Feb 19 2015

Getting Caught Up

I didn’t exactly push them out the door. At the moment they were leaving, I had pangs of regret that I wasn’t going with De-facto and the girls to France. Our country house holds for me the sense of being outside of the day-to-day, on retreat from my busy life. Things move slower there. Nature embraces us, distracting us from our mental to-do lists pointing us toward more physical roadactivity. We clear the yard of brush and fallen branches and leaves, tend the grapes, adjust the tiles on the roof, hack away at other renovation projects in progress. The dog goes in and out of the house as he pleases – Winston is at his happiest in the country – and we take him for long walks and runs, watching him sprint up and down the lane, halting to sniff about, then bolting away to explore the world without a leash attached to his collar. I love to cook in the new kitchen we installed there last year, and how we sit around the table talking to each other after dinner, without anyone running off to finish homework or be on a conference call with some client in a time zone 6-hours behind us in the thick of their workday. I love doing nothing when I’m there, which, when you think about it, is what a country house is for.

I was aching not to be joining them, despite the long drive, despite the cold house they’d encounter. But I was also looking at a long string of days to myself, alone at home, a luxury that I rarely experience. I get my solitude on long airplane rides and in somber hotel rooms when I travel for work, but I can think of only two or three other times in my life, since the girls were born, when I’ve had such a stretch of time to myself – six consecutive days – in my own home, left alone, without anyone else around to take care of.

I’d like to tell you that I shut the door behind them and crawled back to bed. Or that I sat at the piano for hours conquering the Mendelssohn piece I used to play flawlessly and now stumble through. Or that I immediately set about adding chapters to my manuscript. I’d like to tell you I read all week, went for aimless walks, binged-watched on Netflix. I considered using these days granted to me to do just that, to escape my routines and to rest, alone, quietly doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Or doing nothing. But that’s not what happened.

One of the reasons I gave to De-Facto for not joining them in the country is that I feel exhausted by care-taking: our children, our household, my clients, the dog, any outside projects. Some days – and I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way – it seems like all I do is take care of other people. I longed for five days just to care for myself.
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Taking care of myself, it turns out, was less about saying fuck you to the world and staying in bed with a Donna Tartt novel, and more about clearing the clutter that inhabits my life. Especially after the last grueling month, when De-facto was of town for two weeks and I was up to my ears in fairly demanding work and juggling the kids and finding myself scrambling to keep up. I had to keep my eye on the prize: do the most important things. That meant all the little tasks that weren’t urgent or (as) important were relegated to a different list. In principle, this is good time management, until all those minute, delayable tasks become urgent and important and merge together to become an albatross. It’s not just from the last month, this has been accumulating for a long time. And looking ahead to a trip I will make next week, an intense work schedule in March, and more travel in April it became very apparent to me. Taking care of myself meant getting these things out of the way or they’d hound me all spring and into the summer.

Maybe other people don’t mind the nagging list. They just ignore it or they don’t even see it. I inherited my mother’s productivity compulsion. It bothers me that I haven’t submitted medical insurance claims because the paperwork sits in a tray on my desk. It irks me that an iTunes upgrade wiped out my playlists but I haven’t had time to find them on my back-up disk or to rebuild them with fresh music. Try as I do to minimize paper filing, there are still papers that need to be kept, and put where I can find them. This pile is one that sneers at me from the mess on my desk which has reached a level of chaos now spreading to piles on the floor.

These nagging tasks aside, there are the bigger projects that suffered during the last month: professional assignments that are perfect examples of my extraordinary capacity to overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take to do it; documentation and research and web-site maintenance; preparing for new initiatives that require new strategies and thinking.

So I split my time: half of it making progress on the big projects, and the rest tackling the nagging tasks. Those, somehow, were the most satisfying: changing the vacuum cleaner bag that was bursting at its seams; cleaning the dog poop off the bottom of one of Buddy-roo‘s shoes, which had been on our balcony for three weeks waiting for this attention; sewing a button on a sweater, one that fell off before Thanksgiving; running an anti-virus scan on my computer and upgrading to Yosemite; shoring up medical forms and tax receipts; taking the lone Christmas ornament that we found on the tree after packing away all the decorations and simply taking it upstairs to put it in the box in the closet! I reorganized my desk, washed the throw rugs from the just_tryin_to_livebathroom floors, washed and dried every piece of dirty clothing in the house, folded it and put it away, which required a little extra organization in the girls’ wardrobes. Things are coming together. I’m still not caught up, but I’m no longer drowning in random, rogue tasks.

What I needed was a vacation from my life, so I could get caught up with my life. Isn’t this ridiculous? That life is so fast and furious and filled with duties and obligations – let alone the things I want to do – that I find myself scurrying around trying to catch up? How did I get so caught up in getting caught up?

I’ll never be all caught up. I know this. There’s always something to be done, and new opportunities add new things to the list. But at least when my family returns home tomorrow, I’ll be more caught up than before, and more than ready to catch up with them.


Oct 21 2009

The Ledger

“Come with me,” she said, a command that once upon a time would elicit a groan. She led me into the room that is part-laundry room, part-office. I watched her open the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. She pulled out two ledgers.

“This one has all my medical expenses.” She opened the pages to show me the rows of entries, evenly notated in handwriting I recognized from grocery lists and birthday cards and notes she wrote to school excusing my absence. That’s something you never forget: the protective lines and loops of your mother’s handwriting.

She pointed to the pages in the front. “These are things I paid for, every day things like prescriptions and lab tests.” She flipped to the pages at the back of the notebook. “These are the big medical costs – covered by insurance.” Her familiar index finger tracked down the first column, running over all the words. Oncologist. Chemotherapy. Blood transfusion. Everything detailed. Everything organized.

She opened up the second ledger. Like the first, its columns were neatly labeled and ordered; each page separated by a pile of loose receipts retained for her records. “This book has all my expenses for the year, for my taxes.”

That’s my mother, always organized, preparing to die the same pragmatic and efficient way she’s always lived.

She desperately needed help going through the upstairs backroom, she said, so we obliged, her three grown children following her up the stairs with an eagerness un-witnessed during our childhood. Backroom, in our family, is a euphemism for junk room. The downstairs backroom is a history project, filled with our parents’ past; their love letters, college papers, every issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, neatly boxed, saved since 1958 or thereabouts.
upstairsThe upstairs backroom, once my brother’s room (with football-patterned wall paper) and then mine (painted white but with bright yellow and neon green shag carpet), now a third guest bedroom rarely used not only because it is the less grand of all the bedrooms, but because the bed was completely covered with bags and baubles brought home from meetings and conventions, or those awkward gifts received from well-meaning friends with taste so strikingly different that their generosity, though appreciated, is never fully utilized. At the foot of the bed, a row of boxes of belongings earmarked for a future yard sale. All the framed awards she received during her admirable career – too numerous to fit on the walls – piled on the shelves and on the floor, stacked against the wall. In the dresser drawers, things too precious to part with, ivory kid gloves from a governor’s ball, a silk purse her mother bought in Hong Kong, old black and white photographs, our baby teeth hidden in tiny envelopes, dated in my father’s handwriting.

It’s always the hardest room to clean, the one packed with things of only sentimental value.

The doctors never thought she’d live this long. Last winter, when the diagnosis of pre-leukemic myelodysplasia first pounded its gavel, they ordered a palliative treatment, a mild chemo easily administered five consecutive days in a monthly cycle, a treatment as inconvenient as having your period. In addition, frequent blood transfusions to introduce new cells to replace her tired, incompetent ones. Lots of doctor’s visits and the requisite poking and probing, but all of it relatively close to home and all of her loyal friends have rallied to help, taking turns driving her to all her appointments, checking in on her between medical visits. Though she is still more than capable to drive herself, good company is never a bad idea.

She has a quality of life that is absolutely acceptable. Of course she has slowed her crazy itinerary of activities and travel. But she still does a lot: a dizzying dance-card of lunches and dinner dates with friends, an occasional board meeting, her own shopping and errands. She lives more wisely now, doing only what she wants and using her lack of white blood cells as a good excuse to cut out anything extraneous. After each monthly transfusion, she gets a boost of energy and feels good. But her marrow won’t manufacture the good blood cells she needs, so she’s vulnerable to infection. She avoids crowds and coughing strangers. She won’t die of leukemia; she’ll die because of what the leukemia won’t let her fight.

There is, in fact, a growth in her lung. Is it a tumor? An infection? A fungal growth? The doctors aren’t sure. But the risk of an invasive procedure to determine its nature is deemed too dangerous. Even if they knew what it was, they wouldn’t treat it. A surgery brings too much risk for infection. A stronger chemotherapy also exists, but the doctor opts not to administer it because it requires a portacath, which can too easily become infected. The thought of such medical paraphernalia gives me flashbacks to when Short-pants was in the hospital and her stay was lengthened because the permanent drip became infected, leading to a sepsis that set her recovery back at least a month – and who knows how close she came to not recovering as a result of that secondary infection, an infection my mother would not be able to overcome.
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But she looks so beautiful, my mother. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She smiles. She laughs. She doesn’t look or act sick. She is living in a state of grace, I think.

Her doctor’s priority is not to cure her – since that is impossible – but to slow the disease so that she might have a quality of life while preparing for its end. For over a month now she’s been off the chemo treatment, and she’s no worse when she was on it. The doctors are baffled to see her doing so well. My mother’s constitution, in the end, is remarkable.

I asked her if she was scared. “No,” she said, “Dying is a part of life. Nobody can live forever.” This is indisputable; it can happen to any of us, any day – a fluke car crash or the diagnosis we dread – just like that. But once the sentence is offered, the disease is certain and incurable, I can only imagine what it’s like to stand on the threshold of the uncertain mystery ahead.

She shakes her head, not with resignation but with gratitude, and lists her fond memories: a happy childhood in Havana, enjoying college, all the good years with my father before he died. My siblings and I have managed not to disappoint her. She had a serious career when many women couldn’t, and even in retirement, continues to make an impact in her field. She’s traveled all over the globe. She adores her grandchildren, and this is reciprocated.

There’s no place on her ledger for remorse. She’s just counting up all the good things, year-by-year. Except that now she notices them day-to-day. You can’t imagine how much I am in awe of her, my mother, still modeling for me how to live – right up to the end.