musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

Category: Musings (Page 1 of 8)

The Dollhouse

TheDollhouse

In the 1950s, it was a home of the future. There were shiny linoleum floors and wall-to-wall carpeting, with gleaming appliances and a neat lawn. The child’s dollhouse, much the same, designed to make a little girl’s dreams come true. She imagined it as her own private place — just the same as the home she grew up in.

In her land of make-believe, the rooms were handsomely appointed, neat and tidy. The master bedroom had as a regal, golden bed and elegant headboard, with a baby sleeping in a wooden cradle. A gleaming tile bathroom was right next door. There was a child’s festive bedroom, with a circus elephant, various plush toys and clowns waiting patiently for children to play with. The home, though it was modern and pristine, seemed sad and empty.

TheDollhouse2

TheDollhouse3

The living room, too, awaited inhabitants. A comfy red armchair, upholstered in a rich Asian fabric, kept company with a sparkly blue-black chair and round, low black marble coffee table. A white silk divan stretched out luxuriously, all under the watchful eye of a stately white marble grandfather clock, which presided over the glamorous décor with a sense of haughty importance.

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This was a room imagined for gracious dinner parties, and a cocktail trolley stood waiting to entice guests with refreshments. Upon more careful inspection, there was one single child, who sat alone on a red leather sofa.
But where were the parents? In the kitchen, there was no one, and the table, sink and counter were oddly free of plates and dishes.

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The little girl who was busy playing with her imaginary family wondered this also. Would the children be left unattended in such a well-appointed home? Surely not?

Her young, innocent gaze pulled back from the individual rooms to take in the entire structure. And it was then that she saw her. The woman of the house was harried and staring off into space. She sat slumped in a chair against the outside wall of the small patio on the second floor, with a look of distress on her movie starlet’s face. Her hair was untidy, and she wore a dirty dress that had a blue and white blouse and white skirt. Her bright red shoes were the only indication that she was once a great beauty who lit up dance floors and loved to spend the evening sashaying to big band music. This was when her life was more carefree and the world, a simpler place, was filled with limitless possibilities.

I can tell you that her husband was busy at work, researching and designing medical equipment that would one day save many lives. He loved his wife and their children, of course, but he was so involved in his work, it was so all-consuming, that it might have, at times, seemed like he suddenly awoke and found himself in a family unit not of his own choosing.

It is now that fantasy and reality merge, as the young girl, playing with the dollhouse, wonders about her own parents and her upbringing. Pictures of the dollhouse, being sold in an estate sale, stir something undefinable deep inside her. She allows herself to feel the grief of her recent loss, pushed out of the way to make room for endless probate papers, settling of bills, clearing of family possessions and all the other hard work that accompanies grief.

She asks herself these questions:

  1. Why was mom so sad? (it was likely related to the physical abuse she suffered as a young child)
  2. What could she have done differently to make mom happier?
  3. What questions could she have asked to show dad that she was interested in his work?
  4. Was she really uninterested in his medical research, or did it just seem too far over her head for her to comprehend? (she probably felt intimidated by his superior intelligence)
  5. Why did dad feel at a loss in relating to his young daughter until much later in life?
  6. What was it exactly that made dad so mistrustful of people? (very likely the knowledge that he was a “mistake,” an unwanted child)
  7. Did she do enough to support them?
  8. What can she do, now that they’re gone, to properly honor their memory?
  9. What would they have wanted the most? (for her to be happy, as they often said, but how does one achieve that?)

She is left gazing at the dollhouse, surrounding by sadness and unanswered questions. But a small voice inside implores her to continue, to push on, to work through it — and to write it all down.

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Outgrowing One’s Life

Why am I emotionally attached to all this junk? There’s a painted Japanese vase that was broken and repaired, the cracks still plainly visible. A tackily painted Asian tin container. A cast iron statue of an Egyptian cat covered in a sickly green powder that rubs off on your hands. Glittery and garish, 2012 New Year’s glasses. A plastic wind-up angel that moves her wings and glows in the dark. A new age sun, moon and stars tealight candle holder. A pair of long wooden sticks that hold small, thin candles. A round container that houses a collection of shells, stones and driftwood collected from unknown locations.

All of this once meant something to me, I’m sure of it. Some items were cherished gifts from friends and family. But now? It all feels like tacky kitsch. And yet, I hold and observe each useless dust collector, wondering if I would miss it.

It can’t be the item itself. Each one is of dubious value, in the scheme of things, and I’m not even that fond of them now. However, I do feel an undefinable sadness as I take each one off the shelf of my fireplace mantle, adding it to the “sell” pile for the planned Connecticut estate sale.

There are other things, too. Like handmade Christmas ornaments from a casual acquaintance, with glitter and plastic fake jewels that look chintzy in the late afternoon light. A gaudy gold painted clam shell. Once magical, they’re now curious, vaguely unpleasant oddities.

Clearly, I’ve been through a major shift of consciousness in recent years, despite everything feeling horribly stagnant. These things haven’t changed, no, but I have.

I’ve outgrown my belongings, outgrown my life here, and it is long past time to move on — if not physically, then at least mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But such reluctance! Does the inmate hesitate when the prison door is opened to his freedom? Of course not! And yet, here I am with my broken, torn and tattered past, unable to let go.

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The Private Investigator

M+Ds_Bureau01

On this day, I spent considerable time playing “the concentration game,” matching empty CD cases with stray CDs.

What else did I do? Looked through about 1/3 of dad’s old classical albums. Continued to find priceless family photos and random items of interest in cartons of electronic devices, hardware, tools and parts. Discovered occasional mathematical calculations or parts lists on index cards and scraps of paper.

It was a magical window into my father’s mind and his life. It was strange to think that despite visits every two weeks since mom died, multiple calls a day and endless long conversations, I did not know him very well. How he must have viewed me, with my spiritualist ideas, running off to rock concerts and posting crazy philosophical articles on my blog, from his scientific and agnostic perspective!

Upstairs, I was in my mother’s realm. While looking through their bureau drawers, I came across two books, hidden away beneath clothes. One was an interesting looking memoir by Vernon Jordan. The other was a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. Although this surprised me, it made sense, since she kept her early history tucked away like a terrible yet precious jewel. She told her psychiatrists about her past, but we didn’t talk about it as a family, as close as we were.

Of Mom’s painful childhood, I had known since I was 12, when she had to be hospitalized for an extended period and we had to attend family and group therapy sessions. Dad told me, and I’m not sure how I took it then. I remember being smitten by an eighteen-year-old patient at the facility. As for her reticence to discuss her past with me, I took that to mean that she never really addressed it, but I realized upon seeing this book in her drawer that I was wrong. Just as the subject of incest was considered ‘taboo’ to discuss at the kitchen table, so too was a book about the subject considered too delicate to leave out on a dresser, exposed to public view.

I flipped through its pages and was further surprised to find a small newspaper clipping about a book written about Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was said to be a rampant sexual predator, and his connection with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was invited by him to his country and politically exploited. Between later pages, there was a bank envelope containing $140 in $20 bills. This was further proof that the book had been moms (and not dad’s reference of how to be a supportive husband). She liked to keep a stash of money around the house, discretely hidden, “just in case.” She had asked my dad to keep an envelope of $5 bills handily tucked away in another drawer, to use as tips for the aides and others who would come and go to help care for her.

What other surprises and unexpected windows into their lives would I uncover as I moved deeper into their belongings? As I hunted for family mementos and tried to prepare the house for the estate sale, I felt like a private investigator.

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My Father’s Basement Workshop

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It seemed to make sense to start in the basement. There was something about beginning at the roots, the foundation, that appealed to me. With some trepidation, I walk down the few concrete steps into the dusty, musty space.

Immediately, I think of Dad, of how he spent his time since his retirement. He never took well to retirement. His work had been all-encompassing. First in his own companies as a research engineer and entrepreneur, and then as a key person in the R&D department of various organizations, he designed and built diagnostic imaging equipment to detect breast and prostate cancers. This is not the type of career one simply walks away from at society’s pre-determined age.

He kept up with his interests and his research into other medical equipment with an old work partner, until the poor gentleman unexpectedly died. At the same time, he cared for mom, who was ailing in later years, as only a devoted partner and engineer could. With the purpose of making his tasks easier and mom’s physical existence more comfortable, he embarked on ambitious projects to address mobility issues and day-to-day care.

The basement décor tells the story in randomly scattered vignettes. There are piles of wood in assorted cut shapes, some with drilled holes and some without. Curious materials such as PVC pipes, rubber components, foam pieces and plastic sheeting are stacked all around. I smile when I see a round wheel attached with short PVC tubes to a sturdy wooden base. Its intended use was to stand Mom on it from her position in bed and be able to turn her to be seated on the commode, without having to hoist her up and sideways — a difficult feat if Dad was alone, which he often was.

A separate room within the basement served as a mini machine shop, with a drill press and various other tools. It was also a dark room, where Dad would develop and manufacture his own printed circuit boards for his various electronic designs. Scattered around were all the necessary supplies and solutions. It was the home of a brilliantly mad scientist.

Incongruently stuck into a tool holder above the large, cluttered tool bench is a postcard of Woody Allen holding a blow-up doll, from one of his early movies. He was one of Dad’s favorites. I put aside the postcard, along with some tools, even though I have very little use for them.

The estate sale person told me that I didn’t have to go through anything. They would do this as part of their job of preparing items for sale. But what would they make of a contraption like this? I take this as well, for use as a funky industrial style lazy Susan on my kitchen table.

I stand in a sea of components and circuitry for the many projects he would tell me about, both professional and personal, which somehow were always, eternally, “in progress.” He would complain about never having enough time to complete them. But it was in the research and design phase where he’d get the maximum enjoyment, and it kept him sharp and productive until the very end.

I’m surprised at the depth of my emotion amidst the cobwebs and clutter.

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Finding Solace in the Guest Bedroom of Our Family Home

A simple, quiet corner.

A simple, quiet corner.

The house, the family home. A place of rest, of solace, surrounding by family photographs, mementos of vacation travels, little comforts. But, in later years especially, a comfortable prison.

It kept others out, but it also kept its inhabitants in, like birds trapped in a cage. And a moldy, dusty, static and spider infested cage, at that.

Where to even begin? It all feels oppressive, every object of my youth and my upbringing, laid out as if in a museum. And yet, at the same time, it’s strangely comforting. If I focus on each item separately — a lamp with a crystal figure of a child, and a large, serene, beige lampshade, its neat and orderly creases at the top, coming down to the bottom in perfect straight lines; a pop-art metal wastepaper basket with black and white film stars on the outside and crazy black, orange, yellow and red cascades of geometric diamonds on the inside, the outside with splashes of beige-colored paint that was accidentally spilled over it at some point over the long years — I can realize some sense of peace from within my current state of mental turmoil. I am alone in this house where once there were three of us.

In a few short months, there will be a multitude of strangers pouring over these oddities, these museum artifacts of the mid-20th century, considering their purchases, haggling about the price, and eventually, hopefully, carting away little pieces of our lives. The crystal lamp, which I have in past days grown particularly fond of, won’t be part of this untidy clearance of a lifetime of memories. The trash can likely will.

I look around the small guest bedroom where I find myself this morning, before dawn. Piles of old sheets, sell. A puzzle of two bluebirds in a garden that has been glued together and hung up? Sell. Until I remember that my mom and a beloved friend and aide put it together one day, and my dad decided to glue it to a backing and hang it on the wall. A painting of my aunt as a young woman (or so I thought; turns out it was of an unknown woman), painted by my uncle. Bequeath to my cousin. An early portrait of the Obama family, whom my mother dearly loved. Keep. A nightstand that’s part of my childhood furniture, beige French Provincial from the late 1960s, with tacky gold trim. Sell. Rustic vintage carved pictures from Israel. Keep. Queen sized air mattress with cotton and hypo-allergenic fill comforter. Keep. It’s a strange exercise, an odd form of grieving a mere two weeks after my dad passed away and my life changed. Every object I glance at, attach whatever memories I can summon and then, as dispassionately as possible, I place it in a category of “sell” or “keep.” Excruciating. But to let these feelings linger for any longer than absolutely necessary would be far worse.

I’ve chosen to sleep in the guest bedroom, even though I am not a guest here. It’s the only way I can keep somewhat detached and retain a piece of my sanity throughout this ordeal. Once I open the door, I will be flooded with my past and its accompanying tsunami of emotions. Directly in front of me, across the narrow hallway, will be my parents’ room, where my mother died and where my father slept for nearly a year after her death. His ashes stand waiting now, in a small, neat box in the walk-in closet, where hers had been 10 months earlier, as we waited for spring to scatter them. Another spring, another loved one to say goodbye to, in a nearby park where we visited when mom enjoyed greater mobility.

To the left is my childhood bedroom, in recent years transformed into storage space, the bed removed, and in its place, practical metal shelving. The desk and two bureaus are still there, holding some of dad’s clothing in addition to miscellaneous electronic parts, computer equipment, books and a storeroom full of supplies for mom, when she was cared for so lovingly by dad and a revolving cast of nurses and aides. It’s no longer a bedroom, not a place of rest and recovery, but a wide-awake, utilitarian reminder of the mechanics of their daily life.

So, you see, the small nondescript guestroom with a few creature comforts and decorations is my temporary sanctuary.

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The Lost Notebook

It wasn’t until much later, after I brought Dad home from the hospital, after I deposited the plastic bags that said “personal belongings” on the living room floor, after I set up appointments from the visiting nurses and physical therapists, and after he were getting resettled in our family home, that I realized the notebook was gone.

It was a 5-inch by 9-inch three-ring-bound loose-leaf notebook with a yellow cover. I bought it for him at a CVS next door to the rehabilitation facility where he stayed for a month to undergo IV antibiotic treatment for a septic knee.

It had been a rough several months since Mom died. At first, I thought that despite the sadness, it would be freeing for him, a chance to catch his breath after 5+ long years of caring for her at home. As Mom was completely devoted to the two of us for so many years, he was devoted to her, specially preparing meals and administering medicines, dealing with her bed-ridden state and training a steady parade of nurses and aides who came through to offer varying degrees of assistance.

Despite the loss of his soulmate, he would now have a respite, a chance to take a drive to buy groceries without having to worry about leaving her alone for 30 minutes. There was now the opportunity to go out to Starbucks for a cup of coffee and be out in the world again (so to speak), or to go out for a relaxing meal. He had now been set free, to look after himself and consider his own needs first, instead of always being focused on someone else’s well-being. However, when we came to that moment, the reality of the situation bore no resemblance to my hopeful imaginings.

As I realize now, when Mom died on that cold January day, Dad lost his raison d’être. And another painful truth: there was nothing I could do to change that.

Dad was never particularly good at retirement. Some people aren’t, especially those as committed to their careers as he was. When he went to work every day, researching and designing medical imaging systems that would go on to detect breast and prostate cancers and save people’s lives, he was in his own world. When I was young, Mom often felt he didn’t spend enough time with his young daughter, and she encouraged him to bond with me more (so I was told, by him, many years later, when we had grown much closer). But he would always be more comfortable in the realm of science and physics and electronics than with the everyday concerns and social niceties of human existence.

In his retirement, Dad was always working on something — collaborating with a former work partner, designing devices in his basement workshop, writing computer programs to track his sleep apnea and scouring the internet for articles about technological advances, scientific inquiry and human consciousness (which he would forward to me).

What is the significance of the notebook? It was, or rather would have been, a glimpse into just what happened in those last six months of his life; a window into a life that had been significantly diminished, likely occurring gradually, in degrees. Would the random lists, reminders, telephone numbers and other minutiae read like notes from a trapped soul yearning to leave its earthly confines?

These notes began as an accounting of the challenging experiences in the nursing facility. It was the first and only time he had to live in such a place, albeit temporarily. I had my own notebook, in which I kept a detailed account of Dad’s health status and my ongoing battles with the staff. He wanted your own record, just as he had kept notebooks for his work projects, even in later years. He kept notebooks to keep track of Mom’s doctor appointments and other care, and later, these notes became an abstract of daily chores, parts and supplies to order, phone calls received and placed and other scraps of information.

But this notebook was Dad’s companion during his most difficult hours. I visited and called multiple times a day, but even so, I wasn’t always privy to his innermost thoughts and concerns.


I wonder now, what would have filled its pages? At first, it would have been important numbers — mine, my cousin’s (who lived nearby), and the names and contact information of doctors and nurses at the facility. There would likely have been scribbled notes about the goings-on there. My own notebook had pages upon pages comprising a litany of complaints — from the doses given of Oxycodone, to Dad’s difficult and demanding roommate who commandeered the facility and its staff, to the move to the long-term wing of the building where he and his new roomie, an elderly gentleman who had trouble walking, were often left to fend for themselves.

There was a middle of the night fall from bed, when Dad’s knee was still weak, and the bed side rail was loose. He laid on the floor for a while (so he told me), yelling for help, until maintenance workers finally heard him. There was the argument between the two men as to whether the bed was properly put together or not, and then a subsequent cover-up the following day. There were my endless attempts to encourage the kitchen staff to give him food that he was able to eat. And late one night, Dad very likely saved his roommate’s life, by checking on him in the bathroom after he noticed he wasn’t in bed. He found the man lying on the floor, blood seeping from his head. The grateful man thanked him, and he was told by nurses the next day that he “did a good deed.”

The notebook may have had information pertaining to those events. Or maybe not. Dad didn’t write prose, like I do, but even those small, seemingly insignificant snippets might have given me insight into his thoughts and concerns.

That nondescript notebook might have given me an inkling as to the depth of his grief over losing Mom, and how he felt about the nurses and aides that came to the house to care for him. I know it wasn’t easy, to be on the receiving end of the caretaker/patient equation. He seemed annoyed at being disturbed from his peace by endless phone calls and visits, but I suspected that he liked the company and maybe even secretly liked being fussed over. He certainly enjoyed complaining to me about all the hoopla and activity. I was so grateful that he wasn’t entirely alone and was kept busy, so that I could go back to my life in Massachusetts every other week or so.

Something happened, though, in those months after the rehab. There were times of great disturbance and anxiety, an onset of various physical ailments that were there before but became more pronounced, and momentary periods of confusion. There were a few trips to the hospital with gout attacks and a minor car accident from which he emerged unscathed (though the car was totaled, and with it, his dignity). That might have been the final humiliation, or perhaps it was just one more step of deterioration for a fiercely independent and self-sufficient individual.

The cause of death wasn’t given as “profound heartbreak and extreme fatigue,” though it might as well have been. In one of our many philosophical debates, Dad said that he thought a peaceful way to die would be to freeze to death, since you just close your eyes and go to sleep. To me, a person who hates being cold and dreads every New England winter, this sounded horrible. In the end, that’s basically what happened. On his death certificate, “stroke” was offered as an explanation as to why, as hard as they tried at the hospital, they could not keep his body temperature from dropping. Several possibilities were raised and then discounted during that week in hell, where I watched a person I loved, whose life centered around his sharp mind, quickly and steadily lose his mental faculties in what is commonly known as hospital delirium. There were moments of clarity in between bouts of paranoia and confusion. Thankfully, he was always aware of who I was, though there was little I could do to help.

As for the stroke, there were a few hints along the way in those final months, though it wasn’t severe enough that a small army of professionals, a helpful cousin and an overly protective daughter noticed as being anything other than occasional old-age forgetfulness. Dad remained mostly sharp, his cynicism and acerbic wit intact.

And yet, that lost notebook. It represented a missing piece of the puzzle that will forever remain a mystery to me, inadvertently left behind in a hospital room after one of those emergency visits. It was stupid of me not to double-check, but at the time I was frazzled, dragging bags of clothing and supplies out to my car.

I bought Dad a new notebook, so that he could continue to document his daily life. Forlornly written on the first page was “lost notebook.” This broke my heart. It was as if he lost 3-4 months of his life. There was to be no record of it, no accounting for anything that happened during that span of time. I will never know the full extent of how he coped, or failed to cope, on his own.

Was it for the best? It’s a clichéd and trite concept, though in a more enlightened moment, I might be convinced that the universe interfered so that the notebook was left behind in that hospital room. Perhaps I was spared of the discovery that Dad was having more difficulty than he let on, and so I continued to believe he was ok living on his own and not in need of immediate intervention.

What would I have done with a man who was antisocial and fiercely proud of his independence? Could I have done anything differently? Better? These thoughts continue to haunt me.

Whenever I visited, it was a battle to keep my strong personality and concerns in check, so as not to have constant debates over lifestyle choices. We were clearly very different people, diametrically opposed in everything from religious beliefs (deeply spiritual versus steadfastly agnostic) to diet (organic pesco-vegetarian versus meat and frozen food aficionado). To live there full-time was unthinkable — for both of us. An assisted living facility? He had an aversion to the neighbors and any social activities. Unless there was a community of retired engineers and scientists who spent their days pondering the creation of the universe and the meaning of existence, that would be highly unlikely.

And so, the story of the lost notebook — that missing time in between visits and multiple daily phone calls, when Dad may have been quietly battling the slow loss of mental faculties and life force. That missing documentation flies in the face of my obsessive need to know everything. And yet, he remained master of his own destiny until the very end. For that alone, I must be satisfied, and indeed grateful, to remain in the dark.

After all, as Dad would often say, “there are things in life that we will never be able to fully understand.”

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Goodbye, 2017.

I begged the spirit world, the gods and goddesses or whatever deities were in attendance, to not take you from me in this depraved year. The year began in a menacing and unkind way. Mom died on January 23rd, Donald Trump’s first official day in office. Miraculously though, I had been with her, trying to warm her legs, which had turned blue from lack of circulation, and trying to feed her a nutritional drink, to keep her strength up. I am grateful for my presence, watching over her while you went to your doctor’s appointment, but she had already decided that it was time. You reminded me later, when I told you that I still had not cried and could not be completely sad, that in her opinion, it was well past time. “I’ve had enough of this life,” she said, years earlier.

You were completely devoted to each other, and now I realize that you both stayed here, beyond what you thought was sensible, for each other.

It is late December now, and you have left to be with her, despite my fervent, selfish hopes. In one of your more lucid moments, during the delirium, you said, “whatever happens has to happen.” In one of my more spiritual moments, I might believe that. On a good day, I might trust in that. You even reached up periodically to the ceiling of that bright hospital room, to your partner, asking to be claimed and to be reunited.

And yet, I still find myself, in dense waves, questioning every moment of those nightmarish, Felliniesque days (and, in fact, the 10-1/2 months prior). This discontent and self-doubt leads to the type of regrets that can rip apart the flesh and poison the soul.

There is no point to any of that, you would say. To beat myself up for what might have been had I done this, what might not have happened had I done that, is a waste of energy and an invitation to madness.

Instead, I will trust in the course of events and the passage of time. I will focus on the positives. Shock is the universe’s way to roust us from spiritual slumber. Once awake, we can open our eyes and see beyond the appearance of things to discover new possibilities and realize the truth.

