Heaven Can Wait

“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”

We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.

She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.

Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.

I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.

I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.

And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.

Life or Death?

“They’re hacking my brain!” she exclaimed. “There’s a camera in the ceiling fan recording me. They follow me everywhere!”

You probably think this is about how Alzheimer’s has hijacked my mother’s brain.

But this is a story about my step-daughter.

My mother’s had her share of delusions. The man in the closet wearing her high heels. Being held prisoner in the cellar with illegal immigrants. She’s never owned heels. Her memory care home has one level.

Both women have a brain disease. Last week, one chose to end her life. The disease became too real: sanity was elusive; treatment refused.

Again, I find myself packing up a life once lived.

Grateful Dead posters. Zeppelin CDs. Crystal Scotch glasses. Prada handbags. Digging through the layers tells the story of my step-daughter’s life.

We all have a chapter we don’t read aloud. In this case, there were volumes.

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That Which Doth Not Kill Me . . .

It’s inevitable, living in the Valley of the Sun and working out. Even with pre-dawn runs, shorter morning swims, 50SPF and twice annual skin checks, it happens.

It’s easier when it’s an injury. As a marathoner, I’m used to them. Injuries force you to rest, reminders that you literally cannot take a pain-free step.

My recent surgery—removal of a squamous cell on my shin—is different. I’m not allowed to exercise. Even when nothing hurts. “Nothing to elevate your heart rate,” my dermatologist cautions. “The stitches must heal.”

Now the enemy is not just the sun, but exercise.

Two weeks of no workouts feels like forever. I’m restless as a caged animal. Exercise reenergizes me, inspires creativity. Self-pity tunnels me deeper into my head. So I’m forcing rest and gratitude. Things could be worse. And two weeks isn’t forever.