Sunshine On My Face, Shadows On My Back

Balance. It is an ultimate goal, but often it is impossible to execute consistently. A seesaw operated by you on one end, and an ever-morphing entity on the other. Throughout the pandemic there was a mega recalibration, but I’m confident true balance was never achieved.

Lately life has felt much more “normal” in the sense that Covid is no longer on the forefront of my every thought. It is still a very real factor, but I can feel, and see, a collective sigh in my community. Over 80% of adults here are vaccinated. Hope has come in the form of crisp mornings and yellow days.  People are paying homage to precious breath with giggles and reunions with loved ones, spilling out of their houses like clumsy, deliberate puppies eager to taste the world. It’s not lost on me how much death, pain, and sorrow it took to get here. But with respect to those we lost, life must be celebrated, albeit in accordance to the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

So it is another summer, another season to navigate. The transition from pandemic homebody to young adult re-entering the world gingerly hasn’t been wholly smooth. Unfortunately there’s no “How To” book on what to do after somehow surviving a year of caregiving during a pandemic and multiple wildfire evacuations. We’re not out of the woods yet. Are we ever?

When I look back the steps are a blur. I’m here. I made it. But how in the hell did I manage it? The same can be said for any other difficult situation. I don’t remember the specifics of all the labored tip-toeing I did to inch my way to today, but no matter how much I may have struggled or dragged my feet, I still moved forward along the path of unknown. And for those reading this, you did too.

Switching gears from our pandemic routine has been a struggle for both Mom and I, though I can readily admit it has been toughest on myself. Mom’s routine isn’t all that different. When she’s at home she does yoga, walks on the treadmill, works on her puzzle, snacks, watches football, and enjoys the backyard. On my full work days she is dropped off at Dad’s house. There she “swims” in his above ground pool, rides the stationary bike, watches television, and hangs out with the dogs in the backyard.  

To make up for lost income last year I have filled the capacity of my self-dedicated teaching hours. Being booked for several months in advance is a wonderful “problem” to have, but it is not without stress. Several hours a week is spent solely on scheduling, answering questions from parents, and acting as a swim instructor broker when I apologetically repeat that I am unable to take on more clients until the end of summer break. I text, email, instant message, and call swim clients seven days a week. Even on vacation in April I was compelled to respond to inquiries, at least to let them know I’d properly get back to them upon my return home, otherwise it felt unprofessional to leave them without any response at all for nearly two weeks.

Between teaching about forty-five swim lessons a week, attending graduation and birthday celebrations for close friends and family, completing multiple medical appointments for both Mom and myself, driving to and from places all day every day, trying to keep the house somewhat clean, and managing Mom’s mood and day-to-day schedule, I have gone full speed ahead into busy oblivion. No longer are hermits confined to the boundaries of high-tiered safety guidelines.

A few weeks back I hired a house cleaner for the first time ever. It was only for three hours, but it felt like an event. Honestly, I didn’t see a huge difference when I came home, but it was nice to know the bathrooms and kitchen had a decent cleansing with hands that were not my own.

One morning, a couple short weeks later, I slid out of bed and took a half dozen steps down the hall to Mom’s room. For better or worse, I’ve made it a habit to be Mom’s wake up service. She’s never sleeping by the time I enter her room, but she will lay awake in bed for hours every morning if I don’t prompt her to begin morning tasks of getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc.

As I approached her room and pushed the door open the smile I wore was quickly stricken by an unmistakable odor of shit.

“What the hell? Mom, did the dog poop in your room?”

Expectedly she retorted, “No. What are you talking about?” She couldn’t smell it thanks to Alzheimer’s.

I looked all over the room and in the bed to find the source of the foul smell. There was nothing to be found. The dog only ever has an accident in the house if we’ve left her inside too long. Her poop doesn’t typically smell that bad, but this was intense.

I flipped on the light in Mom’s bathroom and spotted a few small pieces of excrement on the counter, toilet top, and floor.

“Goddamn it Mom. You got poop all over the bathroom,” I blamed furiously.

I made my way a few feet down the hall to the other bathroom to grab some toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Flipping on the light illuminated the second crime scene. Bits of poop were smeared on the sink faucet handles, the soap dispenser, the countertop, and the floor.

“No. No. No. No. NOOOO. This cannot be happening. What the fuck. Really??!”

I deduced the obvious chain of events: The dog was stuck in Mom’s room all night and hadn’t been let out to relieve herself beforehand. (Mom had a tantrum the night before and hoards the dog in her room for moral support on such occasions). Since Mom lays in bed waiting for me to prompt her to start the day, she didn’t get up to let the dog out in the morning either. So, understandably, the dog shit on the carpet of her room. Mom found it and tried to clean it up herself. Usually it’s a quick, straight forward process of picking it up with some toilet paper, disposing of it in the toilet, and the cleaning the carpet. I’m always quick to volunteer to do it, for obvious reasons. Mom inadvertently made this situation exponentially worse by breaking the solid form into pieces, smearing it on multiple surfaces, and then, thinking she had taken care of the problem, climbed back into bed with the dog.

Shit was everywhere.

So to start off my very busy day I had to clean two bathrooms, the carpet, wash bedsheets, and have Mom take a shower. There are plenty of aspects of Alzheimer’s that I resent, but cleaning up poop and pee accidents that could have easily been avoided (or cleaned) under normal circumstances is high on my list.

I know at the core of her she is grateful for everything I do, but as this disease progresses I find that her gratitude is less and less apparent. In tandem with her deepening fall into this black hole, I disgustingly need more recognition for my efforts more than ever before. Of course I don’t, and will never, get it. I just can’t seem to stop this hunger to feel appreciated. It’s a selfish, desperate side of me that stems from the grief of watching Mom slowly die as I pile more and more responsibilities on my back. Sometimes, no, most of the time, I secretly just want to be the one taken care of. I want to be consoled and tucked into bed. I want to be her child, not her mother.

This is a corner of Alzheimer’s grief that I particularly struggle to process and let go of. Honestly, it probably won’t happen until my role as primary caregiver is over, but I’m trying.

I have always had an instinct to take care of others, but I do miss the particular love of someone filling that role so spectacularly for me. If I ever find a partner worth marrying, I know this will be an important factor to weigh. Professionally and personally my caregiver instinct will always be dominate, but there needs to be balance. I need someone who can tend to me the way I would to them. Someone who will commit to the other end of the seesaw and be equally willing to recalibrate both the gentle and broad teetering of change.

As I continue to acclimate to a post-lockdown world, I hope that Mom will keep hanging in there for at least awhile longer. 2022 may be quite different for us. My role as her guide from life to death will continue to change and I have big decisions to make. Another factor of balance to consider…when to make the shift from life in the trenches of Alzheimer’s to regaining my own life back. There’s much to consider, but of the many things I’ve learned since the start of the pandemic, as much as love can save us it can also drown us. At some point I’ll need to relinquish the closeness of this role and love her from a further vantage point, before we both drown. Until then we’ll keep doing our best to coexist as one.

Vacation Part One: The Longest Exhale

The time had come. It was the second April of the pandemic and I was gratefully vaccinated. Clients were rescheduled. The house was clean and tidy, well enough. Reservations were made. The Forester and bags were packed. Camping drawers in the trunk were stocked and organized. The alternate caregiver was set to arrive. I left her a “note”, which is an exceptionally modest way to describe it because notes are not six pages long. I brought Mom and Princess to Dad’s house, but stayed for over an hour because he was offering me last minute snacks and supplies. It’s one of my favorite endearing “good dad traits”, even when I have to decline the excess.

