Category Archives: caregiving

Lost and found on the day after my father died

Stewart Cudworth, born January 26, 1926. Died, October 17, 2015.
Stewart Cudworth, foreground. Born January 26, 1926. Died, October 17, 2015.

As I climbed in the car this morning the song In My Life sung by John Lennon of the Beatles was playing on the radio. I’ve sung and played that song many times on guitar, and know the lyrics well. But never have they sounded so prescient as today.

There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

Yesterday my father died at 3:00 in the afternoon. The call came from the hospital, a kindly doctor trying to ease me into the knowledge that my father had passed away. He was beginning to go through the medical aspects of how my father had been cared for during the week, but I already knew the details. So I stopped the doctor and told him, “Your entire staff was wonderful. You gave my father an extra week or so to live, and all his sons got to come and be with him.”

In fact, my youngest brother had just visited that morning. He was in town by chance for a collegiate volleyball tournament with his daughter. He was quite close with my dad in many ways, perhaps the main son in the family that has dispensed wth any felt difficulties over time, and it was appropriate that he was the last son to visit.

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

My father was a passionately curious and often insistent man, willing to challenge our perceptions on any front. I recall the evening I stated that I’d seen some ducks on the river ice that day. “They were huddled together for warmth,” I said casually.

“How do you know they’re huddled for warmth?” my father asked.

To which I responded with some sort of angry retort. But that was my father. He wanted us to know the world did not accept everything we assumed we knew.

That was a lesson to be learned over and again. But the need to understand his thinking became a quality fo life issue when he had a stroke in 2002. That was when I first began assuming responsibility for his care. At first, it was my job to support my mother in her decisions about how dad should live. He moved through several care facilities with good and bad experiences before finally returning home with a live-in caregiver in 2004.

Then my mother passed away in 2005, and the direct opportunity to care for my dad presented itself. At first it was enormously difficult, because my father lost his ability to speak with his stroke. There were still seizures, and his body was compromised with loss of function on the right side. He could grow angry and frustrated at times, and my caregiving skills were put to the test in those circumstances.

All those changes and challenges are compounded when there are emotional patterns at work. The father-son relationship we had was transformed over the years as a result of the need to work together. I became adept at asking questions in sequential fashion to ascertain what he was thinking. This was an ironic rehearsal and reversal of the challenges he had long put to us growing up. All those probing questions were his teaching style, but too often we took that as an exasperation

But as we worked together our relationship softened somewhat. The same thing ultimately happened for my brothers as well. So while we’ve ostensibly lost our father to this life, in many respects we also found him again.

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community. It is a chronicle of cancer survivorship, and available on Amazon.com. 

The garden zen and now

While walking the dog this morning a neighbor on the block who is a Master Gardener and works in the trade for a living was out trimming dead daisy heads off the profusion of plants in her front plot. “Did you have many visitors during the Garden Walk?” I asked. Her home was featured in a July tour of local gardens.

“Yes, but now the weeds are back. And I don’t really care. Summer’s over, as far as I’m concerned.”

She means the real growing season. For August marks the beginning of the dying season, as gardens go.

Not true out on the local restored prairies, but home in the land of prized perennials and annuals, it is indeed a period of mourning and acceptance among those who tend gardens. The lilies? All bloomed and leaning low. The spiderwort? It was a banner year for them, but their seeds have all shed except for the lone strange plant that cropped up in the front garden. I harvested those and will save them for a new spot come spring.

Zen growth

My garden is not the most carefully tended thing in the world. Keeping ahead of the weeds proved impossible at many points. I only won out late in July when a window of time allowed me to hack and yank enough to create some shape and beauty.

This latent response was insufficient for those who visit the home and care about such things. My daughter lectured on the bumper crop of maple trees. My companion lamented that gardens need more regular tending.

I am intensely aware of all that. But in defense of my approach this first three years of tending the garden myself, this is still a learning period. The first year was like the luxuriousness of an inheritance. The work of my late wife was everywhere. That was bittersweet. Then came the second year and my installation of another water feature along with a large expanse of additional woodland garden. I mulched deep piles of leaves and buried them under soil. This combination has produced good fodder for growth and recycled much of what otherwise would have gone into paper garbage bags to wind up who knows where.

This year I dug a sweeping curve of soil and made a ridge in which to transplant a fine line of nodding choral bells. At least that’s what I call them.

So my progress as a gardener has been measured in experimentation. Refinement, as a result, has had to wait.

It has also taken time to learn to identify the desirable plants in their early stages of growth. I moved some phlox around early in the season on a hunch and the results have been spectacular. Same with some coneflowers and other plants that I now know by heart. Many of the plants I now recognize. The lilies and the iris. The bergamot and sunflowers. Joe pye “weed” and many others.

Back of the mind

But I must not claim to have a zen relationship as yet with my gardens. The south section took off with weeds and creeping charlie and lurks like a bad thought in the back of my mind. I got out to lay garden cloth one morning and it rained on me during the process. Then obligations took over and the job never got finished.

Such is the life of a gardener in the learning phase. Many projects have gotten done. A nice new brick layout borders my fountain water feature.

There is still a party to be held in August. There will be new mums sprouting in my garden before then. August may be the end of gardening season, but it does not need to be the end of gardening. There is a zen component to keeping on with what you have. The official end of summer does not come until September 20 or so. That’s still seven weeks away.

There are still questions to be answered for the garden zen and now. I have yet to achieve that desired peace of a gardener in full flow. But it’s coming. Maybe next year. Or the next. It is a relationship that is both sustaining and challenging at once. It is the act of caregiving that gives back to the caregiver. The feeling may be fleeting and ephemeral when it comes. But the notion that all is right is worth pursuing for a lifetime.

Weeding our way through the world

Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  –Mark 4:8

The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.

A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.

Pile of WeedsOver the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.

Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.

One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.

Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.

There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.

Chemistry

That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.

So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.

Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.

Answered prayers

One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.

So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.

The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.

Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.

The property of life

Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.

Weeding water bottleSo it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.

Organizing thoughts

All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.

As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.

Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.

He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.

Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride. It is available in print form on Amazon.com. 

On the gains of dealing positively with loss

IMG_8031This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.

Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.

This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.

Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.

Here’s what it all this means.

I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.

Sharing burdens

How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.

At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”

Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.

Recovering from loss

There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.

Maple leaf in rainBut even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.

I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.

It is what it is

In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss

Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.

But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.

Identifying with hope

Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.

When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.

Miracles happen

We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.

So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.

Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.

The Right Kind of Pride is available on Amazon.com.

RightKindofPridecover

The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is the light that shines through.

In the early 2000s my father Stewart Cudworth experienced a set of severe health challenges. The first required open heart surgery that took more than five hours. I still recall the calm with which he faced his surgery. He held my mother’s hand as he waited to be wheeled off for the procedure, a quintuple bypass to deal with heart disease.

That surgery was successful. Another challenge awaited. He developed atrial fibrillation in the following years that led to a debilitating stroke. He lost use of his right arm and leg. He also lost the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand language and all that was going on around him.

I recall the day that my mother called from Upstate New York to inform me that dad was incapacitated. When I hung up the phone, I turned and said to my wife, “Well, my life just changed.”

It was true. From that point forward I became a caregiver to both my mother and father. Then my mother passed away in 2005 from a combination of cancer and stroke and it was my job to be the direct caregiver for my father.

The Comeback

That came with all sorts of challenges. My father had recovered from his stroke enough to gain his full personality back. That was troublesome because he can be a demanding guy. Without the ability to speak his frustrations sometimes boiled over into anger and even physical actions that were not conducive to solving his problems.

It forced all our years of association through the keyhole of having to learn how to communicate on a new and different plane. There were days when it was best for me to simply depart the room or even the entire house during visits to his home. We both needed time to chill out. Get away from the issue at hand and process the anger.

