Tag Archives: memories

Your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.

Sunset over Charlottetown HarbourI am watching my resident sleep. I’ve been sitting beside her for fifteen minutes now, and the staff members assure me that she will be awake shortly. She doesn’t usually nap at this hour, they say.

I don’t mind as I am narrating a story in my head – all quiet moments are gifts of time.

The last couple of weekly visits have changed – the routine of greeting my resident, talking for a few minutes to reassure her of the reason for my visit (I am recording and writing down her life stories and memories), turning on the recorder, and prompting her with a few questions to stimulate her life stories has disappeared.

Lately, during our visits I notice that she is either very drowsy or somewhat confused, and conversations about her family, childhood, school antics or young married life have dried up.

I have had to adapt, and I no longer ask her questions or give her prompts. Only a month ago I had inquired about her grandchildren and she had responded with a lovely story.

But not today.

When she awakes, I have to remind her who I am (Gwen’s daughter – you remember Gwen – she lived across the hall and you shared many cups of tea together) and she smiles her beautiful smile, and although I can read on her face that she is happy to see me, I sense that she no longer remembers Gwen (or me).

So I try again. More confusion.

In my cloth bag I have a copy of her life stories to date, so I retrieve the typed pages which are in a plain, three-ring, navy blue binder. I place the binder in front of her on the lap tray of her wheel chair and open it to the front page. I have learned an 8” by 11” binder is easily held by a senior.

She stares at the page for a very long time, and I am leaning over to close the book when she reads aloud her name and the words, “Life Stories.”

She looks at me and grins, and I urge her to turn the page.

She begins to read her very own, unique stories of her past. Unexpectedly, I note that she is a good reader and am thrilled because I didn’t realize that she still possessed the ability to read. My own mother had difficulty reading when her dementia progressed, and eventually she lost the ability completely.

I remember the October before my mother died in December, she signed a birthday card for my sister that I had purchased for her. I asked her if she would like to sign the card herself, or would she like me to sign it. She answered (as I knew she would), I can do it myself. She spent a few minutes gathering her strength to sign the birthday card to my sister, Sue. Then, she scribbled (almost illegibly): Love, Sue, instead of Love, Mom.

I loved that card. Because her intention (love for my sister, Sue) was so beautifully evident.

I draw my attention to my resident: She is reading aloud her stories…she pauses at the funny parts to look at me and remind me, that happened to me, also. I realize that she is not completely aware that these stories are hers! I keep re-assuring her that they are her stories, and that I only transcribed them. I keep repeating: your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.

When she reads aloud, she re-reads many of the passages and so I lean over and begin to turn the pages, but she stops me, and goes back to the top of the original page to re-read the story. After 45 minutes, we have only read two pages. I begin to panic and worry that we will never get to the end of the book at this rate.

But then I see her face. I begin to really see her face and read her energy. In that moment of being present (truly present) I am aware that she is completely entranced in the story – her story! She is smiling and nodding her head, chuckling (oh, yes, her stories are funny) and then I have an aha moment. My resident is in the moment.  Her moment! She is oblivious to the natural bird sounds outside her window; she is oblivious to the staff who are talking, and pushing carts in the hallway – the noises of life in a long-term care home are a muted constant 24/7.

My resident is in the moment. Time has ceased. Her face tells me that she is a young child again, living a life of scarcity and hardship, but filled with family love, laughter, and richness.

One thing I have learned when transcribing life stories of the residents is that our memories evolve: they don’t change completely, but we, as humans, re-paint them. We brush over the memories that hurt us, or caused us pain. I, too, find that over the years, my hurts and disappointments have been watered down – I have lifted out the colours that no longer serve me.

Like others before her, my resident’s stories have been blended with other experiences and the passage of time, and now understanding and forgiveness is the rich palette that remains. Through the lens of our journey we perceive our parents’ weaknesses, as strengths; their mistakes, as lessons. A gruff father who never spoke of emotions (or feelings) to his daughters becomes the ninety-year old man with Alzheimer’s who never speaks, but utters, I love you to both his daughters whenever they leave the room.

Through him, I learned that disease, dying, and death are powerful teachers. Forgiveness, reconciliation, love and peace are potent change agents. They transform our stories – blending, layering, pulling out colour, until bleeding the stories into one.

Through the process of reminiscing we begin to connect the dots starting with the point of origin to the last dot You Are Here.

These are the insights I have gathered, and these are similar to ones that I hear time and time again from the residents who I sit with. In the telling of our stories, the bad bits get left out and the good bits grow, and we are left with a richness that we had never seen before – colour laid upon colour. A richness that inspires gratitude.

When a resident comes to the end of her life story, I often hear:  I’ve had a good life. Those were wonderful days and I feel lucky to have lived them. I’ve had a good life and I am at peace. I am ready for my final journey. I am content.

