In memoriam: I am at sea without her soundings

My child-heart cries out, selfishly, as I sob:

“Mommy! Mommy? I want my mommy!”

Who will help me? Who else will love me so selflessly and endlessly, and do anything for me, simply because she can?

“My heart is broken, Mommy. Who can help me now, when it is your loss I mourn?”

I feel so shockingly alone without my mother’s presence in the background, always so capable, energetic, and willing.

How is grief different from self-pity?

 Memorial display: teddy bear, eyeglasses, cross, photoBut there’s a wiser voice offering a tempering perspective.

I really need my mother! I’m hurt because I’m broken. I ache where there’s something lost.

She’s a node in the network of friends and family; connections may have been severed. All the work she did there must be taken up by another; the strings of the web must be gathered and tied back in. I am at sea without her soundings.

Vaguely humanoid stack of stones on a promontory in the North Atlantic Ocean

Mom is an intricately delicate moving part at the center of the machinery of my life. Part of the heart, part of the soul, part of the mechanism of how I function. This must be mended for life to be whole, happy, workable.

Something has broken in me, and that’s what grief is.

Repairs may be rough or patchy; some bits may never be the same.

This, then, is the work of the motherless child: to set her scarred vessel on its course again. Whenever, however, that may be.

Viking style long boat beached alongside Irish lake

And, someday, I’ll go on.

Not quite as before, perhaps, but on the same headings my mother’s guidance helped me choose so long ago. My journey hasn’t changed, but I’ve lost a dear companion.

Mom died on July 11, 2019, at home with her husband and children. She will be sorely missed.

One viciously toothed object is key to conquering the kitchen with arthritis

If my parents hadn’t bought a dowdy condo with an out of date kitchen configured for an elderly lady, I never would have discovered the single most useful object that empowers me to help myself to prepare food with my arthritic hands.

V shaped wooden jar opener screwed to bottom of upper cabinetIt’s a jar opener with a double row of teeth that might put a very small shark to shame. I found a modern one called a Gator Gripper online at SMC Woodworking in 2018. At $16.95 + shipping, I rate it a great bargain after many months of use.

There’s no brand name on my parents’ original jar opener, but it was screwed into dark brown stained cabinetry circa 1970. It could have been made by a friend or it might be a commercially manufactured object. The previous owner of the condo lived there for decades and the unit wasn’t sold until after her death. I’m just grateful that the lady bought this magic gripper because it makes any screw top a breeze to open, regardless of hand strength or manual dexterity.

Unless weakness of the hand makes it necessary for one to hold a jar with both, most people can easily open jars single-handedly with the Gator Gripper. Better yet, its design makes tiny lids as easy as large ones to grip. I’ve opened vitamin and nail polish bottles with this thing as well as water bottles, sauce jars, and home-canned mason jars. It works equally well gripping plastic and metal tops.

Opening bottles and jars safely before I remembered the probable burst of pain with which my hands would react was one of the longest lessons it took me to learn* when I developed autoimmune arthritis. I might be feeling fairly well, but the grip and squeeze and twist of a sealed jar almost always leads to lightening bolts of shock up multiple fingers.

Coffee bottle, Chameleon Cold Brew brand

Coffee trapped inside a glass prison!

Coffee bottle with screw top wedged into jar opener’s gripping teeth

The fight for liquid freedom!

Coffee bottle with lid off

Success for coffee lovers everywhere… in my kitchen

My husband has a more equivocal relationship with the jar opener than I do, though he’s the one that actually ordered the Gator Gripper for me. Now that one lives in our kitchen, he has trust issues. DH recognizes that I prefer being able do things for myself, and that being unable to get past a step as trivial as “open the jar” when cooking is demoralizing.

Then again, the jar opener does employ very sharp teeth to do its job, and DH is something of a pessimist. The design of the product is an open, inviting v-shape. It hangs, welcoming, beneath the upper cupboard near the fridge where I usually stand when I’m preparing food.

I see the jar opener as welcoming my tightly shut twist-off; DH sees it as welcoming unsuspecting fingers, hungry for human blood.

“Someone could cut himself,” my husband says doubtfully. “There’s nothing to prevent you from sticking your hand in there and slicing open a finger.”