Because I had anger toward him that was unresolved. Some of those ancient conflicts from youth were never discussed before his stroke took away the ability to deal with them in full light. That brought irrational emotions to the surface in me.

All this was compounded by the fact that I was also dealing with the fact that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, the same year my mother died. Managing her needs and those of my father, especially when time and patience were often worn thin, proved a real test of character.

Sometimes I’d just pray about it all and figure out what best to do. Figuring out how to handle the sometimes quirky needs of the live-in caregivers hired to stay with my father.

Haunted memories

But mostly there was one incident from my early youth that kept coming back to haunt me. My father was a forceful man prone to physical discipline of his four sons. At the age of six he tore into my two brothers for some transgression and it hurt me from the inside out. There were many other unreconciled emotions from those days as well. At the age of 27 I woke up pounding the pillow one night not knowing why I was so angry. That’s when I realized there was work to be done.

And through the years that work got done. And when it mattered most with my father I was able to forgive any and all anger that existed in our lives. He made it tough at times. But the thing that kept me going was his deeper nature. He is an enormously sensitive man, keen on relationships and wanting the best for others. For all the tension of youth there was also tenderness, loving guidance and care. When some sports injury came along his calm, intelligent voice walked me through it. He also helped me sell my artwork. Encouraged me to pay attention to my craft.

Know thyself

He knew my internal struggles better than I thought at times. That is something most fathers struggle with in their lives. How to tell their sons and daughters that they really do understand. That no one is perfect. Least of all ourselves. What we want to say at times is that we love our children more than we can express. And please forgive us if we do not always say or do the right things.

That is how I began to look at my father. Through a macro rather than a micro lens. The small, painful hurts began to dissipate. They were replaced by a sense of love rather than a sense of obligation. We began to have our laughs and through practice and concentration I learned to ask questions to help him express his concerns and interests even through the apraxia and aphasia that stole his speech.

Symbols

In many ways those conditions became a symbol for our communications over the years. It was strange one day to turn on a videotape made by my father before his stroke and hear him speaking so lucidly. It then struck me that so much personal history of his would be lost forever.

I know the basics. How he and my mother lived 200 yards apart on Upstate New York farms. How his mother died from complications of breast cancer when my father was only seven years old. He and his three sisters went to live with aunts and uncles when their father experienced mental illness due to the loss of his wife, a farm and another business during the Great Depression.

My father went off to war with the Navy late in World War II and did not see action. But he has photographs of his tour of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The boat on which his crew crossed the Pacific ocean was so bad and beat up the Navy scuttled it when they reached Japan. Somewhere on the bottom of the ocean lies a hulk of metal that my father once described as the smelliest tub you could ride upon.

He married my mother right out of the Navy and had four sons and a daughter lost at birth in a span of twelve years. He used his electrical engineering degree from Cornell University to work in the fields of television and later fiber optic cable.

The rest is our family’s history of sports and art and literature and music.

Happy Birthday Dad

And suddenly he’s 89 years old. He grieved with quiet tears for my mother when she died almost ten years ago. People can’t believe he’s done so well or lived so long. It surprises me too. The man I saw one month after his stroke barely looked like he’s live a week.

Tonight we’re going out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We have many more things in common than we once did because forgiveness has opened those doors. In some ways I have to lead that conversation because he can’t talk. But we know it’s there. The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride available on Amazon.com. 

What a plastic bag of Cheerios says about the right kind of parenthood

The praise service at our church is something of a refuge for parents of young children who want to attend services. With its open format of chairs arranged in semi-circles and a liturgy formed around singing every few minutes, young parents have flexibility to keep their toddlers busy while still paying attention to the message.

One mother had the requisite bag of Cheerios in a plastic bag. That gave her youngest child something to preoccupy his time. The other son was handily wrapped in his father’s arms. Those two played staring and face games for most of the service.

