During the past month, I have not been on my computer much. In fact, I haven’t even been home this whole time. First, I was in New Jersey for my mother’s funeral. Next, I traveled to Texas, where I visited with my daughter-in-law and son, got to see my three grandsons, and managed to get my driver’s license (I had allowed my old one to expire). Finally, I am in Florida, primarily to have cataract surgery so I can drive at night. A friend had offered her home for the procedure, as both her husband and she herself had the identical procedures at the recommended eye institute.
My friend and I are the same age, and her husband is about 4 or 5 years older. They live in a beautiful ocean-side community in southern Florida. A good deal of the population of this community is well into retirement age. I have been getting a good look not only at myself and where I am in the aging process, but also at the different ways people age. What I am seeing is that there is no such thing as “normal aging.” Each person progresses toward the end of his/her life in a manner unique to the individual. For example, I have seen a man in his 90s who is doing remarkably well by my estimation, but who those who know him say has slipped a great deal physically and cognitively in recent months–so much so that his friends are concerned.
So far, during the week or so I have been here, I have met a lot of wonderful and vital individuals who are twenty years older than I am, yet seem to have fewer health issues and much more energy. Others are younger than I, but look and act older (I think–I don’t really know if I look and/or act my age). I have met 90-somethings who look no older than my conception of people in their 60s (that is, my age), and 60-somethings whose skin looks like crumpled and smoothed paper grocery sacks; octogenarians with straight backs and 60-somethings like me who resemble question marks; 70-somethings with acute hearing and those like me who ask a speaker to repeat him/herself three times before understanding (maybe) what was said; over-60s with general outward symptoms of diabetes and 80-somethings with no signs of ever having suffered from any disease.
My point? There does not appear to be any way to predict how each of us will age. It appears that genetics determines whether we can live longer; knowing our genetic affinities may help us to plan our lifestyles to extend both our years and the quality of the later years.
Relating to quality of life, I think I may be behind on modifying my lifestyle. For reasons I will not share, I did not properly exercise after surgeries during the past 10 or 15 years. Actually, make that 20. Had I been physically able to pursue a more active recovery after each major surgery (especially the 3 back surgeries), I would have fewer difficulties with back and abdominal musculature. I am certain of this. However, I also believe it is not too late to make changes in my lifestyle, and I am beginning to take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen this old body while I still have the motivation.
Motivation to become more fit is just one of the reasons why I purchased a Fitbit Charge HR this past holiday season (just over two months ago). I am monitoring primarily my steps, general activity level, overall heart rate, and–something more important to overall health than many of us believe–sleep, especially quality of sleep.
Being away from my physical therapist and having limited access to walking and stretching environments, I have been feeling the effects of a lower level of physical activity. Being away from my own bed has affected both the quantity and quality of sleep. Being away from my physical therapist leaves me too “scrunched” and susceptible to pain to follow through on some of the tougher abdominal and back strengthening exercises, too. These, in turn, make it more strenuous (as well as more painful) to stand up as straight as I would like for longer periods and during evening hours. It is a terrible downward cycle that I am in, and so I monitor steps, stairs, heart rate, and sleep much more earnestly than I would when back home. I am, after all, away from all things familiar.
Thus, I am more anxious to get back home to the island, back to a place where I can feel more comfortable about getting in the exercise program I had nearly “perfected” when I had to pack up hurriedly to attend my mother’s funeral. Soon I will be back to a place where I can perfect my lifestyle modification program.
Okay! Time to get some extended walking time into my day!
Yes, life is happening all around me right now. Some are good, some not so good. Some…well, who knows.
Finally, after months of having to put it off again and again, I scheduled cataract surgery–got appointments set up and flight reservations made. All together, it takes about three weeks to get both eyes done from initial consultation and exam through actual procedure and follow-up, one eye at a time.
Not an hour after I get everything scheduled, I see an email message from my brother-in-law that my mother is in the hospital. We must have been on the phone for the better part of an hour, talking about how she has been, what she says to me versus what she says to my sister and him. You would think that because she lives with them, she would share more information with them. But you have to know my mother. She’s a real handful at the best of times. At age 88, she is still kicking around and refusing help from anyone unless absolutely, positively necessary. And she doesn’t like being “in the way.” She has gone out of her way to avoid allowing herself to feel that she is home. I can guarantee that this is not how she is treated; this is just the way she is. So she also does not tell her family everything that she is feeling physically, either.
Until about a week ago, that is.
That was when she fell and couldn’t get up because, for the first time, she could not feel her legs. She was near a wall in her room, so she was able to pull herself up into a sitting position until my brother-in-law got home. When I spoke to her several days after this first happened, she told me she had been falling fairly regularly, but she was never hurt and she was always able to get up. She also didn’t bother to share this information with the household. As I said, she’s a handful.
Right now, she has congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and one or two infections that are being treated. She is fairly strong, but she is in a semi-delirious state and keeps pulling out her IVs and pulling off her oxygen mask. As I write this, she is being sedated, mostly to keep her from pulling life-sustaining equipment from herself, I think.
And while all this is going on–just after I made appointments for badly needed eye surgery–we are also trying to buy a house. This is not an easy task at our age (66), and we need to dip into our retirement funds to make it work. If we dip into them the wrong way, we will be left penniless into our old age, even though my husband is still working full time and doesn’t plan to actually retire until he is at least 70. Basically, he wants to work as long as his employer is willing to keep him on.
So much is going on right now that can once again hamper something so important to me–arranging to be able to see enough at night to drive and maybe even read a physical book instead of using a reading device or a computer. And I need to be able to drive at night, since my husband does not drive at all–doesn’t now, never did.
I wish I could be with my mother to provide some relief to my sister and brother-in-law, who are with her all the time. But I’m no good to anyone without the ability to see at night. And I am reasonably certain that my mother, despite this current setback, will be on her feet and being ornery again in no time.
And I wonder: will this be me in twenty years? Probably not, but who knows?
So why am I worried that I may need to postpone my own needed surgery yet again? Maybe it is because I’ve had to do it so many times before during the past three years…
No good dwelling on that too long. What will happen will happen, regardless of my own needs and desires. As always, I will roll like a shell in the ocean waves that surround the tiny island on which I currently live…
In my last post, “OK. I’m Old,” I confessed to being off my computer for several months. I especially was upset with whatever is going on between Microsoft and Adobe in relation to Adobe Acrobat Reader. Mostly, I was miffed because I hadn’t seen any alerts that Adobe was both no longer a part of the Windows 10 basic operating system, and that Adobe didn’t seem to have provided any indication that a different version of Reader was needed for Windows 10. I assumed that there was yet one more conflict between Adobe and Microsoft, whether I addressed that directly or not.
Well, today I was cleaning up a lot of outdated unread mail from this period. In my gmail account, I found all these messages from Adobe about this “new” product for Windows 8 touch devices. I never opened any of them (remember: I wasn’t using the computer for much at all), and so never realized that there were upgrades that didn’t automatically occur through my Google Chrome browser. I guess I was wrong.
Mind you, it looks to me as though someone at the Microsoft Store went into the app description to state that it also works for all versions of Windows 10, touchscreen device or not. So… I’m just letting you know that I should have checked all my old emails before complaining about all these new programmatic changes that are needed to keep our old favorites in newer and “better” operating systems, whether Windows based, iOS, or Android driven.
So I went to print a PDF document from my just-fixed Windows 10 laptop, and discovered that I no longer had a functioning version of Adobe Acrobat. As far as I can tell, although I have read a bunch of PDF files, this is the first time I wanted to print. I could read all the PDFs I wanted, as long as I didn’t want to save them or print them. So I clicked on the Microsoft store, and up comes a new Acrobat for Windows 8. Hmmm… was I using this version all along on my older Windows 8 laptop, and just now realized it didn’t come with my newest laptop? Now I know for sure that I’m getting too old. That is, the Windows software has finally moved beyond my ability to instantly (sort of) comprehend.
Here is the truth of the matter. I have spent the past six months or so using my phones and iPads to communicate with the world–except for email, which I still find easier to navigate on an actual computer. And I just discovered yesterday that one of my email accounts seems to want nothing to do with the operating systems on either my laptops OR my mobile devices. I am trying to figure out if all these changes happened during the last six months, even though I was constantly allowing automatic upgrades; or if the New Year brought instantaneous changes to every app I have. It is bad enough that all the technology has changed to small, easily portable devices; I just didn’t expect so many changes in the programs (apps–short for applications, which used to be the same as programs–to any of you who are youngsters.
Right now, everything is working pretty well. I haven’t hooked this computer up to either Norton or Dropbox, as I still am not sure which of the two brought down my Windows 10 operating system. The young tech who fixed my computer thinks it was Norton, but I’m more inclined to go with the user complaints about Dropbox. Therefore, neither are touching this laptop until someone has a more definitive answer about what is going on with Windows 10. And that’s a whole other kettle of fish to complain about…
For almost 2 months, I’ve been taking drawing lessons up in Grand Case on the French side of the island of St. Martin. Often, if I feel I have a reasonably successful drawing, or I’ve done something pretty neat (for me, not necessarily for the rest of the world), I post my accomplishment to Facebook as a sort of living portfolio. Last night, because I had gotten up very late in the morning and ended up staying up very late again, I decided I would try out some painting supplies that I thought were really neat. It was a set of three pre-“inked” watercolor brushes that contains the typical three sketching colors: black, gray, and sepia. I had used the company’s water-filled “travel” paint brushes a few times, and found that I really preferred them over regular watercolor brushes, which can be a bit clunky to take along in my purse. I’ve been using the water-filled brushes (when I remember I have them and have something interesting to pretend to paint) with a pocket-sized watercolor set of pan-style colors that came complete with its own attach-to-the-side paint mixing tray–and one of the brushes. That kit and a pad of watercolor postcards is what I take to the beach. When I saw the ink sketching kit, I thought it would be interesting to try. The set of brushes was inexpensive enough, so I added them to a recent Amazon order, and they arrived last week.
Well, you know how it is when you first get something new–you want to try it out (or on) as soon as possible. I was so busy during the week that I didn’t get a chance to even think about it until last night, while watching the same episode of Penny Dreadful for the third time or so. Being me, I knew I would ruin any attempt to use the inked brushes last night; on the other hand, there was no harm in sketching–in pencil–the basic subject I would work on in the morning. Well, the inked brushes clearly take a lot more time to get to know than the pre-filled water brushes. I didn’t wonder about tonal effects and how to get them, or whether I could handle the brushes without practice since I’ve been playing with the water brushes for a while.
