Family

the gaps in my memory

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It is a three day weekend.  There are piles of paperwork on the floor next to my office chair that await: requests for 2014 tax documentation, audit folders for PTA and stacks of paperwork to sign for field trips, science projects and school conferences.   The work folders remain in my book bag.

I continue to fill in the gaps in the 1,000 piece puzzle and, to both my family and I’s surprise, I cannot stay away from it.  The daylight filters through my living room curtains and illuminates my coffee table as countless hours are lost patiently sifting through the pieces.

allegory.  noun.  “a symbolic representation.” Def. 2. Merriam Webster Online, Merriam Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.

The puzzle is the allegory of my life.

The jigsaw makes me sit in the present moment.  With the five of us within my four walls I can enjoy these hours unencumbered.  I don’t need to rush to bring kids here, there and everywhere.  I do not worry about my to-do lists, schedules and due dates.  I am here.

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There is a gap that continues to bother me and each day I actively search for the colors that will fill it in.  I have been unsuccessful in locating these pieces.  I know eventually, I’ll fill in the gaps.

It’ll work itself out.

Recently I had asked the members in our bookclub to share a book that had special meaning to them; a book that our group of ten had not read.  Some chose classics like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett or Jane Austen’s  Pride and Prejudice.  Others chose contemporary books that renewed their love of reading.   I have read some amazing books over the years.  But the one that remains in my mind, one that I have not shared, is Lisa Genova’s Still Alice.

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I had read this novel some time ago and had forgotten it was going to become a movie.  I was surprised by the text from  a girlfriend, informing me of its limited release date on Friday, January 16th.  I was shocked when I watched my early morning show and discovered one of my favorite actresses, Julianne Moore, won the Golden Globe and received an Oscar nod for this movie. I hadn’t even known she was starring in it.   How can a movie that hasn’t been released have so much hoopla?

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And as all things do, the thoughts from my subconscious circled in my mind.  In my dreams.  It brought me to the place that I rarely go to…the gaping hole in my life that stays hidden away.

Alzheimer’s Disease.

With the release of this movie my past comes rearing back.  It is my biggest fear; one that my hubs shares with me.  Will I lose my memories, my mind like my own mother did?  Am I genetically predisposed?

It is one of the reasons I painstakingly document my family with photos.  I read books for enjoyment but also know that reading stimulates the mind.  Last year I chose to re-subscribe to my Sunday paper; reading it from cover-to-cover.  Each December I self-test myself  when I place my hands on the ivories; attempting to play Irving Berlin’s White Christmas from memory without any practice.   The factors that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s include: reading, mind stimulating games (like Sequence or puzzles), music, education level, social interactions and healthy lifestyle choices.

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I delve into all things mental; the neurogerontologist within  stimulating neuronal networks to keep the synapses current.   The years in the lab return; the slides of neurofibrillary tangles and plaques.   Last year my mind was scattered; the multi-tasker pulled in many different directions.  Mediocre at everything; good at nothing.  I literally lost my mind.  When I began to lose my train of thought or began a task and forgot mid-stride; I was on full alert.

Life had its own way of working itself out and I took a break.  I cleared my schedules.  I worked hard to discover the motives for doing the things that I did.  I began to sit quietly and listen to my intuition.  It was hard to hear it amongst the chaos and noise I had lived in.

I bought books on organizing my mind.  I retook the multiple intelligences test to determine my modality of learning. Unknowingly, I bought the jigsaw puzzle.  I searched for my Still Alice book and realized I did not own a hard copy.  It remained buried deep in my electronic Kindle files.  I chose to step outside of my box to volunteer as a bookkeeper; to learn new versions of QuickBooks.  I do not have a financial background but push myself to expand my horizons.  I seek to master basic accounting principles which will also be useful at work.  I must interact within a large organization and I mentally train my mind to learn names and meet new people.

I am grateful the hubs supports these endeavors.  He understands the motivation behind them.

I mentally sort through the pieces, years ago, when I watched my mother live with impaired memory loss.   Ironically I had given seminars on dementia as a gerontologist.  I volunteered at my local Alzheimer’s Association in conjunction with my paid job in a non-profit that advocated for the elderly.   My co-workers gave weekly support groups to caregivers and I listened intently as they shared the ups and downs.  Never would we have guessed that my own mother would be diagnosed with it.  That I, the one educated and knowledgeable in this specific field of study, would revert to the caregiver’s denial and blinding anger.  And the guilt.  Lots of guilt.

