Preparing for the Journey

I drove home to Wisconsin last weekend to celebrate Easter with my family. It’s a bit of hike for just a weekend, about an eight or nine hour drive each way. But, it was important. I needed both to get away to relax and to go see family especially my dad.

Dad turned 91 last month. He’s had a good journey through this life, seen a lot of both sorrow and joys, but largely I think joys have won out, six kids, twelve grandkids, and seven great-grandchildren all surrounded in love.

Things are changing with him now. They have been for several years at least, but now it’s moving faster. Dad is walking away, heading toward the next journey. Dad has dementia. No big surprise these days at 91, still it’s strange to watch, to see him go, and to feel the feelings that go with it.

I went home last weekend knowing it might be the last visit when Dad would know me. What a strange thing to wonder if one’s own father will recognize them. This time he did, though I think for a moment he may have confused me and one of my sisters. She and I look a lot alike so that made sense. Others, with healthy, functioning brains, confuse us as well.

There are a lot of sad stories out there about elderly people left alone in nursing homes with no one to visit them. I never understood that. How could someone leave an elder to die alone? I think I have some perspective now. It’s not necessarily a lack of love, but too much. It takes a lot of strength to be with the person you love when they are no longer there.

This became clear to me when my sister JoAnn, who is the primary caretaker for Dad, got a message from his care facility letting her know that he was having a rough day. We decided to stop by and check things out in person rather than just calling back.

We got there to find Dad confused and frustrated and as is becoming typical, not wearing his hearing aids. He thought some of his belongings were missing and he’d gone into other people’s rooms to find them. He’d come out with other people’s belongings and still believing his things were gone. He argued with us and the staff person, telling us if we didn’t find his missing clothing he’d just go find it himself.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to feel that unsafe in my home even more bizarre to think that without his hearing aids Dad just saw mouths moving, but couldn’t hear enough to understand the words being said. What would that be like to be in this place where nothing makes sense anymore?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that seeing Dad in that place tore my heart out. I can see why people stop visiting their aging parents when each visit acknowledges the pain and confusion and the reality that there is nothing we can do to make it better other than maybe just being there.

JoAnn was able to put his hearing aids in and work with staff to put away the belongings he’d taken while I just sat with him for a bit to help him calm. Then JoAnn and the staff reassured him by taking a look through his closet and assuring him that everything was there. Dad was calm and maybe a little reassured by the time we left. I came back later in the day to find him still confused and concerned about his belongings, but in a better mood and able to carry on conversation, albeit a strange conversation. At least he trusted me as I assured him that both he and his belongings were safe and cared for.

On Easter we had a family party. Dad was able to join us and proudly shared his little paper bunny basket full of candies with everyone. Most of the afternoon he just smiled at everyone. He did, at one point, introduce a granddaughter to her own father, but at least he knew who both of them were on some level. He just didn’t know they knew each other.

We were all glad that he could join us, but I think we all recognized with sadness that this was probably his last family party. He may live for more years, but he is, at the same time, leaving us. I don’t think any of us know quite what to do with that. I know that each moment of recognition, every hug and kiss means more to me than ever before.

Minnesota now feels a million miles away from home in Wisconsin. Dad can’t hold conversations on the phone anymore. He needs to see faces to be able to connect the sounds and have it make sense. I told him when we parted that I’d write to him. He thanked me and let me know that he wouldn’t write back. Dementia does sometimes encourage honesty, I guess.

I don’t know if I will ever get to really talk with him again. Even if we are someday in the same place together, will he be there?

I don’t know what all this means other than hold your elders close, honor them, love them, comfort them. The journey in this world is hard. Hopefully the spirit world gives comfort someday.

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The New Year Update– Spring Edition

In some ways January 1st seems so long ago. But, here in west central Minnesota I can just look out the window and it seems like only yesterday. We’re still knee deep in snow with the promise of a really exciting blizzard in the upcoming day or so. Right now, it’s in the upper 30’s so the snow is melting and rain is coming down. The streets are running with rivers and many Morris residents are busy moving everything in their basements to higher ground and making sure their sump pumps work. I, meanwhile, am being thankful at being a renter without a basement.

So, where things from that list of lofty goals I made back in January. Well, here’s the update.

