Lessons from Nana…Have the conversation

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I was looking forward all week to seeing Nana. When she saw me, she burst into tears, happy tears. She hugged me tight and would not let go. We stood in the middle of a busy dining room full of residents and staff, and Nana gripped me as though she hadn’t seen me in a long time. She didn’t remember it had only been four days.

I led her to a quiet table in the corner. As we sat, her cold, fragile hand held mine. It was just the two of us and my heart was so happy.

It’s been a struggle to keep her caloric intake up, and it was clear the more I distracted her with conversation the more she ate. So I kept talking and she kept eating. She spoke a few times about the pain from her cancer. Then she followed up with, “But it’s okay, I’m a tough old broad.”

Gulping down my awkwardness I asked, “What helps you stay a tough old broad, even under these circumstances? I really want to know.”

She smiled, got a little teary, and replied as she squeezed my hand, “Family and God. After all, he’s in charge.”

The sun slowly set over her shoulder. Every now and then my gaze wandered from her to the fiery colors of fuchsia and orange bursting from behind the clouds, fading to hues of purples and blues, eventually extinguishing to black.

One-by-one, residents finished their meals and left the dining room. The staff cleaned up around us but allowed us to linger.

Searching for a lighthearted topic, I asked her if she’s still enjoying her favorite television shows. “No. I don’t watch TV,” Nana scoffed. “Nothing matters anymore,” she continued. “Family matters. God matters. But nothing else.” She stared off into the distance, and continued, “It’s like I don’t care about anything anymore. But I don’t mean that to sound bad. It’s just what used to be important isn’t anymore. What I used to spend my time and energy on, it all really doesn’t matter.”

I quietly sat at the table and drank in her facial and body expressions, trying to sear them into memory for the day our conversations end. Nana was allowing me priceless insight into the perspective of someone with an aging body and ailing mind. I applaud her honest candor.

Listening with full attention, I saw a woman who is letting go.

Finding words for her sentences is like searching for seashells on a shore cluttered with incomprehension and nonsensical thoughts. Yet, with enough time and patience, her feelings, thoughts and opinions eventually reveal themselves through the sands of confusion.

These days, the TV sits silent in her apartment. Mail is tucked away. Her phone stays unplugged and she often doesn’t know where it is or even that she has one. The daily word searches delivered by the staff that she has so enjoyed over the past year lie untouched. Even ordering food from the daily menu is a struggle as a task that she couldn’t care about in the least.

There is a stark correlation to her recent decline. Rewind to last September. As best we could, we delivered the news to Nana that doctors gave her about six months to live. That is a post for another day. Her response to the news was, “I want to live as normal as possible for as long as possible.” This meant no more treatment of any kind. We respect her decision and asked, “So how do you want to spend your time? What is on your bucket list? Whatever we can give you, we want to. Want to go to the beach again? Go to New York one more time? You name it and we’ll try our best to make it happen.”

She sat with a quizzical stare. Between Alzheimer’s, angiosarcoma and aging, her mind is losing its footing. I, on the other hand, had fabulous aspirations of us going on amazing adventures. I could already see the selfies snapping in my mind’s eye. I saw us stepping barefoot into the coastal tide with water and sand tickling our toes. I envisioned a trip to the mountains where we open the sunroof and let the wind toss our hair as we spend the afternoon at apple orchards, which reminds her so much of home, and picking apples at the local fruit stands. I fancied the ideas of expensive restaurants, pondered playing with puppies in animal shelters, and even going to Disney World if that would delight her heart. Yet, the profound simplicity of her answer surprised me.

“I just want to see my kids one more time.”

Nana is a mother of four grown children with their own families; only one family lives locally. Her family is spread across three states from Texas to New York and over the following months they came to see her. Everyone tried to make it as fun as possible despite the bittersweet taste of the trips’ purpose – to say goodbye to Nana.

How does one say goodbye? Are there truly enough words that justify putting a period at the end of a relationship separated by death?

For my husband, her son, he wrestles with this every time he sees her. “It’s so hard knowing that every time I’m with her, I leave knowing it could be the last time.”

Saying goodbye over and over and over wears on a soul. Our rides home together are often spent with reflective contemplation inwardly while processing together outwardly.

And for our family out of town, they came with the somber realization that they were going to have one last hug, one last kiss, one last eye-to-eye, “I love you.” The finality of a final goodbye is unbearable.

But enter our tough old broad. Nana knows where she is going and she knows who is waiting for her. She’s told us for years that as much as she loves her kids and grandkids, she’s got a lot more people waiting for her in heaven than she does on earth. It’s a little twingey to hear, but I understand her point.

When her youngest son drove her home one last time on his trip to say goodbye last month, Nana looked at him and said, “So I guess the next I see you will be in heaven.” “Yes, I guess it will, Mom.”

I have not stopped thinking about their conversation. How raw. How real. How rare.

Most people cannot even talk about death, much less the direct impact it has on loved ones even while the person is still living. Yet here are mother and son, openly talking about this last face-to-face time they’ll see each other on this celestial orb of water and clay. What a gift of closure for them both. It was a lifetime of relationshipping wrapped up in two sentences and a mutual I love you. How remarkable!

Nana is certainly a tough old broad. She’s sat through endless doctors’ appointments talking about surgeries, recoveries, physical therapy, home therapy, and even hospice. Now she is speaking about the last chapter of her life and the only things that remain important – God and family.

