Some Of My Favorite Books About ‘Isolation’

Recently I finished a book called ‘The Ice Child’ that weaves a story between the present and the past involving the ill-fated Franklin Expedition in the 1800’s to find the Northwest Passage aboard two ships, The Terror and The Erebus. Countless non-fiction accounts of this doomed expedition have been published, though I confess I have stuck to the fictional treatments.

This has prompted me to write a post about some of my favorite works that involved ‘isolation’, or characters in remote locations, separated from society and assistance either by their own choice or by circumstances beyond their control.  I have chosen four of my favorite works to post about here, with The Ice Child being a new favorite.



The Ice Child, by Katherine McGregor (no, nor Mrs. Oleson from Little House On The Prairie, that was Katherine MacGregor) centers on a journalist who becomes fascinated with a missing tv show host, Doug Marshall, who has held a decades-long fascination with the Franklin Expedition, and has gone AWOL in search of artifacts from that trek through the northern-most reaches of the planet.  McGregor tells her story by switching back and forth from the 19th century to present day and chronicles the actual expedition itself in juxtaposition to the modern day search by Marshall for Franklin artifacts and her subsequently falling in love with him.  The seamless interweaving of the two tales is well presented and capped off by a time-sensitive search for Marshall’s adult son, who seems to carry the same obsession as his father before him with finding something of the Franklin Expedition to claim as his own.  A wonderful read, very engaging and fast paced.

The first fictional treatment I ever indulged in about this same subject matter was Dan Simmons’ ‘The Terror’. Simmons’s reputation was built upon horror tales, and I first discovered him in a bargain bin of books in a supermarket with one of his earlier offerings, Summer Of Night, which reminded me of Stephen King’s ‘It’ and ‘Stand By Me’ in many ways.  Simmons used recurring characters from this book in later works, such as Fires Of Eden, Children of Night, and A Winter’s Haunting, but The Terror is a standalone novel about the two ships of the Franklin Expedition and what ‘horrors’ they encountered marooned in the ice for years at the top of the world.  It is more ‘psychological suspense’ than horror, and easily one of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past ten years.  The relentless cold, along with ‘monsters’ real and imagined kept me hooked from start to finish.  



After reading ‘The Terror’, I indulged in Admiral Richard Byrd’s ‘Alone’ – a story of his solo manning of an Antarctic outpost in the 20th century, to gather weather data, and ‘to taste peace and quiet long enough to know what they really are’.  Byrd’s account of his solitary existence in subzero temperatures, and his improvisational methods of surviving are truly riveting from start to finish.  This has long been hailed as a ‘classic’ polar adventure, and it lives up to its reputation.



Several years ago I fell in love with the stories of Jack Kerouac having read On The Road for the first time in my late 20’s.  Since then I’ve read several more of Kerouac’s alcohol-induced ramblings and have never been disappointed. Desolation Angels chronicles a time in Kerouac’s life when he spent months alone in a fire-station outpost in the mountain. Below is a short review of the book that I put on after reading and loving this work. 

Jack Kerouac’s ‘Desolation Angels’, written about a period of his life roughly 10 years before his death, acts as a nice bridge between ‘On The Road’ (which was awaiting publication during the course of events described in “Angels”) and a subsequent publication, Big Sur, both of which I’ve read.

During his two month self-imposed exile to work as a fire ranger on Desolation Peak, Jack Kerouac was forced to confront many of his pre-existing or emerging demons. The location for this period of his life is especially apropos for the ‘desolation’ surrounding Kerouac, much of which was self-created, as he sank further into depression and alcoholism.

The book covers more of his life than just the two months on Desolation Peak, but as Jack re-emerges into society, you get the sense that this ‘loner’ was only comfortable being ‘alone’ amongst others…that while he could see, smell, and wander amongst others, and feel tolerably ‘isolated’…he could not stand the true isolation he could achieve, to remove himself from society altogether.

Jack wanders from the American Northwest to Florida, to Mexico, to Tangiers, to California with his mother in tow, and eventually back to Florida, when his mother grows further depressed with their cross-country move after only a month.

Many players from Kerouac’s former novels appear in this one as well, albeit with different names…the poet ‘Gregory Corso,’ to whom Kerouac lost ‘Mardou Fox’ in “Subterraneans” is called ‘Raphael Urso’ in “Angels”…’Dean Moriarty,’ from “On The Road” is ‘Cody’ in this incarnation.

