Monday, September 30, 2013

Time! Stand Still!! (Seriously!)

"I turn my back to the wind
To catch my breath
Before I start off again.
Driven on without a moment to spend
To pass an evening with a drink and a friend

I let my skin get too thin
I'd like to pause
No matter what I pretend
Like some pilgrim
Who learns to transcend
Learns to live as if each step was the end"

- Time Stand Still, Rush

I know many of you are wondering how Greg is doing down there in San Antonio.  I've asked him to be a guest blogger and submit an article to tell all of you just that, which he's agreed to do, but not had the chance yet.  My guess is, he's finding "life in the single lane" about as hectic as I do.  Because, for all my bravado of wanting and intending to keep up with the things that drew me to this great city in the first place, I'm starting to break down under the weight of trying to manage my time.  I can tell you that right now, as I write this and watch football simultaneously, I feel horribly guilty and am clenching my jaw because I should be working, but it's almost 9:00 at night and I tell myself that's silly, let it go and write the damn blog.  But then I look at the basket of laundry sitting over to the side and think about the unwashed dishes in the sink upstairs and think that's how I should be spending my time.

And then there's poor Arya Stark, who's been stuck at Harrenhal for weeks and weeks because I can't manage to read more than a few pages of my book at a time.  Winter may be coming, but I'll be in my grave before I figure out when at this rate.

I know it's silly:  there are a lot of people in the world with real problems, and my time management issues are not among them.  And I also know I might be better at handling the big crises, but I fall to pieces over the small stuff, so some of my anxiety is just my particular neurosis.  Yet, for all of that, I can't even begin to imagine how partners of service personnel who are also trying to raise kids do it.  So when you thank someone for their service, make sure you also thank their partner for keeping it together back home, because it's hard.  Damn hard.

Here's a typical day:  I get up a little after 6:00 to scoot the oldest dog outside before I take the other two around the block for morning "walkie-walk" in the still dark of the morning.  Then I have to fill the bird feeders, clean the litter box, make the bed and tend to a couple of minor house cleaning duties before doing a half hour on the treadmill, then showering and grabbing a fast breakfast that I wolf down as I log in for work, checking Facebook as I wait for it to boot up.  Then it's work until 6:30 at night at least (with, I confess it, the occasional check-in on social media throughout the day) when it's time for night walkie-walk, then feeding the canines, feeding myself, dealing with whatever sports is on TV while I deal with more work or some chores.  My intentions are always good to log back in to work and really churn it out, but I just don't have the stamina I had when I was younger.  At some point, hours and hours earlier than I used to, I hit a wall and can't work anymore, so I'll sit and stare at the TV for a while like I'm a zombie until I gather up the energy to corral the dogs to go up to bed.  Then we get up the next morning and repeat the exact same routine four more times until the weekend.

Come the weekend I try to split my time:  one day is dedicated to errands, house cleaning, yard work and a visit to the dog park.  The other day is when I indulge us in the Pittsburgh lifestyle we came all this way to be a part of.  Last weekend it was a movie, this coming weekend it's the symphony.  And always the Steelers, no matter how badly they are doing.  Starting Wednesday, also the Penguins.  And, for the first time in over two decades. maybe I have to make some time for the Pirates at this time of year.  When the two weekend days have flown by, I'm more behind at work than I should be, and I haven't completed all the domestic stuff I should have.

I was doing okay though really until the change of seasons added some interesting elements, and I realized how I had built a house of cards that could easily be knocked down with the addition of just one more thing.  And I watch the leaves falling like rain, and realize that here it comes, the beginning of the one more thing I just can't quite handle.  I don't know how I'm going to keep up with it.  Plus there's the old house that needs attention before winter. (I cleaned the filters to the air cleaner yesterday, but could I get it all back together correctly tonight?  Not on your life!) 

And all of this brings to mind the untold numbers of people who face these same challenges everyday and do it without complaint, unlike me who just whined mightily for several paragraphs.  And then there are all of those people who meet the day with a smile instead of waking up stressed before they even let their feet hit the floor.  Yes, I can tell you now that all the people who've found a way to make life work without a partner may be my true modern day heroes, because I can also tell you truly that there just are not enough hours in the day, but there are more than enough leaves!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Looking for Peter Pan

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.” 

This post is specifically for any teenager who may read this.  Because, I know how it is, I once was like you.  I know that you long for the time when you're an adult and believe you'll have the freedom to do what you want.  I just want to tell you what you'll eventually learn on your own anyway:  don't be in such a hurry to grow up and away.  Being an adult sucks.