  1. Writing at least 50 blog posts– I think I better get to work on this one, but I’m not horribly far off. This is number 6 with just 41 more weeks in the year.
  2. Reading/ listening to 50 books — I’m a little behind on this one too, actually about the same amount as I am with writing my blog. I am six books in right now and working on number seven. I must highly recommend “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. What an incredibly inspiring person. I’d also say read “Driving Miss Norma: One Family’s Journey Saying Yes to Living.” It’s a beautiful tale of life in its final moments. “The Education of Will” was quite good too.
  3. Getting back on track with my healthy eating habits– I’m doing ok here now. I did have a really rough time for a few weeks when the majority of my diet was pizza and burgers. I don’t know how much I got depressed because of what I was eating or how much I was eating so poorly because I was depressed. But, I am doing a lot better now and feeling better too.
  4. Running a 10k or 1/2 marathon (I haven’t decided yet, but I know more than 5k and probably not a full)– I’m not starting running until I don’t have to plow through snow drifts to do it.
  5. learn to play guitar– I found someone who teaches guitar, that’s a start. Right?
  6. finish at least 3 or 4 knitting projects– I’ve got 1 done. I actually switched to crochet, but I’m going to count it.
  7. Get Buddy started with his therapy dog training– We started with dog training. Then it got snowed out so many times that I decided to start again in the next class series. He is learning tricks pretty well. Now, if I could just get him to learn not to chew on his human.
  8. Cutting my screen time significantly, especially facebook time– Not perfect, but doing well here. It helps to have my book reading goal. I can’t read and do Facebook at the same time. Spring will help too. I have a commitment to not looking at social media when I am out walking and I love to get out when the weather is nice.

So, that’s where it’s at. While I’m not quite where I aimed to be at this time, I’m feeling pretty good about what I’ve been able to do and am glad that I set goals this year. What about you? Who else set New Year’s goals and where are you at?

Every week I have my students write down two goals for themselves. One is a project goal to remind themselves about what they want to accomplish on the effort that they are working on with their community partner for the semester. The other, and this is maybe the more radical one for college students, is a self care goal. Most of my students are pretty generic in their self care goals. They want to sleep, to eat vegetables, or to study. But, that’s o.k. It’s makes no difference to me if they have some simple goals or even if those goals stay the same all semester. I just want them to write that self care goal every week for 15 weeks. I want them to leave the program thinking that it’s important to take care of themselves as well as to have a direction in the work they choose.

That’s why I put together my New Year’s goals this year and why I am coming back to them now in March to check in and see how I am doing, because I am important enough to take care of. We all are. I hope that you’re finding a good way to care for yourself today.

Sweet Holidays

About one and a half years ago I changed my diet. I didn’t go on a diet. In my experience, diets are almost always temporary fixes that don’t lead to long term solutions. I opted instead to change the foods I eat for a lifetime in order to live longer and better with hopes that it would help decrease my seizures and help with the bouts of depression that I’d been facing.

I worked with an old friend who now is a medical professional to test my food allergies. We found nine. Not surprisingly, most were things that I was eating daily, things like potatoes and cane sugar. I was craving these items just like any other addict would crave the substances that harm them. So, my list of harmful substances in hand I cleaned out my kitchen and began again.

It was tough at first, but I began to quickly see the benefits and they kept me going. Over time I lost 50lbs, found greater energy, began to be able to sleep through the night again, felt mentally clearer, and stopped needing to run to the bathroom every two hours. The change of eating habits definitely has helped my life a great deal. It’s hard to say whether it’s cut my seizures or not, but I’m down to about one a year which is much better than bouts of them every few months where I was a few years ago.

Over the holidays I decided to try an experiment to see how my body has healed in the last one and a half years. I decided that while I was visiting family for the week between Christmas and New Year’s that I wouldn’t stick with my healthy food choices. I wouldn’t go overboard, but I would allow myself things like sugary Christmas cookies and cheesy potatoes if I wanted them.

It is amazing to me the impact that food has on our bodies. There were many meals this past week that told me immediately that they weren’t right for me. I wondered how I handled the food roller coaster for the first forty-five years of my life. I’d find myself eating some food that I’d once loved; processed macaroni and cheese, buttered noodles from Noodles and Company, rice crispy bars, all these heavily processed, sugar laden, super carb foods that were one minute tasty on the tongue and the next causing me to say “ugghhh, I should not have done that.” Food should not elicit that kind of response.

Over the week I found that most of my allergens I can live with or without and not care too much, but there is that one demon. Yes, you probably guessed it, sugar. I am only allergic to cane sugar, but just eliminating that from my diet significantly cut my overall sugar use. When I reintroduced it this past week, I suddenly found myself reaching for more and more Christmas cookies even though I knew that within the hour I’d want a nap. Every day I slept for about an hour in the afternoon. Every night I got up at least once. I could see and feel the changes in my complexion and just my body overall even in just nine short days. And, the cravings were amazing. It is a strange thing to find myself thinking about the next cookie or piece of chocolate or whatever.