Her daughter and grandson came to say goodbye. Again, how can a lifetime together be summed up in one word, seven letters – goodbye. But this is a blessing that many don’t get to experience. Those who lose loved ones quickly or unexpectedly would give anything in the world to have one last conversation; one more “I love you;” an “I’m sorry;” an “I forgive you.”

My mom died I when was 16 years old. My family, out of love for me, wanted to protect me from the pain of her dying. However, by not including me in conversations about Mom’s grim prognosis, they weren’t protecting me, rather they were preventing me from grieving her illness and death.

If I had known that doctors had not given her hope of surviving her last night, I never ever would have gone out with friends that night. I wouldn’t have had a friend spend the night for goodness sakes! I never ever would have left her side. But I didn’t know, and the guilt of leaving her in her last hours is something that a 16 year old then, a 49 year old now, has carried ever since.

To have had that night to apologize for my hormonal, bratty teenage years and the aloof dissing as an insecure middle-schooler would’ve been a blessing beyond measure for us both. To reminisce about the good and let go of the bad would have brought immeasurable healing and peace. Just to be with her in her last hours…after all, she once told me in the throws of brutal chemo and radiation, “I’m only going through all of this for you girls. <my sister and me> Ya’ll are the reason I’m living.” My place was by her bedside that last night. I owed her that much, but I didn’t know.

On the contrary, I sat with my biological father as he laid dying in the hospital. I first met him when I was 12 years old. We didn’t reconcile until I was 33 year old. We were given eight great years until he died of cancer. Our relationship was unique and unlikely, but with God as our witness we gave our relationship to him and he blessed it. When I got the call to come to Atlanta to say goodbye, my husband and I were in the middle of a home remodel. I tossed the keys to the contractor and our family of five piled into the minivan and we hit the road. I wasn’t going to miss (again) my last chance to say goodbye to my only living parent.

Sitting at his bedside, I asked if everyone clustered in the crowded, tiny hospital room wouldn’t mind leaving. My husband, children and my dad’s wife left the room and it was just my dad and me. Lung cancer held his words and breath hostage. I had never seen him weak and watching him lie there with oxygen tubes and IVs was overwhelming. I knew I had one chance to say it. Three words I could never bring myself to say in our eight short years, nor in my entire life. I knew I needed to say them as much as he needed to hear them.

I needed to say them in hopes to overwrite one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever said to another human being. Years before, he stood in my home (to which he traveled hours to see my family and me) and I said to him straight to his face, “You can be a grandfather to my children, but not a father to me.” A hurt little girl deep inside still longed to feel like a daughter. I had been in counseling off and on for years, but still had so much unresolved anger, hurt and resentment which is too complicated to pen here. The thing is, I meant those words at the time– but I didn’t mean to say them to him.

Fast-forward several years, more counseling, and much heart change, maturity and personal growth later, I was a different person. I desperately wanted to take those words back knowing how much they hurt him. I did my best to show it to him that I didn’t mean those words anymore and that I did want him in my life, not just in my children’s lives. We made great memories together until cancer came calling. The photo album would have a hard stop in its timeline. But I wondered if I said three words, that they would perhaps elude time and distance, sickness and health. So much had not been said in our lifetime, could three words possibly bear the weight of it all? Could three words erase the negative and amplify the positive conversations and shared moments between us for three decades? Are three words that powerful?

Kicking aside the scattered stones of pride and human emotion that were leftover from a very thick and high wall that guarded my heart, I left myself wide open and vulnerable in a moment in an Atlanta hospital room. My palms were soaked with sweat, the back of my neck stung with prickly anxious heat, and my pounding heart welled up in my throat. Taking a deep breath, and deciding not to overthink it any longer, I gently took his hand, looked him in the eye and softly said, “I’m sorry I can’t fix this. I’m sorry I can’t make you better.” He looked at me, unable to move, but I felt the hug of his heart.

Then I said in one breath, and without blinking, “I love you.”

A wave of relief and freedom washed over me. It was my first, and last, I love you, to my dad. He died not 24 hours later.

Some may find my openness and lack of filter about such personal and painful topics audacious, off-putting, uncomfortable, and even offensive. I totally get it and don’t blame them at all. But I’ve lived both scenarios – saying goodbye and not saying goodbye. Not saying goodbye is far harder to live with than momentarily swallowing pride, overcoming awkwardness, leaning into the opportunity, and saying what needs to be said.

Likewise, Nana and I have had lots of positive conversations about dying over these last months. Having Christ as Savior changes the entire perspective on living and dying. We talk about the certainty of Jesus’ promise in John 14:2-3, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” There is so much for Christians to look forward to!

Christina Rossetti wrote the poem, “Let Me Go,” with its words, “…For this is a journey we all must take, and each must go alone. It’s all part of the master plan, a step on the road to home…” Although its words are comforting, they are conventional.

Nana and I are going about her journey in an unconventional way. And in many ways, I feel like we’ve grown closer in the past year than in the 33 years we’ve known each other; largely due to our continuing conversations.

I want to walk Nana as close to heaven as I can get to minimize her aloneness in the journey as the poem wrote. My hope is to hand her to heaven when the Lord calls her home so there is not one moment spent unaccompanied between her last breath on earth and her first glimpse of eternity.

So we’ve escorted the elephants out of the room and talk about “it.” It being whatever the day brings – an emotion, a decision, a thought, a memory. She knows she can tell me anything. She also knows this is the time to say it.

This is Nana’s epilogue. Her moment to reflect and respond to the 80 years she has lived. When I think of all she has seen, lived through and overcome I’m amazed at her perseverance, strength and how she has kept her sense of humor through it all.

From stuffing newspapers in her shoes as a child to replace insoles long worn out; how as a 12-year-old girl home alone, she bravely brandished a shotgun to scare off two drunk men who came looking for trouble; she walked the college stage to receive her degree very married and very pregnant, even holding up the ceremonial line for her extra restroom trip (oh the joys of pregnancy!); she marveled at snowfalls as high as their roof; she enjoyed summer camping on Maine beaches and ice fishing on the lake; she hosted countless birthday parties and lived through too many world wars; from spirited poker nights to scary bomb shelters; dogs running amuck all over the house; a house always needing repairs; all-you-can-eat Friday fish fries at the local HoJo and 4th of July fireworks at Lake George; Martha’s ice cream and Dirty John’s hot dogs; Studebakers and station wagons; dancing into the night and nights spent sitting up with sick babies; giving up smoking and giving her life to Christ; cooking with Julia Child’s and crying with Billy Graham on tv; raising four active children and sending them off into the world as adults; all of her countless prayers and answers to prayers; owning her own store and working as an elementary school teacher, Nana never sat down unless it was to knit or read an Agatha Christie mystery. She walked her husband home to heaven and spent years serving the church, and now the church is serving her through its widow ministry, and it is our family’s turn to walk her to heaven. As Nana rounds the corner of life, in her home stretch she reflects on the big, releases the small, and reminiscences about the millions of life’s moments and lessons in the middle.

These stories deserve to be told and retold. So we spark her memory with a story-starter and then sit back and let her talk. This is her epilogue, worthy of hearing, recording, remembering.

I know she is letting go because she tells me even without admitting it. Because with every conversation, she talks to me regarding “us” in past tense. “I’m so glad I got the chance to love you like a daughter.” “I’m so glad God brought you into our family.” “I’m so glad I got to know you.”

I swallow hard but freeze my smile, so she won’t notice. In some ways it feels like I’m talking to a ghost. In other ways it feels like I’m talking to someone who has never been so alive as a lifetime lived on this earth, bound by time and space, waits patiently to escape this world and enter eternity. Where in heaven, the stories of old once again are retold, this time with all the actors alive, well and immortal. A gathering of life and love that will never end.

We, the family who will be left behind for now, will gather her stories and hold them close to our hearts. We will retell them to our children and grandchildren in countless conversations so they know their roots; an intangible legacy of life and love binding us together now and in the eternal.

None of this is possible without one thing – a conversation. Have the conversation. Say what needs to be said, in love. Bring peace where possible. Embrace closure. Give grace to all…including yourself. Escort the elephants out. Invite the Holy Spirit in. Laugh together. Cry together. Hold hands. Hug. Reminisce. Dream. Talk about life goals and final wishes. Sit in silence, but be together. Bless and pray for each other. Mend wounds. Heal hurts. Share joys and sorrows, victories and disappointments. Admit wrongdoings. Say I’m sorry and accept apologies. Agree to disagree when needed. Celebrate successes. Focus on what we have in common. Love one another. Savor the moments we have together now as tomorrow is not promised for any of us.

It all starts with a conversation.

BBQ Slaw Salad

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Do you like BBQ dinners but not the heavy feeling after eating them? This BBQ plate fills you up without needing a nap afterwards.

This dish looks as yummy as it tastes, with several flavors going on here.

Red wine vinegar offers a cohesive flavor between the onions, BBQ sauce and the slaw dressing amid the different textures and tastes of this recipe. The crunch of the slaw, pickled onions & pumpkin seeds pairs well with the soft pork. The mixed greens catch the extra BBQ juices and slaw dressing, making it a bonus salad unto itself. The cornbread replaces a traditional bun and has much more flavor (and doesn’t get soggy like a bun). I like to mix everything together (sans the cornbread) so as to get even flavors of everything in each bite. Enjoy a lighter, yet filling, take on this Southern dish!

INGREDIENTS: Serves 4

1#                  Pulled pork BBQ

2 bags            Broccoli slaw (or cabbage slaw)

1, 5oz bag     Mixed greens

1c                  Pickled red onions

1 box             Cornbread

SLAW DRESSING: 

4T        Mayo

3T        Red wine vinegar

4T        Agave syrup

3T        BBQ sauce

1/2t     Celery salt

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Whisk together all of the slaw dressing ingredients together and then blend in the bag of broccoli slaw, tossing well to coate. Refrigerate until ready to serve. *OR* Buy slaw dressing in the refrigerated section of salad dressings in the grocery store and add 6T per total jar (adjust amounts depending on your servings size). Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  2. Use store-bought cornbread or make with either a BOX MIX or THIS RECIPE (I half the sugar and butter in this recipe).
  3. Use store-bought pork BBQ or make it fresh with THIS RECIPE.
  4. Use THIS RECIPE for the pickled red onions. It’s really easy and one batch lasts for an entire month.
  5. When ready to serve, assemble the salad: greens on the bottom, then slaw, then BBQ, and top with pickled onions. Add cornbread and your all set. Enjoy!

 

BBQ Pulled Pork or Beef – restaurant style

If you love BBQ and go to a restaurant to get it, you probably don’t put just one kind of sauce on your beef or pork. You put at least two, maybe three! That’s one reason why BBQ at home never tastes the same…because we’re dumping one kind of sauce on the meat.

My BBQ is the secret sauce of mixing different flavored sauces together and adding one special ingredient. This recipe is crazy easy and freezes great!

Now you can enjoy restaurant-style BBQ at home any time you want, and any time is a delicious time for BBQ!

INGREDIENTS:

1 pack          Pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt, however the cut is actually the shoulder) or                                  Beef chuck roast, whichever you prefer

1-2 bottles   Red, sweet BBQ sauce (Our very favorite is Old Mule Original, but if you can’t                                find it, Sweet Baby Ray’s Original or Stubb’s Original bbq sauce works)

1-2 bottles   Tangy, Memphis-style BBQ sauce (I use our local grocery store’s brand, but                                  any Memphis-style sauce will work)

1/2-3/4c      Red wine vinegar (secret ingredient!!)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Place meat in a crock pot. Add 1c of water. Place lid on top and turn crock pot on high for several hours depending on the number of pounds of meat. Check it every couple of hours.
  2. When the meat is done, turn off the crock pot. You will know it’s done when it looks visibly cooked through (pork should not look raw/pink) and easily falls apart when you try to lift it with tongs.
  3. Using tongs, lift out a chunk of meat at a time and place it on a cutting board.
  4. Using two forks, separate the meat from everything else (fat, tendons, grisle, etc.). This is not hard to do, but does take some time.
  5. Then shred the meat with the two forks by pulling it apart.
  6. Put the shredded meat into a saucepot. Pour both sauces and red wine vinegar onto the meat and stir until blended.
  7. Keep the sauce pot on low heat until the sauce has thickened and BBQ is heated through.
  8. If freezing, let the BBQ cool to room temperature first. Never freeze meat hot. This recipe will typically yield several pounds of BBQ because of how the meat is packaged and sold, so call some friends to come over or pack up what you don’t need immediately and freeze it for later. Think sliders, sandwiches and my BBQ Slaw Salad recipe!

 

 

Lessons from Nana…Accept help

8.5 x 11 miscellaneous VERTICAL - Page 187

Thanksgiving 2019

Why women believe we must bear the weight of the world on our shoulders I’ll never understand; and I’m guilty as charged. We carry the world’s burdens in our hearts, careful not to drop a single one, feeling immensely responsible for their outcome whether we truly are or not.

There’s a visual image seared into my mind that haunts and follows me when I am alone. I’m walking on a road, swimming in the ocean, or climbing a mountain and I have the person or problem literally strapped to my back. The more people and problems, the more piled on and on and on until I’m falling on bloody knees, drowning under the waves, or hanging on the side of the cliff with nails dug deep into the dirt wall that presses against my sweaty face.

Even still, I won’t stop. I just keep going…and going…and going reluctant to ask for help. I smile anyway. “I’m fine,” anyway. “It’s all good,” anyway. It’s not good and I’m not fine. So I retreat, slipping into the shadows of life to avoid the fronting, fake smiles I wear like a pro. I go deep into my hiding place until I’ve slept, regained train of thought, cried, journaled, or whatever it takes to breathe again. Only then I step back into the daylight, return texts, messages, phone calls and resume whatever normal looks like…until the people and problems heap on my back again and I break under the pressure, again.

Not so with Nana. She has always been very vocal about her needs. There’s no ambiguity of where she’s at in life and her outspokenness is kind of a family joke (in an endearing way).

However, stating a need and asking for help are two different things.

Nana is one of the most strong and strong-willed women I know. For 32 years I’ve called her MacGyver and watched her sew torn luggage with dental floss in the middle of the airport; foster over 60 dogs with her husband; and throw together a dinner for twenty in less time than it takes most of us to drive to the grocery store.

When she moved to our city, I committed to helping her move in, get settled, and do life with her. We found great deals for nesting her apartment at consignment stores – her happy place other than garage sales. Two weeks in, she fell. For these past two years it has literally been one health crisis after the next starting with this fall and maybe a month thrown in here or there to come up for air.

I know it’s been hard on her. Relocating to a new city, joining a new church, leaving old friends while remaining open to making new ones, learning new roads, finding new stores, it’s a lot for anyone at any age, and she was 79 at the time. She met the challenge with a strong spirit and determination to conquer the city. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

Needless to say, her health issues have been a total surprise; with each one more serious than the last. This isn’t the retirement she had planned; certainly not a terminal diagnosis within six months of moving here.

I call her my Naomi and I’m her Ruth. I told her we’d get through all of this. ER trips, surgical boots, physical therapy, fourteen doctors with just as many medications, surgery upon surgery, MRIs, CT scans, X-rays, pre-op, post-op, a broken ankle, a fractured vertebra, sinus infections, cancer, a mastectomy, bridge work, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and more doctor appointments than I can count just to name a few.

She’s been such a trooper with each episode. Whether it was days when she was up and ready to go, or days I arrived and she had forgotten and was still in her jammies, she rose to the occasion and simply trusted me to care for her. If I filled a new prescription, she took it. If I gave her the walker, she used it. We waded waters of medical decisions, dental decisions, orthopedic decisions, neurology decisions, split decisions, decisions made with family; so many decisions I can’t recount them all. I sat with her through every single doctor’s appointment for two years. She recovered from both surgeries in our home.

I’ve watched her defer to us for help of all kinds. Her “tough ‘ol broad” self-proclamation became softer as her mind became fuzzier, and she began to lean on us more for direction and decisions. Treating her no different than I would have treated my own mother if she was still alive, and how my sister and I cared for my grandmother, I’ve helped Nana as if we were bound by blood, not marriage.

Perhaps I got a little too close. Her life and mine became so intertwined I’m not sure where she stopped and I started. My family saw this. They encouraged me to have boundaries and take time for self-care.

But there’s this advocate in me that won’t be quiet. I’m a fierce fighter who will stand in front of whatever moving train is threatening someone in my care. The voiceless, the helpless, the vulnerable – we are called to help them and I take it to heart. And when those are family, we are called to help them all the more. And as for widows, God specifically mentions our duty to care for them several times throughout the Bible. Another box checked on the life list for my Naomi.

An attitude of, “I’ll fix this. I’ll handle this. I’ll take care of this. I’ll protect you. I’ll fight for you. You’re safe with me,” is the advocate in me that won’t stop or rest or back down for those who need it. Not ever.

I’ve watched Nana have to accept more help the more serious her physical and neurological needs progressed. The worst was having to take her car away after she put herself in a dangerous position and didn’t realize it. She was mad at me, and the family, for four months. I’m not sure she ever fully forgave us. But with every other decision, she’s been amazingly compliant because she has always known we are working in her very best interest. The way we’d want to be treated. They way her husband, my favorite father-in-law, would’ve treated her if he were still alive. The way I will stand before God one day and be held accountable for caring for his daughter, a widow, elderly, lacking memory to advocate for herself, and lacking physical health to provide for herself.

I’ve taken this task extremely seriously which is perhaps why I often cry all the way home on the long drives during every season and in every kind of weather until near hyperventilation.

As she has let me help more as her needs grow, I watch her fight herself for freedom. Two moves: the first one was to relocate down here and gain independence, and the second one to forfeit that new independence exactly a year later to an assisted living facility, with no other option for her safety. She has desperately wanted to stay independent in her desire to make one more meal for herself; pay her own bills and balance her own checkbook; power-walking up and down the halls of her apartment just to prove she still could; moving very heavy furniture by herself to demonstrate her strength (which led to the fractured vertebrae); working crossword puzzles and word searches to stay mentally sharp; answering the neurologist’s memory questions honestly, as I turned my face away to avoid her seeing me weep at the six answers she got wrong compared to the one answer she got right.

We locked arms and boldly marched on with every appointment. Most times she didn’t know which doctor we were seeing or why, but I had her back. I peeked over her shoulder as she stepped on the scale so I could monitor her weight. I held candid discussions with the doctors and her when she didn’t want to admit she had lost more physical or mental ground. Sometimes I felt like a tattletale, but as her advocate doctors needed honesty to treat her properly.

She fights to hard to stay independent, yet she has a keen sense of knowing when to accept help when she needs it. I look back on the past two years, which feel like a lot more in some ways with all the physical and mental battles she’s fought and me at her side fighting for her, and it’s sobering to see where we are now.

I’ve had her strapped on my back for two years without ceasing. Without ceasing. It has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but also some of the most rewarding.

So on December 18th, exactly a week before Christmas, I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot barely able to breathe. Choking back tears, I walked in, not knowing what the person looked like whom I was meeting.

Not one, but two women greeted me; both with the same first name. They were with Hospice. This meeting about killed me. It was supposed to last about an hour. We were there 2.5 hours with my never-ending questions. They were incredibly patient, kind, and gentle. They assured me the decision was totally up to the family and that they were there to answer questions and help if we so chose.

Our family knew this meeting was happening and I had their blessing. Still, signing the paperwork as her HCPOA, the weight of responsibility nearly broke my heart in two. Despite the emotional fit I was having on the inside, I hid it pretty well on the outside…until…

They explained that Hospice would now be her PCP, oncologist, etc. I know their help is a good and necessary thing, but a wave of grief overtook me in one tsunami tidal crash I didn’t expect and couldn’t control. The women saw my countenance drop and asked if I was okay. I replied, “I need a second,” and looked away. Turning back toward them, with tears welling up, I asked, “So the last time we went to the oncologist was the last time we would see him?” Short answer, “Yes.”

Grief grabbed me and choked the lump in my throat. “It’s just that, well, he was the best doctor we’ve ever had, and I didn’t get to tell him. We didn’t get to say goodbye.” There was a chasm in my heart, a gaping hole void of closure between me and this decision to sign on Hospice.

Suddenly, the past two years flashed before me like a movie reel in fast-forward. Memories we made together came flooding to mind such as the many trips to various doctors and surgeons; trips through the drive-thru after a hard appointment, as my grandmother did for me when I was a child to make things better; our hundreds of car conversations; wringing my nervous hands in elevators; endless waiting in waiting rooms; dashing to fetch the car for her in pelting rain; heating the car for her in the dismal, frigid winter; finding every handicap parking space at nearly every medical facility in our city; wearing face masks and gloves in the ER; falling asleep sitting straight up in stiff, hard doctor office chairs in the middle of the night; watching other patients wait with us who were just as sick as Nana was, or sicker, as they moaned and groaned and threw up and passed out all around us in the hospital; checking voicemails and texts in the bathroom so she wouldn’t feel overlooked; half-reading half-interesting, outdated magazine articles in doctors’ offices; meeting up with the sweet driver at her assisted living facility when she could help drive her to appointments – we must’ve rendezvoused in every parking lot in a twenty-mile radius in our city; more of her favorite hamburgers and milkshakes; more waiting at the pharmacies; watching her struggle to find one of the five lipsticks in her purse she swore was not in there; assuring her that she looked pretty as her appearance has always been important to her; triaging her symptoms-of-the-day to discern whether or not it required a call to the doctor; sitting with endless doctors and making endless decisions with her and for her…it was all over. In one conversation and a few signatures, it was all over.

I suddenly wanted so badly to drive her to one more appointment, shoot the breeze in one more waiting room, fix her a cup of complimentary coffee, listen to her muse about the world around us, shake hands with one more doctor, and check one more doctor’s visit off the list.

What felt so dreadfully hard on some days, I silently begged to have back now sitting with Hospice and realizing this lap of her race is over. I didn’t know what to do with this new reality. The adrenaline that fuels the advocate in me was still pumping in my veins to do, to act, to help Nana. I wasn’t ready to hand this baton to anyone else and trust them to run on her behalf.

I understand Nana is no less Nana in Hospice’s care. She is no less our responsibility as family. Hospice is help. They are the very best at what they do and surely, they answer a calling 99% of the population could not handle for one minute. I am convinced there is a special place in heaven for Hospice staff. Their crowns will shine like the sun. But the protector in me struggles to let go.

I looked at the two ladies eye-to-eye and said without blinking, “Please don’t be offended, but it’s hard for me to entrust her to you. I’ve done my Hospice homework, but don’t truly know you. We’ve just met, and although so far so good, I’ve had some other medical companies ditch us and neglect her care. I’m worried.”

They sat with me for 2.5 hours until I was satisfied this was the best thing for Nana even though I knew in my heart and head it was time. Nana’s physical needs outgrew what I could provide. No number of doctor appointments could keep pace with the progression of Angiosarcoma and Alzheimer’s.

I often woke up in paralyzing fear in the middle of the night worried about her. If I wasn’t with her, I worried whether or not she was okay. Did she not answer the phone because she forgot she had a phone, accidentally turned the sound off, forgot to recharge it, forgot how to use it, lost it (which all of the aforementioned have happened), or was she lying on the floor unconscious from another fall? Rational and irrational thoughts warred in, and wore on, my mind and soul.

Hospice has been the very best thing for Nana. Her needs are tended to every single day in the comfort of her own space. They are a godsend and I couldn’t be more grateful for their help. It gives us enormous peace of mind and comfort as they happily accommodate my request for daily updates on who was there, what they did, and how she is doing. And in their words just today, “She’s doing as well as can be expected as the cancer grows.”

I’m so appreciative for their updates, but still I am not okay. The fighter in me feels like a failure. The advocate sits in awkward silence. The warrior stands weaponless on the battlefield. The protector feels the powerless weight of empty arms that are used to holding Nana, figuratively and literally.

I’m trying to follow Nana’s example of accepting help. I’m thankful, I really am. But in one morning meeting the dynamics of “us” completely changed forever, and that is something I wasn’t emotionally prepared for, even though it’s a good thing.

After hours of conversation and signing the paperwork, one of the ladies had to leave for another meeting as the other one sat across from me with tears in her eyes. She told me her story of going through a similar situation in her own family and that she understood my feelings.

I looked at her, and with a shaky voice muttered, “For the past two years I’ve been 90% caregiver and 10% daughter-in-law. Who am I now? What is my role…now?”

She tenderly answered with a quivering chin and merciful smile, “Now you’re 90% daughter-in-law.” We both sat in silence as she gave me time to process.

I broke the long silence between us with an, “Okay,” said under my breath, slowly nodding my head in peaceful acceptance, trying to hold it together in a bustling Starbucks full of young moms busy with their babies, business men in expensive suits with important places to be, and hipster millennials with earbuds in and eyes fixed on their laptops. “Okay,” I said again agreeably.

In that moment I understood a little of what Nana felt when she conceded to help with big steps like allowing the family to help with her finances, handing me her keys to the car she loved, and once again packing up her apartment and the independent life she loved after only a year.

Knowing decisions are right, and are even for the best, doesn’t make them any less difficult to live out.

Fast forward one month later. I’m huddled in my heavy robe scrolling texts and toggling between Hospice nurses and family. I texted the Hospice chaplain to see if she could visit Nana again as her health declines and the calendar continues to turn. To my surprise, the chaplain responded by calling me back. I didn’t want to talk and would’ve rather had a one-dimensional conversation through text as I struggle to find my way out of my emotional hiding place from all of this.

She said, “I can be at her place in 20 minutes.” “Whoa,” I thought to myself. I was shocked she could get there so quickly! Borrowing some of Nana’s willingness to accept help, I sheepishly asked, “I don’t want to burden you, but, um, how often do you think you could visit her? The doctors have given her a couple of months at best, and I think the more visits from friendly faces the better, but I don’t want to take too much of your time.”

The chaplain replied, “I can come as often as you’d like.” “Oh wow. Um, would once a week work for you?” I asked. She replied, “Baby, listen to me…” Her comforting words and soothing, motherly tone made me feel emotionally safe in our conversation. “Kristi, Baby, listen to me. I am here for Miss Salli. But I’m also here for your family. And I’m here…for you, too.”

Bundled up in my robe, hiding from life, tears streamed down my face I sat speechless. She touched a soft spot in my soul. It’s like she knew it was difficult for me to ask for help without me admitting it. The confidence with which she spoke allowed me to let down my guard and accept her support because she can be someone to Nana that I cannot be; just like the nurses; just like so many people who have joined us on our journey these past two years. Her words and voice convinced me she really meant it. She really wants to be there for Nana. My heart quietly raised its white flag of surrender, yielding to the truth that there is safety in numbers. Not even my husband and I together can do this. Nor can rest of the family spread out across three states. This is bigger than all of us.

“Are you still there, Kristi?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m here,” I spoke in a faint whisper.

“Okay, then I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” she assured me.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I pleaded.

“It’s what I do and I’m happy to do it. And if I can make a difference in Miss Salli’s life, and help your family at the same time, then my life won’t be in vain,” she said.