The Cheerio Sneeze incident

It all brought back memories of tending my own children in church when they were very young. Of course one legendary incident with a plastic bag of Cheerios stands out. My son was perhaps two when the great Cheerio Sneeze occurred. It was the late 1980s and women were sporting particularly fluffy hairstyles. One young gal sitting three rows up had no idea that after my son sneezed while eating Cheerios the sticky residue had flown forth and stuck in her coiffed hair. That is, until she reached back to feel the constellation of Cheerios goo stuck to her blow-dried locks.

It had been funny enough those first few minutes after the sneeze. The guy sitting next to me in church was suffering through a laughing fit so profound his wife was literally hammering him in the side with her elbow to get him to stop. My wife glanced over at me with that “don’t you dare laugh” look wives reserve for their husbands in such situations. But I had already lost it. My son was covered in Cheerio backdraft somehow and the sight of that stuff at close hand when I knew it was also stuck in a woman’s hair three rows up was too much to handle. I was gut laughing and there was nothing to do about it.

Unpredictable messes

Such is the life of young parents. You pretty much have to roll with the problems you face. Kids are unpredictable little mess machines. Every young mom I’ve ever known carries with her The Purse that contains solutions to all such emergencies. In it are diapers and sippy cups and medicine and who knows what else. The Purse could likely be used to get wounded men through an emergency in war, if need be.

It takes both practicality and humility to be a young parent. When your child erupts in mournful crying during church or at some other social event you know the drill; take quick action and hope it works. There is rocking and soothing and if all that doesn’t work (along with the offer of a bag of Cheerios) there is always the patented move known as the Quick Exit. Off you go into the netherlands of some bland hallway where no human being should ever be confined. Your child’s sad face either convulses further or turns to laughter. There is no predicting the outcome.

Unzipped and dealing with it

It really doesn’t get much better as you age. Your child grows a mind of their own and they make mistakes about which you can only shake your head and ask, “What did I do wrong? And then you think back to something like the Cheerios Sneeze incident and realize that you did nothing wrong really. Life is random and stuff like this happens.

I think also of the day my son and I sat next to each other in church while a young mother a few rows up and across the aisle struggled with her rambunctious son. He kept crawling under the pews and every time she bent dow to catch him the zipper on the back of her dress dropped a few more zips. Apparently she’d forgotten to get the clasp that held the back together and everyone in church could see where this was headed. It all happened fast and when she stood up to carry the child out of church her entire dress dropped to the floor. In church. My 5-year-old son gasped and my wife muttered a low “Ohh nooo” as the woman scrambled to pull the dress back up over her bra and panties.

Yes, it was humiliating. But there was not a person in the church community that day who laughed. We’ve all been there in one way or another. We all felt bad for the young mom losing her dress because those of us that had experienced parenthood were laid bare in a thousand other ways over the years.

Brave humility

Besides, it did not matter. What mattered was that her friend quickly leapt to her aid and all was rectified right there on the spot. To her credit, she hung right in there and stuck it out through church.What we also witnessed was the benefit of caregiving. Stepping in when needed. Saving face for someone else. That takes character on both ends. Sometimes humility is the bravest thing you can wield in this world. That young mother wielded it like a hero that morning.

When you are older and sit behind a couple with young children at church there are moments when you want to lean forward and share all that you know about how it works. That embarrassing moments will not kill you. That being a parent is both a humbling and emboldening endeavor.

The best thing you can do sometimes is simply look the other way so that mom or dad can do their business and navigate through any situations that can crop up. Then shake their hand during the Sharing of Peace and make sure you don’t put it near your mouth until after service when you can go wash your hands and get rid of any potential Kid Germs from colds or flu. That’s how it works in this world. The right kind of parenthood never really stops, and if you’ve learned anything from the experience at all, you’ll know that staying well is the first line of priority. Because it’s your job to care. For the kids. And for yourself.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride about facing life’s challenges. It is available on Amazon.com. 

Tackling the Christmas Closet

By Christopher Cudworth

Christmas Closet
Sorting through Christmas decorations can be a soul-searching enterprise. And that’s good.

