was still available and it was! Not that I'd care to ingest any nowadays; now that I know what it is made of and what it would do to my cholesterol level.

None of my friends brought Braunschweiger; in fact, they thought it was pretty gross. They got things like ham sandwiches and Little Debbie's and bags of chips or Fritos. Usually both. Not us; not in my family. We weren't allowed much in the way of what was then known as "junk."

I ponder these things as I pack lunches for my girls. Although their schools offer hot lunch (mine didn't; too small), they prefer to pack. It's harder now to pack lunches, now that we know about trans-fats and preservatives and Red Dye #40. We have to pull out our Venn Diagrams to find the overlap among competing factors: Locally grown? Non-GMO? Nothing artificial? Healthy? No high fructose corn syrup? Whole grain? Low sugar? Oh, yeah, will they actually eat it?

And the bar keeps rising. We can't just pack it in throwaway plastic bags; it has to be sustainable: reusable containers and cloth napkins! Oh, and it should be visually appealing - like the bento-box lunches on Pinterest with the hard boiled eggs molded into the shape of a fish or a heart. Because, you know, that's all I do all day. Plan for tomorrow's school lunches. Honestly. 

These poor kids only have about 15 minutes to eat. I should just throw it all in a blender and send it in a thermos with a straw! Stainless steel, of course. With a cooler pack. Always a cooler pack. The school actually sent home guidelines for healthy lunches and REQUIRES cooler packs. My Braunschweiger sandwiches survived half a day in a locker in nothing more than a baggie, so why are cooler packs so important nowadays? Maybe it's because we don't use as much Miracle Whip.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Personal Growth

It sucks to be the one who is always there for people; the one who always seems to handle things so well: with "grace". That's what my friends have told me, but I don't feel so full of grace as I sit here with tears slipping down my cheeks. I don't feel very graceful at all.

I'm really not one to ask for help. Ever. It's not something to be proud of. I really should do it more often. I know this. It's just that when I feel the need, it seems like no one is there.

Someone I thought was such a great friend, well, she pretty much blew me off during the entire month of May, when both my parents died. I could have understood that; could have rationalized some excuse for her - I'm good at that, but then she blew me off all of June, too. Not a visit, not a note, not a call. Until just before we left on our trip, July 21, when she called to say hi. As though nothing had happened.  As though it was all like before.

I'm really easy-going with friends. I cut them a lot of slack, I really do. I'm thick skinned; it takes a lot to hurt my feelings. This hurt. It hurt a lot because we go back a ways. Back before we had kids and through five pregnancies between us. Through shared maternity clothes, post-partum depression, nanny troubles, job changes and the inevitable pull between work and babies that working women feel. We've always connected, she and I, that's why it hurt so much.

I know she will never read this. I asked her to; told her it would mean a lot to me. She said she "doesn't have time for blogs." I pretended that was okay. She is a busy professional woman, after all.

I needed someone to talk to today. It was the first hard day in a long time, but it was really hard. You see, my Mom and Dad, they always ate up whatever my girls were doing and we are in the back to school countdown. We shopped for supplies today. B has 7th (!) grade orientation tomorrow and A has her first band practice EVER (flute, thanks for asking) and they would have been so excited.

Mom always took special joy in picking out back to school outfits for my girls and sending them to them before school started. She had a knack for picking just the right thing. The girls always loved those outfits and I have the photos to prove it.

Mom and Dad would have wanted to hear every detail of our three week camping trip out west and they would have wanted to see every picture and they would have listened to every story and they are not here and it hurts and I miss them.

Left brain says, "They were old, disease caught up with them and this is life."

Right brain says, "They are out there, somewhere, watching and knowing."

Heart says, "I miss them."

I am looking at a calendar of holidays and celebrations coming up and realizing that they will not be there to celebrate with us. And there is a void. Already.

I really didn't expect to feel this way. I thought I had worked through it; I thought I had it handled. I guess I didn't.

Another %$#-damned opportunity for personal growth. And I shall try to treat it as such.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Summer of Fun

I have declared 2012 to be the Summer of Fun. It's also the summer of "make it up to your kids who have been put on the back burner a lot for the past year." And the summer of "actually follow through on plans instead of canceling at the last minute." The summer of whimsy, of fairies, of saying, "yes" and "sure, why not?" The Summer of Fun.

We started out by dyeing our hair.

"Mom, Riley's hair looks so cool! Can I dye mine purple, too?"

"If she's dyeing hers purple, then I want mine BLUE!"

"Sure! Why not?"

We camped. We camped again.

"Mom, can we put glow-in-the-dark stars on the walls of our rooms?"


"Mom, will you help me rearrange my furniture?"

"Yes, I'll help."

"Mom, can I rearrange my room again? I don't like it this way."

"Of course you can."

"Mom, can I make cookies?"

"Yes, as long as you clean up your mess."

"Mom, can we go to the pool?


We got a trampoline AND a hammock.

Mama and her fairy friends took Rooby the camper on her first all-estrogen road trip to Lily Dale, New York and Mama drove it all the way there and back!

While there, we channeled our inner goddesses, wore fairy wreaths on our heads, watched the Tibetan monks make an intricate mandala and soaked up the good ju-ju.

Oh, and then there was the no-kids-allowed '80's party. I was desperately seeking Susan.

And now for the most fun of all: we take off in a few days for our three week "Out West Extravaganza" camping trip.

Our itinerary includes Mackinaw Island, Sault St.Marie, Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Devil's Tower, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.

