Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Facing the new year

2008 wasn't the best year I can remember. In fact, it could easily be labeled one of the worst, with a couple of exceptions. My cataract extraction and lens implantation surgeries were the high point. Since I was eight years old, I've worn some kind of vision correcting device and have never had clear, precise eyesight. Now, thanks to the genius of my surgeon, I do.

Once the healing was completed, I was ready to enjoy being retired. Barely a few weeks after, though, my mother-in-law fell in her apartment and ended up needing surgery and weeks of rehab. Howard and I began the six-month-long routine of driving either to the hospital or the rehab center each day, usually more than once, to check on her and spend some time. In between hospital stays, she lived with us, not a good arrangement for either her or us. She had a hard time adapting to our lifestyle and her own lack of independence in a strange house without the benefit of the setup she had so effectively managed in her apartment. We had a hard time adjusting to the presence of a person with specific medical needs in the tiny, over-55 home we'd bought two years earlier. Paper thin walls meant we were awake whenever she coughed or talked in her sleep. We found it impossible to leave her alone unless she was tucked into bed for the night and even then, we worried about her whenever we were out of the house. All in all, it wasn't the best solution to her health-care needs.

Then in November, doctors said she required major surgery. The lead surgeon didn't want to perform the operation because of her age and general poor health, but he had no choice. The entire large intestine had to be removed and an ostomy created on the small one. Mom knew the risks but wanted the surgery to be done and over so she'd have a shot at getting well.

It didn't work that way. From silent heart attacks to staph infection to pneumonia, she slid downhill quickly following the operation until we decided that in-hospital hospice was the only way to ease her suffering. On December 11th, she passed away and went to join her husband Howard and son Bill who'd been waiting for her for over 20 years. From what she'd so often told me, I knew she arrived on the Other Side and immediately lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in Howard's face. He had, after all, nagged her into quitting and she said with a laugh that she'd delight in getting back at him. She was a feisty, independent woman who had more courage than most of us are ever required to muster. We think of her every day, so many, many times as we go about the necessary business of settling her affairs and putting her bedroom back to its former use as a den.

Our younger daughter heard from her grandmother the other day. In the quiet of her room, she was feeling down, thinking of Nana, when the words "Take it easy," in Nana's voice, came out loud and clear. Erica was Mom's "Rose Queen," since nearly every time she visited her grandmother, she brought a dozen roses of various hues to brighten Mom's living room (and her spirits). I can't look at roses without thinking of the joy they brought and the thoughtfulness of Erica who loved pleasing her Nana.

We spent Christmas with our other daughter and her family up north. They were the ones who were trusted with the custody of Mom's parakeet when she moved in with us and couldn't bring him along. We were afraid our little cat, Mitzi, would have the bird for lunch, so Terri and her family gladly adopted him, intending for Mom to be able to visit when she was better. Pretty Boy is thriving and sings and chirps all the time. He also talks ... in Mom's voice with her North Carolina inflections, at once comforting and painful for my husband to hear. In time, when the mourning isn't as fresh, he will welcome this occasional "visit" from Mom.

Now for 2009. I have plans for the year that include some travel for just the two of us and plenty of beach time when the weather warms. In the meantime, lessons learned from this experience will spur me to drafting Advance Directives and wills. I will also decide for my girls who gets what and where everything is to go so they won't have those difficult decisions to make. They already know my last wishes, so that's a done deal, but it should be in writing so memory isn't forced to go back and put together the pieces. I hope they won't need the results of my organization effort for many, many years yet, but no one is guaranteed tomorrow and I want to know they are protected as much as possible from the heartache of uncertainty.

We'll welcome the new year at a formal dinner at our favorite casino. Then we'll come home and start trying to live normally again. There are no regrets for the time spent with Mom ... she had the best we could give her and she knew how much she was loved. Is anything else important?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Chatter withdrawal

For days, I've wanted to find a few minutes to write.

Nothing profound, of course, just words.

Hardly seems like I've lived without jotting down some thoughts and then expounding on them just to hear myself think.

Ego? Yeah, no doubt. I've always loved seeing my name in print at the top of an article I wrote. Guess that's what keeps writers writing.

