Seeking My Best Self

trying to make sense of my life – and lose some weight

Eulogy for Mom

07atiyeh 48web

Mom & Me, 2007

Mom died on December 7, 2014. She slipped in the shower, hit her temple, and passed immediately. A freak accident. A totally unexpected loss. My last parent – gone.

We held services this Monday, December 15, 2014. My daughter, a Lutheran seminarian, gifted us with lovely liturgical service at the cemetery in the morning, while my brother’s church poured out their love with a beautiful praise service in the afternoon. Nicholas sang at both, and Gabriel and Hanna provided scripture readings. I gave the eulogy. It was a family affair – which is just how Mom would have wanted it.

Here is the eulogy:

“We’ve all seen families torn apart by greed after a family death. Otherwise loving people turn ugly when it comes time for inheritance. Not my brother. As we sat together in Mom’s living room on that terrible day of her passing, his eyes wandered slowly around, and then he spoke. “Cherie, I know that you’ve always wanted it, so it’s yours…

…you can have Mom’s dustbuster.”

Anyone who knew Mom more than five minutes knows that she had a penchant for ‘clean’. One might even gently, and with great love, call it an obsession. And yes, this quirk could be exasperating. But we all have quirks. What Mom also had was a huge heart filled with love for everyone. She expressed it through true Syrian hospitality – which meant that every person who walked through her door was automatically ‘family.’ Welcome. Loved. And expected to eat, and eat a lot.

She was a woman who loved to laugh. She had a great sense of humor (my brother inherited it from her.)  I loved to make her laugh, and did so the last time I talked with her. After I hung up the phone, I told Bryan, “I guess when it comes to our mothers, we never grow up. Robin Williams became a comedian because when he was a little boy, he made his mom laugh, and he wanted to do it again and again. He craved his mother’s approval. And so do I. Still. At age 57, making my mom laugh matters more to me than almost anything else.” It made my day, and I think it made hers, too. I’m glad that’s my last memory of Mom.

Mom was a voracious reader. She especially loved romance novels. She, her sister Lyn and my daughter Ariel traded them around like baseball cards. It was a hobby that drew them close. Mom liked her family to be close. Most of her life centered around family. She loved her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, and talked often of them. She believed that she was the one who nicknamed Isabelle ‘Izzy’. It tickled her to believe so.

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Mom & Me 2008

Speaking of grandchildren. Some of you know that Mom had some mild dementia in the past couple of years. Thinking back, I realize it must have manifested far earlier than I realized: about the time the grandchildren came along. You see, things that were REALLY important to her when Mike & I were growing up suddenly slipped her mind when it came to the grandkids.

For example, when I was a child, I had to have the contents of the refrigerator memorized, because I had about 1.2 seconds to open, grab, and close the door. Any longer, and Mom would be unhappy with me – and she could hear that door from ANY part of the house.

But I remember the day when my youngest, Nicholas, toddled into the kitchen with his cousin, David. They told Grandma they were hungry. She walked them to the refrigerator and opened the door.

“What would you like?” she asked.

“I no know,” Nick replied.

They proceeded to point to EVERY container in that refrigerator. “Whatsat?” they asked. And Mom patiently told them. Over and over. The door was open for at least two minutes. At the time, I wondered who this person was, and what she’d done with my Mom.

On another occasion, David & Eric were terribly ill – vomiting & diarrhea. Corinna was exhausted and ill herself. Mom called, and when she discovered what was going on, she & Dad went over there, packed the up kids, and brought them back to her home – brought these ultimate mess machines into her tidy home – and cared for them until they – and Corinna – were well.

Mom 2014

Mom 2014

So, either an alien abduction/swap thing happened, or Mom was a bit confused even back then. Or I suppose it could have been her extravagant love for her grandchildren.

Mom was a very organized person. She worked as a bookkeeper for United Grocers for many years. She helped me with my filing and books when I first started my photography studio. I also asked her to write my thank-you notes to my clients, because her hand writing was beautiful. I think it was a peek into the artistic person that lived inside.

I was far into adulthood before I saw much of that side of my mother. I learned that she was a bit of a rebel in her teen years. For example, in the mid-1950’s, cashmere sweaters were ‘the’ fashion statement, but my grandparents were very thrifty people, and didn’t approval of frivolous spending. Mom was undeterred. She would buy a new sweater, leave it in the bottom of her drawer for a month, and then wear it.

“Is that a new sweater?” my grandmother would ask.

“No, Mom,” she would reply. “I’ve had it for a long time.” She didn’t lie to her parents, but she was creative!

Some of you may not know that Dad was not my biological father. My mom eloped with a sailor at age 17 (he was barely 18.) I found a copy of the marriage certificate – she lied about her age! The witnesses were two of her best high school friends. I occasionally heard stories about the antics of these three girls, but this was their most madcap adventure.

Mom & Dad's wedding day

Mom & Dad’s wedding day

Like many adventures, it was ill-advised. She returned to my grandparent’s home two or three years later with me in tow. Then she met Dad, who bore a striking resemblance to a Marlboro man, married him, had another child, and happily lived her life.

Dad adored Mom. He loved this sometimes irascible, exotic beauty. To the day of his death, he treated her like his own fairy princess. When Dad died, a big part of Mom died, too. I don’t think she ever really recovered.

Her passing is way too soon. My family is extraordinarily long-lived, and I expected another decade or two to enjoy her. It reminds me to appreciate everyone now, in this moment, because there is no guarantee of future moments. I loved my mom, and I know you all did, too. I will miss her. Oh, how I will miss her.”

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Learning to Call it Life

broken heartIn my last post, I talked about my recent heart episode: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a misshaping of the heart that causes symptoms similar to an infarction. Also known as broken heart syndrome and stress cardiomyopathy, it’s caused by…stress. High stress. High stress with a kicker event. That’s what happened to me.

I’ve mostly recovered physically. I’m still working on lowering my activity levels. During the month I spent convalescing, my ridiculous, overloaded schedule was spread out amongst (many) others. Recently, I’ve noticed the load shifting my way again. It’s partly my fault, as I’ve actively taken things back. It’s partly not my fault, as others send their work my way.

Actually, that’s incorrect. Truth is, it’s ALL my fault, both the items I’ve reached for AND the items that are handed to me. It’s my responsibility to say ‘no’ – both to others and to myself.

That’s not easy. It seems there are too many tasks and too little time in this busy world. Shouldn’t everyone, myself included, just buck up and take on a little more? The answer is NO. If we have too much to do and too few hands, then some tasks just shouldn’t get done.

Heresy! Blasphemy! Horror! That’s not the American way. We’ve built our country on hard work and a willingness to attempt the impossible. But our can-do American spirit has gone awry. We’ve moved from stepping up for a brief time to get a job done to viewing an impossible-to-maintain-pace as the norm. We’ve become a society that runs on cortisol, to the detriment of our bodies and minds.

The average American works 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than British workers, and 499 more hours than French workers. Every European country mandates a minimum of 20 paid vacation days every year; we are the only country that has no mandated vacation. Our breakneck clip isn’t the norm: it’s grossly abnormal compared to the rest of the world.

So I’m learning to pay attention to my pace. I’m learning that a time of increased effort must be followed by a longer time of leisure. For every hour of activity (work or play), I must allocate an hour of inactivity. Reading. A movie. A leisurely stroll. Playing on the floor with my dog. Something that requires no goal, no measuring stick, no reward for doing it faster. Some may call this sloth. I’m learning to call it life.

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Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy – WHAT?

takotsuboRight after my last post, I suffered an episode of Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s not an emotional condition, but a physical one that mimics a heart attack. I had crushing chest pain radiating into my left arm, plus excruciating pain in my right jaw that was as painful as my chest. (When I went to the hospital, I discovered that right jaw pain is common enough to be a check-the-box item on the ER heart attack list.)

The official name is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The cause is not infarction, but a bulging of the left ventricular apex with hypercontraction of the left ventricle. This causes a misshaping of the heart that resembles an octopus trap, called ‘tako tsubo’ in Japan, where the condition was first noted.

