Archive for April, 2014

“If there was something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?”

April 19, 2014

I woke up at 2 a.m. thinking about a friend who, like millions of other elders, was forcibly removed from her home and placed in a long-term-care facility.

In the weeks before she was whisked away, I tried to warn her that she was getting forgetful, even delusional, and that if she didn’t move herself out of her two-story apartment with the worrisome stairs in favor of a safer living situation, someone else would likely step in and do it for her.

She looked at me like I was crazy and, with all the authority of her 94 years, flat-out told me, “If there were something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?”

She had no recollection of falling and landing in the hospital for five days. When I went to pick her up, she thought she was checking out of a hotel.

She saw my spending the night at her house as an invasion of her privacy.

The night that it hit her that she had lost control of her bladder and had to wear “diaper pants,” she screamed and asked me to shoot her.

But, by the light of day, the agonizing nighttime scenes were forgotten. She was immaculately groomed, drove herself everywhere, and could carry on the most interesting and astute conversations. Anyone casually stopping by would be impressed by her pleasant apartment, her yoga practice, her ongoing art projects, and her ability to take care of her own daily needs.

Like so many other fiercely independent creative elders whom I’ve assisted over the years, she found the possibility that someone could actually force her out of her home to be unthinkable.

Yet it happened.

Yesterday it was my turn to help my mom with her ADLs (Activities of Daily Living). Were it not for my dad’s presence in the home, and the care of all three of her daughters and her four granddaughters, my 93-year- old mother would require 24-hour care, either at home or in an institution.

A few days ago, in spite of our concerted efforts to keep walkers strategically placed in the front and back of the house, my mom again slipped and fell. My dad, unable to help her get back up, walked over to summon one of the neighbors, who picked up my light weight, skeletal mother and carried her to bed.

My mom’s eyesight and hearing is perfect. She still plays the piano beautifully, with vigor and enthusiasm, and speaks six languages. She catches all my jokes and is quick to poke fun at life. But her memory is slipping day by day. Yesterday she wondered who my parents were.

My dad is losing his eyesight. He can no longer read or write. In his own way, he’s doing a life review, dictating letters and making phone calls to relatives and old acquaintances while he still can. Yesterday he asked me to track down the phone number of a friend he worked with fifty years ago, someone he has not spoken to in many years.

I found the number and dialed it. As luck would have it, the man he was seeking answered the phone.

After identifying himself, my dad didn’t mince words but cut right to the chase. “I’m about to die, and I want to set the record straight.” He then launched into a story concerning an incident that happened at work that evidently had been smoldering on his conscience for all those years.

Much to my dad’s astonishment, the former colleague on the other end of the line claimed to have no recollection of what he was talking about. Undaunted, my dad described several more times what, in his mind, had taken place so long ago, and told his friend why, now that he’s about to die, he was making it his final mission to correct this mistake.

From my perspective as I overheard the conversation, it was nothing that a man in his final days needed to worry about. No criminal activity had taken place. But in my dad’s mind it was “important to set the record straight.”

From what I gathered, his friend still maintained that he didn’t remember the incident, which confounded my dad to no end.

“But you were there. Surely you remember!”

After more bantering back and forth, whatever this colleague said on the other end of the line seemed to be easing my dad’s mind. Toward the end of the conversation, he was laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of reconnecting with a friend from the past. But right after they hung up he turned to me and said, “Suzan, can you imagine such a thing! He was there, he gave the orders, but he doesn’t remember anything about it!”

“There’s one thing I want you to know, Suzan,” he went on, as if for the first time. “I believe in the day of judgement. One day you will stand alone in front of your maker. When I stand before my maker, I want to have a clean slate . . . Every day I commune with my heavenly father . . . ”

I’m happy for my dad that he has found peace.

