The Five-Year Plan

My son starts school as an 8th grader in 39 days. It recently occurred to me that we are staring down the final five years of his elementary and secondary schooling. While I would never wish away these last days of his childhood, it will most likely whiz by at lightning speed, or so I have been told by friends far ahead of me in child-rearing years. I have pondered that oft used job interview question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years,” and I have come up with a few speculations.

1. In July 2016, my sister and I will have recovered from our fabulously fun and duo graduation party. (My sister is also on the five-year plan, but gets a practice run in 2013 with her first-born son.) M. and I will spend some time this month shopping for dorm accessories (sheets, bath shoes, computer accessories) OR, we just might be lying low, awaiting the start date of one of our exceptional local universities, where M. will be a commuting student. (Mom lucks out on at least one more year with a full house!)

2. Our beloved yellow Lab will have celebrated (with Tasty Paws) her 12th birthday in June. Her advanced age has FINALLY calmed her spastic disposition, as she is now too old to chase after two-wheeled/legged modes of transportation, such as bicycles, motorcycles and joggers. I am in the final days or months (or I guess, years) as a dog owner. In 2011, I loudly and definitively announced to the universe that this is my sixth and final canine. (Read my lips-NO MORE DOGS!) For the first time in at least 23 years, I will reside in a home completely void of dog hair, poop bags and vet bills.

3. If my arthritic knees are still capable of bending and straightening, I will join a local cycling group, relinquishing my seat on a goin-nowhere recumbent and spinning bike. It will be just me and the open road- that is if global warming hasn’t permanently stuck the thermometer on hot and humid in my once seasonal Midwest city. Joan does not enjoy exercising outdoors in a tropical climate.

4. My second turn as a hospice volunteer will prove to be longer lasting than my first stint, which was in college. In August 2016, I will receive my five-year pin for my work and dedication to the terminally ill and their families. My interaction with them will serve as a constant reminder to never sweat the small stuff, to value people over things, and to live each day like it’s your last.

5. My spouse and I (he will also be an empty or semi-empty nester) will travel to states and countries not visited in our childhood or earlier adult years. We will have scrawled a bucket list of sites to see, and eagerly cross them off as having “been there, done that.” (Please note the positive outcome to my year, in 2011, of online and offline dating.) ūüôā

6. Last, but certainly not least, I will choose to write. With less of a nest to care for, I will possess the time and quiet necessary to pound away at the keyboard. My 56 years of life will have provided me with much material that is just bursting to be captured within the permanent ink of the written word. Memoirs, magazine articles and quite possibly a biography of the life and times of my son, (which will aptly be titled, “If I Can’t Taste, I Can’t Eat”) will be written and hopefully published. (Junior’s bio will explain the title and the other nuances of 18 years of living with and raising a “spirited child.”)

As five years counts down to four, then three, etc., I am confident that this list will grow past its current six items. There is so much left to see and do……

Me and My Bum Knee

For posterity’s sake, I have decided to document yet another physical dilemma in my own ongoing soap opera, entitled, “Doctors on the Payroll.” I have had a bum knee since 1977, when I tore my ACL playing soccer in a tournament. I never did have the torn ligament repaired. (I did have surgery to repair some cartilage in this knee, and it has carried me well for about 30 years.) In early March of this year, my knee would mysteriously lock up on me while doing normal, everyday tasks, such as walking.¬† Within a minute or two of kind of shaking it off, it would return to normal. (Whatever “normal” means. I was shocked that I could even just spell that word!) I knew that this could not be good, but in my ever go-to-state of denial, I plugged along. Within six days or so, it just decided to lock up one day and stayed that way. (It would take more than a certified locksmith to reverse this condition.) So, surprisingly (or not so much to those who know me), I found myself yet again in a physician’s office, this time, an orthopedic surgeon. After an X-ray and MRI, it was determined that a piece of bone or something had chipped off, and I would require arthroscopic surgery to “clean it up.” (I had been worried that I would need the ever-dreaded ACL reconstruction, or even worse, a total knee replacement. I dodged those two bullets. Whew!) I hobbled around on crutches for the 10 days or so leading up to the 15-minute surgery, and figured I would be up and around again within no time. I could not have been more wrong!

I began physical therapy the day after my surgery, and spent most of the first week in bed, elevating and icing my swollen limb. For those of you, like me, who do not turn the TV on during the day, I am here to inform you that there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING INTELLIGENT ON TELEVISION BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 1:00 AND 4:00 PM. I was begging to go back to work, which I did after taking that week off. I could only stay at work for a few hours, though, because my leg would become so uncomfortably swollen, that I could not wait to get home to elevate and ice it and watch MORE MIND-NUMBING TELEVISION! Thus was the vicious cycle I was caught up in for about two to three weeks.

I continued with my twice-weekly, one-and-a-half hour physical therapy sessions, where my progress was slow, to say the least. My therapist, Chad, apparently missed his calling as a Boot Camp Sergeant for the Marines, and instead chose physical therapy as his method of torture. I nicknamed him “The Nazi.” He would consistently push me through my exercises, and then “reward” me by bending my knee until the pain brought me off the table. Once he had stretched every tendon, ligament, and muscle housed in that part of my leg, he would grab his handy-dandy measuring thingy and record my progress. I slowly graduated from two crutches, to one crutch and then briefly to a cane. (The cane only lasted a few days, as I could sense that Chad was secretly planning on snatching it from me and whacking me across said newly repaired knee.) One day, as I came limping into the room for my daily torture¬† routine, he yelled across to me, “Joan, WHY ARE YOU LIMPING?” Gosh, at some physical therapy offices, they at least say hello before they start yelling at you.

Chad and I did eventually develop a friendly patient/therapist relationship. We belong to the same gym, and both enjoy the spinning classes they offer. I also found out that like me, he has a hankering for ZERO candy bars, a favorite of mine since childhood. It was candy that would be my ticket out of therapy. In the past week-and-a-half, I finally turned a corner and began regaining my normal gait, with just the slightest limp. I have returned to the gym, riding a recumbent bike, and revving up my heart with the elliptical machine. I have quickly worked my way up to my previous weight levels on several of the leg machines, and last week, I even spent 40 minutes in a spinning class. I was back-or at least 90% back. It was time to break it off with Chad. So, yesterday, I walked into the PT room and pulled out a gift bag filled with ZERO candy bars, and offered Chad a bribe. I told him I would trade candy for a release from physical therapy. By the end of my session, I was signing my final papers.

So, nearly six-and-a-half weeks after my “piece of cake surgery,” I am free. I will have an extra three hours a week of my life back, along with an end to ever-mounting medical bills. I am able to begin to catch up on lawn work, which has patiently waited for my recovery. My son has gone back to being a child, and not his mother’s caregiver. The dog and I took a walk together one evening-the first in about two months. It is Spring, a time for rebirth and renewal. I feel both. And, just for the record, my doctor warned me that I may need a knee replacement down the road, to which I say there is NO WAY IN HELL! I will patiently wait for a medication (in tablet or liquid form) that miraculously grows back your ligaments and eliminates that unsightly and annoying arthritis. With just one little pill, my aged and torn up knee will be returned to its once youthful, healthy state. I am pretty sure that brilliant scientists all over the world are working on such a cure as we speak.

Wishful Springing

A large portion of the U.S. has endured a rather long, harsh winter. My home state was included in this snowball effect (pun intended). December swept in with bone-chilling temps and snow, even granting us a Bing Crosby White Christmas. Next,as¬† the calendar flipped to 2011, January brought with it more precipitation and cold. Would February make it a three-peat? Apparently, the gods feel pity on our frozen souls and have granted us a reprieve. The thermometer is rising, and the gray mounds of weeks-old snow are beginning to disintegrate, much like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. (“I’m melting. I’m melting.”) In the past few weeks, the birds have begun to sing again, bringing music back to mornings. Even that groundhog from Pennsylvania failed to see his shadow. Apparently, he has had enough of winter as well.

I, too, feel a need to entice Spring into making an early appearance. Today, on this 15th day of February, I hung my “Spring” sign, complete with flowers and bunnies, on our front door. Technically, the Vernal Equinox is 33 days away, but I say now is the time to begin the thaw.¬† I’d hate for the groundhog to be labeled a liar.

An Act of Giving

It is better to give than to receive. Pay it forward. Just a sampling of mottos to live by. I have done volunteer work throughout various stages of my life-a candy striper in high school, a counselor at a group home for juveniles in college, a mom-helper at my son’s elementary school. In the past year or so, I contacted a couple of organizations and actually applied for two volunteer positions, including one as a trained hospice caregiver and another at a local mental health facility. I had (naively) believed that I was at a place in my life (and my son’s) where I could sacrifice a few hours a week to help a cause close to my heart. It turns out that many agencies who seek non-paid help require you to commit to certain days and/or times to fit their scheduling needs, which is perfectly understandable. I apparently was putting the cart before the horse (again). While my son is more independent than ever, he still wants requires my physical presence as his chauffeur, cook, maid, cheerleader and homework supervisor. I had to realize that it is still a bit too early for my time to be completely mine, at least in a structured, scheduled kind of way.

So, without even consciously trying, I found a multitude of other ways to volunteer my time within my community, and often on my own street. The house next door was foreclosed on in late April. Another neighbor and I took care of the mowing and landscape maintenance for the growing season. The family across the street relocated to another state, leaving town with their home still on the market. I have raked leaves, cleaned up flower beds, shoveled snow and picked up various papers that get tossed on the lawn. I spent a Saturday afternoon, along with eight or so other men and women, cleaning a friend’s house so that she could return home after a stem cell transplant.¬† That same weekend, I assisted in tagging donations collected by a local charity. Week after week this entire fall, I managed to “find” the time to help someone else. It wasn’t the formal volunteer position I had initially sought, but it works. I was pleased (and surprised) to learn that even with my sometimes hectic work and home schedule, I could still carve out the time for someone else.

A Happier Holiday

Christmas is less than four weeks away, and I say bring it on! Last year, December and its approaching holiday became a frantic, frenzied and fumbled collection of days. I felt an incredible amount of (self-induced) pressure to get IT all done-the decorating, the cards, the shopping, the baking. By the time the actual blessed day arrived, I had canceled my family plans, and spent the holiday unshowered, in my pj’s, on the verge of a breakdown. Nice! Determined not to end up straight-jacketed at the funny farm this year, I have carefully eased into my to-do list and re-evaluated my priorities. When a writing mood struck a few weeks ago, I seized the moment and crafted my holiday letter. Check! Last weekend, a friend kindly obliged and snapped a family photo for the holiday card. Check! This past week, I took advantage of my vacation time and decked the halls AND the tree. Check times two! This leaves only the shopping ( a fairly short list that includes gift cards), and the baking.¬† Completely do-able!

Surprisingly, I am feeling very little stress as the countdown begins. I remain hopeful that this year will be different after all. It is quite possible that when the calendar flips to the 25th, I will be ready to engage and participate, all showered and dressed.  There really just might be a Santa Claus!

Hold On

I waited until I was 37 and 1/2 years old to become a mother. In the twelve or so years prior to earning this new title,¬† I had worked the corporate cubicle with its long, salaried hours, and played along in many office games. I was now ready to begin this second chapter of my life, the one as stay-at-home mother and wife. If you know me personally, or have read earlier blog posts, you know that I have been widowed for over nine years, and have been working part-time for over four years. (I¬† have been fortunate to have a supplemental income which affords me the 25-hour work week.) In the past year or so, it has become increasingly difficult to get by on my somewhat “fixed ” income. The teenager in my house has become more expensive-tennis and private music lessons, clothing from the MALL (not Target or Old Navy), and the myriad of techno-gadgets from cell phones to iPods to video gaming. Also, household expenses continue to go up, up up while the amount of dollars coming in remains rather stagnant.

For the past nine years, I have been holding on. I have tried to live the life I had envisioned before cancer came a knockin and stole my spouse and son’s father. I found a job (and a boss) that allowed me to show up for work after my son was safely on the morning school bus, and leave in time to get that same boy off¬† the afternoon bus. I also have an entire day off in THE MIDDLE OF THE WEEK so that I can volunteer at his school, and get some errands and chores out of the way so that weekends are freed up for family time. My grip on the this life is slipping. I am not sure how much longer I can hold onto this schedule and pay scale. I am fully aware that afore-mentioned teenager will only become more expensive, not less.¬† In less than three years, I will have a teen that drives, which means insurance, gas, car, yada, yada, yada. I am s-l-o-w-l-y warming myself up to the idea that I may have to return to full-time work, something I promised myself years ago that I would never do again. (I always knew that I would work, just not 40 hours a week!)

So, like the words in the R.E.M. song, “Everybody Hurts”,¬† I will hold on for as long as I can, even if it just by my pinkie.

Fifty is Nifty?

I am fifty. There, I said it out loud. The joyful day came last month on the 16th, but the anticipation had been building for the better part of a year. I had proudly marked the 50-year mark for my “older” friends whose birthdays all came before mine. ( I admit that I did my fair share of teasing and taunting as they all reached the half-century mark well ahead of me.) Well, I am sure you have heard of “payback time,” and boy did I get mine! Miss C. “decorated” the stop sign at the end of my cul-de-sac for six, straight days with posters and even my high school senior picture. (I am SOOOO glad that my entire neighborhood now knows how old I am, AND how bad my senior picture was!) Another friend, Miss P., inflicted carpal tunnel syndrome on my mail carrier with her daily deluge of cards. (I am sure her local Hallmark ran low on stock that week.) On the 15th, my family hosted a party for me complete with childhood photos plastered onto tri-fold posters for all to see. There was also an element of surprise at the party. (No, not a male stripper. That was birthday number 30!) A high school friend and her daughter came all the way from North Carolina to share in the festivities. What a great gift!

So, I am a little over a month into it, and all is well. I’ll let you know if it really is “nifty!”

Change of Season

Time is flying by. January, February, March, April and now May. The temperatures are heating up, and the rain is falling with less frequency. The other night, I saw my first firefly (aka: lightning bug.) Summer is inching its way into the Midwest. Shorts and flip-flops have become the common attire, and the baseball fields are filled to capacity. Hopefully, the tempo of  life will weaken its pace, and the lazy days of summer will be upon us. I am up for a little lazy!

A New Angel

Today, I went to a visitation-for a child. I have been to many visitations in my lifetime, but never for an 11-year old-a boy born within the same year as my own son. I dreaded going to the funeral home. I was nervous about facing the family, and even more worried that the casket would be open. It was. I spoke briefly with the parents, trying to avoid eye contact with the small, “sleeping”, bald-headed boy¬†nestled so delicately in the adult-sized, shiny, wooden box. I made my way to a second room, where a video rolled with cherished family photos captured in happier times. I could only briefly view the images of the boy sitting on Santa’s knee, or dressed for Halloween in fireman gear. My heart ached as I watched with tears swelling in my eyes, making the pictures blurry at times. I left almost as quickly as I came, hoping that this was the first and last time that I would have to attend such an event for a child.

It seemed fitting and appropriate that at the exact time people were arriving to pay their respects, the dark and gloomy skies opened up and unleashed a torrential downpour. It appeared that even the clouds were allowing their grief to spill over.

What to Say When the Unthinkable Occurs

It has been months since I have actually sat down and written something.  I have been caught up in our frazzled and frenzied schedule that occurs every Spring.  I also hesitated to pen my thoughts during times earlier this year when they seemed dark and gloomy. ( I diagnosed myself with a case of S.A.D. topped off with menopausal mood swings.) Today, I sat down at the keyboard in an attempt to come up with some profound succession of words that might help me express my sincere sadness to a new friend that lost her eleven-year old son to cancer early Saturday morning. What do you say to a mother who has just experienced the most unthinkable tragedy? There are no textbooks that prepare us for what to say or do when events occur outside of their natural order. Plain and simply-parents are not supposed to bury their children.

My heart aches for the family and the long road of grief that they will be forced to travel.  I wish them the strength they will need to hang onto each other through the rough days ahead, and quietly pray that they will remain intact as a unit. (Lesser amounts of stress have been known to tear apart a family or a marriage.) For their beautiful son and brother, A., I am confident that he is safe and well on the other side, free of pain and surrounded by love.