The Joy of Fixing a Bike in the Rain

Friday was a particularly difficult day for me. I don’t often talk about mental health, though it is a hugely important topic and one that effects more people than we often realize. Many of you know that we moved from Florida to Tennessee a few years ago to care for my mom. What I haven’t said much about is that, along with my mom’s physical health problems, she has long suffered from bipolar disorder. At the time she was diagnosed in the early 1990s, bipolar was still called manic-depressive disorder. I mention this because, though they are one in the same, she prefers the term manic depression.

There have been times in her life that she has gone into deep, deep depression, staying in bed for weeks at a time. And then there have been times when she’s thrown herself into a goal with such abandon that it seems nothing could stop her. And in the mix of all this, there have been many normal days, where you would never know that she had an illness at all. Friday was not one of those days.

For most folks, rainy days, temperature changes, and holidays are nothing more than just that. For others, they can be an emotional trigger. The persistent rain and chill of the last few days, along with the occurrence of Mother’s Day, acted as a trigger for my mom and when I popped in for a visit on Friday, I got more than I bargained for. She was in a very argumentative mood, wanting to “debate” a variety of topics ranging from sociopathy to dentistry. This would have been all well and good, except that when I refused to engage the way she thought I should, she said some very hurtful things – the most hurtful being that she did not feel loved.

While I don’t feel the need to list all the ways in which I love my mom, I am a human being and the first thought that popped in my mind when she said that was how hard it was for me to leave my life in Florida to move back to a place I never felt was my home. If that wasn’t love…but I didn’t say that. I didn’t want to argue, and I didn’t want to make her bad day about me when it wasn’t. She was feeling down and despite the fact that I sat through 5 hours being told I was distant, ungrateful, and never listened to her, I bit my tongue. She was speaking to me, but she was not speaking about me. I know this because I know myself and I know that she knows me too.

Though I know who I am, that doesn’t mean that her words didn’t hurt. They did. And I spent the better part of the next day feeling that hurt…until Angie and I went for a walk. We set out along a path that runs beside a beautiful creek, complete with wooden bridges and more blue herons than I’ve seen in a while. The sky was clouded but our weather app assured us that there would be no rain until 7 PM. It was 3:30 then. We had walked about a quarter of a mile when the bottom fell out of the sky and we found ourselves standing beneath a tree, contemplating heading back to the car. The rain stopped as suddenly as it started, and we opted to continue.

Within a few minutes, we came upon a mom and three young boys on bikes. They had stopped to wait out the shower under a canopy of trees and when they tried to leave, they realized that the youngest boy’s brakes were locked in place. We stopped to have a look.

“You never think to bring tools until you need them,” said the mom. “If I could just loosen the brake pads, I think it would be okay until we get home.”

I looked at the brake assembly. The nut that would release the brake cable and loosen the assembly was rusted. It seemed hopeless but then I had an idea. I started turning the pad itself until it came unscrewed. The wheel was loose, and the little boy was overjoyed to be able to ride again (albeit without front brakes). We chatted for a few minutes and wished them well, reminding the little guy to be extra careful. They continued in the opposite direction and we forged ahead.

We were in the middle of our return trip when the rain came back – harder than before and without any indication of stopping. We paused for a moment, reminiscing about the time we hiked 4 miles in the pouring rain to get back to our car. We laughed for a bit and started back, walking (sometimes jogging) in the downpour. It wasn’t long before we heard laughter that wasn’t our own. The mom and her boys were riding back – the long way – just as soaked as we were and 1,000 times happier than I had been in the hours before we set out on this journey. In that moment, my cup filled with more than just the rain.

On Sunday, we spent Mother’s Day with my mom. She was in a better mood and seemed to enjoy lunch. She talked some about her feelings toward my sister and niece (her other daughter and granddaughter) and it was clear that much of her upset lies with them. I can’t say that she’s wrong (or right) on the matter, just that she feels hurt by their absence from our lives. Because she couldn’t lash out at them, she directed all that anger at me. I’m not excusing her behavior. I’m just saying that I understand.

Caring for someone with mental illness can be hard, especially when they are unkind. I remind myself daily that my mom is not her illness (mental or physical) and for as much as I may struggle with it, she struggles even harder.

Running around in the rain was also a reminder – of the fact that people are waterproof. No matter how soaked we get, we aren’t damaged by the rain. Annoyed, maybe…but not at all damaged. The same goes for hurt. Human beings have an amazing capacity to love and to forgive – to dry themselves off from the downpour of other people’s emotions and move forward.