But there's also the communication side of it. I've never been one to keep things to myself. Self-disclosing, I think the shrinks call it. A healthy willingness to share, I'd rather say.

The world according to the Smith family has been topsy-turvy since the last post.

Howard's mother is in the hospital facing major surgery this week. What will happen afterward depends on how the operation goes and what doctors give as a prognosis. She is frightened but determined to do what must be done. Howard and I are exhausted and worried for her, as we watch the ordeals she endures day after day without benefit of a positive outlook. Prayers from friends and family pour in, for which we are very grateful.

I watch all of this from the vantage point of one whose own mother died of breast cancer when she was 56 and I was 31. Seems forever since I had a mother of my own to worry about. We never went through the elder-care routines for her, so I'm a novice at caring for someone so ill.

And amid all the medical talk and test procedures, both Howard and I realize we are next in the grand scheme of things.

Death doesn't frighten me, since I believe passionately in the next phase of living ... although unknown, still comforting in its certainty. Suffering, growing old and infirm, losing my independence, relying on others for my every need .... this is what frightens me. I jokingly (perhaps) tell my daughters to park me in a nursing home, visit when they can and go on with their lives rather than suffer the disruption caring for someone causes. Then I laugh and warn them I might take a header into a bridge abutment at 70 miles an hour and save them all the trouble.

Jokes don't really make anything better. I am growing old in a hurry, it seems, since years now fly instead of merely pass as they did before I hit 50.

At 67, I realize my time will be here sooner rather than later. I don't dwell on it a lot, but it's really impossible to avoid coming face to face with the reality every time some new horror visits itself on my mother-in-law.

So ... the plan is to live every day to the fullest possible. Hug the grandchildren, stay close to friends and don't let a day go by without saying "I love you" to those whom I need to hear it. I may not be the world's best caregiver (far from it!) but I'm learning how to behave when it's my turn to accept the ministries of others. Not an easy lesson. Certainly nothing I ever contemplated too seriously.

Now, though, it's simply a reality.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The mountaintop

In 1964, when my then-husband and I went to Biloxi, Mississippi a couple times a year to visit his mother, I had my first taste of Jim Crow and the horror that was segregation. You need to know I was raised in an all-white town in south Jersey, where the African-American population was isolated on either side of the main streets and my schools were lily white. In college, I met people of all backgrounds and quickly realized that color didn't register with me as it did with some. I dated young men of color, had friends of all ethnic groups. So you can imagine what Biloxi, Mississippi did to my social conscience. Why, for God's sake, should a black man have to get off the sidewalk so I could pass? Why separate water fountains and rest rooms? Why, most of all, did everyone seem to take that hideous status quo as gospel and not challenge the basic errors of its way?

Then came Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not only did he speak for the legions of African-Americans who hungered for his message and who risked their lives to abolish the old ways, he spoke to me in a very personal way. I believed what he preached ... that the day would come when a person would be judged, not on the color of his skin, but on the content of his character.

Election Day, 2008 was the final push to the pinnacle of the mountain Dr. King envisioned. At 11 p.m., when most of the results were counted, it became apparent that one man, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, had reached the mountaintop and planted a symbolic victory flag there for not only those of his own ethnic heritage but for all of us who finally can believe the evils of segregation and racism have been set aside.

Am I naive enough to think racism died when Senator Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the US? Of course not. After all, his victory wasn't unanimous. Millions of voters who did not support him couldn't get past his race, so we know old prejudices won't vanish instantly. I am, however, optimistic enough to believe that, as his presidency progresses and our country's divisions and mistakes are healed and made irrelevant, all Americans will benefit from this election result.

I believe President-elect Barack Obama will be a great president. He inherits some of the most serious problems ever to face our nation, thanks to the incompetence of his predecessor. But I believe he will surround himself with the best and the brightest and those great minds will find practical and effective ways to turn us around.

