Tests of 2012

As midnight approaches, and glasses are raised to toast the new year, Ill be in bed with a heating pad, trying to sooth the persistent ache in my shoulder, an ice pack to take the edge off the raging sciatic pain, and pain meds racing through my veins to aid in these efforts.

This past year has been eventful in my ordinarily ordinary life. On the plus side, in January, I had 10 days of pure joy and relaxation on a cruise with my daughter and her family. In October, I went on my annual Hen Hike,renewing friendships with 9 remarkable women, putting aside the troubles of my life at home. Its a horrific year for people all over the world, so my problems are so puny in comparison. Still, they are mine, and this blog is all about me after all, so I really have to count the blog on the plus side of the ledger. It has given me something constructive to do, other than running around from one doctor to another and running back and forth to my mothers assisted living facility and solving her crises.

It has been a year of learning and discovery, learning what its like to be old in a 96-year old body that is failing, and discovering some truths about my mother. Its been a year of disappointment, having to give up dancing because of my own bodys failure, and to give up long walks because of my aging dogs decline. Its been a year of frustration, as I tried one treatment after another in search of a cure for sciatica.

Although for most of the year, I was swimming upstream, constantly struggling against the current, there were just enough shiny reflections in the water to assure me that there were indeed still stars in the sky. A new bike captain appeared out of nowhere, and another one surfaced after many years absence. My best friend from high school initiated a reconnect. My daughter and son were there for me during the most difficult challenge Ive ever faced, moving my mother into assisted living. My daughter made me weep with pride as she flawlessly performed a flute solo for the mother/daughter brunch at church. I guess Id have to put my emergency appendectomy on the plus side of the ledger too. Why? Well, Im here to tell about it, right? Okay, now thats a reach for good things to say about 2012.

I have some very positive things to say about 2013. I am one of those goofy people who make resolutions for the new year, but mostly they are goals. Im always astonished when I read the ones I made the previous year, because some of them are the same old ones, and some of them, Ive actually accomplished! The first item on my 2013 agenda is to have surgery on my spine, so I can get my active lifestyle back. Next, Ill be returning to The Seeing Eye to get a new guide dog, so I can resume my daily brisk walks and return to getting around town independently.

The other items on my list are a little too personal to share here, but I believe that what I learned in 2012 has prepared me for a better 2013. I believe that my life has been a series of tests. Some Ive passed with flying colors, and some others, not so much. The test of 2012 was to get through it. I look forward to raising my glass tomorrow in a salute to the new year, and Ill thank God 2012 is over.

Shoveling Snow

Those of you who know me know that I dont like being watched. I dont like it when people watch me eat, or cook, or walk down the street. Its creepy, and its rude. But there was one time in my life that a watchful eye was a good thing.

It was a cold and snowy night, much like last night, and I was shoveling snow off my driveway. I enjoy shoveling snow, especially at night, when theres no wind, and its peaceful and quiet. Besides, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment. . I shovel snow in the same manner I run the sweeper or you might mow the grass, in straight lines, back and forth, inching my way down the driveway to the street. I was doing just fine with my little routine. Push push push the shovel, squat, lift, fling. Turn 90 degrees, turn 90 degrees, push push push, squat, lift, fling. Every now and then, Id check my progress by stabbing the blade of the shovel into the snow to make sure there was grass underneath on the sides of the driveway.

Then one time when I stabbed, the shovel hit pavement. I stabbed again, a few inches away, and still no grass, just pavement. Was I lost? I might as well have been, because I had become disoriented. The night was still and quiet. There was no traffic in the street. No dogs were barking, and not a soul was outside making any noise at all. I could not hear where my house was or which way I was facing. Heck. I might as well have been shoveling the street for the last few passes for all I knew. I stood there in the night, listening, trying to figure out what I should do next.

Then I heard it, a voice calling out Step a little to your left honey. The voice came from across the street and belonged to my elderly neighbor. I realized then that he had been watching me the whole time. I did step a little to my left, and there it was, the edge of my driveway. Forgetting that it was creepy and rude, and greatly relieved, for once, I was glad somebody had been watching me.

Let It Snow!

Are you a winter lover? I am, but I wasnt always like that. Oh sure, I liked making snowmen and sliding on frozen puddles as a kid, but as an adult, I would get chilled to the bone, just walking from the inside to the car.

Then Ski for Light entered my life, and it changed everything. Suddenly, winter was fun, especially snow, and especially when there was enough to cross country ski on. Ski for Light is a week-long program of cross country skiing for people who are visually impaired or have a disability that impairs their mobility. Sighted guides pair up with folks like me, and we play in the snow with long skinny sticks on our feet. Many of us have never even seen cross country skis before we are introduced to the sport at Ski for Light, SFL. Many of the guides have never actually talked with a person who is blind or who uses a wheelchair, let alone guide them on skis. Its a magical week both for the visually impaired skiers and for the guides. Its an all volunteer organization, and each participant, whether sighted or blind pays his/her own way. Each year, the event is held in a different venue within the U.S., and Ive been skiing in many states, from Alaska to Vermont.

The SFL motto is If I can do this, I can do anything. After learning to ski, overcoming a fear of going downhill on skis, experiencing the sheer determination of trudging uphill, and tasting victory in a 5K or 10K race at the end of the week, that motto takes on not only a poignant meaning, but also a promise. Many of us discover that vigorous physical activity is not only good for us, but also fun. We take up cycling, kayaking, hiking, white water rafting, and/or sailing. SFL gives us a whole new outlook on life, and that goes for the guides as well. Ill probably write more about SFL next month when this seasons event takes place in Michigan, but for now, Im grateful for the snow weve had, for 2 reasons. First, it puts everybody in the mood for the holidays, and secondly, for my cross country skiing friends, it marks the beginning of the best part of the year.

Its really sad to hear people snarl at the sight of new fallen snow. I feel sorry for these people, because they havent discovered the joy of playing in snow. They arent seeing the beauty of this pristine blanket that softens the world. They arent savoring the silence of a walk on a snowy path in a pine-scented forest. They dont look up and see the bluest of skies and the blue-tinted snow under the pines. They arent relishing the joy of skating on top of a frozen pond or zooming down the side of a hill on a sled or a cafeteria tray. They dont see the humor of sinking up to their knees in a snow drift or engaging in a snowball fight. They see only the scraping of windshields, shoveling out the driveway, the traffic jams, and the frozen fingertips as they try to text about this miserable weather. In other words, they havent learned to enjoy winter like folks do who live in places that get a lot more snow than we do. In places like Vermont, the weathermen announce with glee that snow is on the way, so grab your skis or your snowboard. Where I live, the weathermen predict doom and gloom with the possibility of snow. I get it that its dangerous to drive on this stuff, but it seems that we just need to learn how to play in it. How about a little more positive attitude here? Bundle up. Make it fun. Sing out, Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Home for Christmas

It was Christmas Eve, and 10-year-old Kara and I were up to our elbows in cookie dough and sprinkles. My husband Mike and our son Steve were on their way out the door to start their Christmas shopping. I had rolled out half the dough, and Kara was cutting out the shapes and placing them carefully on the cookie sheets when suddenly the lights went out. So did the furnace, because the electricity had gone out all over our side of town. Mike and Steve would be warm in the car and the stores, but Kara and I couldnt go with them, because they were shopping for our gifts. Mike called our friends Sharon and Jerry, who lived on the other side of town to see if Kara and I could hang out with them until the electricity was restored. Of course was Sharons cheery reply. At that time, I had Mindy, my first Seeing Eye ® dog, and she was welcome as well. However, we also had a little pet dog named Jeanie. Already the house was beginning to cool, and we worried a little about Jeanie, but not enough to inflict our kind hosts with not only Kara and me and my dog but also a noisy little terrier mix. We made a nest for her with blankets and Mikes woolen coat on the loveseat, and we set off for warmth and welcome at the Hofacres.

Sharon was in the midst of preparing for house guests, changing sheets, wrapping gifts, cleaning, and cooking, but she assured me I was welcome to use their bathroom to shower. Imagine letting someone use your shower and hang out all day with you when youre trying to get ready for out-of-town family who would be arriving later that night. Sharon was unflappable, dusting and sweeping around sherry and me, while Kara played with her children. The hours ticked by, and still our side of town was without power. We found ourselves pulling chairs up to their kitchen table for a wonderful supper of beef stew. Soon it was time for church, and still no electricity. Off we went to our respective churches with the gracious invitation for us to come back to their house if our lights were still off. I was deeply touched by their generosity, but I wanted more than anything to be home for Christmas morning. How would we deal with presents, and what about their house guests?

The Christmas Eve service was lovely as usual, and I was thankful that I could have sherry at my feet, comfortable and warm, but I worried about Jeanie in the cold house alone.

What I was most thankful for though was that when we left the church and headed to our own neighborhood, we discovered that the electricity had been restored. This was truly the best gift of all. As we pulled into our driveway, we saw our little Jeanie in the window, barking her head off as usual. We neednt have worried. Shed had her own little party. She had helped herself to the raw cookie dough on the cookie sheets on the table. No matter. The important thing was that we were home for Christmas. Tonight, Im making a big pot of beef stew in honor of sherry and Jerry, who selflessly demonstrated the true spirit of Christmas.

Ban Phone Calls While Baking

I was baking oatmeal cookies when my friend Deb called me. Just then the timer went

off, and it was time to take them out of the oven. Because I was talking on the phone,

my mind wasnt completely on the task at hand, which cost me 16 cookies. Good thing I wasnt driving.

Ive only recently started using parchment paper for baking cookies, (and Ill never bake cookies without it again) so I forgot that there was parchment paper on the cookie sheet,

so when I yanked the sheet out of the oven, the paper went flying and so did the

cookies, mostly on the floor, but some in the oven. Fortunately, I had just let Pippen

outside, so I didnt have to fight her for the ones on the floor. But what to do about the ones in the oven. I couldnt very well reach in there and feel around for them. I immediately turned

off the oven and partially opened the oven door. After letting the oven cool down, and scraping cookies off the inside of the oven door and the bottom of the oven, I finished

the baking. They are very tasty, but they flattened out too much and kind of joined

each other. But Mom will love them, and people at church will eat them, because people

at church eat anything home made. Baking at my house is always an adventure.

Library Books

Sitting at my desk top computer, going through the complicated routine of downloading books from the Library For The Blind, I reflected on how going to the library has changed over my lifetime. Id love to be transported back to my neighborhood library, where I spent countless afternoons after school. There was not the airy feeling of modern libraries, but a feeling of cozy intimacy with wood, paper, and leather. There was a slight musty smell mixed with the fragrance of furniture polish and wet wool, especially on winter afternoons. Thousands of books offered themselves to me, but I always went straight for the shelf that held the books for my grade level. The librarian was always a very old woman, whose glasses hung around her neck. The only sound you could hear would be the squeak of the front door, the whisper of a page turning, and the thwump of the date stamp as a book was being checked out. It was a haven for readers and for a little girl who needed a safe place to wait for her mom to get off work, so they could take the bus home together.

Now, as my Windoweyes speech softwear yammered on, I arrowed down the page to select a title, hit enter on the link that said download this book, then held down the alt key and tapped the S for save, and continued with the rest of the process. Find my download folder. Go to the context menu, and arrow up until I hear extract all. Then tab to extract. All this gibberish means unzip the file, so it becomes an audio file that you can actually listen to. Then highlight the unzipped folder, copy it, and paste it onto the digital cartridge that goes into the Library of Congress-issued digital book player.

I spent an hour, arrowing, tabbing, hitting enter, just like I knew what I was doing. All was going well, and when I was finished, I had about 20 books to choose from on my player. Pippen snoozed contentedly as the computer droned on. Shes used to that sound. What upsets her is when things dont go so well, and I start to swear. Oh, come on. Admit it. Everybody swears at their computers. What do you mean, this website doesnt exist? Whats wrong with my password this time? What in the blank happened to that file? Why in the blank is it doing this to me? I often dont realize Im yelling until I feel Pippens nose under my arm. She is trying to tell me that it will all be okay if I just stop everything and pet her. The thing is, shes probably right. My boiling point is very low when it comes to navigating websites, even ones that are specifically for people who are blind. Still, the quality and convenience of the digital books far exceed the frustration factor, so every now and then, I just sit down and take a virtual trip to the library and load up on some good books. Its not nearly as pleasant as visiting that old library of my childhood, but for this trip, I dont even have to put on my shoes.

Christmas Cards

I have a good excuse for not sending cards this year, my mother said in her assisted living apartment. The arthritis in my wrist is so painful, its hard for me to write. Well, for Goodness sake, who would expect a 96-year old woman, in assisted living to continue the arduous task of sending out Christmas cards? And who does she think she has to give an excuse to, Miss Manners?

For as long as I can remember, my mother made it a part-time job to send out cards at Christmas time. She had a list that she alphabetized and kept a kind of spread sheet on, only we didnt have spread sheets back then. She kept a record of who had sent her cards and who had not in the last 5 years. If she had not heard from a person in 5 years, they were taken off the list, because she figured they were no longer interested in exchanging cards. In fact, the whole Christmas season was something my mother worked very hard at. She baked dozens of cookies, and Im not talking about oatmeal and chocolate chip[. I mean the roll-out kind that you decorate, the little wreaths, the ribbon cookies, and all the other delicate and time consuming ones. She decorated. She entertained. She sang in the choir. And she held a full time job and helped me with my homework every night. And the surprising thing is, I dont remember a single complaint.

Trying to follow my mothers lead, for many years, I diligently recruited someone to take me shopping for the perfect Christmas cards. I typed the addresses on each envelope, hoping that the ribbon hadnt run out of ink. I laboriously signed each one, and in some, enclosed a typewritten note. I did not, however, keep track of who sent me cards. That was a bit over the top for me.

Trying to get this done on top of working full time, wasting hours in a long commute, and keeping up with my other obligations in life, turned the holiday cards into a chore that I was not enjoying, to put it nicely. So I stopped. That made sense to me, and I felt I needed to make no apologies. Christmas card exchanges are going the way of making your own bows on your wrapping. Mass email greetings are a poor excuse for an individual message, and for me, its just as meaningless as being a name and address on a mass mailing list. I still remember the sting of receiving a card from my sister, signed with her familys names, and not a single personal word.

I still receive cards, although not as many in years past, and I like to display them, but I hope those people are not keeping track of how many years I have not returned a card. When I see people during the holiday season, and I know they arent Jewish, I wish them a Merry Christmas. And if I dont know their religious preference, I wish them a Merry Christmas anyway. To me, a smile and a hug or far more important than a folded paper I stand up on my piano. If you sent me a card, I thank you for the thought, and if you have not, Im not checking you off my list. Merry Christmas to all of you whom I dont know, and to those of you whom I do, Ill be in touch.

Finding a Friend at 97

I watched my mother as she introduced herself around the table. She was trying valiantly to start a conversation with the little group of assisted living residents. Im Gina and this is my daughter Mary. And you are? The woman she was addressing looked dully ahead. Her mouth worked as if she were chewing gum, but there was no gum. Shes not responding, Mom said to me in a stage whisper. Maybe she cant hear you Mom, I said.

When we got back to her apartment after the so-called Happy Hour, my mother began her litany of complaints, but on this day, the focus was not so much on the food but on the people. I want to make friends, she said with a plaintive and disappointed tone, But nobody else seems to want to be bothered. I began again my own list of possible reasons why she thought people were deliberately thwarting her attempts to be friendly. They cant hear you. You cant hear them. They might be feeling bad today. They might be upset about something. Maybe they dont know how to hold up their end of a conversation or more accurately, theyve forgotten how. Oh I know, theres all kinds of maybe this and maybe that, she continued, but Id like to have a friend.

Its heartbreaking to watch your child at school as she tries to make friends with other kids, but she lacks the skill, or the other kids think somebody else is more fun to play with. Here it is, happening at the other end of the line, only in reverse.

Being the primary support for my almost 97-year-old mother, I struggled to come up with a solution to this problem. Her physical needs are being met, for the most part, but emotionally, now that the trauma of moving into assisted living has passed, she is facing the loneliness of not having friends to visit with. Even though I am there 3 to 4 times a week, a daughter is not the same as a friend. I am there to solve problems, to furnish personal supplies, to listen to complaints, to take care of her laundry, and yes, to visit as well. But a friend is someone to brag to about your grandchildren, to reminisce with about the depression, and to check up on when one or the other doesnt call or stop by. So, what, as her support system could I do about this? Arrange a play date? Get her signed up for Girl Scouts? Invite someone in for tea and cookies?

Then a suggestion from my friend Lynda came swimming into the foreground of my consciousness. What if I hired someone to spend some time with her, say, once a week or so. Putting the notion of a gigolo aside, I let the suggestion take shape, focus, and finally, as of today, action.

Today there was a holiday brunch party at the home for the families of the residents. I knew this would be an impossible situation for my mother to handle on her own, and I knew just as well that I couldnt be of any help myself. There would be tons of extra people milling about the lobby and dining area, noisy kids, confusion, and chaos. I pictured my mother toddling down to the dining room, being met with that wall of noise and confusion, and then heading right back to her room to have a peanut butter sandwich alone.. So I enlisted the help of a friend who had helped me take Mom shopping once before, and as we chatted over our brunch plates, the groundwork was laid. Once or twice a month, this friend will stop by for a visit with Mom. She can say she was in the neighborhood, and Mom will be thrilled to have company. It worked for Lyndas mother. I think it will work for mine.

Second, Third, and Fourth Opinions

Maybe you should get a second opinion. These are wise words, but when they come from a surgeon youve just had an hour long consultation with, it can give you pause. If he is not the one to advise you on whether or not to have this particular surgery, then who is? What if he is the 4th doctor and the third specialist youve seen for this problem, when do you stop the doctor-go-round and get off? But if you get off, youve done nothing to fix the problem. In my case, its sciatica, which apparently comes in many flavors. Each person you ask has a different set of symptoms and a different set of treatments or cures. Each person swears by his or her doctor, and each person has an opinion about what I should do.

Today, I was ready to sign on the dotted line and get the process in place to have the surgery that would end this constant and relentless pain. But my symptoms didnt exactly match the MRI report, which didnt exactly match the MRI, so the result is vague at best. The final decision is mine, but what do I have to go on? It seems that it all depends on which doctors personality I like best. The doctor I saw today was kind and gentle, and Im sure he is competent, but what I needed from him was a clear and decisive message, whether or not to have surgery. I wanted him to guarantee that this surgery would help, and he wisely withheld that guarantee. He suggested another opinion that would either confirm his advice to have the surgery, which would be just dandy, because then we could get on with it, or muddy the whole picture by saying it isnt necessary. By the time I left the doctors office, I had a headache, and a sense of complete isolation.

But there is someone who can help me work this out. I just have to slow down and listen. Stop running from one doctor to another, one treatment to another, and ask for Gods help. Ive been feeling like Im in this alone, but I have to remind myself that He is in it with me. Ive asked for His guidance, and I realize now that to rush into surgery just to get it over with, to be doing something, anything, is not the prudent thing to do. And so, I wait yet another week to see yet another doctor, and then that is it, no more. I will know by then which course of action to take.

Meanwhile, there is Christmas shopping to be done, concerts to go to,, parties to attend, and Mothers assisted living crises to deal with. Surgery for sciatica will just have to wait.

Making a list, Checking it twice

Tis the season for making lists. For me, its always the season for making lists, because Im a list-maker, but with Christmas coming, Im having to check them twice.

First, there is the list of what to buy each person, which is probably the most challenging, especially when I have teenagers on my list. Next, I make a list of stores I need to shop in, with a sublist of which gifts are found in each store. To complicate this second list, I have to coordinate the store list with the helpers Ive enlisted. I try to match the interests of my helpers with the kinds of stores Im asking them to take me to. For instance, Ill ask Bonnie to take me to Kohls, because she knows that store inside and out. I know better than to ask Jean to take me to a chocolate shop, because she never buys candy. Ive asked sherri to pick up the gift certificates at a couple of stores, because shes going there anyway to buy them for her kids. I almost need a spread sheet to keep this straight.

As soon as I get the purchases home, I immediately label each one with Braille, especially when Ive shopped early in the year, because I know Ill forget what that package holds and which grandkid its for. Then, when I think Im done shopping, I lay out all the presents in stacks and count them. If they are all accounted for, I make my final list. I actually keep a record of what I gave each person each year. The record goes back for quite a few years. That way, I can avoid that embarrassing moment when someone says, Thanks. Ill put this one right next to the one you gave me last year. Well, nobodys ever really said that to me, but they could. The last thing I want them to say behind my back is, I know what Mom is getting for me, because she always gives that to me. Theres one exception though. My son-in-law is very difficult to buy gifts for, because whenever he needs something, he goes out and buys it. A couple of years ago, Kara and I discovered that he enjoys a glass of Baileys Irish Cream once in a while, and its something he would never buy for himself. Voila! Now hes the easiest person on my list, because he now looks forward to his annual bottle of Baileys.

For my final list, I keep a record of who gave me what for each Christmas and birthday. You might think thats a little over the top, but it sure comes in handy when you want to make sure you trot out the serving bowl, the jewelry, the fuzzy slippers or whatever when that person is coming for a visit. It also keeps me from buying them the same thing they got me last year.

My favorite list to make is the one I send to Santa. When my kids ask me what Id like for Christmas, I can never think of anything right off the top of my head, because what Id like most is not a thing you wrap up but their time and attention. But its the season for wrapping up things, so I keep a running list in my Braille and Speak, whenever I think of something Id like that isnt a necessity. Then I whip out my list on cue right about this time of year. I send a separate list to Kara and Steve. Thats not just so they dont get me the same thing, but to ask for things each one could find more easily.

To add to the list-making this year, Im doing the shopping for my mother, who lives in assisted living and pretending that Im keeping her money separate from mine. Kara is being a tremendous help in finding things on line and doing a lot of the shopping for presents to her kids from me. She has lists too. Shes buying things on behalf of her grandmother, on behalf of me, and Ill bet on behalf of her husband, besides on behalf of herself. Well both be happy when this part of the season is over, so we can settle down to celebrate the reason for this season, the birth of Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas everybody, and happy shopping.