Archive for April, 2013

Elder Care in Ojai: “We Are In Our Own Cocoon”

April 25, 2013

IMG_0922I’m starting to think that the closest I’m gonna get to enlightenment is to get along with my old parents.

If my dad could fire me, he would, but I’m all he has for the night shift. Everything I do is wrong. “You wouldn’t last one day on a job,” he’s fond of saying, as he shows me how to cook and wash dishes. I tried to dissuade him from eating the salmon my middle sister fixed for his dinner four days ago but he polished it off with sliced cucumbers and dandelion greens, dismissing my concerns with war stories about rations of spoiled rice and maggots.

“You are too soft, Suzanne,” he reminds me at least once every visit.

When I arrive this evening at around 6:30, the house is peaceful. I like to spy on my mom and dad through the window before announcing my arrival. My mom is making her way to the kitchen with her walker. When I tap softly on the window for her to open the door, she immediately turns around; that’s how I know her hearing is still good. My dad is dozing in his easy chair. My mom unlocks the door—very happy to see me. She admires the warm cape I’m wearing on this dark, drizzly evening, and notices that for once I’ve combed my hair.

My dad wakes up as soon as I step inside. “I’m a dreamer, Suzanne. I’m dreaming about rambutan and durian [Indonesian fruits]. You remember the durian, Suzanne? At least you got to taste the real fruit . . . ”

He stretches back in his easy chair. “We got it made, Suzanne . . . Can you imagine your mother and me in a rest home? A retirement community? I get these fancy offers in the mail: ‘Meet interesting people,’ ‘golf courses,’ ‘swimming pools,’ ‘all the amenities’ . . .” he quotes with laughing disdain.

Then he recounts yet another tale about visiting his friends in a nursing home.

“You remember Flodeen? She told me, ‘I didn’t know what was happening. They lifted me up out of bed and put me in the washroom . . .’

“Can you imagine?”

“Your mom and I, we do what we like. We sleep til 8 or 9. Every morning your mom stands in front of the window and looks at the mountains. She asks, ‘How did I get here?’ She loves it here. We make a nice breakfast. We sit in the sun. We are in our own cocoon. We got it made.”

On almost every visit, he suddenly says, “I wish I could turn back the clock and take better care of you. But I was preoccupied. I worked all the time. I was in a better position with your youngest sister. I had vacation pay . . .”

My almost 90-year-old dad is processing his whole life. On all these recent visits he’s been telling me more about his childhood in Indonesia. I hadn’t realized till tonight that his family was part of the ruling class. He pulls out a book about Dutch- Indonesians. It has photographs of all the scenes he remembers from his youth. An Indonesian kitchen. “We had a full-time cook, Suzanne. She arrived early in the morning and left late in the evening. That’s just how it was. We had a maidservant who went with us the first time we went to Holland in 1933 or ’34. The boat trip took a month . . . two months back and forth.”

The photographs clearly show that the Dutch were the ruling class in Indonesia and the Indonesians, the indigenous people, were second class. “My father had a good position,” my Dad comments. “We were privileged. But the Japanese beat all the pride out of me . . . ”

On every visit, my dad recounts new war stories. His being one of two or three hundred prisoners moved from the docks to high up in the mountains to work in the coal mines, just a few weeks before the atomic bomb flattened Nagasaki, was a defining moment of his life. He remembers every detail of the horrors from ages 17 to 20. “I was young, Suzanne. I will never forget the sound of that prison gate closing behind us. But I knew that the gate that closes will one day be open again . . .”

It’s now close to 9 p.m., and my mom insists she’s not hungry. I know that the only thing that appeals to her fading 92-year-old appetite is a grilled cheese sandwich with the Dutch cheese she’s eaten almost every day of her life and a cup of warm organic milk. I put my vegan philosophy aside and make her the most delicious greasy buttery sandwich in a frying pan. “Oh, that tastes good,” she says.

Suddenly, with a look of genuine alarm, she sticks out her arm. “What’s that? What a sight is this!” She examines the blue veins bulging out of her thin arms as if seeing them for the first time.

It’s as if she suddenly realizes how very old her body is. I’ve had a taste of that same feeling. All day long, if we don’t look in the mirror, we feel ageless—twenty, thirty—so long as we keep aches, pains, and fatigue at bay.

My mom again stares at her veins. Then she looks up and says, laughing, “I better wear long sleeves.”

I laugh too. “Would you like dessert?” I ask.

“No, I’d rather desert!”

My mom never misses a beat!

To be awake to the miracle of being in nature— that is enough, for now

April 21, 2013

The stack of books by my bed reflect my dual Gemini nature. There is a copy of There are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives, by Robert H. Hopcke, a Jungian psychotherapist who explores all the unexplainable events and curious coincidences that happen in the course of our lives. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there sits Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Times, by Michael Shermer, PH.D., the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the director of the Skeptics Society (, and a contributing editor of Scientific American.

Living here in the Ojai Valley, a hotbed of every belief under the sun, my inquiring, incredulous mind likes investigating both views—the rational and irrational. Back in 1957, when my family was still in Holland and in the process of emigrating to America, my dad told my mom he had a dream about orange orchards. Sometime after this dream, he received a telegram saying that we were going to a place in California called Ojai. My dad still remembers how when our sponsor drove us to our house in the east end, he recognized the orange groves he had seen in his dream.

