A Quick Trip to New Jersey


With my mom in NJ

Last week Clive and I made a short visit to my mother, son and daughter-in-law in New Jersey.

I wanted especially to see Mom in person, spend time with her and check up on how she’s doing both in her physical self and in her spirits. She always sounds okay on the phone, but that’s not the same as being together in person.

Nearly two years ago I wrote about Mom and the memory thief. Her Alzheimer’s continues to progress, faster now than in its earlier years. I haven’t changed my feelings about the disease; I just loathe it more and more as it takes away more and more of my mother.

Mom is still in her same room, still getting around very slowly with her walker and making the long trek to and from exercise, music and other programs at her assisted living facility. (A nurse there once told us they work very hard to keep residents walking because once they’re in a wheelchair, they often don’t get up again.) Mom used to hitch a ride once in a while on the motorised carts, but she’s become too anxious about stepping on and off (she shrieks or sometimes screams) so rarely does this now.

For several years, my mother enjoyed the company of a male friend, or ‘boyfriend’ as she called him. Since we saw him quite frail and unwell in May – it’s been many months since we could take her or them out in the car — he was moved to a separate nursing facility. Mom now has no memory of him. In some ways this is a blessing, I suppose, since she doesn’t miss him and never asks for him. In other ways, it signifies a greater memory loss that is crushing, though thankfully only to her loved ones and not – at least that we can tell — to Mom.

Mom has a wonderful new friend, a Jamaican woman who was once a nurse. They have meals together and often sit together at the programs; an aide told us they are ‘best buddies’. Mom doesn’t remember her friend by name, but recognises her on sight. Her friend is very kind to everyone, as is my mother. After spending several afternoons sitting with both of them, I believe that despite their respective Alzheimer’s, they recognise, at some soul-deep level, this quality of goodness in each other and for this reason are attracted to and appreciative of one another. Who knows? Two kind-hearted women are best buddies at the care home and this is something I thank God for every day.

Unfortunately there were no music programs the days we were with Mom, though she likes them the best. I chatted with her in the beauty parlor while she sat under the dryer, watched her one-on-one exercise program and held her hand while the long-suffering podiatrist cut her toenails. She screamed often and even Clive’s ‘close your eyes and think of England’ didn’t work this time. We spent most of the time just sitting and visiting with her.

In her room, we brought out her 90th birthday photo album and paged through, jogging her long-term memory about her parents and the house where she grew up in Paterson, NJ. She recognises photos of them and several of her childhood friends, but few others.

I remain thankful my mother is happy and well cared-for, grateful she has a new friend and still knows me and my son and usually Clive, too, though she doesn’t remember his name. I’m terrified of the day she doesn’t recognise me, but I try to appreciate the present and not look ahead this way.

I wish I’d taken more photos of Mom during this trip. For some reason, I only asked Clive to take one on our arrival evening (top of this post), when we’d come directly from the airport, weary and jet-lagged, and Mom was due to have her hair done the next day.

I struggle to know what to write about this dreaded disease, only that I wish we could be in multiple places at once so I could spend time with my mother more frequently. I know we are fortunate we can visit regularly and cherish every hug.

On a happier note, we enjoyed a wonderful catch-up with dear friends C&S from Connecticut (thank you so very much C&S for driving down), and spent time over the weekend with my son and belle-fille (a favourite French term meaning daughter-in-law, literally ‘beautiful daughter’). They are both doing great with work, family and life in general.

Already counting the days until we meet again.

My son and belle-fille in NJ

Cheers and thanks for reading. Happy almost-autumn or almost-spring to all.

