Thursday, May 24, 2012

Now the Sweet - An open letter to Mama

What a wild ride of a year it has been for us!  I know the last thing you wanted to do was  pack up and come to Maine for an indeterminate length of time, but you did it.  I know how hard it must be to live with your daughters - but you have done it.  In fact, you are a survivor - and we are so proud of you!
You never cease to amaze me with your endurance and determination.  Sure, you have days when you’re tired and the pain seems to get the best of you, but most of the time you are willing to do whatever I ask with just minimal fussing.  You’ve said, “Let me try to do it myself,” and then you try.  If you don’t succeed, then you try again some other day.
Through it all, you still have your sense of humor intact.  Remember the first shower I helped you with here?  You stepped onto the mat, and said, “I feel like there’s something kind of hard under my feet.”  Busy, I replied, “Nah, that’s just the mat.”  You persisted, and when I finally took a look, I was mortified. I had put the mat in upside down and your sensitive feet were stepping on all the suction cups!   You just laughed, and then I laughed (after I profusely apologized!).  I’ve put your arms in the wrong holes in T-shirts, I’ve gotten tops caught over your head, I’ve put your pants on backwards, I’ve even put your shoes on the wrong feet and hit you in the head accidentally!   In spite of everything, you have laughed along with everything.
We’ve had a lot of fun while you’ve been here, haven’t we?  Many times I will say several sentences to you from a distance away, and when I wait for an answer, you look up and say, “You talkin’ to me?” - so much that Ed nicknamed you Robert De Niro.  We’ve laughed at Reader’s Digest jokes, chuckled at the comics in the newspaper, and cracked up watching Chris blowing music through dandelion stems.  You let Ed and me tease you about how we hate Lawrence Welk, yet we sit through it every Saturday night with you.  We’ve had a lot of giggling about how you never throw anything away - whether it’s chewed gum or used Kleenex or empty Aspercreme tubes.   Remember when you were enamored with the pretty scene pictured on the shoebox top, so I got a tack and nailed it to the wall like a fancy painting?
You always remember to show gratitude.  Every night when I help you in bed or help you rub pain medicine on your knee, you always thank me for everything.  You thank the kids for coming to see you, you thank your  friends and relatives when they telephone, you always thank Ed for cooking, and you even thanked your Maine doctor at your last appointment for overseeing your health care while you were here.  You never take things or people for granted, and everyone around you appreciates it.
Your financial generosity is overwhelming.  You are always trying to pawn off $20 bills to us or the kids for this and that.  I remember when my kids were little, we would bring them over for you to babysit and you would pay us $20 for the privilege!  Some things never change.
You’ve been brought into the technological world and see Facebook pictures as soon as they are posted, and have video chatted with all the grandchildren.  I always love to see Joshua’s face light up when you appear on the iPad screen and he says, “GG!”  (For those not in the know, that stands for Great Grandmother.)
I’ve been able to relive a lot of childhood memories these last few months.  When your radio falls off your lap (as it does about 4 times a day), I think of how Joy and I used to lie down in your lap during Sunday night church services.  How that lap has held grandchildren and great grandchildren and nephews for years and years!   Your body has a lifetime of stories.   You gave me life, and your eyes looked on me adoringly when I was a baby, your hands cared for me as a toddler, your lips gave me kisses and your arms gave me hugs, and your smile never let me forget that I was always loved unconditionally.   Now I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to take care of you for a little while.
We share common memories.  As I get older, there are fewer and fewer people left who remember Daddy, but I can always talk about him with you.  I have started many conversations with, “Remember when...?”  Sometimes you remember, sometimes you don’t, but we have fun reminiscing just the same.   
Well, we will always have those old memories, but we have made some new ones, haven’t we?  You have gotten to spend time with two of your grandchildren and all three great grandchildren.  You attended Joshua's first birthday party last summer, and  with your own eyes have watched him go from crawling to walking and running.  You have enjoyed personal violin “concerts” from Caroline and Charlotte (and even Rachel!).  You were here when Matthew began selling his own software in the Apple store.  You’ve eaten homemade applesauce cooked by Sarah, and vegan food cooked by Rachel.  Your favorite DJ, Rick, came by to see you last summer and this week even wished you happy birthday on the radio, then played your Old Bones song!
And now as I write this, you have received over 70 cards in the mail from people all over the world in honor of your 89th birthday.   You are indeed a special person to many, many people who send best wishes, and especially to us, your family. We will soon start that journey back to Memphis, which I know is stressful for you to think about, but you are one tough lady and can get through anything.  Be proud of yourself - you have survived a Maine winter.  Not everyone can lay claim to that.
We have been honored to have you with us for almost a year.  You have graced us with your presence, your humor, your generosity, and your kind spirit.  We love you so much.  We will miss you beyond words.
You favorite song these days is the poignant “Old Bones” sung by George Burns.  I’ll end this post with the lyrics:
Old bones inside an old raincoat
Old bones inside of old shoes
Old friends at the hotel
Come by to wish me well
And keep me up to date on all the old news
Sometimes I have an old whiskey
And I fall asleep in my chair
And I dream that I'm a man
Much younger than I am
I bet you'd think by now that I wouldn't care
But I love life, I'd like to do it again
Though I might not be much more than I've ever been
Just to have the chance to turn back the hands
And let my life begin
Oh yeah, I'd like to do it again
It's time for takin' it easy
It's time for takin' it slow
Old bones don't move so fast
As they did once in the past
Now if I have to run, I simply don't go
But I love life, I'd like to live it again
Though I might not be much more than I've ever been
Just to have the chance to turn back the hands
And let my life begin
Oh yeah, I'd like to do it again

