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.”

From Time To Time, Everyone Is An Asshole

Hi friends! I’m back from my unannounced break. I’ve been keeping busy as usual, and writing, but needed to take a step back from posting for a few weeks. The intense schedule I had over the summer took a lot out of me. I think the combination of that plus some caregiving challenges added up and caused my anxiety to peak again. I am grateful to say that I’m on the other side of feeling such a way. In fact, the last several days I have felt better than I have in a while. It’s like a bubble that dramatically, yet unceremoniously bursts. Honestly, it feels like I have a runner’s high. I’m getting up earlier, am more readily motivated, being more present, and doing my best to nurture this full body elation as much as possible. By feeding myself selfcare in the way of hiking, meditation, cooking, reading, and working toward being less reactionary, I can feel the ground shift beneath me. I don’t want it to settle again. I much prefer it to continue moving me forward. I don’t doubt that that life will ebb and flow again, disrupting this wave of good vibes, but I want to consciously put in the work to be better prepared for the next hurdles.

           Before Thanksgiving I shared a long winded update on Instagram regarding the evening when I hit a breaking point for my anxiety. I have decided to share it on the blog as well, so you will find it below. Please take care to note how I began this week’s introduction: I am better. Mom is being less consistently difficult, for now. And I am looking forward to slowing things down for the next few months and making a point to prioritize myself more often.

           Thank you to everyone who took the time to reach out via social media, text, phone, etc. to check in with me. The support I have from near and far is humbling and it provided comfort without me having to ask for it.

           Without further ado, here is the less than poetic short essay from a few weeks back:

Mom and I aren’t great. The pandemic and her disease are slowly chipping away at her, which in turn chips away at me. There’s been a lot of bickering and yelling between us lately. I know it’s ridiculous to try and reason with the illogical notions of her disease. Sometimes I can’t help it. 

I can’t stand her sassiness. The eye rolling, or turning her back to me when I’m conversing with (at) her, or talking shit under her breath. All of it can drive me mad.  Yesterday while in the backyard she was picking up dog poop with her little trowel, which was fine. But at the exact moment I went to check on her I saw her bend down to use her hand and scoot some poop onto the trowel because she was having trouble fitting it all onto the insufficient tool. I asked her to stop what she was doing so she could go wash her hands. As usual, she denied ever touching the poop and then started getting an attitude when I followed her inside. She walked right past the bathroom and went into her room. I was worried she’d be touching all sorts of things along the way so I lost my patience and commanded that she get straight into the bathroom to wash her hands, thoroughly. And then the shit hit the fan. Pun intended.

Over the last week I’ve been noticing my anxiety and irritability climbing. I can feel it in my body, as if every inch of me is perpetually clenched. I hate it.

I called my dad several times, but by the time he picked up he was two towns away running errands and unable to collect Mom. I desperately needed space from her. After work my dad invited me over to dinner. I popped back home first and of course Mom didn’t remember why I was so angry. 

It’s not one of my proudest moments, but I really laid into her. I vented all of my caregiving frustrations and then some. How tired I am of taking care of someone else and all of their problems. How I can’t stand her attitude and lack of gratitude/understanding as I work multiple jobs, take care of her every day, pay her bills, mind her dog, fix her house, etc. all while during a pandemic and fire evacuations and at the expense of living my own life. Part of me feels awful, yet part of me feels justified. Every day is about her in some form or another.

I think it’s bullshit that I have two siblings that don’t pitch in. At all. Or how only half of my mom’s siblings contact her, one of which has dementia herself. I hate how caregiving has turned me off from motherhood, has made me bitter and unpalatable to myself. I hate knowing that Mom may not be around, mentally or physically, to see me come out of this. Or to meet any (potential) grandchildren. Or to watch me fall in love again, whenever that may happen. Or just, to cheer me on for the small stuff.

Have I grown? Learned a lot? Become stronger? Yes, yes, and yes. But it still all feels like b.s. sometimes. And yes, I know that taking care of our elders is a beautiful honor, yada yada (often I truly believe that), but his experience is utterly dynamic on the spectrum of emotions. It’s not all good or all bad. It’s everything, all at once. I want to be a thousand miles from her and hold her forever, all within the same breath. It’s maddening. I hate this disease so fucking much.

