Resilience and Expectations

I’m sitting in my mom’s hospital room as she sleeps, waiting for time to pass and the doctor to make her rounds. 

The phone call came as we were preparing to work the bees yesterday,  to reorganize two hives and start to feed for winter. 

“Kym?” Mom’s voice was strained. “I fell. They think I broke my hip.” 

Sometimes plans change as quickly as that. 

Mom, as I’ve mentioned, is old, having turned 92 in August, and she’s had some health issues in the last fifteen years — a broken arm at 80, a crushed elbow plus surgery for vulvar cancer in the years following, and several hospital stays for pneumonia. She has a-fib and congestive heart failure, wears hearing aids (when she remembers), glasses, and dentures. Both knees have been replaced, and cataracts removed from both eyes. Recently, she had laser procedure to remove scar tissue left by the cataracts, and the doctor said her eyes have reached the middle stages of macular degeneration. Her kidneys don’t work so well either.

Also, in the last two years, she’s begun to lose her short-term memory, which means she sometimes calls multiple times to check in when we’ve spoken just hours (sometimes minutes) before and repeat the same questions in a conversation.

At least it’s not dementia, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Despite all this, she gets up every day and dresses (most days), reads her library books, and strolls the halls of her nursing home with her walker looking for trouble. 

The staff love her because she is feisty, and many say they want to be her when they grow up.

In short, she is — and she would tell you this herself — a tough old broad. But she will also tell you getting old is not for sissies.

Being the daughter of a tough old broad is also not for sissies. I am becoming a tough old broad by default as we face these unwanted developments together.

Each time a health crisis springs up, I mentally prepare myself for the possibility that this one might be that finally pushes her body past its capability to survive.

I know it will happen, just as I know no matter how hard I try, I will never be prepared for the loss that is surely, surely coming my way.

And yet, each time so far, this resilient, tough old lady has managed to recover.

Still, every bout with illness, every fall, and every injury leaves her just a little below her previous level of wellness. 

It’s like that expression (and gosh, I’m just full of quotes today, aren’t I?), “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” except I know someday — no matter how tough and resilient she is — someday, my mother’s body won’t be able to get back up.

I know genetics have a lot to do with her longevity. Her mother lived to 86, her father to 84, and many of her aunts and uncles died in the eighties and nineties. 

But she’s one of seven siblings. Five are now gone, and two of them were younger than Mom.

So, it’s not just genetics.

If you ask me — and I know you didn’t, but this is my blog so I’m telling you anyway — I believe Mom has survived partly because of her resilience. The ability to roll with the punches, without worrying overmuch about the future has surely been a factor.

I don’t mean she’s spent her life not thinking ahead, or that she was impetuous and foolhardy (although leaving my father after 27 years of marriage sould imply a certain level of impetuousness).

But Mom’s always seemed to trust things would work out okay, while at the same time not hinging her future happiness on any one set of expectations. 

Photo by Ann H on

Here’s what I mean: When I was younger (so much younger than today), I would get super excited about future events, thinking, “When that day gets here, I’m going to be so happy.”

Of course, that day would come and go, and although I might have enjoyed it, my life remained basically the same … a normal ordinary life. 

Eventually, I came to understand John Lennon (and/or whoever may have said it before him) was right. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. 

Sometimes those happenings are wonderful — an unexpectedly fun time with friends, the sight of a beautiful sunset, an opportunity you never thought you’d have. 

And sometimes, they are not wonderful — finding a lump in your breast, falling and breaking a hip, losing a loved one. 

It follows that happiness also happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. 

If we are very lucky and/or particularly insightful, we’ll recognize this contentment/happiness as it’s happening in our normal every day life. If we aren’t so lucky and/or insightful, we may realize it later, which will hopefully help us to  learn to notice — and be grateful — when we are in a life phase where things are uneventul, unexciting, just, well … normal.

There’s a meditation that goes: 

“A normal day! Holding it in my hand this one last moment, I have come to see it as more than an ordinary rock, it is a gem, a jewel. In time of war, in peril of death, people have dug their hands and faces into the earth and remembered this. In time of sickness and pain, people have buried their faces in pillows and wept for this. In time of loneliness and separation, people have stretched themselves taut and waited for this. In time of hunger, homelessness, and wants, people have raised bony hands to the skies and stayed alive for this.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky, and want more than all the world your return. And then I will know what now I am guessing: that you are, indeed, a common rock and not a jewel, but that a common rock made of the very mass substance of the earth in all its strength and plenty puts a gem to shame.”

It is normal days that are the true treasures of our lives. We would be better served to recognize that fact instead than searching for happiness in future events that may or may not live up to our hopes, events that may or may not even happen.

How much better it would be if we could keep in mind that none of us know how many long those normal days will last. (For that matter, none of us have any idea how many days we have left, normal or not.)

A long time ago, I read a poem comparing the cycle of ocean waves to the cycles of life. I wish I could find it again because there was a phrase that’s stuck with me, something about “When nothing is happening, something is building up to happen.”

I have found this to be true. When things are at their most normal, and we are settling into a routine — perhaps even growing a little complacent — currents are growing. Hidden and beneath the surface, they will eventually reach the shores of our lives, and no one can know how much they will wash away.

I won’t say I don’t sometimes get caught up in planning for the future — I’m a control freak, after all! Nor do I claim to be a particularly evolved human being. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know this because not only am I controlling, I’m also selfish, judgmental, and sometimes inflexible, occasionally unfocused, and yes, even neurotic. 

But I have at least learned to not tie my happiness/contentment/self-worth to outside events and other people, and to understand that sometimes life just doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes things happen, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. “What’s for you won’t pass by you,” “Que, sera’, sera,'”, and all that.

I learned from my mom. 🙂

Actually, life taught me, and I count myself lucky it did.

I’ll end with another quote, this one familiar to many, and the words are worth pondering, no matter what your faith.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Umm, isn’t that the whole hospital?

Our Ancestors: We Know We Can Make It Through Because We Know They Did

It’s been a weird few weeks, I think we all can agree. In all my born days, I never could have predicted something like coronavirus could scour the world as it has.

That’s not quite true. I’ve predicted a pandemic for years. I just never believed it would happen.

I find it hard to believe even now, even though I know it’s gone way beyond weird to tragic.

So many people are sick and dying, while so many more are unable to work.

Meanwhile, our so-called leaders can’t even manage to pass a bill to help those who need it most.

My answer: Do something now to help our country’s citizens. Argue about how to the big corporations later. And be sure to factor in more accountability than the last bailout.

But, this is not a political diatribe.

It’s a reminder.

We can get through this.

I know this because I study the genealogy of my family, and I know my ancestors made it through their own horrors.

There was Sarah Jane Daugherty Feathers Scott who married at nineteen, only to lose her husband in the Civil War shortly after the birth of their first child. Her three brothers fought in the same war, one for the Confederacy and two for the Union. All came home safely, but one died before the age of 20 from an accidental gun shot. Sarah later remarried and had seven more children, with four of them dying before she did. And yet, she and her second husband, Amos, took in and were raising three of his siblings the year before her death. Sarah was the sister of one of my 2x great grandmother, and her first husband was the brother of one of my other 2x great grandmothers.

Sarah’s brother Jacob was the one who fought for the Confederacy. He and his wife Julia lost two children within eighteen days of each other at a time when their home counties were in the process of seceding from the Confederacy to become what is now West Virginia.

On the other side of the family, there was John Garman and his many children. And you already know about Montcalm. 

And I can’t forget about my Great-grandfather Lang, who was an RFD mail carrier, carrying out his rounds on a mule in West Virginia. If you’ve ever been to the hollers of that state, you can imagine what that must have been like, especially in the winter.

There was my Grandpa Byrd, who dug ditches for one of the Federal works projects during the Great Depression so he could feed his family.

His father, Andrew Warren Bird (the spelling varies) and mother, Clara Olive Summers (one of my favorite names ever!) lost a child, Mary A Bird, in 1898. She was only twenty months old, and I came across her by accident when I was looking for the death record for another Byrd/Bird. It says “caught fire from open grate, never rallied.”

Every time I read that phrase, I get tears in my eyes.


Mary’s Death Registration

Still, Clara and Andrew soldiered on until Clara’s death at age 66 in 1938. Andrew lived to the age of 96, remarrying a woman 41 years his junior when he was 78, although — and I find this detail amusing — he claimed to be a sprightly 72 to Alice’s 37.

Alice’s life was a difficult one. She was first married at 15, to a fifty-two-year-old man, with whom she had nine children.

Writing that makes me cringe, though the nine children and the fact that Andrew bequeathed his land to her on his death makes me think theirs was a marriage of economical necessity.

She died at seventy-five, having married a third time, this time to someone closer to her age (only six years older).

Although she isn’t my direct ancestor, I find myself hoping her life with Andrew was a pleasant one, and that the acreage she inherited enabled her to achieve some independence after what sounds like a life of drudgery.

My parents also knew challenges, growing up in the Depression, and that experience was reflected in how my siblings and I were raised, with a big garden and two large cupboards in the basement, filled with home-canned food.

Grandma and Grandpa Byrd would come to stay for a few days in the late summer or fall to help, but we were all expected to contribute, by lugging water to the garden, stringing beans, pushing apples through a ricer to make applesauce, or washing dishes.

The first time I made and canned jelly, I was so proud of myself, feeling like I was maintaining a connection with my parents and grandparents.

Then I realized if Grandma could look down from heaven, she would be laughing at me — so smug about over a few jars of jelly.  She, along with Grandpa and my parents, would churn out seemingly endless jars of multiple varieties of jelly every year, along with applesauce, green beans, tomatoes, tomato juice, grape juice, peaches, pears, plums, and more.

So, here’s the thing: I come from a long line of resilient people. They suffered the deaths of spouses, siblings, and children, lived through wars and the Depression, and raised their children. Every generation has had its challenges, and yet, we persevere.

Your family’s story is probably similar, though you may not know its “narrative.” This might be a good time to learn some of it because research shows that such knowledge makes a person more resilient. (If you’d like to read more about this study, there’s a good artice in the New York Times. )

It makes sense. If a person knows their family’s stories, they know that there have always been difficult times, and that people — not all of them, obviously, but many — manage to find a way to survive. When we know that, it makes us more confident we will find a way through our own hardships.

We can do that best, I believe, by learning to depend more on ourselves and on each other, even though right now that interdependence with others must, of necessity, be from a distance.

Though we may not be able to deal with difficulties in the same way as our ancestors, we too will find our way through.

Also, I take heart from two of my favorite quotations.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Ghandi

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

We don’t have to do everything to fix things. We just have to do something, preferably something that takes us out of ourselves and helps others.

So, be kind. Check in with friends and neighbors.

And, for heaven’s sake, quit hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer!