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The Blog Farm

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In Praise of Older Men

Women have always been my strength. I don't know how I would have survived any of life's challenges without my female friends and relatives. Over the years of raising children, homeschooling, and now caring for a sick husband, I have always been able to rely on those faithful females for help. During crises and the birth of babies, casseroles would appear on my doorstep, impromptu babysitting would be offered if I got sick, and general moral support could always be counted on over the phone or in person. Nothing has changed over the years except that those many, rich friendships have deepened and new ones have been added. I hope I have been equally supportive.

But the group that has surprised me is a different one, one that was essentially absent during those busy childcare years. They were involved in their own families and working hard to support them. You'd see them coaching your kid's soccer or hockey team but otherwise they were invisible to me, so busy was I in our own family affairs.

Growing up I hardly knew my brother. Older by ten years than I, he left home when I was only seven. Dad was a busy teacher and principal and always involved in community work. He was a kind but rather aloof and undemonstrative father whom I came to know and love much more deeply as I grew into a parent myself and was able to see him interact warmly with my own children. The same can be said of my brother. On top of the little contact I had with the most significant men in my life during those formative years, a time when my teachers were mostly female (except for Dad for three years in what was a purely student-teacher relationship), I then attended an all-girl high school where I boarded ten months of the year. In my work, I've always stood beside women, not men. Then in the world of romance there were few boyfriends, my interaction with boys limited and shy.

So, apart from my very warm relationship with Michael and now my son and my brother, I have been close to very few men in my life.  Yet among the biggest delights for me over the past two years of Michael's intensive care are the friendly relationships that have developed with a number of kind men in our community. These fellows were friends of Michael during his sports days or they are the husbands of some of my female friends. Some are men in the neighbourhood, who, moved by Michael's plight, have simply stepped forward to help us out whenever they can on weekends. Most still work; some are retired.

These men arrive on our doorstep, sometimes toting batches of cookies baked by their wives or, in the case of one fellow, frozen delicacies culled from his five-star restaurant supply of gourmet food. Mostly they sit and keep quiet company with Michael while I dash out and walk my dogs, grab some groceries or spend the weekend working at the Nearly New Shop once a month. Some are old soccer buddies so if there is a game on the tube, the two of them sit in companionable silence. Others are not sports fans but keep company nonetheless, making tea and chatting to my mute husband who, I'm sure, welcomes the change of face.  Occasionally one will help me with a household problem, adding expertise where I have none. One of them, last weekend, fed Michael his lunch then cleaned up my kitchen afterwards, a gold star moment.

What is most pleasing is that these fine fellows rarely seem to be in a rush and almost always stay for a time after I get home, allowing me to get to know them better. With sock-feet up on the coffee table, the television muted in the background and Michael listening in or snoozing on the couch, we cover a lot of topics from family news, community issues, health, political, financial and social topics - our reach is broad. I am grateful to these comfortable men who drop into my solitary space, adding to my world the male voice that has otherwise disappeared.

I still count on the women in my life, and that will never change, but I now have this gang of guys as backup too, people I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to get to know.

Sometimes there is great bounty in the challenge that is Parkinson's disease.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Football Fever

Football Fever has descended upon our household; it is Grey Cup day, the final game of the Canadian football league and a much anticipated time of the year for many football fans. I am immune to this particular illness but must tip-toe around the afflicted one so he can watch with undivided attention.

It is a good sign that Michael has listened well enough to the endless television pre-game coverage to know that today was THE day. It was unavoidable, I guess, given how many hours a day the television is tuned to a sports channel. But I had hoped that he might not notice, that I could slyly divert his attention to something else like a movie or a crappy television show. No such luck.

Normally I can tune it out and immerse myself in my knitting. I have created quite a mountain of knitted works this fall - that's how much time I have on my hands - but tonight neither my brain nor my hands seem to want to work. A piece I was working on had to be ripped out repeatedly to the point that I snarled up the yarn badly enough and had to break it off, essentially ruining the piece.  I threw it down in disgust and impatience, abandoning it completely. To top it off, one of my slender bamboo double-pointed needles snapped, crippling my progress. All the while, the players' atavistic chest-thumping and the crowd's rowdy cheers blaring from the television sharpened my edgy nerves.  My eyes burned from the concentration on my fine stitches; I've given up.

It is rare for me to abandon a project.  I hate to do it. The last time I did it was the shawl I started on our ill-fated train trip out west to see my sister and her husband, both very sick at the time - the trip that had to be abandoned suddenly for a hasty return home. It was just a few weeks ago that I picked up that piece again and reworked it into something else, closing the door on that dreadful escapade once and for all.

