Hello My Friends,
I'm not forgetting the New Year like I usually do. I'm signing documents with the number 2020 as if I've been doing it all along. Yet that number, representing thousands of years of human history, plus one new one, has me reflecting on my family's passage through time. For me, 2019 was the year of the senior citizen. I've been helping my mother and my paternal grandfather deal with the myriad issues that signal life's decline. It's often hard to talk about this, because in America there seems to be a stigma to the end of life, despite the fact that it's part of life itself, and a natural consequence of time.
I regularly pass a rose bush below my front porch, where roses take turns through various phases of budding, blooming, fading. It does not offend my senses that sooner or later every bloom bows its head, turns brown, and loses bits of itself. The opportunity to witness this journey with loved ones is the opportunity to express gratitude for their lives and our relationships. There's no knowing how long the finale might last, or how hard it might get, but it helps me to remember that life's sorrows are no less valuable than its joys. I keep things in perspective by reminding myself that mental and physical decline are as inevitable as rush hour, broken plumbing, or the realization that some people will never get me—and vice-versa.
My 78-year-old mother has dementia, which I've come to understand as more than mere memory loss or confusion. Some use the term "failure of the brain," but even that cannot fully explain the unexpected communication and behavior I've witnessed. I've given up trying to convince my mother of observable reality and logic as most of us understand such ideas. She's entering a world I cannot understand or enter with her, but I can still hold her hand and accept.
My 88-year-old grandfather had a stroke, which cost some of his mobility and much of his short-term memory. He appears to have vascular dementia, which creates similar symptoms to my mother's, though each person, like each rose, exhibits decline differently. Sometimes he starts to tell me something, only to forget his topic halfway through, so he guesses his way to the end. I used to question this, before several bouts of his frustration and rage made me recognize the error of my insistence on understanding. "Just go with it," is my new mantra.
I'll admit I'm a woman attached to being right, to controlling outcomes, and to sharing most of my thoughts. I've had to give up all these things to spend time with my mother and grandfather. It's impossible to convince Grampa his body does not emit the kind of electrical charge that causes his TV remote to fail only when he's holding it.
Even if my mother writes down that I'm taking her to the doctor next week, and I remind her the day before, and I call fifteen minutes before, I might still arrive to find her naked in bed, confused about why I'm there, then irritated that I insist on cleaning the poop stains off her shoes even though I've just told her we're running late.
Many of the seniors at their assisted living home used to get visibly exhausted by conversations with me, until I realized brains in decline need stretches of quiet to avoid confusion and stress. Who knew I had the capacity for silence?
Perhaps the strangest part of all this is that my mother and father divorced when I was two, so my mother and my father's father had not seen each other in more than fifty years before I moved both of them into the same assisted living facility last year. I didn't plan it this way, but they both faced major health crises in 2017, and there was no way I was driving to two separate facilities week in, week out.
You see, I'm the only adult available to help them with their financial, legal, and medical affairs. I'm also the only family member available to act as caregiver for many tasks their professional caregivers cannot fully cover: shopping, errands, driving them to appointments; taking them out for lunch, walks, or to visit other family; sharing conversations, meals, and affection; keeping them engaged with the world.
My new role can be overwhelming, so I've joined a support group to avoid driving my husband over the edge with my nightly unburdening. The group offers helpful advice, like: if my mother insists on wearing the same blouse every day, then why not hire a seamstress to make copies of that blouse? Genius! The group reminds me that, "How many poop stains are too many?" is a funny question. More important, they understand that when I grew up with my grandma and wished I could spend more time with my birth-mother, this wasn't what I pictured.
Still, this time is a blessing.
I'm fortunate Mother and Grampa can afford a retirement home. My home's not equipped for full-time caregiving, and neither am I. My career, and my sanity, would likely come to a screeching halt. As it is, I've had to reduce my client load. However, thanks to the help of professional caregivers, I can still make time to work on my historical novels, which happen to be inspired by family history.
Bit by bit, I've also begun sharing stories about my family's present. Today it's a story about tending roses, which calls for dealing with a little manure now and then. Hey, that's life—sometimes shit gets real.
May your 2020 bloom with life, love, and stories!