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No Time Like the Present

“There’s no time like the present.”

That’s what my Scottish-born mother always said, along with other tried and true gems from days past like, “waste not, want not,” and “a stitch in time saves nine.”

My mother came to stay with us when my father died of a sudden stroke at the age of 78. They had lived on the other side of the country for ten years, since my father’s retirement, and keeping in touch had been relegated to weekly phone calls and biannual trips out west with the family to visit. So, I was ill-prepared for the person who shuffled across our threshold and bore a resemblance to my mother.

This person, while still unfailingly polite, caring, funny and wanting to help, couldn’t figure out how to use the microwave or TV remote (despite repeated instruction on both). She walked with her arms held stiffly at her sides instead of swinging freely. She spoke slowly, with the words slurred together. She was incapable of making herself a sandwich. Who was this person who at one time could put on a full Christmas dinner for ten people without batting an eye, and who could golf 18 holes three times a week without a cart?

After a cognitive assessment, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia related to her lifelong smoking habit. Perhaps my father had thought he was protecting me by not divulging my mother’s issues. Well, no one could protect me now.

The loss was immeasurable. Almost every day I discovered another diminishment in her abilities, and I admit that I struggled to accept this new reality. Perhaps the symptoms of dementia would go away if I ignored them. Perhaps she’d learn if I gave her the same instruction over and over. Neither worked and sometimes I raised my voice in frustration, fear and sadness, and I felt terrible afterward. A therapist once told me I was grieving the loss of the mother who raised me, which made sense and allowed me to give myself a break when it came to my lack of coping skills.

While I was busy (not) coming to terms with my mother’s illness, I was also trying to raise two teenage children. It seems like the universe’s colossal joke to not only be sandwiched between a frail parent and rebellious teens, but also suffering the vagaries of menopause. My brain was so addled, I didn’t know whether to run a lukewarm Epsom salts bath for my 16-year-old son or ground my 82-year-old mother in her room for smoking weed.

Thankfully, my full-time employer was flexible, and I could work from home a few days each week. On the days I went to the office, I had to make my mother’s lunch and put it in the fridge. To ensure she ate it, I also had to stick a bright yellow Post-it note on the fridge door: MUM’S LUNCH with an arrow pointing to the handle, and another Post-it had to go on the plastic wrapped sandwich plate. If she couldn’t locate her lunch, she didn’t eat.

The frailer my mother got, the more I worried when I wasn’t at home. She might fall down the stairs or try to light the gas stove and set the house on fire. I was grateful every night when I returned home to a house that wasn’t burned to the ground.

After seven years, her care became more than I could manage in my home, and we began to search for an alternative care situation. Looking back, I’m sure I should have made the move long before, but I wasn’t ready. I might not have been the most nurturing caregiver, but she was my mother and I didn’t want to fail her. I took a leave of absence from work to focus on my mother’s current and future needs.

There’s no time like the present, I thought, as we pulled up to a care home that had been recommended by one of my mother’s support workers. The place was small but homey. There were only 16 residents, each living in a private bedroom with a washroom on a single floor. They were also all women and suffering from various levels of dementia. The criteria for entry included non-violence and some level of independent mobility. Despite needing a walker to get around, my mother met these criteria.

The day we moved her in my stomach was in knots. How do you know you’re doing the right thing in the moment? The answer is: you don’t.

Well, she thrived in the care home. My rail-thin mother put on a little weight and got some color back in her cheeks. Who knew that living in a house with two moody teenagers and their anxious parents could be stressful?

She made some friends and enjoyed the daily activities, like word games (her bailiwick), chair exercises, and bingo. I visited her once a week, and we did jigsaw puzzles together over a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies. I brought her home for all our celebrations: birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. Over time, she became quieter, less able to initiate conversation, and her shuffling gait became more pronounced. But her smile could still light up a room. She continued to love chocolate and seeing her grandchildren, who, by this time, had reached their early 20s. If golf came on the TV, she cheered at every well played chip shot. She didn’t know who the players were or what had happened before the commercial break, but she lived in the moment, hole by hole.

In mid-December of 2019, her health took a turn, and she ended up in hospital. The dementia was disrupting her ability to swallow properly and the food, bit by bit, was filling her lungs. Nothing could be done.

Because it was Christmastime, I was off work and drove to the hospital every day, sometimes twice a day. We spent Christmas morning with her as a family, and she opened her gifts: a pair of warm socks; a box of chocolates; and a jigsaw puzzle.

