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Oct 22

Great aunts

Posted on Friday, October 22, 2010 in family, Me

I’m not only a great-aunt. I am a great-great aunt. With all those greats I should be a fantastic aunt. But I doubt that I am. But I’m probably as good as my own great-aunts were.

Great Aunt BlancheAunt Blanche
She had a home made doll’s dress cover for her toilet paper that she kept on the back of the toilet. That’s about all I remember about her. She died just before she hit 100 years old. I don’t do anything for my toilet paper and I’m not even 50. So I guess she wins. I named my first vehicle—a yellow Ford pickup truck—after her. I’m not sure why now. And both Ethiopian bread and mullein leaves remind me of the fabric used for that strange doll/toilet-paper-cover dress.

Aunt Ivy
In my child’s mind, she was one strange lady. An ancient and strange lady who always sent me white socks for Christmas. Always. The only good thing about this was that Mom and Dad let me open her gift on the night before Christmas Eve. It was a Christmas tradition. I only give Christmas presents to my nieces who I know best. I almost never give gifts to the next generation, although I do put some money into their college accounts. So she might trump me here. As far as I know she gave all her nieces socks for Xmas or stockings if they were older.

Not her actual glass eye.

I recall visiting Aunt Ivy a few times a year. The visit got creepy as soon as we stopped at her house. As you walked up to her door and it got dark. She must have had large trees, but all I remember is the sun vanishing. Then there she was with only one breast and a fake eye. And this eye did not fit her. Sometimes it was covered with gunk. Mom told me later that she had bought the eye via mail order. My house and my eyes are not scary. OK, I do have all those skulls that line my sidewalk, but that’s not creepy. It’s eccentric. And all my own body parts are pretty normal.

Aunt Ivy always greeted me and my sister with an offering of candy. It was usually M & Ms in a bowl—a single clump of M & Ms. They were so old the sugar had started to turn a little gray. I think we ate them, anyway, just out of a sense of obligation. I don’t have any candy in my house unless it’s left-over Halloween candy. But I never remember I have it, so I think I win for not offering any to young visitors who don’t come dressed in costumes.

Great Aunt IvyThere was nothing to do at Aunt Ivy’s house. My sister and I sat on the floor in the darkness caused by all the plants that surrounded and covered her windows and we played Chinese checkers. I became quite good at the game and still enjoy it. On the floor was a piece of wood that had some sort of sentimental value, a bouncy ball you couldn’t play with because of all the antiques everywhere, and a couch shell. I have video games. And my husband had drums. I win here.

I recall arriving once around a meal time and she had a table set for what seemed like several people. There was meat and a couple of vegetables, some other stuff, and a custard pie. I remember the pie because I love custard pie, but I don’t think she offered me any. She had an overly large sink in her kitchen that maybe had a pump for water. I don’t recall that clearly, but I do know that she had a metal dipper at the sink and I got to drink water out of it. To my mind it was just like the dipper Cinderella offered to the Prince. I don’t live up to this mystery and wonder with my tiny galley kitchen built in the 50s.

She used to talk about the Youngstown Reunion. I had never heard of an entire town having a reunion. I didn’t even bother attending any of my high school reunions. (BTW, the IL HomeTownLocater website gives this description of the town: Youngstown is a community or populated place (Class Code U6) located in Warren County at latitude 40.661 and longitude -90.617.)

At some point I think she had a bathroom put in just under the stairs where a closet had been. That’s what I always see in my mind when I read “water closet.” I think I might have used it once. But if so, I don’t think I would have had the courage to shut the door all the way. The only danger in my bathroom is the cat’s water dish.

Aunt Ivy once traveled to Arizona and gave me a turquoise necklace when she returned. I’ve gone to many more interesting places and haven’t given nieces of nephews anything. But I have played with all my great nieces and nephews, at least once. Except the third one just recently born.

I’d give myself more credit for this if it wasn’t true that adults spend a lot more time directly interacting with children than they used to. Mom used to talk about an uncle of hers who obviously loved having kids around but could only express it by saying “Well, well, well” when he saw them and hiding bananas in the house for them to find.

All-in-all I think I compare favorably to my own great-aunts. I have the better name by far. I’m known as Auntie Winkle. Cool, huh?

I’m sure my sister will comment on all the wonderful things about Aunt Ivy that I didn’t learn about until later. Like how she always attended the Youngstown Reunion for a town that shut down. And about her nemisis—”that Jessie Woods.” And how she planted by the moon.

Aug 15

Deciphering Mom

Posted on Sunday, August 15, 2010 in Mom

“Have you sat in that rocker?” I ask.

