The End is in Sight (Maybe)

In my family, we have 4 of the necessary 7 vaccine shots. One of us chose Johnson & Johnson, hence the odd number. So we’re halfway there. And I’m a little giddy about soon being fully vaccinated.

We are all living through an ordeal. The 13-month and counting pandemic upended our routines, relationships, living spaces, work, and everyday activities. We’ve been crabby and sad, we’ve adjusted and found new ways to manage, all while living in a time warp. And now, with effective vaccinations, we are starting to eye the future and our possibilities as life opens up.

As a therapist, I hold deep respect for how clients faced the pandemic, how they expressed emotion and endured, how they did what was needed to keep themselves and others safe, and kept working on their goals. A crisis like the pandemic brings out the best and the worst in us and clients have been creative, resourceful, and have also suffered and faced themselves in new, sometimes painful ways. They are meeting with me virtually, a significant shift for all but a few of them. Some clients prefer telehealth while others look forward to sitting together again in my office. I look forward to that too and anticipate providing both in-person and telehealth services. The pandemic forced this innovative shift for me and I’m grateful for that.

Clients are also expressing trepidation about how to emerge from the cage or cocoon – depending on how the pandemic has been experienced by them – of their homes. And while I’m relieved to be vaccinated, I can relate, especially as an introvert. I’ve missed seeing clients in the office, and friends in my home, at restaurants or gatherings. But I’ve also kind of liked the simple schedule of outdoor walks with friends, phone calls and texts with extended family members, and pretty much hanging out with my spouse and young adult children. I’m aware that stepping out into social activities and public events might feel strange, be difficult, might lead to a heightened vulnerability. We need to give ourselves time to adjust yet again.

Courtney Martin’s blog post titled “Internally Rearranged.” is terrific. I hope you’ll read it here and give yourself space to think through your own internal shifts. I know I keep referring to her writing – but it’s so spot-on, especially through this past year. I’m pretty sure that as we contemplate and accept how we’ve changed, we’ll know more clearly how to step into the next phase of the pandemic.

Stay well, be patient. We’re getting through this, and that’s cause for celebration.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R
April 2021

photo by Unsplash

Covid-19: A Year In

photo by Glen Carrie, Unsplash

A year ago most of us were still living in pre-pandemic mode.  We’d just visited our college senior daughter, attending an on-campus dance production and eating at a full and lively restaurant.  Our high school senior son, along with other actors and techies, was in the final days of rehearsals for The Addams Family; psyched for opening night.  My spouse was working.  I was seeing clients in my office.

March 2020 is one of those unforgettable dates we’ll reference, as our parents did when JFK was assassinated or those of us did who alive during the horrific events of 9/11: “Do you remember what you were doing when the pandemic hit?”

What were you doing a year ago?   Is it hard to remember?

And now, a year later?

Well, we’ve gone through disbelief, grief, acceptance, impatience, anger, surrender and feeling blah. Sometimes all in one day.  

At first, we thought this virus would be muffled in months.  Spring was coming and it didn’t feel so awful because we were able to get outside and be with friends.

My daughter came home mid-March, graduated without a ceremony, and is living with us, working, saving money, and making plans.

The musical was canceled on opening night. Our son attended his 5-minute drive-through graduation, moved to college in August, and found the experience so dystopian with masks, social distancing, no in-person gatherings, no eating in the cafeteria, etc., he decided to study online from home this semester.  

My spouse stopped interior painting jobs as he wasn’t considered “essential” until August. Unemployment benefits, newly created for the self-employed, saved the day.

I moved from in-person sessions at the office to video or phone sessions from the finished attic of our home.  I’m still paying rent but only visit my office to get the mail and water the begonia.  It’s blooming now, and  I need it there to remind me that I’ll return to the office at some point.

Where are you now?

And, what have we learned?

Whew – that’s a tough one.  Here are first thoughts.

We learned we are more resilient and flexible than we thought.  

We learned to delicately balance between grieving what was lost and also accepting what was happening – often toggling back and forth between those actions.

