L is for Letting Go (and Hot Lava)

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began

                        –Mary Oliver

Hello, Dear Readers. This week has certainly been one full of lessons on Letting Go. It’s funny—as I make my way through the alphabet, ever so slowly, I have realized that each blog presents itself when it’s time. And not before.

So many things have converged in the past week, from family shit to online dating adventures, to the possibility of moving, to health concerns (not mine). As we emerge from this pandemic, like so many light-deprived moles crawling out of our long dark tunnels, blinking at the bright sun and shrinking from the intense heat (seriously, it was over 100 degrees here last weekend—that is not normal), we can only hope that the future is better, but it has not been a stellar re-entry back into the world.

The first lesson in Letting Go has to be that life is not going “back to normal.” What was before lockdown last March will not be returning. We have to let go of a “return to normal” and adjust to moving forward into something new. A friend invited me to a movie this week, at a theater. Inside. I’m not ready yet. And from the looks of the news headlines—shootings, forest fires, climate change havoc, declining vaccination rates, increased political polarization—it seems we should all just continue staying home. There needs to be a global Letting Go of the status quo. We cannot go on like this. I have no answers. Just a sense that if we don’t let go of what was, we will not be able to move forward, collectively.

On a more personal level, I have decided it is time to Let Go of my house. I put it on the market a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have a set plan yet. I just know that I’ve been in this house for 23 years, it has served me well, and now I no longer need it. When I was a kid, our family moved around a lot—I went to four different high schools—and when I landed in Bellingham 40 years ago to attend college,  I immediately put down deep roots. Maybe I didn’t even decide so much as just instinctually grounded myself here. I needed the continuity. But now, that need has subsided. It’s time for adventure. It’s time for me.

I spend my weeks urging clients to take care of themselves, reminding them that no one benefits if they aren’t getting their own needs met, that we can’t fill up others if our own wells are dry. Occasionally I remember to heed my own advice. But Letting Go of my home has repercussions beyond just me. My adult kids have feelings about me selling. Of course they do. I understand. My parents divorced and sold their home 20 some years ago, evoking all kinds of feelings of loss for me. I’ve had to Let Go of an intense urge to take care of my girls and to “do better” by them. But, Letting Go also means letting go of the past, of old wounds, of old habits, of old feelings that keep me trapped. Keeping my house is not going to heal the wounds I felt 20 years ago.

Letting Go means no longer being a place of refuge for others, and at times, I feel guilty for closing that door, but if not now, when? This house has been a refuge, a sanctuary, and now it feels more like a burden, a weight, an unnecessary commitment. Too much for me. I can’t wait. Some days, I am pursued by the specter of Alzheimer’s—it got my mom by 65 (in retrospect, it seems to have started there). She’s been robbed of her final decades—I cannot wait for it to get me too. I have to Let Go and Get Going into my own future.

Letting Go of my home also opens up a new range of possibilities—a life on the road, of Airbnbs in cities that call to me, of the possibilities of meeting people beyond the confines of this state, of opening myself, my life, my world up to more, bigger, different. Letting Go of what I thought work and the future held and embracing uncertainty.

When I work with clients who want to move forward but can’t seem to let go of what feels secure, I use a metaphor of the monkey bars. Remember hanging there, suspended over the “hot lava” your best friend breathing down your neck behind you, urging you to let go of the back rung in order to swing forward? The fear of falling, the knowledge if you didn’t let go, you’d eventually succumb to gravity and fall to the ground and be consumed by the metaphorical lava or crocodiles?

So, you took a deep breath, summoned your courage, and Let Go. Into the unknown, flying unsupported for one terrifying moment, the specter of death, of failure, of pain fleeting, until your hand met the cold, smooth metal and you were again safe. Ready to do it again, and again until you reached the end. Triumphant.

you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-Mary Oliver, from Dream Work

Alzheimer’s Sucks

Alzheimer’s disease sucks. Gawd. It sucks on so many levels, I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with a story, the story of today. My today:

I wake up at 6:20. Before I do anything else, I listen. I strain my ears toward the kitchen and concentrate. Then, wishing I could rotate my ears, catlike, I swivel my head so my ears point toward Mom’s bathroom. Silence. I breathe. I get out of bed, softly walk to the bathroom, pee, do not flush.

I pad carefully to the kitchen to start the coffee maker. I tiptoe back to my bedroom and pluck my phone from the nightstand as I quietly, so very, very quietly, crawl back into bed, phone in hand so I can check Twitter to see a) if The Dumpster resigned b) if North Korea bombed us, and c) how many followers I have. While the coffee brews, I repeat a, b, and c for Facebook, my blog, Instagram, and finally, the more traditional news sources. I check my mail, my calendar, and my messages and then I tiptoe back out to the kitchen for coffee, which has now brewed, and either a smoothie (if I remembered to make it the night before) or a banana. I grab a napkin, and I creep stealth-like back to my room. I listen. So far. So good. I eat my banana, I sip my coffee.

