Friday, September 5, 2014

Daily Gratitude

It was an ordinary day, a quick phone call to my cousin Caron recently to wish her a happy birthday, I asked her how she was planning to celebrate turning 74.

I hesitated slightly as I asked the question. Caron has grown frail the past few years, suffering from COPD and tethered to oxygen 24 hours a day. Her loving husband Bud has taken over all the household tasks and cares for her full-time.

Caron laughed quietly. "You know, the best celebration I can imagine is just having one more ordinary day," she replied. "I'm grateful for every day of my life. Every day is a celebration!"

Her words made me think of a conversation I had with Aunt Molly a little over a decade ago. It was near the end of her life. And she was telling me about a recent visit to her doctor when he had expressed concern about her heart. He had handed her his stethoscope, asking her to listen to the off-rhythm heartbeats. Instead of alarm, what she felt was wonder.

"It seemed miraculous to me, as imperfect as the rhythm might have been," she said. "I thought that my heart has been beating for 87 years -- since I was in my mother's womb -- and it has never stopped, never been a problem up to now. I said a quiet thanks to my heart for carrying on so well for so long. And if it's getting tired, if it needs to stop sooner rather than later, so be it. I'm grateful for every heartbeat, for every moment of every day that may be left."

The memory of Aunt Molly and the experience of talking with Caron recently make me stop and think about how casually we accept the days given to us.

So many spend days complaining that life isn't as perfect as they had hoped it would be. Whether it's complaining about the weather, about the food at the local diner, about neighbors they have come to know and not like, about the vicissitudes of daily life, so many of us get caught up in the small stuff and lose sight of the big picture -- that we're alive, in reasonable health, living comfortably in a world filled with wonders.

Some spend days watching t.v. or playing cards "to kill the time", to fill the empty hours of each day, letting opportunities to help others, to express love, to explore their own unique creative gifts slip away.

Some of us count the days until a vacation, a special event,  or some other happy occasion, mentally skipping over the time in between -- time that may end up being as eventful or meaningful as the long-anticipated occasion.

And some of us put off positive changes until tomorrow, always assuming that tomorrow will be soon enough, that tomorrow will, in fact, come.

I've made a promise to myself not to wait until a life-threatening or life-limiting disorder strikes to begin to treasure all of my days. Each day - regular, unremarkable days as well as the days marking memorable occasions -- is a gift. It is a chance to look around and see the world in a new way. It is a chance to accept what is and embrace whatever life brings with joy -- living with gratitude instead of self-pity, wonder instead of fear.

Each day is, indeed, worth celebrating.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Parents and Adult Children: Clashing Expectations

Carol smiled faintly when I encountered her at the supermarket the other day and then sighed as we sorted through the late season peaches on display.

"I hear distress," I said quietly.

She sighed again. "I just feel so disappointed about my son. We pulled up roots and moved all the way here to be close to him and we never see him and his wife. Well, maybe once a month we'll have dinner. This isn't what I envisioned. We gave up friends and familiar places to move here and...well, you'd just think..."

"Did your son ask you to move here?"

She smiled ruefully. "No," she said. "It was our decision...well, really mine. I guess I had this fantasy of being close again. But he and his wife have their own life and that doesn't include us very often. I'd like to be part of that life -- to see the grandchildren for fun, not just babysitting them while they're sleeping. I wish we were included in some of the birthday parties and celebrations. I don't want to be a pain in the neck. I just would like to see them more. Moving here, I expected that we would..."

Listening to accounts from other parents of grown children and from adult children themselves, it's evident that there are many different clashing expectations causing disappointment and disagreements between the generations.

There are many parents like Carol whose adult children are doing well in life but who are just not as engaged with their parents as the parents might like.

And there are parents who listen in dismay as adult children express disappointment in them.

There are adult children who expect to be rescued financially, over and over again. There are adult children who expect their parents to babysit on demand, putting their own preferences and plans on hold. There are some who expect that their parents will enshrine their past, staying in the family home and keeping their high school/childhood treasures -- even their childhood rooms -- safe, untouched and awaiting visits.

