‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Have you had one of these conversations?

A colleague and I were talking about our parents a couple of weeks ago, swapping stories about our fathers. Hers has been declining for years, but a fresh episode was troubling her. My father passed away last year. As we talked, the stories began to sound like—well, they began to sound like things we shouldn’t even say out loud. We were talking honestly. If you’re a veteran caregiver, you can fill in the rest of this story. You know right away the troubling kinds of issues we were discussing.

Roz Chast book cover Cant We Talk About Something More Pleasant

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

It was a good talk! We laughed. We felt better.

As we were getting ready to leave, I said, “These are the things that no one talks about, but really should.”

Fast forward a week or so and I found myself listening to an interview with Roz Chast on NPR. She became the sole caretaker of her two elderly parents and she shares both the pain of this process and the laughter (and, yes, there is laugher, too). I immediately related to her new book: Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir. That link takes you right to Amazon, but if you want to listen to Roz on NPR, you’ll find two different interviews: Here’s the All Things Considered interview; and here’s the Fresh Air interview.

I find myself thoroughly relating to much of Roz’s book. Told in a way that only a cartoonist can, I am getting great relief from enjoying another person’s tale of life in my shoes. In her memoir, Roz certainly dares to tell the often unspoken “rest of the story.”

So this week my recommendation is: Check it out and let us know what you think.

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On Mother’s Day: Make time for Mom to make time

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

On Mother’s Day, we like to turn Mom into Queen for a Day. We buy flowers, go to church, cook dinner and generally spoil Mom for one day. That is wonderful.

However, I have a different gift idea for Mother’s Day this year. It doesn’t cost any money, but I believe it could be considered invaluable to the Mom who receives it.

This year, what about giving Mom the gift of caring for herself?

Stay with me here … I regularly work with women who have cancer and, as a general rule, Moms are especially prone to neglecting themselves. Women feel guilty if they take time for themselves. This refusal to care for oneself can be elevated to the level of martyrdom—as if there is a prize for the greatest self sacrifice.

Tea CupWhile most Moms would never allow their children out the door in the morning without breakfast, many Moms don’t think twice about skipping breakfast—or other meals. Does that sound like a busy Mom or Grandma you know?

You can help change this pattern, this year for Mother’s Day. While many Moms won’t take time for themselves—they’re likely to do it if their family makes the time.

You know what what your Mom might like:

  • A regular meal “out” with family
  • A weekly time to work in the yard together
  • Assurance that she can make it to her church or club or community group—or even her hairdresser
  • An evening of playing cards
  • Simply a time to share tea or coffee and talk in an unhurried way
  • Maybe none of these; perhaps something else

This year on Mother’s Day, tell Mom that you care about her and that you would like her to spend some of her time in the next year doing things that would help her feel good. Tell her you want her to do this—and tell her you’ll help ensure this happens.

What I have come to know over the years is this: Taking time to care for myself makes me a better caregiver. It also helps to ensure that I will be able to care for years to come.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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‘As he shared his story … something was missing’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

We need to talk. Those four words can ease many of our stresses and strains as caregivers—and as human beings. That’s why I welcome conversations at my Facebook page—and I love to see our writers engage in honest dialogue. This prompts us all to sit down, pour a cup of something—and talk. Right now, Paul Hile and Benjamin Pratt are talking about the dangers of unresolved anger and the potential of forgiveness. This conversation started with Ben’s column, Clearing Boulders, and continued with Paul’s Forgiveness Is More Than Skin Deep. Today, Ben gives us …

‘Did I Say Anything about Anger?’

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Paul Hile wrote a very personal account of his life as a caregiver and his efforts to forgive—in response to my tale of forgiveness by my father-in-law. In his story, Paul confesses his wide range of deep feelings, from joy and gratitude to guilt and anger. This admission is so necessary for healing the broken pieces of our souls as we move toward forgiving others and ourselves. It’s not easy to reach the point of honesty Paul shared with us.

Let me tell you about a different conversation I had recently.

BEN PRATT says: "I'm such a big believer in sitting down to talk over a cup of coffee that a logo of two coffee cups pops up on special pages in my book 'A Guide for Caregivers.' I invite readers to plan a future conversation with a friend." (Click this photo to learn more.)

BEN PRATT says: “I’m such a big believer in sitting down to talk over a cup of coffee that a logo of two coffee cups pops up on special pages in my book ‘A Guide for Caregivers.’ I invite readers to plan a future conversation with a friend.” (Click this photo to learn more.)

