Archive for the ‘death and dying’ Category

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!

“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!”


Let spring set my soul free

March 29, 2013


The thing that stops us dead in our tracks is getting sick, whether it’s mild or serious. And it turns out that the twisting and turning I’ve been feeling in my gut is food poisoning. Turns out that my friend who ate the exact same thing when we went out for lunch has had the exact same symptoms and is just bumbling along, just like me.

After two days of collapsing in bed, slipping in and out of a healing coma, and reading two books—when I finally realized that it wasn’t just going away and that I’d better gather my energy and get out in nature with Honey and Chico—I found the strength to walk the creek bed and let nature have her way with me.

Whenever I’m sick, my thoughts turn to death. I realized that if this were my last spring all I would really want to do is escape into nature. I’ve done my part, I’ve given freely of my life energy, and now I want a spring break—is that too much to ask of life?

So I went walking and walking, to places I haven’t been to in a long time. I found a secret oasis where water gurgles so sweetly I just wanted to slip away into the life of a hobo or a wandering sadhu . . .

Honey and Chico had a long drink. We sat together on a rock, water flowing all around. It fascinates me how my hyper Honey can sit so still, completely in the moment. If I could tap into her consciousness I would smell every weed, every seed, every flower, every coyote and rabbit hidden in the brush. I would hear the song of the gurgling brook, the call of every bird, every frog. I would see every small movement . . . nothing would escape my keen senses. I would leave the heavy dull human consciousness in the dust. I would feel spring rising in every vein of every leaf, and flowing in my blood. I’d feel the force of spring stronger than the earthly pull of my little human identity. I would say, “Computer, get thee behind me and let spring set my soul free.”

I’m lucky to still be alive to tell the tale.

February 20, 2013
suz10All I can do this morning when I browse the news and ponder on all the people who have left the planet in recent days, ranging from self-help author Debbie Ford, who faced her shadow, to the troubled music star Mindy McCready, whose shadow overpowered her, to the many people from my own life drama who have passed on . . . all I can do is shake my head and wonder what really happens in the great beyond. I also say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I’ve only minimally tasted the pain of life, and that was painful enough. I once hit a man in the head with a glass bottle while he was driving . . . it was just lucky there wasn’t a gun in the car. I can only imagine the pain in the heart and solar plexus that would cause a beautiful 37-year-old singer to end it all. How incomprehensible it all is, even if we find a logical reason.Yesterday I came across a very interesting piece about Larry Hagman’s mind-altering psychedelic trip. It described how the actor suffered a nervous breakdown while filming a TV show and how the film crew carted him off to a psychiatrist who suggested he ease his anxiety by taking LSD. Hagman claimed that he saw his body’s molecular structure during his first trip. “Some cells were dying, some cells were being reborn . . . I realized we don’t disappear when we die. We’re always part of a curtain of energy.”A 70-year-old friend suggested to me that there should be a gentle, legal form of LSD for senior citizens. He says it’s not fair that we kick the bucket without ever really knowing what this whole trip of being in a body was all about.

It’s been 45 years since I took my last trip, high in the mountains of Ojai, in Matilija Canyon or Rose Valley. It was August or September of 1967, a few days after I returned from Haight-Ashbury. I don’t recall the exact location, only that we drove up Maricopa Highway, parked, and hiked to a place that was absolutely still and quiet, far away from the noise of civilization. I was 18 years old and didn’t have the language to articulate what happened. But I remember that my consciousness shifted from the world of time to timelessness. Maybe it was a taste of cosmic consciousness, maybe it wasn’t. I do distinctly remember saying over and over again, “I’ve waited so many lifetimes for this moment.”

The impression this experience made on my consciousness has never left me. At the same time, I know that the human mind is capable of inventing all kinds of realities, whether born of mind-altering drugs, religious conditioning, or the effects of alternative belief systems, some of which I was briefly “processed” in before I jumped ship.

So here I am in beautiful Ojai, in my messy writing hovel, surrounded by books, journals, yoga props, and cats and dogs sprawled across my bed. I’m still sleeping on a mattress on the floor, just like in my hippie days. The sun is shining through the trees, and I feel blessed to wake up happy. If the world doesn’t end, then this day, like all the others, will be eaten up by endless ADLs (activities of daily living): money reckonings, kitty litter cleaning, dog walking (the highlight of the day), and eating food—both for nourishment and for consolation.