On page 17 of the book “Veteran’s Stories of Ventura County,” there are two photographs of my Dutch Indonesian father as a teenager newly inducted in the Royal Dutch Navy. These photos were taken before he was a prisoner of war and saw the atomic bomb annihilate Nagasaki. In these two photos, his face looks just like mine when I was his age. He’s happy-go-lucky, smiling with youthful optimism, unaware of the horrors to come.

I respect how the God of his faith has helped him to bear the shock of war and burden of life. In my youth we argued . . . now I understand.

As for me, the longer I live, the more I see that the human mind is capable of inventing the most astonishing beliefs. And we all tend to assume, just like my elderly friend: “If there was something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?” — in Ojai, CA.

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Today is my son’s 46th birthday

April 9, 2014


Picture (1)Today is my son 
Bo Hebenstreit’s 46th birthday. When he was a wee babe, we lived on Canada Street in a cozy cottage that stood at the back of the property. The front of the property, where a large house now stands, was a field of weeds and wildflowers. My bearded, bushy-haired hippie husband at the time did gardening at Krotona and other places to pay the $65 rent. Our landlady was a friendly, gray-haired artist named (to the best of my recollection) Celeste Dominique.

I was painfully shy at the time, with low self-esteem, and perhaps that’s why I remember the time I was sitting outside nursing my baby, with my just-washed hair wrapped in a towel like a turban. Celeste looked me over and told me how beautiful I looked with that towel atop my head and that she wanted to come back and make a painting of me and my baby. Now I’m sorry that I pooh-poohed her offer; I was probably too impatient to sit still, and didn’t think I looked beautiful with an old towel on top of my head.

Living up the street, in the house where Doug Adrianson lives now, was a woman named Ursula van der Veen, with her husband and two little boys named Jack van der Veen (the older one) and Marc van der Veen (a toddler). Ursula was, like me, a vegetarian and health food “fanatic” with European roots, so we quickly became friends. She must have noticed me washing diapers by hand and hanging them in the sun to dry, because she offered to take each bucket of dirty diapers up the street to her washing machine. What a relief that was! These are the random acts of kindness that tired mothers don’t soon forget.

Forty Six Years Ago in the Small Town of Ojai

 

There’s nothing else like it in this world!

April 8, 2014

April 7, 2014

Babies are sweet, dogs are divine, and men can be delicious, but a cat purring away on your chest, or nestling all night under the covers in the crook of your arm, its heart beating next to yours, its dear little cat head tucked under your chin, its sharp claws occasionally digging into your flesh–reminding you that you are cuddling with a wild creature–is bliss on Earth! There’s nothing else like it in this world!

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We are thrown willy nilly into the stream of life

April 8, 2014

The universe keeps dropping the most illuminating memoirs in my lap, reminding me time and time again that for the most part, we are thrown willy nilly into the stream of life and the only thing in our control is our perspective. As the Foreword of The Life of an Ordinary Woman points out, “Anne Ellis was the perfect taker for Plato’s wonderful maxim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.'” If you love memoirs like I do, then this author’s clear-sightedness and unique voice as she recalls the unrelenting challenges of her daily life is not to be missed!

The Life of an Ordinary Woman

“Who would you be without your story?”

April 7, 2014

April 6, 2014

Spiritual teachers of our era often ask the question, “Who would you be without your story?” I’m not sure what they have in mind when they pose this question, often to someone in the midst of a painful event like a death, divorce, or betrayal who is seeking a way to relieve their suffering. All I know is that life seems to be one never-ending story–each episode leading into the next. And, from a cosmic perspective, we human beings must seem like a broken record–the needle stuck in the same groove, playing the same part of the song over and over again.

The trick seems to be to get to a level where you no longer identify with these stories–easier to do with the passage of time than in the heat of the moment. The stories of our life are embedded in our consciousness. And by “consciousness” I mean the whole gamut–body/mind–everything we’ve absorbed in this lifetime, from the womb (including ancestral memories and possibly past lives) to the present moment.

