Thursday, November 27, 2008

Who would have thought that I, a committed freelancer, would take a full-time gig at a Jesuit publishing house? Yep, that's exactly what I did, and I'm here to say that it was a brilliant career move. Little did I know how hungry I was for human interaction after working solo from home for 27 years. Who knew? And little did I realize that a nice Jewish girl like me could find so many fun and kind people working at Loyola Press. My Catholic friends call on a regular basis, curious to know if I've started attending mass or taken my first communion. I assure them that no one has tried to convert me, least of which my two bosses - one of whom was a priest, the other a seminarian.

I figure that my dad had something to do with my move back into the 9 to 5 (actually, 8:30 to 4) work-a-day world. He worried about my living beyond my means and how in blazes I would make it financially once he was gone. Well, he's gone, and I'm more financially stable than I've been in, well . . . 27 years. If only he were here to enjoy my stability and delight. Ironically, it may have taken his death to push me to make a 180-degree career move. Dad, this one's for you!

Now, I have people to laugh with, complain to, and to share the challenges of revising and editing a set of venerable language arts textbooks, texts that have been around since the mid-1940s when a group of teaching nuns from Philadelphia published the first edition. The texts are sold to elementary and junior high schools nationwide and, while the majority are used in Catholic schools, there is nothing to stop public schools from ordering the books. That means the books are non denominational - as best as I can tell the ONLY non denominational publication coming from Loyola Press.

I love getting up every morning, donning something other than jeans and a sweatshirt, and heading off to work. My days are full, the work is challenging enough, and the time flies. And to think that I almost blew off the interview. I'm a writer, not an editor. I did the educational thing in another lifetime (I taught junior and senior high school English) so why would I want to return? And the Jesuit Ministry thing . . . Well, I was a bit concerned. I imagined crosses adorning every bulletin board, prayer sessions each morning, and a group of Bible-thumping zealots.

Some people do display crosses in their offices and cubicles. And there are prayer sessions (optional) every once in a while. And copies of publications like Christ Our Lord and The Catechist's Toolbox do fill the bookshelves. But Father Lane and the staff are some of the sweetest, most supportive people I've met and, honestly, I could probably use a little bit of that sweet, old religion about now.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day I give thanks for this new job, for my family and friends, for my good health. Oh, and did I mention a whole lot of gratitude to the American public for having the good sense to elect soon-to-be President Obama?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

None of Us Wavered

If you are reading my blog for the first time, this post will hardly reflect my often playful and humorous take on life. In July, I lost both of my parents within three plus weeks of each other. It was - and remains - a very painful, stressful time. This may be the final piece about that marker event in my life for some time.

The doctor says there are few families that would have let my father die on his own terms – at home, under hospice care, with no feeding tubes or other measures to prolong his life. Someone in the family, the doctor says, would have cried “Uncle!” and tried to save him, gone the extra mile to prevent the inevitable. None of us wavered.

He looks like a young boy. He looks like a monkey. Now he looks like a skeleton, his cheeks sunken, his ribs protruding, his perpetually swollen legs all but sticks. My dad is in the final stages of dying after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He cannot talk. He cannot swallow. His is paralyzed on his right side. Still, he hangs on. Maybe he is wrestling with unfinished business or maybe he’s changed his mind; the death he seemed to covet is no longer so appealing. Or maybe at age 91 he is a lot stronger than any of us could have imagined.

My brother, sister, and I know the signs of dying only too well. My mother died in the same bed surrounded by the same hospice staff just three weeks ago. That was our first experience. We are old hats now. While my parents’ illnesses were different, the stages of dying are eerily similar. It is hard work to die. We labor to come into this world and we labor to leave it.

Our family is apparently not unique. A study conducted by Harvard University found that men are 18 per cent more likely to die shortly after their wives’ deaths, and women are 16 per cent more likely to die shortly after their
husbands’ deaths. I have a friend whose mother died, leaving her father alone and depressed. Nothing brought him a modicum of joy, not even moving in with his daughter and son-in-law. The widower mentioned over and over again that he’d never missed being with his wife on her birthday or on their wedding anniversary. And he had not intention of changing things. But his physician had given him a clean bill of health; he was nowhere near dying. Soon after, he suffered a massive stroke. He held on for six days and died on his wedding anniversary.

Most of us have heard stories like this about an older person who “dies of a broken heart” shortly after their longtime spouse’s death. But it all seems like the stuff of soap operas – over-the-top drama until it happens to someone you love. My dad had made it clear that he wanted to die before my mother. And he made no bones about hating to grow old. “Growing old is not for sissies,” he said often. But as I watch him now, struggling for each breath, gurgling in the phlegm pooling in his throat and lungs, I know . . . I just know that he’d give anything for a reprieve.

We knew my mother was dying; we had time to “prepare.” One day, she was on her way to play bridge at the Lighthouse for the Blind. Later that afternoon, after complaining of pain in her legs and having trouble walking, she was in the hospital with an irregular heart beat, high blood pressure, and the worst case of gout the doctors had ever seen. “It’s nothing,” my dad said. He was wrong. The medication for the gout turned her stomach into a whirlpool of upset and pain. Her red blood cell count dipped dangerously low. My mother, once active and involved, spent most of her time in bed. Within ten days, she was back in the hospital. Still, we remained optimistic. The massive dose of steroids given as a last resort to battle the gout would turn things around. We were sure of it. Again, we were mistaken. “Your mother is dying,” the doctors said. While my mother accepted her fate with grace and dignity, my father did not. “I know she’s going to pull out of this,” he said.

