While going through a closet I stumbled across two interesting items we removed from my parent's apartment when dad moved to assisted living last fall. One was an envelope stuffed with index cards. On both sides of each mom had listed every book she had read from the mid 1990's until her eyesight started to fail in 2004.
Included was either a star for a good book, or a emphatic "No" for the ones that didn't please her. Fiction was her favorite, especially crime, mysteries, and historical romance novels.
I found it fascinating to look at her choices. I made a list of all the non-romance books she liked and have begun to read through them. It will be nice to know she and I are sharing some of the same experiences.
I also found a complete set of travel journals. Mom and dad loved to take road trips— everything from a few days away to 45 day marathons. Mom recorded her reaction to every day of every trip, even to the point of listing the cost of the meals and gas fill ups. As I reviewed each journal I was reminded how often they were on the road. Beginning in 1996 and continuing until early 2002, I was hard-pressed to find more than two months between entries. Even if it was just a quick overnight trip to Tucson, mom and dad were most happy driving somewhere.
During that period they went to Europe twice. Just like the road trips, mom recorded her reactions to everything, both good and bad. While I think they enjoyed their time overseas, I sensed both were happiest inside the Toyota putting miles between them and home and then back again.
As I read each journal mom's health decline was quite obvious. Toward the end of the 1990s she began referring to the use of a wheelchair or walker. Trips to an emergency room happened as she battled chronic knee and back pain, or her congestive heart failure symptoms became more apparent. I was unaware of dad's various fainting episodes on these trips until I read about them. My parents never wanted to worry Betty or me, so most of their medical issues during these years were their private secret.
As I progressed through the seven years of trips I became aware of a few important messages I was receiving from mom a decade later. Obviously, that wasn't her intent, but that is what has happened.
1. Certainly, of primary importance is one's health. It was very clear that her enjoyment from traveling declined along with her strength, mobility and eyesight. The journal entries from 1996-1998 contain very few references to health problems. That began to change during a trip to Europe. Her limitations and their impact on my dad were obvious. As I read through the next few journals, there were:
…More references to her wheelchair or walker and how tough it made enjoying a trip
…Memory lapses meant forgetting to bring essential items on a trip.
…Becoming tired and irritated at things that earlier she would have joked about
…Trips being canceled at the last moment due to her health
…Several trips to the emergency room and hospital stays while away from home along with a desire to get home to her regular doctor.
…Dad's fainting episodes.
2. Their long driving trips were recorded honestly as a mixture of boredom and joy, mundane activities and beautiful sights, bad meals and hard beds, or a good steak dinner and pleasant room at the end of a long day of driving.
In fact, as I started to make notes of what she had written it became clear that a good bed, a nice meal, a pretty sunset, a simple card game at the end of the day or sunshine after rain were enough to interrupt a gloomy narrative. Travel is no different than home life. It is a blend of good and bad, exciting and boring, uplifting and depressing. The trick is to notice life's small joys and blessings and dwell on them.
3. Mom always over-packed. It was a rare trip that she didn't mention she had brought too many clothes for both of them. They did occasionally use the laundry facility in a hotel, but apparently were afraid of running out of clean clothes. So, they dragged around (or, rather dad dragged around) much more than they needed.
4. As she became more physically challenged, mom became more easily irritated and angry. To her credit, she didn't shy away from venting on these journal pages, though I doubt she considered that anyone else would ever see them. I would guess that her various limitations were increasingly frustrating to her. Never one to ask for help until she simply couldn't manage on her own, the closing in of her world made her more prone to lash out at things.
Besides seeing some sides of mom I wasn't aware existed, I did take away a reinforcement of a few important life lessons:
- Travel whenever and wherever you can while you are healthy enough to enjoy the experience. Soon enough, physical ailments will make trips more difficult and, eventually, unpleasant.
- Especially on longer trips don't expect every day to be great. Travel is just home life but in a different place. Accept the bad as part of the journey and relish the small stuff that can brighten an otherwise rotten day.
- Under-pack. No one cares (or will even notice) that you wore the same sweater and jeans three days this week. Don't spend time and energy lugging excessive belongings around. And, there are virtually no places you can't find a laundromat if needed.
- Fight the natural tendency to become an angry, crabby, old person. Not only doesn't anyone else want to be around you, but it brings you down, too. Getting angry at your declining health is pointless. Instead, get even: do all you want before that happens!
Thanks, mom. I found it fascinating to see into your life 10-15 years ago. Even now, two years after your passing, you are still teaching me lessons.