The cause is not definitively known, but it’s usually a one-time occurrence in response to acute stress. It’s hypothesized that a large jolt of adrenaline in resonse to a highly stressful event stuns or shocks the heart. It’s most common in post-menopausal women (over 90% of the cases, in fact) whose heart protective levels of estrogen have waned.

The good news is that there is rarely heart damage as a result of the episode, and recovery is usually 100% after a few weeks recuperation.

The bad news is, medical personnel are unfamiliar with the condition. Why? Perhaps because it affects women. Perhaps because it affects OLD women. Perhaps because it was first diagnosed in the 1990’s, and doctors haven’t kept up with new medicine.

The ER doctor rolled her eyes when I asked if takotsubo cardiomyopathy was a possible diagnosis. (Bryan first suggested it. It was part of his medical training in the Army, because front-line troops are a large part of the other 10% who suffer an episode.) She clearly had never heard of it.

Plus, she was offended that I was taking an active voice in my own care. I run into that a lot. In the 1990’s, a nurse injected me – over my objections – with a substance to which I am deathly allergic. Afterward, I refused to pay any part of the hospital bill, including the very costly resuscitation. Not surprisingly, they were more than happy to acquiese, once I told them I wouldn’t sue if they did.

Back to the present. The doctor’s ignorance affected my care, because once it was determined that I hadn’t suffered an infarction (even thought I’d clearly suffered SOME type of heart event) she sent me home. It took almost 3 weeks for the cardiologist to work me into his busy schedule, by which time, according to the Mayo Clinic and other sources, most symptoms would have vanished (they had) and the heart returned to its normal shape.

I can’t help thinking that if I had been male, they would have found an earlier appointment. The cardiologist never even suggested takotsubo cardiomyopathy as a possibility. It was only after I brought it up that he ordered tests – which, I pointed out, would likely be inconclusive more than a month after the fact. Indeed. It wound up being a diagnosis of exclusion rather than a prognosis based on evidence.

Rant over about the poor state of medical care in America. (But we can’t have SOCIALIZED medicine. Because people might have to wait.) Rant truly over now. The moral of this story is: take an ACTIVE role in your health care. Don’t depend solely upon medical personnel. They are not all-knowing. They can and will miss important things about YOUR health.

But definitive diagnosis vs. diagnosis by elimination isn’t the point. The point is, what am I going to do about the ridiculous stress levels that led to the event? Stay tuned. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

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Twelve Years Ago Today

leeTwelve years ago today, my husband took his life. Twelve years, and it still feels like a knife in my heart, like glass in my stomach. Loved ones NEVER get over suicide. Never. It changes our lives forever. I understand the hideous pain he endured, because with one shot of his gun, he transferred it to me to carry to the end of my days.

If you are depressed and considering suicide – TELL SOMEONE. Seek help. The ‘solution’ you are considering will destroy those around you.

For the rest of us, DONATE TO RESEARCH to conquer depression, the great killer of our age. There’s promising work out there, but it needs funding. Here’s just one example: Quinolinic Acid linked to Suicide.

And remember, it’s not a mental illness. It’s a physiological one.‪#‎endthestigma‬

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The Only Weapon I Have

robinR. is the nephew of one of my dearest friends (and by strange coincidence, close childhood buddy of Bryan) – by all accounts a creative genius, caring friend, loving person.

Today at age 28, his life ended. At his own hand.

I don’t know many particulars about R. I didn’t know him personally. I do know that he suffered from a physiological disease called depression that those afflicted will do anything – ANYTHING – to escape.

This morning, before I heard the news, I watched Robin William’s appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was brilliant, as always. Funny. Occasionally quiet and thoughtful. I’ve had a schoolgirl crush on him since the Mork & Mindy days, and as I watched, I wept to think of him forever removed from my world. Perhaps, I thought, it was time for me to talk openly about my experience as a suicide survivor (the phrase commonly used to describe those who have lost a loved one to self-death.) Maybe I might dissuade someone who was contemplating permanent relief from their relentless agony.

