It’s Going Swimmingly, Thank You

My three-year old grandson is part fish.

I came to this conclusion yesterday, watching him joyfully splash around the pool, launch himself into the water, and confidently swim the length of the pool. Lucas loves swimming – can’t get enough. And like the other 90 percent of parents/grandparents who believe their children/grandchildren are above average, I KNOW that he’s a much better swimmer than other three-year olds!

Good thing, because when it comes to tumbling in gym class, he’s not exactly setting the world on fire. I know this because I took Lucas to gym class last week, and it was almost painful to watch him try to do cartwheels, walk on the balance beam or do straddle rollovers. He and the other boy in the class were dead last in all these exercises, while the little girls seem to have been born with springs in their legs.

Which brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend some years ago, when I had moved from communication consulting to business development for my agency. He, an accomplished physician and a graduate of Stanford, was simply astonished that I would happily talk to strangers, pitch a piece of business, negotiate terms and sign the deal. To him, this seemed the equivalent of Lucas in gym class – unnatural, hard and intimidating, while for me, it was like Lucas swimming – easy, joyful, fun. I remember blinking in surprise. “But Matthew,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding – you HEAL people! You deal with blood and pain and disease. You hold people’s lives in your hands! All I do is make some sales calls.” To me, being a physician is my equivalent of Lucas’s gym class, but to Matthew, it’s like swimming for Lucas – you just jump in the water and you do it because it’s fulfilling.

I try to keep these lessons in mind when offering career advice to others – do what comes naturally, what is joyful, what is fulfilling. Don’t do what goes against your nature unless there is something hidden in it that makes you feel extraordinary. Some of us are gymnasts. Some of us are swimmers.

Love yourself for what you’re good at. Forgive yourself for what you’re not.

Vive la différence!

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Dislocated

I volunteered, and I’m glad I did.  But still, it’s jarring.  To be out of my house for a month, living with my daughter and her family, in England. Wonderful hosts though they are, there’s still an element of tiptoeing, being polite, being cautious. I’m trying hard to be helpful without being irritating.  They’re trying hard to be welcoming without showing the strain of another close relative in their home for another lengthy stay.

No one said it would be easy.

When families become far flung, staying close becomes a challenge.  Technology helps, but actually being together is, of course, the ultimate prize. And that means space invasion. Because whether it’s our place or their place, it’s never our mutual space.

In all fairness, this is as true with local family as with far flung family.  When Andrew visits us, although he’s our dear son, he’s still a visitor.  While our house will always be his house, it really isn’t – it’s ours.  But because Andrew lives in Los Angeles, if the evening doesn’t go perfectly, no big deal – we’ll get together next week and try again. That obviously changes when the price of a visit is thousands of dollars in plane tickets and dozens of hours of travel.  At that point, the visit isn’t for a night – it’s for several nights.  Or in this case, weeks.  And we all know what smells after three days…

We’ve had a few other factors to deal with on this visit.  First, the happy anticipation – and more anticipation – and more anticipation – of the birth of our granddaughter, who is taking her own sweet time arriving (we’re a week past due at this point). Second, the weather, which has been just miserable – cold, snowy and icy.  That makes taking a walk hazardous, especially for those of us with a blemished history of falling and breaking bones. And finally, the cold from hell, which seems to be everywhere these days.  Hundreds of tissues, hacking coughs, headaches and irritability – the perfect icing on the cake.

But still, Lucas’ antics keep us going.  He’s at that age when everything is wonderful, filled with toddler belly laughs and shrieks of joy, or everything is tragic, filled with sobs and arched backs and screams of unhappiness.  My daughter and son-in-law have perfected an imitation of Lucas getting mad that cracks me up – it has just enough of a Donald Duck temper tantrum to it that it delights me.

It’s the little things that count.  Watching our daughter and son-in-law enjoy each other and love each other, taking my grandson to his swim lessons, giving my grandson a bath, listening to his dad get him up in the morning as the two of them laugh together… a thousand little moments that make the sense of dislocation a small price to pay.  Because you pay and play, or you sit on the sidelines.

So goes life.

Happy Birthday!

Our daughter was born on April 26.  Our son was born on May 11.  And our grandson was born on May 4.  (I’m thinking that we must be like horses – dropping our foals in the spring! Neighhhh, say it isn’t true!!)