Nine Goals for May

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Part of the plan: Paris is always a good idea

  1. Spend time with my son and belle-fille in New Jersey.
  2. Spend time with my mom in NJ and help her celebrate her 92nd birthday.
  3. Find time to connect with friends in the U.S., if not on our short visit in May, then on our next trip in July.
  4. Resume work on my Paris memoir. Try to complete the next chapter but don’t overly stress as long as good progress is made. Write in Paris before going to New Jersey.
  5. Enjoy being out and about in Paris when we return there from New Jersey.
  6. Keep up with friends, activities and appointments in Felixstowe before we depart.
  7. Remind myself we knew the first 6-7 months of this year would involve a great deal of travel, mostly to see family. Try to be mindful of the need to pace ourselves along the way.
  8. Get over lingering jet lag and weariness I’m still feeling from a month Down Under.
  9. Be grateful we’re able to, as per our motto, ‘Travel while we can.’
Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

2016 Travel Plans: Pacing Ourselves, or Trying To

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Clive sometimes says our travel is a well-worn roundabout: we go around and around and always get off at the same places.

I can’t disagree with this view; our 2016 travel plans, at least from January through July, involve five trips and all of the above destinations.

New Year Vows
Every new year, Clive and I vow to each other, ‘This year, we’ll pace our travel.’ We want firstly to spend time with our families – scattered as they are in the USA and Australia – and also to spend time in Paris, my particular passion, and to explore new parts of the UK and other possible destinations together.

Last year we visited York in England; we hope to see another new place somewhere in the UK this year.

Two years ago, in our 2013 Christmas letter, we rather reluctantly admitted we’re not quite as young as we used to be; we find jet lag and travel fatigue more intense as the years go by.

Trying New Approaches
While continuing to visit immediate families in both hemispheres, the first change we made, beginning in early 2014, was to bring our children to us when their and our schedules permit. We’ve been so fortunate to share great family times in Felixstowe and Suffolk, London, Paris (not to forget Paris Disney), Scotland, and last year at my son’s wedding in the U.S.

More recently, this past December, when I wanted to visit my mother in New Jersey but we’d already booked time in Paris, we booked a ‘trip within a trip’.

The Felixstowe to Paris, Paris to NJ and return for more time in Paris, then back home to Felixstowe worked well. This approach gives us two trips for one set of ‘leaving home’ packing and departure tasks. We plan to do it again this spring.

2016 Travel Goal
Our travel goal this year isn’t aimed at a specific location, but at how we travel and manage our trips.

Our goal for each trip (and for the year in general) is to pace ourselves, to maintain a level of mindfulness and awareness of each moment so we truly appreciate the time we have with each family member and with each other.

A related aspiration is to remember to centre. By this I mean that when I feel my mind and/or body becoming fragmented or exhausted, when I’m putting pressure on myself or pushing myself in too many different directions, I remember what I’ve learned about travel and pacing over the years.

For example, I often try to see too many people — because you can never see everyone you want to see when visiting a particular place. I’ve learned it’s best, for me anyway, to avoid planning a ‘quick coffee’ with a friend vs. deferring it to another trip when we can spend more meaningful time together. Quick visits when one is running from one meeting to another often result in frustration and/or exhaustion.

First Stop 2016: Washington DC
I can’t wait to see my son and belle-fille in Washington DC later this month (and you too, MGLH, if you’re reading this!). After that we’ll visit my mom in New Jersey, my primary focus when we’re there. Our travel roundabout will swing back to Felixstowe and Paris for a while, before taking us Down Under for a month. That’s enough for my brain to contemplate at the moment. Beyond that, we’ll return to the U.S. for my mother’s birthday in May and a family wedding in July.

Wishing us all the perfect pace for activities in the new year, whatever and wherever they may be.
long way
Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

When Someone’s Presence Is the Best Present – Any Time of Year

with my son at Town Hall gardens, Felixstowe

with my son two days ago at Town Hall gardens, Felixstowe

My mom always said, ‘We’re close all year round,’ thereby giving me the gift of alleviating, though not eliminating, my swirling mix of guilt and sadness when we weren’t together at Christmas.

This year, we were blessed with a pre-Christmas visit from my son, the best gift I could have hoped for. In 2011, he joined us in the UK for Christmas; since then, he’s spent the holiday with the young woman who is now his wife, and her lovely family. One year, the two of them travelled to meet us in London on Boxing Day; two other times, we’ve spent Thanksgiving together in the USA.

