Reflections of the Past

After Jeff died, I was sorry that I didn’t have a current photo of him. The one I do have had been taken ten years before, and it didn’t even look like him. Or at least not the “him” he was at the end. (It was a perfect image back when the photo was taken.) I refused to look at the photo, afraid I’d only remember him as the man in the photo, not the real person, but as the years went by, I realized that neither image — the one I had nor the one I didn’t have — told a greater truth. He was both. And neither.

Although we always feel like us, that “us” changes over the years. We adapt to how we feel, and it’s only later we get a glimpse of the changes we have gone through, whether physical or mental, spiritual or emotional. The person we are at the end isn’t more real than the person we were at the beginning. Each is a facet of the whole shimmering being we are.

Some people theorize that since time is mainly a construct of our minds, each of those people we were all exist at the same time, and it’s our brains that divide time into past and present.

Others theorize that time is a matter of distance. The earth hurtles around the sun at 67,000 mph. The sun hurtles around the galaxy at 140 miles per second. The entire universe is also moving and expanding, so today we are a very long way from where we were 9 years 11 months and 18 days ago when Jeff died.

But whatever the truth of time, for the purposes of our life on earth, the past, whether near or far, is always the same distance from us. We can no more touch yesterday than we can touch a hundred years ago or a thousand. It’s all just out of reach. Gone. Past.

So does it matter that Jeff’s been gone one year or ten? It matters to me of course, since it’s been ten years since I’ve seen him, but he was just as gone the moment he died as he is today. So any photo of him, no matter what age he was, is an adequate image.

Although he and I weren’t picture takers, never liked having pictures of us (or anyone) hanging around, I am grateful for that photo on my bedside table. He might be gone, far out of reach, but I take comfort in having this reflection of the past.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Bittersweet

Occasionally we meet someone with whom we immediately connect, as if they have always been a part of our lives. Although most of the people I have befriended since moving to my house now seem to have been in my life for more than the year I have known them, one woman in particular was in my heart from the first day we met.

We have a bit of a language problem since English is not her first language, but if we miss a word or two here and there, or even a whole sentence, it doesn’t matter. Only the connection matters. And if words fail, there is the universal language of smiles and hugs.

I hadn’t seen her for a while, so when she and her husband stopped by yesterday to see me, I was delighted.

Until I found out what prompted the visit — they wanted to let me know she’s starting chemo.

This woman, so lovely, lively, charming, always smiling, always kind and caring, has been battling cancer for the past couple of years, and was about to begin a more aggressive treatment. My heart broke at the thought of the pain coming into her life — and her husband’s.

I wanted to scream, “No, no, no.” Bad things are not supposed to happen in this shining new life of mine. But this is not my struggle; it is theirs. All I could do was offer a couple of feeble words.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s life,” he responded. Then he added, as if trying to convince both of us, “This is a good thing. It means she can now get better.”

Even with the news shadowing the visit, it was great seeing them. She loved my house and said if she needed to be with someone when her husband was at work, she’d come stay with me. I hope she does. This feels like a healing place. It’s helped me heal. Maybe it will help her heal, too.

There’s no real ending to this blog. No moral, no hook, no lesson to be learned, nothing to turn it into more than it is — a glimpse at a bittersweet moment of life.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

An Unscheduled Life

A long-time friend wrote to tell me she’s been enjoying my posts about my new house, and spoke with awe about the success of my new life. Then she said she was going to make attendance at community events in her area more of a priority. I had to laugh at this, because I am doing the opposite — making community events less of a priority.

When I moved here, I made a concerted effort to be . . . not me. At least, not my usual semi-hermit self. I knew I had to do something to keep my concern about stagnating from becoming a reality. To that end, I said yes to every invitation, took every opportunity to attend community events, joined every group that expressed an interest in me, even played games — a couple of times at the library, most often at the senior center. (If you knew how little I like games, except perhaps the solitaire kind that keeps my mind occupied while I think, you would understand how big a concession this was.)

In the last couple of months, things have changed. Or perhaps it is I who have changed, reverting to my stay-away-from-crowds inclination. (I do best one on one. Being with two or three is acceptable, especially if the others are congenial, but more than that tends to overwhelm me.)

Although I did set out to get involved, I never actually set out to get uninvolved. It just happened. Any time someone ignored me, asked for one thing more than I was willing to give, said something that hit me the wrong way (or even the right way), it stopped me cold, breaking whatever momentum of sociability I’d built up. None of these things were important. None of these things hurt beyond the moment. None of them were things I couldn’t have easily shrugged off. But all of them, in that stopped moment, made me wonder, “What the heck am I doing?”

And so, the life I had built for myself slowly disintegrated. Well, not my life — that’s still intact, along with all the friends I’ve made — but my scheduled life is disappearing. I’ll keep up with a few things — Art Guild, the strategic planning sessions, and maybe an occasional potluck or other activity, but everything else that’s been a regularly scheduled event seems to have been wiped from my calendar.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with this newly unscheduled life. Exercise more, eat better, and try to lose the weight I gained by going to all those community events, of course. Visits and excursions with friends, I hope. But beyond that, I don’t know. (I suppose it’s possible — vaguely possible — that I’ll start writing a new book.)

It seems fitting, in a way, that this change is taking place now. The first anniversary of when I bought my house is two weeks away. A lot has happened in the past year. I’m sure a lot more will happen in the coming months, though I don’t know — can’t know — what. More hermitting? More socializing? More scheduling? Walking back to functions I’ve walked away from?

Since I can’t even guess who or what I will be, how I will change, or how I will feel, I’ll just have to wait to see how the future unfolds and trust that it will be good for me.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Informal Poll

I just came across an interesting comment in a book. Supposedly, if people are in a restaurant with somebody, they look at their food more than the other person. If they are alone, they watch people more than their food.

It seems right, and I remember doing both things, but I’m curious. Is this what you do? Is this what people around you do?

Of course, the question doesn’t take into consideration the prevalence of phones at the table. So, do phones affect the original premise? Or does it still hold true?

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Young Elderly and Elderly Elderly

My post on elderliness the other day might have seemed fatuous, because who of us really cares what age “elderly” is? We don’t need to define our time of life, no matter what it is. At any age, we simply take care of ourselves as best as we can, and as we get older, we make adjustments for ailments, infirmities and joints that don’t work as well as they once did.

And yet, what about others who define “elderly” for us? That will affect us for sure.

For example, one candidate who is trying to win the democratic nomination says that certain medical treatments should be withheld from the “elderly.”

To be honest, people should not be getting quadruple bypass surgeries in their nineties (as my father did) or getting chemo in their late-eighties (as my mother didn’t) but these should be a determination by the patient and the doctor rather than a matter of legislation. (Some insurance companies do make this determination, but it is generally a case by case decision and is not yet mandated by law.)

Many younger folk think this agenda is a good idea. Why should the elderly use up valuable resources if it’s not going to make their lives appreciably better? I, for one, would not opt for such treatments, but then, I only go to the doctor when I scalp myself or break a bone. But it is — and should continue to be — my choice to go or not to go, to accept treatment or to walk away.

A major issue with the candidate’s idea (besides the obvious one of government needing to stay away from such matters) is the term “elderly.” If by elderly, they mean someone who is so frail the treatment would probably kill them, then any reputable doctor would urge the person away from treatment anyway. If by elderly, they mean a person who is strong, healthy, and still heals fast, but has lived many decades, then treatment should definitely be an option. But if by elderly, they mean a person over 65, as is the current political definition of elderly, then such legislation would be nothing short of euthanasia. But it sure would be a political and fiscal coup, eradicating any need for Medicare!

I am not a big believer in government control (not a little believer, either), and usually stay away from politics of any sort, but this particular agenda showed me that “elderly” is not simply a pejorative term or an ageist term, but one of great significance.

And it shows me that I’m right: in the matter of health, there is a big difference between a younger elderly person and an elderly elderly person.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Intrusion

For someone who lives such a simple life, I still manage to find excitement. Or rather, excitement manages to find me.

