If We Don’t Fight for Life, This Hunger for Annihilation Will Devour Us All


Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

My near death experience with Mama pushed me to considering a nursing home.

I wrote about it, and about the ghastly business of passing laws legalizing medical murder, for the National Catholic Register. 

Here’s part of what I said:

I decided then that we had to put her in a nursing home. I despaired of our ability to keep her safe at home. I called the local Catholic nursing home, which I know is a really good place. But they are full-up. The waiting list stretches months ahead.

So, I found myself driving around this not-so-good nursing home and crying. I looked at other, nicer places, but the cost is out of sight. Three and four thousand dollars a month. And it goes up from there.

I made a list of ways we could make the not-so-good place work. I would, of course, be there every day. So would my kids and my husband. Hospice would be there on a regular basis, giving her baths, praying with her, checking her health. My parish would send people to visit. We could have folks checking on her several times a day.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, I asked the hospice social worker to make arrangements for me. I couldn’t face doing it myself.

Then, I got sick. I mean, I got physically ill. I thought I was going to throw up. I couldn’t think. Couldn’t cry. Couldn’t even pray. I played scales on the piano for hours, then played Tetris on my phone.

About 9 last night, I thought, “I can’t do this.”

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/rhamilton/if-we-dont-fight-for-life-this-hunger-for-annihilation-will-devour-us-all/#ixzz3mThBRCWm

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It was a Mama Kind of Weekend.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

My family and I had a rough weekend with Mama. Here’s a summary of part of it that I wrote for the National Catholic Register.

If you could spare a prayer for me and mine, it would be much appreciated.

From the National Catholic Register:

I woke with a jolt — one of those soldier-coming-awake-in-a-foxhole snaps from dream sleep to full awake without a step between.

The house was quiet and dark.

I hauled my tired self out of bed and walked down one hall and then the next hall and yet another hall until I came to Mama’s bedroom, flipped on the light and looked at her bed. Which was neatly made up and empty.

Panic is the word, but it’s inadequate. Think baby-missing-from-the-crib-in-a-silent-house, think every nightmare of bungled love and responsibility pounding straight down with one slam.

I ran through the house, yelling for her.


Then, I noticed that the pillows on the sofa were laid out flat in a row that went from one armrest straight across to the other. I walked to the sofa. Lifted a pillow.

She was lying there, fully dressed and sleeping. Her white hair was streaked red with blood, her pants and shirt had huge spots of blood. It was bright red; fresh, newly-bled.


Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/rhamilton/living-pro-life-is-a-blessing-that-asks-much-of-the-blessed/#ixzz3lpIjaoqQ

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Mama is Better. I’m a Blank.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Something has happened to my brain.

Twice now, yesterday and today, I’ve sat down to write … and could not formulate a thought. It’s stress, I think. And lack of sleep, I think. And being overwhelmed, I think.

It’s understandable, I tell myself. It will pass. I believe that and don’t worry about it. I know it’s just part of this process.

But … sheesh … I have the blankest of blank minds. It’s almost as if I’m not fully in touch with myself, or as if part of me is asleep, even when I’m awake.

Mama is — almost miraculously — doing better. She was able to go to adult day care all day yesterday. And she drove them crazy with her repeat questions while she was there. Then, last night, she sat at the table and ate supper, and by that I mean, she actually ate. It’s wasn’t a feast, but she managed a chicken leg and a helping of mashed potatoes. Then, of course, she raided the fridge for ice cream.

Mama was back.

Nobody, including me, expected her to ever be this good again. Mama is oblivious to all the stress, but I’m worn slick from it. I feel like I’ve been to the brink and back and I no longer know where I am. The hospice nurse told me to enjoy the good days. I didn’t do that yesterday. In fact, I spent the day expecting her to crack like an egg at any moment. I also did a good bit of feeling sorry for myself.

I need to take the nurse’ advice and enjoy these good days. Who knows how many of them we have left? I prayed last night — a lot — and, as usual after I pray, I feel better.

But the blank mindedness continues. That’s why I’m writing a diary today instead of a post about world events. I find that world events don’t interest me much right now. I hear the latest shenanigans in Congress, and, given my long time in politics, I see through them immediately. But I don’t much care.

I’m more focused on simpler things, like the fact that the oil in my car needs changing and I have to unload the dishwasher and put the sheets in the dryer. Stupid as it sounds, that’s where my mind is.

I do battle every day with the sick smells in Mama’s room. I wash sheets, empty and wash the portable potty, throw away the used tissues, and get it all clean smelling. It’s a stalemate, this war between the sad scents of urine and decay and me, but I’m fighting the fight on a daily basis.

I went to the doctor myself yesterday. Nothing serious, but I had to be very firm get away long enough to do it. What surprised me is that going to the doc felt like an outing. My life has become narrow indeed when taking myself to the doctor feels like recreation.

One odd thing that has happened is that Mama has started calling me “Mama.” It happened the first time when she was so near the edge a few days back. I did something for her, I forget what, and she said, “Thank you Mommy.”

During the day, she knows who I am, but now, late at night, when get up to take care of her, she often calls me “Mama” or “Mommy.” It doesn’t bother me when she does that. In fact, I find it touching.

It is, after all the truth of our situation.

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I’m Triaging My Life for Thriving, Not Just Surviving

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

I volunteered to host my book club at my house tonight.

Then, life piled on and I made a decision to move the book club meeting to a local restaurant. My fellow book-clubbers were not only gracious about it, they seemed delighted with the prospect of dining while we talk.

I could, if I had been stupid, have soldiered through, putting together snacks and polishing my house so I could play hostess. But that would have been, as I said, stupid.

I had plans to write a blog post today about a topical issue, taking my own slant on the subject. I’d done some research, filed the links in Omnifocus and had it ready to put together. That was going to be today’s big post.

Then, Mama’s hallucinations came back and I need to spend the day going from doc to doc. I could, if I had been stupid, have skipped my early-morning aerobics class and put that post together. But that would been, as I said, stupid.

Both these things would have violated the triage I’ve set up for my life. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to establish iron-clad priorities and stick with them, even when it stings. That’s the life of every successful elected official. I would never have been elected without the ability to do this, and I could never have passed all the legislation and taken care of my district and still had a happy home life without it, either.

I thought I was past that kind of self-discipline when I walked out of the House. I ping-ponged around for months, while the exigencies of Mama’s dementia made hash of my life, my health and my state of mind. I wasn’t managing these things; they were managing me.

It all came to a resounding crash a couple of months ago. Mama’s dementia tripped over into active 24/7 hallucinations of the ugly kind, and then, right on schedule, I got sick and couldn’t get well. Suddenly, I was out so deep in the deep that I couldn’t touch bottom, and I was so tired, that, try as I might, I was swallowing water and dipping under.

Enter depression, a big shot of despair and anger. It was miserable.

I prayed and prayed and I didn’t think I was getting answers. But God was answering me, He just wasn’t telling me about it. Help came in the form of new medications and healing in my own body. Help came in that small still voice that told me that I wasn’t going to be able to do this perfectly, but doing it in a messy way with lots of mistakes was alright. It was ok to just muddle through.

God gave me something I didn’t pray for but which has helped me more than I can say. He gave me peace with my own weaknesses and faults, acceptance of my failures and stumbles. He gave me His love and His acceptance and His assurance that imperfect was good enough.

I didn’t hear voices, and I didn’t get specific direction. What I got was a gentle attagirl and a loving Peace, Be Still.

The rest came from me. God gave me courage and peace. He freed my mind from the depression and anguish and that let me find my own way out of the woods.

Robert Frost said that the way out is through. In this case, he was absolutely right. The way out is through. I’m not the perfect daughter doing the perfect job of caregiving. I am just me, seeing my Mama home the best way that I can.

The first rule of going through is to make sure that you get through. What that means in direct terms is don’t get sick. In the new triage of my life, I have a husband, a mother, and my own self to tend to. My precious children are adults who can and do take care of themselves. Not only that, but they’ve come on board big time in terms of Mama, or as they call her, Amah care.

My first priority isn’t taking care of Mama or even being a wife to my husband. My first priority is taking care of me. By that I mean two simple things: Don’t get sick spiritually and don’t get sick physically.

