Sunday, October 2, 2011

I am a Caregiver

I am a caregiver. I care for my husband, Jim, who will be 67 years old on October 6.

Last Spring, Jim had three strokes and a heart attack. The same week that I broke my hip and had a full hip replacement. By mid-June, we were both at home and life was looking up. Jim had mild word-finding problems and wasn't able to effectively use his right hand, but we could still have conversations, still enjoy each other's company, still argue, tease, laugh together.

After a few days, maybe as much as two weeks, I began noticing that Jim wasn't getting better; in fact things were getting worse. His language skills were improving, but his awareness of his safety, his location in both time and place was fuzzy (and often completely absent), and his level of cooperation with his medications was declining. He was becoming more and more resentful of me and of the fact that I was always the bearer of bad news. He couldn't drive. He couldn't drink. I wouldn't take him to buy bourbon. He couldn't take aspirin for pain. Finally, he began refusing his pain medication altogether and would sit on the sofa writhing and moaning, but stubbornly refusing any aid.

In mid-July, I proposed a trip to the Coast for our first anniversary. It would be the first time since our first trip to the Coast - way back in early 2001 - that we would stay at a hotel, but there was no way I could drive the truck and pull the 5th wheel. Although we both tried to make it a celebration, it was clear that Jim was struggling. Our anniversary dinner was hamburgers and fries eaten in our room, which I had bought from the bar across the street. While there, Jim's blood glucose fluctuated wildly, at one point reaching almost 500. He had thought his glucose levels were low and bought candy bars; in fact it was high, and I came very close to calling 911. Fortunately, he responded quickly to the insulin.

Upon our return, I put in a call to Jim's doctor, explaining what had happened, and asking for a clear diagnosis. When I heard the words "vascular dementia," I was stunned. At last I had an answer for why we were having the problems I'd been trying to handle, but "dementia" is such a horrible thing to face. I was able to find a support group online, where I've gotten the most incredible amount of information and validation of all that we've faced, as well as what we can expect. It's not pretty.

For the remainder of July and all of August, I continued to struggle. Jim became more and more unsteady on his feet, yet he would insist on walking downstairs with his shoes untied. We bought shoes with Velcro closures, but he wouldn't wear them. I found him in the garage attempting to open a bottle of wine with his vise. He talked about getting his ladder out to climb up on the roof to clean the chimney. He threatened to walk to the liquor store - 2-1/2 miles away and down a steep incline - when I refused to buy alcohol for him. The day I came home from a therapist appointment and found him outside, shoes untied, carrying pruning shears, I knew I could no longer leave him alone. When he refused to have someone in to help, and then refused to ride in the car with me, because he wasn't going to go anywhere until he could drive again, I became a prisoner in our home.

Again, I called the doctor and was told that if there were any way to get him to the hospital for psychological testing, it desperately needed to be done. Failing that, if he posed a danger to me or to himself - for example, if he actually did try to walk to the store - to call 911 and have him put on a "transfer hold" to be admitted through the ER to the mental ward. When I found him drinking mouthwash, I thought perhaps that was the key. It was not. I was told to get all mouthwash, all ethanol of any kind, out of the house, along with any guns and/or ammunition. With the help of his son, I was able to accomplish this.

On September 3rd, at a party at his son's house, Jim's behavior became even more erratic and verbally abusive. When he cut his hand and we couldn't stop the bleeding, I made the decision to take him to the ER. When we were approaching the VA Hospital, driving up a steep, curvy hill, Jim realized where we were going and became even angrier and resumed the verbal abuse. Then he put my car in neutral. Twice. When I put it back in drive and kept going, he reached over and turned it off. After I started it, he did it again. It was getting dark, we were in a dangerous place to be stopped, but I started it again and drove as quickly as I could to the ER.