“No. I don’t want to move them,” she replies, referring to the stuffed teddy bears sitting in her chair. “Their mother died a week—more like two weeks—ago.” She says this with obvious distress.

I’m not sure how to react to such comments. Most of what Mom says still makes sense, even if only to people who know her very well and can provide the missing context. She frequently forgets vocabulary or what she wants to say and handles it well. Usually she just laughs at herself. Her positive attitude and trust that people have her best interests at heart continually amazes me.

Mom is well liked, but surprised by that fact. I told her that women at the pharmacy had asked how she was doing and said they missed her. Mom’s response was to worry that perhaps she acted too proud. “What do you have to feel so proud about, Mom?” “My clothes are nicer and I fit in them better.” It’s the truth. She has a fine 89-year-old figure.

The things that do bother my mother always amuse me. A few years ago she was very put out because the bagger at the grocery store insisted on carrying her bags to her apartment down the street. Mom does not consider herself to be frail. She still does her “fast walk” every morning (or thinks she does) and thinks she’s in good shape. She’s one of the few residents who doesn’t use a walker. And considering how her body pretty much ignores the pneumonia virus, I have to agree.

You should never call my mother elderly. Medical records all label her as a “frail  and elderly woman.” This is not OK with her and she has told her primary care physician this. She will never be elderly. In her mind the elderly are centenarians drooling in their wheelchairs. She’s too vibrant to be elderly.

She’s also very tired of hearing “good job” when she’s at doctor’s appointments or swallowing her pills. It makes her feel like she’s a dog hearing “good dog.”

She is sometimes worried about what others think about her. She’s a little concerned that the staff at her home are tired of waking her up all the time. All the other residents sleep in their chairs but she feels like she should be up and doing something. For Christmas she asked for a sweatshirt with a kitten on it so she’d look more like the other women at the home. But she’s no longer concerned about having everything she wears clean and pressed. And she’s given up on lipstick. But she still puts perfume in her hair.

There have been several times when she has insisted that the jeans she has on aren’t hers. She doesn’t remember buying them so thinks they are either mine or my sister’s. She’s a size 4 petite and my sister and I are both quite a bit larger. Twice now she’s given a pair back to staff who have just washed them. They give them to me and I put them back in her closet.

I’ve heard that it’s fairly common for someone with dementia to think someone has broken in and put new clothes in their drawers. She just thinks people have left their toothbrushes in her bathroom. I think I’d feel violated if someone left their toothbrush in my bathroom and I’d immediately throw it away. Not Mom. It doesn’t seem to bother her at all. She just wonders where her own toothbrush is. My niece just labeled her brushes so we’ll see if that helps.

My sister told me that during her last visit with Mom, she told Mom the same story three times and Mom laughed each time. I love that. Mom’s a much better audience than she used to be.

Update 8/16/2010: I visited Mom today and got the clue I needed to understand Mom’s comment about the teddy bears’ mother dying. It was a resident who had hundreds of Beanie Babies and bears in her room who died. I understand why Mom thought of her when she saw her own stuffed bears.

Jul 31


Posted on Saturday, July 31, 2010 in family, Me

I love asking people about their scars—their physical scars. I find it a good way to discover insights into their personalities and get a sense of their childhoods.

My scar stories

Scar and scab on kneeLike most kids I have one on my knee. It’s not from a single incident, but from repeatedly falling on a section of sidewalk uprooted by an old maple. I loved that section of sidewalk when I was a child. If you hooked your foot in it just right, fell, and then caught yourself before he were horizontal, it felt like flying. I loved that feeling. I just wasn’t very good at making the necessary calculations for success. Mostly I just took the risk and fell. I like this scar because it implies that I’m willing to take risks. And it’s also a reminder that the scars of even painful failures fade away.

As a teenager I leaped onto the top of a short wooden post. I felt like an owl landing on a branch, so I did it again and ended up with large bruises on my thighs. The incident was worthy of a scar, but I didn’t acquire one.

I have a scar on my arm that is also self-inflicted. I fought with my friend, Christine, in sewing class in 6th grade. She grabbed my scissors and I grabbed them back. She dug her nails into my arm to make me let go of my grasp. She won that fight. To get back at her, I kept picking the scab off my laceration and pointing out to her how she hurt me. I’m sure she no longer remembers the incident. I, however, have a scar. This scar reminds me that when trying to hurt others, sometimes you just hurt yourself.

