Drowning? You’ll be fine.
Support’s there, most everywhere.
Open up your eyes.
(Dedicated to the caregivers among us)
“…So their work is mostly us, their families. They stay close, pay close attention, watch over us, and are always available to us.”
Book author Jon Katz wrote those words in a post last week about smaller dogs.
I smiled as I read it, and I also cried some as well.
My 14 year old corgi Maddie had just passed away last Monday.
It seemed I’d become Maddie’s purpose over the years after a brief stint as a breeder dog.
And she handled her role with grace, love and compassion always.
I often felt she’d become my own unique caregiver over the last decade as I dealt with the loss of both my parents and husband from Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
She’d calm my constant rage with the cruel disease by simply offering her belly for scratching or even a soft ear that would just listen.
Sometimes it was a just a big, wet button nose to kiss.
Maddie’s whole face wore joy so well, even in her final months.
She radiated happiness in her pet stroller as we’d navigate around the lake in the sunshine.
And Maddie looked even happier as we’d stop at the nearby bakery for free sugary smells and fresh samples.
Yet she was also very content just keeping an eye on me from her cozy dog bed in the kitchen in her final days.
After all, she still saw it as her job till the end.
Those big round eyes were so full of soul, yet often they were mixed with just a little mischief.
No wonder everyone loved Maddie, both man and beast.
The morning after Maddie passed, my Chi pup Rex was blue and refused to eat for the first time.
And my Yorkie Tucker, hid under the bed.
He’s never done that before either.
Yet this week we all seem to be moving on.
I know Maddie’s in a good place. And as I told the rest of the canine clan this morning, “Don’t worry, she’s still watching over us.”
I like to think they agreed as we looked up at the sky while walking out the door into the beautiful day before us.
“You can pick him up now. There’s nothing left to test,” I was told by the busy neurologist on the phone.
He was referring to my late husband, Richard.
And he was talking about my husband’s fading memory.
The appointment was just a year after Richard’s initial dementia diagnosis. I’d been told by the doctor they would need several hours for testing.
Yet my cell phone was ringing in less than five minutes.
It wasn’t long after the call that I started considering eventual placement in a group home at the strong encouragement of Richard’s doctor.
I was in over my head, yet needed to be convinced that the quality of his care and his existence would be improved if he was to move.
One category on my wish list for him was the opportunity to go on outings which I knew would require a van.
The home that Richard eventually moved into had both, as well as a great activity director.
On my first visit to the home, I’d noticed museums were a favored destination on their calendar including the beautiful art museum where my husband used to work as a curator.
On Richard’s first outing back to the museum as a group home resident, the man with no memory somehow managed to get out of his wheelchair and navigate purposefully down several long hallways, and through a restricted area back to his old office.
The museum guards stepped out of his way and smiled as they watched their former co-worker, as did the teary eyed staff and volunteers from the group home.
And though that magical moment never quite had a second act, that group home van would eventually take Richard on many other magical adventures that would always put a smile on his face.
Concerts, apple orchards, theaters, fishing excursions, picnics, restaurants…
Richard’s play list went on and on.
Oh, the places he went.
Thanks to a van, his magic bus.
“You could divorce your husband,” the young man on the other side of the desk told me sporting a somewhat pained expression.
I sensed it wasn’t his favorite option.
I’d made an appointment to gain advice on how to survive an approaching tsunami of expenses involved with caring for my husband’s early onset dementia.
That conversation with the professional is like many other heart wrenching memories of caring for a middle aged 200 pound man whose memory was fading fast.
Fortunately I find the toughest recollections have now faded a bit as well, stopping by for brief interludes on holidays like Valentine’s Day along with the very good ones.
I said hello to a little photograph in the red frame this morning of my late husband and me.
It was taken the night before our wedding at my parents’ home.
They’ve also since passed on from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
But I smiled as I held it.
It was a great celebration filled with love.
And today I will celebrate only my good memories.
In addition, I will honor the new ones I am making this Valentine’s Day.
I’ll be coloring bright red and pink paper hearts shortly with some little ones.