After much difficulty, Jim was admitted against his will and spent the next twelve days in the mental ward. At various times, he believed he was in Mexico, he persistently believed that I had spent all of "his" money to build the hospital as a home and that the VA had taken it from me. He believed that I had no place to live. He believed that the year was 2076, and he couldn't recall how many children he has. He also believed he still lived in his childhood neighborhood, and would ask when his mother was coming home. She died in 1964.

On September 15,  on the advice of medical staff and with the help of an attorney to gain guardianship, I was able to have Jim transferred to a memory care home, where he lives for now. It's not a good setting for him, although the staff is wonderful and they all love him. He is the most highly-functioning person there (most residents have Alzheimer's Disease, cannot speak, many are incontinent), but because of his continuing threats to "walk away," he requires a locked unit. We are looking for a better placement for him, but all he wants is to come home.

In addition to "brittle" (uncontrolled) diabetes, and the dementia, Jim has congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, high blood pressure, and peripheral neuropathy. But Jim insists that his health has never been better, that I am at fault for his uncontrolled diabetes, and that as soon as the nurses teach him how to used the "new" insulin - the one he's used for as long as I've known him - he will be fine and able to come home. Of course, even if this were true, dementia means that Jim cannot learn new things. His short-term memory is largely gone, although he can - as is common with dementia - pull himself together long enough to participate in a conversation, leaving many to believe he's just fine. Unless, of course, you know that we haven't been to Mexico in three years, have never been to China, and the trip we took to the doctor last week wasn't close by, but was across the river, and many miles away.

Well-meaning friends want to "Jim-proof" our house so Jim can come home. They don't realize that if they take away the ladders, he will climb on chairs. If they take away the chairs, he will climb on tables. If they take away the tables, it will be four walls and no longer "home." If they replace the dishes and glasses with plastic ware, he will still be in danger from photograph glass, window glass - whatever he can drop and break or attempt to use as a tool.

They don't realize the stress of managing brittle diabetes - of having to call 911 in the middle of the night because his glucose levels have dropped so low that he's almost comatose and in danger of dying. They don't realize how hard it is for me to exist on four hours of sleep each and every night because I lie awake, touching him to be sure he's breathing. They don't realize that answering the same question 10 times in five minutes - Do I have a doctor's appointment today? What am I seeing the doctor for today? Do you know when my mom will be home? Do you know where my wife is? - is exhausting. They don't realize that Jim can't reason; that there is no cause and effect for him, only what he wants to do in the moment. They don't realize that caring for Jim is NOT like caring for a small child; that child will learn and progress. Jim cannot learn and is regressing.

But mostly they don't realize that after they have done their good deed, Jim-proofing the house, bringing Jim home, leaving us with their good wishes and love, that they will return to normalcy, leaving us here to once again reach a point of crisis.

Do you know a caregiver? I'll bet you do. Give them the gift of your time. Give him or her an afternoon off while you visit with your friend or family member. Provide a meal. Mow the lawn. Rake the leaves. Or, if their loved one has been placed in a home, accept that it was done lovingly and with much guilt and regret and do not criticize or try to fix it. It can't be fixed. Dementia is forever, changing only in a downward spiral. Acknowledge that the one living with it is the one who knows how it really is. Accept that your family member or friend isn't going to get better, and that the caregiver's stress may be slowly impairing his or her own health. Understand that you only add to that stress when you criticize or argue that your solution is better than the one s/he chose.

Understand that nothing is harder than loving someone who has begun a journey known as "The Long Goodbye." Every day is grief. Every day is loss. Every day is pain.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Then and Now

One day
We were making plans to go to the Coast
To go clamming with friends.

One day
We were making plans to go to Yosemite,
So you could see El Capitan.

One day
We were making plans for another trip
To far away places.

One day
We were making plans to paint the house,
And tile the floors
And maybe find a new home to love as we do this one.

One day
You had a stroke.

I'm learning how to test your blood glucose
And give insulin shots.

I'm learning how to cook the foods you like
In a way that is healthier.

I cut up tiny pills and put them in tiny boxes
And smile when I bring them to you four times a day
And call them "appetizers."