I continue my foray on the Interwebs: I check the local paper, the local paper’s horoscope, the local obituaries, the NYT for the latest Modern Love or Couch column. If I am feeling particularly brave, I might even watch and listen to a video without putting on my ear buds. I sip coffee and eat banana, and while I read, I wait for the coffee to work its magic. When it does, when the banana and the coffee kick in, I head back to the bathroom. I no longer try to be quiet. The jig is up, because as soon as I flush that toilet (this time I have to flush, Febreeze alone is not enough), she’ll awaken and arise. The peace, my peace, short lived as it was, will shatter, and I will not be able to reassemble it, the sharp-edged shards of my peace, until mid-to-late evening. For the next thirteen hours, I am on duty. Double duty.

I go back to my bedroom swiftly, quietly, a thief in my own damn house. I listen, not breathing, craning my ears—is she making breakfast yet? She moves fast once awakened. My running stuff is hanging in the laundry area adjacent to the kitchen, which is adjacent to Mom’s wing, which is visible via a closed set of French doors, and I might be able to get my shorts, t-shirt, toe socks, and sports bra without her seeing me, but the odds are rarely in my favor.

My home is no longer my haven. I will seek peace all day, but not here. Away. I will seek peace on my morning run at Lake Padden. I will look for quiet in my kayak after my run. I will float and read and soak in the sun for as long as I can because inevitably I will need to go home and shower and get on with my day. I have clients to see and classes to attend and questions to answer. So many fucking questions. And Mom will be waiting for me at the front door. She will hear the beep when I lock my Jeep, and she will open the front door.

“How was your day?” she asks. “Have a good run? What are your plans for the day?”

I push past her. “Good. Fine. Read the note Ma. I left you a note on the counter.” I plop my running bag, a gift from my brother, onto the bench in the entryway, kick off my shoes.

“Okay, good,” she smiles. “Mommy was just wondering.” Her voice rises an octave. She talks to me the way one talks to an infant. She totters back to her wing, behind the French doors; she will putter there while I change. I used to strip naked in front of the washing machine and then wander carefree to the shower, but now when I strip off my running clothes, I do it in my room and throw on a t-shirt and a pair of boxers so I can take my sweaty nasty clothes to the washing machine without my mother seeing me naked. Ew.

I change in less than three minutes. Mom meets me at the washing machine. “How was your day?” she asks. “How was your run? What are your plans for the day?”

“The run was good,” I say, breathing deeply through my nose. “Not too many people.” I try to smile her direction. “The jury is still out on how my day will be, though, Ma. It’s only 10:30.” I nod toward the counter at the note I left her before I went running. “I left you a note.”

“Oh,” she hangs her head and scurries back to her side of the French doors.

“Ma,” I call. “Ma, it’s ok. Don’t leave. I just . . . “ My voice trails off as she shuts the door. I can see her sit on her couch and pick up the tv remote.

My heart sinks. I suck. I should be more cheerful, nicer. But every morning it’s exactly the same. Every (mostly). Fucking. Morning. Since. September. The same questions, repeated, ten, fifteen, twenty times an hour. Every hour. All day.

I shower and get dressed. I finished my internship hours a couple of weeks ago, but I still leave the house every day as if I am still going. Coffee shops. Friends’ houses. Breweries. Whole Foods has an amazing happy hour everyday from 4-7. Three dollar pints.

Mom meets me at the front door. “You’re in Seattle today? You have to drive? Is Diane coming to pick me up for group? Is it until 1 o’clock today?”

I sigh. “Did you see the note, Ma? I’m in town at my internship. Diane knows. Yes, it’s at one. I wrote it all down for you. Have a good day.” I muster a malnourished smile as I stand at the door and wait for her to move. She stands in the doorway, unaware that she is in my way.

“Goodness,” her voice goes up an octave, and the baby talk begins again. “Mommy wouldn’t know what to do without you, Pammy Sue.”

Just a note: Hmm. I guess this is the first in a series. Possibly it’s the second in a series. Caregiving for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is a very strange adventure. Per my usual MO, I did not come very prepared for the ride and am learning on the fly. I’ve connected with the local Alzheimer’s Society where Mom attends groups three times a week. I am well-connected with services. That’s the easy part. The hard parts are more complex, more nuanced, more opaque. I hope to be as honest as I can here. My intentions are good. I want what is right and good for my mom, but holy shit it is really difficult to figure out what might be best at any given moment. We have entered uncharted waters, Dear Reader. Flotation devices strongly recommended. Buckle up.