But writing is my window into my head and heart – what am I thinking, what am I feeling? How am I doing with these decades of passing time.
As a Girl Scout in the mid-1950s I received a 3 ½ x 5” diary with a gold embossed Girl Scout emblem on the forest green cardboard binding, complete with a miniature lock and key. That gift was my invitation to writing. At first, a sentence or two describing an event or the day at school, and within a few months the diary was filled. A second ivory colored diary replaced it, and it, too, quickly overcome with words. Diary expanded into journaling, a means to record events and eventually to record reactions and reflections and feelings. I was hooked.
Now in my mid-70s I continue to write daily, most often now on my laptop, as my handwriting more and more resembles that of my mother’s, less and less legible. But writing is my window into my head and heart – what am I thinking, what am I feeling? How am I doing with these decades of passing time.
“Diminishment” – the word came to me early one morning a few weeks ago. I was writing about my mom and how over the few years before she died, she diminished. She became shorter than I; her eyesight less and less sharp; her ability to carry on a conversation more and more limited – words harder to find, losing the intent of what she wanted to say before the thought completed. The first significant marker was giving her car to my niece. She had been driving “all the old ladies” to and from church and circle meetings, but at age 90 decided they would be safer, as would all the other drivers on the road, if she gave up driving. Diminished.
Time passed; she b egan to fall and fall again and then again. A red plastic bracelet warned “prone to falling.” A cane, a walker, and finally a wheelchair. She who had been a great walker and bicycle rider was reduced to driving her shiny black wheelchair, pushing herself around. Diminished.
I supposed it all started before Dad died in 1989. He would fall; she got him up. He fell again; she got him up. But one day, she couldn’t and the ambulance was called. The ER doctor looked at this 88-year-old woman and said, “You can’t do this anymore. He needs more assistance than you can provide.” Devastating news for this highly successful, well-respected nurse. Dad agreed. She didn’t. Unwilling to accept the reality of Dad’s declining years. Once more he fell; the ambulance arrived. “For a little while until he gets stronger,” she finally agreed to moving into the assisted living facility a few blocks south of their condominium building. But he did not get stronger; he was ill, cancer creeping through his diminishing bones.
After his death, she returned to the condominium, even though Dad had firmly stated over and over again, “Don’t let her move back.” He knew; he knew she was diminishing. But, she moved back and the falling started. This time it was she falling. When asked about a healing wound above her eye, she evaded, “Oh, I just bumped my head.” But the day came when she fell against the elevator door just as it was opening for her to enter and that is how neighbors found her. Little strokes, the doctors said. She really shouldn’t be living alone; the doctors said. We need to get her into an assisted living facility, her daughters said. But never did her stubbornness diminish.
One daughter talked with her; “No.” The second daughter talked with her; “No.” Daughters talked together and with her; “No.” Months passed; falling continued. Her diminution continued until finally, there was no choice. Another fall; her pelvis broken. An ambulance finally for rehab at a care center. A nearly impossible conversation about money resulted in a “I will try it but then I will come back home.” No diminishing of her resolve to stay in her home.
I thought about all that early one morning not that long again; the word “diminishment” came to me to describe how I was thinking about Mom. Two pictures above my bed- one of her on her capping day from Swedish Nursing School with her lovely manicured nails showing on her crossed arms across her immaculate white uniform, stiffly starched cap secure on her head. The other on a family gathering day in her wheelchair, tousled hair and stained turtleneck, surrounded by her three daughters. Images of diminishment.
But, the well-worn copy of the Random House dictionary informed me “diminishment” is not a word. Even as I type, the red line shows up each time I use it. Diminution is the word – it describes the “process of diminishing, lessening, reduction.” Yes, a process, that is what I was remembering, the process of my mother’s diminishing, lessening, reduction, her diminution.
And now I see it – reflected in the mirror, this process that I am coming to understand, I see daily, I feel, I recognize, in myself, in the rotation of the earth around the sun, day by day, month by month, year by year. Sure, both hips were replaced twenty years ago, an inheritance from my father. Sure, both hands gnarled with arthritis ache on cool, damp days. Sure, I have worn glasses since second grade. But that’s just “normal,” I tell myself. No reason to think much about that, no need to cast it as any diminution.
But with this winter excess of snow, well over twice the average yearly accumulation, with two very short-legged dogs, higher and higher snow plow banks blocking the paths to bird feeders and bird seed container, I am feeling it. Shoveling out a potty path for the dogs each six-inch snowfall before the plow arrives reminds me of my rising year count. Fighting my way through the 3+ feet of snow on the back yard to shake excess snow off drooping branches of a favorite pine tree became a quick lesson in winter survival. I fell; I tried to extricate myself from snow up to my hips unsuccessfully. Three times I worked to go vertical landing on my posterior with each endeavor. How am I going to get out of here, I wondered. Girl Scout training kicked in; roll over and crawl. Two attempts and I was on all fours, maneuvering past the garden out to the plowed driveway where I could easily stand up. But, the sight of a seventy-six year old gray-haired woman decked out in snowpants, a heavy parka and knee-high Sorrell boots would have made for a You Tube video. I was humbled; I was reminded – I am diminishing.
Now there are small silver half-moons resting on each ear attached to a short wire plugged into each ear canal. Then there was the trip to the retina specialist – same one my mother visited for years to check the status of my macular degeneration. Again and again I am reminded of my own diminution.
But again and again I am reminded of the quotidian grace abounding in this creaky body. Three mile walks on Croftville Road, admiring the beautiful ice sculpture – natural and created along the shore. Three pairs of ravens return to our woods to mate, build nests and renew the raven population. Chickadees call “phoebe” to one another. Icicles form water witching prongs off the bathroom roof. A fawn and mama stroll down the driveway nibbling at bare branches. The light returns, sun rise earlier each day. Diminution is real yes, but vitality and growth and humor peek out from behind the birch next to the deck.
Yes, I am diminishing, but that isn’t the last word. But, but, perhaps the time has come to ask the hard question: how long can we maintain this lovely home in the woods? Perhaps my heart and my mind need to consult. Perhaps the time has come for resolution or at least the time has come for a discernment process especially as the what if’s start up in the 3:00 club:
- What if I had fallen and not been able to get up
- What if I had fallen and was hurt and Hillary could not help me get up
- What if I had fallen and the snowplow hadn’t gotten through yet
- What if I had fallen and needed major medical attention, with nothing available in town
- What if, what if, what if.
But what ifs aren’t good enough for this process. Where does the deliberate thought process of head come into play and where do the sensitive issues of the heart intersect and how do the two play together?
Start with the numbers: 11, 1.5, 5, 150, 76, 0, 0, 0, 0: 11 miles east of town, one and a half miles up from the highway on gravel roads maintained by a private road association, five acres of woods, 150 inches of snow, age 76 with zero intensive care within 150 miles, zero surgical services within 150 miles, zero geriatric services within 150 miles, zero home health services within 150 miles. No assisted living, a care center at risk of closing for lack of staff. A retiring doctor looking to move to a new area with adequate senior health care. Friends looking at options elsewhere in the state to enable productive and healthy aging. A metro area doctor in conversation observing, “I know about your situation. One of my classmates from your local clinic has talked with me.” The data is in. Aging in place in Cook County is a fantasy. Or at least a reality I can’t quite fathom.
But what about the heart: morning light in the bedroom windows moving from the north wall to the south wall as the days lengthen minute by minute. Chickadees and finches collecting around the suet feeder, ruby-throated hummingbirds celebrating fresh sugar water in the plastic tube hanging from the pin cherry tree at the edge of the deck. Mama and baby deer strolling down the driveway snacking on fresh green shoots. Lynx screaming across the back yard tearing through the open screen tent in the early morning hours. Sneak peeks of the big lake as the leaves begin their fall descents clearing sightlines through the thick forest curtains. But then there is the 250+ mile back and forth from Grand Marais to St. Paul. When is that drive just too much – either for us or those drivers with whom we share the freeway? Can you feel the struggle? Reason tells me to let it go, start planning for the big move to St Paul, the big move to sell, the big move to give thanks for twelve wonderful years in this little house on the hill. But my heart is hanging on, resistant. The struggle is underway. Resolution will come. ‘Tis the time for patience, compassion, and acceptance of realities. ‘Tis the time for writing. Diminution and quotidian graces abound; celebrate both and live the ambiguity for now.
Carol Mork is a retired educator, pastor and community organizer who moved to the North Shore in 2011. She and her partner live on five acres of woods, east of Grand Marais with two adopted senior shelties. Writing is her avocation; as a pastor she had several articles and curricula published and continues to be involved with writing circles.