I am glad that I did the experiment and glad to be home and going back to my normal way of eating. I’ll probably be juice fasting for a few days to rid myself of toxins. Then, I hope I can keep passing all the sugary processed stuff everywhere and get back to being healthy. Wishing you all the best of health in the new year.

The New Year

It’s probably been more than 30 years now since my father and I made that trip to Canada. I remember sitting in passenger seat asking Dad about the old days. I wanted to know about his life, about where he’d come from and how he’d become the man he was. He told me stories of my grandfather who I’d never had the good fortune to meet. Grandpa died in 1935 following an appendicitis attack. My father was seven years old and emulated grandpa who was a well respected dairy farmer in the area.

It was in that conversation so many years ago that I asked my dad about what he wanted to do with his life. He told me about wanting to be a dairy farmer like his father had been. He told me about how life had gotten in the way of following his dream. He made choices, choices that were difficult but that he felt were right. He set his dream aside for marriage and children. He chose a full time job off the farm to keep his growing family fed and clothed. He put his family first and though he did crop farming he never got cows.

When I looked into his eyes and saw the sadness of a dream never realized I made a decision that defined my life. I decided in that moment that I would never look back on my life to see I hadn’t fully lived.

That decision has led me to living in eight different towns in three different states, leading community organizing efforts and fighting multinational corporations, traveling on three continents, hiking hundreds of miles, and now working at a university.

It’s been good so far, but recently watching my now aged father and a much younger family member who’s been dealing with major health issues, I’ve been thinking. My life has become rather routine and there is much to do, to see, to learn. It seems a year to write down some of those things that I’d like to have happen as a reminder to myself and a public commitment. So, here it goes. Presuming that I succeed with my efforts, there will undoubtedly be updates throughout the year. I hope you’ll read on and share the experience with me. I wish you the best in the new year! Here’s what I’ll be doing to grow.

  1. Writing at least 50 blog posts (here’s the 1st one!)
  2. Reading/ listening to 50 books ( I’m starting with “The Education of Will” by Patricia McConnell and “38 Nooses” by Scott W. Berg)
  3. Getting back on track with my healthy eating habits
  4. Running a 10k or 1/2 marathon (I haven’t decided yet, but I know more than 5k and probably not a full)
  5. learn to play guitar
  6. finish at least 3 or 4 knitting projects
  7. Get Buddy started with his therapy dog training
  8. Cutting my screen time significantly, especially facebook time

Those are my big goals for the year. My hope is that these will bring me more happiness along with some new skills, improved physical health, knowledge, and some cool projects. I hope you’ll find positive growth in the new year as well. Take good care!

Transitions

I had a dream a few days ago.  It’s that time of year when the dreams come to the surface and I have to ask myself where the stories are coming from.  It’s strange sometimes being a white girl who’s had the good fortune of having traveled with traditional Anishanaabe people.  It makes the questions much tougher, the more you know about yourself the more questions that you have sometimes. 

Anyway, in my dream I’d gone home and was visiting my 90 year old father and while there he passed on in my arms.  It wasn’t a nightmare, not at all.  In the dream, I got to say my goodbyes, watch the life leave his eyes, and hear the death gurgle as I lay his head down on the pillow.  It was gentle and it was ok.  He was ready to move on and see those who he misses and hasn’t seen in many years. 

It’s a strange thing to have a dream like that.  Dad is still kicking.  I talked to him later that day, told him I love and that I see him in my siblings and my nieces and nephews.  I think perhaps the dream was a reminder to let him know that even when he’s gone, he’ll still be here.  We won’t forget him.  He has made all the difference in our lives. 

Still it’s a hard time.  Dad has been graced with good health and a strong mind for most all of his life.  In his ninth decade he’s slowing and his mind isn’t working as it once did.  I find myself wondering how to deal with this.  I want to go home and see him for the holidays and at the same time I want to see the man that I knew when I was growing up and he’s gone. 

The man who taught me so much no longer recognizes some of the people and places that he’s known for years some days.  He doesn’t have Alzheimers or anything like that or at least nothing has been diagnosed.  He has old age. He knows that his mind isn’t working as it used to.  He misses his memory and his cognitive capabilities.  As his mind leaves, it is almost as if who he was is already dying while his shell remains. He is getting to mourn his own death while we watch it together. 