It’s true. This is a grown up’s kitchen implement. Then again, I see very few of my visitors patting or probing the undersides of my upper cabinets when in my kitchen.

The Gator Gripper’s position more than four feet above the floor and over a countertop workbench is enough to ease my mind that visiting toddlers are unlikely victims. My own kids are plenty tall enough to reach it, but also plenty mature enough to understand that sawtoothed blades and phalanges don’t mix.

Large knife block full of Cutco knives

Warning: Knives are not toys

I figure, in a kitchen with a knife rack in plain sight, the jar opener represents only a minimal additional risk.

My parents sold their condo and moved back into a house when my mother couldn’t make the adjustment to a downsized life. They unscrewed that jar opener and brought it with them to their new home, however, and I’m grateful that they did.

There are minor renovations I would enjoy making in my own kitchen, but I can’t imagine any scenario in which I’d live without my jar opener going forward, save, perhaps, for the abolishment of all screwtops by executive order.

And, even then, I’d probably keep my trusty Gator Gripper tucked away under that cabinet just in case. After all, someone could show up with contraband. Prohibition taught us that plenty of bottles make their way around even after the most teetotaling fiat.

*The other contender for “why can’t I make this adjustment?” was opening heavy commercial doors. I’ve gotten much, much better and trained myself to always use the power/disabled access button where available, and I almost always remember to turn around and push doors with my back instead of using my hands and wrists now, but making this a habit took several years.

Children, First Class, disability & who “deserves” to sit where in an airplane

Because I at least try to be a considerate and thoughtful traveler, I regularly look up phrases to suggest “the best way” of doing things. One such example? Parents traveling in First Class whilst their children trail along in steerage a lesser service category.

What I find most fascinating about the search results is the concurrent expression of two opinions that lead inexorably to parent shaming without a solution:

  1. Children don’t belong in First Class unilaterally!, while
  2. Parents who “abandon” their kids in Economy while riding up front themselves are monstrous jerks who should be drawn and quartered (or at least shot.)

Essentially, the sum of those two arguments leads to the conclusion that parents ought never travel in First Class while their children are under age.

Here’s where I’ll swing back around to a point I’ve stressed on this blog before: I often purchase tickets in premium cabins because of my health. Chronic autoimmune illness makes that option more comfortable—but also safer and healthier—for me.

I live with chronic pain.

Every day, I probably ache in at least a few joints. Travel—otherwise one of my great joys—can make my symptoms worse. A larger, more adaptable seat does help. More room, easier access to a lavatory, and the simple comfort of a foot rest or extensible leg support makes the difference between a successful trip and a multi-hour torture chamber.

Note that the acquisition of a more comfortable seat is something I do in addition to taking the most powerful opioid painkillers I’ve got. In transit, I will still suffer more pain than my daily average with these interventions. I choose the world-expanding possibilities of travel in spite of the cost, but the calculus for any given trip can be complex.

If there were legal protections on a minimum amount of space per passenger on a plane, the actionable facts in this argument could be different. If I were guaranteed a seat in Coach that provided enough room to shift position and freedom from being kicked and elbowed by even a plus-sized seat mate, I’d be open to debating the courtesies of keeping younger travelers out of the pointy end of the plane.

Since that is a pipe dream, however, the traveling public is going to have to tolerate my presence in Premium Economy and better, when I can afford it. And, where I go, there also will travel my children when I deem it desirable that they join me.

Given these facts, which option is preferable to the segment of society that objects to children in First Class and kids seated away from their folks?

My own choice is usually dictated by my finances.

When I score an awesome cheap fare up front, I typically book my little guy (middle school aged, so not so terribly tiny) in the seat next to me. He is delighted by the idea of a luxury trip, though modern domestic First Class is a far cry from gold-plated splendor. I prefer having his company to sitting alone.

Then again, I do actively discourage any sense of entitlement to this, my more peer-influenceable child. He has also known the joys of sleeping in a cramped Economy seat on a too-long/too-short transatlantic flight, and he knows full well how to wait his turn in the interminable queue to board, settle quickly into his seat and stow his own carry on, and then keep himself to himself en route to make the uncomfortable as tolerable as possible for everyone else aboard the jet.

The older teen would rather sit on his own regardless because he’s way too cool to be seen with me, so he’s stowed in steerage unless a really high Coach fare is actually a poor value compared with the mileage earning and family togetherness opportunities of a bargain up front.

Don’t gasp–it does happen! Leisure travelers who covet rock bottom fares and business travelers whose companies pay top dollar tend to prefer flights on different days and times.

Always check fares in all classes before booking! You may find First Class for less than Coach. It’s rare, but I have seen it* myself.

This summer, I’m accompanying my husband to a conference in the UK and we’re bringing the little guy along. On the way out, his ticket, purchased with frequent flier miles, is in Comfort+ (i.e., Premium Economy) while his father will be four rows ahead but behind the magic curtain in Delta One.

My own flight, also bought with miles, will be on a different date, itinerary, and airline entirely. We don’t have that many miles on any given airline at one time. Also, I often depart ahead of time to allow a day (or more) of recovery before entering full “tourist mode” and because I enjoy travel so much more than DH does. He rarely takes even a single day off concurrent with his business trips.

It’s a transatlantic redeye, so the kid is expected to sit, settle, and sleep. His “solo” presence is unlikely be a bother to anyone at all under these circumstances, even offering his adjacent seatmate a bit more space due to his small stature. Purchasing the equivalent to his dad’s company-paid Business Class seat was simply out of our reach.

To be clear: I, personally, am not talking about abandoning a toddler 40 rows back from his responsible adult companion. Perhaps non-parents need to be told, too, that there is no single age when every child will be ready to sit alone. As with staying home alone without direct supervision, I’d judge the right age to be over six years at a minimum and by the age of 13 for almost everyone.

Our return to the US presents a completely different set of circumstances. The lo-o-o-ong nonstop flight from Ireland to the Pacific Northwest should see the boy wide awake and therefore more likely to want or need something from a parent, if only to ask if my usual strict limit of one sweet drink per flight could be adjusted, “just this once.” I also found a relatively low fare in a premium cabin whereas Economy on the direct flight I wanted was rather high. In this scenario, I’m opting to pay to seat my child up front next to me.

It’s been argued that children don’t appreciate the “best parts” of the premium cabin experience. For many travelers, that appears to be getting drunk! True, my son won’t be sipping champagne, and he isn’t overly inconvenienced by the cramped conditions in the cheapest seats so the extra room is “wasted” on him.

Both of us will enjoy easier access to the lavatory, however, and the better service offered by less harried flight attendants. My younger son is outgoing and friendly; he will appreciate plenty about traveling with a more gracious level of service. The fact that different elements of Business Class will tickle his pre-teen fancy doesn’t make his experience count for less.

Where will my teen be during this jaunt? Well, he would rather fly alone to visit his grandparents sooner and leave the UK to the rest of us. Somehow, I’ve produced offspring that aren’t as interested in foreign travel as I am. After a bit of practice sitting in Coach 20 rows behind me, he graduated to a solo flight with Unaccompanied Minor service around age 12. Now, though still in high school and underage, he’s old enough to manage his own passage through the security gauntlet and onto a direct flight without paying for the airline’s hand-holding.

My solo teen might also annoy those who like to complain, but he’s not an intrusive passenger with his slim build and quiet habits. On his last trip to visit Grandma, he texted me joyfully upon landing from his ultra cheap middle seat that the guy by the window didn’t need to pee even once. Never having to get up once makes a great flight by his metrics.

Glasses of wine and water on airplane tray tableFeel free to compare that behavior to the tipsy adult who spills his third drink all over you and your laptop. The guy may offer to pay for your dry cleaning, but you’ll be wearing stained and sticky pants for the next half a day regardless.

*This actually seems to be most likely around holidays when families travel to be together. What a great way to treat yourself if clan gatherings are a source of great stress as well as joy for you.

If there were a way to get him booked into a hotel without an adult in the event of delays or flight cancellations, I would trust him to make connections, too. The boy is downright competent!

Chronic illness stinks, but I still opt for gratitude

I woke up this morning and realized:

Yesterday was the first day in months during which I hadn’t needed any* pain medication!

Bottle of pain pillsToday, then, it is perhaps “too easy” for me to write about living with a sense of gratitude in spite of the burdens of chronic illness.

You might assume I’m just having a great day, or that I’m naturally perky.

It is fair to describe me as fundamentally optimistic, but perky? Not so much. I’m decidedly prone to uncontrollable outbursts of snark and cynical enough to doubt the motivations of others.

This “less pain” holiday certainly does, however, make it easier for me to reflect upon the gifts I’ve gained from living with chronic illness.

Most importantly, my pain and physical limitations have made me more empathetic. I’m a better person for the suffering. That’s something, anyway!

I am now more likely to give someone else the benefit of the doubt in frustrating situations. I have more patience for slow movers and “inconvenient” people in my way. I’m far more generous with my tolerance.

Pain is also teaching me to have patience with myself. This is true not just when I need physical accommodations like using the buttons to open powered doors or taking the handicapped stall lest I find myself perched and suddenly realize the knees won’t raise me back up without an assist from a sturdy grab bar.

Bathroom fitted with accommodations for physical disabilitiesGiving myself permission to make use of aids for physical disability also seems to rub off on those nasty tendencies toward negative self talk that can be so undermining to one’s psyche. If I’m worth accommodating when my body fails me, why, suddenly, I can forgive myself for a day’s lapse in will power or my other myriad and sundry imperfections.

I wouldn’t wish a life interrupted by chronic pain or ongoing illness on anyone. Then again, I wouldn’t change anything about my own history if a genie popped out of a lamp and gave me the option.

I’m grateful for the life I have, warts and all. It would be wonderful to find a cure for what ails me, but I’m thankful for the lessons from the illness in the meantime.

Wall art stating “Give thanks”Being sick is beyond my control. Choosing to live my life with gratitude is up to me.

*With the exception of the topical prescription NSAID that eases my most finicky—and much used!—joints in the fingers and wrists, I suppose I should add. A day completely without pain is, sadly, no longer something I ever seem to have.

I’ve had such frustrations with the side effects of opioids and the synthetic alternatives that I have a truly love-hate relationship with them. Taking these pills does make the pain a little more bearable on a bad day, but nothing actually stops it completely when it is bad. Oh yes, and then the drugs screw up my sleep which can create its own vicious circle because fatigue increases my pain!

There is lots of room for improvement in medication for the management of chronic pain.

Profound joy alongside grief when accepting unavoidable loss

My sincere hope is that I bring more positive thoughts to the world than negative ones. My choice of domain name, ReallyWonderfulThings.me, reflects that impulse and intent.

Lately, however, I’m mired in a slowly unfolding crisis that looms inexorable. Here is one of those snafus inherent to life. I can’t avoid it. I can’t fix it. The best I can do for myself is to endure with a measure of grace.

For my ill loved one whose prognosis is likely death within two years, I’m also aiming to provide comfort and support to any extent that I can. I am wholly inadequate to the task.

I’ve shed plenty of tears and pitied myself because I’m human and so damnably, unrelentingly flawed. I’m already grieving a loss that hasn’t happened yet, even as I nurse the tiny flame of hope that we will defy the statistics, beating the odds and the fallibility of every living body.

Facing my fears one at a time and bringing my intellect to bear on the process is a large part of how I cope. I read studies, research long shots, and struggle with my fundamental powerlessness.

And yet! I have also experienced a shocking and rather profound blossoming of a calm state of resigned joy. I never, ever expected that.

Don’t mistake me; it’s bittersweet. I could talk about my sadness or my fear, and typing these words has already brought a fresh wash of tears. None of that surprised me, though. The joy sure as hell did.

Somehow, staring straight in the face of one of my worst fears brings with it a resolute peace as I’m forced to live in each moment, because, really, that is all that I actually have. It’s easier to savor sharing good times with someone when you know each event is precious, limited, and won’t ever come around again.

There is nothing I can do except live my life as best I can. What a relief to give myself permission to do so in the absence of guilt. How freeing to accept* what I cannot change. I never thought I had it in me.

May good fortune and robust health find you and everyone you care about.

*As the serenity prayer sagely advises. One needn’t be a true believer to accept good advice. I’m pretty sure a number of gurus are preaching along the very same lines.