From as early as middle school I would be out in the courtyard with my friends and watch the cars driving to and from on Main Street with a sense of envy.  There were all those adults going where they wanted and doing what they wanted.  I had no concept that in point of fact very few of the people behind the wheel were actually going where they wanted to.  Rather, they were going to and from work, maybe to appointments.  Some were running errands, but they'd probably rather be on the slopes or at home watching soap operas.  I had no idea that the reality for most of those people was that they were looking over at us as they drove by, yearning for the days when their lives had been so carefree.

However, I did catch a clue that being an adult had its drawbacks around tax season every year.  Dad would bring out all his records and spread them out on the dining room table and sort through them all to organize them for his accountant.  The process would take a few weeks every year, and it got a little worse after he became a real estate agent.  So about the time I was 13, I looked at the table, completely buried beneath receipts and legal pads full of lists and calculations and announced with conviction that I didn't want to become an adult because it seemed really complicated.  I remember the amused looks on my parents' faces when I proclaimed that.  I think they agreed with me.  Of course that sentiment didn't last.

Soon enough, I was dreaming of what it would be like to have my own place.  Whenever my dad told me to turn my music down or made me give up Mork and Mindy so he could watch some dumb old western, I would think to myself that when I lived on my own I could listen to whatever I wanted at 2:00 in the morning if I wanted to.  For some reason it didn't seem to occur to me that I would be too tired from working to be up very often at 2:00 in the morning, and if I was for some reason, I always had neighbors who wouldn't appreciate Tom Sawyer blaring full blast in the middle of the night.

I had these visions of what my dream house would look like - for the record, it was this spacious log cabin built right up against a mountainside, and I always had about five rough collies there - but I never pictured myself cleaning it or worrying over broken pipes or septic tanks backing up, or for that matter wondering how I would afford all of that (because I never really pictured myself with a significant other and assumed I would be a writer or some sort and work when I wanted to).  It's nice to have dreams and visions for yourself, but you have to ground them in reality and realize that it's not just going to get handed to you - you'll have to work for it somehow.

And then there's the whole relationship thing.  Granted, teenage love is full of drama and angst, which is exhausting and potentially painful.  But when you break-up with your high school sweetheart (or whatever it is you call yourselves these days), there aren't custody battles to deal with (hopefully) or lawyers involved (again, hopefully).  There may be some tears, and you may feel like your life is ending, but, trust me, it's so much easier to bounce back at 17.  For one thing, you're just more resilient, but also because there are more fish in the sea.  These days, the fish are all married.  Or their hairline is receding in pace with their waistline growing.  Or both.  Most likely both.  And the men this age want women not too much older than you.  Not that I'm in the marketplace, but I'm no prize either.  There's the advancing grey hair to battle, the slowing metabolism and - you think you hate having periods? - try hot flashes and night sweats!

No, being an adult is not all it's cracked up to be.  And sometimes it's the most lonely state of being there is.

I got an email from a friend from home (real home, i.e. Montana) the other day telling me my long time next door neighbor had passed away.  I loved her growing up.  For lots of reasons - she always had Mars bars in her kitchen pantry, and her door was always unlocked so I could just wander over there and get one.  She let me play dress up with her tulle dresses from the 50's.  She gave me my first Rosary and took me to mass with her (I'm not Catholic - so it pissed my dad off something fierce, which secretly sort of thrilled me - my first little rebellion).  She taught me to listen to Irish music, and how to stand straight and hold my stomach in, and she had this wicked Irish sense of humor.  I was deeply saddened by her loss even though I hadn't actually seen her in literally decades.  I wanted my mom at that moment.  I wanted someone who knew her and I could share stories about the "good old days".  There was no one else in my life who also knew her except the woman who shared the news, and her hands are very full currently with caring for aging parents - she doesn't have time to babysit me as I work my way into acceptance.  Maybe more than a trip down memory lane I just wanted someone to give me a hug because I was sad.   But my mom is gone.  

But, alas, we all grow up.  It's inevitable and there's nothing we can do about it.  Just don't be in such a hurry to do it because sometimes, whether you're 5 or 50, you just want your mommy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Living la Poco Vida Loca

I believe that every region has its season.  The season when it is showcased at its best.  At least that holds true for the places I've lived.  In Texas, and therefore I presume much of the south, it's springtime.  Spring is when the fields and all along the roadways are a riot of bluebonnets and other wild flowers, and the temperatures are mild enough to allow the inhabitants to sit out in their backyards at night and watch fireflies dance among the oaks.  Spring storms occasionally light up the sky, regaling those below with a dazzling light show and precious rain.  Alas, spring in Texas gives way to summer, but for a brief time, it is a lovely place to be.