The memories flood back.  My husband’s shock when he returned from deployment as I told him I placed my mother in a locked board and care facility.  The phone calls  from the facility of her escape.  She had been found in a 7-Eleven convenience store several miles away.  The identification bracelet had not been noticed by law enforcement.

Memory walk 2002 cropThese gaps lay open like the puzzle before me.  I search for the pieces, finally choosing to remember and acknowledge them.  I had compartmentalized this period in my life as I raised my infant and almost two- year old son.  Although I volunteered at the Alzheimer’s Association and had access to a physician, whose book is still prominent in this field; I had not asked for help.  I walked four miles in our local Memory Walk, with my sons,  and raised over a thousand dollars.  I brought people to tears as I taught law enforcement and social services about the symptoms of dementia and the importance of identity bracelets  But never did I acknowledge these things for myself.

I had been too overwhelmed.

I find the few pictures taken during that time; the purple album (whose proceeds partially went to the national Alzheimer’s chapter) purchased years ago and never started.  I coordinate with girlfriends to watch Still Alice onscreen when it is released to the general public in February.   I allow the memories to flood my mind; feeling the emotions as if it were yesterday.  And I found the picture, playfully taken, as my mother held the gorilla.  It was to be sent to the hubs in a memory book of the things he missed while on his six month deployment.  His aviator call sign was monkey boy and the gorilla was meant to make him laugh on the other side of the world.  It is one of the last memories of my mother when she was cognizant.

And with that I can finally pen the thoughts to the high resolution screen, in black and white, in acknowledgment.  I fill in the memory gaps.

monkey lola

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Family, friendships

piecing it together

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Did you know January was national jigsaw puzzle month?  January 29th is national puzzle day.

The youngest son opened the box and dumped all one thousand pieces upon our coffee table.  Between the two of us we spread and turned them, print side up, to lay everything out.  Mom, one thousand pieces?  I don’t know if we can do this.

It was overwhelming to see everything laid out before us.   As I stepped away to take a phone call I could hear him repeat aloud… one thousand pieces.  When I returned I found the hubs and middle son repeating the same phrase.  To my surprise the youngest had already begun to piece together several pieces and the middle son asked how he knew where to start.

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“I don’t (know where to start),”  the youngest replied, “but I thought I’d try somewhere.  You first have to look for colors.”

For several days I was busy with various tasks and projects and when I finally sat before the cluttered table I noted sections of the jigsaw had been started.  At random moments the members of my family had sat before the puzzle placing similar colored pieces near one another; staring intently at the box cover and strategically placing them.  I began to find the straight edged pieces and put them on the periphery; knowing if I could piece the outer edges it would be easier to fill in.  Two hours passed me by.  The eldest peered over my shoulder and placed same colored pieces where it showed that color on the cover.  We were devising a strategy and it was slowly coming together.

I am finally at the point where I can work through the detritus and focus.  To sort and create piles, with the pieces I want to keep, and systematically work through them. 

Last year I took a break and sat back; laying all of my broken pieces  out in the open. I was Humpty-Dumpty.  But now that this work has been done I must learn to piece it all together to complete the picture.  For a long time I haven’t been able to see it, the big picture.  To become whole.

And so, piece by excruciating piece, I stare; sorting through the pieces that fit and leaving gaps where they don’t.  It is a slow process.   As a child I did not have opportunities to play with jigsaw puzzles; nor would I have the patience to choose to work on one.  I was always on the go rarely sitting still.

But sometimes seeing things through the eyes of a child are a lot clearer than my tainted adult ones.  In October, during parent-teacher conferences, my youngest’s fourth grade teacher mentioned how he enjoyed sitting in front of the two hundred piece puzzle; figuring it out.  The teacher would occasionally offer suggestions and noted how he began to sort the pieces on his own; surprised that he had the patience to figure it out.  He was sad when he and a few of his classmates finally completed the puzzle.  I had walked over to observe him and was immediately overwhelmed.  Why would anyone want to sit there and do this; particularly this busy child?

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After the busy-ness of Christmas I appreciate the simple decor of my home.  When my children were infants I began to collect seasonal decorations that changed with each holiday.  But in January the house is barren of colorful decorations; the simple neutral tones of brown throughout my home prominent.  Most years I am sad  to pack away the bright reds and greens of Christmas but this year I crave the simplicity.  I am beginning the new year with a clean slate and my environment is reflecting it.

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The lone themed item in my home sits upon my piano.  This January the reading group I am involved with is celebrating its fifth anniversary.   These days kids are distracted by many things: gaming consoles, TV, the Internet and social media, mobile devices and iPods/tablets.  But growing up I escaped and explored within the pages of a book.  Various studies have shown that the single thing parents can do, with and for their children, is to foster their love for reading and literature.   Avid readers are most likely to succeed later in life.

As my day to host arrived I considered packing up the jigsaw and putting it away.  I decided to leave it; the puzzle being a picture of an old bookstore with classics upon its cover.   With this group of ten I have read fifty-two books in our five years.  I have been pushed to read outside of my preferred genres and have discovered new ones.  Relationships I never would have pursued have withstood harsh life events of sickness, separation and divorce.  Just recently we have been able to celebrate the joys of birth and will do so a second time.   And I, the only child, can now experience life with nine other sisters.

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I had scavenged for all things French; themed by my book choice by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See.  The unfortunate events in Paris, France  last week weighed heavily on my mind.  I filled in more pieces of the puzzle between tasks.

I used to think that establishing boundaries kept me safe and grounded me.  But this is the year that I will walk outside of my comfort zone; to open doors.  It is much easier to stay within my four walls; to withdraw from the world so that it cannot negatively affect me.  I do not wish for drama or negativity.  But in closing doors I’ve also realized that the good things also remain outside.

It has taken me awhile to even see the good; as I allowed myself the time to feel the things I am too busy to deal with.  Sadness.  Anger.  Fear.  My mother had taught me to never let anyone see your weaknesses.  She disliked public displays of affection; crying in particular.  Pride was something she always wore but it took years to realize that it had alienated her; leaving her often alone.

Through the years I have also navigated these paths; the ego needing accolades and things to feel worth.  Birthing children made me realize that those things did not matter.  It was in the selfless, thankless job of parenthood that I finally realized life; full circle.  Humbly cleaning messes up every day.  Quietly creating meals and washing clothes.  But as the children grew older, louder and ungrateful the doubts began to creep in.

I had needed outside validation to remind me of my worth; the acts of service defining what I was.  My hubris began to alienate me from my family within my four walls; usurping my time and energy.  But more importantly, I was alienated from my own self.  I wasn’t being true to who I was.  And then I questioned who and what that person would be…the one deep inside of me.

  • the insanity T25 P90X’er wanna-be fit person running 5Ks
  • the multi-tasker who thrives on activity and busy-ness
  • the reader in the darkened room, illuminated by a lone lamp
  • the observer in the back sitting apart from the drama
  • the digital photo journalist;  creating books or typing words
  • the  unglorified accountant; balancing ledgers and budgets
  • the quiet Catholic on the wooden pews
  • the loud spectator of sports and music; audio blaring
  • the cynic that chooses to sit within her four walls
  • the mother raising three boys; not so very successfully
  • the not very long-haired wife of the introvert
  • the woman addicted to coffee; chattering away with friends
  • the educated person who does nothing with her degrees
  • the one who used to serve for not very good reasons

The joy of giving of self, time, and things had been lost.  I was spent.  I had let my own pride define me, just as my mother had.  Walls up, I had become lost in service.  Holding things back and burying them deep did not bring authenticity or transparency.  It created walls and boundaries; safe but isolated spaces.

It is not in the things that I do, the way that I look, the items I own or the titles and status that mark the person that I am.  It is in the ties with others that can bring true and authentic happiness.  To expect nothing and to give everything.

  • to step in the path of the person who doesn’t consistently acknowledge you and say hello
  • to make the choice to serve without excuses
  • to speak the words that are true; not bury them to fester for another day
  • to accept rejection/failure; allowing it to be felt and dealt with
  • to put myself out there, out of my comfort zone, to grow and learn
  • to choose what is right; not what is easy

The culmination of these thoughts arrived a few days before as we decided where to eat for our breakfast date.  I have always given the choice to the hubs and he called me out.  For once, you choose the place.  It is easier to place the blame on someone else when the choice wasn’t yours and things go wrong.  He has voiced this aloud a few times but it was only this Friday that my ears and heart were open to listen.

I must live my life by owning my choices.  To fully accept the outcomes, the good and the bad.

2015 is the year I choose to take the road less traveled.  To allow myself to sort through the bitterness, joy, anger, curiosity, sadness,  and peace to fit together the pieces of my own jigsaw puzzle.  There are many holes and pieces yet to discover and others that do not belong.   I have to start somewhere.  I am piecing it together.

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