Off the couch, at the table

Trying something new. Click above to listen to me read this post.

I recently wrote a post, On and Off the Couch, which was both an acknowledgement that I had been grieving some substantial losses for quite some time and an announcement that I was ready to move away from that period. A recent experience helped me take the first steps.

While I was still sitting on my dilapidated pleather couch, the University of Michigan reached out to me — would I be willing to participate in a study the Nursing School was conducting? The participation requirements were that you a) be over 50, b) have a chronic illness, and c) have a wifi connection. The study would take 6-8 weeks, and upon completion, I would receive a $150 gift card.

Well, why not? Since I’ve lived in this little house by the river, I have been open to experimentation. In fact, I once even called myself a lab rat! What did I have to lose? The goal of the study is to determine if ongoing nursing care can impact the lives of those with chronic illness. Let’s find out.

Going into the study, I was picturing that a nurse would come to my house, clipboard in hand, checking boxes to make sure that my home environment was safe. I was guessing that she would give me some tasks to do. I knew that I would be expected to make a voice recording every day and to meet with my nurse via video conference once a week.

I was not anticipating being nudged off the couch and supported into a new rhythm of life. I did not see that coming.

Yes, I was ready. The couch was sodden from all the tears I had shed on it and was practically disintegrating under me. I could see that I was going to have to stand up soon, but I gotta tell you, I was still pretty comfortable, so I was lingering for as long as possible.

Then in walked this nurse, who sat across the table from me, asking me some non-threatening questions and inviting me to set some goals. What types of change was I interested in making, she asked.

I told her all the changes I had already made — practicing yoga, avoiding gluten and dairy (and now corn), and writing every day. I said, “If there is any stone that has yet to be turned over, it is probably addressing my weight. Since chronic illness benched me from running in 2013, I have gradually put on about 10 pounds.”

I wouldn’t say I am overweight, but I am not overly thrilled with the way I look, even if by lifestyle I have diminished most of the symptoms of my illness and I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I keep trying to decide if I should just be content and accept this as how I look as a 50-something woman, or if I should try to make a change.

I don’t overeat. I do yoga usually five or more days a week, and I often go for a 20-30 minute walk sometime during the day. What more could I do to drop some of this weight?

“Maybe,” I suggested to the nurse, “my husband and I need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Maybe we should go back to eating dinner at the table.”

I cringed as I said it. I didn’t want to make this commitment. We had established quite a rhythm during the Season of the Couch. Come home, utter a few words to one another, fill our plates, and plunk down in front a string of meaningless shows. It was quite comfortable. We were together, after all, and we didn’t need to say a lot. Couldn’t we just continue coexisting in our misery?

But I knew, I knew, it was a change that needed to happen.

We were the ones who, when our children were small, ate all our meals at the table. We all ate a big breakfast together before the kids left for school and he left for work. Those who were home with me ate lunch at the table. At dinner, we all gathered for a sit down meal — no matter how fatigued we were, how distressing the conversations got, or how many glasses of milk were spilled (typically three). Although it was sometimes stressful, we valued the face time this gave us as a family.

Even when the kids were teens, we still made an effort to eat breakfast in close proximity to one another (maybe standing with a bagel or a bowl of cereal in hand) and come together for dinner. I’d be lying if I said that every meal was blissful and meaningful — they were not. However, this rhythm allowed a check-in, a reading of the temperature of the room, a moment to gauge the health of the family and the individuals in it. It was sometimes difficult to look all that hurt straight on, but we continued.

I think when we moved — just the two of us — to this little house by the river, we started out at the table. It was natural. He was working all day, and I was taking some time off. Making dinner and setting the table gave me a project in the afternoon. We would sit across from one another, sharing a re-telling of the day, making plans for the upcoming weekend, or discussing a planned purchase or a current event.

But when our bottom fell out and we found ourselves scrambling for something to hold onto, we landed on the sectional in the living room, plates in hands, eating quietly, and watching Jeopardy or Law and Order. It was a comfort to be together, not talking, just existing in our grief.

So we stayed there.

Until I uttered those words, “maybe we need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV.”

When I said them, the nurse asked me, “Will your husband be open to that?”

“Well,” I said, “I think he’ll initially grumble a little, but I think he knows we need this change, too. I think he’ll be on board,”

And he was. When I told him my goals, he gave a sigh, then said, “Yeah, I’m in.”

We started that evening. I made dinner, we filled our plates, and instead of walking toward the couch, we sat at the table, across from each other, and practiced having conversation over dinner.

“What was your day like?”

“Have you spoken to any of the kids today?”

“How are your parents doing?”

It was a little awkward at first, using those conventions that we hadn’t used in quite a while, but over time, we remembered how to have a conversation over dinner. We found the rhythm of clearing our plates and putting away leftovers together. We discovered that we can watch a television show or two in the evening rather than scrolling through several.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it was one of the first steps in getting us off the couch and out of the season of grieving.

I met my nurse, Karen, about six weeks ago. My husband and I have carried our plates to the living room three times since then. All of the other nights we’ve eaten together at a table, either at home together or out with friends or family.

We’re talking to each other; we’re laughing. It sometimes feels like we’re celebrating.

And, in a sense we are. Our reason for grieving hasn’t changed, but we have reason to hope that God is in the process of making all things new.

