Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leaving the Nest

Dear Young Adult,

Sit down a second from unpacking all your stuff and think about what I'm telling you.  Then remember that I told it to you in about 25 years.  If I'm still around, give me a call and tell me if I was right.  I'm pretty sure you'll know by then that I at least have some insight that you don't have right at the moment.

I think if you chart the pace of the lives of parents, it would look like an inverted "V".  Our lives reach a fever pitch once our kids start school and the socialization process really begins.  Car pools, soccer/dance/football practice, birthday parties, helping with homework, mending the first broken hearts, dealing with the consequences of kids fumbling to try and become adults, just to list a few of the things all parents face.  Some of us, of course, go through even more.  If you suffer, so do we.  All of the hubbub that goes with raising you comes at the very time when most adults are at the height of their earning potential.  We end up juggling a lot during those years.  I think any parent who tells you they don't at least at some point think longingly of the day that they have an empty nest is either in extreme denial or fibbing.  But, kind of like women who say they are anxious for menopause, usually when they are fighting cramps and hormonal-based migraines, when the time finally comes there are costs to it that they failed to take into account when curled up with a heating pad across their abdomen.  Hopefully on those overly hectic days when your parents were the most overwhelmed they didn't do what mine tended to do and think out loud about what it is going to be like and all the things they plan on doing, but even still you probably picked up on those moments now and again.  You're bright.  Therefore, you may be a little confused right now if things seem a little strained as you get ready to cut the cord.

Well, let me tell you why your parents are acting like they are.  I have to tell you off the top, half of it is you.  Search your feelings, and you'll know it's true (bonus points if you figure that reference out).  You're more excited than you are scared, but you're probably a little scared in there somewhere too so tensions are running a little high and you're being a handful without realizing it.  You're parents are probably more the opposite.  They are excited for you - really, they are - but they know all the dangers out in the world that you have yet to face, and they are about to watch you walk out straight into it.  I look back at my first years out on my own and sort of marvel that I'm around to tell this tale.  The world hasn't gotten kinder and gentler in the quarter century since.  Everything about us as parents gears us to protect our young, and sending them out into the cold, cruel world seems counter to that process.  Yet, it's the natural order of things and we all know that.  So, we're conflicted.  Be patient with us.

There are other things your parents are struggling with as they watch you leave home that maybe they aren't even able to come to grips with yet.  I tend to over-analyze everything, so I've spent some time considering my own feelings and concluded that part of the issue is that it's personally a little scary for us too.  On lots of levels.  We've spent years talking to our spouses - whether we're still married to them or not - about who is taking what kid where, about this bill or that one. Now we've got to interact with that person without out all that white noise in the background.  Can we do it?  Are we going to discover that we have nothing left between us?  But there is also that realization that we're beginning to slide down the far side of that upside down V.  And one thing we know and that you're about to begin to find out, time flies like a rocket.  Some of the parents out there are, as they grapple with your leaving, trying to care for your aging grandparents.  Your folks are looking at their parents and seeing their own future.  Your leaving home is the realization that they just took one step closer to it.  Personally, I had an uncle die of a heart attack at around the age I am now.  Even though I'm not related to him by blood, trust me, I think about the story of him standing in the bathroom getting ready for work when it just struck with no warning every time I get a weird tingle I can't account for.  Our own mortality looms large right about now - it's why it's called a mid-life crisis.

Finally, you'll probably act like an insensitive ingrate at times.  I can say this to you because you're not my child.  Your own parents will probably just take the hurt in silence.  Maybe not, but sometimes it's easier to hear the truth from strangers.  You'll be a jerk and not even know it.  There's no ill intent really, and your parents are probably going to know that, but you're so anxious to release yourself from the shackles (which we parents think of as protective angel wings enfolding you), that you'll trample on our egos and feelings.  We did it too, we were all young and dumb once.  But, here's my challenge to you:  be better than we were at your age.  Try and remember all the weirdness that your leaving engenders in your parents and be sensitive to it.  Because, truth be told, I know it's great to be out on your own and all, but when the chips are down, it's us that you're going to call.  Don't try and set that bridge on fire.  You're going to need it.