When our children were small, planning, holding and recovering from birthday parties was the main event at this time of year.  Memories came rushing back as I saw photos of our grandson’s first birthday…

Memories of birthday parties come and gone… Memories of birthday cakes ordered and eaten… Memories of piñatas broken and candy flying…

Although never a domestic goddess, I always tried really hard to make our kids’ parties special, and looking back, I have to say they were often, well, let’s be kind and say memorable.  For example, there was the year that I thought it would be fun for all the little girls at Carolyn’s party to make big southern belle hats.  The hats were made from paper plates with paper bowls stapled on to create the basic shape.  Flowers, ribbons, crayons, markers, feathers – and glue – were available in vast quantities for decoration.  The girls loved it.  I had them all pose against our hillside so I could take their picture, and as they ran to get in position, I noticed, to my horror, that streamlets of Elmer’s Glue were running off the hats into the little girls’ hair.

I did not win the award for most popular mother at Carolyn’s school that year.

Then there was the gardening party.  I bought flower pots, potting soil and little tomato plants, along with – you guessed it – ribbons, paint, sequins, glue for decorating.  We were all OK until it was time to put dirt into the pots and plant the tomato plant. The squeals of protest!  The “oh yucks”! The horror!  “Eww, dirt.”  “Ewww, I hate tomatoes.”  “Ewwwww, there’s a worm.”

Two words: oy vey.

And who can forget the swim party we gave for Andrew, when we went to the trouble of hiring lifeguards from Tom Sawyer, a local kids’ camp?  Fat lot of good they did, as Andrew chipped his front tooth in the pool during a vigorous game of Marco Polo.  Ouch!

Dinosaurs (my favorite!), sleepovers, pizza parties – we did them all.  Funny how memories work – I don’t remember the parties that came off without a hitch (surely we had some of those) but I do remember hyper and happy kids, ice cream and cake, smeared faces and lots of squeals of laughter.  And now I get to watch the tradition go on with my grandson – Lucas, the monkey cake is just the beginning!

And happy birthday to Andrew, who has his birthday tomorrow.  Sorry I can’t be in Seattle to plan the party – or maybe, given my track record, it’s just as well!

Farewell to Frankie

I never wanted a cat.  But when you have children, you often end up with pets that you didn’t want.  Case in point?  When our daughter was in junior high school, she fell in love with…rats.  So we had Muffy, a hooded rat with a truly disgusting long pink tail.

And when Muffy died, we replaced him with TWO rats, whose names have thankfully slipped my mind (although I’m afraid one of them might have been named Baby).

So one Halloween night, when Andrew came home with a black kitten that had been following him during trick or treating, we agreed to take the cat in until a proper home could be found.  Needless to say, that “proper home” ended up being ours.

Sherman was a good cat, although our fondest memory of him was one of his most destructive moments.  We had just moved our old water bed into Andrew’s room.  The water bed consisted of seven long tubes that sat in a waterproof box mattress.  Because the tubes were damp after being refilled, we left the mattress cover off the box so they could dry.  We then went out to dinner. When we returned, we found every single tube had been slashed open.  We could only imagine what went through Sherman’s mind:

  • “What’s this?” (Cat delicately takes one claw and slashes open tube.) “Oh, yuck, water!” (Cat shakes water off paw and moves on to the next tube.)
  • “What’s this?” “Oh, yuck, water!” (Continue times seven tubes.)

Sherman met an early demise – not because of the water bed incident, tempting though that may have been.  He wanted to be an outdoor cat, and in our neighborhood, coyotes and owls make sure cats don’t live long lives. Plus I did find him basking in the sun in the middle of our street once.  Sherman apparently was not the brightest of all felines.

Once the cat barrier had been broken, there was no turning back.  So when Andrew was in fifth grade, we adopted Arlene, a feral kitten that his teacher had found in the arroyo.  And when my friend Jean was looking for a home for a cat that used to work at the Guide Dog School (training puppies not to chase cats), we took her in, too.  We named this cat Frankie, short for Franken-kitty, because she appeared to be made up of part tiger, part calico and part raccoon.

Frankie was a wonderful cat.  Nothing scared her – she was used to being defended from dogs-in-training by the Guide Dog staff, and that fearlessness turned her into one of the sweetest creatures you can imagine.  Our son’s friends called her “liquid cat” because she would go completely limp when picked up, purring the entire time.

Carolyn supervising Lucas petting Frankie

Now don’t get me wrong.  Frankie was not perfect.  She saw the world as her toilet, and thought the litter box was for losers.  Well, OK, perhaps I exaggerate.  But honestly, this cat needed a cork inserted into a certain opening.  We tried everything – medical exams, behavior modification, cursing and having serious talks with her.  The only thing that worked was getting rid of all carpeting in the house.  So Frankie, a “free” cat, probably costs us tens of thousands of dollars, as we replaced pee-stained rugs with hardwood floors. And yes, we should have our heads examined.

