Monday, May 7, 2012

Second life profile: Mary Kay Blakely

     1st life                                                          2nd life
In her first life, Mary Kay Blakely had many roles: mother of two sons,  free-lance writer and divorced spouse. In her second, she is a college professor, grandmother of four, and partner in a new relationship. Among her non-fiction books, she has written about her own nine-day coma in her 30s, raising two boys as a single mother, and the depressing state of our nation. She is currently working on an account of her decade-long caretaking of her mother, who had Alzheimers.  Caryl asked her what she's learned
during her multi-faceted life.

Biggest priority now:
To own my own days.  Oddly enough I was 50 years old when I took a job as a college professor. In my second life, I realized something: I couldn’t retire without a pension, and I needed medical insurance. My health problems had become more intense.  I still have the same autoimmune disease from the past but then I had youth on my side. I wanted money and time now. Being poor-- and always strapped for cash as I was as a free-lance writer-- has its own price.

Biggest professional difference: It blew me away that I didn’t have to prove anything to myself.  The other thing was that all my colleagues and my students thought I knew a lot and could teach them things.

Biggest concernPhysical changes. I wear glasses. I forget words. It terrifies me because I am a writer.  I did a lot of public speaking in my first life. I’m not as articulate anymore.  I say to my students you know what I mean.  I make fun of myself, make them allies, group think, what word am I trying to get at. These are brain changes.  We are not getting stupider but you have to learn to work with a different brain.   I am terrified about becoming debilitated.  It’s the biggest question in starting a relationship, a permanent relationship:  what’s the end game going to look like?

Starting a new relationship: One of the ways it is different at this age is your eyes are wide open.  You don’t think how is the person going to fulfill me but rather how is this person going to make demands, what will this person cost me? At this stage of life, you have paid your dues, you have respect, you have children and grandchildren you love.   I came into a relationship without a lot of needs. I became aware how wonderful it is to have someone who cares for me, knowing I am on someone’s mind all the time, has the right wine for dinner or just wants to know what is the biggest thing that happened in my day.

Hardest thing about a new relationship: You come into a relationship as a fully-developed person. You have to spend a lot of time filling in the background, telling the person who you used to be, how and why life has made you the person you are. I come as a package with lifetime friendships, grown children, and I’m never going to be exclusively his. Never ever. 

Recognizing a good man at this age: Whenever you meet a man who gets it, there’s one woman --probably two-- that got him there. Something caused his previous relationships to end.  Is he always going to blame her—or is he going to change himself?  So you’re looking for that: you are looking for what the man has learned. When he talks about the past, he can’t exactly articulate it but you can hear it. Don’t get involved with a nit-picker.

On being a grandmother: The hardest issue is to stay out of the way of the mother and the father. Grandchildren are such a clean relationship. You don’t feel you're ruining them.  It’s uncomplicated for me to love those kids.  They don’t blame me for anything. I’m not there everyday.

On taking care of her mother: People always say I am never going to put someone in an institution but it happens all the time.  We put children in daycare.  The challenge is to make the institutions better. We all need help taking care of dependent people.  Who has a 24/7 life to give away? I found myself at a stage where my life was my own, and now I had a dependent parent. And you don’t know when that is going to end. It could be one year or it could be 15 years but you know it’s not going to end well. Everybody’s parents say 'I don’t want to be a burden'. But the time comes, and they are a burden but they don’t think they are.  I wanted to give my mother an embroidered pillow that said: 'I am a burden, and I’m proud'.
Rewards of caregiving: My mother was most content in my company, even though I was her most difficult child.  Half of her arguments were to tweak me to be a perfect woman. I was grateful when my mother told me 'I love you'. I had been waiting all my life to hear those words. There was no unfinished business by the
time she died.

Biggest regret: Why did I smoke for 40 years?

Biggest fear:  I have lived with chronic illness. It was manageable because of youth and luck. But now it’s back. It’s frustrating. I want remission again.  One time I am going to yearn for remission and it’s not going to be there. I’d hate to have stroke.  I’ve handled diabetes for 30 years. It’s not scary.  I could never handle having a stroke.  The things you think you can’t handle, I already know I can handle. I say I can’t handle a wheelchair until I can’t walk. I used to say I can’t handle assisted living, wearing bibs at the dining room table. I burst into tears when I visited those places when my mother needed care. I said I can’t handle this, and neither can my mother.  You do--and you end up revising your process.  What’s unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Five years from now: I plan to work until I am 68 ½. Right now I work three days a week, and it’s still too much. I  never have enough time to write.  In five years, I want to have gotten rid of my house.  I may still live in the same city but travel more--not to exotic places but I want to go see my friends.  I have always  learned what I need to know about life from my friends.


  1. My dear husband is returning this evening from France where he was spending time with his Father (who has alzhiemers) and his Mother who is suffering with several maladies. I am investigating eating an alkaline diet as my dear friend has begun this journey.
    Thanks for your sweet encouraging comments and I must admit that I visit often just do not always leave comments.
    You must read "When women were birds" Terry Tempest Williams. I have just begun and it is wonderful.

  2. So nice to hear from you, PVE. My heart goes out to your husband. It is so hard to have
    parents with competing ailments--and so far away. And, I will definitely follow up
    on your book recommendation. Wish my middle name was Tempest!

  3. I knew you when you were very young. Remember the Fort Wayne Feminists? Of course you do. Funny how I thought then that you would always have it easy because you were so bright and charming. At the time I thought I was so dull and always stepping back. Now I see that you, just like me, grew up to become the wonderful women we are and always were.