Kerouac’s detachment from the Beat Generation, his status as their reigning ‘king’, his fame, and his Buddhist beliefs all come into focus during this novel, one of his finest, in my opinion. If you rode shotgun with Kerouac for On The Road, explore his life further, and you will uncover far more about this dark and troubled yet fascinating author.

I have found upon searching that there are many, many more novels of ‘isolation’ out there waiting for me, and hopefully will get to indulge in more of them over time.  The above are just four examples of ones that I’ve truly enjoyed from start to finish.  I hope that these brief descriptions are enticement enough for others who enjoy stories of this nature to investigate one or more of them further and take a look for themselves. All are worth the effort.

Miscellaneous, Parenting

An Introvert’s Holiday; or, Why I Like To Travel Alone

I’ve been away from home for the past couple of days.

By myself.

When my husband decided to travel to the middle east recently for a thirteen day vacation, I knew that upon his return, after nearly two weeks with my heightened needs children I would need a couple of days (at least) me time to decompress after the challenges of having (other than school hours) 100% responsibility for the kids.

And including a visit from my mother.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love my mother.  She is 82 years of age. She lives alone, and has for several years now after her ‘boarder’ (her sister’s former boyfriend who rented a room for nine years after he and my aunt split up) moved out.  She has been retired for several years now, and never, to my mind, prepared for this eventuality.  She has few interests and hobbies, aside from reading (where I get my love of books from), watching tennis, and Lifetime Television For Women movies. She doesn’t go far, doesn’t really travel, and doesn’t participate in any real group activities. I suppose that sounds kind of like me to some degree, but the difference between us is that she ‘complains’ about it. I don’t. Therefore, I think she tends to ‘invent’ reasons to call me and chat nearly every day of the week, without a lot of activities in her life to talk about, and so I hear the same stories from her a lot.  My mother isn’t senile, but she repeats herself a lot when she talks, and rarely can take a hint that she’s engaging in a thrice-told (or more) tale, which I try to make known to her by saying ‘yes, we discussed this already’, but she just keeps going and tells the story again regardless. During her recent visit I heard about her new ‘attached to the garage’ mailbox so she doesn’t have to walk down an icy driveway and her mail-carrier being named Betty at least half a dozen times.  While my mother visited she talked……..a lot.

I don’t talk all that much.  Certainly I can carry on a lengthy conversation with someone, and have even been called long-winded. But those instances are few and far between.  I am an introvert.  I do my best to not ‘stand out’ in a crowd, or draw attention to myself.  I listen a lot more than I talk. I relish the times when I can go into a room and close a door and be by myself.  My favorite ‘leisure time’ activities are writing and reading.  I spend a lot of time ‘taking a scene in’ before I will participate in it.  I also can only really ‘handle’ a few hours at most in a crowd.  I am not a ‘close down the place’ kind of person.

In a crowded bar or restaurant (where I will usually eat at the bar when dining alone), I hope for an ‘end seat’ so that I can partially turn my back to a wall or window.  I want no one ‘behind me’.  It’s not paranoia that ‘everyone is watching me’, it’s that I want to be able to watch everyone, and contrary to what I tell my kids I do not have eyes in the back of my head.  I will silently observe others and listen to their conversations and soak in atmosphere without uttering a sound. I hate small talk. It’s painful. I enjoy talking (listening really) to people I know, but with strangers it’s about as enticing to me as the idea of jamming a corkscrew into one of my nostrils and twisting it, and even with people I know and love, I can only really do it for so long before I need a break from it all.

And so, after two days with my mother in the house….okay, two hours really; I was just about maxed out on conversation and had several days left to go.  I had to spend a lot of time redirecting my kids (re: talking a lot) and then holding conversations with my mother, and by the time everyone (but me) was in bed….after spending nearly every waking moment of the day ‘talking’…..since my mother and the kids are all up early…I was ready to lock myself in the basement and hide in a dark corner.

And by the time day thirteen of my husband’s vacation was done, I was MORE than ready to get away on my own.

I have long been a fan of traveling by myself. I hemmed and hawed about spending money on a hotel room when I am not working and subsisting on unemployment pay and what I banked of my severance, although I knew that trying to get some ‘alone time’ at home with the kids about for the weekend was not a realistic pursuit. But in the end I realized I really needed some time away…some ‘me time’.  I didn’t want to take up much precious time off with driving, so long-distance travel was out (and flying not an option with the added expense of airline tickets). Therefore, I opted for the next sizable ‘city’ in a neighboring state.  I knew I’d want to park and walk away from my vehicle for the time I was here, so I chose the downtown area, where there are shops, restaurants, etc., all within walking distance from my hotel.

