“What Can I Do?” a Note for Special Needs Grandparents

familyToday I got a lovely note from a reader of one of my books, who asked for advice about how to have a better relationship with her daughter and the daughter’s adolescent child, who has special needs (unspecified). Her daughter didn’t really open up to her about what life was like, and the reader asked, “What can I do? Do you have any advice?”

Here is what I said:

Here are a few things I wish someone had told me when I first got my kids, that this woman can pass along to her daughter:

  1. Raising special needs kids can be exhausting – both physically and especially emotionally. Get as much rest as you can, and take care of your body as carefully as you tends to your child’s. It’s easy to turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol and sweets – and they do feel good going down. Balance it out with salads and water, to have the strength to keep going. Embrace  opportunities to nap.
  2. Don’t forget to enjoy your child. Every challenge has its silver lining – and your child has gifts, too. It can be tempting to focus on the things they CAN’T do so you can find work-arounds and supports. But be intentional about seeking out and affirming the things they CAN do well, whether it’s singing or joke-telling or running or coloring. They need to hear this from you, because if it’s all about the “you can’t,” they will give up trying.
  3. Celebrate the small steps and successes. This is probably one of your biggest jobs of a grandparent. Cards, phone calls, outings, babysitting (parents need down time, too), little gifts, making cookies together – whatever ways you can connect with your grandchild, do it. Do it as often as you can. Show you are as proud of THIS grandchild as you are of all your others.
  4. Pray regularly for your daughter and her family. There is a loud voice going off in her head (if she’s anything like me) accusing her of all the things she isn’t doing for her daughter, all the things she SHOULD have done and didn’t, and all the bad choices she thinks she made, based on the information she had at the time. Catch her doing good for your granddaughter, and admire it out loud. Affirm her ability as a mother – both to her special needs child and to her other children (if she has any). She may not be able to see it sometimes, and she needs you to encourage her.
  5. Don’t offer advice unless asked. This is a hard one for parents. Special needs parents tend to be great researchers, and have reasons for doing the things they do that may appear strange or even neglectful to you (my parents couldn’t understand why I didn’t turn my son over my knee when he misbehaved – and there were several reasons for this, including it is illegal to use corporal punishment on a foster child). Twenty years later, the kids still struggle, but their teachers and others tell me they are good kids. Twenty years from now, no doubt your granddaughter’s “circle” will say the same thing. So continue to affirm the good you see her doing, and keep your mouth closed in the tough spots. Follow her directions carefully, as the mom. It’s okay to ask questions for clarification or understanding – but not to second-guess her mothering.
  6. Did I mention, pray for your daughter and her family? Pray for her marriage, too. In fact, offer a rosary every day for her and her husband. That is the one most important thing you could do.

 

I hope that helps!

 

Heidi

Praying Across America: Our Adventure Begins

Craig has a dream. He wants to see all 47 of the National Parks in the continental U.S. with me and whichever family members are around to enjoy it.

I have a dream, too. I want to see my husband fulfill his dream without giving up running water and indoor plumbing. Or beds with actual sheets and pillows.

Is that too much to ask? As it turns out … not at all!  See?

  • Jayco 212QB 2019

This little beauty will be ours on Friday. That and the vehicle Craig is picking up as I type this, large enough to pull it from state to state.

Would you like to come along with us? I’d love that. I’ve set up a special page here where you can follow along. Feel free to send us your tips (or a shout out for a visit, if it looks like it will be in your area … Did I mention this thing has a picnic awning?). We can only travel about 200-300 miles a day. So we won’t get there fast … but we will get there!

If you want to be sure not to miss an installment, feel free to add your email address to our newsletter, or friend me on Facebook. I hope to acquire a Facebook Live habit along the way. Fingers crossed.

St. Christopher, keep us in your sights as we are #livingthedream as we are #prayingacrossamerica. Our first trip begins in April!

On Making Plans: Thomas Merton Prayer

If all had gone according to plan, I would be arriving in Rome today with my husband and our friends Katy and Todd, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversaries. On Monday we would have boarded a cruise ship, which would have conveyed us across the waters to the single most important item on my bucket list: a guided tour of the Holy Land. All the while we were planning it, my heart raced to think of what it would be like to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to visit the place where heaven truly touched earth.

This was my plan. As it turns out, God had a different plan. And so, this year Craig and I hosted Thanksgiving for a small group of family and friends, while Katy prepares to take the last round of chemo. They had tried to get us to go on the trip anyway … but I had made a pact with God. “Just make her well. The trip will wait until we can go together.”