How much fun can this family handle?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


It's been one heck of a year. Along the way, I have learned a few things; things I did not know before because I had no reason to have known them. These are practical suggestions because I am a practical person. I have read one too many articles about caregiving that say things like, "Make time for yourself,""Stay active," blah, blah, blah. How in the heck do you do that?

Without further ado, I hereby bestow my wisdom.

1. Whenever you have reason to accompany someone, anyone, to the hospital or a doctor's appointment, carry a notebook/paper and (working) writing implement. Taking notes on your hand that you, hours later, try to decipher so that you may report to the rest of your family the prognosis for mom or dad only causes frustration. Trust me, I learned this from experience. Plus, it takes a while for the ink to wear off and people tend to look askance at adult women with sharpie script on the back of their hands and extending up the forearm. Not that I care.

2. Never leave home without an a/c charger for your iPhone. I love Siri, but girlfriend sucks the life right out of my battery. It's very stressful to be delayed and want to call home to talk your children through dinner prep and homework when your cell phone battery life indicator is in the red zone.

3. Keep snacks and water bottles in your car or your purse. Hospital cafeterias close at the most inconvenient times. Emergency rooms are often located in dicey areas where you don't really want to get out at the local Circle K at 2:00 a.m. to buy stale trail mix to tide you over on the drive home.

4. Be nice to nurses. Let me repeat: BE NICE TO NURSES. Even the surly ones. Not only are they they the folks administering the "hands-on" care to your loved one, where a gentler touch brought on by fondness is desired, they know where the coffee machines and free snacks are located and will share this information with you if you are nice. Yes, there are nurses in my family so I am biased. However, I have seen what good nurses can do. They can figure out that prescribed medication was not actually ordered from the pharmacy (yes, this happened) and get it ordered. They notice when symptoms are worsening or not improving as they should, and take action - right away- which saves lives. They are the implementers and gatekeepers for the doctors, so when they see something in the chart that the doc may have missed or an error the doc may have made, they will call it to the doctor's attention. They are better educators than most doctors, and will explain things to you so that you understand what is going on and what is likely to happen next. There is a lot they can do to make you and your "patient" more comfortable and at ease. Be nice to the nurses.

5. Be up front with your kids. Give them the truth: "I probably won't be home for dinner, so let's talk about what you can eat if I'm not here." "I really want to go on your field trip, but this time I can't do it." "Grandma is very sick, but it still makes her happy to hear your voice. Would you like to talk to her?" "No, Grandpa is not going to get better, so let's visit him as much as we can and let him know we love him." Nobody likes to deliver bad news, but it often saves tears later. Kids are smart and they know when they aren't getting the whole story. Give them the respect they deserve.

6. Keep an updated calendar and contact list on your person. If plans have to be cancelled or changed you can deal with it right away. Make sure you have numbers for all of the schools and neighbors.

7. Keep a photocopy of health insurance cards, Medicare cards and photo identification, along with medication lists for whomever you care-take, in your purse. I needed these documents often since we utilized several different hospital systems.

If it is not you, but a friend, who is being "sandwiched" between parents and children or is otherwise in a medically stressful situation, here are some things I know, now that I have lived through this. I beg forgiveness from all of my friends for not doing these things before. I'll do them now, pinkie-swear!

1. Call her (or him). Listen and let her rant. Don't worry about bothering her. It really helps to know that friends are thinking about you. Or send a quick email, letting her know you are thinking of her. Spending long hours in hospitals and emergency rooms leaves a person feeling very disconnected. Those places are like casinos, with no sense of time or place, so it's nice to have little reminders that you haven't stepped into the Twilight Zone and that life "on the outside" is still going on and that you haven't been forgotten.

2. Cut her some slack - a lot of it. If your friend is in this above-mentioned challenging situation, do not be offended if your calls and emails are not returned. Do not begin conversations or emails with, "I haven't heard from you......". She does not need the added guilt; she has plenty of it already. She got your message; she saw that you called; she appreciated it. Trust me, she was just too wiped out to respond. That or her cell phone battery was dead.

3. Do something with/for her kids. Pick them up, take them to your house to play with your kids. Take them anywhere, just give them some attention. They need it and your friend will be relieved of some of her guilt. She might even have an hour to blow off some steam browsing Pinterest. One of the nicest things anyone has done for me was to take my girls out to dinner during the calling hours at the funeral home. I had completely forgotten about dinner that night. She saved the day.

4. Bring food. Anything. A bag of bagels and some cream cheese. Dinner. A fruitcake. (Well, maybe not). It doesn't have to be fancy or gourmet. Take out and pizza get expensive and tiresome. Exhaustion and worry make planning meals and shopping really daunting. It is such a relief when someone calls and says - "I'm bringing you dinner tomorrow. Any allergies? When can I stop by or where can I leave it if you are not home?" This is also true when someone has a death in the family. BRING FOOD.

5. DO NOT SAY, "LET ME KNOW WHAT I CAN DO." I've said this in the past and I will never say it again. It is perfectly useless because it puts the burden on the stressed out person to come up with something, but she doesn't want to suggest something too burdensome, so she will say, "Oh, I'm fine. Really." Even though she's not. If she's feeling kind of pissy and if you are a close friend, she will think, "Thanks for nothing." And she will be annoyed with you. Instead, offer a couple of things you would/could do and ask her which would help her the most. Or just cut to the chase and bring food. If you are yourself in such a stressful situation that you simply can't do anything for your friend, don't tell her that; she'll feel like she should do something for you. Just call and tell her you are thinking of her or better yet, send a card.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Turning the Page

Nothing in life prepares you to deliver an eulogy for your mother.

She passed away 12 days after Dad, with her "girls" around her. A kind, efficient hospice nurse on her first solo assignment stood by. Mom went, as she always had, in her own sweet time.

