Tag Archives: family

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)

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After: the Pull of Family, Redefined

Circa 1960 - Dean, Scott, Betsy, BruceJust before flying to Washington DC for the burial, I laughed when my son and I passed through the New Age vortex that is City of Mt. Shasta on our drive with his belongings back to college. “Amorandre’a” promised “evolutionary transformation sessions and workshops transforming the Body Mind to the level of the Atom.”

I’m remembering the “stick and ball” model of a testosterone molecule that my son had to create in 7th grade. The atoms (balls) of the model had to be connected with bonds (toothpicks) that shaped them into the angles dictated by nature: straight lines, angles and tetrahedrals. The shapes aren’t created by logic; the atoms are propelled and repelled into relationship with one another.

In the absence of Mom and Dad, we are forming new bonds across family units, relationships that seem to have an agency of their own.

After Dad died, one of the big questions that seemed to float in space before me was, “Who is my family now?” The phrase, “Friends are the family you choose,” implied to me a corollary: that family was something I could choose to define. I now think that was too simplistic.

My brothers and I are very different. We look different, we have different temperaments and we grew up in different eras. Mom and Dad’s life experience changed the way that they parented by the time my youngest brother and I entered the picture, so effectively we grew up with different parents.

In the months that have followed Dad’s death, I have increasingly felt that my brothers and I belong together, that they belong in my life and I in theirs. In the Marine Corps, you receive your “standard issue,” the equipment that you are expected to maintain. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you. My brothers are my “issue.” I am theirs. We don’t get to exchange. We have to discover and value each other as we are.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about our weekend in D.C. – with 20 of us present – was the way that new relationships took shape.

Some of us were just plain new to each other. My nephew remarried and the weekend was the first opportunity his spouse and step-children to meet our clan. My brother’s fairly recently adopted teenage son is finding his way into the family, something that’s new to him after spending most of his life with foster families.

Family members’ messages popped up on Facebook:

The only thing I regret about my life is not having all the people I love in one place. Goodbyes are hard, so …let’s just say see you later.

one thing i hate: one day your having fun with family the next day you have to enter reality again grrrrr 

finally home whoooooo!!!!!!!! happy but sad to leave family 

At Washington National Cathedral Sunday, the jumping-off point for the sermon was a discussion of family. The Dean of the Cathedral, Dean Hall, said he was skeptical about the nuclear family; the Hebrew Bible, after all, unfolds like a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner (remember Cain and Abel?). Though the family is the structure we’ve developed for mutual support and nurture, it “contains all of the contradictions of what it means to be human.” He went on to say that family alone cannot sustain us, that Jesus alone offers us a community, “a table where all are welcome and equal.”

Mom and Dad left us all a legacy, a multi-faceted legacy of the things they so obviously believed in, through their actions. One of the most important things they stood for was family.

They felt present to me throughout the long weekend that followed the burial on Thursday. I felt their smile as they watched us stumble our way toward one another.

This message, from my niece, said it best:

A wise man once gave me advice that changed the way I thought about life. He told me that family is the meaning of life. He said to me that try as we might, most of us will never do the sort of things about which great books are written. In time, the world will forget all but a very few of us. But in the hearts of those we love, lies our chance to be remembered. 

The wise man was my grandfather. I thought of his words today as I watched the faces of my family gathered to remember. I can’t help thinking that my grandparents’ story isn’t over. They may be laid to rest among heroes, but theirs was not a war story. It was a love story, and it’s one that is still being written.

The pen is in our hands now. Let us remember well, and may we never stop writing. 

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Family Values

I’m still on a high after spending the night with my oldest “bestie,” my friend into whose arms I all but fell when I met her, another new kid, in December of 7th grade. While we no longer talk deep into the night in my creaky old four-poster bed, huddled against the chill in my downstairs bedroom, we still talk about the big issues we wrestle with.

