I wrote this post about family and thankfulness for the National Catholic Register.
Here’s part of what I said:
I wrote this post about family and thankfulness for the National Catholic Register.
Here’s part of what I said:
God’s blessings are circled with thorns, dressed with responsibility and laden with tenderness.
God’s blessings are always blessings of love. St. Paul told us that “faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Everything else — our achievements, our missions for the Church, and our many toys — will drop away from us and be left behind. Nothing abides except those things done with love, in hope and by faith.
My Thanksgiving usually passes in a blur of cooking. From early morning until I collapse on the sofa after the meal is finished, I work. Then, after everyone leaves, I go into the kitchen and put the first load in the dishwasher. It usually takes me all day the next day to get everything cleaned and put back in order.
Does that mean that Thanksgiving is more burden than celebration for me? Not at all. There is something wonderful about cooking a huge feast and gathering my dearest loves around a table to enjoy it. Food and drink, love and being together, are indeed among those blessings circled with the thorns of love, responsibility and tenderness that come from God. I would not trade this day of love for leisure. I am, rather, grateful for the opportunity to be Mom to such wonderful people. They are the warp and woof of my life.
I was grateful for many things this Thanksgiving, and, life being what it is, I am burdened by a couple of things; my beloved drug addict niece foremost among them. Monday, I go to Dallas to begin the process of determining what the mass in my breast might be. That hangs over me like a cloud, as well.
The thing I am most thankful for and my greatest burden are one and the same thing. God has trusted me with the care of my 90-year-old mother. This is far from easy. In fact, it’s a bit like Chinese water torture.
Yesterday I took a nap.
I woke to my outraged son, wanting to know why I hadn’t answered my phone.
It seems that while I was sleeping, my 89-year-old Mama took off. She wandered the neighborhood until a wonderful neighbor took her in. The only thing Mama could get straight enough to tell her was my phone number.
But I was asleep. The phone was on the bed beside me. Just in case. I vaguely remember dreaming about the phone ringing. But it didn’t wake me. All my life, I’ve slept deep. I guess yesterday, I was sleeping really deep.
Somehow — I’m not sure how — the neighbor managed to contact one of my sons at work. He left his job and — in his own words — drove like the proverbial bat to get to Amah.
Amah, meanwhile, was fine. She was having a chirpy little old lady good time, visiting with the neighbors.
It turns out that Mama has been traveling the neighborhood at night. She’s been getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning and going to neighbor’s houses and getting them up to chat. They bring her home and we don’t know anything about it.
This is my nightmare scenario so far as Mama is concerned. If she starts wandering — and it appears she’s well into her wandering phase — I don’t know how to take care of her.
We’re reconfiguring things as I write. She’s getting a gps necklace. And we’re putting alarms on all the doors alert the police and should even get me awake and moving. We’re also reconfiguring the front door and garage doors so she can’t get out at night. She can go into the back yard all she wants. But not out the front.
I’m also going to sell some property to get the money to hire people to babysit with her when I have to be gone in the evenings. She goes to adult day care — a heaven-sent program that saves lives and money by allowing families to keep their elderly and disabled family members at home and still hold down jobs — during the day. A family member is with her most of the rest of the time.
But, we need someone to babysit once in a while, too. It’s the easiest baby sitting in the world; just dial up the sports channel, get Mama a diet Coke and make sure she doesn’t wander out the front door.
I can’t tell you how much I love Mama. We all do. The whole family is 100% involved in taking care of her. I am not some martyr for Mama who is doing all this alone. My sons do an enormous amount of the Amah care, and they do it cheerfully, lovingly and without complaint. My husband gets into it too.
Mama is a family project of love.
I hope that God gives us many more years with her. I’ve prayed at times when she was sick, asking for more time. But that is in His hands. My main prayer, which I pray fervently and often, is that Mama will be happy and not suffer. I trust her life to God. I know where she’s going when it’s time.
About a week ago, while we were out on Mama’s daily drive and ice cream run, she told me that she loved her “job” (adult day care) and that she enjoyed our drives so much. She took a few laps on her ice cream cone, then smiled. “I’m very happy,” she said.
That’s everything I ever wanted.
My mother smoked like a diesel for almost 70 years.
I guess she was lucky.
She didn’t get lung cancer. She never had asthma. But at the ripe old age of 85 or so, she developed COPD.
