For a year now, I’ve intended to write about turning 50––a contemplative, insightful piece extolling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but I ran out of time. In a few days I’ll be 51. Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.
I ran out of time though I’ve tried diligently to slow down my life and clear some space. Simplify, downsize, prioritize; these are my buzz words. Progress is evident, although the perfect balance wherein I fulfill my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and instructor, and manage to shave under my arms occasionally . . . this eludes me still.
The other night, my father-in-law, glancing at my Google calendar on my iPhone, its colorful blocks stacked atop, beside and overlapping each other like a patchwork quilt, looked from the screen to my face and said, “You’re too busy.”
This, I know. How to change it, I do not.
“What can I cut, Dad?” I asked, a little desperate, a little exasperated with him since he himself was retired.
Life seems to be speeding up, or perhaps it’s that more life is crammed into a single day. I know my parents’ generation raised their families in a slower time. Compare a rotary phone on the wall, its handset tethered by a 10 foot spiral cord, to a smart phone, handheld and able to, at virtually any time, any place, connect to limitless information . . . and limitless other smart phones. Technology adds convenience, but these instant connections and texts demand instant responses. idk if we r betr 4 it.
The needle on my stress gauge pushed into the red
During the last week of school my moderately frenetic pace kicked up to severely frantic. With routines out of whack, extra activities to manage and preparations for the upcoming summer vacation to make (‘vacation’ is truly a misnomer), the needle on my stress gauge pushed into the red.
With Type-A drive, I tackled numerous projects at once, the way I know best–with sleep deprivation and coffee. The goal was to knock out as many items as quickly as possible. My monkey-mind chanted an endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee across the back of my mind, underneath which ran the panicked thought–I’m running out of time.
In the midst of it all, my daughter Sydney had a tonsillectomy, the result of a sleep study and the subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea common in kids with Down syndrome. Before surgery, she charmed the staff with her smiles and snappy comebacks, but afterward, my brave girl was miserable and, understandably, a bit grumpy. We stuck to an alternating three hour dosing of Tylenol and Motrin to keep the pain at bay. Armed with popsicles, ice cream, and mashed potatoes, we told her she could watch as much Disney Channel as she liked.
Since Sydney’s my easy-going kid, stoic, with a high tolerance for discomfort who doesn’t complain often, I figured it would be, for the most part, business as usual. Steven and I arranged our schedules to trade off being home. I anticipated that while she rested I’d be able to toggle between making milkshakes and sending emails.
Uh, yeah. No.
She didn’t really rest. In fact, she was rest-less, never settling for more than 30 minutes at a time. She couldn’t focus on TV, it hurt too much to eat (even ice cream!), and she had no interest in her iPad. Instead, she wanted to talk. To me.
I’m running out of time
“Um, excuse me, Mom?” Sydney asked from the table. “Why my voice is low?”
I answered from my computer without looking. “It’s from your tonsils, remember?” I’d just blended a smoothie to chase a round of medicine, hoping for a few free minutes. “Don’t worry. It won’t last.”
“Why can’t I go to school?” she asked.
“Hmmmm?” I replied, fingers flying over the keys. “School?”
“Why I am not at school?” she repeated.
I could picture her face though my back was to her, eyes opened wide behind purple wire-frames, eyebrows arched high, her mouth frozen in the shape of the last vowel sound she made. She’d asked this question every day, several times a day, for the last week.
“You know why. You tell me, why you aren’t you in school?” I said trying to be patient, though I felt anything but.
“Because I had my tonsils out?” she asked, acting unsure.
But she knew. I’d noticed her strategy of waiting for me to pick up my phone, then immediately starting in with obvious questions to which she knew the answer. The more I needed to concentrate, the more effort she made to divert my attention. And the more she kept me from working, the more annoying it became. In front of me, my iMac displayed the afternoon’s tasks with open Word documents, several tabs on the web browser, iTunes playlists for teaching my group fitness classes, an unfinished email to Sydney’s teacher. And my calendar. Always my calendar.
An endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee
Behind me, my daughter waited for an answer. Realizing it had been several seconds, I turned and looked directly into her eyes. “Yes, honey,” I said firmly, “because you had your tonsils out.”
My compassion stirred when she said, “I just miss my friends, Mom.” Her days were long, her throat hurt and she was lonely.
“I know, sweetie. I’m sorry.” I got up and walked to her, resigned to the conversation for the moment.
“Good job! You drank your whole smoothie!” I said with over-the-top enthusiasm as I took the empty cup to the kitchen sink. She soaked up the praise with a smile and a shy little shrug. “I know you miss your friends, but you’ll see them at yearbook signing, remember?”
She perked visibly at the mention. “Oh, yeah! Yearbook signing. On Thursday, right?”
“Yep. On Thursday.”
