Becoming Mom: Life, Full Circle

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Mom and me on a Girl’s Day Out. October 2015

It’s official: The Saxtons are about to add another place at the dining room table, and we’re going to become a multi-generational household. Heaven help us.

On November 17 I’m going to be flying with my mom from her memory care facility near Atlanta, to bring her on an “extended visit” with us here in Indiana. We’ve found an adult daycare and a fill-in caregiver for while I’m at work. And I try not to think too much about what she’ll say about my housekeeping skills. I’m hoping she’ll be so happy not to be where she was, that even our chaotic household will be an improvement.

If you have ever made the choice to bring a parent to live with you, I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the things you did to make the transition easier? If your parent has dementia (like mine), what are some of the things you wish someone had told you ahead of time?

 

 

 

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Am I Still Thankful?

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Mom and me on a Girl’s Day Out. October 2015

Last week I flew to Atlanta to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday with her. Although we’re all still glad to have her with us, the celebration was a subdued one. My youngest sister and her family, along with my mother and my father and me, went to Olive Garden. Mom was having a good day, with no unwanted visitors in her head. She ate her birthday cheesecake with gusto, diabetes be damned.

On my left, dad was quietly downing a glass of wine. On my right, mom opened her birthday gifts. I was glad to be able to sit between my parents; this terrible, awful, no good, very bad disease that has taken my mother’s mind has stolen their marriage as well. They love like porcupines: from a distance, gingerly.

And yet a small part of me cannot help but be thankful for what my relationship with my mother has become. I am, at long last, her golden child. She is unabashedly delighted to see me every time I visit. Her letters no longer contain the critical, dissatisfied undercurrents that once characterized her missives (like a bomb squad on the alert, I was never sure which one would detonate). For the first time in my life, I have the mother of my dreams . . . while my dad and my other sisters grapple with a much harsher reality. And even as I offer up prayers for them (especially my father, who is alone at home battling pneumonia instead of traveling to his sister’s house to spend Thanksgiving), I can’t help but give thanks, even now, for the gift of a few happy days with mom.

And for a husband who encourages me to leave him with the children, and to avail myself of the joy.

And for a new boss, who understands the needs of elderly parents.

And for friends with whom we can celebrate it all.

This year, it would be easy to look over my life and find cause for worry and regret. Even so, I am thankful.

Are you?

 

 

 

When the Caged Bird Stops Singing

Today cyberspace was abuzz with news of the death of poet Maya Angelou, whose fearless prose, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a work of autobiographical fiction, was a bright spot in my high school career.

When I heard about Maya’s death, remembering the title of her book immediately made me think of my mother, whom I saw last weekend at a mental hospital in Atlanta. The only thing harder than seeing her there, it turns out, was leaving her there, knowing that there is a better-than-average chance it was the last time. Her carotenoid artery 90% blocked on her right sidJohn and Sandy=201250e, she is not in her right mind, yet her doctor refuses to do surgery because she is a “surgical risk.” And so, while we seek a second and even a third opinion, she waits in a ward with her “people,” a group of similarly old and confused patients.

Almost everything has been stripped away. Hospital policy prevents her from having her hardbound study Bible (only paperbacks allowed), or anything on the walls. Her life has been reduced to a few changes of clothing, a hospital bed, and one-hour visits from up to two family members a couple of times each week. She has lost 30 pounds, and there is no telling from one day to the next whether she will lash out, or reach out in a hug.

The one bright spot in the ward is a nurse I will call “Queen Winnie.” Magnificent and matronly, her close-cropped hair silvery against her ebony skin, she is kindness personified as she gently directs my mother to wherever she next needs to be. “She’s a good singer, your mother,” she told me on Sunday. “We were singing the old church hymns together before you go there.” Mom smiled and nodded.

At that moment, she wasn’t singing. “I want out of here,” she said plaintively. I want that, too.

Sometimes, though, no matter how much you want something, you have to let her go.

On the way home, I raged — feeling a little ashamed about the likelihood that I was adding to my father’s burden, but unable to contain the sense of injustice, that a woman who had spent her life in the service of others, was spending the last days so confined. And equally mad that the love of her life had been robbed of her presence long before her breath left her body.