I'm seriously proud to have watched Senator Obama way back in 2004 and spotted the potential for what happened yesterday. I felt an unusual sense of pride when I cast my vote for Senator Obama and I couldn't hold back the tears of gratitude I shed when the victory was sealed. We have come a very long way and now the real work of restoring our nation to its rightful place in the world will begin.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Spending hours in the past

When my stepfather died, I "inherited" a plain brown box filled with music ... old sheet music with ornate covers and strange-sounding titles. The box was sealed with tape and stored. It was then moved from Berlin to Mt. Laurel and then to Pemberton. Each time, I wondered what to do with the stuff. Sentimenality and the thought that someone might actually want this stuff, kept me from tossing the box, music and all, into the trash.

We cleaned out the garage a bit more on Sunday. Warm weather and the need to prepare for winter prompted the work, certainly not a desire to neaten up the place. And there, on a wire shelf above my head, was the brown box of music. Almost daring me, this time, to deal with it.

So, I took it down, sorted the pieces by year (from 1898 to 1945) and began cataloging them in a list on the computer. For what, I don't know. Old sheet music is a dime a dozen, I'm discovering, as I surf around sites that offer it. Still, I can't escape the feeling (and the hope) that I have some rare gem mixed in with the mundane. Dream on, huh?

This is my new project, I suppose. I'll send out some e-mails and see if any collectors or dealers bite. At least the brown box is out of the garage. Now it's in the office. Next step ... outta here!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

So many stories to tell

Wendy's son Brian called yesterday. We'd never met, although I knew Brian and his late brother from the pride in Wendy's voice when she spoke of them.

There were so many address books, names and lists of people Wendy knew, it wasn't possible for Brian and his family to contact everyone. There are, after all, still boxes and boxes of her papers and things to go through and not much leisure in which to do it. So, this young man who had lost his wonderful mother apologized to me for not calling to let me know she was ill. That's how she raised him.

We talked for a while ... me, the college buddy who had memories of his mother he couldn't begin to know. How could I explain those laugh-til-you-cry times we spent together? Wendy and I in Barrett House on the Trenton State College campus, staying overnight with Doris Perry, the house faculty member and college psychologist who had adopted us as the daughters she never had. Her apartment was so tiny there wasn't enough room to turn around. Her bedroom was a little part of the living room, set apart by a sliding plastic door. After a potpourri dinner, we three decided to bring a mattress from one of the empty rooms upstairs down to Doris' apartment to sleep on. Picture a 41-year-old woman and two co-eds, 18 and 19 respectively, lugging an unwieldy hunk of batting down a slightly curving staircase. Of course it got wedged in between the bannister and the wall. Of course we ended up sliding down the mattress from top to bottom, giggling uncontrollably. Of course we got very little sleep, but the memory of that night was relived again and again.

Wendy had an infectious laugh and marvelously caring nature. We had a momma-loves-you-best relationship when it came to Doris, whose approval we both sought constantly, but who loved us both enough to give us what we needed proportionately and always just at the right time.

Those were the days, my friends. Now both Doris and Wendy are gone. Makes one think long and hard about who might be next.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodie, the weekend!

Thank God it's Friday. Not just TGIF, but the whole shebang.

Every Friday night for about 20 years, Howard and I have had "date night" at Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City. Even with his mother living with us, we have managed to get her settled with her dinner, good books and tv and off we go. Our cars know the way so we almost only have to point and put the gear in "Drive."

Each time we make the trip, I realize all over again why I love living in New Jersey. We drive through a little road that's lined with the prettiest trees, particularly in fall when they are dressed out in yellows, reds and oranges. We pass a glistening lake and then ride on a long, perfectly straight roadway for 15 miles or so until we reach our first turn. Along the way are deer alongside the shoulder, towering pines that gradually give way to stubby scrub pine so characteristic of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. A lot of the landscape is scarred from fires that burned huge acreage last year. As we go along, it's evident we are nearing the shore as the exposed ground turns from reddish topsoil to white sand. Trails for dirt bikes and ATVs snake off on either side of the road and the sky takes on the azure dotted with white that tells us we're close to the ocean.

The Garden State Parkway takes us all the way to Atlantic City where we hook up with the Expressway, a crowded six-lane parking lot on most weekend nights. We are usually early enough to avoid the crush; often we watch the traffic snaking slowly into the city from the Top of the Trop where we end up for dinner on weekend nights. We know the back roads into the city but this is usually the fastest. Most of the time, Howard drives and I snooze, always managing to wake up before we make the final turn into the glitz and neon of the casino row at Atlantic and Michigan Avenues.

As a child, I took a weekly bus ride into Atlantic City to the orthodontist. Starting at age 12, I hopped the bus in Egg Harbor, rode to A.C., had an adjustment on my braces and made the reverse trek. By the time I was in high school, my stepfather had gotten me a job at the Hotel Roma on Florida Avenue, right next to the parking lot for the Convention Hall. The Roma is gone now and an extension of the Hall fills what was the lot. But as we pass Florida Avenue on weekends, I never fail to remember the good times spent behind the front desk there. Atlantic City was a mecca for entertainment, family fun, movies, restaurants and, of course, the Boardwalk back then. I miss those days, especially in light of what the city has become.

But I digress. We usually get to Trop, have dinner and then seek out our favorite poker machines for a night of fun. Trop has been very good to us over the years and we usually either break even or win (the same thing, as far as we are concerned).

We stay late.

Very late sometimes, often pulling into our driveway at home after 2 a.m.

In the casino, there is no sense of time. The flow of adrenaline makes you feel as though you are never tired. The lights are bright; the crowd noisy. We know a lot of people there, more, really, than in our own neighborhood. We feel at home.

Each week, we work, do what we have to do and mark time to the weekends. Without the casino, we would undoubtedly preserve date night. We enjoy movies, going out to dinner with friends, Real Time with Bill Maher or a show we've DVRed for later viewing.

But it's the casino that gives us our fun, that makes up for the stress of the week that goes before it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

We're almost there

Couldn't believe we did it, but we'd planned a dinner out with friends last night instead of staying home to watch either Barack's half hour or the Phillies game! Thank goodness for DVR! Our friends, almost lifelong for Howard and twenty-odd years for me, are good Republicans, so we usually try to avoid talk of politics. We have grandchildren to brag about, stories of life in a 50+ community to share and other passions in common, so the friendship does just fine without politics, thank you very much.

Last night was different. The topic was approached gingerly, but it was soon evident that this year, this election, neither of them is comfortable pulling the Republican lever. They aren't nuts about voting Democrat either, each for a different reason. But what amazed me was that they were willing to listen to our feelings and beliefs about Barack's potential as a great president with interest and a lot of agreement. We've always felt that good friends should be able to talk about anything without the discussion sinking to rancor, but in many cases that just doesn't happen, so we take cues from our companions and either venture in or not. We were thrilled to have an intelligent, open-minded give-and-take about the coming election! It didn't hurt that we left them after dinner with the firm belief that they will be pulling the same lever as we.

I was a graduate student in the era of John Kennedy, a young mother in that of Robert. Like so many of my generation, I saw in Bobby a hope for a better, more peaceful and respectful world, where the differences among peoples were minimized and we finally had a leader who would teach us, by example, how to love one another and achieve peace. I've always believed the world would have been a much different place had Bobby lived and served two terms as president. No use wondering, however, because that was not to be. Now, I feel the same stirrings of hope and excitement when I listen to Barack Obama. Perhaps this time, this election, we will get that chance again. We will have an intelligent, compassionate and wise leader who will appeal to the best in all of us. We will be able to show the world that the United States can do better than it has; that the bellicose face of unilateral action isn't really who we are. Our president will look like most of the people of the world, but he is an all-American man of principle, faith and love for his country, his family and his fellow man.

Four years ago, I listened to Barack as he gave the Keynote for the Democratic National Convention that nominated John Kerry. I remarked to my husband that we might have the wrong guy running, that this young man had the mark of greatness and I saw him as a future president, maybe even four years from then should Kerry lose. Way back in the 80s, I saw a young goalie named Ron Hextall come leaping out of the gate at a Philadelphia Flyers game and told Howard that I thought the kid would be one of the greatest goalies in Flyers history. Right then, too! I'm a pretty good predictor, huh?

Like most of my friends and acquaintances, I'm tired of the campaign. It's gone on far too long and has gotten so hideously ugly and filled with fear that I can't wait for Tuesday. Perhaps after we've all done our civic duty and a president-elect is declared, we can rest a bit and wipe the airways and tv stations clear of the constant barrage of political discourse/attacks/propaganda. It will be a pleasant relief.

In January, whoever we elect will face the daunting task of beginning the repair of everything that's gone wrong for our country in the past eight years. I hope he surrounds himself with the best and the brightest in each area so the job gets done well. We have a country to save.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another friend lost

One of the worst things about growing old is how many friends you lose.

I started losing them with Marie in 1994. She was like my sister and to this day I think of her with fondness and a quiet laugh or two, remembering her wagging finger, her Irish laughter and her unconditional love for me. Read "A Hand Across Time" on my website: www.jeannehoward.com and you'll understand how much she meant (and still means!) to me.

Now comes another loss. Wendy Acrish.
Wendy was my buddy when we were in college at what was then Trenton State together, she a year ahead of me and thus the role model and big sister I never had. We were "adopted" and loved by the college's first psychologist, Doris Perry, and the three of us shared so many happy and wonderful times together! Wendy was an insecure gal, just like me, who wasn't sure of her Jewishness and didn't quite know where she fit in. Doris took us under her wing and gave us self-confidence and the strength to go on with rich lives.

In 1960, Wendy and I were recruited by the U.S. Air Force. The captain who shepherded us through the process was gorgeous and I'm sure I was as much enamored by him as by the idea of uniforms, travel and glamor. I chickened out before signing on the dotted line; Wendy didn't. She served for four years as a Personnel officer and recruiter and I'm sure many Air Force cadets owe the experience of a lifetime to her work with them.

When she left the Air Force, she married a rabbi and, after a long and illustrious career in mental health as Director of the Hudson Valley Psychiatric Hospital in New York, she realized a life dream when her one and only novel, A Time for Love, was published. It was my honor to edit and help with rewrite on that manuscript and I know Wendy was thrilled when she saw the first copy and did signings at local bookstores.

Wendy retired to Naples, Florida after having visited one time and fallen in love with the area. She sold her home in Connecticut and soaked up the sun, taking up golf and making frequent trips north to visit her growing family.

Although it's been years since I saw her or even had an e-mail or phone call, I was thinking of Wendy this morning, remembering the good times we had and just wanting to reconnect. I dashed off an e-mail that, surprisingly, came back undeliverable. So, I called her house, stunned to get a message saying the number was no longer in use. I called her son's house in New York and left a message ... how can I contact your mom? And then I put her name in my Google box and got the worst possible news. Wendy passed away in March of this year, obviously after a long and courageous battle with cancer. She died at the home of her son and left many friends to mourn her loss.

Now I am one of them. I wish I had known. I wish I'd kept better contact. I wish she could have visited again before all this happened. I wish I could have helped her work on the second novel she had in mind. I wish ... I wish a lot of things that won't happen now.

Most of all, I wish her peace.

Getting started after all these years

Let's see ...it was in 1995 that I wrote my last "blog," although no one knew that word yet and I simply called it an "Editor's Note." It went on Page 4 of my weekly newspapers, The Journal and trend of Voorhees, papers I'd founded in 1973 and 1985 BR (Before Recession). My readers waited eagerly for those columns and I loved writing them. Hated losing those papers the way I did ...sort of a blatant testament to my lack of managerial skill. My sales staff were friends from my neighborhood, too dear to fire but eventually ending up enemies anyway. I blamed them for the papers' descent into financial ruin and their eventual takeover by the last person I would ever want to have them.

That was long ago, huh? Have I gotten over it all? Sure, the enemies part, at least. They were good friends at one time; I was the lousy manager who didn't know how to be tough enough to make the business last longer than 21 years. Now that I look back, 21 years is a very long time for a business to last when it's run by an incompetent owner, so I guess the recession really was to blame. At least I'd like to think so.

So here I am, "blogging" to no one in particular. Hoping someone somewhere might happen upon it and want to read regularly. Presumptuous. But welcome to this collection of musings that began today. I hope you don't get too bored.