Posts Tagged ‘major birthdays’

When my mother, God rest her soul, was in her final years in the nursing home, her ninetieth birthday rolled around. She had retreated, at that stage, into a very small world that seemed inappropriate for such a powerful, independent personality. Most afternoons she would be assailed by “Sundowning”, and frequently in tears.

It is now well understood that people with dementia may become more confused, restless or insecure late in the afternoon or early evening. They may become more demanding, restless, upset, suspicious, disoriented and even see, hear or believe things that aren’t real, especially at night. In Mum’s case, she simply became more lonely, despite the efforts of her care staff,

No one is quite sure what causes sundowning, although it seems to result from changes that are occurring in the brain. A person experiencing sundowning may be hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or needing to use the toilet, all of which they can only express through restlessness. As the dementia progresses and they understand less about what is happening around them, they may become more frantic in trying to restore their sense of familiarity or security. Many families and carers say that the person becomes more anxious about ‘going home’ or ‘finding mother’ late in the day which may indicate a need for security and protection. They may be trying to find an environment that is familiar to them, particularly a place that was familiar to them at an earlier time in their life.

On her 90th birthday, Jenie, Caitlin and I visited with a cake, on top of which were candles in the shape of a nine and a zero, a banner that said Happy Birthday, and various other little celebratory items, and the nursing home kindly let us use one of their side rooms for a bit of privacy.

We sang happy birthday, more than once, and she smiled happily, which was really as much as we wanted by way of reaction. Then her mood swung, suddenly.

She kept staring at the cake, and then looking at me, who by now she thought of more often as my father, than me. In fact, I would frequently get reminded to do odd jobs around the family home in Sketty Green in Swansea, where she hadn’t lived for many decades, while she was temporarily in “hospital”. During two confinements, she was hospitalised for long periods. I believe her fading mind now imagined her back in an earlier era, when she was still married to her beloved Stewart, and still master of her own destiny, as a way of coping with the indignity of extreme age.

She shot me glance after glance, a worried look on her face.

“Ninety?” she asked, querulously. Then with more vigour, “Ninety!” And then finally, with some annoyance, “Ninety?”

The mere fact of her great age clearly disagreed, fundamentally, with her view of herself. She steadfastly refused to accept that she could be ninety, so we simply quietly removed the candles, and carried on celebrating her birthday, giving her some of the cake, and having a famously sweet tooth she quickly calmed down and started relaxing again. Wreathed in smiles, and being hugged by her grand-daughter of whom she was so proud, she was soon once again a contented mixture of coquettish child and venerable sage, living once more in the moment.

As I write, I sit looking at the garden that Jenie and I have planted outside our computer room, in our small back yard. It is, to be sure, a work in progress, and what progresses most successfully is Oxalis, tubular rye grass, and Dandelions. Indeed, we have so many Dandelions that I have taken to researching salads using their leaves.

Dandelions are found on all continents of course, and have been gathered for food since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia.

It’s very reliable: the leaves will grow back if the taproot is left intact, which as they are almost impossible to uproot with the bare hands is “usually”. To make leaves more palatable, they are often blanched to remove bitterness, or sauteed in the same way as spinach. Dandelion leaves and buds have been a part of traditional Kashmiri, Slovenian, Sephardic, Chinese, and Korean cuisines. In Crete, the leaves of a variety called ‘Mari’ (Μαρί), ‘Mariaki’ (Μαριάκι), or ‘Koproradiko’ (Κοπροράδικο) are eaten by locals, either raw or boiled, in salads. Dandelion leaves apparently make good tea.

The pretty yellow flowers, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine, which I recall is excellent, as dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock. Also, dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry, mostly in salads and sandwiches.

Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, and historically dandelion was prized for a variety of medicinal properties, containing a number of pharmacologically active compounds. It has been used in herbal medicine to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic. Indeed, the English folk name “piss-a-bed” (and indeed the equivalent contemporary French pissenlit) which I still remember from my youth  refers to the strong diuretic effect of the plant’s roots. Rather more stomach-turningly, in various northeastern Italian dialects, the plant is known as pisacan (“dog pisses”), because they are found at the side of pavements.

As I look out of the window now, the oak tree which we planted from an acorn is shedding its leaves in the winter sunshine. They fall as if they are gentle tears for the summer just past. Capturing the sun until it browns them from the inside and they sigh and drop.

Winter this year has been very kind, and it has held onto its leaves for as long as it possibly is able, but they are a riot of browns and yellows now, and in increasing numbers they carpet the garden below, providing useful mulch, and smothering, with luck, a few of the weeds. We are frankly not sure what to call this patch of garden. It is, variously, the Paddock. Or the Meadow. There are vague intents to try to create an English cottage garden. But we look away for an instant, and all the delicate hollyhocks and Love-In-A-Mist and Sweet Williams seem to lose out to hardier entrants like Camomile and Verbena and the Italian Parsley that has spread like wildfire, outdoing in its aggression, if such a thing were possible, the Vietnamese Mint. We may have to re-christen it as the herb garden and be done with it.

In front of my eyes, the endless round of birth, death and renewal is happening in real time.

It is my birthday, tomorrow. And having been born, grown, been to Uni, traveled some, raised a family and done a bit of work, I suddenly and without warning find myself staring down the barrel of 60. It has all gone by in a blink. I have no doubt, on my death-bed, I will rail against the dying of the light – convinced beyond reason that there is something I meant to do if I could only remember what it is – I will regret having not done some things, and regret having done others, but I will not, ultimately, regret all that much. In short, I have seen much, enjoyed most of it, known many inspirational and heart-warming people, built a wonderful business with great partners, and been blessed largely with good health – a stout heart and good lungs, strong limbs and clear eyes. I married the kindest person on the planet and then she gave birth to another like her.

I am losing my hair but not my faculties.

It is enough.

Nevertheless, my newfound right to apply for a Seniors Card comes with something of a profound shock. Somebody said to me the other day, “Cheer up, 60 is the new 50, you know!” “Yes,” I replied tersely, “but it’s not the new f****** 25, is it?”

In my head, I think I will always be 25. Being able to get reduced fees on a local tram does not really compensate for being able to smash through a hard 80 minutes of rugby, and then stay up all night drinking pints of Gales 6X and playing 3-card brag, before popping into work still full of ink but essentially functional.

“Sixty?” “Sixty!’ “Sixty?

My leaves are starting to fall, as they must. I will cling onto them for as long as I can, before giving them up with as much good grace as I can muster, which I doubt will be very much. I don’t expect I will make 90, but I know how she felt. I am very like her, in many ways.

And I think I’ll leave the Dandelions where they are. The last thing you need at 60 is to piss more often.

 

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As someone for whom the words “mid life crisis” have become a daily reality, I read this guest blog from Helen Downing nodding at the shared insights and whistling through my teeth at the apposite and blazingly honest way she encapsulates the middle years of our lives and the search for meaning, especially in the face of profound changes and grief.

I am very proud and grateful to publish her words … and I shall be buying the book! I recommend you read on.

Helen, or her protagonist, confronts a few age old issues.

Helen, or her protagonist, confronts a few age old issues.

Helen writes …

When I was very young, I remember my maternal grandmother telling me that my grandfather had such a hard time when he turned 35 that it became a bit of legend in the small town of Seaford, DE where they lived.

Everyone knew that “Pop-Pop” had just had a big birthday and his reaction to it was pretty foul. Pop-Pop was one of my most favorite people ever. I didn’t get to know him until he was much older, and to me he was bigger than life. Self-confident to the point of being a bit of a bastard, a caustic wit that some found to be borderline insulting but always had me rolling on the floor, and he was the only member of my immediate family who was a businessman instead of clergy. (My interest always lied in business. The clergy seemed entirely too full of poverty and humility for my taste.)

He was my hero, and the thought of him having a hard time turning a particular age was so foreign to me I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Now of course, I know. Each of us have a number in our head that will make us freak out when that number becomes our age. It probably lies between 30 and 50. But regardless, it’s somewhere in the middle. Once we reach “middle-aged” by whatever standard we’ve set, the words “Happy Birthday” becomes much more ominous, at least for that one year. Middle age is not for the weak of heart. In fact, middle age sucks.

My 40th year was the worst of my life. Not turning 40, that was fine in itself. But that year I found my self-esteem and identity truly tested.

It is not that my life, as every other person’s on the planet, did not have plenty of tragedy, trial, and tribulation, previously. I had failed relationships, sickness and death around me, a few times when I was so broke I considered selling blood for cigarette money, and lots of other things that just come with being a breathing entity on the planet.

But when things happened to me or around me, I would react based on who I thought I was, which had always been a strong, independent, intelligent woman who can talk her way through a keyhole and who could fall into a pile of shit and come up with an ice cream cone. That version of me could handle anything that comes down the pike.

Until I reached what I considered “middle-age”, I was invincible. In the year that I was 40 I had a bunch of firsts.

My daughter, who was my first-born and will always be my baby was grown up and moving out to live on her own.

I was laid off from the non-profit that I worked for due to a bad economy, and my husband of 10 years left me for another woman.

I had spent my entire career being the young executive who came in and opened up new revenue streams or developed innovative ideas to save money. Now I was the 40 year old who was put out to pasture.

In my 20s I was the ingénue who made married women nervous and hold on tight to their husbands. Now I was a 40 year old with mascara tears running down my face while knocking on my best friend’s door with an overnight bag and an old, old story.

My little girl, instead of being set free to experience the excitement of being on her own, was in fact being set adrift, all alone, while the foundation that was supposed to support her and be her safety net was crumbling behind her.

I wanted to bounce back. I wanted to be strong and independent and all of that stuff. I wanted to just overcome and be victorious. But my heart was shattered and my brain could not process what was happening to me. These things just didn’t happen to the version of me that I had built in my own head. And then my demons came out to play.

They sat on my bed at night and discussed my fate while I was lying there sleepless and sobbing. “Maybe she’s done” they’d say. “Maybe this is who she’s been all along. A loser, with no job and no prospects, unloved and alone.”  On top of that, I also felt horrible guilt, as though somehow all of this was not only warranted but deserved.  Maybe I was paying back all the bad karma I had incurred back when I thought that life was not preordained, and that I could be anything? As though dreaming of a greater destiny in my youth was somehow a sin? That is, of course, ridiculous. But guilt and regret became my constant companions.

Meanwhile, my mother who has been battling cancer off and on my entire life, had a relapse.

My father and I decided that I would come home to help him take care of Mom.

Back in the cone of unconditional love that I have enjoyed by having the parents I was blessed to receive, I began to heal. However, I also now had to face aging parents, one of whom had been deemed terminally ill. Now my life was filled with things like “living wills” and “pre-arranged funerals”.

So, fast forward. Several years have gone by now. My mom is still with us and some days I believe that she will outlive me. My children are happy and settled. I have a job that I love and I have renewed dreams and inspirations. Turns out that middle-age doesn’t suck as much as I originally thought.

However, this is what I think I’ve learned through this experience.

Being in the middle of life means literally being caught in between two very powerful influences.

Many of us are dealing with aging parents or parental figures. We also have children, whether they are our own or those of someone else that we feel close to. When we see those younger than us setting out to conquer the world, and making the same stupid mistakes we made, feeling the same sense of invincibility that youthful arrogance affords them, we begin to take stock of our lives. Even those who are ushered into their late 30’s to early 50’s with much less drama than I just described still take a moment to reflect on what they  could have done better or not done at all. Each of us have burdens of regret that we are forced to carry to the top of the proverbial hill right before we establish that we are “over” it.

Being “over the hill” also means that we now go to more funerals than weddings – we have to plan to lose those people that we consider grown-ups – and we have to prepare to become matriarchs and patriarchs of our family units. When you mix regret and death, you have a cocktail for an epic identity crisis that can result in anything from clinical depression to simply having a bummer birthday.

The good news is that mid-life hands us as many fabulous lessons as puberty does.

At this time, we get to experience forgiveness on a whole new level. Especially how to forgive ourselves.

We also learn to let go, letting go of the past, letting go of old dreams to make room for new ones, or actually letting go of people. Whether that means letting go of children who are now adults and will start their own adventures or letting go of those who brought us to this point and are now transitioning themselves.

We learn to see ourselves in many different roles. Many of us don’t find our groove professionally until we get to this age, as well as becoming grandparents, or being caregivers.

We start to realize that having 40 or so years under your belt can inspire all kinds of things like creative pursuits, an entrepreneurial spirit, or a renewed relationship to a higher power.

We deal with relationships differently, from the married couple now having to deal with empty nest syndrome learning to rekindle their romance, to single folks like me figuring out how to be happy with or without someone else. This is a time to take stock of our lives, but not with regret. Instead we should honor our past with tremendous reverence and gratitude. Then quietly unpack our baggage and leave it at the top of the hill.

That way, instead of trudging down the other side weighted with heavy hearts, we can spread our arms out wide and fly, soaring into our own old age with grace and beauty.

Taking this one on my hols with me …

I wrote “Awake In Hell”, a book about a middle-aged woman who dies and finds herself damned for eternity.

It uses humor, foul language, and a unique vision of Hell to illustrate how I felt about reaching mid-life.

When my protagonist finds herself in a temp agency along with its enigmatic staff, she discovers the most amazing thing – redemption.

I hope you enjoy the second half of your life as much as I am enjoying mine.

I hope that my story gives you something to think about, or comforts you, or at least makes you think “there but for the grace of God” – and I offer it to you with a renewed heart full of conviction and thankfulness.

Helen Downing

Author, Awake In Hell

Find my book here: http://amzn.to/WYOwYv

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