Holidays aren’t what they used to be with Dad, and now Mom gone, and with husband Richard in ‘late stage’ with his dementia. But I have made it through my first year of holidays since Richard went into his care facility, so I feel like a seasoned survivor.
I celebrated my 25th wedding magazine on a yoga mat and cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey alone, just for me to enjoy. Valentine’s Day I went through a basket of vintage valentines that Mom had saved from childhood. Christmas Eve was dinner for one at Chez Campbell (my kitchen), dining on luscious lobster ravioli from Trader Joe’s.
It’s just my daughter and kids left in the state and sometimes they spend holidays with her fiancé’s family. They usually extend an invitation to me to join them, but sometimes it’s easier to stay closer to home so I can be sure to stop over to see Richard and the other residents.
Last night I started my Easter celebration. I rescued my garden sculpture bunny out of the garage and put it on a dirty snowbank (couldn’t find a clean one), and ate a chocolate Easter egg after yoga. Life’s good!
Happy Easter everyone!
My husband, Richard, always liked dogs, but never had one when he was growing up in apartments in Boston. When we married and bought a small house with a big yard, we talked about it, but he was reluctant at the time due to travel schedules.
Finally, prior to our adoption of our then 12 year old daughter from Russia, we thought it might be a good idea for her to have a pet. As it turned out, our daughter Nicole is a tough negotiator and made it a ‘condition’ of her adoption.
Although Maggie, our Corgi from the pound, was brought home for Nicole, she quickly became Richard’s best buddy. Richard and Maggie had a good run for 8 years until she passed away after from hip dyspraxia and multiple tumors.
We had already started to foster the occasional small lap dog, usually a senior Yorkie or Pomeranian. Although Richard’s memory was starting to fail, we continued occasionally fostering. Richard was so good with them. He would gently hold and rock the dogs on his lap in the rocking chair. I couldn’t tell who was happier, Richard or the dogs.
I was reminded of his love of dogs this week by one of his caregivers. She mentioned how much his face lights up when dogs come over on scheduled visits. Much like the expression I saw today when I handed over a Pomeranian I was fostering to its excited new owner.
Driving home this weekend I was thinking about the great gifts dogs can give. But that line of thinking abruptly stopped when I came in the door and saw what they can also take way.
Tucker, my Silky Terrier, had chewed up my employee security badge into little piece of plastic. I guess I really didn’t want to work on Sunday anyway. So maybe Tucker’s action was a gift after all.
My five year old granddaughter stayed overnight last weekend. She created an official agenda:
1) Watching movies (Wizard of Oz and vintage Shirley Temple) while munching buttered popcorn.
2) Playing ‘dress up’ in grandma’s clothes.
3) Dancing around the living room to rock music.
4) “Lots of tea parties” in honor of my small assortment of tea pots.
While pouring tea out of her favorite Easter bunny tea pot, she quietly told me, “Mommy was crying a few days ago.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Cause seeing grandpa made her very sad,” she whispered back.
My daughter had visited my husband in his group home, along with her new baby, a few days before. My husband Richard speaks only a handful of words, and it’s unclear if there is any recognition of family, including me. She thought it important to have pictures taken of her Dad with his new grandson.
As my daughter entered the dining room, Richard was finishing lunch. She was struck by how much weight he has lost in spite of his good appetite. But she was even more surprised at how alert he became when she said, “Hi Daddy!”
“I really think he knew my voice,” she would tell me later that night.
My daughter also shared when tears flowed after the visit my granddaughter rushed to comfort her, giving her a hug and telling her, “It’s ok, Mommy, it’s ok.”
I regret never having met my mother-in law, Mary. I’ve been told she was a very kind and loving woman. She passed away the year before I met my husband, Richard. Like my husband, Mary also had dementia, hers settling in unfairly, just after she retired. As an only child, my husband had no choice but to move her out from Boston to the Midwest where he had landed his first professional position. He owed her that, he figured, and a whole lot more.
Mary had never been further west than Worchester, MA. She was not the least bit happy about leaving Boston. Not that many of her years there had been good ones. I’ve been told she was abandoned as a child, growing up in Irish American neighborhoods around Dorchester. Mary had a failed marriage with a heavy drinking longshoreman who worked the docks. But some how Mary’s faith kept her going. She would work many years for an insurance company and advanced as much as a woman could thirty years ago. She took a second job at night to supplement my husband’s partial scholarship to a private Boston high school. She would do anything to help him succeed.
After the Midwest move, my husband would take her out as much as his work schedule allowed to help her get acquainted with the community. He would take her shopping, to dinners, to concerts and to church.
But Mary continued to go down hill. Richard began to stop home most lunch hours. He would find her confused and wandering the halls. Placement became inevitable and she died shortly thereafter.
