Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Something's Gotta Give

The portable DVD player from Walmart is a hit, a big hit. My mom has to lie on her side while her wound heals. Having her own personal DVD player to watch movies and not endless trash t.v. is exciting in a world of little excitement. She was like a little kid at Christmas.

I gave her a kiss and said, “I’m gonna grab some dinner. See you in a bit.” I adjusted the angle of her little DVD player and hit the “Play” button, and the Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie, Something’s Gotta Give started up.

Now, I’m sitting in a TGI Friday’s near my mom’s nursing home, with nary a wireless network in range and with a Salmon Caesar Salad on the way. Never thought I would think I had it so good sitting at a red and white striped table, in a booth by the kitchen, waiting for dinner at a place I wouldn’t otherwise frequent. How things change from moment to moment.

You see yesterday and even this morning I was a bit depressed by it all. My mom’s house. Her dogs. Her cats. Her car. Her life! How had it all gotten so bad? How had we not known? All the “shoulds” that keep roaring through my head. Granted, my mom is a stubborn Texan at heart, fiercely independent in her sweet, quiet way; and she turned down our offers to help over and over.

And, now, we’re having talks we needed to have but she couldn’t hear before. Like about her depression that we all missed. Like about how she doesn’t know how to ask for help, not even a little bit. Like how she’s just like the rest of us and needs other people.

This morning, I felt the stress of wishing I could be in three places at once – with my mom, with her animals, and with the chores that needed to be done. Oh yeah, then there’s the whole thing of being in town and wanting to be there, in person, for Teri and for the business. Teri likes spending time together, but there wasn’t a hint of resentment. She gets the “family first” ethos and told me not to worry.

Anyway, a massive case of “something’s gotta give!”

So, I started the day at the nursing home, bringing my mom her Constant Health shake. My dad didn’t live to enjoy the formula inspired by his illness, but my mom really loves it (I mean loves it, but I guess no big wonder as nursing food isn’t that hard to trump!).

Anyway, it seems that all the delays for flavor enhancement paid off, as my mom is not much interested in things that are simply “good for her.”

After a quick morning visit, I was off (the key would not come out of the ignition to my mom’s Saturn, so I was loathe to leave her car too long unattended).

Off I went to visit her lonely pets. Being a cat person, I enjoyed my visit with her rather gigantic orange tabby cat, who trills and nudges you and pats you with his paws outstretched. Good grief what a belly on that one, but he’s adorable and I can’t help but love him. The black and white kitty, Tyler, is more reserved but affectionate too.

The dogs are all large and constantly panting and in need of a good grooming. It feels like a swarm to visit with them, as they compete for pats and scratches, but they are all quite loving too. I always laugh when I see Barney, the so-called “lab mix,” most recently adopted from the Humane Society, literally hours before the Grim Reaper was to claim him for good.

First of all, Barney is a mostly Pit Bull mix and just happens to be all black. I tell my mom that his temperament is all lab, and then we pretend that I believe her when she says she thought he really was a lab.

After giving everyone a last pat, I set out for the Saturn dealership. I told them about the problem with the key getting stuck in the ignition. Once in the shop, it turned out the car hadn’t been in since February 2006, so there were all sorts of things that needed doing in addition to the key cylinder being replaced (by the way, it’s a familiar little problem with Saturns).

Over $1000 and four hours later, I reclaimed the car, which had been perfunctorily vacuumed and sported a new serpentine belt (supposedly a fairly important part), refinished brake rotors, new windshield wipers, rotated tires, a 27-point safety inspection “pass,” and all fluids refreshed.

I stepped into a dripping car, with rain starting to fall. The key not only turned the car on and off but also came out of the ignition without a massive game of wishing and hoping. Sweet!

I drove off and made it through pelting rain back to my mom’s nursing home. After chatting for a while, I set her up with her DVD player and took my first real break of the day for dinner.

My mom was so grateful that I came out to be with her. She appreciated the straight talk about what’s ahead, what it will take to heal and recuperate, and she said:

I need you. Stephen has been so patient, but you’re pushier, you always have been, and I need that right now.”

Sigh. I’ve worked so hard to be more receptive, more accepting, more patient over the years, but I still somehow end up being “the pushy one.” At least no one is complaining about that right now, so I guess I can’t complain either.

After so wanting to be in three (actually four) places at one time earlier today, I am happy, really happy, to be in one place, right here, with the red and white striped tabletop and all.

Back to the nursing home to chat some more and say goodbye, as I must catch an early plane out of West Palm Beach in the morning. I’ll be back soon though. My mom needs me.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Life doesn't stop to ask you whether you're ready - for anything.

My mom took another fall and didn't call anyone for a day. She is in the hospital and sounds so incredibly weak and discouraged. She doesn't want to let the hospital do a CT scan (she is claustrophobic) nor does she want any sedatives. This may change, but it's hard to be so far away. I will travel to see her next week.

I'm struggling with lack of sleep today. Normally energetic, I can really feel the weight of my mom's loss of mobility and her flagging health in my own body.

My brother, Stephen, has been great, taking care of her house, her dogs and cats. Stephen's wife, Kelly, and her family, have also been amazing, pitching in with garage clean-up, painting, laundry, you name it, to make sure my mom has an inviting place to come home to.

The question is whether she will ever be able to live independently again. I just went through this with my dad. It breaks my heart and I can't help but feel sad.

As one of my teachers, Richard Strozzi-Heckler, once said, "You are hearing the waterfall." When I looked at him quizzically the first time, Richard said something to the effect of:

"You float along on the river of life, hit some rapids, some bends in the river, and accept the changing course of the river. Then you start to hear the waterfall. Over the years, you hear it more clearly. And then you get that you won't live forever."

I've shared that metaphor many times. Right now, I feel dunked back into the big questions. How am I spending my time? What is important to do (and not to do)? Am I on course? How do I really know?

Sadness whispers to us about the nature of life and how the loss of everything we love is inevitable. Strength and courage are not enough to navigate these experiences that hurt. Breathing helps. Talking helps a bit, and then silence and just being with it all helps in turn.

Tears burn when I think of my mom, rescuer of homeless pets, unable to lift her legs in bed. Tears burn also when I recognize the grace and beauty of this moment, pain included.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Mom's Sneaking Depression

I call my mom every few weeks. She always sounds so happy to hear from me and is so appreciative of my calls.

She rarely calls me though. And, she has forgotten my birthday for the last couple of years.
I'm not that into birthday celebrations, so it's not what she sends that ever has mattered. It's more that she used to feel more like a participant in my life.

These days, she seems to be a bit lost in time and a bit lost from my life too.

Days come and go with her animals (four cats and three dogs - the horses are gone now) on her two acres in Loxahatchee, Florida.

My mom taught special education for 30 years, retiring at 70, well beyond the time when most teachers have either burned out or gone on to tamer gigs. She had taught in inner city Los Angeles, where the street-smart kids, who loved her, gullible ways and all, insisted, "You're not white, you're just light."

My mom worked with kids with all sorts of learning disabilities, ADD, oppositional defiant disorder and so forth.

One student was blind because his mother's boyfriend had thrown acid at her while she was holding him as a baby, and she involntarily flinched, putting her child's eyes in the full spray of acid.

Traumatized kids, who longed to be seen and to have a chance, populated her classes, especially at the end of her career, when she worked with teenage boys who could not make it in the regular schools' special ed programs.

At 5'1", my mom has never been physically imposing. She used to have to take mandatory self-defense classes, where instructors pinned her and made her roll through different moves to protect herself. However, she never needed to use those skills.

The kids tested her, for sure, but they seemed to get how much she cared, and the worst that happened were the occasional pilferings from her room.

It always broke her heart when yet another one would go to jail or turn to violence, as many of the kids at her last school did.

It's hard to believe now, as my mom seems so isolated and even a bit afraid of venturing into the world much anymore.

Stephen and I have been trying to get her in to see an orthopedic surgeon about her bad knee for several years. She cancelled appointments and said she just didn't have the energy to go and would withdraw to sleep it all off.

It sounded like more than avoidance, more like depression sneaking up on our mother.

I read an article in The Economist this morning about how depressed people move in "mathematically different" ways from other people. According to the article:

"Depressed people experience longer resting periods more frequently and shorter ones less frequently than healthy people do."

While this is not surprising, the conclusion of the article was interesting, given my interest in all things cellular these days.

Apparently, the same movement pattern as depressed people was seen in the electrical activity of "nerve cells isolated in a Petri dish and unable to contact their neighbors." The intelligence compressed into our tiny cells is always astonishing to me, and the lives of cells aren't so very different from our own.

Alas, my mom is isolated. Her movement patterns are those of long rest (withdrawal) periods and lack of interest in most things. It looks like depression has snuck in

The good news is that our mother allows us to help her. She is trying to be better about her supplements and is open to giving SAM-e a try, which could help her aching joints as well as her moods.

Meanwhile, I will be checking in on my mom a whole lot more often, as will Stephen.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Promise of Algaculture

I was on a plane yesterday, on my way to Bangor, Pennsylvania for an Enneagram workshop at the Kirkridge Retreat Center.

I had two copies of The Economist with me, and a couple of articles caught my eye.

The first on alternative energy, Sea green, starts like this:

"One of the crazier ideas for dealing with global warming is to sprinkle the oceans with iron filings. One reason the sea (unlike the land) is not covered with plants is that it lacks crucial nutrients--iron, in particular."

The article goes on to quote a British researcher, John Munford, as hypothesizing that a project to "fertilise the oceans" might help stop climate change and might also yield a sustainable source for biodiesel to replace dependency on fossil fuels.

In my own backyard, researchers at the Utah State University (USU) are working on converting algae into biodiesel in a cost-competitive way. Their goal? The year 2009!

We've all heard about the problems with wood, corn-, soy-based bio fuels (high fossil energy requirements and increased demand flips wood pulp and food prices into the stratosphere).

Michael Briggs, of the University of New Hampshire's Biodiesel Group, published an article on
Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae, which articulates the history, production, and cost issues of biodiesel.

Briggs includes a section in his article on the move from harvesting open air pond scum to the use of enclosed photobioreactors (proprietary technology gadgets writ large, that still need some R&D to become commercial "green gold" mines).

As Dr. Rodier continues to evangelize the benefits of algae for nutrition, scientists around the world are working on extracting breakthroughs from algaculture.