Christianity · Christmas · Spirituality · Uncategorized

A Quiet Christmas

Here’s to a quiet Christmas

Like most everyone I know, I have been on the runaway Polar Express since Thanksgiving. When I was looking at the calendar back in November, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed innocent enough. I loved filling in the squares with all the extra activities – family dinners and holiday runs and a special wedding. We had lots going on at school too, and on the last Friday  several of us teachers got our inner rock stars going by playing in a band at our holiday talent show. It was loud and chaotic and hilarious, but by the time the day ended I was feeling pretty tired and “peopled out”. I was definitely out of balance, physically and spiritually.

So now my quiet time is here, and I am glad to have it. For years the quiet at my house caused me to struggle with depression at Christmas. We live a long way from family, and after my father and mother-in-law died, Christmas was never the same. My mother didn’t want to travel here and, although  I always visited after Christmas, it felt lonely. I missed the big dinners we had when I was a child and I felt guilty about not being with Mama. She died three years ago and Christmas still brought back so many memories of her. The season felt more like something to be endured than the “happiest time of the year.” I got angry with the cheerful folks on the Hallmark Christmas movies,  cried during the carols at church, and was moody at home.

But this year is different. Our son is getting married in the spring and our family dynamic is shifting. I’m ready for the change. Instead of looking back to Christmases past, I am now looking forward to holidays with Adam and Jess.  I love having another woman around to talk to in the kitchen, someone who appreciates it when I put out the good china and silver. We have been keeping their dog Molly this week and her energy and excitement have whetted my appetite for the days when we will have little ones running around. As much as I miss my mother, I feel relieved to not have to worry about her. Instead of being sad over not having a big crowd around for Christmas, I am loving the time to sleep and read, watch football with Keith and spend time in the kitchen. Adam will be home soon for his last single holiday with us, and I plan to spoil him as much as possible.

Sweet Molly

So if this is one of those years that you are not feeling all the happiness and good cheer of the Christmas season, my advice is to grit your teeth and ride it out. Slap a smile on your face and do the best you can. December 25th will pass,  January will come with all its cold blandness and you can breathe a sigh of relief. But hold onto the belief that next year will be better.  Grief will remain but its tentacles will not feel as strong. Families and circumstances will change and no two years are the same. Be thankful for those who are here with us now.

Remember that as believers, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Christmas is all about Hope, about a little baby that brought the promise of something better to the whole world, about Christ’s promise that He would never leave us or forsake us. He has pulled me through in the past and He will do the same for you.

aging · grace · Uncategorized

Covering Up

We’re all hiding something.

I have been thinking about this ever since our tree man was out a few weeks ago to take away yet another of our big old trees, this one a giant walnut that was uprooted during a bad storm.

“That big walnut came down because it was weak on the inside,” he informed us, and sure enough, when I walked around to the other side, I could see where lightning had hollowed it out many years ago. All this time it has been standing, growing, producing walnuts, giving us shade, and providing a home for squirrels and woodpeckers, but was dying on the inside. I didn’t know.

The more I talk to people, the more I have decided everyone has something not right in their life that they are hiding. Even the happiest, most full of life people have heartaches and problems that they don’t want others to know about. Just like that tree, most of us try to look good on the outside while dealing with rot that threatens to take us down.

I have a physical deformity that I try to keep under wraps. My left foot has slowly become misshapen over the years with a bunion that extends way out to resemble the coast of North Carolina, while my second toe subsequently juts up into the air and then crosses over my big toe. It’s pretty scary looking, and I do my best to keep others from seeing it. 

People have asked me why I don’t get it operated on, but I have been twice to a very handsome orthopedic foot doctor who told me that if it was not hurting to leave it alone, because if he operated it would be stiff and I would not be able to run. As long as I wear my cute little Skechers or my running shoes with the mesh top or my sandals with the huge flowers, my foot feels fine and and doesn’t bother me.  After all, what’s a goofy looking foot in the great scheme of things?

Every now and then, however, it becomes a problem, like when I need to get dressed up. Recently I was going to a very fancy wedding and bought a beautiful new dress, so I needed to buy dress shoes to go with it. Ugh! 

