I, as you are too, are probably frequently reading, to wash your hands! I thought, “They are preaching to the choir. I have been a believer and doer of this hand washing thing for decades.” A couple of decades ago my children and husband all came down with strep throat. I consoled myself that my fastidious hand-washing is what spared me from getting strep throat as well. (I have since learned some people are immune to strep, and that may be why I don’t get it.) A couple of weeks ago, I decided to sing that proverbial ABC’s song and show myself I put in those recommended twenty seconds. I was unpleasantly surprised to find I would usually stop around the letter “J”! I realized my routine was to not turn on the cold water and stop hand washing when the water became too hot for me. And that was around the letter “J”. Wow, did that burst my self-held beliefs about my great hygiene practices! With practicing the twenty-second guideline, I actually had the time to do all of the hand-washing routine I scrimped on, like washing the backs of my hands, and in between my fingers. And yes, the fingernails! Here’s one video I thought particularly helpful. No one I know or have been in contact with lately has had exposure to our pandemic virus. But I was sick with a sinus infection and have decided to stay home until the symptoms have dissipated. It turns out to be a great time to start better practices to reduce sharing our germs. At this point, I have become a more thorough hand washer.
It also is a great time to examine other long-held beliefs. About what’s important, what/who we value and the difference between wants and needs. And how we fit in to the society and world. Six years ago, we were traveling in southeastern Colorado, hoping to reach a campsite new to us. I was navigating, and missed the highway sign that indicated the highway going south had turned due east. We drove around ten miles before my husband and I both realized something was wrong, and that we were quickly heading to New Mexico. Although there were few spots, we located a place to turn around and head north. Probably making up for lost time, my husband sped up on the practically empty highway. He was soon pulled over by a state trooper, who informed him how much he was speeding and that he was getting a speeding ticket. The state trooper then told my husband that driving the speed limit was doing his part to keep the roads safe. I would have forgotten about this, indeed, I don’t really remember hearing the trooper say it. But my husband took the exhortation to heart, and has referenced it in driving and other parts of his life since then. Today, I am content to do my part by washing my hands correctly, and following our governor’s stay-at-home orders.
Musings of releasing oneself from the need to be productive.
I had a poster when I was a teen with this quote: “sometimes i sits and thinks and sometimes i just sits” ― Satchel Paige or A.A. Milne, depending on your source of information.
I ponder now why that saying intrigued me at the time. I am guessing I thought it was about being a thinker, a deep thinker. Perhaps a philosopher. What I know is it what very different from what was expected of me. I have vivid memories of several incidents of my parents yelling at me and my sibs when they came into the house from the morning milking and finding us not working, thus being lazy. They had gone to the barn at 5:30 am, so the affront was we were still in bed, after 9 a.m., or sitting around the house in our PJs. One morning, Dad berated me for playing solitaire, while still in my PJs. So perhaps the poster’s declaration, the permission, of the activity of non-activity, was a unique thought for me. (After becoming a parent, I realized my parents didn’t tell us their expectations of us, gave us no direction about chores or behavior they wanted. Maybe if they had given us some guidance we would have behaved differently? Who knows.)
When I was a child, my mother shared a hurt of hers, that a relative told her father that her then-fiance was lazy. My mother cared deeply what other people thought, and spent a fair amount of her farm life aiming to disprove any laziness existed on our farm. Overtly doing nothing useful did not further her goal.
My mother never had idle hands. After we bought a TV, when she watched in the evening, her hands were busy darning socks, knitting or crocheting her latest creations. She taught me to knit and crochet (not how to darn socks though!) so I soon had busy hands while watching TV.
I enjoyed the sitting and thinking part of life, especially as a student. I loved pondering ideas teachers introduced. Two of my favorite classes at college were Ethics and Philosophy. My friends grew so tired of me repeating my newfound information and revelations from Philosophy class they banned me from postulating at mealtimes. After college, I enjoyed Bible studies, professional workshops; any form of information dissemination and discussion. I savored the passage in the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof:
” And I’d discuss the learned books with the holy men Seven hours every day That would be the sweetest thing of all “
I too, dreamed of sitting around and pondering those learned books. That aspect of seminary was one I relished when I thought of attending seminary. (I wanted to attend seminary since I was a kid. I didn’t end up going but held on to it as a potential for decades.) I did attend graduate school for a master’s in social work and thoroughly enjoyed the classroom again. I even took another ethics class!
As I grew up I followed my parents’ example of ceaseless work. But not by living on a farm! I avoided getting serious with any guy, even those handsome ones, who were becoming farmers. I had no interest in the consuming life of a farmer’s wife. It sounded limiting to live in one place, and there was a whole world out there. I also observed that my parents were not happy when they lived on the farm and left when I was a teenager. Their contentment seemed more apparent when they were no longer dairy farmers.
