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Tybee Marsh

Tybee Marsh

Getting out of town was the transition I needed into retirement, again. I’d been out for five years, accepted a job again for almost two – and now I’m “really” retiring, at least from earning a living. There are many things I want to devote time to.  But it’s always been hard for me to separate from my last job because of the effort I devote to it. It’s always consumed me, occupying most of my thoughts and energy. I’ve never been one who could do a 9-6 and consider work finished; it’s always come home with me. Leaving the area was the physical and emotional separation I knew had to be done.

BusSo we dug our motor home out of hibernation, Mr. Bus “he’s” called, and got him ready for a relatively short jaunt to Tybee Island, off the coast of Savannah, the charming historic southern town about 7-1/2 hours from home.

Tybeemarsh3Tybee has the wildness I love – vegetation is rampant and most of the island is uninhabited by people, but lush with marshland and meandering rivers throughout. And, of course, the Atlantic Ocean kisses the shores. Here zoning prohibits high-rise anything – hotels, apartment buildings, condo developments, retail establishments. Three stories high are all that’s allowed and it’s that low-density commercialism that makes the island so attractive. Homes are eclectic ranging from small ramshackle dwellings to modern and expensive abodes overlooking the ocean or the marshes and lived in by residents of equal diversity.

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TybeePorch        On morning walks with my vivacious Bella dog we discover secret “private” gardens that we explore (sshhh) and meet colorful people who live in happy, bright houses eager to swap backgrounds. As one older hippy tells me, many Tybee residents are retired professors and artists – or as he puts it

misfits who move to the island of misfits.” My kind of place!

We wander past Nancy’s house, a modest cottage in need of some TLC with impressive gardens. Tall plants of every kind populate containers peppered throughout her side yard of maybe half an acre. In the back are two greenhouses where she’s busy potting new plants. She’s been working on her yard for years, she tells me, as she names each plant she points out. Some are dripping with flowers while others tower overhead with large leaves – all plants shaded by enormous live oaks throughout. As we tour the garden she apologizes for sweating, explaining that her “prissy” sister-in-law would be mortified by the way she looks.  She loves kissing Bella and announces that her 19-year-old cat had just died, and, though the island is crawling with cats, she went to the shelter to find a new one to adopt. She invites us back later for an iced tea.

TybeePaintedHouse6Later, we wave to an older woman sitting in her moo moo sipping a beverage on the front porch of her charming purple house perched in the middle of an island of grass separating two roads. I explain to her that her house is our landmark for getting on the correct path to the campground. She’s used to that since many people driving by know her, evidently, well known home.

It is on our regular jaunt on a path through the park where we meet Jim, a man of 86 who lives in the nursing home around the corner. He was tooling through the park on his motorized scooter as he does everyday. One leg is amputated at the knee, the other leg is swollen and bruised, a byproduct of circulation problems he tells me. The twinkle in his eye tells of his joy for living – even in a nursing home. I’m curious about that life. I tell him that my father also lives in a nursing home – a beautiful, well appointed one that he hates.   He says that enjoying life was a conscious decision he made a few years ago after caring for his infirmed wife for a long time. When she died and his health declined he knew he needed to move somewhere that could take care of him. So he chose this facility on Tybee which is not as nice as my father’s yet he says it’s fine.

He moved in “with a chip on his northern shoulder” until he had an epiphany lying in bed one morning. He decided he didn’t want to be angry anymore, dissatisfied anymore, instead he wanted to enjoy the rest of his life.

 

So he decided to. And that’s when his life changed. He’s the president of his “block” and on the residents’ advocacy committee and friendly with his aides and nurses. He loves them and they love him. He talks to other disgruntled residents about how easy it is to change one’s attitude and then life can become joyful again. It requires accepting this stage of life and choosing to make the most of it. And voila, life changes. He says many residents ignore him. I wish Jim could talk to my father; maybe my father would ignore him too. I guess sometimes people don’t know how to change their attitudes.

BusDrivingTomorrow morning we head for home after a week here on Tybee. We’ve looked at houses here, for fun, to see if there’s something we would fall in love with. I have. So far, my husband hasn’t. He tells me it’s just a fantasy for me, that I’d be bored here after a while. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s not. I know I’d love to be friends with the eclectic people I’ve met.

On to more retirement living ….

 

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Alzheimers ribbonThe last time I saw Martha everything seemed status quo even though it had been a month since my last visit.  Her head was resting comfortably on a pillow, mouth was wide open as usual and she was sound asleep.  She was usually sleeping when I arrived and when I left, and her husband said she now spent much of her time asleep.  It was getting more difficult to awaken her for meals.  That was the sign we’d been waiting for.