Still reading the first few pages after an hour, I eventually tell my resident that I have to leave, and I know that she is disappointed but she closes her book as I promise to leave the binder with her. Yes, I still have lots to read, she informs me, and she adds, it’s a good story.

My intuition tells me that the time has come to end our weekly sessions – she no longer has new stories to tell me. I believe her stories are still there in the recesses of her mind, but they are not accessible as they once were. Like a locked filing cabinet, I no longer hold the key to open it.

When I leave, she grabs my hand and closes her other hand around mine and gently strokes it. Thank you, she whispers. Please visit me again.

I will, I promise.

As I walk through the hallways of the long-term care home, I am reminded once again that the only thing that really matters is our presence. As humans, we all want to know that we matter – that our lives are spent well – whether we are young or old; healthy or not.

And I am reminded that gratitude, above all else, matters, too.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m aglow with hope

Christmas lights

Candles and tea lights, and strings of twinkling white bulbs are aglow in every nook and cranny of our dining room and living room – I want the rooms to sparkle and glow throughout the season. I look forward to that magical hour when the sun sets and darkness falls: it is the bewitching time to turn all the Christmas lights on, and light the candles. (Okay, I’ve switched to battery-run candles and tea lights this year – I nearly set the house on fire last year, but that’s another story.)

There is nothing that fills my heart more than flickering light during the twilight hours of the day. Nothing.

I walk into my living room and dining room and I am transformed into a little girl staring at the Christmas tree lights with wonder and awe; I am a young mother looking at the Christmas tree that my two little boys have decorated with handmade ornaments that won’t break and popcorn garlands that took many evening hours to create; I am an adult child who is staring at the Christmas tree wondering if this will be the last holiday that my mother will be able to come home.  I am a grieving daughter who finds solace and strength in the steadfast holiday traditions – the Christmas tree lights soothe my sorrow and remind me of beauty, joy, wonder and love.

Flickering lights, glowing lights, twinkling lights…represent hope.

My intention is that all of you find hope and love in the glow of the season.

 

 

In remembering my mother, I honour her

Climbing, rambling, shrub roses in shades of old-fashioned pinks; ornamental rose hips; fleshy thorns that prick; Zinnias in a riot of oranges, yellows, pinks and reds; A disarray of messy hollyhocks, sweet Williams, peonies and daisies;

Endless cups of tea – lots of milk (not cream) and two spoons of sugar (oh, what the heck, throw in another teaspoon of sugar) – sickly sweet, all the better: “it’s healing, don’t you know”;

Daily sister chats until her sister died;

The aroma of Sunday roast beef dinner and Yorkshire pudding; Hamburgers on Saturday evening, fried in a pan (not grilled), sprinkled in paprika – loved by grandchildren so much that the recipe was discussed at her funeral;

Bed linens so immaculate and taut to satisfy any drill sergeant’s precision;

Hockey arenas at dawn, early hours to scream at the referees. Grand kids skating, ignoring their grandmother’s hollers and shrieks;

Dancing, always dancing. Even a wheelchair couldn’t hold her still;

Hugs that belied her tiny body – hugs that transformed you.

My mother’s legacy. The ephemera of a life once-lived: Moments not meant to last, but do.

These are the images, the scents, the memories that assault me each of the days since she died two years ago this week.

It’s what remains. Not things, not possessions. Just fleeting remains.

When I am in my own garden, I remember the many hours we spent in her garden: a simple garden, no plan, no design. A riot of colour.

Every time my stove top kettle boils and sings, I think of her – she is running (because I swear she lacked the slow speed dial) into the kitchen insisting that we don’t talk or finish the story until she returns. She never wanted to miss out on a word.

She was a cook in the army during World War II and her kitchen skills (and bed-making skills) were a testimony to the time she served.  My grill-loving husband used to shake his head and wonder how hamburgers, fried in a pan on the stove (no less), could be mouth-watering tasty. Her family dinners were legendary, now continued in my home.

But it’s those times when I am hugged, really hugged – you know what I mean? when someone hugs you so long and so deep, you swear that you are loved, fully loved – that I feel her presence so strongly. Because it is her deep love for her family that remains. That endures still.

Her love was a fierce and protective love. And it transcended family. Kindness and compassion transcend family: the underdog, the less fortunate, the lonely, the isolated, the shut-in and the shut-out.

Compassion and kindness remain. It remains in my sister, our children, and in me.

That, too, is her legacy. Her remains.

The Tao’s principles include cyclical growth and principles of harmony and balance: birth and death; all or none. The balance in life does not exist – unless there is birth, there is no death.

Joy and laughter; sadness and sorrow. I am learning that the two states are not exclusive of each other. They are interconnected …my last year’s post https://thegiftsthatweshare.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/migratory-geese-and-lessons/

I see my mother in everything. My mind says she is gone. She no longer exists. But my heart and spirit (and my body) still see her, smell her, and hear her. Last winter, in a dream, I felt her. She was in the form of a young woman, and I sensed the comfort before she came to me and embraced me in one of her Gwen bear hugs that surrounded you in love. When I awoke, I laughed out loud. Classic Dream 101, I thought. (But here’s the weird thing: my sister dreamt of our mother that very same night and she, too, was enveloped in a Gwen hug.)

On my way home today I watched a flock of swallows form a mumuration-like dance– the swallows swirled above me in endless circles – undulating in the late afternoon sky. I parked the car; mesmerized, I thought of mysteries, sweet mysteries.

I still do not understand the meaning of life or death. I only understand this: my mother’s life mattered: in small ways, in small moments. And that her remains endure.

I no longer grieve her absence as I once did. I rarely cry when I think of her. But I often smile, and laugh out loud. Her presence gives me great joy.

In the hours of the day, I feel her presence and I instinctively know that her life mattered, and when we are gone, our lives will endure, too – in small ways, in small moments.

I see the continuity of life in all. I am beginning to understand…Oneness. (Not with my mind, but with my heart.)

And in these moments throughout my day I pause – to fully accept the Now. I honour those moments.

One cannot be both unhappy and fully present in the Now. Eckhart Tolle

I have learned that to honour my mother I must continue her legacy, simple as it is: Love my family. Serve others. Be kind. Express my love (deep and lasting hugs). And dance with joy and gratitude. Honour her by acknowledging that I’m still here.

The peace and love in my heart will ripple through my circle of influence. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of this in Peace is Every Step:

Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.

Dementia, dying and death are great teachers. As I remember and honour my mother’s death, I am grateful for that. All gifts.

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Yoga and snow angels

I lay flat on my back and stare up at the ceiling fan. I am in the fish pose in yoga – my body is flat on the floor, my chest is raised off the floor, propped up and supported by my elbows, and my head is pulled under so that the crown of my head is resting on the floor.

I stare up at the ceiling fan which is white and has five blades. My bedroom ceiling is also white. White on white. And now I know the blood is rushing to my head and circulation has increased. I know this because my mind is wandering into weird territory. The white fan looks like a snow angel – the kind that we made in virgin snow falls when I was a kid. The perfect angel outlines demanded pristine snow. As kids, we intuited that trampled snow would screw up our artistic endeavours, similar to attempting to draw on a well-used piece of paper. Blank slate, or go home.

My ceiling is a perfect blank slate. If only it would snow in my bedroom, I think.  Then I could practice my angels. As a kid, I loved making angels – the rhythmic movement to make wings; feeling so free. But it was the expansive white landscape that I was drawn to, much like the attraction of a brand new pad of white foolscap paper – untouched, unspoiled, un-trampled. The possibilities were endless.

But even the benefits of a steady yoga practice will not allow me to make snow angels on my ceiling.

My mind returns to the present.

My neck is arched and is now aching, so I turn my body over and practice the bow.

The bow pose is not my favourite asana; I’d rather practice the sun salutation or savasana. I am particularly fond of savasana – and quite good at it.

When I first was introduced to yoga when I was in my twenties, I thought savasana (we called it the corpse pose or the sponge) was the answer to all my stress. I practiced savasana until I fell asleep. (True, I had twin babies; do I need to say more?)

Today I meditate daily, so I practice savasana less and less. I would rather sit up and meditate than fall asleep.

In my meditation class, our teacher reminds us that only three things can happen when we meditate: our mind is full of thoughts; our mind lets go of the thoughts and just rests; or we fall asleep. If we fall asleep, it is our body telling us that we are tired. Don’t fight it, she reminds us.

The bow pose is not a pretty pose, not like the mountain pose or the tree pose. Those asanas (or postures) are quite elegant, unlike the bow which is rather awkward. My husband walked into our bedroom once when I was practicing the bow – my torso on the floor as my arms and legs stretched out behind me – up and away – into space.

Whoa! I’m outta here, he announced. Like, after forty some years of marriage bliss, he has never noticed that my arms and legs can contort like that.

Snow angels are fundamentally elegant. When we used to lay in the snow (backsides completely soaked), our torsos were still – limbs like wipers, angled the snow away from our bodies. So simple. So beautiful. The trick is to jump up from the ground without spoiling our masterpiece – jump up without moving our feet (and screwing up the lines of the angel) and then taking a huge leap away from the indentation. The best angels were made by those of us who had patience. One had to think it through or all would be lost.

My husband would have made awful snow angels. I instinctively know this to be true. He has no patience. In fact, I bet he was the spoil sport who announced he was going home if the others were going to make snow angels. I can just see him now: If we aren’t going to throw snowballs or play hockey, I’m outta here.

I decide while I practice the twist, that is harsh. Of course, I am also practicing my breathing because yoga is all about the breath, and between holding my breaths (while in the gap) I reflect on forty years of marriage. (Just so you know, one is supposed to let go of all thoughts while in the gap; not reflect on marriage.)

We live in a small house, so we get under each other’s feet sometimes; or under each other’s skin, more accurately.