I am hoping that all I need to do is walk away for a while, divert my brain elsewhere. I know I'll probably be able to pick up my knitting again tomorrow, start fresh on a brand new project. But my restlessness tonight is disturbing, preventing focus. I can feel mild anxiety creeping in as the weather worsens and winter hearkens. If I fail to get this gnawing feeling under control, it will be a very long winter.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Room with a View (or at least a crystal ball) - apologies to E.M. Forster

I stepped outside this morning to retrieve the daily newspaper from the box at the end of our driveway. Sometimes, on days without respite and therefore no opportunity for a walk with the dogs, this is my only foray outdoors, especially if the weather is lousy and Michael is particularly immobile, unable to even poke his head outside. On those days I hunker down and watch movies, knit, and nap between the various household tasks that must be done everyday, boring things like meals, dishes, laundry and, of course, whatever Michael's many needs might be beyond those basic domestic tasks. On those days sometimes the only utterance from Michael is to mimic the yawns, whines and other chirps emanating from the two dogs.

This Sunday morning feels like it could morph into one of those sluggish days. The sky has an ominous hue of dark grey to the west, the wind is murmuring, hinting at pent up rage, and the air feels oddly heavy and summery despite the cooler temperature, almost as if a thunderstorm looms. It is an appropriate measure of my mood, that I could have a meltdown but I'm just too tired to do so, preferring the prospect of wrapping myself up and retreating from the world, if only I could step away from the essential tasks at hand.

Michael's 87-year-old mom went home yesterday. I bowed out of that task, insisting to her that other family members accompany her home, fill her fridge and make sure she was comfortably settled. She phoned as usual this morning to report her immense relief. She sounded happy. Fingers crossed. But I could feel my energy suddenly draining out of me, perhaps from my own relief of being able to stand down for a while. It has been an intensive three months, culminating in sleeplessness and high emotions this week as we all faced this next step of her life - her desire to resume "normal" activities.  All have agreed to step back and let things unfold, however that may be. More fervent crossing of fingers.

That aside, though murmuring like the wind in the background, I can take stock of my reserves. If only I could see into the future and know how much more energy I need for this job. Not that I want it to be over - though I have to confess there are days when I wish it were so - but it would be nice to have a crystal ball to plan and prepare for what I can only imagine will be a difficult time ahead. Will I be able to see this through to the ideal end of Michael spending his final days or years comfortably at home? Will I have to muster up the strength and courage to hand him over to others to care for him? That is a prospect I dread, especially as I have had the opportunity to watch a cousin attend to her frail, anxious husband in the same retirement home where Norma convalesced. This woman, who makes daily visits and stays overnight on weekends, looks worn out, stressed out. The placement of loved ones into institutional care doesn't necessarily lessen the load, I've learned. And it can most certainly add to the guilt that all caregivers seem to carry.

Obviously, I cannot map out the future. Can anyone? I have a few big hints how this story will end but I can't cheat and flip to the last page, something I admit to doing when I read a book where it becomes too difficult to go forward without assurances of the end results. I just have to continue to plod through what is becoming a story of epic length and hope that the stormy plot twists aren't too dark and ominous.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Walk

It is a route I have taken hundreds, no thousands, of times. In the early days of puppy ownership, I made the trek twice a day to wear out an exuberant collie-shepherd mix hound whose boundless energy wreaked havoc on our home if I didn't. Then, in 2004, my sister fell very ill with the cancer that eventually took her last spring. Michael was not yet completely disabled with his disease, but, in the event of my presence being required by my sister's side in British Columbia, I knew he would not be capable of the required twice-daily dog walks. It was then that I invested in the underground fencing system that allowed the dogs complete freedom within our acre property, charging around after the many squirrels in our yard and barking joyously at passers-by, eliminating the need for those walks.

But I came to love them. I no longer needed to go for the dogs' sakes, but every morning, before Michael arose from bed, I would slip out for up to an hour and immerse myself in the calm and solitude of the nearby forest, Woof and Calvin at my side.  It became my very necessary escape from the mounting caregiving duties - Michael was already on permanent leave from work, no longer able to meet his own workplace duties.

Most mornings I briskly covered the two or more kilometres. During the summer I indulged in a dawn swim in the river, a true escape, all completely alone. It was the time for the introspection and meditation necessary for me to remain stable throughout the day.

The past two years, with Michael needing constant care, I can only embark on my walk when my caregiver is present or, if it's the weekend, a generous friend who has volunteered to drop in and watch sports in silence with Michael if no offspring are home for a visit. That means, most weeks, I average about four walks, maybe five. It is a priority. Every Monday morning, if there are no other duties for me to attend to,  my best friend joins me and we solve the world's and our families' problems together, accompanied by the calm of the natural setting she too loves. It provides the backdrop to my connection to God and peace.

