Five weeks ago my husband and I, and our 22-month old son Everett, welcomed into the world a new baby boy, Townes Kenneth Kingston. Arriving on December 22nd and weighing in at 9lb 8 oz, there is no doubt he made a big impression! Bright-eyed and plumped to perfection from birth, Townes is strong and remarkable. Being able to birth him and care for him has reminded me of how far I have come and how much I have healed. These days, as I soak in the joy of having my two boys, I am also reflecting on my own childhood. As my husband and I move through our days – finding the special moments, creating a life for us all – I think of my parents. And all that they showed and gave to me; the depth of strength, wisdom, honesty and character they embodied in life.
You may have noticed that in the last six months I have not been nearly as engaged in reaching out to you through my writing. It was not a matter of not wanting to. I just couldn’t muster the strength. My Mind, Heart, Spirit, Being and Body have been fully needed elsewhere. This year has been spent in the extremes. The joy of a healthy pregnancy. The grief of losing my Dad to early-onset Alzheimer’s. The satisfaction of finishing my Bowen Therapy studies after many dedicated but difficult years. The overwhelming fatigue and anxiety of first trimester pregnancy. The awesome wonder and gift of raising my little guy Everett. The intense and taxing nature of raising my little guy Everett, while pregnant. The pride of opening my private practise in my hometown. The tiring adjustment of being a stay-at-home mom by day and Bowen Therapist by night. The excitement of deepening my studies in Usui Reiki. The all-consuming exhaustion and anticipation that come with third trimester pregnancy. The pain and patience involved in recovering from childbirth. The luxury of my husband’s paternity leave and enjoying our two boys together. The necessity of resting and cocooning. The itch to get back to work and desire to write.
Waves of ups and downs crashing into and through me, drawing upon deep reserves of strength and perspective. Pummeling circumstances forcing me to choose to be where I am, as I am. To embrace what I must. And to be okay with it all.
Having just lost my Dad this fall, the grief is fresh. There were many deaths along the way as he deteriorated and lost pieces of himself. On his 71st birthday we brought him to a locked-down facility that he would never have wanted to go to. He’d already moved into a retirement center three years prior – something he’d always dreaded. But there was no choice. Within three weeks of losing Mudder, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Within a few months he’d had to give up his home, his dog, the good life he’d nurtured over many decades. Our only consolation was that he was living in a welcoming place where he ate well, was dearly loved and could take his daily walks, as he and Mudder always had.
Moving Dad into a clinical setting last winter, taking his final freedoms, was devastating to all of us. But necessary given the sudden progression of the disease. While we’d hoped it was a short-lived stay in order to stabilize his condition, he’d never gotten to leave. Never again did he clear his mind during a stroll along the Atlantic Ocean as he’d been accustomed to.
Although Dad received the best care possible, he suffered unspeakable pain and anguish for eight months before passing on. He never fully lost the awareness that he was unwell. He fought to overcome his mind’s destruction. He’d never given into the savage pace at which his body aged. He endured. Pacing the halls, re-living childhood memories, existing once again as a young man in the army, charming the workers – that was how Dad spent his days, held onto himself. Until he fell and hit his head. After that, he lost his ability to walk and became uncharacteristically violent. His instability and aggression required that he be heavily medicated and strapped in a chair or bed. Along with these interventions, came the loss of his connection to us; he no longer recognized us for the most part. Everything changed. Dad, looking nothing like himself, with his teeth removed and his limbs thinning. Dad, mouth agape and hands fidgeting. Dad, diapered and distant. Dad, our Dad, facing the worst, alone.
Despite all that haunted him from the recesses of his caged mind, the littlest things made Dad happy, as they always had. His gratefulness, his childlike enjoyment of life shone through. Although he could not walk, call to mind his family, or escape his mounting anxiety that there was something “not right”, he took in simple pleasures with glee. He would cling to a can of coke and grin with every gulp to show his appreciation. He would tell the nurse she was gorgeous. He’d raise his fist with zeal and declare he wanted a hamburger. He’d request a “nice Merlot” with his spaghetti supper. Dad was still dad, if you looked closely enough.
With Alzheimer’s, it is important to make peace with all of the stark changes along the way; to fortify yourself for the next hulking loss. They keep coming; piling up like heaps of chassis and motors in a junkyard. Things that were once vital to functioning are discarded. Forcing us to remember, as they forgot. Making us wonder how much longer they can live with so little life left.
When Dad finally passed away, the death was somehow diminished by all those other deaths. And having the knowledge from the beginning that he would never survive had been a preparation; a small mercy. There had never been any hope to cling to as there had been with Mudder’s cancer. There was simply a vigil of watching, waiting to see what part of Dad might disappear next. A mounting inventory of all the scraps that cracked off or seized up, no longer of any use.
I am humbled and awestruck by the strength Dad showed in the face of his greatest fear – living with Alzheimer’s, the disease he’d seen his ancestors “rot” from. Bit by bit, I have been able to release the darker tides of the disease and remember Dad, as he was. He was the kind of man that painted a series of self-portraits with foolish facial expressions and titled them The Curmudgeon. He is the man that could no longer paint after Alzheimer’s set in but learned to play harmonica for the first time. He was the man that called me Big “A” when I was growing up in order to instill confidence in his shy little girl. Dad was the man that created through his depression, reflected through his anxiety, loved through his heartaches and fought through the frightening fog of Alzheimer’s. I take solace in imagining him reunited with Mudder and their two beloved dogs – Cujo and Prince. I draw strength from how they lived, how they suffered and how their legacy lives on.
Four years ago this week, my Mudder passed away. It’s soul-numbing to digest the recurrent fact that she will never be here alongside me as I mother my boys, in the way I desperately wish she could be. Still, I know she is with us. I know she cherry picked these beautiful boys and sent them my way. This is the sort of knowing and believing that bolsters me in my saddest moments; those times when my heart longs for her to wrap Everett, Townes, and me into her strong, loving embrace.
Before Mudder passed away, I was miserable most of the time. Although I tried not to let it show, as she always said, “You can’t hide it from me. I’m your mother. I can see it in your eyes.” For fifteen years, I hadn’t been able to resolve the symptoms of Fibromyalgia that limited my life; took from me the habits and routine that made up my daily round. Life was endlessly painful; each sound, thought, emotion, change in temperature, and scent registered like a string of relentless Morse code on my nervous system. A torturous onslaught of sickening sensation left me fatigued, exhausted, helpless, idle, anxious and depressed.
Fortunately, in the last two years of her life, Mudder and I were able to spend a lot of time together as I moved back home to Newfoundland. We faced our limitations together and developed a deeper understanding of and respect for one another. Whenever she noticed I was doing too much, or causing myself more harm than good, Mudder always told me to “Wait until you’re stronger”. Those words didn’t sit well with me. In my mind, I believed that it would be of no benefit to wait because I would never be stronger. Fibromyalgia would always be there, tearing me down and forcing me backwards. And, if I waited, life would pass me by.
I always pushed too hard through the pain and through difficult circumstances. Even when I was having a reasonably manageable level of pain and a decent amount of energy, I could never truly relax into it and rest. I’d carefully created that pocket of health through considered eating, alternative therapies, and prayer. But I’d burn it off recklessly. I hadn’t learned to enjoy a moment of feeling well without giving it away, to something or someone else. All my strength would leave me once again.
When Mudder was in the final months and weeks of her illness, and was mostly staying in bed, I witnessed what she had meant by strength. Although it was becoming clear that her life was winding down, she didn’t become overwrought or seek to fill it. She soaked in every ounce of love that came to her in visits from family and friends, in home cooking, and through good memories. She took care in each moment to ensure the little things that would give her comfort were done. She kept a steady intake of her medications. She looked forward to her daily bath. Though others may have thought it an indignity to be washed by her sister, she welcomed and appreciated it. She sought out time with each of her kids, grandkids, sisters, brothers, family members and friends. She kept doctors’ appointments and faced each new piece of news, her pitiful prognosis, with level headedness and resolve.
