Gratitude When It’s Not Expected

I’m grateful for the way Alzheimer’s is affecting my mom’s brain.

I attended a Moth Story Slam last night here in Asheville. I love these events. Hearing people tell stories. Being in the presence of vulnerability. Feeling the support of the community as people reveal their joy, their sadness, their fears.

The theme this month was “Gratitude.” I thought about preparing a story to share, and then sitting with mom for four hours after a run in with the dining hall manager, spending two hours at the bank dealing with dad’s estate, and writing thank you notes took precedence and the story was never practiced, though it resided in my thoughts.

A few weeks ago, I heard some women my mom’s age talk about their “eggshell daughters.” I had never heard this term and asked, “What’s that mean?” They explained that though they loved their daughters tremendously, they felt like they always had to walk on eggshells around them – the tiniest thing would start an incident.

“Hm,” I thought. I wondered if my mom considered me an eggshell daughter. It wouldn’t surprise me.

See, we clashed for a considerable amount of years from when I was a tween to when I was a grown adult. I never felt approval from her. I would bring home an “A” on a paper, and she’d ask me why wasn’t it an “A+”? When I quit my NC teaching job to move to CA (with no job in hand) she told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life, and why would I ever give up a steady job with benefits, and I would be on the streets for sure and she wouldn’t be there to help me. When I divorced, she told me that I would never, ever find someone as good as him (she really liked my first husband).

I loved my mom deeply, and it was so incredibly hard to be around her sometimes. Many times.

And now, it’s not.

I hate that my mom has Alzheimer’s. It’s a devastating disease. Moment by moment you watch as a loved one’s brain dies. I would never wish this disease on anyone.

And, I love spending time with my mom now. She doesn’t remember to be acerbic. She doesn’t remember to criticize. She doesn’t hold grudges, and we live every day in the moment. We have fun together. We go to events, and art galleries, and sit on the porch and rock, and cry, and remember dad. We tell each other, “I love you” often and openly.

Yes, we have the same conversation multiple times in an evening. Tonight she asked me seventeen times what tomorrow was and did we have any plans. And seventeen times I happily told her that tomorrow was Saturday, we didn’t have anything planned, but if she wanted to do something, she could push the button on her phone that direct dials me and we would do it. And on Sunday we would go to a neighbor’s art show.

And it doesn’t bother me. I honestly can approach every question as if it is the first time she is asking, because there is no negativity anymore, and I’m so grateful for that.

And, yes, I’ve spent several therapy sessions over the guilt that I feel because I’m so happy with our relationship now, and I don’t know that it would have ever been possible without her succumbing to this terrible disease.

I’m so incredibly grateful that my most recent memories of my mom are moments of joy, and laughter, and lightness, and love. I’ve heard stories of how people’s personalities change when they have Alzheimer’s, and mostly it’s going from being really kind and sweet to being really mean and nasty people. And even though fifty years were difficult with a mom who was critical and withheld affection, the past six months have completely changed my perception of my mom, and I’m so thankful to share this bond with her, even though it’s a result of her brain dying. And that is what I think of when I think of gratitude.

And there was a cupcake

June 11, 2019

Before he passed, my Dad put our family cabin on the market. It closed last week and I received the check on Monday. Since it was a rather large amount, I went into the bank to deposit it into my Mom’s account on Tuesday.

The teller was quite chatty, and the transaction took a long time, and she had to have someone else approve the deposit, and at some point I started crying quietly. I haven’t been able to enter a bank without crying since Dad’s death. I’m not sure what the trigger is, and I thought perhaps this day would be different, but it wasn’t. I mumbled, “I’m so sorry. My father recently passed away and dealing with paperwork is difficult.”

She excitingly said, “Oh, tomorrow is your birthday! Happy birthday!” I smiled wanly and thanked her. “Are you doing anything extraordinary and special?” And what went through my mind was, “I’ll be celebrating without my biggest supporter, my Dad.” Last year’s birthday was extraordinary and special – so many of my friends came to Asheville to celebrate 50 turns around the sun. And Dad loved it. He always loved interacting with my friends and was always so charming. He reminded me of how lucky I was to have such strong friendships.

Instead, what I said was, “No, not really” and tried not to sob loudly, the tears running more quickly down my cheeks, annoyingly hot in the air-conditioned bank.

“Would you go out and get a cupcake? And maybe put a candle on it?” she asked.

“Maybe,” was all I could muster as I received the deposit slip and walked out of the bank into the hot, hot summer day.

**************

June 12, 2019

Mom and I went to a friend’s house for dinner. It was the happiest I’ve seen her since she moved to Asheville. She had a glass of wine, she ate a full meal, and she accepted a piece of cake to take home. It was the most perfect birthday present I could ask for.