Then spreading sweet cheer later on with some very special seniors.
And finally, I will rest well this night with my loving four legged furry friends at my feet.
It seems anyway I look at it, love is still a wonderful commitment.
My knobby fingers have quit moving.
And it isn’t the arthritis.
No longer are they keying in the words I want to share.
I’m been pulling together prior posts on Alzheimer’s and dementia with other writings I’ve done on memory loss. I hope to publish a book to help other caregivers.
But I’ve hit a roadblock.
So this morning I decided to go for a long walk to find some inspiration.
And then I found it.
Right there in the bright eyes of a cat staring at me from a bookstore window.
He was perched next to an old noiseless Remington typewriter. It reminded me of my aging and silent computer keyboard back home.
The feline suddenly jumped up as if to show me something.
In the reflection of the dirty shop window, he helped me recognize some current distractions in my house:
-Auto claim paperwork needing follow up from a recent car accident.
-Unread books on my living room coffee table.
-A crazy world spinning faster and faster on my TV and in my news feed.
I thanked the cat. I can ignore all three at least for the moment.
Then the feline led me over to a stack of the store’s newest and boldest book titles. Three impressive titles in particular caught my eye. I believe the cat knew that they might.
“ILLUSIVE”-Is it really an illusive goal to finish a draft of my book I wondered? The cat looked at me and shook his head. It just takes dedication and hard work he seemed to say.
“THE DETOUR”-I’ve been taking a long route to write and re-write my way around the toughest passages. I looked up at the cat again. He seemed to be nodding as if to tell me he understood. Maybe the boy’s dealt with some rough passages in his own nine lives.
“THE FALLOUT”-There have been moments I’ve wanted to give up on my project. The cat tapped at the window as I pondered this title for a while. If the whole point of writing my book draft is to potentially help other caregivers, who am I serving if I quit?
“No one,” I mumbled out loud.
I’m sure I saw the cat nod in agreement as I turned to rush back home to my computer keyboard.
“Get your ducks in a row,” the polished silver haired woman seated before me advised.
A few months after my husband Richard passed away from dementia, and a year after my Mom did the same, I thought I better see a grief counselor.
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” I’d asked myself one night in the mirror.
Previously I’d attended a group session for family members of those who’d passed while in hospice, but I left feeling worse then when I went in.
I no longer needed to share my tears and grief over Mom and Richard, but instead wanted to move on with my life. After a decade of caregiving responsibilities related to memory loss for both of my parents and my spouse, I was ready.
Yet I was still mourning what I saw as the loss of ten years of my life.
I felt I’d gone from middle aged to old with the snap of an arthritic finger.
So as I sat with this wise woman before me for my two sessions, I took her advice to heart.
I knew I wasn’t getting any younger, but getting my affairs in order so I could fully enjoy the rest of my days made good sense.
As I sat down by the lake this morning watching sailboats and the family of happy ducks before me, I reflected on the changes I’ve made in the last eight months.
I’ve swapped both houses and communities.
I retired early from my corporate career, and I’m now working in the non profit sector with children.
And I believe I am at peace.
Sharing a muffin with the ducks, I thought too of a former co-worker from my corporate days who experienced rough patches in her own life. She is now an accomplished and very talented poet.
I believe she’s very content and proud of a new book she just published that I finished earlier this morning.
She should be.
And I thought again of contentment as I greeted another former co-employee later at the farmers’ market, a few blocks up from the the lake.
This bright fellow’s become a farmer.
It was an unplanned lifestyle change, starkly different from his corporate life in the city, but it seems to agree with him.
Buying a bunch of red radishes from my friend, my eye caught a basket of colorful notecards with photos he’d taken on his beautiful farm.
An expression of pride immediately spread across his face as I selected the shot of a cheerful and smiling pig to send to an ailing friend.
“You know, these aren’t at all easy to capture on a pig’s face,” he told me, smiling wide as well.
After I left I was thinking how different ships come in during the course of our lives as we venture to different ports of call.
And we always encounter storms along the way.