After my first job out of college, as a church youth worker, the rest of the jobs I pursued were Monday-Friday, with weekends off. But I filled those weekends with avid church involvement, then later added marriage and children. When I started working in the school district and had ten weeks off in the summer, I saw that as an enormous amount of time. I immediately signed my five-year-old daughter up for four sessions of swim lessons, as I had no idea how to have that much unstructured time with my child. I even volunteered to pick up a friend of hers, which added at least an hour to the summer-long swim lesson venture.
I kept up this frenetic pace, working full time, having two children, and certainly not slowing down when being a single parent. I remember one weeknight: the children were in bed, it was nine p.m, and I was thinking of the tasks I felt I needed to complete before allowing myself to turn in. I paused, took stock, and realized I was exhausted. It struck me in some cultures, some parts of the world, when people are tired, they go to bed. I realized that was a reasonable response to being tired, but I don’t think I allowed myself to go to bed. And now I read articles supporting the benefits of a good night’s sleep, such as this one.
All of my life, however, I have stopped to observe a sunrise, a sunset or a rainbow. Usually with exclamations of appreciation and encouragement of those around me to enjoy it as well. If we move, my husband and I both want a clear view of at least the sunrise or sunset from our new abode. And a place that delivers the sunsets we get in Kansas. Sweet stuff!
Gradually, my buy-in to the busyness of life started shifting. I heard the term, “be a human being, not a human doing”. That intrigued me and hearkened me back to my lovely poster. I no longer wanted to live by my parents’ perceptions of laziness. I didn’t need to face their demons or live according to their fears. Several things happened: I left my small church, where I volunteered for a variety of responsibilities, and joined a big church where less was needed of me, and anonymity was possible. I married someone who does not enjoy attending a multitude of activities, especially where a lot of people are gathered. I started getting more selective of outings, especially on weeknights. And I realized I appreciated the spaces between activities, even started craving the downtime.
When retirement was imminent, I was often asked what I would be doing. I boldly and emphatically replied, “Nothing!” Even though I gave myself permission to do nothing, a lifetime of inculcation to be a productive human being did not evaporate with retirement. It reminded me of a passage in the popular 1970 romance novel “Love Story”. Oliver and Jenny, the main characters, have fallen madly in love, and marry. They had sex prior to their marriage but felt guilty about it. After they marry, Oliver observes that the act of marrying did not automatically turn off the guilt associated with having sex. I am thinking this is true for me with retirement: it has been a process to turn off the expectation that it is necessary to be productive, to be that human doing. Instead of feeding that notion of productivity through working a job, I have now translated to being productive in our home and it’s upkeep. I haven’t thrown myself into it, so it is my current focus of guilty thoughts. I am hoping to find an equilibrium, less dissonance, between my personal expectations and my actions. Winter is an easier time to reduce the nagging thoughts, as there is little yard work to be done.
Last year, a friend introduced me to a series of books I am finding absolutely delightful. I had been reading a ton of murder mysteries series and had commented to Ken I would prefer reading a mystery book sans someone being murdered. The series my friend recommended is the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. The protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives in Botswana. With her father’s inheritance, she starts a detective agency. I have read 15 books, and so far, no one’s been murdered. Sometimes the interactions or the characters’ behaviors in the books feel trite, but then there are jewels like this, from The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, #14): “There was no reason why one should always be on the move. That was half the trouble with the world, she [Precious Ramotswe] thought: not enough people took the time to sit down for a few minutes and look up at the sky or at whatever it was that was before you—a herd of cattle, perhaps, or a stretch of bush dotted with acacia trees, or the sinking of the evening sun into the Kalahari. “
Each book has similar sentiments, which I am eagerly reading to help flip that switch in my brain that productivity is the only operative way to live. In this series, Mma Ramotswe pairs her thinking time with her red bush tea, which I had not heard of. When I investigated, I found it is called Rooibos tea by the transplanted Europeans and is from a particular bush in South Africa. Here’s more information for tea lovers. I easily found the tea locally and was delighted when I enjoyed the taste immensely. It’s my cue now, to brew a cup of Rooibos and contemplate the ease of just sitting and being. I have not released all of the work ethic inculcations of my childhood, but I am eager to continue to “work” at it.
I wrote about my brother Bob’s illness and subsequent death in The Winter of Grief.What I saved for this story is events I experienced, especially in the last year, involving my brother. Here’s the backstory: When Bob was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Dementia in 2010, he started his care in a nursing home in the small, rural town where his youngest son lived, in Ord, NE. Once he was stabilized he was able to move to the Assisted Living facility in that town. He was sixty-five years old, and noted he was the youngest person there, by at least ten years. Periodically he would talk to me about moving to Kansas. He would also talk to our brother in Colorado about moving to Colorado. Neither of us were able to help him move. I considered the potential of Bob moving to my town and state. Since the major portion of his medical insurance was state-residency based, I did not think I could take on the task of helping him gain residency, thus medical benefits, here. My home state of Kansas had a back-log of Medicaid eligibility, with no promise of that changing. We live in a two-bedroom house, and my son was just starting high school. My stepson lives with us in the summers. Basically we had a full house and couldn’t bring Bob here. This left me feeling lacking and wishing I could be of more help to him. We visited him once a year at that time, even having an extended family gathering at a bed and breakfast in Ord in 2013.