So, my advice to you is this:  let your mother help you unpack your crap, even if she makes you crazy and puts things where they don't belong.  Move them later.  For now, smile and bear it.  Listen to your dad's lecture about locking doors and windows.  Don't shut them out of the process of helping you getting established on your own because they may irritate you.  I shunned my own parents from it, and it wasn't until just the other day that I came face-to-face with how much that must have hurt them.  And the worst part is that I can't atone for that now or even acknowledge it.    That's not a feeling I want for you.  Answer them when they call and don't, above all, be an ass about it.  It's not a joke to us.  You are not a joke to us.  Call them sometimes first.  And not just when you need something.  You are our children and we love you.  We weren't perfect when we were raising you, and we're not perfect now, but we're what you've got, so work with us.

Love and best wishes for an amazingly wonderful life out on your own,

A Parent

Some young adults installing a waterbed, circa about a million years ago

Friday, August 24, 2012

Looking Past the Hurricane

I began this blog with a post entitled Hurricane Ruth what seems like a lifetime ago to create a place to chronicle the lonely journey of caring for my mother in her waning days.  Truth be told, it was not that long ago, and I can look back on it now and realize that my trials and travails as a primary caregiver of an ailing elderly parent pale in comparison to what many adult children experience.  Of course, to be fair to myself on the other hand, on the day of mother's accident, which is kind of the bright line of where it truly began for me, I had been struggling to help two teenage girls battle eating disorders and drug addiction for the past six years and my tank was already close to running on empty.  And, if I'm really allowing myself some slack, Life handed me some other extreme challenges to handle during those last months with Mom.  But, I am well aware, with all of that being said, that I had some advantages that some children-caregivers do not:  there was enough money to make sure she could be properly housed and cared for, my husband was sympathetic and supportive, and the last, worst period was measured in months, not years.  If that sounds harsh, it is not meant to be.  This has been on my mind lately because we are fast approaching what would have been Mother's 94th birthday.  She was 92 when she died and had a good run at life.  She was stubborn and independent, and when her body took that away from her, she was miserable.  Her mind betrayed her too, and in the moments when she was lucid enough to know it, it was heartbreaking.  Truth be told, of course, during the other times, it was a struggle for me.  But, Mom had always wanted her end to be like Phyllis Diller's.  At home in her own bed, passing on in her sleep.  That wasn't meant to be for my mother, but I'm glad actually she only had months to contemplate that fact, not years.

Yet, I know some individuals in the caregiver role do spend years at it, and there is an emotional toll that is heavy because it is deeply complicated to care for someone you are so emotionally vested with.  I also know that everyday can seem like a year, some days longer than that.  I remember the weight, almost the literal feeling of heaviness, that the responsibility brings, and the fear that your own life is slipping through the hourglass while you are busy trying to care for another.  Nurses are angels in sensible shoes, but they do get to go home at the end of their shift.  I know that the shift never ends for you.  Not to mention which, the person you are caring for often lashes out against their circumstances and that manifests itself on the person they feel safest with:  you.  In short and simply put:  it is hard and it often sucks.  At my age, I regret that I know several people who have either gone through this or are going through it now.  Maybe regret is not the right word, but I ache for them because it's a painful, confusing and lonely process.  And there will be an inevitable conclusion that will leave them in grief.

I am not mocking when I point out my adventures on the other side of this process.  At least I sincerely hope that is not how it comes across.  What I wish to do is to offer hope and set up the expectation that when our parents pass, as time will without exception cause to happen, we can forgive ourselves for surviving and go on living.  Enjoy it in fact.  That sounds odd perhaps, but I have seen that.  Survivor's guilt.  I see it in spouses maybe more so, but in children too.  The thing about it is that you know your loved one would hate that happening and not want that for you.  Honor them by enjoying life where you can.

In the meantime, take the moments that come to you to try and take care of yourself as well.  Take five minutes in the evening and allow yourself to sit quietly and watch fireflies, if that helps you.  Take a bubble bath here and there.  Most of all, watch for those moments when you can see in your parent's eyes the person they used to be and the person who still loves you, because it will probably happen.  Take those moments away as the memories you have of your failing parent.  Not the arguments over taking away their car keys, worrying over the medical bills, or who gets to make what decision.  Not the adult diapers and doling out of medications.  Because that's not who your parent really is, it is just what is happening to them.