For Montana I would have to say it is winter, although summer and fall are none too shabby.  But for many people who brave the cold to live there, they do it to be able to ski, snowboard or take part in the many other winter sports.  There is ice skating on open ponds, tobogganing down local hills, snowmobiling across frozen hills, and hunters delight in stalking big game through winter fields, just to list a few of the things Montanans brave the cold to do.  And there is nothing really like waking up to a fresh blanket of snow covering the Rockies in full view out your picture window.  Winter can be harsh and inconvenient, it is true.  It's a different lifestyle you have to adapt to:  calculating into your commute time the effort to snow blow your driveway, scrape off your car, pull on boots and heavy winter clothing.  But the reward of the majesty of the mountains cloaked in snow is more than worth it for the people who choose to call it home.

For the northeast, it has to be the fall.  The trees explode into vibrant colors and the air turns crisp and cool.  On Friday evenings I can hear the sounds of high school football as I walk the dogs; the sound of marching bands ushering in the weekends, which are crowded with outdoor events like 5k charity runs, arts and craft fairs in the various parks and sports:  lots and lots of sports.  The hardest part of the fall is trying to decide what events one has to sacrifice in order to tend to the errands and the house.  But sometimes cleaning just has to get set aside in favor of some of the offerings the city and surrounding area lay before us.  Sometimes we begrudgingly tend to the chores as quickly as we can so we turn our attention back to everything going on around us.  And for Marissa and me, that of course means a lot of those sporting events.  As everyone knows, Pittsburgh is a sports town, and for the first time in a long time, that also includes baseball at this late time of the year.  Hockey season will begin early in deference to the Winter Olympics, so excitement is growing to see the Penguins back on the ice with a healthy Sidney Crosby.  Only the Steelers seem to be trying to rain on the parade, already riddled with injuries in key positions, but the season is young yet, so there is hope they can right the ship before its too late.

We've got another few weeks before the leaves truly turn and the blazing colors regale us, but the temperatures have become temperate and the fall festivals are in full swing.  The symphony season is beginning, hockey training camp is open and preseason has begun.  The Pirates are in the midst of their final home stand and are legitimately preparing for the playoffs.  The Steelers, such as their year may be, have kicked off the season.  So, Marissa and I have to have that chores versus play debate often.  We've balanced it pretty well by working together.  She helps me with the house cleaning so I can tend to the yard and then there is time to play a bit.  Vaguely as we go about this autumn ritual I will find myself feeling guilty because we're enjoying this bounty as best we can without the father and husband.  I think of Greg in the blast furnace heat of September in Texas, taking care of his brother, away from Ripley, who even my neighbor noticed and commented he clearly loves so much, and wonder if I should be sitting 20 rows up from the blue line watching hockey practice without him.  But what good would it do any of us if I missed it?

Life is a hard game.  No one survives it without some injuries.  I've sat on the sideline for a lot of it due to the little challenges that life hands you:  migraines, money issues, the need to wash clothes and scrub toilets.  And then the bigger issues:  my career, caring for my daughters, and finally, wrestling with extreme grief.  At some point before you know it the season's over and you have to pack up your gear and go home.  So, I finally tell myself that while I still can get in the game, I've got to do it.  I can't waste these clear sunny mid-70's days or I'll regret it and, worse still, resent it.  So I have to set aside those feelings of worry and guilt.  And what I really hope is that Greg has his own magic moments in Texas as well.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Pet Owner's Burden of Love

I found out my father and my dog had cancer within minutes of one another on December 22, 1991.  I took the message about my father with somber silence and broke out in tears when my husband delivered the news about my border collie, Lando, a few minutes later.  I remember it so clearly because it was the evening of our anniversary and, as we would do occasionally when our kids were young, we had splurged on a nice hotel room downtown for the night.  We wouldn't go out and paint the town, we'd generally stay in the room, laze around and watch TV.  I would take a long, hot bath.  Maybe we'd splurge on room service.  The quiet was what we were buying.  But that year, within minutes of dropping our little overnight bags on the bed, Greg sat me down to share the burdensome news he'd been the unlucky recipient of earlier in the day.  He told me, gave me some time to compose myself and we proceeded with our uneventful evening and no more was said about it.  Maybe I asked some questions; I can't clearly recall.  I do remember having a hard time sleeping, and it was my dog who was primarily weighing on my mind.  On the other side of the soft Hyatt bed, Greg was troubling over his own thoughts.  The next morning over breakfast at Trudy's downtown, he finally asked me what had been bothering him.  He wanted to know why I reacted more strongly to the news of Lando than I did about my dad.  He must have thought my reaction was at a minimum insensitive.  Maybe even monstrous.  Over two decades later I can tell you that part of it was the shock of hearing about my dad then piled on with Lando, which then broke through my shock and shook tears from me.  But, what I told him was also true then, and is true now.  I responded that there wasn't much I could do for my dad, particularly at that moment.  He was an older man who had lived a full and eventful life who was now in the care of capable doctors.  Lando, on the other hand, was wholly our responsibility.  He depended on us for everything.  His fate would be our burden and our decision.  His pain would be on our shoulders.