But in the end, perhaps what provides us peaceful passage may just be those very smiles we give and receive.
While balancing 55 hour work weeks and caretaking responsibilities a few years ago I came to an important realization.
Mom and my husband Richard were both suffering from late stage dementia at the time, and I also had a teen and grandchild at home still needing support.
I was running short on sleep, and even shorter on spirit.
Then one Saturday morning I slid down to the kitchen floor to scratch my corgi Maddie’s belly. In response, she licked my hand and looked up at me with soulful eyes full of love.
Then and there I realized this sweet corgi and the rest of my canine crew were there as my own caretakers.
Specifically caretakers of one very shaky spirit and soul.
I was not alone.
As a result, along with Alzheimer’s non profits, dog related causes have been a yearly recipient of my annual donation dollars.
But this year, those dollars given to the dogs have been less than I’d like due to unpredicted expenses.
I’d been feeling a little guilty, until meeting up with two spirited grade schoolers at a neighborhood festival last weekend.
They both had a love for animals, and a vision.
The first shy brown eyed brunette sat at a table with her father collecting dollars for dogs found roaming in Costa Rica that they’d met on a recent trip. She made brightly colored candle holders out of paint and canning jars to sell for the cause.
I emptied my left pocket and added all the coins I pulled to their bucket.
A few tables down, I met another sweet girl who had a different idea to help out the dogs.
She was busily selling dog toys she and her Girl Scout group assembled to support the pound where I adopted my dog Rex in December.
After asking her to pick out a special toy for my boy, she did so proudly selecting one of deep burgundy and blue that she had made.
I emptied my right pocket this time, knowing these pups needed the donation more than I needed the grilled hot dog I was smelling from the stand behind me.
Driving home, I was happy I’d been able to help the dogs some. Yet I was still a little regretful I couldn’t do more or had the vision to help in a creative way like the two young girls I’d just met.
But then after looking at a newsletter I pulled from my mailbox after pulling into my driveway, I reconsidered.
The rescue group that I’d adopted my chi Grandma Greta from republished a post in it that I’d written in early December right after she passed. I’d talked in the piece about what this old girl meant to my spirit and that of others. https://quiltofmissingmemories.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/christmas-story/
In the same issue, the group mentioned a total of over 700 dogs that they helped last year.
If even half of those new owners donated only a dollar in honor of a second hand dog, maybe I have helped in more than a minor way.
And also in a creative one.
I thought the same as I also looked back on another post that the local pound republished of mine on Facebook in late December after I adopted my pup Rex. I wrote about what this little guy is doing for my soul and spirit today. https://quiltofmissingmemories.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/handsome-man/
The pound received over 700 likes on the piece. If even half of those readers donate as well, perhaps I’ve made more of a difference for the dogs than I’d ever realized.
Though arthritis limits what I contribute by hand, perhaps I can continue giving with my words and as many coins as I can muster.
My canine caretakers have given me so much.
I owe it to their legacy to try and do the same.
With the gift of a breeze that’s got my back, I pick up my pace in warm sunshine.
I’m out for early for a walk, a nearby lake my destination.
To the serenade of robins, I feel light on my feet as I jog past bee friendly yards and a bird friendly coffee shop.
I fumble for any loose change in my pockets.
I’m on a budget, but I know one cup of of dark roast won’t burn too big of a hole.
I’ve grown to love exploring my new neighborhood on Sundays after downsizing last fall to a new place.
Today I’m searching for any simple gifts I might find.
Feeling optimistic, I open the first little free library I encounter across from the lake.
Inside, planted next to an old copy of The New Yorker, I see neatly labeled packages of seeds for pole beans.
I grab one for a small raised bed I’ve been preparing and put it in my back pack.
One block further west, I encounter five more free libraries all proudly standing in front of the local hardware store.
I gravitate to one painted lilac and pull out a book on Alzheimer’s.
But I pass.
I know more than I’d like after a decade of caregiving.
I try again.
This time I find a children’s book on art and another on ants inside.
Perfect for my granddaughter and little grandson I think.
I’m embarrassed by my riches as I’ve left nothing in return. Yet I smile as I think back to last fall when I gave away so much as I moved.
But did I really?
After my walk, I return home to my small cottage to place screens in the windows of my tiny porch.
At 895 square feet, some may consider my cottage to be a closet, but I find it a castle.
I soon feel the breeze again, dancing now with the white curtains teasing my shoulders as I sit on the little love seat on my porch to relax.
I’m more than content as I survey the space before me.
I’ve been longing for a sweet little porch, just like my grandmother’s, since I was six years old.
And now that I’m a grandma myself, I finally have one to call my very own.
What a gift it is, though not simple at all.
I’m calling this one mighty grand.
Every year, this particular week is one of reflection for me.
Along with Thanksgiving, I acknowledge my birthday, and that of a brother who died too young.
And once there was a wedding anniversary.
It would have been 29 years of marriage this week if my husband Richard was still with me.
I find my memories of years gone by are as warm as they are cold.
The recollections of steamy windows and turkey bastings still fill my heart, even if the details of faces around the Thanksgiving table are fading.
And birthday party gifts of little pilgrim candles still dance happily in my head, though in one a bit fuzzier.
Yet dark November commutes on icy roads driving Richard to his adult day care center in his last years still send a chill up my spine.
My Spode Christmas mug companion, lined with mistletoe and hot coffee, would turn cold as Coke by the time I’d cross the city line to New Hope each morning.
I’d try hard to be ‘of cheer’ but would fail miserably.
Typically mumbling to myself, “New Hope? How about ‘No Hope’?” as I’d drive off from the facility downtown to work.
Dementia can do that to a caregiver.
But I’ve learned there was hope back then, and perhaps there always is.
Not of a spouse recovering from an illness where there is no cure, but of a caregiver coping with acceptance, loss and finally moving forward.
I drove to the store in sunshine today to replenish my coffee supply for my Christmas mug that now rests on the kitchen counter.
As I first walked through the door, I was greeted by the scent of buckets of yellow roses and a happy clerk restocking them.
I was definitely tempted.
The price was good, but I walked on by.
I can’t just buy them for myself, I thought.
But I stopped, shifted into reverse, then picked up a bunch along with my French Roast.
Smiling at the friendly check out clerk, I said, “These are terrific! Just like the ones I held at my wedding 29 years ago today.”
I added my husband was now gone.
His face saddened some, but then he smiled as well.
I watched him attach a sticker to the cellophane wrapping.
A “paid” sticker, I thought.
“Here,” he said, handing them back to me. “No charge. Happy Anniversary!”
I admit a tear rolled down my cheek.
Ok. Maybe two.
But my gratitude far exceeded any sadness.
And isn’t that how it should be every Thanksgiving week?
I’m voting yes.
I’ve been reading a lot.
And thinking too much.
Probably not too surprising as I’ve entered the second act of my life’s play.
A milestone birthday along with a major life change always kickstarts some serious self reflection.
And so will taking a life expectancy quiz, where I’m gently reminded that I have a lot more miles behind me then in front of me.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Instead more like a coaching session to convince me to pick up the pace.
And I’m excited.
In the last year, I’ve discovered in many ways I’m moving back to that girl I once was (except for some graying hair and those wrinkles of wisdom).
What I’m talking about here is jogging back towards my passions.
Writing, drawing, photography, the outdoors.
Those passions from my twenties that rarely were penciled in with work and family responsibilities.
Then finally growing dormant once the cobwebs of family illnesses covered all.
But it doesn’t really matter if I’m older now, with a smaller nest egg as a result.
As I’m much richer for the growing appreciation I have for the years left.
And I don’t need much besides my own health.
When I was young, my life was never more efficient than when I lived in a small studio apartment.
Maybe it would be again, with a library, grocer and a community center where I can volunteer after my senior dogs have passed over the rainbow bridge.
I’d also want a lake nearby as my muse, with ample acres of parkland to travel.
Along with one sturdy mountain bike and a good pair of snowshoes.
Because in the end this second act is simply about playing more.
And smiling more as well.