Guilt, Joy, and Aging Parents

Is anything such an exquisite trip into guilt and fear as the daily/weekly/monthly walk into the nursing home wherein resides one’s parent?

Inspirational stories of self-sacrifice abound–adult children who sacrifice their health, their jobs, their financial well-being to care for a parent traveling down that slow path into finality.  While I admire, I also question.

I am a parent.  It is never my hope that my children will sacrifice everything for me.  Just like the vast majority of parents, I desperately wish that the sight of me would never inspire guilt and sadness.  Great grief has a nobility to it–to lose a loved one is desperately hard, but it lacks the daily emotional drain of the long slog through hospitals, doctor’s offices, waiting rooms, assisted living, nursing home, skilled care.  The final loss of a parent, while infinitely  painful and world-rearranging, marks a clear ending and a clear starting place.  In contrast, the years of small loss compounded by small loss cause one to lose all clarity.

We travel to the hospital again.  Another seizure.  Is this a bad thing?  Could it mark a much-deserved  release for someone I love so much?  Is it horrible that I could even think that? When the doctor says “no, looks like you can take her home?” and expects us to smile, how SHOULD we react?  The person that we knew is unalterably gone.  The person left seems to have no joy, no communication, no independence, no dignity.  Yet she has life, which is no small thing.  Life to move from bed to wheelchair, from room to outer room, and back again 4 times a day.

It’s a mystifying situation.  How can your mind house 2 such conflicting wishes all the time?  “Please God, let her be all right again” running simultaneously with “Please God, let it be over for us all.”

Yet this lets us avoid the final “gone forever” for yet another day.  I’ve lived through post-death dissolution of memory–my father’s shirts no longer smell like him.  I’m not even always sure which shirts were his.  I couldn’t draw a clear picture of his face anymore, nor do I remember exactly how his hand looked.  The sound of his voice in my ear, singing hymns in the pickup truck while barreling down a country road, is vague and far-away like a radio in another room.  He has become a self-creation made up of pictures, faulty memories, family stories, and wishful thinking rather than the complex, charming, problematic man he truly was.

Medical care has given us so much.  We have been given the blessing and curse of years and years and years of slow death, drawn-out decay, often-averted tragedy.  Yet each time we approach the edge without falling leaves us a little more damaged, hands us another loss.

Love is complicated.  Life is beautiful and hard.  Relationships are complex.  Growing old is……mostly inevitable.  I will trust in the Lord with all of my heart and lean not on my own understanding.  Give us grace for one more day, one more visit, one more decision.


 Ode to Che

(written by my daughter for her kitten)

Will you sashay with me

You small Chimichanga?

Madame fuzzy pants,

Oh big Stromboli.

You make tiny war

Where’er you roam.

You make big smells
In the living room.
Lick not my toes
And my sleeping face
Or from my bed
You’ll be banished.
Eat slow your wet food
Or on my rug you will vomit.
Oh Purr Master Flash,
Oh Miss Gitche Gumi
Oh you Pizza Chicken
Oh absurdist sensei
Come kill this bottle cap
For one half an hour
And keep me safe
From all stuffed mice.

-Alanna Wray

Why Everyone Should Give Me A Dollar

It is in your own best interests for everyone to give me a dollar.  “What!”, you say, “How does that work?!”  Simple.  Here’s the rationale.

I am sometimes in a bad mood for the following reasons:  I am too busy, I am too tired, I am worried about money. These all prevent me from being the awesome person that I’m sure I was created to be.  So….follow me here….by each giving me the paltry sum of $1, you clear up all these difficulties for me.

I won’t tailgate you in traffic.  After all, I’m not in a hurry!  I won’t be late to events because of car troubles because I’ll have enough money to buy nice cars.  I’ll even consider giving your children rides to events!  Need a classroom mom or chaperone?  I’m it!

My release from work hours means I’ll shop at the grocery store during mid-morning, which also means I will NOT be part of the endless line at 5:30, which will get you home a little faster.  I will not be part of the long line of cars waiting at the light; in fact, I pledge to never ever drive anywhere from 4:45 until 6 at night, just to show my appreciation to the rest of you.

I even pledge to never use the express lane ANYWHERE, even for 1 item, because I’ll have plenty of time.  I’ll have plenty of cash so you won’t have to wait for me to use the card reader (although truthfully, counting out those $1 bills may take a little time).

I’ll go to the vet/get my hair cut/take my kids to the orthodontist/have my oil changed/pick up toilet paper at Wal-Mart/go out to eat at non-prime times, thus freeing up more room for the rest of you hard-working folks.

And just consider the general improvements in the environment around me:  I’ll be smiling and pleasant, which will cause an improvement in my near neighbors, causing them to smile at THEIR neighbors, which will spread like wildfire, resulting in a noticeable uptick in American attitudes.  It’s distinctly possible that this would greatly help the economic situation by increasing optimism which would probably lead directly to greater spending, charitable giving, and hiring.  Can’t you just picture it?

Take a step to be a part of the solution.  Just $1 on your part, directed wisely in my direction, can start a new day in America.  Cash only, please.  Thanks in advance.

27 years and counting

On Tuesday we will have been married 27 years.  What a crazy thought!  Having those kinds of numbers in your biography definitely qualify you for mature adulthood and you can feel a soft breath of ‘old and uninteresting’ blow across.  Actually, though, I find that, contrary to my earlier beliefs, this is an excellent place to be in your life.  Married for 27 years means 27 years of snuggling in bed, 27 years of mingled laundry, money, and belongings; 27 years of camping trips, child raising, caring for parents, drinking excellent beverages, getting excited about espresso makers, learning about random topics, sleepless nights listening to each other breathe.  It hasn’t really been hard at all, compared to the difficulty of doing this all alone.  On the contrary–he makes me belly laugh like no other.  I love to watch him.  I’m sure we’ve made sacrifices, I guess, but is it a sacrifice if the alternative was so much worse?  There’s no loss in all of this compared to the gain.  It seems that people have lost sight of that sometimes–my constant theme right now is the impossibility of winning the relationship war by winning relationship battles.  Better to gain in the long-term than to have the brief pleasure of ‘right.’  This way you get 27 excellent years 🙂  And hopefully at least 27 years more.  Good luck to all of you lucky married folks.

