Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Revealed

Light changes everything, tricks the eye
and then the heart, to believe in the cryptic,
a canticle of temporary, breakable or already
broken dreams and songs that were meant
to be all we needed against wind and storm.
 
At nightfall I can believe in many things
impossible in the luminous morning;
the nacreous moon steals reason,
hides truth behind a soothing fa├žade,
impassive, pretending and remote.

I see you silvery, as through a prism, a drop of water,
or a veil of forest leaves mottled in a dozen

shades of green, there but for a fleeting second
and then not, just beyond my reach, grasping,
groping to touch your face.
 
So much regret, so much loss, pooled on the floor
like a sheer curtain, shielding but exposing
injury that cannot heal or mend itself
as though we were already gone, leaving nothing
but a gesture, some fragments, a few poems.

--NC
 

 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Lessons From a Mystery Woman


Happy New Year, my dear ones. I know we all have high hopes for 2014. Perhaps this admittedly strange story will point the way for some of you.


So anyway ... my feet were immersed in a fragrant bath of warm water, the massage chair was rumbling its way down my back and my headphones were feeding me “music for a pedicure”. Practicing a few deep breaths and dropping my shoulders, I began to feel the knots of tension loosen throughout my body.  I suspect sometimes that I hold on to the tension subconsciously to avoid losing control … of my emotions, my ability to function and think like an intelligent adult. I know that is bad for me, but on some days it is the only way to make it till bedtime.
 
Today, a Friday, I am taking my “day off”, a weekly treat I give myself while a home healthcare worker comes to stay with Tom,  my husband, who is an Alzheimer’s patient. Though I look forward to it each week, when the day actually arrives my anxiety climbs, as does his. He likes the lovely lady who comes to stay and always seems just fine when I get back, but now he understands that this is not an occasional visit but a regular, ongoing event and he displays some stress over it. I am not accustomed to purposefully doing things that cause him anxiety but I know, all too well, that I must have occasional relief from the pain of watching him fade away.

So on this particular Friday, my list of things to do begins with a pedicure. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I left off. A few minutes later, the salon door opened and a man entered pushing a wheel chair that held his mother, a woman I guessed to be about eighty. He said she would like a manicure and wheeled her to a station directly across from me.

I’m not sure what drew me to her (I didn’t want to stare) but I would go back to reading, then every few minutes find myself studying her. She had snow white hair in soft waves, beautiful skin, attractive and subtle makeup and a calm elegance about her that I just wanted to observe. Her clothes were simple but obviously high quality, especially a cape or shawl that appeared to be cashmere with a wide band of fur. She looked healthy, in spite of the wheel chair! I found myself imagining her in an oil painting, perhaps by Rembrandt, who would cast her in a diffused light, the background fading to black.

At some point I told myself to snap out of it. But a few moments later, I went back to subtly (I hoped) observing her. As I often do, in restaurants or airports, I made up her life story.  I decided that she was European (nothing about her appearance said American), from an aristocratic family, accustomed to her wealth, perhaps married to a diplomat or an international financier, but now widowed.
 
Too soon, my leg massage and toenail painting came to an end. As my nail technician led me to the drying area, I took a moment and walked across the aisle to where she sat. “Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t wish to bother you, but I just wanted to tell you what beautiful hair you have.”

“Oh my dear,” she said in a beautiful, French-accented soft voice, “how nice you are to say so. I’m celebrating my 97th birthday!” Her smile was genuine and warm.
 
I exaggerate only slightly when I say that I gasped in actual shock. I have rarely met someone who had lived so long and aged so beautifully.

She went on. “I’m living with my son and his family now, but I lived in New York City for many years. I miss many things about it but I am happy to be near my loved ones.” She held my hand in hers as she spoke and then added “But I’m glad not to be in New York right now.” We both laughed because the whole Eastern half of the country was under blizzard and brutally cold conditions. As I squeezed her hand, I said “It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. I wish you all the best in the New Year.” 
 