So this week, with my heart heavy, it was the one time of the day when I could escape my extreme anxiety and distress. I am not good at expressing my emotions orally; I always resort to the written word. On writing my last entry, I was venting overwhelming frustration, knowing full well that the involved parties would read my diatribe. It ate me up; it caused terrible unrest in the family, perhaps permanent damage,  and I have since deleted the post. I apologize to my readers, as I have done to the offended parties, for any discomfort I caused. It is not usually my way.

But thank God for the few moments of peace my walk afforded me.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wealth and Poverty

I spent last weekend at my favourite place.  Thanks to a few volunteers and my usual caregiver, who held down Fort Michael for me, I was able to help out at the monthly sale of the Chelsea Nearly New Shop, housed in the basement of the local United Church, an old, slightly rundown but well-loved, well-used little church.

It so happens that this church, and therefore the shop itself, is right across the road from my house. It couldn't be closer, a mere minute from my doorstep.  If it were otherwise, I most likely wouldn't be as involved as I have been.  Our house is well-situated in our little village with a full grocery store and hardware store only a few steps farther than the church, or even closer if you dare cross the ditch over the now-rickety bridge that my son built many years ago.  The proximity of these amenities means that I can complete the week's grocery shopping in less than half an hour with no travel time and, better yet, on foot with no gas consumption required. The hardware store is my preferred location to pick up furnace filters, plumbing materials and gardening supplies. I find myself increasingly overwhelmed in the big box stores like Canadian Tire, which I reluctantly have to visit on rare occasions if my little stores next door cannot help me. The closeness of these places gives me comfort and a sense of security, requiring little reliance on the car despite our distance from the city.

I have been thinking a lot about poverty and consumption lately with all the "Occupy Wall Street (or insert your city's name)" demonstrations. I haven't learned much about them, I must confess, but something about them makes me squirm for reasons I couldn't really identify at first. As I thought about it I realized that my personal style is not that of an "activist" who protests, sits in, camps out and speaks loudly.  My preferred statement is made through direct action where words are not really necessary. I realized I don't want to focus on the perceived "evil" rich, most of them honourable citizens who contribute greatly to the economy and the advancement of our civilization through their accomplishments or their support of programmes outside their expertise.  I personally have no issues with the rich.  But I do have an issue with poverty. Whether the rich can be blamed for the existence of poverty is not for me to answer; I tend to think not. What does seem to be happening is a widening in the gap between rich and poor and that is where I would like to put my energies, trying to narrow that gap somehow. For the record, I do include myself and my husband in the category of the rich even though our annual income falls in the modest mid-range, not the soaring six-plus figures.

To that end of narrowing the gap, which I have no illusions that I can accomplish on my own, I belong to a faith that promotes the equality of all people, all races, all religions. It promotes the narrowing of that gap between rich and poor and embraces all humanity. Also I have recently thought a lot about broadening my charitable donations to include an organization that has international reach, another with a more national reach and finally my hands-on work at the Nearly New which is a decidedly local, grass-roots organization directly assisting those in need in our community both with financial aid and clothing. We too have a broad reach, giving to projects near and far, but our focus is mostly our community and the poor in our midst.

Our sales are wonderful monthly events spanning a Friday evening and four hours midday on Saturday. Our nearly-new merchandise is modestly priced, most things selling for under $4.00 with no tax. On a good weekend, like last weekend, we will make well over $1000.00 but we usually manage to raise at least a grand each sale. That's a lot of stuff when the average price for things is about $2.00. What strikes me at these sales is the diversity of our clientele.  Being a small town, we all know each other pretty well and have a good idea of each person's relative wealth or poverty. But this store is not just for the impoverished. It has become "The" place to hang out and find incredible bargains. It is also the place to see all your friends, almost like a local pub except you can walk away with an armload of great "new" clothes rather than just a hangover.

The week before this sale our little community was shaken by tragedy. A couple of local teenagers died in a horrific car accident and then a few days later a little girl lost her life, her mother charged with her murder.  We all know each other, at least peripherally. We were all stunned and saddened, especially those of us at the Nearly New who knew the mother and daughter. We are a poorer community for the loss of these young souls.

I was worried that our sale might be a sombre event, all of us grieving deeply for the senseless losses added to our own individual troubles. But I was amazed.  It was, of course, bittersweet, people quietly, tearfully and respectfully reminiscing, but it was also a nearly joyous event, our hearts so heavy but reaching out in appreciation of each other.

It is a place where we can put aside our sadness and our troubles and be a community, laughing and crying together. It is a place to feel wealthy in our relationships while we directly contribute to assisting those less fortunate; with our overhead costs at nearly zero, every dollar spent is a dollar to someone in need. It is a place where I can step away from my role and isolation as caregiver for a while and feel connected to the world.