And there are some adult children who are disappointed that their active Baby Boomer parents are so unlike the grandparents that they themselves had when growing up.

"It's a whole different thing with these Boomer grandparents," one young mother of a a toddler told me recently. "They're so busy doing their thing that they're not your typical grandparents. My grandma and my Nana both baked cookies and read me stories and couldn't get enough time with me. I feel I have to make an appointment with my Mom for her to spend time with Emma. She just doesn't seem into being an traditional Grandma. "

The distress that both generations can feel over expectations continually unmet or experienced as unreasonable demands can put an emotional wedge between parent and adult child that can cause pain that persists long past the conflicted relationships.

My friend Susan, who recently joined a support group for cardiac surgery patients, called me the other day to tell me about a woman in the group who talked continually about how much her parents had disappointed her throughout her life.  The woman, she told me, is 84 years old and her parents have been gone for many years. Only the sting of unmet expectations survives.

One elderly and ailing man contacted his lawyer recently to see about disinheriting his three children. The lawyer inquired about their transgressions. "They're all too busy living their own lives to be part of this family anymore," he said. "Yes, they call and come over once a week or so. They show up for major holidays. But they're all living away from home and getting into relationships that take up so much of their time and it's not at all what I had hoped when they were growing up..."

The lawyer looked at his distressed client and then closed the file. "I want you to think about this more," he said. "And I want you to consider that all of our children disappoint us in some ways. And we disappoint them, too. I imagine that your children might be disappointed that you aren't more supportive of them building lives of their own or getting involved in love relationships. It goes both ways."

What can you do if you find yourself disappointed in an adult child -- or your son or daughter is expressing disappointment in you?

Do a reality check. How reasonable -- or not -- are the expectations that you harbor? Or that they have of you?

 "I think both sides here are being a little unreasonable," Carol told me when we sat down for coffee after grocery shopping. "My son is treating us like unpaid, on-demand babysitters and I'm expecting that we'll be part of every family celebration they have, forgetting that some things they like to keep within their immediate little nuclear family. I guess that my own expectations are the only ones I can truly change. I can choose to take a step back, even though a part of me really doesn't want to do that. I think it would help the relationship with my son and daughter-in-law."

Another close friend recently ended a long unhappy marriage, a decision that sent their 37-year-old daughter into a paroxysm of anger, grief and disappointment that "my parents didn't try harder to keep things together, especially now that  I have two little ones who loved visiting their grandparents at the home where I grew up. All of that is changing now. And I think it's all just really selfish and unnecessary."

Her father disagrees. "My ex-wife and I tried very hard to be the best parents we could be," he said. "We stayed together many years after the marriage was emotionally over to see our son and daughter securely into adulthood. Now both of us are ready to have a last chance at happiness, whatever form that takes as we venture out on our own.  There aren't other people involved. We still love and want to spend time with the kids and grandkids. We just don't want to live together any more. I don't think that's unreasonable. At the same time, I'm not saying this split isn't painful for us and our family. But it's pain we need to work through together."                                                                  

When possible, work toward compromise.  You might express your desire to see your grandchild conscious, not just when sleeping or to participate in an occasional family celebration while respecting the need of your adult child's family to have time alone together.

It doesn't have to be an emotional confrontation -- just a simple request: "I'm happy to babysit the grandkids whenever we can arrange to do that, but I'd also like to see them awake and enjoy a get-together with them on a regular basis. How can we do that without interfering with their schedule and yours?"

This shows respect for their needs while setting boundaries for you -- sending the message that you may not always be available to babysit.

And changes that have your adult children already mourning a piece of their past are often a bit less painful if the kids have some voice in the matter.

If you're looking to move on and move out of a long-time home, compromise may mean giving your adult children the option of claiming their childhood treasures before you pitch them. "My mother threw away all my yearbooks, prom pictures and other treasures of my growing up years when my parents moved to their dream home after my brother and I finished college," my friend Pat told me, without rancor, not long ago. "I'm not a collector nor am I especially sentimental about high school. Still, it would have been nice to have had the option of being asked if I would like to have them. I have to admit I was a little disappointed when Mom informed me that these all went into the trash."

