Tag Archives: end of life

10,000+ Views: Thanks for Stopping By

A blogger's home computer

Blogging is kind of magical to me. Not the writing part (though the way I write sometimes feels that spontaneous). The community part.

The Henry Chronicles was my little cry in the wilderness. It felt natural to share joyful little stories of my journey with Dad, because finding the joy kept me going. Writing about the tough days gave me a way to move through the pain.

What has surprised me about The Henry Chronicles has been the people who find it.

I wrote my first post on June 28 two years ago, an answer to my Dad’s doctor’s question about whether he was there on D-Day, meaning Normandy. I felt the urge to record what D-Day meant to my father. He had lots of D-Days, but they were in the Pacific.

That was 138 posts ago. I’m still writing, because I’m still remembering, and still coming to understand my mother and father’s legacies.

The blog didn’t go as planned. I thought I would write helpful tips about caring for an aging parent based on my experience just as I write a blog tips and practical information for small, local nonprofits. (I write a travel and hiking blog, too – call me crazy.)

The Henry Chronicles became something far more personal. I poured out my heart here. And the more honest I got, it seems the more people found it and resonated with my little glimpses of life with Dad. The less I tried to advise people and just shared, the more helpful the posts became – at least based on comments and views.

I’ve felt supported and honored by many of the comments people have shared.

Sean wrote, “I understand well what your words mean. But, from a non-experience perspective. I was never emotionally close with my mother and never ever with my father who was emotionally and physically ‘not there’. But, I know they felt a good deal of what you say, but, they just were not themselves brought up to explain and talk about ‘feelings’ and emotions.”

Jane said: “I wish I could have been as patient and giving when my paremts died (fortuunately a much quicker process) and I hope that one or more of my children will be patient and giving when my own time comes…”

Richard jumped on after reading about my visit to Marine Barracks:  “My father never spoke of the trials he endured on Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian – I only learned from others. I know my visit to the Barracks will be an emotional and moving experience for me. My father was proud of being a Marine but spoke of war as the horrific tragedy which it is and the friends of he lost. In a way, our visit is like a ‘coming home’.”

Karen, and other family members watching the last stages of Congestive Heart Failure, appreciated hearing about my Dad’s last weeks, as hard as it was to write about them: “Thank you for sharing your father with everyone who reads this. My mother is 75 & has chf. By following each step you have taken.I now have more insight & answers.before I was so lost with questions that couldn’t be found. Your dad will live on forever in the hearts of families that struggles with this disease. Thank you henery for giving your daughter the strengh to share & a heart as big as yours!”

When Dad died, Kristi and others came on the blog to send love and condolences: “In the tears that have welled in my eyes are full measures of gratitude for your father – his role as husband and parent, his contributions in service to his family, country, faith, vocation and avocations – and for your love, devotion, care and eloquence in sharing so much with so many. Your service has been a benediction, Betsy. In sympathy and with joy for his life and legacy – your good fortune in having such a wonderful Dad. Love.

Thank you, those who have stumbled across Henry Chronicles, for your support. It made a difference to me.

If you’re curious (I was), here are the top five posts:

1.  The Consequences of Dad Losing His Filter (July 10, 2011)

2.  A Wish and a Dream Fulfilled (August 16, 2013)

3.  A Long Day’s Journey into Night with Congestive Heart Failure (January 29, 2013)

4. 30 Years of Opposites, Happily Ever After (August 7, 2012)

5.  With Love, to the Last Breath (January 12, 2013)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dad’s Affair with the Military History Channel

My Dad was an avid reader. Foreign Affairs kept him current on geo-political dynamics. The Economist informed him about money and economies around the world. The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor made sure that he kept up with U.S. news. Until a couple of years ago, he consumed non-fiction books about Shakespeare (Harold Bloom), history (Jared Diamond) and military strategy (Stephen Ambrose).

As he lost his concentration for longer works, the ratio between the printed word and the boob tube reversed itself. Television went from an evening pastime that would begin with the evening news shows (a vestige of the time when they used to be actual, thoughtful shows presided over by thoughtful anchors like Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite) to the status of electronic companion.

