Lessons of the Road

I have returned from an adventure.

A wonderful, yet challenging, adventure. With my family.

I am grateful for the abundance of time and energy to have been able to go on this adventure. I am so glad that we all took the time to be together and to explore new-to-us places and to experiences new sights, sounds, tastes and smells.

The challenges were all out of anyone’s control and totally unexpected.

They included outgoing flights that stole a day from the majority of our group. Record-breaking heat everywhere we went. An absence of air conditioning in these places because they usually have no need for it.

Two of our lodgings were not at all as they were represented, which was disappointing and uncomfortable. A space markedly smaller than the photos appeared. A stairwell so steep under a ceiling so low leading to the one common space and second bathroom that it was unusable. A stove with no manual that we could not figure out — no way to heat water for coffee. Another place having no window coverings, infested with bees and flies.

(I suppose these could be considered “luxury” problems if you look at it. For me, as I had been the one to book the lodging, they were challenging, and disappointing. It also really enlightened me to my own “Americanism” – to how used I am to traveling with and to all the comforts of home. Take a way some of those, and I felt uncomfortable. But isn’t the point of travel to leave home behind?)

The real challenge came when one member of our group (the person whose trip it was) got very sick for two days. And then another of us got sick right after that one, requiring an emergency clinic visit and rendering them housebound for the last leg of the trip (three days.) This family member, I am sure, was counting down the seconds until they could get the hell back home. They were really sick and could not sleep due to the illness and the heat.

I cannot recall a trip from my life that had so many issues. Everyone valiantly moved through it all as well as they could. But there were moments of discomfort and when spirits waned and were tested to the limit.

Still. We had laughter. We saw some amazing parts of the world. And we were together.

I know that down the road, we will, for the most part, only recall the good parts. (Except for the really sick person, who, I am sure, will never forget how bad it was for them.)

I struggled mostly with just giving space for everyone to have their response to the challenges. To not feel totally responsible for everyone’s happiness. I was, after all, the instigator of the whole trip. For a recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser, this was daunting.

As a result, I was stretched in ways that I did not at all expect. Perhaps that is the very nature of travel: to go beyond one’s known terrain into foreign territories.

So as I leave the trip behind and reenter everyday life, I let whatever lessons were contained in this journey sort of simmer, low-level, trusting that some day I will look back and realize the gifts contained within the turbulence that the trip presented.

I trust that my memories of the difficulties of the trip will fade in comparison to the joys.

And I refill my spiritual well for the next adventure.


The smell of a baby’s head

A small young nephew or niece reaching for your hand on a walk or fighting to sit next to you at Thanksgiving dinner

Watching your lover sleep

The way taking a breath in connects us to everyone who has ever lived and letting a breath out connects us to anyone who will ever live

The genuine eye contact and smile exchanged with a total stranger

The satisfaction of taking something you have just baked from scratch out of the oven

The way cooking a family recipe can conjure up sense memories and connection to past generations

The moment of relief when you sense what could have become a conflict dispenses

The time spent with a loved one during their end of life processes, sitting and listening, sharing precious moments

What would you add?

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: priceless


True Grit

My Dad and I had a very complicated relationship.

There were years we barely spoke, by my choice.

Our relationship was damaged in my early childhood, and afterwards, it was always in one phase or another of dysfunction.

I reached a point in my adulthood where I decided that it was best for my health to remove myself from the dynamic. And I thought that would pretty much be it for the remainder of my life, and I was OK with that decision.

Until, that is, my mother’s cancer.

Life is funny that way. You can think that a part of your life is beyond repair, and then lo and behold, Life brings you the only exact set of circumstances under which you would ever come together again.

In 2005, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She underwent radiation therapy (two rounds) and then chemotherapies (2.) I traveled down to Texas to visit often to be with her, me tersely tolerating my father, and he giving me a wide berth out of hurt respect of my former choice. (I also always took my then-boyfriend with me as buffer.)