It didn’t matter where one lived as a kid, whether the back yard or front yard was postage stamp-sized or an acre of land, one could always find a blank slate to make angels. As kids, we were drawn to nature: intuitively, we felt the connection. When we created our snow angels, our bodies were connected to the ground and our gaze was on the sky, the clouds, the horizon. We looked up into the heavens; our beings felt so alive. Expansive.

I wonder if little kids make snow angels today. I wonder if kids even play outside today. I hardly ever see children outside in the snow in our neighbourhood. I should know: I am outside clearing snow nearly every day throughout winter. And I am certainly not aware of any children playing outside.

We are often the only two people on the street clearing snow from the driveway and sidewalks. It’s a quiet and very peaceful time; Zen-like.

One winter when we went to Portugal for a holiday, I had a difficult time hiring a kid on the street to clean our driveway of snow while we were away. When I asked if they would like to make some extra cash, they shrugged their shoulders and said, not really.

While in Portugal I noticed parents and grandparents and children walking together in groups, arm in arm, like Laverne and Shirley. Why don’t we walk arm in arm with our families here in Canada, I used to think? They do in England as I remember my mother and father and our aunts and uncles would sidle up and hook their arms into one another’s whenever we went walking. Which was often. I think it’s obligatory to walk there. Arm in arm. Very enlightened, I used to think. How can anyone hold a grudge or argue with a loved one when they are holding each other up – supporting each other; maintaining each other; sustaining each other?

My yoga practice sustains me. Without it I would be forced into a gym class; worse, an aerobics class. Or step class. Whew, it’s been many, many years since I have taken a step class. I used to like the loud, throbbing music…it motivated me to swing my arms higher and my step wider. Dance class, too. Loved it. Still like to dance in my room when I am all alone.

Now I prefer the solitude of my yoga practice in my home – a class is too distracting for me. For me, yoga is personal; solitary; meditative.

My cobra pose is steady – I am staring up at the white on white again. I breathe three long breaths – that’s about fifteen to twenty seconds for each pose; repeat three more times.

Sixty thousand thoughts a day; that’s how many thoughts we are supposedly filling our minds with. Sixty thousand? I’m not a mathematician, but I think that is almost a thought every second and a half. If I have one long thought (or one long convoluted story that runs through my mind) does that count as multiple thoughts? Or just one long convoluted thought?

When I breathe and count to fifteen or twenty to hold a pose, does counting to twenty count as twenty thoughts?

When I choose to change poses, how many thoughts does that make? One thought or multiple thoughts?

Once again I turn onto my back and begin to lift one leg straight up, and I rotate my foot in small circles; after a minute, I lift my other leg and begin to rotate the other foot. First clockwise and then the other direction, counterclockwise. My ankles say thank you. When you walk more than an hour every day, ankles, feet and legs need to be strong and sturdy. And it doesn’t hurt to throw in a few back exercise poses, too. Thanks to yoga, I am planning on walking every day of the rest of my life.

As I rotate my ankle counterclockwise, I see my mother’s leg outstretched while she lay flat on her bed in the long-term care facility where she once lived. I had walked into her room for a visit one day, and there she was, exercising her ankles in the air. At the time I was so impressed with her ability and determination to stay flexible, even as she wrestled with dementia. Then, her brain was like a locked filing cabinet that she no longer could access.  But somehow she retrieved an old file labelled “yoga” and a thought to keep her ankles strong.

My mother used to practice yoga when I was just a young kid. I often came home from school and would find her flat on the living room floor in front of the television set watching her favourite show, Yoga With Kareen Zebroff.

My mother liked Kareen’s show so much that she ordered her yoga instruction book through the mail. The book “The ABC of Yoga” cost $4.50 retail. How do I know that fact? Because my mother gave me her yoga book when I was a young mother in my late twenties. I have used my mom’s yoga instruction book nearly every day for forty years or so. It’s a coil bound book which lays flat and is perfectly suited for easy reading (even when my body is upside down).

The author’s dedication inside this book reads: To my mother, who started me on the Royal Path of Yoga.

The author of the book thanked her mother in a dedication; I thank my mother who started me on the Royal Path of Yoga, also. And so the circle continues.

My mind needs to rest. Yoga usually is a meditative exercise but today I am filled with so many disparate thoughts – a jumble of them. My blank slate is not so blank; it’s well-trampled.

It’s also very quiet and peaceful in my bedroom, I think. Was I just meditating? Or sleeping? I can’t tell the difference at the moment. I think my head was down, therefore, I must have been dozing. Or dreaming. I do know that my cheeks are wet with tears.

I stare up at the ceiling. Gosh, that fan looks exactly like a snow angel!

Reading aloud, saying goodbye to our home, and dog tales.