A detachment of a most powerful and terrible kind.  It is, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy,” the moment in an adult child’s life when you realize that you cannot fix what is wrong, and you cannot save them both. All you can do is hold on, and hope.

In the words of Ms. Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Keep singing, Momma. And when it comes time to leap that fence, know you take a piece of me with you.

Like Deckchairs on the Titanic … a Time for Comfort

stepping-stonesI’ve never visited anyone in a place like this before, let alone a loved one. It wasn’t until dad grabbed my hand that I realized my fists were clenched. His touch also prompted me to take a deep breath — turns out I wasn’t breathing, either. Odd.

Inside, a small scattering of residents were camped out in the common room, some sleeping, some watching T.V. Mom was sleeping on a sofa, and when I touched her shoulder, she opened her eyes, focused … and smiled. Quickly she sat up and hugged me, and I waited for her to say something.

For two hours, I waited. We communicated with an improvised game of charades. I stink at charades. It was painful, seeing her life reduced to a single room with a colorless bedcovering and bare walls. And in that moment, I knew what my task this week was going to be: a bit of beauty.

Now, I don’t kid myself that this is going to materially change the outcome of her situation. My other sisters have labored tirelessly to support my parents, helping them to make the medical and other decisions necessary to keep them afloat. This is the first time this year I’ve been able to make it down, for a variety of reasons. And though I’ll admit it may be a bit like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, at least it’s in my power to make sure those chairs go down spit-shined.

Her mother’s quilt. A lunch of homemade soup and bread. A good book (I chose one of mine, and another favorite, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.) And after lunch, we go back to the common room and sit at the piano, and she turns the pages in the old hymnal while I play song after song.

“She’s having a good day,” Dad said. “That’s two in a row.”

Please, God. Make it a week.

This is not your typical “Fun Friday” post, but somehow it seems appropriate to be publishing this in the typical timeslot. Because when it comes to family, “fun” isn’t always measured in roller coaster rides … and when it is, those coasters aren’t always the kind you find at Hershey Park.

The Long-Distance Daughter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALosing a parent is never easy. All the steps leading up to that moment, whether sudden onset or gradual decline, and whether physical or mental or both, bring their own set of challenges for those who are close enough to assist. But these past few weeks I’ve discovered that being the “long-distance daughter” is its own kind of hell.

Often there aren’t any good options. Drop everything and go? Maybe — of course, it may be only a temporary (and costly) solution to what is likely to be a long-term need. Meanwhile, jobs and kids and responsibilities pile up relentlessly. Airplane tickets cost money, and driving may not be practical.

Stay in touch by phone, praying, and wait for a call to come? Sometimes that is the only thing to do … still (and this may be the “oldest child” in me talking) it’s hard not to feel guilty about leaving the heavy lifting to siblings who have equally busy lives and equally limited resources.

Years ago, I remember my mother commenting how hard it was for her, as the oldest daughter, when her mother chose to move in with her granddaughter, my cousin. Mom felt that she should be the one to tend to her mother’s needs, and make her mother’s last days as comfortable as possible. Yet in the end, Mom’s role was one of welcome visitor, rather than care-taker. It was a painful, but unavoidable, reality: She was the firstborn, but not the one to whom her mother reached out for help.

Rationally, she may have understood why things turned out the way they did, just as I see the logic of my own parents’ choices: It makes sense to have the daughter with a financial background manage the finances, the daughter in closest proximity to handle the medical decisions, and the daughter who is an advocate in her professional life to advocate for my mother’s needs where she is. It is also true that, even if I were the best person for the job, I have real limitations due to the needs of my own family, not to mention the eight hundred miles between us.

Even so, I have to say, it stinks to be the long-distance daughter. With all the engrained sense of responsibility of being the oldest, it’s hard not to be self-incriminating and reproachful. And yet, having watched my own mother walk this particular path, I have witnessed some of the landmines. Resentment. Anger. Helplessness. Pettiness. Fear. Did I mention resentment?

And then, the greatest bugaboo of all: plain, interminable grief. She has not died, though she is no longer herself. A dying of a different kind.

Have you ever been a long-distance daughter? How did you get through it? What did you find helpful?