And so, I produced a total dud! Yes, I am an inexperienced artist. Yes, I have progressed from poor stick figure drawing to some decent sketches of stationary objects or photograph subjects. But that was with using graphite pencils and sticks, not watercolors–about which I know less than nothing. I wish I had taken a photo of the results using only the inked brushes–but I didn’t think about that. All I could think about was “saving” my dud–making it a little more presentable.
In the process of making it a bit less dud-ish, I used watercolor pencils (which I’ve been practicing with for a while) and even my little kit of watercolor pans. I started to “save” the work first with the watercolors, then remembered reading about how the watercolor pencils can really help define a piece. To my amazement, it was the pencils that saved the work from becoming a complete disaster that I didn’t want to tear up and start working on all over again. The result is the photo above–still no great work of art, but a definite improvement from where it started.
Then I posted it to my Facebook account with an explanation of it being a dud and that I just wanted to post something I wasn’t so proud of for a change. When I look back at some of my earlier “proud of” shares, I can see how much I’ve progressed. So I also know how bad this dud is in comparison to most of my shares. What surprised me was that I got 3 “likes” from the same people who always support my efforts and generally comment on my progress or something. This time, although I had asked for feedback on how to improve it, all I got from my fan base was the likes.
That made me wonder–are they liking the photo just to indicate that they saw it? are they liking it because they are trying to be supportive? are they liking it because of my self-criticism and agreeing with it? I will probably never know, but it makes me wonder if my friends think I’m fragile and can’t handle the truth, or if all they see is another attempt at something new and just want to show support, either without reading the comment, or just without giving their opinion?
Next I started to wonder about what I do. Like these three friends, I would undoubtedly “like” whatever they posted to indicate support. But I don’t know whether I, too, would not leave a comment. After thinking some more, I decided that I would leave something along the lines of “nice try with a new medium” or “nice first attempt,” or something equally as inane. Since these are friends I actually know and went to high school with years ago, and since they’ve seen the same cat in many positions as a drawn critter, maybe they just felt no comment was necessary and that just liking the photo indicated that they know I’m there and that I’m trying.
One of my friends has become a real outdoor photography fan–something I wanted to do since I was little, but couldn’t afford the supplies that went with my little Brownie camera from Kodak. That was back in the days when black and white film was inexpensive, but photo development and flash bulbs that burned your fingers if you tried to take a couple of shots relatively close together cost more than my family could afford. My father subtly suggested I turn to another hobby, as my mother was complaining about the cost–particularly of film development. Now, of course, the cost is in the DSLR equipment itself if you really want to learn about photography in all its aspects. But my friend was using his iPhone camera and went from typical snapshots to some really masterful pieces shot in and around Philadelphia and any trips he took with his son. Over the past two years, he has become quite good, even if most of the photos are either of his son or of woods or old historic buildings. We all “liked” his work, and some of us took time to comment on how much his son is growing or sharing reminiscences of past outings where we saw the same subjects. And, as I said, his photos really improved. The process was gradual, but he is learning to do magnificent things with his iPhone camera.
One of the problems with us Boomers is that we didn’t get the same kinds of opportunities many Gen-X-ers had in schools. In hour town, the schools were so overcrowded that the junior high was on “split sessions” (7th and 8th graders from 7:00AM to noon; 9th graders from noon to 5:00PM), and the high school was on some incredible schedule that you needed a slide rule to figure out when to be in school on what day. By the time my class reached high school, we entered into a brand new building that was big enough to accommodate us all at the same time. But in 7th and 8th grade, although we were lucky enough to have art classes at all, we were limited to 35-minute classes for one-quarter of the school year. And there is not much that can be accomplished in an art class in 35 minutes, especially when your teacher goes on to become one of the great sculptors in the art world for quite some time. So we didn’t even get the basics, and students whose parents could afford it sent their kids for private art lessons or private group classes. The rest of us were pretty clueless, except that our parents seemed to all agree that music needed to be part of our education, whether lessons given in school or those given privately. For college prep students, art wasn’t even an option as an elective in high school, although I can’t for the life of me remember why not. The school offered art classes, but seemed to reserve those for non-college-bound students. Instead, our electives tended to be things that would either help us succeed in college or that were musically or theatrically oriented–band, orchestra, drama. Some electives were preselected for certain students–the school newspaper, the yearbook committee. But I really don’t recall the physical arts as being part of our offerings.
And so I missed my chances at becoming a better drawer or photographer, as did many other Boomers who attended city schools. That is one of the main reasons so many of us, as we approach retirement or are in retirement (or are pretty much unemployed, like myself, with retirement looming before the year is out).
Personally, I think it is remarkable that people who have not seen each other in many years–especially those of us who live so far away from our home towns and no longer have family to stay with–are able to keep in touch and support each other’s efforts through social media and share the progress we are making on things we only dreamed of taking up in our youth. When we graduated from high school, computers were used only by the biggest businesses and institutions. Our high school had a computerized grading system, but I am certain that the computer was not “on site” and that information was sent out (probably to the school district offices or the state department of education) and reports were sent back. During my own teaching days, personal computers–nothing like what we have in our homes now–came out after I had already been teaching for more than 10 years. I took a teacher training class on a computer that was so slow that today’s kids would use it only as a door stop–except that it was too big and ugly and heavy to be aesthetic enough to please even the least aware young person. But I fell in love with the things, dropped out of teaching, and went into computers for a ten years, working on mainframes for large companies in the greater New York metropolitan area. By the time I was ready to learn to program personal-sized computers, I had remarried and moved across the country, where the whole world of computing was so different that I went back to teaching.
I’ve remained in education in one capacity or another ever since, but have only recently started taking up art forms. Even my drawing lessons were predicated on a theory about educating both sides of the brain, either for people recovering from stroke or the loss of a dominant writing hand, or for students with special needs who might benefit from learning to become ambidextrous.
But back to my original problem: Are my friends being supportive, or are they afraid to give their actual thoughts? I’ll never know, and wonder how much I care. Feedback of any kind is supportive, even if positive critique is even more important. I’m finding that as I develop my creative writing skills. Whether taking a course online or in a classroom, writing students are as reluctant to share positive or constructive criticism, too. It’s not like being with your best friend who tells you exactly what they feel and have no guilt about telling you the absolute truth. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I started a small writers-in-training group, with the help of WordPress, for those of us who were feeling we were not getting the level of feedback we wanted from other participants. On the other hand, there were about 130 students enrolled in an intense one-month class of writing, and no one could get to reading more than five people’s submissions per day, with or without honest and constructive and positive feedback. Even in the small group, only two of the five or six participants are actually giving “real” feedback.
Should I expect more from my friends on Facebook than I get in the writing group? No. I should not. My friends want to be supportive, not critical, and–although I am much more likely to be the one to give a different opinion–I have tried to respond with either a “like” or a positive or otherwise very supportive comment. We are all flawed beings, no matter how wonderful we believe ourselves to be, and we each are involved in those things that are meaningful to us, whether we are doing a “great job” or a mediocre one. Each of us is living one day at a time, especially at our time of life. Why spoil things by being critical?
Each day, I awake and feel immense gratitude that another day unfolds before me. Each day that I awake is like a gift from Heaven.
Many of us feel this way as we age. Most of us think of death as something that will come to us with a long enough warning to allow us to put affairs in order (if we have procrastinated), and will give us plenty of opportunities to say our good-byes and bring closure to our relationships with those closest to us. Many of us barely think that a freak of events can cause us to die completely unexpectedly–a traffic accident, a weak tree branch suddenly falling on us and cracking our skull, a random drive-by shooting in a safe neighborhood, a heart-attack when no one is around to revive us or call 911. So many ways in which our lives can end instantaneously by simple acts of Fate.
Me–well, I have recently had a series of medical issues, but the worst of them is a case of diverticulosis–“sacs” in the colon–that we almost all get as we age; but mine is particularly “delicate” because the sacs are fist-sized, and there are at least four of them on the left side of my colon. Each collects bodily waste that can cause infection or become toxic and, if suddenly “twisted”, colon death. If any of the sacs suddenly bursts, due to their size and the probability of setting off a chain reaction, I will bleed out in five minutes or less–all without any warning, and too quickly for even the fastest emergency medical response team or ambulance crew to do anything about.
But you can have surgery, you’re thinking. Well, I’m planning on it. However, there are other complications. Two months earlier, I suffered a completely unanticipated two bouts with three bleeding ulcers that sent me to the local hospital for transfusion–four units the first time, two more units less than a week after the first. When I was released from the hospital, the only advice I was given was to rest and eat a bland diet for at least 6 months. It seems that no one thought about iron supplements, but that’s a whole different story, and I blame myself for not seeing my internist soon enough to discuss dietetic and supplemental options.
About six weeks after this series of ulcer-related problems, I noticed that I was getting weaker instead of stronger. I was trying to strengthen up with exercises in the community pool, but found that I could do less with each session. Then one morning, I sat in my car for about a minute before putting my car into reverse and realized I wasn’t sure which pedal was the break and which the gas. Once I got that straight through trial and error while in neutral, I drove to the neighboring city where I ended up shopping for groceries instead of meeting up with a friend (her mix-up this time, not mine). In the store, I began to experience incidents of dizziness that were apparently noticeable enough that my favorite “bag boy” interrupted his packing for another customer and hurried down the aisle I was shopping in to ask if I was OK. I told him I was a little dizzy, and that maybe I was done with shopping for the day. I drove home very slowly, noticing that I was driving like I was inebriated–taking curves wide on our narrow roads, stopping a little to close to the car ahead of me, driving toward the middle of the road instead of in my lane (as I said, very narrow roads here on the island), moving too far from parked vehicles, etc. Clearly, it was time to visit my doctor, which I did the next day. The office sent me for blood tests–but that took several more days to do mostly because of the crazy laboratory hours related to certain tests. By the time I had blood drawn, we were preparing for a trip to a neighboring island for a conference related to my husband’s work. I was feeling poorly enough at that point where I just wanted to cancel my flight reservations and stay home. He became very insistent that I accompany him, and I didn’t have the strength to argue too long–although I was very unhappy with the fact that he would not accept my desire to stay home.