I’d heard of this disease, which, nearly as I can tell, is basically emphysema with complications and a larger understanding. But I didn’t know a lot about it. I have to admit that now that I’ve been the caregiver for someone who has it, I still don’t know a lot about it.
Extreme old age is tricky.
People this age have an overall feistiness that, when it combines with the lack of memory that goes with dementia, means they can fool you. One of my worst memories of care-giving was the time about a year ago when my mother almost died because I thought that making an appointment with the doc and taking her in the next day would be enough.
As I said, extreme old age is tricky.
They can be doing their “I’m ok,” feisty act one minute and gasping for breath the next.
We’ve had several close calls in which we had to literally pick her up and carry her to the car, then drive the few blocks to the nearest ER (if it had been further, I would have lost her.) But that day was the closest of close calls, and it was, as these things always are if you don’t act quickly enough, complicated by other problems.
Extreme old age is tricky.
Everything in the body is worn out and running on habit. When one thing (breathing) goes wrong, then the old heart starts to beat funny, and when the heart starts to beat funny, the lungs get cloudy, and when the lungs get cloudy, the heart stops being able to do its job, which somehow or other craters into kidney failure.
All in a matter of minutes.
If you don’t get it stopped at the breathing is getting difficult point, it’s like taking that first step out the hatch of the airplane without your parachute. It can take days to get her back ticking again.
That particular night, it was hours of ER close calls and docs who told me they didn’t “like the looks of it” followed by a week in the hospital.
Then Mama came home, feistiness fully intact, and thanks to no-short-term memory, blissfully unaware of most of what had happened. But I remembered. For a while after that, I was taking her to the ER if she coughed twice.
Extreme old age is tricky.
And the primary care-giver is also the first diagnostician. I make a lot of medical calls for my mother, including the all-important when to go to the doc or the ER. That’s dicey for the simple reason that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never dealt with this oddball combination of small child skating along on the ice in an 88-year-old body before.
And she is a small child.
A pampered, spoiled, demanding small child.
The further she gets into the dementia, the more childish she becomes. For instance, she loves for me to take her out for drives.
She loves for me to take her out for drives frequently. In fact, I think she would be happy to have me chauffeur her around all day, every day.
If I’m working on something, she says, “I want you to take me out for a drive now.”
I say, “I’m busy. We’ll do it in a few minutes.”
She looks at me almost exactly like the actor pretending to be a toddler demanding a cookie in Convos with My Two-Year-Old, and repeats “I want you to take me for a drive now.”
She doesn’t quit until I give up and do it.
She goes to Adult Day Care every day. I am going to write in more detail about Adult Day Care. It is a wonderful program. She loves her “job” as she calls it.
She loves it so much that she gets up about 5 every morning and starts announcing that it’s time to “go to work” and she’s going to be late. You can’t turn her off. It’s. Every. Morning.
Even though she loves Adult Day Care, she has a very short attention span. If there’s a lull in the good times, she’ll call me and tell me to come get her. Sometimes, she’ll announce that everybody is just sitting around doing nothing and she wants me to come get her. I remember once when I called the Director of the Day Care Center and told her Mama had called and I was coming to pick her up and she said, “You don’t want to watch the dancers, Mary?”
There were dancers, getting ready to perform, and my elderly toddler got tired of waiting for them to get with it and called for me to come get her. If I’d gone over there, she would have gotten miffed because I stopped her from “having fun” watching the dancers.
If the “I’m bored,” explanation doesn’t move me to come get her, she’ll tell me she’s sick. I always go when she says she’s sick. I don’t have a choice, since there’s no way to know if it’s real or bluff.
In fact, I got one of those calls just a few days ago. Obedient daughter that I am, I drove over, parked the car, went in and got her. As I was guiding her and her cane/jacket/stuffed animal-she’d-won/painting-she’d-made to the car, she told me “I was having fun.” It seems that between the sick call and when I got there, the staff had gotten the fingerpaints out and Mama had gone from too sick to stay to having too much fun to leave.
On the last day of May, the whole town was under threat of the widest tornado in history. As our family gathered around the tv to watch what was happening and decide what to do, Mama kept talking.
She does that.
Talk, I mean.
Non-stop. Just like a toddler. You can’t really have a conversation with her anymore, but she rattles non-stop as long as she’s awake.