After many rounds of hugs, kisses, and thank yous to both parents and all three dogs, the trip commenced. It was a straight shot up the 101 to my first campground, so no GPS was needed until after I crossed the border into Oregon.

An hour and half into the drive I pulled over to take a break at a rest stop. Really. I was so tired that my eyelids kept dipping down despite having begged them to perk up. I rolled into the parking lot right next to a couple who were apparently reuniting after one of them had very recently been released from jail. With the seat adjusted horizontally and the windows cracked I set a timer for twenty-three minutes. By the time I could get my ears to stop eavesdropping on the neighbors’ conversation, I had fifteen minutes left on the clock. Despite the limited time it did just the trick. The nap kept the exhaustion at bay adequately enough for the remaining five-hour drive. I called Dad to confess of the irony needing to nap in the first hours of freedom from caregiving.

With plenty of daylight left to set up, I settled into camp at Harris Beach State Park. The ocean was close enough to stroll to within minutes and hear its water symphony. The campsites were tucked between trees so as to keep everyone sheltered from wind gusts. Just what you hope for at a seaside camping spot.

I made a dinner of Thai tofu salad, the nearly vegetarian version of laarb. Tofu cubes were fried in the cast iron pan until crisp. Then the golden protein was tossed into a mix of chopped lettuce, cilantro, mint, and onion, and everything was thoroughly coated with a lime fish sauce dressing. It’s one of my favorite things to make and eat. Easy enough to throw together while camping but feels fancy because it’s far from the typical camp staples of food of fire-roasted hotdogs and chili.

Dessert was a hot thermos of just-add-water chai latte, strawberry wafer cookies, an edible, and a walk down to the beach. I climbed to the top of a rocky outcrop and relished taking in the 360-degree view of iconic Pacific Northwest shoreline. Before the dimming light could fade altogether I cautiously made the descent to flat ground, careful not to rip my pants while scooting down the last section. From the perch of an entire tree trunk of driftwood my feet dangled and swayed inches above the sand, emoting the joy radiating from my every molecule. To accompany the whoosh of tidy waves, I played Fleet Foxes’ latest album and tucked the phone into a pocket out of sight. There I sat and smiled for eternities, like a child on an oversized bench gleefully waiting for her turn on a Ferris wheel.

I had found it: the long-lost intangible I had been chasing in daydreams for too many months. Completely at the center of myself yet equally engulfed in the vibrancy of the universe, I was present and appreciative. It was an opportunity to focus on the magic of being alive instead of holding my breath and surviving. Letting sound waves and dimming sunlight slough off layers of tension and intrusive thoughts, I welcomed the night and fog blanketed starscape and let out the longest exhale.

Camera, Obscura

In 2016 I embarked on a forty-eight state road trip across the United States. I have said it enough to annoy the hell out of most everyone, I’m sure, but it was easily the best decision I have ever made. Over six months I camped, hiked, visited two-thirds of the national parks, and went everywhere in between. Deserts, mountains, islands, cities, theme parks, museums, you name it.

And I didn’t bring a camera.

Well, to clarify, I brought a smart phone with a built in camera. There’s nothing to regret from the cross-country odyssey, but it sure would have been a great idea to bring along a more professional documentary tool.

The Christmas after I returned home, Dad offered to get me crossbars for my Subaru so I could buy and mount a cargo box on the roof. My rustic set up was working fine, but the upgrade would lend a lot more room inside the vehicle for road trips. For some reason I didn’t take him up on the offer. Months and months went by. Dad kept asking, “Are you ready for the cross bars yet?” and I would always reply, “Not quite. Don’t worry. I’ll get them eventually.”

Finally, after almost a year, he proposed an alternative.

As he glanced through the Sunday ads for Target, “Lauren, do you really want those crossbars? Or would you prefer something else? What if I gave you the money intended for the crossbars and you used it toward a camera?”

I buzzed at the idea.

“Ooo yes! Actually, I really like that idea.”

“They have some cameras on sale at Target,” he suggested.

I took a look through the ads and Googled a few of the cameras. I know very little about photography equipment and how it works so I was not confident on which one might be best for a beginner. It’s not like I haven’t taken photographs before. In fact, I had made great use of my phone’s camera over the years and with hands-on learning had honed my skills to a level of satisfaction I was proud of. But knowing what shutter speed, aperture, or lens type to use for any given situation? Forget about it. I’m a technical amateur.

Dad handed me the allotted cash as I checked my own wallet for a credit card. Within a couple minutes I was out the door and making the twenty-minute drive to Target.

I came back home, Dad’s house at the time, and showed off the new purchase. I was electric with anticipation to use it.

Over the next several months I took it with me all over, making a point to still use my phone for easy-to-post social media shots.

During this time I planned a trip to the Southwest. With an intention to redeem myself, I brought along the camera to some of my favorite destinations. What better way to improve my photography than re-take pictures at Arches and Canyonland national parks? And to have higher resolution versions of the landscapes that I held so dearly to my heart? It would delight me to no end.

So with the camera hanging from my neck and the smart phone in a pocket, I practically galloped my way to Utah.

I am not a morning person and never have been. I wish I was. There have been very few times I have woken up before the sun and the circumstances have almost always been travel related. More often than not it’s for the obligatory catching of a flight, but a few times it’s been for a sunrise.

In Canyonlands, one of the lesser visited national parks in Utah, I knew I would be guaranteed at least a few excellent photos. You see, it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture of one of the park’s most famous features: Mesa Arch.

Less than a mile walk from a tiny parking lot the arch sits like a crown at cliff’s edge overlooking a maze of deep canyons, not dissimilar to the landscape of the Grand Canyon. As if that isn’t breathtaking enough, if you arrive in the hour before sunrise and secure a spot, you’ll be rewarded with a most unreal light show.

Like clockwork, when the sun stretches up from the Earth’s horizon and spills light onto the land, the arch comes alive. Sunrays turn the underbelly of the arch from gorgeous gingerbread colored stone to a blinding magma of orange.

One cold morning alongside looky-loos, professional photographers, and groggy road warriors I waited in the dark for the show to begin. Some people had their tripods set up in precise spots long before I had arrived, so I made sure to politely snap photos from standpoints out of their way. After all of the casual paparazzi had snapped their photos and headed on their way, I stuck around. Most people didn’t need to stay more than fifteen minutes past the first glow appeared. The reward was instantly gratifying and the affect would be gone once the sun had risen past a certain point.

As the crowd thinned out I immediately took action and became more bold. I scurried to every angle of the arch and click clicked as I went. I climbed boulders, squatted, laid on my belly, and went as close to the edge as I felt comfortable. I wanted to be sure to photograph it from every available vantage point so I could fully capture the unique phenomenon.

Satisfied with my efforts, I dreamily paced back to the Subaru and commenced another day of Moab exploration.

On this same trip I met up with new friends for my first ever backpacking trip. It happened to be at the celestial and wildly popular Havasupai, which is a Native American reservation for the Havasupai Tribe within the Grand Canyon. That’s a story for another time though.

Less than a year later I found myself moving out of Dad’s house and into Mom’s house. Over several weekends I made trips to and from each place to strategically transfer my belongings. It made moving take longer, but it was less stressful to not feel pressured to get it all done at once.

On one of these trips Dad offered use of his truck to move larger items. When we pulled up in Mom’s driveway and I started to bring things inside he said, “Are you okay?”

Sucking in my breath, “No, I’m not okay.”

The dam I had been holding up cracked and out poured some of the stress and the worry and the grief I had been privately experiencing. I had no money but was trying to pay for Mom’s outstanding property taxes and other bills. I was moving out of Dad’s house because I couldn’t afford his rent increase, which was meager compared to actual rent in our area. (At the time I did not divulge my financial issues with him so he was unaware of that aspect). I was in my thirties and living back home. Not only was I living with my parents, but I was moving into the home of the one who had dementia. My independence was shrinking rapidly and my responsibilities were growing. I knew things were continuing to get less ideal.

Crying and hyperventilating in the confines of the truck, I let Dad do his best to comfort me. Big, wallowing emotions make him uncomfortable and feel somewhat helpless, but he does always step up when I need him most. In his own ways he assured me that everything was going to be okay and that he would be there for me.

Despite the dramatic start as Mom’s newest roommate, I remember one other thing very clearly. Dad made sure I didn’t forget to grab my camera from the back seat of the truck. It was in it’s carrying case and had been sitting there for a couple days because we had just come back from a family trip to his modest vacation home in the woods.

I gathered up the case and brought it inside, first placing it on the carpet of the front room amidst the rest of my crap, but immediately changed my mind. I didn’t want the dog to pee on it or otherwise disturb it, so I moved the case to a higher perch on top of a chair.

It took a couple months for me to find room for my belongings and try to encroach on Mom’s space as respectfully as I could. It also took me a couple months to realize my camera was missing.

One day I decided to take the camera for a weekend adventure, probably something along the lines of a local hike. I looked in all of the obvious places, but I couldn’t locate it.

I wasn’t all that worried about it at first because having just moved all of my stuff into a new house, it wasn’t surprising to not remember where I had organized or temporarily placed particular items.  

But a seed of panic planted itself in my gut and waited.

The next time I thought to use the camera for something I tried looking more thoroughly. As to be expected, living with someone who has dementia can sometimes mean that items get moved around unexpectedly and put in strange places.

I looked in every closet, every room, in each cupboard and under all of the beds. The garage proved to be just as fruitless. As the minutes passed by I could feel the panic grow inside me. It spread until it clutched at my breath and wrapped tightly around my heart. I tried to internally chant that it would turn up. It had to turn up.

A thought came to me. On the same day of the emotional breakdown in the truck I recalled Mom trying her best to help me move in. She’s a go-getter and likes to clean, at least very much so pre-dementia, and I remembered her throwing moving materials away. In the weeks after that day I would often return home to see that she had recycled or thrown out more boxes and bags because they would be missing from where I had gathered them. It was annoying because I wanted to save some of them for future use and had asked her several times not to touch them, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

In front of my mind’s eye I imagined a sickening scene of Mom plucking the non-descript black camera carrying case and carrying it to the large garbage bin outside. I didn’t actually know if it happened, but it suddenly became a very real and likely possibility.

I asked Mom about the case and if she remembered throwing it out. She of course had no idea what I was talking about, couldn’t even recall what my camera and its case looked like.

Unabashedly I ugly cried, gritting my teeth and clenching my fists in protest.

No no no no no. Please don’t let that be what happened.

The grief and the rage, and the guilt of directing it all toward Mom, detonated from me with a force I wasn’t proud of. It felt like Alzheimer’s had long been the blade stuck between innards and with a big “Fuck you!” the blade was yanked out so I could be reminded that it was ultimately in control.

It wasn’t so much that the camera was gone, it was the pictures. Yes, some of the photos on the memory card were re-takes of places I had already been and photographed. But many were not.

If anything, I just wanted the memory card back.

This may all sound melodramatic, but looking back I recognzie that this was the symbolic signaling of dying freedoms. Little did I know at the time that Covid would knock my world, and the rest of the world, upside down, but when I moved into Mom’s house I knew that it was the beginning of the end for the way of life I cherished. As Mom’s disease progressed I would eventually be unable to do much for myself. No hiking on a whim. No road trips or camping on the weekends. No international travel. No real time to myself without arranging some sort of care and supervision for her. A single parent living life at the mercy of a vulnerable loved one.

The tangible memories of truest days, sidewinding across the Southwest in pursuit of a life enacted exactly as I chose, if only temporarily, were gone. Some of the purest joy and the humblest experiences were lived in those frames of digital film and now their existence depended solely on my ability to daydream of them.

It was a pity to have lost something so excruciatingly small, yet infinitely impactful. I would have traded it for nearly any other possession.

To this day I have not been able to locate the camera and its accompanying memory card. Since moving in I have purged ourselves of many burdensome items, organized the entire place top to bottom, touched every inch of every room as I painted and nailed and dragged furniture across floors. It is nowhere.

Can I afford to purchase a new camera? Thankfully, yes. There is no real urgency to get one though as I am even more bound to my caregiving duties than ever before. For now I am content to using what I am most familiar with anyway: a smartphone.

I force myself to let it be. I am far from angry at my mother anymore. But from time to time when someone asks me about my photography or if I longingly daydream about meandering highways and trails, I can’t help but to feel the ripping of an old wound. Grief is a funny thing that doesn’t always concede the best sense of humor for the audience.

Changing Season, Changing Guard

I’ve had the same conversation over the phone with multiple friends, more so thinking out loud than really saying much of anything.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year since Covid lockdown started.”

“I know, right?”

“It feels like we’ve been in a pandemic for much longer. Maybe it’s because I have aged a decade in that timespan.”

“The days are moving quickly and slowly all at once. I’m ready for spring, but I’m also not. Ya know?”

As casually as it has rolled off my tongue again and again, it’s all true.

When the last few weeks of winter were dwindling I felt an urgency to complete more projects around the house. I took pride in using power tools to create and install a simple book shelf. I painted bathroom vanity cabinets and kitchen cabinets, entire rooms and several doors. I framed and hung art, mostly prints related to my love of national parks. A small patio made of pavers was somehow conjured. I weeded and moved yards of swamp-like muck. Plants that I been collecting for months from garage sales and nurseries were finally potted.

There is still disarray and grime, but it is much less so than before. I will be especially grateful when I can replace the abhorrent, stained and dirty carpet with new vinyl wood flooring.

Since March 11, 2020 I have had one full 24 hours off from the totality of my three jobs. It was precious and wholly appreciated, but obviously not ample enough.

With a veil of disbelief, I am happy to share that next month I will be able to take eleven days off.

Eleven solid, back to back days.

When I put in the request mid-December I didn’t exactly expect an enthusiastic response, but was still disappointed when my assumptions proved true. I had to ask a second and third time before I was taken seriously. By the end of the month it was clear that I wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. The holidays had caused yet another Covid surge and it would be awhile before infection rates decreased and it felt a little safer to make plans. I was okay with waiting. I wasn’t okay with the unsettling, familiar feeling that I would be let down by help.

A couple of weeks ago I received final confirmation that I could go ahead and start putting together a vacation for myself. Privately I had a moment to weep, the dam of security could finally allow for a flood, but afterward I was almost indifferent. Well, more so numb. The thing I hadn’t let myself daydream about for nearly a year was coming to fruition and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Where the hell would I go? For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have no idea which direction I’m going.

Although I will be fully vaccinated by the time my vacation commences, I would like to adhere to cautious Covid guidelines. I’m not interested in being in close contact with a lot of people, going to bars, flying on an airplane, etc. Instead I will lean into what I would choose anyway: introverted travel. Hiking, camping, landscape photography, takeout and cooking on my camp stove. The most delicious of ways for me to move about the world.