All human beings suffer, no matter what props they accrue on the stage of life. Some overdose on drugs, some put a bullet in their head, and all succumb to accidents, disease, or age. This awareness alone helps move me into the present moment, where I can laugh and realize I’m lucky to still be alive to tell the tale.

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The world of time mattered not

January 14, 2013
470591_10150741641279703_266408929_oThis morning the dogs and I headed out when it was barely light, and it felt like an adventure to be out in the cold, invigorating wind. The book Nature’s Ways asks what time of day you most resonate with. For me, without a doubt it is the crack of dawn. That’s when you feel like you have your feet in both worlds—light and dark, visible and invisible. That’s when you can move as if propelled by some force outside yourself and you feel like you can walk forever. That’s when there are the least cars on the road, when the valley is silent, and you can reconnect with the amazing ancient feeling of standing upright. That’s when you can remember the eons before electricity when we rose at first light.
Yesterday while I was riding my bicycle from the river bottom to Mira Monte, the bike suddenly locked up while I was pedaling uphill. The wheels turned, the chain looked fine, but something, maybe the gear mechanism, was stuck. First I felt frustrated. I gently kicked the back tire (thinking maybe it was hitting metal), and then with a great deal of effort I squeezed the handlebars and changed the gears. I sped full blast downhill, and the brakes worked fine, but once on level ground my bike rebelled and jolted to a halt. I’d smooth out the gears, glide along for a block or so, and then—again—jolt, jolt, and stop. This became especially problematic and somewhat embarrassing in intersections, when I’d have to jump off the bike midway, causing waiting drivers to have to idle their cars for a few more seconds.
It was almost noon, the warm sun felt fabulous, and really the only problem was that now I was running late. So I called my student to let her know the situation. “No problem,” she said. And then I began to enjoy the walk. I felt carefree without the usual dogs on a leash, my bike is light, and we ran/walked together uphill at a nice relaxing, non-exhausting pace.
I want to share here that my student is facing great uncertainty.  Her health challenges are forcing her to face her own mortality. Any one of us could die today, tomorrow, or a year from now; that is a fact. After my student’s lesson, as I rode my bike downhill and walked uphill, adding an extra hour to my travel time, the world of time mattered not. I felt so enormously grateful for my health. For my energy and ability to walk and walk. The mountains of Ojai never looked more beautiful. As I walked, that Bible psalm about walking in the valley of the shadow of death came into my consciousness. How important it is to make friends with death, and to feel death walking with us. That awareness can help us step ever deeper into the mystery of life.

I can’t die yet—I just spent $2,000 at the dentist.

December 7, 2012




The other day I reached inside the mailbox, which I share with seven other people. There were Christmas cards, credit card offers, a Victoria’s Secrets catalog that has no secrets, and a gourmet gift catalog with giant walnut chocolate cookies, baklava, biscuits, and cinnamon swirl buns for those no longer watching their figure.

     On this day the only item in the mail for me was another discreet reminder from Smart Cremation that my journey in this world of pleasure and pain is coming to an end.
      I can’t die yet—I just spent $2,000 at the dentist. The root canal is fixed, my chipped front tooth is whole again. But the thought of all the work I have to do to earn that money back is exhausting. Yesterday, as I assessed my life situation, I hit a wall. I fell into that depressing place where you just want to pull the covers over your head and give up. I felt tired and close to tears. So I decided that, instead of scooping the poop out of the kitty litter and making a dent in the endless hopeless housework that comes with five four-leggeds, I would run away with Honey and Chico to the basin near Pratt Trail. We would hike and I would do yoga in my favorite panoramic spot. I still had the car that I borrowed the day before to go to the dentist, so off we went.
       Chico and Honey were yapping with joy and ready to fly out the window. As I eased the car into the dirt parking area, I caught a glimpse of a Ventura County spray truck. Seeing those workers with gloves on, once again spraying toxic weed killers up and down the side of the basin and surrounding areas, killing everything that was sprouting after the rain, my heart sank. In years past I’ve questioned them . . . they have their reasons (flood control), but their reasons make no sense to me.
       The dogs were so wild to go running that I didn’t get out to question the workers. I turned around and drove away. Later I heard from a friend who lives nearby on North Signal Street that she could smell the spray from her house. The whole scene of man still poisoning the Earth, after all we know about toxins traveling up the food chain, killing wildlife. . . all this put me further over the edge. I told myself that in other countries they’re spraying people, poisoning and killing human beings—that I’m among the lucky ones; I can walk away and find refuge somewhere else in nature.
470591_10150741641279703_266408929_o        Later the dogs and I walked the creek bed in the river bottom. I’d cancelled my Thursday night class, feeling that I had nothing to give. So I had time to drift off into the sunset, to watch the light change and sink into stillness. When I came home, my sweet daughter brought me my favorite bird seed cookie with strawberry jam in the center, fresh-made at the Farmer and the Cook. “Here, Mom,” she said, “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard day.” I felt slightly ashamed that I had dumped my troubles on her earlier in the day. Laughing, I bit into the yummy cookie, and thus my hard day dissipated.

