Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life's Little Ironies

One definition of irony is "a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result." This is illustrated by two things that have happened in my life in recent years.

Irony #1: The Iron is Mightier than Chemo Brain

Hubby has always liked to look "well-pressed" and since I can do a better job of ironing than he can, it became my job when we first married 36 years ago. But not all irons and ironing boards are created equal, and the frustration of using cheap equipment, scorching pricey dress shirts, and badly burning my arm in a clumsy ironing accident combined to increase my hate for this odious chore.

But when I underwent chemo nearly 10 years ago, the poisons made my brain so foggy I couldn't read or watch a movie or even THINK. Low blood counts drained what little of my energy the nausea didn't steal. Ironing Hubby's clothes while sitting on a stool was the only activity I could always do, which helped me feel like I was accomplishing something, even on the days I felt utterly worthless, pretty much like a burnt piece of toast.

Since then I no longer dread ironing, even if it's a week's worth of clothes; it's a good excuse to listen to music or a chick flick while taming an unruly pile of wrinkled shirts and slacks. (It also helps that Hubby researched irons and found a GOOD one!)

Irony #2: How do I love thee? Let me make some pancakes.

When I was in 8th grade my mother went to work full-time, leaving a weekly chore list for my younger sisters and me. I almost always traded "cooking" for cleaning or laundry because I (1) wasn't very good at cooking, and (2) didn't like it anyway. There was always something more important to do, like practicing my flute or writing stories or drawing pictures or sewing or crafts.

When we first married I tried to impress Hubby with my culinary "skills" but I had so many disasters I soon gave up trying new recipes and just stuck with what I could easily make. This mindless rut preserved my creativity for more satisfying outlets. Cooking was a "waste" of valuable creative time.

Since Hubby and I have been living with his 86 year old father, I've cooked 3 and sometimes 4 meals a day (Hubby and I eat about 6:30 a.m. and Pop doesn't wake up until 8:30 or 9:00). At first I resented having to cook all the time, especially when it was not even in my own kitchen. But something happened. I saw how Pop responded to eating regular meals of healthy, home-cooked food, and I realized that cooking was an expression of love, not just a necessary evil.

Most, if not all, of life's "big" lessons can be learned from the smallest things. Ironic, isn't it?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Art of Listening

This photo shows how I feel: lonely
For years Hubby and I have had a running not-quite-joke. He will ask me, "Whose life story did you hear today?"

Most days I can reply that some total stranger poured out their heart to me, at the doctor's office, the grocery store, etc.  Long ago someone stenciled "sympathetic person" on my forehead, because I seem to attract people who need someone to LISTEN to them.

I often reply I should become a counselor and get paid to listen, but I realized that would never work. From my own recent experience talking to a grief counselor, I now recognize that my own desperate need to find someone who will listen to me makes me empathetic to those with the same need. I could never say at the end of a client's allotted time, "Okay, we'll continue this at your next scheduled appointment."

The need for a listening ear is closely tied to our need to be loved. For isn't the ability to put aside one's own needs in order to truly listen to another a tangible way to demonstrate love?

When I listen, truly listen to someone, I give them my undivided attention. I make direct eye contact, nod or make sure they know I'm still with them, and do NOT think about what I want to say when they pause, or what I need to do in the next hour when this conversation is finished. From what I've witnessed and experienced, this is a rare and precious gift.

Every time I go to a nursing home, I see listless lonely people who no longer feel loved or that anyone cares they are alive. But say "Hi," and ask (genuinely) how they're doing, and watch how their faces become animated. Often I'll be rewarded with a smile and a rambling, even incoherent response, but even that is a connection between one human and another, a vital connection, as vital as breathing.

During the last six weeks my life has been turned upside-down. In that short space of time, since we discovered my 86 year old father-in-law could no longer live alone, we have made the decision to sell our home, buy a bigger one, and combine two households. When I've tried to explain how living 65 miles away with Pop, taking care of him, giving up my regular routine and putting my writing on hold, all while trying to MOVE long distance, has exhausted and often overwhelmed me, I realized how rare is the gift of listening. I've been met with bored looks, glazed eyes, and interruptions to steer the conversation to what they want to tell ME. It has been quite revealing and discouraging.

But then Pop, who has been a virtual recluse for almost ten years, will eagerly tell me interesting stories of his childhood and his Air Force experiences, and I'm able to focus on showing how much I really do care by giving him my undivided attention. I can't change the world, but I can make a difference in the life of this one precious soul, just by practicing the fine art of listening.