Thursday, October 31, 2013

Skulls and ravens, hold the cheese.

A few weeks ago, Liam asked if we could get the Halloween stuff out of our basement. I said yes, of course, and started mentally rearranging the house to accommodate all the incoming black and orange. You can imagine my surprise when he looked me straight in the eyes, planted his hands firmly on his hips and said, "This year, Mama, it's MY turn to decorate."

I felt totally blindsided. Decorating is my thing! It's where I've learned to channel most of my control freak urges. Plus, it's so much fun! I didn't want to hand it off to some kid just because he made a strong argument. But, Mama, you've done it EVERY year. Don't you think someone else deserves a turn? How would you have felt if your parents didn't let YOU be creative...

Geez.

We've had this same conversation about his bedroom and, although he really does make some excellent points, I'm just not ready to let go. At least, not completely. By the looks of things, I handed over the reins years ago - there are stickers and signs stuck all over the walls and messes that have to stay messy because they're nests or forts or something important - but I still can't imagine handing him a gallon of paint and letting him go to town.

(Yes, Liam, even though I got to do whatever I wanted to my room when I was a kid and that probably encouraged me to be creative. YES, I remember spray painting my ceiling pink in the middle of the night and rearranging my bedroom furniture every other week. I know it's totally not fair. It's just... I'm working on it.)

I felt like if I didn't give him Halloween, he might bring up the bedroom thing again and I did not want to go there. I was about to give him the go-ahead when I realized he was already doing it whether I liked it or not (I was busy hauling ALLLLL our little baby stuff out of the basement to give to a friend who is expecting - guess we won't be needing any of that anymore!).

I can't even tell you how hard it was for me to walk into the house and see him throwing up the Halloween decorations all willy nilly like it didn't even matter where anything went. He's like, "Well, what do you think?" while I stood there twitching all over and silently screaming THE CAT WREATH DOESN'T GO THERE IT GOES THERE!!! SPIDERWEBS ON THE PIANO? REALLY, LIAM?! OMG, WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?

It was like Freaky Friday, type-A style.

I really don't know why I was so worried. The truth is, as much as Liam likes the idea of projects like this, he doesn't actually care how the finished product turns out. (Are you like, "That's funny. I thought for sure she was going to say she didn't know why she was so worried about A CAT WREATH...") He's a maker, not a keeper. So as long as we all knew this was his project, I was free to help as much as I wanted.

Since he had already started on the inside of the house, I shifted my focus to the front yard. I plopped our trusty grave stone in the yard, rearranged some plants (everything green, purple, black or orange got moved to the front porch while everything else was banished to the backyard), and hung a couple ghosts in our trees.





Pretty spooky but I was hoping for a little something more. So we headed out to see what else we could find. Our only rule? Nothing cheesy!

The boys LOVED that word and I loved how it helped guide our shopping. It's so easy to go overboard when every single thing on your list is unnecessary. There's really nothing to keep you on task when you're going out of your way to buy stuff like:
spider webs
big ass spider!?
more ghosts?
creepy rats or bugs or birds
CANDY!!!
Knowing we couldn't get anything cheesy immediately knocked about 95% of the stuff in the stores out of our realm of possibility. Which is a very good thing when shopping at Target...





that slug took it up about 10 notches...


We only really found a few things we liked. Skulls (Target) and ravens (Michaels) were our main scores along with a big bag of fake spiders, some spiderwebs, a big ass spider (which I stuck in a web to block off the side entrance to our porch) and an owl that I sort of fell in love with (HomeGoods).




I didn't realize until we got home that the reason I probably like it so much is it looks exactly like our cat. 


Every time I walk outside, I think the owl is Gretchen (or "Miss" as the kids call her or "Cathe" as Bill and I have started calling her. It's like a different spelling of "Cathy" but pronounced "Cat The"which has got to be the best name for a cat in the world!). 


Every. Single. Time.
We added the pumpkins we carved at a pumpkin party this weekend (mine won!) and once we fill the space with friends and neighbors and trick-or-treaters tonight (stop by if you're out and about!), I think it will be just perfect.


Hope you have a super fun (and not too rainy) Halloween! I can't wait to show you pictures of our costumes...