The picture below was taken in Soule Park, with the Topa Topas in the background. I’m 19 years old, a single hippie mom who’s never been to a beauty salon for a haircut, wearing a shapeless, green homemade sundress (basically a sack dress with straps) and no makeup, holding my young son, Bo, born April 8, 1968. My head is filled with stories and myths of how life is supposed to be; already I’ve gone through many shocks and disillusionments and cried many tears, but the stories (beliefs) have so firmly shaped my reality that I will spend the next 45 years (my life so far) trying to break free.

(A related story: Forty Five Years Ago in the Small Town of Ojai)

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Playing House

April 5, 2014

April 3, 2014

A close friend asked me, “How are you doing?”

I blurted, “I think I’m shell-shocked. I’ve gone from euphoria to ‘Now reality has hit.'”

She laughed and said, “I hate when that happens.”

I’m at that moment in the process of moving when my brain is completely on overload. I feel paralyzed as I survey all the stuff that needs to be put away (plus all the stuff still in storage) and all the cleaning, sweeping, and painting still to be done—plus the unreturned emails and phone calls piling up as we speak. And I can’t find anything. After spending a good half hour looking for my Day-Timer, I began to have this vague recollection that I took it with me to Rainbow Bridge last night. For some odd reason, instead of making a list on scrap paper I made hasty notes on the April 2 page–just to make sure that in the chaos of moving I wouldn’t lose the list. So ironic! I must have left it at the checkout counter.

Last night, even with fresh breezes blowing through all afternoon, and with all the windows still open, the back of the house had a somewhat musty smell. As part of the ritual of moving in, I wanted to have my own smell the first night I slept here. While animals mark their turf the practical way, I got some citrus air freshener, some honeysuckle incense, a bundle of sage, and a vanilla-scented candle. And I was so excited to have a working oven again that I also got a supply of sweet potatoes–not just to eat, but expressly for the sweet, homey baking aroma.

Late last night, after five years of house sharing, renting rooms, and my one-room cabin/writing-hut lifestyle, the ancient rituals of homemaking felt for all the world like playing house. Unpacking clothes, making my bed, lighting candles, scrubbing sweet potatoes, taking a bath . . . everything was fun-fun-fun! I was well aware that this basking and reveling in finally having a whole house to myself once more might never again feel this intensely enjoyable.

When I woke at dawn, the spirit was still willing but the flesh was dragging. Had it not been for the Time Warner guy scheduled to show up at 8 a.m., I’d have closed my weary eyes and gone back to dreamland. Instead, as soon as it was light I drove to my storage unit to look for my phone. A half hour later, my fingers were frozen but there it was, sitting in a box of kitchen stuff. When the phone man had finished wiring, installing, programing, testing, etc., I noticed that the only outlet in my soon-to-be office needed one of those adapters . . . and so the day of endless moving-day tasks, errands, and unforeseen glitches went on and on and on . . .

When you’re bone-tired, all the stuff that felt like child’s play yesterday suddenly feels like a lot of work. You start to wonder if all this effort to keep the mortal body going is worth it. Even the effort to remind yourself that it will all look different after a nap, after some supported inverted poses, feels like a great exertion.

These thoughts were whirling in my head as I wheeled my flat-tired, too-long-unridden bicycle and spider-infested bike cart around to the back of the house. I reminded myself that one of the main reasons I’m moving back to town is so I can again live a mostly car-free existence.

After cleaning my bike, installing a new garden hose, unpacking the industrial-strength broom, and placing the new “Wipe Your Paws” doormat by the front door, I noticed an older couple walking up the driveway toward me. I heard the woman say, “Hello, we’re your neighbors!” I had met the man briefly earlier in the day, and now apparently he’d told his wife that someone new was moving in next door. And even though I’d hastened to add that I wasn’t new to Ojai, here she was giving me a welcoming hug and handing me a promising bottle of red wine . . . such a nice gesture!

The post office bells are singing a happy tune. Already this new old house feels like home. The pressure to get everything done today has dissipated. Time for yoga. Time to walk the dogs. And time to go to bed early. — in Ojai, CA.

HONEY HUG

Do Not Resuscitate!

April 1, 2014

March 30, 2014, Ojai, California

Well, I did my daughterly duty, my dharma, my karma yoga or whatever cosmic spin you want to put on it. A week has flown by since I last saw my old parents. When I arrived, early this evening, my mother was sitting as usual in the living room, in her favorite easy chair by the window, with the view of the orange orchards and majestic mountains. I could tell that my middle sister had been here earlier; my mom’s hair was in a neat ponytail, she had on a nice flowery purple dress and matching jacket, and she wore a strand of pearls around her neck. When I tapped on the window to announce my arrival, she looked at me in happy surprise. I’m always grateful that she still knows who I am.
It took my mom five minutes to unlatch the screen door, but I told her to take her time. The first time she couldn’t manage to lift the latch, I got impatient and went around to the back door, which is double- or triple-locked and almost impossible for me to open. But now I realize that opening the screen door is a life skill I don’t want her to lose, so I wait patiently.My dad was already in bed, only getting up once in a while to empty his bladder. He has now lived with the diagnosis of prostate cancer for about five years. And, just like when I was a child, with my dad asleep in the bedroom so that I don’t have to tiptoe around his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room, where he often falls asleep, I breathe a sigh of relief. My mom and I can laugh loudly and cut loose.
My parents’ private, at-home nursing home is plastered with notes written by my middle sister, the bossy, responsible one who worked in institutions. These notes are printed in giant letters with a black Sharpie pen, and can be viewed above every sink, on the cupboard doors, on the fridge, on every wall, above the washing machine, on the dressers, night stands, and, of course, all around the telephone:
BEFORE BED
Eye drops
Pill
Put phone in charger. (With a drawing of the phone in its charger)
PLEASE FIX LIGHT ABOVE SINK. DAD CANNOT SEE. 

Change Mom’s piano books. (Otherwise she plays the same songs over and over.)

 

Take care of Mom’s dental and bodily hygiene responsibly.

 

Clean teeth. Soak dentures.

 

Check meds–trade out empties.

 

Give Mom greens and protein and carrot juice after her walk.

 

Keep a walker in the front room and in back of the house.

 

Wash Mom’s shoes. Soak Mom’s feet.

 

Reminder: Read the article on Dementia: How to Encourage Healthy Eating.

Even with all our encouragement, my parents eat so little. Which I think is nature’s way of dropping the body. When she hands me her dentures, I can perfectly see the bony skeleton of my mom’s hand.

The most important sign of all hangs in the hallway, near their bedroom: DO NOT RESUSCITATE. The physician-signed DNR form hangs in a protective plastic sleeve in a spot where it will not be missed by emergency responders.

My dad likes to remind me, “Suzan, we are on our way out. Your mother and I live in our own peaceful cocoon. Like in a satellite floating above the Earth. Your mother and I enjoy each day, but we are not of this world . . .”

While my dad sleeps and my mom listens to her favorite classical music station, I rummage around in the kitchen in search of some vegan food. My parents’ fridge is always stocked with the Dutch staples of my childhood: three or more kinds of whole-grain bread, various cheeses, raw butter, and two gallons of organic milk. For a second the death grip of old habits tempts me to throw in the towel and make a greasy grilled cheese sandwich, but then I spot a package of organic tempeh–my dad’s Indonesian staple–and soon I’m sitting by my mom eating a hot tempeh sandwich.

It’s all so unreal. We arrive on Planet Earth, not knowing from whence we come . . . We depart Planet Earth, some of us certain of where we’re going, others not so sure. We appear . . . we disappear . . . I don’t know anything, but I feel the Great Mystery, and the bliss of not knowing. And I feel the cold that has descended on my little cabin at the top of North Signal as I type this.

Namaste. The divine in me recognizes the spark of divinity in you.

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