With April just around the corner I have limited time to make a decision about where I will road trip to. I don’t want to travel too far or to any Covid irresponsible areas. I also need to prepare in other ways: make lists for Mom’s care, get my car fixed, do my taxes, and get the house “guest ready” i.e. clean extensively, do laundry, wash bed linens, etc.

To be in a position to do this, to be vaccinated and have willing help, and to finally feel like this country is taking strides toward the other side of pandemic fallout…it’s surreal.

I’m ready for this dream, but I wonder who I’ll be when I step away from this caregiving bubble.

A Beckoning of Springtime

Some days the world is pastel, muted and dulled, but still beautiful in its own right, just less obviously so. I’ve taken note how winter days dim my own shine. The wavelength at which I operate slows down and I find myself lizard-like, blue blooded and sluggish in the struggle to move despite the chill. As much as I wish it weren’t so, I become reliant on the generosity of the sun. Seasonal affective disorder seems like a made-up malady of the forlorn, but I can attest to its encapsulation. The truth in its existence allows for extra self-kindness instead of guilt.

Unbeknownst to many non-Californians, the state flourishes not with just sunshine and coast lines, but the diversity of its many opposing landscapes. Those of us who live here appreciate that within its boundaries we can delight in finding anything from desert to mountains, redwood forests and valleys, bubbling hot springs and farmland.

I live in an area where the transition between seasons is noticeable but not rushed like the here today, gone tomorrow climate agenda of many northern and eastern states. Every few years her it floods and there are power outages, but mostly the rain and the cloud cover gently mark the passing of time. It’s the literal and figurative in-between of the Sierras and Southern California.

When the toothsome expanse of this land becomes a daydream on the other side of a window, it can be difficult to remember that the walls of a house are a temporary perimeter of solitary confinement. It sounds dramatic because it is. Not that dramatic means unwarranted, but such is life during a pandemic. And when the dramatic becomes an every day occurrence it loses it’s ability to shock. No longer am I surprised by “breaking news”. It just is.

In some ways I have taken on the brain fog that plagues my mother. It takes me a moment to remember what day of the week it is. How old am I? I know I have a to-do list a mile long, but what specifically am I supposed to be working on this week? I don’t know what to attribute it to anymore. Stress? Lack of movement? Seasonal depression? Prolonged introverted spells? At this point, who cares. It’s happening all the same.

During the numbered days of this winter I delight in the cheerful reminders that come in the recent forming of pushed daisies from rain battled earth and the clouds of starlings choreographing their aerial dance. Sunbeams are moving art in the way they streak and bend across walls, passing light over cobwebs and dusty corners.

My medicine comes in many forms. Routines. Hiking. My best friend’s kitchen. Sweat. Phone calls from friends. Snail mail. The giggle that dances off my goddaughter’s tongue. The joy of my students. Homecooked meals and delivery that satiate emotional whims. Hugs from my dad. Dancing with my mom. Cuddling with the dogs. Walks around town. The completion of diy projects around the house. Writing. Wrapping my fingers around a mug of decaf chai. Flooding each room of home with plants.  

Sometimes I forget to take my medicine. Occasionally it’s on purpose so I can wallow in my own filth. Teeth unbrushed. Laundry unfolded. Dishes toppling in the sink. Texts left unanswered. That way I can use their memory as reminders. When I inevitably retrace the steps back into the fog I can finger the outline of their cairns and more quickly find my way out.

I also have to take care to remember that dosage isn’t a constant. On occasion it’s necessary to lick up every drop, ride the high tide for as far as it will carry me. Then there are days when my purpose is to be as still as possible, to embody it. An all-encompassing rest. I cocoon in blankets and layers of clothing, taking care to do the bare minimum. At dusk I repeat a familiar silent oath to wake up and find any spark to reignite my own pilot light.

“And where is Mom in all of this?” you may ponder.

She’s here. My dutiful sidekick with an oversized beanie. She has her own bad days too, but for the most part I’ve noticed that her mood is dependent on my own. The more I can be mindful to take care of myself, the more I can avoid dementia turmoil. Often easier said than done but what isn’t? As much grief as Alzheimer’s has brought us, I thank the small ways in which it has muted certain blows. May we hold accountable the winter and wash ourselves in the spring.

A Personal History of Valentine’s Day

Perspective has tremendous impact on the way we navigate and experience life. Valentine’s Day is a divisive holiday reliant on tradition, forced or otherwise, to perpetuate romance. Perspective can alter the holiday in any number of ways.

I am the type of person who has come to enjoy it at face value. Love should be celebrated, every day, so I have no objection to dedicating a holiday to it. I appreciate thoughtfulness and authentic gestures over candy and obligated gift giving, but I appreciate that not everyone’s love language is the same as my own.

There are many memories of Valentine’s seeded in my mind. Some of the earliest ones involve the bubbly thrill of picking out the perfect box of cheap, mass-produced notecards for elementary schoolmates. Checking names off of the class roster, careful to make sure I included everyone. I wanted to be well liked so I took care to fill out “To:” and “From:” with my best penmanship and attach an accompanying box of Sweethearts or stickers.

Quietly I longed for an admirer, but my first valentines were reliably my parents. Mom was always dependable for the efforts she made to celebrate holidays and milestones. Dad was more hands-off with his participation due to the long hours he worked as the majority income earner for the household. My siblings and I would wake up to find baskets of candy, stickers, and trinkets waiting for us on the dining room table in the morning, curated by Mom and sanctioned by Dad. It was a ritual that I loved but that felt commonplace in the sense that all families did this. Now I know how fortunate we were to have circumstances that granted us the means, and the parents, to acknowledge specials days in this way. I hope to pass along these little gestures if I ever become a mother.

In fourth grade I had my first taste of romantic Valentine’s affection. While sorting through the pile of cards in the handmade mailbox attached to my desk, one envelope caught my attention. It was much larger than all the others, dwarfing the standard petite notecards. A full-sized card was unheard of in school so I couldn’t help but think it was deliberately special. My heart fluttered as I carefully slipped a finger between the sealed mouth and loosened the adhesive. After devouring the pre-printed sentiments my eyes settled on the name signed at the bottom. It was from a boy. It was deliciously unexpected and intimidating. Now what?

With the help of note passing and favorably checked “Yes or No” boxes the two of us became an item. This mostly meant that for the next couple of years we would sit next to each other on the bus to and from field trips and spend most of the drive working up the courage to hold one another’s hand. After an agonizing silent drama of willing him closer and being acutely aware of the diminishing centimeters between us, he would finally make contact with his endearingly clammy fingers. Once we were bold enough to hold hands while at the roller-skating rink. We even went on a date to the movies, chaperoned by a parent per the insistence of my mother.

Before our romance fizzled toward the end of sixth grade I relished the white Tamagotchi that was gifted to me, as well as the frequent recess treats purchased on his dime at the snack bar. I still vividly remember the smell and taste of the perfectly gooey and freshly baked chocolate cookies that were sold for seventy-five cents. My parents had no idea how much forbidden sugar was placed in my hands during this awkwardly innocent relationship.

Years later this same boy would take my younger sister to prom.

Eventually I shifted my focus on a kid one grade higher than me. I was madly in love with him from afar until deciding to cross the barrier into active secret admirer territory. I slipped adoring notes through the slats of his locker. A friend’s mother worked in the school’s office and offered to conspire with me. On my behalf she delivered a Valentine’s Day present to him during school hours, interrupting the teacher’s lecture with the delivery of my carefully selected tokens of adoration.