Bike Ride Part Two: Time for a Bath

September 9, 2012

After my trip through Meiners Oaks, I cycle over to my parents’ private, deluxe nursing home on Fairview Road. My timing is perfect, as my dad is trying to convince my mom to wash her hair.

My father and two younger sisters can handle almost every aspect of my mom’s care without me, except for one thing. I am the only member of the family who has succeeded in coercing my mother to sit on her shower stool and actually take a full bath. If you want to know how strong a thin, ninety-two-year-old woman can be, try moving my mom from her easy chair into the tub!

I tell my dad to relax—that I’ll handle giving my mom a shower. But first I have to butter her up. My mom asks the same questions over and over again. She can’t remember the last time she had a bath, what day it is, or who the neighbor is, but she still speaks five languages. Her favorite thing is teaching me Spanish. So I sit on the floor near her easy chair while she reads out loud from her lesson book.

After about ten minutes of Español and joking about my weight (my skinny parents cannot get over how fat I am), I nonchalantly suggest to my mom that this is a good time for a bath.

“A bath? Are you crazy? I don’t need a bath. Why should I take a bath? Do I smell?”

My sisters and I have threatened her a hundred times that if she doesn’t bathe then we will have to hire a stranger or put her in a nursing home. She poo-poos our threats and tells us to leave her alone. “Mind your own business. I can wash myself—I don’t need you!”

I finally get my mom up from her chair. At first she refuses to walk. She yells for my father to save her, and then curses him for being on my side. Then she yells for the police. Finally, she appears to throw in the towel and makes her way toward the bathroom, me right behind her in case she falls. Then, in the hallway, instead of veering toward the bathroom door she walks right past it and straight into her bedroom. “You are not as quick as you think!” she yells gleefully and quickly slams and locks the door.

My best strategy for getting my mom in the shower is to wait till she’s on the toilet and then steer her onto her shower stool right after she gets off the toilet. But it’s too late for that trick today.

Ten minutes later she opens the door, and angrily agrees to have her hair washed in the kitchen sink. I quickly clear the dishes, grab towels and shampoo, stick a basin in the sink, and fill it with water. Despite all her yelling that I use way too much shampoo and her threats to disown me, I love washing my mom’s hair and scrubbing her scalp and neck.

After she’s all rinsed and dried off, with her damp clothes removed and her bathrobe on, she orders me to get out of the house—now!

An hour later my father calls to thank me. I can hear my mom playing the piano in the background, her ordeal forgotten. “She smells so good,” my dad says.

A Bike Ride Through the Past

September 9, 2012

Riding my bicycle through Meiners Oaks feels like a long, strange trip through my past. My conscious mind is present, enjoying the balmy weather, the rural route from the river bottom to Mira Monte, but on the way home, as I pass the homes of childhood friends and other places that shaped me, all sorts of molecules of memory are unleashed.

There’s The Farmer and the Cook, in the building that once housed the five and dime store where I bought my first bottle of miracle Cover Girl make-up (to make my brown skin whiter), pale pink lipsticks, bags of curlers, and endless Noxema creams, hair spray, and lotions and potions to emulate the girls on the covers of Seventeen.

Next door to The Farmer is that house where I once saw my friend’s older sister making out on the couch with her boyfriend. I didn’t know what they were doing, but my Pentecostal brain recognized that this was surely sin!

A few blocks from The Farmer comes the house of my best fifth-grade friend, Brenda, who had diabetes and was short for her age but whom I envied because she was an only child with ten pairs of sneakers in all different colors, with matching socks, and cute matching pleated skirts, shirts, and soft wool sweaters that hung all nice and neat in her very own closet. She had more clothes than I had ever dreamed possible, as well as huge stacks of True Romance  and Archie and Veronica comics that went halfway up to the ceiling. Her parents were alcoholics, but I didn’t notice that . . .

Across from Brenda’s house is the trailer park where after school I helped an old man who was a friend of my parents . . . a lonely man who smelled of Old Spice and wore a St. Christopher medallion . . . a good Catholic who paid me to sweep the oak leaves off the deck, wash his dirty dishes, and help him with his laundry. His cupboards were filled with forbidden foods like Spam and Saltines and Nabisco Vanilla Wafers and Ginger Snaps . . . there was always a bowl of red Jello in his tiny fridge, and whipping cream that you sprayed out of a can—foods not found in my mother’s health-food kitchen. After my jobs were done, we’d sit on a bench at his table and eat goodies together, until one day when I realized I should not be sitting on his lap and what he was doing was wrong. A few weeks later, my mother showed me his obituary in the paper. I can still feel the shame and guilt that washed over me. For years I couldn’t shed the feeling that my abandoning this poor, lonely old man had somehow caused his death.

End times

August 31, 2012

Last night I rode my bike in the moonlight to check on my old parents. When I arrived around 9 p.m., the house was all lit up and they were eating enchiladas with rice and beans from Rob’s or Ruben’s. No doors or windows were open, and it felt like stepping into a sauna. My dad was engrossed in a lively conversation with my brother-in-law about end times, the signs of the times, the rapture, and the infinite wisdom of our heavenly father.

My mom had a dubious look on her face; she was leafing through the September issue of National Geographic on “What’s Up with the Weather”—all about record floods, endless drought, and “snowmageddon.” There was also a feature on Yemen entitled “The Days of Reckoning,” with horrific images of war. My mom stopped turning the pages . . . we saw a photo of a 12-year-old boy cradled by his mother. His eyes were not closed; he had no eyes, just sewn slits where once his beautiful, miraculous eyes had gazed out. He had lost his eyes to a sniper. I no longer ask my earthly father why our heavenly father allows this. Instead I found my mom’s walker and nudged her outside to look at the moon.

Faccia’s gentle passing

August 29, 2012

Today was the passing of our sweet little Faccia, the dog my daughter Monica adopted fourteen years ago.

Before time caught up with Faccia, she ran like the wind—the happiest, springiest dog on earth—so light on her feet . . . a joy to behold.

About two years ago Faccia’s hearing faded; gradually she slowed down, slept more, and walked less and less, just like an elder person in the last years. Her dog tag said, “THIS DOG IS DEAF.”

These past several months I have been watching Monica tenderly carrying Faccia around the yard like a baby. Her house looked more and more like a nursing home for elderly dogs. Yoga mats, blankets and pillows all over the floors to help prevent Faccia from slipping and to give her a soft place to land when her legs gave out . . . special easy-to-digest food . . . new raised dog dishes to made eating easier . . . barricades and fences so Faccia wouldn’t wander off and get disoriented or run over (one night a car backed over her, but somehow she was not injured) . . . special places to pee and poop . . . washing her when she messed on herself, just like an old person . . . Faccia waking up at night, crying and needing help to go to the toilet—just like an old person.

I said to Monica, half joking and half serious, “The way you take care of Faccia shows me how you might someday be taking care of me.”

Monica held Faccia during the night. We spent the morning quietly gathered around Faccia’s gently snoring body. Dr. Curtis Lewis, our longtime vet who has helped ease the end for many of our elder dogs, came to the house at noon.
Even though we knew the moment was coming, and we were ready, a flood of tears came . . .

Dr. Lewis is so kind and gentle . . . a few times Faccia raised her head . . . we watched the change . . . the final exhale . . . her passing was easy.

All afternoon, Faccia’s dear little doggy body rested under the kitchen table as usual, but her breath was no more.

In the late afternoon, Monica’s husband, Trevor, dug Faccia’s grave. As darkness fell, with the bright moon shining down, we gently returned her body to Mother Earth, deep under an oak tree.

Somewhere, somehow, I hope her spirit runs free.

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