This particular adventure started with the snowstorm last night.

I went out in the dark to brush off the four-inch accumulation from my ramp. The snow doesn’t melt as quickly from the wooden ramp as it does from the sidewalks, and I wanted to make sure no ice formed under the additional two inches that would pile up in the next few hours. It was a lovely night: luminous and oh, so quiet. I stood there, broom in hand, and enjoyed the experience of being inside my own personal snow globe.

This morning, when I went out to finish sweeping the ramp, I discovered that someone (my next door neighbor, I learned later) had shoveled the sidewalk in front of my house. Such a nice thing to have done!

By the time I finished sweeping the ramp and brushing the snow off my covered car, the clouds had cleared away and the sun was shining warmly. So I went inside, opened the curtains to the back yard to get the benefit of the warmth, and . . .

What the heck?

Footsteps led from the back gate, across the newly dug garage foundation, around the carport almost to the house, then back around and into the carport, and finally out the gate. I told myself I must be misinterpreting what I was seeing. This neighborhood is crawling with feral cats, and I thought that perhaps they had sunk into the snow as they made their rounds.

But no. When I went out to look, I could see that the tracks had been made by shoes, so a person had definitely come in the yard, though it didn’t look as if anything had been taken. (The snow that had blown onto the things stored under the carport had been undisturbed.)

I checked with the contractor to make sure neither he nor one of his workers had come for a ladder or some such they had left here, but he said they hadn’t stopped by and he was sure the building inspector hadn’t either since the inspector wouldn’t have needed to enter the yard. The contractor suggested I call the sheriff, but I hesitated, since nothing had been taken.

Instead, I checked with my next door neighbors who have a camera pointed at the alley to see if they could see anything, and there it was — a video of a hooded fellow very deliberately striding up to my gate, crossing the foundation for the garage, leaving camera range, then a minute or so later, retracing his steps. My neighbor husband, being a tracker, followed the footsteps into a well-trafficked street a couple of blocks away where they disappeared.

My neighbor wife came over to stay with me and said I really should call the sheriff to report an intrusion, so I gave in and did. (Is this a small-town thing? In bigger cities, we don’t generally report something so minor, mostly because we know the cops are too busy to care.) While we waited for someone from the sheriff’s department to come, we sipped flower tea and talked about the theft/homeless/street people problem, which is fairly new in this area. There is a homeless coalition housed nearby, and they bus in people from the big cities, many of whom wash out of the program and end up on the streets here. It’s a good thing for those who stay to finish the program, but overall, it’s not a very good thing for the town.

The sergeant from the sheriff’s department came after about an hour, though he did say (when I asked) that if it had been an emergency, he would have been here immediately. Apparently, a couple of ambulance calls took precedence over my non-emergency. He took my name and birthdate, and I offered him a cup of tea. (I have to laugh at myself in light of my post yesterday about channeling my inner elder since offering tea seems such an . . . ahem, old lady . . . thing to do.)

The sergeant said that the guy in the video didn’t look like any of their “frequent flyers.” We told him we thought it might have been our troublemaking neighbor, but that the tracks hadn’t led to his house. The deputy said that the guy doesn’t live there any more, and if we see him to call because there is a warrant for his arrest — fraud and embezzlement. (Apparently, he is a full-service thug — drug dealer, thief, breaker of the peace, and now defrauder and embezzler.) Before he left, the sergeant said that he would make sure the alley behind my house is patrolled.

By the time I had a chance to take a photo after everything quieted down, most of the 6” of snow had melted, but the tracks were still visible. By sundown tonight, the snow will be gone and all but the memory of the weird event will have disappeared. Well, the memory and the locks I immediately went out to buy to secure the gates.

It really had surprised me that a potential thief would be brazen enough to come through the gate even at that time of night (2:35 a.m. according to the video). A lot of things go missing in this neighborhood, but generally, things are not taken from fenced yards. I have a hunch the absence of my car from under the carport (it’s temporarily parked out front since I can’t get around the garage foundation to park it under the carport) made him think the house was empty.

Adding to the weirdness, when I went to get the locks, it turned out they were kept behind the counter as if they were a controlled substance. Apparently, locks are one of that store’s most stolen items, second only to duct tape.

Weirdest of all, none of this scared me. It probably should, but I had the fence put up, am now using my new locks, and once the garage is up and everything stored out of sight, I will have done everything I can to protect myself.

I might be heading toward elderliness (young elderliness, that is), but I don’t intend to live in fear.

And anyway, at least in the writing, it seems that all this excitement wasn’t so exciting after all.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Channeling My Inner Elder

“Elderly,” with its connotations of frailty and dependence and uselessness, has become a pejorative term, and I can certainly understand that. In fact, the other day when someone mentioned that I was elderly, I was miffed. Elderly? Me? No way.

But that comment led me to a search on what “elderly” is. And when it is.

According to the Social Security administration, 65 is considered elderly, though apparently, that number is being upgraded to 67 since 67 is the new retirement age. According to the AMA, 65 is considered elderly. (As in, “The elderly, i.e. those over 65, are most susceptible to the flu.”) The US Census Bureau considers middle age to be 45 to 65, with the assumption that over 65 is elderly, but one does not go immediately from being middle aged to being elderly, from usefulness to uselessness, from vigor to enfeeblement, but apparently there is no word in the official lexicon — or any lexicon — for this younger older demographic.

Other than these few mentions of what age is “elderly,” the consensus seems to be you are only as old as you feel, though that doesn’t tell me anything. “Feeling” is not the same as “being.” Humans go through a general growth arc, developing and then declining, and there does come a time that, despite what you feel, your body simply doesn’t work as well as it once did. The process is slow, so to a great extent we don’t know we are deteriorating until something happens to smack us in the face and wake us up.

The elderly, even the younger elderly, are at risk for various ailments and accidents, don’t heal as quickly, don’t process thoughts as quickly, don’t focus as quickly as when they were young. I realize this sort of determination is also subjective, but there is a cut off point for each of us when the arrows all point downward. (I’m not talking about joy of living or feeling useful and meaningful and even youthful; I’m just talking about physical things, body processes,)

A few years ago, a friend posted a blog for her birthday. She said, ‘It’s a big one. The one after “middle age” and the beginning of “elderly.” It’s difficult to fathom I’m there already. I don’t feel elderly. I’m told I don’t look elderly. However, the calendar says I am.’

I haven’t reached that “big one” yet, but I’ve often thought of her comment, especially considering the falls I recently experienced. Each fall on its own was simply an accident that could have happened to a younger person, but that they happened to me in such a short period of time makes me wonder if there was something else at work here. Maybe a slower reaction time? Maybe an extra fraction of a second before I realized what was happening? I don’t think so, but I don’t know, so I’ve been channeling my inner elder and staying inside when the streets are snowy or even wet. It’s almost comforting, in a way, to pamper this inner elder and not try to force myself to do something I’m not inclined to do anyway. (I prefer to stay inside since I’m not much for cold weather anymore. Or hot weather, either, for that matter.)

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to admit we’re elderly (though for now I still only admit to “getting older”). After all, when you eliminate the unpleasant connotations with which we’ve saddled the word, elderly merely means “olderly,” (which actually would be a cool word if there was such a thing). And anyway, according to the dictionary, an elder is an older person, especially one with a respected position in society. In this context, elderly has a connotation of wisdom rather than worthlessness.

I can live with that.

When I become elderly, that is.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Snowdrop in the Snow

I’m certainly no snowdrop, remaining steadfast and sprightly in the snow. Instead, I brew a cup of tea and huddle over the warmth of my computer and ignore the snow. Except, of course, a moment now and again to look out the window and enjoy the whiteness of the day.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I did sweep the snow off the ramp leading to the house. I’m not expecting either a package or a visitor, but on the off chance someone would need to come to the door, I wouldn’t want the fates of irony to get into the act. (As much as I appreciate irony, having someone slipping on the wheelchair ramp and ending up in a wheelchair is one example I can live without.)

Then, even though I have a car cover, the snow still needed to be brushed off. It’s been a long time since I had to do that — the last time was a year and a half ago when I got caught in a snowstorm on a road trip. And the last time before that was . . . I don’t know. Maybe a decade or so ago. Even though I haven’t had a workable garage since I moved back to snow country, I do have a carport, but the foundation for the new garage blocks off access. Hence, snow removal.

And then, of course, I had to take a photo of that resolute little bloom in the snow.

This is Tuesday, and as usual, almost all my activities for the week were scheduled for today but, apparently, I am taking a snow day. There can be no work on the garage, a stint of volunteer work at the library was cancelled, I lost track of time and missed the third activity, and I simply don’t feel like going out into the snow and dark for a meeting tonight.

So here I am, a cup of tea at my elbow, the computer shining brightly in front of me, contemplating how not like a snowdrop I am.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Snowdrop!

At least, I think it’s a snowdrop. When I planted bulbs in the fall, I took a scattershot approach, so they are all mixed up without any indication of what is planted where.

The snowdrop was supposed to be the first to bloom, and considering that this little gem (no bigger than my thumbnail) is not just the first but the only flower so far, I figure it has to be a snowdrop. And if not, well, a snowy drop by any other name is still a lovely little blossom.

I realize it’s not much, this bloom, but every flower garden, no matter how lush, had to start with a single flower, and this is mine — the first step to what I hope will be a pretty yard.

At the moment, of course, the yard is not at all pretty. The brown grass is gouged with troughs where the garage and the carport used to be. The carport was moved close to the house and is filled with a lot of the stuff that should be (and will be) in the garage when it is built, but a few cold, snowy days put garage on hold. There are supposed to be a couple of more cold, snowy days next week, but then after that . . . well, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

I realize everything is a slow process, whether growing a single bloom, planting a garden, landscaping a yard, or building a garage, and it’s still early days since I haven’t been here quite a year.

In fact, exactly three weeks from today will be my first anniversary as a homeowner.

So far, so good!

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Preparing for the Death of a Spouse

When people ask me how they can prepare for the death of their sick spouse, I can only shrug helplessly because there is no way to prepare emotionally for all the painful and chaotic feelings that grief will throw at you.

I thought I was prepared for Jeff’s death, so after he died, I truly was stunned by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might have been dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.

As I discovered, there is a world of difference between presence and absence, and an eternity of difference between dying and dead. Because of this difference, you simply cannot know, cannot prepare for how you will feel.

There is one thing, though, that you can do to prepare, and that is to make sure you are familiar with all the little chores that come with modern-day living.

Even if we don’t have a traditional split in chores, such as the woman doing the cooking and cleaning, the man doing the outside chores, we do tend to gravitate to certain chores and over the years, they become habit. So still, in a time of — perhaps — more equality around the house, the person left behind is also left learning how to do things that are generally simple to learn. When you are grieving, however, when you are caught in the never-ending spiral of pain and stress, helplessness and hopelessness, befuddlement and utter bewilderment, learning such tasks becomes almost impossible.

One woman I know was frantic when it came time to take her car in for an emissions test. Because it was something her husband had always done, she had no idea what to do. Another woman had no idea how to balance her checkbook, had never even been to their bank. One man didn’t know how to make coffee or even how to cook simple meals. In another case, it was the woman who had done minor chores around the house, and the poor husband was ashamed to admit he didn’t even know how to change a lightbulb or tighten a doorknob.

Those of us who knew how to do these things found it almost impossible to garner the energy to do them, so I can only imagine how these people were nearly done-in when confronted with such tasks.

Preparing ahead of time is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes it is the dying person who wants to teach the person being left behind how to do all these small things, and the soon-to-be survivor resents not just the lessons, but the very idea that their mate is leaving them.

Sometimes, the one dying is resentful. They already feel helpless and the survivor, by taking an interest in “their” chores, seems to be pushing them further into helplessness.

None of this is easy. We humans are odd creatures — so very fragile, and yet at the same time, so very tenacious. It’s hard to die. It’s hard to survive. And yet each of us manages to do what we need to do, prepared or not.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator