Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Power of Cats

My mother loves animals, but none more than cats. There has not been a day in my 43 years that she has not lived with at least one cat, and while she doesn't go looking for them, the strays always manage to find her and move in.

My grandmother hated cats. I don't know precisely why, but despite the fact that almost all five of her children grew up to have cats for pets, she was disdainful of them and wanted nothing to do with them. Grandma loved baseball, teaching, reading and traveling. Cats, she had no time or love for. Until she developed Alzheimer's.

My aunt and uncle had a house in the hills above Santa Barbara and one summer, shortly after my grandmother began really struggling with her memory, a wildfire ripped through those hills and burned their house to the ground. For an agonizing bit of time, the family looked for their beloved cat, Cecil. When they found him, hiding among the hills, safe and sound, Grandma fell in love with him. We were all astonished. This woman who, for sixty years or more, had loudly proclaimed her hatred for felines, suddenly found a companion in Cecil, an enormous orange and white tabby.

One of my favorite pictures of her is this one, proudly clutching her new friend as he barely tolerates it.

Last weekend when I was at Mom's house, I noticed her fixation on her cats. They both enjoy being outside during the day, and when we were at home, Mom got up every five minutes or so to peek out the windows or open the garage door to check on them. I was so taken aback by the size of her favorite, Moses, that I asked her if I could take a picture to send to Eve and Lola. I swear he's part raccoon. He must weigh 40 pounds, and part of that is because Mom feeds him over and over again all day long, forgetting that she has already done it, and he isn't about to protest. 

First of all, let me say that I know Mom would be upset if she knew this photo was posted. I know it's not the most flattering shot of her, but it is the only one I got before the cat got too heavy for her to hold. I was struck, later, by the similarities I saw. Even though Mom has always loved cats and Grandma hated them for most of her life, the comfort and companionship they both got from interacting with cats is the same.

For the few days I was with Mom, we were both exhausted. I could see her trying really hard to hold on to the thread of conversation, to pay attention to everything I said and it made me wonder if I ought to slow down or tell the same stories over and over again to somehow set them in her brain. (That wouldn't have been hard - I found myself telling her the same things repeatedly simply because she asked the same questions again and again. Ironically, I wondered if she heard me doing that and thought that I was getting forgetful). By the end of the day, we were both entirely wasted from the effort. And that was when I noticed what happened when she sat with the cat. Her face relaxed, her shoulders relaxed. Her entire being settled. I don't know if it was the tactile sense of petting the cat or the rhythmic purring, the weight (oh, the weight!) on her lap, or just the fact that she could communicate nonverbally, but she was at ease. She could just interact with him by sitting quietly and petting him without any expectation that she would remember it or make conversation.

It's no wonder she is looking for the cats all day long. They are familiar to her and she can do exactly the things they expect of her - feed them, let them in and out of the house, and sit with them quietly. It has to be a huge relief to get moments during the day that are like this when so much else feels confusing and chaotic. I'm pleased that my grandmother had Cecil for a while, despite her mostly lifelong hatred of cats. If he knew, he never let on.

Monday, April 27, 2015

It's Not About Me

"My brain is just mush right now!"
"It's all just a blur. I don't know why I can't remember."
"You can put it in that...thing over there that is meant to have food in it. That big, white thing. Right there."

Mom is struggling. Whether it is due to her poorly controlled diabetes or the onset of dementia, or her family's gene pool playing out its hand and dealing her the early-onset Alzheimer's her mother had, I don't know. And frankly, it doesn't matter. The reality is, she can't be alone these days for long without consequences. And since her husband recently spent a few days in the hospital for surgery, my brother and spent a few days tag-teaming her.  I got up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and headed down I-5, a little over four hours in the car chasing NPR stations as I went without one stop to pee or eat.  It's been six months since I saw her, although I speak to her on the phone every few days, and I've been increasingly worried about her.

I wasn't quite sure what I would find, but I was on edge. Her husband went in early Thursday morning for surgery and she sat vigil at the hospital, calling me every few hours to report, and getting increasingly panicky. By the fourth call, she had lost the thread that he was there for surgery and wondered why the doctors were giving him antibiotics and wouldn't let him come home.  At 7:30, she called to report that she was at home, but it took her more than an hour to find her car in the parking lot at their small, local hospital, and she was annoyed.  When I checked on her Friday morning, she wasn't sure whether she would go visit him, but she still couldn't remember that he'd had surgery. She said he was at the hospital with a "bad cold." My brother spent the afternoon and evening with her on Friday and texted me updates that scared us both. He considered hiding her car keys, but couldn't get her out of the room long enough to dig in her purse and find them.

The hurricane of emotions picked me up and threw me side-to-side. I agonized over the four-hour distance between us, the kids I have at home that still need me a great deal, and thoughts of where do we go from here. Occasionally, I railed at the genetic sequence that put this destination squarely within my own sights and called Bubba to remind him that I've ordered him to push me off the edge of the Grand Canyon as soon as I forget the names of my friends and family. Time and time again I was sucked back into the ruts that demanded I "fix it," find a solution, put some plan in place to deal with all of this.

And on my way home today, I remembered; it's not about me. It just isn't. This is about her. Occasionally, I saw glimpses of fear before she masked them. I felt tenderness when she followed me into the kitchen to see what I was cooking for dinner and lamented my eventual departure. I watched as she doted on her two cats, continually seeking them out to be sure they were warm and dry and fed. And when I have the presence of mind to recall that this is about Mom, I can relax and listen. I can sit with her and listen to the same stories over and over and reflect on what her touchstones are, think about the moments in her day that she holds on to. If I listen closely enough, she will tell me what she wants, and for now, that is the most important thing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Picking Your Battles

Bubba and I are raising two very strong girls. We can't take all of the credit, to be certain. There is some part of each of them that is just that way - they were born strong and stubborn, I'm sure. But we have done our level best to offer them opportunities to share their ideas and express themselves, to find their voices and the places where they will be heard.