She sat without speaking as I rinsed dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Though I heard my daughter’s angst, my monkey-mind chattered louder, calculating priorities on my agenda by what was due when. I was running out of time.
“Mom needs to get some work done now, Syd. Okay?” She was quiet. “How about a pudding?”
My monkey-mind chattered louder
“Do you want anything else?” I asked. “I can put on a movie.”
“No, I’m fine,” Sydney’s tone was matter-of-fact.
I registered her disappointment, but I was up against a deadline and the detailed work required focus. I sat down once again and the clacking of the keyboard filled the silence. For fifteen seconds.
“Mom? Excuse me.”
Like clockwork. “Wow,” I said, taking a deep breath. ‘Easy, Lisa,’ I told myself. “You sure are talking a lot today. Doesn’t that hurt your throat?”
“No,” she answered emphatically. “I just . . . I have tonsil breath,” she stammered, referring to the unfortunate halitosis following a tonsillectomy. I didn’t catch the rest of what she said because I was reading the three texts I’d just received. My adrenaline rose as my shoulders tensed up to my ears. And my monkey-mind chanted away. Running. Out. Of. Time.
“I know I’m talking a lot,” Sydney admitted, “I, um . . .”
My restraint tapped, I interjected, “Yes, you are! And you’re driving me CRA-zy.” An offhand remark, it stung with more bite than was intended. But I didn’t know that because I went on with my work. Until, that is, a subtle energy, something I felt more than I heard, permeated my unraveling focus. I turned around to see Sydney, grimacing with silent sobs, bent over her pudding, shoving bite after bite in her mouth until it overflowed. Suddenly, she inhaled sharply and coughed until snot billowed from her nose. Her face was a mass of chocolatey mucus.
My fatal flaw is that I see everything as a big rock
“Oh, honey!” I jumped up and grabbed a Kleenex, wiping her nose and mouth quickly. “Swallow,” I said, holding the straw of her water jug to her mouth. “Breathe,” I directed. She cleared her throat repeatedly then took a shaky breath as she tried to calm herself.
“I get it, Mom,” she said softly, speaking with a wisdom I forget she is capable of. Her words held the implication that she did indeed understand how swamped I was and she was doing her best not to need too much from me.
“I know we have a busy schedule?” she continued, shrugging and turning one palm up as if to say, ‘it is what it is.’ “But,” her small voice quivered, “you’re going to the gym and . . . you’re working . . .” she paused. “And . . . I just really . . . “
I waited, my attention fully––finally––on my daughter.
” . . . miss you.” The last two words came out high-pitched and barely audible. Her chin trembled. She tucked her head down and, reaching her index finger underneath her glasses, wiped fresh tears from her eyes. Lifting her head with a slow inhalation, she looked to see if I was watching, then choked out her final plea. I just . . . NEED . . . you!”
Remorse hit me like a wave and broke my heart wide open. It also loosened the tightness in my chest. I gathered her in my arms and as Sydney buried her gooey face in my belly, we both cried.
In the past I would have castigated myself for being a bad mother. But as an older parent, my compassion extends to myself as well as my child. With maturity comes the recognition that when I’m drained by overdoing, I’m unable to give her what she needs. It’s just not there and I can’t make it materialize. I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to take care of Sydney, I must take care of myself.
No more running out of time for what really matters
This busy-ness has to stop. This I’ve known. How I to change it, I have not. But perhaps Stephen Covey’s analogy of sand and pebbles in a glass jar might give me an idea of how. The jar, a limited container, represents time. Sand and rocks of all sizes are all the many, many ways we spend our time. Fill the jar with the sand first, then pebbles, and only a few big rocks will fit. But reverse the order, starting with the largest and most important items, and miraculously, everything slips into place.
My fatal flaw is that I see everything on my to-do list as a big rock. I’ve missed the distinctions. But now I know it isn’t so. Obviously, Sydney is a bona fide big rock, along with the rest of my children and my husband. But what about me? Is it possible to forgo some sand and pebbles and make room for a big rock of my own? Yes, emphatically, yes. I don’t know whose permission I’ve been waiting for. Who’s jar is it, anyway?
In my 50th year, these shifting perceptions and realigning priorities have influenced my choices more than external expectations. The voice I’m attuning to now comes more from inside than outside myself.
My friend, Jackie once told me, special-needs mom to special-needs mom: “There is just no way to get it all done, so I have to let some things, the less important things slip.” It seems simple, really. I get to decide what’s more––and less––important. If I focus on the big rocks, the rest can slip. No more running out of time for what really matters.
I untangled from Sydney and pulled back to look at her puffy, reddened eyes. I sighed, smoothing her hair back from her face. Such a precious girl, my daughter.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” I asked.
She looked crestfallen, surely thinking, ‘Mom is shoving me off again.’
“With me?” I added. A smile lit up her face and we headed to the couch.