Counting My Blessings

I have been in somewhat of a funk lately, not feeling particularly happy. So I decided that I don’t want to be that way. My primary sticking point has been simple: I don’t like living alone. Since at present there is nothing I can do about that, I am prepared to just live with it. My dissatisfaction also could have something to do with the change of seasons. It has been cooler than normal lately, and I just don’t feel ready for the cold of winter, and the diminished daylight that comes with it.

But there is more that I can do for my situation than just enduring it. I believe there is power in thinking positively. I believe I can move out of my funk by concentrating on all the good things in my life. I don’t have everything I want in life, but who does?

Being a part of groups has helped to buoy me up, especially during the COVID lockdown in 2020. My book club never stopped meeting. We laugh now at how bundled up we were, meeting outside at one member’s house in winter. But we made it through – together. I have tried to express to them how grateful I was just to be among them in the height of my grief. They smiled at me, but they didn’t really understand how much I needed them at that time. They were there, and they filled my cup.

Getting through grief was the hard work I had to do last year, after my husband, Jerry, died in February. But I have done the work, and I am still doing it. Because of that, I am grateful that I remain the same person who lived and loved before that time, and I can celebrate the progress I have made.

I connected more deeply with my sister, Denise, also widowed last year. We had warm video chats, as we shared our grief and our woes about having been married to men who led very active lives and left a lot of incomplete projects for us to deal with. When each left his respective house and entered the hospital, neither one of our men realized he would never return home. Denise and I have traveled together and are planning more trips. I am grateful to have her in my life, which might never have happened if we had not had grief in common.

I have had other friends who have been a comfort to me through these last months, sometimes only doing small things, but remembering me and caring for me. As I look back at the blessings I have enumerated here, I see that all of them had to do with special people who have been a part of my life, and have given me the best of themselves. We human beings were meant to be in relationship with each other, and that sustains us. I have come to realize that I could write all day about my blessings.

The change of seasons brings college basketball back into my life, and I have encountered a new fan this year, who shares my enthusiasm for my alma mater. I expect we will have enjoyable times together watching games.

And now I have banished my funk and life looks much better to me! I also continue to have hope that some of these difficulties in my life will fade away, and there will be more to celebrate as time goes on. There will be more people to get to know, and more adventures just around the corner!

As I look out my window I am surprised to see so much color in our trees. New Bern is not noted for its fall foliage, but is noted for lazy, warm afternoons this time of year – I can’t get enough of those. The leaves are falling fast now, covering our lawns as soon as we rake them up. The door to my deck is open; it is 66º and breezy, just right with a sweater. It is a quiet for a Saturday afternoon – I think I’ll just sit outside with that good book I’m reading, and muse some more about my many blessings.

My Frankie Come-Home

There was a tme
when your life was outside,
in rain or shine, 
in summer's heat
or winter's cold.

At night I would open the door,
and I would call and call,
because I feared for your safety.
I knew you were hiding
in a nest you had made for
yourself nearby,
but you never came.

Now I see little white harbingers
in your black fur.
You are aging, like me.
You stand at the door
and meow to come in.
You eat your food,
but then you cry again,

I sit down upon the couch,
a blanket warming me. Suddenly,
you become a flying feline,
charging onto my lap, and there
you settle, closing your eyes,
ready for a long nap.

I stroke your silky black fur
and I want to purr, like you.
My worries disappear; I
am thankful for you, and the
presence you deign to permit
me. I sing, I talk to you, or just
solve my puzzles out loud.
I am alone, but then I am not,
because you, my Frankie,
come home to me.
Frankie relaxing after reading the paper.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

During the ten years I was a single parent, I remember thinking how serious my life was. It seemed to me that I was responsible for so much, raising a young child, keeping us financially afloat, things I had to take care of, that I couldn’t be light and carefree. It felt like I wasn’t having any fun, and I missed that. I never was able to escape that feeling.