I slipped into a chair by the drying light. Her son was waiting in a chair just behind me. “You have a beautiful mother,” I said. He smiled. “She does the New York Times crossword puzzle, in INK, every single day.” He went on. “She was born in France, lived through WWII, and then came to New York. She is the happiest person I know!”
 
A few minutes later, I was back in my car ready to take on the next item on my list. But I sat there quietly for a moment and realized that, strangely, I felt emotional. I was grateful for that small incursion into a beautiful lady’s life.  But I also was aware that there was a message in this chance meeting. I couldn’t shake the experience. I told several people about it over the next few days.
 
I thought about the very few facts I knew (not even her name!) and yet how she seemed to me like an illustration, a lesson filled with reminders that I am often so close to forgetting. To be sure, In spite of her happy attitude and gracious manner, she has had her share of grief, lived through a terrible war and undoubtedly struggled with very real and painful experiences, as most of us do in the course of a long life.
 
Whatever her life experience, she has decided to be happy. She has chosen to welcome each day with enthusiasm and a sense of humor, things I have been terribly close to losing recently. Yes, I am over-simplifying in the extreme, but it was a reminder that every day is a chance to choose … to focus on the sadness and pain that is a very real part of my life … or to choose the small joys that are still possible, remembering all the years of love and partnership that we have shared for our first twenty years of marriage.

We are both changing in ways we would not have chosen. So far the “golden years” haven’t been anything to recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it to 97.  Still, today can be shaped, at least in part, by a willingness to be open to small joys and happy moments. I know carrying grief and sadness around can shape one’s life beyond repair. Tom will still spend most of his days obsessing over the smallest details, asking me to help find things he has ‘lost’ and I will weep for the darkness that is overcoming him. But the fact remains my attitude is a choice, often not an easy one, but still a choice.

I think of her as my “friend”, the mystery woman whom I shall surely never see again, and I thank her for reminding me to be grateful for what is good and fortunate in my life. Who knows?  Maybe it will help me regain some of my lost youth. It surely couldn't hurt.           

 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Remembrance


For me, Christmas of 2006 was one of those magical events that people remember with such happiness, partly because they know it will never be replicated. My husband and I had just moved into our newly-built home six weeks before and we wanted to host Christmas for our families. They came from all over the country, some in motor homes, some packed tightly in a vehicle for a marathon drive, some flew, but come they did, filling every corner of our home and overflowing into R.V’s . and a nearby neighbor’s empty home.

A few weeks before, my granddaughter, Katie, called to ask if it was okay to bring her boyfriend, Arash. They had met in college and were now sharing an apartment. Of course, I said, eager to meet the young man who had captured the heart of our bright and beautiful Katie.

It must be said that there isn’t a recessive gene in the whole family. We are generally boisterous, sometimes competing for air time and at all times requiring everyone to keep their senses of humor while the one-liners and snappy patter fly around the room. Under all the laughter, however, we are generally a discerning and intuitive group, especially when observing “outsiders.” So when Katie and Arash arrived late on Christmas Eve, I wondered how he would handle this rowdy bunch of strangers. Too tired to do much but introductions, we went to bed.

Christmas morning was clear and mild. I was up early, making coffee and preparing for a big breakfast, when I became aware of a new sound coming from our front yard. I opened the front door just as people from other accommodations began emerging. There in our driveway stood Arash, playing bagpipes! The air at 5000 feet had a bright crispness that just emphasized the haunting tones of the pipes. We all gravitated to the driveway to surround this dark and handsome young man, many of us teary-eyed at the splendidness of the moment. He played more songs, some traditional, others not, all with the mystical sound of the ancients that felt like a blessing of our new home, new town, new challenges.

Clearly, Arash was not going to be a wall flower in this gathering of strangers. I loved him for that, and for giving us such a perfect Christmas gift.  He was warm, witty and obviously very intelligent. He fit this family as though he had been born into it. Of course we all speculated and wondered if Katie and Arash were going to get married, but by the end of the Christmas holiday it was clear it would have our unanimous support.

