Wednesday, April 5, 2023

January-March in Books

  I've finished 23 books so far this year. I've started listening to more audiobooks this year, and not only have I enjoyed them tremendously on my daily walks, but they are adding to my monthly totals, for sure. Here are comments on several of January's books.

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan. 4 stars. This thriller not only kept me on the edge of my seat, but the last quarter was also satisfying —something I find to be rare in thrillers.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. 5 stars. This is an incredible novel about the fatal shooting of Kahlil, a Black teenager by a white police officer, told from the POV of Starr, the teenaged girl —the Witness—who was with Kahlil. Highly recommended novel about racism, injustice, balancing worlds, friendship, and finding your voice. Actress Bahni Turpin read this audio version, and she is phenomenal.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. 3.5 stars. The narrator is an observer of intimacies and a passive participant in her own moments of intimacy. She watches small dramas play out without jumping in. As an interpreter at The Hague, she has to carefully translate details of horrific war crimes while remaining stoic. I liked this novel—the prose is lovely and concise—but it left me feeling somewhat cold, all the while hoping that the unnamed narrator finds the warmth she seeks.

The Housemaid by Freida McFadden. 3 stars. Psychological thriller that’s perfect for in between heavy reads. A rich psychotic family, a hot Italian groundskeeper, and an ex con. What more could you want?

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (audio). 4 stars. Phew. So sad, so beautiful. Hard to listen to because it’s so sad.

The It Girl by Ruth Ware. 4 stars. Good mystery!

Bittersweet by Susan Cain. 3 stars. An interesting study of the importance of embracing loss and sorrow rather than putting on a brave face all the time. As someone who is completely comfortable with and aware of the bittersweetness of life (I mean, I write poetry!), I did not find this revelatory, but it was affirming, which is always a plus.

With — finally finished. Unremarkable.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. So good! A story of Klara, an artificial friend, and her girl, Josie. This one stayed with me for a long time, and I still think about it now and then.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry. Very cute. I love Emily Henry.

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow. Audio book. Outstanding. Some difficult parts but so excellent. Three generations of women growing up in Memphis. Four stars.

February and March were excellent reading months. I may never recover from Demon Copperhead. I can't imagine that anything else could possible take over its Number One spot in 2023!

A few comments...
1. Demon Copperhead YES YES YES. Five hundreds stars. Totally lives up to all the hype and more. I recommend watching the limited series Dopesick (8 mesmerizing episodes) on Hulu and then reading Kingsolver's novel. Wow.

2. Ugly Love is my first Colleen Hoover book, and may be my last. I needed to know what the buzz is about Colleen Hoover. This was a very fast read. Most of the characters were pretty flat, the plot was fairly predictable, and it all tied up happily. I think Emily Henry and Taylor Jenkins Reid are infinitely better writers with much more original and interesting stories. 

3. The School for Good Mothers is an excellent book to pair with Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts. In this one, a newly single mom has a single bad afternoon that leads to her being arrested and sentenced to a year at mother-training school. So good. And scary.

4. The Candy House: I really liked this Egan's novel; however, this is the kind of book that should be read in a few long sessions rather than over the course of a week or two, 15 minutes at a time, like I did. It’s also probably better read in hard copy rather than on an e-reader There are so many characters in this nonlinear book, and they are all connected in various ways. I would forget from night to night who a particular character is that was mentioned 80 pages beforehand, and I’m too lazy to flip back through my Kindle to find out who this person is. Really intriguing book but would have been greatly enhanced and appreciated if I’d read it in a few sittings.

5. Five Little Indians: A painful book. The topic is so important and the story needs to be told, but the prose was choppy and stilted. This seemed like a first draft and needed the help of a good editor. Again, this is an important story and worth reading on a humanitarian level, but I wanted the storytelling itself to be so much better.

6. Other Birds: A sweet, happy book that I obviously needed after all the heavy reading. Lovely.

7. Audiobooks: Clearly I was on a Lisa Jewell kick, and I don't regret the many miles walking with her mysteries. She's mesmerizing. Also listened to the classic Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse, which is of course, well, amazing and unforgettable. It's better to read in print so you can underline everything, but however you consume it, consume it.

And there we have January-March in books.

What are you reading that I should add to my never-ending TBR list?

Also please explain the Colleen Hoover craze. No judgment if she's your thing; I'm just trying to figure out why there is so much hype about her books!

Friday, February 17, 2023

caregiving: shower day

Thursdays are shower days for Mom. The whole process takes a couple hours, from start to finish. It's hard to get Mom in the shower, first off. She'll stick out her tongue and flat out refuse: "I just did this yesterday!" or "I want to take a bath like I did when I was a kid, not a shower!" I make bargains sometimes, remind myself to be patient, kind, and gentle.

On Thursdays, I'm wiped out—more mentally than physically—by noon. I mean, my back hurts a little, but mentally and emotionally, I'm just plain tired. There is something so draining about bathing your mother. This is when the parent/child relationship is so obviously reversed. There is the frustration that comes with hearing the childlike "I don't want to do this; why are you making me?" again and again. There is a hefty dose of remembering, as I blow dry her hair, that this is the woman who bathed me as a child, who patiently rolled my hair in pink plastic curlers every Saturday night and then stuck me under her warm, comforting hair dryer. And there is the in-your-face reminder of how the body ages and fails, how it sags and wrinkles and weakens, and, frankly, the knowledge that someday, this will be me.
In the end, though, she always ends up smiling. "This is wonderful! I never want to get out! How did you learn how to do this?" She is overflowing with gratefulness, bubbling with the joy of accomplishment. After I dry and curl her hair, she thanks me and says, "I'm going to pay you a million dollars!"
These are bittersweet days, ones you never imagine until you are here in the midst of it, moving slowly through the hours and days and weeks, shaking off the frustration, returning the smile, breathing deeply, giving back.

Monday, January 16, 2023

2022: Year in Review

 2022 was a year of celebrations, changes, big adventure, and small, sacred days. 

The year began, as it should, with a first day hike and family. My brother and his family were here for it.

One of January's highlights was definitely our book club trip to Chattanooga. How very very good to spend a weekend laughing and talking, both practically nonstop.

Dad turned 97 in January, and the whole family got together, in person and on Zoom, to celebrate.

Randy and I took a snowy hike to Upper Meigs Creek Falls in late January. I was proud of myself for making a whole bunch of icy river crossings without falling in!

In February, I turned 56. I started the day teaching class (early western literature) at Maryville College. The day ended with opening presents, including something I've wanted for so long: my own chainsaw!

The highlight of February was definitely the visit from our long-time friends, Kris and Del. We met Kris and Del during our years in Iowa, and they are our soulmate friends. The ones that, when asked by our kids, "Who would you most like to vacation with?" we say instantly: Kris and Del. I am pretty sure we spent almost the entire time they were here sprawled in the living room, talking and talking and talking. Geez, I love these people. We have plans to go see them this summer, if everything works out.

We had our big snow in March—some of the trees were already flowering! It was a lovely snow. 

We went from snow to sand then, as we headed to Florida for spring break to see Laurel and Hunter. Randy, Duncan and I all had the same break, so that worked out perfectly. We had all kinds of fun on that trip, including a visit from Randy's brother and his wife, botanical gardens, hikes, the beach, trivia, and lots of game nights and ice cream.

We celebrated 33 years in late March with a quiet dinner at a new restaurant in town. And we also celebrated Jesse's 29th birthday!

April was the big shift for us—the month of major change. I got a text from Dad one day that said, "Mom won't wake up. Come down?" I drove down to their house, took one look at Mom and called 9-11. She was completely unresponsive, but clearly breathing. She landed in the hospital for a few days with a severe UTI. Note: UTIs are extremely serious in elderly people! If your parent starts acting strange, being irritable, even seeming as if they are suddenly moving into dementia, get them tested for a UTI! In this case, Mom had none of these symptoms, but she has before. 

While Mom was in the hospital, we all decided it was finally time for Mom and Dad to move out of their house and into our attached apartment. It's why we bought this house 20 years ago— we wanted to have a place for my parents or Randy's mom to live if they ever needed it. It was time. Dad was tired. Mom needed more help than he could give her. They could no longer keep up their house or yard.

And so, we did frantic cleaning and rearranging, and Mom came straight from the hospital to her new home. It took a few weeks for her to adjust. She went through confusion, a little anger, and lots of wanting to go back to her house. I credit an occupational therapist for really reframing her perspective; he was gentle but firm in reminding her that she was in the best possible place—that she could no longer live without help, and that living with family was so much better than being in a nursing home. After that, she's really been quite happy ever since. Dad adjusted much better. He misses his yard and misses being able to live totally independently, but he is relieved that he doesn't have to take care of Mom solely by himself anymore.  