Just thirty-six hours before my mother died, we found my dad flat on the floor with his forehead bleeding profusely. He had no memory of falling and no idea what may have caused the fall. He was rushed to a local hospital where, after a battery of tests, the doctors confirmed that he had suffered a cerebral Hemorrhage, or bleeding on the brain. His situation was borderline; if the bleeding didn’t stop, he’d need an operation. “No surgery for me,” my dad said emphatically. And he meant it. Either he recovered or he didn’t. That was that. All that mattered to him was seeing my mother.

The ambulance pulled up slowly into my parents’ driveway. The EMTs opened the back door and carefully lowered my father’s stretcher to the ground.
After a heated discussion, the hospital staff had allowed him to come home to spend sixty minutes and no more with my mother who had died just hours before. Family and friends tried their best to hold back the tears but to no avail. There was my father, sitting now at the end of the bed, staring at his partner of sixty-seven years. The late afternoon sun bounced off of her shiny silk pajamas and highlighted her incredibly smooth skin, her delicate hands, her full head of hair not yet all gray. Satisfied, my father signaled that he was ready to return to the hospital.

My father looks like Popeye The Sailor Man now with his one cheek swollen twice its normal size. He lies on his side, his pace maker sticking out from his chest like a pack of cigarettes. He’s no longer responding to noise or to touch. There is no way to reach him. It’s evening now, the night before my birthday. My dad is going to die on my birthday. I just know it. I try to see the poetry in this, the “life coming full circle” thing. It’s a stretch, a big stretch. Up until now, I’ve loved to repeat the story of my birth toward the end of World War II at 4:40 A.M. Eastern War Time. But if he dies tomorrow, my birthday will never be a day of celebration again. It seems so selfish for me to be thinking this way. I can’t help it.

It’s 4:00 A.M. on my birthday, and I cannot sleep. Restless, I grab a jacket, slip it over my mother’s nightgown that I’ve taken to wearing, put on a pair of sandals, and start walking the block from where I’m staying to my dad’s house. Halfway, I see two figures emerge under a street lamp. As I get closer, I realize it’s my brother and sister. They are coming to get me. “We think dad is ready to die but that he’s waiting for you,” they say. I walk quickly now. I’m on a mission. I stand by my dad’s bedside and retell the story of my birth, urging him to let go. I remind him that his dear wife and beloved son who predeceased him by 30 years are waiting for him in a better place. I brush up against him, hoping that the still lingering perfume on my mother’s nightgown will push him to the “other” side. It doesn’t work. He keeps on breathing, quietly now, regularly. I wave off birthday wishes from my siblings like some kind of sick joke and slink back to bed.

The vigil continues. Friends come, sitting with my father, their eyes closed, their hands folded neatly in their laps. When my sister is in the room, there is no talking allowed. I guess it’s about respect for the dying; for me, it’s
cruel and unusual punishment. I’m not getting a thing from watching my father die. He’s emaciated, deformed. Now I can see the chord leading to the pacemaker. For God’s sake, why doesn’t someone figure out how to turn the damn thing off and let the man die in peace? This is when assisted death makes complete sense. Not the Jack Kevorkain style – just a large enough dose of morphine to “snow him under.”

My dad does me a huge favor and waits until the day after my birthday to die. He has the last laugh, passing away quietly when everyone in the house has dozed off. He wouldn’t have wanted all eyes upon him when he took his last breath. He was much too private for that and did things his way one last time. Good for you, dad.

I stare at the all-too-silent man lying in front of me. His bushy eyebrows still hang precariously in his eyes, eyes that remain wide open as if ready for the next adventure. I’m grateful for the chance to see him so peaceful after his eight-day struggle to die. It wasn’t pretty, and the images will haunt me until time plays its magic trick and erases from my mind the moans, the labored breath, the frightfully fast destruction of his physical body. Tears come easily now. There’s no longer any need to stay strong. As heartbreaking as it was, we did as we were asked and upheld my dad’s wishes to die at home without any intervention to save him. My siblings and I were a team and now, having lost both of our parents in the space of weeks, it is our turn to break down and mourn.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

True Love?

Okay, my readers. You may number one or two, but still I feel an obligation to keep my blog as interesting and current as possible. And, hey, who wants to read about death and dying? That gets maudlin very quickly.

But I do want to share a common response I'm getting when I mention that my dad died less than four weeks after my mom. "Well," they say. "At least, they are together again."

And I want to say, "Well, maybe they don't want to be together again. Maybe they did a lifetime together and want some space or the chance to meet someone new or, heck, the chance to sit and stare at the wondrous images up there in Heaven.

But, of course, I don't say a thing. That would be sacrireligious, blasphemous, or
something. How can I diss my parents' relationship or make the judgment call that my mom in particular was probably hoping for a reprieve? It's not that she didn't love my dad. She did. But certain hurts, misunderstandings, and who knows what built up over almost 68 years, and I figure she was just plain out of steam.

I know we all say things we don't really mean. Hey, I'm married, too. But when my mom told me a matter of months before she died that she'd like my dad to take a permanent golfing vacation, I got the feeling that she meant business.

And as she was in the final stages of dying, it appeared that she'd pretty much shut him out. Yes, there was that morning when the hospice care worker found them talking softly to one another. They were apparently holding hands and whispering sweet nothings. I think my mom realized that it would be terribly unfair to leave my dad without some words of love and comfort. I suspect that she'd worked through whatever had come between them and wanted to part on a good note. That was the least she could do.