Michael phoned me at the suggestion of his parent’s pastor who had told him I was a caregiver writing a book for caregivers. We met at a local coffee shop, sat at a corner table, and, as the coffee cooled, we introduced ourselves. There was a quiet moment and then, he began to tell me of his long-toiling, faithful commitment as a caregiver of his parents. I was moved by his honest, compassionate, straight forward, sincere rending of his life tale. Midway through his story, I sensed there was something missing—something I had experienced in myself and in other caregivers.

He began, “I was about two years from retirement at a job I liked, when my mother called to say that Dad wasn’t doing well. She asked me to visit. What became clear soon was that neither one of them was doing well. I talked to my two sisters about the situation, and they said they couldn’t really help. I made a rather impulsive decision: I had enough money and resolve to quit my job and move back home to help care for my mom and dad.

“It may be that I moved home because I had guilt about not visiting them enough. I know I felt some shame about my testy relationship with my father. He pushed me and I pushed back—that was our history.

“I moved home and life got pretty intense and difficult very quickly. I was feeding, bathing, and cleaning my father when he soiled himself—stuff I never even imagined I would be doing. It was difficult full time work, and I was doing most of it because my mother was becoming more confused and less helpful. She would leave the stove on, ruin food and fail to function in the kitchen or at other simple chores. I was losing sleep, not eating well and gaining weight. My sisters seemed to drop off the map—they called but didn’t come.

“After about 10 months, my father had a stroke and died a week later. I did something I have rarely done, I cried and felt very sad, but mostly, I felt guilty. I blamed myself for not doing enough for him. Over the next few months, Mom became more confused and unable to care for herself. It was one thing to bathe my father but I didn’t want to do all those personal things for my mother. I got her into a care facility and, before too long, she often didn’t know me. I visit every day. I never know whether she will recognize me or not. I keep thinking I let them both down—I should have done more.”

We sat quietly, as men often do, with our hands clasped, leaning in, elbows on spread knees, eyes staring at nothing on the floor. I had time to feel and then to think.

I finally said, “I’m touched by your care of your parents. You have told me about your love, your compassion, your long-suffering faithful commitment. I am honored to sit in the presence of such a loving, sacrificial man. You gave and continue to give a remarkable gift to your parents. But I get the sense that I am more grateful for your generosity than you are. You don’t seem to value your gift. I’m also puzzled.  Can you tell me more about your anger?”

He slowly raised his head, “Did I say anything about anger? I don’t think I mentioned it.”

“I know you didn’t. You told of your shame and your guilt. You did what many caregivers do: You gave your whole self, body and soul. Then instead of appreciating what you have done, you pronounced yourself guilty! You blame yourself for not being all powerful. You feel guilty for not being powerful enough to make their last days tranquil.

“One of the things I have learned is that guilt and anger are often two sides of one coin. Guilt has its root in the daunting shoulds of our lives. We should be able to do it all! Anger is also rooted in our helplessness. Anger gives the illusion that we are powerful and not helpless. Each of us has plenty of reasons to feel legitimate guilt, but I can’t detect one thing in your story that deserves that indictment.

“Your guilt may serve only to keep you from acknowledging and realizing your anger. Both guilt and anger are empty answers in your journey of respectful caregiving.”

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Love & Loss bring a legacy of fond memories and grief

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

This week marks what would have been Dad’s 73rd birthday. He died last January after a long debilitating illness.

My family was all together in Disney World for his birthday last year, on a trip that was planned years in advance. We had no idea of the timing, but it was bittersweet as we all gathered there.

Disney World birthday treat for DadWe marked the day with a spirited round of Happy Birthday after a waiter had brought out a dessert with a candle for the occasion. I felt bad for Dad as he tried to identify who this special dish belonged to, but it was really nice of my brother to have ordered it to acknowledge the day.

We set it in the center and enjoyed it together.

A year later I am doing fine, but I have to say that grief is a strange thing. It sneaks up on me at random times, with seemingly no trigger. More often than not I simply long to have another conversation with him. Or just to ask his opinion about something. He always had an opinion.

There are many levels of grief and loss. This journey is different for everyone. I had a lot of time to prepare for Dad’s death and, at the end, he wasn’t the Dad I had known. I think that made it easier to let him go. In some ways, the end was a relief.