I took her home, we sat on her balcony, we watched the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then I returned home.

As I walked onto my porch, I noticed a cupcake, right there on one of the chairs, next to the mailbox. It was beautiful. A chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting, so perfectly swirled, with two blueberries and one raspberry on top, with decorative papers, and enclosed in a plastic clam shell.

“A cupcake!” I thought, and brought it inside.

************

June 13, 2019

I had back to back meetings all day and didn’t stop for meals. Around 1:30 pm, I was hungry. I saw the cupcake on the counter and took a bite. The icing, so smooth, so just a hint of raspberry deliciousness, perfectly complemented the moist chocolate cake.

I ate the whole thing.

During the last bite, I had a thought. “I just ate a cupcake and I have no idea where it came from or who left it on my porch. I’ve become that person who just trusts people leaving food on her porch.”

And I think I’m okay with that.

And if whoever left the cupcake is reading this, thank you for the second most perfect birthday gift you could have given me.

Note: image is not the actual cupcake. I ate the whole darn thing before I even considered taking a photo.

Abundance

Today I turn fifty. I’m not really sure what I expected fifty to feel like, but I don’t feel much different than before. In no way was I dreading this birthday; I’ve loved birthdays that end in “0”s in the same way that I’ve loved birthdays with the same double digits (11, 22, 33, 44, etc). They feel more special than the others. I love that my birthday is the same day as Loving Day (and off by just one year from the actual pronouncement). I like to think that I was born of a generation that recognized equality for all (I know that we haven’t, though). I’m saddened that two years ago my birthday was the day of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida. For the past three years, it’s made me reflect on how much work we still have to do with regards to gun control, tolerance, and acceptance. These feelings mix with each other in a fabric that can only be described as human.

The overwhelming feeling that I’m feeling this year, however, is grateful. So incredibly grateful.

I moved back to North Carolina in September last year. I looked forward to moving to a smaller city after living in San Francisco for twenty-five years. I looked forward to quiet, to calm, to a slower pace of life, and to being closer to mountain trails. And I’ve found all of those. And more. I’ve found community, and kindness, and friendliness. As I planned to move, though, I did think to myself, “I’m kind of sad I won’t be in San Francisco to celebrate my 50th birthday.” San Francisco is where my friends are – the ones who I’ve known for twenty plus years. When I was moving, I envisioned having dinner at a nice restaurant in Asheville by myself on my birthday. A lovely birthday, but perhaps a lonely one.

Yet that’s not what happened.

Earlier in the year, a few friends said that they wanted to fly to Asheville to celebrate with me. I was taken aback. Flying to Asheville isn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s a tiny, charming, regional airport with very few direct flights to anywhere. So I planned a few events – a lunch at a favorite local restaurant, Rhubarb, an evening at Biltmore to see Chihuly’s work, a bbq at my house. And the weekend so far exceeded any expectations I could have imagined.

Friends from college met friends from San Francisco met friends from Atlanta met friends from New York met friends from Asheville met friends from water aerobics class met family. Everyone loved getting to know each other. There was amazing food (hello, bbq!) and engaging conversation. There were bouquets among bouquets of flowers (my absolute favorite gift in the world). And there was love. So much love in the air.

A local friend told me, “Just enjoy the present moment. You never know what will come next. But you can love, and appreciate, what you have right now.” Great advice not just for birthdays, but for every day. 

 

Ups and Downs

Yesterday was a day filled with devastation and joy.

I awoke to the news of the earthquake in Nepal, one of my favorite countries. Nepal was the first country where Room to Read had projects. During my tenure there, I visited Nepal several times, and each time I stepped off the plane in Kathmandu, I felt magic in the air. When I think of Nepal, I think of hospitality, generosity, and overwhelming kindness. As I read stories of the earthquake throughout the morning, I wondered if my former colleagues and friends and their families were safe; but I also mourned for the hundreds, and then thousands, of people reported dead. I mourned the devastation and destruction of a beautiful, resilient country.

Yet, it was also a day of great joy. Two incredibly dear friends were married. The wedding was in Petaluma, on a farm, in the middle of the countryside. We were surrounded by rolling hills, friends, and love. Every moment of the evening was filled with delight: lovely vows, a ferris wheel, raucous laughter, delicious food, great music, never ending dancing, quiet laughter, and hugs.

Unexpectedly, throughout the day, the one constant was gratitude. I’m thankful that I know the beauty of Nepal, and the kindness of her people. I’m thankful for every colleague and friend I hear from in Nepal, letting us know they are safe. I’m thankful for the relief efforts that are already commencing in Nepal. But most of all, I’m thankful for the long-standing friendships and the people in my life that I love unconditionally, with whom I can share both the devastation and the joy.