In 2015, my dad and I got phoenix tattoos for my birthday. His is this bright green color and has a flowing shape. Mine is a black outline and symmetrical. We had them designed to match our personalities. My dad had chosen a phoenix for us each to get because he related to it’s mystical powers and thought it would be appropriate for us as we’ve molded into different versions of ourselves throughout the years.
But at the year anniversary of getting my tattoo, I found myself heartbroken. I had thought that upon having my skin soak up the ink, my life would immediately become more gratifying. There were all these changes I expected to happen. There was this ideal version of myself that I had hoped to become, but in the summer of 2016, I found myself in therapy, not writing, and felt victimized for how life’s game had played out for me. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was supposed to get the tattoo and life was going to get magically better. As I was voicing these thoughts to my partner, he reminded me that I was forgetting the most important trait the phoenix represents: rebirth. A phoenix must burn and rise from the ashes to become a new version of it.
2016 was definitely a year of burning for many of us. Beginning primarily with the election and all the celebrity deaths we felt so connected to; we were also witness to so many terrors that made us feel that our world was in fact coming to an end. I know I’m not alone in feeling that 2017 does represent a year of rebirth, now that we’ve finally closed the chapter on 2016. But we need to keep in mind that there are greater challenges facing us as we find our way in this new world. I for one am continuing to find my role in society as a woman, a white privileged woman, who wants to use her voice to help better our society.
The day after the election was one of the roughest days of the year. I remember putting on my makeup like I was preparing for battle; unsure of the world I was walking into. I questioned my idea of feminism and wondered if I was part of the “white feminist movement” ignoring others around me, drinking the “male tears” Kool-Aid and complaining about everything wrong with society instead of doing something about it. I was depressed for a long time. I tried writing about it, but couldn’t put the feeling into words. I attempted to push forward and put the call to action for politicians, and found hope among friends doing the same.
The greatest struggle I had towards the end of 2016 was the balance of staying up to date with all the news but not letting it weigh me down. I wanted to be informed, but found myself having a nightmare of Steve Bannon transforming himself into a shark and feasting on a Muslim family in front my eyes. It is an image I will never be able to get rid of. So I found myself wondering how to care about everything, but not too much so it didn’t cause sleep deprivation. I wish I could tell you that I found an answer to achieving this balance, but it continues to be something to work on. It continues to be a part of this person I have created in my mind, this ideal version of myself I want to be.
After Carrie Fisher’s death last month, I was journaling and wrote down the following: “She is a woman I am continuing to admire and want to live my life a little more like her: with zest and sass, not taking every damn thing so seriously, and tearing down a fascist.” That is what I strive to be more of in 2017. I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines, saying how unfair life can be. I’m tired of not believing in magic and the good in people. I’ve decided I’m going into this year with strength and hope.
Yes, there is this version of me I want to live up to, this version of this woman with the phoenix tattoo I’ve been scared of for far too long. And there is nothing more limiting than doubt. So I pledge right here, right now, to live up to the person I’m meant to be. And I ask that you do the same. Instead of making resolutions this year, let’s make a pact to live up to our full potential. Let’s stand united instead of against each other, and open up the dialogue instead of shutting it down. A new chapter has opened for us and the pages are blank. We have the power to make it anything we want. So let’s not burn the pages of 2017, but hold it up as a symbol for all that we can and will be.
This has been a very challenging piece to write. In fact, this is my second attempt at putting my thoughts into coherent words surrounding the subject of Alzheimer's. To be honest, it's really hard to go into all of it without sounding like a complete Debbie Downer. It's challenging to voice my thoughts on the disease without completely breaking down. I hate it. I truly and honestly hate the disease with all my heart. But then again, who enjoys it? No one. There was this joke on Orange Is The New Black this season, where the woman who is going in for chemo tells the young boy sitting next to her: "So the doctor says to the patient, 'I have bad news and more bad news. The first bad news is that you have cancer. The second bad news is that you have Alzheimer's.' The patient replies, 'well at least I only have cancer.'" I laughed. Sometimes you really just need to laugh about it. That's why I'm so grateful for causes like Hilarity for Charity. It brings awareness to the disease without completely depressing everyone. But to be fair, Alzheimer's is a heavy subject, and a lot of people don't like to talk about it. I get that. I truly do. But I have a hard time withholding myself from voicing my thoughts on matters such as this. Which is why I continue to write about it.
Last week, my parents and I went to the Alzheimer’s Disease: Continuum of Care VIII, North Bay Education Conference for Families and Professionals (woof, say that five times fast). My dad was on a panel there that consisted of early stage individuals. He was the only man out of four people, which could be due to the fact that women are more likely to diagnosed with it than men. That was something I learned there. Statistically, there is a 66.7% chance for women to be diagnosed in her lifetime. See, there I go again being a D.D. (Debbie Downer), but this shit is real and really frustrating to hear.
It’s also frustrating to know that these people suffering from this disease are now being defined by just that. Which is why I sometimes get agitated when people ask me how my dad is doing. I completely understand that it is out of love and concern, so it's not technically the question, but I guess it's more the way I have to answer it. Often times, I find myself talking about his health and well being more than telling people about him volunteering at a salvation store, participating in Meals on Wheels, and joining up with a wonderful support group advocating for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Actually, that's a lie. I try to brag about that as often as I can. What really upsets me is the fact that I will never be able to look these people in the eyes and answer "you know what, he's cured!" Because there is no cure, not yet at least. There is no quick fix. Those that have it and those that know someone with it, we all just have accept it and move on.