So, when friends and strangers comment on the close death of my parents and how much they must have loved one another, I don't buy it. Theirs was not what I would label a happy and loving ending.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


It's toughest in the mornings. Upon waking - when the first conscious thoughts flood into my head - I feel last month's loss of both of my parents more than almost any other time of the day or night. This morning, I saw my mother laid out on the bed in which she'd died only minutes before. She looked lovely, washed and dressed in her favorite purple silk pajamas. The mid-afternoon summer sun bounced off of the silk and highlighted a peaceful face that looked so much younger than that of most 91 year olds. Her full hair, not yet completely gray, held its natural wave. I styled it one last time.

She died with her left eye slightly open. And as the time passed before her body was picked up, my sister and I got a bit spooked. It was if she were going to keep an eye on us, even in death. "It's okay, mom," I said. "We'll be fine. We promise." Before long, we started to laugh every time we walked past her. We felt like school girls under the watchful eye of our favorite teacher.

Some mornings, I try to erase the images from my mind; other mornings, I dive into them, knowing that the only way to make it through this sad and lonely time is to acknowledge the full spectrum of my emotions. I'm a middle-age woman who was blessed to have had my parents for so long. But losing them so late in life doesn't make their deaths any easier. In some ways, it may be even more difficult - I've relied on them for their love and support longer than most. It's tough to let go now.

I wear a piece of my mother's jewelry every day. It helps me feel closer to her and reminds me of her exquisite taste and her sense of beauty. This morning, I've put on a gold and quartz ring that she had custom designed. I wear it on the middle finger of my left hand, a proud badge of a close and loving mother/daughter relationship.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What does a freelancer do in her free time? She takes a Photoshop class.

Who knows - maybe I'll illustrate my own writing some day. Or maybe I'll toss the pen aside for a camera.

My best writing has always been highly visual. "Show don't tell" is one of the proverbial tenants of successful writing. So, in the absence of any new writing projects, I've turned to my camera and all the neat things Photoshop can do.

Here is a sampling of what I've been up to. Alas,
the more involved collages cannot be uploaded. I'll
try to solve that problem another time.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Brothers and Sisters

Yes, I wrote a book about brothers and sisters. But that was years ago; since then, I've written another book that explored love and sex during World War II and the significant changes that war created in relationships between men and women.

Out of the blue, a reporter from the Toronto Star contacted me. She was writing a piece about siblings and exploring her premise that, as they age, Baby Boomers will take a closer look at their sibling connections. She'd found my book while researching the subject and wanted to talk.

I wasn't sure what I could add to her story; I'd been off the sibling stump for a long time. I was rusty. The note cards I'd used for book talks disappeared long ago. The talking points for the media - whether print or television - were a mere memory of another time when I was primed and ready to go.

But a funny thing happened. The minute I started to respond to the reporter's first question, I shifted into overdrive. The reasons for writing the book, the surprises along the way, the results of sibling research all came back to me like a pet who'd run far, far away and miraculously found its way back home.

I was in my mid-40s when I wrote Brothers&Sisters. In the intervening years, I've learned a thing or two but have not changed my mind a whit when it comes to the importance of our siblings and the many ways in which they impact our lives. I wrote a chapter about the illness and death of parents and how those seminal events impact siblings. When I wrote that material, I depended upon research and upon the stories of others. Now, I could revise that chapter from personal experience.

My brother, sister, and I have worked together as a well-oiled team in the care for my seriously ill mother. Normally, that charge falls to the oldest daughter in the family - often, on her shoulders alone. But it is my "baby" sister who is leading the charge here and who suggested to my parents that they relocate from Florida where they'd lived for years to a small college town in Ohio just ten minutes from her home. My sister works in hospice care, feels compelled to work with the dying, and is surrounded by a large support system for both her and my parents.

In truth, I was relieved when my sister made the offer and my parents accepted. I'm not blessed with a half dozen friends who would make it their business to help tend to my parents almost daily. I have a husband, a son living close by, and a job, albeit not full-time.

Before my parents moved to Ohio, my siblings and I took turns visiting them. After several back and forth trips by my sister and me, my brother arrived from France where he lives full time and stayed for a month. Whatever misgivings I'd had from the past melted away when I realized his strength, caring, sense of responsibility, and willingness to keep me in the loop daily. I told him as often as I could what a terrific job he was doing and how much I appreciated him.

I'm blessed to have two siblings who, despite childhood misunderstandings, have put all the baggage aside to care for my parents. I can't imagine what it would be like to be an only child or to have siblings who are unwilling or unable to participate in the end of a parent's life. No one has more shared memories than siblings; no one understands the family dynamics better than those who lived together under the same roof and who spent so much time together.

I don't know how well I communicated all of this to the lovely reporter from the Toronto Star. But talking to her reminded me of why I wrote the book in the first place: I knew that, despite all the emphasis on relationships between parents and children, the sibling connection was supremely influential. And the interview reminded me that once an author, always an author.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Clearing Out

The Herculean task of getting my parents' Florida condo ready for sale fell to my husband and me. Fair enough. My brother had just spent a month tending to my 91-year-old parents and had returned to France. My sister was running the show in Ohio, where my folks had decided to live out whatever time they have left.

I had a To Do List and a game plan in mind. But when I started opening up drawers and cabinets and closets, I almost turned right around. It was as if my parents had packed a few suitcases, grabbed some photos and family heirlooms to be mailed, locked the door, and walked away. I was overcome by the enormity of the task that was mine and the single-mindedness of purpose that was clearly theirs.

