Friday, March 21, 2014

On Loss and Grief and Being a "Good" Daughter-in-law

We are coming up on the second anniversary of the loss of my mother-in-law. We had what I think is probably a typical relationship among mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, which is definitely not the stereotypical relationship. That is, we usually got along, we usually liked each other, and we were almost always willing to bend the rules in the other's favor in order to make sure that Max, Ben, and Milo got what they wanted and needed in the way of a grandmother and mother. In this relationship, Chris was a guy we both loved, but their relationship was complicated, and we never talked about it. I needed Gaye for my own reasons and she needed me for her own reasons--so there was a direct line between us--it did not pass through Chris.

A day or two ago I was remembering the early years with Gaye. She was working for the CHP in San Francisco or Oakland, I'm not sure which. She drove a Honda sedan with the license plate GAZE. She was slender, smoked constantly, and was still trying to figure out how to store presents she bought for Max because I wouldn't give them to him if they smelled like a cigarette butt. We didn't fight openly about this. We diplomatically made our moves until the problem was solved. Although she didn't stop smoking until after the twins were born, maybe 7 years later, she did figure out how to store the items so they wouldn't be ruined in her apartment, and on my part, I didn't tell her what to get or how much to get Max (unless she asked). When we were rear-ended in a horrible hit-and-run, she bought us a replacement car. I liked that our lives were intertwined. I liked that some boundaries were firm and some permeable. I liked when she moved to be near us so she could help with the babysitting and we could help her as her health declined. I liked growing closer to her then.

To me, from the beginning, she was funny, sweet, smart, naïve, and competitive. I never won a game of scrabble against her. Not even close. But she liked my style of play (screw the points, I'm going for words that taste wonderful in your mouth. Look! I have all the letters for moribund!) and we laughed a LOT playing any board game with her, but especially Scrabble.

Back when she worked (and still smoked) she wore a girdle long after everyone else had stopped, probably because she had such a slender physique anyway. She would hold in her farts all day and then come to our house for dinner and a game and release the gas, which would reverberate as they escaped from the girdle. This NEVER stopped being funny to her (or Chris, or Max) and I was very embarrassed by it in those early years. Likewise, she loved potty humor, and I was embarrassed by it around her. I remember, very clearly, considering whether to ask her to not tell Max the off-color jokes when he got old enough (after all, he was maybe 18 months, but already talking a LOT).

When you are a new, young mom, you take these things very seriously. Every interaction with your child seems heavy with formative function. You stop swearing. You change seats if the kids in front of you won't stop swearing. You want the babysitters who look like they came out of the Partridge Family, not the ones with too much eyeliner and a propensity for black clothing. You hesitate when a certain friend offers to babysit because her husband is a little course. It's worse than thinking you know it all. You think you figured it out yourself.  You think you're smarter and more educated than the previous generation. You think you care more about your kid than they did about theirs. It's a temporary affliction. It lasts until the first time something serious comes along that you can't figure out on your own and your aunts or the older women at church help you get through. Then you wise up. Then you start listening.

So I considered whether to talk to her or not about this issue of the loud farts and the off-color jokes because I thought that was something *I* got decide. But I was at least smart enough to consider what would happen if I *didn't.* What was the worst thing that could happen if I asked her to stop? She could get her feeling irreparably hurt. She could stop coming to visit so often. She could withdraw, feeling unwanted, unapproved. What was the worst thing that could happen if I never said a thing? Max could fart in a few situations where he shouldn't because he didn't know that wasn't socially acceptable (I didn't know that little boys take forever to learn to hold it in until they can get to some place appropriate. Like maybe, fourth grade.) He could tell some off-color jokes to a friend and that friend (and their parents) could think he heard them from me.