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

First The Bitter

Well, my experience having my almost-89-year-old mother living with us has almost drawn to a close. For various reasons - her declining health and long distance from other elderly relatives are two major ones - my sister and I have decided to have Mama move back to the Memphis area, and in less than two weeks, one week after her 89th birthday, my husband Ed and I will be driving the long journey to take Mom back home.

So it is understandable that I take these last two weeks for reflection.  When I am frequently asked for my thoughts on Mom leaving, I have consistently replied, “It’s bittersweet.”  Like life itself, the experience/experiment was full of surprises, but the best description is still bittersweet.  I thought I would take a couple of posts to blog about each half of that poignant word.  So for today, I’ll focus on the bitter.
Anyone who says care-taking is a piece of cake...well, they’re eating a different dessert than I am.  It is hard work.  For the last year, in fact, our life has been turned upside down in ways I couldn’t imagine earlier.  Ed, bless his soul, has been the care-taker during the day when I’m at the hospital.  His day starts at 6 a.m. when he makes her breakfast and ends at 8:30 p.m. when he puts her to bed (I have to go to bed at 7 p.m.).  I cannot praise him enough for his lovingkindness to Mom.  He has put up with a lot, but he loves her like his own mother.
OK, so care-taking is hard.  What has been the bitter for me?  It’s run the emotional gamut....
Fear.  As I’ve said before, looking at Mom is like looking into my possible future.  How much of her medical problems are inheritable?  Will I be engaged in nervous humming when I am her age?  Will my bones be so deformed from arthritis?  Will I get so disabled that I will depend on a walker or wheelchair to do the most basic ambulation?  Will I end up living with one of my kids (Lord help them!)?  Like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I recoil in horror at my intended fate, and wonder if the actions I take to preserve my health today can help me avoid all this or am I just doomed...
Regret.  I guess we could have taken the car keys from Mom 4 years ago and she would never have been in that wreck, but how difficult that attempt would have been will always be unknown.  In fact, every decision my sister and I make is fraught with anxiety and second-guessing.  Should we have given away Mom’s dog?  Should we have moved Mom up to Maine for a year?  Is she prepared for the long car ride back?  Is she functional enough for assisted living somewhere?  Are we missing something important that should be checked out?  There’s always anxiety in decision-making and all we can do is try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.
Disappointment.  I used to tease Mom on the phone: “You’ve got to come visit us in Maine, Mama!  Ed and I already live like old people, ha ha!  After supper we watch those old movies from the 1930s - those movies you love - and we have some nice places to go out to eat, and we can take you to see the grandkids, and we’d have a marvelous time!”  Reality was quite different.  Oh, Ed and I still watch our old movies, but the first time we excitedly sat down with Mom to do so, she was asleep in ten minutes.  The only successful movie-watching we have done was around Christmas - we watched them during the day, and even then, I had to keep poking her to wake up.  She won’t go out to eat anymore because she can’t eat most restaurant food and “it’s just too much trouble.”   She certainly won’t ride to visit the kids; she has trouble getting in and out of the car.  Her vision is getting worse and she can’t read much anymore.  Every day I am reminded that there is unfortunately little I can do to bring pleasure into her life.
Anger.  You knew it was coming, didn’t you?  Of course anger is a part of it all.  It stems from frustration.  Why does she do the very thing we ask her not to do, and yet the simple things we know she can do, she balks?  When did some important tasks become arbitrary? Why do I have to force her to do things that are good for her?  Why do I end up making her cry?  Why doesn’t she understand how hard she is making this?  
Sadness.  I have been plagued with an overwhelming sense of sadness.  I have to watch Mama struggle physically and emotionally and it just devastates me.  I wish I could take away her pain.  I wish I could make her whole again.  I wish I could bring back her function.  She told me once that she agreed with what a friend had said - “It’s hell getting old.”   I’m watching it firsthand and can do little about it.  Some of the things I try to do to help her seem to end up making her suffer more.
Loss.  This is the biggie.  There has been a major relationship change, and though my Mom is alive and interactive, I have come to the realization that something important has made a dramatic shift.  I suppose it’s been a long time coming, but it is only this year here in Maine that it finally dawned on me that I am now the Parent and she is the Child.  For most of us, all our lives, our parents are our Solid Rocks.  We depend on them.  We count on them.  We know that whatever life throws at us, they will be there for us, strong, sturdy, and will always take care of us.  Then there comes a point where the shift insidiously begins, almost imperceptibly, especially if we live a distance away.  
We had to buy a transport wheelchair for the trip back to Tennessee.  For one thing, we might have to hurry her out of the heat, and for another, some parking spaces at rest stops are too far away from the door to have her use the walker and try to reach in her half-inch-at-a-time faltering gait.  When we brought the wheelchair home, she cried.  Her reaction, I have learned, is always according to her interpretation of the event.  I remember when Rachel and I flew down to see her in the hospital after her accident, Mama cried.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, “All of you coming down here - you think I’m not going to make it.”  And thus it was with the wheelchair.  Some part of her felt as if we were giving up on her, as if she were doomed to forever be nonambulatory.   I explained why we wanted it for the trip, and she understood, but kept crying because she was so anxious about traveling, about moving back, about changing routines, about everything.  I held her in my arms.  I wiped away her tears and consoled her.  I told her we would never let anything happen to her, there was no need to worry, we were there to take care of her, we will always be there for her.  We were her Solid Rocks.  She could depend on us.  And then, all of a sudden, I started crying too.  Because it was then I realized I had lost my Mama in a way that didn’t involve death or even dementia - because I had become the Parent and she the Child.  I had had inklings of this when I tried to encourage her to do something she was afraid of doing, or when I forced her to take a shower or change her clothes or brush her teeth, or cut up her food into tiny chunks, or watched to make sure she didn’t fall, or helped her get dressed...I was just too afraid to admit that our roles had become totally and irrevocably reversed.
One of the poems I had to memorize in school was “My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember it, and this week I am especially pondering one specific line - a line I didn’t understand in junior high but a line that resonates in my whole being today: “The child is father of the man.”  Only it has become “The daughter is mother of the woman.”  Life has become full circle.   My sister and I are parents again - with all the anxiety, stress, and heavy responsibility that entails.  God help us to be up to the task.
But, glory be, that is not the end of the story.  The bitter is always followed by the sweet....

Friday, May 04, 2012

...And your little dog too.

That's me!  Do you see me?  I'm in picture #1.  I am riding the bicycle that takes Toto away from Dorothy.

Only it's not Toto, it's 7-year-old Jenny, and instead of Dorothy, it's my almost 89-year-old mom, and my heart is breaking.

It's odd that the reason we brought Jenny with Mom up to live with us in Maine is that when we first broke the news to Mom she would be coming here, she started crying, saying, "I'll miss my Jenny."  To save her from despair, we told her we'd take Jenny with us.  Now we're hurting her again.

Logically, it is the only thing to do.  Jenny is even heavier than she was at my sister's house, and Mom is more frail and weak and imbalanced.  Jenny has run into her bad knee once, and ran under and through the walker a second time, almost knocking it down, and sometimes sleeps half under Mom's bed where when she gets up, she would step on her.  Wanting attention, Jenny sometimes puts her front paws on Mom's painful legs and stands on them, putting her whole weight on them, which hurts them even more. When we got a puppy in September (bad move, but could I say to my husband no because we were taking care of my mom and her dog?), Jenny attacked her twice and from then on, we had to keep them separated.  Poor Jenny, she likes to be the head female or the only dog, both impossible in this house.  Now my sister has got another dog, a female, and if Jenny went back to her house, who knows what would happen, and if she couldn't get along with the new dog, Jenny would have to be taken to a Memphis shelter which euthanizes.  No matter where Mom lives in the future, she does not need to even be around a dog because she tends to drop pills and is not able to pick them up - a potentially dangerous situation - not to mention dog toys and bones all over the floor to trip her.  Mom can't even bend down anymore to feed Jenny or take care of her in the simplest of tasks.

Here, Jenny is cooped up most of the day behind baby gates, doesn't get good walking (at least all winter), does not get the attention she craves and deserves, and our local shelter assures us they will find her a good match for a loving home, it's spring in Maine and the shelter has no dogs right now and people are wanting to adopt and they told us it will be no problem to adopt her out, and assured us they will be picky about where she goes.....and so logically, this is what needs to be done.  For everyone's sake, it is a good move logically.

Logically.  Because emotionally, this should never be done, and in a perfect world, it would never be done, it is never a good time to be done, and I feel like the Wicked Witch barreling down the highway.

We had a neighbor who volunteers for the shelter come by to reassure Mom.  That helped somewhat.
But the day has finally come.

When she cried last May about missing Jenny, we did the only thing we could - we kept them together. Now we just don't see any other way out.

Jenny is indeed a good dog.  She can sit, shake, come when called, loves to go for walks and ride in the car.  Her owner, though, is now too disabled to care for her and circumstances at both daughters' homes complicate the situation of caring for her.  It will be certainly hard enough to get Mom back home to Tennessee without having to take Jenny too.  We are trying to preempt a possible accident that would cause Mom to fall - I can't guarantee it would happen, but if it did and I had done nothing to prevent it - even though I foresaw the probability - I would be devastated.

Poor Mom lost her husband in 1980.  She has since lost the use of her right hand, lost much of her vision, lost her normal ambulation, lost her independence, lost her house, and now we are taking her dog.  I know she feels her life is crumbling piece by piece.

So I am the one with the old-fashioned dress and hat sitting on the bicycle with the good dog in the basket.  It's hard to steer, though, because of the tears streaming down my face.