Christmas 1989, Austin, a southern city that does not handle cold well, had an extended hard freeze. Pipes froze and burst, rooms were flooded, water was turned off. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment with my younger daughter, then a teen. Pipes in the next apartment burst, flooding my daughter’s walk-in closet. We moved everything into the living room, hauled water in buckets from neighboring buildings that still had water, and made the best of it during the holiday break.
After a few days of living in the mess, I got my paints out. I had graduated from St. Ed’s the previous spring with my art degree, but I was working a full-time administrative job and sharing space with the daughter, not an arrangement conducive to making art. But I set up an easel on the dining table and painted away.
This move has again proven what I learned then: I’m an obsessive control freak who feels a constant need for order, yet when everything falls apart I tend to fall into the flow and let creativity take over. It seems like a paradox, but it really isn’t: when control becomes simply impossible, I relinquish the need for control.
Last week I had some panic: “There is no way we’ll ever get all this stuff cleared out and packed.” But things got moving, a friend offered to help me pack art, and now, just over two weeks before Moving Day, I’m relaxed enough to sit here blogging. This afternoon I’m having a massage and acupuncture.
Tomorrow is my birthday and we’re having our traditional lunch at Chez Zee with an old friend, with whom I share a birthday, and her husband.
Three weeks before the end of school I decided to knit washcloths for my granddaughter’s teachers; they make nice gifts wrapped around a bar of fancy soap.
As I turn 72, I am so grateful for good health, family, friends, and our new adventure.
Several months before we decided to move, I told my therapist I wanted to destroy my old journals. “Burn ’em,” was her response. I burned a few outside in the grill, and quite a few more in the fireplace during the winter, but shredding was more efficient and environmentally friendly. I’m finally done shredding about 20 years’ worth of spiral binders.
Some were writing journals and many had dreams, so I tried to salvage poems, writing ideas and dreams for future use, especially for a long-planned (but sidelined) book of dream poems, titled either “Nightly Visits to Other Worlds” or “Skating Under the Aurora.”
I couldn’t take time to read everything so I skimmed randomly. One thing that struck me was how much pain I was in during the late ’90s and early 2000s: back pain, stomach pain, severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome, headaches, vertigo and ear problems.
Like many people I journaled to rant and unload pain and unhappiness, but this was real suffering, and I’d almost forgotten about the dizzy spells, about the time I visited my brother shortly before he died, and I was afraid I’d miss my plane because I couldn’t get out of bed. I underwent treatment for allergies and ear problems, including years of allergy shots.
The stomach pain turned out to be a huge mass on my pancreas. Thanks to good medical care, I’m alive and pain-free. Good chiropractic care has made my back more stable and less likely to give out without warning. Retirement has helped with the IBS–one thing I noticed was that I had bad episodes on days the Medical Board met. I loved my job and it wasn’t always stressful, but board days were hard work and very busy, and it was no coincidence my body responded. I also manage my diet better and have learned the array of irritating foods to avoid, including apples, oranges, pears, lettuce, seeds–I just can’t digest a lot of fiber.
The biggest differences, though, I attribute three or four factors:
First, getting on Prozac in 2012. I’ve covered this in several blog posts, but I can’t say enough about how it changed my life.
Second, acupuncture has helped reduce allergy symptoms and has virtually eliminated my headaches. It’s also just made me feel better all over; I sleep better and generally feel better. Along with chiropractic care, my body feels strong and balanced.
Third, self care. Since my granddaughter moved in with us and I’ve moved into my 70s, I need to be more careful with my body, my diet, my sleep habits and how I spend my time. An afternoon nap isn’t just a treat; it’s essential.
Fourth, spiritual awareness, or wisdom of age. I’m more patient, open-hearted, generous and joyful. Two years ago, when we were trying to decided whether to ask the granddaughter to come and live with us, I was anxious that it would make my life so stressful and difficult that I would mourn the loss of my free and easy retirement. And I did. It’s been hard.
But when I take the dog out before dawn on these soft spring mornings, I actually enjoy being awake. I’m grateful for the sweet dog (which we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have the child), for good legs, a strong heart and all the other parts that still work pretty well. When I take Chloe to school (on time or early, not late every day like last year) I enjoy greeting friends and walking on the greenbelt during doggie morning happy hour.
I’m excited about the upcoming changes in our lives and the opportunities to keep making art and to create a beautiful new home for our family.
We thought 2016 was bad.
I try not to whine and complain. I’m a grownup and I do what needs to be done. But this is ridiculous. The state of the world and the country is absolutely terrifying, and I feel obligated to call my representatives daily, and if asked what issue I’m calling about I’m like Marlon Brando in “The Wild Bunch”: “Wadda you got?” Today it’s the crazy immigration policy, last week it was the inauguration of the most unqualified, certifiably insane substitute-for-human ever to occupy the White House. Tomorrow it will be the Supreme Court nominee, and every day it’s women’s issues, education, the environment and climate change–and on and on.