As we walk along the hallway, the resident whose arm I am holding begins to speak Chinese to me. She speaks fluidly, without pause or hesitation. And what strikes me in awe (not the least of which is her effortlessly spoken Chinese when I comment to her that I was in China recently) is that ten minutes ago when I asked her to join us at the reading session, she had no idea what I was talking about – even though she attends our session every Friday afternoon at two, and has done so for many weeks.

What a mysterious organ we possess in this thing we call brain.

The resident’s ability to remember some Chinese phrases (someone taught her them years ago, she tells me) is still intact, yet a recent activity that she has enjoyed with us for a number of weeks, she has no recollection.

“What book are we reading?” she inquires. And I remind her that we are reading Marley and Me by John Grogan. I recap the story for her – a story about the author’s dog, a Labrador retriever, who is kinda goofy or daft, and is accident-prone due to his love of …well, everything! That makes the resident laugh and she confides that she thinks that she will love this book because she likes dogs. I want to remind her that she has enjoyed the book – she reiterates that fact every week and also informs me (each time we read together) that the author is an excellent writer. My gut tells me that she is extremely well-read and intelligent: I suspect this because of her smart and thoughtful comments about the author’s writing and the story itself.

A few months ago when I sat with another resident and recorded her story and wrote it down for her (and her family), I discovered that my resident friend loved to read but no longer does because of physical restrictions. She, like many other residents, no longer enjoys reading because she cannot physically hold the book. A stroke and the complications and aftermath of the stroke now restrict her from many activities, such as holding a book or turning the pages.

But in the resident’s life story I learned that one of her fondest memories was reading aloud to her mother during the Second World War…reading aloud (sometimes by candlelight) while her mother sat close by, knitting or tatting lace.

Her memory ignited one of my own – the many times when I read aloud to my sons when they were young. A voracious reader, I read everything and anything to them. Many a five am feeding would find me reading the back of a cereal box as my sons didn’t particularly care what I read aloud – as long as I paid attention to them, and the words sounded melodic or rhymed. (Heck, you can sing the ingredients of a loaf of bread aloud and your tiny audience will smile and coo at you.)

So reading to the residents of the long-term care facility (where my mother used to live for two years) seemed like a natural extension.  When I proposed my idea to the activity director, she was delighted.

Reading aloud to someone has a very calming effect, I have found.  Many of the residents that I bring down to the reading room (formerly known as the computer room or as my mother termed it, “the room at the end of the street”) are in wheelchairs; some have had strokes and now have physical and language impairments; some have a dementia – some are in early stages of a dementia and others are in later stages; some are responsive and some are not. But the ones who are particularly agitated and do not sit still under most circumstances are the ones that I notice sit quietly when I begin to read.

The benefits of reading aloud to someone are plenty:

  • benefits mood and increases well-being
  • stimulates memories and exercises the brain (sensory stimulation)
  • encourages a resident to reminisce
  • reminiscing can reassure a resident that their life had meaning and significance
  • sharing time with others (engaging with peers)

The benefits for the reader are also significant: I have learned that while reading aloud I am forming new neural pathways in the brain. Bonus! Apparently reading aloud also sharpens my focus and comprehension. When I focus more intently, I am living fully in the present. Reading aloud allows me to be more mindful – that’s a benefit that I embrace!

I Googled suggested book lists for seniors and there were many book titles for those who do not have Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases. I learned from some Alzheimer’s sites that reading poetry aloud is as soothing as music therapy. A couple of my residents did not want to listen to poetry, but I stored that suggestion in my “vault” for a reading  one on one  project, perhaps in the future. Some of the books suggested were not appropriate for my group, either because they were too explicit, too graphic, too many deaths or too gloomy.

Should we read a classic? A short story? An article or story from a woman’s magazine? Or, should I read one of my own personal favourites? Since Crime and Punishment is my most beloved book, I nixed that idea quickly (alas, no Russian literature lovers in my group). Some residents have hallucinations and paranoia and are particularly vulnerable to suggestions. Even news stories on the television upset them and blur the line of reality and fiction for them, so I didn’t think the murder of an old woman was appropriate.

I also think the stories based on the veterinary surgeon from the Yorkshire Dales, James Herriot’s  If Only They Could Talk (once a popular series on television, All Creatures Great and Small) might fit my reading needs.

So off to the library to further my research. One of the librarians is intrigued with my quest for the perfect book and so she begins to make suggestions, too. She takes me to a section where all the books are dog-inspired tales, and the two of us begin to read opening chapters.  Dog tales or animal stories are often easy to relate to and usually full of humour and so are important features when reading aloud to seniors in a long-term care facility.

We discard a few titles. And reluctantly I dismiss James Herriot’s books. There is not enough action, I think. Wait! Do we need action to hold their attention? Yes. Not a lot, but some. The librarian is younger than me and she winces when I read aloud a few lines of Herriot’s book. “Too dry,” she declares. (Hmmm…I am truly glad neither of my parents heard that remark. The television series based on Herriot’s books was one of their all-time favourites.)

