Wednesday with Jen

Wednesday with Jen  8/22/12
It had been a few months since I visited my old friend, Jen in her assisted living residence (aka nursing home) in Hillsborough, NC. I don’t know how the time passed this spring and summer, but it did and in the meantime, Jen had turned 81. I felt bad about not visiting all summer.  I had an appointment at UNC Chapel Hill in the dental school, so I decided I would just head to Hillsborough following that.  Guilt came along with that decision, since it was my twin sons’ 14thbirthday and we had a dinner party planned for that night.  I knew I would be racing against the clock to make it home for dinner in time, but something pulled me towards my visit to Jen and there was nothing that could stop me, it seemed.
I always get this nervous feeling as I approach a residence like this and I daresay, the fact that I have to go into the Memory Impaired section, a locked unit, makes me even more anxious.  But, there was Jen sitting in a wheelchair at the nurse’s station.  She had shrunk even more since I last saw her and with her sunken deep set eyes, grayish skin tone, and swollen feet and legs, she appeared frail. I had been warned by my friend, Lesley (who visits weekly) and told that Jen really was “ready to go.” 
So, immediately, Jen recognized me, lit up and hugged me saying, “Oh Ann, I’m so happy to see you. Let’s go outside!”  Okay then, I thought, and I pushed her wheelchair to the outside garden, pulled up a chair and sat close.  Looking into Jen’s lovely grey eyes, I saw a glaze and a blankness that I didn’t remember being there.  She told me frankly that she was tired and ready to die.  I asked her what that felt like and she said that the TIA (doctor jargon for “small strokes”) were taking their toll and that as soon as she would get back her memory and word recall, she would be hit with another TIA.  “I cannot tell my children this,” she said, “because they want me to live and they are afraid of my dying, so I don’t tell them, but I am telling you.  My daughter in Connecticut thinks she cannot go on without me and that she won’t be able to make decisions without me, but she is smart and I reassured her that she would be fine.”  I sighed and some uncontrollable tears rolled down my cheeks.  I fought hard to be strong and just listen, unbiased and unemotional, but that proved impossible.  However, I really was accepting of what she was telling me and she seemed to appreciate that. And then, we moved on and our conversation grew cheerful and sharp.
We spoke of fashion and of shoes and of styles. Of I Miller shoes and how she wished she had a good pair of size 10’s but that she was sure they were out of business by now. They are indeed, and have been since the 1970’s.  We spoke of my sons and their problems.  We gossiped about people we knew from Raleigh and Jen would just cover her eyes, head in hands over the most outrageous of the behaviors. Then, when she was finished with her moment of disbelief, we would throw our heads back, laughing.  She remembered the minutest details.  We spoke of the widowed deacon whom I suspect many older women hoped to become involved with.  I did not realize that Jen had brought him dinner a few times.  “Yes, she said, “he so clearly did not want to get involved with me.  Why I even brought him salmon for dinner and well, that was the one time he invited me to sit down and share the meal.”  We spoke of the rector from the church we’d both attended and how her life had so drastically changed as a result of a stroke as well.  Jen confessed that in actuality she never really felt as though she was in the inner circle of the rector and her close friends.  It was indeed, a popularity contest, we agreed.
She raved about the women who come to visit her every week and the “small sandwiches they bring.”  “After all,” she said, “who wants to eat a big meal when you’re just sitting around?”  I agreed. She told me that they are fun and nice and care for her and that it means so much to her. Then, she said to me, “Don’t ever feel bad about not coming to see me often.  It is really okay.  I know you care. And, I know you “always show up.”  This has been our mantra of connection.  We have both always respected that about each other – we knew that at every event, at every funeral or wedding, we would both show up.  We would look at each other and nod in acknowledgment of “Yep, you showed up again and so did I!”