For the next five days, my husband and I amassed three piles - roomfuls is more like it. The pile to be discarded, the pile to be given away, and the pile to be sent to my parents. Office supplies, clothes, linens, grubby pots and pans, records from years ago, old cameras, obsolete tape recorders, gift wrapping, cards and postcards saved but never sent, toiletries, purses, shoes, dresses, canned food, frozen meat - the vestiges of a life filled with too much stuff. And a life filled with hopes, dreams, accomplishments and disappointments; a life coming down the homestretch.

I stared at the rows of shoes in my mother's closet. She has very small feet and, over the years, took advantage of sample sales to amass some pretty hot numbers. Now, the high heels were gone, replaced by special shoes for diabetics and her favorite Mephisto sandals from France. I tried not to get tangled in the emotional strings of all those shoes, but it didn't work. Hot, salty tears streamed down my cheeks. I let out deep moans that came from a place buried inside my soul, a place reserved for immense sorrow and hurt.

I was hurting both physically and emotionally. My back, already sore from a past injury, tightened like a vice grip. My "bad" knee buckled while lugging heavy loads of garbage back and forth down the long hallway from my parents' condo to the garbage shoot. When my husband suggested that I slow down or take a break, I just looked at him in disbelief. "Don't you see how much more needs to be done?" I said. "I can't possibly stop now."

Friends of my parents stopped by. They looked stunned, unwilling to believe that my mother and father were really not coming back. Several stayed and helped us pack dishes, decide how to rearrange the furniture, and to choose a few mementos that would remind them always of the good times they shared with my mom and dad.

On the last day - after hauling the last of the garbage bags down the hallway and into the garbage shoot - I walked from room to room, surveying what looked like a staged condo ready for sale. Cabinet shelves, closets, and drawers were empty. Much of the art work had been stored and mailed up north. Furniture in the living room and studio had been rearranged. Despite the clearing out, reminders of my parents were everywhere from the Japanese silk hanging on the master bedroom wall to the stained glass windows my mother had so lovingly crafted. I shut my eyes and could hear my mother calling us to dinner or asking for a word while doing the daily crossword puzzle; the whoosh of my father taking a golf swing in the living room or cheering for one of his hometown sports teams.

As far as senior facilities go, this was top of the line; my parents had enjoyed their independence, even when yet another neighbor suffered a stroke or passed away. In the end, though, it was the constant reminder of their own mortality and the chance to live closer to their children that drove my parents away. The anticipated "last stop" in their journey was not the last stop after all but a bridge to a cozy home in a tiny Midwestern town surrounded by loving caregivers, friends, and devoted children.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Wait

I should have been ready. After all, I wrote a book about brothers and sisters. And, by extension, I explored parental ties.

I should have been prepared. All bets are off when a parent is dying. Emotions come from left field. Patience is thin. The stress level reaches epic levels. Family members do their best to manage their fears, but there are those times when the dam breaks and all hell breaks loose.

My father has been the glass-is-half-full guy through all of this. "She's going to get better," he has said more times than I can count. "She's going to make it."

At first, I wanted to believe him. I still do. But the medical reality has set in and, baring a miracle, my 92 year-old mother is not going to pull through. The proud woman who covered up her dementia and fooled many has let go. The feisty woman who promised that she was going to fight no longer has the energy nor apparently the will. Conversations are limited to "I love yous," "Don't those flowers smell wonderful!" and "Oh, look at that bird!" She is content. It's the rest of us who are up in arms.

My sister is obsessive compulsive when she is in my parents' home. She picks up a barely visible piece of dirt off of the floor. She rearranges books and throws out newspapers. Everyone has been instructed to remove their shoes before entering the house.

"I couldn't live with you!" I said jokingly. "I'd never be able to keep the place clean."

She started to yell, with tears streaming down her face. "I'm sick and tired of being disrespected," she said.

Yikes! I'd walked into a mine field.

"I'm doing all of this work, and no one appreciates it."

I tried to hug her, but she pulled away.

It didn't take long for me to figure out that this really had nothing to do with me. She and my dad had had a similar run-in the day before, after he'd thrown away important phone manuals and who knows what else. I signaled to my son in another room, and the two of us hightailed it out of there. When we returned, my sister had calmed down.

"I'm feeling much better," she said. "Dad and I worked things out."

She was off the hook - at least, for the moment.

Then, a day later, it was my turn. "You know," my father said, "you're one of only two people who think mom is dying."


"Because of you I'm about ready to call everyone and tell them that they'd better get here right away if they want to see mom alive."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I said. "You're the one who came to me yesterday and said that she wasn't going to make it!"

"Well, you didn't have to agree with me."

I could see this was a no-win deal for me.

I started screaming. "I don't want her to die! I was just trying to be realistic."

"Well, you're my oldest, and I'm really disappointed in you."

"Disappointed?" I said at the top of my lungs.

"That's right. You must think I'm some sort of fool. Do you think I don't know how sick she is?"

There was no way to reason with him. At that moment, I didn't care.

"Dad, I'm not the one who broached this subject yesterday. That was you. And as you were crying and I was trying to console you, I agreed that she probably wasn't going to pull through."

He was furious. "Who told you she was dying?"

I was standing now. "Dr. Morgan," I said.

"Well, she never told me."

"Oh, so I'm the bad guy - the purveyor of doom and gloom. How the heck would I be able to make such a pronouncement without medical input?"

"It's because of you that I have lost all hope."

That did it. "No one is going to tell me how I'm supposed to act or feel. Not you, not my sister, not some hospice nurse! I never had a chance to say good-bye to my brother and I'll be damned if anyone is going to prevent me from saying good-bye to my mother!"

