A Way of Life

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Today I went for another bike ride. It’s part of the “practice” of my life. It has “value independent of outcome. It’s a way of life, not a job with a clear payoff. A joyful habit. The right way to live.” An anchor in my life.

Another October, though here in Georgia it feels just like summer (and not the cool days of summer; temps were over 90 degrees today). A year ago I was in New York packing up my mother’s house. I had just pushed through a depression I fell into as a result of turning my life upside down. Three years ago, I had just returned from my solo bike ride across the country. I had just retired, and it felt like I would never get my workplace out of my head and my heart.

It finally has, of course. Did it have any choice, really? Time helped but it fullsizeoutput_697cwas pushed out as well by my daughters’ two weddings, my second less successful bike trip across the country, my separation from my husband, moving my mother to Georgia from NY where she had lived for ninety years, our making a new home together, her subsequent diagnosis and death from pancreatic cancer, and finally my divorce from Richard.  Repeating it all in one sentence helps me understand the depth of what I’ve gone through. Like with my retirement, the months and years will pass, and this past year’s events will slowly become part of my past instead of my present.

IMG_0624In fact, they are already starting to feel that way, and what a relief that is. I feel that change on a day like today, on weeks like these past few ones. I spent a week riding the Bike Ride Across Tennessee just west and northwest of Chattanooga. It was bike camp for a week, with about two hundred others, mostly other retirees like me. We eat breakfast together, camp together, ride our bikes on the same routes, fullsizeoutput_6814visit the same rest stops along the way, eat dinner and shower and brush our teeth together. I went alone but was never lonely. I visited my old Arcosanti friend Tal on the way home and stayed overnight at his lake house. We talked over dinner, we talked over breakfast, both on his pontoon boat. A friendship renewed. A week later was the Six Gaps ride

in North Georgia, a massive feat in my bike world, that I accomplished with just under a thousand other people. 

In Athens, I am at home in my new house. A comfort that I like keeping calm and clean. I make my bed each morning and straighten up each day. The dishes get washed. I listen to podcasts and NPR and Spotify.

I’m still trying to figure out life post retirement; for certain, it is a fullsizeoutput_6981journey, not a destination. Adult life part one had goal posts — marriage, children, job, career, retirement.  Adult life part two only has one defined goal post — death. Otherwise, the rest is left up to me to discover.  Right now, that life seems like a practice, a way of being, rather than a goal post.

Bike riding, involvement in my community, friends and family, Crossfit, reading books, the river behind the house, therapy — these are the “practice” of my life. They are my present that bring me into the future.

Quotes from “Stop Climate Change. It’s Hopeless. Let’s Do It,” an article that makes a lot of sense to me and reassures me about the value of my work on bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

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Becoming an evangelical cyclist – Barnett Shoals Observations

I am tempted to become a militant, evangelical cyclist devoting myself to spreading the word that cycling is good for people and the world.

There is more dislike and anger aimed at cyclists than even I realized. Last night was a public forum on the trial 2-way bike lanes on Barnett Shoals between College Station and the light at Whitehall, a very short stretch but an extension of the bike lanes on College Station. I walked into the public forum at 5:10 pm. It was already very crowded and heated. I proceeded to sit there and mostly listen until 7 pm. It was not a pleasant fullsizeoutput_6913experience. People were very upset. If the 2-way bike lane had been added as an addition to the four-lane road, I’m sure that people would have been fine. But it was really the reduction of 4-lane road (two lanes in each direction) to a 3-lane road that angered people. The four lanes have become one in each direction with a turn lane in the middle. How could this kind of configuration even be considered? It didn’t make sense and the traffic back-ups were so extreme that people were finding all sorts of ways to avoid the area. And most people hadn’t seen a cyclist on the paths at all. At least, that’s what people reported last night.

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I had observed the new configuration as it was being put in two Thursdays ago. It was about 5 pm and there didn’t seem to have been problems then, but I could sympathize somewhat with what people were reporting. It wasn’t just one or two people complaining.

fullsizeoutput_691dI decided I needed to see first-hand what was happening, so I set me clock for 6:45 am and by 7:45 am, I was in place on Barnett Shoals. Notebook and Iphone in hand, I sat there until 9 am and documented what I observed in front of me.No traffic backups during morning rush hour. No one had to wait through a two rounds of traffic signals. No one had trouble getting out of Greencrest (I was seated 50 feet away). Residents were able to turn out of their driveways. And there were nine cyclists during that time period. I took time-lapse videos every 5-10 minutes during that time. Traffic was clearly NOT a problem.

I plan to return to the intersection later today to observe how the end-of-day rush hour is.

I also road up and down the cycle lanes twice, once when I got there and once when I left. All those people there last night didn’t think that the lanes made cyclists feel safer. Because cyclists ride against the traffic as they head south, it might appear that it would be scary to cycle there. However, with the bollards and striped separation strips, I am here to attest that it does feel safer for cyclists. In fact, it felt quite peaceful and unlike cycling on most stretches of Athens’ roads. I am convinced that if there were a two-way cycle track that continued on towards Gaines School road and out to Lowes, that the number of cyclists would increase significantly. That’s a flat stretch of road, something we cyclists like.

What I experienced last night was a lot of anger – at cyclists and at the government – and a lot of exaggeration and misinformation. Basically, a lot of people really felt that cyclists shouldn’t be on the roads at all. They are for autos and not bikes. Bikes don’t pay taxes, and cyclists are crazy to risk their lives on roads that really don’t belong to them. The end conclusion of many of the arguments presented was that bikes should not be on the road.

