A Room for the End of Days

It is a dreary fall day that feels like November already but without my former northeast reference points of snow sprinkled mountaintops already stripped of leaves. The smell here is different- the species of leaf rot is not the same. Nostalgia is an inherent aspect of the season and next week our clocks will ‘fall back’. Barely gray by 6:00 a.m., now it will be black, both early and late. The days of rising under the stars as they finished their wheel over the barn are long gone, as are mornings of feeding the animals, coming in to rouse the girls, the bustle of breakfasts, packing lunches, remembering homework projects and backpacks, dropping them off for their ride to school, Richard bidding me farewell as he drove off to work in the city or finishing his last cup of coffee as he went into his home office. Me; I’d go off to my own office after finishing the breakfast dishes, and putting in a load of laundry to run while I gave sessions, too.

Now those two grown women rise to their own days to lead their own lives. Richard is altogether gone from the world of time and seasons, leaving me to remember that the world turns without him. I lead my own life in my small hamlet of the Care Center within the larger town of over 300 Kendal residents, along with the hundred daily commuters of nurses, social workers, PT’s, OT’s, carers, and the staff, from administrators, to cooks, to laundry workers, who run this sprawling organization. My first winter without Richard is coming. The first Thanksgiving is almost here. The first Christmas will be just me and my younger daughter, Marion, together at Kendal while my older daughter, Emilia, and her husband, Zoran, will go to Texas to be with Zoran’s sister, mother and their many friends from their school days.

I let the movies in my mind play out and then I am quiet. Empty. At first it is painful and lonely. Then there is a rush of gratitude for exactly how things are. Emilia sent me the sweetest text saying she wished I lived even closer than the 40 minutes distance between her home and mine. There might have been time for a quick morning hug before she dove back into grading papers. Sitting in my chair for a while longer, I meditate in the silent moment of no season, no loss, no gain, and feel the relief of Being, shedding ownership of anything at all. I arise opened and internally still.

After breakfast, I am going to listen to a radio program with my friend down the hall. This is partly to share the pleasure of her company and partly it is an ongoing ploy to convince her cat that I am no longer her evil assailant. For a while, I helped her owner subdue the flailing paws, and opened Miss Kitty’s reluctant sore mouth in order to administer antibiotics. She doesn’t run as far away from me as last week, but is still no where near to happily accepting grooming and petting from me as she used to. We figure the more I come and just sit quietly, the more she will accept me as her non-enemy. I am fine with however long it takes. She is a survivor, this rescue cat, and her instincts have served her well. My identity as a safe lap will come again in her time.

Big news! for me is that I am moving down the hall permanently into a new room. In a few weeks they will have repainted the walls and refurbished the floor. The former occupant, who I only got to know briefly before she died, had the room painted a bright “Goldfinch” yellow orange. Since the room gets little direct sun, I actually liked it a lot. Once I spent some time time in there looking around, I instead chose “Forsythia” from the paint samples. Imagining some of the artwork I own on the walls seemed to need a little less red in the paint, though I will keep the small kitchenette the color it is. Yes, I will have a small fridge, sink, and cabinets which will help me to attend to my dietary needs going forward. The new room is much larger, has storage space under the window seat, an additional window and closet, and the bathroom is not a hospital bathroom, but also is bigger and has a vanity with drawers. It is painted a deep lavender and I will keep it that same luscious color.

When Kendal was founded 25 years ago, there was no such concept as assisted living. The wing with larger rooms designated for this new category was added around 5 years ago. The room I am currently in is a very nice for a hospital room, but without storing things at E&Z’s house, there is no way I could have brought all of my meager possessions with me. Exactly because I do not have seniority (I am now the third youngest resident at Kendal), the Powers That Be determined I should have the larger room because it will be my home for longer than other candidates. The former resident of my new room certainly had seniority once she moved from her apartment into the Care Center and was a well known musical member of the community. She sadly died about a month or so after she had moved in.

None of us can know when or where we will enter our last days, but surely this new room will be my final home. It is sobering to consider and also inspires a moment of gratitude; to have landed safely, and to be well cared for. I believe that Richard would be very pleased that his loving care baton has been passed into the right hands.

River Stones

10/8/18

River Stones

I was more affected by the UN collective announcement of our dire climate change situation than I would have thought. There is so much ongoing information on the topic that I suffer, as many do, from information overload. But this one is harder to put in the same box on the same shelf, labeled “I know, but am helpless to do anything about it!” It is so unpleasant to experience helplessness on such a large scale when I already experience it moment to moment in my own small daily life.