With a late life divorce, while the decision to split is very much your own, working out details involving children and grandchildren together may ease tensions with adult children who feel blindsided and aghast at the demise of a long marriage. "Our grandchildren, who are too young to understand what divorce is, seem to be doing well and are having more grandparent time because my ex-wife and I often see them separately as well as together at family celebrations," my friend told me recently. "And our daughter is starting to relax and to realize that we're still her parents and still her children's grandparents. That love never changes."

Begin to let go of your guilt and your hurt. Whether you are an adult child or the parent of an adult child, moving on with your life is not a betrayal of those you love nor is your child's independence or different lifestyle or clashing concepts of what it means to be family a betrayal of you. We all do the best we can at the time, whether we're trying to balance the needs of a young, growing family with the needs of aging parents or whether we're aging parents feeling the pain of angry accusations of not doing enough or facing a sense of exclusion from a busy adult child's life.

Friends and co-workers often bend my sister Tai's ear with their complaints about parents who weren't -- or aren't -- loving enough or young adult children who are unexpectedly challenging -- knowing that Tai grew up in a family plagued with alcoholism and abuse. But she tends to have little patience with those who get mired down by family of origin pain and disappointments. "I guess I tend to be blunt," she told me recently. "I usually say something like 'Put on your big girl pants and move on down the road. Grow up. Get over it. We all did the best we could at the time. Parents usually do the best they can for their children, even if it feels woefully inadequate.'"

Coming to terms with unmet expectations is not a matter of saying that certain actions or expectations weren't hurtful.

It's a matter of learning to live with the pain that is inevitable when loving but fallible people share their lives.

It's a matter of giving yourself a chance to let go of the pain, often little by little, and get on with your life and grow in new ways, finding wisdom and insights in both painful and rewarding life experiences.

Sometimes this growth through pain means doing what you consider to be the right thing, whether or not you feel your adult children (or your parents) deserve it. This can mean keeping in touch, even from a healthy distance. It can mean expressing love, even though you might not like your parent or your child at that moment.

There is no instant cure for the pain of clashing expectations between parents and their adult children. But there is a way to start the healing process. Instead of yearning for what could be or what might have been, take those first tentative steps toward making peace with what is.

Friday, August 8, 2014

In Honor of World Cat Day....

World Cat Day???

I had no idea that there was such a day until my friend Tim Schellhardt, a veteran journalist who keeps up on all the news as it is breaking, sent me a link this morning saying that newspapers around the world are featuring cats on their front pages because today is, indeed, World Cat Day.

In honor of this global celebration of everything feline, I'd like to share a short video I made recently to help promote my upcoming book PURR THERAPY:WHAT TIMMY AND MARINA TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE, LOVE AND LOSS, which will be published by HCI Books on October 7.

The book is a memoir about my years as a psychotherapist, about the unexpected blessings we find in life and, most of all, about the two cats -- Timmy and Marina -- who worked with me from time to time in my private psychotherapy practice to comfort and calm patients who asked for their help. These two extraordinary cats taught me important and lasting lessons along the way, leaving a legacy of love.

Both Timmy and Marina died unexpectedly and tragically young, like angels lent for just a brief time. As you will see, my three surviving cats have their moments of being wonderfully therapeutic -- or not -- at home. And Hammie may even have potential as a real therapy cat.

Here's a sneak peak at the video introducing the cats of PURR THERAPY.

Happy World Cat Day!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rainforest Reveries

As I look back wistfully to that special week, it seems a very long time ago. But it  has been only a month and a half since we were there.

It was a long-time dream, a trip two years in the planning: we would go to Hilo, Hawaii to visit my dear friend Jeanne Nishida Yagi and her husband Jimmy Yagi. And, while there, we decided, just this once, to rent a home nearby. It was a beautiful cabin on a ridge, in the middle of an island rainforest, with huge waterfalls at the back of the property.