It's been an adjustment for sure, all around. We went from empty nesters back to a full house. We went from dinner in front of the TV, going out whenever we want, and basically doing what we want to having supper together every night, always being mindful of my parents, etc. We've fallen into a pretty good rhythm, although every day is different. I do a lot of waiting for the next thing. Are they awake yet? Have they eaten anything? Are they napping? Bored? You just never know what the day will bring. We play a lot of cards and dominoes. When the weather is warm, they sit outside and watch the golfers across the street. Dad rides his recumbent bike, and Mom sweeps the driveway and picks up sticks.

So, that's where we are now. Mom and Dad are settled into their tiny one bedroom, one bath apartment. It is an honor and a joy to have them here, and it is sometimes exhausting. Bittersweet.

May brought the end of teaching college for me. I realized quite quickly that I could not prepare lessons and teach classes as well as give proper care and attention to my parents. So, when I finished the semester, I finished what was a short but wonderful stint as a writing and literature instructor at our local private college. 

Bittersweet. I thought I would miss teaching so much, but I'm mostly relieved that I don't have the added stress. It makes me smile to remember emails like the one above, thinking about how much I adore teenagers and college students. Teaching college had always been a goal for me, and I've accomplished that. Personal success and fulfillment certainly makes the next season easier.

May gave us another major event: Jesse, our oldest, graduated from law school, magna cum laude! He was so glad to be done. He loved it when he started, but the pandemic with its online learning just sucked a lot of the joy out of law school, just like it did for some many students worldwide! Still, he did it! He took the bar exam in July and found out that he passed it in October. He now works for a local lawyer!

Our lawyer with Randy wearing a shirt with Jesse's handprints from when he was a baby

Beginning in May, my friends and I made a plan. Cades Cove is perhaps the most famous drive in the Smoky Mountains. It's an 11-mile loop with historic cabins and churches and beautiful views. Every Wednesday from May through September, the road is closed to vehicle traffic so that walkers and bicyclists can enjoy it without fumes and traffic. So, we decided to head up each Wednesday and walk, beginning with the 3.8 mile Sparks Lane loop and making our way up to the full 11-mile loop. Well, we never made the 11 miles, but we did the 8-mile loop a couple of times and the 3.4 mile loop about a dozen times. It was an absolute highlight of my year, and I can't wait to do it again!

My fourth brother and his two little guys came to visit in June. It's such a joy to have them here; sometimes I still can't believe he finally had kids. They've brought so much color into our world! Imagine my parents becoming grandparents yet again in their late 80s.

Took the boys to Tuckaleechee Caverns. Summer's first time, too!

We got to have Laurel for several days in July, as we hosted a bridal shower for one of her best childhood friends. It was lovely have all my girls back together again, even just for one evening.

These girls have been friends since kindergarten!

And then came the biggest event of our year, a trip we'd dreamed about but weren't convinced it would really happen: Randy and I went to Alaska! He had meetings in Anchorage, and we toyed with the idea that we could make a vacation out of it. It seemed implausible with Covid and Mom and Dad and all... but it all worked out and we had the most incredible two weeks. We spent a few days in Anchorage, a few in Denali National Park, and a few in Seward at Kenai Fjords National Park. This trip deserves its own post, but here are just a few photos.

It was more than we ever could have dreamed of. We thought this would be our one and only trip to Alaska, but we are determined to go back and visit more of the national parks. We are always ready to come back after a trip, but this time we really did not want to come home! 

While we were in Alaska, Mom and Dad spent three weeks with my brother Stephen in New York. They had a wonderful time... but they brought Covid back for all of us. It was our first bout with Covid. We are all up-to-date with our vaccinations, so it wasn't terrible. Dad took Paxlovid, and he was better within a couple of days. Amazingly, Mom never got it! So, that was our how August ended. Sadly, Duncan came home from his summer job during the time we had Covid, so we could only visit with him outside.

This was awfully hard on this mama's heart. He'd been gone all summer working in the Florida Keys at Sea Base Boy Scout High Adventure camp, taking groups of Scouts out on 8-day island adventures. He was only home for two days before he had to go back to North Carolina for his senior year of college, and we couldn't even have a proper visit! He was a sweetie and came back over Labor Day, though, and we got to catch up then —and even get a couple good hikes in. 

We also got to very briefly see our girl that weekend, as she came in for Caitlin's bachelorette party. At least we got to celebrate her 25th birthday with her.

