Our backyard was always a soggy mess. After unsuccessfully trying many options to drain, I decided to redesign it with a stone patio, path and elevated deck. My eldest insisted on adding a koi pond, rather than just a goldfish pond, which raised the stakes but turned it into a special “Zen” place. It was a big undertaking, but I was game and we soon found a contractor to create our vision.
Our koi arrived in the fall and survived the winter. Seeing them swim was such a joy. They were thriving and became such an important part of our lives that we even named them.
Two years later, my son and I found half-eaten dead fish. One was lying on our deck and the other on the side of the house. The predators had arrived. A few days later we saw a huge raccoon lumbering with another koi hanging out of his mouth. I chased him up a hill barefoot with a rock. My second son yelled at me. “That is a terrible idea, Mom. Racoons are dangerous!” When sanity prevailed, I found a local trapper to remove the creature. Days later, we saw a huge egret ready to enjoy the sushi buffet. My husband suggested, “Maybe the fish weren’t such a good idea.” I wasn’t ready to listen. Seeing the koi at the end of a long day had become therapeutic. I wasn’t willing to give them up without a fight.
The bunkering phase began. I researched protective methods. I piled up rocks so birds could not land.
Yet fish still kept disappearing. Then one evening, I saw a weird naked looking tail disappear into the bushes. At this point, even my kids who lobbied so hard for the fish thought maybe we couldn’t maintain them with so many predators lurking about, looking for a meal. That’s when I learned my yard was a path for opossums, and another trapper caught them. But I didn’t want to keep catching animals after they emptied the fish from my pond.
I now have two traps hidden in my bushes (trapper takes away anything caught) that catches predators before they can get to the fish so peace reigns again for the moment. However, we are smart enough not to name any fish in case they become dinner for some new creatures.
My life wasn’t that different from what our koi endured. I started out with grand plans. I thought my career would be a straight up trajectory, my health would be something I would always have and motherhood would unfold with limited complications. For a while, this was my reality and it felt like everything might go perfectly. But that was before the predators within my life arrived: job losses, cancer, sick parents/kids/spouse, challenging bosses/colleagues, unexpected failures and more. But I choose how I react to those predators. I contemplate feeling sorry for myself and giving in to the feeling of futility or digging deep and figuring out a way to address the predators I see. I am trying to get better at anticipating those predators that might be lurking in the dark. To do so effectively, I often need to reflect, research, enlist expert assistance, and put together a modified plan, just as I did with my koi pond.
My last few years are what people refer to as the “sandwich” period of life—it’s a time when I’ve had to balance teen/young adult children, my career and aging parents. And predators abound. In November 2016, my dad fell and broke his back. He opted for a risky surgery rather than a brace. It did not go well; we had to make the heartbreaking choice to let him go. I was devastated but tried to see all the gifts of his life as I reflected and wrote his eulogy. He lived life on his terms until the end. He also avoided what he feared most, a life less than what he had as a young person.
About 10 days later, my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma. As a caregiver for my father, she did what is typical of so many and neglected her own health. I encouraged her to get a lump tested and when she called with the results, the news knocked me back. I remember pulling over and hitting my steering wheel, yelling “F#$% F#$%, not Mom too!” After I got that out of my system, I pulled myself together to reflect, research, consult with my sisters and those knowledgeable and began making plans to get her, and us, through this.
Her oncologist recommended immediate aggressive chemo and radiation treatments. I flew out for her first treatment although she insisted, she would be fine. It brought back painful memories of my own battle with endometrial cancer. But it also gave us an opportunity to connect through this shared experience. We both panicked when the at home treatment didn’t work. I called the doctors late at night. My mom expressed her appreciation of both my company and my ability to get answers out of less than empathic health personnel.
Death and disease take away so much. But with those predators, you have great power in deciding what they cannot take—including relationships, memories, joy in the moment, and resilience for the next challenge. Now 18 months later, my mom is doing great. We miss dad but know he would be proud of her.
Helping my dad exit the world in the way he wanted and helping my mom beat cancer is a precious accomplishment because I had to fight for those outcomes. I treasure what I have knowing everything can be taken away in a heartbeat. And it’s helped me decide what I will do for my kids to ease this period when I reach my parents’ age.
Life is hard, beautiful, fragile and complex. Predators are lurking everywhere, ready to steal your hopes and dreams. But they are only successful if you relinquish the power to choose a positive response. Today, I still see my fish from my window and I don’t take their presence for granted. Each day they remain is a gift and a powerful reminder for me to treasure each beautiful moment.
Ellenore is a happily married, working mother of three kids ranging in age from college to grade school. Being a member of the working mom club for the last eighteen years produced many stories. They range from the profound to the ridiculous. Entering middle life led to the desire to make a bigger difference and raise children to the same.