I had seen the house years ago in Architectural Digest. It was built as a vacation retreat by a gay architect from San Francisco who died before having a chance to enjoy it. A local businessman bought it and keeps it as a vacation rental and special event venue called The Falls at Reed's Island. It is booked months, years in advance. (While we were there, the owner told us that he had just had to tell someone trying to reserve Christmas week 2015 that is was already booked.) We saved considerable money by making our reservations two years ago. And all the time since, we had been anticipating, dreaming of our stay there.

We could never have imagined, even looking at the beautiful pictures on the website, just how wonderful it would be: the steady and comforting sounds of water -- the falls, the river, the rain -- throughout the house and the living sounds of the rainforest -- birds by day, singing frogs by night. There were the mists and rainbows and lush tropical vegetation, flowers growing wild.

Bob meditating in the back yard of The Falls

View from the kitchen window

With the soothing sights and sounds, my thoughts settled into reverie...    

I thought about the joy of new experiences -- being in a place so new, so different, so unfamiliar, yet comforting and the wonder of beauty all around us, so vivid, from every window. Every glimpse outside was a delight and a revelation.

I thought about how we so often take for granted and stop seeing the beauty most familiar to us so quickly.... and wondered what delights I might be overlooking at home. I made a vow to reconnect with the unique beauty awaiting us at home  -- the startling clarity of a desert sky at night, the smell of the desert after a monsoon rain, the colors of blooming palo verde in the spring and the sweet, unexpected smell of citrus blossoms in the air.

I thought with love and a bit of worry about our ailing cat Gus -- how he would love the smells and sounds of the rainforest, how he blessed our lives every day, how I wanted to soothe and comfort him all the remaining days of his life, never realizing that we would have only a week together between our return and his death. But there in the rainforest, I felt a loving connection to Gus as I was surrounded by forces of nature and quietly accepted the fact that sooner rather than later, we would lose this beloved animal but treasure having known him forever.

I thought that, for all the beauty of this wondrous place, the greatest joy of this trip was spending time with my friend Jeanne and her family.

I thought about the meaning of long friendships in our lives. Jeanne and I have been friends since our early days of college. At that time, we were united in being geographically unusual: she, a native of Hilo, Hawaii and I hailing from Los Angeles, were among the few warm weather natives traveling to Northwestern's campus north of Chicago. A year ahead of Jeanne, I was matched with her as a Big Sister to ease her transition on campus. We clicked and have been dear friends since.

We braved the Great Storm of '67 together -- venturing out for ice cream with the conditions still near white-out, spending a Christmas together later that year in my graduate student apartment complete with Christmas tree and cookies Jeanne baked and a holiday dinner we cooked together. There were letters and phone calls and visits in our early career years, particularly after Jeanne returned to Hawaii after working for the Peace Corps in Saipan and Washington, D.C.  We battled weight gains and celebrated periods of svelteness and mourned the loss of several dear friends together. She was at my side in 1977 when I married Bob and I was delighted when she married Jimmy in 1980.

It was -- and is -- a marriage made in heaven. She is an avid basketball fan, he a well-regarded basketball coach with an international reputation. His first wife Carol, a dear friend of Jeanne's, died of cancer in the late Seventies and Jeanne and Jimmy fell in love while sharing their grief and loving memories of Carol. They spent their honeymoon at a basketball camp in Colorado. This is a partnership that was meant to be. "We make a great team," Jimmy said smiling fondly at his wife during our visit.

                                                  Jeanne and Jimmy Yagi

They have both had health challenges in the past year, but have come through with the support of a loving extended family and each other.

                                Sunday brunch with Jeanne (center) and family

It was wonderful to see the love and humor and generosity of spirit abound -- even more beautiful, more soothing, than the sights and sounds of the rainforest.

                                    We decided to make visits a new tradition.

"Please make this a tradition at least once a year," Jeanne said quietly before we left and again in an email. "It doesn't have to cost you any more than airfare. Stay with us next time. Use our second car."