After looking all over the mall with no success, I went to a gargantuan shoe store that seemed to stretch for a mile. Surely they would have something I could wear that wouldn’t look like my grandmother’s orthopedic shoes. I felt like Cinderella’s stepsister as I tried to squeeze my weird foot into pair after pair of heels.  I finally found some that were pretty stylish and that I thought I could wear at least for a few hours without too much pain. And all this because I want to cover up my ugly foot!

Wearing my fancy dress and new shoes!

My messed up foot symbolizes this whole issue of keeping our problems hidden. When I look at it I am reminded of my imperfections, which are a part of me as much as my foot. As I have gotten to this phase of my life, I am realizing that, like my foot, I can’t do much to change many of the issues in my life other than to work on my attitude. And working on my attitude means lots of prayer, over and over. But it also means sometimes letting others see those parts of me that I usually keep covered up, and through God’s grace, finding that my problems seem smaller when shared.


Most of us have known someone who falls, like our walnut tree, and then everyone says, “We didn’t know there was a problem!”  That is a tragedy. Knowing how much I appreciate other people giving me the gift of grace and understanding, I  try every day to be sensitive to those around me and to remember to be kind, because everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.  


 

health · Menopause · Running · Spirituality · Uncategorized

Still outrunning old age

I’m sure those of you who read my last blog about my elevated cholesterol levels have been anxiously waiting to hear about my doctor appointment this week (please hear the sarcasm in this!) I met on Thursday with sweet Dr. Wood who let me know  that my cholesterol was up because my good HDL was high – as predicted by Dr. Laura Lomax. She also was not overly concerned about my bone density, unlike the bone scan technician who had me feeling like I was one stumble away from a wheelchair. 

As Dr. Wood and I finished our discussion, she showed me a computer program that she used to calculate my chances of having a broken bone in the next 35 years. Right now I have a .2 chance of having a hip fracture and 7.7 chance of another type of break. When I am 90, that number goes up to 20% for the hip and 35% for the rest of my bones. She passed this information on to me with a smile and a reassurance that all was well. 

Those graphs have been on my mind since then – my future fractures measured out in nice neat numbers and scientific predictions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had graphical predictions for everything that is going to happen in the future? Maybe a graph to let me know when I am going to become widowed? Or one to tell me when to expect cancer to sneak up on me? How about one that shows me how Adam’s life is going to play out over the next 35 years?

I recently finished a Young Adult trilogy called Matched by Ally Conde, set in a future world where the government controls every aspect of life in order to ensure a safe and happy life for its citizens. The “Society’ determines what each person eats and how much they exercise and has eradicated cancer and other life threatening diseases so that everyone lives into their 80’s, when they are euthanized at a special ceremony. The government chooses each person’s vocation and life mate – everything is well ordered, predictable and comfortable. 

As with all utopian societies, an element of unrest is percolating beneath the surface. Conde’s theme throughout the book is that people need choice in their lives, from their life’s mate to the books they read. Her characters risk their lives for a life that is more than just safe and secure. If I could get a printout of my next 35 years, would I want it? I don’t think so. 

I heard again today of another man dying too young, the friend of my cousin Garner who left behind a wife and 10 year old son, a triathlete with no family history of heart disease. Would a graph of his life have predicted this outcome? Probably not. The graph from my doctor assumes I will not trip on a curb on an early morning run or fall over my cat getting up from the couch. Like it or not, life is unpredictable.

But that is what we have, and I have decided to quit worrying. Each run is a gift, a thanksgiving to God for my healthy body and all that is good in my life. Today I gloried in the sunny day, the bright red of the fuschia bushes in front of the house, and  the mountain views at the top of the hill. 

My reward for making it up the hill

 As the Psalmist says, I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and I thank God each day for this healthy body He has given me and for the life I have. During this Thanksgiving season, be sure to give Him praise for what He has given you.

Christianity · Spirituality · Uncategorized

Our summer garden

Summer 2014 has been the year of the garden for Keith and me out here in Sugar Valley. The rain and sun have worked perfectly together for us to have our best garden in years. Our cup runneth over with tomatoes, cucumbers, okra and green beans, with corn coming soon. It is the richest feeling in the world. 