It was a joyful event that we attended in La Jolla, California in July of 2008. As we sat outside overlooking the ocean that warm afternoon, we all felt glad for this young couple as they shared some of their cultural customs surrounded by friends and family.

We didn’t see much of Arash and Katie for the first years of their marriage. He was acquiring a law degree and she was working at one of her passions, animal rescue. When she told us she was pregnant, it was exciting and seemed like the natural next step. In an intimate home setting, a stunningly beautiful boy they named Fletcher, made his appearance. No child could have been more welcomed.

By all appearances, this story is headed for a happy ending. But life is not a fairy tale, and we eventually learned that Arash had been dealing with severe and debilitating clinical depression, more or less all his adult life. On Thanksgiving day, he took his own life, apparently without any hope of a future free of the horrendous pain in his tortured mind. No drugs, no therapy, not all the love that was directed toward him was able to offer him hope of relief.

I tell this story for several reasons. First is to honor him with happy memories that we will always have of Arash, his goofy sense of humor, his kindness and, perhaps most of all, the love he felt for Fletcher and for Katie, even though he felt his illness made it impossible to remain in their lives.

But the second reason is to emphasize the fact that you can’t tell by looking. We are made with the ability to hide pain, function normally, laugh, socialize as though we have a full and peaceful life when inside we may be dwelling on the belief that the world, our loved ones, would be better off without us. Our society does not provide many options to people who struggle with this invisible pain and so many do. Someone you know and love may be quietly suffering with depression and suicidal thoughts. And in spite of every effort on the part of doctors, friends and family, it may not be enough. What could have changed the ending of this sad story? Nobody really knows.

Rest in peace at last, Arash.
 
Note: Some dear friends of Katie and Arash have created a memorial site for sharing memories and also a fund to help with expenses and with Fletcher's needs until Katie is back on her feet financially. http://remembering-arash.squarespace.com/

 

 

Monday, September 30, 2013

TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE


When we moved to this beautiful rural village seven years ago, we considered it quaintly romantic and part of the charm that there was no garbage collection. We live only a few miles from the landfill and lugging our trash cans and recyclables was not such a big deal. The charm wore off about five years ago. It became “the dreaded dump run!” We would sometimes chuckle at car commercials on TV and comment that “you’d never get three large garbage cans in the back of that!”
 
Still, much as I came to hate loading up the car every two weeks or so, I began to realize that it had taken on a kind of symbolism. We are somewhat isolated here, far from family and often in need of help from friends and tradespeople, but this was one thing we could do like the natives … dispose of our own garbage. We hoped people would notice that we weren’t the soft city slickers that we appeared.
 
As my husband Tom’s Alzheimer’s has progressed, he has had to relinquish nearly all of the household chores to me. Some were easy to take on, a few very challenging, but there has never been a question in my mind about who had to manage each task. It could only be me.

At times, of course, it is overwhelming, so much so that I would sometimes wake in the night in a panic that I had forgotten to do something important. One July night a year ago, I woke around 2 a.m. and realized that I had forgotten to pay our quarterly estimated taxes that were due on June 15. I spent the rest of that night berating myself for obvious incompetence and devising a new foolproof system for managing serious deadlines.
 
Now, back to the garbage. Yesterday, as I faced an overflow of trash in the garage, I realized that we should have gone to the dump last weekend, but, oh, instead we spent most of it at the E.R. where Tom had been airlifted following a frightening fainting episode. As I stared at the full cans and recycle bins, tears welled up and I realized I could not do this anymore.
 
Not that it was such an odious task – though it really is – but I realized that neither Tom nor I could perform this task any longer. For seven years we’ve been doing this, in spite of his eye surgeries, my nerve damage and arthritis, partly out of my obsessive need to be “large and in charge!”