I paused for a moment, wondering how my brother's death by suicide some thirty years ago came into play.

"Well, I didn't get to say good-bye to your brother, either!"

I paced up and down the living room, trying to figure out how we'd gotten to this place.

"Look," I said. "I love you. I don't want to fight. We're all under terrible stress, and taking that out on each other isn't doing a damn bit of good."

His face softened. I walked up to him, put my arms around him, and we both started to cry. Deep, mournful cries.
"I need you to be positive," he mumbled. "Otherwise, I don't know how to make it through. I don't remember anything in my life before the age of eleven when my mother died."

He'd mentioned this to me the day before. Clearly, he hadn't processed his mother's death and, I'd imagine, the deaths of loved ones that followed.

I patted the top of his head, his white hair now falling gently into his eyes. "I know . . . I know."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My mom is dying. Oh, the doctors manage to couch the truth in their own medical psycho babble: "Nothing she's suffering is life-threatening in and of itself," they say. "But she has so many problems. And she is ninety-one." Yeah, we know how old she is. We celebrated her 89th when she said it would be her last. "No one in my immediate family has ever lived this long," she said matter-of-factly. But she didn't die. Wasn't even close. Sure, her eye sight was failing; her hearing was bad. And her loyal and true mind had begun to fail her. "So," she said casually. "I can't remember the way I used to." While the rest of us struggled with her dementia, it seemed that she had made her peace.

A few weeks ago (is it only a few weeks?), she suddenly had trouble walking. Her feet were killing her. Then the excruciating pain spread to her hands. At the same time, her heart started acting up. It had gone into atrial fibrillation and a fast pulse - a dangerous tango. "It's nothing to worry about," my dad said, trying to convince himself as much as me. But he was wrong. My mom was suffering from gout, anemia, low blood oxygen, and a disobedient heart.

After her first hospitalization, I flew to Florida, hopeful that, with every day, she'd feel stronger and more alert. But things spiraled downhill. The growing pain in her stomach - who said anything about her stomach? - kept her in bed for most of the day and night. The medication twisted her bowels and sent her to the toilet much too often. The swelling in her joints didn't show any improvement. She was miserable.

The doctor palpated her stomach, inspected her hands and feet, checked all of her vital signs. "I've never seen her like this," she said. "I want her back in the hospital now." Dejected, my father, mother, and I passed "go" and drove straight to Sarasota Memorial. This time, she got a private room.

Hospital rooms, no matter how private, are inhospitable cells where the sick and dying are hooked up, poked, and prodded. Despite the insult of it all - and the growing number of black and blue marks up and down her arms where nurses from nurses searching for a viable vein - my mother never complained. She wanted to get better and go home in the worst way, yet she made the best of a lousy situation. "It is what it is," she said without an ounce of anger or self-pity.

Progress was slow. But there was progress. We were all so hopeful. And though I hated to leave, I had a husband at home and work to pursue.

When the phone rang late at night, I knew the news was bad.
"Your mom has had a stroke," my dad said in a very small voice. "You'd better come."
A stroke?
I pounded my fists into the table. I kicked my slippers across the room. Hadn't she suffered enough!

It wasn't a stroke. The attending nurse had come in to give my mother some medication and saw that she wasn't breathing. They "resuscitated" her not once but twice. Then they wheeled her out for a cat scan of her brain
"I don't think she'd stopped breathing for very long," the nurse told my husband.
For VERY long! Any cessation of breathing is too damn long!
Within the hour, my almost 91-year-old father who had raced to the hospital, alone and at night, called again.
"She's just fine," he said. "She had something called apnea or something like that."
"Apnea? You mean sleep apnea?"
"That's it. Sleep apnea."

It didn't matter. The next morning, I was a plane headed back to Florida. I must tell her again and again how much I love her . . . what a wonderful mother she's been. Maybe if I tell her we can still take that family cruise. Or that my son, her only grandson, has found someone special. Or that my latest book, a tribute to her and to my father, will be made into a movie. Or just that I'm happy more often than not, share warm connections with family and friends, and that I owe my strength and open heart all to her.

I don't know how much fight she has left.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Gyro What?

What in the world are these people doing? Are they out of their minds? Is this some weird form of torture? Or a new form of exercise for the criminally insane?

Nope. This is Gyrotonic. And believe it or not, it rocks.

My world of exercise was shrinking fast. A chronic lower back problem forced me to give up Pilates. All those moves with legs overhead and a slow, vertebra by vertebra descent were more painful than multiple shots of Novacaine at the hands of a sadistic dentist. Then a bum knee hampered my developing yoga practice, turning Warrior poses into Wimp poses. What was I, a believer in regular exercise, to do?

The answer came in the form of three people perched on what looked like contemporary torture racks - though none of the apparent students evidenced any pain. Instead, they were grasping handles and somehow moving their upper bodies in wide circular configurations that resembled stirring a huge pot of soup. Or mixing a witch's brew. I was intrigued.

The system of stretching and toning rotational exercises - most of which are done on the contraption called the "tower" (see photo above left) - is called Gyrotonic. Often described as a yoga/dance//Pilates hybrid, Gyrotonic was developed by a former gymnast, dancer, and swimmer who, after injuring an Achilles tendon, devised a system of yoga and then designed the "tower" to provide mild resistance that complements the moves. I had to try it!

It's been a while since I've felt like a klutz. And though my private instructor moved slowly through the basics of Gyrotonic - the repetitive cycles of circling movement and rhythmic breathing, arching my back and curling my spine, narrowing my hips - I felt like a bench warmer thrust into a varsity game. The work demanded my full attention and challenged everything I thought I had down pat: coordination; rhythm; strength, and endurance.

