Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Mom’s 85th birthday. Technically, her birthday is Friday, but tomorrow night the five of us kids will be there, along with a few of Mom’s friends from her retirement home and a cake with candles to make it a real party.
Every birthday is a milestone, and Mom’s reaching 85 is a significant one — not because 85 is especially old in our long-lived culture, but because the last year has been a difficult one for her from a mental and physical health perspective. Mom’s become more confused and seems much less interested in the world outside her room. Her personality is veering away from that of the person we’ve known and loved all our lives. Her behavior is erratic and her mood unpredictable. She sleeps a lot more, and eats a lot less.
Mom’s decline is not easy to see, but dealing with it would be much more difficult were it not for my brother and sisters. The “fiveness” of us — two older brothers, three younger sisters — has always been part of my reality, but lately I’ve appreciated the value of being part of a large family more and more. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through this challenging process as an only child, and not just because one person must shoulder the duties and decision-making burdens that otherwise would be shared. It’s also the real value of being able to share information, talk things through, and reach a common decision with people who you’ve known and trusted all your life.
The five of us are all in our fifties now, and in the decades since we’ve left the family home we’ve each followed our own separate paths. Since Mom’s own path took a turn several years ago, however, we’ve communicated more frequently than we have in years. We’re all on a common texting group where we can report on recent events, and we’ve met regularly, often over a meal, to thoughtfully discuss those impossible questions about care and what the future might bring. At our meetings, I look at those familiar faces and distinct personalities — one a worrier and organizer and planner, one a cheerful, reflexive optimist who can always find the positive, one who likely will have just read another book or article about Mom’s condition, one quiet and steady and practical — and I find comfort when five such different people reach a consensus decision, as we always do.
The five of us have stuck together in dealing with a situation that has caused other families to split apart, and in the process we’ve rediscovered each other and seen, firsthand, when family really matters. Mom might find that the best birthday present of all.
Finally, the jigsaw puzzle from hell is done! Persistence, patience, stick-to-it-iveness and other words only your grandparents used paid off. Oh, yeah — and gumption, too.
One of the best features of our house, in my humble opinion, is our screened-in porch. It’s a snug little spot that faces the backyard, with two walls of exposed brick.
For the first few weeks here at our new house, the screened-in porch was a convenient repository for discarded stuff. As a result, it was a jumble of boxes, stray furniture, papers, and trash bags, with a narrow path for ingress and egress. Gradually the detritus has been cleared away, and yesterday we finally configured it as we have wanted. It looks exactly as we pictured it — as a bright and tidy spot to have a cup of coffee on a warm and sunny morning.
With our screened-in porch on line, we begin to see the possibilities of our new house, and it’s fun.
This morning we “sprung ahead,” and the temperature actually is above 32 degrees right now. That’s good enough for me: I’m calling it spring.
I don’t care that spring doesn’t officially arrive for two weeks. Equinoxes, vernal or autumnal, are irrelevant at this point. We’re talking basic mental health and crucial attitudinal adjustments. The sunshine today and promise of warmer temperatures this week, which might actually touch the 60s (!) — are good enough for me. In my book, it’s spring.
That’s means it’s time to break out the cleaning supplies and do a little spring cleaning. In our case, that means continuing to attack the boxes and the miscellaneous items that crowd the shelves, put things away into closets and cabinets, and give everything a good wipe down and dusting.
Cleaning isn’t the most exciting activity in the world, but when you call it spring cleaning and hope — fervently, prayerfully, sincerely, with every fiber in your being — that it means a long, awful winter might finally be over, it’s not too bad.
Richard and Julianne decided to buy a jigsaw puzzle while they were here. (Curse them!) We spent part of their visit working on the puzzle, which features a painting of a beach scene at twilight, with about half of the picture consisting of the sky. (Curse them both!)
Of course, we couldn’t finish the puzzle during their visit. (Of course!) So the unfinished puzzle sat there on the dining room table, taunting me, its bizarrely shaped pieces spread across the polished wooden surface. (Heh heh! You’ll never finish me, old man!) So I spent part of Sunday working on it, and finally completed the water, the beach, and the horizon, which left me with . . . the sky. (Give up, old man! Feel the sting of failure when, after weeks of frustration and anguish, you finally sweep me, uncompleted, back into the box and put me in a closet hoping you never see me again!)
It is a standard rule that, in any jigsaw puzzle of an outdoor scene, the sky will always be the last part of the puzzle that gets completed. (The sky is unconquerable!) That is because the sky is always the hardest part of the puzzle, and the normal progression of puzzle completion goes from easiest to hardest — first the edges, then the obvious landmarks, then everything else but the sky. (The sky rules!) And then the puzzler hits the wall and all of the accumulated momentum and false hopes crash and burn, and finishing the puzzle becomes a cold, hard slog of trying to find one miserable piece at a time. (Heh heh! That’s right! That’s right! And it will never happen! Never!)
Aren’t jigsaw puzzles supposed to be a pleasant leisure time entertainment activity?
From Alaska comes the story of Madera, a blind 11-year-old Labrador retriever who wandered away from her home and became lost during a cold snap, when temperatures reached 40 below zero. Her owners searched for two weeks and had given up hope when Madera was found by a passerby, 14 pounds lighter but otherwise okay.
You can find examples of the extraordinary human-canine bond, like the search for the blind, aged Madera in dangerously cold temperatures, virtually every day. We saw it in our neighborhood recently when we walked outside after a recent snowfall and saw a couple pulling an obviously hobbled and sickly white-muzzled dog down the street on a makeshift sled. They explained that their dog loved the snow and they wanted to let him experience it, even if he couldn’t romp around like he used to. So they created the carrier and were struggling to steer the dog down the snow-covered street, one pushing and one pulling. It’s not exactly how most people would want to spend their Saturday, but it’s the kind of thing dog owners do.
In other instances, the bond is reflected in the expenses the owner is willing to endure for surgeries, complicated treatments, special foods, or drug therapies for sick dogs. Last year, Americans spent almost $56 billion on their pets, which included more than $14 billion for veterinary care. Options that weren’t even be considered in the past — like organ transplants, joints replacements and other high-end surgeries, pet health insurance, and even hospice care — are now commonplace and growing parts of the economy. How many of your friends have told you recently about extraordinary steps they have taken to enjoy a few more years with their beloved dog?
DNA studies indicate that dogs became domesticated between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago — so recently that the genetic makeups of dogs and wolves are extremely similar. Fossil evidence reveals that the first dogs were companions of hunter-gatherers — which probably explains why most dogs have a taste for human food scraps. The human and canine species share a long common history, and that history has created a deep bond that seems to grow stronger with each passing year.