So we traveled to St. Kitt’s (St. Christopher Island), picked up the rental car, and I had an accident less than a block from the rental agency–nothing serious, just ripped off mirrors and a few scratches. Now, part of the problem–most of it, possibly–was because St. Kitt’s driving is of the British persuasion–one drives on the left. It’s not that I don’t know how to drive “British”–have done so in the middle of England’s small twisty roads in the dark, fog, and rain, driving a car with a manual transmission (thank goodness the gears were in the same place, just accessible by the wrong hand); and maneuvered triple round-abouts that left me white-knuckled and mummy-stiff. What I believe happened is that my perception was totally off–effects of the anemia I didn’t know about yet. Well, three hours and one new rental later, we were on our way to our resort hotel, where the car stayed parked until we returned to the airport.
Each day, I was feeling more and more ill, managing to contract some form of bronchitis while there, as well. The next day (Monday), I drove to the internist’s office for the lab results. She took one look at the red blood cell count (64) from the week before and would not even let me drive the half kilometer home to pick up some night clothes and toiletries. My husband, who does not drive, called a co-worker to take me to the hospital from the doctor’s office, and there was an amusing series of events as Joe’s two colleagues planned how to get my car home and me to the hospital as quickly as possible.
The moment I got to the emergency room (the doctor had called ahead), I was checked into the hospital and immediately transfused with a unit of blood. The assumption was that my ulcers had started acting up again, but the next day’s endoscopy showed they were healing quite well and not actively giving me trouble. Two days later, after a double cleansing of my lower GI tract, and after finding no evidence of residual blood in the “output,” I finally received a colonoscopy. That’s when the fist-sized sacs (they looked a lot like volcanic craters in one rendering) were discovered. But my blood count was still down, with both red and white blood cells “disappearing” in balanced proportions; and the doctors were left completely baffled. Before releasing me on Friday, I was transfused overnight with two more units of blood given at a snail’s pace drip (6 hours per unit to enter my system).
In the meantime, I was being given massive doses of antibiotics–first as injections, then switched to fast IV drips–three to four times a day, treating an eye/sinus infection, and used prophylactically to prevent my own bronchitis from turning into pneumonia.
But the worst part for me was this: because of my low blood count, surgery is out of the question until the count enters the normal range. Also, because of the size and nature of the sacs, any one of them can burst just for the heck of it, and that would cause me to bleed out too quickly to save my life. If my blood count were normal, surgery would have been scheduled immediately, and I would have been flown to the US for the surgery. Although I was finally prescribed massive doses of iron in tablet form, the doctors still don’t know where my blood cells are going. I suspect I have a tiny black hole somewhere in my body that eats only blood cells and sends them to some alternate universe–probably to some lab that is studying human anatomy or something. As a friend suggested, maybe my body has simply decided to stop producing blood cells, which raises a bunch of other serious questions.
So, for now, I live each day one day at a time, not knowing if I will survive the day or receive the gift of awaking the next morning. There’s a much greater limit now to how much I can accomplish in a given day. Despite being cautioned not to drive, we live in an area too remote to keep me out of my car. I do as much as possible during the morning, when my strength seems to be greatest and my ability to maneuver the car is at its best. Because most volunteer work is in the afternoon, I have done very little during the past several weeks. Although I try very hard to remain positive during the day, I tend to get cranky and speak too bluntly, especially when I have no strength to either play silly social interaction “games” or am simply too tired to hold back comments or use my energy to say things nicely (especially since no one seems to understand my meaning when I obfuscate just enough to keep things pleasant). Being “nice” simply takes too much effort sometimes; and frankly, I have found that bluntness is much more effective in getting meaning across, even if it causes people to get angry. Yes, I try to be blunt nicely, but there are far too many people who don’t really listen to what any one of us says, even if we are answering a question they asked and (logically) should want to hear the answer. They don’t. But that’s another topic.
One day at a time, and immense gratitude for each new day. That’s the way I function now. I do what I can, rest when I need, eat when my phone alarm reminds me it’s meal time, make certain my meals are fiber-rich, drink plenty of herbal teas, consume my ginger drink, etc. I take my medications at the right time, although I often forget about my Restasis® and Patenol® eye drops, and try to do all the normal little things of life. In general, I follow the same pattern my father followed when he knew his aneurysm would kill him when he least expected it. And it did–while he was in the middle of the mundane task of preparing his cup of coffee and breakfast.
To dwell on death is absurd–Death comes for each of us when s/he feels our time is over. There’s no escaping that. There is only time to set our affairs in order (hopefully), and to live each day as though it were our last. For me, until and if my blood count allows for the surgery, that living is especially important. I still haven’t visited all the beaches on this beautiful island…
I’ve got a lot of years behind me, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes related to family. But what I’ve discovered is that I don’t particularly care for my family, especially for the way my children turned out. I don’t know what their memories of me are, as none of them have the guts to speak with me, even though I’ve never closed off any doors to them. They, on the other hand–and for reasons they have chosen to keep from me–have shut off any means of communication there can possibly be.