Do you have a great Halloween video or photo to share? Email your submissions to tpham@dropcam.com - the favorites will be featured on the Dropcam blog this Halloween!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Morning work.

Liam is attempting to teach Finn the alphabet this morning. No easy task considering Finn really doesn't give a hoot, but Liam's still doing the very best he can (I may have told him he could watch whatever show he wants - not just that educational crap - if he taught his brother the A, B, Cs...).

It's super sweet to see Liam with his teacher hat on but also a little scary. He gets SO frustrated when things don't go his way. I'm half afraid he'll have an aneurysm in his underoos. I'm really hoping he didn't pick this lovely trait up from me...

Finn is completely unmoved by the experience. He likes the attention but is taking the lesson about as seriously as a kid taking his cousin to the prom. Even when Liam completely loses his cool and melts to the floor in a pissed off puddle of defeat, Finn still cheerfully drinks his yellow juice (he refuses to call it "orange") and says the alphabet however he darn well wants.

It's killing Liam.

"Why can't he be more like meeee?" he whines, clutching his chest and holding back tears. "I bet it didn't take me nearly this long to learn the alphabet!" 

"I honestly don't remember having to teach you," I said shrugging. "You just kind of picked it up along the way."

"WHAT?!? Ugh, that is so not fair!"

"I know, right? I guess that's what happens when you watch Blue's Clues every day instead of Angry Birds videos..." 

His blood pressure dropped about twenty points and that angry vein in his head stopped throbbing. He made sort of a thoughtful face then went back to the white board and started fresh with Finn. I think for a moment he may have realized how hard it must be to be a Finny in the Liam World.

Instead of grilling and shaming, Liam simply sang the alphabet song and smiled at Finn when he kinda sorta sang along. "I love you, Liam," Finn said appreciatively. "I really love you." Then he went back to saying E instead of C and rolling around on the floor with his light saber.

And then, while I was having my piano lesson, guess what Liam found on the Internet? Learn the Alphabet WITH ANGRY BIRDS. Genius.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Walking the walk (in uncomfortable shoes).

So, a few weeks ago, I signed up for an online course that Oprah and Brené Brown put together. (Brené Brown is an author, professor, vulnerability researcher and TED talker extraordinaire, Oprah is, well...OPRAH.) I didn't totally know what to expect but signed up because someone I love was signing up and I thought it would be a fun thing to do together. This is how I get myself into a lot of things...running a marathon (or attempting to), getting pregnant the first time, cutting my hair... If there's a bandwagon, you better believe I'll be jumping on it.

Anyway, the class is about learning to live wholeheartedly and follows Brené's book The Gifts of Imperfection. This week we're working on courage, compassion and connection and learning some tools to help us go from "What will people think?" to "I am enough." 

{I know it's cheesy. I KNOW. But honestly this is some of my most favorite stuff to do in the whole world. Self help is my JAM. And I'm learning to be more authentic so I don't even care if you judge me. I'm cheesy and new-agey - deal with it.}

One of our first assignments was to write a pledge on our hand, take a selfie with it showing, print it out and stick in in our journal. At first, I thought, "Well, I can't do this assignment today. I haven't even showered! I'd better wait until I'm having a good hair day and my makeup is just right and there's really great lighting..." Then I realized that was completely missing the point of being IMPERFECT so I just did it. Snap, crop, done.

I had greasy hair and no makeup (not even eyebrow pencil which I've pretty much worn every waking second since the Great Over Tweeze of '94), my handwriting was practically illegible and, even though you can't exactly tell from the picture, I had some serious coffee breath. I used Instagram to crop it but deleted it right away so it wouldn't show up on my feed then moved on to my next journal assignment and the rest of my day.

Tonight I hopped on Instagram for a second (literally a second...I'll explain in a minute) and noticed I had a bunch of likes and even a, "Hell Yeah!" comment. I was super confused until I realized, to my horror, that my self-help selfie had NOT been deleted like I thought it had. All day long while I was going about my business, people were seeing me in a way I don't like to be seen and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

Pretty epic timing considering the fact that the word VULNERABILITY shows up on just about every page of this book. If this class was for credit, I would be well on my way to earning an A...