The truth, for me, is this. As much as I wanted your life to be happier, more enjoyable and fulfilling, after mom died, there was only so much I could do. You had lost your soulmate and your motivation for holding it all together. There was simply too much of the past for me to unravel and mend, while the present forced itself upon us cruelly. And as much as you wanted me to be happier, there was just so much you could do. I had to take the initiative to honor myself, believe in my own value and be kind yet firm in my interactions with others.

I will do that now, in your memory.

And when, not if, I am successful, I will believe that the two of you will then share in my joy and my sense of purpose.

It is the only way forward.

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On Your Birthday

MomRosesAndBabysBreath

It’s still your birthday, even though it’s dark now. But birthdays don’t matter anymore, do they? You are ageless and timeless now, fixed in amber.

If you were still here, I would have made you a card, filled with my lousy artwork. You never cared for store-bought cards. They were too easy, too automatic. Pick it out, make a purchase, scribble a tossaway line, “thinking of you” yadda yadda, and sign it. Address it, send it, and the person is quickly out of sight, out of mind. There are no lingering thoughts, no emotional commitment.

I made the emotional commitment that you treasured, and I would frequently be there to deliver it in person and hug you while you examined it. Though my artistic ability displayed no measurable improvement from when I was 6 to when I was 56, you appreciated those haphazardly pieced-together cards just the same.

So, where are you now? I often contemplate this, strange as it seems. My friends who are mediums, spiritualists, would possibly say that you’re watching over me — perhaps even now as I write this. It’s odd, but I never told them. I’ve typically been very open and honest with people, but for some reason, I suddenly became very private, secretive, withdrawn. It felt like the right thing to do at the time. Until, of course, I want to announce it to the world. But isn’t that me, the writer, always interested in good material?

With earth and her inhabitants in such abysmal shape — and you, the eternal caregiver — in my mind’s eye I see your spirit rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot, trying to restore peace and compassion, bringing comfort to those in pain and emotional turmoil. It seems like something you would want to do. You were never very comfortable being on the receiving end of care.

As a young girl, you cared for your family after your mother died, though it wasn’t something you chose for yourself, and it was too heavy a burden for an 8-year-old. You did, however, later choose to serve in the Navy, become a registered nurse, raise a child, collect old clothes for the poor, volunteer at the local blood bank and make frequent visits to an elderly neighbor whose own family had abandoned.

Free of the body that betrayed you in later years, are you now visiting parts of the world where your kind spirit is most needed? You never liked to travel, but no longer burdened by physical concerns like packing, luggage, planes, missed connections and stress, perhaps it’s different now. Maybe you’re guiding lost souls in the Middle East or in Northern parts of Africa, giving comfort to children who are homeless and hungry or to people in Puerto Rico who still struggle after the storm. Maybe you’re visiting one of the recent sites of a mass shooting, comforting the victims.

Is it silly for me to think that?

I was struck by what an expert in astral travel said on a friend’s radio show, that we hold our loved ones back from continuing on their soul’s journey. We summon them in spiritualist gatherings and keep them tethered to the earth plane so that they can help us and guide us. Is it our own attachment to forms that keep us from progressing here as well? Perhaps I have created an artificial distance as a form of protection. But I can’t help feeling, as much as I’d like to connect with you and feel your presence, that it’s a selfish desire and not driven by love.

Even before you became so frail, you said that you had enough of this life. Apparently life had not had enough of you! But now you are free. How can I mourn for you, when you were so ready to move on? I would only be mourning for myself and others who loved you, who must now muddle through on their own.

For you, I will honor and celebrate a beautiful life, in service to others and full of goodness. May I find the courage and strength to use whatever gifts I have to do as you did.

Happy birthday, mom, wherever you are.

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A Conversation with Myself

A Conversation with Myself“Are you awake?”

“Uhhhhh”

“Get up! You have a lot to do! In every second you let slip by, you could be having an inspirational thought that could be developed into a breathtaking essay, or maybe even a novel!”

“I seriously doubt that.”

“Why are you so negative all the time? And why are you so tired?

“Those are two separate questions. And I haven’t even done my yoga or had my tart cherry juice and my tea yet.”

“So, what are you waiting for? Get up!”

“Shut up and leave me alone.”

“What’s the problem today?”

“I had those dreams again, about driving my car down a deserted highway and not knowing how to get home — hell, not even knowing where “home” was. And then that other one, about searching for something to eat, and everything is horrible fast food.”

“The last time, you were in a restaurant and everyone at your table got up and left you there eating.”

“That wasn’t a dream. That actually happened. I’m a slow eater. I always have dreams about being lost. Lately, I’ve also been dreaming about having some kind of procedure done on me. I have thoughts in my dreams that aren’t mine.”