I haven’t lost any weight — not the kind that can be weighed on the scale. Instead, I’ve found some joy that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t feel again.

It seems to me that ongoing nursing care can make a difference in the lives of people with chronic illness (and chronic grief). I’m thankful to Karen and the University of Michigan Nursing School for giving me the opportunity to participate in this study.

I’m not sure this is the kind of change they were hoping to make, but it was the kind of change that we needed.

I will turn their mourning into joy;

    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

Jeremiah 31:13
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On the topic of family….a Re-visit

Next Chapter

This one goes way back to September of 2014, but Monday’s post about my momgot me thinking about my grandparents, so please indulge me as I reminisce.

I must mention my grandparents. I was blessed to know my great-grandmother, Elsa Laetz, until she died when I was twenty-four.  I knew my grandparents, the Meyers, until they went to join her when I was forty-one.  I could write for days about the lessons I learned from these three, but I think I’ll focus today on the importance of family.

I remember climbing into the car with my parents and siblings and driving literally through the woods and over the river to see my grandparents. As we we exited the highway, passed mansions in the historic district and then the Kroger and the Big Boy, my excitement would build. As soon as my dad slid the car into P for park…

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A letter to my (our) mother(s)

Many, many years ago, you carried me in your womb, labored me into the world, and cradled me in your arms. You took me home to the nest you had prepared and began a daily practice of making sure that I was clean, well-fed, and protected.

You bathed me, diapered me, rocked me, fed me, and made sure that my older siblings were gentle with me. I was safe and secure in your nest.

My earliest memories have you shampooing my hair in the kitchen sink, combing out my tangles every. single. day., providing me with Sunday dresses and patent leather shoes, bringing home my favorite dot-to-dot books, and baking hand-cut Valentine cookies. I was loved and nurtured in our nest.

As I grew older and discovered my full-range of emotions, you laughed too loudly with me, listened compassionately as I railed about the injustices in my middle school life, stood on the other side of my slammed bedroom door, and felt my hurts.

In those early years, we often drove an hour to visit your mom, my grandma, in the space where you had grown up. She always greeted us with hugs and delicious meals. Although she was seemingly invincible–keeping an impeccable house and creating gourmet dishes for masses — I saw you quietly stepping in to help her — going up or down stairs to save her steps, lifting heavy loads, and helping her care for her mother, your grandma.

And when we visited your grandmother’s house, where laughter was abundant, the cookie jar was always full, fresh cut flowers were set out with intention and care, and my great grandma was queen, her daughter (your mother) stepped in with ease to fill a cup, lend a hand, or wipe a dish.

I grew up watching all of you, three generations of women, quietly care for your people — providing meal after meal, buying gift after gift, tending one sick or frail creature after another.

Eventually, I left home, but as I struggled to build my own life, I often came back to familiarity. On every return, I found a refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods, a bed made up with freshly-laundered sheets, and a heart full of love ready to receive and see me in whatever state I was in. You were one of the first to notice that I’d lost too much weight, that I’d found the wrong –and eventually the right — man, and that I was overwhelmed with parenting.

And, when you saw a need, you came to my nest — swooping in, as moms and grandmas do — bringing treats for the kids and a breath of reinforcing fresh air (and coffee) for me. Time after time you showed up and saw me where I was — in the midst of my less-than-perfect nest-building years — and you brought judgment-free support, some gadget or tool I needed, and candy. Always candy.

You also continued, during this time, to fly frequently back to your mother’s nest to care for her and your dad. As they grew older, you stepped in to accompany them to the doctor, to take them for lunch at Wendy’s, to arrange for care in their home, and finally, to help them leave their nest for good.

I believe it was the hardest work of your life.

Nevertheless, you carried on, not only helping me at my nest, but helping your other children with the nests they had, too, created. You flew from one to the other, providing support, offering food, and sharing joys and sorrows.

In time, you helped me launch my own into the world. We threw parties and wrapped gifts, and washed dishes — so many dishes. You’ve cheered them as they’ve found their way and consoled them when they’ve wandered off. When they’ve been absent, you’ve prayed them through, in groans sometimes too difficult for words.

And after so many decades of showing up, delivering supplies, and coming through in times of need, you find yourself at home, limited by illness and injury, and unable to do all the things that you’ve always done and still, in your heart and mind, would like to do. You feel frustrated and sad and so tired.

I see you, so I get in my car and drive to you. I don’t bring much other than companionship, an offer to drive you to the store, and a compelling need to eat all the candy in your candy dish.

I want to help — to decrease your pain, to take you places, and to support your desire to see your people — but mostly we sit and watch football, Animal Planet, or — finally — The Great British Baking Show. We look through pictures, we eat meals that you still insist on preparing for me even though I’ve been preparing my own meals for over thirty years, and we go to bed early.

You make sure I have plenty of blankets, something to read, and snacks that I can eat, when I am the one who is trying to help you. And finally, you allow me to iron a few pair of pants and a couple of blouses, to wash a load of towels, and to drive you to the doctor.

Thank you.

Thank you for showing me how to show up, how to pay attention, how to lend a hand. Thank you for letting me show up, pay attention, and lend a hand to you.

I am, after all, the next generation of women who care for their people.

And you are, after all, my people.

Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Proverbs 31:28