Tag Archives: memories

Lessons on life from dying children

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File image via Pixabay. (Not Dr. McAlpine.)

A Twitter thread by a pediatrician has been making the rounds lately, and for good reason. Dr. Alastair McAlpine asked some of his terminal pediatric palliative care patients what has mattered the most to them in life, and what has given their lives the most meaning. The children’s answers are both simple and profound, and something we adults should take to heart.

The things so many of us are hooked on, such as television or social media, did not make the kids’ important list. Family, pets, books and ice cream did rank high. These young souls whose lives will most likely be cut short barring a medical miracle shared a couple of values they found to be the most important. Kindness and a sense of humor made the list, not wealth or celebrity.

I encourage you to read the short thread on Twitter. At the end, Dr. McAlpine offers a takeaway for all of us.

We could all use a reminder to let go of negative thoughts and regrets and focus on the truly important people and things in our lives.

At the very least, we can commit to enjoying more ice cream.

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Facebook’s ‘On this Day’ feature reminds people of memories they’d rather forget

It started out with good intentions. Facebook created a feature called “On this Day” that reminds users what they had posted a year ago, two years ago, etc. The prior year posts are flagged in your newsfeed, and you can choose whether to share them with your friends or keep it private.

While no doubt the idea was to remind people of happy memories, such as births, weddings and family vacations, for some of us, our Facebook timelines are filled with depressing posts.

A Facebook "On this Day" moment capturing my mom's crazy shopping list.

A Facebook “On this Day” moment capturing my mom’s crazy shopping list.

If you are a long-term family caregiver, your timeline may look more like a roller coaster of memories, with good, bad and the ugly all present.

I’ve ran into a few issues with prior posts that brought up memories of my mother, and that summer of 2012 when she was recovering from cancer. There have also been some “On this Day” posts featuring departed pets. Not always the thing you want to greet you as you start your day.

Being on Facebook is a part of my job so I cannot simply ignore it.

As it turns out, other Facebook users were also having a bittersweet experience with this new feature, so now there is a filter option. Users can filter out names and/or periods of time to skip over painful memories like deaths and divorces.

If only it were that easy to filter out bad memories in real life. Still, I believe that the ups and downs of life are all part of the experience of being a human being. While I am glad Facebook added the filter feature, I haven’t actually used it yet.

If I was strong enough to survive the actual experience, I can also survive the memories.

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A birthday missing a song

Today is my birthday, and I have to say I don’t mind being a year older. At least it offers me a symbolic new start, as 40 was one of the most difficult years of my life.

I’m having a lovely time in the mountains, but there is of course one thing missing. As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, my parents always made a big production out of singing “Happy Birthday” to me over the phone.

I have a poor recording of Mom singing “Happy Birthday” to me last year, recorded from my cellphone. It’s only barely listenable, but I’m glad I have it.

I do have a good video and audio version of my parents singing “Happy Birthday” to me, but sadly, it was when Dad was rapidly declining in the care facility. The staff had him so drugged up that he could barely stay awake, and he mumbled through the song. Mom tried to compensate by being overly cheery, but I know her heart was breaking inside.

Just the year before, Dad belted out the best version ever, and even sang another classic crooner song. That is the recording I wish I had.

While I sometimes feel that in today’s world, people are so busy recording their lives to post on social media that they forget to be in the moment, the upside is that they will have all of the moments recorded to cherish later.

So my birthday wish is for everyone to experience and if so desired, record loving moments with their family. It truly is something we often take for granted, until the opportunities no longer exist.

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A memory on a postcard

Today I want to highlight a nonprofit organization that I just stumbled upon. They’ve been around since 2009, so many of you may be familiar with them, but I wasn’t. The group is called The Spaces Between Your Fingers Project and the group writes memory snapshots for people with Alzheimer’s that are recorded on postcards and sent to families. The service is free, and a copy of the memory postcard is kept in the Free Library of Philadelphia for archiving purposes. The organization has collaborated with the Alzheimer’s Association in the past. The group also has set up an online tool that allows anyone to record a memory postcard, whether they have dementia or not.

postcard

I love this concept, it is so unique and is a great way to encourage people to record family memories. If you are wondering what “the space between your fingers” means, there is a lovely storybook on their site that takes you through the very touching tale inspired by the founder’s grandfather. You may look at Alzheimer’s in a whole new light.