Last night when I started laying into her about everything I’ve been feeling she started to walk away and retreat to her bedroom.

“See! This is exactly what I’m talking about!” I yelled after her. “Every time I try to have a conversation with you, you ignore me or get an attitude.”

Surprisingly she turned around and stood uncomfortably across the kitchen from me. For about ten minutes she accepted all of my anger for what it was, a desperation of ugliness. Me begging her to do the impossible: try harder, don’t succumb to the disease and its cruel implications. By the end of my venting I told her, “I’m on YOUR team. No one else is here. Not your other kids, not your own family. No one. It’s me. I know you have a really hard time remembering things. That’s okay. That’s why I’m here. But I will not stand for you being consistently rude and disrespectful. I’m trying my best to keep things together for us and I can’t do that if the person I’m doing it for is being an asshole all of the time.”

Are you cringing yet? I know I am. Again, reasoning with someone who has the capabilities and cognitive understanding of a very young child is the definition of stupidity. Do I feel great about making her feel bad enough that she was crying and saying how embarrassed and ashamed she is of herself? Of course not. That broke my heart. It made me feel despicable, dirty. But in that moment that was my truth. It was disgusting, but valid. Should I have taken it out on her? No. I’m a human. I fuck up. I make poor decisions. I’m emotionally reactive when I should be logical.

After I was done spewing my frustration Mom looked pitiful. She apologized over and over. Said she agrees with me. Lamented how ashamed she is. Said she’ll try harder. I told her I don’t care about all of that. I just need her to be on my team. I can handle the rest, although not always gracefully, but I can handle it. I just cannot stand her spitting on everything I’ve done and sacrificed for her. I don’t want to be telling her what to do all day every day, just as much as she doesn’t want to hear me directing her. But for her safety and well being I have to do it.

“I understand, Lauren.”

I melted just enough to walk over, hold her face between two palms, and say, “I love you too, okay? I love you very much. You just need to trust me. I’m here to help you. I’m your best option, even though things are really tough right now.”

Then I walked her over to the living room, had her sit on the couch, and gave her the personal pizza I had bought for her earlier while on the way home from work. No matter how much I lean into bad moments, I’m still her daughter. I still protect her. Even when I’m being an asshole myself.

I Miss You, Anyway

Seven months ago I was on a road trip to Central Oregon with my best friend, her mom, and my goddaughter. I drove them to beloved spots and found new ones to cherish. I wanted to show them why I had to decided to move to the area.

Thrift shopping and eating are typically at the top of our to-do list. We weren’t disappointed with the opportunities to indulge in both. By the end of our trip there was a small collection of antique treasures tucked into the trunk of the car.

We didn’t have a chance to go hiking or do anything too adventurous. A dusting of rain and snow, and a baby in tow, made for mellow tourism. It was enjoyable just the same. Being out of town with some of the people dearest to me in the world, making decisions at the whim of our “girls’ trip” ideations, and paying visit to another one of my closest friends and her family, filled my figurative tank. As much as I love travelling by myself, there is something uniquely special about sharing meaningful places and experiences with those you love.

Two days after our return from Oregon the effects of the pandemic really set in and quarantine commenced. I’ve been working seven days a week ever since.

Between writing, photography, videography, editing (all for the blog), teaching swim lessons, housesitting, and caregiving, I’ve kept a busy schedule. In my “down time” I’m either trying to sneak away to my room for some mediocre quiet time, often with fingers crossed that Mom doesn’t need assistance with something, or I’m tending to various house renovation projects. My workload has ebbed and flowed from month to month, but the non-stop pushing forward from one task to another has caught up with me again. I can feel it physically manifest. My lower back quietly throbs, the muscles on the bottom of my feet threaten to seize with any wrong move. I can’t stop shoving salty foods into my mouth, leaving hands and face and ankles perpetually swollen.

It’s been seven months of serving most everyone but myself.

This week I knew I was falling apart, or rather, feeling the pressure of “keeping it together” again ripping the seams of this tired body. I rolled my eyes so far and so often that they almost tumbled right out of their sockets. I cursed enough to fill up a swear jar from bottom to top. A syrupy fog slipped into the crevices of my brain, impeding it of function and intent.