I’m not wondering anymore. Hearing the news about R, I know it’s time to speak and write openly, because depression is a killer that leaves desolation in its wake. I choose to engage this foe with the only weapon I have – my story. Perhaps the telling will dissuade others from seeing suicide as an analgesic. Perhaps it will stir research into depression and other illnesses. If nothing else, I hope it will cause people – perhaps you, dear reader – to donate to such research.

I have writing to do. And praying. Please pray for R’s family. Thank you.

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A World With Less

robinRobin Williams died today, apparently at his own hand. I am reminded of the worst day of my life, the day my husband did the same. I am more than reminded. I find myself thrown into deep grief, because both were men who brightened and lightened the lives of others, yet were unable to do so for themselves.

It’s been almost twelve years, but I still recall the moments and the reaction.

The reaction was universal shock. Lee was well-known and well-loved in our hometown. He made his friends – and everyone was his friend – feel valuable, safe, protected. He brought levity and love to any situation. The shock waves over his death expanded outward and outward and outward. Even years later, people express disbelief and sorrow.

I try not to dwell on the specific moments, but they are there, always hovering just below the surface, ready to rise. I neither encourage nor prevent, but let them be what they are. Often they emerge as one large surge, which crashes and quickly dissipates upon the shore. Other times, they roll and roll, and I concentrate on being a boat – bobbing but not tipping. Today, though, I am swamped by continuous waves that swell and storm around me. Today, Xanax is my friend.

Did his wife suspect that Robin was capable of such an action, or was she, like me, shocked to find him so desperate? Did she also try to dissuade him from that last, terrible deed?

Am I sobbing over her tragedy, or over mine? Or is there really any difference? A beloved man has lost his way, and the result is a world with less joy, less love, less Robin, less Lee – a world with less.

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Family Matters

mikecorinnaIt’s been two months since I last posted. My brother has had a miraculous recovery from his stroke. He’s not *there* yet, still attending both PT and OT, but he’s back to work (for me!) and feeling good. He has lost 50 pounds in these two months, with a goal for another 50 by years’ end. That’s a dramatic loss, but he’s doing it in a healthy and measured way, and it’s his best defense against future stroke events.

My sister-in-law, Corinna, also jumped on the health bandwagon – and she’s also lost 50 pounds. It’s been so much fun to watch her explore new foods – discovering that cherries and other fruits are DELICIOUS. That salads can be a fun and filling dinner. In fact, I ate much better when I stayed with them – maybe I should move back!

The month I stayed with them allowed us to reconnect and deepen our relationship.  It was the silver lining in the stroke storm-cloud. Why did we allow geographic separation – and only 60 miles – to cause such emotional distance? As far as I’m concerned, this is the person  for whom the song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” was written. I would walk any road for my baby brother – no matter how long. I’m sorry it took such a traumatic event to bring us back together.

I am determined not to let it happen again.

 

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Wake-Up Call

mikeMy baby brother (he’s only fifty-one) called me Sunday before last. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get together tomorrow,” he said. “I think I’m having a silent migraine. I have tunnel vision and I just can’t seem to keep my balance. I’m so fuzzy-headed, I’m having to really concentrate to talk.”

“Those could also be stroke symptoms, Mike,” I replied. “Maybe you should go get that checked out.”

“Oh, I’ll be fine. If they don’t go away in a day or two, I’ll see a doctor.”

On Monday, he was in the ER. He was admitted and spent four days in the hospital. He did, indeed, have a stroke, and in addition, he was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes.

The doctors had good news and bad news. The good news is, he’s likely to make a complete recovery. The bad news is, without significant lifestyle changes, he has a good chance of recurrence.

So I’m staying with him for a while so his wife can go back to work. I’m cooking for us all, and helping Mike with therapy and exercise. The diet is familiar – the one I’ve been imperfectly trying to implement over the past year-and-a-half. I’m not missing the mark now, though. This was a wake-up call for us all.