I have one scar only my mother can see. When I was a toddler I fell out of the truck onto the sidewalk. I screamed and bled and probably threw a tantrum. Mom had to call her father to come help her with me. She didn’t take me to the doctor and felt tremendous guilt over that. So when she looks at my forehead she sees a scar. I remember being able to see it at one time, but I haven’t been able to locate it for years now. All that’s left is a feeling that I should always have bangs.

Scars of others

HabMoo has a scar to prove that he, too, was willing to take risks or that he was once dumb as a rock. As a child playing with a bow and arrows, he and a friend painted a target on a cardboard box. Then he crawled inside while his friend took aim. Hopefully he learned the importance of taking cover behind something stronger than the projectile coming your way. Evidence, however, shows he could use a second lesson.

A former partner had a scar where a German Shepherd tried to eat her head. It was a good metaphor about the parenting she experienced.

My mother has pencil lead in the middle of her palm given to her by a boy in school. I was also attacked with a pencil, but I dug all the graphite out. Consequently I can’t remember the name of my attacker. But I think it was a boy in my math class.

She also put her finger under the foot of a sewing machine and sent the needle through her finger. But somehow she escaped without a scar and only the memory of scaring her own mother.

Scars are part of our personal stories and prove that we can survive hurts. But I’m not ready to have jewelry made to commemorate it.

Do you have any good scars and stories to share?

Jul 20

A day with Mom

Posted on Tuesday, July 20, 2010 in family, Mom

I didn’t really spend the day with Mom; it was more like 4 hours, but it felt like a day. I left the house late so didn’t pick her any flowers. I feel some guilt for that. Mom can’t read easily because of her macular degeneration. And she can’t watch TV or listen to the radio because she can’t figure out the controls. So she wanders about and she looks at things.

She loves flowers so they capture her attention. Both my sister and I try to bring her a bouquet when we visit. Mom doesn’t touch them so they are always without water and dropping petals when I visit. I feel bad for the cleaning crew who have to vacuum and dust up all the dropped pollen and petals and leaves. I gave her a hanging basket she can see from her window, but which she never waters. The maintenance staff isn’t supposed to water it either, but they do. (Thanks guys!) And when I visit I take her outside to deadhead flowers in the central court area.

Today I had to get there in time to pick up her nurse’s report and get her to the eye doctor. I hate the visit because it’s freezing in the waiting room, and the visits are always long because they involve eye scans and waiting for her eyes to dilate. But mostly it’s because they give her a shot in the eye. This is one thing Mom remembers, but she thinks she’s only had three or four shots instead of closer to a dozen. She forgets that the drops sting. She forgets that she always gets cold even with her sweater on. She does not forget that they always tell her “good job” which she thinks is something you should only tell a dog. She’s very polite about it, however, and the assistants seem to enjoy her.

On my way to Mom’s, I took a call from her doctor’s office. On Thursday (today is Tues.) she’d had a doctor’s visit because she had gained five pounds in two days. Being only around 90 pounds, this was a significant weight gain and could have meant a heart or lung problem. Apparently the lung x-ray showed some fluid so an antibiotic was prescribed. The nurse wouldn’t talk to me initially and wanted me to call her back once I got to Mom and she could ask for Mom’s permission to talk to me.

I returned the nurse’s call and finally recalled that the office has a copy of my power of attorney and one of their own documents giving them permission to speak to me. It’s always hit or miss if the bank or a doctor will speak to me about Mom or not. I still can’t convince Social Security to do it. Some places need both a power of attorney and a medical power of attorney and they want them as separate documents.

I wish I had inherited Mom’s lung strength. She has had pneumonia several times and never shows any symptoms like coughing or sleeping or even feeling worn out. I mentioned this to her and she told me that when she had it on the train she had felt terrible. She hasn’t ridden a train since WWII and she didn’t have pneumonia then so I don’t know what she was remembering. When I ask her about it she tells me, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

Her memory issues make it hard for doctors. She can’t recall if she felt dizzy yesterday or not. Or if her eye sight has improved or gotten worse. Luckily she will complain to me of some things so I have an idea and the staff at her assisted living let me know about any complaints she has.. But she complains to me of things that aren’t true. For example, she has told me about several instances of bowel incontinence but the staff have never found any evidence of this and I can’t imagine she’s sneaking her dirty underwear out of the facility.

After her shot in the eye and lunch at McDonald’s, we stopped at the grocery store to pick up her prescription. It was $160. I didn’t pay it. I have a call in to the doctor to see if she can prescribe something less expensive. I am worrying about this. Maybe I should have just paid for it so Mom could begin treatment. But the doctor wasn’t in a rush to prescribe it and Mom has no discomfort. So maybe it can wait. But since I didn’t pick it up, I wonder if my sister be able to afford to buy it for Mom tomorrow and let me pay her back with a check from Mom’s account? Will that $160 put Mom in that odd “doughnut hole” otherwise know as the Medicare Part D coverage gap? The health care reform should have taken care of that issue, so maybe I don’t have to worry about that any longer. I don’t want to spend her money too fast because once she runs out, she’ll have to move into the nursing home. Hopefully I’ll get a call from the clinic before they close (half an hour from now.)

Luckily Mom doesn’t feel any of this stress. Today she asked again if I had seen my father. I reminded her that he died over 10 years ago. She shook her head up and down as she remembered. “I shouldn’t be so put out with him then,” she replied. She displays no grief, just the same amount of sorrow that I have when I tell her that I miss him, too.

I love it that she still take delight in natural things. We talked about size of the clouds as we drove back to her assisted living location, which she calls “the home.” We also talked about how the flag she saw outside one of the office buildings was not the same flag that flies outside her window. She’s very precious and I hope I do well by her.

Jul 12

Cowboy boots: Why I need a dozen pair

Posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 in family, Me

My boot, my orchid, my catDaddy believed that those of us who inherited his flat feet would find greater support and comfort wearing boots. He was right. There used to be photos of him in shorts and cowboy boots. I think they are all missing now or have had his image inked out. I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, a father in black socks and sandals wearing shorts or a father in cowboy boots and shorts.

While camping I’ve given up on my hiking shoes and switched to cowboy boots. They aren’t great in the mud, but my feet feel better after an hour of hiking than they do in other footwear.

Plus boots are fashionable, right? When I was in third grade and girls were allowed to wear pants to school I asked the principal for permission to wear my boots to school. It was a pretty brave thing to do if I do say so myself. He granted permission and Theresa and I got to wear our boots. But I promised the principal that we wouldn’t wear them with skirts. Now I wear them with skirts all the time.

Maybe I’m not a cowboy’s wife with handmade boots and I’m not from Texas like the girls in the photo below, but I still deserve a few more pairs. It’s really my best avenue for self expression, I think. They are part of my history and are yet so classic.

boots as planters

I wish I had had a wedding with bridesmaids in boots. I had considered getting white ones for my wedding, but finally decided they didn’t go with the dress.

I’ve put an old pair to use as planters and I have a second pair ready for the same use next year. So it’s time to make the replacement. I mean I’m a responsible cowboy boot owner. I wear them for years and years and then recycle. I’m deserving.

What do you guys think? Which of these should I buy?

  • Old Gringo

  • Dan Post (on sale now!)

  • Dan Post 2

  • Lucchese 1

I bought my first paif of Lucchese boots this year and they have been the most comfortable I’ve ever owned.

  • Luchesse 2

I have a pair of turquoise lizard skinned boots. But my previous pair of lizards are now planters.

  • Lucchese 3

  • Lucches 4

I’ve never even seen a black and white pair before.

  • Lucches 5

I probably need a new red Western shirt to go with these.

  • Lucchese 6

  • Lucchese 7

May 10

Growing older: Didn’t I look forward to this age?

Posted on Monday, May 10, 2010 in Me, Mom

I’m over 40. That seems to be the sole reason why two of my four rotator cuff muscles have given out in my left shoulder. At least that’s what my doctor highlighted on a handout he printed out for me. I didn’t injure my shoulder, a couple muscles just got old and lazy. Like my left breast. It fails the pencil test and I chalk that up to age-related sloth.

I thought I’d age better. Not that my body would necessarily perform better, but that I’d be more comfortable with it. I watched my mother for clues about growing old and thought it looked pretty simple. She never complained about it.

When I was in grade school I wasn’t like the other kids who couldn’t wait to be in high school. I couldn’t wait to be in my 30s. High school didn’t look exciting at all when viewed through my sister’s experience. Life seemed to really get started in one’s 30s. After all Mom got married at age 32 and that seemed about the right time to me.

Not that I was looking forward to marriage. I thought I’d graduate, work a few years to save up for college, go to a big city for school, work some more, and then—after all that hard work—I’d get married and have some kids. It was all very hard to imagine. Twisting apple stems to determine the first initial of my future husband and counting bounces off the center pole of the ocean wave (playground equipment) to see how many kids I’d have really didn’t prime my imagination.

I think I was most attracted to the idea of responsibility of full adulthood. I didn’t have any chores to speak of as a kid and didn’t want any, but I did like the idea of being good,  hard working, responsible and selfless. For some reason when I was young, Mom never shared with me her stories of dancing and drinking in her 20s, so I really only had her roles of wife and mother to emulate.

While living in a dorm during my first year in college, I upset the young women on my floor by drawing wrinkles all over my face. I was astonished by how upset this made every one of them. They were horrified by the idea of turning 25 and here I was curious about how my face might sag. I loved the deep ruts in my grandfather’s neck. I planned to wrinkle deeply and with great character lines.

I’m sure that I fantasized about retirement more than beginning my career. My parents retired just before my senior year of high school, bought a 5th-wheel trailer, and were touring the states. That seemed like the good life to me. Much more rewarding than earning a paycheck.

I celebrated every gray hair I found on my in my 20s. I actually had them taped to colored paper which I hung on my bedroom wall. Now those are the hairs that turn orange when I regularly henna my hair.

I watched my parents hike all over Yellowstone trails—continuing on after first my brother-in-law, then my sister, then I all waited in the truck. Age didn’t seem to be the deciding factor of how much energy or stamina any of us had.

My 30s ended up being a huge disappointment. I was not happily employed. I finally had my B.A. but it didn’t seem to do anything for me. Bouts of unemployment and a few weeks on food stamps had never been part of my plan. My master’s program was a disappointing experience. And my body was rapidly gaining weight. But I thought my 40s would be better. After all that was the age when my mother’s life really began—with my birth at her age of 40.

So far my 40s have been interesting. I even got married. But marrying someone so young has really messed with my desire to get old. No matter what, I’m going to look two decades older than he does. He’ll probably turn gray in his 50s. I haven’t seen any yet. While my own gray has shown up everywhere except my eyelashes.

For a few years I shared my mother’s panic about aging causing forgetfulness. Mom was sure she was getting Alzheimer’s and did brain exercises every day. She discounted the doctors who would give her the exact same memory test as they had the year before. “Who can’t count backwards by seven? You just subtract 10 and add three.” Now that she actually has dementia both of us have relaxed. It doesn’t seem that terrible. People are willing to help out. It requires a lot of trust and resilience, but there’s still laughter and awe.

Now that I’m hitting middle age and can’t multi-task like I used to, I’ve decided that this loss is really a reminder to live in the moment rather than in the fantasy of future moments. I can live for my 40s and enjoy the youth I still have. Plus my husband is really good at reminding me to take my keys, check my wallet, etc. and I have long-term care insurance. I’m all set for retirement, but will get there later. There’s no hurry.

Apr 19

Memories of my half brother

Posted on Monday, April 19, 2010 in family

I’m going to visit my brother tomorrow so I thought I’d share a few memories.

Larry is something like 18 years older than I am. I’m not even sure of his birth year, and frequently forget the name of his mother. We never lived together; he was out on his own by the time I came into the world. I didn’t even know he was my brother for several years. Parents don’t think they need to explain such things to their children. I must have assumed that Larry was a cousin or something. In all the stories I knew—like Dick and Jane—siblings always lived together and were of the similar ages. I think it was a Sunday school teacher who informed me that that I actually had a brother and two sisters instead of just the one sister at home.

I recall having a hard time understanding what it meant to have this new brother and new sister—both already married. I latched on to the fact that they are my half-brother and half-sister. They were full brother and sister to each other, but only half to me and my other sister.

When Larry visited after I learned this amazing fact, I recall repeating it to his face. And I kissed him a lot—perhaps out of guilt over my prior ignorance. I know that I overdid it. Someone reprimanded me for my behavior. But that was better than what happened when I told my oldest sister’s son that his mother was my sister. He insisted that I was wrong and punched me in the face.

I do recall one event in which Larry really acted like a brother. During one visit he got me down on the floor in the living room and tickled me until I cried. And like a real sister, I have not yet forgiven him for that terrorism. I do forgive him for making fun of me for not understanding algebra since he helped me with that homework during a Christmas holiday several years later.

I remember running into Larry’s wife, Mary, at the Warren County Fair one year and she introduced me to someone as her sister-in-law. Sister-in-law? That blew my mind again. Only adults have in-laws. I was too young to have an in-law. It seemed to imply some level of equality with an adult and that just did not make sense to me.

Larry and Mary visited only a few times a year. For several visits, whenever Larry got out of the car our dog would get so excited he’d tinkle all over Larry’s legs. During another visit Larry had to retrieve our rooster from the front yard.

The best visits were at Christmas. Mary and Larry would first celebrate with Mary’s family and parents who lived on the same road as my grandparents. Larry and Mary would come to our house after I was in bed. They’d sleep in the bedroom near the front stairs. I was forbidden to wake them up Christmas morning, but they always brought their dog (our dog’s mother.) So my other sister and I would get around the unreasonable restriction by waking the dog up. Then we’d wait and wait and wait while the slow-moving couple dressed, read holiday cards, made the bed, repacked, moisturized or something and got their camera ready. Then they’d go downstairs and finally call us down to finally discover what Santa brought.

They made up for their sloth by giving really good presents. They gave a lot of games. I suspect that many of these had already been played, but that was OK. I don’t recall how long they’d stay, but I do remember them being around for New Year’s at least once. Larry was very good at jigsaw puzzles and we always put on together over the holidays. He finished one too early. He also once brought champagne over for New Year’s Eve and that was the first alcohol I ever saw. It seemed very sophisticated and exotic to me.

It was great fun to visit them. They always had good games and interesting houses. They lived in a city. A real city. So even locating their house was fun. And unlike my oldest sister, they didn’t have kids my age to fight with.

Larry and Mary adopted their children after I was old enough to enjoy having a nephew and niece. Their baby son was so pink and cute and adorable. And when their daughter came I was big enough to carry her, bounce her, and experience baby vomit.

I have another memory of Larry that confused me. His life choices were judged rather harshly by extended family members. Larry went to college and studied art. I learned from others that this was a frivolous and reckless decision. It seems to have made him an outsider. I’ll have to ask him if he ever heard any of this. Because they were wrong, of course.

I’ve probably only seen Larry a handful of times since I’ve been an adult. I look forward to hearing his distinctive laugh on this visit. And learning a little more of his family memories.

Jan 17

My mother’s passing

Posted on Sunday, January 17, 2010 in fears, Mom

My mother hasn’t died yet, but she is passing away already. She’s sleeping more and translating the activities of the present and past less fluently.

Monday she obsessed about a brown blanket and the fight people had in her room over it. I asked questions to try to determine if she meant a black scarf that had come in the mail last week that I opened in her room or if this memory was about something else. As I was going through her mail I came to a full-page glossy ad and Mom got excited, saying “You found it. That’s the blanket.” So a brown blanket had never actually been delivered to her. But nevertheless the “memory” was strong for her and upseting. She wanted to just shake them (whoever they were) for fighting over something that was hers. She brought it up several times during both my visits this week.

So she’s passing away. She’s passing to places I can’t navigate. I just don’t have enough clues to use or the proper instruments. They don’t make a dementia GPS. Until now I’ve been pretty good at being able to wander through the world she’s described to me and understand it in terms of what I know about her past and how she thinks. She doesn’t seem to think the same way any longer. And her past is now murky and its pathways lost in the fog. So of it is kind of cute. She wonders how many times she was married because she’s sure it couldn’t just be that one time she remembers. Some of it is a little unsettling like when she asked me if I had a daddy.

When my father died it was all so much easier. He had been going to doctors and having tests to determine why he no longer had an appetite and it was hard to swallow. I called Mom and Dad one Mother’s Day, and Mom told me that Dad had told her not to be alarmed if he died during the night. He declared that he was through with doctors and that he was dying. He still looked healthy to me, but I took him at his word and flew to Texas to help get him hospice care.

Dad took control of the process as much as possible. He insisted on having a do not resuscitate form completed and prominently posted above his bed before he would allow a nurse into the house. He told me what to gather together in his workshop and who should get what. He eventually had the hospital bed put in the middle of the living room. He had me call a family friend and make sure that Mom could move in with her after he died. He tried to discharge all his responsibilities.

He had one big meal of catfish after I arrived and then stopped eating. He talked about WWII. He and I spent a lot of time just sitting together, with me massaging his legs and feet. We began saying good-bye, knowing exactly what we were doing. And, for the most part, doing it in silence. I have a powerful memory of laying next to him in bed and his fingers curling around in my hair. In that way he told me all I needed know and I completely accepted and acknowledged his love.

After the hospice nurse came and I explained his care schedule to him, Mom and I talked about whether or not either of us would be able to give him an overdose if he requested one. Mom didn’t think she could. I was pretty sure that I’d have a hard time, but that I could. He tried morphine once and declared that he hated the dreams it gave him and would not take it again. So neither Mom nor I ever were confronted with the reality of an administered overdose. Dad would die on his own.

Which he did, but it took several weeks. We watched him starve. This is not an easy thing to do, but it did give us time to say good-bye and understand what death means. It made me incredibly angry with death. I felt like the Grim Reaper was loafing somewhere and not doing his job. I became certain that if Dad asked for an overdose I would have given it to him. Being made to wait for death when you had already put out the welcome mat for him seemed cruel.

I’ve never thought of death as a terrible thing. Maybe because when I was in high school I was able to have a long talk with a woman who had been in and out of hospice care three times. This was a woman who was angry with death for taking so long. She was very comfortable talking about being ready to go, even while she had her nails painted every week and her lipstick applied every day. She was an amazing teacher.

I’m not sure what happens after death but I’m incredibly curious about it. It seems like it must be a great adventure. You’ll finally know the great mystery. Everyone learns it eventually, and I’m in no hurry to rush to the discovery, but I am excited about the future after life is past. I don’t know for certain that there is a new form of life after death, but I believe that there is. If there if conservation of mass, why not conservation of soul? Life is amazing and wondrous, so why not death?

So I’m not worried about Mom’s death. I think I look forward to it on her behalf. Like you’d look forward to someone’s graduation or wedding or other major life event. I’d like for death to allow her through those gates, pearly or otherwise, before she loses touch with her life here and now.

What does frighten me is that Mom’s life will become confusing, confounding and comfortless. I want her to be able to leave it while still having a sense of wonder about all that life has offered her. I want her to be able to tell me what she wants before she dies, just like Daddy did. I want to be able to give her a few last gifts before she leaves for a new world.

I feel blessed in that I don’t have anything that I wish I could say or wish I could do before Mom dies. I don’t feel like there’s anything I need to be forgiven for or to forgive.

I do hope that I get to be near her when she dies. I was holding Dad’s hand when he passed away. And Mom and I were able to wash his body before we called the hospice. That times alone with his body was very moving and healing. Mom thought she wouldn’t be able to touch the body after Daddy died. But we both found it comforting. We had already said good-bye to the man we knew and washing his body let us say good-bye to it, too. I’d like that experience again, but I think Mom might be the type of person who wants privacy when she goes. And I can respect that. It’s probably what I would choose, too.

My friends should know that after Mom does die, I won’t be grieving in the manner that seems to be expected. I’ll be excited for Mom. I’ll feel relief that I don’t have to care for her. I’ll feel relief that she’s no longer upset by things which haven’t actually happened. I’ll have her ashes in my living room, mixed in with her husband’s. I won’t have a funeral unless her friends want one. And I’ll only want people there who knew her, and who can tell funny or endearing stories about her.

After Dad died, Mom and I went to the grocery store, bought orange juice with pulp (which Dad didn’t like so Mom never bought), and came home with a carpet cleaner. Mom was ready to move on her own life because she had already said good-bye. I think I’ll be like that. So don’t be surprised if I want to celebrate a little after my mother dies. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t love her, but that I’m thrilled to see her off to the solve the great mystery.

Nov 5

Today with Mom

Posted on Thursday, November 5, 2009 in Mom

Mom understands that today is today. That is about the extent of her current concept of time.

It began months ago—even before her recent heart attacks—when she called me at 12:30 at night. She was ready for her doctor’s appointment and wondered where I was. And why it was so dark outside. She asked others if they had noticed how dark it was that day.

This confusion progressed to the point where every time she got up from her bed, even if she had lain down only for a few minutes, she thought she should get dressed and have breakfast. This would be fine since breakfast is her favorite meal, if only people would give her cereal instead of insisting that she have soup, a sandwich or a casserole.

I don’t notice her fixatation on breakfast any longer. Perhaps getting out of bed is no longer any sort of cue.

She’s been very upset with my recent comments about how it’s going to keep getting colder outside. She thinks summer is coming. She told me she was sure that summer followed fall. She’s confused that her daughter and granddaughter aren’t busy putting in a garden. She knows that Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming soon, but not that those holidays arrive in winter. Today I asked her what the four seasons are and she could only name fall and summer, so I can see why winter is so frustrating for her.

She’s also convinced that her birthday is coming up and she’ll be either 92 or 93. She isn’t sure about the age. Her birthday is in April and she’ll be 89. But since she’s believed for several years that she’ll live to age 92, I never correct her unless we’re with a doctor who might need to know the truth. She’s quite pleased with herself for being 92 and I’m pleased for her, too. I hope she makes it to that age in my reality.

It’s been great for me that her sense of time is gone. Only a couple of weeks after I moved her into assisted living I asked her how she was getting along there. She acted surprised and reminded me that she’s been there for months. She will talk about things that happened there last year. Sometimes those things are happenings from 2 years ago or 10 years ago. So I have no guilt about the move because she adapted to the change immediately, if not before then.

She seems to know that she was born in Illinois and moved to Minnesota. She rarely remembers living in Florida, but often remembers living in Texas. She knows that she loved it there. She just can’t place it in any time frame. Usually she talks about things that happened during that time as having happened in Illinois which she left in 1973.

Distance is also confusing. The dining room and front door are downstairs in her mind even though her building is all on one floor. She knows that she once lived in Maple Plain. She still lives in Maple Plain but feels that she’s a long way away from her former home.

I’m thankful that she still puts her clothes on in proper order (as far as I know.)

What’s really strange is that she can’t remember my husband’s name most of the time, but she knows that he’s leaving soon to go to Georgia. Maybe she just thinks he’s always leaving. (That’s pretty much true. He seems to be training somewhere every year.)

All this confusion about time and space doesn’t seem to bother her much. I can’t imagine just accepting it or being able to function. It’s a terrifying concept for me, but it just seems puzzling for Mom.

My last observation from today’s visit is that while Mom is really an angel, her toenails would better suit a demon. I think I’m going to hire someone to trim them. Maybe a farrier.

Sep 24

A caregiver’s confessions

Posted on Thursday, September 24, 2009 in Me, Mom

I didn’t want to visit my mother yesterday. I was glad that her doctor had gotten ill and her appointment had to be rescheduled. I wouldn’t have to see her. I’d had a week of vacation and then saw my mother just two days prior and took her for an echocardiogram. Wasn’t that enough? But I didn’t feel like any of that was an excuse. Mom is still quite delightful most of the time, so that wasn’t an excuse either. I just didn’t want to see her again this week. Of course, I made the 45-minute drive out there anyway. And stayed for only 15 minutes more than it took me to get there.

Mom has always been very independent. She turned down several marriage proposals and never even said yes to my father whom she married at age 32. She married because she wanted children. I came along when she was 40. She was never my friend; always my mother. And she insisted that I, too, be independent. Vulnerability has replaced the countenance of strength I grew used to. So it feels wrong to have her dependent on me and for me to be taking care of her.

She handled all the finances in our home and for our church. Now I’ve tried to make sure that all her bills come straight to my home. Otherwise they will be lost. I received a new check card for her in the mail today and can’t decide if I’m going to allow her to have it or not. Allow her to have it. Allow her. But she’s given her number out to scam artists before and I don’t know if she will again. Am I protecting her or restricting her by keeping the card?

To add to my confession, I must say that I applied for a full-time job this week. This feels like a betrayal of my commitment to her care. I’m lucky that I can survive without working, but I need the order and stimulation and human contact work provides. Mom might be healthy enough now that she won’t need more than a couple of doctor visits a month now. She’s walking more and seems to be breathing with more ease. So I’m hopeful.

But there always a but, a however, an on-the-other-hand. She seems to be coming out of her delirium, but that doesn’t mean that the dementia is any better. She’s lost her keys twice this week, is convinced that another woman is wearing her clothes, doesn’t recognize some of her own clothing, and is absolutely unable to determine if it’s night or day. She’s also convinced that her stomach was operated on recently. Does any of this mean that she needs me? It certainly means that I feel a need to be with her for as long as she’s able to recognize and welcome me.

Last week I resolved to not contradict Mom unless it was medically necessary. I would allow her her own reality, even if it didn’t correspond with mine or make sense to me. Then yesterday I tried to convince her that a sweater was hers by showing all the hairs on it that matched her own. And, in jest, I accused her of being anorexic because of her obsession with the size of the belly on her tiny little 87 pound frame. I think I hurt her; I know if confused her. I’m not sure that I erased all that by kissing her on the nose. But I might have. I think I still have that much power.

The power to make Mom laugh or feel love is one that I enthusiastically embrace. It makes up for the boredom of sitting with her as she looks through her purse or wonders again about where the cars go that drive by. She was always unconditional in her love for me and for my sister and I think I can reflect that back. It’s the power over her finances, her health care, her access to the world outside her assisted living home that makes me uncomfortable and uncertain.

It used to be, only a year or so ago, that if I called my mother twice during a week, she would express dismay at the frequency. She’s ask me if something was wrong. For most of my adult life she lived hundreds of miles away and we found that a monthly letter and quarterly phone call was just about the right amount of contact. We each had our own lives and these lives intersected only in our hearts and during the one- or twice-a-year visits.

So my twice-weekly visits feel like an interruption in my life. I chose not to have children and I chose a spouse with whom I can enjoy parallel play. I see my closest friends only occasionally. Perhaps I haven’t grown up enough to learn how to be generous with my time and attention for extended periods. Or maybe I’m not so selfish and am really lucky that I still experience love and affection from my mother. At some point the dementia might take that away. I could be trying to distance myself from that day by distancing myself from Mom now. I guess I’ll leave the judgment up to you readers and any psychologists in the audience.