Few and Far Between

I knew I have anxiety and moderate depression, so when I heard my diagnoses it did nothing but confirm their very clear-to-me existence. But being told I am lonely is what cracked my stoicism. After answering some questions about my recent state of mind it was explained that I scored at the very top of the lonely scale and my stress rating was at a 13 out of 16. “Yup. Sounds about right,” I thought silently, tears gathering in my eyes. I bit my lip so I couldn’t be heard whimpering over the phone. I listened to the social worker explain what resources and advice she could provide: caregiving respite, therapy sessions, filling my doctor in about my situation and looking into prescription anti-depressants.

Depression is a familiar ailment of an era long ago. In high school and the first few years of my twenties I struggled, hard. I had phases of suicidal ideations. I took a handful of painkillers once, but it only made me groggy enough to fall asleep. In the moments I wanted to die, I didn’t really. I just wanted to not feel uncontrollably unwell any longer. Thankfully I spent the decade afterward without that unnerving blanket of melancholy.

When I tiptoed and then dove headfirst into caregiving the depression yawned from hibernation, slowly rustling awake until it could catch its footing. Here I am, back in this web that I thought I had wrestled from. This time was different. It wasn’t some inexplicable force that I didn’t understand, couldn’t talk about, or had no understanding of how to combat. This time I knew exactly what it was and the source from which it stemmed.

Obviously the answers I provided for the depression questionnaire were bleak, but there was one that stood out.

“Do you have thoughts that you would be better off dead, or of hurting yourself?”

“Not at all. I just want to be out of this situation,” I replied plainly.

Up until a few weeks ago it had been about two years since I had last contacted my social worker. With the complications of the pandemic and everything else in between there was a lot that constantly got rotated to the top of my priority list, with most of the to-do list drowning beneath the surface of the more pertinent tasks. Often the list changes from moment to moment, directly influenced by the necessity of addressing Mom’s everyday care and maintaining enough working hours to pay the bills and contribute to savings.

 Caregivers tend to put themselves last, whether it be intentional or by design of the responsibilities they carry. It’s not surprising that I’ve taken this long to reach out for professional support again. The irony is not lost on me that I work for the same organization that employs my social worker. Non-caregivers will likely not understand how it’s possible for that gap to happen, but I’m not concerned with the opinions of those that have not navigated this path. Instead of beating myself up for not taking better advantage of the resources I have access to, I acknowledge the extreme difficulty of the situation I’m in.

 Being Mom’s live-in caregiver is a vortex that binds me within its boundaries at all times. Even when I’m not physically with her I cannot help but to think about her and everything I have to do to take care of regarding her. It can be extremely challenging to reach outside of the consuming mixture of heavy emotions and never-ending responsibilities to grasp hold of something solid. And then putting in the work to follow up on advice and support services? That in of itself can be draining and burdensome, especially so when some aspects of obtaining services can involve a lot of red tape. It can feel like I’m on one of those spinning gravity rides at the fair, pressed firmly against the sides of the horizontal wheel and helpless to move, no matter what strength or willpower I possess.

              This time around the depression is a changeling, adapting itself to disrupt my needs in this new era. I eat too much. I feel fatigued all day. I’m isolated from my peers and their current life experiences. My mind fluctuates between racing thoughts and feeling like Jell-O. I can’t concentrate for long periods of time. I rarely exercise. I’m irritable, restless, discontented. On the worst days I spend hours in bed, only getting up to gather snacks, set Mom up with an activity, and use the bathroom. A majority of the time I’m at least able to get a few tasks done, go to work, cook a meal or two. There’s little to look forward to when I have no idea how long I’ll be in this situation or when I’ll have my own life back. The best days are when I’m at work or enjoying time with a friend, though I hate how little positivity or new personal information I can contribute to conversations. I want stories of love and unexpected travel hiccups to pour from my mouth, but I’m a walking Groundhog’s Day movie without the humor.

              Hi, it’s me. Things are the same. Life is hard. I’m sad, but doing my best. See! I can take away the discomfort and annoyance of my downer vibe by telling you all about the last movie I watched or absurd new article I read. Now tell me about your life and all of the things I’m missing out on.