Then in 2006, after the family gathering at Christmas, which was more uncomfortable than usual, my parents called to tell me that they had been informed by my mother’s oncologist that no more could be done for her. (I will never forget the agony of that call.)

Just like that, all bets were off.

It had been decided that she would be having home hospice care to make her as comfortable as possible. As happens in such situations, we were still hopeful that she could live for some time. No one can predict how things will really go, you tell yourself.

I started going to Houston weekly to be with her. My father and I, out of necessity and shared concern, began to interact more and more, all having to do with her and her health needs.

We found our way to something new, something beyond the pain of the past, for her sake. And later, after the inevitable happened, for ours.

In the weeks following my mother’s death, my father was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Now, my father had been a strapping, big and tall and healthy man his entire life. Never much more than allergies. But I think the stress of losing his beloved sweetheart of 54 years created the perfect storm in his system, and the cancer that might have lain dormant for years just took over the weakened man.

In the midst of undergoing tremendous grief (he’d also lost his father the year before,) my father had to make decisions regarding his own illness, which was acute and generally swift-moving. The standard treatment available was quite harsh. He decided to go an alternative route in order to potentially benefit others by entering into an clinical trial at MD Anderson Hospital to receive experimental drugs instead of the standard approach, which was tough to survive in and of itself.

So I continued my visits. My remaining brother lived in Houston, so he became the primary caregiver, which I was grateful for. But I went down as often as possible and our new relationship began to grow into a new chapter, slowly, carefully.

And in the year following, when one of my two brothers also died, unexpectedly, again, all bets were off.

I watched this man who was so complicated for me, who had hurt me in such far-reaching ways, suffer the loss of his lifelong love and his son. These losses broke him apart. He went through pain that I would not have wished on my worst enemy.

(And he was my worst enemy.)

Somewhere there in the midst of it all, after a lifetime of seeing no way to ever being able to forgive this man, I suddenly was able to see that he was worthy of my forgiveness. That I had been given forgiveness in my life, and that he, too, should be given that as well. That he was not beyond forgiveness, in some separate category unlike anyone else on the planet.

I guess I was finally able to see him just as a flawed man, finally, and not as the monster I had experienced and protected my heart from for all those years. (Perhaps justifiably, one might argue. But things had changed. And those changes had allowed for a shift of my perception. And that shift allowed yet a new phase of our new relationship.)

In the remaining time of his life, we found our way to a loving father-daughter relationship.

How did this miracle happen?

I think for me, part of it was seeing the sacrifice and the bravery with which he committed himself to surviving his cancer for those of us who remained and loved him.

I know that in his heart he was grief-stricken and lost without my mother and would have loved nothing better than to close his eyes and just let go, to die and be with her. But he fought on, for us.

And after my brother died, that grief was multiplied by 30, and yet still he fought on, for my remaining brother and I. My then-boyfriend-turned-fiance after my mother died, and in the midst of it all we were planning a wedding: a wedding my mother and my father had always wanted for me. He was fighting to walk me down the aisle. And to carry her memory on for his two young grandchildren.

He withstood grueling chemo treatments and daily hospital trips where he sat for hours going through the process required of his treatment. Hours spent sitting and waiting and getting tests and giving blood and getting chemo. Medications at home. The affect the treatment had on his body and spirit. His diminishing physical strength.

This big and tall, towering Texas man became a thin wisp of his former self, eventually walking with a cane.

And through it all, he never once complained.

Three months before my wedding date, he got a virus caught during one of the daily hospital visits. I went home on my usual trip but this time visited him in the hospital, where he had to be in a protected environment.

There, I could see that he was truly exhausted. Spiritually. Emotionally.

That the true grit that had been getting him through, that amazing reserve within that he had been tapping into for so long for our sake, was nearing empty. He had been fighting to give me these last acts of fatherhood, this time of repair, this time of untainted love. I knew this and I was so very grateful for it all. I knew that this time had been a supreme gift that would change the quality of my remaining time on the planet for the better. That my whole relationship to life had shifted for the better.