Last Friday night I opted to watch a movie with Mom. She’s been yearning for quality time with me, as opposed to me working from home while she occupies herself with a puzzle or a yoga video. I didn’t make it more than twenty minutes before falling asleep on the end of the couch. It was eight o’clock, at least three hours before my usual bedtime.

Snack bowl still in hand, I awoke to the sound of Mom clicking the tv off. I kept my eyelids loosely shut just as I did in childhood when pretending to be asleep while my parents checked in on me after bedtime.

Mom slipped the bowl from my fingers. The muffled shuffling of her feet on carpet trailed into the kitchen. Dishes clattered as they dropped into the sink.


And then I felt the softness of a familiar hand ever so gently grazing the crest of my head.

“Lauren,” she whispered, “it’s time to go to bed sweetie.”

There she was. My mother. My real mother. Mama. Moo Moo.

An ache like this should have been expected, but the surprise was genuine. The moment came and went in seconds, but like a phantom limb it lingers days later.

To be coddled by her is a thing I mourned and let go of long ago. I’m the mother now, have been for years.

But how tender it is to know the wealth of what was once taken for granted.

She’s still in there somewhere. Mom may mistaken t-shirts for shorts, leave toilets unflushed, unintentionally text herself, and leave remnants of her last meal on the dishes she “cleaned”, but in small ways her truest self still sputters and sparks.

I miss her, anyway.  

Celebration in Spite of Morbidity

“Only a few more days until your birthday, Mom.”

Her face drops and her whiny voice emerges.

“No it’s not. I’m not having a birthday.”

It’s been like this for awhile now. Mom hates the idea of getting older. I get it. Aging isn’t always something that happens gracefully, no matter the effort put into the transitions.

Too bad for my mom, I enjoy birthdays. The pomp and circumstance of them still delight me, although in recent years I haven’t had the wherewithal to keep up with them quite as much. The power of nostalgia is compelling so she’s definitely not getting away with skipping this one.

On another recent occasion I casually mentioned her upcoming birthday, stating that the big 7-0 was coming up soon. Isn’t it exciting?

She was devastated to (re)learn her age, insisting “I’m not going to be seventy.”

I tried to frame the milestone in a positive light. Not everyone has the chance to turn seventy. Despite the devastation of Alzheimer’s, she’s quite healthy. She gets to be “retired” enjoy a lifestyle where most everything is taken care of for her.

Mom isn’t having it. She doesn’t like any of it.

I tried.

I have teenage memories of Mom’s sometimes morbid sense of humor making appearances in conversation. As per the standard reaction of a daughter, I was often embarrassed by her pessimistic or macabre jokes, not finding them all that funny. As an adult I’m still uncomfortable with her odd remarks, but they hit a bit differently now.

Several times since her diagnosis Mom has said in response to discussion of a future event, “Oh, well I won’t be around by then.” And she’ll laugh, clearly enjoying the joke that could very well be anything but.

My responses usually fall along the line of “Mom, don’t talk like that.” or “That’s not funny.” or sarcastically, “Uh, that’s nice.”

Sometimes, if I have the willpower, I’ll ignore the comment altogether. I’m faced with her mortality every day to varying degrees of seriousness, so hearing a joke doesn’t usually tickle me.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk about death. In fact I think Americans should talk about death more. I just don’t need to focus on it every day.

I know that Mom wants to be cremated, but I haven’t given thought to where her ashes will be spread. I suppose that’s a question for her.

And I know both of us, her and I, have had moments where we wished for her death to come sooner rather than later. That’s one of the many fucked up things about this disease that not everyone talks about. When she is having a tough time and is cognizant of her severe decline she doesn’t want to be here. Many, many times she has shared how she feels like a burden. And in those moments she also knows that she likely will never experience a lot of the things that she longs for. She probably won’t make it for a trip to New Zealand, especially now with COVID. She may never ride a horse again. She probably won’t have the chance to be a grandmother, a role she has pined after for years. Neither of my siblings or I am nowhere near having a kid anytime soon. Even if one of us became a parent sometime in the next couple years, would she have the cognitive ability to understand who the baby is in relation to her?

And in my ugliest, most human moments I also wish she was gone. The exhaustive experience of sludging through this disease with her on my back could never truly be described, no matter how many words I labor to produce. But more than that, I don’t want her to suffer any more. I don’t want her to have to know, on any level, what it’s like to waste away until tongue and throat become weapons, unable to swallow food. I can’t bear to envision an end like that for anyone. Life is brutal.

The duplicity of these thoughts is that we equally can’t stand the idea of being without one another. These aren’t circumstances of our choosing, not in the slightest, but to know a world without a mother, or a daughter, or a friend, or any loved one for that matter, is not a crossroad I look forward to arriving to. That’s the thing about death. There’s no going back, no do-over or kiss and make up. The word itself is finality.

Outside of these dark moments of anguish, Mom and I live out the other forms of our humanity. We giggle and dance with fervor. We annoy one another. We cuddle on the couch and snore in our sleep. We fight and make up. We savor our meals and the morsels in between. And we continue to love, in spite of it all. To celebrate is to live even when you know your time to go is just out of frame.  

Happy (almost) birthday Momma.

Don’t Get Comfortable, Dear

Hold off on letting your muscles relax, your joints unfold. Tuck away that breath of crisp air you have been gulping so deliciously. Remember the quiet speech of the room. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Hummmm. Whoooosh. Whooooosh. Time keepers and appliances don’t pay you any mind. Today you are only guaranteed just that, another day, with or without you. Snowflakes of ash fall. Skylight tints a color of warning. People are ill with worry, with sickness of the mind and of the body. Most cannot direct their fear into anything of much use. This is adversity in bloom.




If I have learned anything this year it is that comfort is a luxury whose boundaries can contract and expand. It is more dynamic than I realized, often proving so when it alchemizes into the wreckage of the unexpected.

Recent weeks have been especially challenging. I have experienced a familiar rise of anxiety in my body and within my thoughts. My workload has increased, which I’m incredibly thankful for because I have no idea what this winter will be like in that regard. But of course, this also means more to manage in terms of scheduling, and care for Mom.

About three weeks ago my dad had a COVID scare which ended up being heat stroke and an infection in his legs. For two weeks while he rested his legs and took his prescription for antibiotics I had Mom stay at home with me. Only a few days ago did he feel well enough to resume helping watch her. It’s been really hard having her with me 24/7 again, especially while I work, but I am so glad that Dad is okay and that he didn’t contract COVID.

Yesterday I had a garage sale to purge more belongings before our move next year. My best friend and her sister helped out and brought some of their own things to sell. Dad dropped off two truckloads of his unneeded goods. Leading up to the event I spent a few days organizing everything, putting up signs and creating ads online. My best friend took over posting and managing inquiries online the day of the sale. We joked about how much commission she was going to make selling all of my stuff. Thank goodness she was there because I know I would have been manic trying to handle everything on my own.

We still have a lot to get rid of but thankfully a handful of bigger items were sold, mostly furniture, that were taking up too much space. Once the garage floor is cleared then Mom and I will be able to use the treadmill that Dad passed along to us. The cooler months should provide a comfortable environment in the garage so that we can finally take advantage of this addition to our limited self-care.

This season happens to be loaded with lots of birthdays. I’ve been prepping for some of them. My sister’s, brother’s, goddaughter’s, two close friends’, and Mom’s are all within a few weeks of one another. I know plenty of other birthdays take place in and around September, but I’m feeling especially unequipped to keep up with it all this year. I apologize if I’ve forgotten anyone’s special day.

A couple dozen people have sent Mom surprise snail mail for her upcoming seventieth birthday. I’ve been keeping it all in a box in my room, waiting patiently to unveil the spoils. One friend is even sending an order of specialty cookies that she promises will knock our socks off. The outpouring of love and generosity has been really touching. I can’t thank everyone enough for taking the time to help make Mom feel special and unforgotten.

The countdown to her birthday has very recently been peppered with more unexpected maladies. Within the last seventy-two hours Dad’s dog had a stroke in his spine, which caused his back legs to give out for several hours. Dad called me early on Saturday morning to have me come over and help. The eternally sweet Labrador seems to have mostly recovered after having been examined by a vet.

That same day a fire broke out in a neighboring county, which has now turned into multiple fires that have spread into our county. The brief relief of tainted air from the last fires has been interrupted with new ash and smoke, bringing us right back up on our haunches, bracing ourselves for the impacts of disaster. Already I have gotten word of several friends and coworkers who have had to evacuate their homes, again. Some of these same people have already experienced their houses having burned down in previous wildfires and only moved back into their rebuilt homes within the last several months. Everyone in this area is experiencing some degree of PTSD.

This morning Dad let me know his leg infection has flared up a bit, so he’s waiting to see if he needs medical care beyond the antibiotics. I’m not sure if they will simply prescribe him something different or stronger, or if they will need him to be admitted to the hospital. I’m waiting for him to call me back with an update.

Now that I’ve filled all of you in on most everything that’s been going on I hope you can understand why I didn’t end up posting anything last week. I needed a breather. Though, being the person I am, I since burdened myself daily with the pressure of completing a blog post. When I fall short of a commitment it can really weigh on me, often intensifying when my stress levels are already high. Obviously for the sake of priority and health it was absolutely necessary for me to take a weekend off from writing. It is tiresome regulating the mental flagellation that can stem from that static, wicked part of the subconscious that loves to feed doubt and fear and anxiety. Not today brain. Not today.

A House Makeover

As to be expected, Mom’s grasp about us moving has proven to be spotty. She knows we’re heading out of state next year, but multiple times she has shared quixotic views about the situation. Last night, as I tucked her and Princess into bed, she asked about moving to Washington state where one of her brothers lives. To keep her spirits up I reminded her that we will be moving several hours north, much closer to him but not in the same state.

Yesterday morning I caught her mildly forlorn. After asking what was wrong she responded with, “We have nowhere to go.” I scanned my brain quickly to translate what she was alluding to. A few questions later I realized she was referring to us moving, but I had no clue as to what she meant by us not having a place to go to. A few follow up questions did nothing to clear up the context of her worry. Ah, the world of Alzheimer’s. I reminded her that there is still a lot to do before moving so it won’t be happening until sometime next year.

Her concept of time has faded considerably, so the “big moving day” is fluid, taking place both tomorrow and months from now. Sometimes I wonder what exactly her thoughts are like and how she sees the world, both philosophically and physically.

I started fixing up Mom’s house ages ago, first starting with sanding and repainting her kitchen cabinets. (Thank you Cathy and Ling for helping out that first day!) Determined to prove that I am capable of adult tasks, I aimed to take care of a majority of the work myself. Thankfully Dad stepped in after a few months and offered to help. Honestly, I would not have gotten as much done as I have without his assistance and guidance. I’m a hands-on learner so YouTube and advice don’t always suffice.

Our latest project is to repair and paint the exterior of the house. There are a couple areas of siding that need to be replaced and the paint colors, buttermilk with a rust trim, are outdated and not exactly complementary. We were supposed to begin the exterior work on Labor Day weekend, but Dad’s legs have been acting up so he’s unable to do any physical labor right now. Itching to update a major portion of the house, I opted to start painting the sections that didn’t need repairs on my own. Here’s a sneak peak of what I’ve done so far:

Being creative, I am enamored with color palettes at paint stores. The names, like “Pool Party” and “Moon Dust”, tickle me. I can’t help but imagine what I could do with them, accent walls and ceilings slathered with intentional vibes. Molding and doors alluding to Cuban sunrises or the iron-rich soil of the Southwest. I easily am swept away by the possibilities of it all.

Picking a color, or two, can be agonizing for me. For months I have gawked at houses online and in neighborhoods around my town. On many occasions I have proclaimed to have found “the one”, only to change my mind again. Finally I narrowed it down to gray with a white trim, but of course that’s not a straightforward decision. What shades should I choose? How dark or light should I lean? Cool or warm tones?

I exhausted myself and committed to a choice only once I had arrived at the paint counter at my local hardware store.

“London Fog” and “Chalk”.

These colors may be bland to some, but you have to remember that we’ll be selling this house. It needs to be modern and universally appealing. Neutral colors tend to avoid controversy by satiating contemporary tastes, or they can be like a “blank” canvas for homeowners with more eclectic style choices.  As much as I’d like to play around with colors and personalized aesthetics, I think the outer limits of my creativity should be saved for when I purchase my own home.

So far I’ve finished painting about 80% of the front portion of the house. I can’t stop staring at it. A few times I pop outside just so I can revere the transformation. There’s still much to be done before we move, but I am already really anxious for when I’ll have proper before and after photos to share.  

Postponing the Truth

I like to think I know Mom better than most anyone because of the amount of time I have spent with her over the years. Despite this she still manages to surprise me on occasion. Most recently she found out about a very impactful secret and her reaction caught me off guard.

Often I don’t share certain pieces of information with her until the eleventh hour. For one, she will either forget whatever it is I told her. Or she will obsess about the details of it, asking me the same questions over and over and over and over again.

“What time is that going to be at?”

“Is Princess going with us? I don’t want her to be all alone.”

“What are we doing?”

“And so what time are we leaving?”

Instead of setting myself up for an inevitably frustrating scenario I try to choose a more opportune moment to fill her in on plans. Preferably this will be the week of, or day before, an activity or errand or change to our routine.

For awhile now I’ve had my heart set on moving to Oregon. I have lived in California for the entirety of my life. I love it here. The diversity of people, food, music, and landscapes will always tether my heart to this state.

The reasons for moving to Oregon are fairly straight forward. I cannot afford to buy my first home in the Bay Area. It is abhorrently expensive and completely out of my price range. In order to purchase a home in California I would need to move to a more rural area, several hours away from friends and family. So I would have my very own home, but many aspect of my life would be negatively impacted.

I can’t stand the idea of being incredibly far from the ocean. The salted air and whooosh whooosh of waves is the cathedral for my soul. I very much would like to be able to take drives to the coast without having to make it a complicated or timely ordeal.

Where I live now is just five minutes from a river, twenty from a couple of lakes, and under an hour from the coast. It’s a water mecca. Anywhere I move not only needs to be relatively close to the Pacific Ocean, but I’d prefer for there to be other bodies of water nearby. I also need plenty of opportunities for hiking. If the ocean is my church, then hiking is my form of prayer. Moving my body along miles of trails, seeking self-reflection and gratitude, and appreciating the blink of my life in the universe, is the kind of mediation that betters me. Being in nature keeps me grounded and growing.

I have intentions to move to a particular city in Oregon. A few close friends live there and I’ve really loved the vibe every time I visited. There seem to be a lot of people in my age demographic, and most are very interested in outdoor activities. Actually, it reminds me of a combination of some of the towns in my current county, but in a mountain-esque setting.

I’ve spent many, many months saving money and keeping an eye on the real estate market. I love looking at photo galleries online, perusing through photograph after photograph of quaint backyards and outdated kitchens. With eyes closed I imagine planting a garden and painting cabinets. I can smell the arid pine air and taste the buzzing of young dreams.  

The other reason for moving north involves plans for Mom. I cannot take care of her indefinitely. The more she declines, the more my life is impacted. My work hours continue to be reduced with each stage of Alzheimer’s she descends into. My ability to self-care, start a family of my own, socialize with friends, go on vacation, etc. becomes more and more challenging. I cannot foresee how it’s possible to be her end-of-life caregiver and maintain my own life in a healthy way, especially when there’s no guaranteed timeline as to how many more years she’ll be around. So there will eventually come a time when Mom will need to live somewhere comfortable and receive an amount of care that I cannot give her on my own. As far as I can tell, assisted living facilities in California are pricier than most other places, so her bleak financial situation alone makes it necessary for a move out-of-state.

You can see why I have been avoiding tell her my plan.

Earlier this week I saw a house listed online that was priced much lower than comparable properties. It seemed too good to be true, but just to be sure I opted to ask the real estate agent. Ten minutes later a man called to chat about the house. I was right. The listing price was off by a decimal. The house wasn’t $174,000. It was $1,740,000. Definitely out of my price range. He chatted me up for a few minutes, asking what I type of place I was looking for. I gave him my preferences and told him he could email me weekly listings. I didn’t think much of the phone call and continued on with my day.

An hour later I went to find Mom and ask her if she was ready for lunch. I found her sitting in the front room on the couch. Her puzzle was laid out before her but she was sitting very still and looking at her hands. I knew she was stressed because the click click of a fingernail picking at another nail was jarring, a familiar symptom of anxiety.  

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She wouldn’t look at me.

“Well, obviously something is wrong because you seem really upset. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?

She choked out the words, “You’re leaving.”

I didn’t want to assume what she was referring to, so I prodded, “What do you mean I’m leaving?”

“You said that you’re moving away.”

“Oh, did you hear me on the phone a bit ago?”

She nodded.

I laughed to lighten the mood, “Mom, don’t be silly. I’m not leaving you behind. You’re coming with me.”

Her tear-laden eyes looked up finally. “I am?”

“Yes, of course! I can’t just leave you here by yourself.”

Pitifully, she replied, “Yes you can. I want you to have your own life.”

“Oh Mama, don’t you worry about that. It’s just that I can’t afford to buy my first house here. As much as I would love to stay, I need to be able to afford my own place. Besides, I think I need a change of scenery for a bit. What do you think about that?”

Her deflated body perked up, straightening itself out as it processed the news.

We talked a while longer about the logistics of moving, why the city I chose is special to me, and the time frame for the move. A lot of things need to be put in place before we leave, so our migration north won’t happen until sometime next year.

At that point her demeanor had transformed.

More surprisingly, the following day she remembered. In fact, the first thing she said when I saw her in the morning was, “When are we moving?” She was like a little kid looking forward to a holiday, giddy at the thought of something new and adventurous. At one point she mentioned looking forward to living near “the candy shop”. I had no idea what she was talking about. Apparently, she believes that she’s been to this city before and it has a huge candy store. I could be wrong, but as far as I know neither is true.

I explained to her that we would likely have our own places. She would have her “apartment” with people there to assist her with whatever she needs, and I would have my first house. I assured her that we would live near one another so that I can visit her all of the time. She seemed completely on board with the idea, though I doubt she fully understands. I assume at some point later on she will get upset when I have to reiterate that I won’t be living with her. I know when the day actually comes around and I have to drop her off it is going to be one of the hardest choices I’ll ever have to face. I dread it with every fiber of my being and feel guilt for opting to re-claim some of my freedoms again.

But for now I am clutching on to this surprising gesture of excitement from her. For over a year I have been imagining Mom fighting me tooth and nail about the decision, assumed that uprooting her from everything and everyone she knows will be devastating. That could very well be the case when it comes down to it, but all I can do is follow her lead and make this an opportunity for betterment instead of what it feels like: a parting of two. One starting a chapter, the other writing her last.

Teaching the Language of Caregiving

To not be believed is a heartbreak that cannot be fully patched without the aid of validation. I know this because advocating for Mom has been one of the toughest battles throughout the noticeable span of her Alzheimer’s. And this isn’t even in regard to the medical and government agencies I have to try to work with to get Mom assistance. As with many heavy situations involving grief and morbid outcomes, there are spectators, some who have opinions but do little to step in and help.

Sometimes I am not heard until I’m crying or wailing uncontrollably. Even then, when ears are finally receiving my message, I am still dismissed. Sometimes the dismissal is subtle. Other times it is so obvious that I can feel the tingling burn of it on my face, a fresh hand slap across one cheek. The shock of it reverberating each time it surfaces in memory. A phantom limb of offense. There are only a few people who I have really struggled with regarding this situation, but their influence is heavy.

Many people I connect with have offered a knowing look as they offer condolences or share their own experience with watching someone suffer from dementia. I’ve noticed a few eyes glazing over a bit as they struggle to have the capacity to listen to me vent yet again, but for the most part there seems to be a general basic understanding of what Mom and I are suffering through.

I don’t blame most for these reactions. Not everyone in my life or who I come in contact with is meant to have the same role. Some are listeners and healers and empathetic sounding boards, others are lovely distractors and cheerleaders. A few challenge me and my perspective. A handful catalyze my heels to be rooted deeper in the ground. Everyone has a unique set of traumas and experiences that make up their opinions.

Over time I have received some validation, most notably from a person close to me who I butted heads with repeatedly. For awhile we would fiercely clash every few months. We couldn’t see eye to eye on what caregiving for Mom should look like. They didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to get things done on my task list, specifically things that they thought were more important than what I was focusing my attention on. This took place a couple years ago, pre-COVID.

They were hyper focused on selling her house so that she could continue to have a roof over her head because she is low-income and her expenses were piling up. This of course is extremely important, but as the sole caregiver who is in charge everything (medical, food prep and shopping, managing bills, paying for expenses out of pocket, supervising, driving, advocating, cleaning and fixing up her house, etc.) it is consistently overwhelming to deal with everything. Even when I’m able to complete a task on my to-do list, I know there are several dozen other equally as important things that need to be addressed. This constant pressure to get things done, and then sometimes having to jump through hoops when dealing with various agencies, is onerous.

I tried to explain that selling her house and placing her somewhere else didn’t solve a lot of issues. In fact, it complicated them further. If we got her a cheap, small house to live in somewhere (which likely wouldn’t be near where she lives currently because the housing market here is insanely expensive), who would take care of her? Who would get her groceries and make her meals? Who would check in frequently to take note of any further decline? Physical activity is important to delaying her Alzheimer’s progression. Where and how would she lap swim and do yoga five days a week? What kind of social network would she have without seeing all of her friends and the staff at the gym nearly every day?

After all of my efforts to explain how complicated this decision was my words fell repeatedly on deaf ears, so I gave in.

Eventually I had her house taken off the market. It was a tumultuous time, but I’m glad it happened the way it did. Selling her house would have been a poor choice. The timing wasn’t right and there were too many other factors that weren’t being seriously taken into consideration.  

I can’t tell you how many people have stepped up with words of encouragement and little acts of kindness for Mom and me over the years. I tried to make a list once, although it easily filled an entire page I knew there were many names left off it, lost in the fog of my subconsciousness. Countless hugs and emails, phone calls and small gestures to say, “I can’t understand what your situation is like, but I know enough to offer support.” Just a check in or the intention behind a wordless hug has meant so much. With COVID it’s been especially hard because we are fairly isolated from others, but friends and acquaintances alike have still taken the time to step up with support and love.

It’s funny how the abrasive opposites of these kindnesses sometimes stick with me more clearly. There have been a few specific moments that I can’t seem to forget, even when I have forgiven.

Early on into my mom’s progression at about stage three of the disease, before her official diagnosis, there was a noticeable change to her personality. This was when she started being a little more childlike, often not picking up on social cues or adhering to social rules. I remember clearly having a group discussion about her and one person saying, “I think she’s faking it.” My response? “If she’s faking it then she’s Meryl Streep because she’s been keeping it up day in and day out for months.”

At one point her sobriety was questioned briefly until she was able to spend time with the person who couldn’t fathom another explaination. Within fifteen minutes they could see for themselves, and believe, why I was sure she had Alzheimer’s.

In regard to my approach to caregiving and the decisions I’ve made, I’ve been called “a kid who doesn’t know anything.” I’ve been accused of ignorance and immaturity when I knew it was untrue. If it was true, how could I be shouldering 99% of the responsibility myself? How could I be keeping my mom safe and untangling problem after problem all while trying to navigate my own life? How is it that I could see the big picture and how many, many factors are involved in her care and the decisions that need to be made?

I get it though. The possibility that a person close to you may have a fatal disease is not something that can be easily and readily processed. It takes time. Unfortunately it takes longer for some, and often this can cause immeasurable strain on relationships, sometimes even breaking loved ones apart in ways that feel irreparable.

All but a few of the people who I’ve mentioned or alluded to have checked their doubts and egos at the door and stepped up in truly significant ways. I don’t know what I would do without them and am forever indebted to their willingness to grow and understand. They each have found avenues for which they can offer support and settled into roles that needed filling. Just recently one person in particular said, “Lauren, you know I really am starting to understand what you’ve been going through. Even just spending a few days with your mom is exhausting. I’m wiped out. I can see what you mean when you say that this is hard, especially since you do this every day. It’s not easy.” I will never forget that moment. The relief of that validation filled me up and spilled over. It took years to get there, but it happened nonetheless. I let them know how much it meant to hear how their eyes have been opened, but I don’t think they truly understand the significance of the nonchalant confession. To them it was thinking out loud, a realization born into breath in a moment of casual conversation. To me, it was truth and justice and love. It was finally knowing that I didn’t have to shout “Fire! FIRE!!” over and over again to be heard. They could now see the flames that had always been in front of us all along, licking the sky and feeding on everything in sight.

And when finally the inferno is sated they won’t be standing in the inky, crumbling rubble to ask me, “What happened here?” They’ll know.