When it comes to losing parents, we’ve been on more or less the same schedule. One of her parents died in 1998, while I lost my Mom in 1999. She lost her surviving parent last fall, and I lost Dad in January.

I told her, “I’ve just had a few questions I’ve been thinking about: who am I now, what is my relationship with God, and how should I define my family from now on? That’s all.”

Until Dad died, my brothers and I were still connected through him. We were still the original family. We were sons and daughter, brothers and sister. I’m proud to say that we remained very aligned in our understanding of Dad’s wishes, and in making decisions about his care when he became more frail. Calling on my brother’s to “sub” for me when I needed to be out of town meant that we had fewer opportunities to be together, but Dad still served as the magnet that brought us together.

Now that pull is gone, and the volition to gather must come from within us. Family, at this point, becomes a choice and not a given.

Into this time of re-definition comes my friend, fresh off reading a book ostensibly about parenting, but with implications for any of us at any point in our lives. She was intrigued by the author’s suggestion that families should have a written mission statement, a code, if you will, of what the family stands for.

Though my father did bring some unusual practices into our family – using a flip chart to document family goals and objectives (which my mother then dutifully typed and submitted as minutes to be approved at the next family meeting) – we didn’t have a mission statement. But I have no doubt about how my mother or family viewed or defined family.

If you were family, you were “in.” Period. You could add to family – inviting “orphans” who didn’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, for example – but you couldn’t delete family. Mom even included ex-wives in dinner invitations as long as the current spouse wasn’t present. When his mother was in a nursing home for several years following a broken hip, my father visited her every night after dinner. When my mother lost her father, her mother came to live with Mom and Dad. My mother, who was an only child, prized family and considered her first cousins, Harriet and John, to be siblings.

Without question, there were family members who did some lousy things to Mom and Dad along the way. But none were ever cut off. The welcome mat was always out even if contact was limited.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have family members who are fundamentally decent human beings, and for them, “family by design” rather than “family by blood” makes sense. But I think those situations are rare.

Defining and defending family is more than something I do for myself. It is something I do as a message to my children.

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Chaos and Comfort

Friend card

My friend Sharon has been laughing at me all weekend. It started soon after my arrival when I began straightening up, knowing that her family was coming in the next day.  It’s what a good guest does, I said. But she and I both knew the truth. I’ve become a teence obsessive, an aftermath, perhaps, of feeling that things were so out of control as my father lay dying a few months back.

Every time I open one of her cupboards, my palms literally itch to organize them. Most of the cans are on an upper shelf, but why are the canned clams on the shelf below it? Why is the sugar in a baggie on the floor?

I itch, but I don’t fix. I realize that this is her home, and she likes it comfy.

Walking Saturday, our conversation turned to families. She has been “an orphan” for some time, one of four children born within a five year span. I talked about my evolving relationship with my brothers. A recurring question for me in the months since Dad died has been, “Who is my family now? Who are we to each other?”

There is choice involved now, you see. Dad gave us a reason to come together for birthdays or holidays. He was the draw. Though there may still be obligation, it is less compelling.

In families like ours, where there are more than two siblings, there are affinities. A pair might feel more like-minded and naturally confide in one another. Or having the distance of a couple of years and a sibling in between, they might feel less competitive. A common interest — like trout fishing — may foster a bond.

We grow up with a natural place in the family architecture. My Dad’s family referred to the eldest brother as “the handsome one,” the youngest brother as “the sweet one,” and my Dad, the middle child, as “the smart one.”

My friend and her siblings are finding their way. It’s hard to say if their paths will draw them together, or push them apart. They may become more intransigent, or, like my Dad, more tolerant.

You can rearrange cupboards but you can’t rearrange your siblings. Their comfort may be my chaos, but we are the only people in the world who carry the precious and intimate knowledge of our family from childhood forward.

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With Dad Gone, A Void (Part Four)

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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.

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Naked Shredding and Other Awkward Retired Moments (Part Three)

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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?

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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.

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