I began asking questions of my friends and neighbors, the keepers of knowledge and all things vital to life in this town, and within minutes I had a name and number of a local independent contractor who will come weekly to remove the wretched, stinking pile of refuse. I DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS MYSELF! And it doesn’t make me weak or incompetent!
 
You may be thinking that I was making much ado about very little. See, the thing is that Alzheimer’s drains hope away. You can’t fix it, you can’t stop it. You can only watch its hideous power steal what you love. You stop operating on a rational basis and become fixated on control. It’s a bit like being on the losing end of a tug-of-war. It becomes about resisting the slow slide into loss by trying harder to keep it all under control. And to surrender control feels like another defeat … or at least it did until today.
 
This morning I watched a large pickup truck loaded with our garbage drive away and I suddenly felt like crying. This was something I was no longer responsible for; I could let it go. I admitted that I needed relief from one of my responsibilities and nothing bad happened! For what seems like a very small amount of money, I can cross one task off my list and still feel strong and competent. It almost made me laugh to realize I’ve been doing this for seven years and never wondered why!

The larger question here, especially for caregivers, is why it is so hard to ask for help. For me, it is part habit from a lifetime of taking care of others, and part fear. Taking care of this man I love, with all the emotional impact of watching him sink into this deep and dark place, is terrifying. Can I do this? How will I get us both through what lies ahead? With my own health issues, can I stay strong enough to do what is needed?

One thing became clear today. I must get more comfortable asking for help. I have to give up the illusion of control.  It is the only way we will get through the time we have together. I don’t have to do it all myself. Perhaps I got rid of another type of garbage today … an attitude of independence, maybe even stubbornness (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve noticed that trait!) that has been weighing me down needlessly.



 

Night Breathing
waking in the night
I do not open my eyes
but listen for your breath.
in the dark you are whole,
deep of soul,
complete,
together we breathe
each other inward,
outward, 
I pull the cover around me
like hope, sweet comfort
to my soul,
in the dark
where you are
whole.
 
nc




 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sometimes You Have To Go Looking For Your Joy

If you are a faithful follower of my blog (and I hear you are having your annual meeting in a phone booth, if one can be found!) you probably know my posts have tended toward the melancholy in recent months. I know, and I regret that because I don't think of myself as a melancholy person. So it is with great pleasure that I report a distinct elevation in my mood of the moment, not due to anything chemical! I will start from the most recent pleasure and work back.

Last night we ended the current season of concerts for the Santa Cruz Foundation for the Performing Arts with a performance by the stunning piano/violin duo of Ronald Lantz and Laura Kargul. I've come to expect extraordinary musical experiences at these concerts but each time my breath is taken away by the sheer wonder of the event. Here we are, 60+ music lovers (that's the number, not the average age) seated in this incredible venue (always a unique and wonderful place...this time at the historic Walker Ranch), often far off the beaten path, when suddenly a musician or a group, whose names are not familiar but who come with a distinguished reputation, begin to play. Last night it was the Brahms Violin Sonata #2. If I had to choose, and thankfully I do not, to hear only one sonata the rest of my life, it would be that one. I play it often on my Ipod  and it stops me in my tracks. When it was played last night I felt such deep gratitude that tears sprung to my eyes. It was so beautiful and I felt thankful that these two people were here to play it for the people gathered in this historic room; and to Christina Wilhelm whose tireless efforts have recreated this scenario over and over for six years, each event a brilliant musical surprise for those of us who love the idea of coming together with others who need it for their very souls!

Before they began to play, Laura Kargul spoke so warmly about how beautiful she thought this part of the country was (they are both from Maine where it snowed yesterday!) but also about how much they loved playing for this kind of audience...a chamber concert. Sadly, symphonies and opera audiences are fading (dying, along with budgets) and it is through the efforts of the true believers like Christina and the passionate people who can't live in a world without music that small concerts like these will keep the flame burning. I could have listened all evening but for the short time they played I felt enriched, uplifted and inspired!

