How to Find a Legacy Within Alzheimer’s

Because October is my birthday month, my thoughts often center around the woman who birthed and raised me. Although Dad was a prominent faith figure in my growing up years, it was Mom who pushed me out of the birth canal and then pushed me to become who I am.Arlene Renken - nurse

She was a fighter and an extrovert, unlike the rest of us who liked to disappear within our private worlds to write, listen to music or find our energy in the beautiful solitude of the Oklahoma landscape.

Odd that I speak of Mom in the past tense, even though her brave heart still beats as she stares at the wall opposite her chair. That’s what Alzheimer’s does to a family. We say goodbye, one stage at a time, one regression after another so that when death finally releases our loved one – much of the grieving has already been done. “The Long Goodbye” is aptly titled.

Mom grew up poor, walked to high school (yes, miles away, even in the snow and rain) and wore the same two dresses until her Sunday dress became too worn for church. It was then relegated for school wear as her mother sewed a better one for the Sabbath or one of the cousins passed down a Sunday outfit that wasn’t yet worn out.

As part of her legacy, Mom was determined none of her children would ever be ashamed of their clothes or feel embarrassed because they didn’t fit in. So she learned how to sew, spread out the material on the farmhouse floor, cut, pinned and put together whatever clothes we needed to look like we had some cash in the bank.

Then she made certain that each of us understood the importance of a quality education so that we would never feel the sting of poverty. We grew up with a solid work ethic, attended college, saved our pennies and never bought anything we didn’t really need.


It was a simpler time – a beautiful segment of history, without traffic snarls, school shootings or adultery in every family tree. I miss it every day.


Mom was willing to live in an old farmhouse and fix it up gradually, learning how to wallpaper and restore old pieces of furniture. Much of our house looked like the early-attic variety, but none of us minded. It was a safe place to grow up although cold in the winter and hot in the summer. But who minded when the kitchen smelled like fresh-baked bread, the fields sprouted a golden harvest that supported us all year and the animals taught us about life and death.

As a registered nurse, Mom followed the habits of “old school” nursing. Always dressed in white, her uniform and hat starched and gleaming, her white shoes and hose the perfect accessory. In those days, no jewelry was allowed except a simple wedding band.

But Mom, always a bit of a radical, wore a cross necklace under her slip. “To remind me I’m working as a Christian,” she said. “To keep me focused on what matters when I have to clean someone’s bottom or tell a family their child just died.”

Strength of character. Rock solid faith. Those qualities are hard to imagine in the woman who now rocks back and forth and accuses strangers of stealing her digital clock.

Yet it was those very qualities that taught me how to work well even when no one is watching, how to pray my guts out, how to deal with life when it hurts by working hard and moving forward, how to fight against traditions that are based only on men’s interpretations rather than the powerful voice of God.

Even now, as I have journeyed through a faith crisis and wondered how to find a church that will accept my calling – I know Mom would understand. If I could just communicate with her, she would get that steely gleam in her eye and tell me to “Stop whining. Just get busy and do it.”

She was probably one of the first parents who envisioned the concept of giving your children roots and wings. She taught us well, then let us go and cheered us whether we succeeded or learned hard life lessons through failure.

Never demonstrative with her love, if anyone attacked her kids – they would face the wrath of a woman who knew how to struggle through the worst of life’s catastrophes and conquer them through sheer determination and grit.

No one dare beat up her kids, either emotionally or physically. She would stand tall in her 5’8” frame and declare, “One more word, and I’ll jerk a knot in you.”

So I am proud of the legacy Mom has shared with me, a strength of character that dares to question the establishment yet humbly accepts God’s will.

Even in the shadows of Alzheimer’s, I see Mom’s resolve to finish her course well, to find contentment in the every dayness of Bingo, planned meals and assigned seats during movie night.

The strong woman who raised me still exists somewhere deep within, even though the outer shell gains fragility, age spots and graying hairs.

The legacy continues. Thanks, Mom.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G Books http://www.crossrivermedia.com/portfolio/1624/gallery/fiction/

Necks vs. Brains

A few weeks ago, I read Nora Ephron’s memoir about aging: “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” With her usual wit and masterful use of the English language, Nora wrote honestly about her own aging issues.Nora Ephron

She included essays about the neck and how it quickly turns from smooth, soft skin into something resembling a turkey wattle. Also included were humorous details about how we disguise age with hair dye, moustache bleach and various versions of face lifts and Botox.

I laughed at Nora’s descriptions and agreed with her assumptions that at some point, no one cares how old we are or how well we disguise it.

But I wondered if Nora might have also included some essays about the aging of the brain and how that worry can overwhelm all the physical symptoms of living beyond 50.

Did Nora ever experience the sudden lapse of a long-remembered name when she could picture a childhood friend but could not for the life of her – recall the name?

Did she ever make frequent visits to her file cabinet to look up something she had just looked up five minutes ago?

Did this talented writer and long-time journalist ever forget a word and wonder where her brain catalogued it?

Did she ever fear that words, phrases and sentences might someday become lost within the aging plaque of her brain – thus deleting her writing career?

Maybe writing about brain aging was a little too scary, too painfully honest to include in this book. And maybe Nora remained gratefully alert even to her dying moments, God rest her soul.

But she did indicate a slight worry when she wrote, “Is life too short or is it going to be too long?”

Nora’s book provided a humorous recess between my visits to Mom in assisted living and celebrating the holidays with my Oklahoma family.

But with Alzheimer’s attacking my mother’s brain and dementia pulsing through my father’s genes, the aging I worry about is much scarier than grey hair or wrinkles.

With the dangers of brain atrophy and what that might involve, I will be grateful if the only part of me that ages is my neck.

©2013 RJ Thesman – “The Unraveling of Reverend G” – http://amzn.to/11QATC1

Saturday Sisters

SAMSUNGWe’ve done life together, these five women and I. Once part of the same church fellowship, we became a team. They interceded for me and supported me when I served as  international minister at KU. They continue to intercede and support me in my ministries as writer and life coach.

We’ve laughed together and cried together as women do so well. All it takes is a phone call or an email to bring us together either physically or in prayer.

They are warriors, each and every one, ready to fight for each other, provide intervention when needed and encouragement when we don’t even know that’s what we need.

With this group of women, I can be real. I talk about my fears and my troubles without having to wrap them around Bible verses or a mask of faith.

My Saturday sisters understand. We share some of the same aches and pains yet we explore hope together, knowing we are headed for a better life in eternity.

Once a month we meet, on a Saturday. We put together a spontaneous pot luck, reconnect, hug and record prayer requests. We nurture each other as we check up on our needs and our joys. We bring special recipes and understand when one or more of us just can’t think of a single thing to cook. We keep each other accountable in faith and in the realities of life.

These Saturday sisters live out authenticity and know how to be real.

Two of us struggled through mid life divorce while the other four have lived many years with the same husband. We’ve prayed each other through those situations, too – through perseverance and heartache, joy and frustration.

Three of us know the pain of dealing with a parent who has Alzheimer’s. They tell me their stories so I can learn and include new passages in my books. We hope and pray that we won’t have to face the same battle ourselves.

We have prayed for each others’ children and grandchildren for they, too, have been underlined on our prayer lists. It feels as if we have raised six families together and indeed, we have needed each others’ village.

Some day I may write a book about my Saturday sisters and honor each of them in chapters that speak of their gifts and our bond of friendship.

I love them each, and I love them all together. Every time we meet, I consider it a blessing to peer into their pure hearts. And I respect how they love me back, just for who I am.

©2013 RJ Thesman – “The Unraveling of Reverend G” – http://amzn.to/11QATC1