However, I never feel like I can say that without a bit of guilt.

It was a different story when a couple, who are friends with my mom, lost their adult son this year after caring for him since birth. He was in a wheelchair and while not expected to live through his teens—he lived to be 50. His parents cared for him every single day. It was a process that took hours. It was very physical work. They did it with love.

They had built their lives around him. The hole left in their lives is much bigger to fill as they try to find a new “normal” without him.

They say that sometimes the hardest thing is to face people. Since their son passed more than one person has told them: “It must be such a relief to not be providing all that care anymore.” But the truth is they would much rather be able to care for him each day.

The truth is I don’t have a lot of experience with death. I can see that we all grieve differently, and that time may relieve the pain but it doesn’t take away the loss. We try, in our own inadequate ways to comfort, but sometimes that makes it worse.

Gide for GriefI want to close by recommending the very helpful book on grief by my colleague the Rev. Dr. Rodger Murchison. His Guide for Grief includes both scientific research on grief as well as Rodger’s lifetime of pastoral wisdom in working with families. One of the central themes of his book is that we all should be compassionate toward friends and loved ones who grieve over what may seem like long periods of time.

Rodger writes that noted experts on grief warn: “We should be suspicious of any full resolution of grief that takes under a year.” For many people, the pain of grief lasts more than two years—in other words, even beyond a couple of cycles of annual “anniversaries” without our loved one. And, in some cases, the pain of grief can last much longer.

“No one welcomes grief,” Rodger writes, but “grief itself is not the enemy. The definition of grief is our response to loss. People grieve for all kinds of reasons: loss of a loved one to death, loss of health, loss of job, loss of relationships, infertility, separation, infidelity, divorce, spiritual crisis, retirement—on and on. Grief is like breathing air and drinking water. If you are going to live—then you are going to grieve.”

What is your experience with grief? Do you have suggestions or a story to share? Leave a Comment here or visit me on Facebook.

And, please, do a good deed this week and share this column with a friend. You can do that easily by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the tiny envelope-shaped email icons.

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Heather Jose: ‘The greatest gift cancer gave to me …’

Heather Jose

Heather Jose

A note from your host: “This week, a lot of readers have been talking about a photo I shared on my Facebook account of my adopted son as we celebrated his 13th birthday. Along with the photo, I wrote: “The greatest gift cancer gave to me was the opportunity to adopt.” The moment I posted that line, friends began asking for more of the story. So, today, here is the story of how we got Ty.”

“Would you consider adopting a baby boy from India?”

This question led me to my son. I had sent an inquiry to several adoption agencies asking them if they would work with me given my status as a breast-cancer survivor. I got many responses, but this one sparked my interest.

Once I had finally talked my husband into adopting, I started exploring countries. India hadn’t really been on my list, but after a few conversations I was hooked.

In 2001, India had a low incidence of drug and alcohol use. The orphanages were generally very well staffed and children were paired with ayahs so that they could bond. And, because of concerns about caste and religion, many Indian families would not consider adopting even a perfect child.

We began our search in January 2001 with all of the paperwork and home studies. By spring we were moving right along and ready to be matched. Then the government in India shut down all of the adoptions in the Southern part of the country due to corruption. Fast forward to September 2001—does that ring a bell? The world became a whole lot smaller and the feud between India and Pakistan intensified.

Ty age 18 months within the first week that he was homeFortunately, in January of 2002 my agency established relations with a small orphanage in Pune and we were matched with a little boy. He was the first boy they had had in a long time. His birthday was January 22, 2001, right about the time we starting praying for him.

The adoption process was delayed until summer by red tape—then more red tape. My mom and I arrived in Mumbai during a monsoon. My husband stayed home, partly because we didn’t know when we would travel and partly because we didn’t want to bring our daughter Sydney. Ty and I met the next day at the orphanage. We were brought there by a social worker. Upon our arrival we were introduced to the person in charge and ushered in to an outdoor space to have a warm Coke. I remember thinking, “how fast can I drink this so I can meet him?”

With the coke gone, I was able to meet my son.

He was beautiful. He was terrified.

They put him in my arms and he kept looking away. His ayah kept pointing to me and saying something akin to momma. I just shushed and rocked him. Next, there was a little ceremony involving flowers, sweets, and bindis. And then we were off!