How does one respond to such authentic compassion and genuine empathy?

We hung up and I laid the phone in my lap. Staring into the dark, for the first time in a long time I felt the strength of a helping hand pulling me out of the pit.

So many wonderful people have been available to Nana 24/7 and it has been a blessing beyond measure. She’s accepted their help with graciousness and gratitude.

For me, on the other hand, I’ve still wanted to be a part of things. Not controlling or in the way, but I deeply care how she is doing on the days I am not able to see her. In part, because I love her and my heart aches knowing she’s fighting the battle for her life. Also, in part, is the humbleness of admitting that everyone needs help, including me.

Nana – the fearless, strong-willed warrior – has taught me one of the greatest lessons she could teach: Accept help. Know when we need it. Know when to ask for it. Be willing to accept it. And say thank you, which she has said no less than a million times.

Truly, her wisdom regarding when to fight and when to relinquish is something that will be part of her greatest legacy to me. Man, she knows how to fight for what she wants! Her persistence on lesser matters has caused me much anxiety. But she also knows when to say enough, end the arm wrestle, and trust someone else with the decision.

She’s spending a lot more time in bed these days. The cancer pain has been a challenge to keep under control. She is accepting everyone’s help: the nurses in their daily visits; the chaplain who prays and sings hymns with her (or to her depending on the day); the med techs who are amazingly awesome and shower Nana with love and care; and all of the folks, medical or not, who have walked a mile or more with Nana, sojourning on the road leading her to heaven.

It has been, and will continue to be, a privilege to serve her in this way as caregiver these past two years in the good times and in the hard. As much as she has allowed my help, and as I’ve watched her let others in and trust them with her care, I believe the best way for me to pay tribute to her legacy in this is to learn to do the same in my life…another passing of the baton, if you will.

In her example, I lay down my pride and stubbornness, my clinging to in the name of love and worry, and my heart will smile and accept help in honor of Nana – the fearless, strong-willed warrior – who taught me we don’t have to fight our battles alone.

Garbanzo Bean Soup

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Some meals satisfy our appetites. Others fill our souls. This is one of those soul-filling meals for me because of the backstory.

Growing up, eating out was a rarity. These days restaurants – fast food, sit downs, food trucks, etc  – are a way of life; a food group of its own, if you will. But not so 20 and 30 years ago.

So on the very rare day my mom said, “Let’s go out!” I was so excited. One restaurant was very special to me because it was special to my mom.

Enter Cafe Pepe’s in Tampa, Florida.

I was fortunate to grow up in a melting pot city with so many diverse flavors – Southern, Coastal, Latino, Asian, and Soul food to name a few. An authentic Cuban sandwich is still my favorite sandwich in the entire world (no mayo or hoagie rolls allowed!).

Cafe Pepe’s is where my mom went when she needed a pick-me-up. She hardly ever did anything for herself, so if we were going there then it was because it met not just a physical need for food, but an emotional need for comfort. Watching her do this for her selfless self meant the world to me and I wasn’t going to miss it!

Funny thing about this restaurant…I never knew they had menus. Seriously! When we went, we got the same thing every single time. Complimentary dark bread (like a pumpernickel), garbanzo bean soup, and flan (her favorite dessert, and even that was a splurge).

It wasn’t until I was dating my then husband and offered up Cafe Pepe’s for a walk down memory lane, and on a dinner date did I see my first menu with paella and all kinds of yummy dishes.

Visiting Tampa years later, I was so excited to take my kids to this favorite spot, only to find it gone. No! Right then, I promised myself I would recreate their garbanzo bean soup so even though the restaurant may not be there, I can enjoy this comfort food anytime, as well as keep its legacy alive for my mom’s legacy, the grandchildren she sadly never got to meet.

Cafe Pepe’s may be gone, but its memory lives on. I’m not sure what I miss most about this magical restaurant; the incredible food, the dimly lit atmosphere illuminated only by glowing candles, or that this place will always remind me to take time for a little self-care that my mom modeled for us.

After much tweaking, this recipe replicates the taste exactly how I remember it. I tell my kids, “If you want a taste of my childhood, this soup is on point.”

I hope this soup warms your heart and stomachs as much as it does ours.

INGREDIENTS:

6 cans                Unsalted chickpeas/garbanzo beans

1 ½  large          White or sweet onion; diced, I used frozen

4                        Mixed fresh peppers (red, orange, green & yellow); diced

2 pkgs                Polish Kielbasa or smoked sausage links, fully cooked; sliced into bite-sized pieces (I use skinless, no MSG) * Turkey sausage does not work well in this recipe. Use beef, pork or a combination of both.

2, 32oz boxes     Reduced sodium chicken broth

1, 32oz box        Reduced sodium beef broth

1T                      Parsley

4 cloves             Garlic; minced

1t                      Salt, to taste

1/2t                   Pepper

1/4t                  Cayenne pepper (a.k.a. crushed red pepper)

1t                     Herbs de Provence

DIRECTIONS:

Crockpot –

  1. Drain & rinse beans.
  2. Add everything to crock pot and cook for 5 hours on low then 2 hours on high or until peppers are soft.

Stovetop –

Add everything to large stock pot on stove and heat until boiling and peppers are soft. Simmer until ready to serve..

Freezes great!

Lessons from Nana…Enjoy the moment

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There are days when Alzheimer’s and Angiosarcoma have the upper hand. Those are really hard days. We think to ourselves, “She didn’t know who we were today. We want to be here, but she didn’t know…”

The thing is, even if she is confused about what’s happening, we come anyway. Nana is still Nana even if she’s confused; even when she is too weak to get out of bed.

We brought our dog with us because Nana loves dogs more than anything in the world; maybe more than her own family, lol. We thought this could cheer her up. And if that didn’t work, maybe the mint chocolate chip milkshake from Cook Out would do the trick. And if that still didn’t help, perhaps the Agatha Christie books (her favorite) we found on eBay.

Was it one of our best visits? No. Not even close. She is suffering in so many ways. It hurts us deeply to see her go through this and not be able to fix anything – just treat symptoms.

But I’m learning, even on the hard days, to enjoy the moment. Nana taught me decades ago that we can handle anything. She often used to say, “I can do anything for ____ amount of time.” If that meant a 3-hour car ride, she’d say, “I can do anything for 3 hours.”

I find myself saying that now in this season with her. Despite the health obstacles she is facing, I catch myself saying her words, “I can do this for this season.” It’s not easy. Making difficult decisions about her future with the family, arranging for help, and the hundreds of details of life that encompass her final lap in life, I lean on the person I know is still in there – Nana the fearless, the strong and strong-willed.

When I’ve cried my eyes out, or have been frustrated with things beyond my control, or disheartened by the terminal illnesses that plague her body, I still hear her in my mind, clear as a bell, saying with confidence, “I can do anything for now!”

If Nana can endure this, then so can we. And part of making this season easier is to lean in to the hard and enjoy the moment. Watching her enjoy a sip of the milkshake; the look of surprise on her face with the books; or the many kisses she gave our dog, these moments – which are so small you’d miss them if you blinked – are priceless beyond measure.

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This photo of her smiling was the only smile she could muster this day through the pain and symptoms of the diseases. I’m so thankful to have captured it because her smile shows her strength, tenacity and determination for life and living.

It makes me wonder what fleeting moments I’m missing in everyday life because I’m distracted – or simply not looking for them. Her smile makes me want to not blink, not miss, not turn my head for a second from life’s hidden treasures.

Her smile was the best part of our visit. We left with hearts broken but hang on to the truth that God’s got her, and she trusts him with her life…so I can trust him, too. We can smile through the hard and enjoy the moment of being together. Simply being together.

I am going to be more intentional looking for the moments in life that make it worth living. A shared smile, a gentle hug, a kiss on the cheek – connections that cannot be stolen by illness and time.

Times when hearts connect, and we are made stronger by leaning on each other’s strength.

Watching Nana love on our dog, I see her true spirit, the person she still is even when her personality is overshadowed by circumstance. She’s still Nana. I’m going to enjoy every moment I can with her until the Lord calls her home. My prayer is for more moments with her, strung together over time like pearls on a necklace, and that I never forget the pricelessness of them – mundane or monumental – they’re all important…because she is.

Winter Salad

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If you can name the ingredients in a typical salad, then it’s time to change what’s in the bowl.

I was craving a new salad this week, and after concocting this one it is now one of my all-time favorites! It’s not a light, sweet summer salad. Although a chilled salad, the eclectic collection of tangy, tart and savory ingredients makes this winter salad perfect for cold weather or any time of year.

The smoky bacon pairs perfectly with sweet green peas. The crunch of walnuts plays off the soft quinoa. Tangy pickled onions and zesty blue cheese spice up the light tomatoes. The dressing has warm, layered flavors of balsamic vinegar, red wine and spicy brown mustard – and a little will go a long way. It adds just the right amount of zip without dominating the salad’s flavor. Add chicken for an entree salad, or omit it for a lighter side side.

If you’re looking for a salad to IMPRESS, this is it. Pull up a seat at the adult table and enjoy this awesome, healthy, hearty meal!

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SALAD INGREDIENTS:

2, 5oz bags of mixed greens for 4 entree salads

3c of Brussel sprouts; raw chopped thin with stalk ends cut off

2 handfuls of petite peas; frozen

Quinoa; plain, cooked per bag directions with salt & pepper to taste; COOLED (about 1/2c cooked for each salad)

1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes; halved

Half-handful of green onions; chopped

2 handfuls of pickled onions – for recipe click HERE (I’ve tried several recipes and this one is by far my fav – and one batch will last a month!)

2 handfuls of pumpkin seeds; roasted, shelled

2 handfuls of walnuts (or pecans); chopped or pieces

2.5 oz blue cheese; crumbled

2 handfuls of bacon (I use the Kirklands precooked & crumbled and keep it in the freezer so I can use any amount and throw the bag back in the freezer for later.)

Chicken; Rotisserie cooked, pulled and chopped

DRESSING INGREDIENTS:

1c Olive oil

5T Balsamic vinegar

4T Spicy brown mustard

3 Cloves fresh garlic; mined

1T Agave syrup

1T Red wine

1T Red wine vinegar

Pinch of salt

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DIRECTIONS:

Salad: Divide ingredients into 4 bowls. Wrap each bowl with plastic wrap and store in fridge. Just before serving, take 1 bowl at a time and dump that bowl’s ingredients into a large mixing bowl and toss thoroughly. Add the tossed salads back into their respective serving bowls.

*The quinoa can be cooked the day or two before. Add the peas & bacon frozen, they will be thawed by the time you’re ready to serve the salad.

Dressing: Add all dressing ingredients to a food processor or blender and blend until thoroughly combined. Let dressing warm to at room temperature to avoid the olive oil from thickening once refrigerated. Blend dressing into the bowls when tossing. You will have dressing over. Yay!!

Enjoy! 🙂