And many people don't accept it. A lot of people hide from society because there is still a large stigma surrounding this disease and elders in general. That's why it's so phenomenal to see those that not only accept it but speak up about it as well. That's what my dad and so many members from his support group are doing. A couple months ago, they went up to the state capitol to voice their stories, and before that, my dad spoke at our hometown’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s event. He might seem like a shy guy, but he sure as hell is making his voice heard through these types of programs. I couldn't be a more proud daughter.
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. For those that have someone in their life suffering from Alzheimer's, that is how most days can feel to them. While I don’t live at home with my parents, I am aware that it is no easy battle. Both of them struggle each day with various obstacles, but maintain an overall positive outlook on things. It could be very easy for them to sink into depression or become so frustrated that they just want to call it quits. But they keep going. Among the many things that my parents have taught me, it is just that. To keep fighting the good fight. We try not to lose sight of what is important and always aim to look at the more positive side of things instead of the negative. We chose to embrace what life throws us and charge on.
At the event last week, the closing speaker was this gentleman, Alan Arnette. He is a mountaineer and Alzheimer's advocate. If twenty years younger, he would be my future husband because he has climbed the seven summits and has some of the most amazing stories. He also dedicated his ventures to his mother, who passed away due to Alzheimer's. Quite a remarkable man and a true inspiration to make a difference in anyway you can. Which got me thinking...
As I have mentioned before, I am an avid hiker. So today, being summer solstice and all (a.k.a. the longest day), I decided to do my own miniature summit climb and dedicate it to my parents. It was no Mount McKinley, but it was a good three mile hike accomplished in under forty-five minutes. When I got to the top of the hill (and I have to say hill, because it seems like that in comparison to Alan Arnette's treks) I paused. I stood there and took in the entire view of Los Angeles. As I had climbed up there, I was constantly reminded of all of those that continue to push forward, that continue to fight, and those that aim to make a difference in the world regardless of their circumstances. I thought of how much I have to be grateful for, it's ridiculous. I'd be lying if I said I this isn't the happiest (and healthiest) I've been in several years, but I know life is always full of highs and lows (good climbing metaphor, right?). Seriously though, all my happiness is due to their amazing ability to find the joy in life in the smallest of moments. So, in honor of my superhero parents that have raised a truly stubborn, feminist, independent, outspoken, and silly daughter, I just have to say:
Yesterday morning I was listening to NPR (as I do most mornings when I'm getting ready to go to work) and a piece came on the BBC news regarding people suffering from Dementia. I stopped while putting on my makeup, fearful that I would have to reapply it due to the emotions that could occur while listening to something that touches so close to my heart. The words the reporter spoke echoed throughout my apartment as I stood motionless in the middle of the room, taking all of it in.
There is so much to be said about this disease. So much I am still observing, analyzing, and studying. There are so many days when I want to punch something or scream on the top of my lungs with utter frustration. Instead, I remain stagnant in my car, weeping at the lack of control my family and I have with all of this surrounding us. The crying is not so frequent, but of course it arises when least expected (probably due to traffic jams and people driving like maniacs down the 101). As they say, it's the straw that breaks the camel's back, and that's when I find myself staring at an empty shelf at the grocery store with tears streaming down my face.
When something so heavy enters your life, it's easy to focus on the sadness or the negativity of it all. It's quite easy to sink into those feelings and escape from everything else. I try not to visit that place as often as I do sometimes, but it's challenging when forced to encounter some life altering decisions on a somewhat daily basis. Then I find myself taking everything so seriously and not enjoying the moments I am physically a part of because I am lost in some of those thoughts.
During this holiday season though (compared to those past), I find myself feeling especially grateful. For the first time since 2008 I was able to spend Thanksgiving with my parents and extended family. The last time I was able to sit at my aunt and uncle's dining room table, my Grandma was sitting across from me and I had a horrible case of Laryngitis. Obama had just won the election and I was beyond annoyed that I couldn't voice my political opinions around the turkey being served.
Over the past few years, I have celebrated this holiday with a series of friends in Los Angeles, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York. Those people I consider to be a part of my family just as much as those related to me through blood or marriage. It's those people and those moments shared with them that I treasure so much since I was unable to visit Northern California over all these years.
Last month, my cousin and I (plus her eight week old puppy) were able to drive up north for the weekend. We were able to sit in the comfort of our old homes and reminisce over the moments we shared between those walls. While driving along the I-5, we even blasted the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys- songs from our youth. We remembered those music videos we used to create for our family, and realized how awkward that must have been for everyone observing. Seriously, who wants to watch their daughter lip-sync "2 Become 1"? Our parents definitely put up with a lot during our Pop music phase.
It's challenging to describe how momentous this trip home actually was for me. Not only was it amazing to spend time with my cousin (who I originally planned a cross country road trip with when the movie "Crossroads" came out), but I was able to celebrate my dad's birthday with he and my mom. I can hear my grandma repeat the words in my ears as I type this: "family is everything," and I can't help but tear up a little bit. My family really does mean everything to me. From the hikes with my dad, to baking pumpkin pies with my mom, to sitting at their kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the newspaper; whenever I'm at home there is such utter happiness beaming from within me.
Those simple moments are easy to bypass and ignore, but it's those moments that make everything so completely worthwhile. It's easy to get sidetracked with the technicalities of a disease, and become almost obsessed with everything going on internally. That's not what life is about though. It's about the moments that you share with those you love and it's about celebrating the simple things in life.
Sometimes we just have to put our lives in perspective, and lately one way I have been doing that is by watching the video of my dad at the Alzheimer's walk back in October. There is nothing but love and pride that I have for him, and this speech is a true reflection of all that he is as a person. I feel the need to share it at this time for many reasons, but mostly because I want to spread some inspiration to others who might need it right now.
Copyright © 2019 Christine Drew Benjamin | All Rights Reserved