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Super Sleep

DSCF7541Last time I visited my doctor, she asked me how many hours I slept each night.

“Between seven and eight hours,” I said.

“You need nine hours of sleep,” she informed me. “Latest research shows that people should sleep nine hours each night for optimal health.” She looked sternly over her glasses at me. “Nine hours.”

The thing is, I don’t set an alarm. I haven’t for years (no one wants to be photographed at 7 am.) Most nights, I’m asleep between 10-11 pm. And most mornings, I’m awake between 6-7 am. To sleep nine hours, it seems like I’d need sleeping pills, so I decided to do a little research.

We have at least two phases of sleep. The first, called deep sleep, is where our brain processes our short term memories into long term storage. We only have a twenty-four hour window to complete this process, so if we don’t get enough deep sleep, the memories are lost forever.

The second phase is REM sleep. During this phase, our bodies are paralysed, but our eyes can – and do – move. Hence the name: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep our brains process everything that happened the day before, and to keep us calm while it processes, a chemical called noradrenalin shuts off.

If we don’t get enough REM sleep, our brain doesn’t have time to deal with everything we experienced, our bodies don’t get enough non-noradrenalin time, and we become stressed and anxious.

Sleep studies have shown that humans are hard-wired for a minimum of seven hours sleep. Less sleep means higher inflammation (arthritis) and stress, impaired immune response, and greater activity in genes that are associated with cancer and diabetes.

What about those people who claim to need only four hours of sleep a night? They’ve been studied. They are not wired differently than the rest of us. They perform better and are healthier with more than seven hours of sleep. By shortening their sleep cycle, they’re setting themselves up for poor physical and emotional health, not to mention accelerated aging.

This is true for people who sleep only six-and-a-half hours, too. That extra hour or two is crucial. We can’t do an end-run around sleep, not without paying the price.

It’s time to end the myth that those who need less sleep are somehow more productive (and virtuous.) It’s a lie. It’s a product of the protestant work ethic gone awry.

Back to my doctor’s recommendation. Nine hours? I’ve experimented with laying in bed for that extra hour. About half the time, I fall back asleep. I feel GREAT when I awaken. I think I’ll stay with this experiment until it’s habit.

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Blog Disruption

_DSC1409In the past three weeks, I haven’t lost weight. Despite regular exercise, my shape is largely unchanged. Panic time, right? NO. I’ve been doing the work I needed to do – my mental and spiritual selves are transformed. They are leaner, stronger, tougher.

I’m rediscovering discipline, rising early each morning,  exercising, and then going to the studio to work and write. My routine isn’t perfect (yet.) For example, I’m good about coming to the studio right after exercising each day. (Good job, Cherie!) However, my nutritional supplements are at home. By the time I get home in the evening, I’ve forgotten all about them.

The solution is obvious: bring the supplements to the studio. And I will. I’m just surprised how many adjustments are necessary for ‘routine’ to become routine.

Moving my main computer from home to studio caused a ****blog disruption**** (Avert your eyes, children.) It’s taken three weeks to find my way back. Yeesh! On the other hand, I have been writing. I’m finishing the final stories for my flash fiction book, and consulting with artist Cher Odum for illustrations.

My next project, a full length novel, is pushing its way impatiently to my forebrain. In fact, the protagonist whispers in my ear constantly, giving me his perspective on the world, on politics, on religion. It’s disconcerting – and very, very interesting.

I’ve written and given the homily for Wednesday night Eucharist for the past three weeks. I’ll be on a two-week rotation now. The tradition for Wednesday nights is to discuss the lives of saints. Delving into their spiritual perspectives has been inspirational – and occasionally outraging. Did you know the current mainstream belief that we are hopeless sinners that Christ came to ‘save’ by dying a horrific death was ramrodded into canon by one man, who bullied and persecuted anyone who had a different perspective?

Grrrrr. Sorry, I’m getting religious AND political, and this is supposed to be a personal improvement blog. But. Grrrrrr. Just grrrrr.

The point is, I’m engaged. I’m active physically, mentally and spiritually, and it feels good.

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