Golden Moments: the silver lining of aging.

Reflections on the day Mom died.

Three sets of feet resting on an ottoman.
One of many recent golden moments with my parents.

On Friday, September 27, my eighty-seven-year-old dad, who often has trouble sleeping, got up at 3 AM. In the independent-living apartment he shared with my mom, he took a few steps from the bedroom to the tiny kitchenette to get a bite to eat. He grabbed a pita bread, then took a few more steps to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a scotch.

As he sat on the living room couch enjoying his snack and his “middle-of-the-night-cap,” my mom, eight-six, appeared with her walker at the bedroom doorway.

“Do I hear the tinkling of ice-cubes?” she asked.

“Yes!” Dad answered.

His “yes” would have been enthusiastic and drawn out, both arms and one scotch raised in celebration, his eyebrows raised like a character in a Norman Rockwell painting.

“Does that mean you’d like a shot of bourbon?” he added.

It meant exactly that. So Mom shuffled to the couch while Dad fixed her drink. They sat for about fifteen minutes, holding hands, until Dad broke the silence.

“Whoever said these were the golden years could not have been a day over fifty,” Dad said. “There’s not much golden about getting old.”

There’s not much golden about the “golden years.”

Mom agreed. She would know

Two years ago, she had heart surgery from which she never completely recovered. At times, she seemed to be on the mend, then a UTI or stomach bug or new medication would spiral her back down and we’d wonder if we were going to lose her.

In the past month, though, she gained strength and spirit and seemed to be on a solid rebound. She had asked my sister and I to plan a joint visit for a “girls weekend,” which we hadn’t done in years. I had booked my flight for tomorrow.

Sitting on the couch with his wife of sixty-three years, Dad found the silver lining of another color.

“But, truly,” he said, “this is a Golden Moment.”

Golden Moments are the silver lining of aging.

I’ve enjoyed Golden Moments with my parents, too.

After I graduated from college in 1980, I never returned home to Pittsburgh. Between my relocation to Troy, NY–my husband’s hometown–and my parents’ moves later in life, I’ve lived anywhere from 500 to 3,000 miles away from them.

When I came in town to visit, I usually didn’t make plans to catch up with friends or to sight-see or take side trips. I preferred to spend my precious little time with my long-distance family.

Once, my sister-in-law asked me, “So what are you going to do while you’re out here?” I was dumbfounded. I wanted to say, “Nothing,” because that was the truth. But it seemed so boring. It seemed small compared to the jet-setting lifestyles of some of my siblings. I can’t remember how I answered.

I’m not suggesting that there’s a right or a wrong way to spend time while visiting family. I wish I had been better about keeping in touch with friends. But I have no regrets about the Golden Moments with my parents. Especially now.

My golden moments give me no regrets.

In their living room at the independent living facility, Mom and Dad sat and held hands for another fifteen minutes, enjoying the silence before going back to bed.

Dad would have followed Mom into the bedroom. He would have put her neck pillow in place and raised or lowered the head of the bed to the perfect angle. He’d have arranged another pillow under her ankles so her painful heels didn’t bear any weight. Then he would have tucked Mom’s favorite pink blanket under her chin and she’d be asleep before Dad made it to his side of the bed.

That evening, after an uneventful day, Mom and Dad again sat on the couch, watching the PBS News Hour. Around 7 PM, Mom stood up, pitched forward, and was probably dead before she hit the floor.

My heart aches that Dad witnessed that scene. I grieve for his loss. I grieve for my family and many friends who loved Mom. I grieve for myself and the loss of my best girlfriend.

I lost my best girlfriend.

Tomorrow, I’ll fly down to visit Dad. Instead of a girls weekend, it will be a father-daughter week. Dad and I will sit on the couch, holding hands, sharing a drink, enjoying our Golden Moments. Mom will join us and I’ll feel her hand in mine. I feel it every day. It’s golden.

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Meditation: What finally led to my daily practice.

A clay figurine in a strand of ferns.
A shady place to meditate

The first time I tried to meditate, I fell asleep. It was about twenty years ago, when I was still a working mom, and our family was recovering from my son Matthew’s rumble with a brain tumor.

The exact setting escapes me, but I was taking a workshop with about a dozen other people, all of us in work clothes, sitting on hard folding chairs. The setting wasn’t conducive to relaxation, but I was so sleep-deprived, it didn’t take much for me to nod off. Fortunately, I didn’t drool or snore (I don’t think).

I thought falling asleep meant the meditation was effective but unfortunately, you have to stay awake for the full benefit.

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To be, or not to be…assertive. That is the question I pose to you.

My hospital room when my assertive  appendix demanded its release.
The view from my hospital bed on Memorial Day.

Being assertive is a challenge for me, but apparently not for my appendix, which choose Memorial Day to demand its freedom. That evening, I happily complied, and a surgeon put my appendix, and me, out of our misery.

(BTW, I’m perfectly happy without that little wormlike appendage to my colon. I’ve recovered quickly, thanks in part to the many doctors over the last century who contributed to the development of laparoscopic procedures.)

The day after my surgery, an interesting dilemma presented itself–to defend myself, and risk offending my surgeon, or to stay quiet. I chose a middle ground, and I’d love to know what you would have done.

To be assertive may risk causing offense.

In my memoir, which is written and soon to be agent-ready, I explore the roots, manifestation, and consequences of my excessive agreeableness. I own the sad truth that my inability to stand up for myself made it difficult to stand up for my son Matthew during his long rumble with a childhood brain tumor.

For many years, I was well aware of my reticence toward speaking up. There were times I tried to be assertive, but mostly I stayed in my comfort zone where others’ needs took priority over mine.

Being assertive is outside my comfort zone.

But with my uncomfortable truth ready to be laid bare to the world on the pages of my memoir, I’ve been making a concerted effort to be stronger, more assertive, to speak my truth.

Part of what makes it hard for me to speak openly is my fear that I’ll offend someone. That’s what happened with my surgeon.

The morning after my appendectomy, the diminutive man with thinning hair, square glasses, and nutmeg skin stopped in to check on me, and give me my discharge instructions. In a thick accent, he sped through the dos and don’ts. I caught a few snippets–showering was OK, swimming was not, no lifting, call his office if I had any problems.

“So I don’t need to schedule a follow-up appointment with you?” I asked when he finished.

“Yes, you do!” he said with a laugh, “I just told you that.” His laugh didn’t hide his derisive tone.

What I wanted to say, also with a laugh, was, Well, you have a very heavy accent and you talk too fast, so don’t blame me.

But that seemed rude. I was afraid I might offend him. I didn’t want to sound prejudiced.

So what I said, with a smile, was, “Well, you gave me a lot of information, and I’m just trying to take it all in.”

This was growth for me. In the past, I might have said, I’m sorry, I must have missed that. Or I might have been too embarrassed to say anything.

I took a step in the right direction by not taking the blame, and not feeling the shame. But I regret not being more assertive, and I don’t know how I could have responded without offending the person who had held my life–or at least the life of my inflamed appendix–in his hands.

I regret not being more assertive.

The dilemma is, when you want to stand up for yourself, but you don’t want to offend someone in a way that is antithetical to your beliefs, what do you do?

Since I’m learning to navigate these new waters of assertiveness, I’ll ask you–

What would you have done?