Of course, it’s a bit foolish to bargain with God, who I am sure sees how it all turns out, and even knows whether we ever get to make that trip. All our plans, seen on that scale, really don’t matter. One of the most important lessons we need to learn in this life is that there is precious little that we can control ourselves. That’s why it’s so important to learn to trust.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (Thomas Merton)

Dealing with Dementia: Don’t Forget Fun

potatoes fun knife fork

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For Labor Day, we were invited to some friends’ house for a barbecue — they are new friends from church, a young couple and their adorable ten-month-old. If those cherubic cheeks didn’t seal the deal, the fact that she asked me to make my potato salad and favorite frozen dessert gave me warm fuzzies. This kind of casual hospitality is wonderful because it (a) lets me contribute and (b) is so low-pressure: just sit out on the covered deck, sip wine and feast on burgers and sides … and if someone misbehaves, no one cares. They even invited the dogs to come and romp in their spacious back yard.

The best part was watching mom’s eyes light up as I sang silly songs to the baby … the same silly songs, I’m sure, that she once sang to me. “You look just like a grandma,” she said to me. And the thing was, I kind of reveled in it. My own teenagers sat with their faces in their phones, until Chris got bored and started playing with his dog … our eleven-year-old Aussie shepherd who chased a ball, pulled something, shrieked, and fell down.

That was when life set in again. Mom urgently needed a rest room, Craig stood to leave because two hours was the most he could spare away from his desk right now (he’s been working nonstop for the last month), and Sarah launched into a never-ending monologue about her birth family, who she would be spending Christmas with this year.

Reluctantly I got up and started clearing the dishes. It was nice while it lasted.

We all got home and went to our respective quiet places … and the next thing I  knew, three hours had passed. I had NAPPED for THREE HOURS! Probably would have kept on napping, too, if my daughter’s tumbly hadn’t started rumbling. “What’s for dinner, mom?”  I was struck by the heaviness of the quiet. I could feel the stress closing in again, like a suffocating cloud.

Craig was still at his desk. Mom needed her meds and a bath, but she was still passed out on her bed, fully clothed, having been exhausted from our excursion. Chris was perched by the dog crate, plaintively wondering aloud if Maddy needed to go to the vet. (We spent three hours that night at the animal ER.) Sarah was alternately blasting her music and screaming at us to get dinner NOW.

I whipped up a sheet of Super Nachos, heated up some leftovers for mom’s dinner … and then I dug a Buster Bar out of the fridge (half a bar is my go-to indulgence), closed my eyes, and thought about the day. I could still see my mother’s happy smile and hear the infant’s delighted chortle as I blew a loud raspberry on her tummy. My tastebuds still danced from that glass of pino grigio, juicy burgers, and my friend’s delicious green bean almond salad. Tomorrow would come — the caregivers, the workday, the chauffeuring kids hither and yon. Yes, we were likely looking at thousands of dollars if the dog needs surgery.  But today … today we made a memory.

If you are a caregiver for an elderly loved one (or younger ones with special needs, or whatever your particular situation entails), it can be easy to get caught up on the frazzle dazzle. But try not to. Try to find one thing … anything, really, to enjoy. To remember and treasure as a memory. Those bright spots are golden when the rains come, as they inevitably do.

Moms are the heart of the home, the keeper of secrets and memories. If we find a reason for joy, the rest of the family tends to follow suit. And when we give in to the dark side, home becomes a dark place indeed. So … hold on to those wine-sipping, baby giggling memories. Find something to laugh about. It matters more than you know.

 

Dancing with a Porcupine: Essential Reading for Foster and Adoptive Parents

dancing with a porcupineIf you are even thinking of becoming a foster parent, you need to read this book.

Like many people who decide to become foster parents, Jennie Owens and her husband, Lynn, were confident that love would conquer all. The trauma. The anger. The pain and loss experienced by every member of the family.

And like many such couples, they never knew what hit them. The isolation. The bone-chilling fatigue. The mental strain. Most of all, the unrelenting inner refraing that keeps on and on: Am-I-going-crazy?

I wish I had had this book fifteen years ago, when I needed to have someone explain to me why self-care is good for the whole family. Why “bonding” can be a subtle trap that prevents kids from becoming as strong and self-reliant as they need to be. Why getting a dog might be the one thing you really do need most. Most of all, why the hardest stuff really is the best.

But better late then never. Thank you, Jennie, for sharing your beautiful heart.

Voices in the Night

Craig is gone this week on business, and Chris and I have been spending some quality time in the evenings. Around midnight last night we were watching Medium (the Hulu reruns are his new favorite program) when we heard a slow thump … thump … thump coming up the stairs.

(Now, this is exactly NOT the program you want to be watching at midnight when there is a thump, thump, thumping going on).

“I think it’s Mammy,” said Chris, peering over his blanket and not moving a muscle to investigate. (Man of the house, indeed.)

So I got up to check and, sure enough, my dear mother had crawled halfway up the staircase, pushing her box fan ahead of her. “Mom! What are you doing?” I chided.

fan“You told me to bring the fan up here,” she insisted. “I heard you.”

Now, of course I had done no such thing. But I have learned over the past two years not to argue with the voices. Gently I extracted the fan from her grip and put my arms around her, helping her up the last few steps. “Mom, let’s get you back in bed. It’s not safe for you to be climbing these stairs without your chair. Let me get it for you.”  And that is what we did.

Later that night, I got to thinking of the story of Samuel (1 Sam 3:1-11), who heard God’s voice and thought it was that of his guardian, Eli. The elderly priest was blind and had failed as a father with his own two godless sons, but he saw in this young, impressionable boy a chance at redemption. After Samuel awakened Eli twice, insisting that he had heard the priest call him twice in the night, the old man wisely advised the boy, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'” (vs. 9).

And the boy did. And God spoke again. And when young Samuel heard what the Lord had to say, he was afraid to give his mentor the message: that the Lord had turned against the house of Eli, and was utterly condemning them. And yet, Eli’s unexpected response must have reassured him: “It is the Lord. What is pleasing in the Lord’s sight, the Lord will do” (vs. 18). And Samuel became a great prophet.

Now, I’m not sure exactly what it is God is trying to say to me through this incident with the fan. Maybe it’s something as simple as, “Make better media choices, both for yourself and as an example to your kids.” Maybe it’s a warning that Mom is going to need closer supervision at night (the progression of dementia can cause nighttime hazards). Or maybe it’s just a simple invitation to spend less time watching television and more time listening for that still, small voice in the night.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

Unhand the Cheerios…

cereals in basket

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Both kids were scheduled to work this morning, so we went as a family to the five o’clock Mass at St. Pius. It was the first time we’d gone there together — gorgeous church, lovely organ music, and the homily was short, sweet, and … a little crunchy.

The priest observed that every parish in America sweeps up at least a pound of Cheerios each weekend — a kind of divine detritus (my words) left behind by parents of small children who just want to be able to pray for five minutes. Then one day as he was watching his two-year-old nephew grow frustrated over trying to play with a truck with two fistfuls of Cheerios, he said, it made him realize that Cheerios are the perfect metaphor for human desire. “God holds out the truck, and we won’t let go of the Cheerios long enough to take it. But that’s what God is asking … he wants you to let go of the Cheerios,” he explained.

I looked at my mother, sitting so intently next to me. It has been only about three weeks since our priest gave her the anointing of the sick while she was in the hospital with pneumonia — for her, it was a sacramental windfall that included first confession, first Eucharist, confirmation, and last rights. Thank God, she recovered … and has been eager to go forward to receive Jesus each week. Her eyes just light up with so much joy, you never would have guessed what a miracle it is that she was standing there at all.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I was brought up believing Catholics aren’t “really” Christians. So to see God work it out so that my mother goes forward to receive Jesus each week is a little … strange. I’d had two aunts (one on either side of the family) who had married Catholic boys, and it didn’t end well.  (Interestingly enough, one of them — my namesake — wound up tending to my grandmother in her later years. I so admire her.)

All I know is that, for the past two years, mom has been going to church with us each week … and remaining in the pew as the rest of us went up. She would say all the prayers, and sing along to all the hymns, and listen intently as our Nigerian priest would break open the Gospel. At night I would tuck mom in and read to her from some of the books I’m currently working on, and one day she pulled out one called Catholic and Christian by Dr. Alan Schreck … and we started reading THAT.

Next thing I know, she’s telling Fr. John that she wants to be a Catholic. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because her Catholic daughter rescued her from memory care prison. Maybe it’s because I refused to give up praying with her for her marriage. Maybe it’s because … well, maybe it’s because we were both ready to let go of the Cheerios, and hold out our hands for whatever God wanted to give us.

And so we did. And you know what? It was even better than we thought.

If You Give a Mom a Cookie …

amazon-if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie(With a thankful nod to Laura Numeroff.)

If you give a mom a cookie, she will sit in a chair and try to eat it in peace.

As soon as she sits, she will look in the kitchen and see Ravenous Teen left the milk on the counter. Again. So she sets her cookie on the table and goes to the kitchen … Where for the next ten minutes she wipes counters, empties dishwasher, and puts dinner in the crock pot. And, yes, gets herself a glass of milk. With a shot of Bailey’s.

The scent of Bailey’s inexplicably reminds her that she left of load of laundry in the washer downstairs … yesterday. Hoping against hope that it has not turned, she goes downstairs to the laundry room and trips over eight piles of clothes that Messy Teen has transferred from the floor of his room to the floor of this one. Muttering darkly under her breath and rubbing her stubbed toe, she rotates the wash and calls Messy Teen to fold his own danged clothes and take them upstairs. Now it is his turn to mutter darkly under his breath. Mission accomplished.