During his last few months of life, he consumed the Military History Channel almost exclusively.

Hour after hour, day after day, he watched familiar black and white images culled from news reels. Military advances were demonstrated with ever more lethal efficiency through film clips and interviews about wars from the Revolutionary War forward. Some documented in painful detail the creeping advance of the Marines in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Dad’s war.

I worried about the effect of this steady diet of war video. Why ingest gruesome images of loss and destruction? Would it trouble his dreams?

He was, like so many veterans of his age, not one to talk about the war. Certainly he didn’t regale us with tales of his buddies, near misses, brave efforts or hijinks. War was a serious topic, rarely broached.

I sometimes felt like Dad’s own movie clips were running in a loop in his head. Without preamble, Dad would occasionally look up from a glass of wine and remember standing on the loading dock in San Diego with the sudden responsibility for loading a warship that would soon be bound for Kwajalein.

Did the images on the small screen take him back to a time and place he needed to revisit? He seemed expressionless when he watched the scenes. How could they not depress him?

I considered switching the channel, suggesting different fare, but I stopped myself. He had so little control over his life at that point. Who was I to legislate what he watched? I wondered if perhaps he needed to review this important part of his history. Or perhaps he just followed a habit formed long ago when he used to be a student of military strategy.

In those last, long weeks, I sat next to him and wondered what he thought.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Our Common Cause as Adult Children

Dad bird hunting

You won’t find this blog post until you’re ready to think about what we have in common: the sometimes-painful, sometimes-rewarding responsibility for caring for a parent during their “golden years.”

The senior years can be tremendously active and exciting – a period of freedom after a long life of work. But for our parents and most of us – yes, us, too – there comes a period when the world shrinks.

Our job, if we love our parents and choose to be involved, is to make their passage during these years as good as they can be.

Almost every day, I stumble across someone who faces their parents’ elder years with trepidation. It happened again this morning, walking with a neighbor.

These are the truths I hear over and over again:

  • Parents don’t want to be a burden; they actively wish to die in their sleep or go quickly, and don’t want the adult child to feel pain over their departure.
  • Parents often live near their lifetime’s worth of friends, while their children are sometimes states away. Adult children worry how they will provide the assistance needed when one or both parents need more help.
  • One sibling bears most or all of the responsibility for looking after their parents.
  • Often, there’s a sibling or sibling’s spouse who is not on the same page about what should happen.
  • We feel drawn and quartered. We may face pressure at work or be trying to support our young adult children or spouses through rough patches in their lives even while we are trying to pay more attention to our aging parents.
  • Having candid conversations with parents about their intentions, physical limitations and financial preparedness is very, very difficult. Few aging parents are realistic and proactive, leaving adult children to worry about whether (or when) they will have to step in and take over.

I learned some truths of my own along the way, truths that surprised me. I fully expected Dad, who had advanced heart disease for more than 50 years, to go out with a big bang. Instead, he rallied over and over again, never quite recapturing the ground he had lost, but persisting even so. He lived at least 15 years with congestive heart failure.

I also learned that quality of life didn’t depend on the things he thought it did. His perspective changed with time, and he was able to be pretty satisfied even though Mom was gone and he couldn’t hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors as he once did. His world was small, but there were people in it who loved him.

I learned that Dad’s long decline was an important time for him in coming to terms with regrets. He regretted that his father wasn’t more interested in him. He regretted that he couldn’t save my little sister when she became ill with leukemia. He regretted that he couldn’t protect my mother from feeling afraid during her terminal illness with lung cancer. Eventually, those regrets ran their course and were replaced by peace.

I learned that I could give him my love and attention without resentment, even though it meant living my own life in the very slow lane.

I learned that I could have a far deeper relationship with Dad after my Mom’s death than we ever had before.

I learned so much from the last seven years caring for him.

But I understand the fears of those who stand at the precipice of their parents’ old age, wondering and worrying how they will handle it. All I can tell you for sure is that it won’t go quite the way you expect it to. There will be parts that are harder, but there will also be surprising gifts.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

With Dad Gone, A Void (Part Four)

photo[1]

Napping…

To start at the beginning of this little series, click here.)