A few weeks before she passed away from ovarian cancer, my late wife pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I’m sorry about the junk.” She was referring to the many things a couple collects in 27 years of marriage. Over the last year it has been an interesting and sometimes emotionally challenging process to make decisions about what or what not to keep. Some of it was hers, and hers alone. Much of her clothing went to friends and charity. Her jewelry went to friends with the exception of a few meaningful keepsakes saved in her favorite jewelry boxes. Room by room it has been a tour through our lives together.

But the Christmas Closet is the biggest challenge of all. Jammed tight with strings of lights and glittering ornaments, thick in boxes and wedged with holiday paper stock and more lights, that closet has been on my mind for nearly two years.

This morning seemed like the right time to pull everything out and take stock. I found a few surprises such as a box labeled “Christmas Lights 2015 Good” that would have saved a few dollars on lights for the tree this year. It seems that like most families, Christmas memories are something we treasure but also soon forget.

And one must be forgiven for that. The holidays as a whole tend to be much like the Christmas Closet at our house. A jumble of lights and half-wrapped presents and suddenly it’s over. Then we stash it all away for another year.

Only when you never attempt to clean out the Christmas Closet it becomes layer upon layer of half-utilized sentiment. And think about it: keeping a year-round closet chock full of Christmas decorations is a bit warped.

Out of Season

It’s tough to wrest ourselves free some such sentiment. In July when we’re yanking regular old wrapping paper out of the Christmas Closet to give gifts to our friends or relatives, all that Christmas stuff looks absurd. But once Halloween has turned over the mind turns to winter and Christmas lurks. First the colors brown and orange emerge for Thanksgiving. There’s plenty of that stuff in our Christmas Closet too. It tends to intermingle with the red and green of winter decorations. That’s what makes it so tough at times to decorate. It seems like the entire holiday season extends from October 15 through January 15th.

So I’ll be bold. Come out and say it. At some point, we have to clean out our Christmas Closets for our own sanity.

That means right now there is a living room full of boxes and…and strings of lights, and…and candles and you name it. Some of it has to go. Even my late wife would have to admit that. She’d several times promised to give that closet the once-over. Yet it never happened.

News of the Day

NewsThere were a couple surprises waiting at the bottom of the storage. The two newspapers featuring the election of Barack Obama were stashed there, still in the wrappers in which they arrived. She was excited about Barack. She read his books and liked his character. Before she died she wondered aloud why so many people chose to hate the man. “He’s trying to do the right thing,” she said with some irritation at the manner in which political opponents threw up absurd barriers to his policies.

Below those newspapers was another announcing the new Millennium as well. That was published before cancer entered our lives. Anyone remember what a big deal Y2K really was? It kind of makes you realize our fears and politics and ideologies really don’t matter that much. What matters is caring about others.

Soul celebrations

And that’s how it goes with things like Christmas Closets. It’s a holiday that rends our souls in so many ways. That is made so clear when watching movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The stuff that really matters lurks behind all the trappings and the snow and the trauma of family and work challenges.

So it helps in some ways to clear out our collective Christmas Closets and take a look at what our lives really mean. The junk we accumulate to celebrate Christmas is not the purpose of the holiday. Otherwise we could walk in that closet in April or July or September and pull out lights to get in the Christmas spirit.

The real meaning of Christmas is much, much simpler. It is in knowing our closets well enough to know what’s really in there. That’s the meaning of Christmas. It might help to realize that while you’re putting all that stuff away this year.

Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Right Kind of Pride, a book about character, caregiving and community. It is available on Amazon.com. 

It’s Christmas and Chuck the Dog reminds us that love is all you need

Chuck thinkingWe buy Christmas presents for our dog. But we really buy them for us.

To Chuck, the schnauzer-poodle mix rescued by my son and friends from a Chicago street at two in the morning, every day is Christmas as long as his “people” are around.

He also has a penchant for chocolate that can kill him if we’re not careful. Just last week he discovered a Thanksgiving bit of cast off chocolate in the three-season room where he typically does not gain access in the winter months. He pushed open the door and dove into those wrappers to find that lone bit of chocolate and ate it fast as he could.

For an hour he shivered and felt sick. I kept an eye on him when I discovered what he’d done. A year or so ago we made a trip to the pet emergency clinic when he grabbed a piece of dark chocolate I’d been nibbling off the light table in the living room. That made him really sick. His affect was off and he hid under the table before I took him shivering and weird to the veterinarian’s office. They made him barf and found a piece of green eraser in the mix. I was chagrined at that as well.

When I apologized for letting him get to the chocolate, the vet staff laughed and said, “Don’t feel too bad. The other four dogs here all ate panties.”

Okay, I thought. Perhaps Chuck isn’t so bad after all. He just eats like a dog. At least he doesn’t have any human fetishes.

Now that my kids are home for Christmas he’s torn in his loyalties toward my son, who originally found him and was his first owner. Yet it was my daughter that wanted to bring him home once Evan started to travel in his job. So Chuck came west from Chicago and took to my late wife as well. She’d stated for 20 years of marriage that we never wanted to own a dog.

Chuck MopeyBut he won her heart and Chuck has become part of the broader family network of in-laws and friends who tolerate his manic three minute greetings. He loves a good pet once he settles down and has been known to keep many a visitor company on sleepovers.

So Christmas is nice but Chuck lives in a different universe from us. He’s grateful for his twice-daily walks. I let him have his “time” at the lightposts and other sniffing spots. He also has a few doggy girlfriends with whom he visits in the park. He doesn’t get overfed or too many treats. We’re grateful he’s been healthy and happy with the exception of those tiny burrs he keeps finding in the garden somewhere. It takes an hour to get them out of his hair.

I’ll take the liberty of speaking for Chuck and say that he wishes you all a very Merry Christmas. He’ll be tearing up wrapping paper when we open gifts. He’ll probably get a few table scraps but not too many. And when it’s all done he’ll join us during the Christmas Night party my children host at our house for friends. That’s a new tradition and Chuck just loves it when the house is full. But by late in the evening he’ll tuck in the corner of the couch somewhere and start to sleep it all off. The day after Christmas is another day of joys for Chuck. You don’t even have to buy him anything. Just give him love. Love is all you need.

The important relationship between forgiveness and self-confidence

By Christopher Cudworth

In the midst of prolonged stress from caregiving to a wife with cancer a few years back, it occurred to me that dealing with the challenges definitely had an emotional cost. It was difficult finding balance between work challenges and trying to keep my spouse healthy and family life on track.

For a time I tried to go it on my own, coping with caregiving pressures with a low dose of anti-anxiety drug. That helped the “how” part of coping, but it left open the “why.”

If it seems obvious from the quick description given here “why” I was feeling anxious and a bit depressed, understand it’s really not a good idea to psychoanalyze and treat yourself when you’re under that kind of pressure. All types of latent emotions enter the formula and it’s hard to separate what is actually making you anxious. Is it present worries or past failures that make you feel less capable of coping?

Getting help

I put in a request to receive counseling through the Living Well Cancer Resource Center, a non-profit dedicated to providing services for cancer patients, caregivers and their support networks. The counselor took the time to review more than our present situation. She also asked what other issues I was facing, and that happened to included my role as primary executor and caregiver for my father, a longtime stroke victim.

The emotional helix of all that family need was drawing a tight knot around my self-confidence. On a daily basis everything was getting done, but it felt like I was nearly hanging myself from the emotional burden all that responsibility required. Old hurts seemed to surface with some regularity in caring for my father. These in turn angered my wife who saw him as a bit ungrateful given our situation. And so it went, like a maelstrom of emotional concerns.

Life-changing question

As we discussed all these relationships the counselor discovered a pattern emerging. “You seem pretty good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”

That was a question for which I was not prepared. All those years of training in personal faith had taught me the importance of forgiveness. I’d seen the very real benefits of forgiveness toward others.

Forgiving yourself is an entirely different dynamic. It requires both an admission that you have done things wrong in the past and a will to not blame yourself to the point of eroding your self-confidence. Those two attributes are very much like the two wheels on a bicycle. You arguably need both to make healthy emotional progress in life.

Personal history

In fact self-confidence had long been a challenge in my life. It’s a funny thing however. Low self-confidence and self esteem can come from many sources. It’s both a nature and a nurture issue, but an in-borne propensity for anxiety never helps.

Her question about my ability to achieve self-forgiveness set off an interesting process of self-examination. Actually it was self-revelatory. Acknowledging my flaws was no longer so devastating. That opened up a vein of self-confidence born not so much of bluster or pride, but of humility. The ability to look at your past and say, “I did my best” makes it so much more possible in the present to honestly say, “I will do my best.”

If that isn’t good enough now and then, you learn to forgive yourself and keep trying. That kind of persistence is really important in caregiving. it is also important in other pursuits from sports to business to creative ventures of all types.

The important relationship between forgiveness and self-confidence is not easy at times to understand, but it is worth knowing there is a connection and keeping your emotional eyes open to opportunities to forgive yourself. That can be life-changing.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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On working under pressure

The little brick bungalow in which our family lived for 10 years when the kids were little had only 750 square feet of living space. The house was cute, in other words, but not spacious. It also had one bathroom. That meant that when repairs were needed it took some planning to make it happen without putting everyone in jeopardy.

The tub was old and we hired some contractor to coat it with some form of material popular at the time. The wall tile needed to be replaced as well. The vanity was rickety. The toilet was too. Even the floor tile was due for a change.

I scheduled the entire makeover for a single weekend. It was an ambitious plan for sure. My wife and kids went to grandma’s house from Friday through Sunday night. It was just me and the bathroom for the weekend.

Planning

The work went well. It was all planned out in my head. The wall tile was tough to do because the plaster came loose from the backing. That meant a major patchup with wallboard compound was necessary. I never knew whether that was advisable, but it worked. That’s what counts around the house. It worked.

The sink and vanity and toilet came out and the floor tile was torn up. Underneath were rotted floorboards. A quick trip to the lumber store fixed those, and a lot of nails.

Panic

Now that the entire bathroom was stripped down it was late at night. Midnight to be exact. I’d worked solid for 14 hours and was pretty tired. And then it hit me. I really had to go to the bathroom. Number two. There was no toilet now. Just a dark hole in a flat floor.

That was a humbling situation, but I made it happen. It struck me that for thousands of years in human history this is how people got it done. One way or another, it all came down to one thing. Squat and go. No need to flush. No modern plumbing. Just a lone sole over a dark hole.

Preparation

The next morning it was time to put in the wall tile and the floor tile. That took a few hours. The grout was done on the wall while the floor set. Then I put the seal down for the new toilet and put the new bowl into place. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway I stood back and admired the modern contraption that plumbing really represents. All that to take care of our excrement. The world really is a humbling, confusing place at times.

All this work had to be done with care to avoid bumping into the new sealant on the tub, which was sprayed into place and therefore delicate for the first 48 hours.

It all got finished at exactly the moment my children came running back into the house yelling, “Daddy can we see the new bathroom!” Of course they also used it right way. That first flush of the toilet made me proud. Same with the working faucet on the sink. My wife walked in and said, “Is it safe?”

Pushing it

I secretly laughed but assured her that everything had worked out well. I shared the “poop in the dark hole” story and she just shook her head. No need for details, she told me. We all did our business while I kept reminding them to walk gingerly on the new floor. The grout was barely dry. But it held.

That’s not really a good way to do a bathroom makeover. It’s a simple truth that necessity demands a combination of determination and humility at times. The rewards of success outweigh the tough moments of personal doubt. In the end, that’s the right kind of pride.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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