I plan on giving the service a try soon and will share what I create.

What is the first memory from your life that you would want to preserve?

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Other people’s memories: “Half a Life”

A memoir that relies heavily upon the memories of a single life-changing event is “Half a Life” by Darin Strauss. I’m sure you’ve read many stories about a tragic car accident that claims the life of an innocent person. While often alcohol and drugs are involved, sometimes these events are truly accidents, with no direct fault assigned to the person behind the wheel. Have you ever wondered what happens to these people? To know, even if you weren’t directly at fault, that your actions claimed the life of another human being … how would you manage to go on with your life carrying that memory? Well, author Darin Strauss knows, because he was the person behind the wheel of the car that struck and killed a classmate who was riding a bicycle.

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Strauss had just turned 18, and perhaps the inattention and inexperience of a young driver played roles in the accident. Still, no charges were ever filed and his community, even the deceased classmate’s parents seemed to forgive Strauss. But then the grieving parents decided to sue Strauss for millions of dollars, and the case dragged on for several years, thwarting Strauss from moving on with his life. Even though he saw a therapist, he never worked through his guilt and other feelings surrounding the tragedy. He did what many of us try to do during difficult situations: he put a smile on his face and carried on, suppressing his emotions.

The memory of the accident haunts all facets of his life, from work to friendships to the dating scene. Not only do the lingering memories of the accident have a negative impact on his emotional well-being, they physically make him ill and he has to have stomach surgery before turning 30.

Finally, as he marries and becomes a father, he decides to engage in the best therapy of all for a writer: he would write about the experience in a memoir. The result is a powerful work, and a lesson for all of us trying to process difficult memories. I was very moved by this book and highly recommend it.

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The impact of other people’s memories

I want to focus the rest of my January posts on the power that learning of other people’s memories have on us. Over my next posts, I will highlight some of my favorite memoirs, and the vivid memories that really stuck with me long after I finished the book. This time around, I want to talk about the essay featured in the current issue of The Atlantic titled, Surviving Anxiety. It is written by the magazine’s editor, Scott Stossel. It is an excerpt from his upcoming book, which is now on my reading list.

Scott suffers from severe anxiety and several different phobias. I don’t share his extreme level of anxiety, but I do share some of his phobias, like public speaking and vomiting (of which there is a related phobia that I also share, that being vomiting while flying.) He also suffers from digestive issues, which I can certainly sympathize with, as I have experienced numerous digestive issues mainly tied to my gluten intolerance. He writes a compelling and moving account of how these conditions have impacted his life, both negatively and positively. He talks about the pros and cons of the many treatment options he has endured. He bravely shares humiliating episodes where his anxiety or digestive problems rear their ugly heads.

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Scott shares a particularly embarrassing bathroom episode that occurred at the Kennedy compound. (The author was writing a book about one of the Kennedy family members and was spending some time there along with a mix of celebrities and dignitaries.) Scott feels his bowels betray him at the worst moment, when he is not near a public restroom. He runs back to the mansion, trying to avoid other guests and secret service members. He makes it to the restroom but then the worst case scenario happens: the toilet backs up and overflows. He is covered in sewage. Talk about bad timing: just across the hallway from the bathroom, guests are gathering for cocktail hour. Scott cleans up as best he can, then has to wrap a dirty towel around his waist (his pants were ruined) and sprint to his second-floor suite. He makes it, but not before encountering JFK Jr. That experience could make anyone with anxiety want to crawl under a rock and never come out.

He also writes about how he went to therapy for his vomiting phobia and his therapist wanted to use exposure therapy to “cure” him. Meaning, she wanted him to take ipecac and deliberately make himself throw up. After at first refusing and putting it off for several sessions, he finally agrees to do it. But after taking the dose, he doesn’t actually throw up, he just retches. It was an agonizing experience that only strengthened his vomiting phobia. (Ironically, after cheering on her client during the exposure therapy, the therapist herself had to go home because she got sick from watching him try to vomit!)

These memories are written in excruciating detail, with every anxious thought and feeling captured. They struck a chord with me and rolled around in my mind for the rest of the day. My takeaways: you never know what is really going on in someone’s head. (Obviously, as editor of a well-known magazine, Scott has been able to manage his anxiety to a certain extent and still be a successful person.) Also, all of these anxious thoughts and feelings and phobias sound crazy if you haven’t experienced them, but from the response the article has received, there are plenty of anxious people out there who completely understand. I am one of them.

What memories from other people have had a meaningful impact on your life?

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A solo performance

Friday was my 39th birthday. This year I have a lot to be grateful for, compared to the grim circumstances of my last birthday. Mom was just 11 days out of major surgery at this point last year and in a skilled nursing facility so she could learn how to walk again. She had a colostomy bag and there was no way to know if the cancer had been successfully removed at that point. I visited her at the nursing home and she labored in writing me a birthday note. I was touched by her effort, which I recorded in last year’s birthday post.

bday cake

Mom has come a long way in the last year. Things are almost back to “normal” whatever that is. Of course, Dad is and always will be the missing piece of that puzzle. As I’ve written before, the long-standing tradition was for my parents to sing “Happy Birthday” to me over the phone, since I usually was not with them for my birthday. They would practice and Dad loved the chance to break out his Bing Crosby impersonation. Last year, things were so crazy that I didn’t even think about the birthday serenade.

This year, Mom was ready for her solo performance. But as she began she was clearly choked up. It took me a moment to understand why and then I knew she was missing Dad as her duet partner. But she got through it and did the big dramatic ending that she used to do with Dad. It made me smile and tear up at the same time.

At some point after losing someone close to you, you adjust for the most part to a “new normal” in your day-to-day living. It’s in these small, rare special moments that the loss hurts the heart the most.

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Dad trying to keep warm

It’s been a bit chilly here lately, and when I stop to rub my hands together to warm them, I can’t help but think of Dad. I can still see a crystal-clear image in my mind of Dad standing outside our apartment building, before or after a smoke, and the dramatic way he would rub his hands together. “It’s cooold,” he would exclaim, though southern California winters were as mild as they could be, especially compared to his childhood in Belfast.

mittens

When my parents moved to the mountains of New Mexico, Dad experienced bitterly cold winters for the first time since his young adult days in England and New York City. I don’t remember him ever wearing gloves, but he would wear a big bulky jacket that threatened to swallow him whole. And I can see him standing by the car, the last one he would ever drive, and rub his hands together, fast and hard, trying to keep them from going numb.

My hands are always the first thing to ache when I’m out in cold weather. Still, I rarely break out the gloves. I just instinctively rub them together, though the warmth it generates may be more nostalgic than anything else.

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Dad’s presence stronger at home now

Mom was telling me today how she feels Dad’s presence more at home now than before. It’s almost been a year since Dad died, and another year before that when he still lived at home.

Perhaps because Mom has had her own brush with death this summer she is more open and vulnerable to these feelings. I can’t say that I’ve felt Dad’s presence at my parents’ home, though Dad’s ashes sit on the dresser of my room. I’ve certainly thought about him daily, and little things around the house remind me of him and of better times spent there.

Mom said she feels Dad’s presence the most at night. To this day, she only sleeps on “her” side of their bed, leaving Dad’s side untouched.

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Dad’s nursing home experience a mystery

Dad spent about 10 months at the nursing home before he became ill and landed in the hospital, then was transferred to a skilled nursing facility where he died.

Mom spent just over six weeks at a nursing home. She still talks about the place like it’s a second home. She knew all of the workers and residents on her wing by name. She even talks on the phone with her former roommate from there.

Thanks to Mom, I knew every detail about the nursing home operations and was kept updated on all of the nursing home gossip.

Dad and I at the assisted living facility, March 2011.

It just struck me recently how little I knew about Dad’s experiences at the nursing home. Almost all of the information gleaned from his stay was from third-party sources: nurses, aides and my mom. By the time Dad entered the nursing home, he wasn’t communicating that much. What we did learn from Dad directly was that he had a falling out with his roommate. (Mom also had a falling out with her second roommate; nursing homes are not much different than high school when it comes to petty squabbles!)

On one of my visits to Dad’s nursing home, he told me which residents couldn’t be trusted. Unlike Mom, who was a social butterfly at her nursing home, Dad seemed to be a loner who didn’t interact with fellow residents. Without the dementia, I’m not sure how Dad would have reacted to having to stay in a nursing home. I think he would have been okay as long as he could have his smoking breaks!

It’s interesting to see my parents go through somewhat similar experiences (emergency surgery, long hospital stay, nursing home) but react in such different ways. I just wonder what stories I will never know about Dad’s stay at the nursing home.

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