{About Instagram... I don't possess the willpower to stop looking at it so over the weekend I forced myself to unfollow every single person I've been following. I debated blocking everyone who follows me too but it seemed like way more effort than it was worth (you have to go to each individual person's page which just seemed like a total nightmare considering I honestly can't trust myself not to photo stalk). I should probably just delete it all together but I really like using it to edit and play around with photos. I just liked it a lot more when I just used it for fun, not social networking...}

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Phone home.

I like to think that even though I like my iPhone, I don't need my iPhone. When I hear about people going back to a flip phone in order to get their life back I think, "Eh, what's the big deal? I could do that." Not that I should do that or I will do that but I could. If I wanted. I could quit this smart phone anytime...

But today I accidentally left it at home and it was like leaving the house without a leg. Only worse because I don't rely on my leg to give me directions, put me in touch with people or take pictures. 

Did I really just say that leaving the house without my phone was worse than NOT HAVING ONE OF MY LEGS?

Hi, my name is Maggie and I'm addicted to my smart phone. 

Dang. I really did think I was better than this. But it turns out I'm just as dumb as the woman who drove her car into a lake because Siri told her to. Guess that means I need to stop rolling my eyes when I go to shows and people block my view of the stage with their stupid camera phones. AND feeling superior to the moms who talk to their kids while scrolling through Facebook. 

I was 20 minutes late picking Liam up from science today because I got lost. Lost! When was the last time you can remember experiencing that? How about in a place you've lived for nine years? And, no, this was not his first day of class. He's been going since August.

I had so many excuses but sadly they all circled back to forgetting my phone.

I had to go a little out of my way to drop a package off at the UPS store because I couldn't search for a closer location online and thought it would be smarter to push it a little time wise than to drive aimlessly in the direction of Liam's class while squinting at all the signs in every shopping center. I thought I probably had just enough time to make it there and still grab him on time but I couldn't be sure because who's to say if the clock in my van is right. Is it my car that's ten minutes fast, or Bill's? I usually just double check on my phone but, you know. So I'm racing back from the UPS store to Liam's teacher's house saying, "No whammies, no whammies!" thinking if I could just get there without making a single mistake I might actually be on time. Or early or late depending on the real time. Worst case scenario I'd be 10 minutes late which is totally out of my comfort zone but not inexcusable. 

Except worse case scenario was actually a series of whammies that got me so turned around I'm lucky I ever found my way there. I finally just had to backtrack close enough to my house so I could pick up the route I normally take.

And of course I couldn't call to let anyone know I was running late so they probably thought I was dead. Or super irresponsible. Either way, not my fave.

I also couldn't confirm the after-class play date I had promised Liam so when we got to his friend's house to pick him up (more than 40 minutes late without calling or answering any of his dad's texts...), no one was home. They gave up on me like I gave up on my ability to think without a pocket computer.

But the worst thing about not having my phone - the absolute worst - was pulling up next to a farm truck on the freeway carting a whole shipment of pumpkins into town. Hundreds and hundreds of bright orange happy pumpkins just cruising down the freeway like a big ol' Octoberfest / Happy Halloween / best thing to take a picture of on a beautiful fall day EVER.

I would have hashtagged the shit out of those pumpkins.

{Insert photo here. OMG I wish I could...}

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Storytelling.

I heard a story on NPR the other day about a girl who grew up in a family of hoarders. She never knew her home was different than any one else's until she was in kindergarten and mentioned to her teacher that her parents had locked her little sister in the trunk of the car. It turned out her "little sister" was just a doll but Child Protective Services still had to pay the family a visit. The story went on and on but I wasn't paying much attention. All I could think was, "I'm so glad Finn doesn't go to school."

We're not hoarders (just normal messy people) and I've never locked anyone in the trunk of my car (at least not against their will) but Finn is definitely a liar. At least, that's what Liam calls him. I prefer to think of his stories as nothing more than stories. And, boy, do we have a budding creative writer on our hands!

He has a lifetime of material just based on his mom. No, not me. His mom. I've never met her but she sounds fascinating. One minute she's pouring boiling water with poison on his feet and the next thing you know she's taking him to fly three kites at Shelby Gottoms. ("Oh, Shelby Bottoms," I say making sure I've understood him. "No. Shelby Gottoms." "Shelby Bottoms? Like the park we go to all the time?" "No. SHELBY GOTTOMS." Then me makes me repeat it back to him. "Shelby..." "Shelby?" Nods. "Gottoms..." "Gottoms?" "Yes, Mama. Shelby Gottoms. It's awesome there. It even has a waterfall. My mom takes me there all the time...")