As a student of human nature, I observe and see both the deliberate misinterpretations and the meanness with which my adult children choose to withhold communication. Both are involved with significant others who are nice enough and smart enough in their own right, but who have severe limits in acceptance of differences. But then, the same is true of my children, so the matches are probably heaven-sanctioned. For a while, I was hurt by responses–or lack thereof–related to the only visit I have made to them in many, many years. My own frustration to being shunned upon my return home turned to anger and outright and open vehemence. Upon further reflection, I realized that I simply do not like either my children or their mates, mostly because my own children have chosen to ignore the concepts of both individual differences (specifically in the person who gave them life), of acceptance of the reality of aging, and the ability to weigh the many sides of an issue to determine future action/interaction. Clearly, I had been judged and sentenced without the luxury of speaking in my own defense.
As I have aged, I have suffered from a series of ailments which have left me in severe pain 24/7. Two months ago, I suffered a bout of extreme blood loss from a surprise attack of bleeding ulcers which ended up requiring the transfusion of 6 liters of blood. This can be a fatal attack if one is alone when such a bout occurs. Had my husband–from whom I was ready to seek a divorce–not been home at the time (the attack occurred at 2:00 a.m.), I would have died from the blood loss. He immediately called the community guard who called for an ambulance. Although I was floating in and out of consciousness during the 20-minute drive to the hospital, the intravenous delivery of fluids helped to stabilize me enough to get me to the hospital, where I received an immediate transfusion of blood and kept in the Intensive Care Unit for several days. For the first time in our marriage, and despite rare visits from him when I underwent 4 major surgeries (during one of which I actually died on the operating table and needed to be revived), he was at the hospital with me this time for hours at a time, trusting his fellow faculty at the local medical school to cover for him when he was with me. This was a major feat for my husband, who doesn’t drive, and who had to pay for taxi service each trip. All previous hospitalizations were no more than a city block from his office, and yet he rarely visited. If he did, he spent no more than 5 minutes with me because he had to catch the shuttle to the train station or bus depot. So his frequent and long visits during the bleeding ulcer recuperation was a huge surprise that changed the dynamic of our relationship forever.
Just prior to this attack, we had decided to seek help for our 24-year marriage instead of just ending it outright, either formally or informally. The sudden realization that I almost died on him made him realize that he was actually afraid to lose me, despite all our differences. The effort that he made to visit me frequently–often more than once a day–touched me in a way that I haven’t been touched by anything he did in many years. Thus, we are making great efforts to try to change the way we interact as well as our expectations of each other. We are both taking the continuation of this marriage very seriously. To me, I now know that he actually cares.
Meanwhile, although I posted on Facebook from the hospital, neither my two children nor my sister made any effort to wish me well, or to at least check to see how I was doing. My mother uses no electronic devices, but lives with my sister, and I know would have made an effort to call me if my sister had mentioned my illness to her. Thus, my sister either did not see any of my posts, leading me to believe that I had been blocked from her news feed, or simply didn’t care enough to mention it to my mother. That I had been blocked from my children’s feeds was obvious even before I was hospitalized, although it is not clear to me why my son chose to block me. But then, he ignored any communication I tried to initiate with him since my return home from my visit with him as well, whether via post, email, or direct telephone contact attempt. Upon the recommendation of my psychiatrist–whom I had been seeing since before the visits to my children and sister because I was trying to make sense of my relationship with my husband–suggested I write a letter to my son, who, as far as I knew at the time, was not shunning me. Since there has been no response of any kind, I guess I received my answer about my place in his life. In addition, I wrote to my 86-year-old mother letting her know what my situation had been and simply giving myself a sense of closure, in the event I would have no further direct contact with her. My husband is not good at thinking about letting family members know about any important events, so there was no expectation from me that he would contact family to let them know what was happening with me–although it is clear that none of them would have cared anyway (except my mother).
Since my illness, I have come to realize that family is not everything–at least, not blood relations or in-laws. The people I now feel closest to are people who are not related by blood or marriage (except my sister-in-law and her family). These are friends, whose friendships I cultivate when I can; with each of these individuals, I have had more individual contact than with my biological family as a whole. For the first time in my life I have come to understand the meaning of the concept that family does not need to comprise ancestral kinship. Family is those people with whom one can be oneself, even when one is cantankerous or when one makes unthinking remarks. I am finding I have Family all over the US and on this small island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten to whom I feel closer than with my biological family. This Family allows for my idiosyncrasies and passions and opinions without believing that I am being “dramatic” or self-indulgent. This Family understands when I take different positions–usually in a single 5-minute interval–because they know I am continuing to attempt to make sense of my world. In other words, they think the same way I think, even if we disagree at a given moment or on a particular point. I like to explore and weigh my thoughts out loud and through practice,and my Family is OK with that. My Family has no problem with being honest with me–often brutally–knowing that I will weigh all their comments and reactions, and apologize when needed or argue my case better when I disagree. These are the people I love and respect beyond measure, and they come from all walks of like–cultural, religious, professional, etc.
Thus, my initial hurt at the shunning by my purportedly Christian family was very quickly replaced by a sadness over the loss of their love and/or caring. For years I have known that I love my sister-in-law more than my sister, and have developed a respect for my niece(in-law) for her courteousness, including the simple written or spoken “thank you” for even the smallest gifts. Not one of my grandchildren has ever sent us a thank you note, and only two have thanked me when a gift or courtesy was delivered in person during my recent visit–but even they have never made an effort to provide the small courtesy of a thank you without physical presence. But then, neither have my children or my sister. What a family I come from and what children I have raised! It is almost embarrassing to be related to them at all.