But to add to the misery, I am stretched to the limit. Not to share too much, my husband and granddaughter both need a lot of care and attention right now. My therapist said I sound like a harried mom. I told her I am, except it didn’t seem this hard 40 years ago. Of course I was 40 years younger!
Everywhere I turn there is something that needs doing. Appointments to be made, prescriptions to refill, a messy yard, laundry, clutter, meals, errands. The garage door opener quit and needs replacing. I wanted a haircut two weeks ago, couldn’t get in so let it go, and now I kind of like it longer, except for the bangs. (I usually trim them myself but I keep thinking I’ll get an appointment soon.)
I consider a long pee to be a break. Meditation is when I walk the dog, except when I’m trying to call my Congresspeople. I have “Art Day” popups on my phone calendar on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they mock me. My to-read pile beckons, as do all my unfinished knitting projects. I made a pink hat for the march, but didn’t quite finish in time to wear it. But I did march!
I can thank the drump for making me an activist! I’m more engaged than I was during the Viet Nam protests.
However, I will close with gratitude:
- clear starry skies when I walk the dog at 5:45 a.m., sunny afternoons and beautiful parks
- my relatively good health, and abatement of sinus headaches (partly, I believe, thanks to a month of acupuncture treatments)
- despite many challenges, granddaughter is mostly doing well in school
- my sweet soft dog curling up against me when I nap
- enough: we are not rich, but we have a comfortable home, enough to eat and a nice life
- health insurance and good medical care
- my being able to take care of those who need it right now
- pedicures: I took my husband along yesterday because his back prevents him from cutting his toenails. He’s a convert!
- friends and family to back me up if I need help, and a loving church community
- living in a city with liberal values that cares about immigrants and minorities (to quote former governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, Austin is the “blueberry in the tomato soup.”)
I realize that I live a life of middle-class privilege. But I’m still exhausted.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to pee, walk the dog and try to call my senators and congressman.
People tell me I’m a hero, or even a saint, for taking on the responsibility of raising a grandchild.
Of course I’m neither. I’m doing what a grandmother does if she’s able. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s tear-my-hair-out sometimes. Some challenges are so great I don’t know how to manage them, but it has also brought more laughter and joy into my life. There are support systems for the challenges, and if we didn’t have Chloe we wouldn’t have Junior, so it’s also brought the sweetest dog ever into my life.
Mostly, as I said, it’s what you do. I wake up earlier than I ever thought I’d need to in retirement and just put one foot in front of the other.
A 10-year-old girl can be mean, even cruel. But I hope by this time in life I’ve developed enough confidence in my abilities and a thick enough skin to laugh most of it off. And sometimes cry. Walking the dog is usually for thinking and meditating, but sometimes it’s my private crying time.
Another thing that keeps me humble is reminding myself of all the things I’m bad at. I’m a decent cook, fairly intelligent, good at taking care of myself and others. But there are some things I simply have not mastered, so just for today let’s celebrate the incompetent and mediocre:
Things at which I am terrible:
- I am lousy at parking. It’s become a joke with Chloe when I take her to school. I park on both a slight slope and a curve so I end up either on the curb or three feet away. As I get out I say, “Ace job of parking, if I say so myself.” She of course rolls her eyes.
- Inflating tires and using a gauge to check pressure. I’m more likely to deflate the tires.
- Can’t do separating zippers, especially on a child. I have to get behind her and do it as if I’m zipping my own jacket.
- Battery enclosures or anything you have to match up little slots and snap different parts together. Vacuum cleaner cover, air purifier cover, various appliances that come apart, require three hands.
- As an artist I would think I could decorate cakes, but I can’t. Even three hands wouldn’t help. Chloe is way better with a pastry tube and fondant than I am.
- Flower arranging: well I don’t arrange flowers. I trim the leaves and stems and jam them in a vase to arrange themselves.
- Understanding handicap in golf. My husband has explained it to me several times and it won’t stick. My brain cells just won’t accept it.
- Gardening, sadly. I’d love to have flowers and vegetables, but one reason we live in a condo is because neither of us has a green thumb.
That’s probably enough self-criticism for now. I am pretty good at self-care: healthy eating, massages, pedicures, exercise, regular medical care and plenty of sleep. Making time for music, art, knitting and reading. Travel when we can get away.
And I am really good at tenacity, determination, and love.
More than one person is wondering, if not saying aloud, why did I wait so long to go to the doctor after two weeks of coughing?
The short and easy answer is I kept thinking it would be better the next day. Magical thinking. It was just a tickly drainage cough and I didn’t really feel bad, except for interrupted sleep.
It’s not about money. Medicare and our Humana Medicare Advantage Plan (thank you, Government, for working well) mean that’s not an issue.
The other reason, as I told someone in an apology email after twiddling around with an RSVP for much too long: Grandmas just soldier on. It’s not conscious self-sacrifice; it’s just what we do.
Mostly, it’s time. Every day seems to get eaten up with errands, appointments, meal prep, shopping, child care, and my one essential nap. If I have one activity in the morning, it breaks up the day sufficiently that I don’t get to my own things: art, writing, knitting, reading. It’s more efficient to use those broken-up moments do a load of laundry, unload the dishwasher or walk the dog.