I'm learning, still learning, still learning
Not to respond in anger when you take out your frustrations
On me.

Each night
I wake three or four or five or six times
To touch you, to test your blood,
To watch you breathe
To give thanks
That you are beside me.


Sunday, June 19, 2011


When they ask you where you worked
You can tell them
And give them details.

When they ask if you have children
You can name them
And give them details

And so they say,
"Your long-term memory is good!"
And they smile and you smile and I smile.

When we go to bed
You can't remember which side you have slept on
For twenty years.

When you sit in my chair
In the family room
You don't understand when I ask,
"Do you want to sit there - or here?"
Where you have sat
For eleven years.

When you make coffee
You remember to use four scoops of coffee
But not how much water.
You can't find the teabags
Where they have been
For twenty years.

You marvel at how well I navigate
The route home from the doctor,
Through curves and roads with oddly-shaped turns.
A route you taught me,
On roads you have traveled
A thousand times,
But claim you have never seen.

What are long-term memories made of?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Tomorrow, my Sweetheart comes home for good! I am so excited to have him here with me that I can hardly stand it. We will begin reordering our lives to match our "new normal." Some things we both hope we can resume: reading the paper together in the mornings while we drink our coffee; discussing events of the day; watching our favorite t.v. shows; enjoying our deck in the afternoons - the warm weather is arriving just in time!

Some things will be different for us. There will be new regimens of medications, learning to navigate safely around each other and the house, piecing together the events of the past several weeks so they begin to make some sense for Jim, more doctor's appointments (for both of us), physical therapy, learning to shop with wheelchair and cane - the list goes on!

One of our biggest challenges will be Jim's level of awareness regarding his - and my -limitations. I'm trusting that coming home will provide the comfort and security he needs to not only settle his mind (he still has occasional hallucinations), but also to help him regain his mobility and use of his right hand. I told him that I don't care how long he plays Solitaire on his computer, since I firmly believe using the mouse will be positive in healing it. Fortunately, his therapist agrees with me!

It will be seven weeks on Friday since our lives changed so drastically. We've had the love and support of so many people, that it humbles me and makes me even more aware of how blessed we are. We've both come a long way, but Jim's journey has been longer and more arduous. Given the fears that I had in the early days following his strokes, I'm just so very thankful to know that he'll be home in fewer than 12 hours! I do ask that you, my family, friends, and casual readers, keep us both in your good thoughts and prayers as we begin this new chapter.

My Sweetheart is coming home!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One woman show

Okay, I confess that I'm feeling a little sorry for myself tonight, and I'm doing a bit of grieving as well. All normal, I suppose, given the events of the past three weeks, but a bit unusual and uncomfortable for me. I'm also a little uncertain about putting this out in a public forum like this, but I really feel that if I don't get it out I'll explode. That could get messy and someone could get hurt by flying titanium!

Part of the problem, of course, is that my rock, the man who would ordinarily be providing the emotional support for me, is in no condition to do so. He's struggling with his own issues and doesn't understand that, in addition to being worried about him I'm worried about myself. This afternoon when I went to visit him, he stood up from his wheelchair (which he is absolutely NOT supposed to do without someone on staff there with him), so he could sit on his bed and change his clothes. I won't kid you; I freaked out. He's not real stable on his feet, and I was terrified that he would fall and knock me down. The absolute last thing I want to do is fall, believe me. He got upset with me, because he's quite certain, of course, that he won't fall. And he didn't, but I was still very frightened and found myself backing away from him instead of going toward him to help him. That felt very odd to me, but the instinct for self-preservation is strong, and if I fall and dislocate this new hip I'll be of no help to anyone for a long time.

I didn't like leaving when he was so angry, but it was better for me to leave. He was going to bed, the nurse came in when he got up (it sets off alarms), and it only upsets him (and me) when I can't communicate to him the fear that I have. I wouldn't trade his strong will for anything, but he's not currently able to really understand that he's impaired and that I am, too.