My mom is a loving person, someone I admire and am grateful to know. Like anyone else, she is going to have a bad day every now and then. She’s going to say things that hurt. More often though, she’s going to say things that are kind and wise; things that I will want to remember all my life, especially when she is no longer here. These are the words the I want to swim in. The rest, like the rain, I will just dry off with a towel.

Death and Dating

My uncle Jerry passed away this week. He was 70 years old and my dad’s only sibling. I wasn’t particularly close to Jerry or his wife, but they are my family, so I felt it only right to go to the funeral home. My dad and step-mother did a great job of finding photos from his days in the Army, his wedding, and his many trips to the Smoky Mountains – my uncle loved the mountains – to create a collage of his life. There were even a few pictures of me and my sister as kids.

Jerry was one of those folks that people might call eccentric or odd. My dad liked to tease that he probably had the first dime he ever made and when my grandma was alive, she loved to tell the story of how they all went to Gatlinburg one summer and Jerry asked to see the hotel room before he would pay for it. When it wasn’t up to his standard, he negotiated a better deal right there on the spot. What I remember most about him was that he lived in the same apartment all my childhood and drove the same meticulously maintained car – a 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo. Though he later bought a house (just up the street from my dad), he still drove the car until the day he died. I also remember stacks and stacks of Pepsis (his drink of choice) in the garage, where he would stock up on them when they were on sale. You might say he was extremely frugal, which is one thing we had in common. The other was our love for my grandma.

Funerals are a time of reflection, whether we want them to be or not, and the thought of how short life really is can’t help but enter one’s mind as they stand beside a casket. For me, I couldn’t help thinking about how my uncle had devoted the last years of his life to caring for his mother, my grandmother, and within just a short time of her passing, he was gone as well. He was only 70 years old. All those trips he’d put off, all the dreams he may have had for retirement, were never realized, and it made me sad. And angry…at myself.

A lot of my own goals and dreams are unrealized too and while I describe myself as a caregiver for my mother, the truth is, she is not incapable of caring for herself. She can (and does) do a lot on her own, she just needs help from time to time, especially with the yard and house maintenance and driving to appointments. Yet, for some reason, when I think about travelling or even going away for a weekend, I feel like I’m abandoning my responsibilities. So, I put these things off, telling myself that I’m needed here now and there will be time for our adventures later. But what if there’s not?

Our goal of doing 48 Really Great Dates this year was partially an attempt to mitigate those circumstances. We thought it would be wise to set aside time for ourselves and do something fun, to lessen the tension that sometimes comes with doing so many things for other people. The crazy thing about that – having to plan dates caused more tension! Where we once simply decided to do things together – like go for a hike or visit a museum – we were now putting so much time and energy into planning the perfect outing that we forgot the point – to just do something fun together.

As we looked at the photo collage of my uncle Jerry’s life, one thing stood out – there were dozens of photos of my uncle and aunt doing crazy normal things…together. From barbecuing in the backyard to washing the car or sitting atop the World’s Largest Rocking Chair, they were always together, and they were always smiling. I’m not talking about canned smiles either. In every photo, they were grinning like they were having the time of their lives. I have to think that they had a good life – that despite having to spend nearly a decade caring for my grandma, they managed to find joy in every day living.

And that’s what I want for us.

We’re still working toward our date goal, but without the added pressure now. Instead of alternating weekly date planning, we sat down and brainstormed a big list of things we wanted to do this year. Each week we pick one that fits in with our other plans and obligations. This means, our dates are sometimes as simple as a long walk, and other times, we may manage to get away for an entire weekend. We probably won’t do everything on this list and that’s okay. Coming up with it was half the fun anyway. For a little while we got to dream and plan together and, in the end, we realized we don’t need to go on an elaborate date in order to connect, we simply need to make time for each other.

My uncle was buried with full military honors in a cemetery an hour away. Sadly, his wife will never get to visit his grave. Earlier this year, when they realized she could no longer live at home, she went to live in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s Disease. They had no children to pass their stories on to, but their life did not go unnoticed. I noticed. My dad noticed. My brother noticed. And each of us left the funeral home that day affected in different ways. Seeing my uncle’s life laid out in pictures helped me to remember that every new day is a new chance to do something spectacular – even if it’s just washing the car with your wife.