Martha has been uncommunicative for 5 years, in hospice care for 4 years, and in a vegetative state for about a year.  She’d been living with “end stage Alzheimer’s Disease” during those same 4 years and living with the disease for about 11.  Doctors said she’s the first person they’d met to live “like that” for so long.  Most patients die sooner.  For some reason she’d been hanging on.

Martha finally died several days ago and I seemed to be the only one relieved – for her sake and for her husband’s who’s devoted the last 11 years of his life to her care.

Some background …

rainbow01As a hospice companion volunteer I function as an impartial friend to the dying and to the family who cares for them.  The adage “when a person is sick a family is sick” is true.  Illness can drive a family apart because of a shared history – or together as a united force.  In Martha’s case the bond grew tighter.

When she was diagnosed her husband promised to take care of her until the end, as she did for her mother who finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s years earlier.  He took that pledge seriously, and literally, essentially becoming hostage to his house unless he could find someone to “sit” for her on occasion.  That’s where I came in.  Three years ago I became that person who “babysat” as he called it.

True_Friendship1Over time hubby and I have become fast friends, visiting together before and after he ran his errands.  Eventually I persuaded him to include others in his life, people vibrant and leading healthy lives.  Hubby started going to Bingo at the senior center during my weekly visits.  He made friends there.  Continued gentle prodding inspired him to invite them over during the week for pizza and card games.  Slowly the twinkle returned to his eyes, he laughed again and regaled me with stories from his week’s events.  I got him books to read, movies to watch and together we went through his photo albums of happier days when Martha was his wife and not the living corpse in the bedroom.  He giggled about a couple of the “old ladies” at the senior center seemingly flirting with him just because he helped them on and off with their coats.  He was starting to feel like a man again – all the while – feeding, bathing, toileting, dressing, transferring and giving meds to his wife in the next room.  And he spoke so lovingly to her – calling her his pet names, rubbing her cheek, whispering in her ear as though they were sharing a secret from yesterday.  She laid in bed, mouth wide open and eyes staring blankly, not moving a muscle – while her chest went up and down with each breath.  “She knows it’s me,” he always said, “I can tell by the look in her eyes.”  Really?  It looked like the same blank stare I saw each time I was there.

Probably two – three weeks ago Martha turned a corner.  She slept almost all the time and her breathing became shallower.  Then she refused the spoon he continually tried to put in her mouth with food.  Then she wouldn’t take the thickened water.

And then – finally – she died.

At Martha’s memorial service hubby was drowning in his sorrow, unable to contain the tears that insistently ran down his face.  And his grief remains intense today.

Kozzi-broken-heart-shape-cartoon-772x673His world has a gaping hole in it.  There’s nothing he has to do and nobody who needs his care.  Martha isn’t there anymore.  He’s not sure what he’s going to do.

So my relief for her peace and for his freedom is misguided.  While she is, hopefully, at peace he’s not yet free.  Love’s tentacles run deep.

I have much to learn.  And that’s why I do hospice work.

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King7King is the closest I’m likely to come to having my own horse.  Though I’ve always craved the special relationship between horse and human, my lifestyle isn’t suited to the responsibility of owning that majestic animal.  Days are busy and, because of career choices, my husband and I have moved a lot over the years.  So early on we decided to have no kids and no horses.

As a child I rode with my father along the Wissahickon near Philadelphia.  He rented our horses and later treated me to lessons to gain confidence on the animal I loved but was intimidated by.  When I started earning a living I continued those lessons, progressing to an ‘advanced’ beginner – able to trot, canter and jump small fences riding English saddle.  But I worked constantly and had only weekends to practice on the variety of horses designated for lessons.  There were favorites, of course, but because I didn’t own anybody I couldn’t always have my choice.  Then came King.

King3Driving around my newly relocated town one Sunday I happened on a barn and impulsively pulled into the driveway to explore.  The familiar, delicious smell of horse and hay greeted my senses.  So did the proprietor who wondered why I was walking around her facility.  Minutes later she introduced me to King, a handsome bay colored Arabian with a gorgeous, attentive face and warm, trusting brown eyes.  I fell in love.  And we arranged for me to lease King and ride him each week.

Sundays were designated King days for me and they were sacrosanct.  I looked forward to opening the barn door, turning on the lights and hearing King whinny his hello from the other end of the stable.  It was usually just he and I at the farm and he knew who was approaching; he’d been waiting.  Our ritual started with grooming as I led him out of his stall to the cross ties, smiling while he would strut – head held high, tail twitching – bragging to the others that he was getting groomed, not they.  Then he’d get playful, bending his neck around to nibble on my shoulder – or my, ahem, butt – while I reached down to brush his legs.  He was a flirt even though he knew he had me at hello.

King6We’d run through gait and direction exercises in the arena – work on our trot and canter, move left, right and practice figure eights.  Occasionally he’d act silly, frightened to death by a new weed that had sprouted, certain it would gobble him alive until he went to sniff to determine he was safe.

Each Sunday I’d arrive at the barn frazzled from a long, hectic week and within minutes of burying my nose in his neck and looking into his eyes, the tension would lift from my shoulders to be replaced by the sheer joy of communing with King.  We belonged to each other, there was no doubt in our minds.

King and I spent four years of Sundays together, until I quit my job and took a months’ long cross-country trip with my husband.  We lost track of each other until four years ago when serendipity once again brought us together through Horse Haven of Tennessee.  Turns out that this horse rescue was now located in King’s barn and when I signed on to volunteer there I’d get to see King each week.  Though he was now too old to ride, he was not too old to remember me, and our special bond.

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KingFinal1Yesterday King suffered a terrible accident in the pasture.  Somehow he tore tendons in his rear left leg.  Prognosis was poor and his pain was intense.  At age 37 he was not a candidate for surgery.  So his family made the gut wrenching decision to send him across “the rainbow bridge,” as it’s called.

King lived a most fortunate existence as a horse; he spent his whole life with one family and sired his own family who lived with him in the same barn and the same green pastures.

King&MeFinalWe got to say goodbye yesterday – me with my nose buried in his neck followed by kisses on his nose and apples to fill his belly.  He, with the familiar nibble on my shoulder and deep look into my eyes.

I love King.  I miss him already.  And in many ways he was my horse.

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karmaAs I sat moaning in the chair I figured it was karma that took me down, that “what comes around goes around” thing that threatens people with payback for behaving unbecomingly.

Id recently boasted to a sick friend that I never get sick.  Then whammo the hammer fell.  Sick?  Me?  It had been years!  But there was no mistaking the progressive worsening of my breathing, a deep guttural cough that ripped apart my ribs and sternum and my foggy head that wouldn’t allow me to concentrate to read or enjoy anything on TV.  I couldn’t even sit still for long before breaking into coughing spasms.  And lying down to sleep? Forget about that; I couldn’t even fall asleep at night let alone catch a few daytime zzzzs.  Maybe the steroid was the culprit that pumped me with too much energy to relax and doze off.  Between that pill, the steroid nose spray and the doxycycline I was supposed to feel better in a couple of days.  So much for the doctor’s promise.  Instead I got worse and the upper respiratory distress went deeper and turned into bronchitis that called for a stronger antibiotic.

justicescales.jpegFor the last two weeks of April I wondered if I’d ever feel like me again.  Was I destined to fight for breath, cough my ribs apart and sound like a croaking frog when I tried to talk?  Would I ever fall asleep again?  While I wandered around the house and yard feeling sorry for myself and caught an hour or so of TV at night before retiring to my bed to sit the night away — I realized the following ….

  1. Breathing is not over-rated.  That silly comment has always been my stand by retort to my husband each time he reminded me that 5 cats and 1 dog are enough animals for 1 household.  That his asthma, though controlled and manageable, is not a pleasant experience in the pollen capitol of the country here in E. TN.  He’s used to not breathing easily.  I’m not.  And this experience is enough to make me consider relocating to a better ventilated part of the country.
  2. I’ve always taken my good health for granted.  Now in my late 50s it’s rare for me to be under the weather.  I’ve had a couple of health scares in my life, but just a couple.  OK, maybe a few and when they occur they’re doozies.  I don’t tend to get something simple, instead it’s things with weird symptoms, one series of which prompted a trip to the Mayo Clinic to discover it was cat scratch fever.  And then there was a surreal episode of transient global amnesia which lasted probably 12 hours when my short-term memory took a vacation, leaving me no idea what day it was or what any of my calendar notations meant.  Doctors still don’t know what caused it or whether it will ever happen again.
  3. My discipline comes from outside.  Who knew that my habit of snacking in the evenings in front of the TV was easily controlled by the dictates of an antibiotic that required an empty stomach for a final night-time dose.  Never mind that I’ve been trying to stop that pesky snacking for years.  Now, suddenly, because I wasn’t allowed to, I didn’t.  What’s wrong with my personal self-discipline?!
  4. I’m a bad patient.  Because I’m so rarely sick (notice I didn’t say never?) I don’t do sick well, especially if I can’t do something productive with time in the house.  Can’t read, watch TV, don’t want to eat or cook and can’t even sleep.  Yech.  Just wandering around and moaning was my activity of choice, that and feeling sorry for myself.  When I’m well I subscribe to the Buddhist notion that suffering can be avoided by accepting that life is filled with peaks and valleys and there will always be bad times as part of the human condition.  But somehow when I was sick, I chose to suffer.   At least I was able to observe that, right?
  5. Bug bites can be bad.  Who knew?  Working in the garden is fraught with potential disaster – fire ants, spiders, ticks, bee stings are all conspiring to make yard beautification dangerous.  A couple of years ago a thorn prick on my arm turned into a staph infection, again requiring antibiotics.  This year something jabbed my thigh and caused an allergic reaction.  I still don’t know what got me, though we’ve pretty much ruled out most things, leaving a spider bite as the highest probability.

AprilShell1So I’ve certainly lived April and the beautiful, calming curves of the conch shell signifying another month lived belies the turmoil in my life this month.  I suppose they can’t all be good.  And I have come out the other end, well again.  For that I’m extremely grateful.  On to May …

How was your April?

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There is so much hullabaloo over Sheryl Sandburg’s book, “Lean In”that I decided to look through it to understand reasons for the fuss.

Much of her premise, that women essentially underestimate and undersell themselves, is familiar to me –  having either read about it over time or witnessed those characteristics in person throughout my career.  I’m among those of my gender mates labeled “ambitious” and have been ‘affectionately’ called a bitch from time to time because I accept authority easily and hold others accountable.  Those traits are more difficult to come by in women and I don’t know whether that’s due to nature or nurture, frankly.  But I can say that I’ve identified more strongly with men than women over the years and seem to have nurtured more professional friends of the opposite sex.

It’s true that men are raised with the expectation of earning a living and supporting their families.   The more money he can make, the better lifestyle he can provide.  They’re also taught to be strong and to assume power as their birthright.  I’m talking power over their destiny because that’s the role of a man.  Of course there are always going to be the artistic types who defy society’s expectations.  It’s my guess that swimming against that tide for those men can probably be as difficult as for the woman who aspires to take control of her life and aim for an office in the corporate executive suite.  Both are defying stereotypes and that usually involves swimming upstream.

But I think there’s a real distinction to be made between men assuming power as a birthright and actually having real self-confidence.  Portraying strength is an image they learn to cultivate.  But dig a little deeper and discover that many of those fellas don’t actually feel strong inside.  Some drink to ease their tension and muster courage.  And though Sandburg attributes self-doubt to women, there are many men who also feel like frauds internally and learn to compensate for that by networking with other men to create quid pro quo relationships.  You do this for me … I do this for you.  It’s the way of their corporate world – developing allies to protect their backs and help them succeed.  It’s their understood reality.

Sandberg writes that men will attribute their success to innate qualities and skills.  Women will say they got lucky, or worked really hard or had help from others.  When asked about failure a man will say he wasn’t interested enough or didn’t study enough where women might attribute failure to an inherent lack of ability.

I’d like to suggest that only women are telling the truth in those two examples.  Because men are raised to “fake it till you make it” it’s natural for him to continue to put his best foot forward to preserve his image while women are better able to absorb what could be the objective truth.  Nobody reaches the pinnacle of a profession alone.  Good timing has always played a role as well as people who’ve helped – either directly or as part of a team.  Think of any successful man in the world, read his bio and examine the team around him throughout his career.  Smart leaders choose the right people with whom to surround themselves.

The fact is, corporate America is used to having men in charge.  There’s a style of conducting business that’s well suited to a man’s psyche because men created it.  Women have always had to fit in to play the game.  And some women are comfortable with that role while others aren’t and there are plenty of guys who will never become part of the executive suite either.

My mother always told me that I could do anything I wanted and she ‘knew’ I’d be successful at it.  My father owned a business and was clearly comfortable being in charge.  Maybe as a combination of nurture and nature I’ve also been comfortable as a leader.  And yes, with hard work, good timing, smart choices, help from people who believed in me and success over the years I’ve achieved a professional self-confidence too.  But more important to me than climbing to the very top of an organization was keeping a close distance to the product we were creating, in my case, television projects.  That’s where I found my joy and the idea of being relegated to a business office overseeing a couple of levels of management who managed the product was not my idea of fun.  So I climbed as high as I wanted to and the money I made was better than most, certainly good enough to pay for all my expenses and all of my conservative wants.  I’ve never been a big acquirer.

So a corner office with a view in the executive wing was not what I aspired to.  And there are plenty of other women … and men … whose passions lead them in other directions too.  We don’t all have to run companies to make a difference in lives and our communities.  As long as we’re paying attention to the beat of our own drums and fearlessly living our lives, I believe we’re leaning in.

The real take away from her book might be an invitation to women to dream big, feel their fears and do it anyway.  That’s what most of the male species does and women are equally capable as they.

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FebShell1Another month has gone by and now six months have passed since I started this year-long conscious living project.  The shell that comes out of my bowl of 12, signifying a month lived, is dangerous looking and prickly.  The little sea animal that used to live inside did its best to stave off predators.  Any one bold enough to try to snack on this creature risked injury in the process.  I guess it’s sort of like life in that you never know what each day will bring.  It could bring joy, sorrow or danger.  It’s filled with risk of varying degrees.  One day you’re healthy — and the next, maybe you’re not.  Of that I’m acutely aware.  A little farther down you’ll read why.

FebShell2This month though, more than the others, has come and gone with little hindsight awareness of how I spent my time.  I know I enjoyed each day and meditated at the start of most.  There was time spent at the horse rescue, with my hospice patient and her husband, celebrating my husband’s birthday, exercising, reading and other assorted mundane activities of daily living.  And I spent quite a bit of time with my dear friend who’s living each one of her days with a keen awareness of the cancer in her body and wondering what that will ultimately mean.  Talk about awareness of life!

Mostly what I feel these days is appreciation for my health, my life and everything in it.  Turns out that my age has something to do with that.  Research shows that wisdom and a sense of well-being grows as we age, with the middle-aged brain reaching its peak potential in those areas.  In fact that research shows us 50 somethings to be happier in this decade than others.  You can find out details in Barbara Strauch’s breezy read called “The Secret Life Of the Grown-Up Brain”   She covers health and medicine for the New York Times and has written other books on health related subjects.  You can hear a lecture from her here.

It’s soothing to know that as we age our brains respond less to negative stimuli and, according to Strauch’s book, lean towards accentuating the positive as an almost automatic reflex.  I like that.

Barbara Allen

Barbara Allen

I saw it in action in early February while attending a lecture by Barbara Allen who, at age 71, recently completed more than 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  Alone with a 30 pound back pack.  She told us that her friends tried to dissuade her from the solo hike by pointing out all the potential dangers for an, ahem, older lady hiking alone.  She told them, and us, that she’d rather die doing something she loved than be paralyzed by fear and alone in her house.  That’s quite a case of accentuating the positive, wouldn’t you say?

You can read a story about her here.

And see some photos from her six month adventure here.

She was a captivating woman who inspires me to continue hiking, though I doubt I’ll ever do a solo expedition like that.  I’ll continue to succumb to my paranoia about being eaten by wild animals and attacked by scary people.

But I do live my life my way albeit on a less grand scale.  Even before I started this awareness project I’ve known that after a finite amount of time my experience as a human being will be over.  And the older I get the faster the time seems to fly.  Instead of my whole life looming ahead of me like in my 20s, now I hope to get 25 or 30 healthy, vibrant years under my belt before whatever’s next comes next.

What I know today, different from a few years ago, is that making a connection with life, many forms of life, is what draws meaning for me now.

So long February.  May March continue to bring health, happiness and a peaceful brain.

And you?  How did you spend February?

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This musical feels more like an Irish folk pub than a Broadway musical, right from the start.  As the audience files in from the street there’s a band playing on the stage mingling with audience members as they get drinks from the stage bar.  Number after knee pounding number is played and sung until the lights slowly dim and a spotlight isolates one guitar strumming singer from the rest. Before you realize it, the house is dark, the lead is singing and an actress has entered the stage to listen.

ONCE is a new kind of Broadway show, very different from the standard musical fare where the book is distinct from the songs and choreography.  Maybe that’s why it captured this year’s Tony Award for best musical. Have a listen.

In this show the music IS the show because the story revolves around musicians.  Of course there’s also a love story evolving but that is complicated.

Steve Kazee is the focus of the story and sings most of the emotionally charged numbers that rip through your gut.  He’s incredible and won a Tony for his performance.  Equally powerful is Cristin Milioti, Tony nominee, whose soulful contributions are haunting and melodic simultaneously.  The music is phenomenal and will soon join my CD collection.

ONCE is among the best theater I’ve seen where story and music are one entity and the result is an exhilarating, memorable experience.  BRAVO!

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