I think for me, the gift I will give my mother on what would have been her 94th year this August 31 is to remember those moments.  There were a few.  They would crop up at odd moments from time-to-time.  I would look at her and her eyes would be clear like she could really see me, and her face would be a little more relaxed and she would thank me or say something endearing.  Of course, the next day she'd be back to calling me by my dog's name and trying to sneak money out of her account so she could run away to Pennsylvania, but those quiet, tender moments sustained me through those other days in a way that I couldn't appreciate at the time.

And to those of you who are still actively caring for a loved one:  you are the saints of the modern world.  It's tough, it's gross at times, and it's heartbreaking, but love yourself for what you sacrifice to do it.
Mother and Me Circa 1997

Monday, August 20, 2012

How I Love Thee...

I confess, this is also a set-up to another post, but with the belief that pictures are worth a thousand words, this is mostly a pictorial tribute to the city that I so love, with all its faults.  Let me count some of the ways:

Looking out from the North Shore
The skyline takes my breath away still after all this time.  I can see it in from land or water, in daylight, sunset, snow, fog or rain and still feel a little thrill that this is where I get to live and play.

The skyline from PNC Park

Pittsburgh from the rivers
Bored?  Never.  At least not unless I want to be.  There is always something to do.  Often, as I whined about before, sometimes too much.  And as I lose my fear of navigating around, more and more opens up.  And it is not just within the city limits either, but stretch out just a little beyond the Steel City, there is the beauty of Fallingwater, the majesty of Elk Country, or the quirky sweetness of  Punxsutawney and the famous groundhog (even though I confess, the whole place sort of creeps me out).  Want to stay closer to home?  Fine!  There is the zoo, a plethora of museums, sports coming out your ears, quirky unique shops, excellent restaurants, art festivals, community events and concerts.  It might not be the Live Music Capital that Austin legitimately claims to be, but the bands that mean the most to me personally have managed to wander through.  The biggest of all in my book, Rush, will stop by to say hello in September.  I'll bid my time by seeing Band of Horses tomorrow. 

When I think about everything I've done and experienced in the last year and three-quarters, I have to marvel that I spend any time at home at all.

The U2 concert at Heinz Field 2011
Fireworks over Point State Park

Outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

I have managed to do things and meet people (or at least be close enough to breath the same air) that I never dreamed I would have.  I'm not bragging, because these aren't things I've accomplished really, they are gifts the city has given me.  But here is the thing I did that I should take some credit for:  I chose to allow myself to experience life after great loss.  That takes a bit of courage actually.  I will give myself that much.  This amazing city deserves the rest.  The thing that happens to you when you survive an overwhelming loss after a tough period of fighting against it is that you risk being swallowed whole by the guilt of being left behind.  I would guess it may be most prevalent amongst parents because we know that is not the natural order of things.  So, it takes a real fight with one's inner self to not let that guilt swallow you whole and take away what chance you may have for happiness and fulfillment.  Why is that important?  Because to offer something worthwhile for anyone else you have to be fully present.  To be fully present, you must experience life fully.  For me, Pittsburgh has given me that.  For you, it will be something or somewhere else.   The address doesn't matter as much as finding where it is for you.

So, how do you hang on until these moments happen for you?  Particularly if you are still struggling to care for someone in crisis?  More about that later.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Other Beast

"If only you could see
The stranger next to me
You promise you promise that you're done
But I can't tell you from the drugs

I wish you could see
This face in front of me
You're sorry you swear it you're done
But I can't tell you from the drugs."

