Caring for a parent

Adjusting the Float Plan

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

It’s my day off, until dinner anyway. I’m sitting at my upstairs coffee shop table looking out the window at the rain and the mist hanging in the treetops on the hill where I live on the other side of town. My mother is up there, sitting in absolute silence at the dining room table with her breakfast, the increasingly flooding valley at her back. I know that because I know her routines. She will still be there, her breakfast long finished—or maybe she will have moved a few feet to the kitchen table with her hot water—when Michelle arrives at 9:30. She’s having malt-o-meal most likely, since we had scrambled eggs for dinner last night and at 97 she is watching her cholesterol even though the doctor has told her repeatedly she will be gone long before diet could improve her levels. She is is out of oatmeal; it is on my grocery list.

I have been in one of my periodic slumps, missing my little house in Raleigh and my independent life; and wondering if I can survive these course-adjustment years of indeterminate number. Yesterday I took a  walk of lucky timing, between the gray sky rain showers, when the sky was perfectly blue. As I passed the neighbor’s orchard by the driveway, I picked one of the last tart yellow-red apples to eat as I walked. The air was damp and fresh, and just cool enough for a light jacket. A new crop of mushrooms climbed up the stump of the newly removed maple tree, and I found a small bird’s nest downed by the weekend monsoon. My soul took a deep “this is why you are here” breath. A friend had posted the Lao-Tzu poem on Facebook, and it hit a mark. I am trying to be content with what I have, at least in moments such as these.

I walked up the hill past the fading garden of Micheline, the French war bride, and turned into it. I took French lessons in her family room on Wednesdays after school in the third grade. I loved her accent; like she had marbles in her mouth. She used to grow dahlias; later everything but. What must she have felt, leaving all she knew to sail across the ocean to a small town in the corner of America with a man she had just met? She made beauty in her unexpected life. She died last week. Au revoir, Micheline. Merci pour la beauté.

On Saturday the son of our former German neighbors and his wife came to visit relatives and stopped by to see Mama. Gert was grown and gone when we moved here, but I babysat their girls when they came to visit his parents. I haven’t seen them since I was in high school. I was shocked that he is his dad now, elderly and arthritic. They lived in Chicago when he was a small child in the 1930s. His mother had taken him to Germany for a visit when the war broke out. They were stuck there for ten years, separated from husband and father. Margaret made fudge at Christmas each year. I remember helping her in her small kitchen; stirring the dark bubbling liquid with a wooden spoon. I have that cracked spoon with a chip scorched out of its tip from scraping chocolate off the bottom of the pan; it is a treasure.

Micheline and Margaret’s voices, in their never-lost thick native accents, ring in my head now. Were they content; did they rejoice in the way things were for them, however off the trajectory of their float plan?

An old friend, with whom I am reacquainted through the wonders of Facebook, and a faithful reader of this blog, confided to me recently that his wife has early Alzheimer’s. He is very supportive and understanding of my experiences living with my mother; but, he says, “My situation is different from yours in that it is something that is simply happening rather than something I chose to transition to.” I do not dispute that for a moment. And then yesterday I read a different perspective in a book review for a new entry in the burgeoning “boomers caring for parents” field: “Whoever tucked ‘in sickness and in health’ into the marriage vows was quite the poet, compressing into six little syllables a whole strange, sad parallel universe of grievous obligation. But at least spouses know on some level what they may be in for. Not so children, who take no premonitory oaths in the matter of sick parents but are suddenly hurled around that same alternate universe by primal forces — love and conscience, guilt and resentment” (Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A Daughter’s Tale of Caring for her Parents, Katy Butler).

It is hard watching a person you love slowly disappear as they change into someone else, as my friend lamented; and it is hard whether that person is a parent or a spouse or a friend. I am aware that my mother and my sisters and I are lucky; others have a loved one who requires much more care. But I’m not sure it matters how we got onto this course or for whom it is hardest. I’m not sure it’s helpful to compare. It’s just the course we are on; and sometimes the sailing is a lonely voyage.

I recall something that Patti Digh said in one of her books—that I read three times—about owning your own typhoon. I wrote about it in My View from the Garden 2-1/2 years ago and just went back and re-read the post. We are all on a cruise, and the weather as we sail is what it is. Sometimes the sun shines and the wind is gentle at our back; and sometimes a typhoon hurls us onto a different course. This is my cruise; this is where my ship sails now. It may not be the float plan I filed when I set off into adulthood—adjustments are made according to all sorts of unforeseen events. But it does me no good to find the course I am on lacking.


4 thoughts on “Adjusting the Float Plan”

  1. I also love the last line. I need to write it down to constantly be reminded. My medical pursuit of the proper drug nw/o side effects has followed me for two months now and I can relate to the wave. Anxiety is just no fun, and I understand doubt and second guessing all too well. You are so brave to share. Thank you, Pat


  2. Another of your posts I really love. I recently saw this quote from the Humans in New York project, which is spendid. Don’t know if you think of your current chapter as a “wave” but it seems to me the guidance applies (and is what you are choosing to do).

    “When a wave comes, go deep.”
    “I think I’m going to need an explanation for that one.”
    “There’s three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave.” Humans of New York


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