To paraphrase the childhood educator, Joseph Chilton Pearce, “The intelligence of a species can be determined by the way it serves to promote the continuation of its own species.” By that measure, we humans seem to be scoring very low marks. We have always gone for domination of resources for our own particular tribe over the welfare of the larger whole. Thus it has ever been. Civilizations rise and fall, continually rebuilding over the ashes of the one that went before. Stars explode as supernovas providing new available materials for new planets to form within their own galaxies. This all may be true, but NIMBY, or NIMcountry, or NIMplanet!

We live in ‘interesting times’ as the Chinese curse goes. And in my lifetime I do not think there will soon arise a global response to the problems we face. May I be utterly wrong for the sake of a potential grandchild and all current and future generations. May leadership emerge to inspire a change of lifestyle that can turn this huge ship around to sustainable living for all who inhabit this great planet Earth.

Meanwhile how do I handle my personal helplessness? I was helpless to save my husband from dying, to save my own body from continuing diminished function, or my own country from electing the face of the frightened helpless among us, looking to blame their disenfranchisement on the “others’ in every guise. Another quote from JCP is, operate within a new form of science that asks not just what is possible, but what is appropriate—appropriate to the well-being of self and Earth. Such a question does not originate in the mental realm but the spiritual, and is felt bodily, once our senses and heart are attuned. So the central part of our being that simply must be allowed to function and be attended is the heart.” 
― Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Heart-Mind Matrix: How the Heart Can Teach the Mind New Ways to Think

That is what I endeavor to explore every day in every circumstance. It is what I bring to Kendal with me, and I am grateful that like-hearted fellow explorers are asking to join my new meditation/contemplation groups. It is a sharing that I have to offer, and it is also a way for me to anchor my own heartful explorations in the company of my fellow residents. I look at how I have so far organized my weekly life here. Caring for my body through PT sessions, craniosacral massages, PT pool exercises, sleep and diet, group classes to hone my creative skills in writing prose and poetry, and singing with others. In addition there is regular socializing with those who are in various stages of dementia, decline, or are mentally present, enjoying community events and other’s creative offerings.

These activities I have committed to are indicators of what I use to harness my devotion to navigating the world with an open heart. My week is dotted with heart opening reminders, Wake up! Pay attention! Now and Now and Now!

River Stones

by Judi Bachrach 10/3/18

I stepped into this unknown river.

He is not here to hold my hand.

 

I had not even been to Ohio before.

How deep did these waters flow?

 

How swift was the current?

Is there another side?

 

Hesitant and dripping wet

from ceaseless inner storms,

I searched along the bank while I stood shaking.

 

Here the riverbed widened out and I saw the stones.

Choosing which way was best for me,

a path was revealed, stone by stone.

 

New hands reached out for mine

Steadying, supporting, also wading through the unknown.

 

Nobody knows how long

but we do not travel alone.

Come to the Kabaret

Diary 8/31/18

A friend suggested that I write a sit-com based on my adventures with the seniors who live here with me. There is certainly a perfect set up for an ever evolving series. I live in the Care Center section of our continuing care retirement facility, meaning there are many nurses and ‘care partners’ around who attend to feeding people, making beds and assisting nurses, and interns who set up daily activities, or make sure people get their walkers and head in the right direction for their rooms. They are some terrific characters all by themselves. Dealing with a panorama of elderly humans that are perfectly rational one day, and shouting, “I don’t live here, take me home!” the next, invariably brings out their own issues, no matter how much training they have.

Watching people around me includes observing the sobering decline of dementia in action. The aggressive demise of their minds is painful and poignant to watch. A sit-com episode might include the following exchange when I first arrived here three months ago. This white haired shaky woman half-falling sideways out of her wheelchair, greeted me at the lunch table. We did the “Hello, where are you from?” exchange and then I timidly inquired, “ I am here because I have MS. May I ask why you are here?” Thoughtfully chewing the same mouthful for many minutes, she replied, “Well, I am here because I get much better radio reception in my room than I did when I lived in a cottage.”

“Ah, of course.” Now that I know her better, I found out that she was in charge of a huge public library music research department and that she listens to non-stop opera and other music on said radio. Obviously she has a lot of compromising physical issues, but that was not what had significance for her. Sadly, she has now been put under Hospice care though she can still be rather sharp. She has subsequently shared childhood stories with me which were far from peaches and cream. Her life gives a glimpse into why she retreated early on inside of her once masterful musical mind.

Then there are the folks who live independently in cottages surrounding this large campus, and those who live in apartments attached at the opposite end of the facility from the Care Center. When people are recovering from back, knee, or other surgeries or a bad fall, or more seriously, a stroke, then they live among us in the CC briefly, waiting to be released back to their home. For the most part they have a hard time accepting their current fate and see their time here as an unfortunate episode which will quickly pass.Then they can get on with their real lives. Their emphatic denial of the aging process is also fodder for that tragic/comic edge. This one was a well-known chemistry professor, another one an Ob-Gyn, or an editor or an economist.

