Lessons Learned and 25 Trips

Driving from Panama City after my flight from Miami to visit my mother, I realized that this was my 25th trip since she had a stroke in December 2006. It was mind-boggling. Never thought to keep track, but apparently my brain was doing just that. Usually, I just concentrate on the task at hand: we need a new nurse, she has had a set back or it’s her birthday. Overthinking gets me nowhere and I try to avoid it. This time, because the trip was so unexpected and I was driving myself the 3 1/2 hours right after my flight……..I just let my mind wander.

I remembered my first one, just after New Year’s 2007, frantic with worry because we still didn’t know if she was going to make it. I stayed for a month. Too much to absorb, decide and do, every day brought new challenges and I was exhausted when I got back home. I remembered the last one, at Easter. It was a sort of reunion with my sisters, time to reassess her care. Nothing new, since we have been doing this on and off for the last two years.

Then I tried to bring on the trips that were just for pleasure, even if they have been fewer. Her 85th birthday, her 90th, the year my children spent a week with her, the trips I took to spent time with my sisters. Unfortunately, there have been more trips when we just went to find someone to care for her. She now requires 24 hour care and it is harder to find anyone willing to work at a private home. It is not an easy job and I must confessed, I wouldn’t do it.

When I arrived, my sister had been alone with her all weekend. She had some part-time help, but hardly enough. She was exhausted and so was I. After a shower and something to eat, we settled to watch the final of the US Open. She prefers Djokovic, I am a Federer fan. We had a glass of wine and pondered on our choices and decided we had few.

Monday we stared our search. Interviews, visits to the different nursing schools and hospitals: repeat, repeat, repeat. Not easy and so frustrating. Still it needed to be done and we did it. This was not different from other trips, but at the same time, it was. We considered alternatives we never considered before.  We were open to everything and anything that would give her the care she has been receiving all these years.

At night, when we had the time to go over our day, we talked about the cards we have been dealt. Three daughters, all married to foreigners and living away from Panama, with lives as different as you can imagine from the reality of our mother’s life. All trying to get her the best care, no matter the cost and struggling to keep up with everything.

Yes, 25 trips…….it seems unreal. Even if I do remember some of them, others are just a passing flash in my mind. We have put so many things in the back burner, it’s not worth thinking about it. We do what we most, but I have learned a few lessons and I am grateful.

I have learned that taking care of our parents is the harder thing we can do. We become parents ourselves and our parents not always become willing children. Taking care of our parents when they live far from us becomes an impossibly hard task that absorbs us, drags us into a stressful and exhausting journey that we cannot stop. I have learned that no matter how many times you think you have solved the problem, it will come back more complicated than before.

Working on such a delicate balance as is the care of an aging and ill parent is something beyond any explanation I can give here. If they happen to live far from you, them the task becomes monumental. Those who are in the same boat, would be the ones to understand; those who are not, I wish you don’t have to see yourselves in that position.

I have learned that there is satisfaction in what you do, but you could be too discombobulated to understand it. I learned that every little step forward can bring more than one step backward……there is no escaping this!!!

The 9 days past quickly, there was no time to think too much, no time to feel sorry for myself. We made new arrangements, we hope they work and we prepare ourselves for when they do not. That is the biggest lesson.

When it was time to leave, I just drove back to the city. Trying not to think about much while I drove the 3 1/2 hours. Finally got to the hotel in the city and I felt oddly calm. I had no doubts in my mind that the care we have given our mother couldn’t have been better. Since there is only one of us living in Panama, it is more than amazing what we have been able to accomplish.

 Here is to the next 25 trips!!!!

Lessons Learned and Extended Family

I come from a very large family. My mother had eight brothers and sisters. Growing up there were twenty-eight cousins to deal with, play with, spend vacations with. It was amazing. Those cousins did their part and we had twenty-three children among ourselves. Not bad, I would say, since seven of us did not have children. Nowadays, the cousins are having grandchildren: nine and counting.

As with any family, there have been disagreements, arguments, differences of opinion along the way. Somehow we managed to stay in touch and function as a family for decades. Much had to do with our mother. She was the eldest sister and always made sure everyone kept their cool and stay in the bosom of the family. Hard work indeed, we now realize.

For my sisters and I, living for years away from Panama, it was a comfort that she had her extended family around her, keeping her company.  They kept her engaged and occupied when we couldn’t. Somehow, we were looking at the situation in a very different way than the rest of the family. I have always been a bit detached, not quite fitting in, but happy to see everyone and enjoy family time when I visited. My sister Laura was very involved, visiting regularly and taking her children to get acquainted with her side of the family. Ana was more distant, but this didn’t stop her from visiting and doing the family thing.

We thought everything was fine and our mother was happy. We were grateful.  She visited us often, came to all her grandchildren’s special occasions, travel with us for fun. Our relationship was wonderful and we treasured out times together. Without ever telling us, her family thought we were not doing enough. What to do? Isn’t this something every family goes through? We were sure of that, so we didn’t give it a second thought.

On December 31st, 2006, our mother suffered a massive stroke. She was almost 83 years old, active, full of life and so much fun. We were expecting her to enjoy good health well into her nineties as women in her family have done for generations. It was not to be. In a matter of minutes, all that changed.

That it has been a long and arduous road, it’s an understatement. That we have discovered that our extended family is not what we thought, it’s a sad truth. Consequently, my sisters and I have grown very close. There is now a bond so strong, we can read our thoughts!!! They are my closest friends because we have shared so much. We are there for each other unconditionally and I am very fortunate to have them in my life. Would not know what to do without them.

Still, we all need more than the small circle of our immediate family. It is a human trait, we need company, we need people around us to help us carry on. So here is what I have learned. Family is what you make it. Blood ties are not always what bounds us to people and what make us think of them as family.

Family is the people you have near you, the ones that are there when you need a hand, a shoulder to cry on, a hug, a smile, an understanding ear. Family is the ones that run to you when you are sad, take charge when you need comfort, let you grief in peace, rejoice with you when you are happy, do not ask questions until you are ready to talk and support your decisions even if they do not agree with them.

Family, in other words, is so much more than common ancestors. Family is a support system that helps you navigate the difficult times and is there to celebrate with you on the happy ones. Family is behaving in the same manner and reciprocating the love, attention and support you receive. Family is a feeling you share with those around you.

As I have grown older, I realize the importance of an extended family. Who would fill this role? In the years I have lived away from Panama, in different places and cultures, I have been so lucky to have found some wonderful friends. We have shared  experiences, being there for each other at difficult moments. They have seen me cry and share my sorrows, they have seen me laugh and share my happiness. They are now scattered on all corners of the world; we do not see each other often, some of us just  keep in touch once a year, but I know I can call, email, present myself at their door and it will be fine. I am grateful to each and every one of them. This is the other powerful lesson I have learned: these friends are part of my extended family!!!

Lessons Learned and my Daughter

249318_10150265561584670_3960982_nIn December 2012, my daughter Camille moved back to the States. She had lived and worked in London for almost 10 years. A change was in her stars, she grabbed the opportunity and came to Miami. After all, her parents were here and it was as good a place as any to start anew.

Needless to say, I was thrilled. Through the years she was away, I visited London often, which was a bonus since it’s my favorite city. Still, that she would be here was absolutely wonderful. Of course, it has not been smooth sailing. It never is when an adult child moves back with her parents, but overall this has been a great idea.

First and foremost, we have time to sit back and have long talks. Skype is convenient and the best thing when you live apart, but face-to-face conversations are priceless. Being able to hug her when I feel like it, pamper her if she is sick, cook her favorite meals……it’s wonderful. These, however, are not the only things that make me so happy of having her here. What I have learned from my daughter makes me happier!!!

Camille was born in Miami and grew up in Curaçao. She left home at 17 to go for a post-graduate year at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut; then on to Emmanuel College in Boston and finally the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. She worked in art and jewelery, traveled extensively and enjoyed every minute of her life abroad. So coming to Miami is just coming back home, in a way. How long will she stay is up in the air, but I am enjoying her stay with us.

252867_10150262107564670_4607708_nAs parents, we tend to think we are the only ones who can teach. Very seldom do we stop to think about what we can learn from our children. I think I have been like that most of my motherhood years. Of course, we are absolutely wrong!!! From the way our children answer to our queries, the way they offer opinions about our daily encounters with our jobs, housework, the neighbors, our pets and so much more, we should have deducted that they can be spot on. Everyone tells us that truth comes out of the mouths of babies. Why aren’t we paying attention and learning from those truths? In the last 18 months, I have been paying attention….and I have learned!!.

Camille’s influence has been gradual, she is insightful and observant. She doesn’t rush into anything and is careful with decisions and opinions. She is thorough and pays attention to details, has a lot more patience that I would ever have. She is not argumentative, but can get her point across….just give her time. These have given me pause, thinking before I rush to conclusions. She tells me she likes the calmer me!!!

Questioning our choices of food, such as, was one of her first observations. The ones that know me, know that I make reservations far better than I cook. Yes, I cook everyday for lunch, but nothing fancy, nothing complicated and everything quick. Grocery shopping is one of my least favorite tasks……has to be done, I do it, period. There was only my husband and I so, food preparation became totally a matter of making easier dishes, whatever that took. After all, we could always go out to eat.

Everyone would be surprised to know I am enjoying cooking more, buy organic most of the time, buy fruits and vegetables in season, cook with healthy oils (olive and coconut). I have always used real butter and sugar, so that pleased her. There are no fried foods served at my table and her father has learned to eat veggies when I serve them. A great step forward for him, trust me! With all this healthy eating, we have lost weight and have more energy and feel so much better.

-1Last year, I decided to let my hair go grey. Camille was my first and most ardent supporter. She has seen me through the good and the bad days with this experiment. Now that my hair is short and I can’t wait for it to grow, she points out that it looks healthy, has shine, bounces and makes me look younger. What else can I say. She is my number one confidence booster. This process would have been a lot harder without her.

Since moving to Miami, I have made little progress in the friends department. I was sure that I have all the friends that I need already. Without missing a beat, Camille has put me in touch with women she meets who seem interesting and have things in common with me. Not everyone has turned into a friend, but I have learned to be more open-minded with people in this new adventure life has offered me. Try, she says, why not? all that can happen is that you like them!!! She should know because she makes friends so easily.

I have always been the cheer them along mother. My children could count on me to make them see the best of a situation. Sometimes, I surprised myself how I could turn something painful into a good experience because of what they learned. I still do, but never tried that for myself. Camille, having learned the lesson, cheers me along when I need it. Better yet, she has made me see that I can be my cheerleader.

I am not a morning person, never have. I think you are productive if you are organized, not because you get up early. Sunsets are more my thing than sunrises. Camille has to get up early for work. Believe it or not, I do too!! I prepared breakfast, we chat, she leaves for work and I find myself with more hours to do my work around the house, go for a walk, anything. The days seem longer and somehow, I don’t mind. What a change!!!

She is always planning a trip or two, planning outings with her friends, getting down to the pool or finding somewhere interesting to visit in Miami. She is very social and can’t just spend days without something exciting to do. Her enthusiasm is contagious. I find myself more inclined to do the same, in a smaller scale, of course. I enjoy my time with myself too much, but have learned to see the advantages of joining in the fun!!!

I could spend more time just listing every good lesson I have learned from my daughter. I am sure I could fill a book with them. Fortunately, it is so much interesting and fun to just go with her flow, listen to her clever advice about being good to myself and going places we both can enjoy. The biggest lesson I have learned from my daughter: be good to myself, nobody else knows me better and nobody else has my best interest in mind!!! Tossing the Old has been my contribution, Listening to the New has been in no small part, hers. Thank you, Beautiful!!!228913_10150265555079670_310976_n

Lessons Learned and my Mother-in-Law

For those who know me well, this would be a very strange post. Adriana, my mother-in-law, and I had the kind of relationship that people write jokes about, the kind most people are afraid of when they marry or warn their daughters about. You do not see eye to eye or have opposite views on most everything or she is just so difficult. In my case, all of the above!!!

Yes, when I got married, I had already met her. Knew exactly what to expect……and I was wrong. It was actually worse and it didn’t get much better all the years she was alive after our marriage. This is not to say that we didn’t have our moments; I made an effort from time to time and she adored my children, which made a big difference in our relationship. It was stormy to say the least and I am sure people felt sorry for me, she was just difficult with everyone around her. Not a walk in the park, but a learning experience for me. Absolutely, I am admitting I learned from her. This is something I would have never done even a few years ago…….much less write about for everyone to read!!! It is the truth, though, and it’s never too late to accept that fact. Adriana was very true to herself. She knew what she wanted and got it most of the time. Her opinions and views were firm, unquestionable and never abandoned. You might not have agreed with them, but you could not have been but in awe of her perseverance. Having an argument with her was useless. She never lost her cool, never raised her voice. It could be infuriating!!! Still, I learned that if you want to make a point, getting hysterical and losing your cool was NOT the way to go. Here is lesson Number One: know who you are and be true to yourself.

She knew how to take care of herself. Since she was in her teens, when she spent a year without being able to walk, she learned the value of exercise. Yes, she took care of getting some exercise everyday, rain or shine. Be it a swim in the ocean or a walk in her yard. Her friends told me that she went on a diet for three months before her wedding, so she could fit in the dress she had designed….This was in 1945!!! When I met her, she was 52, slim and impeccably groomed: just right, never overdone. Later in life, she would take a day off a week and she didn’t work! She would go swimming, have lunch by herself or with friends and return home in the early afternoon. I have walked and lifted my 5 pound weights for years and learned to enjoy traveling on my own and to play bridge. Here is lesson Number Two: take care of your body and make time for yourself.

Adriana knew how to get the best service everywhere she went. From restaurants to boutiques, from airports to hotels, she always got someone to do her bidding. She got the best table or the room with the best view. She could convince sales staff to bring her clothing or shoes to her car for her to try at home. Then return what she didn’t want and pay for the rest!!! Would ask for a wheelchair at the airport when it wasn’t the thing to do and would hand over her carry-on to some stranger to handle for her. Never lost anything……Not there yet, but I have learned to get the best table and change rooms if I am not pleased. Here is lesson Number Three: it’s all in the way you ask and the way you present yourself.