The prognosis for Lando, who had a tumor on his brain stem, was dire, and we had been told our time with him would be short.  Dad, on the other hand, who had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer initially, would be undergoing treatment and everyone was bracing for a battle.  Six weeks later my dad was gone but Lando would live another several months.  The question is whether he should have.  Did I hang onto him too long?  Did I allow him to suffer needlessly because I had endured one loss and couldn't withstand another so soon?  Lando was always a demure creature, so as the cancer worked its way up to his brain, as we were told it would, he turned blind and increasingly still, but really he didn't complain - he wasn't a complainer - and he didn't act overly different than he always did.  When I visited with the vet shortly after Greg told me the news, I worried over what to do and when to do it.  I remember her looking at me straight in the eyes and saying sincerely, "You'll know when it's time."  Well, with all things being equal, maybe I would have.  But things had happened that maybe clouded my judgment.  I lived with the worry and guilt of that for many, many years.  Did my quiet, serious boy lay there wondering when the hell I would wake up and smell the coffee and please, oh please, put him out of his unendurable pain?  I just don't know.  I never ever will.

Lando at about his most playful

 Between then and now, I have had to make end of life decisions for over a dozen animals, but I've never been that conflicted until this past Sunday, but for the opposite reason.  We lost Chappy, the big, lovable lab-cross that I had taken in as a foster nearly ten years before who never left us, not until Sunday that is.  To say I "lost" him is wrong:  Marissa and I took him to the emergency vet and, after discussing it, we asked the vet to put him to sleep, thus ending a week long ordeal for both him and us after he lost the use of his back legs the Sunday before.  There was a lot that transpired between those two Sundays that I could step you through:  I find I can't do it though.  I can't write the words for some reason.  Maybe later.  But it weighs me down too much to think of it, let alone relive it that vividly.  So, sum it up for the purposes of my point here to say that we had turned the World's Smallest Kitchen into the World's Smallest Hospital Room, and you sensed that Chappy felt like it was the World's Smallest Prison Cell.  He hated being away from us.  Happy-Chappy was very, very unhappy and began to become visibly depressed over his situation.  He didn't need human words to convey that to us.  I began to feel some frustration with the situation and, God help me, with him, joined by creeping worry over what would happen next time I had to travel on business.   There was some initial hope he would recover, but as his mood dampened, so did the signs of improvement, and it was looking probable that we would forever be slinging beach towels under his belly to help him walk from one place to another.  My former athlete who loved to play, swim and go on morning walks was handicapped, probably forever.  It was hard to judge his true pain, but his discomfort was clear.  He was forever shifting off the makeshift beds we were making for him, trying to find a comfortable position and never being truly successful.  Then on Sunday he began to blow up like a balloon, particularly in his right front leg and left elbow joint.  So, we got him loaded into the car and whisked him back to the emergency clinic to find out that the steroids he was on had suppressed his immune system, so bacteria had entered through the cracks in his elbow pads and were causing an infection.  It was treatable, and the vet told us some things to do to make the kitchen more user friendly for him, but she opened up the door for the discussion about ending it all right then.  So Marissa, whose dog he truly was because he loved her above all others, and I tearfully discussed it as he lay in front of us, listening to our pained discussion.  I looked down at him more than once, wishing he could tell us what he wanted to do here, but he remained still, just listening, never commenting.  In the end, we decided jointly that this is not the life he wanted and we chose to let him free of it.  He was alert and aware until the last.  And that's the hard part.  If he could have spoken to us, would he have told us that any life was better than none, or would he have thanked us for the courage to end his humiliation and limitation right then and there?  Did I do it because money was an issue or because this was easier for me?  Those are the things that haunt me and will not let me truly be at peace with the decision.  I think we did the more humane thing, truly.  But, without him being able to weigh in, I don't know if I did for him what he would have wanted me to, humane or not.

And that's a pet owner's burden.  Trying to sort through and past all our own extraneous "stuff" to, as that vet told me so long ago, know the right time to say goodbye.  It's not as easy or as clear cut as she made it seem.  Not always.  And that's why I cry for my pets so easily, I guess.  I cry for myself, because it's an immense responsibility to literally hold life and death in your hands.  But, if we love our pets, it's perhaps the most important gift of love we can give them:  stepping up to the plate to say when enough suffering is enough.  God, Chappy, I hope I swung it out of the park for you.  I hope you are running free somewhere with the rest of the pack you lived with.  I hope Kelsey's there, throwing you that stupid rubber toy you loved so much that I bought them in multiples every time I went to the store.  I hope I made the right choice.  I love you so much.  You were such a good dog.