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!