Although my husband thinks I may be a little premature, I have decided to change my will so that, in the event my death precedes his, not a single token will be endowed to any member of my biological family. None of them deserve it. None of them would consider the intrinsic value of a bauble for the non-financial value I have placed on it. None of them would understand in the slightest why I have put any value on such a trifle. None of them are the type of people I consider worthy of inheriting an iota from a clearly eccentric relative. Not any more, anyway. My Family, on the other hand, will appreciate even the smallest token of what I have to give–mostly because they know and understand me so well. To them, my eccentricities are lovable–or at least tolerable–characteristics. They love me for who and what I am and are willing to accept my flaws as well as my charms. That is why to me they are Family as well as friends. The best part is that they understand my lack of phone usage, which I wrote about in a previous post. (sigh)
Here is the important part: I am more than the sum of my parts. I am stronger than my biological family take me for. I may not have achieved all that I set out to do; I may not have been whatever mythical person my biological family thought I should be; I may have not become the person aimed to be when I was much younger. But I like most of the elements that comprise me, and I continue to try to improve those things I do not like about myself. I am a better person today than I was yesterday, and I will be a better person tomorrow than I am today. I love people for who they are, not for what they are or what they have or what they can do for me. Those people who have hurt me in the past are no less deserving of love than the people who have helped me in the past. There is little enough love in the world, and I will continue to love my family because they are my family, even though they have shunned me as effectively as a fundamentalist religious clan blots out the existence of an excommunicate. However, I will no longer make any effort to communicate with family who clearly wishes to not communicate with me. They are in the past, and there is nothing more that I can do to open lines of communication–especially since I am not the one who closed them.
And I am surprisingly quite comfortable with that.
In one form or another, I have been an observer all my life. It started during infancy and early childhood in my birth country of France. But that was only the beginning…
I was born in 1950 in a small town in France. My parents, Displaced Persons from World War II ravaged Belarus, were “undisplaced” in northern France, in a town that needed more workers for its coal and steel industries. My father came from a family of comfortable farming, while my mother’s German-ancestry family originated in Russia where her family owned a flourishing grain mill. The story of how she ended up in Minsk is much like the Proletariat takeover of the house in which Dr. Zhivago grew up in the movie. Her family ended up in Minsk because they had relatives there. However, the relatives had already left–either through escape or through evacuation because of their German heritage–and my mother’s family was stuck there for a while. Minsk turned out to be a major battleground between Russian and Nazi forces, and male family members who had not already been conscripted by the Communists back in Russia were conscripted or arrested by either the Russian forces or by the Nazis. My father’s family fared a little better initially because my grandfather was shrewd enough to negotiate with those who would take his landholdings by demonstrating how he could run the newly expropriated farm. Although my father’s family lost all personal possessions, they were allowed to move into a small home on the property from which my grandfather could serve as overseer of the new cooperative. However, during the “negotiations,” my grandmother was badly beaten for trying to save her chickens (primarily laying hens) and died shortly thereafter.
Somehow, when the Nazis were defeated through the joint efforts of US and Russian forces, my parents ended up in a camp for Displaced Persons, where they met. Neither of my parents talked much about their experiences in this camp, although they managed to become part of a theatrical and choral group that met in the evenings after work, where they met each other and eventually fell in love. I am not certain, but it seems to me that the camp was in Germany, because they talked about how their German marriage certificate was not valid in France and they had to marry all over again.
In France, they lived in a community of Polish immigrants. The effect on me was that my first language was Polish, as that was the language of the community. So, when I started pre-school at two and a half years of age, I was an outsider looking in on other kids whose native language was French. To participate, I had to learn French. To become part of the group, I had to learn to communicate; so I learned to speak French. Now, science has taught us many things–one of which is that children pick up the languages used around them. In general, the first language children learn to speak and respond to is the language of the home. However, if this is different from the language of the community in which the child lives, the most likely language in which the child learns to respond is the language of the community. When a child begins to attend school, the language one speaks is the language of the school, which usually. Or responds to the language of the community. In my case, at a very young age, I was simultaneously moving through three languages simultaneously, probably learning none to any great degree of fluency, and having to contend with a fourth language–German–when we trekked to Germany to visit my grandmother, aunt, and uncle. Talk about potential confusion! Yet I managed, according to my parents. And then, at age four, we immigrated to the USA–where yet a new language needed to be learned–English.
It didn’t take long for me to end up in what was called a nursery school back then. Again, I had a new language and a new group of children to adapt to. Again, I found myself in the role of observer. By age 4, language skills are pretty well developed, so I had to start at a higher level of “beginning English” than where I started with “beginning French.” Although I observed and observed, it was not until a WWII veteran who worked as school custodian began to help me that I made any real progress. For whatever reason, he took an interest in helping a young child learn English. He was a natural teacher, and led me through naming objects and putting together words and phrases so I could communicate with the other children. Because of his help, I was able to catch up enough with English so that I could attend kindergarten from mid-year (January) in my neighboring school a year after my arrival in the US. Interestingly, not even the kindergarten teacher realized–until the first parent-teacher conference–that I was not from an English-speaking home. In fact, my teacher–Miss Oxenford–so quickly forgot that I did not start the school year with my classmates that she inadvertently provided me with my first sense of “differentness” when we were working on a circus unit.
Each child had been given a circus animal to color. At home, I was not limited to the box of 8 Crayola crayons that is characteristic of what kids got in schools back then; my mother insisted on as wide a pallet of colors as she could provide, and always purchased for me the 32 or 64 color box. I, even then too much of a realist apparently, knew that elephants were gray. I had a personal experience with an elephant just before we sailed for the US, when an elephant at the Paris zoo and a monkey in the same area became involved with a bow that my mother had affixed in my hair. The monkey stole it from my head; the elephant stole it from the monkey and actually returned it to me! Thus, I knew that elephants were gray, and–from my Crayola collection at home–knew there was such a thing as a gray crayon. However, there was no gray in the 8-color box. When I asked the teacher if she had a gray crayon, she turned to the class and asked how she had taught them to make gray. The response was that you use the black crayon very lightly. She had forgotten that I had only joined the class a short time ago, and I remember her blushing when she saw my own embarrassment. The good part of this exchange, however, was that she had established my sense of belonging in the class.
The importance here is that I used the observation skills I had been using for almost 3 years to blend in to a great degree, and to do so in a relatively short period of time. However, I should also add that the embarrassment that I felt forced me to observe even more carefully so that I could avoid future episodes of “standing out.”
These observation skills, due partly to self-preservation and partly to a need to communicate and belong, continued to be useful to me as I grew older. That’s not to say that I always applied the observations good behaviors and shunned the less socially acceptable ones; it’s just that I became an expert on observing and assimilating those observations as I grew older.
The difficulty with being an observer, however, is that it can interfere with genuine and sustained social interaction. And I can look back and see how many times I interacted or responded in a less than socially “proper” way. For example, although I learned to observe behaviors, I cannot say that I ever developed a fashion sense, or that I ever fully understood how I interacted with other children. Because of my parents’ background and their jobs, the social skills that were reinforced were not necessarily those of American children. Because my parents’ ethnic community was more scattered than the communities of other ethnic groups, that led to fewer interactions with local children than were perhaps helpful to my overall social development as a child growing up in America. Home and “community” expectations were simply at odds sometimes with American expectations. So I grew up functioning with one foot in two different communities, without adequately filling either set of expectations–this despite my observation skills…
Just after I christened this site, I had an experience that–although not physically damaging–caused a lot of emotional damage. I won’t go into it right now, but it was enough to make me forget I had a place where I could explore myself.
Over the course of the 12 days since my introduction, I have experienced an emotional crash, a surge of deep anger, an incredible need to share, and–finally–total acceptance. Here is a summary of what occurred.
My husband went off-island to undergo angioplasty. He didn’t want me with him, claiming expense. That was the surface reason, but that wasn’t the real reason. However, that’s what I’ll go with. While he was away, I experienced such an emotional peace that I was glad he didn’t want me along. I finally had some time to regain my own personhood, and it would be at least 3 weeks before his return. Well, because there turned out to be no need to insert stents, he returned only a week after he left. When he called to let me know, my world collapsed. Clearly, there was no time to find myself again–that person I was before we married 23+ years ago. Since then, I have been posting on Facebook, and generally sharing feelings that I learned are shared by more other women than I expected to hear from. I tried to respond to each individually while continuing to analyze my misery during my marriage. To be honest, I learned much about myself and this relationship through that sharing back and forth, and began to look at this experience more objectively. So it came as no surprise to feel the shaft drop yesterday, and the realization that all would be well with me. Eventually.
Because I shared publicly, others were able to share privately. This is a shared journey I am on. I am not alone, and they are not alone. But it may change the direction of my reflections, from the general life experience commentary to a more focused discovery of personal growth that can start this late in life.
This particular post is purposely vague because I am no longer clear on what this journey will become. I am certain that things will appear on this site that are of a personal nature. Those will be shared to help others in similar emotionally abusive relationships know that they are not alone. Other posts will be focused on general observations prompted by an everyday occurrence, or something I read or heard… I do not expect this to be a “bashing” place. I expect it to be a place of sharing hope and positive energies and stories of recent social and historical events.
If you are following this blog, please have patience with me. Read those posts of interest to you, skip those you have no time for, provide an alternate view point, etc. Just please do not bash. We are all fragile just because of our very human-ness. Disagree carefully and without intent to harm. Share, if you wish. Suggest a new topic. Just keep this blog site safe from the emotional abuse that some readers might be fighting or have fought. And let’s see together where this road leads.
So happy you chose to visit me. On this site, my plan is to share my observations and thoughts, reminiscences and forecasts–anything I believe might be worth sharing with others.
Although I have other blog sites, those are related to education, educating, learning and learning disorders, educational psychology and research, children’s books… The stuff of which my professional life was built. This blog is more general, aimed at sharing rambling thoughts that may cover some “professional” topics, but mostly personal thoughts on life and living.
On these pages, you will share my journey of discovering the finer points of my ebbing life, including my observations of change in institutions across time. My eyesight is beginning to fail, and so I am more cognizant and aware of imagery around me. Being a lousy photographer and a mediocre writer, words do not flow from my brain to my keyboard; but I’m hoping to sketch out what I see and how I view the world around me now that I am aging.
Join me on this voyage of discovery. Share your own thoughts and insights. This is a place for me to just be. And I invite you to share my space…to be a fellow traveler…