Two years ago, Frankie lost a dramatic amount of weight.  Never a big kitty, she dropped from eight to six pounds, and was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, not uncommon in cats, we learned.  In the last couple of months, Frankie lost more weight and often refused to eat.

On Friday, we lost her.

Our vet, Dr. Danielle Pershing at the La Canada Pet Clinic, was so kind and wonderful.  She hugged me and told me that Frankie was now in kitty heaven, purring nonstop and peeing wherever she wanted, without getting in trouble.  I kind of like that image.

Although I hope she avoids St. Peter’s throne – even saints have their limits.

Marrwiage… Is What Brings Us Together…Today

This was one of the greatest lines ever from The Princess Bride, one of the greatest movies ever –

But while marriage may bring us together, it certainly does not keep us together, if divorce statistics are any indication.

Several months ago, my son asked me to write about how his father and I have had such a long, happy marriage. Andrew is in his first serious long-term relationship, and was looking for the secrets of wedlock bliss. He commented that his dad and I – at least in his memory – rarely fought, and usually managed to put up a pretty united front.

I undertake this task with the concern that I’m woefully unqualified to comment. After all, Scott might (rightfully) say, “Well, Andrew my boy. The reason you didn’t hear us fight is that your mother has a bad habit of putting on the big freeze when she’s pissed, and refuses to talk at all!” Sigh. True. So true.

I grew up in a family of screamers.  Get mad?  Scream at each other.  Stomp out of the room.  Slam the door behind you.  Jump out of the car at the first stoplight.  Pout.  Yell.  Accuse.  Man, I hated that.  Which is why my preferred fighting mode is passive aggressive: read my lips because I’m steaming.   I’ll ice you out before I yell.

Neither method is going to win any awards for maturity or effectiveness.

But in looking back, although my parents were yellers, they drew the line at:

  • Defamation of character
  • Bad language (beyond “damn” or “hell”)
  • Bringing up old baggage
  • Ultimatums

And that kept the fighting, while unpleasant to listen to, at least pretty clean.  Most important, it kept the arguments contained to something you can recover from someday.

I remember as a young bride thinking that if I just said “that” it would be the end of our relationship.  I don’t remember what “that” was – it likely changed from argument to argument.  But you know what I’m talking about – the one nasty comment that is guaranteed to be a deal killer, to be so painful that it cannot be taken back.  I don’t think about that anymore, because I don’t want to hurt the person I love most in this world.   But I would say to my son, if there is something awful that you know is a really hurtful comment – don’t say it.  Just don’t.  Keep it to yourself where it belongs.

Of course, fighting is not a recreational sport – but it is a competitive one.  We do it for a reason – we disagree, we need to work out our differences, we need to stand up for our perspective.  And in any relationship there’s a ton of stuff to work out.  Going from one to two requires compromise and forgiveness.  But in some cases, there’s just no point in having the conversation again.  In my own little dialogue-killing manner, I ended our discussion of one sore point (once again, I don’t remember what it was) by saying,

“Before we waste a lot of energy on this, let me explain how this is going to go.  I’m going to say this, and you’re going to say that.  Then I’ll counter with this, and you’ll counter with that.  Then I’ll say this, and you’ll say ‘Likewise, I’m sure.’ At which point I’ll become infuriated and stop talking.   You’ll be infuriated that I’m freezing you out. So can we just skip the argument?  We’re not going to agree anyway so let’s just leave it alone.” 

And we did.

So if I were to offer advice on growing relationships, it would be to fight fair.  What about you?  What advice would you give? I’d love to hear others chime in on this topic.

Sisters and Brothers

Sisters, sisters
There were never such devoted sisters,
Never had to have a chaperone, no sir,
I’m there to keep my eye on her
Caring, sharing
Every little thing that we are wearing
When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome
She wore the dress, and I stayed home
All kinds of weather, we stick together
The same in the rain and sun
Two different faces, but in tight places
We think and we act as one
Those who’ve seen us
Know that not a thing could come between us
Many men have tried to split us up, but no one can
Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister, who comes between me and my man!

This little Irving Berlin ditty from White Christmas is a long-time favorite of my sister and me. To our husbands’ (and let’s face it, our children’s) horror, we’ve been known to spontaneously burst into this song, given little provocation (and maybe a wee dram or two).

With the emotional and physical turmoil of the past few weeks, I found myself humming this song a lot.