I am reminded that death is not all about sadness.  It is about a transition to the next phase.  I wonder how this transition goes?  How do I simply sit with this both feeling the sadness and being open to the joys.  I suspect that there must be joy and other feelings too.  It’s just a question of feeling them.  


Snapshots and Goodbyes

Somewhere in the stacks of photo albums and boxes of loose pictures that fill my life there is a photo of me at probably about four years old. I’m wearing a red shirt with sailboats, blue pants, and I suspect my saddle shoes though I don’t think they were visible in the picture.  My hair is a mess, but that’s been true since I was two and it started to appear on my head.  My head is tilted back and arm outstretched, reaching up to embrace my Dad who’s smiling down at me as I’m sitting on his lap at the kitchen table.  

I found myself thinking about that photo again last night after talking with my sister JoAnn.  She’d called to see if I’d talked with Dad lately.

Dad was probably about 47 in that picture, my age now.  He was living a full life.  He worked hard between his job at the power plant, farming, selling seed corn, raising a family, and just trying to live the life his beliefs told him was right and good.  He also had a lot to smile about good friends, good family, a good life all in all. 

He still has a lot of those things at 90.  Some of the family is gone, but we’ve added a lot more too.  Many of his friends have passed on, but some are still here and some of the children of others remain and still care about him. He is a lucky one to be surrounded by caring people.

So, why thinking about the photo? Well, JoAnn called to ask how Dad was doing when I talked with him.  We’ve been lucky for a long time.  Too many people these days watch their parents slip away into other worlds of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Until recent years, Dad was both mentally and physically doing really well.  It’s probably only been in this past year that he’s begun his journey to saying goodbye. 

Physically, he’s doing well for 90.  He uses a walker, but hey he’s walking. I can only hope for that at his age.  But memory is getting hard.  It’s tough to recognize the time of the day or night sometimes he needs a reminder about coming to meals.  He still loves to visit and play cards.  It takes a little while to get back into the game and remember the things that once came almost naturally like shuffling. 

It’s little things here and there.  He has a great home with wonderful staff who watch over him, family, and friends who visit almost daily, and my sisters and their families who take care of his needs from day to day.  I guess it does take a village. 

Still, I think about that picture and ask myself, how will we say goodbye?  With the mental declines of aging it could be days or years, but it is a process of goodbyes that we have begun.  I suppose all I have is how Dad and I end each phone call with I love you and blowing each other kisses.  He hasn’t forgotten that yet.  


Food for Thought From the Garden

Roughly 45lbs of food, that’s what came out of the garden that I share with my friend David yesterday.  I will admit there was apple tree involved and apples are heavy.  Still, it’s an impressive haul from just an average small town back yard.  I haven’t been consistent about weighing the food that I harvest, but this makes me wonder.  How much have I gotten from the garden this year and how much is there?  Is it 200lbs, 500, a 1,000?

In any case, it the experience is worth its weight in gold.  The dog and I walk the few blocks over to David’s house where I unleash Bella to let her lay in the shade while I weed and discover the bounty.  Depending on the amount to harvest and the number of mosquitoes we may be there a few minutes or a few hours.  If David is home we enjoy some visiting while we’re there.

Yesterday I found a butternut squash where I thought I’d accidentally killed off the vine.  It was great find.  Earlier this summer I was awed by lettuce that kept producing tasty leaves even in the hottest days of July.  I can’t say that I ever find this kind of joy and wonder in the aisles of the supermarkets looking at the harvests trucked in from 500 miles away.

I spent most of my day yesterday in my kitchen watching movies on my computer while making spaghetti sauce for winter, freezing carrots, drying apples, baking granola, and making a bit of cucumber salad.  I still have quite a bit of that 45 lbs of produce to preserve so I’ll be back at it tonight. But, it brings me such simple joy.

I spend the time engulfed the sweet and savory smells of my creations eyeing the wonders that I had the good fortune to harvest, being awed just that they’re real.  I get to bathe in the memories other times and other kitchens with friends and family, so much laughter and so much love.

I think a lot about convenience.  I think about how we were sold the idea of processed foods in the 1950’s.  We were told they were convenient, time savers.  Yes, I spent a wonderful day yesterday enjoying the food I grew and harvested.  I got to spend time with my dog and cats, just being at home and being creative.  I don’t know a better use of that time.  I am glad I didn’t give it away to something else less valuable.  I am confident too, that there will be times this winter that I will be glad of my pre-prepared sauces and soups and other wonders that I can heat in just a few minutes for supper that were made in my kitchen and not a science lab with food not food-like substances.