Yet there was something about Gyrotonic that felt familiar. So, I stayed with it. Slowly, I began to get the hang of it and, with progress, began to understand how yoga and dance had been integrated into the system. All the arching and curling of my spine made it stronger. My posture improved. I was less inclined to initiate movement from tense and hunched shoulders and more able to keep the shoulder wings "in my back." My hip flexors gradually opened, allowing me greater range of movement in Gyrotonic and in everyday life.

The "no pain no gain" theory of exercise is happily not part of the Gryrotonic creed. Sure, there are mornings after when I have a sore muscle here or there. But most of the time, even after sessions in which I've done things with my body never thought possible, I'm whole. It's been 9 months since I started doing Gyrotnic, and I haven't had to see the chiropractor once.

Gyrotonic is not for those on a tight budget. A private, one-hour session at Chicago North Shore Gyrotonic in Evanston, IL, where I study is $70. (The 3-session introductory package saves you $50.) There are semi-private and sessions for three available by appointment. And there are classes at varying times during the week. Once you know what you're doing, you can spend an hour on the equipment without instruction for $20. That's what I've started to do.

Like Pilates before it, Gyrotonic is growing by leaps and bounds. A March 5, 2001, Forbes article titled "Do the Twist," stated that there were 218 Gryrotonic studios worldwide, with 126 in the U.S. Today, boasts 1400 studios around the world, with 859 in the good ol' U.S.A. (Check out the web site for a studio near you.)

If I were maybe 30 years younger in search of a new career, I might consider becoming a trained Gyrotonic instructor. For now, I'll have to add that to my "Things I Want To Do in My Next Lifetime List" behind professional dancer and best-selling author.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dead Serious: Suicide

Almost 30 years ago, my brother stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

Each of my family members handled their grief differently and, for the most part, alone. Not until I wrote a book called Dead Serious did we begin to share the hurt, anger, aching sadness, and endless unanswered questions. Why, when he seemed to have emerged from a serious depression, did he take his life? With the support of a loving family and friends, how he could have seen death as the right path? How could he have been so selfish? Didn't he know the pain he would leave behind?

We'll never have a chance to ask my brother those questions; we are left with coming to an uneasy truce, each in our own way. There will never be a complete resolution.

When the phone call came in last week that my husband's first cousin, as close as a sister, had attempted suicide, I was thrown back into my own pool of sadness and "what ifs." Thankfully, the overdose of prescription pills she swallowed didn't kill her, and she is now recovering. She is filled with remorse and so very, very sorry.

When the time is right, I'll be able to ask her the questions I could never ask my brother and get answers - answers that may be confusing, at times nonsensical, but answers nonetheless. I'll be able to get a glimpse of what it feels like when depression and pain turn to utter hopelessness. I'll be able to ask why concern for her son and the rest of her family didn't trump her decision to end it all. I'll be able to know what it's like to return from the precipice and confront your living hell once again. Did she think she'd really die? Or was this the proverbial cry for help? And, most importantly, what can be done so she can begin to heal?

I recently bought a new frame to hold the photo of my brother that sits on my desk. The old frame, made of cardboard, had miraculously survived since better, happier days when he was just a seventeen-year-old kid about to go off to college. And I was his big sis, his good buddy, and a loving guide.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Mother's Loss of Memory

My mother, 91, is losing it. For a time, we thought all she needed was a hearing aid to bring her back into the mix. We didn't realize that the root cause of her growing silence was not poor hearing but her increasing inability to follow and stay with the conversation.

We didn't think it would happen this way. My mother had the memory of an elephant. She could tell you the menu at the Parisian restaurant 20 years before, detail the family tree going back multiple generations, finish the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle just like that. My mother carried hundreds of addresses and phone numbers around in her head, easily accessing them whenever necessary. She managed four children and a husband and, after we had all gone, she chaired or co-chaired everything from music festivals to Peace Now.

My mother's memory never failed her; she could pull any piece of past history like a good magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Then everything changed. Slowly, at first. It was still possible to pin her mental haze on a bad night's sleep or a nasty cold. She'd have a good day or days, and we'd all breathe a sigh of relief, fooling ourselves.

But there's no fooling anybody now. My mother can't remember what she did earlier in the day, let alone the day before. She has renounced her role as the family cook, turned over the keys to the car, relinquished her responsibilities as the organizer. For the first time in her life, she is no longer in control. And in a strange way, I think she is relieved.

No more plans to make, meetings to chair, appointments to keep, family members' and friends' lives to monitor. She is sweeter, more relaxed. After almost 90 years of being in charge, she can let others rule the roost.

When I asked her if her memory loss bothered her, she blithely said, "I'm just happy to be alive."

We should all be so content.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Winter Blues

(photo by Jane Leder)

As of last evening, we'd had exactly 11 minutes of sunshine in the month of February. Eleven precious minutes! That's just about enough time to rifle through my purse, dig out my sunglasses, clean off the lipstick smudges, and walk out the door. By then, the clouds that had so mercifully parted converge in a devious plot to once again eclipse the sun.

Ever since my mid-thirties, I've suffered a mild case of Seasonal Affective Depression, or SAD. Come about November, my energy level drops, I usually gain weight, I get tired more easily, and, in general, I'm not my usual bubbly, optimistic, charming self.