Each morning is a treasure hunt as I go out to see what the day’s harvest will bring. I pull back vines and leaves in search of the crisp cucumbers and squash, then move onto the tomato plants which are straining at the twine we wrapped around them in June. I love finding the green beans hanging at the bottom of the plants, just waiting to be pulled off. The okra is not as much fun, requiring long sleeves and a certain bravery to head into the heavy foliage, which makes me itch.  I leave that to Keith as much as possible.  

 

I was raised in the suburbs, but I was always attracted to the country life and I am blessed to live here. I love the simplicity of picking food from a plant in my yard and eating it. Working in the garden gives me such a connection to people from the past. We don’t plow with a mule and I don’t wear a bonnet and long dress, but otherwise not much has changed with growing vegetables in a hundred years. Fortunately though, I am not dependent on our garden for food over the winter. If the early frost comes or the rains don’t fall, I know that I will be able to buy what I need at the store. I can’t imagine how stressful life was in the days when the garden meant life or death.  

Canning our tomatoes

 

Working in the garden makes me feel close to my family. Both of my granddaddies put in big gardens and loved to watch things grow and I think about them when I am out pulling weeds or checking the beans. My 85 year old aunt Mary Frances once stayed up all night with my mother in the hospital, then went home and planted tomatoes. My uncle Maynard loved his big garden, and was working there one March day when he fell over and died from a heart attack. Daddy loved to garden but by the time he was retired, he and Mama were living in a neighborhood with big shade trees which were not very good for vegetables. He filled his yard with impatience and azaleas instead.

 

In a few short weeks, I will be back to school, getting up before dark, wearing my long pants and nice shirts in place of shorts and tshirts, and being forced to be inside. I will miss the peace and quiet of my garden, the hawk who calls each morning, and the dew on my shoes as I hunt for cucumbers. The plants will soon start to shrivel up and quit bearing their treasures. As the days shorten and a few cool breezes start to blow, we will pull them up and plow them under and the fall will be here. Gardening teaches me to enjoy the bounty I have right now, because tomorrow it can be gone. 

 

One of my favorite things from my parents’ house is a metal sign Mama gave Daddy to put out in his flower bed. It reads: “The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth,  one is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”  I have it by my flowers at the back steps and look at it every day. I think about my daddy filling his backyard with flowers, my granddadies bringing in bushels of butterbeans and corn, and all the ones who tilled this garden before me. We are all connected by our love of getting our hands dirty and watching things grow. Just as Adam and Eve heard God walking in the garden in the cool of the morning, I hear Him rustling in the leaves and we enjoy our time together. 

 

 

Uncategorized

The surprises of grieving

After almost a week of snow days, I am now off from school for another week for “Winter Break”.  I started the break feeling a little  down. For most of my adult life, time off meant going home to North Carolina to visit my parents, but since my mother’s death a year and a half ago, that has changed. I am still processing these changes.

Up until my father died 10 years ago, visits home were fun, relaxing times. Mama would cook, I would lie on the couch, sleep, shop, and visit friends and family. After Adam was born, the visits centered around his time with Mama and Daddy, and our other family in Greensboro. We went to the park, fished, rode bikes and enjoyed wonderful meals together.

                                                Christmas, 1992

Daddy’s death from Parkinson’s disease in December of 2002 changed that routine. My mother’s life was centered around my father and I will probably never know how difficult her life became when she found herself alone after 53 years of marriage.

Mama and Daddy at their 50th Anniversary, 1999

 When one parent dies, the balance shifts, and I now felt the need to be there for her. She decided to move out of the big house she had lovingly tended, into an apartment in a retirement center in Greensboro called Friend’s Home West.  Now our visits were centered around helping her clean out and get moved. We sorted through a lifetime of memories as she chose the furniture, pictures and other items that would go with her to the apartment.

Her apartment was beautiful, sort of a mini-version of her house.  Adam and Keith and I could stay in a guest room in the facility, or sometimes, if I was by myself, we would get a cot and put it up in her small den. We tried to act normal on these visits, but now our meals were either take-out eaten at her new table in the apartment or we would go to the large dining room of  Friend’s Home where we ate with the sweet ladies from her church who also lived there. Mama seemed lost without a house and husband to care for, but she tried to put on a good front.