I asked her, “Jen, what do you miss most?”  She sighed, closed her eyes and said, “I guess my freedom would be it and my car and driving. But I am really okay being here.  I am not angry and am not fighting it. It is okay. I have had all these strokes and this is how it is.”  I asked her about her husband whom I had never heard of.  They have been divorced for a very long time and when I asked her why, she said, “He really didn’t care about me at all.  He is 86 and has Alzheimers now.”  She smiled a smile of irony.
Jen told me that when she heard about a family moving to Raleigh (in 1993,) coming to her church from Southampton, Long Island, she thought to herself, “Wow, they must be very rich and very chic.”  She was surprised to find that we were neither!  One thing we can always laugh about is the fact that when she came to help me with my newborn twins in 1998, she asked where the babies’ cribs were. “Cribs?” I asked.  “We don’t have cribs. We co-sleep.”  She never got over the shock and never stopped relating this story to others.  We have laughed about this many times and yesterday she said, “Truth be told, I couldn’t believe that you didn’t ‘crush them”  I roared laughing this time.  “Crushed them???  Oh my!” I said.
We talked some more about our old friend the deacon to whom she had brought a salmon dinner and how eloquent he is.  He was an English professor and I believe that he is almost tortured by his mind and his language that is so far beyond the average person.  Jen said, “I used to use very big words, but there is no one here to use them with, so now I am forgetting them.  “Oh no,” I said, “let’s think of some big words and use them right now.  So we did, and we laughed some more.  We decided that we were two very sophisticated women simply by virtue of the fact that she moved from Connecticut and I moved from Long Island.  We really liked that about each other. It was simple and it was pure… just two women, many years apart in age, admiring each other.
We talked about the fat socks she was wearing and of the wrapping on her legs to stop the swelling.  “It is my heart” she said, “it is not working and the water is building up in me – 40 something – liters? Quarts” I don’t know but it is a lot. I looked at Jen and wondered, just when does one begin to deteriorate this way?  When do a woman’s breasts deflate or move down to join the belly? Does it happen on a certain day or always gradually?  “I am closer now to my children, because they come and visit me a lot and the daughter in Connecticut is coming soon. My daughter who lives here is so loving, and we struggled with our relationship for years.  But, not anymore. I love her so much,” she said. “I have a great son who I love as well and he will come to visit me soon too.”
I began to worry about traffic as it was getting near 5 pm and I had a long way to go.  “Oh Jen, I said,  I need to go for Sam and Will’s birthday dinner.”  “Of course, she said, “You do need to go. I understand. It is fine. How could those little babies be 14?” I wheeled her back into the nurse’s station area and asked a woman who walked by to take a picture of us.  I hugged Jen so tightly and held her hand. I love the photo!  The woman who took our picture turned out to be the director of the facility and I said, “My friend Jen is a very smart woman.  Be sure and involve her in things that make her have to use her brain and her great vocabulary.”  “Sure will, “ she said. Jen said, “Oh, I love that.”  And then, I hugged her again and made note of the fact that we had matching green lizard watch straps!  We looked deep into each others eyes and I said, “Oh Jen, you’ve been such a good friend.”  She said, “We really connect with each other. We always have. And, I love you.”  “I love you too,” I said, “Goodbye Jen.”  I knew…..
I drove home feeling guilty and rushed and had to take all kinds of detours to circumvent one traffic jam after another.  Instead of 45 minutes home, it took an hour and a half.  I got home in time for dinner and a birthday celebration, so it was fine.