The important thing, we agreed, was having time, more time together, time to talk, time to enjoy the friendship that first blossomed in our teens and that has thrived into our golden years.

Waterfalls are gorgeous, but nothing is more glorious than joy and love in the eyes of a dear friend.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Retirement's Moments of Quiet Desperation

There was a time when the dream of retirement fired imaginations: with visions of a better life, a happier life, in a resort setting or simply relaxing in a long-time home, lingering over coffee, no alarm clocks, no demanding bosses, no office politics -- just a sort of endless, delicious summer where one's life would be one's own.

For some, retirement is this dream fulfilled.

For others, there are moments of quiet desperation, despite lovely settings and abundant leisure time.

There are those who find that their money is disappearing much faster than they ever imagined and that they may need to go back to work at an age when employers are less welcoming and physical limitations may preclude most work possibilities.

There are those who are increasingly distressed by diminished physical capabilities, by the aches and pains and limitations of age.

There are those who find time hanging heavy. They don't know what to do with themselves -- and may regret leaving the work force.

There are those who feel trapped in a marriage that worked, somehow, before retirement because the couple didn't spend much time together. I've seen such desperation in the couple who hunker down at the local McDonald's or Starbucks: he on his cellphone, she clipping coupons for hours on end without any interaction with each other. There was a couple in a doctor's waiting room, she on oxygen, he looking distant and grim and they were sniping at each other. There are couples, too, who readily admit that they are sick of each other but can't afford to divorce, unable to live on divided assets.

All of these issues take on more urgency because of the serial losses of aging and letting go and, at the same time, because of a sense of limited time and resources. The window of opportunity for new beginnings is closing and the choice, for many, seems to be between striking out in a late-life change or accepting what is, however unsatisfactory that may feel.

Some of these moments of quiet desperation are, at least in part, the result of planning based on fantasy:  that there would be enough money somehow, that happiness would come with freedom, that less than perfect relationships would transform in a new setting or lifestyle.

And these moments of desperation come when the fantasies fail to blossom into reality -- and when reality shows some harsh truths: that one's body isn't what it used to be and one is unlikely to morph from coach potato to super-athlete with a little more gym time; that the money required to maintain your working lifestyle is not enough and you're faced with a choice of changing your expectations or going back to work; that negative relationships and relationship patterns are unlikely to change without hard work from both of you -- or some hard choices; that focusing solely on self and pleasure isn't the key to nirvana.

Adjusting to the gap between expectations and reality, making your life in retirement work for you may take some major changes on your part. Even changes that feel small can make a big difference.

Some steps that could make a positive difference:

Want what you have.  Instead of dreaming of the unattainable or looking back with longing on a former lifestyle fueled by two good incomes, take a look with gratitude at what you have now: a roof over your head, healthy food, the freedom to create life anew, the love of friends and family and treasured pets. Life can feel wonderful when you live with gratitude for what you have.

Find beauty where you are.  Maybe you dreamed of retiring to a seaside cottage or a cool urban condo and found both out of your reach. So you're living in the same old house in the same old suburb or in a modest condo, apartment or mobile home. Or perhaps you're living in a nice new retirement home in a strange new place -- maybe simply a new town in a different state or maybe in a manufactured oasis in the middle of a desert. Adjusting to what is and looking around with new eyes, you can begin to appreciate the comfort of your long-time home and familiar surroundings. You can take a deep breath and vow to discover all the positives in your new home town -- even if you've relocated to a place that suddenly feels desolate. If you let yourself, you can find beauty in the uniqueness of a desert environment or a busy urban area or the singular charm of a smaller town. When you open your heart to what is, disappointments can turn to joy.

To improve your relationship, try acting and reacting in different ways.  You don't get positive change by repeating those same old behaviors over and over. So try something new.

Do thoughtful things for each other instead of staying locked into gender roles.  A friend of mine told me recently that her across the street neighbor, who has severely arthritic hands, had called her during the dinner hour and asked her come lift a cooking pot filled with water and pasta to the sink for draining and rinsing. The woman's husband was sitting in a lounger not 10 feet from the stove. But he felt that anything to do with cooking and kitchen duty was women's work.