In 2016, Bob’s son left Ord and moved to Grand Island, NE. Bob believed he had no connections to keep him in Ord, and wanted to live in an urban area. We helped him by researching and visiting facilities in Lincoln, NE. We found one that met his needs and wishes, and he moved to Lincoln. Since he was now over one hundred miles closer to me, I hoped to visit him more often. My daughter and her toddler traveled with me that June, to celebrate Bob’s birthday. We took him to a popular restaurant for lunch. He had to traverse a short, steep ramp in the restaurant to be seated. He was using his walker, but started falling forward. Two diners were in range, quickly sized up the situation and reached out to steady him. I was shaken by the potential of him falling and realized I did not have the expertise to lift him off of the floor. I hesitantly drove him out for supper, and later to a twelve-step meeting. They were uneventful and he loved every moment. I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of that birthday celebration and realized I was no longer comfortable transporting him.
Bob enjoyed the city, but his health declined, his needs increased, which meant he no longer qualified for assisted living. He moved to a nursing home in Grand Island, NE at the end of 2016, to be in the same town as his son.
When I retired later in 2017, I considered ways to be involved with his life. I asked Bob and his sons if I could participate in his quarterly Care Plan meetings, via conference call. They were fine with that; Bob indicated he would find my input helpful.
In my social work career, I had attended a multitude of meetings for children that had some of the same features as an adult’s care plan meeting. I knew these meetings could either be a place of a dynamic group process of relevant action plans being shaped or a perfunctory meeting, convening for the sake of meeting state and federal requirements. I had experienced both types. I was hoping for the former. The angle I decided to focus on in his Care Plan meetings was activities meaningful to Bob. As he had been a Lutheran pastor, church and theology was still an interest and passion of his. He had also attended twelve-step support groups and continued to find that fellowship important. I knew he had found rides to both in Ord, but that had faltered when he moved to Lincoln. Our brother in Lincoln gave him information to make those contacts himself, but we didn’t realize he was not able to function at that level anymore. It was so hard to gauge his current capabilities and what he could no longer do independently. Our brother had just begun to make contact for Bob at a local church when Bob moved to Grand Island. The Lincoln pastor contacted a pastor in Grand Island, and we were aware a pastor was making visits to Bob. But he was no longer attending church. His physical decline was enough to not task volunteers with helping him in and out of vehicles. To engage in worship, the activities director had Bob be in charge of starting the DVD player of a freshly burned DVD of a local church service, delivered to the nursing home. When we talked about this, he acknowledged he had little theological alignment with the church but appreciated having exposure to church services. He also helped lead a Bible study. The activities director, our brother and I all tried to set up ways to be participate in Twelve Step groups in Grand Island, but nothing ever worked out.
In June, 2018, my husband Ken and I were heading out for our daily walk. It had been pretty hot, so we thought of going to our local indoor track, but decided to face the heat and walk in our neighborhood. We have several different routes we take, but on the one we chose that day, about a mile into the walk, I saw a car with a Nebraska specialty license plate that said “ELCAREV”. Not being a congenital Lutheran from Nebraska, as I was, I explained to Ken this plate indicated the car belonged to a minister of the Lutheran branch called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which was the brand I had spent most of my life attending. And that REV stood for Reverend. As we started walking away, a woman walked out of the house and towards this car. I called out to her, “Cool license plate; where do you live?” She did that thing I so recognize; she started qualifying that her town was small, and I probably wouldn’t have heard of it. She said she lived in Ord, NE and is the minister at Bethany Lutheran Church. I responded, not only had I heard of Ord, but we had been there to visit my brother, Bob Larson. She said, “I know Bob, he is a member of my church!” She then explained she had lost touch with him when he moved to Lincoln. Her home office (It’s actually the Nebraska Synod Office, for those of you who like accuracy and relate to church jargon. I like deciphering jargon.) had recently contacted her to let her know Bob’s current address. She said she made the drive to Grand Island weekly for text study (They also call if Peri-copes study. More jargon!) and had begun to visit Bob and serve him communion. I was washed with gratitude to know Bob was being spiritually nurtured in a manner familiar and dear to him.
Rev. Glenda explained her two adult sons live in Lawrence, but in two different parts of town. She just happened to be at this son’s house, and she just happened to decide to go to her car to retrieve her water bottle. When we just happened to be walking by. We were all in awe of this harmonic convergence and all tearing up. We exchanged phone numbers so we could continue to communicate about Bob.
With this dramatic insertion of my brother into my local life, I decided I needed to contact his nursing home to find out when his next Care Plan meeting was scheduled. I was surprised to learn it was the next week, on Wednesday, June 20th! Two of my cousins I lived down the road, so to speak, in Nebraska, so I asked them for lodging and a visit. They were both available on the dates I needed! The trip was falling together seamlessly.