It is a pretty awesome thing to behold most of the time.

We encourage them to think about the things we take for granted, challenge the status quo.
We have told them that their opinions deserve to be heard as much as anyone else's (so long as they aren't nasty or hateful or shaming).
We have listened to their point of view and had some very spirited discussions and, a time or two, we have capitulated to them - realizing that they had a valid point.

This weekend, as I listened to the two of them have argument after argument over the most mundane of subjects (what the actual lyrics to that song are, whether a particular shade of nail polish is ugly or not, where the best tacos in town are), it occured to me that they are both really good at speaking up and making their point. I was annoyed but not alarmed at the constant bickering, because I was fascinated by their individual tactics and pleased that it never descended into physical violence.

However...

It is far beyond time that I started teaching them about choosing their battles. Being good at convincing others can be a good thing, and winning arguments can be as well. But I realized that they may not understand how fast people who aren't their family will run if every interaction is a contest of wills. Bosses and romantic partners probably won't appreciate how good Eve and Lola are at using their voices if they are used with equal fervor when it comes to what's for dinner and whom to vote for.

They are well-versed in standing up for what they think.
Now it's time to learn WHEN to do it.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Stephen Hawking and The Ghost Boy

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA
I've been thinking a lot about communication lately. I just finished reading Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. It's the story of Martin, who succumbed to a mystery disease when he was a young boy that put him into a coma for two years. When he "awoke," he was unable to speak or move any part of his body other than his eyes and some minimal movements of one hand. It took years before someone was able to assess him for brain damage and fit him with a computer device that enabled him to communicate with the world and everyone was shocked at how much he was aware of and understood during the time he was mute and paralyzed.

I have to say, the book wasn't my favorite, literarily-speaking, but it did spark a lot of thought processes in my head.  And ultimately, it led to me watching The Theory of Everything last Friday night. I have loved Stephen Hawking's brain since I first read Black Holes and Baby Universes for fun in high school. (Yes, I was that nerd). I went on to read "A Brief History of Time" and was completely hooked.  His story was different, in that people knew he was brilliant before he began struggling with the symptoms of ALS and could no longer speak or take care of himself, but I was still fascinated by how heavily verbal communication weighs in our assessment of each other as human beings.

I remember when my grandmother was rendered mute by Alzheimer's disease. Although she had been increasingly confused prior to that time, it was still confusing to me whether or not she understood the lion's share of what was going on around her. I recall thinking that I would go crazy if I were trapped inside my own head and body, unable to respond or make my needs known.

As a young mother, I recognized my infant's frustrated cries as just that - a desperate longing to tell me what she wanted and to have some control over her world.  Fortunately for her, normal developmental progression let her gradually gain that control. But until she could, I had to change my response to her by listening in a different way, paying attention to her body language and context, the time of day and where her eyes moved. I had to trust that she was doing her best to communicate with me and it was on me to slow down, change my expectations, decipher the clues.  When I came from a place of love and genuine desire to know, while it was often challenging and crazy-making, I was able to be more patient.

Some of the stories Martin told about how he was treated by caregivers in various care homes were horrifying. The lack of humanity he was shown simply because he was unable to speak or move his body the way he wanted to made me sad. And it made me think about how often we expect others to communicate with us in the ways we are accustomed to, instead of thinking outside the box. Fortunately, there are those out there who are committed to finding ways to help people like Martin and Stephen Hawking express themselves.  As for me, the next time I encounter someone who doesn't communicate exactly like I do, I hope I'll have the presence of heart to slow down and find another way to listen.

Monday, April 06, 2015

On the 40th Anniversary of Operation Babylift

I have Operation Babylift to thank for my little sister. And perhaps some divine intervention, given that she was on the plane that crashed in 1975 and killed over a hundred of the passengers - orphans and adults evacuating them.

photo from the Daily Mail, UK

To this day it is hard for me to imagine strapping scores of infants to airplane seats. We would be reported to CPS these days for doing such a thing, and I suspect if I had been one of the nurses charged with tending to the babies, I would have been a nervous wreck trying to keep an eye on them all. 
photo from the Daily Mail, UK
Every time I think about this amazing story, I can't help but feel that my sister's survival, at less than two months old, means something big. That the fact that she not only survived her birth in a war-torn country, but then lived her first four weeks of life in an orphanage, was strapped into an airplane seat with hundreds of other infants and survived a horrific crash, only to be flown across the world to a foster family who would come to discover she had a tapeworm and multiple food allergies means something big. 

I don't know what it means. I can't imagine that it means the same to her that it does to me. I don't know what it's like to not know where you come from (all of the orphans' records were destroyed in the crash) and to grow up in a small town in Oregon where nobody looks like you - not even the people in your own family. 

I do know that when she arrived in our house, the local media showed up, too. I was three years old and completely unfazed by the reporter or the photographer, but I was entirely enthralled by this tiny little doll someone placed in my arms. She was so minuscule and weightless and warm with enormous brown eyes and crazy black cornsilk hair that stood up in all directions. I promptly christened her mine - a moment not lost on the reporter, as he quoted me in the article for the newspaper. 

To this day, I am still not sure what it all means, but April, 1975 is an important part of my life and it always will be. It was the month that I gained a sister. Regardless of the political or humanitarian implications of the war in Vietnam and the resulting evacuation of orphans, it forever changed the course of my life.


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