I'm not alone: some 10 million Americans - 70 to 80 percent of them women - suffer from SAD. An even larger number sing the "winter blues." Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes SAD, but they have some good guesses. One theory holds that our biological clocks, regulators of mood, sleep, and hormones, slow down because there is less sunlight. Another theory is that the brain chemicals that transmit information between nerves may be altered. Some of those "happy" chemicals like serotonin aren't as readily available, and those of us who are affected can get pretty cranky.

Back in the day, I tried light therapy to combat the symptoms of SAD. I sat in front of a big light box that boasted white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block out ultraviolet rays. The thing worked for a time but, ultimately, the only effective treatment was a trip to Florida.

The larger light boxes are not portable and force the user to sit in one place for up to 30 minutes. I got even moodier, having lost my mobility. So when my uncle sent me a photo of a new device that, for all practical purposes, looked like a mini-miner's helmet with one of those super duper special lights, I gave the light box to my son and started wearing the helmet. I loved that I could do just about anything while wearing it except take a shower or drive a car but, in the end, it didn't make much difference in how I felt.

For a few winters, I just up and left - first to Florida, then to California. But my husband felt abandoned and, with pressure to stay home, my travels to warmer climes came to an abrupt end. Then one fall afternoon - with the days noticeably shorter and my fears of yet another winter more and more real - I decided to try an anti-depressant through the winter months. As I recall, that winter was uncharacteristically sunny, so I never knew whether it was the medication or the sunshine that softened the blow. Whatever it was, it worked. Not willing to trust Mother Nature (with good reason after the 11 minutes of sun this month), I rely on the medication.

If you're one of the millions who, like me, wishes that winter lasted about 4 weeks - Global Warming may ultimately grant us that wish - there are some steps you can take to survive the season's short, often dark days:
  • Spend time outside every day, even if it's cold and cloudy. It is brighter outdoors than inside, and the light and fresh air can boost your mood.
  • Exercise and wake up all those "happy" brain chemicals.
  • Consider a light box (you should consult with a physician first) or change the light bulbs in your home to full spectrum lights that simulate natural light.
  • Take out photos of your garden and begin to plan changes for the spring.
  • Save your money and take a trip to sunnier climes.
  • If things get really bad, think about moving. Given the low interest rates and disaster in the real estate market, this is a good time to make a great deal.

Light Bulbs

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Luxury of Choice

As one pundit put it last night, "This year Democrats have the luxury of choice."

Remember the cast of presidential hopefuls just four years ago: Kerry, Sharpton, Kucinich, Edwards, Dean, Clark, Lieberman, Gephardt, Braun, and Graham? A black man, a woman, a Jew (an orthodox, no less), and a supposed kook who'd seen flying saucers - none of them had a chance. And when the presumptive front runner started "screaming" after his big win in Iowa, he was toast.

And then there were five. Democrats weighed the pros and cons of each, desperate to nominate someone who could defeat Bush and end the debacle fashioned by Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, and the other neo-conservatives who took us to war in Iraq, left Afghanistan to fend for itself, gave tax breaks to the rich, supported big corporations, conceived the failing "No Child Left Behind," and took the country from a surplus to an alarmingly high budget shortfall. (And that's just the half of it!)

I remember trying to sing the praises of someone - anyone who might end this reign of terror. A military guy with no political experience? A nice guy with perfect hair? Two longtime U.S. senators with sound records but little charisma and even less national name recognition?

By default, John Kerry was the last man standing. And we Dems did our best to get over his lack of star power, his pandering ploys, his tendency to be ambushed by special interest groups that painted him as less than a war hero and as a flip flopper extraordinaire.

We can argue Ohio and the final tally until we're blue in the face. But the guy lost and we were left to suffer the fools at the top. Oh, there was great hope midway through when the Dems took control of Congress. But with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, the strides have been minimal.

But today is a new day! We've got Hillary and Obama. Like many people I know, I struggled to make a choice. Information (as in Hillary)? Or imagination (as in Obama)? The tried and experienced? Or the fresh and energetic?

Last night, my demographic - white, "older" women - went for Hillary. I voted for Obama. But with the delegate count almost even and millions of voters yet to vote, it's too close to call. And that's just fine with me. If the man with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas doesn't make the final cut, then the woman from Illinois, the maligned First Lady, will move to center stage.

I look forward to having a good cry come next January when either the first African American or the first woman takes the oath as president of the United States.

We do enjoy the luxury of choice.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Choosing A "Path of Fire"

Lela and Nick Beem, both 27, spent ten days of their honeymoon at a silent meditation retreat in Thailand. They slept on concrete slabs, rose each morning at 4 a.m., meditated eight times a day, practiced yoga, and didn’t speak a word to each other – or to anyone else. There was no reading or writing or listening to music. And there was no intermingling of the sexes.

Sound crazy? Maybe for most of us unenlightened mortals. But for Nick and Lela, Chicago-area yoga instructors who met when he was finishing a degree in computer science at Brown University and she was an AmeriCorps teacher, it made perfect sense. “What better way to start a marriage,” said Lela. “The commitment we made to each other was through Buddhist ideas, and we vowed to move forward in mindfulness.” Loose – very loose - translation: To be nice to each other.

So, are the Beems an oddity in today’s goal-oriented, get-rich-quick world? Or do they represent a trend among younger yogis and yoginis who are choosing to make a positive difference rather than a steady paycheck?

There is no quibbling with the facts: The number of registered yoga teachers in the U.S. has increased six fold to 15,329 in 2006, up from 2,521 in 2001. According to Yoga Alliance (YA), 17 million Americans of all ages now practice yoga regularly. And there are no signs of a slowdown. Americans spend some $2.95 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, vacations, videos and more, according to a study commissioned by Yoga Journal.