Backing up to Friday and Saturday, I had enrolled some time ago in a Creative Writing Celebration at Cochise College in Sierra Vista (about 35 miles from home). Many of those who care for me have urged me to do some things for myself that nurture my spirit and fill my well. Caring for an Alzheimer's  patient, even one as highly functioning and good-spirited as Tom, is an energy-draining experience and I have seldom chosen to be away from him for more than a few hours. But I knew that this two-day workshop was calling my name, and I wanted very much to attend. In addition, we now have Dudley, a four-month old Goldendoodle puppy who we adore but who has changed life as we know it! All very complicated and I was becoming less committed to the idea of the workshop.

It was through reading some poems I had written and submitted to the workshop contest that I decided I would make it work. The woman who wrote those poems needed to get help! I could feel the hunger for some deep intellectual exchange and dialogue in every poem I had written and it was clear that this opportunity was there for a reason. So I arranged for Doggy Day Care for Dudley and convinced myself that Tom would be fine, and off I went.

It was great. I met terrific people, some writers like myself who had gotten late starts, others who have been writing and publishing for many years, and all who were generous with their time and talents and happily shared their love of the craft with me. At the end of the second day, winners of the contest were announced and, to my great surprise, I received honorable mention for one poem and second prize for another! Nice as the recognition was, however, it paled in comparison to the written critique each poem received by Charles Alexander, professor of poetry at University of Arizona and highly regarded and much-published poet. He reviewed each entry and offered comments and critique and for me, nothing could have been more exciting. He was so encouraging, and also suggested other poets whose work would be helpful to me. I take his comments with great appreciation.

So I came home feeling refreshed and refueled, ready to take on whatever is ahead for a while. Tom did fine; nothing bad happened and Dudley had a blast playing at Cate's with five dogs bigger than he is (which resulted in a very quiet evening and an early bedtime...a tired dog is a good dog!).

I have gone on and on, haven't I? Too long between blogs. Sorry! If you haven't been following my blogs on Mariashriver.com, please check them out. She is a wonderful advocate for women and for the fight against Alzheimer's Disease.

http://mariashriver.com/blog/2013/04/writing-through-the-wreckage-of-alzheimers-nancy-calhoun

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Small Things = Big Changes

OK, the game of the day is this: I’ll describe what is happening and you tell me WHY!

First scenario: It is 4:30 a.m. and I am standing in the driveway of my house, in my bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, staring at a sky ablaze with stars. I am cold. And why would I be doing that?
 
Second scenario: All my plants, pillows, baskets, current magazines are piled on the dining room table and no, we are not moving. Any ideas?
 
Third scenario: I went for three days with less than four hours sleep each night and for four days without a shower. And no one in the house even noticed. Know why?

You probably guessed. I am happy to report that our home is once again completely wrecked, crazy and upside down – we have a puppy! He is 10 weeks old, a Goldendoodle named Dudley, and just about the cutest thing we’ve seen in a while. But I must admit I am reeling a bit from the total alteration of our lives that has occurred since Dudley’s arrival. I was a little worried that we were too old to take on a puppy. The jury is still out on that one, I think, but I am a bit less concerned today than I was three days ago.

I have no rugs, no plants, nothing on a low surface such as attractive decorative objects, pillows or such. I’m wondering what I will do with things as Dudley gets taller and reaches his mature weight of 45-50#. It looks like, for now, Dudley’s morning rising time is 4 a.m. but last night he didn’t bark or whine once when I put him in his crate, so I’m not complaining. Oh, and did I mention that I’m grateful for stone floors?
 
What I especially love about this little guy is his calm nature. If he is chewing a toy or napping on the floor, it doesn’t bother him if we walk out of the room or move about. He doesn’t have to be in the same room with us or have our constant attention. Love that. The training has had a good basic start at the kennel where he was born and that will make my task easier but clearly one word is the key: consistency! Mine, not his.

