Broken-heart signals

At midlife, our hearts and bodies often become increasingly sensitive to things that no longer serve us.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

venusLong before the weird heart palpitations started, my first warning was a never-ending series of medical appointments on my day planner.

Not one of those appointments was for me.

Three years ago, I’d purchased a new day planner to keep track of my widowed mother’s care management. While transferring dates and phone numbers from my previous planner, I noticed I’d driven Mom to nearly 50 medical appointments in less than a year — yet I’d neglected to schedule an annual physical for myself.

Unable to drive due to her progressing vascular dementia, Mom lived alone in her condo then, relying solely on me to help maintain her “independence.” Between regular trips to Mom’s cardiologist, urologist, audiologist, primary care physician, pacemaker clinic, and various surgeons, I was lucky if I could book a free morning to get my teeth cleaned.

Friends told me I was looking tired, but I ignored them (and thought they were being cruel). Months of worry and caregiving were starting to take their toll — yet I was too frantic to notice.

The beat goes on and on

Since March of this year, Mom has fallen twice, first fracturing her back and later shattering her ankle. (By this time, we’d finally made the difficult decision to move her, totally against her wishes, to a skilled nursing care facility.) These episodes required three extended hospital stays and two surgeries — plus weeks of physical therapy.

Meanwhile, I endured two minor surgeries of my own, but ended up spending my recovery time overseeing my mother’s care at the hospital. I would try to care for myself later, I promised.

Visiting Mom at the hospital, I could feel my blood pressure rising every time she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home. Deluded by the insidious fog of dementia, she refused to believe she’d broken her ankle and was unable to walk — even when we pointed to the cast on her leg.

Over and over, she’d ask: Why are you keeping me here, there is nothing wrong with me … Why can’t I go home now?… When are you taking me home?

museBy August, I’d developed some alarming new symptoms of my very own — including heart palpitations — and a wretched case of insomnia. My heart would pound for no reason — even while I was relaxing in front of the TV.

It scared the hell out of me, unpredictably, several times a day.

I was terrified enough to finally schedule an appointment with Dr. Paul Ehrmann, my family doctor, who ordered several tests. As Dr. Paul explained it, I’d been living on adrenaline fumes after functioning on “high alert” for the past couple of years.

Taking versus giving

More than one-third of caregivers who provide continuing care for a spouse or another family member are doing so “while suffering poor health themselves,” notes a study cited by the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org). Not surprisingly, middle-aged and older female caregivers are more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and depression than those with no caregiving duties. The stats are sobering, so I won’t go on here.

“In many midlife women, heart palpitations are primarily caused by increasing heart energy trying to get in and be embodied in a woman’s life,” explains Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of The Wisdom of Menopause. “My experience has been that our bodies speak to us only when we can’t seem to ‘hear’ them any other way. When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.”

Dr. Northrup challenges women to ask what could be weighing heavily on our hearts — including our key relationships. Are friends and loved ones “investing” as much in our emotional bank as we’re investing in theirs? If not, why do we hang on to unbalanced alliances?

Of course, some relationships — family, especially — are not dispensable. I have no choice but to show up for my mother and to manage all aspects of her life, from finances to healthcare. But when others make silly or unfair demands on my time — or ignore my emotional needs — I have every right to question those relationships. My heart depends on it.

“When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Reading Dr. Northrup’s advice, I also realized I’d been putting everyone else’s needs ahead my own for the past two decades. Starting in early motherhood, I’d completely redesigned my career goals around the schedules of my husband and son. As soon as my son left for college, my widowed mother’s health began failing, throwing me unexpectedly into the role of full-time caregiver again.

Hearing the heart sounds

Once we “listen” to what our hearts are telling us, Dr. Northrup says, our symptoms begin to fade — though it’s always best to have them checked by a physician, as I did.

Even though Mom has been in a nursing home for several months, I have to remind myself that I needn’t worry about her 24/7.  Professional caregivers are being paid to tend to her needs.

I’ve also learned that it’s best to avoid visiting her when I’m feeling especially depressed or exhausted.  Mom still begs me to take her “home” — which inevitably leads to more heartbreak and frustration for both of us. The social worker at the nursing home has suggested “redirecting” our conversations to focus on happier memories — which rarely works for anxious dementia patients like my mother, but I keep trying.

Though it might seem otherwise, this post isn’t a pity party. I fully accept the privilege of being part of a family — which often includes caring for a chronically ill (or incredibly difficult) elderly parent. I hope it serves as a warning for anyone fulfilling the role of caregiver while navigating her own middle years — years that inevitably present health challenges and other turning points she might ignore at her peril.

It’s time to listen up. Listen to your heart.

The artwork in this essay — “Cycles of the Muse,” by Cindy La Ferle —  is featured in The Rust Belt Almanac, a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. Copies available for purchase on Amazon.com.

One more year …

Someday man will travel at the speed of light, of small interest to those of us still trying to catch up to the speed of time.” ~Robert Brault

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Lately it seems as if I’ve swallowed summer in one big gulp, like the last swig of Long Island iced tea on a scorching afternoon. I wish I had more in my glass.

I turned forty-nine this month, and already I’m wondering how to make forty-nine last as long as I can possibly stretch it. I plan to age gracefully — no dragging my heels into my fifties. I’d like to become one of those plucky old women who wear purple and “learn to spit,” as the Jenny Joseph poem goes.

But not so fast.

Recently, my son Nate and I were having a mock philosophical discussion about the velocity of time. He was anxious for the arrival of the new family car we’d ordered, which had been delayed in production. To him, the days weren’t accelerating fast enough; time was stalling like a faulty engine. Later he complained that summer break was ending too quickly.

His senior year of high school started last week, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that idea, too. We’ve been shopping for colleges since May, and applications will be mailed soon.

Just one more year.

Another mom, whose only child is my son’s age, also tastes the bittersweet tang in this last swig of summer. Our lives will change too, she reminds me, when high school ends.

This will be the last year we rush to nuke meals in time for play rehearsals and tennis games.

This will be the last year we quit work early to snag front-row seats at concerts and award banquets.

This will be the last year we snap photos of our kids in tuxedos and prom dresses. And the last year for school uniforms, bagged lunches, bake sales, teachers’ luncheons, fund-raisers, permission slips, and field trips.

Of course, there’s the sweet ring of freedom in all of this, too. Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to every middle-aged parent who stands teary-eyed on the same threshold.

I chose to work at home when Nate was younger, combining freelance writing with Tiger Cubs and carpooling. Later on, I tried to stay involved in high school activities. Meanwhile, I’ve put a few dreams on hold, not to mention the career goals I’ve filed away. I’ve looked forward to the time when I can start my day without checking the school calendar. But I’ll miss other aspects of having a kid in school. I’ll miss the sense of community I’ve felt while comparing notes with other parents; I’ll miss all the Mother’s Club meetings and school conferences. And I’ll miss the incomparable satisfaction I get every time I work on projects involving young people.

This hit me on the long ride home from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, which I toured earlier this month with Nate and three of his closest friends – Andrea, Lauren, and Ryan. Though I’ve known these kids since they were small, it had been a while since we’d spent so much quality time in my compact station wagon. Between long stretches of road construction, periodic rain showers, and the Bare Naked Ladies blaring on the CD player, I remembered how much I’ve enjoyed the easy laughter and awesome energy of these kids. And I’m excited about this next phase of their lives.

But whether they head for Notre Dame or Michigan State next fall, I’m going to miss them. A lot.

As we drove closer to suburban Detroit, my backseat crew quieted down. The sky cleared, and one of the richest sunsets I’d ever seen suddenly appeared in my rearview mirror. My right foot instinctively moved toward the brake pedal – as if that would make it last a while longer. I didn’t notice the cars tailing me on the expressway until Nate pointed out that I was driving like an old woman, way below the speed limit.

Just one more year. Pour it slowly, please. –Cindy La Ferle

This column was originally published in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak and is included in my column collection, Writing Home, now available in print and Kindle editions. 

Soup for the soul

To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup.” — Laurie Colwin

As my best friends will tell you, I’m your go-to gal if you need a good soup recipe. Come winter, there’s always something simmering in my slow cooker or on the stove — thick-as-a-brick pea soup, creamy potato porridge, vegetarian chili, or a savory minestrone.

The way I see it, homemade soup is a remedy for nearly everything.

It’s guaranteed to speed the recovery of a neighbor who’s nursing a broken heart or the common cold. It fortifies the friend who just returned home after knee surgery. In fact, homemade soup has a language all its own, which makes it ideal when you’re struggling to find a way to express sympathy to grieving families. It also works to convey gratitude when we need to reciprocate a kindness or a favor.

It’s methodical but soothing — the whole process of making soup from scratch.

I always begin with fresh produce from the market, then I gather the right combo of herbs and spices from the pantry, or, if I’m lucky, from the small potted “garden” in my kitchen window sill.  From the moment I start chopping onions and garlic, every muscle and nerve in my body begins to loosen or unwind. And while I work, I think about the loved ones who’ll receive the first helping when my soup is finished and the flavor has mellowed.

That said, the soup I make at home never tastes quite as delicious as the soup from someone else’s kitchen. So when I’m feeling especially cranky or lazy, I head over to Niki’s, my favorite local diner here in Royal Oak. If you were a diehard fan of the long-running Gilmore Girls TV series, you probably remember Luke’s Diner, right? Well, Niki’s is just that sort of place –a cozy hangout where you’ll likely rub elbows with a neighbor at the counter.

Best of all, the soup at Niki’s is always homemade — and the perfect prelude to my favorite Greek salad on Main Street.

I’ve known Donna, the owner and cook, for so many years that I’ve lost count of all the gloomy winter afternoons I spent in her back-corner booth with my notebook and a pending column deadline. Those afternoons were always warmed by Donna’s chicken noodle, spinach-tortellini, or cabbage soups. I still like to remind Donna that she makes the best soup in town, and that I’ll always be her biggest fan.

Whenever you’re in need of a little home-cooked comfort — and your own mom isn’t around or able to provide it – it helps to have at least one good cook like Donna at the ready. We all need someone who can ladle out the perfect bowl of soul-filling soup, especially on chilly midwinter afternoons.

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My favorite slow-cooker pea soup recipe:

16-oz package of Spartan (brand) green split peas

6 cups of water

1 large onion, chopped

5 or 6 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

4 cloves fresh garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves and/or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup finely sliced carrots

1 cup chopped celery

Use a large slow cooker; set it on high. Add the six cups of water. Rinse the split peas, then add to the water. Chop the onion and saute in olive oil with dried oregano and crushed garlic until onions are translucent and slightly brown.  Add the cooked onions/garlic to the slow cooker and stir; add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high for five or six hours until the potatoes are soft and the soup is thick. (If you’re pressed for time, add a can of sliced/cooked potatoes to the batch during the last hour, instead of the fresh potatoes.) Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I love making this all-day vegetarian soup in the slow cooker; I can leave it alone and let the flavors meld for hours. It tastes even better the next day, and there’s plenty to share. P.S. Prior to serving this soup, I might add a dash of sherry to each bowl, plus a dollop of sour cream, to make it more like a French Potage St. Germain.— CL

Company’s coming

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”  ~Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, Pavarotti, My Own Story

Earlier this month, a couple of dear friends phoned to invite us over for dinner. They had a big pot of turkey chili bubbling on the stove and a loaf of cornbread cooling in the oven. “Nothing fancy, just comfort food.”

The spur-of-the-moment invitation was all the more delicious because Doug and I hadn’t planned anything for dinner that evening. And the cozy company of longtime friends was exactly what we needed in the middle of a crazy-busy week. It turned out to be a perfect evening.

That night, we also revisited an earlier conversation we’d started on the topic of entertaining.

We all admitted that, in the past, we often avoided inviting friends for dinner because we thought a meal for “company” had to be fancy or labor-intensive. Which is silly, of course, but it was an easy excuse to make when we were too busy or too lazy to break bread at home with friends.

Along the same lines, anyone who reads gourmet cooking magazines on a regular basis will admit to feeling intimidated sometimes, even by featured recipes described as easy or simple. If throwing a dinner party requires performing a culinary miracle, well, we’re not likely to host very often.

One of the great gifts of midlife is that you start getting over these things. You realize that “the good life” is what’s real — not a page out of a glossy magazine. You remember that your true friends love you just as you are, and that any dish that’s good enough to serve your family is good enough for them, whether it’s your favorite mac and cheese or turkey chili.

Not that foodies shouldn’t have some creative fun in the kitchen.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to master a few healthy recipes that work for company as easily as for the two of us.

For instance, in the March issue of Prevention, I found “All-American Family Favorites,” a feature that includes several no-fuss, kid-friendly dishes that can be prepared in no time at all. The Skillet Chicken “Parm” looked fabulous, so Doug and I put the recipe to the test after shopping for a few items at the local market. The ingredients are as basic as you can get: chicken breasts, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil.

I’m very happy to report that the meal was both easy and delicious — and perfect for casual dinner guests. Topping it off, our own red skillet looked so colorful with the basil garnish that I had to share my photo with you. (I don’t have the rights to reprint the recipe, so you’ll have to pick up the March issue of Prevention, still available on newsstands.) From now on, I’ll be on the lookout for more recipes like this.

There’s nothing cozier or more satisfying than raising a glass to old friends around a dinner table. So when the mood strikes, call your best friends and invite them over for a simple midweek supper. Don’t worry if the house isn’t clean. Dim the lights, uncork a bottle of wine, light a candle, and let the conversation flow. Cheers!   — Cindy La Ferle

 

Photo memories of Mom

All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget.   ~John Berger

Sometimes I have to rely on the lens of memory to see her as the true beauty she once was.

Waiting for the occupational therapist to arrive, my widowed mother is slumped in a chair in her new assisted living apartment. Her naturally wavy gray hair is long overdue for a good cut, and the navy stretch suit she’s wearing is at least a size too large. She looks older than her 81 years.

Mom doesn’t seem to care, which is totally unlike the woman she was before vascular dementia began devouring her pride, her self.

Not long ago, she was the sort of woman who wouldn’t be seen anywhere without a fresh application of her favorite Estee Lauder lipstick.

Not surprisingly, she’s confused and miserable in her new surroundings. She spent a week in the hospital at the end of last year, then another four weeks at a nursing rehab center. She wants to go back to her own condo — now — but I don’t have the heart to tell her (again) that this will be her home for a while.

Working with the assisted living staff, I keep trying different things to distract her. I want to help my mother enjoy what’s left of her life; to earn back her approval. And I desperately hope to see a glimmer of happiness or a trace of contentment on her face. But as I listen to her litany of complaints and watch her struggle just to rise from her chair, I can’t help but wonder if the goal is out of reach.

A museum of her former life

After my visit, I drive across town to retrieve more of Mom’s clothing from her condo. As soon as I arrive, I wander each room tentatively, half expecting to find evidence of intruders. Or ghosts.

Gathering dust in her long absence, the whole place is as quiet as a mausoleum. A recipe box sits next to her blood pressure cuff on the kitchen table, exactly where my mother left them the day after Thanksgiving — the day I drove her to the emergency room. There are plates in the dishwasher and an old grocery list on the counter. With no one else living here now, the condo feels like a museum of my mother’s former life. And every piece of furniture is a relic of our family’s past.

Which is partly why I’m overcome by an urge to dig through Mom’s closet for an album of family photos dating back to her childhood in 1930s.  At first, I tell myself that the photos might trigger some happier conversation with my mother at the assisted living residence.

But in reality, I’m the one who needs to be reminded of the strong, beautiful woman she once was.

An album of another era

Flipping through the album I’d been looking for, I pause at the sepia-toned photo of Mom when she was barely three years old.

I am always moved when I see photos of my parents as children. And while dementia has rendered my mother more helpless than ever, this particular photo shows her at her smallest, most vulnerable self.

In it, Mom is standing bow-legged in a sandbox behind the Indianapolis home of her beloved grandparents, the folks who took care of her while her newly divorced mother was at work. A source of shame in those days, divorce was rarely discussed openly in my mother’s household. Much later, she’d share stories of how her young father abandoned his new family — right before she was born — and how her grandparents helped support her mother during the Depression.

In the photo, Mom wears a swimsuit and a pair of beaded moccasins. Holding a tiny shovel and a rubber ball, she looks as if she were caught off guard; her smile is more of a question than a statement. Still, there’s the twinkle of determination in her dark brown eyes.

The dance of her life

Mom’s stepfather, who came into her life a few years later, was an amateur photographer. His devotion to his hobby, and especially to my mother, is evident throughout the photo album.

In one portrait, my mother is dressed for a dance. Her prom gown flaunts an artful confection of ribbons on one shoulder – a testimony to my grandmother’s talent with a needle and thread. Mom is also wearing a corsage, and I can’t help but wonder if my handsome, black-haired father had presented it to her just before the photo was snapped. (My parents started dating after they met at a Presbyterian church youth group in Detroit.)

Because the photo is black and white, I can only guess that her dress is white, or maybe a pale shade of blue. It’s likely that her lipstick and nail polish are deep crimson, as dictated by the film stars of the 1940s.

But there’s no denying that my mother looks gorgeous and happy in this portrait. The sweet promises of true love, her own home, and a secure family — all she ever wanted — are almost within reach.

It also occurs to me that this album of memories belongs with my mother in her new assisted living apartment, not hidden away in a closet that she probably won’t ever open again. So I pack the book in my car along with another bag of nightgowns and a new package of incontinence products.

The following day, when I reintroduce her to the album and its treasures, her eyes light up as if she’s seeing the photos for the first time. Her oldest memories rush forward — they never left her, of course — and she recites the names of all the beloved people and places in the vintage photographs. She pauses at a shot of her grandparents and spins another reverie of their beautiful Tudor home on the river near Indianapolis.

I’ve heard the stories many times before, with or without the photographs, but that’s OK. For the first time in ages, my mother is animated and smiling. And her beauty shines through. — Cindy La Ferle