As I was packing up fabric for my new quilt, honoring family members who have suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia, I came across a cream colored mohair scarf from Ireland that belonged to Mary. I added it to the box, just before sealing it and sending it on to the quilt maker. Mary deserves a very special square in my quilt of missing memories, even though we never met.
Mom did the best caregiving she possibly could for Dad. Barely standing 5 feet tall, Mom would somehow maneuver Dad, almost a foot taller, around the house. Getting Dad up and down the stairs in their two story colonial was not easily done. We tried, but hadn’t had success in discussions with Mom about moving downstairs to the family room.
Taking any kind of direction was a definite struggle for Dad, but on nice days Mom used her powers of persuasion and would get Dad outside. She would settle him in for hours on their breezeway, next to their detached garage, with plenty of coffee for both of them. The breezeway provided a view of an active intersection and the surrounding roads leading to a high school. For Dad, a great vantage point to watch life go by.
Dad would get so excited as he would watch the parade of teens start walking up the street to school in the morning, and watch them go back down in the afternoon. He would listen intently to the kids’ car mufflers that needed replacing. He would be happy at the sight of the bright orange school buses. He would watch frustrated drivers swearing as they encountered the surprise dead end that abutted the intersection, their wheels squealing as they sped off. “Look, look,” he would tell anyone who would listen, loving the commotion.
In between the ‘mini rush hours’, Mom would put the newspapers and magazines before him. Dad would slowly turn the pages, taking comfort in the repetitive motion. There would be no comprehension of the words. Agitation would begin when Mom took the papers away for the recycle bin.
But she would always see a smile come back to Dad’s face when he saw the first bright orange school bus, come back for its afternoon run.
There is always a list of things to be done for caregivers. Items to check off the list as tasks are completed. This morning the list is long. Some days you just want to escape out of the pasture of paperwork and other responsibilities.
Knowing Dad was continuing to drive his big Oldsmobile with his memory loss was keeping me up at night. Some days he would do ok, but I was now adding up the ‘near misses’. The latest was a trip to Florida where Dad nearly crashed into a seafood shop after shifting into drive instead of reverse.
In addition, my Mom was a distraction to Dad’s driving. She would plead “Jack look at this,” pointing out the car window at the first robin in the spring, or give him a “Jack, look at that,” as the first snow flakes fell in winter. All while Dad needed to be focusing on the road in front of him.
I had tried to start the discussion about taking away the keys with Mom before, but she had quickly changed the subject. I knew that with Dad not driving, much of their freedom would be gone. Mom had stopped driving the day she retired and wasn’t about to start again. Even though their trips were only three miles each way to the grocery store or doctor, they all involved driving by an elementary school. Dad and a school crosswalk full of little children was a terrifying thought. I was ready to try again and be firm.
After giving myself a pep talk on the way over to their home, I walked into their kitchen. Grabbing a strong cup of coffee from the pot, I sat down with Mom and Dad to talk at the table.
As I spoke the words “school crosswalk,” my retired teacher mother nodded and gave me the keys from the rack. And Dad just sat in his chair expressionless.
As I recently packed my Dad’s favorite red wool cap in the box of fabric for the quilt to be made, I thought of one winter weekend where it got a lot of use.
My mother had just suffered a stroke on a Friday afternoon and was in the hospital, yet stable. My Mom and Dad were to be watching my sister’s three kids that weekend while my sister and her husband were in Florida. A major snowstorm was hunkering down on my metro area and I knew my Dad couldn’t be there alone babysitting. I also knew my tires weren’t going to guarantee a safe arrival at my sister’s house. I ordered one of the last taxis willing to make the trip that night to the other side of town.
Once I finally arrived, I noticed Dad was lacking any focus. He wasn’t able to process what needed to be done for Mom or the grandkids. It must be stress I thought. Now that I was there, he announced he wanted to sleep in his own home which luckily was fairly close. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but he insisted.
Dad made it home safely that night and we made plans to go to the hospital the next morning. As soon as a babysitter arrived to watch the kids, we left for the hospital. Although the roads still were not great, I noticed Dad was particularly reckless in his driving. I was still thinking it must be stress and his concern about Mom’s condition. The behavior continued until Mom was released to go home.
In hindsight, I sometimes wonder if I was in denial about Dad’s confusion that weekend. But in talking to my sister, we also wonder if Dad somehow knew he was failing and that his memory loss wouldn’t let him go on living alone if he lost Mom.
I am having a quilt made to honor my family members who have been impacted by memory loss, in addition to writing this blog. Going through scraps of wool plaids, worn soft flannel and blue denim this winter was the initial step in creating one fabric scrapbook of my family. It was a bittersweet experience.