I propose a different argument – that we won’t have more cyclists on the road until we build an infrastructure that makes them feel safer. And that’s going to happen little by little. With our new bike pedestrian plan about to be voted on, we will have a process for building a network of safe bike and pedestrian infrastructure that will connect existing pathways and build more. The goal is to build a system that encourages more users. We won’t have the users until we build it. The Barnett Shoals cycle track is the end point right now of bike lanes and paths that can get cyclists from the east side to campus, downtown, and Sandy Creek Nature Center. Being at the very end, of course, there will be fewer users, but we can’t make the better system without such extensions that will not be heavily used until more are built. That seems like common sense to me, but maybe that’s just bike common sense.

Yesterday, I brought my road bike into Georgia Cycle Sport on Baxter for some needed Specialized-Turbo-Vado-full-bikework on my rear hub, pedals, and back cassette. After some bike chit chat, Micah, one of the owners and their star mechanic, offered me one of their Specialized e-bikes to try out. I took the bike for a spin through the hilly parts of Five Points. With the electronic assist, I was able to wiz up the hills without much effort at all and with a big smile on my face.  Specialized, one of the largest bike companies around, anticipates that e-bikes will make up about 50% of their sales in five years. E-bike sales are already reaching those numbers in Europe.

I thought two things. First, I want one of these. That way when I meet a friend for coffee, take a trip to the library, buy groceries, or go to the bank, there will be no question that I will hop on a bike to get the four 3-4 hilly (sweaty) miles that it takes instead of hopping in my car. Second, once everyone else learns about ebikes, there will be a lot more people in Athens riding their bikes because right now it’s the hilly terrain that inhibits a lot of bike riding. With the combination of new bike lanes and paths and ebikes, Athens can really become a bike-friendly town.

My friend Donald just told me I was already a rather militant bike evangelical. Perhaps so but I am not really confrontative by nature. Militant is not my style. But an event like last night does energize me to get on my bike more often for normal daily activities and chores. I want to be on those bike lanes as much as I can be so fewer people will have the opportunity to say that no one uses them. Plus, of course, bike riding just makes everything seem like more fun. I will try to grab my car keys less and my bike lock more. That’s my goal.

Update: Did another observation session from 4:30 – 5:45. Once again, no traffic issues. All traffic able to get through intersection in one light cycle. Didn’t seem much different than during those hours I’ve stood out there waving campaign signs at that intersection over the past almost 20 years.

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I am a kid who likes to play kickball

I am a kid who likes to play kickball in the street. We climb the apple tree too. We jump fullsizeoutput_63b1fences down the block, evading the eyes of grown-ups who might yell at us. We play hide and seek using the whole neighborhood.  In winter, we sled at Silver Lake and skate at Loft’s Lake.

I am old enough to join CYO at St. Christopher’s around the corner. There are Saturday mornings spent playing volleyball and doing relay races and then tryouts for the basketball team. At the beginning of the season, there’s the excitement of getting our uniforms and the schedule of games. We travel to other parishes for our games – Our Lady of Redeemer, Sacred Heart, St. Barnabas.

fullsizeoutput_633eAt Baldwin High School, I am asked to be in Leader Corp and so wear a white uniform during gym and lead my class in calisthenics. In the fall, I play field hockey; in winter, it’s basketball; and then in spring, either softball or track.

I am never a star but sometimes I play first string. I’m an A minus athlete on a good day, often B or B plus. But I like doing it all. I like moving my body. I like the game, the competition. I like pushing myself so hard my face gets red. And I like being with others doing something together.

I used to be shy. There’s still a part of me that is. Sports were my way of being with other people. I wanted to be a gym teacher and coach because that way, I’d be able to help other girls like me. Sports allowed me to be myself and be part of a group. I was no longer on the outside trying to figure out how to fit in.

I try now to notice what makes me happy, what gives me pleasure or makes me content.fullsizeoutput_6386 One thing is clear — sixty years on this earth and being outside, playing sports, and moving my body still give me more pleasure than almost anything. Yesterday I rode thirty-nine miles with my Nitty Gritty Bike Band buddies from the parking lot behind the courthouse. We did the Antioch Church loop with the 12-mile add-on that gave me some of the hill work I missed because of Saturday’s cancelled mountain ride. The temperatures were cooler than usual but the humidity just as high as usual. I chatted with Chick about touring in Europe and with Steve about the “tender human heart.” Afterward we ate watermelon in the parking lot.

fullsizeoutput_6391Saturday, with the Hog Pen ride cancelled, I went to Legion Pool and swam fifty lengths. Friday, I met Steve at East Athens Trail Creek Park and did the mountain bike loops. Thursday was Crossfit day for me. We learned how to do the Turkish Get Up and then for time, did our WOD (workout of the day in Crossfit speak) — four rounds of a 400-meter run, 25 squats, 25 push- ups, and 25 ab mats.

I’m sure there’s something biological going on. 23andMe have my DNA and send me updated reports. I am more likely to be able to detect the asparagus smell, have average odds of misophonia (the dislike of chewing sounds), am more likely to have wet earwax, and have the genetic muscle composition common in elite power athletes. Voila, there it is. Another report might tell me that I am more likely to run after balls (a trait Clare and Anne didn’t seem to have as young children).

I didn’t order these traits. They are what I came with. I used to not value this enjoymentfullsizeoutput_636d of physical activity. It was more valuable to be artistic or musical. Now though I think I am quite lucky. Again and again, we hear that physical activity and social interaction make a significant difference in all sorts of physical and mental health indicators. I’ve known this intuitively all my life.

Last fall I joined a spin gym on Long Island and went almost daily. After about a week, I woke up and wasn’t depressed after the worst depression of my life. I kept my fingers crossed that it would last and it did. And it continues to do so.

fullsizeoutput_6277Today is Crossfit. I am going to find a new one rep max on my shoulder press and then do six rounds of a 200-meter run, 25 sit ups, and some scaled version of a pull-up. Simple pleasures, for sure, but isn’t that the key – finding joy in small things. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Today though, that’s the case, and I’m savoring it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Transforming My Home

 

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My new spacious bedroom with a deck of its own.

I’m trying something different today and sitting this morning with my tea at the dining room table. Usually, I drink it in bed. And I usually don’t write but sit and sip my tea and listen to NPR.  I’m not against that. I will do it again.

But I’m working on myself these days, getting myself to a new stable place. There’s been so much change in my life this past year. Maybe if I look at it directly instead of keeping busy, that will help me.

 

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The dining room with a new sideboard from Lexington Vintage. Had never visited antique and vintage stores but now I’ve visited nine in Athens.

I have spent the last month or so since I rode BRAG (Bike Ride Across Georgia) transforming my home. I hadn’t quite grasped the obvious, that my home was filled with all my mother’s stuff and not mine. In October, I emptied my mother’s house in New York, the one I had grown up in, and brought my mother to live down here in Athens with me. We’d be roomies, and we were good ones.  I took all my mother’s furniture and wall hangings and tchotchkes and created a home for us. I was proud that the house didn’t feel like a replica of my mom’s house back in New York but felt like it was ours now. My mother was pleased and kept repeating to people how I had made all her things feel fresh and new.

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Transformed living room. Gone are my mother’s green couch, her favorite chair and ottoman, and an inherited overstuffed recliner. On the wall is the quilt I bought to bring joy into my office when I became dean at Athens Tech.

It was a fresh and new life for my mom and for me too. She wasn’t living in Baldwin where she’d lived since 1956. I wasn’t living with Richard with whom I had lived since 1982

Then my mom got sick and died.

That was over three months ago now, back at the end of March. It was just last June that I proposed the idea of moving to Georgia to my mom.  I have felt guilty about my mom dying so soon after we moved in together. I didn’t know six months ago if I’d be taking care of my mom for just a few years or for another ten years.  Would my life for the next decade be as a caretaker? How feeble would she get? When she died,  I had hardly taken care of her at all.

 

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The view from my new office (and my old bedroom). That’s the orange muddied North Oconee River way in the background.

My friend Suzie’s mom was in a hospital bed in their living room for several years. Linda drove into Atlanta every weekend for years and years to help her mom and dad. Diane can’t think of traveling without thinking about her mother’s care and so she doesn’t travel. How did I get off so easy in terms of care taking?

I realize now that it just is what it is. I didn’t make things happen this way nor did my mom. And I do miss her company. We were closer than we’d ever been. She was here always eager to hear my day’s adventures. We’d talk about the birds and what we read in the Times, which we were having delivered daily.

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The formica dinner table my family ate at every night at 6 pm, updated with three Ikea chairs.

Now I’m on the other side of that life.  My mother and I created a wonderful new home and then she left; pancreatic cancer wasn’t an easy way to do so. She gave me the love and the physical space to start this new life.

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My grandmother’s desk, my desk, and assorted decorations, many of which were in my Athens Tech office.

Some days are harder. Here I am, just about to turn sixty, and I’m starting fresh. There are tears that come and go. There’s fatigue from the past year. There’s a lot that I have – friends, family, love, things I like to do, causes I care about — but there’s also a lot of grieving that I’m doing, grieving for my mom and for the life with Richard that I’ve left behind.

Mary Chris came down from New York and helped me transform my home into “my place” rather than “my mom and my place” and into a pleasing, peaceful place I like being in.  Now the work and adventure of transforming myself continues.

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The expected bike pillow and the not-expected “Good Morning, Gorgeous” pillow Mary Chris thought would be both funny and a helpful daily affirmation for me.

 

 

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Simple observations on a rainy day

A rainy Memorial Day morning, and I’ve found a new space in my house, the front porch. I can sit outside, my tea beside me, the window open with NPR playing from the kitchen, the rain a steady soothing patter beside me.

fullsizeoutput_5b40Today is a day to clean, take stock, to write, to read, to make a few phone calls. A day for myself. No temptation to get in a bike ride or a Crossfit class. The gym is closed. In the past four days, I’ve ridden about 120 miles and completed one Crossfit class, so it’s even “right” to take a rest day.

I’m in my new life, so different from where I was a year ago. And I’m learning about myself and what I need and want in this new life. It’s been over a year since Richard and I were leading our normal married life. It’s been almost two months since my mother died. This is the first time in my life I am living alone.

I am very fortunate. I live alone but my life is full. I have Athens. My sister and I have discussed recently whether living in other places is like living in Athens. It’s such a rich life. Would that be the case for me anywhere else? What can’t be recreated are the connections and the history that have evolved over the last thirty-four years. And I care about Athens, so I can easily use my do-gooder tendencies here. Athens Tech filled that need for years. Now I have local political campaigns and Bike Athens and the Bike-Ped Master Plan citizen committee, and there are many more causes I could and might get involved with and would enjoy doing so.

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Last summer I was severely depressed, and nothing seemed to provide purpose. This summer I find purpose easily and contentedly. Yesterday I cycled with friends, worked on my bike, mowed the lawn, blew off the driveway, and that was a good day. I didn’t need anything else.

I am not sure what will happen next. This last year brought so many things I didn’t expect, so many more challenges. What I have learned is that I cannot control everything, but I can be aware of the base from which I lead my life and gain strength from that. My circles of friends and family are there. They won’t make the moments of fatigue, the moments of uncertainty, the moments of feeling sorry for myself, go away, but I can never say that I am alone. This year has proven to me that I have so many good people cheering me on and loving me.

And I have my bicycle. That sounds so simple, it is so simple. Last summer I returned to Athens from New York into the July heat. I went out on my Wednesday night ride and I had no strength. I couldn’t keep up. In my depressive state, I thought I had lost my biking and my biking world. But cycling brought me back to life. Back in New York after Anne’s Moroccan wedding, I needed the mental health effects of exercise and so I joined a spin gym just ten minutes from my mom’s house. I went every day. So simple, but it worked. The dark cloud lifted and hasn’t returned since.

fullsizeoutput_5b7fI know now with certainty what cycling does for me. It makes me happy. It is what brings me into the future. Sometimes I have to force myself to get out to one of our group rides. But once out, I’m always happy to be there. To be inching closer to sixty each day and have this fun thing in my life, how lucky I am. When we gather at our store stops at Good Hope, Dry Pond, or Bostwick, we are little different than the kids on the block I grew up with, just hanging out and having fun together and fullsizeoutput_5bd6mostly with a little less bickering that we did back on Silver Lake Place.  The bike brings me buddies, brings me nature, brings me adventures, brings me a cause.

Yesterday I replaced the pulleys on my derailleur. The original ones were cracked, and I thought it was a good idea to replace them before doing BRAG (the Bike Ride Across Georgia) in the North Georgia mountains next week. I’m trying to find a metaphor there but can’t. It was a simple activity, me learning to do something new.

If in my new life, I can find pleasure and fulfillment in small things, I think I have a pretty good life.  An important observation to note.

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A Bike Community Celebrates and Mourns

I look over the photos I took this weekend, and there’s so much warmth, beauty, joy, friendship, and happiness in them. Athens’ biggest bike weekend, Twilight Criterion weekend, Christmas for cyclists.

This year’s weather was the best I can remember, clear blue skies and temperatures reaching into the 70s, the intense heat and humidity holding off for another weekend. Friday afternoon I picked up one of the demo bikes that Specialized makes available fullsizeoutput_57e0through my bike shop Georgia Cycle. I had a $9500 Tarmac Disc Di2 to ride, something that will be ridden in the Tour de France in two months. I locked it up at home and grabbed my blue touring bike for the Bike Athens Friday Twilight Joy ride that left from city hall and meandered through neighborhoods promoting in-town bike transportation fullsizeoutput_5805and fun. Twelve-year old Sophia’s mom’s bike wasn’t working right, so I rode with Sophia and learned all about her equestrian activities on her thoroughbred. It was her mom’s idea to do the ride, but Sophia handled it just fine despite her too-small bike.

Afterwards we gathered at Little Kings for beer and small talk. I hung out with Bike Athens shop and Nitty Gritty buddy Don and met three“young people” – Adrienne, Thomas, and Robert. After my first beer spilled on the picnic table, the friendly bartender gave me a free replacement of the beer that Don had bought me, and we learned about Thomas’ and Robert’s GA environmental protection work and Adrienne’s water epidemiology research.

I told Tyler the registration for the September Six-Gap was open, and we got ourselves psyched about doing it – a perfect goal for my 6-0 birthday this year. 11,230 feet of vertical climbing over 103.8 miles.

By Saturday morning at 10 am, I was lined up along with about 300-400 others to ride the Gambler. In 1992 I rode my first Gambler, proudly finishing the 50k/32-mile route. I remember the sore hip that lingered for weeks after doing that ride. Fast forward from 34 to 59, and there was no choice but to do the 100K/64-mile route. This many years of bike riding around Athens means I have a large bike community, and during the ride there was always someone to ride with. Libby and I met up at the starting line and fullsizeoutput_5825chatted away until Smithsonia when she headed back toward town. I rode alone for another six miles to Watson Mill where I met up with Steve, one of my Wednesday night Nitty Gritty Bike Band buddies. So many miles of friendship and conversation. At the Devil’s Pond sag stop, Georgia Cycle Micah set up Strava on my phone so I could check my energy output on my fancy bike for the day. Between my crossfit regime and fullsizeoutput_583athe fancy bike I felt strong for the final twenty miles, despite the head wind.   Too bad I forgot to hit STOP on the Strava at the end of the ride – no stats for me.

I drove home for a quick shower and returned to watch the Twilight. Gathering by the Athena statue in front of the Classic Center has been a tradition since arriving in Athens, and Karen’s been there with me since we were there with just our first babies, Clare and Alice. Merin and Anne joined the families, we added more Athens Montessori families, the girls all grew up, and there we were last night, just Karen and me.  As usual, the race provided the atmosphere for our conversation and laughter. Libby and Bonnie joined us, and during the evening, others dropped in. I took a break fullsizeoutput_5853from our lawn chairs and visited in the Georgia Cycle corral, another branch of my cycling family. It’s all a roving bike Twilight cocktail party of sorts, time to catch up with old friends, make new ones. Sometimes we pay more attention to the race which passes just inches in front of us, forty laps for the women and eighty for the men. Sometimes we pay less attention. This was one of the “less” years.

In Athens this year, the poignancy of it all was highlighted by today’s Sunday ride, not part of the Twilight schedule. It was a ride in memory of fellow cyclist Karen Tinsley, theimg_1296-1 victim of an April 3 car-on-bike crash. A white ghost bike was placed on Astondale Road at the sight where she lost her life. The ride had been scheduled for two weekends ago but was rained out. In a way, it was better that it was today. The whole weekend was a celebration of the Athens bike world that Karen Tinsley part of. She should have been one of those people stopping by last night where I and Karen (Klingel) and I sat.

My fellow-mother-friend Karen was part of another one of Karen Tinsley’s Athens communities, her tennis family. In fact, the two Karens had played on the same tennis teams for years. Athens is like that, our worlds overlap; everyone seems like they are one person away from all of us. Karen K actually knew Karen T much better than I did, and it was Karen K who had forwarded me news of Karen’s death that I then shared with my bike world. Steve, who I rode with yesterday, knew Karen professionally from her UGA academic life where they both did community outreach work. These overlaps, these connections, are what make our lives in Athens so rich. Perhaps this happens everywhere, but it’s only the magic of the Athens community that I know.

Today we rode in Karen’s honor, in her memory. We all know that it could have been any of us that had last their life just weeks ago. I saw Karen’s partner Art weeping today at the crash site. Otherwise, it’s still hard for me to imagine that she is not alive. A year ago I returned from a very difficult tour leading experience and put a last-minute bike ride on the calendar for the following Sunday that left from the parking lot behind the Oconee img_1269County courthouse. Afterwards I wrote a blog post titled Healing Bike Love (May 6, 2017) in which I wrote,“ I was enveloped by love, friendship, laughter and happiness. How soothing and healing that was for my soul.” And then I thanked Georgia, Carmen, Evan, Melanie, John, Steve, and Karen for being there for me.

Karen, if it’s at all possible, I hope that you felt that bike love from all of us today.  The weekend was a nearly perfect celebration of bikes and you, rides and bike friends you would have loved being on and among. I wish you had been there with us. We miss you.

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A final note — I am so thankful for my Athens bike community and to have so many good bike buddies. We’ve covered so many miles of road and life together. Thanks for being there.

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https://www.redandblack.com/uganews/uga-remembers-karen-tinsley-s-passion-for-biking-improving-georgia/article_cf666b78-3b57-11e8-a615-3ba7de405a48.html

http://www.onlineathens.com/news/20180409/ugas-karen-tinsley-recalled-in-campus-memorial-service

 

 

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A Holy Place, Home

fullsizeoutput_56c9Home again but this time different again. It’s been a year of many differences, many changes.

I just completed 2080 miles driving up and down the east coast from Georgia to New York and back, and now I’m returning to start a new life.

In June 2017, I was up in New York too and took a short bike ride  from Baldwin over to Freeport on Long Island and returned to Silver Lake Place with enough bike riding endorphins that I suggested to my mother that she come down to Athens and that we live together. She had been sick once again and was very slowly recovering from a UTI. Illness, days of sleeping, old age were becoming too much for her – she had run out of the strength needed for living independently in the house we three siblings had all grown up in.

fullsizeoutput_56caFast forward to late September, and I was in Baldwin again, this time gathering the energy for packing up my mom’s house. Before I left for Morocco and Anne’s wedding in August, my mother had resisted even culling rows of books. “Later,” she would say. “We need to get Anne’s wedding done first.” She also needed time to let the idea of leaving New York and Baldwin sink in. It seemed pretty impossible from my perspective to pack up, move almost a thousand miles south to Athens, Georgia, and start a new life at ninety, even if it was a place you’d visited many times to see your granddaughters.

We moved slowly in late September, but in October, we got busy. I would empty out a cabinet and put things on the dining room table. A pile of things I thought worth taking, a pile to get rid of, and another pile for my mom to figure out. She’d shift things around, I’d pack things up for travel, giving away, or disposal, and then the next day we’d do it again. Mom had started letting people know about the move in August, but now it was time for some goodbyes, last lunches, a chat on the porch. Marilyn, our realtor, would come over to help make house-prep decisions before putting the house on the market. Donald helped me carry furniture to the curb and boxes of books down from the attic to the garage. Mary Chris and I worked together packing crystal and china. Nearly every day I drove over to Rockville Center for a spin class. At five, I’d walk through the park to my cousin Clare’s for happy hour on her screened porch.

fullsizeoutput_56d9Long Island life was feeling comfortable. I was back in my NY element. Marilyn was a Menching, a family of six, all of whom attended St. Christopher’s with Rosemary, Charlie, and me. Peter Menching and Charlie are still good friends; Marilyn was in Rosemary’s class. Donald, a retired NYC cop, was at Maria Regina High School with Charlie. Mary Chris and I have been friends since grammar school. Cousin Clare was always a bunch older than me but now that age difference disappeared. My cousins Nancy and Barbara visited on the porch with me and my mom. George would drop off his copy of Newsday each morning after reading it. Deacon Charles came by with communion for my mom. It was a new life in Baldwin, and just as I was moving my mom down South, I was becoming comfortable in New York again. I was hesitant to return to the South. A Yankee is never a Southerner, something that might sound strange to a Northerner but is not questioned if said down here. My people were Long Island Catholics and darked-haired New York Jewish kids, not blond Southern Baptists.

Still we left. There wasn’t a choice. And by the time that last Tuesday in October came and we pulled out on to Merrick Road and the Belt Parkway, we were ready to start our Southern adventure.

fullsizeoutput_56c7The most incredible thing was my mother. By the time we were crossing the Verrazano bridge, there was no more sadness. We were on a road trip. Going west toward Scranton, she looked out the windows at the sky and fields and loved it all. At the two hotels we stayed at, we had glasses of wine each night. We stopped to explore downtown Roanoke for lunch on day two. On day three, we meandered off the interstate for a few hours, and my mother had her first biscuit of the trip. That would become her thing – the search for another biscuit. By the time we got to the Georgia Welcome Center, I was grabbing brochures for ideas of trip to take my mom on, to the coast, to the mountains, over to Calloway Gardens.

My mother turned 91 in Athens two weeks after we arrived. She was a transformed woman – relaxed and happy. And we ended up being the best roommates. Easy-going and comfortable. I’d get her a coffee in the morning, bring in the New York Times, and help with breakfast. She had her chores to get down, things to unpack, bills to pay, letters to write. I’d go off into town and report back on the coffee I had with a friend, my meetings, or some music I’d go hear. My bike rides with friends were her chance to see the countryside though my photos and hear about the latest bike gossip. At night, we’d watch a little tv together – Vera, a British detective or the Great British Bake Off. Rosemary would come over for dinner or to just catch us up on her day. Every week or so, we’d take a ride in the country, adventures through my bike riding routes, or Rosie would take her out for a special treat.

fullsizeoutput_56d0Christmas came, and Clare and Alessandro were here from Paris, and Anne from Morocco. Charlie and Julianna drove down from Maine. We were creating new memories, new traditions.  In January, it was time for a little recovery from the holidays and our big move. I took off at the end of the month for a New York visit on my own, and Rosemary stayed with mom.  This was our new life.

And then poof, it all changed. One day Mom was just having another UTI and another slow recovery, and then days later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and we knew this meant a quick end. My father had died of pancreatic cancer twenty years before, two months after diagnosed. February and March became about my mother dying. She was so accepting and fairly content until that last week. She wanted a Catholic “happy death”. She got that, almost.  She was happy in having led a good life, having so many people she cared for, interests she’s pursued, causes and ideas that were important to her, and small pleasures that filled her days.fullsizeoutput_56cb

I was able to help her a lot this past year, and she helped me an awful lot, more than I ever imagined she would be able to. What I have not mentioned is that Richard and I split up this past year after many, many years of marriage. It is amicable; we are on friendly terms. But this past year was transformative and often traumatic.

I would never have said that my mom was my best friend. I didn’t share everything with her. But this year, I shared a tremendous amount with her. It wasn’t just words; in fact, it was mostly just being there for each other.

And now here I am, just ten months after I suggested to my mom that she move down here. I have come back once again to Georgia, and now she is not here. I am in a new home that she and I created together. It is a warm, homey place, full of sunshine and bird song, and now it is place full of some of the best memories I have of my mother. My friend Steve suggested that it was now a holy place because my mom died here. I think he is correct.

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Easter Week Holy Again

Happy Easter.  🐣🐇

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These are my mom’s Easter eggs, many of which she made herself. Clare reminded me to get them out, and so Wednesday, I sat in my mom’s room, opened up the boxes and made this display. It was such a pleasant, fun thing to do as my mother slept.
When she woke, I carried the green plate of them, with the stuffed bunny on it, over to my mom. Her eyes opened slightly, and I’d like to think she got a glimpse of them.
I look through photo albums and see yearly photos of us all dressed in our Easter outfits (see below). Then last night I went over the Easter vigil at the Catholic Center. Father Frank, who visited my mom several times prior to her death, was saying mass. He was the first one at our side when my mother died. I think it was the most special Catholic mass I’ve ever been too.
Sometimes a family member’s death on a holiday can make that holiday very difficult. For me it’s making Easter week holy again. Thanks, mom. She would like hearing that.
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My mom with my sister Rosemary

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Rosemary by the grape arbor

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My sister, brother Charlie, and me. At our cousins, The McCabes, for Easter.

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Another Easter at the McCabes with my mom and dad

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It’s Christmas in this one.

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Lots of photos were taken in the side yard. I must be about 9 in this one.

 

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Mom, Rosemary, and Dad in front of the house.

 

 

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Watching My Mother Die

It’s been over a month now that I have thought my mother might die within the next 24-48 hours.

I am lucky. I am 59, not 29. My mother is 91, not 60 nor 41 with life left to live. My mother is fairly peaceful, pain-free and not highly medicated. My mother is living with me, and either I or my sister are with her every hour of the day. I am sitting here in a cushioned chair just feet from the bottom of the hospital bed where she sleeps. To my left, there are double glass doors out to a tiny deck from which a bird feeder and suet feeder hang. A goldfinch perches just eight feet from me for an afternoon treat. His goldfinch family joins him on the branches close by. Next to my mother sleeping, a clear bird feeder is suction cupped w6waBlPnSYWuhG7Qd24jYg_thumb_3ec8to the window. A Carolina chickadee, a tufted titmouse, a cardinal, and a cowbird feed there throughout the day. One of our favorite photos of my mom is from around 1990. She is sitting on a picnic table bench in the Baldwin backyard. A bluebird has landed on her hand. She is delighted.

Just now, my mom moaned a bit in pain. There’s a sore spot on her tail bone. She has lost so much weight that she no longer has much cushioning on her behind. As I leaned over to adjust the pillows and then pushed the button to lower the back of the bed, the tufted titmouse landed to grab a bark butter bit I just put out; my mom nods that she sees it too.

When my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on February 22, my sister and I JEcPXZ1fTRWVa9jncBN9hA_thumb_3ecedidn’t think she’d be alive at the end of that month. She had already been sick enough that the previous week I had called the funeral home, prior to her cancer diagnosis, to see how to proceed when she died. My dad died of pancreatic cancer in 1995. He was a healthy 71-year old before he was diagnosed on June 5 and died two months later to the day. My bosom friend Maggie had colon cancer. It was only in her last month that the decline was significant, and then she was gone. My mother started off far older and far weaker than either my dad or Maggie, but her last days have gone on for much longer.

When we started this journey over a month ago, my mother could spend a few hours in this chair. She would look at the front section of the New York Times and eat a quarter or two of a grilled cheese sandwich. That was in the morning. Early afternoon came, and she slept and slept. We would help her to the toilet using her rollator and then Rosemary went out to Rite Aid and bought a bedside commode. That was days before we decided to go to the St. Mary’s emergency room where kind Dr. Neil Priest came out into the hallway and asked me if my mother had ever had cancer before.

Within twenty-four hours, hospice had set up a hospital bed in her room with one of those hospital tables that can be rolled over the bed. We waited for the hospice transport f+fV8peKQyepgzfHSypiMw_thumb_3ecato take mom home to her death. Mom had known she was very weak and elderly, but we had thought she needed to be in the hospital just for hydration and nutrition after a difficult-to-beat UTI. When we heard that it could be another four hours before the transport home arrived, I made the decision to just drive my mom home, just like I had driven her over there two days previously. In fact, with the IV drip, she was stronger leaving than when we arrived. But now we knew we were going home to the end of her life. With the help of a hospital volunteer, mom got into my Prius and we took a winding way home to see more of the early spring color that had opened up.

At home we started our new reality. During her good hours in the morning, she talked to close friends and family telling them of her news. She reassured them, telling them that she felt calm and accepting, two words I hadn’t expected to come out of my mother’s life x9n4tV4rSUe1gmYGST86PA_thumb_3ec7as she closed in on death. Soon she would switch the conversation and ask, “What’s going on with you?” She amazed us with her calmness. Always, though, once noon passed her energy drained away, and she slept and became weaker. The pounds were shedding off her. Each night Rosemary and I would peak in her room to check whether her chest was still going up and down with each breath.

The first week was full of our new Hospice cast. Amanda, the sweet home health nurse, who had started in late November with twice weekly visits was replaced by Krista and Linda, the Hospice nurses who checked her vitals twice a week; Jennifer and Cathy, the aides who gave mom her twice weekly baths; Robin, the social work; the Hospice chaplains, David and Craig; and then Father Frank, the Franciscan priest from the Catholic Center.  New processes for mom and Rosemary and me to adjust too. Lots of activities for all. The days passed before we knew it and mom lived on.

The oncologist had advised that family come soon so that they would be here before my mom was non-communicative. He was right. My brother Charlie flew down from Maine. Rosemary, Charlie, and I became a team, sometimes smooth working, sometimes worn out with ourselves and each other. There was my mother’s care, but there were also the worlds inside each of our heads and the new reality that was coming up upon us three. Both my daughters Clare and Anne are very close with my mother, and both live overseas. But it’s only Clare whose work can move with her. She booked a flight from Paris to Newark to Atlanta and spent two weeks here. My cousin Nancy hadn’t been on a plane in about fifteen years, but she maneuvered the world of Internet booking and spent a long weekend with us. Each of their visits was important for them to make, to give them a time to say goodbye to my mom, to care for her, to support Rosemary and me. With each of their visits, we wondered if my mom would be alive when they left, but she kept going like she continues to do so now.

l92edxC9QzCqWDLe1mOv4g_thumb_3ed5My mom got to hear from Charlie about what his kids — Hagen, Ella, and Ford– are up and to reminisce about the days she sat in the bleachers watching all Charlie’s baseball games and about how she let Charlie ride his bike with his friend Peter out to Montauk when he was just sixteen. I’m not sure we were even wearing helmets then. With Nancy, mom talked of places in Manhattan and about her mother and father. The weekend Nancy visited Mom had had a surprisingly strong Saturday. She wanted to walk into the living room and watch an episode of Vera, the BBC mystery that my mother and I had become addicted to.  Before she went to sleep for the night, I threw out the idea of a Sunday drive as a possibility. Morning came, and she was eager, so we wheel-chaired her to the car and drove through the countryside to Watson Mill Bridge Park. That would be her last time out of the house.

My mother’s relationships with both my daughters have always been special. Clare used to spend a week or so up on Long Island with my mom each summer. My mother would send her home with a scrap book. This visit was even more special. Clare is a great cook and made my mom NYTimes chicken pot pie and some chicken and fish cakes, all of which my mother had requested, though she only took the tiniest helpings of each. My mother had Clare read to her, a reversal of Clare’s early years when of course my mom read to Clare. The started with Henry James, my mother asking for Clare to turn to certain sections of A Portrait of a Lady. A day or so later, Clare was reading poetry to her and then the light-hearted P.G. Woodhouse short stories. Another of the last days my mom made it out of her bedroom, she and Clare spent a few hours looking at the birds on the deck.

Now those days seem like dreams from a distant past. My mother hasn’t been out of bedaFHKy5JuSUmsIhwZ71SqxQ_thumb_3ed4 in over a week. Last Thursday she got a catheter, so the pee goes neatly into a plastic bag hanging from the side of the bed. Rosemary and I take care of her other custodial care, cleaning her up like I did my daughters so many years ago. We wash her face and feed her ice cream and pudding and guide a straw to her lips so she can sip some water, milk, juice, coke, ginger ale or Carnation breakfast drink. A couple of weeks ago I bought a cordless bell at Lowe’s, very helpful but now mom can hardly push the ringer. As I sit here typing, she’ll whisper “drink, drink.” I get up again and again to adjust the army of pillows that we retain to support her in different positions. My crossfit training is getting used, as I kneel upon the bed, engage my abdomen, straighten my back, and hoist mom up a few inches  so her feet stop pressing up on the foot of the bed.

For the last few days, she’s been restless and more agitated, wondering if we will offer her food or if we have taken her chocolate. “I’d take medicines if they would offer me any,” she said to the nurse yesterday. At times she has obsessed on her dentures, insisting we don’t lose them and then trying again and again to get them in herself.

My mother does take some medications but very few really. Her nausea has eased up during the day, something Krista told us happens as people come closer to death. God’s gift to the dying, she said. Right now, there’s a 1 ml of haloperidol at night along with a 1-mg tab of lorazepam, both to quiet restlessness and allow her to sleep through the night. On occasion during the day, we give her a tiny white anti-nausea pill or a docusate to avoid constipation, a common problem for the dying.

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Last week, I was getting worn out and restless from the waiting. My Saturday bike ride cleared my head and revitalized me for this last stretch. I now know that each death is really different. There is a comparison between birth and death. The entrance into this life and exit out of it are sacred times, both for the person experiencing the moment and for those greeting and saying farewell. To care for a person at both ends is a gift, to see life begin and end. To experience its grace, its hard work, its power, its sadness, its joy. So many people die alone. To be with my mom through this process is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done for my mom. But births, though incredibly hard for the mother, happen in hours or at most days, not in days and weeks and months like death.

Each time the nurse comes by, I ask questions searching to understand what goes on physically as one dies. It’s futile, but you want to have some control and be ready. And though I’m here beside my mother so often, there still is no way to know what she is experiencing. At this stage she is too weak to tell, and she seems too weak to really know or to be afraid herself. Her goal seems to be to get through each moment. She is ready for death. Her body is hanging on, but it will soon be gone too.

After all these weeks, I finally feel calm just waiting.

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The Southern Tier as Solace – A Year Later

I have spent the last few days editing and deleting my many photos from my Southern Tier cross-country bike ride last spring. As the title of this post suggests, doing so has helped me as I care take my mother during the last days of her life. I pull up the photos and use my gut to delete and crop and edit photos. The process is simple and has given me something to do during down moments when there aren’t chores to do.

The five short (approx 5 minutes) video slideshows are posted on YouTube at the following links:

Southern Tier 1 – San Diego to Phoenix   –  https://youtu.be/jagpVBsG7VY

Southern Tier 2 – Phoenix to El Paso – https://youtu.be/gjCeIL9k1zc

Southern Tier 3 – Texas – https://youtu.be/XqTxvnrSzgU

Southern Tier 4 – Louisiana and Mississippi  – https://youtu.be/SHvNbkA6emk

Southern Tier 5 – Alabama and Florida –  https://youtu.be/IT8lygQExUQ

A year ago I was in the Southwest. On St. Patrick’s Day I was cycling through an Apache reservation, a beautiful day until a wild, perhaps rabid, wolf came out from the dry ditch on the north side of the highway and started chasing me with his open mouth ready to clamp down on my leg if only he could run a little faster or wear me out.  He didn’t maul me to death as I imagined at the moment he would. Some cars on the road chased him away, and I survived to continue my ride and first tour leading experience, an Adventure Cycling van-supported ride across the Southern Tier from San Diego to the Florida coast.  A year later, I’ve finally finished editing my photos from the ride.

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The trip was a tumultuous one, full of goodness and good times and good people, but also full of the opposite. It’s taken me a long time to be able to or to want to look through all my photos carefully.  Now though the pain has gone. I’ve gotten the resolution I needed from Adventure Cycling, my faith in the organization partially restored.  My self-confidence has been restored and even grown stronger .

fullsizeoutput_468dThese past few days the photos have been my solace as I sit beside my mother watching her get closer and closer to death.  She moved down to Georgia at the start of November. We moved into Walt’s house down the street from where Richard and I lived for so many years. Instead of the move being a traumatic one for her, it was a transformative one.

Who would have thought that at 91, you could move out of the home you’d lived in for sixty-two years and away from the New York city area where you’d lived your whole life, and it would be a wonderful experience. When we were still in NY sorting through her life’s belongings, I didn’t believe my mom when she said she was looking forward to the move, but she wasn’t just exaggerating to make her daughter feel better. From the day we drove off Long Island over the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island and then headed west across Pennsylvania to Highway 81, she was happier than I’d seen her in years.

fullsizeoutput_4691By the time we got to the Georgia border, I stopped at the welcome center to grab brochures about attractions in the mountains and at the coast we could later visit. Once in Athens, she loved the new house, the birds that came to visit us, the drives in the country or through Athens’ neighborhoods, and especially the biscuits.  Clare and Anne came from Paris and Morocco to visit at Christmas as did my brother and his family from Maine. New traditions were started.

But then at the end of January she started getting weaker. In mid-February my sister and I took her to St. Mary’s Hospital and within hours she was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.  My dad died of the same thing twenty-three years ago. We knew the disease and that my mother did not have long.

Now, almost a month later, we are waiting for my mom to die. Our hospice nurse Linda visits twice a week, and aids comes two days a week as well to bathe my mom. The rest of the caretaking is done by my sister and me.  My brother is here now on his second visit from Maine, my daughter Clare came over from Paris for two weeks, and my cousin Nancy came down as well from NYC. They have all helped tremendously with my mother’s  care

Being with someone as they die is to be in a special place of clarity and love. I was fortunate to be with my dad when he died in 1995 and then with my friend Maggie when she died almost seven years ago. You see life clearly, know what’s important.  Being with them made me comfortable with death and the dying. I don’t really believe in an afterlife, but I do know that there’s an energy that appears as someone dies, that emits from the transformation of life into death. Perhaps there is something afterward. It doesn’t really matter to me. Though we are just short sparks of life in the enormity of the universe, the lives we live are precious. That, I know is true.

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Posted in Bike touring, Dying, Life lessons, life transition, Uncategorized | 6 Comments