On the second last day of the year, with a snowstorm forecast, I leaned over her hospital bed before I left for home, kissed her cheek, and said, “I love you, Mum. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

My beloved mother died later that evening at 86 years old. We never got a chance to do the new puzzle together with a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies.

But I always remember her old saying: There’s no time like the present. Tell your loved ones what they mean to you as often as you can. Don’t wait until tomorrow.

Finding Productivity: Routine and Coffee

Routine \rü-’tēn\ : a sequence of actions regularly followed

Nothing spells writing success like routine. At least when it comes to the only part authors have any real control over: the writing itself.

Over the past week or so I’ve been in search of my self-discipline. And I think I found it, somewhere at the back of my brain and slightly to the left, among the mismatched and dirty socks. I’m now dedicating several hours each weekday to working on my new story. The word count goal is loose; I’m satisfied with anything from 500 to 1000 words per day.

Typically, I’ve done all my creative writing at the desktop in my home office. But when I lost my job — and my company laptop — I bought a personal laptop. Now I’m donning my metaphorical writing hat and becoming a writer-in-a-coffee-shop cliché. If it was good enough for J.K. Rowling, it’s good enough for me.

My walk to the coffee shop.

My walk to the coffee shop.

The local coffee emporium, which shall remain nameless but it charges extortionate prices and rhymes with Fartruck’s, is a 20-minute walk. The walk alone is worth it. Behind my house is the world’s largest publicly owned greenbelt: 200 square kilometres of protected forest full of trees, walking paths, and every creature this area has to offer, from wild turkeys, rabbits and skunks to coyotes, deer and porcupines. In the middle of a weekday afternoon, heading down the main gravel path, which was once a railway line, is downright tranquil. Fresh air, exercise and the space and silence to think about my characters and their world. Perfect.

Once at the coffee shop, a trusty vanilla latte by my side, I fire up my laptop and log onto the rather excellent Wi-Fi.

In an interesting, perhaps even prophetic, turn of events, I don’t have access to social media on my laptop. Right around the time I bought it, my Instagram account got hacked. How do I know? A friend texted me, and then my 19-year-old son came thundering up from the basement wondering why I’d just posted five photos of women wearing nothing more than three leather belts and a smile. Yikes!!

Immediately, I called my IT department/husband, which got to work trying to fix the issue. Before I could say son, I’ve been hacked, my husband had changed the password on every one of my social media accounts, including my email. The passwords he chose are 20 characters long and include a capital letter, a symbol, a punctuation mark, a sonnet and my left kidney. I keyed these all into my iPhone and my desktop but not my laptop, purely out of laziness. But now I’m finding this is really helping my word count. I can’t open any social media on my computer while I’m working on my novel at the Fartruck’s.

On fair days, I walk; on rainy days, I drive; on lazy days, I go upstairs to my home office. But every day I write. Some days are more productive than others, of course, but this new routine of mine ensures progress is being made, and that’s what counts.

 

A Writing Life, For Now

Last month I got laid off from my job. I’d been there for six-and-a-half years, and it wasn’t personal. I hadn’t got caught siphoning money into an off-shore account, or viewing dirty photos on my work laptop, or even stealing stacks of Post-It notes from the supply cupboard.

My position had simply become redundant.

So, now I find myself with time on my hands for the first time in…ever, I suppose. I’ve worked since I got my first babysitting gig on New Year’s Eve the year I turned 13. Minus another layoff and two maternity leaves, I’ve worked pretty steadily since then. In my early 20s I even had two jobs. I got up at some godforsaken hour of the morning to work at 7 AM doing data entry for the government, and after I knocked off that job at 3 PM, I’d hurry back to my little apartment, shower and eat, and head out to a job at the mall where I sold lingerie to fetishists from 6 to 10 PM (well, there were only a few fetishists; most people were pretty normal). I’d stagger home around 11, fall into bed and be up and out for 7 AM the next day.

If I hadn’t been 23 years old, I’d have died from exhaustion.

Now I’ve raised two children to near adulthood, and I spent the past six years caring full-time for my elderly mother in my home. Now Mum’s got a great spot at a care home where she’s safe and happy, and all the kids need me for is driving them around so I can have the car. And money. They also need me for money.

Over the years, in between the never-ending household chores, and caring for all the other people in my life, I’ve managed to finish writing several novels. One of which even got published, which was a great joy and privilege. But I’ve yearned for time. Time to write, reflect, walk, read, drink tea while it’s still hot. Suddenly, I see those hours stretch before me each day, like a pathway, like the Yellow Brick Road to Oz.

