My life is a balance of negotiating priorities, which change as I do. While I have always cared deeply about my family of origin–my parents and brother, I also think that when I was young, my focus was on my friends, activities, and being included. Probably like any young girl and teenager, I assumed everyone I loved and who loved me would always be around. I took them for granted, plain and simple. As I have matured, I have prioritized my family (both my parents, sibling, and my own husband and children) in countless ways. In the midst of getting an education, raising children, and developing a career, maturity taught me that those whom I loved could be gone in a minute.
I lost one of my best friends, Marion, when she was 49. She had called me from her car on the way to the mall, just two hours before she collapsed. She wanted to remind me that if I needed anything that I should just call her. In retrospect (the way I learn so much), I somehow felt she was trying to tell me so much more than whether she could pick up something I needed at the store. I’ve always been the type of person who is busy, busy, busy…doing activities, projects, having a hard time sitting still. When the kids were little, I mistakenly thought it was important to have everything in place, to have dinner ready at a certain time, to have the clothes washed, folded, and put away, and to make sure everything ran like clockwork–including myself. I have changed over the years because I listened to my inner voice telling me that none of this really mattered…..I reviewed my priorities and made some changes. While this Martha Stewart-type-of-life was elegantly organized, and certainly enjoyed by others, I was fortunate to examine what it all meant to me before it was too late.
When one of my little boys would ask me to play a game and I needed to do the laundry or get dinner ready, I would feel the push and pull. I wanted to be with my son, but I really needed to do some cooking or empty the dishwasher. But a voice within me reminded me that I really didn’t need to do either, actually. The only thing that mattered was the game with my son, for I knew that very soon, he would want to be with his buddies and not his mom. In a blink of an eye, my son would be driving and would be leaving the house. Playing the game with my son became essential in my list of priorities. My mental Rolodex of priority decisions has been so helpful to me, as it has enabled me to calibrate what I really want to do, not what I should do.
When my father had heart surgery and suffered a severe stroke right after his operation, I knew that I needed to put my Los Angeles life on hold in order to stay in San Francisco with my mother and brother. It was my priority. My children were in capable hands with my husband. I knew I needed to be there for my parents as we assessed the permanent damage and the decisions to be made in the days ahead after my poor father’s stroke. As my father regained some limited abilities, he was forever left with huge deficits. A priority for me then became to fly up 3-4 days at a time to see him and play dominoes with him. Every day after his nap at about 4:00, I would bring out the worn brown leather box of yellowed ivory tiles, and spread them out over the kitchen table. While he couldn’t talk, except for a few words, not always semantically correct, he still knew his game and his numbers and his smile would stretch from ear to ear as he selected his seven tiles. With his wheelchair pushed up against the table, my father was at his best deciding which tiles to place on the table in order to block my next move.
Thus, my whirling dervish-type-of life in Los Angles came to a screeching halt when I returned home to The City. My days there were focused on my father’s walk with his attendant and our afternoon domino game. I made sure to spend time with my mother, who also needed my love and attention. This became my second life and my priority. Yes, countless times I was torn, split in half, screaming from within. I worried about my three children in Los Angeles…did they make it to their soccer games? Were they doing their homework? Were they eating enough? At times I felt that I was a horrible mother and a horrible daughter, torn between two worlds that needed me, providing less than quality pieces of myself in both.
Now, both of my parents are gone, but I have so many of the little bits and pieces of my cherished memories stored within me. The moments I embrace today aren’t really the big parties, fancy dinners, or the vacations to Palm Springs every Easter vacation. Of course, these were fun times, but they were also so easy– the effortless, taken-for-granted days, when I had three of my four grandparents and I was the center of my own world. Those times were simple and as calm as the water under my chubby little body, as I lay on my raft, floating in the motel’s pool.
Today, what pulls at my heart, what means the world to me, was when my father was resting and my mother was napping; I was sitting in the olive green chair next to my mother’s king-sized bed, the same chair my Nana Bea would fill every day upon my return from school; the same feather-stuffed chair my father would collapse into after a long day at the store; the same chair my brother would fold into during his visits home. In that special armchair, the material faded from decades of warm bodies enveloped within its weave, I would listen to the calming and rhythmic breathing of my elderly parents. The soap operas playing on the television, without any real listeners, became the soothing background music of those quiet afternoons, when I could have been working; could have been cleaning; and should have been cooking. Instead, I chose to close my own eyes and experience my own peaceful repose, knowing that one day, which sadly is today, I wouldn’t have my parents’ calming snores enveloping me. I am forever thankful for my inner voice that reminds me of what needs to be overlooked and what becomes essential to my own soul. In the silence of such reflection, my priorities speak to me with love. And I listen with gratitude.