I'm also still digesting the information that I got from the Physician's Assistant on Monday. My healing is going extremely well, so that's not the problem. The problem is that I have an artificial hip. It will always be in greater danger of dislocation than the OEM version. The only cure for a dislocation is - you guessed it - another hip replacement surgery!

It may mean that I can't crawl around on the floor with the grandkids or play trains and cars on the floor with Addison. That has always brought such great joy to me that it's upsetting to think I may have to give it up. Perhaps my physical therapist will be able to allay some of these concerns - s/he'll be here tomorrow - but for tonight they're tumbling around in my poor brain.

I have flowers that I bought just a week before this all happened, and they're sitting on my deck, waiting to be planted. I had gathered some of the stuff together that I needed and was only waiting for some sunny weather to put them in their pots. Well, the sunny weather is here, but I'm not able. My fuschias need to be fertilized, but the mechanics of doing that are frustrating me. I think I can do it, but gathering together the things that I need presents a challenge.

It's mostly just dumb stuff like that driving me to this melancholy. I really don't have any insurmountable problems. Thankfully, we both have good insurance and the money to cover what insurance doesn't, so it really does feel like a one-woman pity party. I've managed to make it this far with only one real crying session - though I've teared up a few times - so I'm really not doing so bad. But the tears are always right there, waiting, and I guess I just needed to get it in writing. Somehow that seems to make it more manageable. I've always been someone who feels that nothing is insurmountable if I can see it in words.

I should be back and ready to conquer the world tomorrow. As long as no one bumps into me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Well, I've survived my first 24+ hours home by myself, although I confess to being a bit lonely in this big house without the daily presence of my Jim. It's funny how much I always have looked forward to the times when he's away hunting or fishing or pursuing some other such pleasure. It's always been a time for me to embrace my alone time and not have to think about anyone else. This time, though, all I think about is Jim.

My youngest son, Ben, ran all over Portland yesterday, gathering up all of the medical accouterments I thought I'd need for my convalescence - bath chair, cane, "grabbers," a new shower head, prescriptions - then picked me up from The Old Folks' Home and brought me back to my much-loved, but now quite lonely, home. He spent a couple of hours getting everything set up, and then kissed me goodbye to return to his wife and children. My sister stopped by last night and brought me some wine (yay!). I drank half a glass and then off to bed for me.

Although I'm technically not cleared to drive, the rehab center where Jim is currently staying is less than two miles away, and I was able to visit him twice today. It takes me almost as long to get into and out of the car as it does to drive there! And since I'm so close, wild horses couldn't keep me away. And it's become abundantly clear over these past two weeks that my presence is vital to Jim's recovery. He's surrounded and loved by our children, grandchildren, other family members, and many, many friends, but our connection to each other is strong. There is nothing that gives me quite the thrill as the joy I see in his face and hear in his voice when he sees me.

He's doing very well, though he has a way to go in rehab. For an impatient man, he's actually coping quite well. He wants very much to come home and would walk out tonight if I were to give him any indication that it would be okay. But we both know that he needs the physical therapy to regain control of his hand and his balance, and that we still have time to be together and to resume the life that we love and enjoy. Every day I realize anew just how blessed I am to have found this deep and abiding love at this stage of my life. Each day brings us closer to once again enjoying our morning ritual of coffee, newspaper, and local news; our afternoon ritual of wine on the deck, admiring our yard and the company of our neighbors; and just the simple pleasure of being together, taking care of things around the house, sharing mealtimes, and arguing politics.

Last July, when we were married, my middle son, Jason, read from I Corinthians. The final words of that reading keep coming to my mind:

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Friday, May 13, 2011


It seems that so many of life’s blessings are mixed, filled with both joy and sorrow, gain and loss. Tonight feels that way to me.