Mudder shone through the circumstances. Her eyes glistened with spirit and acceptance. She was not grasping for more life but living the life she still had. “I am too old to die young,” she would say. She felt she’d lived a full life and accepted her lot. It was a gift to see this courage and wisdom in my mother. It is something that few embrace and share – poise and grace in the midst of tragedy and the unknown. Mudder’s words “Wait until you’re stronger” took on new clarity. I glimpsed the light of her insight. She would never be stronger, physically; she was dying. But she showed me that her true strength was in her stillness. In her noticing. In caring for and nurturing her body and soul as best she could. In lying in bed because she needed to. In winding down and getting her rest each night because there was nothing more that could be done. In allowing others to help her. In lifting all of our spirits.
When Mudder said, “Wait until you’re stronger”, she didn’t mean to wait until I was cured. She meant to carry my strength and allow it to grow. Learn to see and trust that all would be done in time. All I needed to worry about was cherishing today’s strength. Tomorrow’s strength was for tomorrow. If I had not learned the lesson of savoring my strength, I would have always been reaching beyond the strength I had. And, in doing so, I would have squandered it to my fear of never being strong enough. Through their example, Mudder and Dad taught me well. And because of their own strength, I get to live a beautiful life, with my own precious family.
As a professional Bowen Therapist, the hardest but most important message I hope to impart is the idea that the most important time to rest is when we feel our best. This is a very difficult idea to embrace when we feel miserable so frequently. It is only normal and natural to want to do everything we’ve missed out on. And we use up the burst of energy and feeling of being okay that we have. The problem is we crash. This inevitably leads us to believe that all the work we do – the careful life we live- is in vain because we’ve ended up flared up again. The truth is these pockets of health that we create only occur because of all the good care we provide for ourselves. And can only be extended and occur more frequently if during them we rest. That way our Bodies, Hearts, Minds, Beings and Spirits can begin to be refreshed by feeding off this energy. If we burn it all on needless tasks, on proving our worth and ability, we are losing the hard-fought strides we have made. And we are losing out on the opportunity to feel even stronger.
I could never have guessed that one day my strength would be tested by birthing a 9lb 8 oz baby. It wasn’t that long ago that cutting a piece of cheese off the block was a strain for me. And a shower felt like a downpour of pebbles.
During the delivery of Townes, all the strides I had made in healing were tested. I reached that physical and mental breaking point where I became irrational. I lost all hope that I could do it. I was exhausted from the 15 hour labor. The contractions were a minute apart. I wasn’t recuperating in between and catching my breath. I was recalling how difficult the birthing process with my first son had been. My thoughts and the physical anguish were making me desperate. I begged the doctor to help me. To take the baby out for me, somehow. I even had the illogical thought of her using a shovel! Ha! Ha! But when the doctor insisted I could do it, and the nurse suggested I needed to “get in the moment”, their words rang true. The last place I wanted to be was in the moment. But I knew from experience it was the only place my true strength resided. In the stillness and grace within. In all my lived experiences. In all that I had already come through.
In that moment I thought of Mudder and Dad. Their suffering. Their strength. Wait until you’re stronger. I knew they were with me. And I knew I had all of their wisdom behind me. Still, I felt scared. And unable to get through the birth of my son. I called upon my deep faith that they were with me as I, their only daughter, brought a special little soul into the world. If ever I needed your strength it’s now! Help me get this baby out!
I felt the strength of all the tough women that had gone before me, birthing babies yearly, cooking all from scratch, mending all by hand. Creating out of nothing. I felt the generations of men too – awestruck at the strength, courage and will of the women they held dear. And I felt a renewed ability to push with all I had. Townes was born within ten minutes. It happened so fast that the doctor wasn’t ready and I actually had to stop pushing as the baby’s head lay in wait, halfway out. My strength was enormous in that moment. All I had to do was stop doubting it and call it forth. Let it show me what I was made of.
We all feel weak. We all question our own strength. But know this: You have all you need. For today, live within your strength, savor it and save some for brighter tomorrows.