Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Talking About The Elephant In The Room

For those of you who read my periodic postings, you know that Catherine - a.k.a. Her Bad Mother - is my daughter and that Tanner is my grandson, and you know them both extremely well. You do not know a whole lot about my younger daughter, Christina - Chrissi - who is Tanner’s mother.

Christina and Tanner’s father separated almost three years ago and since that time she has borne the brunt of the responsibility, financially, physically and emotionally for Tanner. My son-in-law loves Tanner very much but for a very long time he was emotionally incapable of dealing with all of the issues that are involved with caring for a child whose disease is aggressive and terminal.

Chrissi has always been a working mom. Her job is one that is hard on the heart and soul (she deals with the legal side of broken and bitter families). But despite her job, her son’s diagnosis and the breakdown of her marriage, Chrissi has always projected the persona of a confident, totally-in-control, I-can-do-it-myself woman. After Tanner’s diagnosis, Chrissi dealt with the pain of knowing she had to watch her son die slowly, piece by piece, by pushing herself to extreme limits. In her efforts to insulate herself from pain, Chrissi developed a brittle veneer that discouraged any attempt by friends or family to give her the support that she needed. In her mind, Chrissi had to be supermom. She had to be an advocate for Tanner, and for other boys with Muscular Dystrophy. She had to educate the community, the school system. She had to fight for the support and resources that Tanner needed and that she needed. She had to maintain her career. She had to ensure that Tanner’s needs did not interfere too invasively with his siblings' needs.

Somewhere in the constant battles she was fighting, she found an outlet for her pain – running. She became superwoman – a record setting marathon runner (every run was in Tanner’s name and for Duchennes Muscular Dystrophy research). The physical challenges of long distance running masked her emotional challenges.

Every race she ran received extensive local media coverage. She achieved her goal – she ran the Boston Marathon – she was an inspiration! But the higher Chrissi and Tanner’s profile became in their community, the pressure on Chrissi to be supermom correspondingly increased – keep smiling, don’t let anyone know that you can’t be up half the night with a sleepless Tanner and be “perky Chrissi” the next day, don’t let anyone know how frustrated you get when Tanner soils himself just before you are leaving for work, don’t let anyone know that there are times when Tanner's constant screaming makes you want to scream back, don’t let anyone know - don't let anyone know this, especially - that there are times when you wish the end was sooner rather than later because you can’t stand to watch his deterioration, his suffering, his pain.

Supermom Chris – couldn’t let her guard down – couldn’t let the cracks show - what would people think? So she internalized the guilt she had around her “bad mother” feelings and tried harder.

But as Tanner’s care needs increased (he gets heavier and heavier, even as his muscles disintegrate, so that moving him to change a diaper or get comfortable in bed is a challenge, and his bones are becoming fragile and prone to breaking; his leg was broken during that Air Canada mess last year, something Cathy never talked about), Chrissi struggled with her increasing inability to handle his physical needs and the ever-evolving mental health issues that his autism brings.

Nobody could help, not really. She allowed her sister to help, somewhat, from a distance. But she kept me and her friends at bay. Any expression of concern was seen as criticisms of her performance as a mother. She resisted help. She resisted support. She tired, as best she could, to keep her pain to herself. So when Chrissi broke, she broke hard. She had a breakdown last fall and has been on stress leave ever since.

The past months have been difficult for all of us, but they also have been cathartic. The time has brought us closer together, as a family. The conversations Chris and I now have are thoughtful and supportive. The brittle veneer has been shattered and she has let herself be vulnerable. She has opened herself to the love and support of family and friends. More importantly, she now realizes it’s okay to verbalize her negative feelings and her concerns of inadequacy and to accept reassurance that those don;t make her a 'bad mom.'

But it has been a long process and many of our conversations have hurt my heart. When my child sits across from me and says, “Mom, I don't want this – why does everything have to hurt so much?”, I can barely stand the pain. The worst part is that she has been carrying this pain, and especially, this guilt, all by herself for a very long time.

Why do we, as a society, expect so much from those people who face adversity? Why do we expect bravery, sacrifice, stoicism in the face of pain and struggle and loss? Some pains are too great to face stoically. We're only human.

Chrissi still struggles with guilt but she has finally accepted the reality that she can no longer be Tanner’s sole and primary caregiver. She and Tanner’s father are now working together on a plan for Tanny’s care – he'll move into her house and take over the bulk of the physical care; she'll move into the basement that is being renovated, at least part-time - and that in itself is a major breakthrough.

The story is not over, but things are changing and there are no more elephants left in the room.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Warm Fuzzies And Strange Epiphanies And Lard On Potatoes

I have spent the last few weeks immersed in the past, peering into the world that belonged to my grandmother.

She was the family matriarch, she was my maternal grandmother and she loved her kitchen. The more people she could cook for, the happier she was. When I re-discovered her cookbooks, I had no idea where they would take me.

My foray into the past has evoked memories of things long forgotten. I did not, until now, give much thought to the fact that the memories, although submerged in the deep recesses of my mind, informed certain aspects of my life. I am not talking about the big stuff – about shaping who I am as a person or how I have lived my life (that’s a different conversation), I’m talking about little things that I “just knew”.

For example, I’ve always added sugar to the water when cooking turnips , put celery in the water when cooking cabbage, rubbed baking potatoes with shortening prior to baking, and so on and so on! If I was asked why I did that – I merely said, “just because” – I didn’t really know, I just did it. But as I read Grandma’s cookbook, there they were, tips filed under “household handies,” and the descriptions even gave the reason why: adding sugar to turnip water improves flavour, adding celery to cabbage water takes away the cabbage smell, potatoes rubbed with lard will not split when baking. That’s when I had my epiphany about memories, when I realized how much they had shaped me without my knowing.

Finding my paternal grandmother’s nursing book did not evoke wonderful memories. No warm fuzzies, no happy epiphanies. In fact the only memory it brought to mind was an event that happened when I was quite young (6 or 7). My father had a boil and grandma came to our house to tend to him – she put a hot milk poultice on the boil which caused 3rd degree burns - which only reminded me that I was glad she wasn’t my nurse!

I hope that when my grandchildren visit my memorabilia the memories that are stirred up for them are as illuminating as mine have been.

And to all the dear grandmas in this world, I pray your legacy is one filled with warm fuzzies.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Be Grateful That You Didn't Give Birth In 1906

Another day of finding lost treasure! Yesterday I found my maternal grandmother’s cookbooks circa 1930s – today I found my paternal grandmother’s nursing textbook circa 1906. I was particularly interested in the obstetrics section.

In Obstetrics the nurse is instructed that when she is called to assist at a confinement she must make sure the patient is ready and everything has been prepared for reception of the child. There must be five basins of sterilized hot and cold water, preferably china or granite-wear, all sorts of acids for sterilizing people and stuff, sterilized towels, sterilized sheet, sterilized bobbin (for tying cord), a large square of linen or muslin, blunt scissors, ice and a douche-pan . The labor bed should have a hair mattress which is protected by a rubber sheet.

The nurse should prepare the patient by giving her a thorough bath, an enema, catheterizing her if she can not void and, after all that is done , she should braid the patient’s hair.

The directions for vaginal examinations during labor were very detailed, with the admonition that dilation could be determined almost as accurately by “the character of the cry to which the patient gives expression”.

After childbirth, the patient should stay in bed for at least ten days. Nurses were warned the onset of insanity usually in the form of melancholia was not uncommon and was treated by removing the child and also any pictures or furniture that seem to disturb the patient. Nurse should keep patient quiet without the use of force and ensure regular evacuation of bladder and rectum.

It reads like a torture manual – how did the population ever grow??

Tomorrow should I discuss “care of the dead” from the nursing book or “how long to hang an elk roast” from the cookbooks?

I have discovered a cornucopia of useless and sometimes disturbing information – I’m loving it!!!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bad Grandma Resolves! Or Not.

I have made all sorts of resolutions for 2011:

- Lose 20 pounds
- Exercise regularly
- Get my house organized
- Get my life organized
- Do not procrastinate

So far, I have done none of the above.

Dieting and exercise are two things that I absolutely abhor. I am trying to visualize myself twenty pounds lighter hoping that will motivate me but it’s not working – in fact, I now believe there is much beauty in an ample body. The other thing is that when a person is old and wrinkled - body fat fills out the wrinkles – that’s another plus! I have started exercising – I am doing leg-ups while lying on the couch watching tv and toe curls when I am on my computer.

Getting organized is entirely another matter. It seems I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remember where I put something. It is not unusual to find an item that I thought was lost, or had forgotten I had. I recently found a pair of boots that I haven’t seen for three years, the lifetime warranty for my diamond rings, my strapless bra, and my grandmother’s cookbooks dating from the 1930s.

Grandma’s cookbooks were my big find – they contain much more than recipes, they are manuals for creating an organized and economically managed home – hallelujah!! But, do I need to know that lipstick mixed with a little hand lotion makes a great rouge or how to make thread spool-holder out of a foam wig stand?

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll brush my tongue. Grandma’s book says it will help keep my breath fresh. Baby steps!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Daughter Knows Best (Or Does She?)

