Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House

Houses are built to be containers of joy, safety, and security. That is what they are designed for, what architects intend, and builders infuse in their walls. Houses thrive when their purpose is fulfilled and suffer when it is not.

Every home has a heart. For many, it is the kitchen where food is prepared and the joy of preparation abounds. For others, it is the dining room where the blessings of food are eaten and prayers are offered in gratitude. For others, it might be where the family gathered or the room in which entertainment ruled. Every home has a heart somewhere, and you can feel where that might be.

This house is very empty now, even though most of the furniture still rests exactly where it was when the stroke happened and lives changed. There is no joy anymore, no welcoming presence, no real holding for me. It’s simply a place I go to rest while I am in town to do the business of tying loose ends.

I don’t want to, but I return to my father’s office again to scrutinize his files. Many are yellowed with age, and there are a few onion-skin thin copies dotted with ancient letters from a Navy typewriter probably discarded decades ago. Some of these are important, though fading. I scan them and store them in the Cloud, reflecting on the astonishing reality shift this simple act represents.

A couple of dozen photos adorn the doors of the cabinets above his desk. About half of them are family, the rest I do not recognize. They must be friends. I assume they know about mom’s and dad’s new life.

Again, I feel observed by many ghosts. Those photos have to go.

Then, I realize that this is the heart of the house now. This is where my father spent most of his time while my mother napped. Not the kitchen my mother “divorced” years ago or the dining room they have not used in possibly a year, and certainly not the immense family room with its gigantic, rarely used television. My father’s office has become the heart of this house.

The ghosts all live here now. That is why I work from the dining room and at least partially why I find it difficult to be in that space. There is no room for me.

Suddenly, in a flash, I understand. No one has explained to the house what has happened. It is still waiting for my parents to come home. Very likely, it thinks of me more as an intruder, since I had not visited very often.

In our culture, we tend to think of houses as “things” — something separate, inanimate, and “out there.” However, that is not the case. Houses have their own spirit, their own essence, their own awareness infused in them not only by the builders but also by those who live within them.

The relationships that grow between a house as a home and those whom they protect is important. Some relationships are not good, as when the owners do not take care of the property or building. Yet my parents took very good care of their home for a very long time.

Simply put, this house misses my parents.

I know what I need to do, yet it is not the right time. So, I rise from the desk and cross the room to the doorway, turn off the light. The room turns gray in semi-dusk light. I close the door, rest my hand on it from the hallway for a moment, and say, “Be at peace.”


Winebelly_071317_200Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans

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Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans

My first job was at a funeral home in the days when ambulances were part of funeral home services before EMS. I know what it was like to respond to heart attacks and strokes and more in the middle of the night.

I know what it was like behind the scenes when the mortician calls for assistance with a body after an autopsy of suicide at 3:00 am. I know what embalming is like, what it entails, the color of it first hand. I’ve stood as an usher outside of viewing rooms and watched over the families as they navigated both the known and foreign waters of final loss, so I know that world of service, as well.

And frankly, I would not change those memories. They are part of who I have become.

So, as I sat with all of those memories in the conference room of another funeral home. Angel, appropriately named, was my guide into another phase of my parents’ passing: the prearrangement they discussed but never got around to. There we were, she and I, delving into what my parents might want as their everlasting statement to a world they will never see.

It’s not about them, of course, but about those left behind. It’s about family and expectations when they could really care less except for whatever their decisions might bring to their children’s children’s children.

Funeral homes are consciously designed, and every aspect of them, from marketing to services provided, are focused on making the important choices easy and comfortable. I have no problem with that. I need that support, that assurance… the affirmation that they have this. It’s one less thing I have to deal with. And so my experience as an employee at the funeral home makes sense. I know that world. My anxious discomfort can joke with Angel, and she gets it.

It surprised me that my parents opted for cremation since their fundamentalist religion espouses that they will need their physical bodies when the Messiah returns. It surprised me less when they specified that they did not want a memorial. In my father’s words, “There’s no one left to attend. Everyone is gone.” At 92 years, that’s mostly true.

Still, having no memorial at all leaves out a lot of relationships: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren at the least, plus people in the church they attended for decades, and others who might want to pay their respects. Thinking in this way reflects more of their feeling of growing isolation with age than true clarity.

Personally, I think that the decision rests with my sister and me. Funerals and memorials are not for the deceased; they are for the living. They are a part of the healing process of grief. Angel spoke about that. Even though I was way ahead of her on the topic, I let her give me her thoughts uninterrupted. There was something in her words that suggested she was working on some of her own sadness.

Working in a funeral home carries its own special weight. Dealing with the emotional expression of shock, pain, and grief are difficult when confronted on a daily basis. Even when not working with families suffering a loss, every aspect of the workplace and work is about death.

When Angel and I finished our discussion, we rose and shook hands. She walked me to the entrance door, and we each returned to our routines and plans.

It was a beautiful day outside. I paused for several minutes to gaze at a jetliner cruising high overhead against a thinly clouded, bright blue sky. And for some reason, I remembered myself as a boy, lying on the grass at the seventh tee of Leon Valley Golf Course as my father teed off. The warmth of the sun on my face was exquisite.


Winebelly_071317_200Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins

 

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Elder Parents: The Journey Begins

Having both parents suddenly go into an assisted living facility is stunning. It has put me in a place that I never expected—that WE never expected—and it is difficult in a way that I am not sure people who have never had the experience can understand. None of my father’s planning applies. Not the will nor the trust they let go of several years ago (I believe from bad legal advice) nor the cabinets of papers he meticulously kept. All of that is, in his words, “of no value.”

They have been forcibly scaled down from a 2000 square foot house to less than a 500 square foot apartment. On one side of that sieve is years of furniture and memorabilia, and food and supplies purchased, never to be eaten or used. On the other, a Spartan space of basic comforts and limited potential. Don’t get me wrong. They enjoy their new home. It is safe, comfortable, and supportive. They talk about going home, but they also are coming to know that it is impossible now.

There was one moment when I was working in my father’s office, an hour or so after beginning to dig through years of papers and files, when I just stopped. My mind suddenly went on “Pause” and I looked around this room. Photographs of family and friends, many of whom are now gone, were posted on every wall. Certificates, accolades, and photographs of prominent people he admired.

Office equipment, relics of a long-gone era, stood dusty and unused. File cabinets of paper files stretching back more than 75 years resting in black metal cabinets waited for relevance. The flotsam and jetsam of waves of time were everywhere I looked. Notes that had meaning only for my father lay abandoned on the desk and worktable. Paper clips, rubber bands, pens, random screws, keys to unknown locks… a deputy badge from the time he helped to find a murderer and a pocket watch inscribed “The Greatest Dad.”

But what struck me most was that the room, as the house as a whole, was frozen in time. At one point, my father stood up and walked out of that room. He did not know it, but he would never return. It was a haunting and indescribable feeling: the room frozen in time and waiting for a return that would never happen.

The stroke had advanced slowly. First, it took his balance so that he slumped to the floor at the HEB then asked for help to get to his truck, where he fell again. He thought he was just tired. He didn’t really remember falling against the garage wall while taking the groceries inside, but the helpful neighbor noted it. The stroke made itself known when he fell after going to the bathroom that night, and his words slurred as he asked my mother for help. But her dementia told him that he should go to sleep; he would feel better in the morning.

You see, he was her caretaker. It never occurred to him that the roles might suddenly be reversed.

Someone called 911. My sister and I are not really certain who that was. Dad spent a week in the hospital, and several weeks in skilled nursing rehabilitation, progressing remarkably well. Then, there came the move to assisted living where reality seems to be readjusting over time. The dream to go home, to sit once again at his desk and pore over bank accounts and taxes, and for her to fall asleep in her favorite chair while watching television, is gone.

So, I take his place in this office chair surrounded by ghosts. I think about all of the material goods that have accumulated over the decades: gifts, photographs, memorabilia from times past. And I remember his words as I ask about various items that he might want us to bring: “it is of no value.” I see my mother gesturing that it should be thrown away. There is nothing in this home that they want to take into their new life. Nothing at all.

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Transition: Reset

I lean against the heavy door of 2018 and knock as loudly as I am able. It does not budge. I try the doorknob. It is still locked as before. I turn, put my back against it, and slide down to sit on the cold step. Nothing to do but wait.

This evening the dead weight of the sandbags I gathered and attached to my soul each month of 2017 is challenging to carry. Although I have accomplished a great deal today, removing many things from my end-of-the-year to-do list, I feel listless and unsettled. In just a few days, the new year will begin. I “should” be reviewing the past year and doing my planning rituals for 2018, but I do not have the urge to do so. I “could” be writing—there is that novel that has been waiting patiently for me to continue—but I do not feel inspired.

I do not feel inspired.

It is the season; I know that. This is the time of going inside, of slowing down, of allowing rest and rejuvenation. Less than a fortnight after the longest night of the year, I feel as though life remains on “pause,” waiting for the turn, waiting for the end of the hibernation that I have, so far, denied myself.

I remember the tea lights that I stored in a drawer some time ago, and the desire to honor the pause is set.

Recipe: Two cups each of baking soda and epsom salts, sprinkled generously in a tub of flowing hot water. Swirl until soda and salts are dissolved. Option: Add 5-10 drops of lavender or other essential oil of preference.

Candlelight illuminates the steam as it wafts across the surface of the water within the greater darkness. The bath is probably 99 degrees (as I fondly recall this year’s visit to Pagosa Springs); the air of the room held firmly at 69 by the central heater. That 30 degrees makes a great deal of difference.

Unlike the springs, I cannot fully submerge. The skin softens and thrills as it dips and rises from the water, alternating slowly between liquid heat and airy chill. I take long pauses in between to rest into the space of relaxation, surrendering the weight of the sandbags one by one to the water.

In one such pause, memories of the year come unbidden. Much was accomplished; some remains undone. Still, I feel blessed. The balance of the successes weighed against the challenges fares well overall. It was no simple thing, the launching of three major programs. I am grateful to those who journeyed with me and showed the way through them all.

“What is the smallest, most subtle move you can make
to adjust for greater comfort?”

Returning to the present, I feel the temperature of the water moderating, but a subtle shift in position to dip my shoulder deeper, raising the surface to my chin, assures me that it remains comfortably hot. My knee appreciates the dip, as well.

The body remembers. Every “punch in the gut,” each “heartbreak” and “stab in the back;” all the kisses, hugs, and explosions of joy. They are stored in the bio-energetic field, aligned with limb and organ. The body remembers them all so that it can learn to move toward Love and away from Fear.

Watery heat nudges into the body’s core, loosening the bonds. Bath salts and baking soda draw away the energetic fragments—pieces of emotions splintered by tripwires and triggers or simple exhaustion. They slip into the water like stale sludge held too tightly for too long, creating a spreading opening for creativity and hope.

It is peaceful in the candlelit darkness, held by water and the scent of lavender. This is different from waiting. It is a timeless pause between past and future. Nothing to do; nowhere else to be.

After a while, the body curls, pulls the plug, and stands without my intellectual decision or command. As the water slips down the drain, the shower is turned on—cool and forceful, sloughing off the remains, becoming clear and ready. A new day, a new year, is just around the corner.


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Are You Not Feeling Heard?

Do you feel misunderstood in your relationships?
Does it seem that your partner doesn’t quite hear you?

You already know this, but it is worth looking at the issue again in terms of creating and sustaining relationships. Clear communication is not only important; it is crucial. A problem can enter, however, when you think that you are communicating, but you are not.

In this discussion, I want to be clear that I am not speaking exclusively about long-term committed relationships. Instead, I am referring to a larger context of relationships that includes a broad range, such as: companions, friendships, siblings, families, work-oriented relations, and many more. The elements that help create and sustain relationships of all kinds are essentially the same.

With that in mind, let’s take a dive into some observations about communication that you might want to remember if you find yourself in a difficult spot.

Words Are Not Communication

It is not uncommon to confuse speaking with communicating. You communicate not only with words, but with a spectrum of tone, gesture, posture, touch, and even an energetic meta-communication. All of these channels need to be clear and focused in order to communicate effectively and without confusion.

A person told me once that she felt that I was often dismissive of what she said. I did not think I was, in fact I held her thoughts and opinions in high regard! When I asked about that, she said that whenever she spoke—and sometimes others, as well—I shrugged my shoulder when she finished speaking. I was completely surprised and unaware that I did that habitually in conversations.

As I tracked that gesture, it usually happened when I stopped to think about what the person had to say. I was not dismissing what was said, but signaling (apparently confusingly) that I was going internal for a moment.

Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements points out that it is important to “be impeccable with your word.” It is important to be as clear as you can to communicate what you mean to express. Also, “taking things personally” generally interferes with clear and open dialog, and “making assumptions” will sidetrack the conversation into directions that are likely not true or helpful.

That being said, he also suggests that while you are responsible for what you say, you are not responsible for what the other person hears—how they interpret what you are saying. People will hear you through their own filtering system, just as you will interpret what others say the same way. That is why it is very important to keep talking until each person is as sure as they can be that they have been heard correctly.

Some highly sensitive people express to me that they “know” when someone is saying one thing, but mean another. In other words, they believe that the person is lying, even though all of the other indicators seem in alignment. This read of the energetic meta-communication link is very tricky. If you find that you feel this way, it is time to engage the Third Agreement, and not make an assumption about what the other is meaning. Ask for clarification instead. It could be that your partner is not “lying,” but means something different that what they seem to be saying.

You have to be careful with words. They are slippery sometimes. And yet, communication without them is not really possible. All in all, do your best to be clear and open to feedback from the listener.

Communication Is Two-Way

Remember that there are two or more people in any conversation. At least you need someone speaking and someone listening. An essential component in that equation is the listener. At any point in which the person who is supposed to be listening breaks away, the communication is effectively at an end. This most often happens when you, as the listener, begin to formulate your response to what is being said, rather than attending fully to the speaker.

When this happens, you may be reacting to something that you heard, or think you heard. If you feel yourself getting emotional, that’s often a signal that you have taken what they said personally. Remember, though, that you might have heard something inaccurately and be sure not to give into making assumptions.

In the same way, you, as speaker, need to be as clear and focused as you can on what you are wanting to communicate. You may sometimes find yourself speaking to what you think your partner will say in response instead. This is another slippery form of “making assumptions.” Do your best not to get ahead of the conversation. Let your partner have their turn.

Let there be gaps in the dialogue—opportunities for you and your partner to reflect on what has been said, your reaction to what you have heard, and what you want to say in order to be as clear as possible.

Disagreements

Partners in strong, authentic relationships do not always agree. That you and your partner do not agree is not a sign of problems in the relationship at all. In fact, it is likely a sign that the relationship is stronger than it might seem. When each person feels safe in the relationship, disagreements are much easier to manage and navigate.

When you disagree, it is important that each person has felt heard. If either you or your partner do not feel that you have been heard, then the discussion likely needs to continue, perhaps after a break. If you find yourselves “butting heads” instead of communicating, it is a very good idea to take a break. You are very likely lost in a web of assumptions.

It is perfectly OK to say something like, “I don’t feel like you are hearing me.” Such a statement is not necessarily an accusation; it may be an expression of how the person actually feels. It may simply be that what is being heard is not what is intended to be expressed. Time for a few clarifying questions, like: “This is what I think you said. Is that accurate?”

As long as each of you has expressed your opinion or belief as clearly as you can, and you believe that each of you has been heard, you can certainly agree to disagree. In fact, many ongoing disagreements can lead to very interesting and enlightening discussions in the future.

Long Silences

Let’s be clear. It’s completely OK to go for long periods of time with little or no talking between partners. In fact, there is an argument to be made that silence is a key requirement in healthy, authentic relationships.

An important element in managing long silences is how the relationship structures around them have been laid. Communication and dialog both before and after are generally helpful. The “emptiness” that is sometimes felt during lengthy periods of silence can easily be filled with assumptions about why one partner has become quiet or stopped interacting.

Another element, again, is how safe each partner feels in the relationship. When there is trust and clarity, lengthy periods of silence—even hours or days—do not seem as threatening, and there is little need for making assumptions.

  *   *   *

Again, it is very likely that none of this is new to you. However, I often find that when I am working with couples or partners having trouble in the relationship, the difficulty involves one or both forgetting these few fairly simple aspects of communicating effectively. If this is you, I invite you to take a moment and reflect on how you might improve your communication.

Remember that you can apply these ideas to any relationship, including life companions, friendships, relatives, and business. Communication is a key and core issue in creating and nurturing relationships of all kinds.

Learn more about this topic and relationships in general in my book, Spirit Paths: The Quest For Authenticity. I devote an entire chapter in it to the issue of Relationships, Tribe, and Community.


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