Monday, July 31, 2017

Sky Storms and Heart Storms - Magic Mystery Roadtrip Revelations Part 3

Heading into the storm
The third leg of our trip was so hard and the weather seemed to know it. It reflected our roiling hearts as we got closer to Florida, the family, and the funeral for Rob's sister Betsy.

But our hotel in Florida was a pure example of some of the magic of this trip that I had so dreaded. I'm a smoker, and Rob was kind enough to get smoking rooms when possible, but for the hardest part of the trip, the three nights we'd spend in Niceville attending the funeral, connecting with deeply grieving family members, we had a non-smoking room, which came with a gift from Spirit, The Magic Mosaic Table.

Heaviness inside our hearts, heaviness outside.
We drove and drove, with stormclouds all around us, wondering when the deluge would happen and if we'd find ourselves stricken or somehow protected.

Oh the clouds were beautiful, but so scary too.
The magic happened when we checked in to our hotel and realized that within walking distance to the right was a Waffle House for quick breakfasts, and a Hurricane Grill to the left, also within easy walking distance. And a little mosaic tiled picnic table outside underneath a protective tin roof. So Rob didn't have to drive for us to eat, I had a sort of safe haven to go for a smoke, and we had time to do some things we wanted to get done.

The first was to visit his Dad at the Nursing Home where he lives. His Dad is old as the hills and unfortunately doesn't have his mind about him anymore. He can talk but doesn't remember anything from one minute to the next. He rides in his wheelchair, and he likes to "walk it" himself. This means they don't put the pedals down, so he can use his feet to walk his chair all over the place. He likes to do that.

For a little while you'll have to use your imagination because I didn't take photos while we were at the Nursing Home cause we had too much to pay attention to. The first thing was for Rob to meet Cara in person, the lovely woman who manages the home. They'd talked on the phone, but since we live in Pennsylvania they'd never met in person. Cara was dressed in a brightly patterned summer dress, comfy sandals, and sparkly blue nail polish on toes and fingers. Her personality was just as bright. I think she picked out her outfits on purpose to be a ray of sunshine for all the elders.

We talked with her to make sure they knew to contact Rob over the next several days, and maybe weeks if he could help with any questions or decisions, since Betsy's husband Ron had already so very much to deal with emotionally. He and Betsy had been keeping a close eye on Rob's father Bob, and Ron and Betsy's children, Cathy and Joel, had visited him in the nursing home. But we wanted to make sure they'd have a stretch of time without too many outside obligations, a time for peace, for grieving, for loving each other, and for climbing back up.

So Cara took us to see Bob, who was having his lunch in the lunchroom. The Nursing Home was lovely. Homey, comfortable, nicely decorated, clean as a whistle, and fully staffed. Nursing and cleaning staff people were everywhere, taking care of all kinds of things, feeding the elders, sorting out medicines, vacuuming, and just generally being useful and working hard.

Cara walked down the hallways, leading us to Bob, and all along the way she'd pat someone's shoulder here, or tease someone there as she passed. Many of the residents liked to sit in the hallways and though they were mostly past the age where they could talk or socialize much they liked being out where there were activities and things going on.

So when we got to Bob at his lunch table, he was just finishing up, but still had his little tub of ice cream left. Cara asked him if he wanted to finish it and he said "Oh no, I don't think so." She introduced us and Bob didn't recognize his son. (Check one on the hard scale for Rob.) And he didn't remember me either. Rob had expected this since he'd been in touch by phone for years, and was aware of the decline in his Dad's mental faculties, but it was still uncomfortable and hard to understand emotionally.

There was a beautiful courtyard outside the lunchroom, surrounded on all sides by the big picture windows and stucco walls of the Nursing Home. It was lovely. So I asked Bob if he'd like to go outside. "I guess so," he said. So I got behind his wheelchair to help push as he walked himself out to sit in the shade by one of the picnic tables outside.

Rob and Bob in the courtyard
Rob and I had already talked about what was okay to talk about with Bob - since he didn't remember anyone and hadn't much been able to for many months, we knew not to mention the death of his daughter. It would only confuse and upset him. So as we sat at the picnic table with him we talked about the pretty flowers, the sky, the clouds, a plane going by overhead, and the breeze.

At one point Bob bunched up his shoulders under his ears, squinched up his face and smiled the most beautific smile I'd ever seen. He took a big deep breath and let it out real slow, and said, "Oh it feels good to be outside. The breeze feels so good and it's warm!" It was a very hot 87 degrees with drenching humidity, but like true elders often prefer, Bob was comfortably dressed in long, warm sweatpants, with a warm, soft jacket over his shirt.

After we'd had the same conversation for about 15 minutes, repeating ourselves because he didn't remember, I asked him if he'd like to take a "walk" around the courtyard. "Oh, I guess so," he said. So I got behind and pushed him gently while he walked his chair along the pathways. We stopped to look at the little garden planted in raised beds so that the flowers were eye-height as the people who lived at the home rolled by in their wheelchairs. We talked about the colors. We rolled past three different fountains, a cluster of hummingbird feeders, rose bushes, beds of all different kinds of colorful flowers and plants, and lots of gorgeous palm trees.

After we'd gone clear around the courtyard and across some of the diagonal pathways too, we went back to sit by the picnic table. We had a little trouble thinking of new things to say. So we told Bob it was time for us to go, and I asked him if he was ready to go back inside. "Oh, no, I don't think so," he said. And he melted my heart by doing his shoulder bunching, face squinching smile thing while declaring "Oh the breeze feels so good and it's good to be outside!" So I asked him if he'd like to go around the courtyard, feeling very Groundhog Day-ish. He said "Why yes, I think so."

But I was getting "the look" from my husband, who was clearly ready to leave, which I didn't quite understand. I motioned for Rob to help push his father around the courtyard so they'd have a bit of somewhat closer interaction. We went by the flowerbeds, hummingbird feeders, fountains, and palms again, and it was as if he'd never seen them before, Bob was so delighted.

Then it really was time to go, so we took him inside and took him to his room and said "We love you!" which probably confused him a bit cause he didn't say it back. And we headed out the door. But he followed us. That was a little heartbreaking. Partway down one of the long, carpeted hallways I saw one of the nurses working out in the hallway, getting medicines ready to distribute, and I whispered to her, "Could you make sure Bob doesn't follow us all the way out?" And she did.

She went to stand right in front of his chair so he couldn't see us, and put her little hand on her hip and talked cheerfully with him until we were around the corner and out of sight.

We got into the car and headed back to the hotel, mission one in Florida accomplished - we'd successfully connected in-person with the Nursing Home staff and with Bob. They had all the info they needed and we felt we could relieve a bit of the burden Ron had been taking care of.

And then something happened and Rob and I had a FIGHT. A serious one.

I was chattering away about my grandmother's time in her nursing home in West Virginia and how they were different and in some ways the same. Helping my Mom get Gammy situated there when her four caregivers were no longer able to provide all she needed at home was the scariest thing I'd ever experienced. Gammy's nursing home was also well-staffed and clean as a whistle, and the elders also liked to congregate in the hallways. But some of them were moaning. Some were banging dolls around, some were sleeping peacefully, and some were laughing. It scared me silly. I vowed never to live that long. I'd always wanted to be 90 but after seeing that, I decided nope. I don't know if Bob's nursing home inhabitants were more heavily medicated or whether it was just because it was my first time and it was my Gammy going in there, but I found it terrifying.

So as I was chattering along to Rob I made the unintentional mistake of saying out loud, "I don't know why you were so ready to go after the first round of the courtyard. What was with that look? If we can give him a few moments of pleasure, even if he doesn't remember them, what could be bad about that?"

It really hit Rob the wrong way. And we had to work and work to get back to understanding. He couldn't articulate what he was feeling, only that he hated it and felt responsible but there wasn't a damn thing he could do. He couldn't make his Dad, his Dad again.

I said "It's not so hard, I just understand that he's like a two year old. A child. So we have conversations like you would with a very young child, and we entertain him like we would a child."

This didn't help. Rob clammed up. When it was time for bed we were still trying to pick at it and work things out but nothing I said seemed to help. So I said "Let's go outside for a while," and I poured us a glass of wine and grabbed my cigs and a notebook. Down to the mosaic tiled table we went.

The Magic Mozaic Table, an oasis in a sea of storms.
As we sat down I said to him, "Let's do the exercise we learned from Brooke Castillo about intentional thinking." It's a great exercise for when you're stuck because of circumstances beyond your control and you need to break out of hurtful feelings. Rob and I have done it a number of times with really painful emotions and thoughts as we climb back from the anguish of my daughter's death.

The formula is: Circumstance/Thought/Feeling/Action/Result/New Thought/New Feeling/New Result (intentional thinking creates the new thought and new feeling, whereas unintentional thinking can keep us stuck in painful emotions). Our conversation went like this -

Me: What was the circumstance that threw you into defense mode?

Rob: (After a lot of wrangling, thinking, and some back and forth discussion.) You attacked and criticized me. You doubted my integrity.

Me: Okay. That was never my intention, but we'll go with that. Jen attacked Rob's integrity and criticized him. (This wasn't easy for me to "own" or write down, but it's important for the exercise to target Rob's perspective, not mine.) What was your thought that resulted from that circumstance?

Rob: Jen doesn't understand me or support me.

Me: Okay. I love you very much and want nothing other than to be supportive of you, and for you to feel understood, but if you believe that I don't understand or support you, let's see if we can figure that out. What's the feeling that results from your thought that I don't understand you or support you?

Rob: I feel inadequate, like I'm not measuring up.

Me: I hear you, but that's coming from you, not me. I respect and admire you very much. I was just trying to explain how I've learned to handle dealing with people who don't have their minds anymore. I didn't mean to criticize you. What action resulted from your thoughts and feelings?

Rob: I told you you're horrible and we had a fight.

Me: Yes, and we're both feeling miserable. Can we come up with a new thought from your perspective that doesn't place blame?

Rob: (After a lot more wrangling and thought....) Jen has the perspective that Dad's a two year old stranger.

Me: Yes, that is exactly right. Does that help you to feel better? That I'm not attacking or criticizing you?

Rob: Yes. I feel better about that. I'm glad we're not fighting anymore.

Wow, I was so relieved that the intentional thinking exercise helped to get us out of the "blame zone." So we were able to go upstairs and go to bed. But that wasn't the end of it. Rob was still feeling like he wanted to run like hell away from that nursing home. And he used to work in one when he was young and considering becoming a doctor. He was really good at treating the elders with patience and good cheer, like two year olds.

He was sitting in the chair by the window of our hotel room as I was just waking up. "Morning," I said. "Morning," he said.

"I think I figured something out about yesterday. I can't do it," he said. "I can't see my Dad as a stranger or as a two year old. Dad's Dad. But he isn't."

"You can't make that leap," I said. "Well that's understandable. He is your Dad. It's easier for me because he's not my Dad. I don't have all those years of growing up and memories and love and attachment. It's perfectly natural for you to have a hard time with that. Now I understand why you want to run like hell from the nursing home. It's okay. If you were down here and could visit him more often it wouldn't be so much of a shock. You'd work your way through it. But being so far away you just don't have much of the opportunity to do that."

So though he feels a very strong sense of responsibility, he also feels a huge sense of vulnerability. And I'm very grateful for tools like Brooke Castillo teaches us to get us to understanding so we can love each other without the barriers that can crop up insidiously, without intention.

Magic Mystery Roadtrip Revelation Number 3: We can do hard things, especially when we are loved and loving, and there are TOOLS for this. For this kind of roadtrip especially, hard things came up, and I am grateful for the love we nurture between us.

Dinner that night, and all the nights in Niceville, was, appropriately at the Hurricane Grill. It was just what we needed. A bit of beachy lightness and really good food.

The tables were made of refurbished surfboards
but we didn't climb up and try to ride them.
The decor was beachy and lighthearted.
Apologies for the lack of photos. Pretend this chapter was more like a book. Next post is about the incredible people we met along the way and some we didn't meet but we all know the type, scary. Wow. Tattoos are a great conversation opener for their stories.

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