Others are more philosophical and freely embrace this temporary compromise as an inevitable chapter in their journey. Husbands or wives come to join them in our Care Center dining area. I see everything from pushy unaccepting spouses, “Eat this, not like that, pick up your hand, no, your other hand, use your napkin, etc.” which is silly and also hard to watch. Others are openly shaken and sad to be living alone in their homes without their partners. Wives say, “It is hard to watch the weeds grow, walk the dog, or face financial conundrums without my husband to take care of it.” Many husbands generally look lost and uncomfortable, and seem relieved when the meal is over and they can finally take charge of getting the rollator or pushing their wives back to the room in their wheelchair.

As I become more active in the community, my life is interlacing with more of the Independent Living folks. I signed up to participate in a variety show, another event to celebrate Kendal’s 25th year founding anniversary. It has since been labeled the Kendal Kabaret because a well-known former set designer resident created a splashy Cabaret style flat with a sparkly gold curtain for our entry onto the stage. To bring our disparate offerings (barbershop septet, recorder ensemble, a number of songs including a gospel written by yours truly, a Can-Can line?!, piano/violin duets, etc.) into some semblance of cohesion, a very capable women in charge bought styrofoam top hats, feather boas, feather hair clips and ribbons to create a semi-costumed Kabaret look.

To watch us all, like any gathering of performers, claim this or that boa/hat/feather combination, worry about mics, music stands, lighting, how we would physically manage to get on and off the stage at the right times (also me, again), was a delight. We do and do not take ourselves seriously to entertain our fellow residents. We seniors sure know how to have fun. This will make a great finale for the end of season one. Due to the numbers of aging Baby Boomers, it might well make it past the pilot season.*

  • I am also dedicating my song to my dear friend David Moskowitz whose birthday falls on the day of the show.  He very likely will not live to see that day, but I am singing “Love What a Short Word” to him, wherever he will be.

Opening the Cocoon

Diary 7/28/18

Struggling. A long delayed relapse of MS symptoms has infiltrated my life. Perhaps it is a sign that I am safely home at Kendal and can let down into the ensuing affect of the days, weeks, and months of stress around Richard’s illness and death. Before that calamity, my own health issues were causing us both stress in the last few years before his cancer diagnosis. I was the one who was pulling away into a declining body unable to easily move about the world for practical or social engagements. Once it became clear Richard was now the one in dire straights, I somehow arose to the critical occasion and surprised everyone, especially myself, by handling the unraveling of our former lives.

I had enormous hands on and moral support to accomplish any of it, but still, I was turned inside out to face the world. My translucent inward facing stance surrendered to the solid gravity of my life. I was pulled firmly earthward to embrace his death and my own clear choice to live. My body seems to be the battleground for playing out my personal version of the duality of life/death. An MS lesion on my spine at T6 (nothing new, I have been working with my physical therapists for years around muscular issues at this site) is very inflamed and is causing back pain, limiting the expansion of the muscles I use to breathe deeply, and creating a general MS malaise all too familiar to me.

I landed here eager to remain outside of my cocoon and launched myself like a newly energized butterfly investigating new activities, meeting hundreds of new people within weeks and enjoying conversations with strangers at every meal. With no Richard as my back-up for quiet, existential intimacy, it has been quite a stretch. Lately, spending lots of time alone in my room has felt fine though even after the short time I have been here, people did wonder where I had gone. I am not willing to withdraw from life in the ways I did before, and this is not a place that encourages it. On the other hand, no one has bugged me behind my closed door and I am not much on the nurse’s radar because I do not receive daily medications from them. Which suits me well. As long as they see me going on my way to and from meals, what I do before or after them is not questioned.

Struggle diminishes the minute I don’t see this re-balancing of inward and outward focus as a problem. I can feel ill and remain quietly alone, replenishing my introverted well. I see now that I will spontaneously move out into my new world when I am ready. Both directions are fine, neither one better or worse than another. In fact, in moments of clarity, I don’t see much of a difference anymore. Inward or outward lose directional distinction when I embrace the underlying silence of being that I am courting and being courted by.

Kendal Birthday

6/22/18

Yesterday my daughter and son-in-law closed on their new house in Lakewood, a Cleveland neighborhood not too far from the lake. Lake Erie, that is, the shallowest of the inland freshwater oceans in this part of the country. Their realtor gave them a congratulatory bouquet of flowers which they brought to me last night when we went out for dinner. Since they won’t be living comfortably either in their current apartment or in their new home for a while yet, I am the lucky recipient.