If you look around, you’ll see that there is no end to the things that people believe in. At around age fourteen I began to question the dogma of the church I was raised in. And now I question the popular belief that there are no victims, that everything that happens is a “soul choice”— for the greater evolution and understanding of the soul. My rational mind cannot fathom how the eight-year-old boy who was blown up in the bomb blast in Boston was making a soul choice —and all the other people blown up elsewhere on the planet that same day.

When I consider the enormity of the suffering and atrocities that have occurred over the centuries, both in the human and animal kingdom, and the magnitude of what is going on in our era, I ask myself, “If it’s true that we’ve all lived many lifetimes, and if we learn from experience, why aren’t we more enlightened by now?”

For me, at this point in life, at the end of nine seven-year cycles (63 years) on the planet, I don’t know anything. And the more I embrace this feeling of not-knowing, the more open I feel to the great mystery that is life.

Tonight, when I walked the river bottom with my pack of dogs, and I saw the fuzzy black caterpillars crawling on the dry dirt path . . . when I saw the shiny black “stink” bugs moving along . . . and when I saw the white and brown flecked birds swooping bravely in front of us, trying to lure us away from their nests. . . and when my eyes caught the incredible ever-changing light that is the gift after sunset as the days grow longer . . . and when I looked up and saw the coming of the soon-to-be full moon, I said to myself, “This is enough.”

To be awake to the miracle of being in nature— that is enough, for now.







“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder’.” ––Aldous Huxley

“I hope they cover me up when I go!”

April 15, 2013

IMG_0963 When I moseyed over to my parents’ house tonight, I found my dad in turmoil. “Mam lost her partials,” he said. “She had all her teeth in at breakfast. We’ve looked for them all day, in all the obvious places: her pockets, underneath everything. . . I brought the trash barrels back from the end of the driveway. In the morning I’m going through both cans.”

I got on my hands and knees and looked all around my mom’s easy chair. I remembered how other elders I used to care for would lose their teeth, glasses, and hearing aids, and how they would turn up in the bottom of an old bathrobe pocket, their purse, or wrapped in a Kleenex and tucked somewhere hidden from view.

My mom thought all the fuss was very funny. She joked that she could eat just fine with half her teeth missing, and that she couldn’t understand why my dad was so agitated. While I was looking behind photographs and other odd places, I suddenly heard her shout from her bedroom, “I found them!” I went to the bedroom, where she was holding a first aid kit. And, sure enough, there were the partials, wrapped in a napkin and tucked away amidst the bandaids. She promptly put them in her mouth and went back to the living room to show my dad.

Well, you never saw my dad so happy. All evening long he praised me, saying over and over, “Something you said triggered her memory.” He was so relieved not to have to go through the trash first thing in the morning.

We had one of the best evenings ever, talking about everything under the sun, including plans for their 65th wedding anniversary in August. My dad has been living with prostate cancer for five years now; he feels the side effects of the various drugs he’s taking, such as the rash on his upper body. We talked about some of the younger men we both know who’ve died from the same disease, including his neighbor. So he’s extra grateful to enjoy his walks, his naps in the sun. . . and he speculates that perhaps taking care of “Mam” is what keeps him going.

During most of the visit, I’m also doing my yoga practice. First seated poses, so I could give my mom my full attention. But then I couldn’t resist lying backwards over one of their cushy chairs. At first my mom threatened to kick me out if I didn’t get back up. So I said, “You better call 911! I can’t get back up!” “It serves you right,” she responded with a laugh. The padded chair felt fantastic and allowed me to stretch and relax and listen to my mom’s Sunday night guitar concert till the very end of the program. She really likes it when I hang out and listen to music with her. After awhile she resigned herself to my strange positions.

When I finally got out of the chair backbend, I did a couple of chair twists. Then I warned her that I was going to do something dangerous, which she found very humorous. I walked up the side of the door frame and kicked up into a handstand. “Make her stop!” She begged my dad, half joking and half serious.

While this was going on, my dad was talking about heaven and how he’s looking forward to seeing his mother. He reminded me that he never got to see her after the Americans freed him from the Japanese prison camp. “We bypassed Indonesia. From Japan we went to Australia and then to Holland. My mother died in 1957—the same year that we came to Ojai and were living on Thacher Road.”

“Yes, Suzan,” he reminded me,”life goes by so fast. Even if I live to be a hundred, it’s just the twinkling of an eye. . . and maybe it’s a good thing you are not burdened by material things . . . Naked we come, and naked we go.”

To which my mom added, with a laugh, “I hope they cover me up when I go!”


It remains to be seen if I’ve gone off the deep end

April 12, 2013

It remains to be seen if I’ve gone off the deep end or if I’m thinking outside the box. I’m so desperate to have a writing room again—a space where I can leave projects “cooking” and not have to put all the papers away—that I’ve emptied the kitchen cupboards of all the pots and pans and other stuff I’ve hardly used since I moved here last fall and converted the kitchen into an office.

I halfheartedly tried this a few weeks ago—kind of like an office with a kitchenette– but the cats sat (and threw up) on everything, and the dirty dishes piled up with nowhere to go. So I gave up and went back to movable-office mode.

It’s a challenge to write, teach, and live in a small space with five or more animals. But I feel a heightened intensity to get my next book done. If I must make a sacrifice I’ll give up cooking and dish washing—not writing and yoga.

It’s not a cook book, but I feel like I’m gonna cook a book!LARGE TINY CAT Scan_Pic0015

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