Exiting the laundry room, her eye falls on her desk, the laptop hopefully poised for action. Sorry she left her cookie (and the Bailey’s milk) upstairs, she sits down and proceeds to grind out 27 email responses, 4 tip sheets, and a proposal review before her tummy rumbles so loudly it scares her. And she remembers she hasn’t had anything to eat today but a few cookie crumbs. And her granola bar stash was discovered by Ravenous Teen 2 last week, and she hasn’t had time to restock. So back upstairs she goes … in time to see her elderly mother’s daycare bus pull up to the drive. Rats. Rats. Rats.

Helping her mom inside, then to the bathroom and back to her chair for snack time, she narrowly escapes slugging her husband when he comes down and asks with great feeling, “What’s for lunch?” Desperately she looks around for a teen to take over sandwich making responsibilities, and sees that Sneaky Teens heard the sound of work and barricaded themselves in their rooms, playing music loud enough to shake the house and wake the dead. “Just a minute, dear.” And she spots a bit of reprieve on the table, which the dog appears to have nibbled around the edges. “Here … have a cookie.”

Thankfully, he did not get the Baileys.

Day 9: Forgiveness

Alice (interpreter), Heidi, Fr. Ubald, and Straton.

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Today’s theme is “forgiveness.” Not just each other, but those who move in your sphere of influence.

This year Craig and I flew to Rwanda to help Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga complete his book for Ave entitled Forgiveness Makes You Free. The highlight of the trip was getting to interview Straton, the man who now works alongside Fr. Ubald to bring reconciliation and peace to the people of Rwanda. Once a powerful burgomeister who gave the order for the execution of Fr. Ubald’s mother and extended family, he now works construction and travels with Fr. Ubald into prisons and speaks to those who, like him, were responsible for the deaths of more than a million former friends, neighbors, and co-workers — slaughtered in just 100 days simply because they were Tutsi.

Looking into Straton’s eyes, I did not see a hardened criminal. There was no hate, only sincerity. This was a man whose life had been transformed by the power of forgiveness — the forgiveness of his victims, the forgiveness of his family, and the forgiveness of God. All of it possible because of forgiveness and mercy.

Think about your own life. Is there anyone — even someone in your intimate circle — you are finding difficult to forgive? Are you willing to set your relationship free through the power of forgiveness? You will be amazed at what God can do in the heart that is willing to surrender.

Night Blessings

IMG_2822

Are you currently the primary caregiver for a parent or other loved one? Would you like a safe place to go for prayer or just to vent? I’ve recently started a “Catholic Caregivers” site on Facebook … It’s a closed group, but you are welcome to join!

These last few days have been sad ones for Mom. Lots of tears and confusion. She keeps writing and writing, but it only increases her frustration. She doesn’t know how to explain the conflict within her, and she is fighting a battle against accusers none of us can see, let alone help her to resist.

Last night as I tucked her I could see that she was on the edge of tears, and I wanted so much to be able to ease her mind. So I laid down beside her and sang to her some of the songs she sang to me as a little girl. As she grew calm, I decided to try a little ritual that I adapted from something that I experienced for the first time as I prepared to become Catholic, when my sponsor blessed each part of my body in preparation for the journey ahead of me — into the Church.

Now, my mother is a lifelong evangelical Christian, but she is familiar with the little rituals of Catholic prayer, and I hoped that this would help to comfort her. So I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and said, “I bless my mother’s mind. All her life her brain stored songs and stories and wisdom that she shared with her daughters. Now there are snarls and worn places that are hurting her. Please heal her mind, Lord Jesus.”

Then I blessed her eyes and said, “I bless her eyes. She looked out at the world and saw God’s beauty, and looked at me and saw God at work in my life. Please help her to see that she is a beloved daughter of God.”

Then I went on blessing the other parts of her body, ending with the feet. “I bless her feet, shod with the Gospel of peace. She traveled all over the country to take care of her family, and never complained. Please ready her feet for that final journey, that she would walk with you always.”

Mom didn’t say anything as I left, but kissed me back as I bent down to say goodnight. I think the darkness has closed in around her, and I’m not sure she can hear truth from my lips right now. But I know her angels are taking those blessings to Jesus. And I believe that he will be able to reach where I cannot.

Today the chaplain at her daycare asked us all to come in so he could give mom a “certificate of innocence.” He told mom that he knew she was worried that someone was wanting to bring her to court over something that had happened years ago. He had checked, and everyone has agreed that she has done nothing deserving of standing trial. So he was giving her the certificate to remind her that she is not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. It’s a tangible reminder that she is where she belongs.

I don’t know if either of these things are going to have the desired effect. When you are dealing with a dementia patient, so much is happening beneath the surface that he or she may never be able to articulate, let alone resolve.

But God is merciful. And he loves his children — even the weak and confused ones. For the weakness and confusion is temporary. Shadows of the glory to come.