I know now that God led me by the hand to show up one more time on Wednesday.  I am so grateful that I did not wait.  Jen had a major stroke this morning, is unresponsive and is in Hospice care this evening. I will show up one more time, and it seems it will be soon.  Farewell, Jen.  I have learned many things from you……


Crazies in Raleigh

I saw more than enough mental illness this morning.  I mean, it was in full bloom as I stood on Wilmington Street, in front of Café Wilmoore, waiting to meet my friend for coffee.  There was a quick drug exchange hand to hand. There was a yelling woman who sat on the ground saying she was tired.  I was a bit scared of her as she looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare look at me, sister, I’m f’in tired!”  She sucked deeply on a cigarette butt that had little or no tobacco left.  Smoking on a filter. I looked away.  Then, a man with terror in his eyes and very long dreadlocks, lit up a cigarette and came face to face with me and said, “They found my cousin last night. They found her body, but not her clothes. She was 26 and they found her in Wilson. She’s dead. Somebody killed her.  My relatives are coming from New York. I don’t believe in violence but well, they have to kill the guy who killed her.”  “Oh dear,” I said.  “I drank a bottle of vodka last night because you know, I was crying.  This is a crazy, crazy, angry world,” he said.  I looked at all the keloid scars on his chest that looked like old knife wounds, agreed with him about the crazy world and felt so sad.
The streets downtown, are full of crazies and I wonder why there is no place for them to go? Why is there not a place for help, for beauty, for state of the art help to nurture and help these folks back to life?  Why are the powers that be talking about making a big park on the old Dorothea Dix property?  It was once a psychiatric hospital and should be again.  One that is the envy of the entire country.  One that restores the sanity to the broken and lost.  One that hires all the smart and caring talent who can do just that.  How can we think of doing anything less? Where do I begin?  I know that the bureaucracy will drown me quickly, but don’t I have to at least try?  I’ll give it a try…..

Helen Gurley Brown

No one told me Helen Gurley Brown had died a couple of weeks ago.  I am not sure how I missed that.  Oddly, she is one of those infamous women who I Google periodically and often checked her images to see how she was keeping up her looks as she aged.  It wasn’t pretty and frankly, she was odd looking. sort of all pieced together.  But, I think I knew where she was coming from. A desperate attempt to keep up an image of the “The Cosmo Girl” she had created was required, even when there was not a shred of “girl” left in her.
The 1970’s were my apex.  I was in my twenties in the 70’s, and I was abloom in all ways.  I had graduated from The Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in Buying and Merchandising.  At the time, if you wanted to become “anything” in the fashion industry, this was THEE degree you coveted.  That is precisely what I wanted to do in New York City and in the world. Check. 
I held a job all through high school and college years beginning, in the children’s wear wholesale district.  Although I worked for a depraved, bipolar woman named, Priscilla, I learned important techniques of designing, displaying, selling, and accommodating buyers from large department stores all over the country.  Priscilla had us underlings making these tuna salad plates, for the buyers when they would come to “market”.  I remember plucking out the white asparagus from a can with my fingers, along with cornichons next to pimento on the side, with a plopped can of white tuna in the middle.  We served Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies for dessert with some pink petit fours.  None of this was assembled in any sort of sterile way, but then, food in New York, even in some of the best restaurants, never really is.  Sanitation Grade standards are different for New Yorkers, I suppose.  Anyway, Priscilla would ooze and gush emotion with her customers to the point of making me nauseated.  She was a big, boisterous Jewish New Yorker who would effuse this odd, Texas accent of a petite southern belle, when she felt it appropriate.  It never was.  The firm was Texas based and so this was the connection she made.  Buffy and Jody of Family Affair television fame, were dressed in the company’s Betti Terrell clothing which made Priscilla feel like even more of a celebrity. She would have these mood outbursts where she would go from being your biggest fan to acting like she planned to tear you to shreds.  It was very scary and very unpredictable. Being as I’d lived with a bipolar mother, working with a bipolar woman was not exactly foreign territory for me.
After my children’s wear foray, I found myself much happier in the accessories industry.  All things ethnic were booming, along with bullet belts and Marakesh handbags.  I worked in the showroom for Michael Murray Designs and was involved in some of the jewelry, scarf, handbag, and screen-printing creations.  The head designer was Larry, a drugged out clone of Stephen Tyler, but he was kind and very talented. He and I put bullet belt samples together until our fingers bled and until we had enough samples for the accessory buyers in Macys, Altmans, Lord and Taylor, Saks, Henri Bendel,  Bergodorf, Bloomingdales, and Gimbels. The whole accessory market was a more normal venue and one where I could really learn design and sales in a thriving industry. 
Finding my way in the 60’s and 70’s included getting my own apartment in Richmond Hill, Queens, NY.  I lived alone in a two family house at the age of 16, before I finished high school and continued to live alone in other apartments in Queens for the next 10 years.  I read every fashion magazine and I loved the changes that were happening for women in that turbulent time.  Cosmopolitan was the magazine I waited for each month and devoured from cover to cover.  The Francesco Scavullo photos on the cover were mesmerizing for me.  These were hot models, not celebrities and they were about the same age as me.  I too, loved wearing tight clothes, mini skirts, my favorite pair of “see-through pants,” platform shoes, and anything else that was sexy and fashion forward.  The articles in Cosmo were racy, but not nearly as they became in later years.  They were more typically about “how to hold onto your man” than vivid and detailed descriptions of how to please your man in bed. 
So, Helen Gurley Brown became my guru.  I hung onto her every word.  I loved to listen to her, to emulate her, and to follow her escapades in successful journalism. 
She espoused having it all, but not wanting it all—in that, she never wanted kids, just money, success and sex.  Although she promoted multiple partners, it seemed she had one solid marriage, to David Brown.  So, maybe she was just merchandising an idea or “do what I say, not what I do,” but it sounded so good to me, and it was just where I wanted to go.  Although I was a big fan of Gloria Steinem’s and less so of Betty Friedan (just too hard to look at) and a card carrying member of NOW (National Organization of Women)I think I was somewhat torn. I learned to ask that car doors “not be opened for me,” and requested the saleswoman in Macys stop calling me “Dear” (not sure now why this was an issue.) I still adored the mantras of Helen Gurley Brown.  I was sort of betwixt and between the glamour-girl-say-yes-to-anything-a-man-asks, and the “Hey, stop whistling at me when I walk by” type. I suspect I was not alone in my yin and yang. 
I read “Sex and the Single Girl” from cover to cover.  I bought, Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girls Cookbook” and produced nearly every recipe she suggested. There were some for enticing your man and some for getting him to leave as quickly as possible. I remember getting fixated on “Braised Adriatic Green Beans” – oddly nothing remarkable.  It was a green bean in olive oil recipe and I actually produced this dish as a centerpiece for a party I threw for New York Hospital’s Gift Shop volunteers and staff.  They must have wondered…
I aspired to be, or believe I was, that Cosmo girl and since I had no desire to have children, this fit in well.  I followed HGB so closely that in fact, I believe this is the reason I have a hyphenated last name.  This of course dates me, since most women do not do that any longer and I often think that I should at least drop the hyphen in the hopes that my age will be slightly less obvious.  Even HGB no longer used a hyphen. Of course my wrinkles will continue to give me away.
So speaking of wrinkles, Helen had far less than typical for her age and perky breasts that were uplifted at the age of 72.  She lamented “her tummy” in her 80’s and still wore high heels, nearly toppling as she walked.  This was a woman who poo pooed Anita Hill’s complaints against Clarence Thomas, saying she should have been “flattered by the flirtations.”  She also diminished the dangers of HIV-AIDS and its sexual transmission. She encouraged “having it all” yet really didn’t have it ALL since she avoided having children, saying she just didn’t have the time.  She espoused trading sexual favors for material goods and believed that money and power were the goal in all cases.  Are these the choices I look up to?  Hardly.
I am far, far from my days of being the Cosmo Girl.  I married the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful man in the world 34 years ago and have six sons who I adore.  I have lost one of my children and feel that to have loved and to have lost in this capacity is the deepest of all possible emotions.  I am a woman who works to help other women and cringes from the loss of feminism in many young women who instead embrace the likes of Rhianna, Whitney,  or similar airhead celebrities who allow themselves to be used and abused.  
But, nevertheless, I learned a lot from Ms. Gurley Brown and I grew when and where I needed to grow.  I also gained some cooking skills, which are never a bad thing, though I haven’t tried those Adriatic Green Beans in awhile.  Thanks Helen – and at 90 years old, I would say, you did a good job offering another perspective and helping us all sort out just who we wanted to be in an era of great change and curiosity.  It was indeed, a learning experience.

Bad Karma All Around Me

Maybe it was the hair color and cut I got with the Groupon a few weeks ago.  The 21 year old stylist who had just moved from Utah who took  3 ½ hours on my hair, were both screaming red flags and I should have run for my life.  Who goes to a random stylist on a Groupon anyway and when the stylist clearly sounds as dumb as night, who doesn’t flee?  And, if one is stupid enough to stay, how could one expect success?  You know though, somehow we all think we can beat the odds and finding a great hair dresser is a life long mission.  So, she put in 40 foils instead of the five the offer covered (loss for the shop?) and she talked non-stop. “Oh, nice toffee color” she said.  I thought, “Toffee??” “What are you favorite movies?” she chattered.  “What kind of food do you like?”  And then, she cut completely randomly here and there and it was as clear as day that she had no idea what she was doing.  You could see the complete panic on her face as things went from bad to worse.  “Oh, you’ll look just like Meryl Streep in Prada,” she cooed.  Meryl Streep???!!!  When she got really panicky and we were heading into the fourth hour, she started using hairspray to get some height and to get some definition in what was now a distinct cross between a helmet and a bowl.  I was the one REALLY panicking and finally said, “Stop, you must stop.  I have to leave,” I actually gave her a $10 tip out of pity or horror.  When I left, there was a complete downpour and I stood in it hoping the torrents of rain would shed mercy. They didn’t, and when I got in my car and looked in the mirror, I was completely repulsed and cried all the way home.  I was especially upset knowing I was leaving for my lactation conference in Florida the next day.  There I would see my colleagues and friends and they would stare at me in disbelief, for sure.
Maybe it was that when I got to the conference on that Tuesday, I realized the meetings didn’t start until Thursday but that, in the cesspool of my kids’ major problems, I had not even been able to think clearly enough to choose the right day.  Even at dinner that night with about 10 colleagues, I felt quiet and out of sorts. The restaurant was also obscenely over priced and that always makes me feel bad.  The friend next to me kept insisting I order the molten lava cake for dessert.  Sweetie, I said – no dessert I could put in my mouth is worth $35!!   I hate being ripped off and I cannot ever afford it anyway.
Maybe it was my run in with a rude vendor who raked me over the coals in front of my friends and colleagues in the exhibit hall for a comment I had made about his company online.  His products were constantly failing my clients and the customer service of his company was horrendous.  My email had been mysteriously forwarded to him. He was completely outraged and on a mission to retaliate.  He was the new president of this ailing company and embarrassed me beyond a shade of pale.  Through the strong encouragement of my friends, I attended his focus group that night but went with my tail between my legs feeling humiliated and small.  I was uncharacteristically silent. 
Maybe it was that I felt very much on the outside throughout the conference.  I never really did find my groove or my stride and was very annoyed by the huge egos that were blooming in my field.  After all I thought, we are not neurosurgeons saving brains and lives.  We simply help mothers and babies breastfeed.  Let’s maintain our humble place in the world. There is however, a group of more successful authors and lecturers in the group and then there are all their groupies who flock around them.  So, it makes me twitchy to watch the egos that are growing out of control in my sacred field.
Maybe it was the colleague whose son had died a few weeks prior and who I hugged so tightly when I saw her.  Feeling her pain, I listened carefully and bore witness when there is in fact, nothing else to do.  Her pain was palpable and when she asked if she could share her phone photos of him dying, I said yes.  It was wrenching and made me cry and I was shot for the rest of that day.  At meetings she had that numb/angry/nebulous look that I knew and remembered in the pit of my gut, so well.