We learned our government did not have a well-planned strategy for a disaster like a pandemic. 

We learned we are not in control of events but that we can work at managing our response to life so it’s an intentional response and not impulsive reactivity.  We learned this is really hard.  

We learned that our time together is precious and enjoyable – all of us in a small home – and we are also all looking forward to the time when our young adult children can restart halted plans.

We learned that participation in nourishing activities and rituals is vital.

We learned we need each other; that being together virtually is an available alternative but pales in comparison to being together, in person, with those we love.  

What have you learned?

With vaccines coming and deaths and infections decreasing, we appear to be moving into the wind-down phase of the pandemic but of course we don’t really know.

So, how do we live now, one year in?

We work to surrender to what’s not in our control and to focus on what is. And we allow ourselves days when we’re just sick of all of it.

We keep wearing masks and social distancing.

We mourn those we’ve lost and whose lives we couldn’t adequately honor during the pandemic.  My dad died in October and a favorite neighbor down the street just last month.  We mourn with those who have suffered terribly this year. Our family’s losses were small ones compared to those whose family members and friends died from Covid-19, or lost jobs, homes, security.  We remember that all of us are vulnerable and all of us are connected.

We eye the calendar hopefully and try to be patient. Perhaps we can visit family later this year. Maybe our son can return to a more normal college experience, and our daughter can move in with friends. Neighborhood potlucks, street festivals, concerts, and all sorts of gatherings might become reality! And perhaps we’ll be able to stop worrying about loved ones or ourselves getting seriously ill.

Returning to a new normal will bring new challenges. Still, I’m confident that given what we’ve learned this past year, we’re more likely to adequately manage what lies ahead.

How are you living now, one year in?

A final note: Courtney Martin wrote a terrific post with more questions if you are in a reflective mode. You can access it here

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R  March 2021

Losing Dad

Dad and me in 1962

We buried dad on mom’s 89th birthday this October.  That day worked best with family travel schedules, and mom was okay with it.  Eight immediate family members gathered for a graveside service. We did not hug or get too close, the reality of Covid-19 altering life rituals and gatherings.

Dad lived in a nursing home for almost six years due to increasing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. His health declined although his mind stayed sharp.  He watched hours of CNN news, and before Covid-19 hit, he regularly played Bingo and attended other activities, tooling around in his electric wheelchair. 

So when the call came from my sister, I wasn’t surprised that my 91-year old father had died (peacefully and in his sleep).  What shocked me was the instantaneousness of grief, how visual and audio memories of him in younger, healthier years started parading through my brain.

I’ve known dad 58 years; he’s been a constant in my life.  Quiet and mostly in the background, he was smart, steady, loyal and hard-working.  My dad, Robert Milton Hartman, was also complex.

He worked hard at a low-paying job – 47 years as a plumber for the same company – and he excelled at it.  Customers would call the business asking for him to come out to their farm or home because they knew he’d do the job right. 

He was fastidious about certain things, like washing the family Buick EVERY Saturday afternoon until it gleamed, and trimming the edges of the lawn just so. He preferred certain foods, like potato salad, just like his mother made it.

Dad also struggled with depression on and off for much of his adulthood and took a passive stance to his health, deferring to mom to manage doctor appointments and medications.  He refused counseling. He was maddening that way.

Church and faith were vital to him and yet he lived with fear that he’d done something to prevent salvation and the Christian’s assurance of eternal life.  This tormented him and so we did not talk with him about death or his last wishes.

He did not like to take risks, his life seemed quiet and small, less than his potential.  He refused to ask for a pay raise because “if that’s what they are paying me, that’s what I’m worth.” 

And yet, in grief I think of daddy as kind, gentle, and easy to be with.  His quiet love for his family dominates.