I should have gone to the doctor late last week, after a week of coughing. My Friday was totally open, but I just couldn’t give up my only free day that week. So I enjoyed a day of painting and futzing around doing what I wanted.
A few days ago I wrote:
If I am not the shepherd of my hours,
the Wolf of Time will steal them like helpless lambs.
By Monday I decided I needed to see a doctor, and the earliest appointment with the ENT was Thursday. I could have tried my primary doc, but again that magical thinking had me believing I’d be better by then and I could cancel the appointment.I ended up seeing a P.A. She did a thorough exam and workup and prescribed a steroid, antibiotic and cough relief.
What started as a tickly drainage cough morphed into a respiratory infection. I skipped allergy shots for this week, which the P.A. agreed was probably a good idea.
After a year and a half of shots I’m wondering when this will get better in this sopping, humid, never-gets-cold-enough-to-kill-off-the-allergens environment. A move to the desert? But I’m English! I couldn’t live in the desert. Last time I was in New Mexico, the mountains outside Albuquerque were on fire, the humidity was in the single digits and I woke up every morning with a nosebleed.
I’m having a recurring fantasy: a cabin or cottage on a lake, river, stream, creek or beach, even an island. Provisioned with staple foods, firewood and household needs. No internet, phone for emergencies only.
I’d pack up food for simple meals, a couple of bottles of wine, art supplies, a laptop, comfortable clothes and shoes, and disappear for a few days. I’d probably take the dog for company, since he can’t talk. Four or five days, a week at most, would be enough for me to come back refreshed, missing the daily hubbub. At least I would intend to come back. Hee hee.
I’m not unique and I’ll bet everyone overwhelmed with parenting experiences something similar. Rabbi Evan Moffic’s blog expresses similar feelings but concludes that life is for being with people. He quotes Mary Oliver’s “A Dream of Trees”
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere…
I would that it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?
Easy for you to say, Mary. This grandparenting/parenting gig is hard. It’s getting better, certainly. Chloe’s behavior has improved immensely. Every school day last year began with yelling and arriving late. This year I don’t even have to wake her or remind her to get ready; we get out the door with no yelling and haven’t been late once. She’s doing well academically and seems to enjoy her teachers and classmates. She loves art and does wonderfully imaginative drawings. She told me the other day she probably would have quit art a long time ago if it wasn’t for me. I asked why. She said “Because you encourage me and let me have lots of art supplies.”
She’s almost 10. We’re on the bridge between Santa Claus and puberty. She spends too much time playing online games and watching videos. Her favorite radio station in the car is KISS-FM, with its breathy, sugary, romantic cotton-candy pop music. But she’s teachable: we talk about the songs that are all about codependence and neediness versus the ones about girls’ empowerment. She’s getting the message.
My therapist reminds me that my age and relative lack of stamina and energy–despite my being in pretty good physical condition–make it tougher to handle parenting. But I told her what I lack in stamina I make up in GRIT, determination, tenacity–whatever you want to call it.
I’m in for the long haul, wherever that takes us with this challenging, interesting young woman-to-be. No retreat.
A Hippo on the Bathtub
In the past couple of months I have broken a bone (toe); nearly set two fires (one with an iron and a sheet, the other involving incense, candles and a butane lighter); dinged my car; smashed a large piece of plate-glass; walked into the side mirror of a van and bruised my shoulder–a van always in the same spot that I have walked passed a hundred times; banged, nicked, burned or otherwise injured myself in too many other ways, yet here I am plugging away, with gratitude for no serious outcomes.
A few weeks ago I dreamed we had a full-sized hippopotamus in the bathtub. It was as mean as I’ve heard hippos are, and we were absolutely required to keep it and take care of it.
Chloe is far from being a hippo, but we have had our challenges and struggles over the past year. She’s nearly 10, a prepubescent tween with some attitude. But she also cracks me up on a regular basis, she’s doing well in school and her behavior has improved immensely. Last week I sang the Mozart Requiem Undead with Panoramic Voices at the Bass Concert Hall, and took the risk of getting tickets for her and Gary. The concert was longer than I anticipated and he said she did great.
I did bribe her a bit: I gave her a little quiz to help her pay attention during the concert. Some questions were silly but required math: “If each member of [the group] Roomful of Teeth has 30 teeth, how many teeth are there in Roomful of Teeth? Some required careful listening, like finding actual names in the Latin text, like “Rex,” “Donna,” “Gloria,” and, stretching, “Christ(y)”and “Kyrie.” I told her I’d pay her a dollar for each correct answer, and she got eight out of 10, taking her loot in Robux rather than cash. As a friend said when I told him: “You have to know their currency.”
I interpret the hippo as being our enormous and daunting responsibility raising this kid. But when I googled “Hippo in a bathtub” I was pleasantly surprised to learn there’s an actual song by Anne Murray, plus lots of cartoon images.