A couple of the Catholic Patheosi are pretty much saints. I won’t embarrass them by detailing their life of prayer and worship. It’s enough for the purposes of this post to say that I ain’t them. For me, not getting sick spiritually depends an awful lot on God’s mercy. I pray, and I pray often. But many of my prayers are said while I’m driving my car or loading the dishwasher or giving Mama her bath or throwing out her dirty diapers.

One constant prayer is simply that God will save me from my inner jerk.

I go to mass, but only once a week. There was a time when I went every day, but not now. I probably should start going more often, simply because every time I take the Eucharist, it heals me, and I do need healing. But it’s tough to start something new right now.

My first area of triage is simply this: Get 8 hours sleep (I’m not doing so good at this one), go to aerobics class and ride my recumbent bike on the off days, stop eating junk. This is number one. If I crater physically, I can’t do anything else.

Right next to this is pay the bills, keep the car and house maintained. This isn’t time consuming, but it must be done.

Still in the first area of triage is say a prayer, read the Bible and play some music on the piano every day. The piano soothes and heals me almost as much as sleep and exercise. Ditto for prayer and Scripture.

Then, my next first area of triage is take care of Mama. This is huge. It’s hours and hours. It’s unpredictable and crazy making. It’s why I have to stay prayed up and exercise, sleep, eat right. I can not take care of Mama unless I do those things.

The other thing in my first area of triage is my husband. He’s my other half, my life’s partner, my lover and my love. It’s a joy to spend time with him. I can’t let him and our relationship be shoved out of my life by other things.

Spiritual and physical health, Mama, hubby: These are first priorities.

Second priorities are the book and the blog. The blog comes after the book in priorities.

Third is everything else. That includes keeping the house clean, doing laundry, etc.

So, the reason I haven’t been blogging as much is simple. The blog got bumped to second place of second place. I blog after I take care of me, Mama, hubby, pay the bills, change the oil in my car, get the air conditioner serviced and write my book. The blog still comes in ahead of running the vacuum and doing the laundry. Fortunately, those things fit easily in odd moments.

When I need to stand up and take a break, I vacuum the living room or empty the dishwasher.

What I don’t do is skip aerobics to blog or short-change my husband to work on the book.

That, my friends, is the new triage of my life. It seems to be working, but as I said, Mama’s hallucinations are back. That may well force a whole new paradigm on me. I’m doing doctor duty today. And that’s why this is the only post you’ll see from me until tomorrow.

Prayers and blessings to each of you.

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Do-It-Yourself Home Office Organization That Won’t Drive You to the Dogs

Copyright Rebecca Hamilton, All Rights Reserved

Omnifocus Pro Screen Shot. Copyright Rebecca Hamilton, All Rights Reserved

I didn’t wait around about closing down my legislative office. I was ready to go.

I had been packing for weeks. We adjourned on Friday, the following Monday we took my son’s pickup to the capitol and loaded it up with my stuff. It actually took two trips.

I unpacked it … sort of. I put things with no place to go in drawers and closets; stacked artwork and framed documents, and proceeded to ignore the mess for the next year.

I also ignored the needs of revamping how I do things.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I realized that it was time, past time in fact, to plow through this and get rid of it. This realization began with another realization: I need to organize my work life according to the work I’m doing and not the work that I did.

That began with looking at my software. I discovered that my computer back door into the House was still active. I could, if I wanted, go into the bowels of the legislative process and co-author bills, file amendments, and, I guess, even author bills. I tried to delete this, and found that it wouldn’t go away.

Finally, I gave up and decided to do a complete reformat of every computer. That took a while, but it was well worth it. I backed up all the files that relate to the legislature onto my archive drive and then wiped the main drives clean. I only reinstalled software that I actually use.

I had another realization that had been pinging me for several months now: I need to get serious about organizing calendars. I came into this writing deal from the thoroughly spoiled vantage of an elected lawmaker. Legislators don’t worry about getting to things on time or remembering appointments, or even making appointments.

When I was a legislator, I had somebody who did all that for me. Lila, Deborah, Linda, Miss Trina made sure that my schedule was buttoned down tight. They handed me maps on how to get there, agendas and lists of notes for every occasion. They reminded me which mark to hit. If I took a trip, they not only made every arrangement in advance, they handed me a folder with every detail I could possibly need arranged in one, two, three, follow-the-yellow-brick-road format.

I couldn’t do all that for myself if I was still a rep. The workload is too much, the scheduling too complicated and too tight. I needed to keep sharp just to handle what I was handling.

Now that I’m running my own little ship, things are much less fraught. I am challenged by taking care of Mama while trying to do all else, but the scheduling is down to simple stuff like doctor’s appointments and going to the bank, with an occasional speech or public event thrown in for spice.

It should be ez pz. But it’s not. I find myself struggling to carve out time to write my book, time to sleep and time to relax. Caregiving has its own demands and they tend to wreak havoc with schedules.

I’m faced with an entirely different kind of planning than I have done before. Writing a book requires extensive research and outlining. Writing a blog takes a chunk of time every day. Caring for Mama is all about constant interruptions, intermittent runs to the er, and unpredictability that can slip into chaos at a moment’s notice.

The thing about caring for a 90-year-old-going-on-two is that things can slide from calm and settled to out of the box crazy and terrifying in seconds. Oldsters get a cough. It’s just a little cough. Then, without warning, they’re wheezing and struggling to breathe and your day looks like a drawerful of stuff that someone jerked out and upended on the floor.

I spent months “handling” this by putting my head down in dumb endurance; like a buffalo, walking into the wind. Then I realized that if I don’t get on top of it, it’s going to roll right over me and leave me flat.

How to organize this in a workable way? That was the question I faced when I finally got around to considering these things.

My first stop was to consider what software I needed to help me get organized and work more efficiently. I thought about Microsoft Outlook. That’s the software of choice for the people who had kept me marching in a straight line when I was a legislator.

I actually signed up for MS Office’s monthly fee and downloaded it. Then I realized that MS Office is an island of sorts. It doesn’t play all that well with Scrivener or Curio or Aeon Timeline. That gave me pause.

When I finally understood that if I wanted to sync my Outlook planning files to my iPhone, iPad, MacBooks, I would have to upgrade to the business version, I bailed. Apple syncs my calendar and contacts for free. I like that price.

Still, I needed more powerful planning software than Apple’s Calendar and Contacts. That’s when I remembered that I owned a software called Omnifocus Pro. I bought it on a special introductory deal a while back, then didn’t use it because I had people doing what it did for me.

I downloaded Omnifocus (I have the pro version) and fired it up. It turns out that it’s exactly what I need and that I much prefer the combination of Omnifocus/Calendar/Contacts/Mail to MS Office. They work together seamlessly, and it didn’t cost me a dime. Also, Omnifocus is very friendly with Curio. Curio is a wonderful software that I’ll talk about in another post.

I’ve got my computer work process streamlined now. I have planning software that works for me, and everything syncs like magic. This process has convinced me that Microsoft Office may the best for a corporate type environment, but it has serious shortcomings for a blogger/writer/mom/caregiver.

That’s difficult since I’ve sworn that I will abandon Apple when these devices become obsolete. The problem isn’t the big stuff. MS Office will work for a writer, although it’s not very elegant. I actually prefer Access to Filemaker Pro, although I don’t really need either now that I’m running a small shop. MS Publisher is the best software going for putting out mailings for campaigns. But I don’t do that anymore, either. Outlook is probably the best for complex schedules, especially for more than one person. But I fly solo now, and my schedule is unpredictable; not complex.

Here’s how I’m doing the organization part of my computing life today.

I made a schedule with times blocked off for blogging, book writing, Mama’s daily stuff, my aerobics class, etc. The schedule syncs automatically between Omnifocus Pro and Calendar. It also picks up addresses, phone numbers, etc, automatically from Contacts. In fact, it even gives me a map to appointments.

I set up projects for the blog, the book and Mama in Omnifocus Pro. Omnifocus Pro syncs with Safari, so if I find a web site I want to blog about, I can just send it to Omnfocus Pro. If I plan an activity in Omnifocus Pro, it automatically goes to calendar. I can view calendar from inside Omnifocus Pro, so I have a multi-colored view of my schedule with times blocked off. It’s so simple, Leisy and Lufte could do it.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Everything syncs automatically between all my devices.