What I like about traveling alone can be summed up rather simply.  It’s not a desire to do anything ‘sketchy’. It’s not a desire to ‘get away’ from my loved ones or my friends. It’s really a desire to get away from being responsible for or to anyone but myself, even for a short while.  It’s the opportunity to be anyone or, more importantly, no one.  I don’t have to speak more than ordering a meal or a drink or saying ‘thank you’ as a clerk finishes up a sale.  It’s the chance to sit in a coffee shop that has a sofa and open a book and decide to linger for just one more chapter, because I don’t really have to be anywhere else if I don’t want to.  It’s a chance to have no schedule, no routine, no obligation to do anything other than exactly what I want to do…or DON’T want to do.

I arrived at my destination city at 11:30 yesterday morning.  I am in a city that I’ve only been to a couple of times. It has a downtown scene that is, even in the winter, rather lively it would appear.  There are galleries, restaurants, theaters, etc.  I’ve spent the bulk of my time in my hotel room.  I’ve gone out twice today, once for breakfast and to hit a used book store, and once for a late lunch and to pick up something to take home to each of the kids.  There’s a couple of shows playing locally that sounded nice, but I’ve not made any move to see them.  There’s clubs nearby, plenty of them, where I’m sure plenty of people will take advantage of the fact that tomorrow is a holiday and venture out tonight, especially after yesterday’s inclement weather.  I have zero interest in any of it.

I have scoped out a nearby karaoke venue, and that *might* entice me out, but other than that….I might just make my way downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant and bar and have a light dinner and then retire to my room for the rest of the night and read.  I did neglect to verify that my hotel room bathroom would have a tub and not just a shower, whereas if it did have a tub then all bets would be off about tonight and I’d soak in a nice hot bath for a few hours before turning in.  Oh well. Next time.

Some might try to tell me I’m missing a lot by not getting out and about more while I’m here. I feel very much to the contrary.  I feel as though what I’m gaining by spending a lot of time by myself is far more valuable than anything I’d see while I was here.  I may not have the healthiest self-esteem in the world, but thankfully I enjoy my own company well enough to be alone as much as I can while I’m here. This, more than getting into ‘the thick of things’ recharges my personal batteries.

Many people that I know thrive on and get their energy from being with others.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just completely contrary to my way of thinking and my needs. I’m not hiding out while I’m here. I’m not ‘afraid’ to socialize and to go out and about by myself and walk the streets of an unfamiliar place. I’m not trying to escape anything or anyone.  This long weekend to myself, like all the other ‘alone’ trips I have taken in the past boils down to one thing. It gives me the chance to spend unlimited, unencumbered, and uninhibited time with the one person I need to be with more than anyone else in the world right at this point in time.



An Item Of Sentimental Value


The photo above is a cocktail glass from Ship’s Haven restaurant that used to stand along Route 1 in Lynnfield, MA.

Now known as simply ‘The Ship’ the restaurant has undergone a few transformations and ownerships over time.   The history from the website is as follows:

May, 1925— Captain James F. Wilkinson, retired Sea Captain out of Gloucester, Mass., started a small refreshment stand on the New-buryport Turnpike here in Lynnfield, Mass. The business grew tremendously, but all the while Captain was dreaming of the time when he would build his own ship. Five years ago his dream came true, and although the ship that he built will never sail the seven seas it is probably the most authentic ship ever built for dry land. Crossing the gangplank patrons of “Ships’ Haven” enter the lobby where the “Purser’s Office” and the check room are located. To the left is the Dining Salon in the stern. Ship’s lantern’s swing overhead and portholes are as authentic as those used in the construction of ocean-going liners. To the right is the Cocktail Lounge arranged in true nautical style. From the lobby a stairway ascends to the upper deck, and here one will find Private Dining Rooms. Captain Wilkinson has left behind him a moment of achievement both spiritual and physical. The beautiful cup contenders in the Dining Salon and other ship models all over the ship are all products of his hands—–the beauty of sails fascinated him. Often he would be found on the bridge of the Ship fashioning a sail boat or some other thing of the sea from apiece of wood with a jack knife. The walls of the Bridge are covered by his charts and the Bridge is made complete with his compass and big ship’s bell which hangs just outside the window. The tides of the sea will not erase his memory. All in all, Ships’ Haven in its appointment offers you something different that you will not find in your travels anywhere in the United States. The ship now sails under the Captaincy of Ralph and Rose Wilkinson. Their efficiency is noted in its smooth sailing.

During my mother’s visit last week, she spoke at length about her former mother in law, who I referred to as Nana.  She and her second husband, a swarthy Italian crooner named Alphonse Centola lived in Watertown, MA.  I recall infrequent visits to Nana and Grampa Centola’s home in my childhood before Grampa died when I was ten. Per my mother; she and Dad used to quite frequently make the two hour drive south to visit with Dad’s mother and Stepfather. They would always ask where she wanted to go to dinner, and the answer was always the same.

Mom recalled that she always suggested going to The Ship’s Haven restaurant because she liked the atmosphere and the food, and that no one ever objected to this destination for dinner. She also told me that when they dined there my Nana would always pilfer a cocktail glass or two and take them home with her.  The one pictured above is the last (that I know of) surviving one of Nana’s career as a cocktail glass thief.  It resided in my mother’s china cabinet for my entire childhood.  It now has a place of honor in my own china cabinet.

I didn’t know the full history of how this glass came to be in my mother’s possession until after I had asked to take it from her home to mine. She didn’t even mention it to me at that time, she just said ‘Of course, be my guest.’  I always liked the glass and just wanted it for myself after seeing it in my mom’s dining room for so many years. I have a few other pieces, none of anything more than ‘sentimental’ value, that are prized possessions I would never part with, at least not unless my own kids want them some day when I’ve had them for 40 years myself.

Mom had, before this past week, forgotten that I had it. As we discussed their visits to Nana and Grampa’s Mom recounted Nana’s theft of the cocktail glasses and I reminded her I knew of this, and had the last one (that I’m aware of) that had made it from her ill-gotten set from the 1950’s/1960’s in my own dining room. I searched eBay earlier, not to even consider selling it. I just wanted to see if there were any others floating around. I also wouldn’t really want to buy any others….they don’t have the same sentimental value to me as this one does, knowing Nana stole it from the restaurant nearly 50 years ago.

I have mostly ‘memories’ that connect me to Nana.  There are a few photos as well, and another prized possession – a ceramic peacock lamp that has blue and green ‘jewels’ along the tail that light up. I used to stare at it for hours at Nana’s house when I was a boy, and when she knew she’d no longer be living in her own home, she asked what I might like to have of hers. I hesitated to ask for anything really as I just didn’t feel all that comfortable with it, but once she insisted I relented and mentioned this one item as being the only, and most desired, thing that she had that I might want.  On my next visit to where she lived until her death, she had the lamp concealed beside her on the couch and brought it forth to present to me. It has held a place of honor in my home and my life ever since.

I’ve never eaten at the present day incarnation of The Ship’s Haven – but it’s nice to own a piece of their history that connects to my own.  I do wish I’d known how Nana came to ‘obtain’ the glass so that we could have had a laugh about it before she passed away.  But regardless, it’s also nice to have a memento from her, and knowing how she came by it brings a smile to my face every time I look at it.


What I Really Mean When I Say ‘Just Because’

Often times my boys find me looking at them, or reaching out to put my hand on their face, or rub their back….and they ask me why I’m doing it.  Many times I answer them with ‘just because’ and they accept this simple reply as a sufficient response to their question.  Little do they know the answer is anything but simple.

I thought perhaps it was time to set the record straight, and perhaps sometime in the future if they find themselves again wondering, they can satisfy their curiosity with this blog post. Perhaps it will mean more to them and explain things to them they are now too young to really comprehend or appreciate.

I look at you because I wish to memorize every expression you have….every nuance and contour of your faces.  The sparkling of your eyes, the smiles that play across your mouths.  Sometimes I sit next to you both and wonder if you feel happy, if you feel safe….if you feel loved.  I mull over past encounters and conversations in my mind and wonder how they impacted you, and what you will carry with you from that moment into the future…into your adult lives….and what you will recall when you think back upon your childhood as I do my own. I wonder if you are experiencing something now that your young mind cannot articulate, but that having me next to you, watching you, paying attention to you, at just the right moment will reassure you that you are valued…that you are special….that you are, without hesitation, loved absolutely and completely.

I touch your face to be in contact with the innocence and the blithe delight you express in simple joys and pleasures that come your way. To perhaps be a participant, rather than just a witness, in what it feels like to experience great joy merely in rolling a toy car back and forth across the floor, or cuddling with your favorite stuffed animal, or believing you just outran time and the wind and nearly lifted off the ground and soared into the sky as you charged across the lawn….to be able to feel something so innocent and so unsullied….to reach out and caress the pure and flawless nature of your loving….without conditions and without agenda.  In a way I suppose I want to feel that for myself again, rather than the adult experiences of being self-conscious, of money worries, self-doubt, the disadvantages of aging and watching people you love pass on before you and know you must live your life missing them each and every day….feeling times of regret and frustration and helplessness, and the sobering reality that no matter how much we might wish to fly away from it all sometimes, just for a few hours or a day, we are grounded here on the earth, our feet firmly planted to soil, and the blue sky above is merely a vast playground and wonderland that belongs to the birds and the clouds and the air.

I rub your back or your arms or your belly because I know it soothed you in younger years and know that one day nothing I say or do, no touch or persuasion will ease some hurt you have experienced and you will be left to your own devices to find peace and comfort in some way.  I know that one day you will no longer be assuaged simply by the sound of my voice or by simple words of reassurance, and I wish to prolong that for you.  I would stay by your sides always if I thought that whatever ills impacted your life I could take them away for you, even if I succeed in teaching you how to heal from life’s wounds yourself, just to give you an alternative for times when you misplace your courage and strength and simply wish to fall into the arms of someone who will shelter you from the crash of the thunder and the bursts of lightening in the sky and tell you ‘it’s okay….I’ve got you….’ and you won’t feel insecure and vulnerable from taking comfort there.

I hug you and hold you because the compact enclosure of my arms affords you a feeling of safety against the rest of the world…against the vast and capacious landscape of doubt and fear and disappointment that awaits you, along with happiness, success, and delight; when you venture forth as an adult.  One day I may not have the strength or the mobility to put my arms around you as I succumb to the unforgiving and profane desecration of time upon my body. One day you’ll see me struggling to walk from one side of a room to the other and perhaps feel sadness that your source of strength and safety as a child, that stalwart person who fought back all your dragons and boogeymen, and looked in every closet and under every bad, no matter how black and absolute the surrounding night was, has become nearly incapable of once ‘routine’ deeds and accomplishments. Eventually you’ll have only the memory of me to guide you through life, and the knowledge that I loved you until my very last breath, and I hope it will be sufficient to carry you through the rest of your life, and that you will pass that on to those you in turn will leave behind you.  You may go beyond the reach of my arms, but you’ll never go beyond the reach of my heart and my love for you.

Right now you are so very young.  Right now the words that I have written here would likely rise above your understanding and your comprehension. You value a new race car more than you value unconditional love.  You prize your trading cards more than you do the ability to tell me anything without judgment or fear of being abandoned by me.  You race off to turn on your video games rather than linger in my embrace an instant longer than you must.

And that’s okay.  When I was a child, like you are now, I did the same thing.  I suffered through the peaks and pratfalls of childhood not truly recognizing the love that I had available to me, and thought of nothing but running away from it all. And then, as I grew, I couldn’t wait to make my own rules and eat ice cream for breakfast and watch t.v. until the wee hours of the new morning  Eventually I made my way out into the world and did all these things and so much more, and realized that at times all I wanted was to run back to my bed and throw the covers over my head and pretend there was nothing beyond them until someone put their arms around me and said, ‘It’s okay….I’ve got you.’  There are those who I know would do that for me.  But based upon either their expectations afterward or my own struggle and discomfort with the idea of making myself ‘vulnerable’ to others….it usually always comes with a price.

There are a million or more reasons why I look at you as often as I do…why I reach out and touch you or wrap my arm around you or stare into your eyes when you don’t know I’m looking at you.  There are volumes I could write on what I see and hear and feel, and so many long, passionate speeches I could give you about the joys of being your parent and loving you and watching you grow and learn and having you here day after day…despite the challenging and frustrating times….despite the noise and the mess and the exhaustion….the remuneration of parenting you far outweighs the expense.

When you ask me why I do these things, I could sit you down and speak for hours on the multitude of reasons why I hold you…why I look at you….why I love you.  Hopefully, in the time I have left in your lives, I will have that opportunity and it will be a meaningful and lasting conversation that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, long after I’ve departed it, and you’ll look back on these questions and know in your heart, without question, what the answers are.

For now….I’ll say ‘Just because.’


A Visit With My Aging Dad

Yesterday I spent two hours with my dad, visiting him at the nursing home he has resided at for several years, following a stroke in 2006.  This event took him out of his home in Strong, ME and into an ‘assisted living’ facility.  Dad’s medical needs were more than my brother or I could provide when this took place, and both of us worked full time, so we had no alternative but to have Dad enter a facility to keep him safe and take care of him.

My dad is 82 years old now.  He looks only ‘slightly’ like the man from my childhood memories who had a beer belly and a receding hairline and wore blue Dickies workwear almost exclusively. He still wears the Dickies, despite my best efforts to get him into jeans and flannel shirts…they have all ‘disappeared’ and his Dickies made it out alive from the fiery pit I asked the nursing staff to be assured they found their way to.  I know they tried, but…he’s a clever one, my dad is. He found them before they were incinerated.

But Dad is also very frail looking….in a way that I’d say he looks older than his years.  He shuffles rather than walking….he has physical ‘tremors’ that are very noticeable…his face is a lot more ‘drawn’ in years past.  He’s aged…a lot.  When I walk into the nursing home he lives in to visit with him, it seems like each visit he appears to have aged another year, even if only a few weeks or a month or so have gone by.

My dad surprised me a few years ago and took it upon himself to tell me that he ‘likely was not my real father’.  Beyond the implications for my mom’s behavior back in late 1967 when I was conceived, it did ‘shock’ me a bit to hear it.  I learned after the fact that Dad was mad with me for not visiting for six weeks (it was a horribly busy time and trips to Maine were just not possible for a while).  I was at first ‘surprised’….then a bit angry, certainly, at potentially being deceived for so many years…….and then realized that at my age I know who I am,…I have a family of my own…I don’t need to seek out an identity or ‘other family’ to complete myself….I am me….and that is the only father I have ever known.  I have never sought out any ‘proof’ one way or another of his claim, but the receding hairline that ALL the men on that side of the family have is a big clue that it was just either anger, upset, or his progressive dementia speaking.  In the end, I don’t ‘need’ to know if it’s true or not.  I was upset with him for a while, yes, for going to this length if it was all just because he was upset with me, but….I gave up too many years with him to ‘anger’….I don’t need a repeat of it. I just put it in a good place for me, that of ‘I don’t care one way or another’…and moved on.

Before I went to see him this weekend, Dad had asked me to bring him an over the counter ‘medication’ that he is convinced ‘someone stole his supply of’.  Dad has dementia, which is getting worse over time, though most days (with proper medication) he’s very lucid, and retains lots of long-term memories as well as short-term ones, but he has a tendency to fixate on things.  He regularly accuses others of stealing things from him, and this was really just the latest for him.  I stopped and picked up what he asked for, brought it to him, and he asked me to also bring him some cough medicine before I headed back for home.  I agreed, and brought him back a small bottle of tussin, but also informed the head nurse of what I’d brought to him.

When I filled in the head nurse, she mentioned that he should not have the tussin as he would just keep taking it and not recall the last time he took it. I noted to her that that was exactly why I was telling her, because I did know that, but he has so many ‘no’ answers to things, I am trying to keep that at a minimum.  She noted that it should be kept at the nurses’ station, and I said ‘give me two minutes’ and went back to Dad and said, ‘You know, I kind of forgot that they have rules about cough medicine and stuff, because too much can make you sick to your stomach, so…..I know you want to keep it, and not risk it being taken by someone, but….I don’t want to be told I can’t bring you stuff here when you want it, and don’t want them to give you a hard time for something I did, so….how about we just play along and let them hold on to this bottle up at the nurses’ station, and you just tell them when you need it?’

He thought about it for a few seconds, then said, ‘Okay…if it keeps you out of trouble,’ and he handed it over without incident.

After seven years of seeing my dad struggle with the ‘rules’ in the facility he’s in….I’ve learned how to avoid most difficult situations, and talk to him in a way that makes sense to him, makes it seem like he’s doing me a favor, and still get what ‘everyone’ needs.  I also try to remember to ‘respect him’ for being an adult…and a human being…not just another ‘old person’ who gets cranky with people telling him no. It’s a balancing act now and again, but….it’s worth it if it provides minimal upset for him in a place he can’t just ‘walk away from’. I turned the bottle in to the head nurse, and she thanked me, and took a moment to speak to me about my dad.

She noted that Dad has been ‘fixating’ on these two things for some time now (the cough medicine and the other item he asked me for.)  She said he’s had a hard time the past few weeks, and she knows his mind gets ‘stuck’ on things and can’t get past them, and it makes it a bit difficult to reason with him. I was also told that there was no need to bring him either the first item he asked for or the tussin, that they had plenty of both on hand, and regularly gave them to him, and it was really just wasting my money.

I had to disagree with her.  I know she meant well, but…..all in all I spent about $23.00 in over the counter stuff for him. I agree that they should ‘administer’ the items to him, to meet their rules and regulations, but aside from that….this is a man who lost his (second) wife after 25 years of marriage.  This is a man who many people were convinced would take his own hunting rifle and ‘end it’ within a few months after she passed. This is a man who never had a checking account, or a credit card, of his own….didn’t grocery shop…didn’t place stock in doctors all that much…and yet he took care of himself after his wife’s death for more than a year before his stroke, with minimal outside assistance. This is a man who then had to give up his home, his friends, his very identity in Strong and learn to live with having a roommate at age 76….with having to dine with people who regularly take his seat because they don’t know any better…with having people wander in and out of his room and get into his things because they are convinced it’s their room….with having to ask for assistance with the basic necessities of life like bathing and going to the toilet.  This is a man who has given up nearly 100% of the life he made for himself and complete control over his medical, financial, and domestic arrangements…….and for $23.00…..he got just a tiny bit of ‘control over his own life’ back.

It was, to me, worth every penny.

I see so many people at this facility who never have anyone visiting them when I’m there. The faces don’t rotate all that much in this unit, and I’ve been visiting Dad whenever I can for nearly seven years now.  The residents sit and stare at the t.v., or the window…or the wall.  There’s very few of them who smile.  They gasp and whisper when I bring the boys in and say how handsome they are.  I know it’s probably the last place on earth a seven and eight year old want to hang out, despite it being their grandfather, but it brings him a small amount of pleasure amidst so much ‘unpleasantness’ that he now has to deal with….not only the ravages of age, but having to spend his final days in the last place on earth HE wants to be.  And yet he always manages to set aside some cookies, or a balloon, or some other ‘trinket’ he came across and sends them home for the boys.  It’s nothing fancy, nothing of value really, but for him it’s likely the whole world to ‘give something’ to his grandsons.  I never say no, no matter what it is.

I hate seeing my dad there, knowing how he dislikes it himself, and I always leave the nursing home sad and frustrated that even if my head knows it’s exactly where he does need to be, my heart hates to see him there.  I realize my final memories of dad will be in an overly-warm bleak industrial building that smells of urine and disinfectant, and that he will get more frail and more ‘old’ and probably won’t even know who I am, and will look at me like I’m this intrusive asshole who keeps trying to talk to him.

And then he’ll be gone, and I’ll never see him again.  I’ll never have the chance to talk to him and hear his stories about growing up in Brownfield, Maine and working for a railroad company and cutting school to go fishing. I’ll never hear any more tales of his stalking and murdering deer in the woods (my term for it) and his days as a truck-driver and mechanic and all the people he met along the way, and some days I just want to cry about it.  Some days I have cried about it.  I wasted so much time being mad at this man and have been blessed with the opportunity to speak to him about it, to explain what had precipitated it, and to hear him apologize to me for things said and done 30 years or more ago.  I have been blessed with the chance to finally rip off those scabs and see that the wounds beneath have been healed.  I have had the rare gift of emptying my heart to the man who made me, and hearing him say to me ‘I was a damned fool to say what I did, and I’m so sorry…you are my son….I have always loved you, and nothing will ever change that.’  I learned that no matter how I felt 30+ years ago that someone who was supposed to love me unconditionally and (to my mind) didn’t…..really did….that I never lost his love, and he never lost mine……we just lost how to express it to one another.  Fortunately we figured it out before it was too late.

There are years that I didn’t speak with him, and thankfully we have worked through all that, but it’s still not easy to visit him where he is.  I have had others say to me ‘Why do you go see him if it makes you unhappy?’ and ‘I don’t think I could handle it.’  The answers to these things are simple.  I feel sometimes like I can’t handle it.  But I can always leave…he can’t…..that’s what keeps me going back, beside the fact that I love him.  And as for it making me unhappy? It makes him happy to see me….it’s easier for me to find a way to deal with my ‘unhappy’ about it than to leave him there unhappy and nothing to do about it and nowhere to go. It’s not about me. It’s about him, and doing these small things for him.

All my shit about it I can figure out later.


Climbing Every Mountain

Lately I have found it very difficult to concentrate on any one thing for long. This has impacted the amount of writing I’ve done on my blog. I’ve sat down at the computer day after day and opened up a new post and then stared at the screen for a while before closing it again and giving up as I couldn’t pull any thoughts together, chose a topic, and write about it.   Today I found myself doing the same thing yet again, and yet I’m forcing myself to write nonetheless.  As much as I love to write, lately it’s seemed like an insurmountable peak to me to put anything down in black and white.

A song came to mind earlier – Climb Every Mountain, from The Sound Of Music.  This musical has special significance for me as it was the first film I ever went to see in a movie theater back in the 1970’s. It was a re-release of the film as it was made in 1965, a few years before I was born.  Back then, and for many years after that I thought the song merely referred to the main character (Maria’s) enjoyment of climbing the hills as she did when she sang ‘The Sound Of Music’ against a beautiful mountain background.  Somewhere in the past several years I’ve learned the true meaning of ‘climbing every mountain’.  It involves facing the tough situations….the challenges you encounter in life…rather than merely avoiding them.

Recently I ‘climbed a mountain’ and wrote an apology to someone for something I did more than twenty years ago.  It was an apology to a girl I dated on and off from childhood to young adult years, and then unceremoniously and rudely cut off contact with her.  I wanted her to know that it was not her fault or responsibility that I had done what I did.  I explained where my head and my heart were at back then, acknowledged what a terrible choice I had made, that she deserved better than I had given her, and apologized for what I’d done.  It took me two hours to write it, whereas I needed to really dig back to that time and reflect upon my true motives and intentions.  I’d waited so long to say what needed to be said, I wanted to ‘get it right’.

When I finished writing the apology (in an email), I read through it several times.  I carefully scrutinized my words, looking for anything that might appear to be avoiding responsibility for what I had done.  When I believed I had truly claimed ownership for my actions, I hit the send button, but not before I let myself have one more ‘oh shit, what am I doing’ moment.  Then off it went…into cyberspace.  I breathed a sigh of relief and felt a weight I’d carried for far too long lifted from my shoulders.  Goodness knows I have enough of them right now, enough burdens that I’m carrying, so to rid myself of such an old one was a truly liberating experience.

I’ve had no response to the email.  I didn’t, quite honestly, expect one.  That’s not why I wrote it. I don’t know that she can or will ever forgive me.  Certainly it might be nice to hear from her, even after so many years.  But even if I don’t…..that’s not the point of why I wrote to her in the first place.  I did it because I wanted to…because I needed to…because it was the right thing to do, albeit many years overdue. I did it because I had been ‘afraid’ to do it so many years ago, and knew it was time to face up to it.

My kids sometimes ask me what things I am afraid of.  I answer them honestly that I fear snakes (more than any other animal), and I am afraid of falling from a great height to my death.  I’ve been in high places…and definitely experience vertigo when I do climb a ladder or look out a window in a tall building.  Even watching roller coaster videos makes me ‘anxious’ in a way. I went to see the movie ‘Gravity’ in a movie theater, and sat there wanting desperately to get up and leave for most of it, but finding myself in a way afraid to stand up, like I was going to fall… was the oddest sensation. I could feel the floor beneath my feet, and yet something inside me told me if I stood up it wouldn’t be there any longer. I also cannot look at snakes even on television or in a movie without picking up my feet, or at least wanting to. They make me cringe.

Yeah, I know, I’m a freak.

I’ve never done anything to try to conquer either of these fears, and I honestly can’t say I ever will.  I don’t encounter snakes regularly and have no desire to try skydiving or parasailing or bungee jumping.  I’ve flown in planes and gone to the observation deck at the Empire State Building and looked out over the city, but that’s as good as it’s going to get.  Those are two mountains I won’t climb, or am not likely to do so.

There are other things I fear, but they are difficult to articulate to young minds.  They are things that live deep within me and shoot for the surface every once in a while.  They are things I don’t know that I can make understandable to a seven year old and an eight year old.  I don’t even know that I understand them all that well at forty-five.  I explore them and analyze them with my therapist, but sometimes that just leads to more questions, rather than answers, and simply serves to confuse me more about the fears whereas I cannot for the life of me find a rational foundation for them or a precipitating event.

What I do need to express to the boys, rather than the details of things I fear and why, is that even if there are some things you never, ever try to work out or get beyond…it’s important to be able to separate those things that don’t really matter much, like a fear of snakes if you don’t live anywhere near a rainforest or have an overwhelming urge to visit one…..and those things that will travel with you through life in the form of guilt and regrets.  Those are the things that it’s most important to stare down and go toe to toe with. Living with regrets and guilt eats up so much precious time and life is short…too short.  Say the things that need to be said.  Find the strength…find the courage…..and find someone who will be there for you no matter what the outcome is with someone else is.

Those are the fears to conquer.

Those are the most important mountains to climb.