I saw Bob on Monday, asking him what he wanted addressed at his Care Plan meeting on Wednesday. He gave me several items; some made sense to me, some didn’t. But, overall, we had a coherent conversation. I told him of meeting Rev. Glenda and he acknowledged she was visiting him. I then drove further west, to stay with my cousin.
A year prior, my nephew told me Bob wished, when he died, to have a Lutheran funeral service and to be buried at the same cemetery as our parents. It’s a rural cemetery, formerly connected to a German Lutheran Church and parochial school. I knew nothing about the process of getting a burial plot there, but my cousins did. I asked them and found out it was simple to reserve a burial plot; one cousin gave me the contact person.
Tuesday was a day to hang out with my cousin hosting me, and we decided to visit the cemetery, to see our parents’ graves, and take a look at available burial spots for my brother’s request. We found a spot right beside my parents.
She suggested we visit the local funeral home, to gather more information about burial at Immanuel Cemetery. The information from the funeral director was specific and not as complicated as I had imagined . I later passed on the information to my nephews, for use in that unforeseen future.
The next day I said goodbye to my cousins and drove back to Grand Island, to attend Bob’s Care Plan meeting. Bob seemed disoriented, so I was glad I had had the conversation a couple of days prior, to share his concerns. After his meeting I drove to a local fast food of Bob’s choice, Runza Hut, a local favorite, and brought it back for Bob’s lunch. He enjoyed every last bite.
I drove home via Lincoln, NE, so I could have supper with our brother. Knowing he is proficient at wood working, it occurred to me to ask him to consider making an urn for Bob’s ashes. He gave me a decisive yes. I really considered this planning for an event years away, but was grateful plans were falling in place so well.
After that, when I called Bob the conversations had digressed with the progression of his dementia. In November of 2018, my nephew let me know Bob was placed on Hospice care. They said he had declined, but they did not see death as imminent. He basically needed more daily care. I texted Rev. Glenda to let her know they had included chaplain care in the hospice services.
I wasn’t involved in his September Care Plan meeting as they had staff changes, who didn’t know to contact me. For Bob’s December Care Plan meeting, I again participated via conference call. The goals for his Care Plan were now comfort care, not rehabilitative care. This was hard to hear, but helpful to face the reality of Bob’s condition.
I was still surprised, though, when my nephew’s wife called to tell me in early January Bob was not eating and declining. I texted Rev. Glenda to tell her Ken and I were heading to Nebraska on a Sunday to say our goodbyes. Glenda did not anticipate coming to Grand Island at that time. A few hours later she texted me and said she was coming! This meant she was driving the eighty miles one way, after presiding at two church services that morning. My brother and his wife from Colorado came, my nephew and his wife were there, and Bob reveled in being surrounded by family. My nephew, his wife and I took opportunities to talk with Rev. Glenda about funeral services, within the confines of limited funds. Rev. Glenda offered her services and the services of her church in Ord with no need for payment. We were deeply touched, and relieved.
It turned out to be our last time to see Bob as he died six days later. My nephew and his wife worked with Rev. Glenda to arrange the funeral service. Our brother was able to build the wooden urn in time for the funeral service. The inurnment of ashes at the cemetery on the plains would wait for better weather.
Our family gathered, and Rev. Glenda a officiated a service honoring Bob. She told anecdotes of his church life in Ord; stories new to me. She told us when she moved to Ord she was still doing graduate work. She asked Bob to read her papers and said he gave constructive feedback. When Bob died Rev. Glenda informed the NE Synod Office and the Assistant to the Bishop participated in the funeral service. None of Bob’s family even considered this as an option, but we knew Bob would appreciate the acknowledgement of his ministry. And we were grateful for the immense care Rev. Glenda gave to the details and her ministry to us. Rev. Glenda turned out to be a blessing to my brother and his relatives. Much of this falling together because Ken and I decided to take a walk in our neighborhood on a warm day in June.
On January 4th, my nephew’s wife called to say my brother Bob was not eating and was declining. I hadn’t seen him since last June, and in December was told he could no longer participate in the phone conversations I had just had a month prior. I knew I needed to visit him. I remembered August of 2014, when my sister-in-law called, saying my brother Paul was riddled with cancer and was expected to die within the week. I waited three days, and while driving to Omaha to see him, my sister-in-law called again to say he had died. I regretted waiting. I wanted to avoid more regrets, so on January 6th, my husband and I made the two hundred mile one-way trip to see him. When I walked into his dining room, he saw me, lifted his shoulders in a happy shrug just like our mother, smiled and said, “Sister”. We hugged and spent time together, being joined by his son and daughter-in-law and another brother and his wife. His pastor even joined us, making an eighty-mile trip to do so. We had had as satisfying a visit as allowed by the narrow scope of topics with his dementia and the Parkinson’s limiting his speech.
The round trip was easy as the weather was mild, the roads were clear. It met my needs to talk with him, hug him, and once again to tell him I loved him.