She clearly had some things to work out before she left us. We could tell by the mumblings and gesturing she did so fervently those few days. We saw her sewing something (even knotting the thread!), folding laundry and feeding a baby. All those tasks that consumed her life for so many years. The hospice social worker suggested that we place her purse next to her and let her know it was there and that it was all ready to go. It felt strange, but we did it anyway.

I had never before held someone's hand as they let go of life on earth. It felt to me like such an honor, to be there to comfort her, to let her know that she was not alone. It was as she would have wanted it, with her daughters nearby. I felt so close to my sisters at that moment and yet a part of something eternal, larger than all of us. I felt a connection with all those women through time who have sat by the side of ones they loved, giving comfort and sending them off into eternity. It was a sacred event. I felt blessed.

There was grim humor in that night, as well, as we called the funeral home,

"Wait a minute, your name is familiar; didn't we just do a funeral for you last week?"

And as the undertaker arrived for the body and the nurse asked for his identification,

"It's okay, Tina, we recognize him. He came to get Dad, too."

"I thought this place seemed familiar," he said. "I'm sorry for your loss."

And then the quiet as the oxygen concentrator was turned off for the last time.

This time we knew what to do, who to call, what arrangements had to be made. We still had our lists. One thing was different this time. At Dad's funeral, by pure coincidence, all the readings and the eulogy had been done by the men in the family: sons and sons-in-law and grandsons. Without discussion, we knew that it was right that this time it should be Mom's girls. Our brothers were in agreement.

We selected different readings than we had for Dad. Readings that spoke to her love of gardening, her sense of fairness. My sister Ann, far more familiar with the Bible than the rest of us, texted us cites to chapters and verses for consideration. We chose a couple of the same hymns, but also some new ones. "In the Garden" had been sung at her mother's funeral, I remembered. We all agreed it was a good choice. My sister's partner, a beautiful, trained singer, agreed to sing it for Mom. It was settled: Ann would do the Old Testament reading, Jenny the New Testament, Christine the Prayers of the Faithful. The grand-daughters brought up the gifts. I would do the eulogy.

How do you eulogize your mother? Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated. Mom and I butted heads, early and often. Mom was not a saccharine, warm-n-fuzzy personality, and yet there was so much to her: her dry wit, her braininess, her creativity, her practicality; her beauty. I struggled with writing it.I tried to capture her essence and to describe memories that were shared among us. The words did not come as easily to me as they usually do.

The day of the funeral was sunny and bright. I had been hit with a respiratory bug that had me coughing and snorting and reduced my voice to a sexy rasp. I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to deliver. I'm not really much of a crier, but when the music started, my eyes welled. My daughters watched me as I dabbed at my eyes. They squeezed my hands. My sisters rose and did their parts, without hesitation or error. I knew then that I could do mine.

I stood at the lectern in my serious lawyer suit and prepared to speak. I looked out at my Hombre, my girls; an aunt; many cousins, friends and family who had gathered and I felt an overwhelming wave of pure love and support. Then I started to talk. I know I didn't follow exactly what I had written; I never do. I can't recall exactly what I said. What I do recall is that at points there was laughter, at others nodding and smiling. When I finished and returned to my seat, I began to cry.

I wasn't crying for my Mom; she was where she was meant to be. It was her time. I wasn't crying for myself; I knew this time would come, when Mom and Dad would be gone, and I didn't balk away from it. I wasn't worried about their souls; I don't believe in heaven or hell. I think it was simply relief. All of the stored emotion from the intense few weeks we had just had and from the weeks and months of care taking just flowed out of me.

I felt like you feel after you have driven through a blinding rainstorm, when you are so focused on keeping the car on the road and trying to see ahead, when you are gripping the steering wheel so hard your knuckles are white and then suddenly it stops and the sun comes out and you release your grip and start to shake. You hadn't even realized how hard you were gripping that wheel or that you hadn't even blinked for hours.

That's how I felt. That's why I cried. It was all over and I could let go.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


He wasn't supposed to go first.

We all thought Mom would go first. Her health has been iffy for a long time now: the out of control blood pressure, the dementia, the congestive heart failure, the repeated falls. The gastric cancer.

Her cancer odyssey started 2 1/2 years ago, on December 30th, 2009. She and Dad had come north to Ohio for Christmas, planning to stay a week. The night before the day they planned to leave, she awoke, passing blood; lots of it. The ambulance was called and she was rushed to the hospital. The Pauken clan converged upon the hospital from corners far and near. We paced, we ate, we stood watch over medical staff, we took care of Dad.

She had lost so much blood that in all, she received (I think) 5 units of blood via transfusion over the course of the next few days. The surgeon discovered an ulcer in her stomach that was bleeding. It was cauterized and we thought that was the end of it. We all exhaled.

As she slowly began to regain her strength, the surgeon reappeared and said he had seen some "suspicious" areas in her stomach "while he was in there".  He wanted to do a biopsy, which revealed the cancer in her stomach. It was a small area. The surgeon proposed a gastrectomy. He would remove the lower half of her stomach and reattach the small intestine. He would pull a few lymph nodes and then we would decide what to do next. We agreed and pushed ahead.

Following surgery, the news was pretty good: no affected lymph nodes and no invasion through the stomach wall. "Stage 1", as I recall. Mom's recovery was slow. She was so very weak from the previous blood loss. The pain medications made her hallucinate.

After a long hospital stay, she was released to a rehab facility. I will never forget the day we moved her in there. When it was time for us to leave, she looked up at us and said, "Don't leave me here." We cried. We reassured her that it would only be for a short time, until she was stronger.