The luscious Easter and calla lilies, and fuschia zinnias are standing on the bureau in my room beneath the photo of Richard on the wall. It is the same picture we had in front of the sign-in book at his memorial, the same one of him that I use on my screensaver. Because it is his birthday coming up it feels more like the flowers are for him. The dual purpose floral arrangement is fitting as he and I helped a little to fund this house that will also become the family home for me and Marion at holiday time.

He will never turn 68 years old. My brain still has difficulty processing this obvious fact. Sunday marks his birth all those years ago, and I am unclear how to hold what used to be another appointed date for us to celebrate him. It will be day for me to do that in his absence. Against the sorrow of my personal loss and the enormous continuing loss of our country as we knew it, I do celebrate whole heartedly, the fact Emilia and Zoran have bought their first home. It was a joy for Richard to know they had been searching for a house before he died. He would have been overjoyed and right in there with suggestions for them on how to fix it up to their liking and how best to maintain it.

6/24/18

I woke up with these words this morning:

For Richard

Kendal Birthdays

This is his first not birthday

A day I never imagined

Has arrived

Not a dearth of imagination

But a surfeit of love that blinds

The inevitable as impossible

The day that mortality

Counts coup in passing through

Time and space

He no longer inhabits

I do

 

The bed I wake up in

Could be anywhere

But it is from here

I will continue lose him

To gain the unimaginable

Not a dearth of imagination

But a surfeit of Love

Opens my eyes

Beyond time and space

Death has no birthdays

The red wing blackbirds

Shrill by the pond

My new home

Father’s Day

Diary 6/16/18

I am missing R again today. It is hard not to what with upcoming Father’s Diay being a cultural endorsement. This specific arrow aimed at remembrance for fathers hits the mourning target for me. It isn’t that Father’s Day was such a big deal in our family once the girls were out of the house. That day was the summer engine that always pulled his birthday car down the tracks a week later. Followed by Marion’s birthday 2 weeks after that. Father’s Day was small while the Cancer birthday signs loomed large.

Once the girls were out of the house a card or phone call to him from them would do. I used the day as an opportunity to write him a parenting partnership poem in acknowledgement of all he gave. I wrote him another one yesterday though melancholy clutched at me. It helped to sit down and craft words to express my leaky heart.

Richard preferred a homemade anything to a bought gift. He deeply appreciated a card promising snow shoveling support next winter, or horse poo shoveling in any season, or a massage. Of course, a special meal was always prepared with chocolate chip mint ice cream accompanying the finale. He didn’t much enjoy surprises although once in a while we hit it right. Sharing an experience together was always the way he felt best loved.

Yesterday the pain in my heart was strong. It kept pulling me out towards my loss, yearning for Richard to fill the hole empty of companionship, familiarity, the peaceful refuge of knowing I am loved by him no matter what. Understanding it was a hopeless longing only made it feel worse.

I was thinking of what I heard a teacher say about human love- that it is the experience of being so close to someone that you feel you are two becoming one. That is like a mini experience of the longing for Oneness, of the longing for God that we all have. The longing is an inherent intolerable misconception of our separate finite existence. We imagine that God, the Love we seek, is outside of us somewhere out there.

Now I know that Oneness is us. I saw when Richard was dying, that when cancer consumed his personality, he was Love itself. That Love is us, is what all religion calls God. The tug pulling me away from the pain in my heart is what I am learning to reverse. The equally compelling tug pulling me inwards is my yearning to be whole. It is my yearning for the contented fulfillment of Love’s refuge. Richard was the almost fifty year appetizer to whet my appetite for God. He was also my mirror, reflecting Love back towards me. He was my human face of Love for so many years. Now when I inwardly track my specific ache for him, I can see and taste and feel the thread expanding into a limitless ocean which holds us all.

I am the one receiving a gift for Father’s Day this year.

For Richard

Harvesting Father’s Day

You aren’t here to celebrate

but your fathering love is

The delight of your daughters

bestowing you with sticky cards

spilled coffee and burned toast

Ferocious Kerpolean transformed

into wimpy little Sneezy

with a touch of the button

at the end of your nose

 

From schools to camps to colleges

and beyond

helplessly loving them

from the moment of birth

the paradox of letting heart investments

out into an impersonal world

confounding challenges triumphs and tragedies

beyond your control

 

You can rest assured.

 

They are well poised safe and secure

Their gorgeous strong arms carry all you gave

personalizing the world they live in

They know

the day of the father

is not a day but

a lifetime of fathering fruits

Today you give us the gift of remembering Love.