They had given us a banana in case he was hungry and we left in a hired car. He loved the car. Since we didn’t have a car seat Ty stood on my lap and held on to the handle above the door. The social worker stopped and helped us get a few groceries that Ty might like and we returned to the hotel.

We spent the next couple of days doing nothing at the hotel. It was great. Ty was wary at first but within 24 hours he called me “Mama.” We played with the toys I had brought and spent a lot of time looking out of the window that overlooked a busy street. At any given moment you could see oxen, cars, rickshaws, children in school uniforms, or women in beautiful saris. My mom would reach her arms out to Ty and say, “Up?”

Soon he was calling her “Up”!

After Pune we traveled by plane to Delhi where we visited the embassy. We were the first people to come through for an adoption since 9/11 with our specific guide. We tried to do a little sightseeing, but I quickly decided against it given the 108-degree heat with an 18-month-old who was still getting to know me. I enjoyed our time in the hotel room bowling with water bottles and answering the phone endlessly.

The trip home took forever. I may have not gone through labor to have Ty in my arms, but 18 hours on a plane was no picnic. We arrived in Detroit out of diapers  and completely exhausted.Facebook photo of Ty by Heather Jose

My husband was at the airport to meet us along with our daughter and in-laws. Ty was even more terrified of my husband. He hadn’t met many men in India. He wouldn’t let Larry near him.

Fortunately, Ty adjusted amazingly well. He hit the ground running. After getting over his fear of Larry he became Larry’s shadow. I have no doubt that Ty was meant to be with us.

Now, about that line I typed into Facebook recently: I would never say that cancer is a “gift,” but cancer did change the path of my life and because of it I have had experiences that never would have been. I can honestly say that I had never thought about adoption prior to cancer.

Now, I can’t imagine my life without Ty.

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A death in the family? ‘Be tender and gentle with yourself.’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

As we founded WeAreCaregivers earlier this year, we promised to cover a wide range of issues facing the millions of caregivers working every day across this country. But one subject we haven’t addressed is death—a fear that looms large for many of us. At least at times, doesn’t it?

Now, as we count our blessings and give our thanks this November, it seems appropriate to touch on this subject that affects so many families in so many ways. Today, caregiving expert and author Benjamin Pratt writes about how deeply a death in the family can unsettle our lives. As you approach the year-end holidays, if your family is still coming to terms with a death—well, consider Ben’s story …

A Death Observed

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

American tombstone by Steve Evans via Wikimedia CommonsWhen my father died, I gave myself the straight-forward advice that I had shared with others who had lost someone close throughout my long career in pastoral counseling: “Every emotion, idea and action in your life over the next six months pivots on your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions, plans or changes for the next year. Pay careful and cautious attention. Be tender and gentle with yourself.”

It was not long until I forgot my own advice.

Life, following the funeral, became filled with the janitorial functions that follow any death. I had to clean out Dad’s house and sell it and his car, the total of his life’s possessions. I handled the tedious probate of his will and paid his debts. This was, of course, on top of my already busy life as a father, husband and professional counselor. I did spend some time, especially in the first two months, with family and friends talking about the impact of losing my father.

I thought I was doing well. But, what did I know?

After settling my father’s estate, my brother and I each inherited about $7,000.00. Not a significant sum, but more than I had anticipated. After the tedious work was finished, the emotional tension began. It pressed me in night dreams and day dreams. The images were intense, exciting and constant. Each was different but with the same focus—I would give away large sums of money to support causes I value deeply. In one dream, I imagined plopping $50,000.00 on the desk of Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I unleashed $75,000.00 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help victims of famine and violent storms. The list grew; the funds didn’t. The images of giving away money I didn’t have obsessed me. One day, in a bit of panic, I called a broker, gave him my inheritance and told him I needed him to make a lot of money—so that I could give it all away one day.

The plan was in place.

Then, the stock market crashed and most of the money was lost. Wake up time! It was then that I remembered the admonition to myself at the time of Dad’s death. “Everything in the first six months is about your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions or plans in the first year”.

Time to step back and get a new perspective on what is happening. I began to search for the answer to what was really driving my urges to give away money I didn’t have. I began to face and feel emotions that I had worked hard to ignore, feelings that accompany vulnerability. Underneath all of my busy-holding-it-together exterior I was feeling like an orphan without parents, and I was especially aware of feeling very empty, lonely and powerless.