I finally decide to go with Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe series. Two reasons: Stuart McLean has been reading from these beloved books for nearly two decades on CBC Radio. If someone can read a book aloud on the radio – and keep his job for nearly twenty years – then he must have his finger on the pulse of the masses. Right? Second reason: I found a couple of the Vinyl Cafe books in my mother’s book stash after she died. You know that I trust synchronicity! Enough said.

The Vinyl Cafe series are collections of short stories about a man who owns the Vinyl Cafe  (a record shop) and his family which consists of wife, two children, a dog and a cat. And his mother. And his neighbours. And the townsfolk.

I read a few of the stories and my audience likes them. Well, okay. Like is perhaps not the word I should choose. The reviews are mixed: Some have fallen asleep and some seem riveted to their chairs. Some have to leave because they need a bathroom break (and they do not return…I blame the staff for that!) and some leave because their loved one has shown up and visitors always (always!) trump a volunteer who is reading aloud to them. (And so it should.) And I also learn that what I think is hilarious – they do not. (What? No laughter at a cat who teaches himself to flush the toilet? Oh, come on.)

But here’s the beautiful thing. After reading a number of stories for a few weeks, and not receiving any good feedback (to be truthful, I do not receive any feedback), and just when I think it isn’t making any difference to their quality of life – something wonderful happens.

I was reading from Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe series, the short story Margaret Gets Married, when out of the corner of my eye I notice movement – a number of the residents are now sitting on the edge of their seats, their bodies erect; those sleeping, woke up. The story is about the main character’s mother’s decision to re-marry – when she is in her 80’s. That caused a little stir in the room. Then, the man who she is dating decides to propose and wants to pop the question at a romantic place – so he chooses Margaret’s childhood home where she no longer lives as the location where he parks his truck and pops the question. Margaret hasn’t visited her childhood home for years so she is mystified why they have come to the site. But she is thrilled to re-visit it and fondly reminisces.

The residents are now excited and begin to tell me that they did not have the experience of re-visiting their home before they came to the care facility. Some are telling me about their family homes; some are smiling at me. But nearly everyone in the room is fully engaged with the story – even those who are unresponsive. They have woke up and are on high alert. (See, that’s the magic: even when you think no one is listening, they are!)

Afterwards I mull over what their responses were to the story and I am puzzled until I remember that someone once told me that her biggest desire was to go home –just for one last time to say goodbye. When someone who now resides in a care facility tells us that she wants to go home, we worry about dredging up the past and we worry about tears, grief and sorrow. But what if a visit to the family home signified the ritual of saying goodbye, a last farewell? A short visit to the family home to honour it and the memories – shouldn’t that be a rite of passage? I think so.

During the reading of Margaret Gets Married, I touched a nerve. Nearly everyone responded to that story in a way that I couldn’t have foreseen. Upon reflection, I believe that all of us (dementia or not) have strong ties to our childhood or family homes – these are the long-term memories that stay intact until the end of life and often are the last to disappear when someone has a dementia. And these are the ties that shape us, that influence us, that create who we become.

Childhood homes, weddings, second marriages and a bride who is in her 80’s – all topics that the reading group responded to.  Stuart McLean nailed it. And the short story has humour, too.

We laugh along with the antics of the townsfolk who want to support Margaret but try to take over/hijack her wedding plans. In the end of the story, Margaret’s wisdom and just plain good sense prevails and she gets the wedding that she wants, not the townsfolk. Clearly, Margaret is a credible hero to this group of residents.

Excerpt from Margaret Gets Married, Extreme Vinyl Cafe

She danced the night away.It was her wedding after all. She had already had for better or for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. This was the part she had given up on. This was happily ever after.

Marley and Me is winning over the residents, also. The outrageous antics of this goofy dog is too funny and I find myself laughing throughout the chapters. One thing that I have learned is that twenty pages is the limit for our group – more than twenty pages and too many lose interest and fall asleep. An hour of reading is optimal, ensuring that I read slowly and pause at the funny parts. On one occasion I read two short stories (not one) and a resident succinctly informed me that “two stories are just too confusing. Don’t read two again.

Sometimes I ask questions to initiate a discussion within the group.  Last week we read that Marley wrecked havoc in the home because of his deep-seated fear of thunderstorms, so I inquired if anyone had owned a dog that was terrified of thunderstorms.  Most had owned a dog at some time so many had funny stories to share. And a couple of residents just told me stories that were not the least bit related to dogs. Or books. Or reading. Reading sessions have taught me to just go with the flow. It’s more fun then. Besides, that is the true essence of mindfulness:  Just be. Don’t edit. Just be.

And always, always my group tells me like it is…”you are reading too fast,” “you are reading too slow,” “I am confused,” “what’s the name of this story?” “are we going home soon?” “when can someone take me to the bathroom?” and lastly, “when is this over?

But once in a while, a daughter of one of the residents will tell me later that her mother enjoyed the story, or that her mother likes to attend the reading group. And that is enough.