There are no statistics on yoga teachers’ ages, but a 2007 New York Times article reported that representatives of more than a half-dozen top training programs said interest from recent college grads is strong. “Teaching yoga is wonderful, satisfying, sometimes blissful,” said Nick Beem. “But it is not easy.” It is, according to one of Nick’s teachers, “a path of fire.” Class attendance, which determines income, can vary wildly. Many new teachers travel long distances. It can take months, sometimes years, for classes to build.

Given the obstacles, what’s the draw? And what are the challenges of being a young trying to live a yoga lifestyle? Is this a group of mystical misfits comparable to the hari krisnas of the 1960s? Or are they seekers truly interested in spreading a path to personal growth? And does their age matter in the eyes of older practitioners?

As one of the "older practitioners," I can tell you that a yoga instructor's age pales in importance to his or her ability to teach, support, and inspire. I'm interested in how the breath can take my mind off of screaming hamstrings. I'm focused on how meditation can calm my over-active mind. I'm dedicated to strengthening my weak and all-too-flabby arms. And, oh, yeah - I'm trying not to compare myself to the woman next to me who can balance on one leg for days and stand on her head. Hell, as long as an instructor doesn't try to use the podium to tell me how to live my life, I could care less about age.

Friday, January 25, 2008


You stare in the mirror and confront the laugh lines that stay put when life's no longer a laughing matter. Or you zip up a pair of jeans, tugging a bit too hard over the soft, rounded belly that refuses to respond to sit-ups, crunches, or diets.

The lines on your chest from too much sun conjure up horror images of leather-skinned ladies from Miami Beach. Or the lines circling your neck like an umbilical chord make you want to strangle yourself.

It's a challenge to accept these physical badges of experience and wisdom and not see them as flashing neon signs that scream out, "You ain't no spring chicken anymore!"

These moments when you see yet another sign of aging have been dubbed by some as "age jumps." Just when you've settled down and accepted whatever the pull of gravity, the ravages of a not-so-healthy lifestyle and/or the insults hurled by Father Time, there's yet another one of the "age jumps" that makes you want to don a paper bag over your head and tear ass to the nearest cosmetic surgeon.

It doesn't matter that you've vowed to age with grace. That was some Ernest Hemingway deal about "grace under pressure." What the hell did he know? During an "age jump," you feel ugly and old and, most of all, you begin to feel invisible.

So, how can you survive? Here are a few suggestions. Mind you, I recommend that you take my advice because I'm not using it:
  • Grieve for the loss of your youth. But not for too long.
  • Complain a little. Your friends are bound to tell you that you look great.
  • Focus of what you CAN do make yourself look and feel better.
  • Find older women who look terrific. Hold them as role models.
  • Take a page from Al Franken's "Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley" bit on Saturday Night Live. Stand in front of a mirror and, as often as necessary, repeat the following: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, I'm beautiful enough and, doggone it, people like me and I like myself."

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I've been wrecking my husband's sleep for years - probably decades. I snore just like 24% of adult American women. Not every night. Sometimes, not more than heavy breathing. But when I get going I apparently sound like an old geezer honking away.
I've tried lubricating mouth spray, Breathe Right Strips ( a barely more humane form of close pins on the nose), special pillows, a snore guard, and herbs. Nothing worked. (In full disclosure, I did lose the snore guard about a year or so ago.)
With the odds of nights spent in my own bed with my husband less and less favorable than nights alone with my cat in the guest bedroom, I gave in to the possibility that sleep apnea might be the culprit and agreed to do a sleep test.
For the same outrageously-high fee of $2300 (before hoped-for insurance reimbursement), I was given the choice of doing the sleep test in a hospital room or in a new Crowne Plaza Hotel. That's like asking a kid whether she wants gruel or pancakes with eggs and bacon for breakfast. I opted for the hotel room.
I packed my fluffy sheepskin slippers and my Nick and Nora pajamas covered in sheep. Once settled into my room, I tried to relax and get sleepy by reading the business section of The New York Times. Exactly at 9 p.m., my phone rang. It was Frank, the technician, who was headed my way.
In all of my sheep-pajama glory, I shuffled to the door and opened it. Frank from Nigeria, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, smiled and entered. Once unpacked, he settled me down in a chair and began to hook me up.
The process of hooking me up took almost an hour. He wadded
gobs of sticky gunk into my hair into which he attached sensors to measure brain waves. He connected multi-colored wires to my leg, my chest, and to my forehead. He gently pushed tubes up both nostrils to register my breathing patterns. He taped another sensor to my throat. And then he asked me if I had to "use the facilities."
What happens if I have to go in the middle of the night?" I asked, realizing for the first time that I would be a virtual prisoner. "You'll have to call me," he said. Right then and there, I decided that I'd whet my bed rather than call Frank. The humility of it . . . Not to mention that I already looked like Phyllis Diller on a good day.
I had trouble falling asleep. Who wouldn't attached to so many wires like a marionette controlled by a puppeteer on crack? Finally, I dozed off, sleeping fitfully and waking up on and off all night. The phone next to my bed rang at 5 a.m. It was Frank. He was on his way from his all-night observation room down the hall.
The freedom of getting unhooked was like escaping from a Houdini trap. I tried to get Frank to tell me if I'd snored or tossed and turned like those guinea pigs for bad mattress ads on TV. But he wasn't the doctor, he said. I'd have to wait for the results.
I'm still waiting. It should be another day or two. But funny thing: I haven't snored since.