All through a snowy January and February and well into March, Dad drove 40 minutes each way, every day, to be with her. She progressed; she got stronger; then a setback. She fell and broke her arm. She progressed, she got stronger, then she fell again and cut her head open. It was a long, long winter.

She didn't come home to their condo on Lake Erie until just before her birthday in March, 2010. No sooner were they home, than Dad was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. He had completely worn himself out, taking care of her. We sisters converged on them: cooking and caretaking and helping in whatever way we could.

They both recovered, and in a few weeks were eager to set off for South Carolina. They could hardly wait to return to their home and their friends and social life; to get back to normal.

We convinced Dad that Mom shouldn't be driving any longer and that it was maybe time to think about selling their home in the south and moving back north to be nearer to family. If the events of that winter had taught us anything, it was that being near family was essential.

My Dad's perpetual optimism did not allow for the possibility of future health crises. He took care of himself and worked out several days a week. Sure, Mom had her issues, but she was on the mend and he could take care of both of them. At 84 and 83, they were not ready for assisted living.

Mom was supposed to have seen an oncologist at some point following her surgery, but with the various setbacks, the appointment had been rescheduled so many times it was ultimately forgotten. Mom and Dad weren't too crazy about the oncologist at the hospital and thought they would see a different one anyhow. We were more focused on her regaining strength and balance than about the cancer anyway. The surgeon was confident that he had gotten it all. Somehow the follow-up slipped through the cracks.

The next year brought her a number of falls, one requiring stiches to her forehead. It brought at least one hospitalization for an out-of-control UTI and congestive heart failure. This delayed but did not prevent their return north in the spring of 2011 for Mom's 85th birthday party.

Mom's dementia and other frailties made her very dependent upon Dad. He was her caretaker in every sense of the word. In the last few years he had taken over the shopping, cooking and cleaning and finally, over great protest, the laundry. Although it was exhausting, he seemed in many ways to revel in his role. He watched the food network, looked up recipes on the internet and became quite a good cook. As a launderer, he never quite measured up to her standards, but in all other respects she would say, "He takes good care of me."

That spring I started my weekly trips to their condo on the lake, to give Dad some time to golf or run errands without her. I'd take her shopping or to get her hair done and then out to lunch. It was good for everyone involved. Mom had softened as her dementia had advanced and she was no longer as argumentative and "prickly" as she sometimes used to be. She got winded easily and was unsteady on her feet. We all felt she was declining and tried to make the most of our time together. We had no idea how long she would be with us, but instinctively, we knew it couldn't be long.

It was on my May 10, 2011 visit that Dad admitted that his annual bout of bronchitis had sent him to the emergency room the previous weekend.

"They wanted to admit me, but I told them, "No, I am my wife's caregiver , just give me a z-pack and some cough medicine and I'll be fine in a few days"."

And then he dropped the bombshell:
"They said there was a spot on my lung that wasn't there last year at this time. It's probably nothing, but they said I should have it checked out just to make sure."

My stomach clenched. "What?"

"The doctor said there was a little spot on my left lung that wasn't there on the chest plate they did last year when I was there. I'm sure it's nothing. I'm not worried. I feel fine."

Except he wasn't fine. A day and a year later, he was gone.

Mom had gotten to the point over the past few weeks that she could no longer walk on her own. She used a wheelchair and moved from place to place only with assistance. She was much weaker, with virtually no appetite. She sat in her recliner, where my dad had sat just yesterday, her brow furrowed, lost in thought.

"Are you okay, Mom? Are you hurting anywhere?"

She softly placed her hand on her breastbone.

"Just here. I'll miss him for the rest of my life."

Her aquamarine eyes were watery. She looked away and then closed her eyes and dozed off.

Not 20 minutes later, she opened her eyes and looked around.

"Where's Jim? Has anybody seen Jim?"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bainbridge Abbey

I never thought that in helping to care for my parents, I'd be managing a staff of dozens. Since I am, does this mean that I can wear the fabulous clothes of Countess Cora Crawley of Downton Abbey as I supervise the housekeepers, caretakers, groundskeeper, nurses and cook? It seems only fitting that I should.

When Mom (Dowager Countess) and Dad (Earl of Bainbridge) moved into their apartment at Bainbridge Abbey in February, there were certain repairs that had to be made: a malfunctioning shower head, broken refrigerator door handle, etc. There has been an intermittently balky clothes dryer (it seems that birds nest in the vent), the installation of grab-bars and temperamental wi-fi service to be dealt with. It seems that every other week there is another little item that needs repair and follow up. Paul, the groundskeeper, and I are on a first-name basis, but I am thinking this should be in Carson's realm. I'll have to speak with him about that.This week, it's the dryer again. Damn those birds! I'll have to suggest a hunt.

The rent (hefty) for the apartment is supposed to include daily bed-making, rubbish removal and weekly cleaning. So far, rubbish removal has gone very smoothly.   The art of proper bed-making has eluded the young staff members who cheerfully arrive some days of the week to perform this duty. They would most certainly benefit from some instruction by Aunts Peace and Plenty. The Earl has taken to coaching them when he feels up to it, because he is an egalitarian sort. I have demonstrated hospital corners on occasion, but really, shouldn't Mrs. Hughes be handling the day-to-day instruction of the staff?

The cleaning has been sporadic at best, so I have had to go to Mrs. Hughes' stand-in and have a few chats about both quality and quantity. Fortunately, the Dowager Countess keeps a sharp lookout and informs me when things are not up to snuff. The Earl is far too permissive to be relied upon for an accurate report of such things. He has a soft heart where the staff is concerned.