This setup seems to be working. I get a lot more done, and I don’t feel so stressed. It’s great to be able to pick up my iPhone and see everything I need to know, wherever I am. In fact, it comes close to making my iPhone a replacement for those incredible folders I used to get when I was in the House.

This allows me a more livable life. Thanks to better scheduling through technology I’m not constantly walking into days that look like this:


Copyright Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.


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My Dead Will Stay Undecorated.

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by David Goerhing https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by David Goerhing https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/

It’s Memorial Day.

Our big plan was to load Mama in the car and go on our annual cemetery safari, trotting around the state to put flowers on the graves of our dead family. We usually end up running into relatives we haven’t seen in a while for impromptu graveside reunions. We also enjoy the drive.

But springtime plans in Oklahoma are always subject to the weather. This year, the weather says that smart Okies stay off the highways.

Saturday night was another go round of storms and flooding. My husband went to vigil mass. The kids watch Mama every week so I can go to mass.

But, for some reason, I got sick. It was a funky sickness. I was just suddenly soooo tired that I told him I was too tired to go to mass. I know that sounds odd, but this was a tidal wave of tired, kinda like somebody reached out and thunked me on the head and said, “You ain’t goin’ to mass tonight.”

He went on, I stayed home, and the tornadoes and rains moved in. I ended up in the shelter with Mama while he was stranded on high ground, watching the flood waters roil around him.

In the midst of all this, Mama lost her teeth. Or rather, I should say that she hid her teeth and forgot where she hid them. We still haven’t found them.So it was tornado sirens, floods and hoisting a little old lady in and out of a storm shelter; all with an unending background of “I want my teeth.”

When my husband called, he said he was taking shelter from the floods in a car wash. I didn’t say anything to him. He wasn’t in a laughing mood. But between the teeth and sheltering his car from the floods in a car wash, I had a good laugh. I still laugh when I think about it.

Nobody was hurt. My husband was the only one who even got wet. Mama has gotten so she enjoys the drama of going to the shelter, kind of like a little kid. The only losers are our dead family, who, due to more incoming weather, will remain flowerless.

Here are a few videos of the good times for your amusement and amazement.

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This is an area where we normally enjoy family recreation.

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Walking Mama Home

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

My mother is slipping away.

Last week, she asked me, “Are we sisters, or cousins, or what?”

The week before, she looked at me vaguely and said, “What are you to me? Are we related?”

Last night, she decided to “cook” a frozen dinner in the microwave and evidently set it for a lllloooonnnnggggg time. It “cooked” until it caught fire.

I was up with her all night long one night last week. We have a doctor’s appointment today, for which her doctor is graciously sacrificing her lunch time to work Mama into her schedule. The purpose? To see if sleeping pills, which I’ve avoided, or anti-depressants, or something will help her sleep through the night so that I can sleep, as well.

Every time I write a post about Mama, a few sick souls comment that situations like this are a fine argument for euthanasia. I almost always delete these things, but they trouble me, just the same.

What is wrong with someone that they could look at a frail elderly person and their first thought is to kill them?

I start stammering when I try to formulate a response to this. Kill my mother? That’s their advice?

Everyday it seems that I am hit with another proof that certain segments of our population are lost souls. Nothing convinces me of this more than these offensive comments about my mother.

We live in a world where the first solution that we offer to human problems is increasingly becoming a demand that we kill the person who is being a problem. We even label one entire group of humans — the unborn — a “problem pregnancy” rather than a human being, and then use this designation as a justification for killing them at will.

The same thing is happening to anyone who has an illness that makes them a ‘burden.” We are moving toward a world where the only people who will have a legal right to life are those who have sufficient wits, energy and means to defend their right to be alive in a court of law.

The Terry Shiavo case demonstrated quite clearly that it is not enough to have people who will advocate for your life in a court of law. The person doing the advocating must be the correct one. Killing someone by taking away their water and food and then letting them die of thirst and starvation could hardly be called “merciful.”

My mother is slipping away. Caring for her is hard. But it is also — and I never hear about this aspect of it — a blessing. Seeing Mama home is a privilege. This long goodbye has a sweetness to it that I never knew existed until I began walking this walk with her.

As for those poor loveless folks who think that the solution to human suffering is to kill the suffering human, I pray for you. Because you are in far worse shape than my Mama will ever be.

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My Mother Forgets Stuff. But Sometimes She Remembers Other Stuff.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

My mother always was one to sweat the little things.

Maybe that’s why I’m so blithe and indifferent to details. Mama always took care of them for me.

The difference — and it is rather stark — between her crossing of every t and dotting of every i before dementia and her going over and over and over and over the same thing 20 times in 20 minutes after dementia is my sanity.

It’s especially tiring when I’m tired to begin with. And it’s especially overwhelming when I’m tired to begin with and she piles on by going in a circle from one little thing to the next and back again.

So it was yesterday. I had a pause and could take her to lunch. I picked her up at her day care, and we were off. We have a thing we do with lunches and such. I give her money. She puts it in her purse, and then, when we get to the restaurant, she proudly (and with no memory that I gave her the money in the first place) buys my lunch for me. Mama loves to treat me by taking me out to lunch. She gets a big kick out the whole thing, and frankly, so do I.

The trouble was that yesterday she kept going into worry wart mode because she couldn’t find the $40 I’d given her. Every few minutes, she would open her purse and begin searching for it. She had folded the bills into a lump the size of a postage stamp and tucked it behind the photos in her billfold (she’s big on hiding things) and that meant they weren’t in the folding money slot when she looked for them.

She would become upset, and I would pull the car over, take her billfold and show her where she’d hidden her money. She would nod sagely and say “Ohhhh, that’s where it is.”  Five minutes later, she’d start looking again. I don’t remember how many times I pulled the car over and showed her that money.

We had a fun lunch, talking about how good broccoli and cheese soup is and visiting with the waitress who goes to our church.  When we got back to the car, she wanted me to take her to buy a Coke at a drive in. We headed for the drive-in and she started the “I’ve lost my money” thing again.

I pulled over a couple of times and showed her where her money was. Then, after we paid for the Cokes and were driving away, she did it one. more. time.

Before I could zip my lip, I said, “Mama, will you puleez stop it?”

I didn’t yell. I didn’t raise my voice or grit my teeth. It was plaintive rather than angry. I think that was what got her attention. The sound of distress in my voice triggered her Mama gene. She put the purse away and started talking about something else.

Which almost immediately moved into a lament over the fact that she doesn’t have a car anymore; which went rather quickly to her standard tale about how I have “stolen” her car and she wishes she hadn’t let me do that to her.

After she finally wore that out, we had a nice talk about my piano lessons. She’s fascinated with my piano lessons, and seems to believe that I’m headed for a career as a concert pianist. That’s standard Mama, by the way. Everything I do has always been the best thing anyone ever did in the whole history of the world.

We drove past part of the tornado damage from last spring, and she talked for a while about that.

Then, we parked the car so I could return a book to the library. She picked up the book I’d been reading (American Prometheus) and looked at the photo of Robert Oppenheimer on its cover. My mother, who can’t remember where she put money in her own billfold five minutes ago, looked at that photo and said,

“He developed the bomb for this country. He saved the lives of a lot of boys who would have died invading Japan.”

She paused, flipped open the book and looked at the photos. “Our government was really dirty to him, accused him of being a traitor, and after what he had done for us.”

She closed the book and looked at me with eyes that belonged to the mother I used to know. “I wrote a letter protesting that,” she said. “They were only after him because he told the truth about how dangerous those bombs were.”

All I know about Robert Oppenheimer is what I read in this one book and sketchy facts about the Manhattan Project. I know of his famous comment, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” when the first atomic bomb was exploded at Trinity site. He’s a feature of history to me.

I never knew my mother had an opinion about Robert Oppenheimer. I certainly never knew she wrote a letter to her Congressman protesting his treatment by our government.

I took the book and returned it to the library. When I got back to the car, the mental door had closed and Mama returned to chiding me for stealing her car.

But for that brief moment, the photo of a long-dead scientist cracked open the doorway into who she had been as an adult and let me see a brief glimpse of a bit of the hidden things of her life that I never knew.


This is Robert Oppenheimer, discussing his memory of the first atomic explosion.

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2013 Favs: Mama

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.

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Book Review: The Way We Were

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.

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