Maybe it was that I came home very, very tired and depleted but felt there wasn’t anyone waiting to hold me and reassure me and restore some of my sense of self worth.  I wanted the maid in “The Help” to say, “You is good.  You is smart. You is pretty.” I know it is not anyone’s job, but my own, but hoped for that nonetheless. 
Maybe it was that I had my tooth pulled the week before I left.  It was an old “temporary” filling that had lasted 28 years that suddenly upon meeting a cherry pit, decided to shatter. The dentist said there was no saving what was left and sent me to an oral surgeon who offered three options for numbing before extraction.  I was so depressed by that time, that I just said, “Just give me Lidocaine and get it out.  I can get through 20 minutes of anything.”  It was in fact, the loss of a body part and it made me feel even more ugly, older, and deteriorating.  I will need to remain toothless for the next few months while the socket heals and then decide whether I can clean out my life savings to get an implant. 
Maybe it was that I needed so badly to have this weekend off but I acquiesced to a very unraveled mom and spent two hours with her in my office instead of having a whole weekend off, followed by another two hours with another mom and baby.  I am not sure why I did that, but once they both left, in fact, I could not stop crying.  Exhaustion.
Maybe it is because before I left, my old friend’s sister descended into sheer hell.  Her two daughters and ex-husband were in a landslide in Canada and all perished at once, buried under many feet of mud.  I became very involved in following the search and then, the period of rescue changed to recovery and then, that ended as well.  I could not imagine her deep grief or out of control panic or arms reaching, reaching, reaching, looking for her children.  When I got to my conference, they had both finally been found, dead.
Maybe it was because my 91 year old aunt who I love deeply has been isolated by her psychotic son from her entire family, including my sister and me.  There has been nothing short of insane cruelty going on for reasons that remain completely unclear.  But, on the one occasion that I did get through to her on the phone and tried to explain to her what was going on, my conversation was heard by the crazies, possibly recorded and it made for a much more difficult situation by her adult children, my cousins.  They were working hard through legal means to re-establish connections and I made that more difficult.  I felt very ashamed for having caused further frustration in a situation that appeared it could get no more maddening!    
Maybe it is because I had a confrontation at work on Friday with of all people, a formula rep.  I was reprimanded by one of the doctors because a patient complained about my “rudeness” and then, I was yelled at by the office manager.  It was a completely ridiculous, misguided experience and of course, it happening during World Breastfeeding week, made it all the more poignant. 
Maybe it is because school starts tomorrow and I feel like we haven’t really been on a whole family vacation together—just the four of us.  Or, maybe because I haven’t heard from my son who is ill and not taking action to get some help.  I have come to let go of that, completely, but it is no less wrenching.   We are about to celebrate his 28thbirthday and that is so sad for me to witness, as he continues his decline and delusions of curing his own addictions without help.
Maybe it is because I am hearing the vicious mantras of my mother that she left emblazoned on my heart, more than ever. When in a weakened and tired state, they all begin to dance and rise again to feed me messages of failure, “mean person”, cruel, fake, controlling, etc. I have absorbed them all these past two weeks.  These mean spirited serpents love any opportunity to make a cameo appearance. 
So, for whatever reason—I cannot sleep, I want to sleep, I cannot smile, I want to cry, I cannot think my way out of it, I cannot make plans, I cannot reinvent myself and I cannot shoo away Ms Daring Depleting Depression, Ms. Antsy Arguing Anxiety or Ms. Supreme  Sick Self Doubt.  Waiting for the change to come because fortunately, I do know it usually does… but now, am in the deep, dark hole looking for the Exit sign. 
A few days later, sitting here in downtown Raleigh at the Wilmoore Café which in my humble opinion has the very best coffee anywhere on earth and for $1.75, the best egg and veggie burrito, I am found again.  I am peering out of the hole.  I pick my sweet nieces up at the bus stop from New York in a few minutes and I am feeling hopeful, cheerful and well. 
Though I would love to stay in this place, I am not feeling enough terre ferma to know it can last for long. 
For now, it is a lovely day in downtown Raleigh and all is well.  Later, there may be more demons waiting.