On Friday, January 11th, I went to bed with the knowledge my brother Bob was not expected to live through the weekend. I informed my siblings through our private Facebook group and email. My urge to immediately drive the two hundred miles to his nursing home again, to hold his hand, was tempered by inclement winter weather. On Saturday at 3:30 am, I startled awake from a dream: I was following a leader through an outdoor amphitheater, with the goal of going to the woods beyond. The leader was already out, motioning me to join him when I reached the top of the seating and the sloping of a roof. As I started to pass through this narrow opening, I realized I was walking into a maze of spider webs. All kinds of sizes and types of spiders fell on me, with spider webs and spiders entangling in my long hair. I quickly backed up, looking for other openings, but they were too small. I awoke, without finding a passage.
After a few more restless hours of sleep, my nephew’s wife called to tell me Bob had died. And my dream made sense; my brother had moved on and I could not follow.
I made a list of my siblings, to not have to trust my memory to remember which of the seven I had called. I added his oldest son on the east coast and our cousin in Nebraska. I was attentive to the time zones they each resided in and called accordingly. To tell them our brother had died was difficult enough, but to tell my other brother that Bob died on his birthday and his granddaughter’s first birthday was a difficulty of its own. I actually found it wonderful to talk to each of my siblings, even for the occasion of delivering our sad news. I am not a regular phone call person and rely on Facebook and gatherings to communicate. After I had completed the list, I found I was exhausted. My adult children were sympathetic and assured me they would attend Bob’s funeral service. My son would travel east from Wyoming; my daughter lives in the same town as I do, but planned to travel later, so she could take less time off, and see her young children before she leaves them for two days.
The service was set for January 23rd, which left time for long-distance travel plans and returning to the regular tasks of life. I made lists to help me focus. I found myself inattentive, ending up with a broken fingernail, an unexplained scratch, and a blistered finger doing a task I had safely done for a decade. I remembered the time I slammed the trunk of the car on my finger, almost twenty years ago as I grappled with the news of my father’s terminal illness. I realized I needed to pay attention if I wanted no further injuries. Or car accidents. I have been involved in three car accidents, none of which were deemed as my fault. I was rear-ended twice in the months after grappling with the pain of divorce and the death of what I had hoped to be a marriage for life. The third car accident was after my mom died. Again, technically not my fault, but these happening in times of grief are notable.
On Monday, January 14th, a friend visited us, and I calmly told her the stories. She listened and shared her stories. I was fine. I joined my book club for breakfast the next morning and found myself interrupting, bringing any topic back to my brother’s passing. When I got in my car, the tears flowed. I texted some friends, who answered with compassionate wisdom. I had coffee with them on Friday, realizing I had once again monopolized the conversation, but they are close friends and wanting to be with me in my grief. I ran to Natural Grocers and discovered a massage therapist was giving free, 20-minute massages. I passed her by as I usually do, then realized this was a gift. I turned around and took her up on her gift. I explained I was grieving, may cry, and that I knew I was carrying grief in my body. In those sweet twenty minutes, she was able to put a dent in the boards usually referred to as shoulders. While massaging my back, I realized I was carrying old griefs as well as this recent grief. I knew I could let the old griefs go. She was as skilled of a listener as she was as a masseuse. I left somewhat lighter than I had come.
I knew I was improving when I could actually complete a couple of tasks on the list in the next days. I started a list of tasks to do after we returned from the funeral service, as the business of life continues on.
I consulted with my sisters about what they were wearing. I grieved that my oldest sister would not be attending. And I decided to continue a project of making sister bracelets for our sisters-in-law. I had made bracelets for my sisters last April, using our mother’s necklace as a base. It was therapeutic to focus on creating for my family while facing our loss. My daughter and I had manicures together; something we do for important occasions.
The day prior to the funeral, my husband and I set out. We drove west, starting with mist, which turned to rain, then freezing rain. When we turned north, the rain changed to blinding snow swirling around us. We wondered why we hadn’t left a day earlier and were relieved to arrive at the motel where we joining my extended family. During the storm, I tearfully told my daughter she should not start her drive that evening, meaning she would not be coming to gather with us. When the interstate closed due to ice and accidents, we both knew she would stay home. She is a great comfort to me, and I knew I would miss her presence.
The funeral was still an eighty-mile drive away from our motel, with the remnants of packed snow on the road continuing to slow our travel and keep us focused in the moment. The sun was shining and the weather predicted above-freezing temperatures.
The pastor gathered us prior to the funeral, reading scripture, telling us some stories, and giving us directions. When she asked if any of us wanted to share stories about our brother Bob, I drew a blank. Bob was twelve years older than me; our childhoods barely intersected. He left for college and only returned a few times a year after that. It didn’t seem the time to tell that when I was a young adult he insisted we no longer keep our childhood abuse a secret, to ensure the next generation did not experience abuse as well. That we became close as adults around this process and later sharing our journeys of recovery from alcoholism. Our talks were from the heart, about how we were living day to day. When our conversations were no longer mutual sharing, and his behavior became self-serving and weird, my interest in communicating with him was squelched. When I found out a couple of years later he had Parkinson’s and dementia, his behavior had a context. I then looked for opportunities to visit him at his assisted living facility. Every time I saw him, his functioning had changed, had declined. Since his diagnosis in 2011, I have been slowly losing our former connection. There were vestiges. We could still talk about the tools of recovery together and how we were using them today.