The nursing staff is mostly a dedicated set and my supervision of them involves the monitoring of symptoms and frequent adjustments in medication on behalf of the Earl and Dowager Countess. Near daily (and often more) communication is typical, so we have established a collegial relationship. Fortunately there are nurses in the family (Sybil Crawley?) to provide the necessary expertise which I lack.

Unfortunately, there has been a recent staff change in the kitchen of the Abbey. It seems that the previous cook, who produced palatable, if unexciting, meals has been succeeded by a less talented chef. Much less talented. So much so that I have had a request from the Earl to purchase a few Stouffers frozen entrees. Can you imagine? The Earl dining on frozen entrees? Unthinkable. Once again, I have had to step in where Mrs. Hughes should have been attentively handling the issue. I can only hope it improves.

There have been automotive issues requiring attention, as well. The Earl's vehicle lease concluded while he was (and remains) unable to drive, necessitating the inspection and turn-in of his Lincoln. Alas, Branson was nowhere to be found, so I had to attend to this myself. I must speak to Carson, once again!

The most troubling area of oversight has been with the caretakers. We began to utilize round the clock caretakers for the Dowager Countess when the Earl was hospitalized in early February. Once he was released from the hospital after having broken his leg, he spent three weeks in the Rehabilitation Wing of the Abbey before returning their apartment. A mere five days later, he was readmitted to the hospital with a severe case of  pneumonia. Another week's stay in the hospital was followed by ten days in the Rehabilitation Wing. The Earl has not regained his strength, so we have continued with the caretakers, around the clock.

The caretakers are to assist with meals (serving only, no preparation) and "personal care"; keep the apartment tidy (no heavy cleaning); do laundry and dishes; attend to the needs of the Dowager Countess and the Earl, and communicate any concerns or needs to me. By and large, they have been lovely women who care for the Dowager Countess and the Earl with compassion and kindness, but there have been a few exceptions.

The first troublesome caretaker was the Drinker. Every staff has one, I suppose, (Thomas Barrow?) but it simply is not acceptable to have several glasses of wine while you are caring for an elderly woman with dementia and poor balance. Completely unacceptable! Moreover, the Dowager Countess was not fond of her ("She never shuts up!"). She had to go.

Soon after, she was replaced by the Emotional Basket Case. Overbearing in every possible way, she in turns browbeat me (The Countess!) about potentially dangerous conditions such as mold in the garbage disposal (horrors!), lint in the dryer vent (shocking!) and a wobbly table leg. I actually resorted to upending the dining room table, removing and reattaching each leg in turn just to silence her. She berated Lady Sybil about calling more often and burst into tears frequently and without warning. The Dowager Countess was not positively disposed toward her, either. She had to go.

Most recently I have had to terminate the services of the Lump. She schlumped into the apartment in a cloud of stale cigarette smoke (the Earl has lung cancer!), dropped her coat and bag onto any nearby chair (has she not heard of closets?) and immediately sank into the sofa and watched television. She was utterly devoid of initiative or energy and performed no task unrequested. I arrived one afternoon to see the Dowager Countess emerging from bathroom, unclothed, having both showered and cleaned the entire bathroom whilst the Lump remained immersed in TV watching. The Lump did not even notice the arrival of  "guests" despite my loud knock at the door before entering. The Dowager Countess found her tiresome ("All she does is sit there and watch TV!"). Without question, she had to go. Hopefully her replacement will be better suited to the position.

Managing an estate like Bainbridge Abbey would not be possible without sufficient staff and good people are so hard to find. Handling the financial affairs of the estate is one responsibility I simply cannot delegate to staff, no matter how trustworthy and loyal. Merely describing the goings-on of the Abbey makes me tired! I hope O'Brien has drawn a bath for me. I simply must have a good soak.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mr. Hollister

Spring break around these parts was a couple of weeks ago. Because of a long-planned for, much anticipated, three-week camping trip "out west" this coming summer, we had no travel plans. My children lamented this fact, as we live in an area of affluence. Most of their friends had exotic trips plannned: skiing, cruises and the like. We went to the Natural History Museum.

Oh, and the mall. Did I mention the mall? My 12 year old, who rates shopping right up there with a visit to the allergist, announced that she and her friend would like to go to the mall during spring break. B has not yet developed much of an interest in boys and while she takes care with her appearance (usually), she is more into tailored than ruffles, blues over pinks and absolutely nothing too "girly". Moreover, she hates perfume ("It maks my nose itch!") and loud music ("It gives me a headache.") and crowds ("They make me feel claustrophobic!"). I was shocked.

As a family, we are not big shoppers, other than a monthly Costco excursion. I spend as little time in malls as I can. I find them exhausting.  Now, that is. I used to looove malls. I used to shop as a competitive sport, but those days are long gone.

Still, I was surprised at her request.

"Sure, I'll take you and Emma to the mall. Any place in particular that you want to go?"

"No, just wherever. I thought you could drop us off and come back and get us."

We live about half an hour from said mall, so that was unlikely.

"Well, I am happy to take you, but I'll probably just take A shopping and let you two go your own way. Will that work?"

"Sure. As long as A doesn't have to come with us."

(Of course. Goes without saying. Having your 10 year old sister with you would totally, I mean totally cramp your style.)

On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, we picked up the friend. B had her purse, which she never carries, bulging with cash she had been hoarding since her birthday in late December. I parked outside Nordstrom and we synchronized our watches. We would meet up in about 3 hours.

As much as B hates to shop, A relishes it. We took off immediately for the food court. She had to have an Auntie Anne's pretzel. Then we hit Claire's, which ate up a good hour and 15 minutes, since she had to examine each and every earring in the place. On to Bath and Body Works. Another hour went by as she smelled and tested all the lotions. A spends her money as fast as she gets it, so her bags were accumulating. As we trolled the mall, we passed by a store I had never been in: Hollister. I had heard of it, of course. I understood it to be a teen mecca of a similar ilk to Abercrombie.

"Mama, looook!" (She pointed.)

"At what, honey?"

"Over there. There's a giant picture of a naked dude at that store!"

(Damn straight there was. Holy moly!)


(Well, I wouldn't go that far.)

"I would never go in there! It's too creepy!"

(Hey, lifeguard, I need a little mouth-to-mouth over here.)

"I hope B doesn't go in there."

(Me, too!)

"She won't. The music is too loud."

"Yeah, you're right, Mom. B hates loud music."

We strolled and chatted happily until it was time to rendezvous.

I saw the tweens before they saw me. I saw only one bag.

"Hey girls! Did you have fun? Did anybody buy anything?"

B produced a bag, adorned with none other than Mr. Hollister.

"You went to Hollister?"

"Yeah. I didn't want to go in there at first because of that creepy picture, but Emma convinced me."

"So how bad was it?"

"Not bad once you got inside. Just LOUD."

"Show me what you got."

She pulled out a vivid turquoise zip-front hoodie with Hollister emblazoned down one sleeve in white letters. It was cute and a perfect color for her.

"Feel how soft it is! And it was on sale!"

"Good for you. I'm glad you found something you liked."

We headed for home, chatter and giggles filling the car. We dropped off the friend, pulled in the garage and got out.

"Where's your bag, B?"

"I'm not taking that thing inside. I threw it in the back of the minivan. That thing scares me!"

I shook my head and laughed as she ran inside, already wearing her new sweatshirt.

A couple of days later, the temperature dropped and someone needed a jacket to wear to school. A jacket that, it seems, had been carelessly tossed in the back of the minivan. As I retrieved it, I saw Mr. Hollister looking up at me. Smiling. On impulse, I rolled him up and shoved him in the jacket sleeve. As B came running out the door, heading for the bus which was pulling up out front, I tossed her the jacket.

"Here you go, honey. Have a great day!"

"Bye Mom!"

When she came home from school, she headed right upstairs to do homework. I didn't see her until dinner. She never mentioned my "surprise".

I couldn't help myself:

"How was your day?"


"Did you end up needing your jacket?"



"Was there anything unusual about it?"



(Oh, man, I hope he didn't fall out and get lost on the bus!)

"Yes, Mom. That was lovely, what you put in there."

I cracked up.

"I hope I didn't embarrass you too much."

I was howling.

"What did you do, Mom? How did you embarrass her?" A asked.

"I left a little reminder of our fun spring break in her jacket this morning."

I was laughing so hard.

"She put that Hollister bag in my coat! I went to put it on and I felt something in there. I had to hide it in my book bag!"

Tears ran down my face.

"Where is it now?"

"I threw it away! That thing creeps me out."

I wiped my eyes.

"You aren't mad at me, are you?"

"No, Mom."

That evening, after a late Pinterest session, I went up to bed. Hombre was sawing logs on his side of the bed. I pulled down the covers and took off the decorative pillow sham, only to see a smiling face.

Now it's war, baby!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Happens When Kids Don't Have iPods

I resisted getting iPods for my children for as long as I could. I just hated seeing other peoples' kids with their faces looking down at the gadget in their hands. I hated how it isolated them from the real, live people sitting next to them. I hated the way it took them to a manufactured place; an imaginary place created by someone other than themselves. I remembered all the fun I had creating my own imaginary worlds with my Barbies and my sketchbook and I wanted them to have the satisfaction and fun of doing that. For years they did just that, with their dollhouse and legos and blocks.

Under pressure, I gave in. I'm sorry I did. They have hardly touched the dollhouse or the blocks or the legos since Christmas.

Then I saw the video below. It restored my convictions. I'll be showing it to my kids as soon as they get home from school. And then I'll put some limits on the iPod usage, because things like this don't happen when you are busy playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja or Words With Friends.

What the imagination can do: Caine's Arcade.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Other Shoe

Mom and Dad had been getting settled in to their new place. Dad had been futzing around, finding the bank and checking out the wine department at the grocery store across the street. They were enjoying meals cooked by someone else, hanging pictures and generally relaxing. My girls made themselves at home there, even meeting some of the other residents over the puzzle table in the library. Me? I enjoyed driving 3 miles each way to see them, instead of 98!

Dad's leg had been bothering him for the past few weeks. He had picked up a knee brace, but it didn't seem to help much. It wasn't bad enough to keep him and Mom from enjoying a concert, happy hour or a little drama production, but enough that he resorted to using a cane. He mentioned it to his new doctor on his first visit, about a week after they had moved. She looked it over and prescribed total rest, alternating ice and heat and some Tylenol. If it didn't improve quickly, he was to call her back. It got bad enough over the next couple of days that he made another appointment for the upcoming Saturday morning, February 11. She planned to do an x-ray and maybe an ultrasound.

Like many men of his generation (my Dad's a WWII vet), Dad is pretty tough. He doesn't complain much and even when he does, it is tempered by his glass-half-full outlook on life. He was so happy to be done with his cancer treatment. He was proud of the glowing reports from his doctors about how well he had done. The next PET scan was scheduled for April. He wanted to get his leg fixed up so he could get back to the cardiac rehab/workout routine he had done so faithfully since his triple by-pass in 2000. Once he could do that again, life would be back to normal. Or at least his "new" normal.

At 5:19 a.m. that Saturday, I got the call.

"Hello? Ms. Pauken? This is Nancy at The Weils. I'm calling about your father. He's had a fall. It looks like he may have broken something."

"We have called the ambulance to take him to the hospital. They should be here in a few minutes."

"Okay", I mumbled, "thanks for calling. Which hospital?"

I jumped out of bed, brushed my teeth and as I was brushing, the phone rang again.

"This is Nancy again. Your mother wants to go in the ambulance with your dad, but she can't because of her walker."

Of course. The medics need to be taking care of him, not her.

"Okay, we'll get someone over to stay with her. Please tell her to sit tight."

I called my brother,who's about 45 minutes away. I filled him in and since I was already up and dressed, I told him I'd head to the hospital. Would he please go to the apartment and stay with Mom until we knew what Dad's status was?

"Of course."

In the meantime, my sweet Hombre got up, dressed and headed out shortly after I did, to stay with Mom until my brother got there. The girls were still sleeping. There was leftover coffee in the pot that I microwaved and poured into a travel mug. I grabbed a banana and a granola bar and hit the road. It was snowing; big, feathery flakes.

The emergency room was deserted when I arrived. There were two young nurses behind the reception window, chatting, and a lone hooded woman slumped in a chair.

"No, he hasn't arrived yet.Once he is in and settled, we'll let you go back and be with him."

They went back to their magazine or whatever it was they were poring over together, without a second glance at me.

I walked to the outside window, watching for the ambulance. Something that looked like dried vomit crusted the floor near a row of chairs. It was at odds with the new-ish, sleek room.  The slumped woman looked miserable. She was called back. While I waited, I called my other siblings and told them (or their answering machines) what had happened and where I was. I paced, watching out the window for the flashing lights of an arriving squad. All I could think of was the pain my father must be in and my mother's confusion.

Another woman arrived. She looked to be in her late twenties. Heavy-set with badly dyed hair, she took an aggressive stance at the window before the two cute young nurses.

"I have a scratched cornea. I got in a fight with my mother last night."

Of course she sat down right near where I stood. I didn't want to talk to a stranger. I was in no mood for small talk, yet she began to babble about the weather: too energetically, too enthusiastically. I wondered what she was on. Red flashing lights caught my eye. An ambulance pulled up outside. Through the frosted glass, I could not see who was brought out of it, yet I knew it was my Dad.

I turned back to the intake window. A man was there, telling his tale of woe. When he stepped away, I told the now lone nurse that I thought my Dad was here. Could I go back?

"We'll get you when you can come back," she said.

"He's really hard of hearing. I'm sure he probably doesn't have his hearing aids in."

"We'll let you know when you can go back."

I retreated back into the room, the rows of chairs empty except for the new man and Crazy Hair Woman. I paced. Another woman came in; in obvious discomfort. "UTI," I thought to myself, based upon how she walked and sat so gingerly.

The minutes dripped by. I paced. I tried again to catch the eye of the nurses at the window, who were decisively ignoring me, like Queen Bees at the "popular" table in a high school cafeteria. I considered going back into the examination area without permission but realized that my being escorted from the ER by the police would not help anyone. I hate feeling powerless more than just about anything.

A door opened and one of the nurses summoned me.

"He's in exam room number 10. You can go back."

I entered cautiously, not sure what to expect. My dad was lying there, in his shorty pajamas, on a bunched-up yellow towel,  gripping the side rails of the gurney tightly, his face pale, left leg bent and his right leg splayed at such an unnatural angle that it made my stomach tighten just to look at it.


"Hi, Dad. How are you doing?"

He grabbed my hand.

"I've never had pain like this. I don't mean to complain. I got up to use the restroom and my leg just buckled underneath me. I could tell right away it was broken. It hurt so bad when I was laying there, I prayed I could just pass out."

"Oh, Dad. Have they given you anything?"

"I don't know. I think so."

"Let me get a nurse and see if they can't give you something for pain."

He gripped my hand harder. "Don't leave me."

"I won't; let's find the call button."

Just then, he was seized by a spasm that caused him to lift up off the bed and cry out.  My stomach lurched again.

A voice came out of the handset, "This is the nurse, what do you need?"

"My Dad is in severe pain. Can you give him something for it?"

"I'll see if I can give him anything."

A few minutes later, a nurse came in with a syringe.

"I gave him half a dose of dilaudid when he got here; I'll give him the other half now."

She turned to Dad,

"Sir, are you in pain?"

"Yes. Terrible pain," he said.

"How would you rate it on a scale of one to ten, one being the least and ten being the worst?"

He grimaced. "Fifteen."

She depressed the plunger. I prayed silently, to whom I am not sure, for relief for him. I had never seen such agony.

His whole body remained clenched, waiting for the next muscle spasm to occur.

"Is anyone with Mom?" he asked.

"Got it covered, Dad. Kevin is there now and Pat is on his way over."

"I hate that I had to get you out of bed on a Saturday morning like this. Where are your girls?"

"In bed. They are fine. They know where we are."

"I hate doing this to you."

"You are not doing anything to me. This is what family is for. I'm glad I am able to be here. Don't worry about that, okay?"

"Well, I do worry about it."

"Well, don't," I smiled.

He gripped my hand, and then another of the muscle spasms took over.

We waited, together, through many of these episodes, wondering what was coming next and seeing almost no one. It was eerily quiet in the tiny room. He said they had drawn blood right after he got there, but that was all. He had not seen a doctor.

A frail looking woman came in and announced that she would be taking him for x-rays. Dad looked visibly concerned.

"I don't think I can move."

I cautioned her, "He is in a tremendous amount of pain. Please be careful with him, okay?"