I spent most of September and part of October cleaning out my parents' house. Oh man. What a job! We have some friends, a young family, who were moving back to town and desperately needed a place to live. The housing market is ridiculous around here, as it is most places. We had a three-bedroom house sitting "empty" just down the street. So... I dug in and packed away all my parents' belongings. Oh, it was hard work. It was physically exhausting and emotionally exhausting. Nearly every day for six weeks I spent hours there, cleaning and packing. The grandchildren claimed many items, and many more went to donation centers.  So many memories. I wrote some during this time, trying to process the emotions. Here's just a tiny snippet I wrote one day: 

I had to let it all go, although I have several boxes now in our attic of things I just couldn't part with. Mom had no idea what I was doing; I basically sneaked away each afternoon for a few hours. Eventually, I had the house nearly emptied and then had to clean. Phew. A house cared for by two people in their mid-90s, well... it needed lots of TLC and disinfectant, to say the least. I didn't do this all on my own; my brother Peter was there to help as much as he could, along with his sons. Others came now and then—Jesse and Summer, another brother, my nieces. But  I was largely on my own.

This particular day in the photo above was one that I broke down and sobbed a lot. This is my mother's vanity, and it's one of those pieces of furniture that is childhood to me. How many days did I sit here on this small chair before the mirror, looking through the drawers at my mother's jewelry or brushing my hair or watching my mother? It was the furniture that really got me, that broke my heart and left me bereft and grieving. We kept most of the furniture, as it is Heywood-Wakefield, and Jesse and Summer will someday have it in their own home. I will love that so much.

Well, eventually in mid-October, it was all done, and the sweet family moved in. And I, at last, could rest. Someday I will write more about the complex emotions of packing up your parents' house. For now, I must keep those feelings at arm's distance.

A note in my grandmother's handwriting, found in my mother's recipe box

Randy and I managed to take a couple of weekends away in the fall. We camped at Linville Gorge in North Carolina in October. Duncan came over from his nearby college for an afternoon and hiked the gorge with us, and the next day we hiked to Table Rock.

And in November, we took a quick weekend trip to hit another National Park: Mammoth Cave.

It's getting harder and harder to take even a weekend away. Dad takes good care of Mom, but she gets very bored and often goes outside without his knowledge, which is a fall risk, or she just sleeps all day. So, we have to coordinate our trips with my brothers to make sure they can be caregivers in our place.

We were finally able to do our annual Soup and Pumpkin Party again this year. We'd cancelled it for the past two years because of Covid, but we felt safe hosting it at last. It was so good to see people—some we hadn't seen in a couple of years! 

We also got to see lots of friends at Caitlin's wedding, and of course, we got to have Laurel and Hunter home for a few days.

In early November, Mom landed in the hospital again. She had another UTI, and this time she was given some kind of opiate that made her hallucinate for days. It was horrible! I felt really desperate then, wondering if this is how our life would be. But she came out of it after a few days and is just now finishing up with the physical therapist.

All the kids were home at Thanksgiving, and we got new family pictures done! Here's one of my favorites:

We had a lovely Thanksgiving week together, squeezing in lots of fun and plenty of relaxing on the couch. And everyone was back just a few weeks later for Christmas. Again, lots of good walks, talks, eating, and lounging.

Randy's uncle from Hawaii came in for a quick visit

Our Christmas baby turned 22

Snow for our Florida kids!

Got a good snowy hike in

The kids enjoyed spending lots of time with my parents, but they also visited Randy's mom. That was a hard but sweet time for them. It's been a long time since most of them have seen her, and she's rapidly declined mentally and physically in the past several months. She's now on hospice care.

Throughout the year, our daughter-in-law has been making amazing strides as an independent artist in Knoxville. She participated in the annual Chalk Walk in April, which she's been doing since she was in elementary school. She's now one of the featured artists on the Walk of Fame. 

She also has a mural in Knoxville's Strong Alley, a rather iconic photo spot in downtown.

It's exciting to watch her as she grows as an artist and a businesswoman!

And so that's where we are now. It's been a year of highs (Alaska!) and lows (Mom's hospitalizations). I'm adjusting, still, to life as a caregiver. I'm so honored to have my parents here with us. It is a precious, sacred time. I have been so blessed this year to be surrounded by friends. Our weekly hikes in Cades Cove were life-affirming, and I can't wait to do it again. My children are all well, and I'm excited for all of them as they figure out next steps. And through all of the changes, I have the love of my life by my side. It's a good, good life. 

Here's to 2023!