“Maybe you’re being abducted by aliens. I still don’t understand why you’re so depressed and miserable. You have a lot to be thankful for.”

“Don’t you think I know that?? Thinking that makes me feel even worse!”

“You’re a pathetic basket case.”

“I know that also. But sometimes I don’t understand how so many people can go along and be so absorbed and perfectly content in their own lives, and not be disturbed by all the violence, pain, misery and suffering in this world. How do they do that?”

“You have to focus on the positives in life and on those people who are doing good deeds and helping others.”

“Well, that sounds marvelously New Agey. Hang on, let me grab my Tarot cards and my affirmations. Oh damn, I spilled water on them and they got wet.”

“You’re so cynical.”

“How can you not be? Nothing really changes. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, mankind continues to shit on the planet that we depend on for our survival, corporation executives are greedy, politicians are self-serving and college students design artistic signs and protest. Nothing ever comes of it. Well, I suppose more people are protesting now.”

“A lot more people are protesting. People are slowly waking up.”

“Perhaps. I’m just so damned frustrated, and I feel like I’m doing nothing to contribute to anything that’s useful.”

“Well, you sure as hell aren’t by lying in bed and bickering with me.”  

“Yeah, you’re right there.”

“So, tell me what’s really bothering you and let’s get this done and over with so you can seize the day. Or at least, get your butt out of bed.”

“Do you really want to know? Fine. Can I tell you my worries and anxieties without you turning all judgmental and self-righteous on me?”

“Yes. Go ahead.”

“I feel burdened with many things in my life — not progressing in my writing, not having the time to read and do my yoga and meditation as much as I should be, problems with finances despite working all the time, deeply rooted family issues, my own stupid stress-enhanced health problems, the need to be alone for what I want to accomplish and yet gnawing loneliness, always feeling anxious and on edge. Sometimes I feel as old as Methuselah, and as knowledgeable as a baby. And then I feel guilty for feeling bad, because I’m so incredibly fortunate, compared to many, many others. And this, of course, makes me feel worse.”

“Sounds like first-world problems.”

“There you go again, you snarky bitch.”

“Sorry. Those are real problems, to be sure, and all problems are relative, aren’t they? You do sound like you have a lot going on right now, and important things you want to be doing. Maybe you should focus your efforts on what’s most important to you, don’t get fixated on the financial problems, and see if you can come up with some creative ideas on how to make enough money to pay the bills while still having time to do what you want to be doing. Don’t take on other people’s problems (at least, not until you have to). Don’t compare yourself to other people and don’t worry about this vague notion of “being happy.” Choose to chase after your life’s purpose instead. Remember when you would always tell me that you felt more “yourself” when you were writing and you were going to make something happen? What happened to that?”

“I got old and tired.”

“Ha. But all these tedious product descriptions and nutty things you do now to earn a bit of money, that’s made you a better writer, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose it has.”

“So, it hasn’t been a waste of time.”

“No, I guess it hasn’t. You’re right.”

“And you have a pile of literary journals to read, and a few essays you can submit.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“You’ve been through some challenging times this year. You dealt with it and here you still are.”

“True dat.”

“You should give yourself more credit. You truly care about other people, which is why you’re deeply upset with all the killing, all the wars, all the innocent children caught up in adults’ stupid, dangerous games, all the inequality.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should write more about that. Be angry. Be yourself. But don’t despair.”

“Yeah, you’re right. OK, I’m getting up now.”

“Good. Finally!”

“Ow, my neck hurts. As usual.”

“Go do some yoga. That usually helps, right?”

“Yeah, it does.”

“Oh, and happy birthday.”

“Heh. Thanks.”

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Poor Prognosis: The AHCA and America’s Mental Health Care

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[This article was originally published on The Depression Army blog. Thank you, Dr. R., for editing. Note – this was originally written May 29. Three and a half weeks later, the Senate has indeed written their own AHCA proposal, and their “discussion draft” can be seen here].

People who struggle day-to-day with a mental health issue don’t usually spend a lot of time following politics. When the world is closing in, it becomes necessary to shut out all that extraneous noise, push away the distractions and focus single-mindedly on one’s well-being. However, with a new administration comes proposed changes to the American health care system that may make it more difficult for the less wealthy among us to find adequate mental health support.

Difficult as it is to take in all the information, ignorance is not bliss. People who are struggling need to be informed about — and sometimes even stand up for — one’s basic right to decent mental health care.

Mental Health Coverage Under the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare)

On HealthCare.gov, the official site of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there is a mental health and substance abuse coverage page that clearly states the legal requirements of all ACA Marketplace health care plans. This includes behavioral health treatment (for example, psychotherapy and counseling), mental and behavioral health inpatient services and substance abuse treatment. Specifics depend upon where you reside and your health plan, but the law states that all ACA plans prohibit spending limits and must cover pre-existing conditions, which includes any mental illness. The ACA also provides “parity protections” for mental health services. This means that it enjoys the same protections as any other kind of health coverage in terms of deductibles, co-payments, out-of-pocket limits, treatment limits and care management.

