Thursday, September 1, 2011

One Year Later

It's been a little over a year since I lost my mother, and almost one month later, my aunt Lil. She was my father's sister and lived in Florida. At the age of 94, she had lived a long life, but in the last several years, her legs had become weak, her eyesight worsened, and she was feeling the effects of diabetes. She and I always had a special connection.

Those first few months were difficult--I just didn't feel like doing much of anything, and my mind felt somewhat clouded. I laid low, and except for the responsibilities required in my role as Chair of the Sarah Neuman Board (a nursing and rehabilitation facility), I took my time and acted in the moment. What did I feel like doing that day? That was what I did and what a gift it was.

I felt I had gotten through my mother's and aunts's deaths in a way that acknowledged what happened but also allowed me to have some distance and see it in a more detached way. The hot flashes that began right after mom died subsided 2 months later as quickly as they started; in retrospect, I understand the deep sorrow and stress I had been feeling while mom was ill. It was as if my mind, body and spirit needed time to rebalance themselves. And some time around the end of October, I started to come out of the fog and move to the rhythm of my former life.

A slow transformation had taken place. I saw the value of what I had learned during my sabbatical year, and how it had anchored me in the worst emotional crisis of my life. I had taken my sabbatical as a way of exploring my own spiritual life, but now I saw that having a strong spiritual core provided a calm and supportive base for my daily life. I was comfortable not only living it but also talking about it.

As more people asked about what I was going to do, how I would incorporate the past year into my practice, it became clear that the spiritual component of "holistic" health coaching was often ignored or given short shrift, not for lack of importance, but because of a discomfort with broaching what feels like a sensitive topic. For me, it felt natural, and didn't depend on remembering specific information. It incorporated everything I had learned and experienced up to that point, and was organic in nature. This is the work I am born to do.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ida's Mark

My dear friend Ida is 98 years old and lives in a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Redding, CT.

We first met in 1996 in the hallway at Sarah Neuman. I was with my then 5-year-old daughter, Kate, and Ida was coming from her husband's room. She spoke to Kate first, and we exchanged some pleasantries. After a few minutes, Kate came out with a response that just delighted Ida. We've been friends ever since.

For many years, Ida lived in a house in Pleasantville, and I would occasionally visit and take her to the local diner for lunch. She lived alone, as her husband had passed away soon after she and I met. Although she suffered hardships throughout life, Ida's optimistic disposition always found the positive take on any a situation. As the years unfolded, I learned that Ida's husband had suffered from depression and she had lost a child to lupus, a disease she herself suffers from. She's developed other ills, including macular degeneration, and had to give up needlepoint, a favorite pastime we both enjoyed.

One of Ida's favorite topics is her grandchildren, and she now has a six-year-old great grand-daughter as well. She is very proud of these young adults, and I've heard so much about them that I feel like part of the family. They visit her often and share a close bond. At the time, Ida's surviving daughter lived nearby, and the family kept in close contact. One day several years ago, Ida reported that she had fallen, fortunately with no major injuries. After the second fall about nine months later, when she blacked out and had to crawl back to the house, I suggested it was time for her to move into a facility where she wouldn't be alone. After much research and many visits, she moved into the facility where she still lives independently today.

It is no coincidence that Ida shares my grandmother's name. She's a present-day grandma to me, comforting and inspiring. One day, I took mom to meet Ida, and they, too, became fast friends. We visited regularly, either dining at her place or going out to a local restaurant. My dad joined us one time as well, and Ida got to know my family as I had hers.

As someone who does not have a particularly good memory, I am astounded by how sharp Ida is, always asking me about events I'd discussed on a previous visit. She has given me advice on a wide variety of issues, and we speak quite freely with one another. In the past few years, Ida has developed spinal stenosis, and finds that if she rides the stationary bike, it keeps the pain at bay. Can you imagine a 98-year-old riding a bike daily? Where she was once isolated, Ida now has lots of friends and enjoys her life. She is happy being in such a beautiful place with interesting people, and knows that if she needs more care, it is right there for her. In fact, she regularly visits people who are in the nursing part of the facility. It's not hard to see why she has lived such a long life, despite the challenges she's faced.

