When Hope Lives in Third Person

The inevitable happened. I just wasn’t ready for it – yet.

This summer of 2017 seems rampant with the unexpected.piano keys

A visit with my mother in assisted living and BAM – another unavoidable side effect of Alzheimer’s Disease.

She no longer knew me.

“Hi, kiddo,” her greeting for everyone who enters her room.

As we started talking, I knew the connection had failed. I was being addressed in third person.

“My oldest daughter lives in Saint Louis,” she said. “She works there. I forget what she does.”

“I’m a writer, Mom. And it’s Kansas City – not Saint Louis.”

No response. No affirmation. Just a tilt of her head and a puzzled look. “Who are you married to now?”

Now? As if I’ve been married several times with a revolving door for relationships. Who am I in her plaque-infested brain? Okay. I can play this game. Mom will forget this conversation five seconds after I leave.

“Who are you married to now?”

“Colin Firth.” Might as well make it good.

“Oh. Does he treat you right?”

“Yes. He’s the best.”

“Does he know how to use the litter box?” Somehow Mom switched from Colin to cats.

“Uhm – yes. He’s British and they’re trained to properly use the litter box.”

Before we could continue this ridiculous conversation, Mom was called to the dining room for supper. I decided to sit at her table, even if she didn’t know me.

She introduced me to the rest of the residents, “This is my company.”

Company – a safe term. No connection. No relationship.

A sweet lady on my left asked, “Do you play piano? Could you play my favorite song?”

I wondered if she asked everyone that question or did she somehow assume that I knew how to play. She adjusted her walker and I followed her to the piano. “Please play ‘There’s Something About That Name’,” she said with a slight catch in her throat.

Give this lady some joy and play her favorite song. Maybe it will help erase the fact that my mother is unaware of who I am, carefully spooning into her chili and cornbread mixture.

So I started playing the song, then joined in a decent duet, singing with my new friend. We segued into “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “Amazing Grace.”

From the other side of the room, I watched Mom rest her chin on her hands, her face a beatific spread of happiness – enjoying the music. Did she suddenly remember all the years of piano lessons, as she sacrificed time and money so I could learn what she had always longed to do?

I wanted to memorize her face, to never forget the contentment reflected there – not certain I would ever see it again.

Thank you, Mom, for making piano lessons possible for me. I’m giving joy to this unknown woman beside me, but I’m playing for you, Mom – the daughter you no longer know.

The mini-concert ended and I returned to Mom’s table. Another woman asked her, “Is this your daughter?”

Mom just shrugged.

We walked back to her room, and I kissed her goodbye. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Okay,” she said, already punching the TV remote, oblivious as to what “soon” means. It will be months before I make the trip back to Oklahoma from Kansas City.

Not Saint Louis. Not so soon.

And when I return, will a blip of memory reappear? Or is the knowledge of who I am gone forever?

Have I mentioned how much I hate Alzheimer’s?

©2017 RJ Thesman, Author and Writing Coach

Sometimes They Forget

 

How does a family deal with caregiving 24/7? What does the Long Good-bye involve and what are some practical tips for dealing with it? “Sometimes They Forget” helps us find hope as caregivers in the Alzheimer’s Journey. Order your copy here. 

 

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When Connections Alter Hope

She seems more content now with her life in assisted living, but the contentment itself tears her farther away from family.

Have I mentioned how much I hate Alzheimer’s?

Several weeks ago, I drove 250 miles to be with family – a precious time with siblings, extended family at a reunion and quality time with Mom.

But my plans did not fit in with the plaque-infested changes in her brain. My plans included several hours in her room catching up, a walk around the lake to watch the ducks and geese placidly float, maybe a stroll through the facility – greeting her friends.

Instead, she dismissed me. “Thanks for coming. ‘Bye.”

So instead of parking my car and walking arm in arm into the facility, I watched as she opened the door – all by herself – and walked inside.

A few months ago, she stood at the door and waved goodbye. Not this time. Once inside the comfort of her routine, she marched toward her room.

Away from the door. Away from me.

On one hand, I am grateful she has acclimated to her studio apartment. She feels comfortable with the activities planned for each day and the white-haired friends who sit beside her in the dining room.

These people now represent her world and the building has become her home. I am only an occasional visitor – a person from her past who sits next to her until she grows tired of me. Then the inevitable dismissal, “Thanks for coming. ‘Bye.”