I usually just un-huh her the way I did the kids when they were babies.
But we needed to hear the tv.
“Hush,” I told her.
She paused for a beat, then started in, talking about one of the lamps or something.
“Mama,” I said, waiting until she stopped chattering and looked at me, “Hush.”
She stared at me a moment, then turned away. “Well alright. I guess if I can’t say anything, I’ll just be quiet. I don’t know why I can’t talk. But if you want me to just sit here and not say anything, then, I’ll shut up. If that’s what you want, then I guess I’ll have to do it, but I don’t see why I can’t talk
“That lamp shade is crooked. Or maybe it’s made to look like that. No. I think it’s crooked. Mary Belle had a lampshade like that. Only hers was pink. Or maybe it was purple. I want you to take me for a drive …..”
We give her the medicine she’s supposed to have. Then, we watch her swallow it. Otherwise, (for reasons I do not know) she will hide it behind her bed.
We hide her medicine so she can’t find it. Otherwise, (again, for reasons I do not know) she will decide she’s not getting enough and upend the bottle into her mouth.
I give her money to take with her to her “job.” But I can’t give it to her too soon because she will hide it, and then she’ll forget that she hid it and tell me somebody stole it.
She gets lost in the house.
She tells everyone that I “stole” her car from her.
And to this day, if I needed a heart transplant, she would say, “Here. Take mine.”
My Mama. My sweet, baby Mama.
I love her so much it makes my teeth ache.
It is no burden, taking care of my Mama.
It is a blessing and a privilege. I cherish every day with her.
To join the conversation about The Geography of Memory, a Pilgrimage Through Alzheimers, or to order a copy, go here.
The Geography of Memory a Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, is a personal memoir, written by a woman whose mother died at the age of ninety after a long slide downward into dementia.
Jeanne Murray Walker writes about growing-up in Nebraska during the 50s against the backdrop of her mother’s slowly worsening dementia. She describes her efforts to participate in her mother’s care, despite the fact that she lived half-way across the country from her mother.
Caring for a dying parent seems to rip open the seams on the bag of memories we all have inside us. I experienced this when my father was dying. Things you thought were lost in the fog of time step out of the backdrop and present themselves to you, complete and fresh. I suddenly remembered my father as he had been when I was a tiny girl. I saw his face, heard his voice from back then. The experience taught me that we don’t forget. We simply file away and lose as the detritus of our daily living piles itself on top what happened back when.
Evidently, Mrs Walker experienced something like that when her mother was sliding down. This book is the result of those awakened memories from her life, built around the backdrop of her mother’s slow leave-taking.
Mrs Walker’s mother was a magnificent woman. She was one of those kind-as-Christmas, tough-as-a-Missouri-rail-spike fundamentalist Baptist women I grew up around and have known all my life. The faith people follow shapes them in powerful ways that are reflected in their overall character. It also infuses them with strength and a kind of power that people without faith, or with only a wishy-washy faith, simply do not have.
This woman lost her husband at a young age, and was faced with supporting her three children back in the 50s and 60s, when career opportunities for women were limited mostly to jobs that paid less simply because they were “women’s work.”
Fortunately, she was an educated woman for those years, a nurse. She told her kids that she would never afflict them with a stepfather and pushed on with the business of bringing home the bacon, paying the bills, and, as we say in this part of the world, raising them right. The Baptist church, with its simple theology and rock-ribbed certainties, formed the spine on which she built this life and raised her kids.
When her only son died of asthma, she did not despair. She kept going and going, right through what sounds like a beautiful second marriage after her children were grown and on into an interested and interesting old age.
Her mind began to betray her when she was in her mid 80s and then slowly unraveled itself as she aged into 90. Even though her daughters managed her care and placed her in what sounds like the best care facilities, she basically traversed this path alone.
But The Geography of Memory is really about Jeanne Murray Walker rather than her mother. It tells the story of how Mrs Walker traveled the country in an exhausting round of visits and suffered the pain of separation from her mother during the time her mother was slowly dying. It describes honestly the confusion, pain, anger and exhaustion Mrs Walker felt while doing this.
It also tells the story of what it was like to be raised by this woman. It is a memoir of a time, place and people that could only exist in the middle of America. The rock-ribbed faith and equally rock-ribbed courage of this woman infuse the daughter’s life with a strength that allows her to step out and move on.