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Mama and her bridge club in her apartment, 2004

She was struggling with declining vision and lung capacity, as well as depression,  so after about a year and a half, she made the decision to move to the assisted living part of Friend’s Home. We now downsized her apartment into one room, keeping her writing desk, her big dresser, recliner and doll collection, as well as her wedding portrait and our baby pictures. She also kept the small child’s rocking chair her parents had given her when my sister Anne was born, with the big Raggedy Ann doll  Anne had made sitting in it.  Anne passed away from cancer in 1976, so I am sure the rocker and Raggedy Ann were a way to keep her close.

Adam and Mama outside her assisted living room, 2007

The assisted living unit was ideal for her. She could walk down a short hall for her meals, she had social interaction with the nurses and aides that worked there, and she could still see her friends and play bridge. But as her vision became worse she eventually gave up her bridge game that she loved and spent most of her time listening to books on tape, provided by the Society for the Blind. Now when I visited I stayed in the guest room or sometimes got a hotel. We still went out occasionally to visit Daddy’s family in Winston-Salem or to my cousin’s farmhouse, but she felt safe and comfortable at the assisted living, so most of our time was spent there.

She continued to become less mobile and one day she tried to pick her walker up to step over a cord in the hall and went down. She broke her hip and the decision was made to move her across the breezeway  to the Nursing Care wing. She grieved leaving the nurses and aides in the assisted living unit. Her room was now smaller, so the writing desk went to Adam and the doll collection came home with me, but we still had the dresser and recliner and little rocking chair. She told me, “This is the end,” and of course she was right. She knew that the nursing home was the last stop.

At one of her favorite places, Garner and Butch’s farm, Thanksgiving, 2009

They were good to her there, but she slowly declined.  I still stayed in a guest room or a hotel, or sometimes with my good friend Laura Lomax, who took wonderful care of me. I was able to reconnect with old friends, and often my cousin Garner came and we stayed together and were like girls, laughing and cutting up. I tried to go to see Mama every month.  As her mental state declined, she became very anxious and wanted me with her every minute. I would get back to my room after 8 or 9, exhausted. She was on oxygen and was almost totally blind and deaf. She still got around on a walker some, but was confined to a wheel chair most of the time. Church members and her faithful friend Rachel came by,  but her limited vision and hearing made visits difficult.

Mama’s 84th birthday, January 2011, with Garner and my aunts, Mary Frances and Libby

So after a very difficult year of declining mental and physical health, she went to heaven in September, 2012. I felt relief that her suffering was over and that the ordeal of constantly worrying about her and going up there had ended. I brought the little rocker and the wedding and baby pictures home with me,  Adam and Garner took some things, and we left the rest for Goodwill.

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During her last year, I often wondered how I would feel when it was over. A year and a half later I am surprised at what I miss. I don’t miss the trip or having to try to manage her care long distance. I don’t miss the stress. I don’t miss being away from Keith and my life here.  I don’t miss Mama the way she had become. I know that sounds bad, but she was not herself in those last years. I do miss the time I had with old friends and family, although they have all assured me I  always have a place to stay when I come back.

What I miss the most is that little room in the nursing home.  Somehow, when I was there with Mama, I felt like I was still in her bedroom in the big house on Canonero Drive. The faint smell of her perfume was in the drawers of her dresser,  along with her clip-on earrings. In a cup next to my high school graduation picture were the little scissors that she kept  in the kitchen and the pens that bore the name of Daddy’s company, Mark IV Personnel .  The coasters from the den were still on her bedside table. When I was in her room with her, I belonged there. I was Mrs. Austell’s daughter. I was at home.

To say that Mother represents home sounds trite, but it is true. I felt this on my last trip to Greensboro. Even though I was warmly welcomed by family and friends, I felt strangely lost. When you lose both your parents, the balance again shifts. Now I realize that I am the senior in my family and I think about how it will be for me and for Adam when I am old. I hope that I will not feel like a burden to him, but chances are that at some point I will. And in a way, that is okay. It is part of the circle of life, and when I am gone, I hope that he grieves, but that he looks back on what I have given him and is grateful for the feeling of home that comes with Mom.

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