Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

Life Beyond

Winter on the Homefront
Winter on the Homefront

Hello from an Airbus 330,

I am sitting in Row 48 in die Flug und im Berlin-Tegel Flughafen. As we leave the gate and taxi toward the runway, my thoughts begin to consider the next days and, it is certainly unfortunate that I must already see Poland as a memory. However, what a wonderful few days it has been. Robert is correct when he noted that I need to come back for at least two weeks and more likely a month. If I am able to accomplish such a study trip, I need to consider going also to Vienna and then to the area in the Sudetenland where Lydia first lived. I probably need to do some other reading about the Polish resistance as well as what the exiled Czech government did to those of German (Austrian) and Hungarian descent. Yesterday at Auschwitz it occurred to me that the Hungarian people have probably suffered as much as single group of people in WWII. Again as I mentioned in my last blog, I am mortified by what we do to each other and supposedly we are the one creature in creation that understands compassion. I am reminded of a book I once used in class titled The Compassionate Beast. Perhaps it is the oxymoron in the title that reveals this ability.

It is now Tuesday morning and I am awake even though it is only 6:00 a.m. My surprise is when I finally crawled into bed about 10:45, my internal clock was at 4:45 a.m. I have to admit the last 30 miles were perhaps the longest 30 miles I have ever driven. I had the sun roof open and the radio cranked up and I am still sure I found that I had closed my eyes a half dozen times. Not good. I ran to the diner for a smaller breakfast (seriously) and now I am going to try to tackle all the things on my plate that need to be managed here in Bloomsburg before I am on a plane again tomorrow; this time for Salt Lake City and two days of meetings. I had to smile wistfully as it is snowing and cold here this morning and on my original calendar, the event for tomorrow that popped up was Republica Dominicana. Last summer it was planned that the Galáns and I would be returning there with a chance for the entire family to go (Melissa and Jordan have not been there since they were very small). For a variety of reasons that trip has been postponed. Tomorrow they are forecasting significantly cold wind chills (-40F) in some areas. At least I think it will be better in SLC. I have to catch up with my colleague and see if he is willing to run me to Philly to catch the plane. Oh yeah, and I think I still have to make a hotel reservation. On Friday night I am flying to Sacramento and then going up to Placerville for a few days. I will use that time to concentrate on my second semester syllabi, continuing to work on my new class prep, and putting things into BOLT. If I can work solid for about 5 days and relax in the Crush Pad, I think it might be just want needs to happen before I continue to try to tackle all the things that are coming in the next days and weeks.  All of that being said, being in the Dominican Republic when it is so cold outside my window would have been a nice thing.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Lydia is no longer terrorizing the poor caregivers at COH, trying to hit them, punch them, bite them, swear at them, or whatever else she might have done. I watched her do this from time to time. I have tried to imagine what my demeanor might be should I be afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. I am hoping that I would be a nice person, but as I have noted Lydia used to tell me I had a shit temper. I must say it does take a lot to get me to respond in anger, but I have learned to do it more appropriately. It is actually Epiphany (and Christmas for Orthodox believers) and the last day of the Christmas season. I think I need an epiphany at times to help me understand how the world works. The last two weeks have been more of a roller coaster than I think I have experienced in a very long time, but I guess that is to be expected. This morning I read one my past (and will still be in the future) student’s blogs and she is such a wise person. Understanding that we are responsible for our own happiness is a wise thing. I am back after some time on the phone with the attorney; there is a lot to work on and manage, but it is merely one step at a time. I heard this song again this morning and in  so many ways it expresses what I hope Lydia knows and what I feel (and always will, about, and for, her.

While I am not a resolution maker, I am a reflecting and pondering person. If you have been reading this blog for a while, or if this is your first time, that should not surprise you. While I often say that so many people need to turn their brains on, there are times I wish I could turn mine off. Yet, as Sr. Galán notes, too many people are unwilling to think and allow others to make decisions that affect them without any consideration. He is so correct. The only way we can move beyond things is to reflect and learn from them. If we begin to truly understand and comprehend a situation, then we can actually manage it. Thinking and understanding also keeps us from being victimized (note, I did not say victim). Indeed we are often the victim of circumstances, but if we are to move beyond it and to refuse to allow it to victimize us, we can continue on with our lives. Again, I think of Lydia and George. After visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau this past week, it would have been easy for George to feel victimized by his political incarceration at Dachau, but he did not. In fact, after his escape, rather than go somewhere safe, he returned to Poland to fight Hitler again. George and Lydia could have felt victimized by their immigration to the United States and the consequence of having to begin yet again. Instead, they had no such plan, they set out to create a life for themselves. I know that I wrote about George’s saying, recounted to me by Lydia, “we are too poor to by cheap (sic)”. They knew and dealt with the consequence of coming to this country with not much more than a suitcase, but they never saw it as, nor allowed it to be, a detriment to their moving beyond their situation.

Too often I hear a student blame the professor, or their parent, or (you fill in the blank) for their situation or for their poor performance. There is little realization that their lack of consistency or their waiting until the last minute or their failure to either take notes or even go to class might have some impact on where he or she is. There is the belief that as long as they pass, it is good enough. When they move beyond this place called college, a place where they are still more spoon-fed than they might realize, the reality of not doing their work or putting in a reasonable effort will come back to haunt them. I am thinking of a particular student I had last semester, who was a nice person, but did not come to class, missing more than 7 classes, did not turn in some assignments, and then did not make a portfolio accessible, which is grounds for failure in and of itself, wanted me to justify why I failed him for the course. There are those who believe if they just work hard the last two weeks that should make up for 12 weeks of slacking. I did hear at least to some extent about the grades of the six students, each of them to a greater or lesser degree, I see as my surrogate kids. Four of them were on the dean’s list, one did quite well and the final one got by. I think they are all capable of dean’s list, but 4 out of 6 makes me very happy. Not that they need my approval, that I know, but I am glad to hear things are going so well. The three of the four on dean’s list are seniors and that is a really nice thing to see when employers start considering resumes and potential employees. While it is so easy to think that a particular class (usually a foundational or general education class does not matter, nothing could be more untrue. Not so much because of the particular grade you earn, but rather because of what you did or did not learn. A few blogs ago I noted that I had misplaced a number of items. Well yesterday, after and reordering a new debit card. I found my old one in a jacket pocket. The only think I have not recovered at this point is , of course, the think I most want to find: a second set of car keys. The key is expensive to reorder in the realm of hundreds of dollars. I know if I order it I will find it, but I do not want to spend that money.

It is now Wednesday morning and I was up at 1:00 a.m., once again headed to the airport for a flight to Salt Lake City. I took two extended naps yesterday to try to fight off a sore throat that seems much more prevalent this morning. This is not something I need. Yet, I imagine the past two weeks have taken their toll. As I was driving to the airport, I realized it is my grandmother Louise’s birthday today. She would be 102. Happy Birthday, Grandma. Our flight is a bit delayed, but nothing too terrible. I’m grateful as always for Mark. He got up very early to escort me to the airport. He and I always have great conversations. Last night I had an opportunity to see Shiama. It was wonderful to catch up with her and chat. I had not realized the last time she was by the house was when she and Melissa had dinner together. That seems so long ago and so much has happened. I guess that is the reality of our lives. We are constantly moving, sometimes beyond things and other times into things. Two weeks a go I was holding a vigil at Lydia’s bedside and it was Christmas Eve. Last week, I was in Poland and getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Robert and Katarzyna. This week, my life had significantly changed again and by the day’s end I will be in Utah and working on projects for the upcoming semester

We are always moving beyond.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Michael

Fearing the Unknown

IMG_0451

Good morning,

Is early morning as I begin to write this, it’s not quite 4:00 a.m. and I am sitting in Hazelton out in the street because I’m early and I do not want to get the Galáns up before they’re ready. I am headed to the airport to fly back to Wisconsin. This is actually the second time for this trip, I tried it yesterday. However as it seems to be the case most often flying into Newark, the flight was delayed and I would miss my connecting flight. So even though I had been dropped off at the airport, I had to have them come back and get me. Mr. Galán, in his usual graciousness, came back and got me. So now we are doing it again. Now at the airport and aboard a little prop plane to Newark and then the flight to Minneapolis. I should be in Menomonie by noon. That first flight would have had Jordan screaming. Amazing turbulence and the man next to me ending up being sick, needing a bag (two of them) and all. Quite a way to begin my morning.

As I write this I am at probably 30,000 feet and about not quite halfway to Minnesota. We are flying over an ocean of puffy-blanketed clouds that stretch as far as I can see. It is nice to be on top of them and see the sun. The sun has been noticeably lacking the past week. That might have been a positive for me because of the hours I needed to spend my end of the semester grading. As always, I had a flurry of requests to hand something in last minute. For my Foundations classes, I was accommodating for the most part. I have also gotten the first phone calls and emails asking for some justification on why I decided a particular grade. This conversation almost always stumps me because of the misperception, or more accurately the belief that I merely assign grades or that their assertion that they worked hard should automatically translate into an acceptable grade (most often their only acceptable is an A). What I think I will tell them is that in 5 1/2 years and almost 900 students, only about 80 students have earned an A in my classes. I would also note that approximately the same amount have failed a course or dropped it. The greatest number of students have received a B in my classes. I do think that will (and did) change this semester. I was not as benevolent in offering the benefit of the doubt. Simply put: do your work and follow directions. Following directions and thinking critically are two of the important skills one can develop and use. Speaking of critical thinking, the town council in Bloomsburg, where I live (I technically live out of town) voted 4-3 to NOT adopt a proposed ordinance that would keep businesses, landlords, or other public places from refusing service or refuse the offering of services to people based on their sexual preferences. The arguments that were offered by some of the council members themselves for the decision were almost ludicrous. One member (when probably actually referring to Laramie WY, though one can’t be sure) noted he did not want Bloomsburg to become another Columbine. The misguided belief that discrimination was legally supported by religious belief is so absurd; it is atrociously sad. Equality and Justice might be a religious issue and perhaps should be, but discrimination based on a group identity has led to some pretty horrific incidences throughout our history, be it in this country or in Europe. The ordinance would afford protection for a group of individuals, who have been, and still are, systematically disenfranchised because of fear or stereotypic stupidity. I am hoping to do some work next semester in my technical writing classes to work in response to the town’s failure to pass what I believe is a ordinance that promotes Justice and equality.

I am amazed how fear keeps us from doing the right thing or standing up for the right thing. I am amazed how powerful fear is as I realize it can keep people alive or cause them to die. Fear often paralyzes the human spirit. Fear of reprisal often keeps us from speaking out when what we have experienced is discourteous or hurtful. I know some of these things first-hand. The fear of being different often compels people to hide their true identity or feelings. The fear because of past experiences can reduce people to merely a shell, their inner abilities shriveled up and withered (this is really what I believe PTSD is). I must give the Galán family a great deal of credit for pushing me to stand up, even at times with, or more aptly against, them, when I have felt that some action was problematic. What I have realized is in doing so I am acting the very way they have modeled for me. At one time I would have been afraid that I would lose them. While I do not believe that is the case any longer, I do know that I changed “the rules” so to speak. What I have done is actually stand up and show that I have as much right to my thoughts and actions as any other. I am entitled to respond just as the next person has this entitlement. I should note that I am still learning about the love they have for me. I do not always understand its expression and especially when it is demonstrated in such a different manner than I have ever experienced. It is Mr. Galán who is most helpful through his consistency and respect. It is Mrs. Galán in her unbelievably consistent actions towards me that help me understand. Ironically, it is the child (not meant pejoratively) with whom I have (and have had) the least contact that I probably am most comfortable. Yet, it is Melissa and Jordan for whom I have experienced the greatest sense of love I have ever known who have forced me to look at myself and grow. That growth has not been without difficulty, but it has been significant. It has been important. All expressions of love or care have an inherent risk; something I have learned first hand this year, but in spite of my bumps and bruises, ultimately I am grateful. In this very blog I have argued and hollered out, and there are places I still disagree, but as they always tell me, the love for each other is the most important thing. I think they are correct.

It is that same love that takes me back to Wisconsin at this time. Since I wrote about Lydia in a recent blog, she continues to lose ground in the battle with dementia. In fact, it is not really a battle any longer. She has lost the battle and most of herself. As her brain continues what seems to be a free fall toward nothingness, the consequences of her deterioration are more deleterious. I used the word sinister this morning in a conversation. Dementia and other forms of this debilitating disease seem much more sinister than any battle I am presently fighting. It is love that pushes me to return to see her and try, with God’s intervention and help, that I will try to offer her the comprehension, the understanding, the confidence, that death does not need to be feared. It is okay to let this life go. I remember shortly before my father passed away 17 years ago later this month, he told my sister that the living room was full of his passed-on relatives beckoning him to let go and to not be afraid. He passed away about two days later. I am hoping in whatever language, English, more likely German, and perhaps most importantly the non-verbal language of presence, she will know it is safe to let this frail and agonizing body of hers go. I am hoping that her knowing or sensing that she is not alone will help her conquer what I believe is a fear of the beyond. I know that I am no longer afraid of dying. I think I once was, and I imagine that is pretty normal. I think my fear was more about feeling like I still had things to do or accomplish. I think this past year has taken care of most of that. I think the fact that I have been granted tenure is another substantive element in realizing I am okay.

This morning I was asked if I wanted to live. My answer to that question was “yes”. I do want to live, but what I am realizing is I am comfortable with dying. It makes me wonder if the “fighting” I am doing is really necessary. I am wondering if all of this medical stuff, treatments, or other actions to fight against our demise is merely another part of the system that my friend argues so vociferously against. Even though what I am currently doing is pretty natural, and I imagine it has other positive results, if I am doing it to merely stay alive and really doing the very thing Lydia is doing.

I’m now I’m Menomonie and have gone to see Lydia. While I was told she is the cat with nine lives and I said she’s on her 12th, the reality of the last couple weeks is significant. Even the caregivers who have known her from the beginning say that it is only a matter of time and the time is short. She did not really know who I was again today, but she seemed pleased that I was there. I guess that’s the best I can hope for now. I promised her that I would do what I could to take care of her. I’m doing the best I can to manage that promise. It hurts me deeply to see her this way. She’s not longer living she’s merely existing. I guess what I wrote earlier today makes sense. It is time to let her go; it is time for her to like go. I hope in the next few days I can help her get over her fear. I’m grateful for the people who care for her. I’m grateful she has a place to live where she is safe. I’m grateful for the staff and the administrator. Even though she doesn’t know it, she is blessed and so on am I.

As we enter this time of Christmas, my piety reminds me that it’s time to not be afraid. It’s time to except the reality that we have. It’s time to give thanks for what has happened in this past year. I am grateful for so much. For friends, for my Dominican family, for my biological family, and for a job that I am blessed to have. Fear not and be of good cheer. In each of our lives we have something for which to be grateful. Lydia, I love you; José, Maria, Mery, Melissa, and Jordan, para mis defectos, me perdone. Por el don de su amor carrera igualada, me siento muy honrado y agradecido. Te quiero todo. To all who have supported me in my ongoing battle, thank you. To the Deckers, Mark Gayle, Grace, Mary, Max , Caroline, and Rosie, I am beyond grateful that I ended up in Bloomsburg. Thank you for your love and making me me part of your family.

To the rest of you thank you for reading as always,

Michael