Warm and vital memories surface:

  • Sitting up with me as I retch over the toilet with some bug, or patting me to sleep at night when darkness scared me.
  • Leading hymns at church, first blowing the worn, trusty pitch pipe, then leading our congregation in his clear tenor voice.
  • Arriving home every work night at 6 pm sharp to relish my mom’s home cooking, eating dessert every single night.
  • Popping corn in the old electric skillet and slicing crisp local apples on Sunday afternoons.  
  • Fixing our family cars with his keen mechanical skill, taking pleasure in driving on road trips. 
  • Recalling, at my wedding, a little incident when as a child I bit him, in fear, on a roller coaster. Everyone was cracking up.
  • Helping my spouse and me with plumbing projects in the homes we owned.  He soldered copper pipes with ease and perfection.  And when our garbage disposal backed up just a few days after his death, I commented to my family that “dad would know how to fix this.”
  • Gently holding my children as babies when he and mom came to visit.
Dad and my daughter in 1998

And while the circumference of dad’s world was mostly in our rural Ohio community, he and mom flew to Nigeria in 1998 where we lived at the time.  He walked the crowded markets, visited our friends and bravely tried local foods like melon seed soup and pounded yam. 

So many memories.

I lived several states and sometimes a continent away in adulthood, and while I visited when I could, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough, nor do the phone calls I made to him in the nursing home. I did my best given my life, work, and family.

After his death, my sister and mom removed his belongings from the nursing home.  Seeing his phone hit me hard.  He loved having a phone; it was his lifeline to those he loved and it was especially vital during the the last months when the pandemic prevented any visitors.   When I’d call, he often answered with “Hello, Brenda!”  I can’t erase his number from my phone and I still have his voicemails. Here’s one: “Brenda, it’s Dad, I just wanted to call and tell you I love you, and thank you for calling.  You can call me back if you want to but you don’t have to.”

I’ve been listening to Colin Hay’s “Dear Father” a lot. (It’s a marvelous song.) These lines I’ve selected especially get to me, as I grieve daddy, honor his life, and reflect on the ways he lives on in me.

“Dear father, I’ve got your photographs.
Thank God for photographs, hip, hip, hooray. 

Dear father, I can’t let you go just yet
and I still can’t forget you walking around.

Dear father, you’re starring in my dreams,
and you’re stealing all the scenes, where did you go?

Dear father, you’re in my reflection now.
As I reach out and touch you now, where did you go?

Dear father, I’ve got your photographs.
Thank God for photographs, hip, hip, hooray”

Brenda Hartman-Souder, December 2020

Transitions: Taking My “Baby” to College

In mid-July, my son receives his email from the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Office outlining their complicated and lengthy protocols to safely bring new and returning students to this university campus in August 2020.  

Suddenly it’s real. After four months of shutting down, staying home, washing hands, wearing masks and being really careful, my 18-year-old is preparing to move into a dorm and start college with thousands of other students.

My heart lurches in my chest – this is my baby – heading off to college in a pandemic.  He’s had enough disappointments this year – cancelled high school musical, cancelled Spanish trip to New York City, cancelled theater workshop, cancelled prom, cancelled typical high school graduation. He’s philosophical but also cynical, the cynicism protecting future potential disappointments, and he muses, “ Isn’t it likely that just as I settle down into college life, this too will be cancelled by sending students home?”

It’s a bet he’s taking, after considering a gap year, and his father and I respect his choice.  And since he’s planning on going, our task is to help him shop for college necessities, to enjoy these last weeks together as a family under one roof, and to hold sorrow and excitement in some simmering stew in my heart.

I remember my dad and mom driving me to college in 1980.  I was the last of three daughters to go and the college I chose was 350 miles from home.  I remember being irritated and embarrassed that my mother cried; what was the big deal?  Now of course, I understand.  Boy do I understand.  Already, tears well up at odd times – tears of pride that he’s an honors student and going to the school of his choice. (And only one hour away!) Tears of sadness and fear.  I know how much we’ll miss him.

Transitions are hard.  Many of us like routine, predictability, and stability;  when those are shaken, we get shook up.  Add the current pandemic, the racial protests, the erratic and unpredictable leadership from our elected officials, and this transition has the potential to really rock the boat.