My sister, Joan, is two years older than I am.  She was always the smart one, the logical one, the analytic.  She became a successful attorney but an even more successful mom, raising her kids with warmth, total attention and a sense of humor.  I was the artistic one, the flibberty-gibbit, the disorganized let-it-be kid, who figured that everything would always work out in the end.  I became a successful executive, but until the last few years, never thought of myself as a successful mom, when I saw how wonderfully our children have turned out (could be dumb luck, of course).  But Joan was always my idol.

Joan and Terry, Fort Buchanon, Puerto Rico, 1954

This time of stress has drawn us closer together while our senses of humor have kept us sane.  My sister is one of the few people who has made me laugh so hard that I’ve snorted scotch out of my nose.  I like to think I do the same for her (except in her case, white wine as she doesn’t drink scotch – besides, snorting white wine out of your nose is much more ladylike).

Because our relationship means so much to me, I’ve always wanted my son and daughter to share the same closeness.  While Carolyn and Andrew were very close as young children, adolescence pulled them apart.  Then Carolyn moved far away to South America, and then to the UK, and I wondered if they would ever find comfort in each other again.

This was a very good weekend for them, despite my mom’s illness, I think.  Andrew finally got to meet his nephew, Lucas.  Carolyn got to see her brother as a very loving uncle.  When we had to run off to the emergency room on Thanksgiving Day with my mom, I tossed the recipes at the two of them and said, as I was dashing to the car, “You guys are in charge of dinner!!”  Together they pulled off a magnificent feast.

I don’t know that the two of them could make each other laugh to the point of snorting various liquids out of their noses, but there is still hope.  I was rocked to sleep their last night in town to the sound of my grandson’s hilarious shrieks of glee, as his Uncle Andrew played peek-a-boo with him.  Yep, could definitely happen.

This was the toughest but perhaps the best Thanksgiving ever.  We are blessed.

It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times

About a million years ago, when I was in high school, we were assigned to read The Plague, by Albert Camus.  For the final exam, we had to answer just one question:  Do you think the plague was a good thing or a bad thing, and why?

That’s sort of how I’m feeling today, sitting in my mom’s house, taking a short break from endless phone calls, paperwork – oh, and an irritable mother – in order to make sure my mom will be okay once I return to Los Angeles. My mom alternates between being very grateful to my sister, Joan, and me for this, to being very resentful that she is “imprisoned” in her own house and being forced to pay for all this help that she doesn’t want.  And yes, on occasion she does take that out on us.

Knowing that her time is short, knowing that life will get harder for her, not easier, lends a certain urgency to everything we’re doing.  It’s so frustrating to try and do the right thing when it’s the exact opposite of what my mom wants.  And trust me, I’m no saint.  My temper and patience tend to be short, so this has been a personal battle for me to be kind and good – one that I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t always win.

But with all this, there are some moments that I’ll keep with me for life.  Let’s look at yesterday…

I started the day off at 6 am by calling 911 and getting my mom to the emergency room after she became short of breath and anxious.  Joan quickly joined us at the hospital.  As we waited for the tests to be run and results to be received, Joan and I sat with Mom and amused her – and ourselves – with funny stories and snide comments (yes, snideness does run in families).  A nurse finally peaked in and exclaimed that our room was the liveliest on the floor.

While what was causing the shortness of breath was not good news, the emergency room physician didn’t believe that a hospital stay would be helpful, so we happily got out of there and returned home.  Joan and I went back to creating huge lists of tasks that needed to be done and people who needed to be contacted, all the time reminding our mom to “USE THE WALKER!”, which you know she did not appreciate. Once done documenting everything, we moved to through all our mom’s belongings so we could get valuables out of the house (We’ve heard too many nightmare stories about items stolen by so-called kind caregivers.).

The three of us went through boxes of costume and good jewelry, with each piece having a story. Some moments were poignant – like finding our great-grandmother’s engagement ring, and our grandmother’s wedding band.  Some moments were sweet – like our mother gently holding special pieces of jewelry our dad gave her.  And some moments were hilarious – like laughing at allegedly valuable heirlooms that turned out to be paste and tin.

We continued on our quest, going through drawers that haven’t seen the light of day in years.  My sister found an old wallet of our dad’s, with his student identification card from The American University in Lebanon, along with a crisp Palestinian bill from 1945 or thereabouts.  That one will end up framed on my sister’s wall.  We found notes my dad carefully wrote, and I admit that just seeing his handwriting sent a jolt through my chest, reminding me how much I missed him.

Small moments, all of them.  But precious because there will come a day when we won’t have them.  When we are going through those drawers with a very different purpose in mind – wrapping up memories of our parents; saying goodbye to our childhood.

The plague?  It was a terrible, terrible thing.  But the human heart beats on, sometimes a little stronger when we’re reminded of both our mortality, and the mortality of our loved ones.