Alzheimer’s Disease not only steals the memories and names of loved one, it also alters familiar patterns. The relationships that once defined our lives become blurred in the needs of the present.

The shopping trips we shared, the laughter around a game of Scrabble, cheering together for our favorite team – all these familiar activities now relegated to a life once lived.

And the people who colored those events are now just human beings who happen to be visiting. The familial connections fade. The absence of recognition will soon follow.

Time with others is precious, especially while we know how to communicate and relate to each other. Once that connection disappears, we have only the memories to treasure.

Enjoy your time with family while everyone still understands what family means.

©2017 RJ Thesman, Author of “Sometimes They Forget” and the Reverend G Trilogy

 

 

 

 

The House of Sickness Waiting

Something about houses attracts me. I notice Tudors with their brick facings, happy bungalows – especially the ones with porch swings – cottages framed by specialty gardens.ranch house

And I am writing my memoir focused around the theme of various houses in which I have lived. Maybe I should have become a realtor.

The house Mom bought, then had to leave behind, is a typical Oklahoma ranch style. When dementia first began to squeeze its nasty tentacles around Dad, Mom felt as if she needed to get Dad off the farm and into the safety of town. Neither of them could fully operate the farm anymore and when dementia stole Dad’s vocation from him, Mom made the final decision.

They settled into the brick ranch and lived there as Mom nursed him and my sister Kris helped her for 10 shadowy years. Then on a gentle spring day in May, the angel of death took Dad away.

Mom stayed, unwilling to move anywhere else. In fact, she announced one day, “My next move will be to the cemetery.”

Ah – if only it had been that simple.

The ranch home evolved into a pain-enshrouded house as my sister’s beloved cat, Champ, sickened and Kris had to put him down. What an oxymoron of love and pain when we have to call the vet and schedule a death – yet in the doing of it – we exhibit the release of love for our furry babes.

The ranch then became the forecaster of Mom’s next move as she began forgetting the location of pots and pans, the important bills she threw away, the pills she counted numerous times before swallowing.

It was in the ranch house where Mom passed out, her brave heart needing the extra pulsing of a pacemaker, her head bleeding from where she banged it when she fell.

When she had to leave – a series of ambulance rides transported her from the hospital to the nursing home rehab and later to her studio apartment in assisted living.


Meanwhile, the house of sickness waiting remained. Mom never had a chance to tell it good-bye.


The yard is its best feature, a surrounding halo of plantings – zinnias, pansies and the four o’clocks that actually open at four o’clock each day.

I like the house, usually finding a slice of serenity inside when I visit family. Although it is a bit weird to sleep in the bed in which I was conceived, I gaze at pictures on the walls and remember when we gave them to Mom and Dad. I hang my clothes in the closet and touch hangers that hold Mom’s winter coat, a suit she no longer wears, a knit shirt with embroidered daisies – some of the threads barely hanging on to their frayed outlines.

Mom’s brush and comb still wait for her on the dresser, flanked by doilies her mother crocheted, their white loops now fading into the yellows of the past. Mom’s massive mahogany furniture which none of us will want –  a sturdy pronunciation of her style.

But Mom never seems to miss the ranch house. She only remembers the farm as her home where she raised three children, cooked harvest meals and hung clothes to flap on the line like fabric silhouettes of each family member.

This place – this emotional shelter, safe within its strength yet even now scented with illness and Mom’s shadowed existence foreboding.

My sister is now the keeper of the ranch house. It serves its purpose of shelter for her, of last memories where our parents aged out in its rooms. Yet it also continues to play out its description as the house of sickness waiting.

Kris struggles with arthritic pain and several types of joint diseases which emit a pain I cannot imagine. She limps through the house, taking care of her cats and the neighbor’s pets, then ambles outside to feed the birds and pull  weeds from the gardens her green thumb has created.

The flag she painted on barn tin bears the symbol and colors of the University of Oklahoma. Inside the house, the walls record screams of pleasure whenever the Sooners do their thing and score multiple touchdowns per game.

The personality of this house follows me whenever I drive away. I am left with a sense of gratitude that my sister is safe within its walls – at least for now – until as she says, “The body gives out.”

Then we will know that somehow – in that house – our family made an imprint on the earth.

Houses become the measurements of years as each place serves a purpose. And within each place, we wait for that final call home that contains no walls, needs no paint and provides the freedom where our spirits roam.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Hope Claims Royalty

tiaraThis week, Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. As I watched her presenting the royal wave to her subjects, I imagined my mother sitting in her magenta chair at assisted living, adjusting her imaginary tiara and smiling for Elizabeth II.

