The Other “G” Word

Thanksgiving should be all about gratitude, especially this year. My husband and I have both made it this far, healthy and COVID-free; my parents are healthy, even in their locked-down care homes; the desert finally cooled down enough to light a fire after the big meal; the entire Thanksgiving feast—turkey breast and stuffing, my mother’s famous squash casserole and cranberry pie recipes—all came out perfect. In a perfect world, prime conditions for gratitude. Right?

Over the past two years, though, the holidays have not been perfect for us. My husband spent last Thanksgiving in the ER, battling an infection that rendered him immobile for nine months. The Thanksgiving before, we lost his only child to a tragic suicide. And this year, in a somber confirmation that the spread continues to plunder the lives of families everywhere, we learned on Thanksgiving Eve that his brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews have all tested positive for the virus.

So. Let’s talk about the other “G” word. Grief.

Sometimes, I’d rather carry the heaviness of grief than feel the grace of gratitude. For six years of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s, I’ve experienced a cornucopia of grief. Grief at the loss of her identity, at the loss of her abilities as a talented artist. And through her recent struggles with speaking.

When the pandemic hit in March, I had just said farewell to my parents back east—my mother safely returned to her memory care home after surgery on a fractured hip; my father living in the first days of quarantine and lockdown. The cold reality of a baffling virus and two dozen infected residents in his senior community left him frightened and depressed.

At first, I wore my father’s despair like a cape, my shoulders slumped and listless. Later, I found myself grateful for the blissful oblivion dementia had granted my mother. And I heard her voice from the days of my childhood, when she’d redirect my sullenness at doing chores, or my complaints about my allowance and ask me: but, sweetie, what are you grateful for?

And so, what began as a challenge to my father in April has continued now for eight months: each night, we text each other three things we’re grateful for. They don’t have to be monumental, I tell him. It can be a sunrise. Or the sparkle of sunlight on the waves. The blueberry muffin the staff leaves outside your apartment every morning. A new pair of running shoes.

Yet the pandemic marches on, the world collectively sharing its grief.  “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief,” says a beautiful article I stumbled upon recently in the Harvard Business Review. “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Alas, there is no statute of limitations on grief, and we all grieve differently. But in the nightly glimpses of gratitude shared with my father, I can take a brief holiday from grief.

It’s Puzzling

I like puzzles. Puzzles with words, puzzles with pieces. These days, I see puzzles as problems to be solved. But if you’d asked twenty-five-year-old me if I was good at problem solving, I’d have laughed all the way to the bar. Aside from the weekly LA Times crossword puzzle assigned by my journalism professor, I was far too busy enjoying life to have problems, much less worry about solving them.

Fast forward three decades. If a career in sales and marketing—managing sales reps, multi-million-dollar budgets and production goals— honed my problem-solving ability, recent years as a family caregiver has given it a razor sharp edge.

Caring for elderly parents is all about finding solutions. How to manage multiple households. Coordinate surgeries. Juggle finances. Navigate Alzheimer’s. Fund care homes. Help loved ones through a pandemic.

Not too long ago, while still caring for my mom at home, I finished my first jigsaw puzzle. Puzzles, I heard, were good at stimulating the brain of a person with dementia. At first, mom delighted in color coding the pieces of the Christmas puzzle, her artist’s eye still able to spot variations in color and texture. But after about ten minutes, she lost interest and wandered off, leaving me to experience the unexpected satisfaction of popping the last piece in place.

Watching my mom’s Alzheimer’s progress is often as puzzling to watch as a foreign film without subtitles. It’s the puzzle I cannot solve. This bothered me at first, but here’s the thing: there isn’t always a solution for everything. Some things just are. Life sometimes just is.

Home, Sweet

Time moves faster in October. The abruptness of an overnight frost.  The sudden thud as the sun drops behind the sentry of pine trees lining the cove. The peach-gold light seeping from the sky. You know fall is here when the mice wake you up, scampering through the walls on a cold morning like they did the first winter I lived in this house. The clank of the baseboards, crisp morning air coming through my cracked window—a half inch on early fall nights but when cool gives way to cold, it’s closed for the season.

In the harbor, sailboats and docks are hauled in for the winter; only a handful of lobster boats and dinghies remain. Window shades in the island’s seasonal cottages are drawn: the eyelids of the houses slowly closing for winter hibernation. Storm doors replace screens. Porches cleared of vibrant canvas deck chairs and umbrellas.

I, too, will depart soon for my winter home and family, trading the timeworn cedar clapboards of this childhood home for the stuccoed Scottsdale landscape.

This week–my last on the island–is heavy with the leaden air of finality. The End. Of my solitude, when days passed with only deer, seals and seagulls to converse with. Of the silent disconnection that fueled creativity and inspiration to complete a year-long writing project and embark upon another. Of my frequent dinner dates with my father and how our relationship deepened over lobster rolls and New Yorker essays.

And it is the end of weekly visits to my mother, who, like the abrupt shift from summer to fall, changes from week to week. In this endless uncertainty, I have learned to embrace her dementia even if we must be ten feet away from each other, outdoors and masked.

“Away is good, but home is best”

This summer, I stepped into my mother’s past life, assumed her role as head of the household, baked her blueberry cake and entertained neighbors with iced tea on the porch. This island, this house, this state, have been a part of my heart for nearly half a century. Here will always be home. Yet in my ever-elusive quest for more, for the quality which cannot be named. I continue to search for what home really is.