Mom’s Unchanging Smile

One of her long-time friends visited Mom in the assisted living facility. This was a friend who attended church with us and served with Mom on several committees.

When her friend entered the room, Mom looked up and smiled – as if she remembered the years of service together, the sharing of Mennonite foods and the fellowship in a crowded sanctuary.

The smile remained fixed even as Mom’s eyes registered surprise.old woman

The three of us chatted about the weather. Mom repeated the same phrase several times, “So cold now. The ice…that’s what you have to be careful of.”

The friend and I reminisced about another friend who had recently graduated to heaven. We talked about family and generations of connections, the folks who traveled a distance for the funeral, the nice service, the beautiful music.

Mom’s smile remained in the same upturned pose. She seemed a world away.

The friend asked about Mom’s activities. “Do you like the food here?”

“Oh, yes. Wonderful food. I think I’m getting fat.”

We all laughed. My slender mother has never struggled with her weight. Her only weight gains over the years were the pregnancies of her three children and even then, she gained a mere eight pounds.

Mom’s smile widened. She seemed to enjoy the echoes of our laughter even though she may not have comprehended the humor. It’s odd how a smile conveys a compliant spirit even as memory hides behind walls of dementia-covered plaque.

Then a break in the conversation – one of those lulls where no one knows what to say because every appropriate subject has been covered.

Mom filled in the gaps with the same statement as before. “The ice…you have to be careful of ice.”

The friend reached for her coat and found her gloves tucked into her pockets. She hugged Mom good-bye, then hugged me. Her whisper touched my cheek with the slight smell of peppermint gum. “I’ll pray for your mother, for all of you. Alzheimer’s is a such a terrible disease.”

“Thank you. We appreciate that.”

As she left, Mom’s smile began to fade as her eyes widened. “Who was that?” she asked.

“Your friend from church. You used to be in the same Sunday School class. You met every week and served in the women’s ministry. She was a good friend.”

“I see,” said Mom, but her eyes registered no remembrance.

Then she turned toward the winter-frosted window and smiled.

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

Finding the Light

During Christmas break, I sit in Mom’s house, a mile away from where she now lives in assisted living, an experience away from her new existence within the world of Alzheimer’s.

Shadows play against the wall. Sunset in Oklahoma still wins as my favorite part of the day.

I once climbed my special tree on the family farm, perched alone with my journal in one of my favorite spots, a nest of branches and limbs that held me safely as I watched the turquoise sky that framed the wheat field turn into a frame of orange and red.

Now within Mom’s house, I worship the creator of a new sunset as it changes a taupe wall to a natural painting of shadow on light.shadows of plant

The shadows grow deeper for Mom within her Alzheimer’s world even as they lengthen for my siblings and I. We observe Mom’s confusion and recognize more signs of the coming stages.

Our mother disappears into Alzheimer’s land. Our world changes once again as memory fades and communication alters.

Another 24 hours is spent, and I wonder about my own life, my own calendar of events. How should I live in this new year so that each sunset brings with it a contentment that I lived this day well, that I finished my course with joy and purpose?

How can I live so that when my own shadows lengthen and deepen, the light I have shared will be what is remembered – my legacy to the world for my God?

None of us is certain of our timelines. We can only attempt to do our best, to live and love and work with pride, to complete the tasks before us and honor the One who gives us the energy to work, to live and love.

We can only commit to a stronger and higher calling so that when the sunset comes, we will rejoice in the light that dances at the end of the day.

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

3 Inevitable Emotions of Caregiving

It happens every time.

 

As soon as I turn away from my mother’s door in assisted living and walk down the hallway – away from her, the emotions hit me. You’d think I would be used to them by now. For ten years my family struggled with Dad’s dementia and all the accompanying emotions. Now that Mom has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I should expect the same feelings.

 

But still – the emotions grip my soul and I cry all the way to the car – then sit in the driver’s seat until my vision is no longer blurry.

 

When we become caregivers, certain emotions come to live with us. One of these emotions is sadness. The long goodbye, aka Alzheimer’s, triggers a sadness unlike any other grief I have suffered. It is not the unexpected grief of a sudden loss – a miscarriage, unemployment or illness – but rather the day-by-day grief steps caused by the regressive nature of the disease.

 

Even though Mom remembers me today, she will someday forget how to introduce me to her friends in assisted living. Sad, but true.

 

Another sadness lies ahead. If Mom does not graduate to heaven within the next few years, we will have to relocate her to the nursing home section of the facility.

 

“Never put me in a nursing home.” I can still hear the echo of her plea.

 

Sadness reinforces the truth that at the end of this particular journey, my siblings and I will be orphans.  Grief will multiply.

 

3 emotions caregivingAnother emotion, rejection, surfaces every time Mom forgets a memory that is important to me. “Remember when?” is no longer a game we play. And when Mom does hesitate with my name, rejection swallows logic.