But in the solitude of her apartment, I doubt Mom was even aware that the British monarch walked among adoring crowds and cut dainty pieces from luxurious cakes.

Mom has always loved British history. She read all the novels and biographies about famous Brits and gathered an amazing volume of information about our “homeland’ across the channel.

Ask her about the numerous wives of Henry VIII, and she could recite them all – in order – as well as the circumstances of their unfortunate demise when they failed to produce a male heir. Poor Henry never knew it was the deficit of his own sperm.


Mom felt such a kinship to Elizabeth, she often declared, “It should have been me, you know. We were switched at birth.”


The year we toured Europe, Mom experienced a special euphoria when our Eurail pass transported us to England. We stood for hours outside Buckingham Palace, hoping for a glimpse of the queen. Her flag waved in the drippy London sky, but she did not appear. Disappointed but grateful, Mom said, “Well at least we saw where she lives.”

When we strolled through the lovely town of Westminster, Mom stood quietly for a moment as a trolley passed. Then she shook her head and smiled broadly. “I can’t believe I’m actually here. I’m seeing this in person.” Years of reading and dreaming had finally merged into reality.

The Tower of London made her sad. English crumpets and tea provided a culinary thrill and when we boarded the train for France, Mom sighed and said, “Trip of a lifetime.”

Mom would have enjoyed the Queen’s birthday this week and all the celebrations depicted on television. But in her quiet Alzheimer’s world, our trip to England is probably hidden in the fog of demented plaque.

I want to believe that somehow, Mom’s soul felt a blip of joy for her majesty the queen and maybe their ethereal connection seemed more real than ever before.

I’ll never know for sure how Mom celebrated the queen’s birthday, but I am certain of one thing – my mother is also royalty, a daughter of King Jesus.

©2016 RJ Thesman  ̶  Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

 

Hope Finds 3 Stories

My mother wanted to be a writer, but the circumstances of life did not allow that dream to come true. She would have been a great wordsmith.

foggy road - treesNow that she lives in the confusing fog of Alzheimer’s, her creative juices no longer peek behind the boundaries of reality. She creates amazing stories that alternately amuse and frighten us.

During this past Easter weekend, I walked with Mom down the hallways of assisted living. Each door we passed led to the final home of a resident. It would have been a morbid trip except for the decorations outside each door – colorful symbols of something special to that resident.

One door displayed a basket full of wooden apples, painted so realistically I could almost taste the juice. However, Mom’s appetite focused more on the story she imagined.

“Those apples remind me of one day when I knocked on that guy’s door.”

Did she really do that? Probably not, but her story depended on the plausibility that she did indeed knock on that door.

“So this guy opened the door and offered me an apple, but I didn’t take one because I knew he was probably pedaling liquor in his room and maybe put some in one of the apples. I didn’t want to take that chance. It’s against the law to have liquor in your room.”

A pretty good story, filled with conflict and imagination. I tried not to laugh as we walked back to her room where Mom had another story waiting.

She told me someone had stolen her scarf. I knew this wasn’t true, because her scarf was hanging out of her coat pocket. I had helped her find it that morning before we left for church.

I could have pointed to the scarf and reminded her it was hanging in full view, but she was already half a sentence into her story.

“So this guy stole my scarf, and I ran after him and chased him outside. Then I took ice picks out of my pockets and started toward him. I stabbed him all over with my picks until he hollered. I almost stabbed his eye out but then he gave me the scarf.”

Some of the macabre stories Mom tells probably evolve from years of reading mysteries and watching “The Twilight Zone.”

The final story of the weekend was one Mom knows well and even within the shadows of confusion, she was able to share in it last Sunday.

It’s the true story of a man who was willing to give his life so that we could live abundantly – the God-man who came to earth, loved us unconditionally, then died on a wooden cross.

That man – that Jesus – did not stay dead. He came back to life where over 500 people saw him alive and became credible witnesses of the greatest miracle ever performed.

Mom knows that story well and shared in the joy of Easter Sunday. Holding her Bible, even though she can no longer find passages, she nodded her head as the pastor spoke and helped us sing, “Low in the Grave He Lay…Up from the Grave He Arose.”

Her faith and her eternal future are based on the veracity of the Easter story. Someday she will experience new life in heaven, forever free of Alzheimer’s and its horrific side effects.

We’re hanging on to that story of hope and look forward to its final resolution – the eternal resurrection for all of us.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Hope Bleeds at Sundown

sunsetWe first noticed this phenomenon with Dad. During the final stages of his dementia, dusk triggered an inward call. He rose from his chair and began pacing up and down the living room, going nowhere yet constantly moving.

His eyes shone with an almost maniacal light, as if he obeyed a substance or a creature we could not see. By that time, he no longer spoke, so we couldn’t ask him what he was looking for or where he wanted to go. It became his nightly ritual until he could no longer walk.

I fully expected him to pass away during the dusky hours, when the Oklahoma sun begins its descent into the horizon. But no, he graduated to heaven in the middle of a spring day – simply by ceasing to breathe and walking away with Jesus.

Years ago, when my mother worked as a nurse in the hospital, she told me how important it was to work the night shift and watch out for her patients. “If they’re going to die,” she said, “they’ll die at night.”

Something about the night conjures up the dark fear of death – all those spooky movies with a full moon shadowing gargantuan monsters. I find that strange, because I love sunsets and when I finally lay me down to sleep, I say, “Ah! Yes!”


But then, the scenario is different when Alzheimer’s and/or dementia capture the brain.


 

We have noticed the sundown change in Mom as well. She eats supper early, around 4:30 at the assisted living facility. Perhaps they schedule it early for a purpose, because they know what is coming for many of their residents. Shortly after supper, Mom moves into her most confused state of the day.

We know better than to visit her in the evening, because she will be concerned about the farm and what is happening there, even though she hasn’t lived in the country for many years. In the evenings, she will forget Dad has passed. She will talk about him as if he is coming into the room and she must prepare his clothes for the next day.

At dusk, Mom will argue about nonsensical things – what day it is, what year it is, whether we have already celebrated Christmas and whose name she drew and what present she bought. It doesn’t matter what we say or how we try to explain, the shutters of understanding have closed for the day. She is lost within the sunset hours.

An old hymn reminds me of the timelessness of heaven and how we will someday no longer fear any type of sundowner symptoms.

“Beyond the sunset, oh blissful morning

When with our savior, heaven is begun.

Earth’s toiling ended, oh glorious dawning

Beyond the sunset, when day is done.”

 

You can listen to the entire hymn here: Beyond the Sunset

I guess there’s a good reason hope bleeds at sundown. Maybe that’s the time believers are most restless for heaven, searching for the Savior and for their loved ones who graduated before them.

Next time I see Mom at dusk, I’ll take her hand to calm her down and say, “It’s okay, Mom. Only a few more sunsets until your journey is over. Be still. The best is yet to be.”

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Seeking Hope After Christmas

Because I love Christmas, it is always a bittersweet challenge to pack up everything, tape the boxes closed and carry Christmas to the basement.mantel after Xmas

I simply cannot endure the thought of an entire year before I pull out the twinkle lights, caress my angel collection and replay memories associated with the ornaments.

This Christmas was especially difficult as my son had to work through the holidays. I missed being with him as I remembered Christmases past and the excitement of a little boy discovering his first drum set, a giant box of Legos and a package of plastic army men.

This Christmas also brought more confusion for my mother. Her Alzheimer’s side effects seem to peak during the holidays, when I long for her to remember the daughter she sewed for, the special box of books she placed under the tree with my name on the tag, my excitement when I opened that box and knew I would soon be transported into the mysterious world of Nancy Drew.

This year, Mom didn’t even remember that Dad now lives in heaven. Our quality time was nonexistent, and when I drove her back to assisted living – she argued about living there. She couldn’t even remember why someone had given her presents.

So to preserve some joy of the season, I rearranged my pearl lights on the mantel and merged winter accessories with pine cone candles. Just a touch of Christmas to lessen the loss.

But I needed more. I have learned the best way to preserve the joy of Christmas is to proactively use my Christmas cards. I keep them in a pile beside my Bible, then each morning throughout January and February, I choose one card and pray for that person or the family that sent the card.

I remember special friends and family members, clients and colleagues by reminding God of their importance in my life, lifting up their needs to the only one who can fulfill them.


It helps me tolerate the cold fingers of winter as I focus on the warm love of the God who transcends every season and time.


So as we move into 2016, let’s all try to find more tangible ways to seek hope.

Then next year during Christmas, we can celebrate with extra joy.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh