Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some Thoughts about Sidney Crosby and a Sense of Fairness

When the gold medal hockey game between Team USA and Team Canada sat at 2-1 in favor of the home team, I turned to my husband and said, "You know what I want to happen?  I want Sidney to score the Nail-in-the-Coffin goal."  His reply was, "Or better yet, let him score the winning goal after we tie it up."  We both thought I would get my wish a few minutes later when Sidney went tearing down the ice all alone heading for a kill shot on Miller.  Long story short, that shot was blocked, USA tied the game and Sid the Kid scored the gold medal goal deep into sudden death overtime.  It's the stuff of legends.  It's the stuff that gets some Hollywood hottie playing you in a major motion picture.  If he had been American, some producer would probably be on the phone already trying to make the deal.  The captain of the defending Stanley Cup champions now has added an Olympic gold medal to his trophy case.  Sidney Crosby is 22.

I can tell you that when I was his age, I was trying to figure out how to make the gas in the tank of my crap Chevette last until payday.  I ate a lot of Kraft Mac and Cheese because it was $0.25 a box.  I hardly had life by the string.  Unfortunately, Kelsey never even made it to that level.  The Beast grabbled with her all her short adult life, and she never found a time when she was at peace.  She struggled to make ends meet, even with substantial financial help.  She struggled with everything frankly.  Self image, relationships, managing her time and her responsibilites.  Everything was just too much with the huge, if you'll allow the pun, weight of her eating disorder dragging her down.

I have been thinking about the contrast for a while now.  Ever since the announcer mentioned Sid's age during an earlier game.  I knew he was that young, but you tend to forget about it when you're watching him play for the Penguins.  He's just a star forward that has a nose for the goal.  Well, that's not quite true.  There's always this sense of how incredible it is that this amazing player wears a Penguins uniform.  But, really, he's still just a kid.  He really, truly is just Sid the Kid.

So, how is that two individuals a year apart have such divergent life experiences, and how is that fair?  Kelsey had a talent that was different than Sidney's, but was it any less valuable?  I don't resent Sidney Crosby for his success, and I was extremely happy for him.  He's like the son I've never met who can buy and sell me a million times over.  But, I have randomly wondered over the last few weeks why Kelsey couldn't have had just a small bit of that shooting star that he seems to have a firm grasp of.

Marissa, as it happens, is struggling with her own sense of fairness.  She has an online friend who has been extremely ill with an advanced case of bulimia for a long while now.  I remember seeing photos of her two years ago and thinking she could not possibly last much longer if she didn't get help.  Something triggered Marissa today to become angry with the girl.  Something she said along with a photo she posted caused Marissa a lot of distress.  She tried to send me the link, but I could not access it.  I gathered the girl was drawing attention to how ill she is, almost like a badge of honor.  I've seen that happen.  Kelsey went down that road herself.  It's that sense of control they feel.  See how sick I am, but I can still function?  It's a little hard to explain, and it's hard to understand.  Marissa wondered how it was fair that she was still alive and Kelsey wasn't.  I know she doesn't wish bad things for the young woman, she has worried over her for a long time, but I was struck by that word again after I had been considering it for a while:  fair.  For Marissa, it's more that she just misses her sister.  And wonders how it is fair she no longer has her.  I absolutely have no answer to that at all.

I will confess, I wonder about the fairness of how Mother, with not one, but four serious illnesses and a full life behind her, outlived my daughter.  I try not to think of it, and I definitely work to make sure it doesn't color my judgement toward her care, but it's almost inevitable that it will creep into my mind during my darker hours.

But, what is fair?  How can you define it?  For one man's fair is another man's crime.  Just ask the US hockey team tonight.  Some would tell you it is all God's Plan.  Others would retort that He needs to re-think that plan.  I won't tell you anything because I have no answers.  I really don't.  I want to believe there is a grand plan and all things happen for a reason.  But all I really can tell you is that I have tried not to obsess on it too much, because doing so changes absolutely nothing.   Yet, as I stood here tonight, waiting for my heart to slow down from that fast paced game, I watched 22 year old Sid the Kid Crosby celebrate and felt a pang for my own kid.  I hope his parents appreciate the gift they have been given.  I hope they have glowing hearts.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Picking a Fight

This was Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which is why we chose Saturday night for the auction, as a kick-off to the week.  In a perfect world, I would have spent the balance of the week doing related things, like pushing for better health care coverage for individuals with eating disorders, or even writing the many thank yous to people who helped make the auction possible.  Yeah, well, none of that happened!  Work became highly hectic and overwhelming, and I'm thinking to myself all week long, "Wait, this is the job you took because it ISN'T stressful!"  The little group I work with has been warning me about this cycle we are currently in for a long time.  But, I over-estimated both the amount of work and my capacity for handling it timely.  Wow, I feel like someone backed a dump truck up to my cube, loaded with paper I have to process, and hit the release button.  That made the broker's comment about taking time off all the more laughable.  My boss's reaction:  take it if you need to, it'll all be here when you get back.  Yeah, and a bunch more!

But, that all paled in comparison to the mad scramble to try and handle Mother's situation.  I hate what I am trying to do.  Really hate it.  There is something completely horrific about trying to take her last shred of independence away from her, but there is no other choice if I have any chance of protecting her from herself and making sure she doesn't lose the money my dad worked really hard to leave her so she'd be secure.  Then I find myself getting really, really angry at her for putting me in this position.  Then I feel guilty about that because it's the disease, it's not really her.  But, then I get angry again, because the disease takes what was already her core personality and twists it.  It's not like I'm seeing behavior I haven't seen before, it's just amplified and any possible chance of reasoning with her is gone.  Then I feel bad about being mad at the woman who raised me and cared for me.  And so on.  It's a horrible cycle.

And now add that to the horrible deja vu of trying to handle a disease that I understand only on a cursory level.  Of course, I know all the textbook definitions of what Alzheimer's is, just like I did with bulimia, but what you find is that it doesn't help you much when you're actually dealing with it.  Now what you need to know is not only what the hell is happening to the person you're caring for, but how do you effectively handle it?  I got really angry a few times this week with people telling me "You need to do [this]."  The compliance officer for the brokerage firm wanted me to do one thing, which is to try and reason with mother.  Her medical team say that just aggravates her and not to try and challenge her statements directly.  It's like a bit like a fencing match, you have to feint and dodge a lot, with the goal not being to stab the patient, but to eventually just distract them until they forgot about what it was that upset them.  The compliance person tried to tell me that she knows how to handle Mother because she went through it with her mother.  With all due respect, her mom is not my mom.  Her relationship with her parent is different than mine is.  That's the thing that's so hard with both Alzheimer's and eating disorders, it's not just the disease you have to take into account, it's the personality of the individual.  And, it's easy for someone from the outside looking in to judge and make determinations; it's another to actually carry them out.  Everything about both diseases is complicated.  And everything about getting proper care and support is the same way.  More than once this week I was frustrated to the point of acidic tears because I couldn't get people to call me back, or even to call my attorney back, only to find out I'd call the wrong kind of care giver to begin with.  The most frustrating moment came when I found out yesterday that there is someone on staff at the nursing home who helps families with this.  She and I have talked about what I'm working on, she never once mentioned it.  I had been spinning my wheels all week, and I had a resource at my fingertips!  I feel like I've stepped into a nightmare time machine and am right back to where I was almost ten years ago.  Trying to understand what is happening, trying to get the right kind of care, trying to get my job done, maintain my family, and watch the Olympics all at once!

One night during a planning meeting for the auction, the young Vice President of the Foundation, who was a key member of the committee, was excited about news from New York where legislation is being passed to cover eating disorders on the same level as other mental health issues like Alzheimer's.  She talked a bit about going up against the Alzheimer's groups lobbying for funds and attention here in Texas.  Clearly for her, ED is the primary focus.  She was personally affected by it so this is her passion (for lack of a better word).  I just stared at her.  I didn't know what to say or what to feel.  Both diseases tear families apart.  Alzheimer's is a disease that brings to a messy close an older person's life, so from that point of view maybe I can see where someone young can conclude it is something of less importance than other areas of mental health coverage, but the damage it does to the people who surround it and the costs it incurs for care are real.  I hate it as much as I do the bulimia.  I fear it.  And I am oh so tired of always fighting.  Fighting against diseases, against my own ignorance, against the balance of the rest of my life.  If I wanted to join a fight, I would fight against puppy mills, dog fighting, and the Baltimore Ravens fans.  I would not have chosen this one.  But, here I am, and my gloves are on, baby.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fifteen Years

At my work they do an e-mail blast known as a bell ringing, which is tantamount to an "Atta Boy".  It's nice actually even though I've been known to make some fun of them.  Generally a core group of people will e-mail you to congratulate you, and you feel pretty good about yourself for a day or two.  As part of that program, the executive who sends them out also sends out a quarterly list of employees who are celebrating their anniversary with the company.  The current list came out this week, and I was on the top of the list with a big fifteen years.  My co-worker, who is familiar with my history, shared a laugh with me about it.  For all the times I've either left or been asked to leave, they still choose to list me as one long, contigious tenure.  I guess because it looks good.  I theorize that they think the perception is that this can't be a crappy place to work if someone sticks with it for fifteen years.  But maybe people think, "Wow, what a loser.  She can't find anything better even after fifteen years?"  Actually, with my current title attached to a tenure like that, who would blame someone for thinking that?  I have had an absolutely meteoric fall to the bottom.  I have gone from Senior Vice President, to the leader of a sub-department, then back up to a department leader, and now I am literally a clerk.  So, my friend and I had a laugh about that, but it was a little bit of a bitter laugh for me.  Unlike my friend, who works as a clerk because she's got her priorities a whole lot straighter than I did at her age (kids first, in other words), I don't have time on my side.  Every year that whisks by closes the door just a bit on any hope I might have to re-establish an actual career.  Does it matter?  Can I be happy doing what I currently do?

I don't mind what I do usually.  I work for a woman who has been my friend for a long time.  I knew her before I hired her several years ago.  She is now a highly competent, trusted department head, and I am one of her staff in one of those twists of fate that my life seems to be full of.  The work is important, but, despite being plentiful, not particularly difficult.  The hardest part is to stay alert and pay attention to what I do because the mistakes are almost aways because of becoming distracted or numb from the repetition.  Mistakes, as I learned this week, can be costly. But, it's contained.  When I walk out of the office every day, the work stays behind.  I have yet to pull a weekend shift.  I listen to my iPod most of the day, rocking out to whatever it is I want to listen to, and I can, but don't always, mind my own business and maintain a low profile.  I am friendly via e-mail with dozens of other clerks and paralegals across the country, and I adore the people I work with in the department.  However, I rarely get calls. When my phone does ring, it often startles me. Most people in the company do not know me. Fewer still know my history. This low profile allows me to come and go as I've needed to, leaving for hours at a time to transport Marissa places, attend grief counseling, and attend to the many, many needs of Mother and her various care givers. It is, in short, the perfect fit for someone in my situation.  But I would be an incredible liar if I didn't say that I occasionally long for the headier days of running a dynamic, growing company, managing an independent group of people, and that feeling that your presence is important.  I created a lot of the policies and procedures the people across the office work with, including the couple who can't deem themselves to stoop low enough now to speak to me.  Now my largest decision in a day is whether to heat up my lunch before I finish running a particular batch of statements or after.  I sometimes feel the bitter taste of regret about what I am not rather than just being content with what I am.

I know, on the one hand, that this is a ridiculous way to feel.  It's the people on the bottom of the pryamid that support the top of it.  Without people like my co-workers and I, the next layer could not exist, and the layer after that, all the way up to the CEO himself.  More importantly, I am not the sum of my job title.  Even if I were, this is all I can handle.  As a matter of fact, my mother's broker suggested I take a few days off to try and get her current crisis under control.  The suggestion, made with sincerity and no malice whatsoever, made my livid.  I wanted to reply, "Sure, I'll do that if you'll pay my electric bill and mortgage this month."  But, there is simply no way to consider a job with more responsibility when life outside of the office is such hard work.  Most days I know what the right thing is.  I am lucky to even have a job.  Many don't.  I am supremely lucky to have a job that allows me the chance to take a phone call, or two, or four, or eight about Mother - or whatever.  But, every now and again, I glance at the bank of office doors from over top my cube wall and think I could be in one.  And every once in a while, I get reminded of what a down hill slide the last fifteen years has been.  And every once in a while, I'm not okay with that.  Thanks for ringing that bell.

Monday, February 22, 2010

After Auction

Marissa was the first one to really understand what it was we did. We made Kelsey a public figure. Marissa was not particularly reconciled with sharing her sister with total strangers in the end analysis, and she struggled with the auction. I, on the other hand, was pleased. Among my fears (home invasion, the Steelers being in a plane crash, fire, and being alone at a home Raiders game) is that I will not live to contribute anything that makes a difference to the world. I watch the people whom I admire, both living and dead: Barack Obama, Art Rooney, Sr., Franklin Roosevelt, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy - they all left the world, or will leave the world, a little better for having been in it. So, for me, it's important for me to fight for that on behalf of Kelsey. I feel I owe it to her to give her life some meaning. For Greg, to be honest, I think it was just another thing he supported because it was important to Marissa and me. Life has been a nightmare for him ever since that fateful night; he has had a hard time finding a rudder for his grief, so he allows me to try and seek my own, passively supporting my various attempts. He was therefore enthusiastic to a degree, but also somewhat detached, which I saw as a protective cloak he drew around himself.

I had spent the last several months working on the event. There were times I didn't feel up to the task. There were times I felt fiercely protective of it. There were times I wanted nothing to do with it. The odd pendulum of grief. I would swing back and forth violently. Working with me had to have been a challenge. I can tell you no one really knows what losing a child does to you, not even you. So, no one can know in advance how you will react to even the smallest things. And this was no small thing. I was at times a total diva bitch, just to put it plainly. At others, I was barely present. One thing I can tell you for certain is that I always thought of it as something that was ahead of me. The reality of it actually coming was an extreme - well, shock. I'm not sure how else to say it. When it finally happened, I wasn't quite sure it was real.

The woman who gave birth to this event, Jennifer Baethge, wrote a powerful blog about it earlier today, so I won't belabor the things she already eloquently covered. All I can tell you that she did not is that what mattered to me was whether or I not we did justice to Kelsey, and how she would have responded to it, if she were looking down upon us.

How will I ever know? All I can tell you is that I believe if Kelsey needs to communicate to me, she does it through music. It was a highly important medium for her. When I labored over the playlist for the night of the event, I wanted a Moody Blues song. It came down to two. I chose The Story in Your Eyes. As I turned on my iPod for the first time since the night of the auction, the first song that popped up of all the thousands that could have was my first and other choice:

Well I've had dreams enough for one
And I've got love enough for three
I have my hopes to comfort me
I got my new horizons out to sea
But I'm never going to lose your precious gift
It will always be that way
Cos I know I'm going to find my own peace of mind
Where is this place that we have found
Nobody knows where we are bound
I long to hear,
I need to see
Cos I've shed tears too many for me
But I'm never going to lose your precious gift
It will always be that way
Cos I know I'm going to find my own peace of mind
On the wind soaring free
Spread your wings
I'm beginning to see
Out of mind far from view
Beyond the reach of a nightmare come true
Well I've had dreams enough for one
And I got love enough for three
I have my hopes to comfort me
I got my new horizons out to sea
But I'm never going to lose your precious gift
It will always be that way
Cos I know I'm going to find my own peace of mind

- Justin Hayward

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Perfect Storm

It's late, I'm tired, but babysitting my printer as it painfully processes what will eventually (hopefully) amount to somewhere around 200 auction ID cards for tomorrow - excuse me - now officially tonight's auction. After all these months of meetings and planning, it is finally almost here. Are we ready? Probably not. Almost certainly not. But, we're in it, ready or not.

Actually, some of it is not our fault. I have learned through this process that artists are notoriously last minute. We tried to set a deadline for submissions so we could take stock of what we had, price it, prep it and decide how to display it. We'll have art walking in tonight, hopefully before the auction actually begins at 7:00 PM. And every artist or friend of an artist has pretty much confirmed that this is just pretty much the way that they roll. And even the things that were in our control that we could have done better have to be viewed out of the lense of our extreme inexperience. Enthusiasm, in the end, prevailed over knowing what in the world we were doing.

However, then there is the headache. It began last Sunday at around noon. It has not decided to quit yet, although it dulled down to a distant rumble today, only to perk up if I moved too sharply or suddenly. Now, in the witching hour, it is threatening to erupt once more, and I have two more sheets to print of the front page of this card. If I can just get there, I would feel okay about taking the head off to its pillow. Instead it looks as though I'll be re-starting the computer for the fourth time to try and clear the perpetually canceling print job that stalled when the paper jammed, which I have no idea why that keeps happening other than it's card stock and the printer sucks. Here is a lesson for life: if a sweet young man at Best Buy asks if you if you are interested in a $25.00 color printer/scanner, the answer is no.

I can't decide if the headache is an actual illness (I spent the first half of the week extremely cold and achy at all times), allergies, stress, menopause or some perfect storm of all of the above. I am concluding it may be the latter. It's not the auction that has me particularly stressed out, although as the week wore on and my head continued to interfere with my work on auction issues, that got added to the pile of things I'm stressed about. No, I would have to say it's more Mother related stress.

Of all weeks for her to pick to raise her level of - I struggle for the right word here - whackiness is the one I want, but it seems overly mean spirited given her condition. Whatever word I use, she ramped it up this week of all weeks. I spent the week receiving calls and e-mails from everyone about her. She is clearly trying to run away from home. She's been trying to fund her relocation by having her broker send her a large check directly to the nursing home. And I do mean large. She used the cover story that Marissa is coming from college and needs tuition money (keep in mind that my daughter goes to school six miles up the same road the nursing home is on). She made it clear that they were not to tell me. However, since I have legal rights on the account just as she does, they had to. So they did. Now they are caught in the push-pull between having to respond to both of us ethically and legally. She has not taken no for an answer, and called late in the week angry that she had not gotten it. Yesterday she rolled herself up to the receptionist, a sweet woman who went to school at Montana State University while my dad was there teaching ROTC, and asked her to make her plane reservations to fly back to Pittsburgh. A resident had stopped me a few days before and told me in a hushed voice that "Your mother is very upset. She wants to leave here." They are all fit to be tied. The woman I pay to essentially act like a sister to me and visit mother when I can't, tell me what she's up to and be another set of eyes on the situation (which sometimes I'm glad I have and sometimes think is just an expensive way to not feel so alone) told me yesterday that the staff is worried that her mental state is deteriorating, but because she is so stubborn, it is making her extremely hard to handle. When I see her, she is all sweetness and light and never says a word about it. That probably worries me the most because it indicates that she is clever enough to pull her punches and is fully aware of whom she is talking to. Of course, it's this very thing about her personality that made her hard to diagnose in the first place. She is not unintelligent, she is ill. After a lot of soul searching, I called an attorney, and am having to go forward to have her rights taken away from her. Essentially, that will put her in my custody. Having just come from raising two troubled teens, I will now have a rebellious elder in my legal custody. I tried to talk them into appointing someone else, but there is no one else in the end analysis. It's on me. And I have to do this. If I don't, she's likely to bankrupt herself at the least, but potentially make decisions that are counter productive to her well being. Of course, she will hate me with all the force of her personality, and she will be harder to handle for everyone involved. I would rather do just about anything than what I know I have to. Just writing these words makes my head throb. So I think I literally have the Mother of all Migraines.

And, naturally, this could not wait until I get past the art auction. Kelsey passed away eight months ago tonight. This is what I should be focused on. I have to say, it seems like a lifetime has gone by since that awful night. So much has happened, a lot of it very terrible, but not all of it. I have met some wonderful people who have reached out to me in my grief or have come to me as part of the auction. If this event comes off even a little bit successfully, then we created something amazing out of our loss. And of course I never lack for things to write about! For all of that, I would roll back the clock if I could and fight to change all our fates. I know I can't, so this is all I know to do. Push forward. A day at a time.

Anyway, I am off to cut the auction ID cards now that the printer has finally surrendered and done its job. I will let you know how the auction goes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

From Chaos Let Their Be Art

The countdown to the art auction is truly on. Only a few more days for all of us who have been working on this thing to either realize we pulled off a mini-miracle, or for us to have our hopes and aspirations dashed against the rocks of our inexperience.

We have some amazing art, and more continues to come in. I have been touched once more by the generosity of my friends, which has been joined by total strangers who have generously sent in pieces or are bringing pieces to entrust to us because they believe in our cause. For their sakes, more than anything else, I hope this is an amazing event. With that goal in mind, I have to get back to work. There is a lot to do, and I have been betrayed by Time Warner, the entity that will only allow me to record two shows at a time, forcing me to pick between figure skating, Canadian hockey, American Idol and the Westminster Dog Show. I weighed my options closely, trying to decide which one I could live without. None sprang to mind, so I'll be creating Artist's Cards in front of the idiot tube. And, I'm sick, just to make matters a little more fun. Something about the Olympics: it just brings chaos to my life.

However, as I created the playlist for the event, chosing songs by bands that Kelsey loved, but were not too profane for the general public (not as easy as you might think). One thing she didn't rebel on was my love for Rush and the Moody Blues, so I picked one from each. One of many reasons I am a Rush fan is that their lyrics are intelligent and wide ranging. This is what I picked for her. I know this was almost certainly about two adults in a relationship, but nevertheless, I think it fit as something I would have liked to have said to Kelsey. Here it is, my choice of Rush songs on the iPod playlist for Saturday night:

Open Secrets

It went right by me,
At the time it went over my head
I was looking out the window

I should have looked at your face instead
It went right by me
Just another wall
There should have been a moment
When we let our barriers fall
I never meant what you're thinking...
That's not what I meant at all.

Well I guess we all have these feelings
We can't leave unreconciled
Some of them burned on our ceilings
Some of them learned as a child
The things that we're concealing
Will never let us grow
Time will do its healing
You've got to let it go
Closed for my protection
Open to your scorn
Between these two directions
My heart is sometimes torn
I lie awake with my secrets
Spinning around my head
Something that somehow escaped me
Something you shouldn't have said
I was looking out the window
I should have looked at your face instead.

Well I guess we all have these feelings
We can't leave unreconciled
Some of them burned on our ceilings
Some of them learned as a child
I find no absolution
In my rational point of view
Maybe some things are instinctive
But there's one thing you could do
You could try to understand me
I could try to understand you.

You could try to understand me
I could try to understand you.

- Neil Peart

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Few Reflections on a Thing Called Love

Being that it's almost Valentine's Day, I thought I should probably ruminate on the event. I hate Valentine's Day. It's a manufactured reason to boost retail sales during the dead months between Christmas and summer vacations. I bought Mother a $50.00 bottle of cologne that she dictated she wanted. What a crock. If I had a spare $50.00 I would put it toward that Mike Wallace jersey I want so bad. So, there you have it. My thoughts on Valentine's Day!

However, I guess since I'm at it, I should contemplate the meaning of the day: love. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. I love chocolate. I mean I really do. And I LOVE the Steelers. I love my dogs and the very fat cat who just jumped into my lap to disrupt my typing. I love my husband. I love Marissa, so much so it makes my heart ache. And I loved Kelsey. Maybe more than I knew, getting her mixed up with The Beast. I hate that the pain I feel now is how I learned of how deeply I loved her. I love my mother too, although I am quite sure readers might be surprised by that. I just don't like her much.

The lesson I am trying to learn from Kelsey is to separate Mother's disease, which is invasive and impacts every aspect of our relationship, from the woman who raised me. Our relationship was never a particularly easy one. Mother was never quite a natural parent. But, then again, how many people really are? Surely not me. Aside from the three or four years immediately following Dad's death, when our relationship smoothed out because we had that shared grief and recovery process, the best way I know how to describe our relationship is to call it complicated.

We were mutually manipulative. She always used her largess to buy my affection. She was not super wealthy, but Dad left her secure, and she used it. I, ashamed as I may be to say it, allowed it and even played the counterpart of the game by needling to get what I wanted. I am not proud of it, but I did it, so there's no use denying it. A healthy adult relationship does not result from how we interacted. When I look back on it, I can see how badly she has always needed to be in control of any situation, and buying me off was a way to always have me in some sort of obligated position. I would like to think she would have found me beholden to her simply because she was my parent, but we'll never actually know because the relationship was never based on straight mutual affection.

One can be totally sympathetic as to how and why she was like that. She was a product of an ill-tempered, overbearing mother and a gentle, hard working father who bounced from job to job trying to support a family of six children in the Depression. He helped build the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he lived and worked on his wife's parent's farm. he worked in a tollbooth, and he mined coal, a job that would eventually kill him. (He died when I was just little of Black Lung Disease.) Mother was just out of high school in 1933, the worst year of all for the economy. Old enough to have it make a lasting impression on her. Then came the war, and the sacrifices a serviceman's wife has to make. The risk that any day you'll get that visit telling you your husband isn't coming home. You can't control those things. World events bigger than you are, sweeping you along. All those ingredients added together to make the mother that I would eventually know.

Therefore, I get it when she wants to have things her way. Unfortunately, the Alzheimer's takes that impulse and twists it into something both ugly and dangerous. She cannot physically do the things she desperately wants to do and therefore deludes herself she can do. She wants to pull large amounts of money from her account to prove that she can. She wants to move back to Pennsylvania because she believes she can be independent there, and she misses her sister. She wants, in short, to run her own show. Her health has other ideas. Can I love her enough to save her from herself? Even if it means she'll end up going to her death hating me the way she hated her oldest sister Merle?

I think that's the true test of love. Can you do what it takes on behalf of the other person even if that other person will truly hate you for it? It's a question every parent of a teenager has to answer at some point. And, it seems, it's a question that the families of aging parents sometimes have to face as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

For Whom the Damn Bells Toll

No story of our Olympic journey would be complete without telling the tale of how I came to be in possession of the Damn Bells. I want to make it clear: I do not collect bells. Of any kind. I do not have anything against bells. I like the sound of bells. I like to sing Jingle Bells, and various ribald versions of it, but I am not now, nor do I anticipate ever being, in love with the idea of owning a bunch of them. Yet I do. When you walk into my house, it's probably one of the things you're going to almost for certainly notice. That, and somewhat surprisingly to me, the Swastika on the spine of my copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. For the record, I am not a Nazi either, although I have been called one on several occasions.

Why then, do you ask, do I have an entire curio cabinet full of glass and china bells? Well, I will tell you.

First, let me set the stage. As the fatigue of our Olympic experience set in, my two daughters traded hygiene for sleep. That, and they didn't really give a crap. All of our winter outer wear was a little worse for wear hygienically speaking, yet we crammed all of our stuff, and our tired, irritated selves back into my Legacy and headed for home. I was tired. Dead tired. Neither of my girls were close to driving age, and I have never been a fan of someone else driving my beloved Subaru anyway, so it was all on me to get us home. And, remember that we were not particularly happy campers. I have been prone to migraines since I was ten, and conditions were ripe for one. I got it. By the end of the first day of driving, I was hurting fairly badly, and the smell of all of us and our dirty stuff crammed into the car was not helping. I splurged a little and checked us into a Holiday Inn Express so I could get a decent night's sleep, but come morning, it wasn't much better. I remember stumbling into the lobby for the Continental Breakfast to be met with a human interest story on Michelle Kwan. She had yet to skate, the women's competition being the major draw and therefore one of the last events. Ironic. We would be back at home before she took the ice for her short program. By that point, I could have cared less.

We piled into the car for the last long day of driving. I had left an open day between arriving home and returning to work and school so we could unpack and rest. Trust me, that was my motivation for moving on. I really wanted my own bed, different pajamas, and at least eight solid hours of sleep. First, I had twelve solid hours of driving ahead of me. And Mother Nature decided that she might as well make it a little more challenging by throwing a snow storm at me as we crossed the Navajo Reservation.

While only eight years ago, it was light years ago in terms of technology. For a lot of the drive back, I had no cell service. Not that I was really anxious to talk to anyone. Moving my lips was more energy than I wanted to expend. We floated in and out of coverage. Probably about five hours from home, it became clear that Mother was trying to call me. A lot. But, coverage wasn't adequate for us to actually talk. I would get a voice mail, but not be able to return the call. Mother was in her 80's at that point, still not a spring chicken, so I became worried that something was wrong. I finally got my husband, who acknowledged she'd been calling the house too. She had something for us, and was excited for us to see it.

Toward the end of a very long travel day, I got her on the phone. She was clearly excited. She had bought us something and was anxious for us to see it. She wanted to be there when we did. She wouldn't say what it was.

We were so tired and the smell was getting really ripe. There was just no way this trip was going to be pleasant. My head was literally pounding, but I had to push on. I have had bad travel days before and since, the topper being the day Marissa and I pushed our way home after learning of Kelsey's death, but this is fairly close to the top of the list. But finally it came to a close, and I pulled into our garage. I don't remember much after that. I don't know if I unpacked the car that night or not, what the girls did, what my husband said or did. I just know I felt awful.

The next day wasn't much better. I felt like road kill. Road kill that is being consistently run over again and again. I can't remember where the girls were. My guess is they were asleep. I just remember how completely and totally horrible I felt from head to toe. There was not a cell in my body that didn't ache. Yet, Mother was on the phone fairly early, wanting to come over to watch me open the gift. I had been vaguely aware the night before of several boxes and a curio cabinet. That's all I knew.

I don't remember what time Mother came over, but it wasn't late. She could barely contain herself. She was puffed up with anticipation and pride. I felt like if someone stabbed me in the knee, it would feel better. I have a hard time explaining how I felt, but it was Bad. Mother, seemingly, could have cared less. So, reluctantly, I began unpacking the boxes with her watching, eyes twinkling.

What I found, wrapped in newspaper, were bells. China bells, crystal bells, bells with Panda figurines as handles, bells with Norman Rockwall scenes printed on them, some larger, some smaller. Probably a hundred bells in all. Turns out, a couple in the complex Mother lived in found themselves in dire straits and had to sell their collection. The wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and they were being separated, as she was being moved to a separate wing. Mother had bought the collection, lock, stock and barrel, for a little over $1,000.00.

I knew immediately the "gift" was really something Mother really wanted for herself, but had no room for, already busting at the seams with her own motley collection of stuff. so she had bequeathed it on me. I know she had genuinely convinced herself that she was doing something generous for me, but, trust me, on that particular day, it seemed anything but. Eight years later they still grace my living room, but truth be told, with the exception of a few that I find particularly compelling, they will not be long term occupants following Mother's death. I keep them here to please her. They are a constant reminder of Mother's need to possess. Even if she doesn't need it, she will want it.

Mother was a product of a working class Pennsylvania family who came of age during the depression. Growing up during a time when possessions were luxuries, it seems not altogether illogical that she matured to covet material things. The level of which she does, however, has been an issue for some time. At the time I was unpacking the bells, I was a good two years away from finally accepting her condition as a legitimate form of OCD. She's a Hoarder. She's not even the worst case, although she's pretty bad. I get it. I've just never known how to get her past it. The Damn Bells, as they almost immediately became known, are the physical manifestation of it.

One sad thing to note was the discovery of one of the bells that I would guess was the genesis of the couple's collection. It was dated, and was by far the oldest, having an inception date in the 1940's. I think there was a slip attached to it, but somehow I knew it had been a wedding gift. I gave it back to the husband, over Mother's protests. I've wondered if that one wedding gift spurred their lifetime of collecting. If I think too long and hard on that, I feel a little guilty about my willingness to part with them, but I will find them a good and loving home. Just not here.

To this day, Mother has not idea I feel this way about them. Don't give my secret away.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

And Now, Finally, Why I Really Will be Sitting on the Couch for the Olympics!

Okay, before I finally try to wrap this long tale up, I wanted to provide a shout out for The Frilly Coconut (see her button on my side thingie-what's-it) for giving my blog the face lift. I will be doing a whole post on how I came to "know" her - we've never actually met - because I think it's an interesting study on modern society in an Internet World, but for now, I figured I needed to finish this whole thing up, but wanted to really, really thank her for being wonderful and giving me this fantastic new look. At least in cyberspace, I look good!

Anyway, on with my story: Now the other thing to know about Salt Lake City is that it is filled with bright eyed, fresh faced, flaxen haired teenage Mormons. I have never seen so many beautiful, healthy, seemingly well adjusted young women with braided hair poking out from under wool caps in all my life. We stood out like a sore thumb. There was Marissa, sporting my Dad's World War II bombardier jacket, which was about ten sizes too big for her. There was me looking like I should have been on the Steeler sideline instead of in ski country, and then there was Kelsey, wearing black eyeliner, clearly not healthy, and looking consistently pissed off. Because she was. About everything. I would like to tell you we didn't draw stares, but we did. And while members of the Mormon Church had been instructed by church elders not to solicit tourists in town for the Olympics, that didn't stop other groups from gathering there looking for lost souls, and they were drawn to us like moths to a flame. Which was uncomfortable and irritating to all three of us.

Our hosts weren't quite sure what to make of us either. While always gracious, it was clear we were of a different ilk than what they were used to, and I think we made them uncomfortable. Despite that, Mrs. Liddiard could not stop herself from bending over completely backwards to take care of us. Unfortunately, her own life experiences clashed with Kelsey's food issues in a major way. A mother of nine children, she had gone through a time in her life where providing enough food was a challenge. Now, with her children grown and her personal finances more secure, it became immediately clear that she nurtured through food. And lots of it. She consistently was trying to feed us huge meals. She was an excellent cook, and I was convinced she had missed her true calling as a chef for an NFL team, because the portions were clearly meant for linebackers. She would get up with us, no matter how early, and cook a massive breakfast. She would wait up for us so she could cook dinner. She made snack packs for us to take out each day. I was touched, albeit embarrassed, that she was going through so much trouble, but it was also uncomfortable and triggering for Kelsey. I never did figure out how to graciously convince her not to fuss over us. Nor could I ever figure out how to make that much highly caloric food less threatening for the girls.

Then there was the cold. In the actual city, it was unseasonably warm, but we made three trips out to a locale called Soldier Hollow for cross country ski events. Soldier Hollow had been chosen specifically not only for it's large open spaces, but because of its consistently cold temperature, which would keep the snow in perfect condition for racing. I want to tell you it was around 20 degrees below zero each time we were there. That may not be completely true, it may only have seemed that way, but even I would tell you it was bitterly cold, and I had grown up in ski country. I was sporting two hand warmers in each boot, plus a couple more in my gloves every time we were there. Kelsey finally had enough and refused to leave the warming tent on the last trip there. I was furious, but left her and Marissa there to drudge off and watch some race or other that I no longer remember much about. Truth is, I didn't care much about it, I just felt like we had spent a bloody fortune for the tickets, so I wasn't going to waste them.

And, speaking of tickets, with only one really premium event left on our dance card after the men's long program, it occurred to me to head home early, but I still held out some hope that I would be able to snag tickets for the women's competition. Not so. We weren't the only ones looking. People had come to town with no tickets at all, thinking that, Post-911, there would be a cornucopia of tickets available, turned in by people afraid to travel. If there had been a ticket dump, I suspect local residents grabbed them up. Or maybe people just held on to them, as determined as I was not to lose out on the opportunity. Whatever the case, there were no spare tickets to be had for anything, let alone the events we would have been interested to see. Nonetheless, I kept us there the full compliment of days, doggedly determined to see this thing through, even though it wasn't a day at the picnic for any of us.

Lack of sleep caught up with us pretty early on. The altitude didn't help, I'm sure. That made every little thing magnified. Kelsey hated being away from her boyfriend, she hated being stared at and feeling judged all the time. She was cold, she was bored, and she was tired. She wanted to go to a punk show at a tiny little club downtown on our one night free, and was livid when I wouldn't let her go, but for crying out loud, we were all so exhausted; I wasn't about to give up the one night to rest to be out until 2:00 AM listening to awful music from a band who would be coming to Austin at some point - they all do eventually. Marissa felt torn, I think, between the two of us. In other words, more of the same situation that drew her into her own troubles, only she had no way to get away from us to give herself a break.

By the end of the nine days, we were all so sick of one another, we were barely speaking. We certainly weren't saying much of anything polite when we did. My car had developed an oil leak, it still hadn't forgiven me for almost running it out of gas and was running a little rough, which it would do for a couple of weeks all told, and I was so tired all the time I could barely think straight. When we finally packed up and headed back down south, we felt like we had been through a war zone, not a vacation. All my long months of planning, all the hope I had started this trip with, trying to convey to my daughters that I wanted to commit time and attention to them, wanting them to see young people competing and being successful, all of that stuff, all of it for naught. I would have many other incidences over the years of setting out with the best intentions, only to misstep along the way, but this by far the most expensive, ambitious and colossal mess of them all.

I made light of it in my holiday letter that year, saying something about us looking back on it fondly after we've caught up on our sleep, despite it being ten months prior. But, we never have. Time has never done its magic. We rarely mention it. Marissa reminisced about those lovely fluffy mattresses that the Liddiards had recently, when we finally found something almost as nice in Pittsburgh, but I don't think I ever once heard Kelsey mention it again. I think the kindest thing my daughters could do was not to mention it, because it would likely have come out something like, "Remember that time you drug us out to the boondocks in the freezing cold...?"

I'm excited it's almost time for the Olympics again this year. My favorite hockey player, Sidney Crosby, along with several other Penguins will be skating for their respective home countries, and I look forward to reconnecting a bit with a sport I once loved as much as I love my Steelers and trying to find a new champion now that Michelle has moved on to other ventures. But, I will be doing it from the comfort of my living room, remote control in hand. And gladly so.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why I am Happy to Be an Olympian Couch Potato (Part Three)

Those of you who know me totally expect me to begin this next post about our actual trip to the Salt Lake City Olympics by saying that I took a wrong turn and ended up in New Jersey or somewhere close to that and missed the entire thing. I did not. As a matter of fact, on the way there I only made one right turn when I should have turned left, and I caught it after only a few miles. And who can blame me? I mean, have you ever driven through the Texas Panhandle? Miles and miles and miles of nothing but flat cotton fields broken up by the occasional stockyard. I was actually quite proud of myself. Here is what happened, however. First of all, one does not realize, living in a metropolitan area that sprawls the way Austin does, that there are still areas in the United States that are vast, open and desolate. And such places exist in New Mexico. Where I was when I almost ran us out of gas. I had not anticipated the drain on my mileage an extraordinarily full car, driving up hill into ever increasing altitude would be. I had never even come close to running out of gas in my Subaru Legacy before, so I had no idea how much grace period I had when that little red light went on, but it had been on for a while when I spied a sign off the highway, up a hill that looked like a truck stop. I headed for it only to find the pumps looking abandoned. Walking into the building, I was shocked to find I had walked straight into a strip club! The hostess was very sweet actually and pointed me in the right direction, but it was another 20 miles before we finally found gas, and the car was literally sputtering its way into the station. But, other than that, the first long day of driving went great. Friends had sent us off with a goodie basket of magazines and snacks. My husband had bought two small coolers for us, so we had lots to drink. The daughters of my business partner had let us take their audio Harry Potter CD's, so we listened to books on the way into Albuquerque, the half way point.

After getting settled into a somewhat flea bag hotel and finding overpriced Chinese food for dinner, I decided to plot out our first day of actual Olympic activity, which would be Sunday morning very early. I reached into my folder with all the information and rooted around for the tickets. Wait. Where are the tickets? I had left the tickets in the lock box twelve hours away! I could turn us around in the morning, meaning we'd lose two days of activity, including the first part of the men's' competition, or I could try and have them Fed Ex'ed to where we were staying. The decision is one that will likely live in Veldman lore for generations to come. I called the house, in tears, and interrupted Greg's poker night with the boys to tell him what happened. After having some riotous laughs at my tearful expense, they got FedEx to actually come to the house, pick up the tickets and put them on a plane to Salt Lake City. They arrived there before we did the next day. But, you can probably guess that cost an arm and a leg. Essentially I bought my tickets to women's hockey, lots of variations of cross country skiing and early rounds of men's luge a first class ticket, and bought myself a lifetime of grief by the participants of the fabled poker game, Greg's best friend Rory and brother Randy chief among them. I will likely never go any where ever again without being constantly reminded, "Did you remember the tickets?" Truth be told, I am still, eight years later, consistently paranoid about that very thing.

However, we got there. The tickets got there, and we were set to go. Now, let me tell you a little bit about Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, including Provo. They were made for people like me. The streets are all logically laid out in a consecutively numbered sequence that extends from the heart of the downtown on out into the surrounding suburbs. Nonetheless, I did manage to consistently lose my way getting back into the neighborhood where we were staying, and I did totally get lost the first free afternoon we had while trying to find an exhibit on the 1933 Olympics that no one but me wanted to see. But, for the most part, all I had to do was navigate my way into downtown, park and then meet various buses that would take us out to the far flung events. So that was not the problem. The problem was that in order to get to the various far flung events, one had to be at those buses very, very early in the morning. And then we would be on the go until very late at night. Only to fall into bed (and our hosts had the most wonderful, downy soft mattresses) for as many as four hours or as few as two to get up and do it again. Experiencing the Olympics in other words is an experience in extreme sleep deprivation. And we were there for nine solid days of it with one free night off which, when it finally arrived, seemed like heaven.

At first, spirits high and the temperatures unseasonably warm, things seemed okay. Our first day there was men's luge and then medal ceremonies downtown followed by the Foo Fighters, whom none of us had seen live before. Kelsey even caught a bouquet of roses tossed by an American medal winner, and got very excited when she got blood on her beige coat I had bought her from the mosh pit (which, by the way, watching Mormon kids mosh would have been hilarious had not my tiny daughter Marissa been in there somewhere with them).

And the next couple of days were dominated by the men's figure skating competition. Alexei Yagudin was the best in the world at the time, but he came in with a chip on his shoulder, having been somewhat embarrassed the year before by his training partner, Evgeni Plushenko. He had been skating like a man possessed, and this was clearly a competition he wanted to win very badly. And he did. His long program to The Man in the Iron Mask was breathtaking. He broke all kinds of scoring records, garnering first place votes from all judges in all stages of the competition. I remember when he collapsed to his knees at the end of the long program. He knew he had pulled off a near perfect skate and was overcome by it. To be in the building and witness it was incredible. I remember thinking, "Well, whatever else happens, I'll at least always have this memory."

Oly Mens Free

Oly Mens Free

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why I am Happy to Be an Olympian Couch Potato (Part Two)

When my daughters and I first concocted the plan to go to the Salt Lake City Olympics, life was different for both my family and the country than it would be by the time the Opening Ceremonies were held. Going to an event like the Olympics is something that you have to plan way, way in advance. I had to register just to be able to make a stab at buying tickets over a year in advance. At the time we began planning, Kelsey was still in middle school and maybe slightly rebellious, but all that angst was bubbling and had yet to surface to where I could see it, and I was buried in work, pulling all-nighters once or twice a week, so I would have been oblivious to just about any signs of impending trouble as it was. The World Trade Center still towered over New York City, and Americans still had that feeling of invincibility on their own soil. By the time the three of us packed up and headed north, everything was different. Both girls were in crisis, the towers had crumbled and with it our sense of security as a nation. My agenda changed completely. So did the country's. The original goal of my reconnecting with my kids over a sport we mutually loved had changed to a mad grab at pulling them back from a place I saw them going, but didn't understand. I think the United States saw the Salt Lake City Olympics as an attempt to show the world we had been kicked, but we weren't down. I guess the same was true for me. My sense of my family's essence had been shattered, and I was willing to try anything to get it back. I think one of the parties got what it was looking for anyway.

I probably should have seen the signs right from the start. I can't remember exactly what happened, but I was supposed to wait for an e-mail telling me it was my turn to queue up for tickets, which were on a first come, first serve basis based on the order in which you registered. I was one of the first to register, so I should have been in pretty good shape, but for some reason I can't clearly recall, I didn't get the e-mail until about ten days after they sent it. I remember having to buy the tickets from work, so I think my home PC crashed and burned, but I've conveniently blocked the details out. Suffice it to say that the most popular sports, women's figure skating and snowboarding, were long gone. And they were clever, those planners; if you wanted premium events, you had to buy them in pre-set groups, which meant you were paying for sports you would probably rather pay money NOT to go to, like women's hockey (my apologies to any female hockey players out there), cross country skiing (which is a fine sport, just not the most stimulating to watch) and preliminary rounds of things like luge, which meant you were watching dudes who were, compared to the end medal winners, like snails to a rocket. About the only thing I managed to avoid having tickets for was curling. I did get men's figure skating, both short and long programs, and one event in ice dancing, which at the time included the very sultry French couple Anissina and Peizerat, whom I had never seen live, so I was not completely deflated. I put in for some ticket exchange thing too, hoping somebody would dump their skating tickets somewhere along the line in the intervening months. The actual tickets came some six months in advance, maybe even more, and since they were worth half a fortune, I put them in a fire safe lock box.

Our very expensive group of tickets to things other than the one thing we set out to see tucked safely away, planning commenced. Now, the problem with liking winter sports over summer sports is that they are generally held during school. We knew other students who had been granted time off for similar events, but when I approached the high school principal, I got a rather firm, irritated-that-I-was-even-asking "NO". Marissa's principal, on the other hand, was completely committed to supporting our going, and had been very sympathetic to us as Marissa started to show signs of troubles of her own. In the end, it was her help that got the ice to melt a bit in the heart of her high school counterpart. She even called on our behalf, stating that family should always come first and that she believed it was a good thing that we were doing. Ms. Stuffy High School Administrator may have relented after that, but she was clearly not happy and was very sure I knew it. I was not overjoyed with having that level of scrutiny on us, but I had managed to get what I wanted with a little whining and manipulation, so one more hurdle overcome. I dealt with grade level assistants ever after and never spoke to the Principal of that school again. I had better experiences with others in the administration, and overall I thought they worked hard to get Kelsey through to graduation, but I was admittedly pretty happy I never had to deal with her again. She moved on the next year, and I couldn't even tell you her replacement's name. I liked keeping under the radar after that. I will confess now that the homework stipulation she put on Kelsey as part of her condition for signing off on the trip was something I was pretty sure was going to come back incomplete. By that time, Kelsey was so far into her rebellious stage, there was no way she was going to do anything someone in authority told her to do, let alone someone so blatantly contemptuous of Kelsey. But, I figured I'd cross that bridge when I got to it and by the time we had to cross it, we'd be back from the trip with what I hoped were life altering experiences, and it would all be worth it. I also will tell you now that Kelsey and Marissa were not even close to the only students who went that year. I'm not sure if it's always the case, but Salt Lake City isn't all that far away in a relative sense, so I think the opportunity was just too great from many families. I would imagine fewer kids are traveling to Canada this year, and fewer still travel outside the Continent, but both daughters had multiple classmates who missed days to attend events. Some asked permission first, some didn't. But, I would bet that small fortune I paid for those blasted women's hockey tickets, none of them got near as much flak as Kelsey did. People had begun to look at my daughter as an embodiment of the Dark Side. Where once there had been an Anakin Skywalker, they now saw Darth Veldman. Even people who should have been trained to know better judged her by her exterior, not trying to look beyond at what was going on inside the mask.

Nonetheless, I had what I needed to make this trip happen. We had tickets, we had clearance to go. My business partner's parents lived in Salt Lake City and had agreed to allow us to stay with them, having never met us. I bought the girls sweaters, scarves and hats and new coats for Christmas the year before. After a long time and a lot of planning and work, February 2002 rolled around. It was time to go.
Olympic Flags over the Main Media Center