 

I know she doesn’t mean to reject me. Somewhere, cached in her soul is my baby face, her firstborn. But I miss our shopping trips and the way we used to talk about the books we were reading. I no longer hear her laughter, because she can’t comprehend jokes anymore. When I send her cards and she shows them to me, clearly imprinted with my signature, then tells me they are from someone else – I feel rejected.

 

Although sadness and rejection bring pain, guilt is the emotion that tortures me.

 

No, Mom, we never wanted to put you into assisted living, but you couldn’t live alone anymore, and all of us work long hours. No one else can take care of you. I’m sorry and I hate it. I feel guilty.

 

When I hug her goodbye and tell her I have to go back to Kansas, she can’t understand why I’m leaving. Reality screams that my work is a state away, and my life cannot make room for my mother. I am the long-distance caregiver in the family, demoted by miles and the work I cannot do anywhere else. Guilty again.

 

Even while writing this post, I feel guilty that my emotions are front and center when Mom deals bravely with her own fear, rejection and sadness.

 

It helps to journal about these caregiving emotions, include them in my next book, or vent with a friend. The emotions of caregiving are now my reality, and I know they affect me deeply because they are foreshadowed by love. If I didn’t love my mother so much, I wouldn’t care.

 

And because I love her, I’m sad that she can’t be who she used to be.

 

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

 

Mom Walks Tall

As a child, I thought my mother was literally ten feet tall. At 5’8”, she towered over me both in height and in authority.

During the last few years, osteoporosis has reduced her to almost the same height as me, 5’4”. Now we look at each other on equal footing, although I still emotionally look up to her.

Lately, Mom has seemed taller again – or maybe she’s just feistier.

For several months, she seemed content with her apartment in assisted living. “You’re so lucky,” I told her. “This is such a beautiful place.” I thought about Cove Creek, the assisted living facility in my book and how much Reverend G loves it.3D Rev G cover

“I don’t have to cook or clean here,” Mom said. “The food is good.”

But during my recent visit, Mom regressed back to the anger she felt when we first moved her. “I want to go home,” she repeated. “I can’t believe I’m here.”

No amount of placating seemed to help. None of my comments about how lucky she is made a dent in her attitude. She was back to anger and frustration, both of us ignoring the fact that Alzheimer’s would keep her out of her home for the rest of her earthly life.

Yet her dogged determination still persisted and in spite of everything, she complied with what we told her to do, especially when we came to pick her up and take her to an event. “Put in your hearing aid, Mom.” “You’d better put on a sweater. It’s cold outside.” “You’ll need your scarf. It’s windy.”

But I could tell that anger waited, right below the surface, along with confusion and the strange reality that is now her life.

After a family lunch together, we drove Mom back to the facility. She stepped out of the car and let me hug her, but she wouldn’t say, “I love you,” even though I said it first. I wanted so desperately to hear her say it. “I’m going back to Kansas,” I reminded her.

Won’t you please tell me that you love me? Can’t you forget the anger for a moment?

Instead, she walked away with that perfect posture back into the building – her shadow reflected on the windows as she proceeded down the hallway – back to her apartment, back to the place she doesn’t want to be.

I don’t want you there, either, and I don’t want you to struggle with Alzheimer’s.

I want to see her standing tall again over the kitchen sink or planting flowers in the garden or hanging wash on the line. My mother shouldn’t be 85 years old with her complexion as white as her hair.

This is not fair, God. I can’t stand it, and I’m sure Mom can’t either.

I wonder…what does she do during the nighttime hours? Does she cry for the life she once had or has she forgotten it entirely? Does she remember the confusion, how she passed out and needed a pacemaker? Does she realize the doctor told us she could no longer live alone?

Does she ever think of us, her children, and how we are feeling about this difficult family dynamic?

Does she know how proud I am of her that she still walks tall?

What Alzheimer’s Teaches – Part 1

oneAs a Christian, I try to focus on the positives in life – those creative surprises that God brings out of any situation.

He promises that he can bring something good out of our struggles. We look for the good. We trust that He knows a better way.

Truthfully, a belief in the positives has not been easy as I’ve watched my mother disappear into the shadows of Alzheimer’s Disease. This trial seems to bear with it only the negatives, the sorrow and the unending disappearance of memory and identity.

But on days when I feel stronger, I consider what Alzheimer’s has taught me. What has been one of the emotional or spiritual benefits? What have I learned by observing this disease that gradually takes my mother away?

Patience.

Answering the same questions over and over taxes my patience, but then I think about the question from my mother’s point of view. For her, it isn’t the same question. It’s a new question every few minutes.

If I stop, breathe and wait for some inspiration from God, I sometimes create a new way to answer Mom’s questions. Or I change the subject and lead her into a different conversation where we start all over.

It helps me to search for patience when I realize there will come a day when Mom’s questioning will stop. She will no longer be able to formulate sentences. She will stop speaking entirely, and I will miss the sound of her voice.

That helps me find motivation for patience while we’re both still existing in the present tense.

When she forgets how to put in her hearing aid, I observe the patience of my sister instructing Mom once again.

When she can’t find the slippers we just bought her, patience helps us look for them.