Now that I am home, really home, after Dad’s death, I am coming to terms with my identity all over again. Carol Mithers wrote a very poignant essay in the New York Times entitled, “Suddenly, They’re All Gone.” Instead of being relieved when five years of caregiving for her mother-in-law, then her father-in-law, then her childless aunt and finally her mother died, she felt worse. She concluded, “While you’re caring for the old, you can’t believe what you’re called on to do and where you find yourself, can’t believe that your time with them will ever end. Then one day, it just does.”

As Dad became more fragile, and I became more vigilant, caregiving did become all consuming. I was neither angel nor martyr; like Carol, I had my days when I lost my temper when Dad locked on to something about which he was dead wrong. But many times, it was a pretty zen experience.

Dad always asked me if I got tired of walking with him or hearing his bits of memorized poetry. I could honestly answer, “Never.”

I miss it.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Naked Shredding and Other Awkward Retired Moments (Part Three)

photo[5]

The project plan and portfolio of materials for Friends of Hospice (design by Pat Davis of Pat Davis Design)

(To start at the beginning of this little series, click here.)

What came next was… a whole lot of nothing. I had cleared the decks in anticipation of Dad moving to California, but he was hesitating. Even though he had already made THE BIG MOVE out of the family house three years prior, he was now nearly 89. Moving sounded so daunting: packing, change-of-address, changing doctors, etc.

I no longer had to check my Blackberry constantly for new texts or messages. My phone wasn’t ringing, and I didn’t have to coordinate my calendar through my assistant.

No one was looking for me, needing my input or approval.

I found out, as many retired caregivers do, that you are not quite as essential to the world as you thought you were. The void of your departure quickly fills. You find out who your real friends are.

I enjoyed walking in the cool of the mornings in Davis. I started going to yoga. And I began cleaning out my house with a vengeance.  I started tackling old papers, many of which needed to be shredded.

During those early days, with Maddie and Tommy off somewhere, and Todd at the office, I began to question my old routine of showering, blow-drying hair, dressing and putting on a little makeup. I dropped hair and makeup.  Who was going to see me? Then I started skipping showers on some days. Who would notice? And one day it just seemed stupid to dress. Why dress if no one could see you? It just adds to the laundry.

Which led to the naked shredding incident. There is something that just seems wrong about shredding with nothing on. House cleaning or cooking without clothes seems okay, but to shred just seems unhygienic.

“What are you doing,” I asked myself. I wrote my friend Jim – my mentor even then – about my crisis of productivity. How would I measure the value of my days without project assignments and milestones, without output? He counseled me to just breathe and I would figure out what I was meant to do.

I breathed all summer.

Then in the fall, with Maddie installed at college, a thought bubble appeared above my head. I had the rare opportunity to use my skills to further a cause I cared about, without having to charge for it. And I cared a lot about hospice.

My mother had the bad fortune to be admitted to a hospital on the weekend. Three physicians were involved in her care, no one seemed to have any idea what was planned, and the nursing staff was reluctant to “bother” a doctor when Mom “sundowned” and became deeply paranoid. I asked the nurse manager to arrange a meeting with whatever physician agreed to be in charge.

Mom’s doctor came in, sat at the conference table, and said, “Your mother is terminal. It would be kinder for all parties concerned if she winked out right here in the hospital.” Then he rose.

“We’re not done,” I said. I explained that we were under no illusions about her prognosis. But she was scared. And we wanted her to be able to die at home, with hospice.

Another doctor took over her care, one who was on the same page with us.

I knew then that hospice – still, after two decades – was poorly understood by lay people, and worse, by doctors. Having been responsible for communicating about a hospice program early in my career, I knew that hospice was not “giving up.” It was better care, more caring care. I knew my mother would want to be at home, looking out on her garden as it bloomed in the spring, surrounded by familiar things. Hospice was our best shot at being able to let her die at home, in comfort.