Gaye loved Max. Like a crazy love. He didn't come too soon, or at the wrong time, or feel like any kind of an inconvenience to her. He was the best idea Chris and I ever had (until we had identical twins, which was also crazy, so she loved them, too, but not more than Max) as far as Gaye was concerned. She loved that he was a boy. She liked the name once she got used to it. He laughed and she laughed louder. I cannot express how much I needed someone to be as madly in love with him as I was, and she was. She was every part and parcel, every bit of heart and soul, as in love with Max as I was. She approved of my parenting (mostly, she did like to complain) and I decided then to approve of her grandmothering (mostly--there was still the issue of smoking). She was a diamond in the rough and in the end, just what I needed. I'm so glad now that I *decided* to accept her as she was then, because by and large she accepted me as I was--through depression, through spring instability, through career changes, through all those pregnancy losses, through everything. I would feel so ashamed now if I had made any other decision.

Of course I still miss her.

A while back, before she died, I read an interesting book excerpt in which a mostly irreligious doctor working in hospice starts noticing that in the two weeks before they died, many of his patients reported seeing a relative of theirs who came to bring them home. They knew then that they would die, and they were eager to go be with that person again. Sometimes he was with them when they saw the person--often across the room, usually smiling, most commonly a parent--most commonly the mother. He took an interest in this phenomenon that he initially wrote off as a hallucination and 20 years into recording the experiences he had, or rather his experiences with patients who had these pre-death visits, he wrote a book summarizing his thoughts about it. He had come to believe in a spiritual life because of the experiences, and to consider his own relationships because of them.

I remembered this when Gaye began calling after her father in the hospital, "No, Daddy, don't go, take me with you!" (that was a Friday, she would die the following Wednesday morning at 7:00 am) and I was so struck by the experience that I called her sister as soon after that as possible. It was, to me, formal notice. Her father had died when she was still quite young, and it was that young self calling out to him.

In my head, I've decided that when it is time for me to go, if I go in a slow way where there is time for this sort of thing, Gaye and Judy (who is still very much alive. Hopefully this doesn't creep her out.) will show up together. "Is that what you're wearing?" Gaye will ask. "You'd better get dressed," Judy will say, "How about that purple dress?" Gaye will suggest. "You can wear my gold earrings if you want," Judy will add. And I will know it is time to start saying my Goodbyes and probably look forward eagerly for the moment when they both come back to get me for good. That would be a good enough ending for me.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is that thing where you feel sad in the winter and not-sad in the summer. A lot of mentally-healthy people experience this pattern, but for some people it's like you have your regular life---and then you freelance as a director of mental illness on the side. As you go about your life doing all the things everyone else does-loving, making decisions, doing chores, teaching, talking, growing, raising children and/or puppies/kittens/plants, etc., you also constantly monitor the mental health index.

During the dark of winter it's all about sticking to a schedule, sticking to promises made, sticking the landings (if you'll forgive me). If you have to take meds to do that, you do. If you have to sit in front of a light box for a half hour, you do. If you have to exercise every morning to be able to not cry every evening, you do. You hang on to the knowledge that winter always ends.

And then, one day, it is March. About mid-March, specifically, when a line is passed, and the days stay light long enough (because it is ALL about the light) and you find that everything you worked so hard at over the winter is … easier. You surprise yourself one day by laughing your way through a meeting. You smile at strangers. You relax a little. For some people with S.A.D., that's pretty much it. They're off duty until mid-to-late September. For others, this is the first of two breaks. Because for all of May and into early June you're managing a different kind of mental health problem.

Hypomania is a condition that is kind of like the opposite of depression. You have more energy than normal, feel like you can do more than you normally can, take risks you wouldn't if you weren't in that state. When I was younger the impulsiveness was a real problem, but when I came to understand it, I also found that it was something I could control. I could guard against making foolish decisions by being in the habit of taking MORE time to make decisions. These days I'm more likely to sign up for one committee too many in the PTA than I am to do something really harmful. I don't drink or engage in other risky behaviors that would make it hard for me to stay on top of those "higher than normal" feelings. For me the hardest thing during this period is sticking to a budget. I don't buy big ticket items, but I might eat out more and I have a hard time saying no to things the kids want.

By mid-June the hypo state has often stabilized, and July, August, and the first part of September are the real vacation time from managing S.A.D.

S.A.D. is technically under the bipolar II umbrella, but it's most commonly "diagnosed" as "persistent clinical depression with a season affective component" because bipolar II is not popular with health insurance companies. S.A.D. can vary from winter to winter. It's worse in areas with less light and better in areas with more light. I take meds year round because I get the best stability throughout the year that way. I supplement with light therapy when it seems like a particular year is harder.

So happy March. For me, the month of second winds. I've had an unusually mild winter. This usually leads to a relatively balanced and normal spring. I'm feeling very grateful and so I thought I'd write a little note explaining S.A.D. to those of you who might be feeling worn-out from this winter and hoping for spring to come soon. In terms of light, it'll be here in about a week to ten days. (Only G*d knows when the snow will melt. In my backyard we have a ways to go.)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Toot Says the Flute, Maaa Says the Oboe, the Bassoon Says Bwaaahhh

My friend, Patrese, had offered to arrange a hymn for Ben, Milo, and I to play together. There was a talent show coming up at church and she knew my original reason for picking up the bassoon again after lo these many years was to play a little with Ben and Milo. She asked me what notes I knew on the bassoon and I told her the key of F. Pretty much just the 8 notes in the middle of the bass staff and a little below it. She chose Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Wow, that thumbnail is atrocious. Click anyway. It's totally fun to watch the ASL at the same time you hear the joyous hymn.

She gave me the music she had arranged and sent me home to try to play it. I knew all but two notes, so I took it to my lesson and my teacher taught me the two missing notes. I gave Patrese the thumbs up and she made an oboe and a flute part with both a harmony and a melody. She told us to play it through three times with the boys trading off harmony and melody. So we did. We practiced that. We were feeling pretty decent about things going into this morning. THEN I went to my bassoon lesson.

And it was a disaster. I could hardly play a note. I squawked, I squealed, I couldn't play notes that hadn't been a problem in a long while. To make matters worse, I learned I had been using the wrong fingering for the highest note in the song. By the end of the lesson I still couldn't play that measure correctly. I was so distraught on the way home that I stopped at the church and went in and (literally) cried on Chris's shoulder. He said encouraging things.

I went home and spent another thirty minutes on it before concluding that the correct way, which sounded just a little better, more clear, than the cheater fingering I'd been using, was simply not going to work in time for the talent show. I played it through again using the cheater fingering. I played the cheater note and the good note next to each other. I made a decision.

The boys and I headed over to the church. We practiced our piece on the stage and I started to feel a little less nervous. Still really nervous, but less like making a run for the border. Patrese told me to remember it was not really about the music. It was really about a family making music together. That was a good reminder for me. It helped a lot. Max showed up with his sweetheart, Alexis, and that made things a little better. Then Alexis's parents showed up and that made things better. The show got underway, and soon it was our turn.

And we didn't suck. There were some very small mistakes, but overall, it was a complete success in the "family making music together" department. And not one person said, "Hey, that one high note. Not quite right. Are you sure you got the fingering right?"And I think somewhere in there is a lesson. I mean, I still DO need to learn the proper way to play that note. And also, I need to practice more, and also, when the lesson is going poorly I need to speak up and say, "this is not going well. Let's go look at that other page and come back to this in a few minutes," because I think that would have helped. Nevertheless when it became apparent that doing it perfectly wasn't going to happen, I went for doing it "good enough for this crowd" so that the twins and I could play a hymn together, instead of freaking out and refusing to perform at all. What was important in the end was that we sounded reasonably good together (because Patrese had arranged the music so we could, and because we practiced together a bunch) and that we each showed up for each other. We knew if we stayed together, we'd be okay. We knew if someone got a little ahead or behind the beat, the others would adjust when we got to the next half note. So when I missed the fingering on one note, you couldn't really tell because the twins were playing loudly enough to drown it out anyway. When Ben got lost for a moment and missed a measure, you couldn't really tell, because he joined us at the start of the next one. It was just the three of us making some music together and so, yay.

I recommend it. The next time it looks like your kid is just not feeling the love during practice time, grab a pot and a wooden spoon and offer to be the percussion while s/he practices.