If you ask where his mom is now, he usually gets kind of a sad face, shrugs his right shoulder and says, "She had to go to the hospital." Which is a bummer for sure but not nearly as bad as what happened to his dad. At first he was just eating all the ice cream sandwiches in the house with Finn and his girlfriend (!) but then...he died. 

If he ever does go to a real school I hope it has a full time guidance counselor with a great sense of humor and a lot of time on her hands.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Make it twerk.

Sometimes I think this homeschool thing is messing with me.

I mean, when you spend your whole life believing something (like school) is required only to find out you can more or less opt-out and the world keeps spinning, you can't help but wonder what else you're doing because you think you have to when in fact you maybe don't.

This kind of thinking sneaks up on me at weird times. Like last night. I got out of the shower and suddenly thought, "I should cut my hair!" It certainly wasn't the first time I've thought taking scissors to my own head was a good idea (I used to pride myself on my DIY haircuts), but this time was different.

It started out as it always does - as a knee-jerk reaction to someone else's great hair (thanks a lot, Instagram) - but it quickly turned into some sort of yaya sisterhood moment. As soon as I saw the scissors in my hand I thought, "Well, this is a terrible idea." But then the renegade homeschooler part of my brain was like, "Grrrrl...if you want to cut your hair, CUT YOUR HAIR! There aren't any rules in life. We make our own rules! You're not gonna get in trouble if you don't have your hair professionally cut every 6-8 weeks. Even if you totally eff it up, who cares?! Just march into a salon with your mangled head held high and DEMAND a shame-free fix!"

I just realized why hippies have dreadlocks.

Anyway. The good news is I was only in the market for a bang trim not a full fledged makeover like Hannah in that episode of Girls.



Phew. The bad news? I somehow gave myself side burns. I don't even know. All I can do is blame Zooey Deschanel and forgo pony tails for a while.


As I was cutting, I knew I was doing it wrong. Even before I snipped the hairs right above my ears I thought, "No, this can't be right..." But then the bra burning hippie in me pulled the trigger and...hello, random side burns! Which, if I'm completely honest, is just a nice way of saying mullet. 

I gave myself a mullet.

All I can say to redeem myself and my renegade ways is this: I actually don't hate it. Maybe because it's subtle (unlike my last mullet in the fourth grade that involved a PERM and was inspired by a band I saw at the State Fair...) or maybe because I don't really care that much. Mullet, schmullet, you know? So what if I'm the only fool at the grocery store with business in the front and a party in the back? Maybe, like homeschooling, mullets will start to gain a little traction and the next thing you know we'll all look like Joe Dirt. 


Stranger things have happened.

And if not? Well, that's one way to get me off pony tails for a while...

Dear Miley... I get it. Sometimes a girl's just gotta twerk.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Alzheimer's Association Caregivers Conference.

Last week I spoke at a Caregivers Conference for the Alzheimer's Association. I hope to write more about my experience another time but for now I just wanted to post what I wrote in case anyone else would like to read it (and because I promised my cousin I would...).



Several months ago, when I was asked to speak here today, my initial thought was, "Um...thanks but no thanks." I was flattered but just didn't see any reason to add something new (and challenging!) to my plate. I'm a busy homeschooler with two boys, a husband who travels for work, a full social calendar and, on top of all that, my mom has Alzheimer's. Throwing something else into the mix just didn't make sense.

Plus, nobody panic but... I'm not actually a speaker. I'm a writer. I figured this was more than enough to get me off the hook so I ran it past my seven year old thinking he would totally have my back. Instead he just kind of looked at me and said, "Mama. Seriously? If you can write and you can read, don't you think you can 'speak'?" I don't know if you've ever gotten air quotes from a seven year old before but I can tell you from experience, it means business.

Since I really do try to practice what I preach - at least most of the time - I knew I was going to have to say yes. So I did. Obviously. But I still felt hesitant. How can I call myself a caregiver when my parents and I don't even live in the same state?


My mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's about four years ago, just before her 62nd birthday. It didn't exactly come as a surprise - we all knew something was wrong - but the diagnosis still hit like a ton of bricks.

The journey started long before we had ever heard the dreaded A-word. It's hard to say how long but I know we were all worried about her memory for quite some time. At least my sister and I were. I'm pretty sure my parents thought we were just being dramatic. Losing your mind is just one of the many joys of getting older, girls. We're FINE. What's the big deal...

But to us it felt like a really big deal. We even went so far as to check my mom into the hospital after a random fainting spell at my sister's bridal shower. She was perfectly fine and we knew it - mimosas on an empty stomach are never a good idea - but it was like we finally had a legitimate reason to get her in front of a medical professional and weren't about to miss our chance. I swear, my mom hadn't so much as hit the floor and my sister and I were already looking at each other with raised eyebrows like, "You thinking what I'm thinking..." We totally went rogue.

The doctor on call diagnosed my mom with depression, which he said can sometimes look like dementia in older people. We were so relieved.

Depression felt manageable; Alzheimer's did not.


Fast forward about a year. There hadn't been any noticeable improvement in my mom's memory but I didn't think she seemed to be getting much worse. Of course, I was in Nashville while she was all the way across the country with my dad. My sister, who lived near my parents at the time, was definitely concerned. Every time we talked it was doom and gloom. My dad said not to worry. I chose to listen to my dad.

Then my parents changed insurance and my mom had to see a new primary care specialist. She went in for a routine visit, sort of a meet the doctor type appointment, and within 20 minutes she had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease and had her driver's license taken away.

Like I said: ton of bricks.


Of course, since then, it's been a bit of a roller coaster. My mom's been diagnosed, un-diagnosed and re-diagnosed. She's been on Aricept, done crossword puzzles and even bought some coconut oil. She earned her license back from the DMV only to have it taken away again by my dad a few months later. She's been completely blank one moment and perfectly lucid the next.

When I think about the fact that it's been four years since she was first diagnosed, it's hard to wrap my brain around. On the one hand it seems like a lifetime. Because four years ago, my youngest son hadn't even been born. I hadn't written or illustrated any children's books yet. Our old dog was still alive.

Four years ago my sister was in college, living near my parents - now she's a working mother and lives with her husband and son in Louisville.

Four years ago my mom was able to fly to Nashville for Thanksgiving. Now she doesn't even know who I am.

When I think about it like that - about how much she's changed, about how much everything has changed, it's impossible to imagine how it all happened so fast.


When my family started on this journey, I thought I knew a lot more about caregiving that I actually did.

There were primary caregivers, of course, like my dad, who did all the day-to-day stuff. Like cooking, grocery shopping, doctor's appointments...all the stuff the person with Alzheimer's can no longer do on their own.

I figured my role as a long-distance secondary caregiver would be to swoop in a few times a year and just kind of take over for a while. I'd probably take my mom to get a pedicure or have her hair done so my dad could have a break. So what if we'd never gotten a pedicure together EVER in our lives - this was prime mother/daughter date time! I'd make a whole bunch of healthy meals and stock the freezer, clean the house, then say goodbye and return to my life back home where I would obviously be kept in the loop and all of my opinions and suggestions would be seriously considered if not immediately implemented.

In reality? It's nothing like that. Turns out, my dad is completely uncomfortable with me doing any of that stuff. He's still very much the dad and I'm the kid. My parents don't actually want me and my sister - or anyone - to be that involved. Especially at the beginning we were on a need-to-know basis. And as far as they could tell the only thing we needed to know was that everything was fineWe're good. Things are good. No need to worry about us. How are the kids...

At first this was really hard. We couldn't believe they weren't telling us everything. Didn't they value our input? How were we supposed to help our mom if we didn't know what was going on? What about planning for the future? I mean, if I was going to have to move my whole family across the country to take care of my mom, shouldn't I get a little head's up?

The unknowns were really stressful. Since we didn't know what else to do, my sister and I spent a lot of time being angry. Angry that nothing was done sooner. Angry that more wasn't being done now. Angry that we weren't in charge. We were angry at my dad, my mom, Alzheimer's, you name it. Looking back, I guess we thought if we had more control, everything would be better. Of course we all know that wasn't true. But we had no idea what else to do.


As time passed and my mom got worse, I realized the anger wasn't helping anyone. It was only making things worse. The situation was going to be the same whether or not I was upset about it. If my dad didn't want my help, I couldn't strong-arm him into taking it. And, besides - there really wasn't anything I could do. At least not to make my mom healthy again.

I had to face the facts: my mom was sick, my dad was in charge and there wasn't anything I could do about either of those things. What it really boiled down to was this: did I want to square off against my parents in a fight none of us could win or take another look at the situation and figure out what I could do?

I stopped pushing and accepted the situation. Instead of judging my dad for not doing a better job - which is so easy to do when you're not in the driver's seat - I started to appreciate him for stepping up and doing the best he could. Being a primary caregiver is a HUGE responsibility. I'm so thankful for my dad and have tons of respect for anyone else who has stepped into this role.


I was at a homeschool playgroup the other day, talking to some of the other moms about all of this, just kind of getting some support, and I said something like, "I honestly don't know how my dad does it. Day in, day out, every single day. I really can't imagine." One of my friends said, "You know, that's probably what people think about us..."

I had to laugh. I'm sure she's right! It was such a simple moment but something I really needed to hear.  I know that there are lots of great ways to raise kids. As a parent, it's your job to figure out what works for you. What works for your family. If you have more than one child, what works for each individual person. I think caregiving is very much the same. There's no right way. You just do what needs to be done and when that changes, you figure it out.


Now, instead of feeling frustrated that my dad won't let me make a healthy dinner, I just have a beer with him on the porch and we talk about what books we're reading. If he let's me take my mom for a walk or on an outing with the kids, I do it. If he won't, I let it go. When I'm here and he's there, I call him up just to talk. Not about my mom - unless he wants to - just about whatever. It may not look a lot like caregiving, but in our situation, it's something helpful I can do.

The last time I was visiting, we were hanging out on the porch when his neighbor stopped by. She was trying to convince him to go to a caregiver's support group and told us that when she started taking care of her dad she had to go to therapy just be be able to say, "Look Dad. I know it's weird but I'm in charge now..."

We were keeping it light but also just kind of shaking our heads at how overwhelming the whole thing is. My dad and I kind of locked eyes and I said, "Don't look at me! I don't have any more answers than you do. I mean, I'm supposed to speak at a caregiver's conference and I have NO IDEA what I'm supposed to say." It felt like a little bit of a risky move - I didn't know if my dad was going to be upset that I was sharing our stories with strangers - but it just kind of came out.

Without missing a beat he said, "You know what you should say? Tell em that when you were younger, heck, even two years ago, you would have never guessed you'd be homeschooling. But here you are, doing it. That's just how life works sometimes. You find yourself in situations you didn't expect and you don't have to think about what you should do, you just do it. You rise to the occasion. Just tell em that. You'll be fine..."

So there you go.

He's completely right, of course. There's no secret to why we do what we do. It's just part of being human. And how we do what we do? I guess it depends on the day...

Some days are easy while others are anything but. With a progressive disease like Alzheimer's, the only thing we really know is that it will always be changing. There's no way to win at something like this. We have to just find a way to roll with it. To show up day after day and do whatever it is that needs doing.

And when we don't know? It's okay! There are so many people who have been there, done that - we really don't have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes all we have to do is say okay. Oh, there's a free conference for caregivers with lots of great resources and respite care? Okay! There's no reason to make this harder than it already is.

Any questions you may have or resources you need to get connected to, I'm guessing you can find it here today. Even if it's not an expert by trade that you need but an expert by experience. Someone who just GETS IT. Someone you can call when your mom puts blue fingernail polish on her lips waiting in line at Walgreen's who will be able to laugh and let you laugh and neither of you will have to feel like a jerk. Whatever kind of support you need - being here today feels like a really good step.


Thank you for letting me share my story. It's probably in some ways just like yours and in other ways, completely different. This isn't a one size fits all situation; this is life. These are our loved ones. This is my mom. No one can tell us exactly how to be a caregiver. But if we're open and loving and willing to do what needs to be done, there's more than enough support to help us get through it. All of our situations will be unique but none of us has to do this alone.