I’m excited that early tomorrow afternoon, Ben will arrive at the door of the rehab center, ready to take me home to return to a life briefly interrupted by the events of the past two weeks. I’m elated that I’ve improved enough to be considered able to be home, taking care of my own needs. I’m also a little nervous about not having the safety net of a team of dedicated professionals who are as close as a small grey button, should I need assistance.

I walk quite well with both walker and cane, and although the walker feels more secure, I’m gradually transitioning to the cane except when I’m out among people. The walker gives me more protection and provides a greater visibility in crowded places. I can take a shower by myself, as long as I use a shower chair, I can manage all of my personal care, and I’ll have a tray attachment on my walker for carrying coffee and food from kitchen to dining area. It all sounds so mundane, but it feels so enormous to be able to do these things after hip replacement surgery less than two weeks ago.

Why, then, is there sorrow? Well, I will leave behind a group of wonderful people here at Marquis Care at Vermont Hills. They have helped and encouraged me, they’ve cheered my achievements, listened to my fears and worries, provided shoulders to cry on – quite literally on a couple of occasions – asked always about Jim, provided comic relief, and have, in just a few short days, become like another family. Julie, Lynette, Nicole, LaShaunda, JoAnna, Angela, Cheryl, Angelica, Debbie, Lisa – all names that recall faces and kindnesses I will never forget. Although I have jokingly referred to this place as “The Old Folks’ Home,” it truly has been a place of rest and refreshment for me, as well as a place of rehabilitation. It fits none of the stereotypes of nursing homes, being instead a place where people care – and it shows.

And the greater sorrow for me will be returning home without Jim. He has been discharged from hospital and is undertaking his own rehabilitation at a place much closer to our home. A place where I will be able to visit more often, and a place that will help him recover and return to our interrupted life.

I’m optimistic that he won’t be there long, but each day apart is its own kind of sorrow. I miss him and I know he misses me. He has come from a far place to where he is today, and there is still much work to be done. He has some trouble with words and he’s undertaking the job of retraining his right hand. But my Jim is a man who has never shirked hard work, and there’s no reason to think this time will be different. I’m so thankful that the man I married last summer knows who I am, who our children, grandchildren and friends are; I’m thankful that he can carry on a conversation; and that the weakness in his right side isn’t major or permanent. Things could have been so much worse.

But when I sit on the deck tomorrow afternoon – and that’s in my definite plans – I will feel incomplete. My joy at being home will be tainted by longing for my Jim to be with me. But soon, very soon, he will join me on the deck, we’ll admire our glorious red rhododendrons, our azaleas, fuschias, vine maples – all the beauty that our beloved home offers us. And we will resume our interrupted life together.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What really happened!

On Monday, April 25, I fell out of the back of Jim's truck. Although that may not sound like a big deal, let me rush to assure you that falling from a height of about four feet onto an asphalt parking lot and landing full force on my left hock, with only minimal fall interference from the left hand and arm, can be a very big deal indeed.

Jim hovered over me for several minutes, asking if I needed an ambulance, while I struggled to assess just how badly I was damaged, and whether I did need an ambulance or not. After a few minutes, with a light Oregon rain falling on me, I told him that I thought I was okay, and that I just needed some help to get into the truck. I didn't feel able to actually get up onto my feet, so I crawled the length of the truck to the front door, where I used the door to pull myself up, and Jim helped me haul myself up into the seat. As he climbed into the driver's seat, he continued to worry that we should call 9-1-1, while I reassured him that I thought a broken bone would hurt a lot worse than I seemed to be hurting. We drove home, I dragged myself up the stairs to our bedroom, climbed painfully into bed, took some heavy-duty drugs, and slipped into an uncomfortable sleep.

From then until Friday morning, I managed - with lots of rest and drugs - to get around the house, eat the occasional meal, watch some t.v. in the family room with Jim, and even do my laundry. Although I was in pain, it seemed better each day, and I was a little more mobile each day. Briana even brought Addison and Drew over for a visit on Thursday, and we had quite a nice time. I was pretty sure that things were healing and I was lucky to be doing so well after a nasty fall.