Look at nagging in a new way. If the nagging is about your health and less than ideal lifestyle habits, instead of bristling, try seeing the love and caring behind the grousing.

Have a serious, loving talk and enlist each other's help in overcoming bad habits -- like snapping at each other or tuning each other out or cutting each other off conversationally during social events. Agree on a subtle signal that says "Please stop!" at the first sign of irritation triggers or excessive and pointless criticism. This isn't a matter of convincing your spouse to act in a more civil manner. Monitor your own behavior, note what needs to change and see if your relationship doesn't improve.

Change your focus to making life better for others. We all have aches, pains, limitations and disappointments as we enter the later decades of life. But these seem less onerous if we shift our focus to others: perhaps peers less fortunate than we are, perhaps to younger family members who could use a helping hand, loving guidance and affirmation, perhaps to strangers in need -- people who are homeless, those in hospitals, children needing extra help in the classroom, animals in need of rescuing or fostering. There is so much that needs to be done to make life easier for those around us. We're limited only by our willingness to get involved. With volunteer work, a small business or an expanded hobby, with a desire to help others, we can help ourselves as well.

There are, of course, some moments of quiet desperation that are triggered by tragic turns in our lives and aren't so easily solved simply with attitude adjustments or small changes. But for many of the disappointments and moments of disillusionment that come as we settle into retirement, it's important to remember that happiness in retirement isn't automatic because wherever you go, there you are. Your emotional baggage and habits and behavior patterns follow you wherever you go. So take a look around ....and open your eyes, your heart and your mind... and see what a difference you can make in your own life and the lives of those around you.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hindsight Advice to the Next Generation

"I don't want my kids to follow in my footsteps, to do what I did!"

His vehemence came as a surprise when I opened the email from a dear, long-time friend with two college-age daughters.

My first thought was that his daughters would do well to emulate their Dad.

I've known him since he was a twentysomething just starting out in New York publishing and quickly making a name for himself with his combination of insight, kindness, brilliance, hard work and decency.

But he is adamantly warning his daughters away from the same path -- encouraging them to take summer jobs in financial services, corporate public relations -- anything but journalism, book publishing and other print media. "I tell them that they have a choice: to work hard and make good money in business or to work just as hard and make practically nothing in publishing. I don't want them to have the hardships and the uncertainty, especially with the changing nature of the publishing business these days," he wrote. "I want them to have good lives with financial stability and the freedom to pursue all their creative interests on the side."

I could see his point. If I had children, I might be inclined to urge them to explore careers that they could enjoy and, at the same time, have bright employment and financial prospects. Would I have listened if my parents had urged me in a similar direction? Probably not.

I'm the aging poster child for doing what you love in work where money is unpredictable. I have been an actress, a writer and a psychotherapist.  All hold the potential for good earnings, with hard work and a large -- very large -- portion of luck. Acting, in particular, is an iffy bet in terms of financial security with so much more than talent involved in getting a coveted big break. And even though writing and psychotherapy are more accessible and less arbitrary than show business, financial bonanzas can be elusive. I have written 15 books for major New York publishers. Only one so far has earned decent money -- and that has been over a period spanning more than 30 years. I optimistically started a psychotherapy private practice -- after the investment of tens of thousands of dollars in advanced degrees in midlife -- and found, with the dominance of managed care, my earnings to be steady but modest.

A college friend Kandace, now deceased, also had a journalism degree followed by a midlife switch to psychotherapy. "What is it about us?" she asked over lunch one day. "Why do we gravitate to these various careers where it's so hard to make a living? Do we have a hidden poverty wish?"

One wonders. Perhaps it's a matter of some people putting more value on financial security while others value the experience of following a dream. And one wonders how young people hear these cautionary tales and fervent advice. Do they hear them with the puzzlement evident on Benjamin's face in "The Graduate" when a family friend urged him to consider a career in "Plastics." Or do they take this advice more to heart than previous generations at a time when student loans are so overwhelming and full-time jobs with good salaries and benefits are so hard to come by?

And, for a young person with creative passions, is it possible to have a happy, satisfying life with these pursuits relegated to the sidelines? Or, in the long run, is the pleasure of following one's dreams worth the financial risks? Does it make sense to pursue high-paying jobs, even if the passion is not there? Is following one's low-paying passions always a mistake?

How have you advised your growing or grown children? How have they found a satisfying balance in their lives? More to the point: what choices have you made in life that you hope your children don't make ?

Parental advice can make more of an impression on a young person than many of us imagined -- either as put-upon youth or as concerned parents.

I remember my own parents having their own urgent career advice for us -- advice we heard with half-closed eyes and long suffering attitudes.

Father urged my brother Michael to become a medical doctor, both to avoid being drafted for Vietnam service and to have lifelong security. He himself had aspired to a medical career after experiencing the disappointments of engineering work in a corporate setting but didn't feel he could start over. He wanted Michael to get his career off to a great start. Mike shrugged off the advice, setting his sights on becoming a college math professor and arguing that draft avoidance was an insufficient reason to choose a career in medicine.

 Mother advised my sister Tai, who showed great skill and compassion when family members were ill, to become a nurse. Tai rolled her eyes and insisted that her passion was dance.

Both of my parents rushed to implore me to become a writer which, only in comparison with my other passion, acting, seemed like a more reasonable bet.

It took combat in Vietnam and the passage of time to move Michael in the direction of medicine, in his own time and for his own reasons. It took even more time for Tai to see the wisdom of a career in nursing -- a goal she began to pursue in earnest after life-saving brain surgery, a marriage on the rocks and a toddler daughter to support. I enjoyed five years of doing both writing and acting in my twenties until I became increasingly aware of too many fifty-something actors and actresses who were so talented, so deserving of fame and fortune, who lacked only luck. They were still waiting on tables or driving cabs while hoping against hope for a big break. Writing, while competitive, didn't seem as
arbitrary. If you had talent and a good work ethic, you had a chance. Success didn't hinge on your looks -- at least then. In time, we all became converts to our parents' point of view -- even if our parents didn't live to see Tai's epiphany.

And yet there are young people who follow their dreams and make them happen. My friend Tim has four children -- three of them in the entertainment field. Laura is an award-winning playwright and college professor; Mary Kate is a film and t.v. actress; Stephen is a musical theatre actor/singer who works non-stop. His fourth child, Eliza, is an elementary school teacher. All work steadily and love what they do. None are likely to experience financial windfalls. But they're content.

These are strange times for those of us in midlife and beyond -- a time in life when we look back with longing or amusement or regret at roads taken or not taken. And we want to spare those we love who come after us from some of the rough patches along the way. And so we warn them away from certain career fields or behaviors or relationships without being sure that they've heard us. Then we cross our fingers and hope for the best.

But we know, as our parents did before us, that young people make their own lives, their own success and failure, their own happiness and regrets -- and we can only watch and cheer them on and comfort them along the way.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Gentle End for a Lovely Cat

My beloved cat Gus died today at the age of 16.

It shouldn't have been a surprise, but it seems that death so often catches us somewhat by surprise.

Gus had been frail this past year, losing weight and strength. His weight loss accelerated by April and I began to worry about leaving him for a long-planned trip to Hawaii to visit my dear friend Jeanne who has been ill. A vet at a nearby clinic was reassuring. "His lab work is fine," she said. "His kidneys are in great shape. He doesn't have diabetes. He's just old. Oh, it's possible that he could have intestinal cancer, but it's very costly to diagnose and would be hard to treat successfully at his age.  Try some of this special food and see how he does. I'm sure it will be fine to leave him."

So we left, with our neighbor Kelly, who has a small pet-sitting business, minding our cats. Her emails were upbeat, but concerned: Gus was eating enthusiastically, but was still losing weight. I asked her about gastrointestinal problems. Yes. But manageable. She fought hard to keep him healthy, to keep him alive, while we were gone -- with massages and hand feeding and cuddling and daily encouragement. And we were thrilled when he met us at the door when we returned late last  Wednesday.

But his appearance was a shock: his weight loss had gone into overdrive and his fur hung like an oversized coat on a body defined by prominent bones. He was ravenously hungry but his system could no longer process food. He had projectile diarrhea. As the week went on, he stopped grooming himself and, quite uncharacteristically, was smelly and unkempt. A lifelong model of calm with an even temper and loving nature, he was suddenly cranky and whined constantly. His weight had plummeted from 18 pounds last year to a fraction over five pounds.

But he still purred whenever I touched him, still melted into my arms when I picked him up, still took my hand in his paws and rubbed it all over his face  -- things he has done since we adopted him and his brother Timmy as seven week old kittens back in 1998.

He was still in so many ways himself. When would we know to let go?

Gus (r) and Timmy cuddle up to Bob in 1998

Loving brothers Timmy and Gus in 1998

Loving companions Hammie and Gus 2014

Gus, Hammie, Maggie and Sweet Pea 2014

Shockingly thin: Gus in June 2014

He would brighten, then decline in an endless loop over the next few days.  But I could see a steadier decline yesterday, watching him struggle to walk and to sit and to lie down, tottering on uncertain limbs. And then there was last night: while Gus usually preferred to start his nights on the living room couch, I looked over to the corner of the bedroom last night as I was turning in and saw him curled up in the little bed he had had since kittenhood. And I said a quiet prayer that he would pass away quietly and peacefully in that little bed.

                                      Gus settling in for his last night - June 17, 2014

But at 2 a.m., I was suddenly awakened by the sound of very loud purring beside me. I could hear it through sleep and the ear plugs I often wear if Bob is snoring. I was astonished to see Gus standing beside me, purring and rubbing his face against mine. Then he settled on my chest, still purring, his paws embracing me. Every time I would drift off to sleep, he would rub or touch my face, seeming to beg "Stay with me." I had a sense that he was saying a very personal, very loving "Goodbye" with the last of his strength. As the night went on, there was another round of dashes to the cat box with explosive diarrhea, crying,  wincing with pain when I touched his stomach.  Whimpering, he cuddled close and I knew it was time.

Bob called the veterinary clinic before dawn and we set off with Gus several hours later, choking back the pain behind our ordinary conversation, reassuring Gus who lay moaning in his carrier. I longed for our former vet in California from whom we had adopted Gus and Timmy, someone who knew him and would understand the magnitude of this loss that loomed before us.

But at this seemingly impersonal clinic, they did understand, creating a peaceful, supportive, caring environment, letting us have time to express our love to Gus before and after his sedation and the ultimate heart-stopping injection and to linger afterwards to caress him and to cry over this wonderful animal companion who had meant so much to us over the years. He was the only cat we had who had known every one of our other cats in our 32 year adventure in sharing our lives with a series of unique and loving cats. Gus also truly raised our current generation -- Maggie, 7, Sweet Pea,4, and Hammie, 2 -- from kittenhood. He was the cat who always purred, loved to be held and was invariably sweet and caring in the worst of times.

As we stood there today, stroking and holding Gus as his life ebbed away, we talked wistfully of the possibility of an afterlife, of a rainbow bridge where we might -- despite all of our religious doubts -- meet again with our beloved Gus, with Timmy and Freddie and Marina. We imagined how happy he would be to see his littermate Timmy, dead seven years and one month to the day. We hoped. We dreamed. And we said "Goodbye": Godspeed, sweet Gus. May you discard your elderly, ill body like an old coat and soar into a new life of unending love and adventure.

"I hope," Bob said, stroking his still warm body. "I hope if there is such a thing as reincarnation, that Gus will have another life as the highest order being possible."

He paused and thought about it.

"Maybe this was the highest order," he said. "Maybe cats and dogs are closer to perfection than we are."

I can't help but think that may be so -- at least in Gus' case. He was perfect: perfectly loving, perfectly  wonderful, perfectly Gus. We'll love and miss him forever.