  • McLean, Stuart. Extreme Vinyl Cafe (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009).
  • Grogan, John. Marley & Me  (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do we travel?

 

May your hands show mercy, and may your feet care for the green earth.

May your hands show mercy, and may your feet care for the green earth.

I have been on an adventure. I’ve just returned from the amazing country, China, and I am still in the midst of jet lag, wonder and awe, and gratitude.

When I put out my 2015 intentions  explore, creativity and expansiveness in January, I had no inkling that I would be visiting China. (Seriously, I thought I’d just read a few books on creativity.)

I have now returned and realized that I haven’t blogged for three weeks or longer. So now I want to process (always in my head and then in my writing) the question: Why do we travel? Why does it feel so…fulfilling?

For me, I think we travel to connect:

To open our hearts, minds and our spirits to other experiences, new sights, and to other people. We are all connected; we are all one.

We travel so that we can understand we are not the centre of the Universe and that is always a good reminder for all of us. Most of us live in our heads (thoughts are endless) and when we travel, it is the recognition that there is a world out there, and not in here (my mind).

We travel so that we can recognize that all things have an inherent beauty – even on a seemingly chaotic street in Beijing where the traffic lights are ignored, the sounds of non-stop horns is a cacophony that assaults the senses, and where cars, motorbikes, pedicabs and bicycles merge into each other with no sense of order (to our eyes), life flows. This is China.

Grid lock

We travel so that we can see the differences: one day we are on a wild, traffic grid-lock street in Shanghai or Beijing, and the next, we are observing the old man in traditional baggy garb gardening in the countryside. His straw hat protects his head from the hot sun, and large baskets sit beside him. Later, we spot him toting his baskets on a wooden pole that is strategically placed across his shoulders. It is a scene that is the epitome of rural China. Later, we visit a hutong (alleyways where families reside in low grey buildings – many are being torn down to make way for the new and brighter China…their words, not mine) where we visit a family who teach us a quick lesson in calligraphy (as if one could learn an ancient form of printing in an hour) and I cannot help but compare the hutong to the beautiful hotel where we stay, amongst other tall and grand skyscrapers. Strangely enough, I remember when I visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, a few years ago to see an exhibit of black and white photographs of Chinese hutongs. At the time these photos haunted me, and I now have to pinch myself when I realize that I am actually sitting in a room of an actual hutong in Beijing, China.

Gardening in the countryside

I travel so that I can meet people and to recognize that in spite of many differences, that we are all one. I kneel over to catch a glimpse of a baby; her mother smiles and nods at me when I tell her that her baby is so beautiful. She doesn’t understand my English, but she recognizes the loving energy of my intention.

Later, I am moved to tears when I watch family members carry an aging parent or grandparent up the steep, irregular steps of the many temples and pagodas. The family’s devotion and care to their elders evokes my own memories of our family carrying my mother and her wheelchair up the steps to my house on so many holiday occasions when we brought her home from the long-term care facility where she lived the last two years of her life. I am full of emotion when I remember those times. My sons and my nephews struggled under the weight of her chair, but they never complained. They did it with love. I know that the Chinese care for their aging parents with love and once again, I am assured that love is Universal – and it connects us all.

We travel to capture the moments that completely overwhelm our senses – the first time we glimpse man-made structures that are thousands of years old – so much imagination, so much creativity, so much industriousness (yes, apparently there is such a word: attention, hard work, energy, effort). Once again, I recognize that human beings are amazing creatures and have achieved such inspiring feats.

P1050553

And I travel to capture the beauty of another part of the world because it is a reminder to me that the Universe is one awesome, beautiful place (no matter where we live). In the words of Walt Whitman, “every cubic inch of space is a miracle.”

And I travel for the laughter that we share whenever I travel…with old friends or with new friends that I meet on my journey. The tiny, wizened old woman who tugged at my sleeve when I was climbing one of the many temples with steep stairs – she gestured that she wanted to have a photo taken with me. Our arms wrapped around each other, our smiles from ear to ear, her son snaps a photo of the two of us and she is so happy and full of joy that soon my group is laughing with her and before you know it, we all are swarming this tiny woman for another photo. Oh, the joy on all of our faces. What a moment. Her beautiful face, so full of joy, will stay with me forever.

The memory I have of her joyful face is the reason why I travel. That, and the memories of taking part in a 5:45 am morning Tai Chi class; those unforgettable early mornings are moments that I will savour.