So, what have I been doing with those round, sweet hours for the past few weeks? SFA, nada, diddly-squat. I’ve been so discombobulated (who doesn’t love that word) by the loss of my job that I’ve been spinning my wheels refreshing my stupid Facebook feed, playing Sudoku on my phone and cleaning a house that’s frankly already pretty clean. Although with teenagers around you don’t want to get too far behind on that. When I’m not at home, they eat things without using a plate whilst wandering from room to room. (When does that stop? Send help.)

But last week, I did something. I started writing a new manuscript.Writing

This will be the first that I’ll have written without having to squeeze butt-in-chair writing time into a day that’s already full of paying job tasks. Like almost any writer, I’ve fantasized about having a writing life. But what would that look like for me? I don’t know because it’s only ever been a fantasy. If I’m serious about this writing life, for however long it lasts, I must commit to a schedule, treat the writing like it’s a job. Rather than sit and wait for inspiration, I need to write anyway, write when I don’t feel like it, write when I’m blocked, write when the characters won’t talk to me.

So here I go, boldly on this journey. If this is a false start, somehow not the story I’m meant to write, I’ll self-correct and restart a different story. Only time will tell. And if I get a job before the last word is written, I’ll finish it either way because I always do. Come hell or high water, if it’s the right story, I always finish.

If anyone has successfully made this transition and has tips or insight, leave a helpful comment for me and others.

The Heart Grows Not Old

When I was online the other day, I came across a piece of artwork that resonated so deeply within me, it briefly took my breath away. It was so evocative that I instantly felt the sting of tears.

Not everyone would feel the same way I felt upon viewing the image. Just like I haven’t yet been emotionally touched by some of the modern artwork I’ve viewed and moved past without truly understanding its message.

Art can be deeply personal but it also serves to remind us we are not alone. The human experience, as communicated through media such as a photograph, painting, film, song or novel, is universal. I am made up of all I have seen and done, all the people who have come and gone in my life, every joy and sorrow, every harsh and tender word. I bring all this to bear when experiencing a piece of art; my reaction is mine and your reaction is yours. But even though our sensibilities might differ, great art can show us how much we are the same, our common truth.

When I saw this image, my heart both broke and soared at the same time.

Memory

Image found here: https://twitter.com/Ou_Prg/status/579004166204465152

I am completely undone by the truth and beauty of the image, a sweet whisper that let me know someone has felt as I now feel.

My mother is eighteen. She is going to a dance with her sister after she finishes her workday as a secretary at a law firm. She loves to dance. Maybe she will meet a handsome gentleman who will open the door for her, light her cigarette, take her elbow gently as they walk into a clear, cool night.

My mother is eighty-one. She speaks very little as she sits in her chair watching television, hands clasped together. Her joints grow stiffer each day and she uses walls, counters, the back of a chair to navigate the house so she does not lose her balance and fall.

My mother is both eighteen and eighty-one.

When I grow old, I will feel young. My spirit will skip on a schoolyard, ride a golden horse through a thick forest, and hold the smooth hand of the one I love on a midnight walk under the moonlight.

Even if my body fails me and I can no longer do the things I enjoy, when I no longer remember yesterday, I hope I at least have someone I love nearby.

A piece of Veronica, by Elvis Costello:

Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?

What goes on in that place in the dark?

Well I used to know a girl and I would have

sworn that her name was Veronica

Well she used to have a carefree mind of her

own and a delicate look in her eye

These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure if her

name is Veronica

How Life is Like Sudoku, But Not Really

SudokuI recently took a month off from caring for my 81-year-old mother. Granted, the month was February, the shortest month of the year, but it was the longest respite period I’d taken since she moved in with us two years ago. My brother and sister-in-law have always been available to look after her during our short and sporadic family vacations, but that has never left me alone in my own house for more than a day or two at a stretch.

A month felt dream-like and I could barely visualize it. A month. When I told a friend about Mum’s vacation, she said, “Only a month?” My friend is in a rotation with her siblings for caring for her own elderly mother. And she’s a good friend.

One of the reasons I requested my brother’s help was because it’s ski season. When a child competes in a competitive sport, in this case downhill ski racing, it consumes a parent’s life. It’s about getting up before the crack of dawn, commuting, volunteering, preparing equipment, paying fees and drinking a lot of wine. There are races at hills that are two hours away by car, and spending a few nights in a nearby hotel makes sense when the team is skiing there several days in a row.