My mother’s example taught me not to fuss too much about calendar dates. The older I get, the more I appreciate her wisdom. The older I get, the more I also appreciate my father’s flexibility (they divorced when I was young but I saw both parents Christmas Day) – his willingness to see us when we said we could see him, his unfailing ‘yes’ when I asked if he was available at a certain time, his ongoing presence in my life. My heart winces at what I’ve come to call ‘divorced parent leftovers’ – the time and attention given to so many parents (often dads) who, after divorce and when the children are grown, find themselves ending up with whatever time is left over, coming in second after the parent who was present for the day in, day out, year in, year out working and loving and endless tasks of child-raising.

It’s often said that expats have heightened awareness of separation, of having loved ones geographically dispersed all over the world. This is certainly a recurring theme of this blog. Today many families, expat or not, divorced or not, have members spread around the world – children marry and have children of their own, work opportunities take people to new places and families exert pressure and expectations on who will be with whom and when.

Sometimes it’s easier when families live far apart. Friends in Australia used to spend alternate Christmases with the wife’s family in California and the husband’s in Tasmania. If both families live close by, young families often spend Christmas Day at one in-laws’ in the morning and, after a drive of multiple hours, the afternoon or evening at the other in-laws’ – exhausting.

In the early years of my first marriage, after a year or two of trekking to and from New Jersey for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas (not to forget an extended family party every Saturday after Thanksgiving), my late husband Gary put his foot down. We began balancing our time differently, mixing old and new and developing our own holiday traditions.

Since moving to the UK in early 2011, Clive and I have spent every Christmas Day in Felixstowe (except for one, an emergency trip to Australia). We’re thankful we’re able to see our families multiple times during the year. This year in England, we’ll have turkey for two for the first time, grateful for each other’s presence and raising a glass to loved ones in the USA and Australia, all of whom we’ll see in the first few months of 2016.

Happy Christmas to all who celebrate, to you and yours, wherever you — and they — may be.

Christmas Eve sunset 2015, Felixstowe

Christmas Eve sunset 2015, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Wedding Afterglow: My American-Aussie-UK Family

Our global family together in one place

Our global family together in one place for the first time

In the afterglow of my son and belle-fille’s wedding, we continued family celebrations with an early birthday dinner for Clive.

Clive’s real birthday is in November, but the occasion of the wedding meant that for the first time ever – though we hope not the last – we had all our children and stepchildren together in the same physical location. It was a perfect opportunity to gather together and celebrate family, in addition to my beloved husband’s upcoming birthday.

Music-loving Clive ready to blow out the candles on his birthday cake

Music-loving Clive ready to blow out the candles on his birthday cake

Our immediate global family, not counting parents, consists of my son and his wife; my U.S. stepson, his wife and their three sons; my Aussie stepson, his wife, their two sons and one daughter; and my Aussie stepdaughter.

There’s so much I could write – and have written – about these individuals, not least of which is their kindness and generosity in welcoming Clive and me into their respective families.

Seven precious adults, including my son’s wife, the most recent addition to this group

Seven precious adults, including my son’s wife, the most recent addition to this group

At some point several years ago, the American family and the Aussie family – they’d never met in person, except for my son — had heard enough about each other that they became long-distance friends via social media and email. They gradually learned more and more about each other’s lives and their children’s lives.

To Clive’s and my heartfelt gratitude, it also happened at some point that the parents agreed it could be a bit complicated when explaining to their children how everyone was related. Clive’s daughter-in-law, for example, could say to her son, when speaking about one of the American boys, ‘He is Daddy’s stepbrother’s half-brother’s son.’ Conversely, my U.S. stepson, when speaking to his sons about the Aussie boys, could say, ‘They are Uncle Gary’s stepbrother’s sons.’

These wonderful parents then decided (without our involvement) to skip all the ‘step’ and ‘half’ descriptions and agreed, ‘let’s not worry about being technically accurate. We’re brothers and sisters and our kids are cousins.’

Before the wedding, the mothers discussed what their children would call the adults, and agreed simply on ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunt’ – the only remaining question was then: how would they all react to each other when they finally met in person?

