On the edge of thirty-five

There’s been a lot that’s come up in recent months that I haven’t expected to address right now. And lots that I have expected. On the surface, I will be reaching “advanced maternal age” when I turn 35 in April 2021, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t have children over whom to be maternal. They say 35 is just an age… but for a woman, that doesn’t seem to be true. In addition to changes wrought by nature, it brings some existential questions to mind.

My sisters have always told me I’ve been perpetually 35 my whole life. I think they mean that I’ve always been this responsible, mature, get-shit-done sort of person. Now that I’m getting to actually be 35, will I still be “35” in their eyes even after I surpass that age? I think when you hit certain milestone ages, you think about what your predecessors were doing when they were your age. First of all, my mom had a 13-year-old (me) when she was 35. It’s a sober reminder that I’m literally old enough to be the mother of some of my high school students.

Thirty-five is the roundabout age when women begin perimenopause. I read about this recently in the book In the Flo and was floored. It’s one reason I decided to cut out alcohol and make sure I’m keeping my hormones happy and healthy. According to research, what happens in perimenopause determines how awful or how not awful menopause can be. (I’m still reading up on all of this, but from what I can gather so far from hearing family members’ experiences, menopause is either awful or not awful. Change my mind.)

There’s some major cognitive dissonance to address, thinking about my reproductive life in the last third of its reign (though I’m not necessarily complaining…) and also the many years I could potentially live post-menopause. If I become as old as my Nana was when she passed away in August, I could live several decades past menopause (she was 104).

The last thing I want to mention about “35” is that I had a certain vision of future Elizabeth and who she was as a person when I was a wee lass. Thirty-five year old Elizabeth would live a life that encompassed being a mother and a wife. But I think even more than that, past Elizabeth would want to see future-soon-to-be-present Elizabeth have characteristics like integrity, perseverance, healthy mental faculties, emotional strength. Know a lot about a lot of things. Have many interests. Be interested in people. Know how to comfort someone when they’re grieving or sad or upset. Know how to set boundaries and live within them.

Maybe beyond the age of 30 people see the next milestone as 40. But I think there’s something about 35. And I don’t think I’m the only one… John Mellencamp mentioned “17 has turned 35” in one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums, “Cherry Bomb”. (He’s from Indiana, so a fellow Midwesterner. He speaks to my heart.)

“Seventeen has turned thirty-five,
I’m surprised that we’re still livin'”

And when I think of “17” being sung in a song, what else can I think about, who else can I think about besides Stevie Nicks with “Edge of Seventeen”?

“And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own
I begin again”

I think both of those ages are precursors to the next phase of one’s life; 17, to young adulthood, and 35 to…. adulthood? (Surely not middle age? But I guess if the median life expectancy in the US is 78, 35 is pretty much middle age…)

What’s classic about the Stevie Nicks song, and why it came to mind even though I was thinking about 35, is that many of the existential angst one has at 17 can still be a thing at 35, at least for me. The questions I wrestle with may be different, but there is wrestling all the same. I know the moves, I can anticipate the hits a bit more. But there are still questions that knock me off my feet and steal my breath.

With Mellencamp, his lyrics show that 18 years, the time between 17 and 35, can just be gone in the blink of an eye. Essentially, that’s a lifetime. My adulthood has almost reached the age of an adult… let me think about that one for a minute.

All in all, it totally makes sense that I’m having these feelings about turning 35. To clarify, I don’t feel “bad” or “good” about turning 35. Generally, I’ve been very grateful for reaching and living through my thirties. Because of the self-awareness and the space I’ve given myself, I feel that I have learned and grown more in the past almost-five years than I have for a decade or more. Of course, I did grow so much over my twenties, but now I’m aware and woke enough to see it.

Inevitably, thinking about 35 and the music that plays and has played a huge role in my formation makes me think about where I came from, the land I was brought up on, the land that my forefathers and foremothers turned 35 on. These thoughts and ponderings slowly turn the wheel of grief as well, thinking about those who have passed on. I ponder, I meditate, I try to commune, I remember, I cry, I grieve, I comfort myself, I sleep, I rise again to another day, and on and on.

Out of grief, thankfulness

As the plane circled Midway, I was fuming. Angry. Upset. And desperately wishing the pilot would turn us back to Baltimore.

I looked out the window and my body told me that it remembered the intense, confusing, and raw grief I experienced several years ago when my grandpa died and I flew ‘home’ for the funeral. I had to borrow money from my parents to afford the plane ticket. I was alone. I was utterly broken and anxious and exhausted.