With my mother at home, however, I don’t have the flexibility to spend the night away or not be at home to prepare dinner. Mum can manage alone during the day or evening, but is unable to prepare meals for herself (aside from breakfast). In fact, this photo shows how I make sure she gets lunch when I have to make the twice-weekly trek into the office.Mum_Lunch

What would I do for a whole month (aside from the ski obligations, my full-time job, and looking after the rest of the family whom I couldn’t farm out to relatives)? I would write, read, exercise, go for long walks, snowshoe, eat ramen noodles for dinner in front of the TV, learn a foreign language. What did I do? Not nearly enough of the things I’d hoped to do. Instead, I played a lot of Sudoku.

Sudoku is a simple distraction when your mind is otherwise occupied. Reading and writing are difficult with only half of your brain because you really need to concentrate. Solving a Sudoku puzzle takes just enough brain power to challenge your intellect but leaves just enough brain power to let you still think about other things, like where my seventeen-year-old is with my car, the deadline I have at work, or how to find time in an evening to bake a banana loaf for the volunteer lunch and watch the latest episode of The Walking Dead on the DVR.

But all this Sudoku playing taught me something. Solving the puzzle grid, with its nine little boxes that each contain nine little boxes, depends on recognizing patterns. If you can see the pattern, you can solve the puzzle. I began to notice that when I got stuck, when I just couldn’t see what the solution might be, I could take a break from it, look away, clean a bathroom, bake a loaf. When I returned to the puzzle with fresh eyes, the solution magically presented itself.

Taking a break = Fresh eyes + Magical solution.

Now, math is not my strong suit, but given this rudimentary equation for solving Sudoku puzzles, could life be like that as well?

My conclusion is: sort of. We all know what they say about absence and what grows within in one’s heart. A month without my mother gave me enough moments of solitude to reflect on my life and hers. She has spent 81 years living on this earth, and even though I know plenty of seniors who are still spry and full of wit and conversation, she is not one of them. But, however frail, Mum’s still here with us. She’s still able to give a hug, hold a hand, offer a kind word.

The other day, my father-in-law, who I love with all my heart, asked, “When do you think you’d need to move your mother into a home?” He recently lost his wife after years of caring for her while she slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s. Less than a year since my mother-in-law’s death, I can still hear the grief in his words and sense the sadness in his gestures. I thought for a moment and considered.

“When she’s no longer able to look after her personal needs,” I said, suddenly sad at the prospect of this horrible loss, should it ever happen. And I realized that some problems don’t need to be solved. Making the best of a bad situation is more about acceptance and tolerance, and then being ready to face the next challenge. Because you know there’ll be one, it’s inevitable.

One day, this phase of my life will be over and I will be devastated when my mother is gone. I will be heartbroken. I will be an orphan.

Life can be a puzzle but sometimes it’s one that you simply cannot solve. And all you can hope to do is approach it with fresh eyes and a new perspective, and accept the vagaries of its changing landscape.

Sandwich Life: Kaleidoscopes and the New Normal

Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for the next crisis.

In my experience, just when you get accustomed to a situation, an unexpected emergency comes along to derail you and you’re thrust into a new reality you’re sure you can’t cope with. But amazingly you do and eventually it becomes the new normal.

I am constantly struck by the resiliency of the human animal. Our capacity to endure, to survive and even thrive after a traumatic event is astounding. A parent dies, a child is injured or falls ill, a teen gets into trouble, a spouse betrays the marital trust. And still we go on.

When I was six years old I got my tonsils removed. Some of the memories of my hospital stay are vivid, like waking each morning to my roommate’s bare butt in the bed next to mine, and throwing up on my brother’s shoes when he and my mother visited me after the surgery.

Memory from that age is not continuous. It doesn’t feel like this happened and then that, but more like flashes of lightning. A strobe image or episode here and then there.

My mother gave me several gifts while I was in hospital, most of which were designed to relieve the boredom. There were magazines, puzzle books and coloured pencils. And then she handed me a cardboard tube with a spyhole at one end. Attached to the other end was a round rotating container of colourful plastic beads. When I shook the contraption, the plastic pieces rattled within it.

This was my first kaleidoscope. I held the eyepiece up to the light and saw a fractured world of shape and colour. A starburst of glittering reds and blues. My mother reached out and turned the end piece and the entire scene changed. A whole new set of colours and shapes fell into place, this time predominantly green and yellow. It was different but equally beautiful.Kaleidoscope

When my father died and my ailing mother came to live with us, I thought the beads would never fall back into place, that life would never be beautiful again and I would live it perpetually suspended, everything slightly skewed.

In a way, I was right. Nothing would ever be the same. But, like a kaleidoscope, while you can’t get back that first pattern of reds and blues that you loved so much, you can find a new life pattern, and in it there is always beauty.