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The Book is Available Now!

10 Dec

I am excited to announce that you can now order Seasons of Letting Go on Amazon.com!

frontcover

From the time I began the blog that spawned this book, I had all of my large network of friends in mind as my audience. If you know me at all, whether through the travel industry, as a Facebook connection or as a friend, there is something for you in these 12 essays and 92 illustrated pages.

If you have experienced a loss, this book is especially for you. Yet, although it came to be through the event of a death, this book is about life and living it to the fullest. Happy Holidays!

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Scrabble in the dark with Annie

2 Jun

Last September, I started a new job. I didn’t expect to get it; I didn’t even apply. It’s not 9-5; I’m on the clock for all three shifts, every day, 24/7. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. And, thankfully, there are a lot of perks.

I’m caring for my mom, at home, by myself. She has congestive heart failure. Without going into medical details, what I am doing on the physical level is kind of like the first year with a newborn – meals every couple of hours, up several times during the night – except that in this case, what everyone is “looking forward to” is not growing up, but transitioning out of this life.

“So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release, and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.”
~ Melody Beattie

Every caregiving situation is different, with a myriad of complex nuances and ups and downs specific to the patient and the family; in our case, I am the only child, so all of the responsibility to meet my mom’s needs and communicate them to others rests with me. “The family caregiver is the backbone of our broken health-care system,” writes Gail Sheehy in her book “Passages in Caregiving.” We do it out of love, we do it because our parents did it for us, but make no mistake, it is work and it is a job.

Social acquaintances see me these days and say, “Wow, you look so tired. Don’t you have Hospice? And didn’t you hire someone to help you?” As if these make everything peachy keen.

Having Hospice is great; it allows me to keep Mom at home where she wants to be and make quick decisions about managing her care. A nurse visits once a week; someone can come if we have a crisis; most of Mom’s meds and other equipment like oxygen are provided. But Hospice does not physically help someone like me take care of an elderly person at home on a day-to-day basis. If I want help – with cleaning, with cooking, with everything! – that part is up to me to figure out.

Mom and I did hire a wonderful caregiving assistant a few months ago, and that does allow me to take some vital worry-free breaks. (Without the respite I have gotten thanks to Paula, I wouldn’t even be able to write this blog entry!) But even families who are well off are hard put to have people working round-the-clock in their homes; we have our caregiver between 12 and 24 hours a week, which is only a fraction of the time I’m on duty. So ultimately, I still have the three-shift job that has been compared to that of a combat soldier in terms of the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal gland to cope with the stress of a typical day.

I do get to take naps whenever I can squeeze them in. They are usually cut much shorter than I would want – when I hear my mom stirring on the baby monitor – but they are a lifesaver. On Pauladays, I may get to take a walk before grocery shopping. About once a month, I try to get away for a weekend, which requires coordinating several sitters; and all such plans are subject to change if Mom is feeling especially bad. Sometimes by the time I get a break, I’m way too tired to enjoy a long hike or a concert; I just need rest.

HYDRANGEAS, GROSBEAKS AND BASEBALL

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” ~ Albert Einstein

Before taking on this role, I was an “adventurer.” I lived to travel and have new experiences in exotic natural settings. Now, I am learning to see the adventures, even the miracles, unfolding before me right where I am. Like the amazing hydrangeas in our garden this year. I have given away at least a dozen arrangements of them, and every time I cut one, three more grow back in its place. Or the amazing two-week visitation to our yard of a group of migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks earlier this spring. What a gift it was for my mother to be able to sit on our screened-in back porch and enjoy these special birds. These are glorious adventures for me!

In the few years leading up to this acute stage of Mom’s illness, I was always subjected when visiting her to the incessant Cincinnati Red’s baseball games blaring at me over her radio. I resisted learning about the game and tolerated the noise without paying much attention to Mom’s commentary about her favorite sport. I took her to a game once a few years back, and I admit it was slightly more interesting to see the action live. When Mom got really sick last fall, I decided she needed to be able to see all the Reds games this year on television. We bought a package of some 200 cable channels just to get the ONE: Fox Sports Ohio. And now, guess who’s watching and cheering on the team every night right along with Ruthe, even though she can’t stay up for a whole game these days. I like to think it’s no accident they are ranked first in their division this year.

A STEP BEYOND WORDS
Back about November, a friend turned me on to Words With Friends, an online version of Scrabble I can play on my iPhone with Facebook friends. This became a wonderful stress reliever, especially while sitting up with mom during difficulties in the night. I soon found myself playing lots of games with Annie, a friend from high school that I never got to know very well. We made a good match, enjoying some very close games. When we started chatting, I learned that she, too, was caregiving for her mother, who had the same disease as mine. Like me, Annie found the game a great diversion. We had lunch, caught up and shared our caregiver woes, some similar and some very different. Every night, when things would finally settle down at home, I’d look forward to making my plays in my four or so games with Annie, either in the dark of my mom’s room as I watched over her, or in my own bed just before falling asleep.

A few weeks ago, I was super busy with watering the gardens, friends visiting, getting out for a rare hike in the gorge… and in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I hadn’t seen Annie make a play for several days. When things calmed down, I checked her Facebook page and found that what I feared was true. Annie’s mom had died.

Immediately I began to cry really hard… for Annie, and for me, too. It was one of those rare times, during the hectic day-to-day business of this caregiving job, that I realized fully what is coming, and how completely unready for it I will always be.

I fled to the garden, unable to really see through the tears, and cut all my favorite hydrangeas for Annie; this was the most important step I could take at that moment. I called her later and heard some of her story, feeling new pain because I knew that many of the symptoms her mom had to endure, my mom has also. The next day, I left the flowers on her porch. She wrote and told me that the hardest time is waking up in the morning, and so she has the hydrangeas by her bed so she will see them first thing, and remember that life goes on. A few days later, when I checked my Scrabble games, there was Annie, constant as the northern star.

“Your entire life journey ultimately consists of the step you are taking at this moment. There is always only this one step, and so you give it your fullest attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t know where you are going; it just means this step is primary, the destination secondary. And what you encounter at your destination once you get there depends on the quality of this one step.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle, Nate Miller and the Now of Flowers

28 Sep

We receive the gifts we are ready to accept. In the past six months, two powerful entities have made their presence known in my life at the precise time when I could open to the lessons that each of them have to teach. If I could recommend only one writer and know you would read his books, that author would be Eckhart Tolle. And if I could share the work of one artist and know it would be seen, it would be the nature photography of Nate Miller.

Tolle’s seminal book The Power of Now expresses verbally the intuitions I have had from a very young age about life, death, body, spirit, joy, suffering, language, time, “God” and the nature of humanity in the greater universe. A new peace has descended upon me since reading it, not because the book taught me something altogether new, but because it articulates what I’ve somehow known all along but didn’t have the language – or the presence – to say.

I met Nate Miller six months ago today. He has become my closest friend and confidant, and possesses all the characteristics I have long sought in a partner, exemplified best in his simple statement, “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to me.” When I began to see his nature photography, and in particular his work featuring close-ups of flowers, it was as if The Power of Now had been made manifest for me in visual form.

Another of Tolle’s books, A New Earth, begins with an essay on the relationship between the flower and our awareness. “As the consciousness of human beings developed, flowers were most likely the first thing they came to value that had no utilitarian purpose for them, that is to say, was not linked in some way to survival. Jesus tells us to contemplate the flowers and learn from them how to live. The Buddha is said to have given a ‘silent sermon’ once during which he held up a flower and gazed at it. After a while, one of those present, a monk called Mahakasyapa, began to smile. He is said to have been the only one who had understood the sermon. According to legend, that smile (that is to say, realization) was handed down by 28 successive masters and much later became the origin of Zen.”

Nate Miller is a modern day Mahakasyapa. And like the legendary “sermon” to which Tolle refers, Nate is a man of few words. Nevertheless, he did answer me when I asked him what he is thinking when he guides his lens to boldly peer right into the heart of a poppy, hibiscus, lily, zinnia or morning glory: Nothing.

“When I’m photographing, I’m in the moment. I’m not thinking about anything,” he says. “I want to capture just that moment, something that’s even beyond what I’m looking at. Because the moment is beyond everything and also contains everything, it can allow each of us to see things in an extraordinary way.”

That extraordinary way of seeing is described by Tolle in A New Earth thus: “Once there is a certain degree of Presence, of still and alert attention in human beings’ perceptions, they can sense the divine life essence, the one indwelling consciousness or spirit in every creature, every life-form, recognize it as one with their own essence, and so love it as themselves.”

Just as Tolle extols the flower as “an expression in form of that which is most high, most sacred, and ultimately formless within ourselves,” Nate insists his images are merely “vehicles for the presence of the Now.” He views his photos not as art, but as a form of “visual meditation to transport you into the present moment” and hopes that “maybe that shift into a deeper appreciation of the Now through nature will inspire people to see other things in life from a deeper place.”

In The Power of Now, Tolle reminds us that, “In the Now, in the absence of time, all our problems dissolve. Suffering needs time. It cannot survive in the Now.” When I am focusing on the past or the future too strongly, Nate brings me back into the present, through his way of communicating and through his photography.

Nate developed his style of macro photography as “self therapy” more than a decade ago during a time when he was being a caretaker for his father, who was dying of brain cancer. As I write this, I am sitting beside my mother in her hospital bed. She has irreparable heart failure. And my place is with her, doing what I can to help, but mostly just being here… Now. Her grace, Nate’s flowers and the books by Tolle give me new strength each day. I am practicing Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, out of which this essay was born.

Learn more about Nate Miller on his web site.
Read a blog by Cynthia Cusick about Nate Miller.
Follow Nate Miller Nature Photography on Facebook.

Memo to Anthem: There is nothing wrong with my breasts

22 Jun

I am a single, self-employed healthy and active child-free 47-year-old woman who is very frustrated with our country’s healthcare system.

For the past three years, I have had a COBRA plan that expired in early May; at the highest the monthly rate was close to $600, a great deal of money for someone who takes no medicines, has no health issues and is not employed full-time by a corporation. Before this plan ran out, I attempted to obtain through the same company, Anthem, a high-deductible plan with a low monthly payment of around $120.

When I applied for this – using as a liaison a Blue Cross Blue Shield agent in Louisville, KY, who I located via an 800 number – I had to be responsible for my medical chart getting faxed to the agent, who then saw that it got to an underwriter in California. After a couple of weeks, this underwriter denied me the desired coverage and instead offered me a plan for over $500 a month because, they said erroneously, I had “lumps in both breasts and needed a mammogram.” If they had read my medical chart carefully, they would have seen that I had just had a mammogram that was perfectly normal and have had no issues related to my breasts. My breasts are perfectly fine.

Needless to say, I did not want this new $500 plan, so I rejected it and decided to appeal the company’s denial with the help of my would-be agent. My doctor had to write a letter to the underwriter stating that the reason for denial of coverage was completely inapplicable to me and should have no bearing on my ability to get the plan I wanted. She told me it was ridiculous for them to say my breasts had any issues when the first thing in my chart is the most recent mammogram report: completely normal. For the process to be expedited, the letter needed to get from my doctor to my agent and then to the underwriter; I was told that if the doctor sent it directly to the underwriter, the wait for approval could be months. All this while, I had to manage this communication happening in a timely fashion, overseeing the chain of correspondence between my doctor, the underwriter and my agent at Blue Cross. I got the letter faxed… and waited. For a couple of weeks there was no word.

Then suddenly last week, without getting another chance to accept or reject a plan, without any word from my liaison “agent,” Anthem sends me a bill for two months, this one (June) and the previous one (May) during which I had no coverage because of their delay in stating that I had health issues that were not in my medical records. The rate is higher than I had wanted, but not so high that I would reject the plan – or so they assumed. They also sent me a new plastic i.d. card and a ton of information about a healthcare savings account I am supposed to make deposits to and withdrawals from. I have not authorized or accepted any of this. Additionally, I told my agent at the beginning of the process that I did not want any paper products and needed everything sent to me electronically. Now I have a disgusting pile of inscrutable print booklets cluttering my desk – enough reading material for an entire summer.

What perturbs me most is that I am being billed for something I did not accept or reject yet, and also am being asked to pay for a month in which I was not covered at all. Obviously nothing bad happened to me during that month, so I don’t need coverage for that month, but this is all being done under the sacrosanct principle that there should be no “lapse in coverage” or else I will be rejected out-of-hand for having a “pre-existing condition.” So what this means is that millions of people every day are paying for months of “coverage” that the insurance company really didn’t have to cover them for. Is this fear-based system of “care” condonable?

Yesterday a friend related to me a story about a middle-aged man in North Carolina who robbed a bank of $1 so he would be arrested and taken to a jail where he would at least receive decent health care for his medical issues. Has America come to this?

I work for myself and cannot afford a $500-600-a-month health insurance plan. I am tempted to have no plan at all because I am so disappointed that our country pays thousands of people to skim medical charts, pick out a few choice words related to some random body part and string them together with the express intent to intimidate even healthy consumers into paying more than they should for insurance. If this doesn’t work, because the person sees through this scam and manages the communications required for an appeal, the company does not even professionally offer the person a plan, but bills them directly for it after a “reasonable” delay, requiring them to pay for months in which there has been no provision of any service whatsoever – all this when the client was trying their best to get timely coverage.

I know many middle aged people out there like me who are relatively healthy, self employed, and go without medical coverage of any kind. It feels like this is the future for me too because I do not want to play this sick healthcare game, which I feel should be declared illegal. I would love to hear from anyone who has similar experiences and thoughts to share; who can pull away the dark curtain of confusion and somehow shine a good light on this process; who will tell me with impunity that I just need to bite the bullet and be happy I have a plan; or maybe even offer an alternative solution. I am especially interested in hearing from those who have moved away from conventional medicine toward homeopathy and naturopathy.

The artwork for this entry is provided by Kathleen Farago May, who lives in Canada but spent part of her life dealing with the US healthcare system. Her choice was to spend much of that time without healthcare coverage. She educated herself in alternative and natural healing and maintained her health holistically. Instead of lining the pockets of the insurance companies to ensure that ailments could be treated as they appeared, she found that being proactive in prevention was of greater value for her dollar and for her life. Learn more about Kathleen and her work here or click here for a price guide and her email address.