The body remembers, and this past December, it was internally screaming, making sure I didn’t forget the grief.

It seems the number of times I’ve gone ‘home’ for funerals have equaled the number of times I’ve gone for things other than funerals. As I write that and count it in my head, the latter is more. But the sadness and grief seem to often outshine the happiness and delight on trips back to the Midwest.

As we deplaned, I thought about the long ride ahead after picking up luggage from baggage claim while also taking a breath and gearing myself up for an emotional few days.

We drove to central Illinois from Chicago, and my heart jumped as I looked out the window and found some comfort in the monotony of the flat, flat farmland dotted with groups of trees, shielding houses from wind and bad weather.

Over the holiday, I wrestled with the grief and the togetherness. I was angry, and also felt blessed (but not #blessed). Angry at my grandparents for all leaving me in the world to figure it out on my own without their physical presence and guidance only a phone call away. Feeling blessed that I was able to have them in my life for as long as I did.

Today is Mimi’s birthday. She would have been 86. And damn, don’t I know that she was born in 1934 because every. Single. Time we went to Steak ‘n Shake, she let me know that she was born in the same year the restaurant was founded.

Two years ago on this day, I don’t remember if I called her or not. After the dementia started progressing more rapidly, it became more difficult to call her, though our talks would last only about 5 minutes.

Two years ago on this day, I had no idea that only 7 months later, I’d be grieving her deeply, having spent some time at her side while she was dying. I wasn’t there for her last breath. But I think my soul felt at peace when she passed.

Now, as I’m in, and have been in, a phase of my life that has been difficult and confusing and sometimes frightening, I wish I had her here more than ever. Time and time again in my mind I imagine walking into her house, through the back door after climbing a few steps. Coming into the kitchen, TV turning on with a quick press on a button. All the scents of her wrapping me in a blanket of safety and acceptance. Downy and Dove and Glade Plug-Ins.

We’d sit in the living room and she’d tend to her nails while I tried to figure out how to get my toes unstuck from the stretchy afghan on the couch.

We watched a lot of reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers and Golden Girls and Designing Women and The Nanny. After I’d get ready for bed (showers because to her baths were just washing with dirty water), I’d put on one of her nightgowns or cinch up some of her PJ pants (she weighed more back then and shopped in the ‘big mama’ section). She would tell me that wearing a sports bra at night would keep my chest from growing (that’s not true, btw).

In the winter we’d watch figure skating. I was mesmerized by the grace and talent of the athletes. And after I’d become older and didn’t spend as much time over there, she’d call me on her way home from work and tell me to look outside because there’s a beautiful sunset or that figure skating was on tonight.

For some years after that, I wasn’t as kind or innocent towards her and I didn’t always keep my negative thoughts about her to myself. I’m sure I rolled my eyes when she called me some of those times. Now I’d kill to have that call, and have her remember where I live (not Texas anymore, Mimi) and that Aaron and I are married (When are you getting married?). I’d share my story of infertility because I know she’d give me a hug and love me just the same (When are you and Aaron going to have kids?)

As I let the emotions roll through my body, juxtaposed with grief is an equal or greater amount of thankfulness and security from my memories with her. Memory is beautiful. I can travel back anytime I want for a hug, a kiss, a call.

Happy Birthday, Mimi.

Unconditional ice cream

School is out here in Maryland (finally) and consequently I’ve been able to do errands like grocery shopping and running to the post office during regular business hours. It’s been glorious. And I know when late August rolls around I will whine and complain that now I don’t have time for work because I just have so much other stuff to do.

But at the grocery store, I’ve seen more than one grandma carting around her grandkids, picking out things. Today I was at our local grocery store and noticed that one grandkid was asking for some sort of ice cream treat. “Mom-mom, can we get….?” I don’t remember how the grandma replied because immediately I was thrown into my own repository of memories of these exact trips with my own grandma, Mimi.

The first anniversary of her death is approaching (August 11) and besides being reminded on my own trip sans children to the grocery store about our close relationship, I’m reminded of how she gave ____ to me unconditionally. Fill in the blank with whatever – love, chicken wings, Little Debbie cakes, cups of Sleepytime tea – and it’s still true.