I offered to develop a pilot program under the auspices of the California Hospice Foundation to raise awareness of hospice among consumers. The “Friends of Hospice” public relations campaign was implemented successfully with the cooperation of three hospice programs and CSU Chico’s Tehama Group Communications in Chico, CA.

Sometime that fall, I talked to Fr. Greg Bonfiglio, president of Jesuit High School, about my transition. He asked,”Have you ever thought that perhaps you are being called to this work?”

Even after Dad moved to California in March 2006, I found that I still needed something beyond caregiving to provide meaning in my life. Maybe it’s that his needs weren’t that demanding. But I suspect more of it is what Mom recognized when she made her hospital bed speech and said that I was “competent, with a high level of activity.” It’s who I am.

As when Maddie and Tommy were young, I couldn’t completely let go of my own needs and focus only on theirs. Maybe it’s selfishness.  Some would certainly say that it is. I have a Puritan work ethic without the Calvinist self-loathing (as Dan Pallotta recently described it in his Ted Talk).

I wanted to make a difference in Dad’s world, and keep contributing to the broader world. That stake in the community was a source of strength that sustained me through the very hard times.

Next: What happens now, when the merry go-round of caregiving has stopped?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Journey of a Caregiver Begins (Part Two)

My awesome retirement party (planned by Samantha Smith) included Polaroid party pics signed by colleagues and boss

My awesome retirement party (planned by Samantha Smith) included Polaroid party pics signed by colleagues and my boss

(To start at the beginning of this little series, click here.)

Today, I stumbled across something I wrote for myself in 2005, shortly after my “retirement” (I have no recollection of writing this). It feels a little weird to find a time capsule like this one, written as I took my first steps into my new “retired” life:

Whenever I reach momentous personal decisions, it always seems to follow this pattern.  People tell me they are taken by surprise, that they had no inkling I might be considering such an action.  I surprise myself.  Thoughts may be gestating but I often have no conscious awareness of them.  Occasionally, I’ll experience a fleeting thought in the shower, or driving.  They usually come when I am at ease, when I have not even named a problem, much less become engaged in solving it.  Then, up through the depths, it dawns on me:  maybe it’s time to make a change.  In the first few moments, I roll the idea around, feeling its texture.  I’ll speak of it casually, almost as if stating a whim.  Once spoken out loud, I add to it, refine it.  It takes shape in the moment.

Just this kind of process led to my decision to leave the world of work.  With a problem that wasn’t named, but a solution found, I am doing what I often do:  getting comfortable after I’ve decided to act.

Over the weekend, Todd said to me he had purchased a printer/fax machine to go with our new computer.  I snapped, “That’s my computer, not our computer.”  For the past 15 years, maybe longer, I’ve had a laptop computer that has followed me everywhere.  I’ve anthropomorphized these sidekicks, even naming one, “Lappy.”  There is no piece of equipment upon which I have been more dependent, with which I feel more natural, than my personal computer.  It captures my addresses, remembers my appointments, serves as the slate for both memos and my internal process of reflection.  I’ve stored information about our stocks, written holiday letters, inventoried my father’s house, created itineraries for far-flung trips.  I’ve transcribed prayers, written customer service complaints, captured quirky horoscopes. I used a laptop to capture the words my mother found the strength and heart to say from her hospital bed, while fighting the twin demons of cancer and dementia.  My traveling PC has been a loyal and hard-working appendage.

I am just beginning to understand what I have exited.  First, there are the messages of the farewells.  I was surprised at the heartfelt message from my boss.   Rather than the obligatory “with regret, so and so is leaving the company after X years of service to concentrate on her personal life,” he chose to recognize some of my style proclivities we had occasionally argued about:  “…she will be equally missed for her leadership of people – caring about their development, demanding and rewarding top performance, and demonstrating (our) values in the context of creating a great work environment.”