So no, I had no quick stories to tell. His grandsons were able to tell a couple of stories; ones I had not heard before. One of my brothers told the pastor we had time that evening to share more stories. The moment passed. My emptiness did not. During the funeral service, I find myself in tears. My son put his arm around me to comfort me. I leaned into him, appreciating his comforting. We drove back to the motel on sun-dried, clear roads, enjoying the rural scenery sparkling in the snow.
Back home, and a week later, I was preparing for a short stay of my son. As I converted my craft room back into his guest room, the sadness returned. Sam was going stay to briefly with us, bringing us his car and his cat to care for while he is gone for a year-long overseas assignment.
As we moved on to grocery shopping. I realized I was in an active grief space. I couldn’t face the analytical decisions of choosing produce. I tell my husband I will pick up the yogurt and the tahini; the easy tasks. As I held the quart of yogurt, I imagine I drop it and hear the sound as it hits the floor. The stunted sound of plastic making impact on a cement floor. I see the yogurt splatting, then oozing out. I consider letting go of the yogurt and actualizing this sight and sound. It seems like it would be a relief, that it might help break the tension of my sadness. I resist, knowing it is not really a reality I want right now. But I can’t locate the tahini. What I am locating is my new source of grief: I am now facing my son going overseas for six months, to a military base I am not allowed to visit. We will be able to communicate, but I won’t be able to be in the same space as him. It seems too soon to face this, with the recent passing of my brother. I also realize my son is not dying, and that I may be getting this all mixed together. I return to my husband, who has made all of the produce-purchasing decisions and ask for his help in finding the tahini. He takes me to the correct aisle. He also picks out some chocolate peanut clusters. I resist inhaling them all on the way home and eat one when we get home, remembering overeating does not assuage grief. I looked at the list of tasks I want to complete before Sam comes home and realize I am done with the list for the day. And grateful I still have tomorrow.
When Sam arrives, his nervous excitement about his new adventure helps me feel happy for him. We spend a day together with his sister and her family. The next day I drive him to the airport through winter mist at 4:30 am. I plan to walk in with him, to see him through the security process, but he chooses to tell me goodbye at the curb. Surprised we are parting, the tears flow. I gather myself for the still-winter-dark, overcast drive home, knowing I will be home before it’s without-a-sunrise daylight. Unexpectedly, I find myself relieved that his twelve months have now started. I had had eight months of anticipating this assignment. As it turned out, the anticipation was worse than the actual event. Similarly, I realize I had been dreading my brother’s death since I found out he had Parkinson’s and Dementia. Knowing both of these conditions could go on indefinitely, I now marveled my brother had been able to be released from them in less than a decade from his diagnosis. I find some momentary peace, knowing I will have more grief moments to experience. I take pictures of Sam’s cat, so I can send them to him. And know I will be ready to face my list of tasks tomorrow.
June 30, 2018, slipped quietly to July 1, 2018, with little notice. It was a big event for me, but I barely noticed either. This was probably due to the fact I had anticipated June 30, 2018, for a couple of years, knowing I had a decision to make. I considered the pros and cons, consulted others in my situation, fact-checked, and discussed the ramifications of my decision with my husband.
On June 30, 2018, my State of Kansas Social Work license expired. I am no longer legally able to practice social work in Kansas. It was a decision I did not take lightly. There were several elements to consider. The most compelling consideration was, obviously, since I could no longer legally practice social work in the state of Kansas, I could not earn a professional salary. For thirty-four of the thirty-eight years I worked, I was licensed to work in the social work field. When I let myself consider this prior to retirement, it felt like making a giant leap off of a cliff and saying, “Go ahead, remove that safety net. I laugh at danger. Ha, ha, ha!” That’s where the fact-checking came into play. When I first became licensed as a bachelor level social worker in 1984, I took a qualifying test, administered by the state. At that point, I had been out of college for four years, and the test was definitely challenging. When I took the master’s level licensing test in 1990, I was steeped in the academia of social work, pursuing my master’s degree. I was a straight-A student, still found it challenging and barely passed the multiple choice licensing test. I remember hating the test, as it was not a learning experience. I would not find out which questions I had answered correctly, which incorrectly, and why. I also remember railing that in the practice of social work, there was rarely one “right” answer. We work with people, where there is a multitude of possible interventions! What I did know now, twenty-six years past academic pursuits, that a major amount of studying, re-learning, new learning, whatever learning, was going to have to happen for me to pass another licensing test. The last twenty-some years my professional work had focused on social work in the special education realm, and I was better prepared to pass a test on special education than social work.
An important element of my decision to let my social work license lapse was what it would take to reverse that decision. A social work friend told me all it took to reinstate my social work license was to acquire the forty CEU’s (Continuing Education Units) and pay the relicensing fee. I would not need to take the licensing test again. I believed her, as she had reinstated her license a few years prior, but decided to call the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board (BSRB to us), just to be sure that was still the case. The staff person at BSRB assured me my friend was correct.
Since 1984, I renewed my social work license every two years. At that time I was required to obtain sixty hours of CEU’s. This was mainly achieved by attending workshops or college classes. The workshops and classes had to meet standards spelled out by the Kansas state legislature. When we submitted our proof of our CEU’s, the BSRB would review them to make sure they met the legislated standards of a social work CEU. The first Kansas agencies I worked in helped social workers meet our licensing requirements, so it was just part of the job. I usually submitted more than sixty CEU’s, so I didn’t have to worry my license would not be renewed. I saw it as vital; if I didn’t have a social work license, I couldn’t work. For most of my married life, and for sure my single-parent times of life, I was the primary bread-winner. I viewed working as a social worker as my way to sustain my family.
BSRB eventually changed our CEU requirements to forty instead of sixty. We also no longer had to send in our paperwork documenting the accrual of CEU’s. We answered online questions that we had followed their requirements and a random number of licensees were audited. So then the angst was the random audit. I was never randomly chosen for an audit.
I had a variety of jobs in my thirty-eight years. Starting in 1979, I worked as a church youth worker, then a family planning counselor. I moved to Kansas, was not licensed to practice social work and did non-social work jobs: an eligibility worker for the utility assistance program, the house coordinator at a battered women’s shelter, After I obtained my Kansas social work license I worked in child protective services, foster care, and adult protective services. The work of Child Protective Services remains the hardest job I had. I will always remember my first children I removed from their home. Removing children may be necessary work, but I experienced it as heart-breaking. The main challenge of my job in foster care was having fifty-five children on my caseload. The work was mostly facilitating services, but it was before computers or email. It was laborious, and the paperwork became more important than meeting with the children and families I served. I remember showing up for the court hearings and hoping I would recognize the child for whose care I was responsible. It was a different kind of heartbreaking. I transferred into Adult Protective Services when I had my first child so I wouldn’t have to tackle the mountain of paperwork on the weekends.
In December of 1989, I attended a workshop on preventing burnout as a social worker. I was weary from working in public welfare, so the topic interested me. And I could acquire those needed CEU’s. One suggestion I recall from this workshop was to set our own professional goals. I set the goal of applying to the master’s social welfare program and seven months later I was attending graduate school.
A fair amount of my graduate work was reflecting on my first ten years of social work, and what I could have done differently. A very helpful article I read addressed the reason for social work burnout being the ethical dilemmas social workers face. Being able to understand my ethical decision-making style helped me show up for the rest of my social work career. Another was a guideline given by social welfare professors, “If you can’t help, don’t harm.”
As a master’s level social worker I worked at a community mental health center for two years, then landed a school social work job in the local school district. After seven years as a school social worker, I became a Transition Facilitator in the Special Education program at the new high school. I certainly used my social work skills in my last job, but it was not required to be a social worker to be the Transition Facilitator. In fact, at one point my counterpart at the other high school in town and I were the only transition facilitator’s who had social work licenses. Everyone else had teaching licenses. I was relieved to be out of the work of assessing a child’s welfare and safety. It was easier to leave work at work and I lasted longer in the school district because of the better fit for me.
In the summer of 2016, anticipating my next renewal, I decided I would take a passive approach of whether I would renew my license in 2018. It was rare that the in-services required for my school district job could be used for my CEU’s, so I needed to look and pay for my workshops. I decided I would gather CEU’s if a qualifying workshop sounded interesting enough to pay for and attend. As time passed, I watched the offerings, but nothing matched my criteria. I realized this wasn’t the soundest way to make a professional decision, but it accentuated what I already knew: I wasn’t passionate about being a social worker anymore. I cared about people, I cared about doing well at my work and remained a conscientious worker. But it seemed to take more intellectual and emotional energy to show up. I still immensely enjoyed meeting with students one on one and helping with their transition from high school to the adult world. But the aspects of my job I didn’t enjoy became more burdensome. I had seen plenty of co-workers in my career who quit working before they retired, and I was determined to not do that. But I had my moments, especially in the last two years of work.
I retired in May of 2017 and my license was in effect until June 30, 2018. I realized I would have a year to see if I would want to use my social work license. I was open to working again, but only if it paid handsomely, or was more fun than not working. Those opportunities did not present themselves in the year past my retirement.
The crux of my decision was whether I could now let go of my means to make money, to trust I didn’t need that immediate safety net. My adult life had had a fair amount of time living paycheck to paycheck, being helped by extended family, and I didn’t want to return to that life again. Retiring prior to Social Security eligibility was retiring into a lesser income. The numbers made me nervous. How much faith in my money did I need? I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out, and taking a financial risk did not seem prudent, adult-like, responsible. All that stuff. But, a year and a half later, I can say, it has worked out! My husband and I have figured out our finances in our new income strata. We prioritize spending time together rather than have accruing income.
It is continuing to be true that I care about people, their welfare and happiness, but I do not want to be the one providing social work services anymore. I am getting to step up in providing some childcare for our grandchildren and helping a brother who has Parkinson’s. And then more time to attend to my needs and to my marriage. It’s a pretty sweet life.
I had an opportunity to test my decision out recently. A social work friend, who forgot I let my license lapse, told me of an opportunity to cover a maternity leave for a school social worker. I thought it out, even about reinstating my social work license and discussed the pros and cons with my husband. When I started getting a stomach-ache thinking about returning to work, I knew I needed to pass up this job. There are aspects of social work I enjoy immensely, but the parts I experience as stressful are not worth showing up for anymore. I am so glad my friend told me about the opportunity, as it confirmed what I thought I knew. I am content, no, I am happy, to not be a licensed social worker anymore.
On the eve of election day I dreamed I was attending social work graduate school. I had trouble getting to my classes as my class roster didn’t have the location of my first class. I was supposed to be there at 8:30, but 8:30 came and went, and I never made it to my class. I was so frustrated; no one I approached was able to help me. I did make it to my second class, which was about the law. I found it engaging and stimulating and realized I wanted to be a lawyer. While dreaming, I mused about starting law school at sixty-one years of age, and thought, “Yes, I can do that.” Then I went on to dream about my former job. I was at the high school, and it had three floors. The building was on fire, and we needed to evacuate the most vulnerable students (non-verbal, likely using wheelchairs) from the third story. Without using the elevator. A co-worker and I went to help the teacher accomplish this. It was a tense and life-threatening scene.
When I awoke, I was amused that my dreaming-self was interested in becoming a lawyer, but my awake sixty-one-year-old self is not interested at all in the profession. My fascination is purely academic; I find it fascinating but did not enjoy working with lawyers and the court system while I worked in foster care services. I appreciated their passion in representing their clients; I did not appreciate their methods.
I recognize my second dream to be about the dearth of services in Kansas for our most vulnerable population. There are years-long waiting lists for home-based services, putting all of the person’s needs on the parents and relatives. It is a choice Kansas makes about which federal programs they utilize and how much money Kansas will use to match those funds. Those decisions impacted the students and families at the high school I used to work at. Part of my job was to help them transition to those services when they left school services. Sometimes there were no services to transition to. They had gaps in their needs being met because of the decisions made by Kansas lawmakers. It did often feel as urgent as helping them escape a burning building.
Ken and I decided to not vote early, as we both like the ritual of going to the poll station. This morning I approached it with no hope that the candidates I vote for will be elected. I have chosen to live in a state whose majority are Republicans. And I am not. I live in Lawrence whose majority do vote Democrat. But Lawrence rarely reflects the beliefs of the whole state.
My life approach is I want Love to be the guide that shapes my responses towards others. I also believe I need to take responsibility for my behavior, my thoughts, and my feelings. Knowing that feelings of hopelessness are not conducive to my mental and/or physical health, today I reached for a different place to land my thoughts and feelings. Here’s what I came up with: I chose to not get involved with the political process, except for voting. I have exercised my right to vote since I was eligible. But I haven’t pursued further political involvement. Except after the election of President Trump. At that time I made a couple of phone calls to legislators, went to one Women’s March and participated in a postcard campaign. And then quit. When I feel some hopelessness today, I realize my part in this is I made choices to not get involved. I voted this morning, and now I will accept the outcomes of the majority of Kansans. And see what I want to do next.
Ken and I do entertain the thoughts of moving to states where the majority is more aligned with our political philosophies. But we both love Lawrence, and I value living near family and the friendships I have had for over several decades. Ken has lived here for nine years and notes how kindly Kansans treat him. Most likely he’s being treated kindly by people who have vastly different views. But they are still being kind. What I know is for today, I will live in this state of Kansas. And since I operate from a state of love, I will not vilify the people who do not share my philosophies. To disagree with them is not to disdain, or hate them. I believe I understand their philosophies and I care about them. I am pretty sure my former student who needed to fly his Confederate flag on the truck he drove to school, to “honor his heritage”, did not vote for Democrats today. I still care about his well-being and hope he is finding happiness, even though I strongly disagree with him. Ken quotes Maude from an old movie “Harold and Maude”. In one scene, young Harold questions the elder, eccentric Maude’s kind treatment of someone who has not been kind to her. Maude simply replies “He’s my species.” I agree with Maude. I choose to love my species.
What do I do with my pre-election dreams? I recognize I still care about people who are more vulnerable than me. I believe they should have my access to a life of thriving. In my dream life, I took action. In my waking life, I am not taking action. I am seeing that being retired from being a social worker is not being retired from caring. I was content to indulge in passive caring, but am not sure about that now. I have no answers, no resolutions today. I will get back with you when I have those answers for myself!