Ida is the quintessential role model of aging gracefully. Since my mother died, Ida has been like a guardian angel, sharing in my sadness and knowing how to give comfort. I know she misses mom too, and yet, when we are together, we talk about the present, what we are looking forward to, and how grateful we are. Ida has made her mark on me in the most profound way.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Life Without Mom

The house is blissfully quiet and still. An airplane buzzes overhead. My first thought is to call mom and talk, about anything and everything or perhaps nothing in particular.
That’s not an option anymore.

It’s been a busy week, with my aunt’s funeral in Florida and getting my youngest daughter back to college. A lot of moving around, so being still and quiet has its appeal. I start thinking of how life has already changed in the past 5 weeks:

--I talk to mom in absentia
--My siblings and I have a weekly call
--I check in with my dad daily
--There are acknowledgment notes to write
--I've started to get hot flashes!

The last is an interesting phenomenon, and not welcome especially in the heat of the summer. Something must have been triggered in my body’s chemistry (undoubtedly due to stress). I’ve not had time to focus on possible remedies, but I’m going to get busy and see if I can’t “re-balance” things. It’s obvious something is “off-kilter.” Amazing my body presents a living illustration.

The Jewish holidays are approaching, when mom and I would cook together. She and dad starting coming up to our temple years ago to attend services, and it was a time of being together to start a new year. As much as I have been trying to take one day at a time, I am keenly aware these days are almost upon us, and I know we will all feel the loss, the hole, the empty place that mom would have occupied.

I am told that getting through the first of everything over the next year is a process in itself, and after that, it will get easier. Just allowing time to pass is healing. When I’m busy, and I’ve seen this with my father too, it is easier, with other activities to occupy and distract us. It’s the quiet times when my thoughts drift to mom. And for my dad, the evenings and weekends alone are the hardest.
Being in my body keeps me rooted here on earth, and so yoga, exercise, meditation, spending time with friends and family, and work all help to keep me grounded. I still remind myself it will take time tofeel as if life is normal. Or maybe it will just be a new-normal.

Friday, August 6, 2010


It's finally starting to sink in. Or, rather it's starting to feel real: mom not being here, in my life. I wake up thinking about her. She's in my dreams. I try to remember when I last had a real conversation with her. The weeks in the hospital are all a blur.

It’s been ten days since mom died and eight since the funeral. During the last day of Shiva (having people over to sit with us and remember my mother), I started getting a sore throat which turned into an upper respiratory infection, complete with cough. My favorite naturopath reminded me that grief is the emotion associated with the lungs, so it’s not really a surprise where it hit me.

My life is up-ended, figuratively and literally. It doesn’t help that we moved in early June. I become confused by things I have known for years. Which way to go to the airport? Scheduling two things on the same day. Not sure whether I’ve done tasks. Discombobulated. Unmoored. My mom was an anchor, always there, and she isn’t anymore.

I am driving and start to cry. I never thought she would die. I knew she was going to die some day, but I had no awareness that it could possibly be so soon. Which in many ways is terribly na├»ve—and ironic. We all know people who are unwell, and who live with illness and disease every day, sometimes so valiantly, or not, but they live and get through their days.

Mom took such good care of herself and dad, made sure they exercised and ate their greens. She was vital up to the day she went into the hospital with the aortic aneurysm. And 11 weeks later she is gone, not from the operations themselves but from the infections and complications. Her body was strong but she would not want to have lived in a weakened and needy state, and we knew it. So, in the end, here was this beautiful, vibrant, healthy woman who loved her life and loved us so well, and whose time had come.

And that is the point, I guess. We never do know. And those trite expressions about appreciating life, having no regrets, and not taking people for granted, well, I know what they're talking about. It does make me wonder if I will live my life differently from now on. It's possible. I just need some time to get my bearings again.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time with Mom

I haven’t posted for awhile because I’ve been spending a lot of time in the ICU at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, and writing updates about my mom’s condition to family and friends every few days. However, I’d like to share some reflections I’ve had in light of the past nine weeks, and her now quite serious condition.

There is no doubt that my experience during these past few months would have been much different had I not had this sabbatical year. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be in the present moment. We’ve been on a roller-coaster ride: one day mom’s looking better and we’re feeling positive, and the next day, her condition worsens. We learned not to get too optimistic—or too pessimistic. It is most important to be with mom no matter what the numbers say, to be there FOR her, and interact as best we can.

A few weeks ago, we were told mom was terminal, only to see within two days she had miraculously rallied. There is no script, only working closely with experienced and compassionate doctors and nurses who are doing their best to monitor mom’s condition and guide us as best they can. But in the end, mom’s fate is unknown. Instead of feeling powerless, I feel grateful for the small victories, like the day we didn’t know if she was lucid and she blew me a kiss and touched my cheek. My hope is that I can reassure her and coax her to be brave; that her body can recover—perhaps not fully—but enough to enjoy life with her loved ones for some period of time.

In some ways, I can see how many of my life experiences have prepared me for dealing with the practical aspects of what I’ve been through. I’m comfortable in a hospital because of the summer I volunteered at Memorial Sloan Kettering as a 19-year-old, taking a library cart around the pediatric ward. I have some sense of the healthcare system from working at a benefits consulting firm. And I have an appreciation for caring for sick elders in my role as a volunteer and board member of a rehabilitation and long-term nursing facility. These experiences have helped me in understanding mom’s care and in developing relationships with a wide range of medical personnel.

And as good as this preparation has been, I’ve come to realize that there is no way to prepare for seeing a loved one have two life-threatening surgeries, three bouts of pneumonia, the zoster virus, as well as two collapsed lungs and a tracheostomy. With the support of my brother, sister and father, I have been strong enough to be there with her through these horrific events, in the trenches, day in and day out. At the same time, on a different plane, I know this is her path and mine as well. There is a reason we are doing this dance through life together, and there is much to learn.

Much of the time, I feel calm and centered as I go through each day, firmly believing in a higher power. Once a day, I allow the tears to flow, if they are there. My mother is beloved by so many people, and I agree it’s not fair what has happened to her. But it’s not about fair. I cannot know why, now or perhaps ever. It simply is what it is, and all I can do is be in the moment, take in my mother’s essence, and truly absorb it so that it is with me forever.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seeing Through The Haze

There are times in life when our focus gets so narrowed, the rest of the world slips away. We bring all our attention, energy and emotions to bear on the event, and often, it is over fairly quickly. Studying for final exams comes to mind, or getting ready for a big presentation or performance.

When a loved one is critically ill, like my mother is now, the rest of the world falls away. So many of my waking hours are focused on her that I feel detached from the rest of my life. I know it's a beautiful day outside: I see it and have actually walked outside to get from my car to the hospital. And yet, I find myself not experiencing it. To maintain my sense of self and stay grounded, I have to force through that cocoon-like haze and do some things that bring me back to the natural world. Yesterday, I went for a walk for the first time in my new neighborhood. This morning, when I opened the door to get the paper, I opened it wider and stood there listening to the birds singing their hearts out welcoming the day.

It's true I am taking part in almost no outside activities these days, and I'm not sure how the near future will unfold. As in all things, there is a balance and I will work on finding it. Meditation, yoga, journaling, spending time with friends and connection with nature are some ways I'm holding on to myself and my world.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Moving Reflection

I am sitting in my small den off the kitchen listening to the birds on a sunny morning, two days before we move. Suddenly, I am overcome with missing this home, this room, this place.

My days have been spent packing and planning, coordinating and making sure the process will go as smoothly as possible. It took a long time to sell our house, and it is time to go. Yet, as I sit in the stillness, with the sun streaming in familiar ribbons across the room, I stop to feel the solemnity of the moment. Almost 14 years, the house my girls remember most as their home, a chapter in our lives.

In this room, there is a beautiful fireplace with two different moldings. It reminds me why my husband and I have always liked old homes. However, we are now moving into a newly built house, albeit a "colonial" with high ceilings, wide moldings and other attractive features.

I will also miss the familiarity of the house; it is known and comfortable like a favorite pair of shoes. The neighborhood has beautiful old trees and rock outcroppings, lots of streets of various grades which are perfect for walking. Within a couple of blocks, three good friends of mine are just a spontaneous phone call away. I know I'll continue to see them, but it will not be like it is now.

Except for our three years in London, we have lived in the same general area for 28 years. Whatever I need, I know where to go. I now understand why people return to their old neighborhoods and stores for shoe repairs or fresh fish; these are vendors we've been doing business with for years and it's familiar, like a family that has relied on each other for a long time.

In many respects I am lucky to be moving only eight minutes away, so that I can come back if I choose to do so. However, I have a feeling that once we're in the new house, it will be fun to explore and find new haunts: restaurants, services, walking routes and ways to get from here to there.

So I allow myself the momentary melancholy and know that the missing is what makes the parting so much sweeter and more poignant. It reminds me of what and whom is most important to me, and I feel blessed to have so much.