She was not interested in housework, but knew how entertain. Something we had in common, I don’t like housework, as you know by now. Adriana had a flair for ignoring the whole thing, never letting a little dust or an unswept floor get in the way of her day. I am still trying to learn that one. She’d rather entertain and when she decided to, she would get organized: whipped a few munchies or a full dinner in a matter of hours, called everyone she wanted to see and practically ordered them to come. Most people would just come and ended up enjoying themselves!! I learned to take it easy with housework, still working on entertaining. Did learn from her to make a mean roast-beef. Here is lesson Number Four: learn to live the day, don’t stress about housework, it can wait.

Adriana passed away in 2001, after a short illness. In the years since, I have slowly realized that without meaning to, I learned a lot from her. I find myself, at times, appreciating the way she did things. Who would have known…..maybe it means I am getting older!!!

What I learned in Baltimore!!!! (Part two)

P1150992I am afraid of flying, something I don’t see changing in the near future, but that is another post, another challenge. It gets so bad, just buying my ticket gets me into a panic mode. Short trips are the worst, all the anxiety without time in between to relax for the next leg of the trip. So our weekend trip to Baltimore presented its challenges. Fortunately, I have decided to Toss and Listen. In other words, a time for learning and I did.

These are simple and obvious lessons that I never spent time considering before. What was I thinking?

I don’t have to take part in any planning to enjoy the trip!! Camille and Frankie planned the whole thing with Frank’s help. After years of involvement in planning vacations, this was the best lesson. Yes, they can plan and execute without me having to decide or arrange anything. Tickets were bought, hotel reservations made, where were we going for dinner or what attractions to visit: all planned to the last detail. Splendid! All I had to do was pack my suitcase. There was something to learn from that as well.

You can take everything you need for a weekend trip in just a carry-on bag. You might think this was a given…..but then you don’t know me well. I dislike dragging a bag, pass all the TSA inspectors at the airport and then take it on board, lift the thing up to the overhead compartment, take it down when you arrive. I have refused to do this for ages. On a short trip, I’ve learned finally, this is better. Who would have known? Now, there is a trick in the packing for a short trip.

Pack only what you need. Yes, another news flash. Mix and match clothing, shoes that are comfortable and stylish, preferably two pairs only. I always pack so much, for every trip. The reality is: do not carry three sweaters if two are enough! Nowadays, all toiletries come in travel sizes: take advantage!!! If not, use the ones offered by the hotel. Travel size make-up and perfume are also available! Time to accept the inevitable.

These three seem so obvious, you might be laughing at this point. For me, these were lessons I had refused to learned for years. Leaving the planning to others was the easiest to learn. I can get used to that AND probably will. The carry-on bag and the selective packing were a bit harder, but I can do that as well. After all, if I have to carry the suitcase, I might as well pack light!!

Once we got past the planning and packing, there was the flight and the hotel. Relax with a drink as soon as you get on the plane and if the flight is bumpy……you’d not feel a thing! The hotel is another thing:  I like nice, fluffy pillows and enough covers to keep me warm. The bed should not be hard and I am picky about the room, the size, the temperature, what to do?. So you will not be surprised by what’s next.

I am too old to give up my comforts!!! This is not a lesson in itself, just a realization, but it is SO important. For years, I have been a bit accepting, telling myself: it’s a short trip, I only go to the room to sleep, we can compromise.  Well, I finally accepted that there are things in life you don’t compromise on. Let’s change rooms if we don’t like the first one we get. Ask for fresh towels everyday, sorry about the environment! Once you have the room you need, make good use of it.

Go back to the hotel during the day and take a nap. I am sure some of you think this is a given. It usually is on long trips, but never on short trips. After all, we are there for a short time, let us walk and visit and do as much as possible…we’ll rest later. Not anymore: if I walk all day and visit every museum and attraction, I’d be in NO condition to go out and enjoy my dinner….and I’ll be cranky!  Logically, get back, kick off your shoes and take a power nap before going out again. It works beautifully, especially if the weather is not to your liking. Age has it benefits, don’t forget it. You don’t have to look old or feel old, you just have to take advantage of the age thing.

Slow down and sit down if needed!!! Where is it written that you have to keep up? Traveling is a pleasure, not a marathon. Walk ahead and sit on that comfortable bench, they will come to you in time. Put your feet up while admiring a painting or sculpture. Sit down and have a cup of tea or a drink while others wander around. These are nothing new, but before, I felt a bit guilty doing them: not anymore. Accept your limitations and you’ll enjoy yourself more, trust me! I have nothing to prove to anyone and it feels great.

In keeping with my early proposal of taking each moment and make it the best it can be, I will apply these lessons when I travel from now on. Who knows, traveling might be easier and less stressful for me and whoever travels with me. That is the best lesson I learned in Baltimore!!!