Friday morning around 7:00 a.m. I made my way downstairs to find my Jim apparently still groggy from sleep and not making much sense. After trying to get him to respond, I made the decision to call 9-1-1 -  the best decision I've ever made. When the EMTs arrived, they told me that they thought he was having a stroke and should go immediately to the hospital. After arguing with Jim for a while, I called his son Mike, and Jim finally agreed to go. He left in the ambulance, and I followed about 30 minutes later in my car.

When I arrived at the ER at the VA Hospital, I parked and struggled to get out of the car. Finally, I grabbed my lower leg and bent it enough to get my foot past the doorsill. I heard a couple of popping sounds, and my whole field of vision went white as I experienced the worst pain I've ever felt. After several minutes, I attempted to put my foot on the ground and stand up. When I did, it felt as if there were nothing under my foot, and I almost passed out from the pain. After hanging by my arms between my car and the one parked next to me, I was able to flag down a very nice man who grabbed a wheelchair and wheeled me to the VA Emergency room. Mike and Christina were already there waiting for Jim to come back from an MRI. I saw him for just a few minutes, and Christina wheeled me across the Skybridge to the ER at Oregon Health & Science University. After waiting what seemed an interminable time, I was x-rayed and told that I had broken the neck of my left femur. Apparently it had been broken when I fell of the truck, but wasn't displaced until I bent my leg, at which time I completed the circuit. The treatment: a full hip replacement.

I saw Jim again briefly that afternoon, and early Saturday morning I was wheeled into the operating room for a four-hour surgery.

For the past few days, I've been recovering from surgery and visiting Jim each day, thanks to the cooperation of the two hospitals and the strong arms of Mike to push me in a wheelchair. Jim has been in and out of the neurology ward and ICU, and we've been told variously that he's had three strokes - or maybe two strokes - that he's had a heart attack and that there either is or isn't a blood clot in his heart that may or may not be feeding clots to his brain. He has traveled in and out of coherence, and has been happy to see us or unable to recognize us. It's all been very frustrating, but he's being cared for by lots of good, well-qualified people.

Tonight I am in a short-term care facility about 7 miles from Jim, where I will spend the next couple of weeks learning how to take care of myself without dislocating my new titanium hip. Jim is resting well and will be returned to the neuro ward from ICU as soon as a bed opens for him - hopefully tomorrow. I will be able to visit him each day, by utilizing medical transportation. Each time we are able to spend a few minutes together it's revitalizing for both of us. And each day I am thankful all over again that I told Jim I didn't need to go to the hospital when I fell; he would have been home all alone at a critical time on Friday.

We have been blessed with the love and care of so many of our family and friends who have visited, run errands, sat with us during difficult times, retrieved things from our house, bought clothes (mine had to be cut off of me), and who have just generally provided loving support during what has been a difficult 10 days. We hope that we're both on the road to full recovery, but recognize that there are still some unknown waters ahead. Together, and surrounded by love, we will face them!

Friday, January 21, 2011

To Addison and Drew, with love

My days as Granny Nanny
Are drawing to a close;
I've fixed your lunch, I've wiped your bottoms,
I've even washed your clothes!

I've rocked you till you fell asleep,
I've held you when you cried;
I've tickled chubby tummies;
I've given a thousand horsie rides!

You've filled my days with untold joy,
You've made me very proud;
I've played with each and every toy,
We've giggled and laughed out loud!

I'll miss my days' beginnings
With joyful, lovely faces,
I'll miss our trips to parks and gyms
And other exciting places.

You've grown and learned so very much
And I treasure each memory;
But time moves on, as people say,
And, my sweethearts, so must we.

I know that I'll still see you
And we'll still have time together,
Not quite the same, but this won't change:
I'll love you both forever!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I dithered a bit about whether or not to post this to my personal or my political blog. You can see where it ended up! Even though it touches on the political, it really is personal to me and, I think, to many others. And it was inspired in part by another blog I read this morning.