Teaching Adolescents

Ask me what I do. Go ahead, ask.  I am a teacher.  I am a musician.  I’ve managed to inhabit a career that combines those 2 things in ever-changing ways.  It doesn’t sound very sexy to be a high school music teacher, but there you are.  Or rather, here I am.

Fun?  Yes.  Incredibly tiring?  Yes.  The turnover rate in my profession, especially in my community, is very high.  Which is somewhat puzzling when you realize that the pay, while not great, is certainly livable.  The facility is nice.  It’s a chance to ‘live the dream’ of working in music ALL DAY, which most of my students see as the ultimate happiness.

So what’s wrong with this bliss?  It’s incredibly whiney to say it’s too hard, isn’t it?

Everyone thinks they work harder than anyone else.  Everyone thinks their own particular piece of the work world is misunderstood and undervalued by others.  Part of the pleasure of our lives is the smugness of knowing that we work harder than everyone else.  We love to answer ‘oh, yes, good, just VERY BUSY’ in a very self-important way to anyone who asks how we’re doing, and we especially draw pleasure from the self-important small sigh and pause before replying ‘oh, I’m doing fine’ which clearly communicates our courage in soldiering on under incredible odds, odds that are unimaginable to someone in whatever line of work that is NOT ours.

I’ve worked in 2 offices, as a teacher, and as a church worker.  Most of my professional life has been in the service sector with only a small experience of corporate life.  Corporate life is rife with challenges.  Obviously I don’t lust for that or I’d have long-ago abandoned this ‘living the dream’ life for some quality cubicle time staring at my computer.

Church work is emotionally draining, no way around it.  However, in my small experience, it also was a very forgiving line of work in the sense that my time, other than certain locked-in occasions such as services and education time, had a free-flowing, flexible structure allowing me to throw everything up for a while and go for a walk, or to take my child to the orthodontist, meet someone for a coffee meeting, or spend a few quick minutes researching my next camping trip.

5 years ago I went back to teaching full-time, and moved to high school music.  I began at a very successful, award-winning suburban school, moved to an economically depressed rural school, and have now settled in a steadily growing, middle-class, suburban medium-sized school.  It has been an exhilarating ride of tremendous challenge, growth, success, and self-satisfaction.  It has also been a destructive time of anger, fear, guilt, sleeplessness, acid reflux, family tension, and utter fatigue.

I arrive at work from 6:45 to 7:40 am, depending on the day.  Some days I begin rehearsals at 7:00 am for jazz choir or All-State, or teach lessons during that time.  Most days I work with students after school, and on Wednesdays I work until 5 with All-State students.  Two to three nights a week I come back to rehearse our musical until about 9 pm, at which time I start to clean up and lock up and wait for late-arriving parents.  As soon as the musical is over, I will begin jazz choir rehearsals in the mornings, after school, on evenings, and go to the festivals on Saturdays.

The longest work day I’ve put in during the past 3 years has been a 20-hour day.  Twelve-to-fourteen hour days are commonplace.  I often work 2 weeks at a time without a day off.  I sometimes pack 2 meals when I leave in the morning, and eat a granola bar on the way for my breakfast.    My day may entail teaching lessons, planning for and conducting 2 rehearsals with 145 students, answering 30-70 emails, making 3-5 phone calls, writing an average of 3 requisitions a week for purchases, registrations, etc., scheduling buses, hiring/paying judges, clinicians, audition screeners, filing insurance claims for broken sound equipment, scheduling/conducting fundraisers, dealing with boosters, deciding the cast of the musical/jazz choirs/All-State quartets/soloists for concerts, purchasing and filing music, tuning pianos, creating calendars, communicating with every person at the school to be sure there’s heat/cooling/availability in whatever space we’re using, creating medical forms for trips, making hotel arrangements for All-State festival, All-State Jazz festival, convention trips, spring break trips, organizing rides for weekend clinics, scheduling National Anthem singers for every sporting event, and every other type of administrative task possible, which doesn’t even begin to touch actual education tasks (grading, curriculum, assessments, communicating with parents, creating units, previewing music, designing instruction, alternate plans for special needs students, etc.).

I love what I do.  I love the students.  I would like to succeed.  I am tired.  Is it possible to do this well and survive?  Am I a failure as a teacher every time I decline another opportunity for my students, another weekend clinic to organize? Am I cheating them when I’m unable to teach a lesson because I have to meet the technician in the auditorium to figure out which speakers don’t work?

And one last thing:  parents, I really care about your children.  Telling them the ‘bad news’ about the auditions is incredibly hard for me.  Posting results is emotionally devastating for this teacher.  Comforting the crying child who has been hurt by a decision I had to make is terrible.  Watching them being unable to look me straight in the eye, to see the anger and the resentment, is a terrible thing for someone who came into this because she loves music and children.  However, I know that your child will survive.  I’ve been through this many times before–as a child myself, as a parent, and as a teacher.  His or her growth through this is largely dependent upon how YOU handle it at home–do you see it as a ‘teachable moment’ and a ‘relationship builder’ or is it a GREAT moment to unleash your own resentment at the world by encouraging your child to make excuses, blame the teacher, blame the other students?  I repeat–your child will survive.  The real question here is, will the teacher?