Monday, September 11, 2006

Life Happens

"Life Happens."

Pat Parelli often says this to people who find themselves sidelined from their once-obsessive PNH studies for a time, whether it be due to illness (human/equine), loss (same), school, work, family, or other events. Many people set up a goal planner—such as, "I'll finish Level Two by the end of this year, Level Three by 2008, get accepted into the Professional's Program in early 2009 and start my third horse at the same time, and by 2012 I'll be working as a 3-star Instructor". Ta dum.

Then life throws a curve—or five—and those goals get scrapped... because "life happened".

Well, life certainly has happened to me. Can it really be three years since Wildflower and I passed Level One and received our coveted red string? It seems a lifetime ago now. And Wildflower's been gone since March 2005. I had to start over, so I bought a new mare (Shaveya) rather than give Cheerios a whirl (wasn't quite ready for him, I thought), then Shaveya immediately went horribly lame—forcing me to face my fears and make Cheerios my new Levels horse. I thought, "ok, I'll be delayed for a few weeks while I bring him through L1", and adjusted my goals accordingly.

Then life happened yet again, and HARD this time.

Forget Level Two. For now.

Dad fell in December, broke his hip and shoulder, spent two months in a nursing home, recovered fine, came home, had about five good weeks, then began the spiraling descent that ended with his death on June 7th from bacterial pneumonia, atrial fibrillation, and good old "old age". He was 88. I don't think that's old, really. I thought he'd be around another 10 years because he was hardly sick a day in his life, unlike Mother, who has always been ill with something or another and survived breast cancer in the 1950's far beyond the doctor's predictions (she's still alive and 86 years old).

So Dad died after a harrowing six months during which every one of my goals was pushed not to the backburner but completely off the stove and into the fridge because somebody had to take care of Mother and step in to handle the finances and household management, and because I'm the only close one, that somebody turned out to be me.

Dad was buried June 13th with full military honors. He was an Air Force Captain that had served two tours of duty, and a well-respected college professor. After the funeral, Mother and I discussed the possibility of my moving in while we adjusted to our New Reality without Dad.

A month later, Mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the esophagus, spread to the liver, and given a very grim prognosis. I moved in immediately. My goals moved from fridge to deep freeze. My horses have been languishing among the lush grass with rare visits from me. My saddle has a thick layer of mold on it, and my carrot stick is rotting (not really... just feels like it... carrots... rotting...). About the only success I have to show is that I've ridden Cheerios a handful of times now in the woods, on the trail, saddled but wearing only the Parelli Hackamore. No bit, no bridle—in between it all, we forged a relationship strong enough that I feel safer communicating with him in a "skinny rope bridle and lead rope" than a leather and brass bridle with a piece of iron between his teeth. I've also taken Shaveya on two trail rides, when her lameness abated temporarily, and she was fantastic.

What the future holds, no one knows. Mother's prognosis is "three months to three years, it all depends". We're focusing on years rather than months, but living with the awareness that it could be less. It shifts priorities. People have said, "be sure to ask all the questions you ever wanted answers to, while you have the chance". The interesting thing is, Mother and I have had so many heart to hearts in my lifetime with her that I find I have no unanswered questions left. Or, the questions that she has not answered yet are questions she never will answer, because her personality and way of thinking is such that she'll never be that forthcoming. Confused? I can't ask her why she behaves the way she does because she firmly believes "no such thing". In her mind, she's right, or fine, the way she is. Her character flaws are not visible to her and unless she has a brilliant wave of insightfulness (not likely, knowing her), they never will. My job is to accept her, flaws and all, and love her until she leaves me.

I had more questions for Dad than for Mother, but he was another story. I asked. I really, really tried to dig it out of him, but Dad was very reticent. Opening him up was... harder than getting the clam to spit out the oyster. It was sometimes painful to try to have a conversation with him. Mother told me that Dad's mother never let him talk, so he learned not to talk. She claims he opened up to her... leaving me to think that he only opened up to those he trusted implicitly, and that Mother was one of the rare few he trusted enough to open up to. He was a great father, though. A kinder, gentler, more sympathetic and conscientious man one will never meet. He provided well for us, took great pride in all of us, and his wisdom and intelligence will carry us through till the end. Still... I mourned more for the loss of the relationship I thought we should have had than for the one we did. Then I accepted it, finally.

I was with him moments before he died. He was in the ICU, in renal failure, and they were having trouble keeping his blood pressure up. His dying wish—though I didn't realize this at the time—was for me to "take care of Mother and make sure she's all right". Of course, Dad always said that to me in those last months—it had become our routine. I thought nothing of it, yet as I always did, I reassured him again that I would. His breathing was labored and his eyes were looking at something past my shoulder (what, I don't know). I said I'd go see how she was and that I'd be back in a little while. He said "OK". I turned to leave his room, intending to take a break and go check on Mother in the waiting room. I was at the doorway when something made me pause. I half-turned back and called over my shoulder, almost like an afterthought, "I love you, Dad".

Dad called out feebly "I love you, too".

While I was downstairs calling my sister to tell her she really ought to consider coming in tonight rather than tomorrow, Dad coded. When I returned, I was being paged to ICU. They got him back. They prepared to put him on a ventilator. He coded again. They couldn't get him back. At 3:31 pm, he left us forever.

I'm still not used to it. But I feel blessed that I was able to see him, conscious and coherent, one last time before he left. What better way to say goodbye than to say "I love you"? I'm trying to remember every day to tell Mother I love her, too. Just in case she forgets. This has been by far the worst year of my life, losing Wildflower, then Dad, then being given Mother's prognosis. I've moved out of my house, I'm selling it, and my life has dwindled down to playing caregiver 24/7.

One day, it will change again, and I will be alone. Where I'll go from there, I don't yet know. How this will ultimately change me, I also don't yet know. I only know that I'm still here, and that I will somehow find the courage and strength to go on, after life has finished this round of happening.