With graduating classes of only about thirty kids, our school was incredibly small. This made the mysterious theatrics all the more flamboyant. His peers speculated as to who might be the smitten girl, but it wasn’t until a ninth grade volleyball sleepover that the truth was bared. In an attempt to use gossip to bond with some of my older teammates I sheepishly confessed that I was the one behind the many notes and gifts bestowed on the quietly handsome boy. Unsurprisingly someone told him by the start of the following week and intense, but deserved, embarrassment commenced. On one occasion he happened to be sent to my English class to deliver the teacher some unmemorable item from another teacher and when he passed my desk he said, “Hi Lauren.” The gentle curl of his smirk and the twinkle in my eye was the confirmation that he knew. I don’t think I remembered to breathe again until the bell rang to signal the end of the period. I’ve never been one for direct confrontation, even if it’s romantically inclined.

Hopefully the awkward manifestations of my utmost junior high crush are looked back upon by him with a comical lens.

Despite directing a lot of energy into unrequited love, I had plenty to spare. I was boy crazy, but not overtly so. My close friends were certainly aware of my opinions on who was cute, and I flirted in ways only an awkward pre-teen can, but I was never one to actually date. I tried though. I wasn’t exactly allowed to just yet, but that did nothing to quell my hormones. Playing footsie under tables, passing notes, and playing MASH were spirited attempts to manifest something I had little idea how to navigate once procured.

At one point in the eighth grade and to the surprise of no one, I pined for the most popular guy in class. Athletic and tall with dark hair, a picket fence smile, and an innate ability to charm, I found myself wishing he would direct his charm my way.

He also happened to be the same kid who, a few years prior, had followed through on a dare to pull my pants down in the middle of a game of recess four-square. Mom was not shy about her disdain for him.

You might remember an essay several months ago where I mentioned she called me a slut for wearing a fringed maroon skirt to a dance. The jarring insult occurred in our mini-van as she was dropping me off for the eighth grade Valentine’s Day dance. She knew that the popular boy was going to be at the dance and thought my “inappropriate” outfit was for him. The anger generating from her did exactly as it intended: shamed me for liking someone who had once disrespected me greatly.

After composing myself I went inside to dance with friends and anxiously waited for the DJ (a quirky classmate) to play a slow song from the cd I had handed him. Not until the Valentine’s Day “King and Queen” were announced did I have the opportunity to dance with my troublesome crush. With our shiny plastic crowns adorned on our heads as we slowly pivoted in a circle. The fleeting junior high royalty moment of my shallow dreams.

Before the song was over he delivered my very first kiss. It was so unexpected that I didn’t have time to close my mouth, which cause my upper teeth to collide with his pucker. The unfortunate execution did little to deter my shock and delight, so we continued dancing until the next song began.

My best friend’s mom gave me a ride home after the dance. As I walked through the front door I tensed in anticipation for the wrath of my own mother. My family was watching tv together in the living room and when I sheepishly appeared I was relieved to hear, “So, how was the dance?”

I didn’t tell them about the kiss, but I did proudly show off my plastic crown before retreating to my room.

He kissed me.

“What could that mean? Is he my boyfriend now?” I wondered.

I impatiently wanted to see him again at school, delighted at the though of his affection blooming further.

The following week I heard through the grapevine that over Valentine’s weekend he had kissed another girl, someone who was equally as popular as him. I was deflated. This would be the first of many arduous lessons on the bewildering mixed messages of humans.

I spent the next decade enjoying the holiday sans boyfriend. It wasn’t until my early twenties, when my beloved roommates and I dove headfirst into online dating, did I find myself with another unexpected valentine.

The week before Valentine’s Day I connected with a guy on the dating site I was frequenting. He asked me out on a date and I happily accepted. It went well and the next day asked me out again. Flattered that someone I liked off-hand was keen to see me again soon instead of playing games, I agreed to see him. Just a couple of days later, on Valentine’s Day, we had a third date at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I was sure he would finally kiss me. How could he not when within a week he had set up three dates, the third of which was on the most stereotypically romantic days of the year?

Not until the fifth date did he finally make his move. I’m not sure if it was calculated or due to nerves, but I welcomed it just the same. The ease of leaning into the discovery of a person without games was refreshing.

A month or so later things quickly fizzled following an unchivalrous text conversation. He let me go just as quickly as he had pursued me.

A handful more Valentines passed before I found myself experiencing mutual love for the first time. Following suit with common customs, he gave me flowers and treated us to dinner at a high-end restaurant in our modest tourist town. The pomp and circumstance of it was delicious and I didn’t mind one bit to be outwardly embracing the “Hallmark Holiday”.

Our third and last Valentine’s Day was an omen for the end of our relationship, but I was naïve. We were knee deep in our transition from as roommates to sustaining a long-distance relationship. He had moved two hours away to attend grad school during the previous autumn. I chalked up his procrastination to make Valentines plans to the stress of school and balancing the new challenges of our relationship. In the weeks leading up to the holiday I had requested that we go camping. His commitment to a plan wavered before he said that it would be better if we spent the weekend at home, but then changed his mind at the last minute. With no reservations made, we crossed our fingers and made our way to the coast. We drove from one campground to the next, repeatedly being turned away due to full capacity. The more we drove, the more dejected I became. We could see several cars doing the exact same thing we were, desperately pulling into each campsite before winding their way along the coastline to the next place.

Finally we conceded and pulled into a remote motel parking lot to grab dinner at the adjacent diner. It was dark by then so we opted to snag a room before that too was no longer an option and then would resume our search for a campsite the following day. With a few years under our belt it was commonplace for us to split expenses, but as I was feeling bitter about being in a situation that could have been avoided if he had let me make reservations a month prior, I let him pay. With his wallet $200 lighter and me trying to hide my disappointment, we retreated to our cramped and overpriced room.

In the morning we popped into a private campground to ask if anyone hadn’t shown up for their reservation. To our surprise the campground host said that there were spots available on the lawn or down the steep driveway that led to the private beach. Tucked between boulders in a flat, sandy spot perfectly suited for a two-person tent, we basked in our luck. Within an hour all of the other available spots were taken.

After an uncomplicated camp dinner we treated ourselves to our very small stash of weed and sunk into the decorated sky.

We woke to the sounds of waves lapping next to our tent, crashing into the other side of our headboard of a boulder. Somehow we were still dry, separated from the high tide by a mere two feet of rock. All I wanted for Valentine’s Day was to spend time doing one of my favorite things with one of my favorite people. It took a lot more effort than it normally did, but I was glad to have ended better than it began. Being that he had been consistently thoughtful with planning dates and gift giving up until then, the unfamiliarity of his disorganization bothered me, but I didn’t believe it had evolved from anything worrisome.

As was routine by then, a few weeks later I made a trip to his college town so we could spend an extended weekend together. At one point he tried to convince me to go sky diving with him and some of his graduate student friends. I had yet found the courage to particpate, but told him I was fine coming along to watch the experience. He changed his mind and we ended up making other plans.

The weekend was normal, equally as enjoyable as any other visit. That is until Sunday during the last hours before I needed to head home. We had returned from brunch and were in the process of finding a flight to Los Angeles for his birthday trip to Disneyland. I already had bought my own ticket and was anxious for him to book his own. Being from the Midwest originally he had never been to the amusement park before. Not only would it be his first time, but the trip was a decoy for the surprise 30th birthday party I had been planning for months. I wanted him to think that was the “big event” so that he had no idea about the additional weekend I had planned in San Francisco with several of his dearest friends from all over the country.

Before he finished submitting his credit card info he inexplicably walked out of the room. Many long moments later he returned, sat across from me on the bed, and declared he wanted to break up.

Later I learned that during his abrupt departure from the room he called his best friend. I have no idea what was said, but I imagine he was getting the pep talk he needed to shatter us.

Valentine’s Day is different this year. Blithely single and surviving a pandemic as a caregiver, I am content to spend another day at home with Mom. It’s not what I wish to be doing in my heart of hearts, but it will do.

In order to use the day for writing I occupied her with yoga videos and NFL game reruns. She doesn’t remember watching the Super Bowl last weekend, so I can easily get away with using previous games as fodder for her entertainment. This new caregiving cheat is going to be useful for a guaranteed once a week distraction. For her, Sunday means football. I can’t help but deliver. With a history of sporadic Valentine’s romance and many years enjoying the holiday as a bachelorette, I have learned that placing unnecessary expectations on any one day doesn’t always bode well. The day is what I make it to be. I can writhe in the shadows of its capitalism or acquiesce to participate in some combination of customary gestures. I can ignore the holiday completely or take it as an opportunity to punctuate my expression of love for the people I cherish most fervently. Any and all of it is okay, an ebb and flow of perspectives dictated by life experiences. Of all the made-up structures humans have built to make sense of the world, I think at the very least this one should be acknowledged as a reminder to pay homage to the most powerful force we know. No matter if you choose to honor romantic, platonic, intimate, or self love, the act is a reckoning of beauty just the same.

Patience When Little Else Will Do

It has occurred to me that a mentality of endurance has aided me throughout the pandemic. I am not a sprinter. Not to disregard how incredibly trying this experience has been thus far, but I think it would be drastically different, arguably much darker, if I wasn’t the kind of person who generally expects things to take time. Yes, my mental, physical, and financial well-being have suffered tremendously, but if I had maintained the expectation that things would return back to “normal” quickly, or if I ignored the logic and reason of hunkering down, I know I would have been in worse shape.

It also helps that I lean heavily introverted. I crave in-person connections with extended friends and family, but I can get along okay, for the most part, on my own. Well, at least for much longer stretches than extroverted counterparts.

Looking back on my life I can see how I’ve always been the “slow and steady” type. When I swam competitively in high school my coach once asked me to swim the 500 freestyle. It was the event that no one wanted to do, which meant that there was a rotation of teammates who were nudged to sign up for it at each swim meet. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the sport, a 500 yard freestyle (or breaststroke, butterfly, etc) is a distance of twenty lengths of a lap pool. Most high school swim events are between two and eight lengths. Being a people pleasing person, I agreed to take one for the team. This led to me offering to sign up for the 500 freestyle at many more competitions.

It was unlikely that I was ever going to win that event. Long distance swimming wasn’t something I had specifically trained for and there was little pressure on me to place in the top tier. I was more so a body filling a lane. This isn’t to say I’m not a competitive person, as I didn’t want to come in last, but I also didn’t give myself a hard time when I inevitably placed somewhere in the middle. I also figured that it wouldn’t do me any good to exert myself in the long-distance event when I had a handful of other mid-distance events to compete in. So when it came time to swim the twenty laps I would tap into the folds of my mind and lean on random thoughts to keep my body distracted as it worked to take me back and forth across the pool again and again.

This approach came in handy years later when I took up running and signed up for a half marathon (13.1 miles). I didn’t participate with the hope of winning or breaking time records for my age group. My goal was to simply complete the race. There were plenty of people who passed me on the course. Thirty-something moms with jogging strollers, groups of friends with coordinated costumes, seasoned folks who seemed like they were moving in a low gear but coasted past me just the same. A part of me was a bit disappointed each time someone pulled ahead, but there were too many miles for me to worry about small losses. I was focused on the hope that was the finish line.

I eventually traded running for hiking and speed continued to be something I was unconcerned with.

I tend to mostly keep my eyes on my feet (I’m prone to tripping) while I listen to favorite podcasts and meander along. I may be slow, especially when ascending, but often I can hike for hours quite enjoyably.

For the first and only backpacking trip I’ve been on, there was no training involved in the months leading up to it. I had been to the Grand Canyon before but the snowy weather I encountered didn’t lend to any hiking opportunities. So I was a bit nervous about whether or not I could keep up with the group I’d be joining up with for my secondary Grand Canyon experience, but we ended up all being a great fit for one another. Over three days I hiked thirty-six miles. Ten miles from the top of the canyon down to the bottom to where our campsite was nestled, sixteen miles round trip from our campsite to the confluence where Havasu Creek and the Colorado River meet, and then ten miles back to my car when our trip was over. The last mile was easily the slowest I’ve ever moved on a trail. I literally inched my way up the zig zag path up the canyon wall, cursing and heaving and stopping at frequent intervals.

The same endurance has manifested in non-athletic aspects of my life. As a kid I went through a phase where I was always the last one at the dinner table. I ate food in a specific order, making a point of eating the least desirable bits first and saving the best for last. I still do this, but not as deliberately or painstakingly slow.

Similarly, I would gladly take on four hours of cooking over one hour of dishes any day of the week. In the same fashion I often opt for a road trip versus a domestic flight, time willing. When I paint or draw or write or engage in anything else creative I am not one to race through it with the blind faith that limited talent and learned skill will grant me a brisk process. Instead I edit as I go, preferring to correct mistakes so they don’t accumulate and fracture the overall piece before the final draft is procured.

To me it seems like a better idea to maintain a basic level of removal from the world until the threat of Covid is mostly snuffed out. I think before I act. I take risks, but with caution after having processed possible outcomes. I know that with a country whose citizens are all following different rules (or disregarding rules entirely) that the finish line for overall public safety is continually getting pushed back. For this I am sorry, but I am not surprised.

I have mourned the loss of personal freedoms that have been casualties of caregiving and Covid, but I know neither factor will drag on forever. They both have finish lines, although where they are staked has yet to be seen. Although the absence of an end date for both is frightening, in my darkest moments I can at least know that their weakness lies in their inability to be eternal. Maybe this will be of some small comfort to you, too.

A Reflection Nothing More Than Mine

Everyone writes on themes of reflection or resolution when a new year rolls around. Since before the holidays commenced I wanted to do the same. I’ve always enjoyed celebrating the symbolism regarding the passing of time. There was a lifetime’s worth of material existing in one year, but I ended up spending far too much time brainstorming about what to say and how to say it. Nothing struck as unique. I let my ideas spin wildly, tighten around my creativity, until they suffocated it enough to bar any words from getting out.

I don’t wish to be an echo chamber reciting what we all know to be a universally challenging time. But really, what else is there to talk about except everything that turned our world upside down? I decided to swallow an often-repeated pill to wash down my writer’s block: Write what you know.

I know that I have been tested relentlessly, more than I remember experiencing in previous years of my life. Sometimes I fought bravely to keep things together. Other times I sunk beneath the sheets of my bed, too defeated to do anything more than sleep, eat, and be swept into the vortex of online mindlessness. My eyes and ears and heart beyond capacity of understanding the barrage of ugliness.

I know that it was necessary to take risks, as we all did. I navigated valid fears and ever-changing circumstance to survive as best I could week by week. No, that’s a lie. It was often hour by hour. I kept all friends at a distance except one. I had groceries delivered until I didn’t. I disregarded caregiver assistance in the name of health and safety, but not sanity. I went on three dates. I wore a mask and crossed streets, avoided inhaling when I couldn’t help but to pass someone whose face was bare. I agonized over decisions that suspended between selfcare and potential hazard. I protested injustices that weighed heavier on my subconscious than my fear of getting sick. Other times I stayed home and pitched in with time and money and patient, yet aggravating conversations. I evacuated before wildfire experts deemed it absolutely necessary.

