I spent a lot of time with my dad this weekend. Dad is 85 and lives in a locked nursing home unit. He is locked in because my mom is fading away with Alzheimer’s, and my dad cannot wrap his head around the idea of letting her go. Dad literally cannot conceive of allowing her to go without him. He has had multiple strokes as his body-mind fights against the inevitable.
Dad obsesses about my mom’s deterioration, he yells at her and even smacks her because she no longer knows who he is. All this craziness from a calm, gentle soul who adores his wife. This from a man who rarely raised his voice before my mom got sick. Now Dad tries to guard my mom. He constantly worries that someone on the nursing home staff will hurt her or kill her. His behavior has gotten so bad, that my siblings and I reluctantly moved him to a locked unit. Now Dad rarely gets to see the love of his life.
This move has been another heartbreak for Dad. And it is heartbreaking for me to watch. Now that he’s separated from my mom, he is rapidly deteriorating physically. This man who never took medications and was always strong and tough as nails is fading fast now that his last job – the job of protecting his wife – has ended.
I sat with my dad as he slept this weekend. I watched him sleep and thought about everything that he has been through. My dad is strong willed and tenacious; he doesn’t give up easily. As a young man, he pushed and worked and became the first person in his family to go to college. Then he pushed and he worked and he became an award winning engineer with patents in his name. He pushed and he worked and he went much further than his parents every dreamed was possible for him. And then life threw something at him that only got worse when he pushed against it. Life threw something at him that demanded surrender and allowance.
I have not seen my dad for about 6 weeks, and there has been a big shift in his appearance and his behavior; he has transformed in just a few short weeks. He has stopped trying to halt my mom’s deterioration. He has finally stopped pushing. He has let go. I sat and looked at my dad’s body that has aged so much in just a few weeks. I sat with Dad and watched his peaceful face as he slept. I sat with Dad and I knew that he will soon let go completely and leave this body and this life that had become so painful for him. I sat with my dad and I cheered him on; YES! Let go, Dad. Surrender. Allow life to be however it is. Let go and leave all the pain behind.
This could be a story about the pain of love lost or the harsh realities of aging and dying in America today. My Dad’s past few years have overflowed with both of those things. But for me, this is a lesson in how life can deteriorate into pain and pure misery if I grasp at it and try to hold it still. My Dad’s story teaches me what can happen if I resist and refuse to flow with whatever life throws at me. It’s a lesson about how I can create huge problems and pain when I resist the change that is an inevitable part of life.
I love you, Dad. Leave this painful place. Let go and go. I will miss you so AND it’s OK to go now. Safe travels, Dad.
I heard something once from a Unity minister named Mary Omwake, that has stuck with me for years. Mary said, “If you’re in hell, DON”T pitch a tent! Keep moving!” I love the visual image in that – that image fills me with the energy of get up and go! Don’t just sit there – do something! Move!
That idea of keep moving, don’t pitch a tent in Hell, comes back to me now as I think about choice and the power in choosing. How often have I sat, locked up and unable to choose something? How long did I sit there in discomfort or pain – “in hell” – unable to choose, unable to move? And what keeps me locked up and sitting there in Hell, unable or unwilling to make a choice to move? Well, for me, it’s usually fear that I will choose the wrong thing.
“Choose the wrong thing” – whew, can you feel the weight of that?! Choose the wrong thing – make a “bad” choice – mess up. Wow, so instead of choosing anything, I will sit in pain and discomfort and discontent. I will pitch a tent and stay in my personal version of Hell. Being wrong – choosing the wrong thing has a HUGE heavy, yucky energy to it. Do I actually abhor being wrong so much that I will sit in pain and disease; I will pitch a tent in Hell??!
When did choosing becomes so heavy and serious and difficult? Do little kids have difficulty choosing and keeping moving? Heck no! Try stopping a 2 year old from choosing – and choosing again – and again – and again! Kids are like sharks; in a constant state of motion and choosing all the time. Kids stay in choice and keep moving no matter what. Do they sit down and contemplate that last choice they made to grab that toy and whap their brother upside the head with it? No way! Do they stop and beat themselves up about how bad they are, what a bad choice that was? No way! Mom or Dad may put them in time out and try to force them to ruminate on their bad-ness, but it’s not something little kids waste much time on.
Little kids are definitely noticing and logging when they choose something that gets them in trouble or ends up hurting, but they do NOT sit down and contemplate their wrong-ness and the error of their ways like I do! We have to be trained to do that ruminate on your wrong-ness crap. So, when did I decide that each choice I make is so critical and so loaded with “don’t mess up and make the wrong choice” energy that I better slow down, stop moving and contemplate each choice for hours or days? And does that way of being in the world serve me?
Doesn’t the decision to stop and analyze every choice from every possible angle just keep me sitting in Hell longer?
How can I choose faster and easier? How can I unlock choosing, take the weight out of it, so that next time I’m in a painful, hellish place I don’t get stuck there pitching a tent?! How can I make choices more like a kid – with the energy of an explorer? Did Lewis and Clark sit and contemplate which path to choose for days?! Heck no, they kept moving or they would have never made it to the Pacific Ocean!
I would like to get back into that childlike energy of choosing. That “let’s try this and see what happens. and if it doesn’t work out, no big deal – I’ll just choose something different” frame of mind. How can I do that? Is that possible at my age? Why not?
To start moving through life like a kid exploring, I going to have to choose to stop criticizing and judging every single choice I make. THAT’s what gets me stuck – that critical, look what a “bad” choice you made there energy.
Funny, as I write this, that critical voice surfaces in my head, saying “Oh Nancy, this entire blog post is just stupid. and nobody gonna get what you’re trying to say anyway. why bother? just delete this drivel and go do something safe.” Whew, man that is some heavy, yucky energy! THAT is the energy of being wrong, isn’t it? But you know what, I’m going to choose to blow off that yucky nasty critical voice and publish this anyway.
I choose to publish this even though it may be incoherent or incomplete or not quite right. I choose to put this out there anyway. I’m going to choose and choose and choose again. Because frankly, the other way – the sitting in Hell, ruminating on which tiny safe little action will turn out OK wasn’t working for me.
Like the little blue tang fish, Dory in “Finding Nemo”, I choose to “ just keep moving!”
The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what should be, was, or will be.
The freedom to say what you feel and think, instead of what you should.
The freedom to feel what you feel, instead of what you ought.
The freedom to ask for what you want, instead of always waiting for permission.
The freedom to take risks in your own behalf, instead of choosing to be only “secure” and not rocking the boat.
–Virginia Satir, Making Contact
Today I honor Virginia Satir, who was a pioneer in the area of family therapy. Virginia was one of the first therapists to focus on how each individual interacts with other family or group members – how they can choose to express themselves congruently and honestly or hide behind masks to protect themselves. Her work changed the face of family counseling dramatically.
Virginia also created a model for change, detailing how people react to and cope with change in their lives. Virginia died before I could meet her, but I was exposed to her work by two of her amazing students, Jerry Weinberg and Jean McLendon.
Virginia Satir’s work was all about being open and aware and taking responsibility for your own happiness.