As the news spread, e-mail greetings poured in like pebbles — some smooth and efficient:  “Your leadership has made many lasting contributions.  You will be missed.” Other messages were strikingly personal: “I am occasionally surprised at how much time it has taken me to work out from under the loss of my Mom last Christmas, even after her long illness.  The only thing that I’m certain of is that no matter how much time you spend, or how many things you do, or how close you come to ‘getting it right’ in dealing with family stuff, I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t wish they had done one more thing, said one more thing or made one more special time happen.”  Another wrote:  “I also find myself prioritizing my life and the things that are important to me.  As you may or may not know, I have just undergone radiation treatment for throat cancer and it has really made me stop and think – and who knows – I may decide to hang it up sooner than later.”  Still another:  “I think of jumping out of the work-for-pay race often.  I’m now painting a lot and I have paintings in a few galleries.  I often wonder what would happen if I could devote more time to painting.  I get great responses… that they are joy-filled.  Lots of color helps.”

In some of the messages, people explained that they had reached a conclusion similar to my own, that – if you have to choose – it is one’s teenagers that require your presence most:  “I started this job when my son was three months old and I am having the time of my life.  I was torn when I received the offer and so talked with all my professional women friends to see how they managed this work/life shift.  So many said, ‘Oh stay home if you can… you’ll miss it otherwise.’  I was surprised.  But I kept digging and another story began to emerge.  One of my colleagues very wisely told me that she found her kids adapted incredibly well to her work schedule when they were little, but she has cut back to part-time now that her daughter is 13 years old.  She believes her kids need her much more now than they ever did before.”

So far I have been credited with wisdom, character, selflessness and inspiration.  Why, then, don’t I feel that way about it?  What I know, that others do not, is that many of my decisions have been based on ambition and fear, supported by a healthy dose of self-justification.  I am not wearing a hair shirt here, nor engaging in self-flagellation.  In a message to my team, I wrote:  “I’m not doing anything heroic.  For nearly 25 years, I have vigorously pursued achievement and learning.  I was promoted during the sixth month of my first pregnancy and met with my boss while in the labor room; six weeks later, I was back on the job.  The desire to keep going was paramount.  Now I am selfishly following another desire.” 

Both subtly and more obviously, I have also been motivated by fear.  After leaving one company and promising to take time out for a while, I found myself accepting my current position after just one month off.  It was a great opportunity that seemed too good to pass up, but I also feared the quiet time in between.  Where would I be without the structure of my work life?  More deeply, there are things I have been afraid to commit to – even to speak of – such as my interest in writing.  What would happen if I just tried to write?  Had to write?

Though the analysis may be right in the long run, I understand my colleague’s desire to justify her decision to work now, when her children are young.  Hearing that children need you most during the rocky teenage years is an answer I was hoping to hear, even as I wondered about the long-term consequences.  We are all engaged in a giant social experiment to try to find the best way to raise healthy children.  Children can be healthy and happy with working parents, or stay-at-home parents.  That’s not the point.  The challenge is in knowing what will turn out to have the very best result for one’s own children.  No one, not even me, knows whether I have made the right decisions.

From four sources came wagers.  Even my brother wrote, “Sure, but the real money is on how long it will last before you get the itch again  J”

And a few carrots were dangled:  interest in consulting, sitting on corporate boards, “let me know when you decide to re-enter.”

Talking with an old friend over the weekend, he noted that he and his wife were considering a similar decision.  She has risen to the top financial position in a large corporation.  If she leaves, they both acknowledge, there will be no going back at the same level, or for the same pay.  In today’s environment, skills rust quickly, resumes mold, and reputations fade.

If one thing doesn’t work, I usually have another option half-lined up in the wings.  This time I have no such fallback plan, and I think it’s important that I keep it that way. 

I have exited, and now I stand at the border of whatever is next.  For now, I am firmly fixed on just noticing.  I am an observer of my own experience.  As Jose Saramango wrote in Journey to Portugal:  “(M)ay I learn in passing from one land to the next to pay the closest attention to the similarities and differences, whilst not forgetting… that a traveler has preferences and sympathies….”

That was me in June 2005.

If I had to do all over again – leave my job and care for Dad – I would do it in a heartbeat.

Next: naked shredding and other awkward moments adjusting to retired life.