            Life definitely got better when I married Jerry, financially and fun-wise. He helped me maintain the household, and was wonderfully handy. It seemed he could fix anything by “Jerry-rigging” it. We set up a Frisbee Golf course and a horseshoe pit at our log home in Virginia, and had regular tournaments with each other. No matter how many points Jerry would spot me, he still always won. We got into it so much that we made everyone who visited us play too, and we formed teams. Cornhole was our outdoor game of choice after we moved here to North Carolina, and, again, he always won. Despite that, my competitive spirit would not acknowledge his superiority, and I kept trying, truly believing “my time will come.”

            Now I find myself slipping into my old serious mentality, where I need to keep up with the household and property. None of it is any fun. Yes, things are under control, I am doing fine, and there is some satisfaction when I actually do one of the chores I must do, but the lighthearted person I long to be is missing. It seems to me I used to have fun, but I am mired in “responsibilities” again. The house needs cleaning, I’m doing no gardening, just a hired mower, etc. etc. I wonder if it is because I am living alone and people rarely visit me. No incentive, no motivation. Yet I cannot escape seeing the things every day that need doing.

            I thought I would feel better when I made the decision to hire someone to tear up my old deck and put all new boards down, and, indeed, it does look beautiful now, and I am glad I made the decision. Sometimes I make a mental inventory of all the things I have accomplished in the 20 months since Jerry died, and then I feel pretty good. But it is always overshadowed by my written to-do list, pressing down on me.  Unfortunately, my mind wants to concentrate on the maintenance items that remain to be done, instead of my accomplishments.

            Fun? I need to make that my new goal. I need to find foolish friends. I want to giggle at their fits and foibles. I want to make good old-fashioned playing a regular part of my life. I want freedom from my self-imposed drudgery! Come play with me!

Soup Kitchen Redux

Yesterday, for the first time in several years, I volunteered at our local soup kitchen. Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, the sponsoring organization had updated the homeless shelter and other areas, including the kitchen. It was now quite functional with four sinks and a commercial stove with eight large burners. I was impressed.     

Volunteers help to prepare and serve one meal a day. I was recruited to fill the slot of a regular volunteer on this particular day, when my church was on the schedule. My church usually supplies five volunteers, but yesterday there were only two, plus two regulars from another church.

I was somewhat apprehensive as I approached the building because so much had changed – I didn’t even know which door to enter! But I was apprehensive mostly because the kitchen manager had berated all the kitchen volunteers the last time I was there, a few months ago, when I had been asked to fill in for a volunteer who was not available. Apparently, volunteers were not coming in early enough to please her. She was unpleasant and appeared quite nervous, and I did not want to be around her. Fortunately, I was able to leave that day, because there were enough volunteers without me.

This time, however, was different. Our “boss” was a very large black man, who was pleasant and clearly in charge, although he did not always share with us everything we felt we needed to know, such as the day’s menu. One volunteer spent all morning peeling and cutting potatoes, never being told that the potatoes were for the next day’s meal. The former manager was in and out of the kitchen, but she did not interact with us.

The work at the soup kitchen is not hard, but we work steadily for several hours, on our feet without a break. Before the renovation, we had an active role in cooking the food and even helping to plan menus, but now we just did what we were told, and that did not include cooking. There was a large bin of donated fruit on the counter, so it became my job to make a fruit salad. The menu was hot dogs, fruit salad, vegetable salad and chips. It seemed to me that clients ate much better in the old days, but I decided I shouldn’t judge from just one day.

At 10:30 the clients began to arrive. Because of the pandemic, all meals were takeout only, so we had to pack them into styrofoam boxes. New rules required clients to sign in first, and they came to our counter one at a time. When we had volunteered earlier, the clients had lined up and we made up the plates as they came, often serving over 100 people in one hour. It was not as many yesterday.

Most of the time, when I first volunteered, my late husband, Jerry, came with me. I was pleased that one of the volunteers present yesterday remembered us. As in so many other times in the last year and a half, I wanted to hurry home and tell him, “Jerry, guess who I ran into today? Do you remember….” But Jerry is not there, and a special time that we had shared is gone forever, like other occasions before it. I wonder how long I will keep thinking of things to tell Jerry. I smile as I remember how seriously he had taken his volunteer job. He was one of the few male volunteers, so he had to lift the heavy pots. He bought special hot pads because he did not think the ones they supplied were adequate.

After the clients were served and the food was gone, we cleaned up and went home. The soup kitchen had fed people another day. I heard they have ribs to go along with the potatoes for tomorrow. Now that’s a meal worth showing up for.

Each day, a new crew of volunteers goes in to help out. I will not be among them, but I will keep my status as a substitute. Things have changed just a bit too much for me.

COVID Cravings

Thinking back on the last year and a half of pandemic living, everything is mixed up in my mind. I don’t know whether the feelings I was experiencing were from fear or isolation or grief or loneliness. They were probably a combination. I was unlucky enough to lose my husband less than a month before lockdown. Mostly I remember how lonely I was.

From early days of the pandemic, I found myself yearning for some semblance of control, trying to eke out some pleasure from an unhappy situation. One of the positive things I experienced were food cravings, which popped into my head out of nowhere. They brought me into the kitchen, a place where I love to work. And the food the cravings prompted me to prepare always tasted delicious to me.

The first craving I remember having was hot dogs, which I rarely ate. Before I experienced my hot dog craving, I probably had not eaten a hot dog in a year. But I found some in the freezer, and when they were gone, I bought more, indulging myself two or three times a week for lunch. They had to be Ball Park, all beef, and bun length. I always heated up sauerkraut and baked beans as well (to make a balanced meal? Not really – I was craving them too!). The buns had to be fresh, and I used jalapeño mustard as a condiment, along with the sauerkraut. It all tasted yummy to me.

I discovered artisan Italian bread and it became my go-to toast for my weekend breakfasts. I keep it in the freezer, so it will not get stale. The slices are too big for the toaster, so I break them in half. When the toast pops up, I flip the pieces to brown them a little more. The result: perfect toast, very crisp.

Several times I have frozen a pound of liverwurst, identified by its yellow wrapper, in two-ounce slices, just right for one sandwich. Although I no longer buy deli meats, I make an exception for liverwurst, a paean to my childhood. Other lunches of childhood, such as canned corned beef and Spam, I have easily resisted. There are better substitutes for those these days, but not for liverwurst! I find a simple sandwich with lettuce and mayo on rye bread to be very satisfying.

Indulging myself in these and other cravings has achieved my goal of having a simple pleasure to look forward to in a long day. I was seeking ways to “nest,” to make a home of my own out of this house where I had lived for eight years but never alone. I needed to prove to myself that happiness can be attained in many different ways. I developed new habits I had never had before, such as eating dinner on a TV tray in front of the TV. I found comfort in such routines. Anything pleasurable, especially in the early days of the lockdown, was worth pursuing

Today most of my food cravings still exist, but some have faded away (my hot dogs again sit unused in the freezer). I am optimistic about the pandemic’s end, although it is still with us. I have discovered some joys in living alone, and much of my grief has subsided. I am still working on figuring out my place in this world going forward. When a new craving comes along, I indulge myself with pleasure, because…why not?

Falling Apart

After a day of sightseeing, we returned to our tiny stateroom on the river cruise in France. I took off my socks and sneakers, which were feeling tight. Looking aghast at my feet and ankles, I hollered to my sister, Denise, “What is this? My feet and ankles are all fat! And my legs and ankles are all red.”

            She gazed down at my feet. “It’s edema. Your body is retaining water.”

            “But I’ve never had anything like this before.”

            “It could be from your diet and being on your feet all day. Or too much sitting, from your flights. I have had it before, and I have pressure stockings to help alleviate it.” I was feeling a bit panicked, but Denise was very calm. “It’ll probably go away when you return to your normal life.”

            She found me a pair of her stockings, which were flesh-colored and went up to the knee. She then had to show me how to put them on, by scrunching up the foot of the stocking. They were tight but my feet immediately felt better. “Do you sleep in them?” I asked.

            “No,” she replied, “You get a break then.”

            My feet eventually returned to normal after I got home, but I couldn’t help but wonder what other manifestations of my body changing I must prepare to face. I had been suffering from the illusion that I was healthier than other women my age because I am so active. This was like a wake-up call that anything could happen.

Unfortunately, that is not all I discovered about my body while traveling with my sister. I was walking in front of her one time when she said to me, “Did you know that you are crooked?”

“Crooked?” I croaked, with some trepidation.

“Your left shoulder is lower than your right. And your right shoulder is more forward than your left. I wasn’t sure so I have been watching you.”

I immediately stood up as straight as I could, pulling in my stomach for good measure. “Is this better?” I asked.

She shook her head. “You need some kind of adjustment.”

For days I worried about being crooked. I couldn’t deny it when I looked in the mirror but I didn’t think I looked that bad. I watched people to see if they were looking at me, but I didn’t notice anything. It brought to mind the old nursery rhyme,

“There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile.

He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile…”

I couldn’t understand these new afflictions because I am feeling fine, regularly taking classes at the Y, and I am back to playing pickleball and loving it. I will have to visit my doctor and get her opinion about what I should do. Falling apart!

There are other ways our bodies may let us down. I have always thought that we – all of us – carry cancer cells within us, and our immune system fights it off. When the immune system fails, we get cancer. Then we resort to hoping it was discovered early enough to enable treatment.

            I have too many friends and family who’ve been diagnosed with cancer: breast, colon, stomach, ovarian, to name a few; is my turn coming? After my recent health revelations, I  know that I should appreciate whatever good health I have. I can walk, I can run (but only to chase a ball in pickleball), and I am even feeling better about my mental acuity. I have a few pounds to lose after the indulgences of my trip, but I am back to eating a healthy diet now. And feeling good, did I mention that?

            It just doesn’t pay to worry about things you can’t control. Find whatever in life there is that brings you joy and live into that. It may take some doing, but you will know. Yesterday, in between games at pickleball, I just sat, soaking up my good feelings and marveling at how much all of us players were captivated by this sport. There were about 12 people there, mostly seniors, enough for two courts. One plays with an oxygen tank on her back; another just got her third COVID shot because she is a recent cancer survivor. Still another broke her pelvis in a pickleball fall but came back at full strength. Then there is me, another fall survivor. I felt awash in happiness.

            Falling apart? I guess change is inevitable, and I can live with it. As long as I can chase that ball and hit it over the net, I will be doing just fine.

Musings from a Green-eyed Girl

In my aerobics class, we had just finished exercising to Brown-eyed Girl, one of my favorite songs, when one of the women participants began walking around examining each of us. “Do you have brown eyes?” she’d ask peering at someone, then go on to the next exerciser.

“Do you have brown eyes?” she asked me.

            “No,” I replied, “but I used to. My eyes are green now.”

She seemed interested, so I continued. “I had light brown eyes with a little green around the edges. My sister had dark brown eyes but hers are green now too. My mother’s eyes were green, as are my brother’s. The other three members of my family have blue eyes.”

            I don’t know why she wanted to know; her eyes are a pale blue.

But I got to thinking about eyes, and how intricate they are, and what a miracle sight is. All of our body systems are intermingled with each other, so that each can do its job. How lucky are we that, most of the time, everything works?

            I also think it is amazing that everyone is different. Billions of people and no one is the same. Even identical twins don’t share all their DNA; it is changing a little bit while they are yet in the womb.

            Of course, we are only one species among billions of living things. Which brings me to the thought that we are all more alike than we are different; DNA proves it. So it is true that we are all in this together. Whether we like it or not.

            Does it matter what color your eyes are, or how tall you are, or what you like to eat? I believe that every person has value, and we could go a long way toward getting along if we all believed that. Our value is intrinsic, there is nothing to prove, we are born with it. True, some people are easier to get along with than others. And I cannot deny that there is evil in the world. So my belief is a little hard to defend.           

But I am weary of hearing so much about how we disagree. Politically, okay, we each may subscribe to a different world view – and rather noisily, I might add. But are we really all that different?

I give blood regularly, but no one cares that I am an older white lady with brown hair and green eyes. If your blood type is A+ and you need blood, well, my blood will probably do just fine, no matter your race, age or gender. Tattooed, long haired, bearded (not my favorite thing), my blood is good for anyone who needs it. Which is the reason I keep giving. It is not hard to do, and for little time and effort I can really help someone I don’t even know. My husband received several blood transfusions during his last days. We never talked about where the blood came from, but we simply appreciated that it was there when needed.

            I don’t want to stress myself about the people I share this world with, and whether we will ever see eye to eye. But it is a cinch that the “miracle” eyes we see each other with make us all special as human beings, and worthy of all the goodness we can bestow upon each other.

2019 – Our Miracle Year

In August, 2018, my husband, Jerry, was admitted to the VA hospital in Durham with a blood clot in his intestine. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), with an estimated prognosis of from five to eight months to live, although that could possibly stretch up to 18 months with treatment. He received several infusions of intravenous chemo but they did not produce the results the doctors had hoped for. In September he was admitted for fungal pneumonia. He was very sick and spent two weeks in the hospital.

            Things were not looking good for Jerry. He had lost quite a bit of weight, but returned home hoping for the best. Not a person to sit still for long, he resumed his normal activities as he was able, fishing with his buddy John, golfing and volunteering with the Civitan Club. Late in the year his oncologist began talking to him about a new medication, Venetoclax, which had produced excellent results in clinical trials and had just been approved for ALM.

            Jerry agreed to the medication and began an oral treatment, which he could do at home, starting on January 28, 2019, his 80th birthday. We had just had a pig-pickin’ to celebrate his birthday, surrounded by family and friends. He had put weight back on and was looking good. Results from the new drug were apparent quickly, as Jerry felt better and his blood test results were improving. However, he was having some side effects in his colon, so he quit the one-month treatment a few days early. A bone marrow biopsy in April confirmed that there was no trace of cancer – complete remission!

            Jerry’s doctors were ecstatic, as were we. He had developed a special relationship with a new oncologist, who was amazed at Jerry’s response, and was cheering for him. Doctors had no idea how long the remission would last as they had had so little experience with Venetoclax. My husband and I had a lot of plans for 2019, but we were only cautiously optimistic. The cancer he was fighting was deadly and powerful.

            On May 15th, I fell while standing on a kitchen chair and cracked my pelvis. Jerry was right there to help me and provided wonderful support as I suffered through weeks of recovery. I don’t want to think about how I would have managed without him.

Our granddaughter was getting married in Lake Tahoe on July 19th, and we badly wanted to go. We could only hope he would be feeling good. We bought tickets to fly into Lake Tahoe and home from Las Vegas. This was our chance to see Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, where neither of us had been.

All of our travel plans came to fruition, and we had a wonderful summer. Jerry’s remission continued into the fall, but eventually his blood tests began to indicate that the cancer had returned. He started to take Venetoclax again, but his colon was damaged, and he could not tolerate the drug. A colon surgery early in February, 2020, was only partially successful. Another surgery was tentatively planned, but he was too weak to tolerate it. Jerry died February 20, 2020, just 18 months after diagnosis.

I know it was difficult for Jerry when he realized that he was going to die, but he and I talked often about our miracle year of 2019, when he felt so good he could do anything he wanted to. How happy he was to see his granddaughter get married, and to explore the Grand Canyon with me. We also welcomed a new great-grandson in August.

We would sit together and I would take his hand. “How lucky are we,” I would say, “that we had this wonderful year together? Nothing can ever take that away from us. It had to be Providence.”

It was as if God said, “I will give you the world, but only for a little while.”

I grieve the loss of my husband, but I will never forget those months in 2019, when I still had him, when anything was possible, and life was beautiful.

Working on boat with brother Den May 2019

At Lake Tahoe July 2019

39th anniversary July 2019 at Ruddy Duck

Luau at Attitudes August 2019

Family Christmas in New Bern 2019

Thoughts While Scraping My Deck

Our deck was not my late husband’s finest hour. I do not want to affix blame here, because he did do the job and I did not help, but the paint has not worn well. So this summer I am scraping my deck by hand because the old paint has come off in quite a few places – I have to make sure that what is left won’t peel when it is painted again. My deck cannot be stained because the wood is in bad shape, so it needs to be painted with special paint for old decks. Right now I am just trying to get it ready to paint.

I considered buying a paint stripper, but decided I did not want to deal with messy chemicals and could handle the job myself, with a lot of elbow grease. It is so difficult, however, that I can only work about an hour before I am exhausted. And I must work in the morning, when there is no sun, now that our weather has turned hot and humid. I showed the deck to my handyman (I have a handyman!) but he politely refused to do the scraping, reminding me that it would cost me a lot of money for him to do that. He is waiting in the wings to do the painting. As I scrape, I must confess that I love it when I find a patch that peels way up the board. The pleasures of peeling!

To keep my mind occupied while I scrape, I sometimes sing old favorite songs, or hymns. Some of the words to those hymns come right out of the Bible, and I feel like I am praying when I sing them. Sometimes I talk to God while engaged in this mindless work. To date I have not heard back from Him/Her but that doesn’t mean I won’t.

Here is another thought I had while scraping:

I have been thinking about all the little steps it takes to become the person I want to be, and how I am still trying. Each time I do a kind thing it makes it easier to do it the next time. My first inclination is still toward my own needs before I can do the right thing, however, or even imagine it. So maybe it would help to not care so much. Or maybe I do care about something, but it really doesn’t matter. I can care but I can keep it to myself. How much does it matter?  is a question I need to ask myself. I guess what I am saying is, I need to get away from myself. If I can stop worrying about getting my needs met, I can be more accessible to others. That’s a tall order.

I try to think positive thoughts while I scrape. I imagine how nice the deck will look when it’s freshly painted, and how I will enjoy entertaining then. Or I think about my future travels, this summer with my sister, this fall with my daughter.  I solve problems in my mind by talking them out with myself. I talk out loud to myself so much these days I am afraid I will get caught in the supermarket debating the merits of one vegetable over another!

As far as my deck project goes, I always keep in mind that this task has a finite end and then give myself the pep talk: I can do this! There will be more unpleasant jobs in my future, I suspect, but that doesn’t matter. I am just grateful that I am healthy enough to do it. Good for me!

One Step Back

My left thumb rubs against my ring finger. It is turning my wedding ring, a nugget ring patterned on one side only. Except there is no ring. I took it off several months ago, after the first anniversary of my husband’s death. I felt it was time. I wanted to move into the next phase of my new life as a widow: the transition from my life with Jerry, now over, to whatever comes next.

            Just as my thumb was acting out of old habits, so am I these days. I have good things coming, I am sure of it. But I am stuck right now, feeling out of sorts, not liking myself very much. Today I am not comfortable in my own skin.

            I was sure I was “healed,” ready to move on. So why does everything look so bleak? I am taken back to 2020, when I was so lonely, when the pandemic went on and on. I go out, I see people, but I want more. It seems like nobody gets in touch with me unless they want something. I feel like I am on the outside, watching the world moving along without me. And I am weighed down – again – by home maintenance.

            I cannot define these feelings other than to say it is probably depression. It will pass, and I will feel a part of the world again. I think if someone were here, they’d get tired of the Gloomy Gus I am today. I am sad, missing the partner who, it seemed, could always solve every problem that came along, problems I just don’t want to deal with.

            I guess this is another manifestation of grief. Two steps forward, one step back. Life does this to us, you know. Sometimes it is much harder to do what you need to do. Grief is work, not for the faint of heart.

            This somber mood may have been precipitated by a call I made to my late husband’s best friend, John. I call to check on him periodically, and he is always doing well, although he is 92 and being treated for cancer. I am so glad that he has a support network to envy, several women who call, who bring him meals and go places with him. Nonetheless, he never fails to mention how much he misses Jerry. Today he said, “He and I were so compatible, I really miss him.”

            I replied, with a smile in my voice, though I was blinking back tears, “He and I were also compatible, and I miss him too.” And indeed I do.

I am the Psalmist, offering a lament to God :

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Psalm 130:1

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” Psalm 130:5

            Hope is the message of the day, and I cling to it. At some point, I know this malaise will be over. I will wake up to greet the day with a smile on my face, realizing that life is worth living. I will know that I have much to offer this unpredictable world I am a part of, and that joy is just around the corner.

            My smile, then, will be real.