the final parent

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Oct 222015

We inevitably lose our parents, and perhaps it is fortunate when we lose them before they lose us. My father-in-law lost his daughter, my wife, before he passed away, and I think it really crushed him. So there is a blessing and an initiation when our parents pass. Our grief can bring us into adult, mature and compassionate places that perhaps we never reach without it.

My mother is in the stages of passing away right now, and having lost my father and two stepfathers, she is my final parent. I’ve been her guardian for eight years, her primary caregiver for some of that time, always the one ultimately responsible for her well-being. Penny has thrived in her memory care unit for five years, held by a remarkably stable and loving collective of caregivers. It’s Alzheimer’s. She stopped recognizing me more than three years ago, and has needed a wheelchair and hospital bed and two people to move her for most of that time. She’s been on a liquid diet since she got aspiration pneumonia and was hospitalized a few years ago. Her skin is so fragile, it looks like parchment. She has not spoken in over a year, and when you speak to her by name, her eyes do not move. I do not know how much of the woman who raised me and loved me is still there — no way to know — but it cannot be much.

The last few weeks, she has been eating less and less, losing weight, sleeping more. Hospice nurses and my eternally helpful caregiver friend Laurie tell me she is looking content. This is a wonderful thing, for I do not believe she found much contentment in her life.

A rampant perfectionist, I rarely heard Penny voice her approval of anything, neither me nor my brothers, any aspect of her life, any of her three husbands, the functioning of any organization she participated in. That critical voice is very well internalized for me, and much of my work over the last few decades has been around criticism and contempt.

I hold her in my heart, as she peacefully sleeps, feeling the years of responsibility for her, wondering what it will feel like when she is gone.

parting with roy

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Feb 052014

An era is coming to an end, my faithful steed Roy is going to a new owner. When Jen and I bought Mz. Parker last year, I knew it had to happen, and now it’s time. I’m just feeling the whole shift.

As usual with my posts, there is a story in the background. Nancy’s-brother’s-wife’s-father was a delightful man named Roy Kristensen, a guy born and raised and lived his whole life in Sonoma County. Roy was in his 70’s when I met him some ten years ago, and he worked part time doing small construction jobs and fixing things for folks, I suspect mostly because he loved it. In 2006, a friend of his decided to sell his full-size pickup truck, and Roy very happily bought it, this 1994 Ford F150 just as you see it here. As far as I can tell, it was his pride and joy. Then in 2007, Roy passed away quite suddenly from a stroke.

All of us were deeply impacted by the loss of Roy, a cheerful and engaging man, the kind of guy who always had a twinkle in his eye and a funny story to share. Very knowledgeable about Sonoma history and active in the community, he was born in Two Rock, and I would wager that no one who ever reads this blog will know someone else born there. Hell, most of us barely know where it is. Roy and I talked for hours about the train routes running through Marin and Sonoma, and in fact one of the main routes ran right across the front of my property, cutting through the hill and creating the steep slope that my house is built into. Everyone in the family loved this man, and I miss him still.

Some months after he passed, his family decided to sell this truck just at the time when Nancy and I needed a bigger truck for our house construction. So we bought it, and promptly named it Roy. Roy is a construction truck through and through, with a bed liner, camper shell and lumber rack. The motor is a very well-developed and proven design, a 300-cubic-inch straight six that is smooth and burns no oil after 224,000 miles. There are some dents and scratches, the front fender has been bent down a bit on the left side, but all three of us who have owned him have cared for him well, and the drivetrain and body are solid. No one ever dumped 3000 pounds of rocks into the bed, sagging the frame. No one ever skipped oil changes. It’s hard to find a 20-year-old truck that looks this good and works this well.

So it’s time to let him go, as I no longer need a full-sized truck. I’m contemplating the shift, looking at this as a dream through Jungian eyes. This is a change of vehicles. While building my house, and tending to Nancy and then myself after she was gone, I’ve needed a lot of capacity. Here it is, reflected back, a big sturdy reliable masculine vehicle that has carried cords of wood, a ton of custom-milled cedar siding, stacks of 4×8 plywood, a BMW M3 motor, every piece of furniture and every appliance that is in my home, all my mother’s belongings, forty tons of trash from the construction site of my house, concrete, tile, mortar, Jen’s furniture from her retreat space in Monte Rio…I can hardly remember all the wonderful loads of *stuff* that Roy has moved for me and for us, friends and family. Such capacity I have had, in his form.

I posted him for sale on Craigslist, shared the event on Facebook, and voilá, a friend from the past, an architect renovating a house, needs a construction truck. It’s so serendipitous, we are both startled and delighted. We’re meeting tomorrow, and I expect that she will take him into the next chapter of his life.

Adieu, Roy. But you will keep the tape measure that Nancy kept aboard you, and the fire extinguisher I kept aboard you. If you know about the Enneagram, and know that Nancy was a One and I am a Six, you will smile as you read this.


 Buddhism, Parents, Reflection  Comments Off on impermanence
Oct 062012

My new Buddhist practices begin with twenty days of contemplation, and two of the topics are the preciousness of human existence, and the impermanence of all phenomena.

“Ha!”, I think to myself, “I know all about this”.  Loss has certainly cracked me open in both areas, I am now more present for the poetic and beautiful moments in my life than I was a year ago.  So I begin to meditate on preciousness, and immediately realize that I’m screwed, and I have no choice but to sit in the loss, allowing it to flower to fullness.  I’ve been good about following my feelings and grief, but it’s quite a different thing to sit and meditate on it, for an hour or longer.  It seems somehow ironic that, after dutifully tending to this garden of tears for months, I’m now directed to spend hours and days sitting in the garden.

And it is a garden. At first, it’s hard for me to separate the two contemplations.  I consider how precious my existence is, and within a few minutes I land in my feelings about Nancy.  After swimming in loss for a while, my heart aching, I feel a surge of love and deep joy, that I get to be here, in this body.  I love being alive, much more so because I’m acutely aware that I will end one day, at least, the incarnated “I”.  Something will continue when I am gone. As I swing back and forth, empty and full, day after day, I become more and more aware of the preciousness of each moment, the vast gift of being alive. A tender, delicate place, like a baby oak coming up in the spring.

This is a different way of learning. The contemplation instructions are very specific, carefully worded and refined over 1500 years. They are simple, and land in my awareness like a seed. As I sit with the contemplations, they grow and deepen and flower into a very personal experience. Remarkable. I’m starting to see that the deep teachings are like this, just as meditation is a very personal gateway that cannot be taught, but must be cultivated within each of us.

Some moments are quite intense. Each morning, I drive to work past the Golden Gate National Cemetery, where my father-in-law Richard Jones was buried last February. From inside my practice, the view of more than a hundred thousand tombstones stuns me, perfect geometric array stretching into the distance. All these souls, their incarnations complete, leaving behind whatever joy and pain and love that they left, now reunited with the infinite. Most were WW II and Korean war veterans, had fired weapons in combat, known the fear and adrenaline and exhaustion of battle. My own father-in-law shot up dozens of Japanese trains and boats, downed several aircraft, as a P-40 pilot in China in 1943. All those lifetimes now gone, all that experience fading in our collective memories.

All that I am, all that I love, all that I’ve done will one day be gone. I remember how these thoughts would induce a kind of existential crisis in my younger self. Now it brings me here and now, reminding me that we are precious, I am precious, and each instant of my life is an opportunity for gratitude. Even visiting The Colonel’s grave today. Dick, we all love you, wherever you are.


happy birthday, Penny

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Jul 032012

Yesterday was my mother’s 77th birthday. Working a full day, I could not visit, but my friend Laurie was with her, and brought both a cake and her radiant presence. Laurie has been helping to care for my mother ever since I moved her to Marin county at the beginning of 2009, and she has been a delightful and steady source of support.

Penny’s Alzheimer’s is so severe now that she cannot do anything without help. She hasn’t recognized me in well over a year, she needs to be fed and bathed and dressed and moved. She no longer smiles. She is speaking a bit, but not making any sense. She uses a hospital bed and a wheelchair, and I have the support of Hospice By The Bay, a fine organization that has been helping to care for her the last couple of months. She is gradually losing weight, although her health seems to be fine.

The memory care facility where she lives, Alma Via of San Rafael, is as nice a facility as I’ve ever seen. The caregivers are attentive, there is singing and music and other activities, the food is pretty good. Penny seems as happy as she could be, but there is really no way to tell.

So the pattern of loss in my life continues, first Nancy, then her father Dick Jones in early February, and gradually now, my mother. My mother has been going away a little at a time for five years now, as this terrible disease runs its course. One book described it as “the long slow good-bye”, and I cannot disagree.

And her caregivers are radiant, thoughtful and hard-working. She is loved, not only by me, but by the people around her. I can only manage her medical care and her finances, and wait.


ongoing adventures of mom

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Jun 262010

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted to this site, and much has been happening. Today, I’ll pass on an update on my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and for whom I renovated a nearby townhouse in 2008. She’s been living a short walk away for over a year, with a full time caregiver (bless you, Althea!) and support from Laurie Garret, Lisa Svare, the townhouse community, and Senior Access of Marin.

The best part is that she is thriving, and seems more engaged and cheerful in a supportive environment that has lots of activities and people around. She settled in well, and I’m very happy with my choice (Alma Via of San Rafael). They have lots of activities, my mom has a lovely room with new furniture, and she almost always seems happy when I see her.


The hard part is that I can feel (finally!) how stuck I am, between the place of connection and loss. She is here and she is not. I cannot grieve, as she is here. But I cannot connect with her, as she is not all here. I have an ocean of feeling, yet I cannot express it.


One delightful and unexpected side effect of this change is that we are now caring for my mom’s dog, a 12-year-old german shepherd named Sheba. She is a delight, although she generates more hair than a barber shop, and we have to vacuum every couple of days. Bright, easygoing, loving and attentive…it’s been a long time since I’ve had a dog, and she has changed our lives for the better.


brother, here we go again

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Dec 092008

Tom Lehrer sang:

Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say when.
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

Ah, our first Christmas in our new house. We wrestled an 8-foot tree up to the third floor, where it dominates the kitchen. And Nancy added lights to our decks, and a small tree in the picture window on the second floor. Now I have to slow down enough to relax and enjoy the holidays!

Not easy to do. I haven’t posted in over a month because there has been another project sucking up my extra time and energy. I’ve bought a townhouse down the street, so I can move my mother from San Francisco to our new neighborhood.

Penny has been living alone for 4 years in San Francisco, has Alzheimer’s, and I see her twice a week to get groceries and generally take care of things. She wants to move, needs assistance, and I want her nearby. So we started hunting for a place in the neighborhood over the summer, and we completed the purchase of a 3-bedroom townhouse last month. Now I’m renovating it, using my newly-acquired skills and contractor friends, and I want to move her in by Christmas.


Some of the existing features of the house are fine, for example, bathroom tiling, the exterior (which is maintained by the homeowner’s association), the windows and doors, most of the kitchen fixtures. But the carpets are worn and stained, the kitchen floor has some problems, the kitchen cabinets need work, and the lighting is mostly original and not very attractive. Wall plaster is the original rough texture, and there is sprayed “popcorn” texture on the ceilings upstairs. So demolition started just a few days after we closed the purchase.


Out go the carpets, the kitchen tile and counters, the ancient water heater and furnace. In comes my friend George Dapsevicius (who did so much of the finishing detail in our house) and his friend Lee Swanson. They removed the popcorn and patched the walls. We’ve re-plastered the walls to a smooth finish, and painting is underway. I’ve ordered new lights, bathroom vanities, sinks, and kitchen counters.