You see, despite protests from certain political arenas, words really do matter. Although many of us were raised on the sing-song mantra of children everywhere, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me," those of us who have been wounded by words know the truth.

We may never have exhibited casts or bruises for the world to see, but our spirits - our psyches - have suffered damage. In some cases, it can be repaired; in other cases, the victims don't - can't - find their way out of the pain and so take their own life or the lives of others. But a CAT scan of our emotional selves would still find the lingering scars in the same way that an experienced eye can tell that a bone has at one time suffered a break, or lungs still bear the scars of pneumonia.

Words live on in our brains just as memories do, and words - as with memories - can be triggered by unexpected events or circumstances, often reopening those old wounds, even if just momentarily.

I have a younger sister whom I love with all my heart. She's enough younger (four years) and we grew up with interests different enough that there was no real reason for us to ever be compared to each other. We had different friends and never went to the same school at the same time. But within our extended family we were frequently referred to as "the pretty one," and "the smart one." The truth is, we were both attractive girls and young women, and both had - and have - above-average intelligence.

But I grew up thinking my only currency in life was my looks. This led, over the years, to some bad choices and to behaviors that can only be described as destructive. Imagine my surprise when I entered college as an adult and discovered how smart I really am! I'm prouder than a woman my age should be of my 4.0 GPA in college, and still get a thrill when someone acknowledges my intelligence in even the most oblique way.

My beloved sister, on the other hand, grew up feeling that she was playing second fiddle to the sister everyone described as "pretty." She made good grades, she pushed herself to excel in ways that still astound me, and - while I would hesitate to speak on her behalf - I suspect that she, too, found ways to validate herself that weren't particularly healthy. Frankly, I've always though she is beautiful - well, ever since I stopped thinking she was "cute" - and, although our looks have faded, as they are wont to do with the passage of years, neither of us could be described even today as unattractive. Okay, maybe when we first wake up in the morning...

The other wounding word was "fat." I am a large woman; there's no getting around it. I'm larger today than I've ever been, and the word "fat" can still cause me anxiety, but as a young girl and a teenager, I felt fat. What I didn't know then is that the people who referred to me that way were expressing their own insecurities and that it really had nothing to do with me. Until I was pregnant with my first child, I can't find even one photograph of myself where I would be considered fat. Tall, yes. Big-boned (my mom's favorite appellation), yes. But not fat.

(My mother's constant use of the phrase "big-boned" was finally validated when I was in my 40s and had my first bone density test. It turns out that I do have "big bones": my bone density is 125% of normal! With the history of osteoporosis in my family, "big boned" is my favorite thing to be!)

Moving away from the personal, how many news reports have we heard in the past few years about people killing themselves or others because of words? How many young people have lashed out violently after years of being bullied?

Four-eyes. Stupid. Ugly. Cripple. Fat. Queer. Crater face.

I'm not trying to use this forum to point a finger and say that the young man who committed the crimes in Tucson, AZ on Saturday was directed to do that by anyone. But I am saying that when we use inflammatory language there will be consequences. Sometimes the consequences are damaging only to the individual; it's internalized and a life is changed in some way. But sometimes the consequences are damaging to others. We can't know who hears our words and perceives them as a call to action. We need to appreciate that inflammatory words create a climate that elicits more inflammatory words, and that climate then can - and sometimes will - reach a state where words are no longer enough. Where some other kind of action feels necessary. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (NIV)

We share our planet, our nation, our states, our cities, our communities with people who may not always be able to distinguish between rhetoric and a call to action. There are mentally and emotionally fragile people among us; people who cannot be counted on to know that we "didn't really mean it that way."