- Jimmy Eat World

I confess that I was setting something up with my last post.  I won't lie that I don't on occasion have set-backs in the road to recovery, and the death of Andy Reid's son was a big one.  Not so much because that family's grief reminded me so much of ours, although it did, but because of the heroin connection, which unfortunately we share as well.  I apparently wasn't the only one who thought it was time to remind everyone of the evils of that insidious drug, because Mike Fuoco put it on the front page of the Sunday paper again.  (What you lose in that link is the gut wrenching photo of the mother who lost her son two years ago that the actual paper had, but I've saved a .pdf copy to remind myself of what that kind of loss looks like.)  I don't write about it nearly as much as I do the eating disorders that both girls struggled with, but maybe that's a mistake because it's a definite killer.  I've always had the general philosophy that the dead abdicated their stories to me, but the living can use their own voice.  Well, I count among the living and maybe it's time I share what our experiences with this awful drug are.  Would anyone listen?  I'm not sure.  What I do know is that there are other parents out there who have lost their sons or daughters to the drug before we lost Kelsey and they cut across all lines:  rich, poor, devout, not-so-devout, male, female, and across all racial lines.  I went to some of the funerals myself.  I'm not aware of anyone who would argue with me that it is a deadly drug, yet it remains an immensely popular one, despite all our knowledge about it.  And that's sort of sadly amazing.

Take for instance the fact that if you try and do some research on the drug and use Google, one of the first results you are likely to get around here is a website called Drugs Forum where the conversation is openly about the decline in the quality of heroin lately.  The most recent post baldly states, "Been using for the past five years and this is the second in five years time the quality has gone down the hill."  He asked if he was the only one who had noticed it.  And he got lots of answers - many of them intelligent sounding tales about how the supply is impacted by the war in Afghanistan, but none of them saying, "You [bleeping] idiot, are you wanting to die, because this WILL kill you?!"  Seriously.  I've looked it up twice just to make sure I really saw what I saw and it wasn't some sort of joke, but it doesn't seem to be.  People just chatting it up like they were talking about Chad Johnson's arrest or Kristen Stewart's break-up.  No big whoop.   I've convinced myself that the police surely know about the site and hopefully it remains up for them to try and trace the information of the people who are posting, maybe trying to sniff out someone who is supplying.  Maybe it just remains up because the internet is so large and varied now that if you block it, the chatter just goes underground so why bother?

Maybe I've, like a lot of people probably do, assumed that people know about drugs and their abuse, but eating disorders are an insidious and misunderstood disease.  The fact is that they are both destructive.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 3.7 million people in the United States have tried heroin.  Conversely, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health (which actually has a good bank of information on ED that I refer to often) estimates that there are eight million individuals who suffer from an eating disorder.  If these stats are accurate, ED is the larger beast in terms of volume, but in Pennsylvania, more people die from heroin overdoses than they do in car accidents (according to, so the bottom line is they are both deadly afflictions and our household has been touched by both of them.  Therefore, it saddens me and angers me simultaneously when it claims another victim and another family is shattered by the loss of a child - adult child or not - and it saddens me when this city that I love has so many users that a leading journalist has spent over a year writing a series of articles about it while users chat online about the quality of the local supply.  Maybe some of those online chatters will stop and pay attention when Garrett Reid's toxicology report comes back, but unfortunately I doubt it.  But maybe some of their loved ones will.  I hope so.  But, if that doesn't work, come see me, I can tell you some stories that might scare you into getting your loved ones some help.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ten Things I Hate About You

From the University of Pittsburgh
Downtown at midday in the '40's
No secret that I adore this city.  There is so much to love here that I've long contemplated what I would write about it to convince everyone that this is paradise on earth, which of course it is not.  Glacier National Park is.  But it is completely awesome.  However, as I have said before, like all major metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh has its drawbacks.  One cannot be completely naive to them because sometimes, if you are, you will put yourself at risk.  There is always the element of being aware, I believe, that one must have living in a populated area.  Aware of traffic, aware of environmental factors that come from man living in mass and trying to hold off nature, which will inevitably try and reclaim the land, and most of all aware of other people, who come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments and motives.  I always think about a scene in Law and Order: SVU where a woman was telling Olivia and Elliot how she reads while riding the subway.  "Read a line and scan the car, read a line and scan the car."  I do not live in paranoia here by any means.  I would probably feel comfortable reading a whole page before scanning the car, but I try not to be blind to the things that are not so perfect about the city at the same time.  Here's what I've come up with as things I would change if I could:

10)  Pittsburgh Sports Fan Are Spoiled.  God bless, you Steeler and Penguin Nations, I love being here and being a part of this, but you've forgotten how hard it was to reach the pinnacle of the sport.  Therefore, if you don't see your teams hoist the Lombardi and Stanley Cup trophies respectively each and every year, you're on sports talk radio talking about who's head should roll. Go live in Buffalo for a while and then come tell me what it's like to be a six-time champion.  For that matter, go to Philly.  They don't have a Lombardi either.  If we won every year, it would no longer be special.  Don't get overly cocky, people.  We've got great teams staffed by great people.