What I came to realize was that my intense images of giving huge sums of money away gave me a feeling of power. In truth, my power felt very limited. The benevolent images helped me cover my feelings of frailty, sadness and loss. They were definitely not the basis for a plan. They were mirrors reflecting the struggle of my soul. When I was feeling least potent because of the loss of my last parent, I turned to a fanciful image to mask my vulnerability and to make me feel vital and powerful.

As I reflect on this chapter in my life now, I also realize that it revealed a very positive trait of my character and soul: that I feel most valued and potent when I am giving to someone in need. That is when my soul sings. The images of giving money away were fantasies, not plans. They reminded me of who I am when I am responding as one crafted by God. There was both frailty and grace in my journey through those months.

As you enter the “family holidays” time of the year, think about all of the men, women and children you will encounter who are still within a year of a deeply felt death. And remember my advice, even if I forgot it for a while: Be tender and gentle with one another.

PLEASE, share a comment on Ben’s column. We also give you permission to share and even republish Ben’s column, as long as you retain his byline and include a link back to http://www.WeAreCaregivers.com, a part of the www.ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine. Want more from Ben? Check out his book, A Guide for Caregivers. (Psst! It’s a great holiday gift for someone you love.)

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Learn your food traditions now; they’re powerful ‘medicine’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

LAUGHTER may be the best medicine—even my colleague Dr. Bernie Siegel, who graciously endorses my book, says laughter has healing power. But, the power of a favorite recipe? Well, that certainly ranks with laughter for raising our spirits—and our overall well-being.

HANDING DOWN THE CORNISH PASTY

I just saw this happen in my home. My father-in-law arrived at my door last Saturday to catch some sporting events that my kids were participating in that day. I was happy to see him, but I didn’t know he was coming.

“You came a day early,” I told him, “I am making pasties tomorrow.”

The sound that he uttered in response was someplace between a moan and a groan, followed by a coherent explanation: “It’s been a long time since I have had a pastie. I’ve been out for a while now.”

I proceeded to tell him that I had gotten a bunch of turnips in my CSA box that week so I decided to take that as a sign and make some.

Century-old postcard from Cornwall celebrates the local delicacy: pasties.

Century-old postcard from Cornwall celebrates the local delicacy: pasties.

“Oh they sound sooo good,” he replied. “Let’s not talk about it anymore. All this talk makes me want them even more.”

My husband’s family has Cornish roots. They came from Cornwall, England, to work the mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Eventually they were wooed downstate to work in the automotive industry. This is textbook Michigan history, complete with the tradition of pasties. My father-in-law grew up eating pasties on a regular basis. After he married, his wife learned how to make them and the tradition continued.

I only learned how to make pasties five or six years ago. My mother-in-law cooked all the time, but I never saw a recipe. Although I asked a few times how to make them, I knew the only way for me to really learn was to actually do it. We picked a Friday after Thanksgiving and I told her I would bring anything that we needed. My sister-in-law decided to check it out as well. It took the entire day, but by the end I felt confident that I could replicate her pasty.

I have made pasties a couple of times a year since I learned how to do it. It always surprises me how time consuming it is. And how much my husband loves them! I don’t care for them myself, especially eaten with ketchup as the family eats them—but I will never stop making them.

Being able to make a pasty matters even more since my mother-in-law passed away in 2012. I am so glad I can continue the tradition and pass it on to my children as well. I must say I find it interesting that my biological child doesn’t care for pasties, yet my adopted one (whose roots are definitely not Cornish) devours them right along with his father. I think that more than anything for me it is what they represent.

Pasties are years and years of love on a plate.

Oh, and yes, there is a bunch of them waiting just for my father-in-law in the freezer.

WANT MORE ON THESE THEMES?

COME BACK to ReadTheSpirit next week! My reference to Bernie Siegel, above, was not gratuitous. A new interview with Bernie will be the cover story in ReadTheSpirit on November 4.

CHECK OUT our FeedTheSpirit department in ReadTheSpirit. Every week, food columnist Bobbie Lewis brings readers a fresh story about the relationship between delicious recipes—and family, faith and culture. (And, for those of you wanting to know more about the traditional Cornish pasty right now, Wikipedia also has an extensive page on the tradition.)

GOT A FAVORITE FOOD STORY TO SHARE? Email us at WeAreCaregivers@gmail.com or leave a Comment below. (And, please, share this column with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the tiny envelope-shaped email icons.)

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