I learned a lot by my mistakes with previous dogs (read laziness) and I’m determined to the point of obsession to train Dudley to be the kind of dog who will be a welcome addition to our lives, not a constant problem to be solved. My life is lived close to the edge a lot of the time and I can’t deal with anything that is going to push me closer. So, I’ve been spending a lot of time outside lately and I do look like I’ve been dragged around by a dog! But so far today, Dudley has had no accidents in the house. Yea, Dudley. It’s early, of course, and we’re a long way from perfection there.

But it’s mainly for Tom that Dudley has joined us. I wish you could have seen his joyful expression at the airport when we took possession of the crate with Dudley inside. One thing I may have overestimated is the degree to which Tom will be able to participate in Dudley’s training. He’s not at all unwilling, but he can’t remember to do anything consistently. It is for the fun and comfort that he wants Dudley and that will be Job One. My need to train and teach Dudley will have to go on around Tom’s need to interrupt, his inability to remember any commands, and his own childlike qualities. Dudley doesn’t know he is going to be an unofficial therapy dog when he grows up. Right now he is pure puppy, exuberant and silly, curious and inexhaustible. But as he grows, I think he will be a great companion for Tom.
  
Let me just say how much I have appreciated the kind words and loving thoughts from so many of you during the past four months since we lost our precious dogs, Gracie and Alfie. It helped us through the sadness but the feelings of loss will stay in our hearts forever. What finally becomes clear is that you know when you are ready for the one thing that gets you through the grief – another dog to love.

 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Things That Do Not Disappoint

I am disappointed in myself when I realize how long it has been since I have posted a blog here. Oh, I know. And you know too. I have reasons. Excuses, even. Be that as it may, I never intended to let such a gap grow between postings. But once gone, time can't be recaptured so we're moving on here.
By the way, please don't miss my column at http://www.mariashriver.com/blog/2013/02/how-do-you-keep-the-music-playing-nancy-calhoun. Maria is a wonderful advocate for Alzheimer's research and for family support and I love being one of her guides.

It's February and if anything good can be said about that, it is that it is usually predictable. No one expects too much from February. Like today. It is gray, windy and cold. Right. For Arizona, that is. Snow is predicted, inches not feet, and odds are that it won't happen. But one morning last week it was nearly 70 and I sat blissfully on the porch, the warmth spreading through my body, as I smiled into the sun. That is February too.

So I've been thinking about those wonderful things in life that never disappoint. Here are a few from my list and I'd love to hear what some of yours are:

      • YoYo Ma - The man is pure genius, and every note he plays is like the cream center of a chocolate truffle...a really expensive one.
      • Any movie with Dame Judi Dench. I had hoped to look a little like her when I got to be 70 but turned out more like Maggie Smith. Oh well, she's pretty fabulous, if not pretty!
      • Christmas trees
      • Warm croissants and fresh-squeezed (by someone else) orange juice at about 9:30 a.m.
      • A brilliantly-written book you cannot put down and an uninterrupted day (or night) to absorb it into your bloodstream.
      • Lobster anything!
      • A puppy who just wants to lie in your lap and do that looking-up thing.
      • Brahms
      • A well-prepared margarita, warm tortilla chips, delicious salsa and a beach
      • A foot massage
      • A great TV series that you can't get out of your mind...Breaking Bad, Doc Martin, Downton Abbey...
      • Mary Oliver poetry
      • Live performance in a small venue - like an SCFPA concert
      • Someone you love who never needs you to explain, and vice versa.
      • Shoes that look great and never hurt your feet...I mean I'll bet that would be great!
      • Videos of great and grandchildren...always does it for me!
Will you share some of your favorite things that never disappoint? I hope you will.

Wouldn't it be great if life were composed only of those things? No, of course not. That's how we thought when we were children. It even seemed possible then. We learned that life is this amazing path of hills and vallies, rising and falling with what seems like capricious, sometimes vicious, cycles of events that teach us about our humanity. Always something to learn just around the next bend.