I know that I contorted in obtuse, sometimes unfamiliar ways, to survive. I had mood swings and brain fog. I was forgetful and disorganized. I was at times so stressed that my body literally ached, muscles clenched tight enough that it became painful to walk or lay down. I cried. I cursed over and over, foolishly begging the world to challenge me again. I painted blame on others, plunged into the tar-like substance myself until I laughed at my stupidity. I choked on disbelief. I held my breath each time someone disappointed me, then violently gasped for air when my face, violet with upset, couldn’t sustain the frequency I encountered those that bred the disappointment. I wondered if I could ever forgive anyone that cartwheeled over thick lines of morality. Do I even want to? I threatened to give up three-hundred-thousand times, but at all times I had one toe wedged in the sliver between door and exit.

Inexplicably, I haven’t had a single panic attack since the pandemic began.

I know that I need more help. In the last ten months I’ve only had one full day off from caregiving. I’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much to keep Mom safe from Covid that it feels reckless to welcome help into our home until vaccines have been more widely distributed. I know the finish line is nearing, but I don’t want to acknowledge it yet for fear of it being pushed back in the way that was learned by the pandemic. Dates of change are not guaranteed.

I know myself better than ever. I’ve enforced boundaries, drew a line more times than I can count. Even when I feel like I’m a stranger to myself, I at least know who and what I am not. I am kind and thoughtful. Bitter and exhausted. Terrified and unafraid. Hopeful and fearful. Sometimes I am unwilling to compromise, and yet in certain circumstances I will hold the velvet rope up for you to stroll under. My introverted tendencies both saved and suffocated me. I am stubborn and less agreeable. I am grateful to be alive.

I know what it is to find joy in the minutiae. I drank wine and tore off half-portions of edibles with my teeth. I danced, and liked it. I braided hair and painted nails. I whitened teeth until they ached. I let the hair on my body grow as free as it was able, then unceremoniously removed it for no sake at all except to slide fingers over slick skin. I cooked elaborate meals. I ordered takeout as if my life depended on it. I fell in love with my goddaughter and the meaning she brings to the future. I talked on the phone for hours with friends. I said “I love you.” more than was expected. I played games. I walked for miles around town late at night with my best friend. I took naps, sometimes back-to-back. I smiled at the wind, at the breath on my tongue and the dirt between toes. I cuddled dogs. I gladly understood how I am both insignificant and eternal depending on the lens of perception. I gave into temptation. I forgave myself, time and again. I was gentle with self-flagellation. I allowed myself to be spoiled on occasion. I relished in the purging of material things and parallelly lapped at the lustful taste of retail therapy. I took pride in physical labor and alternative means of obtaining education. I accepted the goodwill of others. I meditated. I worshiped the power of salt water: ocean, tears, and sweat.

But what I know, above all, is that I am still here, and so are you if you’re reading this. We did it. We survived yesterday and all the days before. We may not be able to comprehend exactly how or why, but the fact remains that we did. I don’t know if I’ll see you tomorrow because life is everything but predictable, but just know that there is much to be proud of and even more to fight for.

Long Time Listener, First Time Buyer

Staying on theme with this year, I have found myself pivoting again. Last month I hit a snag with the house buying process. I had heard and read that purchasing a home out-of-state was more difficult than doing so locally, but I wasn’t exactly clear on the details as to why that is.

Now I know.

Here’s my conundrum:

In order to be considered for the loan I’d need to afford a starter home in Oregon, both of my incomes would need to be counted (writing and teaching). That would prove that I make enough to afford the necessary mortgage payments.

Lenders will possibly consider counting a job toward loan qualification if you’ve had it less than two years, but in general two years is the minimum work history they’re looking for. I’ll have had this writing job for two years as of March 2021, so it’s a bit of a gray area. One of the many great aspects of writing is that I have been able to do it remotely since day one. This means that if I am to move out of state this income would be considered sustainable.

Another wonderful aspect of my writing job is the flexibility that it offers me in regard to weekly hours. I’m very lucky to be able to adjust my hours from week to week, if needed. As a caregiver, this is something I value highly, most especially during a pandemic.

In the eyes of a lender though, this isn’t ideal. They’d, understandably, rather have a history of steady, consistent income. When looking at my writing income they took an average of last year’s and this year’s earnings. Last year I hadn’t yet launched the blog and was spending time researching, brainstorming, writing, editing, etc., but a large majority of my income was still coming from my teaching job. This means that although I have dedicated way more time to my writing job this year, when averaged out with last year’s income, it’s a meager total.

My other job as a private swim lesson instructor is not a remote job. So although I have sixteen years of experience and plans to continue teaching, this income is not considered applicable toward what I can afford for a home loan unless I can prove I have a steady teaching job lined up in Oregon.

Basically, lenders are calculating what I can afford for a home loan based off one part time job, not both.

My general plan for the first year or two of living in Oregon has been to spend part of the time back home in California. I don’t know how quickly I’ll gain traction with obtaining new clientele abroad, so I figure it may be a good idea to spend a few months in California and teach the clients I already have. That will also allow me to spend time with friends and family.

Apparently if I split my time between Oregon and California then I would not qualify for a traditional home loan. I would need to apply for a “second home” loan because it wouldn’t be my “primary” residence. This concept also applies to the scenario of me purchasing a home in Oregon now, staying in California until I’m done fixing up and selling Mom’s house/making arrangements/etc, and then physically moving to Oregon.

With a “second home” loan I would be required to put down no less than 20%.

I am the type of person who hates owing money. That’s why I have worked really hard to become debt-free. So when it comes to buying a home I’d like to have a sizable down payment. Depending on the property I may not be able to put down 20%, but I’d like to get as close to that as possible while still leaving enough money for a safety net.

So, I’m in a bit of a pickle for now.

You may be wondering what this means for me. I don’t exactly know yet. Admittedly I was a bit upset about it at first, but I quickly realized that if things aren’t lining up right now then it must be for a reason. I’m not giving up on the plan, but I am comfortable with shifting some of my focus toward other things for the time being.

I’ll still continue saving money, working on Mom’s house, and otherwise preparing for re-trying for a home loan. I may need to find alternative ways to make it happen. I’m not exactly in a rush though. There’s a lot of factors at play here, and who knows how the rest of the pandemic will play out. The area I want to move to is on the rise, so it’s possible that by the time I get everything figured out I may have missed my opportunity to find a property that’s affordable there. I could look for something in the surrounding areas, or somewhere else altogether, or even opt to stay in California for the time being. Once I feel it’s safe to resume respite care, or when I can finalize getting additional, consistent caregivers for her, it may make sense to stay home for awhile longer. Who knows. That’s the beauty of life’s uncertainties. Often the most unexpected changes can lead us to beautiful places and people and opportunities. You just have to be open to it. Rarely do things go exactly as planned. Keep an eye on the prize, but be willing to accept the possibility of detours. Detours can be just that, alternative routes to a final destination.

For now I am content with where I’m at. I no longer feel stressed to be in Mom’s house because it’s looking much better. It feels like home instead of a chaotic, neglected space overruled by dementia absentmindedness. I love putting work into it and making it cozier for Mom and me. I’d be grateful to get the money back that I’ve invested into it, but if after it’s sold Mom needs all of the profits to pay for her care, I’m absolutely okay with not being reimbursed.

Despite the mortgage setback, I am profoundly proud of all that I’ve achieved so far. I have a down payment saved. I have excellent credit. I have learned a lot about what it means to be a homeowner and how to fix/maintain things. I’ve made it through one of the toughest years of my life. I’ve kept Mom healthy and (mostly) content through out these challenges. I’ve learned to communicate better, how to create and enforce boundaries, and when to accept help if it’s genuine. Recently I have been feeling much more well-rounded, like the balance of things has gone from wildly askew to mostly level. I can’t control everything, but I’m going to do my darnedest to nurture this harmony.

Rituals and Rebirth

On the last day of our most recent retreat to Dad’s place in the middle of a national forest, I opted for a hike while my parents stayed with the dogs. In the thirty-two years I have been going north for these family trips, almost always in the summer, I can count the number of hikes I’ve done on one hand. Typically our summer vacations in the mountain heat would be spent floating down the Trinity River, or wading near its shores at dusk to look for crawdads. In between trips down dirt roads to the river the few passerby could witness our bodies stretched as lanky as a July day over mis-matched outdoor furniture, tucked in hammocks, or fiddling with a rotation of games and snacks. But before I get into this particular hike, let me fill you in on the days that led up to it.

Following the offbeat theme of this year, my parents and I decided to spend our first Thanksgiving in the woods. We were rewarded with crisp, bright days and quiet afternoons. Mom and I arrived a few days before Dad, so I spent time organizing the clutter and prepping for the holiday meal.

Mom watched comedy movies while I plucked crab meat from Dungeness shells for hours, sauteed mirepoix for stuffing and gravy, boiled potatoes, cut and seasoned asparagus, and lovingly dressed the small turkey that only Dad would eat.  

There were only two instances of dementia laden outbursts during our six days. The first occurred an evening after I had tucked Mom and Princess into her twin sized bed. I helped her into pajamas, handed her a chewable melatonin and a book of quotes, kissed her goodnight, and left her to drift off to sleep with the light on.

Dad and I stayed up and watched television from the other side of her bedroom wall. It’s a small space. An hour after I left her to doze off I could hear angry muttering coming from the other side of the wall. I waited a bit and then popped in to investigate.

“Is everything okay in here? Are you okay?”

She immediately stopped her not-so-secret, escalating tantrum and looked at me quietly. I was suspicious. She didn’t say anything rude to my face so I figured maybe she had been upset about something random. She let me kiss her check again and bid her goodnight once more. I left the room and resettled into the recliner next to Dad.

Right away I heard muttering again, the venom of her voice and the gritting of her teeth charged the atmosphere. I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying at first, but I did decipher that we (Dad and I) were “having a party” while she had to go to bed. This went on and on and on and on until finally it started to get to me.

Rule number one of caregiving: Don’t take it personally. 

Easier said than done.

I went into her room again and told her that it was bedtime and that everyone is going to sleep. Her anger turned to me, “the bitch” who made her go to bed while Dad and I “partied”. I slammed the door and returned to my recliner next to Dad’s, making sure to turn the volume on the tv way down in hopes that she’d get over her noise complaint quickly.  

Well into the night she continued to repeat herself over and over again, talking shit, and hyper focused on her perceived reality. There are two bedrooms at this place so my parents each get a room and I sleep on an air mattress right outside Mom’s room. I had orchestra seats for the tirade. 

The following morning she was happy as a clam with no recollection of any animosity toward me.

The next emotional dementia flare-up rang to a much different tone, but also took place after bedtime. As a night owl I’m usually up until nearly midnight, or sometimes later. Shortly after falling asleep I was awoken by the sound of Mom shuffling down the hallway to the bathroom, like a bewildered moth drawn toward the dim glow of the nightlight.

With eyes still closed, willing my consciousness to dip back into slumber, my ears picked up on the sounds of quiet whimpering. I lay still for a few moments, thinking that perhaps Mom was having a little trouble finding her room. Her bedroom door was the only one between the bathroom and the living room where I was set up, so I figured she would find her way momentarily.

I listened as she made her way back to bed. The whimpering continued.

Wide awake by the siren song of distress, I briskly made my way into Mom’s dark room.

“What’s a matter Mama?”

“Where…where am I?” she stuttered.

“We’re in Trinity, Mama. On vacation. Princess is right here too, next to you.”

Her eyes were wild, pupils shrunk to pinpricks, and her grasp on reality unfound. I know this look. I’ve bore witness to it from time to time when the dementia takes full control, veiling Mom in a foreign shroud and making her unrecognizable. In those moments I feel she is her most vulnerable. A weightless feather at the mercy of any degree of wind.

“Do you want me lay with you a bit Mom?” I asked as I stroked her hair.

She nodded, still cowering at the uncertainty of her surroundings. I gave her another melatonin and gently pushed her rigid shoulders back onto the bed. After a few minutes she uncoiled, melting back into a dream state, so I retreated to my air mattress and relished the last few hours of sleep before sunrise.

On the last full day before the three of us were to mosey home, I asked Dad if I could take off for a few hours so I could explore a nearby lake and find a hiking trail.

That hike changed me. And when it did, I felt the surge sweep through me like brilliant lightning. It was a recharging from bottom to top.

Being the only one on the trail, I drank in every delicious smell and rustle in the undergrowth as if they were only meant for me. I liked the feeling of leg muscles stretching and carrying my body forward. The weight of the day pack strapped to my back was familiar, an old friend tagging along closely. If it weren’t for the daylight being stolen by the passing of time, I would have walked that trail until my feet gave out.

The next day we loaded our vehicles with Thanksgiving leftovers and sacks of dirty clothes, careful to leave room enough for dogs and humans. I asked Dad for one more favor.

“Can you take Mom and Princess in your truck so I can go on one more hike?”

With a late departure from the property I didn’t end up having enough time for a hike, but I was able to stop by Humboldt Redwoods State Park for a leisure stroll amidst the wood giants and blooming ferns. I was drunk on nature. And not dissimilar to an addict, I ached to consume as much as possible.

The first morning back home I woke up with an energy that had become unfamiliar during the pandemic. Instead of laying in bed for an hour or two before starting my day, I jolted out from under the duvet and began the morning routine: turn the electric kettle on, pour Mom some tea with a squeeze of honey, find her some breakfast, and get dressed. I put on hiking shoes and a ridiculously bright, 80’s inspired exercise outfit complete with modern cobalt leggings and a vintage fuchsia puffy jacket that Mom has owned for decades. I made sure to eat a banana, chug water, and set Mom up with an exercise video before heading out.

My initial plan was to walk the road that winds around “the mountain” right by our house. Half way up the winding ascent I was feeling so electric that I decided to add a pitstop. There’s an event center and park near the top of the mountain with a steep trail leading to the summit. I figured, why not. Might as well ride this “runner’s high”-like adrenaline for as long as I could.

Nine miles later I walked through our front door, smile wiped across my face like a love drunk dope.

In the two weeks since the Thanksgiving trip life has slowed down again. Most of the exterior house projects are completed, close to completion, or on pause for the season. I have less clients at work, which is to be expected as the weather turns colder. And I have been able to go on a hike every few days, taking advantage of Dad’s offer to start watching my Mom a few days a week again.

I’m back.

Actually, I never was truly gone, but most of me was siphoned into survival mode this year. This is far from over, but I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for nine months and can finally exhale to make room for a delicious gulp of air. I just need to keep feeding this new energy with hikes and meditation, cooking and reading, chats with friends. And take time to whisper, “Be kind to yourself. This is temporary.”