Here’s what I’m doing, to the best of my ability, in this transition:

  • Maintaining the routines and practices that help sustain and ground me – still rising early for meditation, exercising and working in the garden, then getting enough rest and connecting with friends.
  • Doing my best to prepare for the transition while also knowing that I won’t think of everything.  There will be bumps, emotions will swell.  I’ll figure it out.
  • Soliciting support from family and friends; we’re all in this together when it comes to transitions.
  • Giving myself time to process emotions – to feel joy, excitement, sadness, fear. Allow them to be, knowing they will ebb and flow and eventually quiet down.

Someone turned the calendar on the side of the fridge to August.  Viscerally and immediately, more anxiety kicks in.  I know that underneath is grief, joy, worry, hope – the whole lovely mix of emotion.  I remember this when my daughter left for college. 

Most of the “stuff” on the “what to bring to college lists” has been purchased.  We’ve got a move-in day and time and by 2 pm in two Sundays we’ll be driving away, leaving our 18-year old in his dorm, ready as he can be to start school in a pandemic.

He continues to go about his summer routine:  moving lawns and working at a local pool.  Lounging in the living room recliner as he plays a game on his iPad while also listening to something on his phone.  Vacuuming the house every week, washing up the supper dishes every night. Hanging out with friends, socially distanced, of course, and ordering takeout.  Drawing some.

I find that I cannot fathom how quiet and different the house will be without him here.  How weird it will be.

Greg does a few final fun activities with friends, transfers his mowing jobs to his dad, and buys a few last things.  Then he begins a week-long required quarantine before arriving on campus next Sunday.  We plan a final family evening with a take-out meal of his choice.  I refrain from telling him things that are my anxiety, not his,  “Don’t let your laundry sit in the washer, don’t forget to order your books, are you sure you don’t want to take a fan?”

Sleep, or rather, the paucity of it, tells me I’m grieving.  I’m more than grieving.  I’m happy, sad, scared, excited.  We’ve been planning for this for a long time. 

Courtney Martin, who writes a terrific blog called the examined family, says this in a recent post about sending her 3-year old back to pre-school following months of quarantine and social distancing:  “We’re just like that, us humans. We can have more than one emotion at a time. In fact, as my daughter was reminding me, we mostly have more than one emotion at a time. Especially during times of transition and trauma. We are grateful to be free and weirdly miss our confinement. We are in love and filled with loathing. We are generous and selfish, independent and so needy, wise and dumb as a box of rocks. Growing and regressing, empowered and resentful, so brave and so scared. All at once.”

Yup.  Even though he’ll come home on breaks, and this year it’s possible he’ll come home even earlier, I know from sending my daughter off four years ago, that it’s never the same.

But for now, the reality of my last child, my 18-year old son, leaving for college and next steps in his promising life, are registering in my body, my emotions, my mind, and in the daily tick tick tick of days as we march toward move-in day.

And now…

I already miss him, his essence, his presence, the way he flops down on the recliner with his phone and iPad, his intensity in philosophical conversations, his smile, his willingness to do the dishes every night without complaining.

Move-in went fine – first stop a Covid19 test, and then a quick unload/make your bed/snap a photo – parents were only allowed a half hour in the dorm.  And then we were driving away and we all started a new phase of life.

The Monday after drop-off I woke early, early – unable to sleep any longer, so aware that he wasn’t here, so pleased he gets to start college, so full of mama-emotions and also relief that we are freer now to do the next things in life.  I’ll be sad for awhile; I remember this with my daughter.  And the sadness will hang out with acceptance, and joy and hope and a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure how to identify yet.

He did it, and we accompanied him.  (And yes, he does need a fan!) Nothing is certain, and it wouldn’t be even if Covid19 were eradicated, but the virus heightens the uncertainty.  He’s taking it one day at a time and so are we.  In the meantime, our home feels diminished, it’s quieter, muted, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, August 2020

Sheryl Paul, on her website Conscious Transitions, writes terrific blog posts about transitions.