She nodded, released the brakes on the gurney, grabbed onto the IV pole and wheeled him away.

"I'll be here waiting for you, Dad."

My younger sister called; she was on her way from Columbus. An older sister called. She and a brother were driving together from West Virginia. I got a cup of coffee from the nurses' station. I played Words With Friends. My brother called from Mom and Dad's apartment. She was okay, just worried and confused. They would stay there until Dad was moved to a room; the emergency room was no place for Mom.

I called my girls. Yesterday was Anna's birthday and we were supposed to go get her ears pierced today. It would have to wait, I explained.

"We will go, honey, just not today. I love you. Papa will be okay."

Finally, Dad was back, looking ashen.

"Dad, are you hurting?"

He nodded, not able to speak.

I pressed the call button. A different nurse appeared.

"He is still in very bad pain. Is there anything you can give him?"

She returned with a syringe.

"This should help."

"I hope so, " I said. "Thank you. Do you have any idea when we might see a doctor or have some kind of plan?"

"The x-rays have to be read and then they will let you know."

She disappeared and we were left, again, to ourselves.

Dad gripped my hand. "I am so glad you are here with me."

"Me, too. This is not the kind of thing you want to have to go through alone, that's for sure."

Some time later, a man came in, dressed in scrubs.

"I'm Dr. S_____, the orthopedic surgeon. His leg is broken. It's a clean break, but we will need to put in a rod and hold it in place with pins. We have scheduled surgery for tomorrow morning, because he has to be cleared by medical."

He raised the sheet and took a very brief look. He removed a pen from his pocket and initialed Dad's leg, on the upper thigh, just above where the break looked to be. Dad winced as he did so.

"Any questions?"

Dad wanted to know where he went to medical school and how many of these types of surgeries he had done; I wanted to know what was involved in being "cleared by medical". He seemed to be annoyed that we asked anything at all.

He left and the nurse reappeared.

"You will be admitted as soon as a room is ready." It was about 10:30 a.m.

I texted the news to my family and sat back to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Around 1:30, they moved him to a room. He was still in agonizing pain. I had to leave the room when they moved him from gurney to bed. My younger sister, a nurse, arrived. She spoke to the nurses about pain control, in their own language. The surgeon had ordered morphine, but it wasn't cutting it. They got the surgeon on the phone. Since I had already met him, I took the receiver. He was abrupt with me. Rude, even.

"I ordered morphine for him."

"Yes, I know, but it's not working. He is having these muscle spasms that are lifting him off the bed, they are so bad. He is miserable."

"Fractures are painful."

"Yes, but he's 84 years old and you aren't doing the surgery until morning; can't you give him something else?"

"I'll see what I can do, but I already ordered morphine."

I seethed. "I would appreciate it if you could try something else."

Hours went by and there was no contact by the "medical" that was supposed to clear him. My brother and sister from West Virginia arrived. My brother arrived with my Mom. We paced. We talked and ranted among ourselves as Dad continued to writhe in pain. The nurses made repeated calls to the "Hospitalist", the medical doctor who would manage his care. She kept saying she was on her way but she never arrived.

Two of us went to find an ombudsman.

"None on duty on the weekend," we were told.

(Must be because things run so smoothly then, huh?)

"I can put you through to the nursing supervisor," the information desk lady said.

"That would be helpful."

The nursing supervisor was familiar with the situation, she said. She had been in communication with the nurses and there was really nothing she could do. It was up to the medical doctor to evaluate him.

It was now close to 5 p.m. My mood had soured considerably and what little tact I possess was long since gone. We returned to the floor and asked the nurses to get the "hospitalist" on the phone. First my brother spoke to her, asking her to please come and evaluate our Dad. She was apparently pushing back, because he handed the phone to me in frustration.

A cadre of nurses gathered around as I raised my voice and said, "We have been at this god-forsaken hospital since 6 o'clock this morning and no doctor has examined him! He is in excruciating pain and if he weren't we would have been out of here hours ago! In the time you have been on the phone, you could have been up here already!"

Do you remember Terms of Endearment? When Aurora goes after the nurses to give her daughter, who is dying of leukemia, her pain medicine? That was me.

At 5:30, the doctor finally appeared, full of CYA prattle, which none of us wanted to hear.  She actually examined my Dad and took a history. We expressed our displeasure with Dr. S____, the orthopedic surgeon. She said we were entitled to a second opinion, if we wanted one. We did. She called in a favor from a friend, who said he would come down and talk with us. She got the pain management doc on the phone and he changed up the pain medications. At last, things seemed to be moving in the right direction, although Dad still lay upon the pajamas that had been cut off him and the wrinkled yellow towel that the medics had used to lift him from the floor at 5:30 that morning.

At 7:15, Dr. H____ came to the room for our second opinion. He spent some time talking to Dad, who was finally getting some relief from the pain. He fielded questions from all of us, although he couldn't tell us why the surgery had to wait until morning. No one could. He said Dr. S____ was a "technically excellent" surgeon, who got good results. If we switched surgeons at this time, Dad would be bumped from his time slot on the surgery schedule.

He offered to show us the x-rays and we eagerly crowded around the monitor. It was ugly. The femur was broken jaggedly, and had dislocated so that one section was alongside but at an angle to the other.

"It's clearly a pathological fracture, " he said.

"A what?"

"A pathological fracture. Cancer. His lung cancer metastasized to the bone and weakened it, which caused it to break. See? You can see it very clearly right here." He pointed to a shadowy area on the screen.

"It was probably broken before he fell. Didn't Dr. S____ share that with you?"

No; no, he had not.

At once, our loquacious group was silent.