By Elizabeth Shean
I’m sitting in my bedroom, on a turquoise velvet chaise lounge I crammed into the corner, despite there being no real space for it. I needed space for myself, and this feminine divan seemed like the perfect foundation piece for creating a private retreat, a place I could retire to at any hour to read, relax, decompress.
To my left, a small table holds a lamp, my journal and my laptop computer. At the moment, my laptop is perched atop my thighs, and for every couple of sentences typed, I pause to savor a sip of coffee and gaze out the sliding glass doors to my right. A large stand of hollyhocks rises in the corner of my front courtyard, their leaves now yellow and their stems drooping in the winter cold. During the previous summer, they towered 10 feet tall against the sand-colored stucco wall, rioting in a profusion of powder pink flowers with warm yellow centers. Despite their current decrepit condition, a lone flower stands open, defying the season, its trumpet shaped bloom announcing, “I’m still here. I fight on.”
That flower and I have much in common.
So much has happened since April 11, 2016, when my husband suddenly died. At times I wilted under the pressure of grief and caregiving. I might have strength for one or the other, but both at the same time? It often felt impossible. And yet, what direction can anyone go but forward?
It is nearly 8 a.m., and the sky is now bright above the top of the courtyard wall. The coffee warms me and pleases my taste buds. My old dog, Mitzi, lies snoozing on the bed. My mother likewise continues to slumber away in her cozy bedroom down the hall. In this moment, in the quiet stillness of this morning, life feels as perfect as it can be.
I am extraordinarily fortunate.
Despite the many losses I’ve experienced over the past couple of years, my life feels full of abundance. I may have lost my husband, but I gained independence and self-confidence. In coping with his death and then navigating the process of selling the house and moving cross-country on my own, I learned I am more capable than I gave myself credit for.
I may be losing Mom to dementia, but at least she is still here with me. I still have time to create valuable moments with her, small episodes of joy that I can preserve inside the snow globe of my memory to shake up and cherish long after she’s gone.
I may have given up my home in Houston, but I gained a much nicer one in Albuquerque. I fell in love with this abode the moment I walked through the doors, and my love affair continues with abandon. Gazing again outside, through the glass doors, I can picture how the garden will look next summer, with pink climbing roses mounting the wall and wafting their scent through the screens into my bedroom at night. On the opposite wall, a forsythia will put on a showy spring display of bright yellow flowers, and over there, to the west, a mimosa tree will provide a shady canopy. And to think that each summer morning for the rest of my days I can rise, grab my coffee mug and step from the bedroom onto this magnificent patio to watch the sun rise while the hummingbirds gorge themselves on nectar from the mimosa blossoms.
And the list of blessings in my life goes on: my siblings and other family members who ease the caregiving burden; friends who rouse me to socialize and stave off the isolation that can come from being a family caregiver; our professional caregivers who dote on Mom; my clients who often feel like family members and provide me with work and a steady income so I can enjoy life instead of struggling with the anxiety of trying to put food on the table each month.
Soon Christmas will be upon us. Mom and I will enjoy a quiet, low-key holiday. No presents. Perhaps a few decorations. But none of those trappings matter, really, do they? We have each other, and we have tomorrow, and we will look forward to the turn of the calendar.
I used to hope that each new year would roll along for 12 months without bringing any trials or stressors. That was a childish view. Every year—every day—brings its challenges. The difference for me now is this: whatever life brings, I know I can handle it. Like that pink hollyhock in my garden, I am announcing myself: I’m still here. I’m still fighting.