In fact, there’s an entire government website devoted to mental health, with clear information about how the ACA has improved access to mental health services for many people, regardless of where they live and what type of plan they have. This official source says, “As of 2014, most individual and small group health insurance plans, including plans sold on the Marketplace, are required to cover mental health and substance use disorder services. Medicaid Alternative Benefit Plans also must cover mental health and substance use disorder services. These plans must have coverage of essential health benefits, which include 10 categories of benefits as defined under the health care law. One of those categories is mental health and substance use disorder services.” In the ACA program, mental health care is seen as an essential health benefit.

Despite the improvements to mental health care since the ACA first went into effect in 2014, a study by researchers at NYU’s Langone Medical Center found that mental care access in the U.S. is still inadequate. Nearly one in 10 Americans who had mental health problems in 2014 didn’t have insurance that would allow them access to treatment. For approximately 10.5 percent of people, there were delays in receiving professional mental health treatment due to insufficient coverage, compared to 9.5 percent in 2006. In 2014, 9.5 percent of those suffering with mental health issues couldn’t afford to pay for psychiatric medications, up from 8.7 percent in 2006.

The AHCA – Just Passed by the House of Representatives

The American Health Care Act, passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, seeks to roll back federal guarantees of mental health coverage and substance abuse treatment, instead leaving it to the discretion of individual states. Under the new plan, states can also opt-out of requiring that insurers cover pre-existing conditions. Other Essential Health Benefits (EHBs) left to the states to provide or not provide include emergency services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, rehabilitative services, chronic disease management, pediatric services and prescription drugs. The AHCA, as currently written, allows insurers in states that have opted out of covering EHBs to charge people more for their health insurance if they have pre-existing conditions.

What Do We Stand to Lose?

The ACHA bill leaves critical mental health care treatment and prescription medication coverage for poorer people up in the air. Depending on where you live, there may be state-provided financial assistance for psychiatric evaluations, counseling and potentially life-changing psychiatric drugs — or not. Should this bill go into effect, coverage that you’re currently receiving from your insurer, whether it’s through your employer or through the federal ACA marketplace, might go away. In a worst-case scenario, those families who need certain medical coverage for pre-existing mental health conditions may have to consider moving to a state where insurers will cover them. Unable to get proper care in their community, people with a serious mental illness are increasingly ending up in local jails, a sad development that is straining law enforcement. Mental Health America states that 1.2 million people living with mental illness are in jails and prisons every year. The Sentencing Project study referred to in the article found that six out 10 of those states with the least access to mental health care (Southern states) also have the highest incarceration rates.

The New Health Care Proposal: Here’s What Happens Next

As the House’s AHCA bill moves to the Senate for approval, the Congressional Budget Office(CBO) has issued their findings on the House’s proposed bill. The CBO estimates that the AHCA will leave 23 million more people without insurance by 2026 than if the ACA were to stay in place. They also discuss the dangers of leaving coverage decisions to the states. A CBO breakdown confirms that a state opting out of covering mental health care and prescription medicines, as well as pre-existing conditions, could cause out-of-pocket expenses to significantly rise for that coverage, leaving many priced out of the healthcare marketplace. The good news is that the U.S. Senate is unlikely to approve the House bill and in fact, they’re writing their own version. The bad news is that there are senators who may not heed the warnings in the CBO report.

What Can You Do?

First, don’t despair! There are many people who are aggressively fighting these radical changes to a healthcare system that, although flawed and in need of fixing, many people rely on. However, if you’re someone who is especially sensitive to mental health issues, it is imperative that you add your own voice to the choir of discontent. Indivisible is a nationwide organization that encourages people to take local action to express their concerns and tell their personal stories. Town Hall Project has an interactive database of town hall meetings by members of congress that constituents can attend. Add yourself to the mailing list of upcoming events in your area. If you’re unable to attend a meeting in person, you can also contact your senators directly to tell them how important mental health care coverage is for you and your family. You can also contact your House Representatives. When your representatives aren’t legislating in Washington, they should be back in their states to meet with their constituents. You can view the senate schedule and house schedule for 2017.

Above all, keep yourself well-armed with information! Important decisions are being made right now that could impact your mental health care and essential support services. If you believe that healthcare is a basic right, and that those living with mental illness should have the same rights as anyone else who suffers from a crippling affliction, Speak Out and Speak Loudly!

Your voice matters, and the voices of millions of sufferers will be heard in the voting booths!

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