Holy heck, I love her. I miss her. I thought she was one of the richest people in my own little sphere, simply because she just gave and gave. As I got older, I realized that she was not well off (she lived on a fixed income from the State of Illinois and the Social Security Administration) and sometimes she gave more than she had. But you know what? She always, always, gave with joy.

Now lest anyone thinks that I was spoiled only with 12-packs of cream soda and Zebra Cakes (I was), I never ever doubted that she loved me, supported me, and would open the door for me at any hour.

I blame Mimi often for my sweet tooth. We had treats at home, too, but man I loved it when she bought TV dinners and pudding.

I recently had some bloodwork done – I had a high fasting glucose reading awhile back and wanted to follow up on it. Turns out my glucose is fine, and so is my A1C. I thought maybe it’d be high from the sweets I ingest and sometimes binge (Oreos….?).

While I’m thankful for my health and no evidence of Mimi’s generosity as it relates to my A1C, I am equally grateful for the long-term effects of her emotional generosity as well.

I think as time passes and memories resurface, I will discover and realize more things about how she lived her life. Memories will always be alive and have the ability to be examined different ways.

I hope that grandkid sitting in the cart being pushed by his grandma realizes how special those mundane moments are, because someday they will be gone.

Watching someone die

Watching someone die. A participial phrase hanging in the balance.

One evening this summer I watched someone I love die. It has to be one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful events I’ve witnessed in my third-of-a-century life. It’s beautiful in the objective sense of the word… unique and relatable and human and precious. All at once.

Time passed but at the same time it stood still. I felt like I was witnessing her walk into the afterlife. And watching her die, there was no wondering if there was an afterlife. It exists and she was headed there.

All my memories of her came flooding back to me all at once, and at the same time there was only that moment. Breathing, waiting. She was hugging me for the last time, though she was supine on the bed. I could feel her soul hugging mine as she slipped away. I would say “literally” but you wouldn’t believe me. But it was a literal embrace.

When I first saw her on the bed, I knew that she was dying. There had been other times where family members had thought she was dying, or that my great-grandma was dying, that this was it. But as soon as I saw her, I knew. And it felt like it was time, and it felt like it wasn’t.

Since then, I thought that maybe I should have stayed until the end. But I’m human, or maybe just more selfish than most, and I wanted to go home to get some sleep and see her in the morning. I knew in my heart that she would die in the night, but in my head I’d see her in the morning.

Her dementia daily robbed her blind, and it robbed the whole family too. I hated the feeling after I got off the phone with her on my more infrequent calls. They were different than the phone calls in the past. She’d call me on her way home from work across the river, telling me that I just have to go outside and see the sunset because it’s a pretty one. But then the calls were five minutes long, if that. Full of questions or sighs or little laughs because she couldn’t remember things anymore. But she remembered me.

And I thought about this on a cold windy walk with my dog. A singular phrase entered my mind: watching someone die. And my heart took it from there and remembered. I experienced a squeezing feeling in my chest that was her saying, Don’t forget me. Remember what we had. I love you. You’re okay. You make me proud. 

Grocery Checkout Memories

I was finishing my Christmas shopping at the grocery store just a mile from my house. The check out line wasn’t particularly long but the person in front of me needed a price check. So there I was, browsing the candy like a kid when I saw it.

Mentos.

https://www.redstonefoods.com/images/products/4180.jpg?1313689805
I love the fruity ones, but I usually default to the minty ones since they seem to have a purpose outside of being basically candy.

Generally I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it but since it was a few days before Christmas I was already thinking about my favorite church service of the year, Christmas Eve by candlelight, and therefore I was thinking of the church I grew up in. Which meant I was again seven or eight years old, sitting in the third, or was it fourth? pew from the front, next to Mimi.

She always had everything in her purse. Name it, she had it: clippers, tiny notebooks, pens, pencils, rose gold lipstick, Winterfresh gum, maybe even a small pack of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. She was the consummate old lady with a carpet bag. And she had Mentos. Just like the ones in the grocery store.

This was my, our, first Christmas without her. She’d been declining for years but I always like to remember her at her peak Mimi phase – taking us shopping, making us food, cuddling in bed and watching Mary Tyler Moore. And some days I wish I could go back to that. She provided a safe loving space for me for the majority of my formative years.

It’s so interesting how many days I can’t remember what I had for breakfast by noon, but I see one tiny thing at a busy place and a flood of memories, feelings, and grief overcome me even for a second. Memory is a funny thing.