And so I gave him the last gift I could give him as a daughter. I gave him my permission to let go of the fight.

There are times when life provides you with an open door, and if you are paying attention, you see it and you walk through, somehow knowing that it is what you should do.

When a moment arose in the conversation that invited such a thing to say, I took it.

I told him we loved him and were thankful for everything he had been doing. For how hard he had been fighting for us, to be there for the wedding and for the kids. But that I would never want him to stay on if he truly no longer wanted to. That he had done it all, he had fathered through like a warrior, but that if, at any point, he was ready, that we would want him to let go. That we would be OK. That I would be OK. That he and I were OK.

It was just a few sentences. He knew and I knew what we were saying to each other. He said he wasn’t at that point quite yet but he could understand a time of coming to that point.

When it was time to leave, I told him I loved him, and meant it. I thanked him for being my father, and I meant that too. And I thanked him for fighting so hard to be there for me.

He passed away the next week, after returning home, having come through the virus. My brother found him laying alongside the bed, as if he’d gotten up in the night and collapsed.

I hope he felt at peace when the moment came. Perhaps he was walking towards the sound of my mother’s voice. I like to think so.

My love for him is complicted, yes. But it is true. As true as the grit that he was made of.

2009-07-24-15-22-58-e1499812592237.jpg Dad and I at the civil ceremony of my marriage, 8 mo before he died.

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: grit



Stick Season

My husband and I love to visit the area around Stowe, VT. We’ve been going there for long weekends for the past four or five years. We go whenever it works out for our two schedules, so oftentimes we are there at off-season times. Sometimes we can go during the peak seasons that draw the leaf-peepers or ski bunnies out in great numbers, but often we go during the in-between times when the locals can enjoy having their towns back to themselves, or take a break.

The fall foliage is spectacular, of course. Leaf Peepers have been flocking to Vermont for ages to see the hues of color thrown across the rolling mountains like crocheted blankets. There is a vibrancy that is energizing. Walking and hiking through the colored forests is a feast for the eyes and the spirit.

The wonderland that comes from winter – when the trees are dripping with snows and the landscape is white – is quiet and majestic. It fills me with awe and reverence; there is something holy about it. I become entranced by the ice formations that stretch from the eaves, and the swirling, snowy winds. Skiing or playing in the snow is athletic and exciting. And being cozy in front of a fire, winter is meditative and ripe for contemplation and relaxing deeply.

Spring feels like the whole state is mating: Mother Nature is gearing up for a green and pregnant spring and summer. I love the smell of manure for some reason — it takes me back to times spent out in the Texas farmland country near where I grew up. That smell abounds in spring in Vermont, along with the incredible perfume of budding flowers. There is so much promise in spring and summer. Hope and lightness. Everything feels possible.

The traditional four seasons in Vermont are legendary and I love them. But it is the other two that have taught me the most.

We discovered Mud Season one year: some call it the fifth season. At the time, we’d never heard of it. It is the transition between winter and spring when the dirt roads become mucky from thawing snows. It is amazing in its own ways. To me, it feels like the whole state is waking up. It is mucky and messy, a reminder to me that all growth is messy.

Growth requires mess. When I am growing, my life feels almost unrecognizable at times. I often panic: what is happening, why do I feel like my life is falling apart, that I am falling apart. I feel uncomfortable in my skin, even, as if it doesn’t quite fit right anymore.

Now I can know it’s my own personal mud season. I can relax into the mess of it: come to see it as a good sign. It means I am making a deep change and things are thawing out.  I am flooding my own well-travelled roads, creating muck, and from the muck, I will form new pathways, new ways of being within myself and in the world.

Things will clear up again. The world will feel familiar again, a new paradigm shift will have settled. The newness will wear off and I will recognize my self and my world again. New growth will come, and I will flourish.

Just this week, we discovered a new season to add to the five seasons of Vermont beauty.