After a six month hiatus, I am back.

A lot has happened in that time, my husband and I quit smoking. After FIFTY YEARS of a nicotine addiction, we have now been smoke-free for seven months – a major accomplishment of which I am very proud. Also in that time it was discovered that I have an aneurysm in my abdominal aorta - it is still small enough that the risk of rupture is low. It is monitored regularly and has not changed in size since its discovery, nevertheless, over the past six months I have spent considerable time contemplating my mortality and I am determined to try and live each day with passion, purpose and appreciation. It is not as easy as it sounds - appreciation, yes; passion, not always easy when you are 68 and arthritic; purpose, I’m working on it!

I decided that I needed a project. I have come up with what I consider to be a brilliant idea and my brilliant daughters agree.

I turned to my most brilliant daughter for advice on how to proceed.

Brilliant daughter, in turn, gave me a mini course on branding and marketing. I am not sure I agree with everything she has said to me, but it is almost like we have had a role reversal – and instead of “mother knows best” – it’s “daughter knows best”.

My project is a book and brilliant daughter told me that, for my book be successful, people would have to consider me an expert or, at the very least, have some recognition in the area on which I would be writing. That presents a problem for me because my book is not really a book that you read, but an organizational aid and I probably am the most disorganized person I know – which is why I got the idea in the first place! (Brilliant Daughter/Editor note: I didn't tell you that you had to be an expert - just that readers/users would be looking for some reason to want a book/organizational aid from you. Maybe it would just be because of your sparkling personality. Still. You have to SHARE THAT.)

You see my dilemma.

Left to my own devices , I would have self-published and peddled my book at community markets, through friends and any other way I could think of and I would have had it ready for Mother’s Day (because it will make a great gift). Now, I am not sure – brilliant daughter is successful and knows much more than me about high tech marketing and branding.

(BD/Editor's note: you can still do those things. I just think that you should do stuff online, too. BECAUSE YOU CAN.)

I probably will follow brilliant daughter’s advice and set about establishing myself as an identifiable... what?... wise grandma, ditzy grandma, sexually repressed grandma, quintessential old-fashioned homemaker grandma, thrice-married grandma , grandma who does not want to age gracefully, grandma who secretly wants to be outrageous. I am all of those things and more – so where do I start?

(BD/Editor's note: START THERE.)

And when do I start? Did I include 'procrastinating grandma in the list?' Maybe I’ll start next week.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thank You For Not Smoking

Over the years, I have tried many times to quit smoking. I have tried cutting down, Zyban, the Nicoderm patch, Nicorettes – all to no avail.

I have found a much more effective way to quit smoking.

It was recently discovered, quite by accident, that I have an aneurysm in the abdominal aorta. My vascular surgeon sat with me and explained smoking has caused the aneurysm and continued smoking will further weaken the artery walls, it will burst and I will bleed to death - he then pulled his chair closer, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “So, quit or die.”

I quit, cold turkey, over a week ago and will never smoke again.

At this point, the risk of a rupture is minimal (11%). I am being monitored regularly and if the risk increases, surgery will be performed.

Thank you to a medical professional who had the balls to be brutally honest.

In all of my years as a professional in the addictions field, I was rarely that forthright. I usually tried to soften probable outcomes and/or consequences. If my doctor had framed the situation with “possibilities,” “maybe’s” and “probabilities” rather than with stark certainties, I might not have been so quick to quit smoking and then I would surely die – sooner rather than later.

This has been a good thing. I am getting healthier, I am saving kazillions of money, my house has never been so clean, and my darling daughter who worries too much can stop.

PS: My husband, who smoked more than I did, also quit and we are both doing great!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dear Daughter

Dear Catherine:

Today, my darling daughter, it is your 40th birthday.

I can not believe it has been forty years since I gave birth to you. I don’t feel forty years older! It seems like just yesterday that I danced under the light of the full moon (all 195 pounds of me), hoping that an old wives' tale was true. It must have been, because seven hours later you were born.

You know that I have always felt that the anniversary of your birth is more of a celebration for me than for you. It is a celebration of the day your father and I received the most precious gift in the universe; it is a celebration of love, it is a celebration of memories, it is celebration of what matters most in life.

On this day, as I celebrate your birth, my normally transitory memory has perfect recall on the joys and, sometimes, heartache that being your mother has given me.

I remember: an aspiring (but doomed) ballerina, a published writer, an eloquent public speaker, a budding actress, a political activist – and all before you were even twelve! It would take a book to chronicle your journey to adulthood. My participation in that journey has been a privilege. You are my heart.

Thank you, God, for her.

Thank you, Catherine, for you.