My Sunday hiking ritual and infrequent travel trips that once were a saving grace have long been deleted from accessibility. I mourn them fiercely, with rage and solace of memory. Every day is marked with the incessant flashings of the life I left on pause. I count weeks and years in the widening of my face and belly. My body is so used to this unrelenting trauma that it stopped signaling in bouts of chest tightening anxiety attacks. The absence of experiencing them is just as worrisome as having them angrily bloom.

This is survival. I will get through this. The tethering of familial love has led me right into the role of psychopomp. It is an honor as much as it is an ultimate burden. I know all too well that there is high risk of consequences for the sacrifices I’ve made to provide care for Mom. Everything I’ve already shared with you is a testament to the preliminary consequences already in place. I worry about the potential of additional health problems that this could cause in later years. I hope there isn’t damage that can’t be undone.

The real kicker is that I know Mom would abhor this situation, if she could understand it. The old mom never gave up battling my depression in high school, even when everything she tried failed to make a dent and all she could do was hold me. She would do anything for her children. If she were capable of knowing what Alzheimer’s has done to her, done to me, it would destroy her. I think it would destroy most any decent person. That’s the sickening silver lining of dementia. It protects the victim from the absolute truths, like blinders for an animal being led to slaughter. It is a kindness that I both appreciate and despise.

I haven’t yet set up respite care. Or emailed my doctor. Or scheduled therapy sessions. But I’m one step closer. I’m making moves, albeit slowly. It just takes me longer to slog forward these days.

Farewell Season

The tapering of summer is welcome, but there is deflation, too. It is not unlike the crash after an adrenaline rush of thrill-seeking car rides or a near-miss from unexpected peril. There is gratitude and reflection, a clutching satisfaction of all that was overcome. Coming down from the sweltering high of scheduling clients six days a week since May is a descent well-earned. I am proud of the twelve- and thirteen-hour workdays I frequently committed to, but I’m equally grateful that only half of the year is like this. Autumn is the annual summit I climb toward, simultaneously revering and saying adieu at the finish line.

Credit is due to my father, who graciously watched over Mom three days a week so that I could teach the bulk of my students. Without his help I wouldn’t have been successful at earning a decent living. I still can’t get over how my parents get along better now than they did when they were married. That’s not to give the impression that their dynamic now is seamless, but they have come a long way from where they were. A silver lining of dementia and the passing of time.

Some months ago I commended a parent of one of my students for how she juggles her children’s schedules in addition to everything else on her plate.

“I don’t know how you do it.”

Without pause she said, “Yes you do.”

Between Mom and the families I work with I have a lot of the same conversations repeatedly. With themes of “What is your availability?” and “Here’s what progress has been made and the goals we’ll continue working on:” and delivering well deserved praise, sometimes it’s difficult for me to turn off my mouth’s autopilot. This person gently reminded me that I absolutely do know what it’s like to juggle the responsibilities of a parent. Saying “I don’t know how you do it.” was the every day nod I give to parents, but it is somewhat in disservice of myself.

Precious hours of “time off” from work in early summer mornings, late evenings, or on Sundays, were either spent catching up on housework or attempting to recharge some percentage of energy reserves in between the required attention and assistance Mom needs daily. Despite sneaking in occasional twenty-minute naps and usually getting seven or eight hours of sleep at night there was no escape from being tired. Never mind all of the other to-do tasks that had to be bumped down the priority list.

Mom’s healthcare plan at Kaiser had lapsed awhile back, so when my sister signed her up again in the spring I booked a bunch of appointments. Over the summer I took her for a physical checkup, optometry assessment, mammogram, and an Alzheimer’s diagnostic to assess where she is at with her decline.

Her body is very healthy, but her cognition is now comparable to that of a four-year-old. A mournsome Benjamin Button of sorts.

Earlier this year an acquaintance of mine lamented about their son growing up. They grieved the transition from reliant kid to independent young adult. Coming to terms with being less in the forefront of the son’s day to day needs and knowing that a chapter is soon to close was weighing heavy. After relating the dynamic experience of parenthood to that of caregiving for Mom, I gently recalibrated their well-intentioned perception.

“I’m single parenting someone who is not growing and learning and becoming their own person, but slowly dying and losing everything unique about them. Different from your situation, but both hard.”

Grief is a language with many dialects. There is an underlying level of empathy between those that know it, but the nuances are not always readily understood.