At the management team farewell, gifts included this valise packed with well wishes

At the management team farewell, gifts included this valise packed with well wishes. They couldn’t have been more right about the beginning of a journey.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Identity Crisis! (Again!) Part One

My Dad and our friend, Peggy Woods, at our Tacoma "house cooling" party, 2002

My Dad and our friend, Peggy Woods, at our Tacoma “house cooling” party, 2002

My Dad always said that he felt like he had several lives: his formative years up to joining the 5th Reserve Officer’s Commissioning Corps in the lead up to WWII, his career in the Marine Corps, his civilian life, living and working in the Pacific Northwest, and the 14 years of his life after Mom’s death.

Yesterday, my dental hygienist, Mary, observed that women have an easier time adjusting to old age because we go through so many physical changes in our lives: first raging hormone fluctuations and cramps as we enter adolescence; then the inflation of our bellies to near-alien proportions during pregnancy followed quickly by the transformation of our breasts into feeding machines; and finally a return to raging hormonal fluctuations accompanied by night sweats, belly fat that seems to reproduce overnight and the growth of random wiry hairs on our chin or necks. Even they never have children, women usually get two out of three of those changes.

Men, Mary holds, never face the ego challenges of appearance and body changes that women do. Their egos can’t take it when they go from captains of industry to invisible old men.

Mary may have it right as far as some men are concerned (although it certainly didn’t apply to my Dad). But I certainly took a blow to my identity and my ego when I retired to care for my Dad, and I know many caregivers who have gone through a similar transition. And now, with Dad newly gone, I am finding I am having to redefine myself – again.

Let me back up and talk about my initial transformation into retiree and caregiver.

I had lost my Mom to late stage lung cancer in 1999, and the words of her last lucid speech to me – from her hospital bed – echoed in my mind. After more than two weeks of being out of it, she began talking quietly to me about 9:45 p.m. I wrote her words as she slowly said them on a scrap of paper. For almost an hour she told me what I had meant to her, shared her reflections of me as a person, talked about the special importance of daughters, and asked how my Dad was “handling all of this,” taking in her surroundings with a glance. She said, “It is hard to say goodbye to people you love, but it is very important.” When I asked her what I could do for her, she said, “You can continue to be the marvelous woman that you are – competent, with a high level of activity. The world needs you.”

In 2004, I knew that time was marching on for my Dad. Just one year before, he suffered a major stroke, and I was all too aware of his cardiovascular surgeon’s prediction that Dad’s arteries would begin to clog after five years. Which was right about then.

Maddie was beginning her senior year and would soon be off to college. Tommy was in 7th grade, in the midst of a difficult adolescence.

Having already lost one parent, I was all too aware that this time with my Dad would never come again. I would be Maddie and Tommy’s Mom for many years to come, but the window of time to be a daughter, to enjoy my father, would close forever.

Much has been written of late about Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women to “lean in.” For the first 10+ years of my career I leaned in. I didn’t lean in so hard that I was willing to permanently relocate to other cities (not feasible for my husband’s second-generation company), but I took every promotion I could. I started my MBA when Maddie was one year old, and I worked full time while I completed it. I made vice president in a major company by the time I was 33. I became president of my national professional society. I was recruited by a national company and got to write my job description for a senior level position at another.

After Tommy was born, I would have to say that my career advancement strategy resembled bobbing in and out more than leaning in. For three different companies, I built up enough credibility to cut back to part-time, all in search of the elusive work-life balance. Cutting back to part-time always came with a cost – and I am not referring to compensation. But I had the reputation, the access to leadership and professional skills to get done whatever I needed to get done. I respected the people who worked on my team, and loved supporting their development and careers.

When I resigned, I fully expected Dad would be gone within a few years and that I would return to the workforce after that.

Although I cleared my plate in readiness for Dad to move down, he was dragging his heels a bit. Maybe when it cooled off in Sacramento. Maybe in the spring. He eventually relocated in March of 2006.

Tomorrow: words to myself in June 2005, “The Journey Begins”

Ahead: what it was really like to transition from career to retired caregiver

Farther ahead: what it’s like to suddenly STOP being a caregiver after Dad’s death

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized