No Heroic Measures

I call my mother at her dementia care home earlier this week. She hangs up. Like she does every time. I call back. Silence. More than usual. After a while, I start singing her favorite hymn. She’s forgotten the words. Last summer, we sang it together when we’d meet on the front porch of her care home, ten feet apart, masked and isolated. But with mom, a lot can change in six months. In six days. Even six minutes.

I’ve grown accustomed to the spaces between our words, as vast as the distance away we are from each other. And each time I call, her identity unravels a bit more.

Somehow, listening to her dementia is even worse than watching it.

Yesterday, another call. This time from her care home. “There’ve been some fairly significant changes with your mother this past week,” the director says, and part of me wants to pull a mom on her and hang up. Instead, I listen. Fever, infection, fluid retention, lab tests, chest x-ray, increased confusion, depression, inability to stand, walk, dress or eat on her own.

The pancreatic tumor is wreaking havoc on her physiological system and her dementia, not to be outdone, has decided to ramp up its misfiring neurons.

Already fragile and rail thin, my mother now requires increased monitoring and assistance, what is termed “end of life” care.

Her care home does this well. A small group home overlooking the sea, staffed by long-time and loving caregivers. She is in the right place, the best place. We all knew this time would come.

Barring any drastic changes, in three weeks I will travel to see her and hold her, through the miles and time zones and COVID vaccination timelines that divide us. The uncertainty surrounding our lives is as unbearable as the silence in our phone calls.

There will be no heroic measures taken. But in this story, there are heroes: the caregivers and my mother.

Unfinishing

So many of the projects and hopes and dreams I’ve had these past six years are unfinished. A senior retirement community for elderly dogs. Heading up the pet insurance division at a local agency. Writing a dystopian trilogy. “Read and Run,” a combination running-and-bookstore. A novella written in weekly tweets.

And if I’m repeating my mother’s creative frenzy of a life with all its unfinished projects—her half-written manuscripts typed on onionskin paper; sketches stashed in a rusty file cabinet; index cards and notebooks filled with ideas—then, so what? I’m okay with it all.

Because I find comfort in not finishing, having something to work on, reflect upon, dream about.

Because finishing a project would move my chess piece closer to finishing another project.

“There is something about finishing that our culture is obsessed about, writes Devin Kelly in his article Out There: On Not Finishing. “Finish what you are doing so that you might find joy…So you might find something new to finish before you finish your life.”

My life is not finished yet, and neither are the dozens of writing projects I’m actively unfinishing. A Momoir of microessays. An article on lost dogs and unknown neighbors. Flash essays writing contests and dozens of short stories involving lakes and ghosts, mirrors and islands, dementia and death.

I have no writing legacy, no children to entrust with my projects, unfinished or not. No one to leave my legacy to but the ghost of my future self who prowls the stacks of my mother’s artwork and my unfinished stories.

We are, all of us, works-in-progress, our unfinished selves a measure of success. Sure, closure can provide gratification, but it often brings me sorrow as I bid farewell to another piece of my writer’s heart.

So, reader, I leave you with this: what if not finishing is simply enough?

New Year. Phew. Things Are Looking Up!

The only time I ever sent a Christmas Letter, it was on a lark, where I—like the 47% of the population who can’t stand those annual letters filled with superhuman parents and their insanely overachieving children—savagely shredded the concept. A few friends enjoyed my snarky over-the-top list of achievements: the faux summer spent in the South of France, the five Ironman triathlons I allegedly completed and the multitude of pseudo-sales awards I received. But I’m pretty sure the letter went largely unread among the majority of Christmas card recipients.

This holiday season, inspired by the stack of unexpected Christmas cards displayed on the mantle, it felt like a good year to revisit the Christmas Letter in all its irreverent glory, because as we all know, it’s 2020 and anything goes. But, when every day feels like a week and months equate to dog years, I had a hard time summoning the enthusiasm to bother with it, witty or not.

The pandemic gives us nothing but time, but paradoxically saps us of the energy to put it to use. And if that weren’t enough? Then it guilts us for feeling not productive enough.

So: how do you measure a year in a pandemic? A list of missed opportunities? The creative ways we’ve reshaped our lives? The idle seconds, minutes, hours spent daydreaming about what was? Maybe, like the savage mood swings we’re collectively experiencing, all of the above.

CHRISTMAS LETTER, 2020 EDITION

  • Pounds of sugar consumed: a lot more than last year
  • New Trails Discovered: 8
  • Total Miles Run: 992.75
  • Virtual Races Completed: 5
  • In Person Races Completed: 1
  • Longest Distance Run: 50K
  • Puzzles Finished: 6
  • Notebooks Filled: 8
  • Packs of cigarettes smoked: Less than total miles run
  • Books Read: 25? 35? 45? Like the days of the week, I’ve lost track
  • Times dishwasher emptied: add three zeros to the number of times in 2019
  • Loaves of Banana Bread Baked: 6
  • Nordic Crime Series binge-watched on Netflix: 5
  • Volunteering opportunities missed: 32
  • Online Yoga Sessions: 100+
  • Drive-Thru Lattes Ordered: a thousand?
  • 12-Step Meetings Zoomed: 44
  • Haircuts: 1
  • FaceTimes with Dad: 38
  • Tech Issues Resolved for Dad: under 100, more than 50
  • Phone Calls to Mom: 24
  • Visits to Mom: 14
  • Lobster rolls eaten with dad: 14
  • Ice cream cones consumed: 19
  • Vacations cancelled: 2
  • Petsitting Jobs Lost: 4
  • Petsitting Jobs Worked: 1
  • Total flights taken to deal with family issues: 10
  • Trips to ER: 3
  • Friends who’ve had COVID and recovered: 19
  • Lives Lost of Friends who’ve had COVID: 1

Today, the calendar is wiped clean. And on the mantle, one card remains.