I guess families are families and kids are kids. Despite there not being a perfect fit regarding ages (children ranging from almost-5 to 13), the Americans and Aussies seemed to click right from the start. They met in person for the first time at the rehearsal dinner, sat together at the wedding, and the children played together the weekend after the wedding.

Three Americans and three Aussies at Clive’s birthday dinner

Three Americans and three Aussies at Clive’s birthday dinner

Whether clowning around for the camera, playing games in our hotel room, going to a playground or having quiet time in the lobby while their parents chatted over a final coffee, everyone seemed to get along great.

Getting along & being silly for the camera

Clowning around for the camera – I guess they all get along

Playing games in our hotel room

Playing games in our hotel room

The two youngest Aussie-American cousins

Comfortable with each other – the two youngest Aussie-American cousins

We’re not sure if or when an occasion like this will happen next, but we hope it won’t be too many years before we can get this group together once again.

Thank you to my Aussie stepson for the lovely words he said about his father (and me) at the birthday dinner; to my son and belle-fille for joining us the evening after their wedding; to the magnificent moms (or mums) who guided their children to call each other cousins and aunts and uncles; and to the whole family for making it such a memorable birthday get-together.

Until next time, we’re thankful everyone is back safe and sound to their respective homes, including me and Clive. We’re happy to see our tree by the sea in England and will have a more local celebration for Clive’s real birthday when the time comes.

Back home in England - our tree by the sea, Felixstowe

Home in England – our tree by the sea, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Women’s Weekend in (New) Jersey

American flag at Paramus Park mall, New Jersey

American flag at Paramus Park mall, New Jersey

One of the hardest things about living far away from loved ones is not being able to be there in person for various family events. We do the best we can, and mid-next week I’m heading across the Pond to see some very important women — and one very important young man — in New Jersey.

The special occasion is a bridal shower for my son’s fiancée, something I really wanted to be part of. By two brilliant coincidences, it’s close in date to my son’s birthday and relatively close in driving time to where my mom lives.

So I’ll be able to combine visits to Mom (and seeing close-up how her leg is healing), time with the beautiful young woman who will soon be my daughter-in-law, or to use the wonderful French word, ma belle-fille (love that expression: literally beautiful daughter but with hyphen translates to daughter-in-law), seeing several of my closest female family and friends, and a major treat of one-on-one time with a certain tall, blond young man who is approaching a significant birthday.

My soon-to-be belle-fille and her groom, 2014 Thanksgiving

My soon-to-be belle-fille and her groom, 2014 Thanksgiving

Clive and I usually travel together but this time he’ll stay home in Felixstowe. He has several DIY projects planned (ie, can make lots of noise and mess while I’m away), doesn’t mind staying by the sea and missing the forecasted 30+C/85-90F NJ temperatures (not to mention summer airport crowds), and would be left on his own anyway while I get together with many wonderful women. I’ll also spend extra time just sitting and being with my mom at her assisted living residence.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that we can’t be everywhere at once, can’t keep everyone happy with our schedule and can’t do everything we wish we could. Perhaps this is true for many parents and grandparents, even if families live close by. Our guiding principle is to do what we can, when we can, while we can. More about brides, birthdays and Jersey girls in next week’s letter.

August visit with my favourite Jersey girl, 2013

August visit with my favourite Jersey girl, 2013

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from New Jersey.

Letter from Felixstowe: Anticipation

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With my son near Washington, D.C.

 Thanks to everyone who commented or sent helpful emails in response to last week’s post. It’s heartbreaking that Alzheimer’s disease affects so many individuals and families around the world.

This week has mostly centred on anticipation of my son’s arrival for a long weekend with us in the UK. It seems only yesterday I was juggling personal life with work and teleconferences and business trips. Suddenly (or so it seems) roles are reversed. Now he’s the one with the busy personal and professional life while I eagerly await his arrival.

I feel close to my mother at times like this; from what she said over the years, I know she felt similar emotions when she knew I was on my way to see her in New Jersey.

The days will pass quickly with my son and I’ll treasure every minute. As my mom often said, ‘It doesn’t matter what we do. It’ll just great to be together.’

And as Tom Jones sometimes says on The Voice UK: ‘Yeah!’

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.