I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Skydiving, swimming, and sunshine

Yesterday I had a really full day in the Florida sunshine. It started with swimming 20 laps in the community pool here at Betmar Acres with my sister Norma Jean. She swims anywhere from 42 to 54 laps and I feel quite intimidated trying to keep up. I haven't swum laps in a pool for thirty years, but I found that once I had good goggles and ear plugs, I could manage to swim several laps before I had to stop to catch my breath. I don't remember how to pace myself quite yet. Today I'll try to swim ten before having to stop. Going slow and steady is the trick.

Then my friend Jennifer, who jumps at Skydive Snohomish with me and Smart Guy and hasn't jumped for two months, is in Florida to attend a conference and joined me at Skydive City here in Zephyrhills for two skydives yesterday. The sun was almost too intense, the weather being more than five degrees warmer than normal and more humid. We were both sweating as we walked to the plane and went up into the cool, clear air at altitude. It was a wonderful day, and we made two fun skydives together. That's her on the right, me on the left in the above picture, coming back after our first jump.

The funny thing is, I was more apprehensive about the swimming activity, since it is not a very comfortable and well known pursuit, and skydiving tends to be much more familiar, with me having accumulated more than 65 hours of freefall time. I know it might seem odd to those who don't skydive (the vast majority of people), but I look forward to learning and remembering how to breathe, stroke, and exercise while in water as a new and exciting skill. It's so fascinating for me to watch Norma Jean and her morning companion, 80-year-old Midge, swim constantly for almost an hour without stopping. And I can continue this activity once I return home, since the YMCA has an Olympic sized pool.

If I had the wherewithal to maintain two residences, one in Bellingham and one in Zephyrhills, I might consider it to be close to Norma Jean and Skydive City during the winter months. But frankly, I'd miss the snowshoe trips with the Senior Trailblazers and my gym companions very much. Not to mention Smart Guy, because in no scenario in my mind do I see this being a place where he would be comfortable. So, perhaps I will come to visit Norma Jean for a couple weeks in the dark of winter and spend time swimming with her, sharing together, and making a few skydives, just to keep my knees in the breeze. That makes sense, doesn't it?

I've been here in Florida for ten days now, and it is amazing to me how my life in Bellingham has slipped into the background. While the sun shines here and I sit in air-conditioned comfort in Zephyrhills,  the wind blows and sub-freezing temperatures in Bellingham keep Smart Guy inside and the birds eating us out of house and home. I have another ten days here. I plan to enjoy it all to the max, and once I head back to Washington state and we circle Seattle's Space Needle in the airplane, this place with all its warmth and sun will recede and become a cherished memory.

Norma Jean has not yet found a new dog, although she has been looking. She wants to rescue a chihuahua or two on her way to wholeness. We will have accomplished that before I leave, I hope. Then I will be joining her and the rest of my family in Texas for a week at the end of March so that the rest of the family can reach closure about Pete's passing and mark the shift in the family dynamics. Little Lexie will also meet her Texas relatives, too. It's a full time in my life and in the life of all the Stewarts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Florida Stewarts

Although the reason for me being here in Florida is difficult, the family visiting is wonderful. Here's Allison reading to Lexie, who is now eight months old. She's a delight to behold, to play with, to help in healing all the loss this family is feeling right now. For those who don't already know, a quick rundown of why I came to Zephyrhills, Florida: my brother-in-law Pete who has been sick with emphysema for almost a decade went downhill quickly in a few weeks and died on February 10, a week after his 67th birthday. Then last Tuesday my sister's little long-haired chihuahua was hit by a car in her front yard and killed. The three of them were inseparable. Now Norma Jean is the one left behind, and when I heard about Moose (their dog), well that was it, I had to get on a plane and come to join Norma Jean with her daughter Allison and son Peter.

Today is the celebration of Pete's life, a two-hour reception for the friends and family to reminisce and share Pete's passing with some of those who love him. Most of the Stewart family lives in Texas, and Norma Jean will be going there in the near future for a week or so to be with our brother and sisters who live in that area. They love Pete too and are honoring her wish not to be inundated with family during this time. We are close in age and were, as I wrote in my post last week, constant companions as we were growing up. I was given the go-ahead by Norma Jean to come and be with them.

I'm so glad to be here, but I would give anything for the circumstances to be different. Much different. While Pete's passing was expected, Moose's was not. She is unable to sleep because every time she wakes up she relives the scene of the car taking another part of her life away. She is more than devastated and it breaks my heart several times a day to see the intense grief she is experiencing, both her life partner gone, and her little six-pound bundle of unconditional love... gone, too.

Her son Peter decided to fence in the back yard with a dog run in anticipation of Norma Jean's next dog, which we all hope will be sooner rather than later. When she decides to go to Texas, Peter will come back here to Florida and do some much-needed work around the house as well as dog-sit for his mother. She has already been on the local dog rescue websites looking to find the right one.
Here Norma Jean and Peter are working on the fence, doing what is necessary to keep the mind occupied with tasks in order to wear out the body so sleep will finally come. (Norma Jean is preparing the poles, those are not crutches.) Yesterday, Norma Jean woke in the middle of the night and was unable to get back to sleep. I got up at 4:00 am and saw she was awake, so I joined her and we talked until the sun brightened the early morning sky. I will post some pictures on my other blog after today's gathering so that my family members will be able to be there in spirit.

I know that the grief is normal. I've waded through whole pools of it myself (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) and know that the only way forward is on the sharp jagged shoals of pain. But the family is strong, and Norma Jean is going to make it through to the other side. She won't be the same, none of us ever are after the loss of loved ones, but I'm so blessed to be here and experiencing it along with her, Allison, and Peter. I'll be here until the 8th of March, so I've got time to spend in the glorious Florida sunshine and soak up the healing rays with Norma Jean.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Constant companions

When we were growing up, Norma Jean and I were together most of the time. She's here on the left and I'm on the right. I was the older sister and tended to torment her now and then. I thought that was what older sisters were supposed to do. We are a little more than two years apart in age, the first- and second-born in what would eventually grow to be a large family. But our next sibling didn't arrive until I was seven, so for five long child years, we were our parents' only children.

From the beginning, we were very different. I was extroverted and adventurous, and Norma Jean was introverted and shy. They say that birth order is important in the development of personality, but I know that from the very beginning, we approached life from very dissimilar vantage points. It made our interactions predictable, though: she was my little sister and as we explored our world, I would often imperiously make decisions for both of us, and she would look up to me as her big sister.

One thing that grew out of our interaction is that I learned to enjoy an audience, finding her introverted personality easy to manage... that is, until Norma Jean figured out how to torment me back! She knew what I loved and when she was given something that I coveted, she would quietly withhold it until she had extracted concessions from me. I think in growing up, we both learned to appreciate the other's differences and how to use them to our advantage.

Almost every one of the most important people in my life have been introverts, as we fall into a comfortable and known dynamic that started with Norma Jean. Smart Guy is as far on the introvert scale as one can go, while Norma Jean married an extroverted guy, Pete. They started their life together in what must have been a similar dynamic for them. We grew apart in the years that followed our marriages, moving to different parts of the country, but whenever we would see each other, the time apart would fall away and we would be together again as though the years apart had never happened. They changed nothing.

Norma Jean was the first family member I called when Chris died. I still remember her voice on the other end of the phone, and she was there for me one hundred percent. I had to hear my sister's voice to share my grief, to make it real to me. That was in 2002 and, although we didn't see each other at that time, I needed to be reminded of her presence in the world to find any comfort. We saw each other during the following Thanksgiving in a family gathering in Texas, where most of our siblings reside.

Now Norma Jean is a widow, Pete having died this last Thursday of pulmonary emphysema. It was expected, he was able to make peace with and say goodbye to all of us who loved him, but Norma Jean is now bereft. She is a strong person, nobody knows that better than me. She has her son Peter and daughter Allison with her, surrounding her and buoying her up.

I talked with her yesterday, uncertain as to how I might best help her during this time and wishing I could simply hold her hand and allow our tears to mingle. She said she would think about what she wants me to do and is considering a trip to Texas where we would all reunite in the most gentle way possible. At first all of us Stewarts wanted to descend on her at once, but now that our family consists of six siblings with all the concomitant family members, it just didn't make any sense. I think we as a family have come to an awareness that the right thing to do is to let her decide when, where, and how.

Norma Jean is a natural caregiver, and during the last decade or so, she was Pete's rock. His illness dictated many aspects of her life. She traveled a great deal during the last few years of her working life, while he stayed home and kept in touch with her using Apple's iChat feature, and she spent many a night in a hotel room by herself. I think in many ways that forced separation showed her what it would be like when Pete was gone, and her strength of character will carry her to a new place in her life. I have no doubt that it will be a good place.
When we were both small enough to fit into the kitchen sink together, we shared everything. We still do, really, because our lives are intertwined right at the soul level, and nothing that happens to one of us fails to impact the other. I am so grateful to have my sister's love and she knows without a doubt that she has mine.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Making progress

From Yoga Body
I found the perfect meditation bench this week. For many years when I meditated, I used a futon and zabuton as the person pictured here on the left is doing. What I discovered when I decided to take up meditation again is that my knees are very unhappy when I bend them out to the side and sit cross-legged. I don't know when it happened, but I remembered that I had once used another person's meditation bench and found it quite comfortable, as your knees fold under the bench. I called a few yoga places around town and was told of a local artist who makes these benches. Eberhard met me at a local store and let me try out several of his already made benches, and I found a lovely cherry wood bench that fits me exactly.

It's much easier for me to keep my back straight when my knees are pointed downwards and not bent out to the side. After finding an appropriate place to sit in my apartment, I gave it a try and found it very easy to begin again the practice of sitting. I figured I'd build up five minutes at a time, but the five minutes became a quarter of an hour without any effort. I'm looking forward to building this into my daily life. The technique I use is to follow my breath, bringing my wandering mind back again and again to the breath. Years ago I used a mantra, but somehow it doesn't feel right to me today; maybe I need another one. There are several places here in Bellingham where I can go to sit with others, if I feel the need, and my little bench is quite portable.

I got the blood work back and found that my thyroid is functioning within normal parameters. The TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) number is on the low end, and a bit lower than when it was measured two years ago, but the new doctor is reassuring about the lump most likely being a benign cyst. My worries about it have been greatly reduced, and now I think I can stop focusing on what is wrong in my life and start thinking about what is right and positive. Yesterday I wrote a post on my other blog about the trials my brother-in-law Pete and my sister Norma Jean are going through right now. He's been signed up for Hospice and has been given only a few days or weeks to live. However, Pete is wanting to defy the odds and hang on for as long as possible. Pulmonary emphysema is a real killer, but it doesn't follow an orderly pattern. The doctors are convinced he won't be around much longer, but the atmosphere in their home and his positive attitude amaze me. I think he's found a way to squeeze out every last drop of life, and I'm so proud of him.

I notice how quickly I formulate consistent patterns in my daily life, and it's interesting to see how these patterns (like writing this post every Sunday morning) give me a sense of security. Every week day I get up at the same time as when I was working and begin my day. The scary part of retirement for many people is not to have any reason to get up, and I found it scary, too. But it isn't in me not to have a place to go, something to do with my day, a sense of purpose. My days are full and varied, and there are activities stacked up waiting for me to find the time for them, if I want.

Some people, like my partner, need lots of unstructured time to create, whereas I am just the opposite. I wonder if it's something inherent within a person or a learned behavior. It rarely occurs to me that I don't have to get up at the time I do, that I don't have to take the bus to town to my local coffee shop and gym, it's just what I do during the week. It's been almost three years now, and it feels just right to me. Every Thursday is reserved for my Senior Trailblazer hikes, and whether it's raining or the sun is shining, I look forward to it with real pleasure. Every Saturday now I walk with the Fairhaven Walkers group and have coffee with the other walkers afterwards. Once the skydiving season begins again, I'll head down to Snohomish on Saturday or Sunday to spend time jumping out of airplanes with the dear friends I've made there.

Yes, I'm making progress in my life. There's no actual place to get to, or through, or around. The days show up predictably and comfortably, and I make my way through each one. My life partner shares these days with me, and mostly he goes his way and I go mine, but the sense that he is attuned to me, that we are attuned to each other, adds the final thread to completion. I am not alone on this journey, I have the love and support of my family and friends to buoy me up and allows me to soar. This must be what is meant by happiness.