This is a familiar story to me. I know women like Mrs Walker’s mother. I grew up around them. I have also seen their daughters’ ability to separate and spread their wings, something that only really great mothers give their children. Read through that lens, The Geography of Memory is as much a book on the lost art of courageous child-rearing as it is a book about the slow declines of old age.
Mrs Walker’s mother was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I doubt that was what was wrong with her memory. This thing that happens to most elderly people is a slide backwards into childhood and, ultimately, confusion. It’s as if the brain becomes disorganized; a tangled heap.
I haven’t had a family member with Alzheimer’s, but I’ve seen a lot of it in my constituents. The word “alzheimer” has become a catch-all for the various dementias of old age. But it is a specific thing all its own that does not, so far as I can see, only strike the very elderly. My constituents with Alzheimer’s are different from the way Mrs Walker describes her mother. With them, it’s not so much a matter of losing their way to the bank as it is not knowing what a bank is. Over a period of time, they go blank. Instead of being a tangled heap, their brains seem to be hollowed out.
The reason I’m saying this is because it matters in how we treat our older people.
The Geography of Memory is a beautifully written memoir about a magnificent woman and her magnificent daughter. The lessons it teaches are about living far more than they are about dying. Perhaps its sweetest lesson is that the memories of our lives are worth telling.
Let me tell you about my mother.
She is 87 and she gets confused.
She gets confused a lot.
For a couple of years there, every day was a challenge just to keep her alive. We rushed her to the hospital several times so they could drag her back from the edge. Now, her physical health has stabilized, but her mental health is going downhill, a little bit at a time.
She reminds me quite often that I took her car away from her. She’s lost that sense of time that lets the rest of us grieve a loss and then move on, leaving it in our past. When she remembers that she doesn’t have a car, the indignation is as fresh for her as the day it happened. The day I took that car was a sad day for me, too. When she tells me, as she does at least once every day, that I “took” it from her, it re-opens the pain in me, as well.
Other than the car memories, my mother is as sweet as a small child. She accepts whatever I suggest as the best thing and she trusts me the same way my children did when they were little. Like them, she talks almost non-stop, prating along about things that happened, or didn’t happen but that she thinks happened, 60, 70 or even 80 years ago.
For my part, I’ve fallen into the same u-huh, u-huh, answers that I gave my babies when they chattered to me as they “helped” me wash dishes or plant flowers or whatever. I do a lot of the same things with her that I did with them. We sat in the backyard yesterday and counted the blue-jays and the robins to determine which are the most numerous.
The differences are that when I told them something, they remembered it later that day. Mama doesn’t. That, and the fact that my babies were moving forward toward independent life, while Mama is moving inexorably away from independent life and then on to the next life on the other side of this one.
Forgetfulness is a blessing of sorts. At the beginning of this journey, she knew when she forgot and it upset her. Now, she no longer remembers that she doesn’t remember. She’s much happier this way.
I never remind her that she’s asked me that same question several times. I just answer her again. I don’t chide her about calling me 10 times in 15 minutes when I’m at work. I just talk to her each time as if it was the first call; because for her, it is.
I love my mother. I always have. But in some ways, she’s more precious to me now than she ever was before. She is so sweet, and so good. The pretensions we hide our real selves behind are gone from her. Her personality is stripped down to the unself-conscious realness of its bare self. What that is in my mother is a person who is all love, all generosity, trusting and deeply, profoundly innocent.
Caring for her during these years of her slow good-bye has given me the chance to see my mother as she really is without any cover. What I’ve seen is that she is a wonderful person, all the way through.
This is precious time, these years with her. I would not trade them for anything. There are moments, every once in a while, when I miss who she used to be. I would love to just sit down and have a talk with Mama as she was. But that can’t be and I know it, so I run my mental fingers over the weave of the thought and then fold it up, put it away and go back to the reality of the sweet baby Mama I still have.
Old age is not a tragedy. It most certainly is not a waste or a burden to those who aren’t there yet. It is a gift and a treasure; a phase of life like any other. My mother is going through a slow and beautiful passage from this life to the next one. It make take her years yet. Her family is a very long-lived tribe. Or, it may end suddenly, at any time.
Whichever way that happens, I know that she and her ultimate future are in God’s loving hands. I only thank Him for giving me this present time to love and cherish her now. It is, like she is, golden.