We travel to explore within ourselves. To experience new things that open us up even more…we expand then. And we tap into our creative being, also. I begin to notice what is pinging within me. The bright reds and yellows adorn every pagoda and temple that we see and I love the colours. Me, who is a tried and true “blue girl” – I love, love, love the colour blue (because I love water!). And yet I am picking up all things red and yellow. (Stuff that normally I would never be drawn to.) And the calligraphy. Oh, my! I buy brushes because I am definitely going to pursue that beautiful art when I return to the land of non jet-lag.  And don’t get me started on the exquisite art in the museums – oh, how I would love to take painting lessons in that art form. But I’m fairly certain the Ming Dynasty tomb painters haven’t left us a how-to draw figures on a tomb’s wall, so I am out of luck, I think. (Wait a minute…there are lessons probably on You Tube.) And vendors everywhere sell their art in stalls, crammed with their paintings and drawings. (I’m in heaven!) Many of the vendors are artists or calligraphers, themselves, so watching them paint at a table in the stall is common practice. Some of my favourites are works drawn with black ink. (The many shades of grey and black fascinate me.)

Painter - no brush necessaryPainter uses hands and palms only, dipped in inkCalligraphy

Calligraphy prints drying out

Calligraphy prints drying out

In short, travel gives us the opportunity to explore openness; to explore our own possibilities; to explore growth.

We become bigger each time that we travel. I like to think of my spirit urging me to go and grow!

Grow! I imagine my self as a big, white aura that just expands more and more, each time that I open myself to new possibilities.

This is why I travel.

 

 

 

We are meant to share our stories because they connect us!

Immigrated to Canada

Immigrated to Canada

When I showed up at the designated time to sit and record the resident’s life story at the long-term care facility where my mother lived before her recent death, the activity director informed me that my resident was ill and that our visit was cancelled. I was skeptical. This has happened before. So I asked the activity director if I could just pop in and say hello to the resident.

I knocked on the door even though her door was wide open, and I was told to come in.  My friend, the resident, was lying in bed.

She told me that she wasn’t feeling well and that our interview should be cancelled indefinitely. Yes, I suspected as much…anxiousness about the interview.

“Another day,” I assured her.  And because I suspected that her stress regarding our interview had caused her to feel ill, I asked her if she had second thoughts. “My story isn’t very interesting anyways,” she admitted. She sat up a little in bed.

I chuckled and reassured her that when the activity director told me a story about the resident’s trip to Canada, solo, as a young woman, that I found it not only interesting but courageous, and that I was anxious to hear more stories.

She sat up straighter in bed. “Now take a seat. Where’s your recorder? Are you going to take notes?” I burst out laughing and asked, “Is the interview back on?”

I prompted her with a couple of questions, and she elaborated about her family growing up in Europe, her trip to Canada, and her marriage. I was enthralled. Like many of us who grew up listening to stories about our parents who immigrated to North America, and sat in wonder as they told us about their  childhood and lives – so very different than our childhood lives, her stories reminded me of my own parents – their childhood in England, and their immigration to Canada and adapting to a new country. Her stories gave me pleasure; my reward – wonderful memories of my own parents’ stories now connect me to her stories.

During my visit, I noticed that my friend has sat up in bed, made herself comfortable and she has leaned in – she was vibrant and quite aware that she had a captive audience of one.

It was time to leave (an hour is optimum for a first visit) but I inquired first if I may return to hear and record more stories and she agreed wholeheartedly.

And now the confession: She admitted to me that she felt ill about our visit, and that she worried that she was not very interesting.

My intent from the beginning of this project, I assured her, is about the residents and their stories; it’s about fun; it’s about remembering the past with fondness and about seeing the connections – who we become and the moments that changed us. And most of all, it’s about recognizing that our lives matter – to our loved ones, our friends, visitors and volunteers, and to the staff.

I assured her that if the story-telling isn’t fun or if she doesn’t think it is worthwhile, then the project isn’t worth pursuing.

When I left her room, it occurred to me that in the beginning of this story-telling process, it’s vital to reassure the residents and perhaps to relate a couple of stories of another person’s life. That’s when the magic happens – all of us, young or old, like to hear stories. And when the stories are true – autobiographies in the making – we are all fascinated to capture a glimpse into the past and see inside one person’s life. At least, I know I am.

Because at the end of the day, we are all so unique, and not so unique. Once the stories flow, we can see how we are all connected – even though our stories are different. When she spoke of her family immigrating to Canada, the ship’s journey and final stop in the port of Halifax, I immediately thought of my parents’ arrival to Canada and wondered if they, like my friend, were scared, too.

We all think that our own individual lives are rather simple and mundane, and that in our own eyes, that we are not very special. But a funny thing happens when we share our stories with others: through the reflective lens of another, we begin to value the meaning and worthiness of our own stories. Through the lens, we see and understand the significance of our journey.

I believe that is the true gift that we receive when we share our stories.

I trust that my friend’s pleasure and joy in talking to me allowed her to see the significance of her life; I know that I received joy, inspiration and wisdom. And I cannot wait to visit her again.

But most of all, I am always so grateful that when we pay attention to people (and to their stories) we focus on their spirit – their true essence. And that is what connects us. Our spirits are all connected. We are all connected.

When we pay attention to another person, we share a part of us and in sharing we begin to care…our compassion, our kindness, and our love within grows. And that is the true gift!