9)  Stink Bugs.  The name is not ironic.  They stink if you kill them.  And last year they were all over the place.  You'd wonder what that awful smell is and find a dead one lurking in the corner.  This year they weren't so prevalent, and I haven't actually seen one in a while, making it low on my list, but still one of my least favorite things here.

8)  Humidity.  People back in Texas laugh at me if I whine about the heat, which has been uncharacteristically brutal here this summer.  But, I'm telling you, it's not the heat itself, it's the combination of heat and humidity.  A co-worker from Nevada told me that it's not just me, that the heat index in a wet climate like this one is a very real factor.  Like wrapping yourself in a hot, soaking wet blanket and then going outside to jog.  No sane person would do such a thing.

7)  Mold and Mildew.  Which is a result of the humidity.  Not only is it miserable to exist in a wet, hot blanket, but try keeping mildew out of your bathroom.  I had to re-paint the bathroom ceiling with this extremely expensive paint because the very walls were nasty with it last year.  It works, mostly.  I'll be bleaching down the walls and ceiling in there this weekend.  Don't get me started about the caulking, which I'll be re-doing.  This would rank much higher on the list if not for the fact that it is a problem in the summer and that's all.

6)   GPS Sucks in This Town.  And now I know why - at least partially.  I had a real a-ha moment the other day when the tour guide on the river cruise Greg took us on stated that it is a documented fact that Pittsburgh has more public staircases than any other US city.  There's one not too terribly far from me actually.  Then she said they show up on GPS as roadways.  Do you know how many times I've been told by my Garmin to turn on a particular street that I swear didn't exist?!  Or to go south on a road that is running east and west?  Now I know, it's not just me and my horrible sense of direction.  It's all those damn stairways.  They don't lead to heaven.

5)  Road Construction.  A long standing joke about Pennsylvania roadways is that they are always under construction.  Well, it's really not that funny if it's true.  Since I've been here the two major roadways I travel on the most have been undergoing construction:  Route 19 and Route 28. I'm not the most confident of drivers, my travails on the windy, twisty roads of PGH are well documented and add lane closure and detours to the recipe, and it's a wonder I'm here to tell the tale.

4)  There is Too Much to Do!  I missed the nighttime dog walk downtown for the second year in a row to catch the Death Cab for Cutie concert the other day with Marissa.  We chose Death Cab because I had missed them the year before so we could be extras in The Dark Knight Rises.  On any given day there are multiple things that are appealing to do.  Somewhere in there one has to fit in work, cleaning the house, laundry, walking the dog and maintaining a 60 year old house that springs leaks and wants to succumb to mildew all the time.  But, I have confess it, it's a nice problem to have.

3)  Lack of Racial Diversity.  I don't think the people of Pittsburgh are racists, although, like anywhere, racism does exist here, but neither do I think they are too keen on integrating either.  If you look at the various neighborhoods and their ethnic make-up, you'll notice some trends.  The whole reason I thought to look into it is because after living around my area of Shaler for a while, it struck me how lily white the population was.  Not only were there no African Americans, there were no minorities of any kind.  They do exist here - but literally in the dozens.  What an odd sensation that must be for those rare individuals.  So, we started paying attention to the demographics all around the city.  There are some distinct lines that are drawn and adhered to.  This is a city of strong traditions, so you half wonder if Jews live in Squirrel Hill because they always have.  Their synagogue is there.  Catholics live out here, near their churches and schools.  And so on.  Maybe it's no more nefarious than that.  But, then again, maybe it is.

2)  Everything Burns.  During dinner the other night, Marissa was commenting how the news is the same every night, and at least one of the stories involves a house burning to the ground.  Her boyfriend explained that was because so many of the homes were built with old wood, essentially scraps from the factories, and are very close to one another.  Now, three-quarters of a century later, some of these houses are like cinder kegs ready to go up with very little urging.  Since I've got a healthy fear of fire, this is never particularly far from my mind.  One reason I like my four side brick home with a little space between me and my neighbors.

1) Heroin.  It's not unique to Pittsburgh by any stretch.  It's not even unique to large cities, but it is a real issue here and, ironically, integrates the city in a way that nothing else seems to.  Rich, poor, black, white, it has impacted every layer of the citizenship.  One of my favorite local journalists has done a series of articles about it, including an interview with someone very close to me.  To my mind, it is the scariest scourge the city faces currently.  But, when I think of all the things this city has overcome to be what it is today, I know it can be beat.

Of course, if you love something, you fight for it.  Pittsburgh is well worth fighting for because I've got a big long list of the things I love about it.

Downtown Pittsburgh Now

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What Would Myrna Do?

Myrna Loy during World War II
This will be the fourth post in honor of lovely Myrna Loy's birthday that I've made here, if you can believe it.  I post in her honor every August 2 because she is one of my very favorite actresses, but also because she and I share some things, and I like having some fleeting association with her because she was a good actress, but a pretty good human being too.  Therefore I enjoy saying that we hail from the same state and are both Leos born on the same day.  Not that it means I'm like her really, but still, you take what you can get sometimes in life and run with it.

However, of course, I have to realize that if I write in her honor once a year, that means I've been toiling away at this blog for four-plus years, and I once again pause to wonder if it is time to hang it up.  Maybe just concentrate on the football blog.  I realized recently that I like writing it because it is a piece of me that is without sorrow, and it allows me to be that way as well when I write.  Football and hockey, while at times tragic in their own right, are a piece of my identity that is separate from all the things that brought me to this particular blog in the first place.  And while my mom and Kelsey both are wrapped up in my memories of football, they are largely happy memories (that time I snuck out of the emergency room to watch the Steeler-Viking game notwithstanding).  But in a way when I signed on to write the football blog, it was almost as though I was splitting myself down the middle:  the happy, completely immersed/fanatic football fan on the one site, the grieving mother on the other.  Neither are a complete picture.  So, if you give up one or the other, I'd be denying that faction of myself I guess in a way that is fundamental to me now.  And I'm not sure I'm ready to do that.  I wonder if many individuals in the "recovery" stage of grief tend to feel so dichotomous, like they are split down the middle and are trying to merge the pieces.  My guess is some, at least, do.  I've just put a point on my process because I carry on the two identities in a very public way.

The thing is:  while I'm ready to move on and be known as something more than the woman who lost her daughter to an eating disorder, there is still work to be done.  Because there are more mothers losing their daughters and sons to the disease.  There are more bright young people slamming their potential against the rocks of despair and sickness, and the world will be lessened if we cannot save them.  They are worth fighting for, even though mine is such a tiny voice in the debate.  There are people who are grieving who deserve to know a little about the things they will experience.  The conundrum therefore for me is whether to say, "Okay, I've done enough, suffered enough and cared enough, so now I'm off to have some fun."  Or if I feel, like Batman, that I haven't given everything yet. (Of course, I'm no super hero...but I do own a cape, for the record.)

I've always counseled people that they should not immerse themselves in causes too deeply or too soon.  Do what they think is right for them is my motto.  I'm not back-tracking on that.  I believe it, and for my part I am not really ready to completely be an anti-ED warrior.  I've still got some PTSD from the war I did fight with it.  Steelers-Penguins is the recommended therapy for what ails me in that regard.  And, fortunately for me, the doctor(s) are about to be in.

What would Myrna do in my place?  I actually think she would pursue a middle road.  She'd lobby and fight for what she believed in, but take some time for life's pleasures as well.  That's my plan for now.  Thank you to everyone who has taken this journey with me.  I don't "see" you when you read my words, but I know you are there.

Happy Birthday, Myrna.  You were so lovely inside and out.  I enjoy sharing the day with you.