Years ago another friend of mine was responsible for encouraging travel before and after summer as a way to both prepare and unwind. Between the pandemic and increasing caregiving demands this has become a selfcare privilege that has become increasingly challenging to execute. The trip to Oregon last April was the closest I’ve felt to normal in a long time. The logical part of me expected the plans not to work out. I’ve learned not to rely on most other people, no matter how wonderful their intentions are. Very few people have follow through.

Last December I had expressed to my family that all I wanted for Christmas and my December birthday was a vacation. On two occasions when I was asked what I’d like for gifts, my response was the same. Yet when the holiday and my thirty-second birthday came and went, nothing was mentioned about giving me relief from caregiving.

A few days after Christmas I sent out a group text. I expressed gratitude for the gifts given to me but bluntly stated that I was not joking about needing a two-week vacation. The response, from one person, was “We’ll make it happen.” As expected, the other person didn’t respond at all.

Due to the distrust I have for good intentions, I couldn’t help but be skeptical that I would actually be able to leave. In fact, I was so nonchalant about the upcoming vacation that it threw some people off. They had no idea that I wouldn’t dare to anticipate a long overdue break. If I did allow myself to get excited in the weeks and days leading up to it, and for any reason the trip had to be canceled, the disappointment would swallow me whole.

Four months later I was on my way to Oregon for a ten-day trip. It wasn’t quite the two weeks I had asked for, but it was something.

In the last days leading up to my departure I began to feel the chill of my emotional guard slowly defrost. I was beyond grateful to have the opportunity to temporarily return to normalcy, but it was tainted ever so slightly by disappointment. I had to ask three times in order to be taken seriously. The two weeks I had requested were cut short because of the poor planning choices of my replacement. The trip was set to happen nearly five months after I first mentioned the need for it. So yes, I was thrilled that I was actually going to be able to be free of Mom for a while, but I could not disregard the missteps of others, even when they were trying to do a good deed. You can love someone immensely and be disappointed in them at the same time. Conflicting characteristics and emotions are not mutually exclusive.

During a conversation with a friend of mine I was told how a buddy of theirs can’t always be flexible with their availability to socialize because they have kids. Their duties of parenthood superseded their desire to spend time outside of that role.

My friend then said something along the lines of, “It’s not like you and I. We don’t have kids so we can come and go as we please.” I nodded politely, so as not to interrupt the touchy story they were conveying, but inside I was vehemently disagreeing. I wasn’t mad, of course, as this person is quite wonderful in many ways, but I was thrown off by this perception of me. I had shared many, many caregiving stories with this particular friend so it was a shock that someone believed I had the same freedoms as them. In reality I spend moments of every day internally agonizing about all of the things I am missing out on. I’m grateful for many aspects of my existence and privileges, but I also know that Alzheimers has made me a stationary observer of the perpendicular lives of my peers. Those of which are dutifully parading by like clouds being carried on the sky, always moving forward.

What’s interesting is that most of the people I have mentioned above have family members, usually a grandparent, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, but they aren’t caregivers for that loved one. They see and experience many of the hardships of watching someone wither away into an unrecognizable being, but they don’t necessarily understand the whole picture. They don’t know what it is to clean up the bathroom floor right next to the toilet because their mom couldn’t figure out how to remove her one-piece bathing suit off. They cannot understand how it feels to ask and answer the same dozen questions every single day, multiple times a day, for years and years until you feel like a shell of yourself because your social interactions at home made you feel like you’ve descended into madness. They cannot fathom the gut punch of comforting a seventy-one year old woman crying for her mommy, or watching her get lost in the home that she shared for twenty years.

To be clear, I am disappointed in the perspective, not the dear friends of mine. They watch me and other caregivers through a grayscale lens. They can see the situation and the people in it, but the nuances of color are left to the imagination. It’s not their fault that they don’t know what’s beyond the realm of their reality. This is exactly why I feel it’s important for caregivers to share their stories. And it’s partially responsible for my drive to put my own story out in the world. Without honesty we lose an opportunity to connect, learn, empathize, and make changes for the betterment of us all.

With family I struggle with extending this same contingency. I feel like the culture of complacency that often leaves the burden of caregiving heavily on the shoulders of one family member needs to change. I especially have a difficult time doling out continued patience to familial spectators who should be stepping up to help, but don’t, yet they have plenty of criticisms to bestow upon me from the sidelines.

As humans we all make assumptions about people and situations based on our own experiences, biases,  selfish desires, and the limited contexts we are aware of. It is the duty of an evolving person to contribute to the world by continually learning how to not just understand that which is around and beyond us, but to understand deeper. As new pieces of information come to light it’s more than okay to color one’s black and white perspective with hues of color and nuance. The more diverse our palette, the more kindness, equality, and progression is likely to ripen to fruition.   

From one flawed human to another, thank you for being here to expand the palette of your world view. I aim to continue holding myself accountable to do the same.

Vacation: Part Two

I haven’t figured out why, but usually when I camp alone I have two mornings. The first begins when I open my eyes to the morning.

Typically I wake up needing to pee so I’ll cocoon further into the sleeping bag until my bladder tells me it’s time to stop messing around. With puffy eyes and a nest of hair I’ll quickly shuffle toward the bathroom. By the time I walk back to the campsite I’m ready for breakfast. I’ve always been one to eat right away.

Setting up the small propane camp stove is a ritual in of itself. There’s the clang of metal lid flipping open to expose the burners. Two clips keep the lid upright and attach itself to collapsible sides, a protectant from wind exposure. I can’t help but think of explosions every time I handle propane, but stomach grumblings urge me to keep going. The squeaking of propane tank twisting into the fuel line promises food will soon be ready. I cautiously light a burner.

A pot of water soon begins to bubble, signaling it’s time to assemble breakfast accoutrements. A collapsible bowl and cup are pulled out from a camping gear drawer in the car. I empty two packets of strawberry oatmeal into the bowl. A single serving of instant chai latte is dumped into the cup. Steaming hot water is poured into each and I tell myself to wait a few minutes so that everything can properly meld and cool down a tad, but of course I don’t.

I spend about half an hour enjoying the meal while engrossing myself in a book, but then feel obligated to clean up with enough time to avoid the crusting of oatmeal and tea remnants. By the time everything is washed and put away I start to feel tired. With book in hand I crawl back into the tent and shimmy into the belly of the sleeping bag again. It doesn’t take long before I put the book down and fall back asleep.

An hour or so later I’m awake once more and ready to begin my second morning.

With everything cleaned and packed up in the car I make my way up the coast toward the next campground. The first of two pitstops, Prehistoric Gardens, was kitschy and cartoonish in all the right ways.

Ever since throwing an epic tantrum and begging my parents to take me to see Jurassic Park when I was six, and them finally relenting, I have adored dinosaurs. Before heading out the door with Dad, Mom made it very clear that I would probably have nightmares and that she didn’t want to hear about it when they happened.

Of course I had nightmares, though not as many as expected. I can still remember one that was reoccurring in which I “wake up” to find a T-Rex looking through my bedroom window, it’s enormous reptilian head filling up the entirety of the glass.

The following summer Dad set me up in front of the modest television at our property in the woods to see Jaws for the first time. Mom walked by about halfway through the movie and asked what I was watching. She was furious when I told her.

“Goddamnit! Why are you letting her watch Jaws? She’s seven!”

Dad was in trouble, and Mom stormed out of the house muttering angrily, but I was allowed to finish watching the movie. Despite all logic regarding sharks in fresh water I was nervous to swim in the river for the rest of the summer.

To this day Jurassic Park and Jaws are my favorite movies and I am a sucker for anything having to do with their prehistoric lead characters. Obviously, I couldn’t pass up a dinosaur themed garden on the way to Cape Perpetua.

A twenty-foot-tall tyrannosaurus stands in the parking lot of the gardens to welcome visitors and catch the eye of those driving by on the highway. I paid the twelve-dollar entrance fee and took my time perusing the paths. I made a point to stop and read each description of the creatures, then snap a photograph, before continuing on.

As with all tourist attractions the path ended at a gift shop. I already knew I’d be spending money before I walked in. With a few postcards, a magnet, and some children’s books in hand, I finally exited to the car with a giddy smile. Money well spent, although I wouldn’t necessarily pay to experience the place second time.

The second pitstop, the touristy Sea Lion Caves, ended up being temporarily closed. As the small building is perched on a cliff above the highway,

I decided to spend a few minutes stretching my limbs and snapping a few photos of the coastline. The weather couldn’t have been better. With a cloudless sky, mid-seventies temperature, and just a smidge of a breeze, I was surprised to be bestowed with unusually perfect weather in the middle of April.

The Northern California coast can be finicky. On many occasions I’ve driven the twenty-one miles to the ocean on a blazing day only to be confronted with clouds and a twenty-degree temperature drop within the last few miles.  By driving further north to Oregon I figured it was more likely for me to experience cooler weather. I love to be right, but in this case it did me well to be wrong.

Less than twenty-minutes from Sea Lion Caves was the second and last tent accommodations of the trip: Cape Perpetua State Park Campground. Nestled amidst a forest headland, the campground is conveniently located across the highway from a beach.  

I assembled my simple tent and additional camp gear before settling into cooking dinner. I don’t remember what I made, but I do recall the continued sensation of feeling at home. Lighting the stove, stirring, sauteing, flipping, scorching. It made no matter what food I was making. Being outside with dirt and rocks crunching beneath tired feet and losing count of which day I last took a proper shower, that was a version of “being present” that wrung out the worries from my soul like dirty bath water from towel.

The following day I went hiking. It was the first in some time, a stark contrast from the once-a-week Sunday trail excursions I had routinely gifted myself pre-pandemic. It made the return to the trails taste that much more sumptuous, like the first day of sunshine after months of rain.

I decided on the 4.5 mile Saint Perpetua Trail which began in the same park where I was camping. It was a short but steep route with generous views of the neighboring coastline. I started at the top, above the fog, and meandered down switchbacks to the tide pools waiting at the bottom. Before making the return ascent I took a snack break on the jagged rocks, letting the salty air and sound of waves bathe me.

I am an average hiker, but when it comes to hills I am especially slow. I always take a lot of minute breaks to slow my breathing and pause the burning of leg muscles. Being tall you’d think that my long legs would do me well for athletic endeavors, but I haven’t seemed to have figured out how to utilize them to my advantage.

After returning to the campsite I was greeted by a new friend. A kid in the campground who was bored out of his mind and starving for companionship boldly recruited me to be his campground companion. I learned that since the pandemic began he’s been homeschooling and traveling around with his mom, brother, and mom’s boyfriend in their van. He’s been able to see a lot of places, as you can imagine, but hasn’t developed many lasting relationships with kids his age.

He wandered toward me as I was laying on the grass reading a book and then began to nonchalantly chat me up. He wandered back again after I had come back from the beach.

During the latest moments of afternoon I was feeling ready to lay down in my tent, listen to an audiobook, and watch the sun sink into the horizon. I told the kid I was going to go brush my teeth, signaling that our social hour was over, and then thanked him for stopping by as I strolled to the bathroom.

After changing into comfy pajamas and cleaning the day’s grime from my mouth I walked back to my campsite. I noticed the kid standing across the road, very obviously waiting for me to return. I went about my business and then crawled into my tent to commence quiet relaxation before bedtime. No more than five minutes later I heard his voice from outside the tent.

“Ma’am, I got you something.”

“Oh?” I replied, trying to disguise the slight annoyance from being interrupted.

I unzipped the tent door halfway and peered out. He held up a single flower.

“Thank you! That’s very nice of you,” I exclaimed as he walked away. I zipped the door shut all but an inch so I could peek as to whether he was really leaving. I watched as he stooped to gather more flowers from the knoll in my campsite. It was then I realized that he wasn’t going to let me relax without further interruption, nor did I have the heart to deny him the youthful attention he was seeking.

I put my shoes back on, crawled out of the tent, and asked if he wanted to play a game. Thankfully I had packed Monopoly Deal, so I retrieved the deck of cards and taught him the basics. I went easy on him for all three rounds, but didn’t let him win. I’m generally nice, perhaps too nice, but I’m not about to let anyone beat me at Monopoly Deal.

The next morning I left earlier than originally intended. I can’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t want to provide another opportunity for the kid to drop by. Maybe it was his lack of boundaries, or his loneliness, or the selfish pit in my stomach that wanted to satiate introverted tendencies. Despite this I drove slowly down the dirt road toward the highway, unable to stop a compulsion to glance again and again in the empty rearview mirror.

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.