Stick Season. We had no idea when we booked our trip to Stowe for Thanksgiving break that we had chosen Stick Season. We had called our favorite local restaurant to make a reservation and instead got a voicemail message that said they were “closed for stick season.” I looked it up.

Vermonters refer to the period of time between the foliage season and the snow season as Stick Season: the fall/winter transition after the leaves have fallen and before snow has settled on the trees. Naked trees = stick season.

Now as it happened, in the days before we arrived, there were early snows which thrust us into a premature winter-like Thanksgiving which was gorgeous.


But in our last few days there, the temps rose again and the snow melted, and there we saw it: stick season.

I suppose some people may find it stark or bare, the landscape lacking the lush, pregnant greens of spring or the gloriously-colored hues of fall. My husband found it somewhat depressing-looking. I get that: trees are stripped down to their skeletons; the lack of color to the eye. Most of the birds have gone to warmer climes, so it is an empty quiet, not the whispery-full quiet of snow-covered earth.

But to me, there are unexpected gifts to be found in the season of stick.

We could see the structures that are usually hidden by leaves: it was like discovering whole hidden pockets of life within the towns we thought we knew so well. We kept being surprised at discovering homes and structures that we’d had no idea were there.

There were still some shocks of color: subdued colors that are perhaps usually overshadowed by the flashier foliage and fauna of the usual seasons. They broke out against the grey in a muted but welcome visual reminder that behind the brightest and the loudest often stand other beauties valuable of our attention, if we pay attention. Red-browns that were formerly overlooked as they were surrounded by reds and oranges and greens finally had our attention, and my hungry eyes drank them in with gratitude.


And the trees themselves, so bare and simple without their normal adornment, seemed elegant and brave to me. I felt I was seeing their core essence, and I could feel their presence and wisdom resonating in different ways than when they overflow with their plumage.

Their stark, bare beauty reminded me of my mother, towards the end of her battle with cancer. I had always seen my mother’s beauty. But at the end, it was if she had been stripped down to some pure essence of her soul. It was as if anything extraneous had fallen away and what was left was the sheer perfection of her human spirit. She radiated a kind of centeredness and a knowing that I could not yet know. She was stunning.

Those trees in stick season felt that way to me. They know things I can not yet know. They know a bigger picture than I can conceive of. I am drawn to be with them, to feel their wisdom, to allow my own excess of spirit to fall away, to strip my own spirit of what I can to get down to the skeleton of who I am. To remember what really matters to me in this world.

Those final days with my mother brought me a clarity of purpose that I had never known before. At her side, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be, doing the most important work of my life.

It was her stick season, and she knew it on some level. Being in Vermont’s stick season brought it all back to me, that clarity of perspective that being with a dying loved one can bring. It’s one of the many gifts that death can offer.

Stick season. I feel like at this time in my life, I am in a kind of stick season right now. I have the desire to become stripped bare of my habitual ways of being in the world. I am finding out who I really am underneath the masks and the costumes of the plumage of my spring and summer. I am sitting with what is really there in me and letting myself feel naked and vulnerable. I have come to know my pure essence, and I am in the process of allowing my self to be truly seen.

Dead branches drop off healthy, living trees all the time, and wood knots appear in the trunk where branches died. Knots are imperfections that cause living wood grain to grow around them. Isn’t that amazing? In the brilliance of that living and growing wood, knots have formed. They are a testament to the life force within a tree, to their growth ability.

I will no longer hide my knots. I will know that there is a kind of beauty in them, too.

I know that there will be new growth in me again. I will dress again in my plumage, but it will reflect the new colors of what I have found within. Mother Nature gives me comfort and faith in the process of growth: she evidences that truth every day of every year. I need not fear what is happening. It is just Stick Season, after all.

#treetherapy #vermont #theseasons #stickseason



All About Joan, Pt 5

I remember well the last Mother’s Day with my mother. I had come home to Houston to be with her, as per usual, on my day off from the show I was doing in Illinois. It being Mother’s Day, I wanted to bring her a present.

It is odd when you are trying to pick a gift for someone who has been told that they are, in essence, dying. Certain gifts seem ridiculous, and some seem insensitive: a purse or some piece of clothing or jewelry. At this point, my mom didn’t leave the house, or have outside visitors, so such things seemed unimportant and unnecessary.

“Things” in general had long since become less important, unless they could somehow bring joy or add quality to my Mom’s life.

After wracking my brain, I settled for some kind of flowers or plant. I stopped off at a florist on the way to my parents’ house and picked a blue hydrangea plant in a blue and white ceramic bowl. She loved the color blue, I loved hydrangea, and I loved her, so it seemed the best fit under the circumstances. I figured it was at least something pretty to look at.

We had a particularly intense visit.

My mother had just reached the point where she and my father had to admit that they needed a nurse to come in: she could no longer get herself up out of a chair or sit up in bed unassisted. I had been noticing her failing body strength the last few visits.

But it had been a delicate subject to broach with them. As had other such conversations that had become necessary as her disease progressed.

First had been concern that the three steps up from their bedroom sitting area to the bed area had become a danger for her. I had become secretly terrified she’d fall and break her neck. So I very carefully brought it up to my parents, trying to seem casual so as not to belie the quiet hysteria I felt deep inside.

Such conversations with your parents are so surreal: to be both the child and the adult in the situation at once is strange.

They ended up moving the bed down into the bedroom sitting area, which was a great solution until even that was too much for her.

She eventually moved into Ground Zero – the open kitchen living room area. A hospital bed replaced the couch. She was in the center of things there.

Each new shift in her physical condition had required carefully approached conversations. I’d sense a hope in my parents that was a kind of invisible protective veneer surrounding them, one that colored their perspective of what was actually happening. It seemed to make them a beat or two behind in seeing the changes that were occurring.

Intuitively, I knew I had to take care not to puncture it. I had to ever-so-gently lead them to the realizations. They could not be forced upon them, or rushed.

This most recent concession that my mother’s physical freedom had become so altered was a particularly tough one for both of them. This Mother’s Day fell in the final few days of their time on their own in their home before a full-time hospice care person entered the picture.

As was true of our other weekly visits, we mainly spent our time together talking. Being together.

My mother talked of her life on those visits, and asked me about mine. There were times the conversation went to very serious subjects. Intimate information was exchanged. Old wounds were healed. Our relationship returned to what I can only describe as what I imagine to be the pure essential love between an infant and its mother.

And we laughed. A lot. And talked of lighter things. But throughout all of our talks, there was a subtle rhythm to them that I now realize she was orchestrating. Bits and pieces of those talks, that seemed so casual at times, come back to me as my life progresses. It turns out, she had been implanting motherly wisdoms all along. Mothering me until the very end.

And while I felt our beautiful closeness at this particular visit, I also felt a distance, too. She was moving through an internal process that was singular and private: it was something that neither my father nor I could be a part of.

When I left, I said what I had taken to saying every time: I love you. You know that, right? You hang in there and I’ll see you next week, OK? She hugged me and gave my cheek a little pat. I hated leaving her. It was always hard.

This particular time, for some reason I have never since been able to fathom, I wasn’t particularly afraid I wouldn’t see her again. I let my guard down for a moment. It wasn’t in the forefront of my mind that it might be my last time to see her.

I don’t know why I dropped that awareness. I’ve replayed that last goodbye over in my mind a hundred times. Berating myself for not having said more profound things. The truth was, we’d already said the truly crucial things we needed to say to each other, and for that I am truly grateful. I don’t know what it is I think I could have said at that last goodbye. I just know it still comes back to circle my mind at times. I guess it is all a part of the way the mind deals with grief, those senseless replays and circles.

The next time I visited my parents’ house, the hydrangea was still there. But my Mom was gone forever.