Wednesday, July 28, 2010


These days I feel as if my biggest contribution in life is to the landfill. I have thrown a lifetime of my mom’s stuff into the dumpster. As I heave and toss, I calculate the number of boomers who are doing the same thing times the number of bags they are tossing and my body starts to feel like ... garbage.

A sympathizer asked my sister and I yesterday if we had any of the symptoms of anxiety my mother has always shown. Shocked and speechless, we looked at each other. Later my sister told me that counting is a symptom.

I go home and survey my house, trying to look at it through the eyes of my children who will one day have to go through this same exercise. I get a roll of garbage bags and start filling them up. My sister follows me through the house, picking things off of shelves (a carved wooded frog, a toastmaster trophy, a bronze pineapple) and I hold out the bag. I argue for some of the detritus – the cute made-in-China, vacationing moose couple holding cameras and maps that we bought at the iMax theatre outside Yellowstone. “Oh puh-leeze,” she says. And we’re done for the night.

Is this a project I can ever finish?

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I walk down the hall to my mother’s room with a cup that contains a small amount of mashed, tangerine-flavored slushie laced with morphine and anxiety medication. For a brief moment, I consider taking a spoonful of it myself. My mother is dying of an illness she has concealed from everyone. Her stoicism in refusing pain medication (not my word, but a kinder word supplied by others) will not allow her to relax and die peacefully, as my father did a little over a year ago. Instead, she will die as she lived, with her jaw clenched against the pain of life.

It is my sister and I, supported by the network we have put together, who will not allow her to meet death screaming in pain. It is the one thing we can’t handle. Without a reservoir of pain medication built up in her system, a last minute dose of morphine will have no effect.

Having reserves, planning for contingencies, these are important life skills that eluded my mother and so it falls to my sister and I to manage the end-of-life details. How many of our generation have said, “This is not the way we are going to do this.” Our parents chose not to burden us with their pain. Consequently, many of them have ended up in untenable situations and we have had to step in. We will be more open with our children, we say. We hope not to burden them with difficult decisions. Undoubtedly we will burden them in some other way we cannot predict.

I wanted to title this essay “Helping Mom Die” but my sister says I’m likely to invite prosecution if I do that. For the record, then, no lethal doses are involved. Her wishes were not to have her life extended with extraordinary measures and so our job has been to help her deal with what she already knows. She is dying.

We asked her grandchildren to send email farewells we could read to her. We printed them out and read them to her, beautiful testimonies to the legacy she is leaving them. This brought her peace and acceptance. Blessedly, she now will accept pain medication and we can drop the charade.

In nightly dreams, we process the shock and horror that has invaded our lives. My sister dreams about stepping in to help the mother of a black baby who has been kidnapped by five men. The men are torturing the baby but finally they return the infant, crying but seemingly unharmed. We analyze this strange dream at breakfast. Baby – the arrival of something new; a black baby – something foreign to us; kidnapped – snatched from life, beyond our control; five men involved in torture – the host of people we have to deal with who give us conflicting messages; and finally, the return of the baby unharmed – like birth, death is painful, even tortuous, but out of the process new life emerges.

In my dream, I have returned to college for a reunion and the possibility of taking some seminars that interest me. No one else in my party seems interested, so I change my clothes and go off on my own. I wander the campus, looking for a bathroom. I can’t find one that offers any privacy. My friends catch up with me and I am suddenly aware that I have dressed in a ridiculous fashion, one beige knee high stocking and one black one. They laugh at me. I feel shame and disappointment. No surprises here. Shame is the subject of the novel I am writing. My disappointment at having to cancel attendance at the Iowa Writers Conference feels like the death of a dream – eliminated, down the drain.

People who take care of my mother speak to me about the sacredness of this death watch, and they are right. It pains me to be forced to confront my selfish desire to do what I want to do. Death has inconveniently gotten in my way. I think about the sacrifice that Christ made. I think that in the Paschal preoccupation with the crucifixion, the church doesn’t tell its most compelling story. I can sympathize with being nailed to a cross; I cannot empathize. The real story is not the way Christ died, but that He gave up his life without complaint for such unworthy people. People like me, who try to dress up for the occasion but are found wanting in their hearts. People like my mother, who took such good care of the face she presented to the world but let illness to run rampant in her body and her mind.

God have mercy on our souls, and grant us Your peace.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


What did my mother mean when she said, “Sydney, I can’t do anything,” in my 7 am wakeup call?

“What do you mean, you can’t do anything?”

“I can’t do anything.”

“You can’t get out of bed and get to the bathroom?”

“That’s right.”

Alarmed, we were at Skyline Assisted Living Community within the hour.

“Can I help you to the bathroom, Mom?”

“No, I’m okay for now.”

How can that be? I have to figure out what it is she really wants. Does she want me to cancel my vacation? I have the sense that this isn’t that kind of manipulation, though it is clearly manipulation of some kind. After meeting with the Wellness staff, that is clear. They say they saw her up and dressed and walking around just two days ago. But today, she says she’s done.

Part of the difficulty is being sandwiched between two communication styles. In my parent’s generation, women talked on the phone for hours and never really got to the point. My kids, on the other hand, are alarmingly direct and apt to text me, “Getting a divorce. How R U?”

With the parents, I’ll know how they feel, but not what they want. With the kids, I’ll know what they want, but not how they feel. (Caveat, to the best of my knowledge, neither of my children is getting a divorce.)So I am left wishing for a little less information from my mother and a little more information from my kids. I couldn’t even begin to analyze my own communication style.

A call at 7 pm this evening confirms that we really do have something to worry about. Mom is now on a two hour watch and if they don’t like what they see, she is off to the emergency room in an ambulance. If she doesn’t die from an undiagnosed illness, she will die from embarrassment.

I’ve tried to honor her express wish to have no medical attention. Now I have to shield her as best I can from the result of that decision. She has no primary care doctor so no one knows what is really going on with her. She wants to be made comfortable, but we don’t know how.

Finally, I think I understand what she is trying to tell me.

“I’m scared. I’m sorry things have turned out this way. It won’t be much longer. Will you be there?”

Yes mom, I’ll be there.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Grand Jeep Cherokee

“The things we make, make us.” That is the glib 2011 Grand Jeep Cherokee marketing slogan that popped up on my Facebook page. Now I’m not a car fan, but I own an old Grand Jeep Cherokee and, admittedly, it makes me feel like Mountain Girl. And I confess, the Wall Street Journal’s review of this new jeep caught my attention. It apparently combines my two loves, luxury and adventure, into a new car with a decent price and excellent performance. Be still my heart! Mountain Girl with panache!

“The things we make, make us.” Of course they somehow know that I drive a Jeep Cherokee -- I don’t even go there. I do wonder at the over 500,000 people who “Like This.” Should I apply for this job – visiting websites and registering my thumbs up?

“The things we make, make us.” Not a very spiritual message. I grabbed a pen and jotted down some thoughts in response.

The things we make, make us rich.
The things we make, make us crazy.
The things we make, make us who we are.

“The things we make, make us.” As I was making dinner tonight, I had an epiphany. Our God is a creative God, and when He made us, he enlarged Himself. (Okay, at this point I realize I will probably lose some evangelicals here.) Creation is being. Perhaps that is why we lost heart when the things we make went overseas. Who are we, if not the creation of our hands, blessed by God and told to go forth and multiply?

If I win the lottery, I am definitely buying a 2011 Grand Jeep Cherokee.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fox News killed my mother

Ha! Made you look! Mom isn’t dead (yet), but she has declared that this is the end of the line for her and taken to her bed permanently. A steady diet of Fox News has so depressed her that she can think and speak of little else but “that evil man” who has ruined our country, and it’s killing her.

In its unrelenting quest to “make us look,” Fox News pundits and other alarmists pump out doom and gloom messages that, bookended with the mute video of oil spilling ceaselessly into the Gulf, is most depressing. For a generation of people who thought they would never have to go through the hell of watching the world fall apart again it is too much to bear.

Of course, there are other channels and a power switch. Mom chooses to swill a poisonous dose of tainted information. That is giving “that evil man” way too much control over her life, I point out. She believes that the government is set on confiscating the house she owns free and clear, emptying out her bank account and cancelling her health insurance. She will die first.

Sadly, I have no argument that things aren’t bad, probably worse than we know. Focusing blame in one direction doesn’t seem productive and my pleas to her to consider the lilies of the field or think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy fall on deaf ears.

“You raised us to take pleasure in the simple things in life,” I say, but pleasure seems to her a poor aspiration -- Nero fiddling while Rome burns. She feels bankrupt, although in fact she has a family who loves her and a pension my father worked all his life to provide for her.

She is convinced that I just don’t understand what we are losing. I am deeply aware that I have had the privilege of living through one of the most prosperous periods of time the world has ever witnessed, and that men died to make it so. But clever riposte won’t save us. While my mother finishes her days watching the thrust and parry of self-appointed talk show titulars, I mourn her loss of hope. That is an even greater thing to lose.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Writing Process

Writing is at once a religious and a spiritual experience: religious in the sense that its practice is pursued with zeal and conscientious devotion; spiritual in the sense that the process involves intangibles that affect the soul.

As I introduce and develop my characters I find a parallel to what Karen Armstrong speaks of in her book, The Spiral Staircase, My Climb Out of Darkness. For those who are unfamiliar with the author of A History of God, the author failed to find faith in a convent, but discovered God in her study of world religions. Some of her observations in the final chapter of Staircase can be applied to writing.

...editing out ego is—I now realize—an essential prerequisite for religious experience.

We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.

How true. The process of bringing my characters out of darkness is indeed a spiritual experience. I have to leave myself at the door when I enter the places they inhabit, and that has been a joy.

But the ability to sense those possibilities also requires the writer to leave personal bias at the door.

If you are bent on proving that your own tradition alone is correct, and pour scorn on all other points of view, you are interjecting self and egoism into your study, and the texts will remain closed.

Here the author is referring to the ability of a scripture or a poem to speak to a reader, but she may as well be describing the terms under which a character will develop and grow and tell his story to the writer.

On the four hour drive home from my retreat, I studied my character and allowed him to reveal his next move, which had far more integrity than what I would have written for him. That’s the beauty of the art.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach, CA
Just as I’ve settled into a comfortable routine and am feeling startlingly at home here – able to navigate Hwy 1 on and off ramps in a single bound, it’s time to leave tomorrow. Either that or I will have to put an offer in on the kids’ house. That’s tempting. My own little beach pad.

I had a productive morning writing once I quit distracting myself following website trails. A friend called at noon and asked me if I’d like to meet at Sunset Beach for a walk so I altered my plans a bit and drove out Larkin Ave through the strawberry fields. We walked for about two hours and then had an early dinner at Sanderlings at Seascape resort. It’s a warm, clear evening. Beach traffic has been light which has upped the relaxation factor.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Harry Potter, uncloaked

I tested the theory of losing myself in anonymity. After a productive morning plotting my novel I headed to Peet’s for coffee and a sugary walnut cranberry scone. Settling into a comfy chair with a neglected copy of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I deliberately made no eye contact with any co-coffee afficionados.

Shortly, a distressed voice hovered in front of me like the winged golden egg in a game of Quidditch, and then darted over to a man just outside my peripheral vision.
“Did either of you put something in my cup while I was gone?” the voice inquired in fearful alarm. I looked up to see an unassuming looking middle aged woman. I shook my head and the man answered “no.”

“You can’t be too careful, especially if you’ve been hit by a hit-and-run-driver,” she said, collecting the suspect cup of coffee and making a hasty exit.
A thought bubbled up in my head. I forgot, I’m seeking solitude in Santa Cruz. What was I thinking? I returned to my book.

Shortly, a darling little girl flopped into the chair next to mine. I glanced at her, noting that she was about the same age as my granddaughter and just as cute, but did not do her the courtesy of an engaging smile. I returned to my book.

“I like your earrings,” said the five-year old. It became quickly apparent that this truly charming child had the skills of a talk show host. We discussed her wardrobe, her social schedule and the sugar glaze on her cookie. When her grandpa showed up, I kindly offered up my chair so he could sit with her and headed out the door.

I spent the rest of the day on the Capitola Wharf reading, watching the ocean and letting the waves of other people’s conversation roll over me. At Paradise Beach Grille I sipped a Grey Goose Pear Cucumber martini and ate a Castroville artichoke and bay shrimp salad (I could get used to the writing life!)

At the next table an attractive dentist and a wine broker were getting to know each other. “I’m too old to work this much, and my dog is sad,” she said, having explained that she might have to add a day to her four-day work schedule. I had to sneak a peek at her as I left. Okay, big dark sunglasses hide a lot of crow’s feet but I swear she wasn’t a day over 35. Apparently there is still hope for this economy.

Now I’m back at my beach retreat. The clouds parted at 6 pm, just as I was leaving the beach. I feel warmed by the sun, inspired by what I’ve read and amused by my fellow travelers.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Soquel, CA
“It is the role of thinkers and writers to serve as guardians of our spiritual nature and custodians of timeless values; cultivating truth, goodness and beauty as well as freedom and justice, love and charity.”
From Nobility of Spirit by Rob Rieman

I found this quote in my journal. It’s a tall order! Kathy said something in our Senior board meeting today that applies here. Chunk it down. I have three days now to be alone, be still, to write, and to enjoy a place I like very much – the Pacific coast. I’ll call it guarding my spiritual nature and record the journey for the benefit of my writer friends. What the heck, I’ll throw in relishing freedom and admiring beauty as well. The challenge will be to not bore you with a diary of my daily activities but to inspire you to try this yourself.

We (my family) are playing musical houses. While April and her family played at my house in the mountains last week, Devin and Victoria enjoyed her house on an Island in the Puget Sound and I took over their house on the coast right after the grandkids left.

Traffic on 17 was light this evening and the fog layer was high, light and luminescent. First thing after I let myself into the house, I checked the connectivity on my iPod iTouch and Yelped (cool app Devin told me about) New Leaf Market and Peet’s Coffee for tomorrow’s breakfast run. Then I walked across the street to Star of Siam for a dinner of steamed tilapia, mango , broccoli, red peppers and peas in a yellow curry sauce. My dining companions were two fat pink fish with warm brown eyes and clown lips and a surreal blue crustacean who seemed highly tempted to pinch a passing fat fish but was deflected with a gentle bump in his armpit (picture that!) by fat fishy who anticipated his churlish mood.

Back at the house, I’d already determined I wouldn’t bother with the TV but instead of jumping into my writing I warmed up by making up a grocery list for tomorrow (wine glass, coaster, chocolate). Now I’m contemplating the joy of solitude. For three days, I have no role to maintain in front of anyone. I am anonymous here; like Harry Potter in the invisible cloak, I can lose myself. How delightful.