I am resolved to use kinder words. I may not always be successful, and I will not turn away from a good and enlightening discussion or argument. But I can be kinder. I have never suffered name-calling (you can ask my kids!), but now I will work to guard against words that can engender hatred and anger. I hope I can encourage others to do the same.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Booming into old age

I can't say that I ever felt "special" in any way. Other than that each person is "special," that is. I didn't feel that I was privileged or that my childhood was better or worse than my parents' had been. Of course, they lived through the Great Depression and I didn't, but my mother's stories of those days were entertaining and she always cast them in a positive way, so it didn't really seem that awful.

And, of course, I was born after WWII, so I also didn't really understand what it meant to be so fully separated from husband/father/boyfriend during a time of war. And of course WWII wasn't divisive in the way our war was. People who were against the war or who didn't want to serve learned to keep their mouths shut. So the country may have been divided - but nobody knew about it.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and went to a working-class school. The vast majority of my friends had parents who were in the military (we lived just minutes from an Air Force Base), or who did some kind of manual labor or office work. I don't recall a doctor, lawyer, or other professional person among my peers' parents. Oh, there were some at our church (I was raised Episcopalian), but we really didn't socialize with them other than on Sundays. And we knew that where they lived was a far cry from where we lived! But I don't recall being particularly envious, nor do I remember feeling deprived.

That was largely - maybe even fully - thanks to my mother and her upbeat attitude. She was the original "be-thankful-for-what-you-have-there-are-starving-children-in-China" kind of mom. We had little enough; our polio-crippled mother was our only support - other than the occasional generous help from our church - but I never felt poor. Somehow, if that new Elvis record was really important to me, mom found a way to get it. Money for a high school football game? She'd make it happen. The only way I really felt different was not having a dad, and I did create elaborate lies to explain his absence from our home in those divorce-unfriendly 50s and 60s. But really, mom worked very hard to make our lives as much like our friends' lives as was possible. We often had little to eat, and it was frequently what we called "filling" rather than nutritious. But we not only survived; we thrived.

And we lived our lives pretty much as our friends and neighbors did.

So, although the term "baby boomer" wasn't applied to my generation until we were in our 20s (by some counts), I really don't recall thinking of myself that way until after my youngest was born when I was in my 30s. Since then, however, we've learned how "special" we all think we are; how we influenced television programming, advertising, consumerism of all kinds (most recently health care), and are generally accused of being a fully self-centered generation.

There are a lot of reasons put forth for our supposed feelings of entitlement: our parents wanted us to have better lives than they did (what parent doesn't feel this way?); we exerted a fiscal force to be reckoned with (with 76,000,000 of us, we'd all have to stay home to prevent some kind of impact!); we overwhelmed society with our music and values (as if Frank Sinatra and the bobby-soxers didn't shock the previous generations!).

Remember, though, my generation gave the world Bill Clinton AND George W. Bush. Many of us fought in a war that others of us protested against. We sang along with The Rolling Stones and Cat Stevens. We let it all hang out at Woodstock, and covered it all up with granny dresses. We smoked pot because our parents didn't want us to, and then lied about it to our kids to keep them from smoking pot. We left home, rejecting our parents' values and indulgences, and then we protected and indulged our children to a greater degree than any parents before us.

We are a generation like any other, in that we defy easy generalities. Some of us embrace our ageing with grace; others of us are kicking and screaming. Some have sought and enjoyed early retirement and its attendant woes and blessings; other vow that we would have no real purpose if we didn't have our jobs.

So today, January 1, 2011, as the baby boom generation begins to turn 65, don't be too hard on us as a generation - and let us not be too hard on ourselves. We didn't choose the world into which we were born; no one does. We didn't emerge from our mothers' bodies demanding special treatment, except in the way every infant does. We didn't walk in lockstep in the 50s (some loved Elvis, others loved Pat Boone), the 60s, or the 70s; and we don't walk in lockstep today.

We're your parents, your grandparents, your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends. We're as individual as you are and most of us - not all of us, by any means! - don't want to be lumped together as a bunch of navel-gazing, self-important old folks.

After all, most of us are still dealing with the fact that we're older than 30!