Breaking News: “Top Nine” Doesn’t Capture Most Important Moments

I use Instagram fairly regularly, probably with more regularity now that I have opted out of Facebook. I know, I know, Instagram is owned by Facebook blah blah blah.

Everyone’s been posting their “Top Nine” recently – the most liked photos in their feeds. Once again, social media panders and quite frankly takes advantage of our desire to be liked and seen and celebrated.

I share my Top Nine, because why not? But I have to add that my top moments most were not shared on Instagram for the world to see.

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I can make quite a few assumptions about 2018 from these pictures. I traveled a lot, spent some time in the hospital, exercised a bunch, and am apparently still in love with my spouse. These are all true, but there’s so much more that happened in 2018 not pictured here, like that kid who was absent on picture day.

I will spare the weary reader nine things that happened in 2018. But I will share that one of the best memories is sitting with my sister on my parents’ porch late at night pondering the recent death of our grandmother and watching an amazing Midwestern thunderstorm. I will share that the reconciliation of a friendship was culminated in lovely time spent with her and her family. I will share that the financial and childless freedom to travel to new places has really helped me settle into my unforeseen reality. I will share that my husband and I are indeed more in love than ever. I will share that modern medicine is amazing and I am forever grateful to the surgeon who listened to me and finally was able to diagnose me with endometriosis.

All those moments and more made up a painful, wondrous, family-filled year. They say that one’s formative years usually happen before age 25, but I argue that all years can be formative, some more than others. I’m thankful I have the maturity and wherewithal to really appreciate the important work that time and openness can do for our souls.

Here’s to a blessed, wonderful, hard 2018. And let’s welcome 2019 with open arms.

 

She waited.

She was waiting for me, and that was the realization I had when my mom let me know that Mimi was declining fast and now receiving hospice care. When we got there, she was in her bed and though I’d never seen someone dying in person before, it was evident that this is what was happening to Mimi. She hadn’t eaten or drank anything since Monday, and by this point it was Friday. I expected her to have a breathing mask and/or IV, but she didn’t. She was shaking a little back and forth, and her eyes were slightly open but cloudy. Her mouth was devoid of her dentures, and her breathing was labored. My sister and I sat on opposite sides of her bed and told her close to her ear, “Hi Mimi, it’s Elizabeth.” “Hi Mimi, it’s Emily.” When she heard Emily, she tried to say her name and a tear fell from her right eye.

Since my other grandmother passed in 2016, I had grieved partially by reading every book I could get my hands on about death, dying, and what happens to our bodies in the process. I felt more prepared to be with Mimi. It wasn’t creepy or weird or anything… it was just.. her. I also knew that even though she couldn’t respond, she knew we were there, and she knew who we were. This was a huge blessing since she’d been suffering with dementia for years, and really declined in the last few.

Emily and I spent some time talking to her, recounting memories amidst big heavy tears and sobs. We both spent some time by ourselves with her. I thanked Mimi for taking me on my first trip out of state to Arizona on a plane, because it ended up changing my life and gave me a heart for travel. I thanked her for paying for my piano lessons, and I told her I recently got my piano tuned, finally.

I told her about the three big lessons she taught me: 1) you have to like what you see in the mirror; 2) there’s something good in everybody; and 3) everything happens for a reason. In going through infertility, I really hated remembering that last one. I refused to believe in my darkest days that God not giving me a baby was for a reason. I’ve since healed enough to come around. Lastly, I told her that if she needed to go, it was okay. I felt a release and an acceptance that she was going to die soon.

After releasing some emotion and having separate time with her, Emily and I washed her face with a washcloth, put on some night cream (even though she had lost so much weight, she had almost no wrinkles! we told her she’d be happy about that), and put on some lip balm. Out of muscle memory, she puckered her lips as if she were putting on her rose gold Mary Kay lipstick she always carried in her purse. We also used a swab to moisten her mouth and she seemed to appreciate that. We held her hands, and when she got too warm we put her arms outside of her blanket. We made sure to monitor her because if she got too agitated we could call the nurse to administer medication.

Eventually we left, and it was hard. It was actually Emily who encouraged me to stay longer. But I was glad in the end to have taken care of her, though it would never be equal to all the times she took care of me. Emily and I told her that we’d gotten her ready for bed, and that for her to get some rest and we’d see her in the morning.

As we were leaving, the hospice volunteer came and for the few minutes we spoke with her, I sensed she had such a deeply compassionate and sweet spirit. She said she just loved Eileen, and couldn’t wait to get off work to come see her. She said she was going to play her some gospel and praise & worship music, and I was grateful that she’d have a companion for the next few hours.

At around 3 in the morning, my mom came into the room where Emily and I were sleeping and told us that Mimi had passed away around 2:30. Did we want to go see her one more time before they took her away? She wanted to make sure to ask us just in case. We said that we were okay and that we didn’t need to go.

And then we wept, for Mimi’s passing, and for the realization that she waited for us. And for that I am so grateful.

Life

I’m reading another book about death, called Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death. Even in 2018 it amazes me how little Americans talk about this complex something that ails every single human and living thing on the planet.

Naturally when I think of the word life I also think about death. We’ve recently taken a more objective perspective on death by writing our wills and advanced directives. We’ve discussed what our wishes are and asked close family members to serve as executor of our estate. It seems a little strange to be not even 32 yet and have these things in place, but it’s important.

So then as I think about death my thoughts are again catapulted into thinking about life. My life. How I want to live it. The legacy I want to leave behind, especially now that it won’t be a legacy of children and grandchildren.

If my family’s genes are any indication, I could very well live to see an entire century. The thought scares me, to be honest. But the time is now to think about what the next potentially 70 years could bring (I’m not kidding about 70 years.. My Nana is pushing 102).

Ash Wednesday : Spirit

Passages from the Common Lectionary :

Psalm 103, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My yearly journey of reflection through Lent continues for the third year in a row. I think last year I fell off the wagon.. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. Faith has proved to be a hard road to travel in recent years.

Lent will always and forever be an even more somber time than it usually is. Two years ago I was in the middle of Lent when my grandmother died. I really learned what ‘from dust you were created; to dust you shall return. Conversely, I also saw through new eyes what it meant to be resurrected in Jesus. My grandmother’s faith became more real to me in her death.

Today’s word is spirit. Tonight I’m thinking about what is said in yoga, that our spirit is our breath and vice versa. I like that thought, especially when we talk about death. When the breath is gone, so is the spirit. There cannot be spirit without breath. God created man and breathed into him, and so man was incomplete and unalive until that moment.

Rejecting platitudes and accepting the pain of grief

I couldn’t hear one more platitude as I shared my story. I couldn’t stomach one more look of pity, or even worse, blank space behind the eyes. It was just too painful.

I became exhausted listening to all the things people said to me. And I say me specifically because for some reason the man’s role in reproducing just isn’t on many people’s radars. And for some reason the questions about kids – whether we had them, why we didn’t have them – were directed towards me.

 

Thanks.

It seems that the ‘thing’ these days is instead of being present with people as they’re rocked by the waves of grief, we try to fix the pain. We’re uncomfortable as a society to see people in pain. And it needs to stop.

I experienced this with the death of my grandmother, Jane, who I absolutely adored and loved. I found myself justifying my grief at what to our whole family came largely as a surprise – how ridiculous is that?

“My grandmother passed away, but she lived a long life.

“My grandmother died last month, but now she no longer suffers.

“My grandmother died suddenly, but she’s with Jesus now.

These are things I said, and I so longed to just allow the discomfort of the heart-wrenching loss and let people join me in my grief.

We look at the other side as greener. It’s the American way, right?

“We can’t have kids, but now we can travel and do whatever we want!”

“We could have gone through IUI or IVF, but it just would have had a horrible impact on my mental state.”

These “but….” phrases are dangerous. Not only do they not satisfy us and make us feel better, but they allow us to completely drive by the very real grief a person is going through. I don’t owe anybody an explanation or a platitude to make them feel better, for God’s sake. When we’re grieving, we have a horrible propensity to do unnecessary emotional labor for others.

I was (am) desperate to just say, “We couldn’t have kids.” and allow that truth, however uncomfortable, to settle in. I wanted to say for once, “I lost my grandmother and we were very close.”

I had to do this on my own. Even my church community seemed to be at a loss, more about the intangible loss of parenthood than about losing a person who was lucky enough to live 87 years.

There is a lot of work to be done in the area of grief, death, dying, and trauma in this society. But those of us who have been afflicted can’t stay silent. We need to be willing to compassionately educate others – to have the difficult conversations,

To let the uncomfortable truth of loss fall where it may. To allow space for discomfort. To reject platitudes. To accept our grief. It is only in this acceptance and space that we as a society can get closer to the hard things and be okay with it. And from there, we can better comfort those in need and in grief.