When she no longer knows what day it is, even though we’ve circled it on the calendar – patience whispers, “Tuesday, Mom. It’s still Tuesday.”

Reverend G might counsel us from her own viewpoint, “Please be patient with me. I don’t mean to be forgetful. 3D Rev G coverIn fact, I once knew everything about each of you. But this disease has changed me, so please wait patiently with me while I go through another stage.

“Honor me for the mother I once was, for the many ways that I helped you remember to do your homework and take out the trash – for the many times I reminded you of meetings and how I made sure you made it to church on time.

“Be patient with me as I wait for the sunset of another day and hope this will be that special date on the heavenly calendar when I join my Jesus in heaven.

“Hold me close and answer my questions, because then I’ll know you’re trying to communicate with me.

“Remember how patient I was with you as you learned to tie your shoes, brushed your teeth and practiced on that squeaky violin. My heart needs you to be patient now in return.

“Strive for patience because that is what Jesus asks you to do, and when I hear the frustration in your voice – it hurts my feelings and it hurts him, too.

“Have faith that someday the need for patience will end. I will no longer respond at all, but somewhere in the pockets of my soul – I will remember you and smile.”

Saga of the Towels

Every towel in Mom’s house was worn thin and bleached out. Drying off after a shower felt like rubbing sandpaper all over my body – great for exfoliation, not so great for comfort.

So I decided to update my mother’s towels. I bought Mom a beautiful set of pastel blue towels, embroidered with a band of royal blue flowers. Blue – her favorite color, and a bargain at K-Mart.towels

She loved the towels and promised to use them. I planned to buy her another set for her birthday, then Mother’s Day and Christmas – to gradually help her replace all her towels.

But Alzheimer’s set in, and Mom forgot where she put things. She started to hoard and hide. She gave away things she was supposed to keep and kept items that should have been trashed.

Her pots and pans? A daily search for the right cabinet. Her car registration form? In the bottom of the dumpster. The beautiful towels I gave her – a mystery.

When I visited, I asked her, “Where are the pretty blue towels? Haven’t you been using them?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said.

We searched in all the logical places: the linen closet, the laundry, even the top of Mom’s closet where she hides things she might some day use. No blue towels anywhere. I wondered if she gave them away or if they somehow landed in the trash can.

I wavered between anger at the loss of my gift and sadness for the disease that stole away so much of my mother.

What was the point of buying new towels for someone who forgot where she put them? Once again, I dried off with the same old sandpaper fabric.

Then we had to admit Mom to the assisted living facility where someone else took care of her laundry, including her towels. She seemed content. No worries and no memories.

The next time I traveled to Oklahoma, I stayed night in the family home. “Look what I found,” my sister said as she handed me a bundle of fuzzy comfort. Once Mom moved out of the house, it was easier to find things she had hidden in corners and crevices.

I hurried to the privacy of the bedroom, buried my face in the beautiful blue towels and grieved for another lost piece of my mother.

©2013 RJ Thesman

Finding Gabriel

Readers sometimes ask me, “Where do you find your characters?”

Usually, that’s easy. I find them in coffee shops, in airports, on college campuses – and I sometimes wake up with a character who invaded my dreams.

But one particular character lives with me and doesn’t mind that I used her as a major part of my novel, “The Unraveling of Reverend G.”

Years ago, I read about a cat who was on the staff of an assisted living facility in Rhode Island. This cat had the uncanny ability to sense when one of the residents was near death, allowing the staff to contact family members.

I just happened to read that article, but somehow God kept it cached in my memory.

So when my novel started to take shape, I knew I wanted a cat to be part of the plot line – a cat who had the same type of gift.

I did my research and contacted medical professionals. Yes, such a thing was not only possible but they had seen it happen. Yes, in their opinions, such a cat would make an interesting character.

But what breed of cat? As a farm girl from Oklahoma – where the wind comes sweeping down the plains – I have known and loved various breeds of cats. Everything from Siamese to calico to the mixed blood of the typical barn cat.

As I pondered Gabriel’s breed, my own cat jumped on the laptop and proceeded to type //////////// across the page.

Of course, right in front of me was the furry answer.

BetsyMy own cat, Betsy, is a beautiful tortoiseshell – a rescue cat who was given to me by my sister. She arrived on July 4th, hence the name Betsy Ross.

Although my Betsy, unlike her historic counterpart, knows nothing about flags, she knows how to curl up and snuggle for a 16-hour nap. She is smart and extremely verbal. She lets me know when she’s hungry and reminds me when it’s time to go to bed. She even has a different meow when my son comes home, so I know he’s safe.

As Betsy became my inspiration for Gabriel, I changed the gender of the cat in my book, to protect her anonymity. Oddly enough, when I haven’t included Gabriel in plot lines or chapters, Betsy is the one who reminds me.

She jumps on the laptop, signs in with her /////////////// or even *********** and once – she stepped on the power button and turned me off.

I guess she’s become not only a character, but also my feline editor.

©2013 RJ Thesman